Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: The Greenlanders

There was a meme going around a few weeks ago about "books that have stuck with you" and I wish I'd remembered to include The Greenlanders by  the incomparable Jane Smiley on my list.  I read it a long time ago (it was published in 1988) and since Grace recently wrote a paper about the Norse colonization of Greenland, I was reminded of this book.  It has been so long that I can't remember the characters' names, or any plot details but the novel's stark feeling has stuck with me.

The medieval colony on Greenland gradually became more and more isolated as the Little Ice Age took hold and their winters became longer and harsher.  One major drawback of Greenland is that it lacks trees, so as the original settlers' ships rotted and visitors from Denmark dwindled, they were literally stranded.  In the novel, there's talk of a few hardy folks making the dangerous sea voyage to Vinland (Labrador) where there are trees and they can build a ship, but it never works out.  It's this unrelenting bleakness that has stuck with me all these years: each winter harsher than the last, the livestock herds growing smaller, the growing season shortening.

I read the Amazon customer reviews, (affiliate link, yo) to jog my memory, so I can tell you that The Greenlanders was written in the style of a saga (I had forgotten that) and that the plot centers on an unhappy marriage.  Mostly what I remember is people tucking themselves into their Scandinavian built-in beds, for the duration of the winter, which is pretty much what I would like to do right now.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Made: Christmas tree skirt

As soon as Christmas was over last year, I started knitting a Christmas tree skirt.  It turned out to be an enormous undertaking. I spent nearly every night knitting, while I watched eleven seasons of Frasier reruns.  Now, nearly a year later, I am almost finished.  After searching for a free pattern online, I settled on this one because I liked the stark gray and white palette and I didn't want to do a cliched red and green skirt.

Over the year, as the skirt grew, it was hard to imagine anything less like a Christmas tree skirt than the shapeless, heavy mass of dark gray wool that hung from my circular needle.  It looked like something colonial Americans might have used to transport dead game.  By Labor Day, the body of of the skirt was finished and I could start knitting the lace, and slowly, one stitch for every two rows of lace, release the skirt from the circular needle.

It was only after I'd knit quite a lot of the lace that I realized I'd been knitting it onto the skirt inside-out.

A close up of the catastrophe

Gillian suggested I knit an i-cord to cover the mistake, which was a brilliant idea.  There's a tiny bit of i-cord still to knit, but I wanted to take the picture before the light faded.  

It looks like what Icelandic flamenco dancers might wear

I wandered around the yarn shop for ages one evening, trying to pick the right yarn for the i-cord.  Originally, I thought a sparkly silver yarn would work, but all the silver yarn was much too fine for this bulky skirt (made from local wool).  I think the red was a good choice.  It's not sparkly, but it has a subtle pearled quality.

So that's it.  Over twenty years of wrapping an old Christmas tablecloth around my tree, I now have a proper tree skirt.  And you?  Any epic holiday crafts completed for this year?

Friday, December 05, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is another one from the fifty classics project.  I dreaded reading it.  One day when I was young, my grandfather said, "Sherlock Holmes is all very well, but one must read his historical novels."  So a copy of The White Company was produced for me to read, and I dutifully read it, found it to be a bit of a slog and concluded that Sherlock Holmes was probably a big bore as well.

It turned out not to be a bore, but instead a quick, entertaining read.  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is not the collected works about Holmes, (which is what I assumed before reading it) but is the first collection of short stories about him, published in 1892 after A Study in Scarlett and The Sign of Four.  Most of the cases in this collection are about people playing malicious tricks or manipulating others, not actual crimes.  Holmes himself is as quirky as Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of him, and indulges in cocaine now and then, which was a surprise.  But who can blame him?

Gratuitous picture of Benedict Cumberbatch

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Big Feast

It has been my practice to leave work early on the day before Thanksgiving,  so I was dismayed to learn that this year I'm on call which means I have to stay at work until at least 5:00pm.

In the face of this calamity, I am planning the shit out of this Thanksgiving.  I made the cranberry sauce on Saturday and the pie crusts on Sunday.  I ordered the turkey last Friday, and picked it up on my way home from work yesterday.  (If you're local, I hope you didn't see me staggering down Monticello Ave, clutching a 20 pound turkey to my chest.)  Last night I cleaned the turkey and stuffed it with lint-free towels, as my mother taught me, to soak up the excess blood.  I also made the stuffing and cooked and pureed the giblets for the dogs' Thanksgiving treat.  They LOVE giblet gravy on their dog food. Seamus will finish the desserts for me on Wednesday while I'm at work.  I'm in better shape now than I was last year on Wednesday night, when I went to bed weeping because there was still so much to do.

