Sunday, January 29, 2012

READING: Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love

This week's read:

Lara Vapnyar's collection of short stories includes the O. Henry prizewinner "Puffed Rice and Meatballs," but that's not why I bought it. I bought it because I like broccoli, and it was 50 cents.

I picked it up on a closing-day clearance rack at the Borders store in Marlton. That was a sad day for me, since I spent many Friday nights of my teenage life at that Borders, drinking blueberry Italian sodas and reading Dr. Seuss books. (Nerd alert. But that still sounds like a perfect night to me.)

I'd been meaning to read Vapnyar's Memoirs of a Muse, but this was cheaper and it was there. I love short stories to begin with, and I love food, so naturally I loved the concept of weaving food into stories of love and loneliness -- expired broccoli as a metaphor for a marriage taken for granted, a man who is more interested in his prostitute's Russian cooking than her services, and a riot over puffed rice.

Speaking of puffed rice, I hit a weird stumbling block in that story. The lead character is Katya. Katya, Katya, Katya, for seven pages. And then, three times on page 57, she's referred to as Ruzena. Then back to Katya on page 58. The lead character in "Slicing Sauteed Spinach" (which was actually my favorite of the bunch, no pun intended, I swear) is Ruzena. Did I get a bum copy? Some weird first edition with a printing error? Has anyone read the original version in Zoetrope or the O. Henry 2006 collection or the paperback or...anything?

My husband's theory: "That's what you get for 50 cents."

Anyway. Apart from that little little blip, it was a good, quick read. And it made me want some baked broccoli. (Shameless self-promo? Yes indeedy.)

Need to decide what's next. Mindy Kaling? Goon Squad? Reliable Wife?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

READING: The Sweet In-Between

This week's read:

It was bound to happen eventually, so I might as well get it out of the way in the third week: I didn't love this book. 

Actually, I started out hating this book. Three days into the week, I was still on page 38. I considered giving it up and switching proverbial horses, but a few friends convinced me to stick it out in case something amazing happened in the next fifty pages. I took their advice -- after all, I hated the movie Shawshank Redemption right up until the last 10 minutes, and now (like the rest of the world) it's one of my favorite movies. I had to start Harry Potter three times before it clicked, and now I'm a full-on fanatic. (I'm a Ravenclaw, and you?)

By the end of the book, I had upgraded my review to "okay." I'm glad I stuck with it, if only so I knew I wasn't missing a brilliant prison escape or acceptance into wizarding school.

Quick recap: After her mom dies of cancer and her dad is imprisoned, Kenny Lugo lives with her dad's girlfriend and her dysfunctional family. She worries that she'll be kicked out when she turns 18, and obsesses over a shooting that takes place next door. (It's described as a "senseless murder" on the book jacket, but it's more of an accidental homicide.) And...that's it. There's a lot of obsessing, and in the course of her obsessing, Kenny slowly reveals how bad her life has been and the reasons for her "gender confusion." (Spoiler alert: It turns out to be more of a defense mechanism than a lifestyle choice, by which I mean I started to feel like everyone in the book had molested everyone else at some point or another.) I did eventually get to a point where I was rooting for Kenny, but she didn't stay with me after I put the book down.

I think the main issue was that I expected a sweet coming-of-age story wrapped in a murder mystery (thanks, book jacket!) and got a slow-burning, depressing-for-the-sake-of-it family drama. Objectively, I know it was a really well-written book. But for me, I think this passage from the book pretty much sums it up:
I repeat the terms in my sleep -- rising action, climax -- and I pretend that's how life is shaped, falling action, denouement. If you know the patterns, then everything becomes bearable and everything makes sense. 
But it isn't that way at all. Nothing's predictable, not in real life.... Sometimes I get stuck in one place, exposition forever. I can't get to climax to save my life. I get stuck on orange pulp, and orange pulp's all there is.
Oh well. Like I mentioned, actual book critics seemed to love it, so don't take my word for it. Read the first 38 pages and see if it clicks.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

READING: Free-Range Kids

This week's read:

I'm not a big fan of parenting books...or parenting blogs...or parenting advice in general. But I stumbled across Lenore Skenazy's story a few weeks ago and immediately added her book to my library request list. (You can request books and movies on our library's website and they'll mail them to you, like magical free Netflix!)

This is her story: A year or two or three ago, she let her nine-year-old ride the subway home from Bloomingdale's. Alone. She wrote a column about his experience, Ann Curry ripped her a new one, and she was subsequently labeled "America's Worst Mom." (Really? This, from the same cable news stations who run 24-hour coverage of Casey Anthony?)

