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26 December 2011

The Joy of Reading Cookbooks

I have found myself reading cookbooks for the last two weeks.  Some of the recipes I am considering are new but most are along the lines of my favorite holiday treats.  My cookbooks are international: American, British, Dutch, South American, Italian, Japanese...these are books I look at and cook from regularly.  I also have a folder full of scraps of papers, printouts and notes on backs of envelopes.  This year's menu includes truffled honey, pheasant and a traditional English Christmas cake with a Chilean twist.

Honestly though, I find great pleasure in just reading recipes and letting my foodie imagination run (directly to my expanding waist line).  Sometimes recipes bring back memories the way only tastes and smells do.  Photographs don't capture a moment the way the menu does.  The last few years, my daughter has been in charge of designing and printing the menu for our guests.  I keep a copy for myself; it is one of the few ways I can re-experience, to a certain extent, meals past.  Food, like music is ephemeral, easy to get wrong and nearly impossible to reproduce when perfect.

Books, especially cook books, can build character over time as you experience and develop your own tastes.  Sometimes, I spend more time reminiscing than looking for a recipe.  I love books that tell me a story because I have experienced something akin; the old cliche: "I can relate to it."  But, this preference is by nature limiting. I do not want to experience the horrors of an addiction (regardless of how entertaining the book is) and I cannot experience Middle Earth outside the books.  Cook books, on the other hand, are by definition manuals of a most personal kind.  These adventures are meant to be experienced, savored and shared.  As your own character grows and, I hope, your palate, cook books offer not only nourishment but love, adventure, risk (ever made an hollandaise?), sex, laughter and even tragedy (when the soufflé drops).  Moreover, these manuals engage so many senses even if only in your imagination.  A risotto prepared with champagne and truffles is from the moment you scan the ingredients already a promise of a life lived without limits; the moment you taste it, a promise fulfilled and in your own home.

I have received cook books as gifts and bought my own.  I enjoy them like I do Murakami.  I read them from beginning to end fascinated with the imagination and magic available to us mortals.  Cook books can bring back to life your grandmother and her wonderful soups.  And if your childhood was not so blessed, cook books are the manuals to a blessed future.

Paradise is not only peace and pleasant harps in the background but smells and textures too.  Ever had lamb in a rose petal curry?  Cook books are the manuals to heaven on Earth, provided, of course, you cook with love. 

07 December 2011

'The New Science of the Teenage Brain' by David Dobbs - National Geographic, October 2011

What can I say?  My first reaction was uncharitable.  'They found a teenage brain!....Perhaps they are all sharing it?'  Obviously, after some thought and deep probing I will admit that at least the teenagers I regularly come into contact with can be intelligent, often in creative ways. When asked whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher, my children spend more time actively defending (or creating) their answers than it would take to empty the dishwasher; the same goes for clothing choice, exam results, homework, music practice or even taking a shower.  On the other hand, they are unable to take a matching pair of socks out of a dryer that contains only whites.

Done venting, back to the article...

In essence, the teenage brain is indeed half baked like parents have always suspected.  This results in lower fear and greater emphasis on pleasure versus pain and\or deferment.  Teenagers can assess risk and calculate weight, velocity and braking (reaction) time just like a grown up when tested alone.  Pleasure, such as impressing friends, however trumps caution.  The pleasure or kudos of driving fast to impress a car full of friends outweighs the risk of redecorating the highway with car and body parts.  This same disregard for real risk (as we calculate it) makes it possible for them to take the risk to leave the nest and explore the world.  So in terms of survival of the species they are ready to go out, conquer and procreate without noting the consequences.

Teenagers are growing new wiring within their brains.  This is like an internal version of the teenage body, growing quickly but unevenly.  The same body that swishes a three pointer will stub its toe on a door frame.  Some things like common sense have to catch up the same way teenage bodies catch up with their shoe size.  Teenagers are also mentally more flexible, perhaps a bit too much so .  Adolescents and their brains  will try new things like technology, the exploration of the next valley over or eating something new and interesting. Unfortunately all this flexibility is sometimes fatal.  Consistency and judgement come with maturity and experience.

