Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Adventures in Literature: Mankato, Minnesota, USA

Who knew Minnesota had such a strong literary history? I certainly didn’t. (If you are a resident of Minnesota, I imagine you to be waving your hands at me saying, “I did, I did!”) But during my cousin’s and my internet explorations to find stuff to see and do near her new place of residence, we kept on coming across these sorts of things, as you saw with our previous report on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home in Walnut Grove. During one of these searches, when my cousin drew up a page on the Betsy-Tacy houses, I knew I recognized the name although I myself had not read these books. It took a bit of reconnoitering before I confirmed that is was not a relative, but instead Susan who I must’ve heard talking about these books once in passing! She was very excited about the coincidence of me being so close to this book pilgrimage site, so excited in fact that she went on their website to explore and ultimately choose some items for me to pick up for her as her proxy at the gift shop. I knew I needed to take the opportunity to visit and report on this place even if I hadn’t read the books—when in Minnesota! (…do as the Minnesotans do? No, that’s not right…)

Not the first Betsy-Tacy book, but I like this cover, illustrated by the famous Lois Lenski.

So, since she is the authority at this blog on all things Betsy-Tacy, here is a blurb that Susan has so kindly provided for your edification regarding the substance of the books:

O tempora! O mores!” groaned Betsy and Tacy, taking Cicero’s classic cry for their own. (Betsy Was a Junior, 182)

If anything can sum up the appeal of the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, it is this quote. What times! What customs! Betsy and Tacy may have quoted Cicero to exaggerate their own misery in studying for midterms, but I don’t think Maud Hart Lovelace would be unhappy to hear the phrase in a nostalgic instead of disgusted sense.

Betsy-Tacy books are the largely autobiographical accounts of young girls playing make-believe and telling stories at the turn of the twentieth century, and later of young ladies navigating high school society and looking towards their futures. Reading them gives the impression that these were the best years to grow up, that things were never so rosy as they were in those decades in Minnesota. What times Betsy and Tacy have! They play in piano boxes, dress up in their mothers’ long gowns to pay calls on neighbors, meet opera stars, and have endless socials with their friends in high school. What customs! It is très chic to put your hair in a pompadour. A sure-fire way to have a successful party is for your girlfriends to come with their fathers’ old suits (!), and an equally safe bet for a good time is to have an unironic night of singing (very different from karaoke parties today).

Basically Betsy and Tacy have adolescences where imagination and friendship are the most important things. How can you not wish you lived in those times and with those customs?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Aunt Molly’s Blueberry Kuchen

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I had the pleasure of tasting this delicious tart-like concoction for the first time about a week ago, when my aunt made it for my cousin and me while we were in Minnesota (for more info regarding those adventures, explore here!). It was so delicious—sweet and mildly tangy blueberries atop a buttery, lightly sugared crumbly crust taste just the way summer should. My aunt doesn’t remember where she originally came across the recipe, but I am very grateful to whomever and whatever was involved in the chain of recipes, people, and events that led to this one appearing in my family cookbook. So stop by the farmer’s market or you-pick patch and take advantage of the blueberry bumper crop, if you can! This one’s a real crowd-pleaser.

In my recreation of the recipe I did a few no-nos (which you will see in the photos and instructions below)… But it still turned out tasty, so it must be a recipe that’s difficult to truly mess up! Woot!

Aunt Molly’s Blueberry Kuchen

1 C. all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. sugar
Pinch of salt
1 stick butter, softened
1 Tbsp. white vinegar

1/2 C. sugar
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
Dash of cinnamon
3 C. blueberries
Powdered sugar (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 400° F.
  2. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt for the dough in a medium bowl.

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  3. Then, work in the softened butter. No-No No. 1: I was in a hurry and had to soften my butter in the microwave, and ended up melting half of it. As a result, my dough was more dough-like and less crumb-like, but it tasted fine, so I guess all’s well that ends well.

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    Sad melted butter.
  4. Add the vinegar to the dough, and mix well.

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  5. Spread the crumbs (if you softened your butter correctly) or dough (if you’re no-no prone like me) in the bottom of a 9” springform pan, tart pan, or casserole dish. As you’re pressing it in, press it a little bit up the sides of whatever baking dish you end up using.
  6. In another mixing bowl, combine the sugar, flour, and cinnamon for the filling, and then stir in 2 cups of the blueberries. No-No No. 2: Perhaps not technically bad kitchen technique (I really don’t know), but I dumped in some fresh berries that had been frozen the day before and put them in the oven without defrosting. But they burst and got all gooey and delicious, so it turned out fine. Yay!

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  7. Pour the filling over the crust and spread it out evenly with the back of a spoon. Bake it in the oven for 45-60 minutes.

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  8. When the edges of the crust start to brown, you can take it out of the oven and top with your last cup of blueberries before letting it cool.
  9. After it has cooled, you can dust it with powdered sugar, which looks really pretty and I imagine tastes particularly good if you have a tart batch of berries. Alas, I had no powdered sugar, but the kuchen was sweet enough on its own. Slice and serve, and be the envy of your friends!

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Fava Bean and Zucchini Soup

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Today is supposed to be rainy and cool in New York, not even approaching 80F. Hurrah! With such weather, it's the ideal day to put up a small pot of soup!

I love soup. I love how its smell tiptoes out of the kitchen until it’s hiding in all parts of my house. I love how the steam tickles my eyes and tantalizes my mouth when its on the stove—and then when its in my bowl at the table. I don’t just have a personal love for soup; I believe soup is a perfect food. Soup forgives vegetables with no flavor, and it showcases herbs. There are light broths and hearty stews, and some type of soup for every mood in between. And soup will accept dietary restrictions easily—gluten free, meat free, peanut free, soggy cabbage free—you can still find a delicious soup recipe.

Today I am making a surprisingly filling fava bean and zucchini soup from the Riverford Farm Cookbook by Guy Watson and Jane Baxter (completely appropriate since the weather here is essentially English Summer weather). Guy Watson is the two-time BBC Farmer of the Year and 2012 Food Hero of the Devon Life, and his farm and veg-box distribution business has won a slew of other awards for having delicious organic and ethical food. He thinks about sustainability and ethics in food more than anyone else I’ve encountered. Here are excerpts from his “Ode to Dirt” in the cookbook:

The problem with soil is that, to the casual observer, it is an inert, uninteresting inconvenience that sticks to your shoes and threatens to pollute and infect your food. Few appreciate that this is where terrestrial life begins, that it supports myriad organisms, that it is being destroyed by modern farming and that it needs our stewardship every bit as much as the giant panda.

Soil sterilisation, as practised in greenhouses and strawberry growing, is one of the most hideous abuses of modern farming, virtually akin to Nazi book burnings in its reflection of the narrow-minded ignorance of its perpetrators.