The self-righteous refrain was, of course, what if something happened?! But armed with surprising statistics, Skenazy points out that the odds of "something" happening are really, really, really slim. The odds of being abducted and killed by a stranger? 1 in 1.5 million. The chances of being killed at school? 0.0003%. And no one in recorded history has actually been poisoned by Halloween candy.

Yet parents will go to extremes to prevent the unthinkable from happening -- driving their kids to the bus stop, X-raying candy, enforcing zero-tolerance policies at school. (Don't get me started on the last one -- my niece was suspended last year for drawing a cartoon of her friend getting crushed by an anvil. Like she was plotting a secret anvil attack.)

But Skenazy argues that the mantra of "better safe than sorry" is actually hurting our kids. In trying to prevent one-in-a-million tragedies from affecting them, we chip away at their freedom, their confidence, their self-reliance. We keep them from exploring nature (there could be pedophiles in the woods!). We tether them to cell phones. We don't let them cook meals, walk to the bus stop, or see a movie without a parent hovering nearby.

For me, the most interesting tidbit was the evolutionary explanation for our paralyzing fear of the unlikely. For the entire course of human history, up until about 50 years ago, anything you saw was an immediate physical threat. If you saw a mountain lion, there was a mountain lion, and you'd better run. But with the advent of television, we could see things (shark attacks! plane crashes! CSI!) that weren't actually real. But our hard-wiring hasn't completely caught up with technology, so when we see a kidnapping on TV, we assume our kid is next. When we see a body in a freezer on CSI, we assume the world is full of sickos. We still process things we see as an immediate physical threat -- even if it's just looped footage on Nancy Grace.

I love nerdy little explanations like that.

I could go on and on (and on and on and on) about all the things I loved about this book, but to sum it up:

  1. I'm so glad my mom used to let me and my friends play by the creek all summer even though the combination of woods and water and all the things potentially lurking therein probably gave her several panic attacks;
  2. I'm totally letting my kids walk to school (although I'm secretly glad it's only a block from our house);
  3. To anyone who gave me a judgy 'tude when I didn't warm my kids' bottles or wipes, I just want to say nyah-nyah-nyah
  4. Every parent should switch off Fox News for one day and read this book instead. It's good for the sanity.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

ROOST: I made a patchwork quilt. Don't judge me.

Okay, I know this is way beyond my normal level of craftiness, which is zero. (If you don't believe me, click the "crafts" tab. I think I'm up to a whopping two posts.)

But I had to do something to save my favorite pajamas! Let me explain. In 2008, I went to Disney World. I'm a total Disney freak, it was my 16th visit, it was Christmas, and I was six months preggo with my older son, Danger. So I was pretty much as happy as I could get, despite the fact that 14 hours a day of Disney magic made my cankles look like legit water buffalo hooves.

Anyway, I bought a pair of awesome pajama pants while I was there. I loved the fabric -- hot pink, day-glo orange, lime green, turquoise, red, and black. It was borderline vaudeville and borderline tacky, and I wore them almost every night (and some days) for about two years, until they finally ripped. Hubby suggested it was finally time to get rid of them. I'm pretty sure I heard joy in his voice -- I think these pants were his Leg Lamp. "I am never throwing these out!" I proclaimed. "I will make them into a quilt!"

Cue one year later and the pants were still sitting on a shelf in my office. "Can we throw these out now?" hubby asked. We were in the middle of a 365 project in which we threw out one item a day, so I had to get going on the quilt or the pants would be tossed.

The only problem was I had never made a quilt before. But between a vague recollection of seventh grade Home Ec, a helpful Joann's Fabrics employee (who patiently fielded questions like, "what's batting?" and "how do you put all the layers together?"), and occasionally checking Pinterest to make sure I wasn't screwing up royally, I managed to cobble it together. Here's a basic patchwork quilt tutorial, if you can call it that. I won't use any technical terms because I don't know them.

STEP 1: Pick out a crap ton of fabric. If you're not familiar with fabric, it's usually 54" wide -- you order the length you need in yards. I bought two yards for the back of the quilt, plus a cumulative 2-3 yards for the front of the quilt. Err on the high side for the front, since you'll lose a lot of square inches while sewing. I got a full yard of polka-dot blue for the front, 1/2 yard of orange, 1/2 yard of lime, 1/2 yard of hot pink, and had about 1/2 yard after I cut up my pants. The cotton and flannel fabrics are usually cheapest, which is good when you need a lot of yardage and there's a distinct chance you're going to ruin everything and/or give up.

