Monday, December 30, 2013

Holiday roundup

The key to Martha Stewart's popularity has got to be her voice.  No celebrity has a more soothing voice than Martha Stewart. (Witness her video on how to split a layer cake, included in the directions for her six layer salted caramel chocolate cake.)  It is the voice of someone who is always serene, who never bursts into tears because she thinks no one will love her because she doesn't have time to make the homemade rolls for Christmas dinner.

Here is Martha's six-layer salted caramel chocolate cake.

Here is my version of the same cake.

I forgot to sprinkle the cake with salt

Despite its ugly duckling appearance, it was a spectacular Christmas dessert, with a low effort to taste ratio. I also made this pumpkin mousse tart with gingerbread crust, which had an agreeably tangy flavor from the goat cheese.

The kids were happy with their presents, and I've learned that having a child move into a real grown-up apartment provide a whole new scope for gift giving.  Pro tip:  If you're going for the "brown paper packages tied up with string" look, use painter's paper rather than kraft paper.  It is much easier to work with, as it has a thinner, wrapping paper-like quality.  It's also cheaper.  I bought a roll for something like $8 and there is still enough left over to wrap all of next year's gifts. 

I trust everyone had a pleasant holiday?  Or, if not, that enough time has passed that you can pretend that you did.  Now that Christmas is past, I am feeling very brisk and efficient and mistress of my domain; a major deadline has been met.  I am now going to clean all the things; something, I can only manage to do every two years. 

So far, I've managed to clean mine and Jon's room.  I'm fairly minimalist when it comes to stuff, but among other things, we have a drawer that contains nothing but back issues of Creative Needle and Australian Smocking & Embroidery.  Underneath the bed, I found not one, but two vials of adenosine, that must have come home accidentally in Jon's scrubs. .

This has inspired an offshoot project: wear all the shoes.  I own twenty-four pairs of shoes, including snow boots and running shoes, and I usually wear just six or seven of them.  So I am giving each pair a one-day test run, and if the shoes aren't working for me, they're getting donated.  Today, I'm wearing a pair of square-toed loafers with clunky heels.  They're not fashionable, but, they were once my go-to shoe for office/funeral can't tolerate stilettos today occasions.  Surveyed in the bathroom mirror at work, they're not too awful, although I should have dusted them before wearing them to work.  I think they are keepers, for now.

I got this image from ebay, but they are an accurate representation.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Diet Books

If Christmas is a calorie-consuming competition, then I am the winner, what with Martha Stewart's six-layer salted caramel chocolate cake, the prime rib roast, the mashed potatoes, the French toast, the cookies, the wine, and the appetizers.  Then there was the traditional Boxing Day lunch at Himalayan Fusion, with my sister and her husband, and, capitalizing on the fact that everyone flees Charlottesville at Christmas, we went to Mas for dinner last night, knowing it would be relatively easy to get a table, which it was.

So this is me today.

Any time I get together with my sister, we discuss diets--it is an irresistible topic.  My sister wants me to read Ultrametabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss by Mark Hyman. She says it will change my thinking and get me off the self-destructive diet treadmill, which would be nice.  You may recall that I once reviewed a variety of diet books and there was a certain sameness to their insanity.  Nevertheless, I'm curious about The 5:2 Diet--you fast two days a week and eat "normally" the other five.  Sound crazy?  It probably is, but I'm not particularly rational when it comes to diets.  Two years ago, I tried The Dukan Diet, and I lost weight, but it is a very difficult diet to stick to.  Two years later, I can't even look at unsweetened Greek yogurt. More rational would be to emulate Mrs. G, over at Derfwad Manor, and burn all the diet books in my barbecue.

Do you read diet books?  What are the dumbest/most helpful ones you've read?

*Fair warning:  the links to the diet books, above, are amazon affiliate links (if they are working--I've had difficulty with their links lately).

Monday, December 23, 2013

Cakes and puppies

This is the week that everybody takes "off" from blogging, but since blogging isn't my job, I don't really think about taking time off from it.  I'll be the one refreshing feedly all week, saying "WHERE ARE ALL THE BLOGGERS?"

I've planned an ambitious baking schedule this year: homemade challah bread to eat with our clam chowder on Christmas Eve, plus a second loaf for French toast on Christmas morning, six kinds of cookies and Martha Stewart's six-layer chocolate-salted caramel cake for dessert on Christmas night. It's fun to mock Martha, and her recipes can be ridiculously over-the-top, but they do usually taste good.  So far I've made the salted caramel sauce which includes two sticks of butter and two cups of cream which is OUTRAGEOUS.  The French toast (from Bon Appetit) also calls for two cups of cream and is 700 calories per serving.  Zoikes.  I'm also doing Lucindaville's pumpkin mousse cheesecake because it looked so delicious on her blog, and one must always be prepared for a tragic dessert shortage.

