Saturday, July 16, 2005

my new toy

I still have about half an hour before Nicola's Books opens and I can go get my copy of Harry Potter #6 so I thought I'd introduce you to my new toy:

(Sorry about that fuzzy picture quality)
I was inspired by Chubby Hubby's blog entry about gelato and yesterday decided that since no one got me any of the four things I asked for for my birthday last month (the latest Harry Potter, a burr grinder for my espresso, Bruce Springsteen's Devils and Dust, and an ice cream maker) I would have a little retail therapy and get one myself. I had one of those 20% off one item coupons from Linen's and Things so it came out at $40 and since I just made $100 writing fun little vignettes for the Ann Arbor Observer City Guide, I thought I'd blow a little of it on a late present. So tonight I'm making recipe # 2 chocolate gelato to take to Ami and John's house. I'm just a little concerned that 1.5 quarts (which is all it'll make at one time) will not be enough for all the adults to get some and also satisfy the greedy little mouths of the Entropy kids and their buddy Iris.

Ian is proving himself mightily adept at reading these days--he came up to me with a big smile yesterday and said "you bought an ice cream maker!" I said, "Did daddy tell you that?" Then he looked at me like I was a moron and said "No, I read it on the box." It was a proud mama moment, and god knows those don't happen very often around here. It kind of makes up for Fiona's current troubles with potty training. We can't keep a diaper on the kid but she sure as hell isn't consistent enough to let her wear underwear yet. In the past two days she has peed copiously on one rug and pooped on another.

And with that lovely image, I'll leave you to go get my Harry Potter fix.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Book talk (with food)

Before I get started on last night's lovely evening with book group, I need to have a little rant:

If the new Pope ever counted on winning me over (granted, very low on his list of priorities) he lost me by denouncing the Harry Potter books. He claims that the books "distort Christianity in the soul", whatever the hell that means. I'll be among the millions of folks happily distorting my soul this weekend when the new book comes out.

Last night we met at Jen's house and in between baby admiration (McKinley has the most lovely curls I've ever seen on a 6-month-old) and stuffing face we discussed the book The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck. There was not a person in the room who thought the book was worth reading, much less worth receiving the National Book Award. (I'm really hoping that my rant about the misogyny expressed in last year's awards has some more worthy books to defend in the other four finalists, because this isn't one I'd defend. MJ has said that the Joan Silber finalist Ideas of Heaven is good so I'm looking forward to reading it.)

This morning I've been trying to find a review that redeems the book, but instead, I found a review by Joanne Omang in the Washington Post that touches on all of our complaints. After a brief summary of the plot she writes:

But one keeps waiting for the moment when Ella will become an appealing human being, or when Franco will reveal the charisma he must have had, or when his sisters will emerge from their fat-slob stereotypes to become real people. Instead they stay remote and rather hard-edged, never engaging our emotions. The episodic style achieves many lovely moments but becomes tiresome as it introduces and then discards dozens of people who could be memorable. These include assorted diplomats, soldiers, relatives and Franco's adversaries, the legendary Brazilian Emperor Don Pedro and the Argentine Gen. Bartoleme Mitre, leaving each so unexplored and fleeting that they all become nearly interchangeable. One keeps flipping back to see who these characters are exactly, wondering if perhaps this colonel or that landowner will prove central to the story. They don't -- or rather, they are all equally relevant, evidently brought in because of their historical role in what actually happened.

That is unfortunate. It is a rule of serious fiction that there's no excuse for putting something in a novel just because it really happened. The sheer sprawl of Tuck's subject matter seems to have overwhelmed her; she has put it all into her story without focus, rather than pruning away the undergrowth to showcase the two lovers or to illumine the history they created. At the end nothing seems to have led to anything else, the myriad challenges and privations of war simply happen without transforming the characters' understanding, and key events transpire without context -- the war seems to have started and ended on its own. We emerge with neither a grasp of the historical period nor any feeling for its shapers, real or fictional.

