Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Buttermilk Pound Cake
1/2 c butter (no substitute)
1/2 c crisco
3 c sugar
2 tsp vanilla
3 c flour (all purpose)
1/2 tsp salt
1 c buttermilk
1/2 tsp soda
1 Tbsp boiling water
Garnish: powdered sugar
Cream butter, shortening, and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating well. Add vanilla. Combine flour and salt. Add alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour. Dissolve soda in water and beat in. Pour into greased and floured tube pan and bake at 300 degrees for 1.5 hours, testing after 1.25 hours. Rest in pan for 10 minutes before turning out on a wire rack to cool. Before serving, I sift a little powdered sugar over the top to make it look pretty.
Out West I have to make this a bit differently if I want to get that gooey, not-quite-done layer at the bottom (my favorite part of the cake). The dry air and elevation, and my overly hot oven, required a little tweaking: I added 1.5 Tbsp of hot water instead of just 1 Tbsp, and I only baked it for an hour and 5 minutes. I lowered the oven temp slightly for the last 10 minutes of cooking to prevent excessive browning.
Monday, January 29, 2007
On Sunday afternoon I finished The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I: The Pox Party, by M.T. Anderson. It is beautiful and agonizing. I recommend it to everyone. The story is told primarily from the perspective of a young African-American boy who grows up with his mother in a house of scientists in pre-Revolutionary
To say more would revel too much, and I want you readers to have the untarnished benefit of plot turns and surprises. In fact, don’t read any of the reviews or summaries on Amazon’s page because most of them contain spoilers. You may also note on Amazon’s page that the book is marketed to young adult readers, which confounds me; it’s a book for adults or for adolescents with the capacity to appreciate books for adults.
There are so many levels to
The book ends with a cliffhanger, so Ickie and I are eagerly awaiting the sequel.
Thursday, January 25, 2007
My reaction to Sedaris is completely polarized—I strongly dislike about 75% of Me Talk Pretty One Day and rather wish I hadn’t ever read those bits. However, there are two or three chapters I love dearly. Each time I read “Jesus Shaves,” I laugh until I can't breathe, so I recommend it wholeheartedly. (For those of you who appreciate a warning, it has a bit of bad language in it.)
What’s uniquely hilarious about Sedaris’s depiction of the challenges of language learning is the way he translates his awkward French back into hopelessly nonsensical English for the benefit of the reader. I'm sure many of the things I’ve said in German or Indonesian sounded exactly like his ungainly attempts. In one of my favorite scenes, he describes how his French progressed from toddler speak (using only nouns and gestures) to that of an inbred redneck: He walks into a butcher shop, points at some calves brains, and asks the butcher “Is thems the thoughts of cows?”
Learning a second language is a risky thing. It requires vulnerability and humility, which is why little children progress quicker than adults. When we are willing to speak out loud, we often make ourselves sound like idiots and offend other people. I once called my teaching supervisor in
“Jesus Shaves” is attached in three pages for your reading pleasure. Just click to enlarge.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
This week I’m reading Josef Pieper’s A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart because Ickie is leading a book group on it. Pieper’s language is lovely, even for a translation. I liked what he had to say about the virtue of fortitude:
“To be brave is not the same as to have no fear…Whoever in such a situation of unqualified seriousness, in the face of which an miles gloriosus (glorious soldier) falls mute and every heroic gesture becomes crippled, nonetheless advances toward the horror and does not allow himself to be prevented from doing the good, specifically for the sake of the good and thus finally for the sake of God, not out of ambition or out of fear of being taken for a coward: that person is truly courageous.
What is essential to the virtue of fortitude is not aggression or self-confidence or wrath but rather steadfastness and patience…This, however—and this point cannot be repeated too frequently—is not because patience and steadfastness are simply better and more perfect than aggressiveness and self-confidence but rather because the real world is so structured that it is in the most extreme emergency, where the only resistance possible is steadfastness, that the final and most profound spiritual strength of the person can become manifest.”