A handful of healthy soil can contain millions of life forms from tens of thousands of different species, almost all benign or beneficial to us and our crops. Not only do they recycle organic matter, making nutrients available to plant roots, they also out-compete and even attack pathogenic bacteria, fungi, eelworms and slugs. Pesticides, fertilisers, animal wormers, excessive and poorly timed cultivation, compaction and poor drainage can all drastically reduce these populations, not by just a few per cent but by 10 or even 100 percent. Imagine the outcry from WWF if anyone could see the damage.

So often when you read about major problems in the world, the resolution seems impossible. But soil sterilization HAS a solution. Guy Watson and other conscientious farmers produce food every year without resorting to eliminating the variables in soil that they don’t fully understand. Even if you are still trying to find your own Guy Watson-level supplier, knowing that there are farmers considering themselves stewards of soil rather than as eradicators of pests is as comforting as eating soup.

Fava Bean and Zucchini Soup (Adapted from Guy Watson/Jane Baxter's Recipe)

Serves 4 (3 in my house as the main course)
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 Tbsp. olive oil, plus an extra splash to serve
2 medium-sized zucchini, grated
2 cups vegetable stock
+/- 14 oz. fava beans (I buy the 28 oz. frozen Goya packages)
small bunch of mint
small bunch of basil
salt and pepper, to taste
grated Parmesan cheese, to serve (I substituted Asiago to good effect)
If you are using frozen fava beans, boil a small pot of water first. After the water has reached a rolling boil, add the fava beans. When all the beans float to the surface, drain the water off in a colander, and run cold water over the beans to keep them from cooking longer. Peel the coats off the beans while your other vegetables sweat in the next steps.

Frozen Favas
Frozen fava beans, just after being added to boiling water

Floating Favas
When the beans rise to the surface, they're ready to be shelled

Drained Fava Beans
Another way to tell they'll be easy to shell is when you can see the bright green bean pushing through its coat

Shelled Fava Beans
Once the coats are off, fava beans look much more appetizing

If you are using fresh fava beans, simply shell and de-coat them while you're following the directions for vegetable sweating (below).

In a saucepan, sweat the onion and garlic in the olive oil for 10 minutes until the onions are soft. (Medium low heat, stir everything enough so nothing browns.) Add the grated zucchini to the pan, stir a bit, and then cover for another 10 minutes of sweating.

Onions Grated Zucchini

Add the vegetable stock and fava beans, and simmer for 10 minutes until the beans press apart when you press them against the side of the pan.

Using an immersion blender, purée the soup to your desired consistency. The Riverford Cookbook recommends keeping two thirds of the soup solid; when I made the soup last I made mine all liquid.

When you are ready to serve the soup, chop the leaves of both herbs (there will be edge browning if you do this too early). Drizzle some olive oil in each bowl, and add the herbs and hard cheese. I prefer the soup warm, but it tastes good at room temperature as well. Fava Bean and Zucchini Soup

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Adventures in Literature: Walnut Grove, Minnesota, USA

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When I was a kid, I was completely obsessed with pioneers. Oregon Trail? My favorite computer game, easily. Kirsten Larson? My favorite American Girl character, naturally. Conestoga wagon? My transportation mode of choice, theoretically. My mother even sewed me a pioneer girl’s green cotton dress and yellow bonnet for Halloween one particularly awesome year. So it might come as a surprise that I did not manage to complete a reading of the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series. I have the series, which may or may not have been “borrowed” from my grandmother’s vast basement library, but I don’t think I ever managed to finish all the books. I know for sure that I read the first two, Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie, and I must’ve read at least the next one, On the Banks of Plum Creek, because I remember reading about (spoiler alert?) Mary going blind, which occurs in that book. Technically I think Farmer Boy is the second one, but I don’t recall reading it, and anyway, I digress.

While visiting my cousin in Minnesota recently, I noticed “Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway” or something to that effect written on signposts all along the country roads that we were traversing. Pure curiosity bolstered by my love of all things Manifest Destiny drove me to Google, where I discovered that Walnut Grove, MN, the setting of On the Banks of Plum Creek, was a mere hour’s drive from my cousin’s residence. Further Googling showed a museum located there, and—wonder of perfect timing!—the Wilder Pageant, a dramatic outdoor performance based on On the Banks of Plum Creek, being performed that weekend.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Genre-ally Speaking: Dark Triumph, by Robin LaFevers

Title: Dark Triumph (His Fair Assassin: Book II)
Author: Robin LaFevers
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Publication Year: 2013
Read: July 2013
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: YA-Historical Fantasy
Rating: 2.5 Daggers

The Quick and Dirty:

In a 1489 Brittany where Celtic-like gods are worshipped as saints, the Convent of Saint Mortain welcomes the daughters of Death, and sends them into the world on assassin/spying missions. In the first volume of the trilogy, initiate Sybella, seemed to be descending into madness from her mysterious mission. This volume picks up her story as she rescues one of the knights important to the Convent's work in preserving the independence of Brittany under its duchess, Anne. Sybella gradually learns to trust in love and to separate her tortured past from the promise of a brighter future. I fail to be emotionally invested in the plot. Probably because the character I wanted to read about was absent for 53% of the book. Or because there were three plots that couldn't all be fully developed in one book...

The Wordy Version:

“His Fair Assassin” is one of the oddest trilogies I can imagine: it sounds like a romance series, promises assassinations, yet is serious about its historical setting of the battles to keep Brittany independent of France at the close of the fifteenth century. The result is that I’m never quite sure whether to invest emotionally in the featured romance, the dark backstory of the main character, or the political intrigues in the setting. At least this is what I’ve come up with to explain why I haven’t completely enjoyed the series as a whole.

Because it doesn’t fully make sense that I don’t love these books. I imagine that Robin LaFevers composed a list of things that bother her in popular YA and made sure that she avoided them. Trilogies that drag out romances between couples that like each other from the middle of the first book? LaFevers has made a trilogy with different main characters so she can wrap her romances up before they need soapy disruptions! Teenage girl protagonists who need saving by paranormal boys? BAM! These girls are the ones with the powers, and they rescue boys! Love triangles between privileged and self-made suitors for the main character? Just one suitor!

But no matter how refreshing it is to see these deviations from the YA norm, the books don’t resonate with me, this failure being even stranger since I like the general premise. In case you missed the first volume, Grave Mercy, the trilogy tells the stories of three young women raised by the Convent of Saint Mortain to usher people to their true father, Death (i.e. be assassins).

Dark Triumph picks up the story with Sybella, who has been assigned to the household of the Breton Duchess’s traitorous noble suitor, D’Albret. Sybella’s latest mission is to free Anne’s loyal knight, the Beast of Waroch. Sybella’s mission goes awry, and as she and the Beast work together they fall in love with each other. The secrets that drove Sybella to the convent threaten to destroy Beast’s incipient love for her, and make her question her faith in Mortain.