Phoebe update:  she is now twelve weeks old and has lived with us for five weeks.  Having a puppy is almost like having a real baby in the house.  I love lifting her out of her crate in the morning, all warm and limp and sleepy. In general, she's a pretty easy puppy and so far hasn't destroyed any of our possessions, although she does like to sneak into Grace's room and steal her socks.  We've taught her not to bite, but she seems to think that our bare feet are fair game.  Yesterday she bit my foot hard enough to break the skin and Sancho kissed my foot and then placed himself firmly between Phoebe and me--not sure if that was for my protection or hers.

Phoebe has doubled her weight and has lost that blunt-headed infant look that baby animals have, as if they haven't fully differentiated into the correct species and can almost pass for a bunny or a squirrel.

For perspective, this is a picture of her during her first week with us.  She used to like to drape herself around Jon's neck, but she's too big for that now.

And here she is now, with her BFF Sancho.

This is what Paddington Bear would have called a "hard stare."

So that's all I've got.  I hope all my dear readers have a lovely holiday.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Bridge Jones' Diary--Mad About the Boy.

Pages, 386, laffs out loud, 6 (as of page 342), alcohol units, 743, fags, 0 (Bridget has quit smoking), eye rolls, 10 (est), demented activities for senior citizens, 8 (ish), references to sex, a lot, references to nits, more, references to farts, EVEN MORE, incomprehensible British slang terms, 1 (spag bog,  from context means something to eat, possibly spaghettios*).

I loved the first two Bridget Jones books, so I was really excited to hear that Helen Fielding had written a third one, and as soon as it came out, I put myself on the hold list on the library.  It took a couple of months, but this week it was my turn.  In this novel, Bridget is in her fifties, and is widowed, with two small children.  Her husband, the famous Mark D'Arcy, human rights lawyer and wearer of reindeer sweaters, was killed by a land mine while working in Africa.

It starts off weak, and all of my LOLs happened in the last two-thirds of the book.  Not only is Bridget a widow with two small children, she has become overweight, has not had sex in four years and has a grated mozzarella cheese addiction.  Her friends perform an intervention, and Bridget manages to lose thirty pounds in four months (with help of National Health Service Obesity Clinic) and find 29 year old boyfriend, and accompanying single lady angst.

You'll see your favorite characters from the first Bridget Jones books: Jude and Tom, Magda, (although Shazzer has inexplicably been banished to the United States), Bridget's mum, Auntie Una, Penny Husbands-Bosworth, (only a shadow character, but her name is so much fun to say) and of course Daniel Cleaver whose every utterance is hilarious, sexy, and offensive.  ("Mummy's lovely mummy panties.")  There is a lot of childish behavior with twitter and texting, which is where the eye rolls came in.

Overall this is a fun book, if not quite up to the standard of the first one.  It definitely gets stronger as it goes along.  At first I was worried it would be yet another hectic motherhood tale ("oh no! they've spilled the spag bog whilst infested with nits and flushed the car keys down the bog and have 26 emails from horrible humorless classroom mum about correct way to slice peppers for sodding sports day picnic) but it isn't like that, although I do enjoy digs at perfect school parents who always want to organize everybody.  I haven't quite finished it, but I skipped to the last page, and the ending is likely to be satisfactory to most readers.

*Is actually British slang for Spaghetti Bolognese, which confused me mightily, as I know from watching Shameless that "bog" is also slang for "toilet."  Also, it seems oddly specific.  They must eat an awful lot of spaghetti Bolognese in Great Britain in order to justify a slang term for this one dish.

Spag Bog
PS: don't forget to stop by Jen on the Edge's holiday homes tour.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Joyeux oh well.

The picture above neatly illustrates how my attempts at Christmas decorating have been thwarted this year.  Where can the N have gone?  No doubt I will find it in January, at the back of the closet under the stairs, which is where the decorations live, but I cannot be arsed to go digging for it now.

Back before Thanksgiving, when there was still sunshine, and Christmas was a happy, distant dream, I went to the Covesville Store and bought most of their stock of vintage ornaments.  A promising start, but as you will see, things went downhill from there.

Then I looted Thomas Jefferson's grounds for pine cones.  I imagined my pine cones bleached to a creamy white, strung on a jute cord, punctuated with green wooden beads and a big green velvet bow, elegantly gracing the mantle.  What actually happened was that after the tedious washing and baking, I dumped them back into the shopping bags where they turned moldy.  The ones that I bleached did not get moldy, but they smelled overpoweringly awful.

The cemetery that I walk through on my way to work has several magnificent English hollies.  About a  month ago, they were bursting with red berries and I thought that when the time came, no one would mind, and no harm done if I snipped a few small sprigs for Christmas decorations.  This week, I paused to investigate one of the hollies and realized that all the berries are gone.