It makes me think of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings. They are anti-heros in every way and they know their quest is hopeless, but they press on all the same because they know the gravity of it. I love this passage from The Return of the King:
“Frodi sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo's hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at least, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding-place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master's, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo's side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”
I think a lot of folks who don't read stories in the fantasy or sci fi genre think I enjoy them because I like dragons and fairies and whatnot. Well, those things are indeed very appealing, but I primarily enjoy good fantasy stories if they are good books. In addition, I enjoy the freedom the author has to create very specific ethical situations without bowing to the reality to which we're accustomed. We can discuss these situations, characters, their choices, etc., and apply them to our lives even more effectively because we've had a chance to step out of ordinary circumstances. In this case, it's a beautiful depiction of selfless fortitude.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
I was prepared for some serious terrors, but not for the gory details of the evil stepfather's work. I tend to distinguish the scary stories one sees in fairy tales from the more realistic and alarming details about the evils of which humans are capable. I'm not recommending Pan's to everyone--there are a lot of frightening scenes and I wish there had been less gore, but it's nonetheless a well-made movie. The graphic scenes served a purpose.
I enjoyed a lot about Pan's—the young actress is excellent (she's pensive and imperfect but courageous), the fantastical scenes are startling and tangible, and the two plot lines tie together in a strong ending. The highlight of the film is a terrifying scene featuring a ghastly eyeless monster sitting at a table overflowing with food that the girl is forbidden to eat. Oh dear, that scene is chilling! But in a good way.
The elements I liked about the movie were the same elements I enjoyed in The Book of Lost Things, which I read in December. They are both about children living during WWII in unhappily mixed families. Both children lose a parent, both love books (especially fairy tales), and both have "down the rabbit hole" adventures. Many of the fairy tale conventions are present in unique ways in these stories. Each child has a magical guide who may be a threat. Each child has to perform a series of tasks in order to prove his/her worth. Each child may be a royal heir to that kingdom. Each child has a baby brother in need of his/her protection. And both of them really creeped me out, which is the authentic nature of the original Grimm's tales, and nothing at all like the sterilized Disney versions.
Saturday, January 20, 2007
I don’t think I realized how much I would enjoy living in
Now, it’s been my experience that the population is equally insane regardless of which part of the country I’m in, it’s just handled a bit differently. On the
Today when we arrived at the farmer’s market, a large group of beaming young people was holding large signs announcing “FREE HUGS.” Ickie and I watched as a small boy recoiled in horror when an alarmingly gleeful stranger squatted down to embrace him. Shortly thereafter, we spotted a green Ford station wagon with longhorns attached to the front, piloted by a stern woman with a Mohawk and an arm full of vivid tattoos.
The biggest celebration of weirdness in
Lots of people have told me that I'm weird or crazy, and I can't argue with them. I just have to keep up with the competition.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Bray's descriptions of the magical visions or occurrences in the story feel too vague and metaphysical to me, and several times I've had to reread passages where the events depicted weren't concrete enough to hold my interest. Thus far the narrative has also reminded me strongly of the movies Mean Girls and Dead Poets Society, if you can imagine such a combination, but set in Victorian England with magical bits. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I am a sucker for: 1. A high school movie featuring an outsider and a bunch of mean kids; 2. A movie where The Man gets it stuck to him; and 3. A movie with literature enthusiasts (even if it involves the tiresome Whitman and Thoreau). Oh, and I'm forgetting the cute boys in their matching wool coats and sweater vests. Alas, Bray's novel doesn't have enough strapping young lads in sweater vests to make up for her banality.
This is all loosely related to my current dismay towards the way in which we underuse our vocabularies. The English language is rich, and it honestly is a joy to learn new words and use them. People, I beg you to stop using the words awesome and blessed, especially if you use them three times in one paragraph. Instead, try using the word hackneyed in a sentence (if you're not familiar with this word, look it up. I'm taunting you, and you need to be aware of that). Go back, reread what you've written, and substitute some fresh and rousing adjectives! Let's all go out and buy nice new thesauri and do credit to our educations.
Recommended: If you want a great satire of the gothic novel, read Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. If you want one of the best gothic novels (and possibly best novels) ever written, then it's Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre for you.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
"I missed my studies with Dr. Trefusis inveterately; for reading, once begun, quickly becomes home and circle and court and family; and indeed, without narrative, I felt exiled from my own country. By the transport of book, that which is most foreign becomes one's familiar walks and avenues; while that which is most familiar is removed to delightful strangeness; and unmoving, one travels infinite causeways; immobile and thus unfettered."