As for recipes, I've departed a little from our usual and am trying a few new recipes I've found on blogs and pinterest. (Linked below in the menu list.) The cranberry sauce is Graceful Fitness' kickin' cranberry sauce.  I'm not usually motivated to make our Thanksgiving food healthier, but it does bother me a little to drown fresh cranberries in white sugar.  This recipe is sweetened with dried dates plush fresh apple and pear and flavored with fresh ginger.  The sauce turned out pretty tart, so I added about two tablespoons of maple syrup.  I considered, then rejected the kale gratin from this month's Country Living.  (Beware recipes published in decorating magazines; they are often terrible.) I'm going to make broccoli-mandarin salad from Mel's Kitchen Cafe.

I don't do anything special to our turkey--just slap a bunch of butter on it and perhaps push some whole garlic cloves under the skin.  We also like ordinary bread stuffing that is devoid of wild rice or chestnuts or prunes or any of the other things that some people like to use.

I have always made Tasha Tudor's rolls for special occasions, but this year I'm trying the buttermilk potato rolls from Mel's Kitchen Cafe because they seem less fussy and I love potato bread.  Pumpkin pie from my great-grandmother's recipe is a must, but I always add an alternate dessert.  This year it's a Guinness chocolate cheesecake from a recipe I found on pinterest.  The blogger is unknown to me, so this is risky.  I've read the recipe and I think it will be OK.  I've seen some blogger recipes with such half-assed proportions that there is no way they've been tested thoroughly.  And frankly, if you're getting paid or sponsored to create a recipe, you owe it to your readers to measure your ingredients exactly and test the recipe carefully before publishing.

Our menu

Cranberry Sauce
Yam Gratin with chipotle cream (from The New York Times Cookbook)
Broccoli salad with mandarin oranges
Fluffy buttermilk potato rolls

Pumpkin Pie
Guinness chocolate cheesecake

What's on your Thanksgiving menu this year?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Ankle Deep

I stumbled on Angela Thirkell by accident while looking for something else at the Alderman Library.  I could tell just by how they looked on the shelf that these were books I was likely to enjoy.  I selected a book at random and saw something in the blurb about how Thirkell's books are a continuation of the Barsetshire chronicles and that she is the new Anthony Trollope and I realized I had stumbled onto something wonderful.  I selected Wild Strawberries, which you can read about here, and added all of Thirkell's novels to my book list.

I read August Folly while I was in Cape Town, but didn't feel inspired to write a post about it.  Ankle Deep is Thirkell's first novel (published in 1933) and it's probably fair to say it's an immature example of her work.

Fanny Turner is one of those annoying people who thinks her misbehavior is cute.  Impulsive, exacting, childish, demanding; one of her favorite activities is finding girlfriends for an old friend, Valentine Esnor.  Fanny herself is comfortably married with several sons, conveniently away at boarding school. Fanny hosts a weekend house party and among the guests is Aurea, an old flame of Fanny's husband.  Aurea is married and lives in Canada but is visiting her parents in England.  Fanny, whose motive is her own amusement and to cause as much irritation as possible, encourages Valentine to spend time with Aurea, while simultaneously throwing Aurea in front of her husband.

Aurea's marriage is unhappy; she is, as  her father states, one of those unfortunate women who has outgrown her husband.  Her husband is described as a basically inoffensive though unimpressive guy, but Aurea clearly loathes him, and so is ripe to fall in love with Valentine, which she does.  Valentine obligingly returns her feelings and what follows is a tortured description of a relationship between two people who love eachother but won't touch eachother.  To be honest, it got a bit tedious.

I didn't really like any of the characters in this book.  Fanny needs a good smackdown.  Her husband Arthur doesn't come into the story much except to roll his eyes at Fanny and pointlessly fall in love with Aurea too. Aurea is a wishy-washy damp washcloth,  has no sense of humor, and is obviously no fun to be around.  I don't know what Valentine sees in her.  Valentine himself is pretty one-dimensional.  Some of the writing is really irritating.  There's one excruciating scene that goes on for pages and pages in which they won't stop talking about how they're going to be late for dinner, and must still dress for dinner.  THEN GO UPSTAIRS AND DRESS FOR DINNER.  That said, Thirkell does a good job of describing (through dark hints) the murky waters of long standing marriages gone wrong.  It was also nice to read a romance about people my own age.  I'm committed to reading all of Thirkell's works, and as I progress, it will be interesting to see how her writing matured.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Another weekend

I feel like every week has four days rather than seven.  Monday/Tuesday is really one massive day, Wednesday kind of hangs out by itself, Thursday through Friday afternoon is another day, and then Friday afternoon through Sunday evening is the fourth.  In case anyone is interested, here's what I did on the fourth day of last week.  Friday, Jon and I went to Brookville for dinner.  I really wanted to try it, but I was also a bit anxious, assuming it would be snooty. It turned out to be friendly, with an interesting menu.  We shared some small plates: collards cooked in bacon with a lovely soft-cooked egg swimming in the pot liquor, a plate of small sausages with maple syrup and a creamy mustard sauce, fried oysters, and an enormous biscuit filled with goat cheese and red pepper jelly.  Our table was by the window, overlooking the skating rink, so it was like sitting next to a giant music box, with all the skaters perpetually circling.  Overall an enjoyable evening, though we went to Harris-Teeter after and did the week's grocery shopping.