It is comforting to know that my children's erratic, occasionally dangerous and absolutely  irritating behavior has a neurological cause shared with other teenagers and that it probably serves some purpose in the long tail of human history (or so some scientists assure readers and writers of National Geographic).  But as a mother in the here and now I have to agree with my parenting guru, Jean Kerr, who said, 'I never wanted to know what that noise was, I just wanted it to STOP.

23 November 2011

'Please Don't Eat the Daisies' by Jean Kerr

This is one of the books that kept me sane when my children were young. I constantly reread it, even now. The book, published in 1958, is a collection of essays Jean Kerr wrote and published in several magazines over a two year period. The essays discuss her opinions, observations and adventures as a working mother of four, she would eventually have six, children. Jean was a playwright. Her hilarious essays include topics such as career choices, decorating, house hunting, marriage, rearing young children and even how to handle a hospital stay.

She puts in perspective the challenges of the everyday, like disciplining children, keeping your sanity, handling big, friendly dogs and work wise, how to pick and hire a producer (tip: never more than two at a time.) She makes me laugh because I can relate. There is no such a thing as writing in peace when you are a mother, and in former times, if you were a woman.

A while back, I pointed out that the 1950's were a hypocritical time in American history. Freedom and equality came with the caveats of white, heterosexual, protestant male. Nevertheless, Jean Kerr wrote funny irreverent essays and plays. She wrote without a sign of guilt or complaint about her life as a working mom. She was funny because she wrote with wit and intelligence. She made jokes. Ever notice that 'women with a sense of humor' are women who laugh at jokes. She did not live a 'bohemian' life with multiple lovers. She did what she enjoyed. She was absolutely a participant of her social world yet confident and charming enough to laugh at it.

Jean Kerr is rarely remembered today. She may well be forgotten because she was so funny and intelligent and a mother of six, and a loyal wife of a famous New York theatre critic. How about that? A woman who did not 'try to have it all.' She set herself a goal and went to work to achieve it. Her goal, so she states even in poetry, was to linger in bed in the morning, with a proper excuse of course (apparently parties didn't count back then either). Historians do not like people who may have been happy in life.

A movie with Doris Day and David Niven was based on the book. True to form, all the bits about Jean's success outside the home were taken out. They also took her biting, observant humor. Doris Day was cute and sweet. No doubt so was Jean Kerr but that is not all she was. I wish an optimistic woman would remake the movie properly. Jean Kerr is an example we could all use in our hectic lives. Besides, I love to lay in bed in the morning. It is a small accomplishment and I refuse to feel guilty about any accomplishment.

And as for the daisies? She forgot to tell her boys NOT to eat the daisies before guests arrived. She felt she was not creative enough to foresee this situation. She'd only mentioned not using the guest bathroom, or leaving their bicycles on the porch.....From then on she told them, of course.

In that spirit, I would like to find a job that is flexible, challenging and lets me keep my sense of humor. Any suggestions?

ISBN: 9780005712467

08 November 2011

'Something Wicked This Way Comes' by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury, in spite of his fame, is someone I discovered only recently.  About two years ago, I picked up 'Dandelion Wine' at Hatchard's in London.  I read it as an antidote to the long Winter.  It is a novel full of light, adventure and mystery, like every childhood Summer should be...perhaps.  His use of language is magical.  I can open his book at random and find sentences that give me shivers and set my imagination free.

And so I saw a book titled, 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' while browsing shelves at Hatchard's again (yes, I lead a wonderful life).  I picked it up and hoped it was the book a childhood movie is based on.  The cover was proof enough , as it shows a dark man with a top hat.  Then, to my delight, I saw the author: Ray Bradbury.

Once again my imagination sees impossible pictures brought on by the same language I use every day.  The difference is that I can paint a wall, he creates art.  The paragraph that describes Mr. Cooger going around the carrousel and getting younger is as wonderful as any in the book and yet terrifying.  It reminded me of Poe. Bradbury's words are beautifully chosen. The rhythm of his sentences make me smile each time I open his book.