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Several years ago Ickie and I discovered the works of P.G. Wodehouse. He wrote nearly one hundred comedies about members of the British upper class who, in their excessive leisure time, devise ludicrous schemes. His most well-known stories are about the daft but likable Bertie Wooster and his eminently capable butler Jeeves (Hugh Laurie and Steven Fry are excellent in the BBC series based on them). I love the stories featuring Uncle Fred (from whom Ickie lifted his web moniker), the crafty Earl of Ickenham who is always getting in and out of trouble with his uncanny ability to lie. My favorite novels by Wodehouse are his early works, which he wrote mainly in the teens and 20s (e.g., Piccadilly Jim, A Damsel in Distress, Something Fresh, Hot Water).
Although Wodehouse's novels often follow a similar formula, they always seem fresh. It’s easy to be swept away by the plot and the laughs and miss Wodehouse’s gift for language. There are apparent jokes—zany schemes and slapstick—but the more subtle humor is found in his clever wordplay. A prominent brain doctor being chased by a goose on a small island is a funny premise, but Wodehouse’s language has a charming wittiness that is unique. He’s a master of similes, for example: “He uttered a sound much like a bull dog swallowing a pork chop whose dimensions it has underestimated.” and “He looked haggard and careworn, like a Borgia who has suddenly remembered that he has forgotten to shove cyanide in the consumme, and the dinner-gong due any moment.”
Ickie and I were discussing what makes Wodehouse’s stories so enjoyable the other night. He said “he never lets you take anything seriously.” I said they have an “ordinariness” about them, but they never seem ordinary. It’s hard to explain, so you’ll just have to read them for yourself.
Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote an excellent short essay on Wodehouse’s masterful humor, which you'll find in this book. Hugh Laurie also wrote a funny article titled “Wodehouse Saved my Life.”
While intentionally light-hearted, Wodehouse’s depictions of humanity are true and relatable, and that’s part of what makes them not only humorous but also winsome. There is a particular scene in Piccadilly Jim that Ickie and I think echoes our own attraction to each other.
[Jim says to the hot-tempered Ann:] "To a girl with your ardent nature some one with whom you can quarrel is an absolute necessity of life. You and I are affinities. Ours will be an ideally happy marriage. You would be miserable if you had to go through life with a human doormat with 'Welcome' written on him. You want some one made of sterner stuff. You want, as it were, a sparring-partner, some one with whom you can quarrel happily with the certain knowledge that he will not curl up in a ball for you to kick, but will be there with the return wallop. I may have my faults…" He paused expectantly. Ann remained silent. "No, no!" he went on. "But I am such a man. Brisk give-and-take is the foundation of the happy marriage. Do you remember that beautiful line of Tennyson's—'We fell out, my wife and I'? It always conjures up for me a vision of wonderful domestic happiness. I seem to see us in our old age, you on one side of the radiator, I on the other, warming our old limbs and thinking up snappy stuff to hand to each other—sweethearts still! If I were to go out of your life now, you would be miserable. You would have nobody to quarrel with. You would be in the position of the female jaguar of the Indian jungle, who, as you doubtless know, expresses her affection for her mate by biting him shrewdly in the fleshy part of the leg, if she should snap sideways one day and find nothing there."
A few of my favorite Wodehouse titles: Piccadilly Jim, Hot Water, A Damsel in Distress, Something Fresh, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, Cocktail Time, Uncle Dynamite, The Inimitable Jeeves, The Mating Season, The Cat-Nappers
Friday, January 5, 2007
I love the characters, Cecelia and Kate—two young ladies who are clever, witty, strong-willed, and inventive. They are just slightly scandalous for the time period, which makes their adventures that much more entertaining. I strongly relate to them—the sort of girls who are less elegant than their peers and receive less attention from the boys, but who have smarts and personality to make up for it and who are eventually appreciated by two intriguing young men.
I do find the title of the first book problematic insofar as Kate is just as important as Cecelia in the plot, so I’m not sure why they would have used only Cecy’s name in the title (unless they just liked the sound of it—“Sorcery and Cecelia” does have a pleasing effect).
Today I’m going to begin the second book in the series, The Grand Tour, even though my sisters-in-law tell me it’s not quite as good. According to them, the third is much better. This seems to be a trend with what I’m reading lately.