Perhaps this frustrating approach is meant to evoke the disjointed nature of human experience, the measuring out of lives in coffee spoons, the inadequacy of memory, the sheer coquetry of chance and life and death, etc. If so, it is certainly just as frustrating as real life can be -- for example, when one is hoping to sit down with a vivid story and learn a little something about how to be a full human being while yet surviving during violent and turbulent times.

I think that just about sums up how we felt about the book, except that we used a number of expletives to express our frustration.

But once again, the food was terrific and perfect for a hot summer evening.
We started with a Paraguayan wine fruit punch called Clerico:

Which was served with a copious bowl of guacamole and chips:

and then sat down to a dinner with tamales (courtesy of Sabor Latino--an eminently sane decision on Jen's part. I made tamales once at Lynne's house with a great group of women and, other than the terrific company, I came away thinking that homemade tamales are not worth all the effort),

and a Paraguayan pumpkin polenta called Kiveve,

and another one of Marilyn's beautiful salads, this time with lots of citrus in it:
For dessert, Sarah brought a perfect summer refresher--pomegranate and orange granita:

I'm always amazed (impressed?) by people who tell me that their book groups meet without food. The idea is so hard for me to wrap my brain around after almost 5 years worth of monthly feasts with books. And honestly, if we keep picking stinker books like this one, I think no one would come if it weren't for the food.

Of the last 10 books we read
  1. Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum
  2. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
  3. Monkey Hunting by Julia Alvarez
  4. The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  5. The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
  6. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hossein
  7. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
  8. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
  9. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
  10. The News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck
only The Stone Diaries is one I'd recommend. Number 2, Disgrace, was at least interesting though I still wouldn't recommend it, but pretty much all the rest we thought were pretty lousy, in many different lousy ways.

Here's to hoping that another of the NBA finalists, Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, is a more rewarding read since that is what we decided to do next. At least I know the food will be good.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

And yet another reason...

Reason number 6 of why I like knitting more than installing and finishing hardwood floors:
Have you ever had to dress like this to knit?

I know, my Lord Vader dust mask and foam knee pads set off my work clothes in a most becoming fashion. And I don't even have my ear protector muffs on yet.

But at least when we take a break from sanding there is some culinary comfort in the kitchen. Yesterday I assembled my favorite cold soup called Chlodnik.

And here is how you make it--couldn't be easier.

3 C chilled buttermilk

1/2 C Sour Cream

1 t salt

1 smallish garlic clove, finely pressed or minced

1 C chopped seedless cucumber (or take a regular cucumber and cut out the seeds before you dice it)

1/2 C chopped radishes

1/2 C chopped walnuts

2 T chopped fresh dill

ground black pepper

1 C diced beets (I like freshly roasted or boiled beets, but you could use canned ones or pickled ones if you prefer.)

Whisk together all ingredients except beets and chill. Top each serving of soup with beets.

It is tangy, crunchy and refreshing. Just the sort of food you need to eat when you realize that it is after noon, you have only sanded 1/3 of the floor, and the kids will be back soon from Granny's house....

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Why I like knitting more that installing hardwood floors

Here are 5 reasons why I like knitting more than installing hardwood floors:
1. When knitting you don't get splinters jammed up your fingernails. Twice. In the same place.
2. You don't have to wear ear protection when knitting.
3. Unless you are a glutton for punishment, you don't have to kneel down on a hard floor and bruise your knees when knitting.
4. The scariest machine that you encounter when knitting is a sewing machine, and then only if you are doing that freaky Norwegian sew-and-cut type of knitting (which I have done on a few occasions and which still makes me sweat with anxiety at the thought). Yesterday I learned to use the compound miter saw. I had visions of severed digits every time I used it (which also would have ruined my ability to knit.)
5. It is brain numbingly boring: there is no way to multi-task when installing floors--it's too loud to listen to music or a book on tape, you can't talk to your fellow installer because you both have the big ear protecting muffs on, you can't really eat or drink because your hands are occupied.