I also had grand plans to copy Victoria Elizabeth Barnes' Christmas front porch, and to achieve that I bought a cache of small disco balls and an $18 non-electric chandelier, on which I hot-glued some of the disco balls and then festooned with mini LED lights.  The rest of the disco balls, I hung from the porch ceiling with silver craft ribbon.

 I'm pleased with how the chandelier turned out, but I want the multiple disco balls to make reflected sparkles on the house, as they did on VEB's porch, and they aren't behaving.  I actually googled, "how to make a disco ball work" and so went out after dark and aimed the flashlight app from Jon's phone at my disco balls and BAM! Sparkles.  So clearly what I NEED is four or five invisible people to aim spotlights at my disco balls every evening.  We are SEVERELY hampered in any attempt to decorate the exterior of our house because we have no outdoor electrical outlets.

On the positive side, I found the most gorgeous gold ribbon at Les Fabriques, downtown, and bought the whole spool, which turned out to be not-quite enough to wrap around the front door garland, but I'm still pleased with the effect, although my house is totally the wrong color for Christmas.  Jon very kindly drilled tiny eye hooks into the porch ceiling for me.

There was also a stab at making Pinterest-inspired mini boxwood wreathes, which is too boring to recount here, but pictured below is how my version turned out.  Hot-gluing boxwood branches to an embroidery hoop becomes tiresome real fast.

NOT the Elf on a shelf elf.

At any rate, the tree is up, which is what matters, right? I followed Becky's instructions for a fantastically lighted tree, only our tree's branches were too dense to do it effectively.  Still, I did end up with a much more nicely lighted tree than we had last year.  I thought I might make a garland out of the vintage ornaments, but they ended up on the tree.

My newest ornament

This Santa has seen over 100 Christmases

And?  That day at the Covesville Store?  I bought these wooden blocks that spell NOEL, although I was totally unaware at that point that the N from my other Noel display was missing.

I bought this vintage Lightning moonshine jar at the Covesville Store.  I'm not entirely happy with my mantle display this year.  I especially hate the ball jars with candles on the left.  That was another unfortunate pinterest inspiration.

Porch at night.

This year, I feel like my biggest Christmas decorating achievement was yesterday when I finally cleared away the random pine cones, scraps of ribbon, hook-less ornaments, orphan bells and other things that had taken over the dining room table, and now there is only the lovely, giant poinsettia that my father and his wife sent us.
I lied.  There is still a box of Christmas crap on the chair.
This post was inspired by Jen on the Edge's annual Holiday-decorating blog sharing round-up. If anyone is interested, (and it's OK if you're not) here are my Christmas decorating posts from 2012 and 2011.  Bonus Christmas Guillotine

Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: The Mansion

I'm sure all of you will be just as relieved as I am that this is my last post about Faulkner.  I recently finished The Mansion, for the Fifty Classics project. The Mansion, you may remember, is the third book in Faulkner's trilogy about the Snopes family of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, the first two books being The Hamlet and The Town.

So.  The Mansion backtracks and retells part of the story from The Hamlet.  Which is good, because this was the part that I had so much difficulty understanding: the murder by Mink Snopes of Houston.  This time it's told from Mink's perspective.  Mink murdered Hudson because of a transaction over a cow.  Wow, I TOTALLY DID NOT GET THAT when reading The Hamlet.  So Mink goes to jail for murder--this happens while Flem Snopes is away on his honeymoon with Eula Varner--and Flem won't lift a finger to help him.

Twenty years pass and Mink is about to be released from prison early for good behavior and Flem Snopes tricks him into trying to escape (dressed in women's clothing) so that's twenty years of good behavior down the drain and another twenty years in prison for Mink.  I know you are wondering: how does one "trick" someone into escaping from prison?  Flem sets up another cousin to be arrested for running an illegal porn and moonshine business and sends him off to prison with a package of women's clothing and $10 for poor little Mink.  Mink's a right bastard, but I kind of like him despite the fact that in The Hamlet he's a mean little wife-abuser of the "shut up woman and fix me a biscuit" variety.

Then there's the Linda Snopes/Gavin Stevens story which is very hard to follow.  Linda is Flem's daughter, only not really because Eula Varner was already pregnant with her by another man before she married Flem.  Much of The Town is about Gavin's love for Eula, which is eventually transferred to Linda, who runs off with her lover to fight in the Spanish Civil War and returns to Mississippi deaf because her ear drums were blown out by a bomb. Gavin and Linda love each other but can't consummate their relationship for reasons I am incapable of extracting from Faulkner's tortured writing.

But here's the thing about Faulkner: you'll be slogging through the Gavin/Linda story and suddenly you're back to Mink who is drinking his first Coca-Cola after forty years in prison, and it's just wonderful.  The whole bit about Mink's first experiences in the outside world after being locked up for so long is beautiful writing and you can see why people go mad over Faulkner.  I'm not usually willing to make this much effort to read something, but sometimes it's worth it, and thinking back on all the William Faulkner novels I've read over the last year, I still sometimes laugh a little at the punchline from As I Lay Dying and I'll always remember Mink and the Coca-Cola.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: The gift of books

Want to give books?  Here's a little gift guide, organized by some of the personalities you might have on your gift list.  (Update:  my links failed to work--so I've replaced them  with ordinary, non-affiliate links.)