Thursday, January 4, 2007
I know that pirates are popular nowadays. Ever since the first Pirates of the
Imagine my excitement when Ickie discovered the silliest books ever written about pirates. We read them out loud to each other amidst cramp-inducing spasms of laughter. Author Gideon Defoe claims to have written his first, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, in an ill-fated attempt to convince a girl to fall in love with him. The books are Monty Python-esque nonsense, and the pirates argue about ham cooking methods and who gets to ride shotgun in the boat and don’t appear to know much about sailing. Most of the pirates don’t have names and are referred to as “the pirate with the hook for a hand,” “the sassy pirate,” “the pirate who used to be a lawyer,” and “the pirate with a nut allergy.” In addition, Defoe includes comical caricatures of historic and literary figures like Darwin, Ahab, and Marx (among others).
The second book, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab, is slightly less funny than the first, although it features a memorable scene with an albatross. The third book, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists, is as hysterical as the first, featuring a chase scene with live bears in a Wagnerian opera and a hilariously insane Nietzsche.
For a bonus, check out Gideon Defoe’s website titled “important work I am doing re: pie-charts,” designed to prevent you from getting in trouble if you’re reading it at the office. Click on “Books” on his sidebar to read some excerpts.
Also Recommended: The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser. It’s a more verbose, but similarly ridiculous and anachronistic.
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
It grieves me to the very marrow of my bones when I hear someone say that they don't like hot tea because it tastes too bitter. Actually, there is never a reasonable or acceptable reason to not like hot tea, but the bitter thing is a particular pet peeve. Let us not blame the nectar-like gift of the tea leaf for our inability to figure out how to properly brew a cup of tea. Brewing a perfect cup of tea is an art, but even the simplest of Lipton Drinkers out there can be taught!
- How long to steep depends on how strong you like your tea and the type of tea you're preparing. However, there are rules of thumb. Usually black tea leaves need to steep 3-5 minutes. They will often get bitter if you let them brew more than 6 minutes. Green teas often need only 1 minute, but if that isn't strong enough, some blends can steep 2-3 minutes. Oolongs should steep 2-3 minutes, and herbals can steep for 5-10 minutes.
- Small leaves brew more quickly and are usually ready in 2-3 minutes. Medium leaves in 3-5 minutes; large leaves in 6.
- Don't judge by color. Some teas brew light while others brew dark.
- Tea bags steep more quickly because the leaves are finely cut, so don't let them steep too long.
- If you have used an infuser or tea bags, remove them from the pot when the tea has reached the desired strength.
- If you place loose leaves directly into the teapot, you may want to pour the tea into a second warmed pot through a strainer to separate the tea from the leaves to prevent the tea from becoming bitter, or if you plan to pour all the tea into cups soon, simply place a strainer over the cup and pour slowly from the original pot.
Tuesday, January 2, 2007
With holiday activity winding down and some bookstore gift cards in wallet, I’ve got the makings of a list for my greedy reader’s eyes. Here are some things I’m looking forward to reading this year:
- Harry Potter Book 7. It goes without saying that I’ll have to set aside two days in July to do nothing but read. Hopefully I won’t cry as pathetically as I did for Book 6.
- Lady Friday, the latest in the Keys to the Kingdom series by G. Nix. It’s nearly as good as his Abhorsen series (intended for older readers) and abounds in Catholic imagery.
- Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso. After Ickie had a graduate course on The Divine Comedy and came home sharing bits with the envious me, I read Inferno. It’s a fascinating look into the medieval mind, and I have been intending to read the other two. I’m not a fan of epic poetry, but a good translation makes it very accessible.
- Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, The Grand Tour, and The Mislaid Magician by P. Wrede and C. Stevermer. Okay, if you don’t want to read a book featuring an enchanted chocolate pot, you are dead to me. I’m currently reading the first, formatted as correspondence between “two young ladies of quality.” It’s Jane Austen meets Harry Potter. I’ve lifted a new favorite phrase from it: “It was the outside of enough!”
- Never Let Me Go by K. Ishiguro. By the author of The Remains of the Day, this features a dystopian boarding school in
. I’m afraid it’ll be a bit sad, which is the only reason I haven’t read it yet. England
- Special Topics in Calamity Physics by M. Pessl. The reviews are great and the chapters are formatted like the syllabus for a literature class.
- The Audrey Maturin series by P. O’Brian. Blakbuzzrd is giving me a guilt trip for praising Hornblower, not yet having read these.
- More by Wodehouse—oh, always more by Wodehouse. When life is not going right, there’s nothing like Wodehouse to make it all seem funny and unimportant.
Now if only Jasper Fforde was releasing a new Thursday Next novel this year….