I often suspect that some people I know are innately bad and some people are angels in my life.  This book reminds me that we make that choice, the choice for good or evil or to do nothing.  These choices happen not just in youth when girls become women, but every day.  Old men, mothers and lightning rod salesmen chose from moment to moment between good and evil . I chose to listen to the troubles of a friend and I chose to rejoice for the good luck of someone else.  Alternative behavior could include selfishness, indifference or envy.  The act of choosing makes us good or evil.  You do not necessarily have to act on your thoughts, the thoughts themselves are enough.  Bradbury plays with this fear of your own thoughts and desires.  All the times you internally tell yourself you are too old to do bungee jumping, or too long married to show up with roses, you are committing an act of evil by limiting yourself and killing your own dreams or romance.  The carnival he describes feeds on these small deaths and fears of every day life.  Small, petty, unkind thoughts, desires to be young or to be older for example, are equally tasty.  I never did like carnivals anyway, what a relief I am not alone.

I could continue writing in admiration and awe, but I doubt Bradbury needs it.  I am so overwhelmed by his creative, magical use of language that as I read my own words I am more and more embarrassed.

ISBN: 9780575083066

06 November 2011

'Snuff' by Terry Pratchett

Years and years ago, a friend gave me 'Small Gods'. She told me she couldn't read more than one Discworld novel a year because Pratchett warped the way she saw the world. She said "you'll like him".  I tried reading it, but could not finish it. I didn't get the joke.  I thought small mindedness, religious intolerance and violence were all too real. I read him as a sad and accurate reflection of our world.  A year or two later I picked up the book again. I had gained a family and was making serious choices of my own, for good or bad. The book was hilarious. Pratchett is about choices, responsibility, accountability and knowing yourself. His story telling, though, make these topics palatable. I had to make decisions in society about myself and my family to see the fun, freedom and yes, fear in taking those grown up steps . Humor is so often associated with laughing at what frightens you. I buy every Pratchett book I can find in different cities and countries.  I even have 'The Unadulterated Cat' in my bathroom.

Now back to 'Snuff'.

As usual, Pratchett brings back characters. My favorite part is to discover how his characters have developed and learned from past mistakes or adventures. Other series make money by giving readers more of the same. To an intelligent reader, book 3 often feels like book 1 in a different setting. Pratchett, on the other hand, lets his characters grow, sometimes in surprising ways. Moreover, he manages to stay true to a characters' fundamental traits. So Rincewind remains a coward no matter how many times he survives. Commander Vimes, the protagonist of 'Snuff', remains a good man in desperate need of a drink.  He seems to live in a world surrounded by bad men, probably on account of being a policeman.  Commander Vimes usually focuses (obsesses) on crime and justice (which is different from punishment).  He treats murder as murder; there are no political euphemisms depending on the victim or status of the suspect.  A goblin girl is as important as an ambassador.  But, and yes we need a 'but' or there wouldn't be a book, what if your own society did not view this murder as a murder, anymore than people view euthanizing a stray dog as murder?  What if dogs found you and demanded justice?

This is where Pratchett excels.  He gives the little ones in society a voice and a champion.  But, he makes us laugh in the process of finding justice.  This laughter is important because most of us fall in the category of those who look away, stay quiet, or comment that talking dogs are still dogs, not humans.  He wants us to look at ourselves and our motives, but not all at once, just in case we shut the book in fear.  Laughter helps.  Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut wrote satire which is filed under fiction; just because Pratchett uses trolls, dwarfs and goblins instead of blacks, the poor and women, his work is labeled fantasy at your local book store.  Our society has become expert at looking away and escaping into fantasy of many sorts.  Pratchett is a genius; he writes satire and lets us label it fantasy so we'll read it and look in the mirror.  With any luck we get the joke.

Terry Pratchett 
ISBN: 9780385619264

24 October 2011

'A Beautiful Mind' by Sylvia Nasar

To bring to life, in writing, a man and his life, as in this excellent biography, is difficult.  To also bring to life his passion and genius for mathematics is art.  The book puts into context the society, academic status and madness of John Nash Jr.  As I read this book and reflected on the paranoid, homophobic, academically conservative world he walked in, I wondered why there were not more insane men from the McCarthy era.