Here’s the thing: this plot totally comes from a romance novel formula. Girl-too-damaged-for-love meets man who can break through her crusty personality and accept her for who she is. While they mutually kick some bad guys’ butts. Yet the romance is practically nonexistent. Since I am a nerd I made a spreadsheet of every page Beast appears in the book, and ranked the romance quotient of the page. It turns out that Beast is totally absent from the book 53% of the pages, and is merely present (but not furthering the romantic plot) another 28% of the pages. That means that all the romance of this romance plot is confined to 19% of the pages of the novel.

So what is the book ACTUALLY about, if not about the romance? It’s about Sybella separating her future from her seriously messed-up past, accepting love (in all forms), and killing people to keep Duchess Anne in charge of Brittany. For the first third of the book, Sybella’s convent-trained assassin skills are impressive and interesting. After that, they’re mostly used in battle settings instead of spy-work (not bad, but not quite as compelling as spying for me).

As for the historical setting, I’m obviously not the only confused reader. Things are so complicated that LaFevers has to provide a list of characters before the book begins (which would be much more helpful in the back, with page numbers to direct readers to the first description of the character). I could use a longer historical note reminding me about Anne’s suitors and wars. As it is, the story kind of jumps from Anne’s internal battles with D’Albret to welcoming the help of English troops for the fight against the French. But I think you’d be forgiven for being confused about this since it’s imbedded in the middle of Sybella’s own issues.

Which brings me to Sybella. Sybella was the coolest character in Grave Mercy —Ismae seemed like a fawn next to her, and Sybella seemed to be on the verge of going insane from her Serious Mission. Very interesting. By switching to Sybella’s point of view, the mysterious desperation around Sybella stops being so intriguing and starts getting tiresome. My notes on Sybella/Beast interactions are largely “S tells B a secret!” I realize now that it sounds like Gossip Girl, and if it does, it’s like what Gossip Girl would be if all the secrets were irrelevant to how the characters act. Beast is deeply in love within a few pages of interaction, and his position remains the same thereafter. Every secret that Sybella reveals makes her less mysterious and adds no tension to the S/B relationship.

So it turns out that my problem wasn’t that I wasn’t sure where to emotionally invest in the book; I was either too confused (historical wars) or too minimally involved (romantic lead absent for too long, Sybella’s dark backstory revealed to someone unconditionally in love with her) to be deeply invested.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Fandom Friday: Welcome to Sanditon

Alyssa and I were laughing the other week about how we get a lot of hits from people looking for fan-fiction, and how disappointed those people must be when they find out that we write reviews and recipes and lists. Until Alyssa privately sent me a Selection spoof of a crown prince getting a harem of wives rather than doing a Bachelor-style elimination to get a queen, I'm not sure either of us had ever tried our hand at the art of fanfic writing.

Of course this doesn't mean we don't have a great respect for the creative outpourings of fan communities. We think we've done some fandom worthy things before (i.e. recipes), but today we're ushering in Fandom Friday, a not entirely regular feature for us to post recipes/playlists/Forever 21 shopping carts/etc. inspired by books we love, as well as any random fanfic we ever feel compelled to write. Putting all these posts now on Fridays is not only alliterative but a fun way for us to kick off our weekends. Hopefully it will be fun for you too— Happy Friday!

I'm not sure we ever seriously planned for the fanfic part of Fandom Friday to come to pass, but I was working on a post about the final half of Sanditon (see summary of the first half here), and in the middle of puzzling out some of the choices the creators of Welcome to Sanditon have made, I found myself wishing they had found ways to stay truer to the Austen source.

The first quibble I had was that GiGi Darcy is not adding enough bias or snark to the Sanditon updates she sends her brother. (Gigi has been raised too well to be critical, it seems.) This means that the characters' ridiculous traits have to come through our seeing them, rather than through a filter, and that is not as much fun as reading Austen's thoughts on the same characters.

So I started to write a few sentences of a GiGi update to see if she could be more indiscrete in the way she described her Beta Test project. And then I decided I missed Tom Parker's "invalid" sisters, especially Diana, who makes things happen for Sanditon while Tom dreams. So I added Diana into the paragraph. Next I wanted Lady Denham to be more than a banker, and for Edward Denham to work for her (which is much more inline with the inheritance subplot of the novel fragment). And before I knew it, I had a full-length alternate video message script for an episode.

Laugh, either at me for taking a break from what was turning into an essay (with citations!) to write a fanfic, or because you can picture this with the webseries cast.

Hi William, I’m checking in, and I wanted to let you know that things are weird here in Sanditon. The Mayor was really excited to use the Domino Beta to help usher in the New Sanditon modern health town he’s been helping develop, but I haven’t gotten a hold on him recently. All I got yesterday was his wife Mary, who said she was picking up his briefcase on the way to pick him up at the hospital in the next town. Apparently his sister Diana gets a lot of headaches and has a lot of tests scheduled? But seriously, what sort of mayor LEAVES BEHIND HIS CELL PHONE in the middle of a work day?

The next time I tried calling him (today), it went straight to voicemail. According to his FourSquare, Twitter and Facebook pages, he was at the new Denham Sports Complex and then having a dinner meeting with Ms. Harry Denham to discuss converting Denham Industrial Park into facilities for sports medicine. But he was home by six anyway. SIX! (I know, I know, I should stop stalking people like this. Pot calling the kettle black, dontcha think, Mr. I-Knew-My-Girlfriend-Liked-Me-Because-She-Basically-Said-It-On-Youtube?)

He’s ignored my last four messages, each sent on a different platform. I can’t figure out why—I was offering to set up a Domino extension to promote the Grand Opening of the Denham Sports Complex. I just hope the message I CC’d to Ms. Denham makes it happen. I know you’re not sure Domino is ready for this big a trial, but I spoke to the developers and we think there’s much less to lose than there is potential to gain. We’re not gambling with the success of Domino, so don’t worry.

Incoming Call from Ed Denham

GG: Denham! This could be it. Domino, answer call!

ED: Ms. Darcy? Ed Denham, calling. I’m the director of the PR division of Denham Industries. I’m looking at your email from earlier this evening, and I think it sounds like a great idea to integrate the Domino app with a syndicated and multiplatform approach to broaden the reach of our ad campaign for the Sports Complex.

GG: Wow. Thanks for calling back so soon. I’ve been trying to get a hold of Tom Parker for the last two days to ask him about this, but I haven’t had any luck.

ED: Well, I am always ready to jump on these opportunities. I’d like to have a breakfast meeting tomorrow so we can hit the ground running on our plans. I’ll send you a link to the reservation? How is 9 for you?

GG: Oh, yes, that should work . . .

ED: Perfect. I am so excited to talk to you about this project, and to bounce some ideas for utilizing Domino in our digital strategy development, and maybe for partnering into a hyper-local communications network for the health arms of Denham Industries.