STEP 2: Cut fabric into 6-inch squares. My quilt is about 4' x 5', which required 96 squares. (Save some for the trim -- a little over half a yard.)

STEP 3: Make a map. This is nerdy, but it was a huge help. I didn't want to have three big squares of lime next to each other, or to get halfway through the quilt and realize I'd run out of Mickey squares.

STEP 4: Lay the first two squares front-to-front and sew the right edge. Set your sewing machine to go in a straight line, pretty tight stitch. I don't know what the settings are actually called, but I do know that my one-year-old, Dash, changed them every single time I walked away from the sewing machine for more than three seconds. 

STEP 5: Keep repeating step 4 (front-to-front, sew right edge) until you have a full line of fabric squares:

STEP 6: Roll it up and stick a label on it so you know which line it is on your map. Not vital, but it'll save you a lot of time and brainpower later.

STEP 7: Do the above steps for each line in your quilt-map.

STEP 8: Take line 1 and line 2 and lay them face-up on the floor. Flip line 2 over so it's facedown on line 1, and sew the bottom edge. I forgot to take a photo of this step, but it's probably fairly intuitive. If it makes your fabric squares start to look like a real patchwork quilt, you did it right! (If this makes no sense at all, do a Pinterest search, and godspeed.)

STEP 9: Once you have the full patchwork portion of the quilt sewn together, you can cut your trim pieces.   First, you'll need two pieces that are 6" wide (or whatever looks good to you) x (the length of your quilt).

STEP 10: Lay the trim facedown against the left edge of your patchwork, and sew the left edge. Then do the same thing on the right side of your patchwork, sewing the right edge. For reasons unknown, I took three photos of this step.

STEP 11: Cut another two pieces of trim -- this time, 6" wide x (the width of your quilt). It's important to save this cutting until now, so you know how wide your quilt is after the left and right trim pieces are added. Unless you're a master quilter and really good at measuring, in which case, why are you reading this tutorial? I told you I don't know what I'm doing!

STEP 12: Sew the trim on the top and bottom, the same way you did on the left and right. Now you have a finished front piece!

STEP 13: Cut the back piece of fabric to the same size as the front.

STEP 14: Go buy some batting. (If you already have batting, because you knew you'd need it way back in the title when I said the word "quilt," then you're a step ahead of me.) Cut the batting to the same size as the front and back of the quilt.

STEP 15: Make a quilt sandwich. Front side (face up), batting, back side (face down). Oh -- if you want to "sign" the quilt, now's the time to do it, before you close it up. 

STEP 16: Pin the edges together. If you want to tack the quilt, you can do that now. Basically, just take embroidery thread, and at various points in the patchwork, loop the needle through all three layers of fabric and back, and tie it in place. This just keeps the binding from bunching up when you wash it. There are other, more complicated ways to do this, but I didn't try any of them. 

STEP 17: Bind the edges. Okay, this step could probably use its own tutorial, but if you buy pre-made binding, it's actually fairly intuitive and easy. Ask the people at Joann's -- they're really nice. Just fold the binding under at the corners for clean edges.

...and there you go! A quilt you can brag about for generations to come. And a great way to rescue your favorite pajamas, baby clothes, old shirts, etc.

I'm exhausted.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

READING: Bossypants

This week's read:

I'm an SNL fanatic, and Tina Fey is one of my writing idols, so it's safe to say my expectations for this book were slightly which I mean I expected it to be the Best Thing Ever.

And I was so right! It was awesome!

When I tell my husband how much I love Tina Fey, he says, "Of course you do. She's you." Not exactly true -- for example, she's famous, and at least fifty times funnier than I am. I think he's confusing Tina Fey with Liz Lemon, who actually is a TV-version of me, as evidenced by the time she tried to shotgun a pizza.

But he may be onto something, because I spent most of the week yelling, "YESTHAT'SEXACTLYITTHANKYOU!!!!" at various passages in the book. I marked so many pages with Post-Its that the book looks like a kids' taggie toy.

My personal favorite is an excerpt from the chapter about her honeymoon cruise. A fuel pipe burst and the passengers had to wait at the muster stations to find out whether they'd need to evacuate the ship in lifeboats. After the cruise director finally assured everyone that the fire was out, she writes:
While people around me start to relax, I keep my eyes on the sea, waiting to be rocketed into it on a wave of fire. I'll be ready for it to happen and that way it won't happen. It's a burden, being able to control situations with my hyper-vigilance, but it's my lot in life.
Yes, that's exactly it, thank you! For years, I was terrified of flying -- I'd hyperventilate when we boarded, sob when we took off, pray until landing, and then eat everything available in the destination airport because I'd been too nervous to eat for the previous four days. I cognitively knew planes were safe, and couldn't figure out why I couldn't overcome the phobia. Finally I realized -- I wasn't scared of flying, I was scared that if I stopped being scared, the plane would crash from some sort of irony-wind-shear. This passage got a Post-It note and a star.