Freedom feels like a real myth; something that probably did not exist, except as an ideal.  When I read about the paranoia and prejudices of the 1950s and I look at our world today with in addition its loss of freedom in exchange for security, nothing much seems to have changed.

John Nash Jr. craved freedom in every way.  His story highlights how his lovers (male and female), partners and colleagues also wanted freedom to love, to work, to succeed and to be proud.  A fundamental difference, of course, is that his illness exaggerated some of these traits and desires.  There is nothing insane about wanting freedom.  It was a repressive environment and political influence that branded such desires from men and women as insanity.  Schizophrenia makes one hypersensitive.  Nash's friends and relations constantly reminded themselves and John of his sanity, for were not them all also a little insane? They reminded him of his accomplishments, his friendships, his loves and his magnificent, creative intellect.

Princeton university as well as Dr. Nash's friends and admirers in the mathematics community showed him kindness and faith.  They gave him as many opportunities as he needed to overcome his illness and help himself get better.  The women in his life, though, are even more extraordinary.  Alicia and Meredith deserve biographies of their own.  They showed resilience and strength.  These educated women, an engineer and a nurse respectively, suffered the stigma of being single mothers and the stigma of being women who wanted to work.  It was heartrending and humiliating to read at times.  Alicia helped Nash come out of his illness; she provided protection and support even after their divorce.  Meredith, alone and unmarried, raised a lovely child.

Beautiful book, beautiful story... No wonder it was made into a movie.  Could the ending be any more 'Hollywood'?  A work of fiction could not have sustained such an ending.  Thank God life is still stranger than fiction.

ISBN: 9780571212927

21 October 2011

Reading the News Online

Journalists have been persecuted for telling, withholding, misrepresenting or even making fun of the news (also called "the truth", or optimistically, "the facts" for a given value of truth or facts.)  Journalists know that derision and incredulity comes with the territory.  It cannot be easy to be so religiously disliked.   What I mean is that everyone reads or listens to the news regardless of how unpleasant the event is or how badly it is presented.  After all, people usually avoid unpleasant situations or unpleasant persons; with the exception of those strange dudes that chase tornadoes or anyone addressed as "mama" on a regular basis.  But, I am regressing.

Journalism seems to be getting even lower in quality.  So far, my complaint is not news, if you'll pardon the joke.  Recently, lower quality includes reports on news websites so badly written that non-sequiturs, incomplete sentences or even the completely wrong words, obviously placed there by eager software, are often seen on respected websites like BBC news or even Reuters.  In their rush to post a story first, they fail to even proof read.

Now, "first with the story" is becoming a very relative term.  After all, events like the Arab uprisings were posted on youtube, facebook and twitter way before journalists picked up the story.  "First" loses value when it has to be amended to, "well, faster than Sky and CNN anyway."  My suggestion is that journalists stop distracting me from the journalism with bad writing.  "Best with the news" could catch on.

TV journalists (presenters) are notoriously incorrect when it comes to basics like grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation.  Sometimes looks take precedence over a degree in journalism.  Journalists who report in writing though, write for a living.  There is no excuse.  I find it careless. If he or she is careless with simple sentence structure how careless is he or she with content?

Obviously, I am not literary perfection, but I don't have to be.  In any case, I hope to improve with practice and care.  Perhaps better lighting and a new lap top would help too (hint, hint to my beloved proof reader.)  This bad writing on news websites cannot be blamed on Murdoch, censorship, or a mean Spanish teacher.  If you do not care when you report, it shows. After all your name is attached to the article.

16 October 2011

'1222' by Anne Holt

This locked room mystery is fun

My first instinct is to cheer a woman who does not get physical in order to kick ass.  This locked room mystery is fun.  The protagonist is intelligent, sensitive and cynical.  Physical circumstances did not compromise her freedom of choice to act, to think, to solve a problem or even to make or not make friends.

I worry about women depicted as cooperative and quietly intelligent; women that should not put themselves forward or heaven forbid, be more intelligent than the men around them.  Discretion is the only tool available to this crime stopping woman.  Not crime fighting.  Women don't fight crime like men do, they stop it.  I like a grumpy, closed, uncompromising protagonist.  It feels true to her life and physical circumstances.  Women often have to apologize for having ambition, or lacking social graces, even in literature.  It is a shallow view of women, and too often untrue. 