On the positive side, look how pretty my current knitting looks against that new (still unfinished) red oak floor:

I think I've made some pretty good progress on the Ribby cardi that I am attempting to knit in the round. And the second sock has been finished to the point of the toe decreases which means I'll have to find the pattern somewhere in the still-unorganized-from-the-California-trip crap that is scattered all over the house.

This would be a good time to express my disappointment about not being able to visit Artfibers while in San Francisco. We were in SF for 4 days, the first of which was taken over by the evil Thrifty Car Rental company (imagine a car rental company that runs out of cars), the last of which I was on my own with the entropy kids which is no condition for visiting a yarn store (Brian was actually out there for work testing cars so I can't even gripe about his absence) and the middle two days were over the Gay Pride weekend. When I lived in the Bay Area the Gay Pride parade was a big deal that took over the downtown for one full Sunday. They closed down Market street and the parade went from down by the Embarcadaro up to the Civic Center and sprawled into all the adjoining streets (Union Square in particular). Well, it's now two full days titled "Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Pride Celebration" and the days are filled with parades, concerts, celebrations, and general pageantry. Normally this would make me pretty happy since it is a great scene with fun and colorful parades and the many moments of positive community are very heartening to a cynic like me. But damn it, Artfibers is located right off of Union Square! There really was no way of getting to it over that weekend.

To look on the bright side, we did get to see and hear about 600 Dykes on Bikes gunning their motorcycles engines down at the base of Market Street.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Initial thoughts on Larry's Party

Ok, so I did actually get to do some reading on the CA trip despite having to wrangle two travel-stressed kids (who actually did far better than I anticipated due to frequent train rides--who knew that the Bay Area was such a train enthusiasts' paradise?--and administrations of Jelly Belly bribes). I started and finished Carol Shields's Larry's Party and I'm interested to hear what other people thought about it (Annie, Ed, MJ?) because I liked it, but didn't love it and I haven't completely come to terms with what worked for me and what didn't.

Sorry about the shouting. I don't want to ruin the book for others because it is good enough to make it onto my Recommended Books list.

I know the ending, where Larry gets to the end of the maze of his life and finds Dorrie bugged me because I thought the whole point of the book was his search for self. Yes, I know many mazes end where they begin, but there was so much emphasis on getting to the center of the maze and having some sort of epiphany that I felt a annoyed that this turned out to be a circuitous maze.

Besides, something about the women characters, Dorrie, Beth and Charlotte, struck me as kind of hollow. Maybe they were supposed to strike me as "types" since they were perceived through the often-bewildered Larry. I found it hard to believe in Dorrie's transformation when Larry left her. I know it was supposed to be a shock that woke her up and made her appreciate her life and her place in the world, and by ripping up half of the maze around their house I assume she was symbolically freed and able to find herself rather than being trapped in Larry's maze. But I think the Dorrie that is portrayed before this scene is too sharp and flinty not to have a bit of bitterness--that she becomes this ideal mother and relatively easy ex-wife struck me as "off".

I did love the structure--I thought the way the chapters were broken down into facets of Larry's life was brilliant. I think Shields had a ball writing this book this way and I do think the writer's pleasure seeps onto the page. I particularly liked the chapters titled "Larry's Penis" (which I found much more tender and contemplative than I had anticipated) and "Men Called Larry" (which confronted assumptions about names--something that I've always loved thinking about). I thought the almost-entirely-in-dialogue last party scene was well done, though a little self conscious. (I still give the title of writing-in-dialogue-master to Richard Bausch for the first story "Aren't you happy for me?" in Rare and Endangered Species.)

So, those are some initial thoughts and I'd really like to hear what other readers think about the book.

Happy to be home

Sometimes I think the main reason I travel is so that I'm happy to come back home. Sure, seeing new things and breaking the old routine is great, but coming home is a big pleasure too. After the CA stint I had about 24 hours before heading out the door again, this time to drive to Wisconsin with Fiona for my friend Sue's wedding. I left Brian and Ian at home and took the kid who is a reasonably good traveler.

Allow me to introduce you to Sue:

I like to think of her as Sue-with-the-10,000 Watt smile.
And that's her lucky man, Jim, who has the smile directed right at him.