GG: I’m not entirely sure I know what you mean, but yeah! I’d love to talk more about how we can get Domino to work in businesses in the community.

ED: This is going to be my best morning of work ever. A beautiful breakfast companion, and fresh ideas for Denham. Can I just ask you one favor?

GG: Sure?

ED: If Clara Breton calls from Denham Industries, can you tell her I’m the point person for Pemberley Digital?

GG: Umm, shouldn’t you be able to tell your coworker that yourself?

ED: Clara is from a slightly different branch of the company, so we don’t run into each other much. And she’s never been sure that my digital strategies are inline with trends that she’s reading, and she tries to undermine them in meetings.

GG: Maybe I should invite her along for breakfast if she calls? Just so she can see that using Domino really does make sense.

ED, brightening: Oh! Well, okay, I guess that could work too. Thanks Ms. Darcy.

GG: Just call me GiGi.

ED: Call me anytime. Haha, sorry. Lame, I know. See you tomorrow morning, GiGi.

GG: See you then! Domino, end call.

So as you can see, William, the trial is going even better than we expected, and we may get a permanent client out of it. If Denham Industries owns half of Sanditon like it sounds, this may be a big account.

I’m just not sure about Ed. How many buzzwords can the guy fit into one sentence? I think I should invite Clara Breton to our meeting even if she doesn’t call in the next few minutes; I get the feeling that she could have more sense than Ed, and I don’t want the Domino information getting misunderstood at a meeting with Ed’s boss. (P.S., how weirdly flirty was he in the middle of a business call?) I’ll let you know how it goes!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Genre-ally Speaking: Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

Title: Old Man’s War
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Year: 2005
Read: July 2013
Where It Came From: Bought It
Genre: Military Sci-Fi
Rating: 4 Empees

The Quick and Dirty:

In the future, humanity is colonizing the universe and going head-to-head with alien races to do so. Earth itself isn’t really part of the game, but her people are given the option of joining the Colonial Defense Forces when they turn 75—pledge 2 years of your life fighting for the CDF and humanity’s place in the universe, and in return you’ll be made fit to fight and given your very own plot of land on a colony when your tour of duty is up. John Perry, missing his dead wife and tired of growing older, decides to do it. He leaves Earth, never to return, and finds himself greatly altered in an intergalactic war much different than he ever could have imagined. This book was written with an easy, humorous voice that made the pages fly by, and the story itself was very gripping. The descriptions of battles and characters’ demises often made me queasy, but it wasn’t enough to turn me off from the book.

The Wordy Version:

Y’know, I’ve never been super into sci-fi. I don’t have anything against it, and I’ve read plenty of the sci-fi gateway drugs (Ender’s Game, A Wrinkle in Time, etc.) and enjoyed them, but for some reason I don’t often find myself reading it or seeking it out. So while I’d heard tell of Old Man’s War from friends and various podcasts I listen to, I didn’t know much about it beyond the title. It was on my radar and in my mental category of “someday” books, but it hadn’t been boosted up the list to be read in the immediate future.

And then I went to Phoenix Comicon and met its author, John Scalzi, who was both hilarious and full of interesting things to say. Seeing his general awesomeness gave the book the boost it needed, so I bought a copy and got it autographed and just now got around to reading it a couple months later. And what did I think of this book that I was under so much pressure to enjoy?

I am happy to say I enjoyed it! Really enjoyed it, in fact. Scalzi’s humor is evident in the voice of the narrator, John Perry. In this book it’s not humor in the vein of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, kind of zany and escalating genre tropes to ridiculous proportions, to greatly amusing effect—it’s rather an easy reading, personal sort of humor in the character of the protagonist. (Although Scalzi clearly has skill and ability where the former is concerned—I direct you again to the sentient yogurt.) The voice and style were easy to read, and the story itself was quite gripping. I wasn’t always sure where it was going to go next, but I knew I wanted to find out. I am not the fastest of readers (my brain was broken by college and its massive and often headache-inducing reading assignments), so I was very surprised at how quickly I was plowing through it.

So, I clearly appreciated the humor in the book, but it was interesting to see that the humor and readability of the prose belie the depth of some of the topics and ideas it broaches. There is some deep stuff in here that the characters (and the reader as well, if they’re in a thoughtful mood) grapple with, that sneaks up on you. What is the place of humanity in the universe? To what lengths is it necessary and appropriate to go when trying to ensure the survival of the species? Does “appropriate” go out the window in favor of “necessary” when survival is at stake? And that’s just scratching the surface—there’s plenty more to be mined from the text. There were even some moments that made me sniffle, usually when Perry was thinking about his dead wife.

But there were also some nausea-inducing moments to round out the whole spectrum of emotion. One thing to take from this is that space may be the final frontier, but it is vast and dangerous, so dangerous that you can’t even predict what dangers you’ll come up against. And there were so, so many unpleasant ways people (and aliens too, to be fair) met their doom. Kind of the whole, “Don’t get too attached to a character, because they’re probably gonna die!” thing. I do not have an iron stomach, so there were times when I had to take a little breather and try to not think too hard about the highly inventive and extremely unsavory way some person just died. It never kept me away for long, though, because I just needed to know what. Came. Next.

Overall, really good book. Scalzi did an impressive job teasing out into a vision of a possible future what human colonization of space and contact with alien races could end up being like. It was futuristic, but based in reality, and it had the perfect balance of entertainment value and depth. Can’t wait to read the next one.

Oh, also: Is the great alien race that humanity has to contend with (or at least admit is more advanced and hope we don’t have to contend with) destined to be giant bugs? I’m talking Ender’s Game, Men in Black, in this book the Consu… I’ve also heard that Robert A. Heinlein, whose work I haven’t read but is apparently a great influence on Scalzi, has big alien bugs. Why did it have to be bugs?

What are your favorite sci-fi books? Have you ever checked out John Scalzi’s work before?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

READ THIS: The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

Title: The Song of Achilles
Author: Madeline Miller
Publisher: Ecco (Harper Collins)
Publication Year: 2012
Read: June-July 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction
Where It Came From: Bought it at a train station
Rating: FIVE STARS (out of five)

The Quick and Dirty:


A fun and also thought-provoking retelling of the legend of Achilles, as narrated by his loving companion, Patroclus.

The Wordy Version:

I wish I had the eloquence to say READ THIS in a way more befitting Madeline Miller’s own writing. The Song of Achilles is so well crafted that I stopped reading it five weeks ago so I wouldn’t have to make it to the end. I couldn’t prolong the book forever, though, and finished yesterday in a rush of emotions that had me marveling at how I could be so happy at moments of shared love, and simultaneously grieve for characters just based on their fates.