For the literate cook: Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin.  This book is more a collection of essays than a collection of recipes (but there are recipes).  With chapters like Nursery Food,  Repulsive Dinners: a Memoir, and Easy Cooking for Exhausted People, you can't help but fall in love with this book.

For the Jane Austen lover:  Arabella by Georgette Heyer.  Don't buy a cheesy Austen spin off.  Heyer's novels are set in the Regency period and can stand on their own as witty and entertaining.  I am reading Arabella right now and the best word to describe it is delicious.

For the menopausal: The Diaries of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing.  Doris Lessing, who died recently, won the nobel prize for literature.  She first tried publishing this brilliant book under a pseudonym and it was rejected. It's the story of Jana, a fashionable career woman of a certain age, who befriends and is much plagued by an older woman.

For the cyclist: French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France by Tim Moore.  Tim Moore, a hilarious British travel writer, cycles the course of the Tour de France, with much agonizing about chafing, among other things.

For the Jane Eyre fan:  Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.  Tells the Jane Eyre story from the perspective of Rochester's mad wife.  Ordinarily, I don't like spin offs, but this one is excellent.

For the Anglophile:  Anything by P. G. Wodehouse.  I'd chose Leave it to Psmith.

For the sailor:  Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian.  The first in his famous Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series.  Funny, superb character development and dialog.

For the person who is nostalgic for the eighties: My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket.  Possibly one of the funniest books I've ever read.  Also good for the person who feels keenly the difference between east coast and west coast America.

For the adventurer: Forbidden Journey by Ella Maillart.  The true story of the author's trek from Peking through Tibet, into India in the 1930s.

For the egalitarian:  Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell.  An entertaining skewering of middle class values.

Monday, December 02, 2013

On the Pine Cone Trail

The year I was in second grade, my mom made pine cone Advent wreathes as gifts for all our teachers.  We took a family walk through the neighborhood and gathered all the pine cones.  It was my job to glue them to a special advent wreath form.  My mom spray painted them gold, added a big purple bow to each wreath, and the traditional advent candles (three purple, one pink).  She made a wreath for us too, and it was actually pretty awesome.   All this is a roundabout way of telling you that I have long been aware of the potential of the pine cone.

Which is why I went out early, the day after Thanksgiving, to the Monticello trail to gather pine cones for a garland.  Most of the pine trees are near the bottom of the hill, but I hiked the two miles to the top, hoping for a different species of tree to add variety to my collection.  And right near the top, I found a pine with perfect, symmetrical pine cones, only they were all firmly attached to the tree, and the ground beneath it was suspiciously absent of cones.  Another collector must have beat me to the spot.

Perfect but unattainable.

Most of the people on the trail gave my brown paper shopping bags the side eye, as if they thought I had just looted Monticello of its silver.  Is it really that eccentric to pick up pine cones off the ground?  You can buy them at Whole Foods--something like $3.00 for a smallish bag, and I need ninety pine cones for a six-foot garland.  In the end, I found the mother load of pine cones on a short side trail.  I filled both my grocery bags.  Two brown paper grocery bags full of pine cones are surprisingly heavy.  It's probably only half a mile from the side trail to the parking area on Dairy Barn Rd, but I was DYING by the time I got to my car.  It was a pretty day for a walk, though.

The next step is to wash them, which I did in the bathtub.  Pine cones come home with a lot of flotsam: pine needles, leaves, dirt, as-yet undiscovered insect species, etc.  It took freaking forever to divest my pine cones of all this junk.  Next, you bake them at 200 degrees for two hours--to kill the bugs.  Despite heaping my roasting pan, and filling a baking pan and a cookie sheet, I had more pine cones than would fit in the oven, and had to do this step in batches.  If you choose to do this yourself, note that the pine cones will leak sap all over your pans and it WON'T come off.

My bath tub, full of pine cones

I want a green and white garland, so I followed the bleaching process outlined in this tutorial.  It calls for a crazy ratio of bleach to water.  I tested a small batch, since to do them all at once would mean filling my entire bathtub with bleach.  I let them sit overnight, rather than the 24 hours recommended in the tutorial, and got uneven results.  Some of the pine cones were bleached, others were still brown.  The white pine cones seemed dangerously close to disintegrating so I removed the whole batch from the bleach.

Bleached and unbleached pine cones side by side

Then you have to bake them again! (Actually, you're supposed to sit them outside in the sunshine to dry, but hello, it's December.  Baking is offered as a faster alternative.)  It was 7:00 am and my house--again--became permeated with the smell of damp pine cones, only now with a hint of bleach.  One thing is certain, I am NOT bleaching the rest of these things.  I abandoned my green and white idea and spray painted some of them with gold rustoleum, and I'm not sure how I feel about them now.