It was a beautiful ceremony, all the things that a wedding should be--a big warm embrace of community. Sue's brother-in-law, Dan, married them and he gave a terrific commentary on marriage--funny, touching, and amazingly without cliches--that made me get on my cell phone as soon as the ceremony was over and leave a mushy message for Brian.

And on the literary front, Sue's friend Aaron gave a reading from one of my favorite children's books, The Velveteen Rabbit. It was the part about becoming real and how love makes you shabby around the edges with floppy worn-out bits. I can't wait to read this book to my critters when they will sit still long enough to listen to it. I bet I could get Ian to listen if I added a character with gears to the story...

Fiona was greatly amused by the ring bearer--Sue and Jim's huge dog, Brutus. Here you see Brutus having a lean against Jim while Aaron is doing his reading:
The culinary highlight was the dessert--Sue had told me that she was ordering her wedding cake from my absolute favorite Chicago bakery, the Swedish Bakery (located in the Andersonville neighborhood). It was a lovely carrot cake, moist and with lots of walnuts, very minimally decorated and elegant. But the surprise came in the form of the 5 groaning trays of other Swedish Bakery treats--butter cookies, petit fours, little marzipan cakes, chocolate truffles, etc.

The trays of sweet bounty
Here is what I snagged to take back to my seat:

Surrounding the carrot cake from the top are: a chocolate truffle, an almond/chocolate/marzipan cake, and a raspberry petit four.
There are times when I don't think I'm cut out to be a mom because I distinctly remember my mom never turning me down when I asked for some of her food. Such selfless impulses when it comes to food are not natural to me and I often hide what I'm eating so I don't have to share it with Fiona (Ian isn't a problem since he only eats about 10 foods). So I think it shows clear progress in the mom-suitability test that I'm constantly administering myself that I didn't get the slightest bit pissy with Fiona when she grabbed the chocolate truffle and stuffed the whole damn thing in her mouth. Instead, I grabbed the almond chocolate marzipan thingy and stuffed it in my mouth. We shared the carrot cake and the raspberry petit four.

We drove back this morning, left early and got to Evanston in time to eat breakfast at my favorite restaurant, The Lucky Platter. The Lucky Platter isn't a restaurant that I can sum up in a few words, mostly because if you look at their menu, nothing really jumps out at you--it just looks like a slightly quirky, American-style restaurant. But for some reason they make even the most mundane sounding dish taste great--I'm not a big fan of barbecued chicken sandwiches (I'm not talking about real barbecue, rather a grilled boneless skinless breast with some bbq sauce slopped on), but I'd eat the Lucky Platter one if there weren't so many other things that I really like that they make.

I spent many an evening at Lucky Platter recovering with my fellow sufferers from the heinousness of our days in Northwestern's Theater PhD program (note: I bailed out with an MA and a propensity to overuse the words hegemony, discourse, paradigm and methodology to the point of meaninglessness--if you want to read a sample of the intellectual wankage that we were all turning out left, right and center, take a peek at the excruciating two paragraphs here. Also note the incongruous and deceptive photo of a smiling woman placed above the text).

But I do have fond memories of my peers and our times at Lucky Platter: sitting under a big picture of Lobster Boy (a carnival side-show print) I vented my frustration and assuaged my ravaged intellect with Caribbean Pumpkin soup, the best sweet potato fries I've ever tasted (no sogginess at all) and a basic salad with terrific mustard soy vinaigrette. And it was cheap enough for my pathetic grad student income.

Today for brunch, Fiona had one huge whole wheat pancake and I ordered the vegetarian eggs benedict which looked like this:

It consisted of two slabs of grilled polenta, roasted vegetables (mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers and onions), two poached eggs, hollandaise sauce and a sprinkling of cilantro. And it was wonderful. Fiona loved it too and I found myself not doing quite so well on the self-lessness portion of the mom-suitability I ate a big chunk of her pancake, took a deep breath, and shared my eggs.