Essentially, Miller reworked Homer so she could tell another Homeric story about the price of glory and what should constitute the kleos or reputation/glory of a hero. Putting it into one sentence makes it sound like it’s an easy feat, but it has to be one of the most difficult to achieve. Homer has been read and revered for over 2500 years, his scope both extraordinary and intimate. Homer tells of countless gruesome deaths on the battlefield, impersonal in the repetition, yet tender in the details. Were Homer just listing battle fatalities, he would be writing something good, but Homer frames the battles in a poignant narrative of Achilles coming to grips with his own mortality. As story arcs go, this is as meaningful and timeless a tale as you can ever hope to read or hear. And Homeric perfection rests in the balance of the protagonist’s journey with the rest of the world, seen in secondary arcs and epic similes.

It’s in the scope of Miller’s work that she evokes Homer more than in particular language or characters. Characters central in Homer are only peripheral in Miller, and battles that are hundred of lines of poetry are reduced to an almost sheepish summary. Miller’s Achilles is so powerful that he cannot enjoy individual duels, and he sees glory as an abstract concept instead of a pile of bodies and plunder. But just because Miller shifts the narrative doesn’t mean she is ignoring the definition of greatness in Homer. (Just as Homer is not ignoring the definition of greatness when he crafts an Achilles who actively rejects the symbols of status for most of the epic.) Instead, Miller is asserting that human love is eternal and enviable to the gods.

It’s a huge departure from the Homeric text. Miller’s brilliance is that she reaches that conclusion with minimal adjustments to her source myths. The most jarring change for me is that order of Iliad XXIV and XXIII is reversed (I have a feeling that if you didn’t spend months studying XXIV, you won’t even notice this). Initially I was thrown by the reversal, but when I look at the book at a whole, it makes sense. This Achilles does not find resolution in his dinner with Priam because Priam’s message is not the one that Miller’s Achilles will accept. The denouement of the story naturally changes as Achilles’ understanding of life becomes less important than Patroclus’ acceptance of its limitations and appreciations of its rewards.

A change like that would be disastrous in a lesser book. Madeline Miller’s style is so lovely, her portrayal of Patroclus and Achilles as a couple so refreshing, and her interpretation of Iliad IX’s Embassy to Achilles so thoughtful that I feel like cheering, “This is what it means to think about Homer! This could be the way to think about heroism in life!”

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Cookery Bookery: Twenty-Dollar, Twenty-Minute Meals, by Caroline Wright

Title: Twenty-Dollar, Twenty-Minute Meals: For Four People
Author: Caroline Wright
Publisher: Workman Publishing
Publication Year: 2013
Read: June 2013
Where It Came From: Complimentary copy from Book Expo America*
Genre: Cooking
Rating: 3.5 Stars

And now for a cookbook review! This little guy (well, okay, not LITTLE little, but small for a cookbook. It’s about the same size as a trade paperback novel) was sent to me by Susan, and she acquired it at BEA. It doesn’t appear to be an ARC—looks like the real thing! I’ve had it for a couple months now and have had time to peruse it and make a couple of the recipes, and feel comfortable talking about it.

If you’re strictly a meat-and-potatoes sort of person, this may not be the cookbook for you. A lot of the food in here is to the tastes of the new guard of cooking, popularized by prominent cooking blogs and such—kale, goat cheese, broccoli rabe, things like that. Yuppie food, some might call it. I’m all for this sort of thing (the more interesting ingredients, the merrier!), but it’s probably not the sort of thing most of our grandmothers would go for. Unless you have a really hip grandmother.

It’s got all the hallmarks of modern home blog cooking (different from the camp of celebrity chef home cookbooks, dontcha know)—beautiful photography, interesting ingredients in unique combinations, and a friendly, informal voice. (The one hallmark it seems to be missing is the personal storyish header notes that often introduce recipes in the cookbook-coffee-table-photography-book-personal-food-writings-all-in-one type of cookbooks very popular on the market today. This makes sense, though, as its goals are for delicious, but also speedy meals). So let’s move on to…

The Positives

As I mentioned before, the photography is gorgeous. That, combined with the recipe titles, resulted in a Pavlovian drool response to just about everything in the book. Even foods I don’t normally like (like the evil eggplant) looked good!

Another good thing is the range of recipes. If you want to make some awesome cakes you’ll probably buy a book specifically about cakes with only cake recipes CAKE CAKE CAKE, but if you’re looking to make quick, inexpensive family meals, you’re going to want some options. And this book has got a little of everything—salads, soup, sammiches, pasta, pizza (!), eggs, meats, vegetarian, and desserts. And let's talk about those desserts for a moment…burnt caramel pudding with toasted almonds? Toasted brioche with lemon curd and black peppered berries? Dark chocolate gelato buttermilk milkshakes? Yes, PLEASE.

Another thing I really like is that below most recipes, there are suggestions for another version of a recipe, substituting slightly different main ingredients. For example, for the recipe for tomatillo huevos rancheros, the author suggests also trying it with plum tomatoes (filling in for tomatillos), pinto beans (subbed in for black beans), and cheddar cheese (instead of pepper jack). Sure, one could probably invent variations like that on their own, but it’s a nice time saver to have some already thought up and written out for you, too.

And lastly, the ingredients themselves are a big positive, for me at least. I love kinda weird and unique ingredients, and am lucky enough to live in a big city where I can usually locate them without too much trouble. If you’re into more standard, less adventurous food, or live in a place where it’s hard to come by more unusual ingredients, this might not be a positive for you. And that’s okay! I do think this book contains a lot of recipes that could appeal to that sector of the eating populace, and also ones that are just different enough that it could push less adventurous eaters in the direction of trying some different kinds of food, but the recipes might not appeal to everyone. I mean, there aren’t any chicken feet or animal innards recipes, but there is a lot beyond your standard fare in here.

The Less Positives

As I’ve said, depending on your personal tastes, this might not be the one for you. That being said, for me there were even some ingredients I’d never heard of and would have no idea where to find. I am not the foodiest of foodies, so I had no idea what ramps are, or bresaola, or Szechuan peppercorns. But in most cases where there was an ingredient I hadn’t heard of, there was an arrow indicating a good, more pedestrian substitute (green onions for ramps and prosciutto for bresaola, in case you were wondering). And sometimes there are indications about where to look for certain ingredients (you can find haloumi, a kind of hard cheese, at specialty food markets, apparently). So I guess this less-positive is actually a real positive. Good work, author!

Another thing some people might not like is that there is no listing of ingredients—they just appear highlighted in yellow within the recipe itself. There is also no total cooking time or serving number/size listed, but that’s probably because it is listed in the title itself—20-minute meals for 4! Which brings me to my last less-positive…

It took me much longer than 20 minutes to make the dinner recipe I tried. Granted, I am not the fastest chef in the world. I like to take my time. But still! Some of the recipes, yes, I think 20 minutes is enough time to get them done. Others? If you’re not a kitchen pro with all your ingredients prepped and ready to go, I think it might be difficult to get a them done within that time frame. Also, the meals for 4 thing—these are probably the FDA-approved meal sizes we’re talking about here, but in reality I think the portions might be on the small side for the hungrier of us humans.