Then there's this excerpt from her "Prayer for My Daughter":
Guide her, protect her when crossing the street, stepping onto boats, swimming in the ocean, swimming in pools, walking near pools, standing on the subway platform, crossing 86th Street, stepping off of boats, using mall restrooms, getting on and off escalators, driving on country roads while arguing, leaning on large windows, walking in parking lots, riding Ferris wheels, roller-coasters, log flumes, or anything called "Hell Drop,""Tower of Torture," or "The Death Spiral Rock 'N Zero G Roll featuring Aerosmith," and standing on any kind of balcony ever, anywhere, at any age.
Yes, that's exactly it, thank you.

Other that that, I loved...well, pretty much everything else. Her missive on formula-feeding. Her insomniac internal debate about whether to have more kids. Her use of one of my grandmother's favorite sayings, "go shit in your hat." (Is that a Philly thing?)

Anyway. If you haven't read it, get on that.

And one last quote: "When people say, 'You really, really must' do something, it means you don't really have to... When it's true, it doesn't need to be said." (But you really should read this book.)

RECIPE: Smores Fun, Part 2: Portable Smores

I love smores. Campfires? Not so much. I have a wicked case of pyrophobia. Just lighting a candle at home requires serious strategy and vigilance -- Will I be home the rest of the day? There's no chance of me leaving the candle unattended, as the label explicitly warns against? OMG, did an ember just fly off when I blew it out? I'd better go look for it.... So a forest fire is my personal equivalent of a 25-foot python or a hairy spider the size of your fist. Which makes camping difficult, because I have to stay up all night making sure our fun smores-fest isn't going to burn down the Pine Barrens.

I guess my point is, these smores are much easier. And less messy. And they last for days and travel well in a Ziploc bag. All good things!

You'll need:

  • jumbo marshmallows
  • melting chocolates (I got them at Michael's)
  • graham crackers
  • wax paper (preferably...but a cookie sheet would work)

STEP 1: Crush one sleeve of graham crackers. I put them in a plastic baggie and used the flat side of a meat tenderizer. Ideally, stop when they look like tiny graham cracker crumbles, but before they turn into powder (but powder's okay, too). Pour the crushed grahams into a small bowl.

STEP 2: Melt the chocolate using the instructions on the bag. Don't overcook it or it'll turn into a weird crystallized lump of crap -- I speak from experience.

STEP 3: Hold a jumbo marshmallow by the rim and dip the top part in the chocolate, then roll it in the graham crumbs. Place the un-chocolate-ified side on the wax paper and let dry. Repeat until you run out of chocolate or graham crackers. Test them often along the way. You're not checking for anything in particular -- you're just, you know, being a responsible cook.

These were a HUGE hit at Christmas. Because really. They're fantastic.

Friday, January 6, 2012

RECIPE: Smores Fun, Part 1: Smores Pseudo-Martini

The other night, my hubby was like, "Make me a nightcap!" Then he went back to chewing on his pipe and reading through his monocle. Or maybe not. His actual request was, "You should make me a fancy drink and then blog about it" -- always keeping the idea mill running :)

So here's what I came up with, despite that fact that my bartending experience is limited. (This is an understatement. I only have a 70% success rate working a bottle opener, let alone preparing actual drinks.) I was going to call this a "smores martini," but I think a martini has to have vermouth...? Whatever. It's a delicious smores-inspired beverage served in a martini glass.

You'll need:

  • 1 oz. tasty vodka (chocolate, vanilla, marshmallow)
  • 1 oz. Baileys Irish Cream
  • chocolate syrup
  • 1 oz. half and half
  • 1 oz. milk
  • graham crackers and marshmallows (for garnish) (I just like saying "for garnish")

Obliterate the graham crackers. Rim the glass with the cracker crumbs. You can use milk or icing to make it stick.

Squeeze some chocolate syrup into the bottom of the glass.

Mix the beverage-y stuff in a shaker (or in your gym water bottle, whatevs) and pour into a martini glass. Dress it up nice with some marshmallows on a skewer et voila*, you have a smores martini that's not really a martini.


* No idea if I used that correctly.