I am already bored with this project and I still have nothing even close to resembling a garland.  The only thing to do at this point, is dump the pine cones back into their bags and go to the library and check out a Georgette Heyer novel.  Done. And Done.  If this thing ever becomes a garland, I will be sure to show you.  Do you do any holiday crafts?

Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Jane Austen Mania

I wasn't crazy about Among the Janeites:  A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom but I'm writing about it anyway because the Jane Austen craze is an interesting phenomenon.  I didn't read the whole introduction, but apparently a tarot card told Deborah Yaffe that she needed to write a book about Jane Austen fans.

OK, whatever, I was already starting to regret checking this book out of the library.   In order to immerse herself in the Jane Austen fan experience, Yaffe plans to attend the annual Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) conference, for which she will need a regency-style gown for the ball.  She makes a to-do about not being the sort of person who would ever dress in a historic costume. There's further whining about the corset, which is necessary for the chin-height breast silhouette of the era.  A corset will be uncomfortable!  Can't she just wear a balconet bra?

Playing a tiny violin, just for you.

No, you cannot wear a balconet bra, unless you want to look like a low-budget BBC movie.  Why not just go to J.C. Penny and buy a nightgown and wear it to the Jane Austen ball with your balconet bra?  She decides to suck it up and orders a proper corset and hires a seamstress to make her an appropriate gown.

While that's in progress, she joins a guided travel tour of Jane Austen sites in England.  Yaffe sniffs a bit at how touristy and commercial these sites have become and seems to consider herself above it all. Can't she have the Austen sites all to herself without all the yucky tourists?

Again, I felt an urge to hit her with something.   Seriously, would she like to sit in my cube for ten days while I take the tour for her?

After the tour, come interviews with several people who have turned their love for Jane Austen into some sort of life's work or all-absorbing hobby.  They write Jane Austen spin off novels, fan fiction or blogs. They amass enormous collections of Jane Austen-era costumes, start Jane Austen "bibliotherapy" groups or become obsessed with eccentric interpretations of Austen's novels.  The most interesting of these is Sandy Lerner who made a fortune with a start up company and then bought and restored Chawton House, which belonged to Jane Austen's rich relatives.  The building had been truly derelict and is now a Jane Austen library.

The other interviews fall flat, mainly because Yaffe includes way too many biographical details about her subjects.  I found myself skimming over a litany of who these people married, their careers, their kids, their upbringing, what their relatives died of, where they went to school, etc.

At last it's time to attend the conference.  Once again, Yaffe is a bit above it all, although this time I agree with her disdain for Victoria's Secret's sponsorship and the neon mini stuffed animals from their "pink" line as swag.  She attends the ball, although not without more moaning about her hand-sewn blue gown and corset.  It's all a bit boring and more than a little depressing.  As much as I enjoy Jane Austen's novels and the movies made from them, I'm not sure I'd want to get caught in that hamster wheel.  (Except for the costume part, because my love for historic costume started long before I was old enough to read Jane Austen.  If I could have any job in the world, it would be to design historic costumes for movies.)

Ultimately, Among the Janeites does exactly what Yaffe disparages:  exploits Jane Austen's popularity for financial gain.  The least she could do is refrain from padding her book with unnecessary details and useless whining.  A tighter portrayal of the world of Janedom would have made a better book.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Introducing Phoebe

This is going to be a very doggie post.  It's funny how so many things that are worthwhile in the long run, involve a lot of pain and suffering--childbirth, stripping paint, raising a puppy. It has been a long time since we've had a real puppy around here.  Sancho is eight, and we adopted him when he was three months old, and already housebroken.  We adopted Luna when she was only five weeks old, but that was so long ago (1999) that I'd forgotten just how much work a puppy is.  There is a world of difference between a three month old puppy and one who is just a few weeks old.   Of course, all this is a preamble to tell you that we've got a new puppy--Phoebe, a seven-week old coonhound.

It took 1,000 tries to capture the head-tilt of intelligence.

And she's delightful.  I love her wrinkled houndy face and her huge flapping ears and her little puppy squeaks, but oh my goodness, I'd forgotten how much work a puppy is, although Grace and Seamus have been enormously helpful.   The advent of Phoebe brought a rush of suppressed memories.  When we adopted Luna, Seamus was an infant and not yet sleeping through the night.  The other kids were really little and Jon was working night shift.  So guess who was getting up in the night to nurse the baby AND getting up in the night to let the puppy out?  I seriously do not know how I survived that.

We've had Phoebe for a week and she has settled in well, and seems to love us, although I think she is a little afraid of me, probably (I hope) because she knows I am the alpha female. She isn't housebroken yet, but I can tell she understands the concept of outdoors = toilet.

Her tummy was bloated the day we got her,
but it has gone down and our vet has declared her worm-free.