Overall, I am happy to have this cookbook in my arsenal. It probably won’t become part of my core cooking references, but it will be fun to dip into from time to time to liven things up. Especially with those fantastic sounding desserts!

And now for recipe time!

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Sweet Sausage, Bean, and Kale Stir Fry

(Adapted from Caroline Wright’s “Roasted Sausage with Warm Bean + Kale Salad” in Twenty-Dollar, Twenty-Minute Meals)

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 pkg. (or 4-5, if you’re buying them fresh) sweet Italian sausages
1 bunch of kale
2 garlic cloves
1 can (15 oz.) cannellini beans or great northern beans
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

  1. Heat the 1 Tbsp. olive oil in a frying pan large enough for all the ingredients to fit in together. The kale will shrink, but you still want there to be enough space to stir everything around without sending anything overboard into the no-man’s land beneath the burner.
  2. Add the sausages (defrosted first, if you bought them frozen), and fry them until brown on the sides and cooked most of the way through.
  3. While those are sizzling, wash the kale and strip the leaves from the thick center rib. Discard that rib, and rip the kale up into bite-sized pieces. After that, you can slice the 2 garlic cloves and drain and rinse the beans. (Note on beans: I couldn’t find cannellini beans and used great northern instead, but the beans ended up turning to mush. Tasty mush, but mush nonetheless. Cannellini beans are better able to hold their shape while being cooked, so given the choice, those would be the better of the two.)
  4. When the sausages are pretty much done, you can remove them from the pan and set them aside for the moment. A lot of grease will probably have come out of them, and that is what we will fry the veggies in. Add the garlic and stir over heat until fragrant, and then add the kale. Once the kale turns bright green and a little wilty, you can dump the beans in, too.
  5. While that’s warming up, slice the sausages diagonally across into bite-sized pieces. You can then add these back to the pan and stir everything together.
  6. Continue cooking until the sausage is finished cooking through (no longer pink in the middle) and the veggies are warm.
  7. Remove from heat and dress with the lemon juice. Serve and enjoy!

While it may have taken over 20 minutes, this one did indeed cost less than $20 to make. There were a couple extra steps involving more oil, an anchovy, and baking in a oven that I altered or skipped for simplicity’s sake. Very tasty! Even my anti-kale cousin said the other flavors sent the kale-iness of the kale into the background enough for her to be able to enjoy the dish.

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Also, just for fun, here is the lemon posset I made from the recipe in the book! Very refreshing for summer. I think it would also taste good in a pink grapefruit version. Mmm…

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*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Genre-ally Speaking: To Fetch a Thief, by Spencer Quinn

Title: To Fetch a Thief
Author: Spencer Quinn
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication Year: 2010
Read: July 2013
Where It Came From: Bought It
Genre: Mystery
Rating: 4 Sassy Circus Elephants

The Quick and Dirty:

Bernie Little, private detective, and his dog Chet are back and solving more mysteries in the American Southwest. The 3rd entry in this series finds the team investigating the disappearance of a circus elephant and her trainer on a twisty trail that leads them down Mexico way. Engaging, easy read with some genuinely poignant moments along the way. I heart these books so much!

The Wordy Version:

Seriously, I do heart these books so much. They are narrated by the black-and-white mutt (I may be biased there, if you’ve met my own dog) Chet, which is both hilarious and an awesome take on the way the canine mind may work. It’s like Hank the Cowdog for grownups! Chet is a great character—he is easily distracted by food, can’t count beyond 2, and often loses his train of thought right before an epiphany, but he is smart, determined, and more loyal than any human could ever ask for. And an amusing narrator to boot! The books are just so well-written. The style is deceptively simple, but with an understated depth that I haven’t often come across in my years of mystery reading. Chet may not always understand the intricacies of the human interactions going on around him, but his observation and reporting of them make it crystal clear to the reader what is really going on with all the human players in the story. Very clean and smart writing.

I love Bernie. We only get bits and pieces of his background (Gulf War vet, divorced with a young son), but he is clearly a great guy. He’s kind of shuffling-shambling disguising his intellect à la Columbo, and he’s got such a good heart. And he really, really loves Chet. Being a dog-lover myself, I can really connect with that aspect of the book. His interactions and relationship with his dog are touching, and his respect for animals in general makes the reader in turn respect his character (unless the reader has no heart, in which case, the reader should maybe not be reading this book). Bernie and Chet are truly a team, and both parties make equal contributions the resolution of their investigations.

I don’t want to get too much into the plot here—the basic shape of it is pretty much covered in the Quick and Dirty. While it’s not a whoa, big twist! kind of mystery, a lot of the fun is still in watching it unfold. As usual in the Chet and Bernie books, the side characters have a depth that we can pick up on without the author having to spend a lot of time spelling it out for us. There is a side plot involving Bernie’s ex-wife and her boyfriend, which manages to add a sort of sense of closure, rather than distract from the main plot. If I had any complaint about the story, it’s that it was a little light on love interest Suzie Sanchez this time around. But when the story draws to a close, the little bit of her we got throughout the book ends up being the perfect amount. SO WELL-WRITTEN!!!

Solid writing, engaging story, main characters that are easy to love. If you like animals, dogs, mysteries, any combination of these things, or none of these things at all, then you should probably check out this series, stat.

OH P.S. You know how most books about animals involve said animals dying? Yeah. I hate that. That’s why I don’t often read books about animals, because THEY DESTROY ME INSIDE. So, in case you’re like me in that respect, spoiler alert! Chet doesn’t die. At least he hasn’t yet. And I think they’re up to 6 books in the series now, so that’s a good sign!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The 100 All-Time Greatest Novels (Maybe)

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In addition to foodie-ism, love of books, and an alma mater, another commonality of us two bloggesses’ friendship is an appreciation of the magazine Entertainment Weekly. We may have once been ignorant and assumed it was just another celebrity gossip tabloid, but oh, how wrong we were! Because nay, it does not focus on the intimate details of famous people’s lives, but rather something much more dear to our thumping little millennial hearts—pop culture. Books, movies, music, television…all this and more, served with a helping of humor and a garnish of snark. It’s like they made the magazine just for us! In fact, we would often read aloud amusing features such as The Hit List, The Shaw Report, and Bullseye at our apartment dinner table during college, much to the chagrin of our other flatmates.

So when the July 5-12 double issue of E-Dubs arrived in the mailbox last week featuring a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time, we knew there was a blog post lurking somewhere in there. You can check out the top 10 novels here, but if you are interested in the full list of 100, you’ll need to pick up a copy of the issue (on sale now!). (Unfortunately, EW is in no way associated with this blog and does not pay us on commission.)