The book itself did not take me long to read and some of it was predictable, but I was not expecting Pulitzer material.  I had fun and it did not ruin my tea.  Moreover, I read it in Summer and it is refreshing to read about a massive blizzard in the heat.

ISBN: 9781848876095

'The Shining' by Stephen King

No shit, this is a great book.  I know millions have read it and most probably agree.  What you have to understand is that I am a horror coward, both films and books.  I saw 'Poltergeist' a  little young and never got over it.

So, I had to watch 'The Shining' for a film course in college. Got scared. Bought it and gave it to my mother as a gift.  It was a proper scare, because while evil monsters that talk to children and live in a closet over a graveyard are quite scary; there is no monster like the monster residing in your family or yourself.  But, it has taken me nearly 20 years to read the book of a film I consider a classic and enjoy every time.

It is a rare book indeed that is so satisfying when I close it.  It was two in the morning and I had been scared, but once it was over I felt I had been assaulted by excellent story telling.  Even writers have ambition and too often it overwhelms what should be their most important ambition: to tell a story well.  I don't care if you make me laugh or scare me enough to make me turn the lights on in the bedroom all night.  I want to be told a story well and there is a fundamental difference between having clever gimmicks and creating a consistent believable world.  Some writers can create effects or engaging characters, or the best one liners, but a good writer makes you feel in safe hands and eager for the telling.  It is like people who are described as excellent raconteurs.  Lots of people can be entertaining or funny at the table, but how many do you know whom you would describe as a true raconteur?

Stephen King made me feel safe, cared for and entertained.  I did not have to "suspend my disbelief".  He discreetly suspended it for me and I enjoyed myself.

ISBN: 9780340951392

'Perdido Street Station' by China Mieville

I have never showered so often during the reading of a book  It was rather like reading 'Chocolat' and needing chocolates beside me.  This man loves dirt and the underside of just about anything.  He is not only interested in garbage but he likes to turn over the bin and see what is crawling underneath.  The dirt is detailed, the horror is detailed, the dirty sheets are detailed.  He describes a truly decadent city.  You feel dirty reading this book.  I am surprised and pleased with how so much slime can beautifully discuss heavy topics.

The story itself is simple.  A family of monsters are unintentionally set lose on this dirty city.  Any monster that can terrorize this city is a monster of the first class.  The most fundamental topic is freedom of choice, even if all the choices are bad.  Are promises important?  Is betrayal necessary?  Of course, the story also contains courage, cowardice and pragmatism.  Even triumph is full of fear and misunderstanding.  The author constantly changes our perspective both physically and morally.  The bird's eye views of the city and its characters are as amazing and disgusting as the street view.  The air itself becomes soiled not just by smog, but by our own evil.

As a reader you want a happily ever after, but the characters themselves never expected one.  I always hold my breath while I read Mieville's books.  As I close the books it feels like I have been running.  This book is a marathon.  China Mieville has a lot of patience with the reader.  I know it sounds weird, but it feels like he has compassion for our desire. Life and books do not have perfect endings.

China Mieville
ISBN: 9780330534239
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15 October 2011

'The Monsters & the Critics & Other Essays' by J. R. R. Tolkien

"Cool look at Tolkien's interests and passions as an academic; where his curiosity lay?"

My favorite lecture is 'Fairies and Elves' followed by the one about invented languages.  The lectures themselves were entertaining especially when he spoke about himself.

Amongst the lectures Tolkien discusses fatherhood and what to read to your children.  Amazing view!  A man so blind to women was quite able to view children as intelligent humans, whole beings with views and tastes; in one word, discernment.  I was surprised that his views on children’s intelligence and curiosity were so open and positive, since his view of women in his body of work often lacked depth.  Women were not worth exploring beyond their God given role?  That is, passive and platonic.

I am a fan of Tolkien's fiction and I read this book as an introduction to Tolkien, the academic.  I was not disappointed.

J.R.R. Tolkien
ISBN: 9780261102637
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