I have had a hard time getting good photos because Phoebe is more or less the exact same color as our floors.  I tried to take some pictures outside, and she's also the exact color of the fallen leaves.

blending into the floor.

Sancho:  Thanks.  Thanks a lot.

Sancho's initial reaction was pointed indifference, followed by mild curiosity and faint annoyance. Ian wasn't with us when we brought Phoebe home, but came over to do laundry a few days later, and Sancho cried and cried at him, as if to say, "Look what they've done!" Now, after a week, he has progressed to tolerance--as long as she doesn't cross certain boundaries.  I think they will be good friends once she stops trying to use his face as a chew toy.  Our sweet Luna would have loved Phoebe and wanted to mother her, but she died last winter at age thirteen.

How did we arrive at the name Phoebe?  I campaigned hard for "Edwina" but Jon was not having it.  (Jon wanted to name her Kali or Aoife but the kids and I rejected these with vigor.)  My second choice was Violet, which Jon hated as much as Edwina.  There was a lively argument while we tossed names around: Harriet, Norah, Matilda, Oonagh, Nellie, Maude.  For a while, we all agreed on Maude, with the understanding that Jon could call her Mo, but my great-grandmother's name was Maude which troubled my conscience.  At last we settled on Phoebe, which has the Victorian old lady sound I was hoping for and also won't embarrass Jon when he calls to her in public. It turns out Phoebe is a trendy name for girls and suddenly we know several people who know people who have girls named Phoebe.  What would you name a puppy?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: What would Jonathan Franzen say?

The New Yorker recently published the list of nominations for the National Book Award.  Reading the article actually made me anxious because I have not read a single book on the list.  I also haven't read any recent winners of the Man Booker Prize,  or any recent Pulitzer Prize winners (scratch that, I did read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, the 2009 winner).  Years ago, I started a book list for myself, and I doggedly stick to it.  Of course, I add books to it, such as Hilary Mantel's Bringing up the Bodies which won the Booker Prize for 2012, but most of the books on my list are either serious literature that was published so long ago that nobody cares anymore or self-indulgent escape reads, like vintage YA novels or Mary Stewart's romantic suspense novels.  I feel like I have become out of touch with the world of modern literature.

I know--if my biggest problem today is that I don't have time to read the wealth of books at my disposal, then I really don't have any problems.  Sometimes I like to imagine what Jonathan Franzen would say to my literary moanings, and in this case, I think he would say, "You think a book needs to win a PRIZE to be considered worthy of your notice?  Why aren't you at the library, checking out every new book that comes in, rather than relying on the prize-makers to tell you what to read?  Fair enough, and now that Jonathan Franzen has made it clear to me, I wonder how much the prize makers steer the course of literature.  Is good literature ignored by everyone because it isn't nominated for a prize?  Or do the prizes exist to bring the good literature to the attention of the average reader?

Do you try and keep up with prize-winning literature?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Dinner in the suburbs

The restaurant Pasture opened recently in the Shops at Stonefield, a suburban conglomerate of shops, that's designed (not-so successfully, in my opinion) to resemble a town center.  Pasture already has a location in Richmond and has now expanded into Charlottesville.  The Pasture in Charlottesville has gotten a lot of buzz, so Jon and I decided to check it out.

Stonefield has been open for about a year and Jon has never been there.  I've nipped into the Trader Joe's a few times, and took the kids to its theater to see The Hobbit, but it's not really part of my stomping grounds either.  Of course we had to be insufferably OMG I CAN'T BELIEVE WE'RE EATING IN THE SUBURBS and Jon insisted to a guy we met at the bar that he hasn't been outside of Belmont in two years, which is patently untrue.

I ordered the Deltaville cocktail, which is a mixture of vodka and jam.  The variety of jam depends on what they have available, and what was available on Friday was pineapple.  That probably sounds disgusting to you, but I loved this drink.  I think it is cut with plain soda water.  It was sweet, but not overly so and pineapple and vodka make a stunning combination.  I would definitely order this again.

Pineapple Deltaville

The menu has a lot of snacks and small plates, and we chose to order from among these selections.  I prefer tapas-style because it gives you the opportunity to taste a greater variety of things, and it's easier not to get overwhelmed with tons of food.  Our neighbor recommended the fried okra, so we started with that and it was spectacular.

I ordered a salad because I was being tiresome about eating something healthy.  It was a bit boring.  We also had the pumpkin hummus.  It comes with sticks of jicama for dipping, which went well with the pumpkin and made me feel less guilty than pita bread would have.  Our last dish was a small plate of meatballs, which our server chose for us because they were out of the chicken sausage we wanted.  These too were good. I could have sworn our server told us he was bringing us chorizo balls, but these were definitely not chorizo.  They were chicken, mildly spicy and served on top of a root vegetable puree that I can't identify.  Potato + parsnip, maybe?  Since I didn't read the description on the menu, I'm clueless.