Alyssa is not the most well-versed classics reader, clocking in at 13% of the list read, 16% if you count ones started but not finished. She makes up for it with having read about 40% of the sidebar of the top 10 greatest graphic novels, and feels she would also have a higher percentage if it were a list of the 100 greatest sci-fi and fantasy novels, or the 100 greatest French-language novels, or 100 greatest Japanese works of literature, or something like that. Susan, however, has covered a lot more of the landscape of English-language literature, with a respectable 25% of the list read, 34% including ones started and not finished. (It’s great that it’s a top 100 list—makes percentage math so easy!)

But what to do with all this information? Of course we would not be happy simply listing out the books we’ve read/plan to read/would not touch with a 10-foot pole, so we invented a game. It’s called Buy-Try-Dump (you might recognize the inspiration taken from another game in which one is given three famous people and then has to decide which ones they would marry, have sex with, or kill). We whittled our respective read-it lists down to 12, and then had to decide (and keep it SEKRIT) which ones we would buy (meaning it was good enough that it deserves a permanent place on our shelves), try (was okay, but not horrible OR willing to give it another go), or dump (gone gone gone, baby). The rules state that you must dole out 4 of each category, so you HAVE to dump 4 of your 12 books, have to choose 4 you would buy, 4 that only get “try”…you get the picture. This of course means that we’re looking at our 12 books completely in relation to each other, rather than the body of literature as a whole, and might end up having to dump books we don’t actually have strong feelings against, or, conversely, buy books we don’t actually love (for those of you planning to play, the more books from the list you've read, the easier it becomes to find books you have strong feelings about). For the next phase of the game, after much hemming and hawing over the categorization of our lists, we then provided the 12 titles to the other person and had her try to guess which ones were placed in which categories.

Yes, it is a very nerdy game. But it was also fun and challenging, believe it or not! It’s much harder than you’d think to predict a friend’s reactions to various literary works of cultural significance. First we started off with a little confusion and a different, also fun game (Alyssa = red, Susan = green):

So, shall we start with our crossovers first? Or just go all yours then all mine, or vice versa? All yours. I just decided.
lol. good. because I was going to decide to do all one or the other and play you rock paper scissors for it. Except that would have been hard in a googledoc.
Oh yes, rock paper scissors!!!
Did you go? (I had scissors.)
I had paper. You win!!!
Wait, so what does it mean if I win? You guess mine first?
Winner chooses.
Nooooooo not decisions!!! Okay, I’ll guess yours first.
Having straightened that out, here, in a fun table format, are our respective Buy-Try-Dump categorizations and predictions.

Susan's Twelve

Book Alyssa Guessed Susan Said
The Great Gatsby BUY BUY
Pride and Prejudice BUY BUY
The Sound and the Fury DUMP DUMP
The Talented Mr. Ripley TRY TRY
A Confederacy of Dunces DUMP DUMP
The Catcher in the Rye DUMP BUY
A Wrinkle in Time BUY BUY
The Remains of the Day TRY TRY
Cold Mountain DUMP DUMP
The Moonstone BUY DUMP
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy TRY TRY
The Joy Luck Club TRY TRY

Alyssa's Twelve:

Book Susan Guessed Alyssa Said
The Great Gatsby TRY BUY
Pride and Prejudice DUMP DUMP
To Kill a Mockingbird TRY BUY
Invisible Man DUMP DUMP
A Wrinkle in Time TRY BUY
His Dark Materials TRY TRY
Ender's Game BUY TRY
Gone with the Wind DUMP DUMP
Their Eyes Were Watching God BUY TRY
Frankenstein DUMP DUMP
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy BUY BUY

We hashed this all out in a fun GoogleDoc chat full of thrills and chills, surprising upsets and spot on predictions! Here are some of the highlights:

Alyssa decided to start things off with a crowd-pleaser she felt relatively confident about.

Okay, for Gatsby: I say...........BUY.
:-D Indeed. Gatsby is too well written to just pick up at the library. PLUS, it has a great cover! Who wouldn’t want a copy on her shelf?
Okay, good! I was second guessing myself. I didn’t know if you liked it enough to say buy, or if it was just a so-so sort of like that would garner a “try.” (Is it ridiculous that I’m actually getting nervous/excited? Like it’s a game show or something?)
(No, because I’m nervous/excited too. This totally should be a game show.)

She also had the benefit of having heard some of Susan's bad-book rants while discussing the article, and was able to hold her own with some of the DUMP predictions.

Okay, Sound and the Fury--I would say DUMP.
Hells yeah. Can’t get rid of it fast enough. (DO NOT TRY TO IMPRESS ME WITH THIS ONE, BOYS OF THE WORLD)
LOL. I would’ve had no idea if not for the earlier conversation regarding book club boys with poor taste.
And poor memories. Did he not attend any of his classes? Pshaw.

But the Catcher in the Rye spoiled her streak:

Okay, here was my first going-out-on-a-limb one, wherein I recalled no prior discussion whatsoever: Catcher in the Rye. And I say............ DUMP.
Actually, this one wasn’t a Dump.
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!! I was doing so well!!! That means there’s at least one other wrong, then.... :( What was it?
It was.....a BUY. Since reading Catcher last year, I’ve grown more into the idea of it, and it keeps coming back. I think if I reread it, I’ll like it a lot more.
I would’ve suspected you of being a Holden Caulfield hater.
I WAS. And then it sat in my memories for a year, and now Holden is vaguely noble. Go figure. Worth having a copy around.

Eventually we moved on to Susan's predictions, and she also had prior-rant-based success with some DUMPS.

The only one I felt confident about on your list was Gone with the Wind, which I gave a DUMP.
Oh crap, we’re going out of order, hold on while I scroll.
THIS HAD BETTER BE A DUMP. NO SCROLLING NECESSARY! (I am getting a caps lock disease from Maureen Johnson’s tweets.)
Haha, yes, no worries, it is indeed a DUMP. Lingering feelings of bitterness at being expected to read THOUSANDS OF PAGES for a school presentation when others only had to read THREE POEMS. >:( That being said, I would like to actually finish it someday, when I’m not on a time-crunch-make-a-presentation schedule.
Poor stressed school-age Alyssa. :-(

Her streak continued:

Continuing with the DUMP...I put you down for disliking Pride and Prejudice more than wanting to try or buy it.
That would be correct! Again, didn’t actually dislike the book. Just didn’t like it as much as everyone else did/as much as I expected to/as much as I wanted to. And I liked Sense & Sensibility even more (which I read for a college class), and then liked Persuasion even more than that (which I read on my own).
I still wasn’t sure though--I thought it might have crept onto a TRY list even after your disappointment in high school. I was worried that your liking Persuasion could have helped the P&P rating. I’ve never been so glad to see someone dislike this book before! ;-)
But I don't dislike it!  I just had such high expectations going, unsurmountable for any book expectations. Which I try not to do anymore. And it was almost on my TRY list (to see if this was again a casualty of my senior year of high school, which was so tough on books), but then there was really nothing else to dump.
I am still amused that your DUMP books are all ones that you’re not willing to admit to disliking / just didn’t try long enough. Whereas my list was all I HATE THEM!! GRRR!!!!