Saturday morning, to mix things up, I skipped Barre class and walked to the gym for TRX instead.  Are you familiar with this?  You hang from long straps attached to the wall and use your own body weight as resistance through various moves.  It was definitely a good core workout, and more upper body than I usually get. "Hang" makes it sound scary, but you always have either both feet or both hands on the ground.

I jogged/walked home and emptied out the pantry and found the source of the moths that have been plaguing us; a forgotten bag of rye flour at the far back of a shelf.  I made an inventory of everything before I put the items back--a tip I learned from The Frugal Queen.  I feel like a dolt for not figuring this out on my own, but I definitely waste money buying things we already have because the pantry is such a mess and I never know what's in it.  Now I can plan meals around all the random bags of black eyed peas and other stray items AND find a use for the two cans of sweetened, condensed milk that have been lurking back there for who knows how long.  And that was quite enough activity for one day.  I spent the rest of Saturday knitting and reading Ankle Deep by Angela Thirkell.

Sunday, fearful I'd have another confrontation with the self-appointed squeaky machine monitor, I skipped the gym and went for a run instead.  I rarely run these days.  I had become such a slave to my running schedule that it wasn't fun anymore.  This time, I took a camera and stopped to take pictures along the way, and didn't berate myself for walking breaks. I got to the railroad crossing just as a train was approaching. I love it when that happens, as long as I can get to the other side in time.

I ran into Riverview Cemetary and back, and took a lot of not-very good pictures.  At home, I made Kimchee.  It won't be ready to eat for a few days.  I've been reading about the benefits of fermented foods and I attended the Kimchee-making demonstration at the Charlottesville Vegetarian Festival a few weeks ago.  It's a pretty simple process and I needed a use for the big bag of hot pepper powder leftover from Seamus' Korean cooking kick. More knitting and reading, and now here we are on the backside of Monday/Tuesday with another weekend to look forward to.
How was your weekend?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Milking the Moon

I had never heard of Eugene Walter, but Becky recommended that I read his memoir, Milking the Moon, and I added it to my list and now here we are.  It turns out that Eugene Walter was an absolutely fascinating person, and his memoir, "as told to" Katherine Clark, reads as if you are having a conversation with one of the most fabulous and entertaining people ever.

Who was Eugene Walter?  As far as the arts are concerned, he seemed to have done a little of everything: he wrote poetry and fiction, did theater set design, was an actor, and designer, literary journal editor, a fantastic cook and supreme party-thrower.  He was born in Mobile, Alabama in the 1920s, and his descriptions of that city make me want to get on a plane and visit, immediately.  He refers to the gulf coast south as "North Haiti." After a stint as a code breaker during WW II (he was stationed in Alaska) he got a job in a bookstore in Manhattan, developed quite a knack for meeting the right people, and his literary career inched forward from there.  (He also may have invented performance art after an elaborate tableau he and his friends put on in the cafe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which enraged the staff but was talked about for decades.)

Walter never really warmed to New York and impulsively moved to Paris in the early fifties, around the time he turned thirty.  Once again, he seems to have fallen bass-ackwards into friendships with rising stars of the literary and arts world.  He helped found The Paris Review and after several years in Paris, moved to Rome to edit Bottegh Oscure, a literary magazine run by Princess di Bassiano Caetani--and it is just like Eugene Walter to work for a princess.  It was in Rome where his film career began.  He acted in two of Fellini's films, and many other films besides, and wrote the song "What is a Youth" for Franco Zeffrelli's Romeo and Juliet.  I was stunned to learn that because it's one of my favorite songs from a film.  (If you have never seen Zeffrelli's Romeo and Juliet, you must call in sick to work and watch it right now.)

Eugene Walter is hilarious and it must have been a lot of fun to have been his friend or attend his parties, which seem to have been legendary.  Milking the Moon reads like a conversation and Walter is really good at depicting scenes and images.  I particularly liked the chapters set in Rome, especially when he described his first apartment there, in Trastevere (of course he lived in Trastevere).  This apartment was located at the top of an endless staircase--the same staircase located around the corner from our apartment in Rome which we climed the day we went looking for views from the top of Janiculum. It was kind of thrilling to relive Rome through Eugene Walter's eyes.  Milking the Moon is truly amusing from start to finish.