Because of the virtuous jicama and salad, we shared a dessert: Boston cream pie, which comes in a mini mason jar.  The trendiness of mason jars is causing many eye rolls on my part, but I loved this dessert.

Stonefield seems to still have a lot of vacant storefronts and the parking lot is a disaster.  It's hard to find your way around, it's hard to find the exits, there are a lot of confusing intersections where it's unclear who has the stop sign. We had difficulty finding Pasture, and only managed after I caught a glimpse of a cow on top of one of the buildings and took it for a clue.  I'd love to know how many fender benders there have been in that lot since the shops opened.

What do you think of "town center" shopping developments?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Slow as Molasses in January

Did you ever really consider molasses?  As you add it to your pumpkin pie and gingerbread this year, imagine two million gallons of it washing through your neighborhood, destroying everything in its path.  Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo is the story of how a molasses storage tank burst and inundated the North End of Boston in 1919.

Molasses was used to make "industrial alcohol" which was in great demand during World War I. In 1915 the US Industrial Alcohol company rushed to build a massive tank on the Boston waterfront. Almost immediately, there were questions about the integrity of the tank's construction, and molasses leaked from its seams from the first moment it was filled.

In January, 1919, an enormous load of molasses was pumped into the tank.  The molasses from the ship was warmer than the molasses in the tank.  Overnight, the weather warmed dramatically and the molasses was heard making ominous sounds inside the tank.  Molasses isn't an inert substance.  It will ferment and create gasses. Around noon, the tank burst, and the molasses wave destroyed everything in its path.  Buildings were knocked off their foundations, the elevated railway crumpled, and people and animals in the path of the flood were killed.  Some of them drowned in molasses.  Others were rescued, but died later, of traumatic injuries. The survivors suffered PTSD and never fully recovered from their physical injuries.

The nature of molasses made this disaster particularly horrible.  It filled basements, it filled the mouths and noses of those caught in the flood,  it drained continuously from the hair and clothes of the victims, so that the floor of the hospital emergency room because so clogged with molasses, they couldn't push the stretchers.  It got into wounds and caused devastating infections.  Victims complained of terrible thirst--probably because molasses's density interfered with their electrolyte balance.  When I was a nurse, we used to mix enemas out of milk and molasses (the "brown cow") and it worked like a charm for our most constipated patients, but to be completely coated in it for hours must have had a strange affect on the body chemistry.

The book is divided into three parts. First is a history of the construction of the tank, and the long history of molasses as an important part of the New England economy.  It was one corner of the "triangle trade," the other two being slaves and rum.  Puleo also introduces some of the people who suspected that the tank was unsafe, and some of the people who were killed by it.  The second part of the book describes the disaster itself.  The third is about the resulting lawsuit, which is important, as it had implications for big business being held responsible for their negligence.  The book is a fast and fascinating read, and also very informative about the history and political climate of the time. Read it if you want to be outraged by big business' disregard for the safety of the communities they affect.

It's a bit bizarre that there are two children's books about the flood, (The Great Molasses Flood by Beth Brust and  Molasses Flood by Blair Lent) both of which seem to retell the story as a jolly adventure.  In the real disaster, two children, who had been in the habit of collecting the dripping molasses from the tank and bringing it home to their families, were crushed and suffocated to death.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Hall project update

You may remember that several months ago, I announced that I was going to paint my front hall, stairway and upstairs landings.  You may also recall that some past owner of the house painted all the woodwork with hideous mustard colored oil based paint and then the owners previous to us hastily slapped white latex over the oil based, with unfortunate results.

The man at Meadowbrook Hardware said I had to get ALL of the white paint off the wood.  The man at Lowe's said I had to get "most" of it off.  My goal was all, but I settled for most.

When you get to the top of our stairs, you are on a very small landing and confronted with three doors.  To the left is the bathroom, to the right is Seamus' room, and straight ahead is Grace's room.  Each doorway is heavily encased in wood trim.  My tiny landing has more molding per square inch than King Gustav's hunting lodge, if he had a hunting lodge, which I'm assuming he did and that it was ornate.

So I scraped and scrubbed and applied stripper in a few stubborn areas, and then scraped some more. No matter how much white paint I removed, there was always more.  There comes a point when you are just done, and I was done on Sunday morning at 08:55.

So I applied the oil-based primer, which is what I have been told is the necessary buffer between the mustard oil-base and the new white latex that I will be applying.  And was I still finding loose flakes of white paint as I primed, even though I'd sanded and washed with TSP and sanded again?  Yes.  Also, the previous owners painted right over the grime on the mustard paint.  I can't say I blame them.  If I bought a house with mustard woodwork, I'd probably slap something over it pretty damn quick.  Primed wood isn't pretty, but it is WORLDS better than this:

I KNOW about the visible brush strokes.
Oil-based paint is hard to work with.
I'm pretty sure the top coat will hide my brush strokes.