And then hit a sci-fi-shaped bump in the road:

Now a murkier guess...Ender’s Game is a BUY?
HAH! My love of genre fiction deceives you! It was a TRY. I remember reading it for school in 7th or 8th grade and I liked it a lot, we all did, but whereas all the other kids in class then went out and gobbled down the rest in the series, I was content to just leave it at that. I would like to read it again and see what new perspective I have reading it as an adult rather than an adolescent, and thus it goes to TRY rather than straight to BUY.

All in all, it was a fun game, and we would recommend it highly if you are of the geeky, booky sector of the population. Check out the EW issue and let us know what you think! Agree/disagree with any of our assessments? What are some of your top# books of all time?

EDIT: As as addendum, here is an article published on EW’s website about how they chose the books for their top 100. Top#lists are subjective by nature, and we had suspected they might be getting some strongly-worded messages from opinionated readers. It’s both interesting and insightful to see the criteria that went into the creation of their list, and to remember that literature, like all art, completely depends on the person who is experiencing it. We might not agree with all of the books on their list—in fact, if we each made our own top 100 lists, they would most certainly differ from each other as well as from that master list. At any rate, for anyone interested in reading and literature, the list is a great jumping off point full of suggestions you’ve heard of, and some you may not have, for padding your TBR list. Have fun with it—that’s the point!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Read and Watch: 1776 by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards

Happy Fourth or Fifth of July! As we listen to the rumble of fireworks, we thought we'd share our festive celebration from today. (Of course we could have appropriately celebrated on July 2nd, the day the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence, but we figured we'd save the fun for our own holiday.) The good news is that you could easily stretch the Independence Day holiday into almost a month of festivities since the greatest number of delegates signed on 2 August. We'll get back to you with our Second of August celebration plans next month. Maybe we'll do festive food then.

As to what we did to celebrate this holiday, we did a 1776 musical celebration. Susan has a well-loved copy of the book on her shelf, two separate cast recordings, a VHS and a DVD in her house. Alyssa has a DVD currently located in another state, and, failing that, a phone connection to Susan.

In a surprising turn-around, we recommend a watch and read policy for 1776 (rather than read then watch), but do go get a copy of the book! You can read a historical note, the complete Declaration of Independence with its changes noted, AND a select bibliography (woot!) in addition to all of your favorite lines (and excluded song lyrics, like the entire "Time's Running Out" number).

From reading this page, you'll see that the play makes a mistake in the scene where the secretary is reading the first draft to the Congress. The rights would not be "certain inalienable" ones; they would be "inherent and inalienable." From reading the entire historical note, your history geek credentials will be raised immeasurably.

Now, if you haven’t seen a performance (movie counts) of this show yet, get on it. It’s a musical about the writing and revising of the Declaration of Independence, and most of the founding fathers we learn about in school are present, singing and dancing (or walking in dramatic ways). You can watch it for the fun of seeing historical figures in a musical, or you can watch for its remarkably good history. (As a bonus READ THIS, a perfect follow-up is David McCullough's John Adams, which has to have been written for the 1776 fans based on the number of times Abigail Adams' request for pins comes up in the first chapters.) Here are some youtube links to help start your own enjoyment of 1776:

"Sit Down, John!" (opening number)
Final Vote on Independency

Both of us love the darker more political scenes of the delegates debating slavery late in the musical. Arguably the best song sequence is the young delegate, Edward Rutledge, speaking words that Thomas Jefferson wrote about the "peculiar institution" of slavery, and then singing about the hypocrisy of the northern colonies' delegates, who may not have slave plantations but who have made their fortunes from being slavers or investing in the slave ships. It's absolutely mesmerizing.

One of Alyssa’s favorite lighter scenes

is Richard Henry Lee, the delegate from Virginia who is not Thomas Jefferson, explaining to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin why he will be able to convince the Virginian legislature to propose independence (it’s because he’s a LEE, DAMMIT).

It’s a big deal for Virginia to present a resolution on independence because up until this happens, the only colonies that seem to care about independence are those radical ones in New England. But rather than just come out and say to Lee, “Hey, buddy, why don’t you start proposing independence? Massachusetts can’t get a vote, and we know you do care about this issue…” Franklin drops unsubtle hints until Lee is fired up to dance and sing about how great his old rich family is. In case you haven’t heard, he’s a Lee. Another half dozen Lees are notable (even a hundred years before the most famous Lee of all, Robert E. Lee).

That’s just the way things roll in 1776. There’s plenty of sober political debate, but then somebody jumps on a desk/park bench/staircase landing, and the singing brings it all home.

Anyway, here are screen caps for the cut sequence at the end of the Lee number. (It's only included on the laser disc, in case you were wondering where the shots came from.) Even without music Richard Henry Lee rocks.

Adams: Franklin, that Lee may have the most bad-ass family in Fair-gin-i-a, but that dude is bat shit crazy.

Franklin: Do you think so? I think I just played him so he'd go get a resolution on independency without owing him any favors.

Adams: At least he'll be traveling for a week. After the last interminable three minutes of dancing, I never want to see that guy again.

Lee: Hallo again, boys!

Adams: . . . I was saying?

Franklin: Hush, John! He's talking about Virginian bosoms again!

Adams: What do you mean hush!? That lunatic just charged his horse at me! I got pushed into a public fountain, and to make matters worse, he is still here.

Franklin: Oh, John. It's only water. Let me give you a hug and everything will be better.

Lee: How love-LEE! And you know you want to give me a hug too! (I have the coolest hat in the entire film!)

Susan's favorite lighter scene

is the playful debate between Adams, Jefferson and Franklin over the new National Bird of America. It too has a song! (No dancing. Can't have everything.)

Jefferson listens anxiously as the secretary reads the report of the Declaration Committee (the Continental Congress is extremely fond of committees).

In come Franklin and Adams, in high excitement over their trip to watch soldiers go duck hunting. To take Jefferson's mind off the idea of everyone criticizing his writing, the other two decide to sing a peppy song about the birth of the new nation.

Jefferson thinks this could be a good idea.

But then Franklin starts saying the National Bird is going to be the Turkey.

Jefferson and Adams check that they heard right.

No, really, the TURKEY?

Franklin: Oh yeah.

Crisis averted. Franklin wonders what just happened to his turkey proposal. (Probably Thanksgiving. Or the duck-hunting militia.)

And they all go happily into the chamber to hear everyone's praise of the Declaration.

Hahahaha. Yeah. "Praise."

In any case, Happy Day That Is Two Days After Independence Day!

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