I haven't done the doors, just the trim around them.  I think I will send the doors away to be dipped and re-painted.  Fun fact:  do you see the ceiling?  It was painted mustard too.  There's a half-moon slice of mustard paint still visible around half of our smoke detector.

This project is so not even close to being done.  There is still all the woodwork on the stairs and around the front door and the downstairs hall, and once all of that is primed and painted, there are the walls. Now that the upstairs landing is primed, I'm going to do the molding under the staircase. This should go much faster because it is flat.  I hate that curlicue trim, but I'm not into replacing it right now.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: The Book and the Brotherhood

It took me a little while to get into The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch, but I'm glad I persevered.  There's a certain sensuality to Murdoch's novels.  Her characters are usually rich, educated people who have beautiful things, live in enviable houses, and wear lovely clothes. Murdoch describes all these things with exquisite attention to detail, without ever lapsing into flowery or effusive language.  Of all the characters in literature, Iris Murdoch's are the ones I'm most inclined to envy, even though terrible things happen to them.

In The Book and the Brotherhood, there are large country houses and flats in London and a stone farmhouse in the south of France.  There's a midsummer ball at Oxford and sports cars and Rolls Royces and ball gowns and day dresses.  Gerard, Jenkin, Duncan, Crimond, Rose, and Jean were friends at Oxford.  Now they are middle aged and entangled in their complicated relationships.  Gerard has slept with almost everyone in the group.  Jean and Duncan are married, but Jean had an affair with Crimond, years ago.  Rose is in love with Gerard and Gerard was in love with her brother Sinclair, who was killed in a tragic accident. Jenkin is the monastic in the group who hasn't slept with anyone. The crisis is that Crimond, who the rest of the group has been financing for twenty years so he can finish his life's work, a book on political philosophy, is now nearly finished with the book and has also stolen Jean from Duncan for the second time.

At first, I couldn't keep track of all the characters and I couldn't see where Murdoch was going with the story.  Eventually, her whole brilliant plan becomes clear and you find yourself a little stunned at the intricate interweaving of the plot lines.  Some of the Amazon customer reviewers call this her strongest work.  All of Murdoch's work is strong, but I'm inclined to agree that The Book and the Brotherhood is one of her best.

Monday, November 04, 2013


I was on call this weekend, which meant staying close to home and attending to domestic matters.  I am mildly obsessed with laundry, probably because of our time in Kalamazoo, Michigan with two infants and no washing machine.  Twice a week, I lugged all our household wash, plus diapers to the laundromat and back.  Did I mention that I also had to bring the babies?  And the diaper pail? And that we lived in a second-floor apartment? And no, this wasn't 1915, but 1993.

Last year, my washing machine died and puzzled three repairmen.  Now my dryer is on the fritz.  It works sometimes, but quits after a few minutes if I put anything heavy into it, and needs at least twenty minutes to rest before it will start again.  This is the second time this dryer has broken, and I'm not interested in paying to have it repaired, and even if I were, it would have to get in line behind the refrigerator and the dishwasher.

Lots of people live perfectly well without clothes driers and I am no stranger to the clothesline myself, but carrying heavy clothes up and down two flights of stairs is a pain in the ass, which is why I'd love to copy the Portuguese method and hang a clothes drying system outside a window.

The materials are simple:  two brackets, wire cable, pulleys, and a turnbuckle for connecting the two ends of your cable.  I have searched google in vain for instructions because I don't feel confident enough to design one myself and the correct bracket does not seem to be available in the United States.  With this arrangement we would definitely get the Charlottesville Side-eye, although I'm used to that after fifteen years in this city. Then again, I could just install an indoor rack.  This ceiling-mounted one is tempting, or this simpler one.  I also like this wall mounted accordion style drier.  I could also erect a small drying rack on the back roof.  Pros: arguably easier to climb out the window than to descend two flights of stairs (and yet infinitely more ridiculous).  No worries about dog shit in the back yard.  Cons:  Would blow into the neighbor's yard on first really windy day.

Nowadays, clotheslines are frowned on, or even banned in some neighborhoods.  It takes a special kind of asshole to make a rule against fresh air laundry drying.  Clean clothes, swinging in the breeze on a sunny day are a lovely sight, although I concede that sad, neglected laundry that has been left out in the rain does look pretty awful.

Yesterday afternoon, while inflated with espresso, I began to see exciting possibilities in allowing our dryer to die its slow death and getting rid of it altogether.  We could use the space it occupies for something else, like storage, or an air-drying system, or just space to put laundry supplies.

Our laundry area
PS After extensive searching, I found a website devoted to urban clotheslines, that carries a product similar to, although  not exactly what I want, but their prices are outrageous.  Over $200 for two brackets and some cable?  I don't think so.

What do you think?  Would you give up your drier?  Would you attach a European-style laundry drying system to the outside of your house?  Would your neighbors shun you if you did so?