Friday, December 23, 2011

Cookie of the Month: Gingerbread Cookies!

Because of time constraints (and waistline constraints) I haven't made many cookies over the past few months. But it's holiday season, so it's time to make cookies—and what kind is more appropriate for the season than gingerbread? I consulted my trusty Better Homes & Gardens recipe book:

5 cups all-purpose flour
1½ t. baking soda
½ t. salt
2 t. ground ginger
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. ground cloves
1 cup shortening
1 egg
1 cup molasses
2 T. vinegar

Beat shortening for 30 seconds. Add sugar; beat until fluffy. Add egg, molasses, and vinegar; beat well. Add dry ingredients (flour, spices, soda, salt) and beat well. (I was so glad I had my trusty KitchenAid for this step; adding 5 cups of flour to any recipe is too much for my poor wrists and elbows.) Cover and chill 3 hours or overnight. You'll end up with a stiff mass, like in the picture here.

Divide dough into thirds. On a lightly floured surface, roll each third of dough to a ⅛-inch thickness. (Keep remainder chilled.) Cut into desired shapes.

Baker's note: This is always the challenging part for me: trying to keep the dough even. At least with cookies, you don't have to spread the dough evenly, and when you have extra you can re-roll it. In that fashion, I would roll and cut, roll and cut, roll and cut, until I ran out of dough. The recipe said "Makes 60"; since I used bigger cutters, I probably had more around four dozen.
Place cut-out dough one inch apart on greased cookie sheet (or ungreased well-used stone, as I have). Bake in a 375° F oven for 5 to 6 minutes. Cool one minute; remove to a wire rack.

You end up with some really tasty cookies. While they were baking, and since I didn't know how they would taste, I thought they might need some glaze. I made a simple confectioners' sugar-and-water glaze and brushed it over some of the cookies. The picture to the left shows an unglazed on top, the glazed on the bottom. The cookies were actually pretty tasty without the glaze; nice and chewy, not too sweet and nicely spicy, and very addicting. This would be a great recipe to use for gingerbread houses, trains, or other construction—if you can bear holding off on eating them.

Final verdict: nom nom nom nom nom (five of five noms).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Photo of the Week--12/19/11

Again, Mother Nature takes your architectural flourishes, your cornices and finials and whatnot, and says, "Yeah, babe, I did it first." I took this picture on the Glacier El Martial near Ushuaia, the southernmost town in Argentina. It was December, the beginning of summer, and so much of the snow had melted as we walked around the lovely scenery on the mountain. I found this stand of trees, so marvelously knotted and twisted, and couldn't resist snapping a shot.

Friday, December 16, 2011

This post is no joke

If you're one of my multitudes dozens handful of regular readers, you've probably noticed that I haven't posted much in this blog in the past month. Part of it is because, yes, I got out of the habit and yes, it's hard to get back into the habit once you stop exercising. (That rule applies to both physical and mental exercise, wouldn't you know it.) I got out of the habit because of a family situation: my mother-in-law passed away last month after a long illness. And it just seemed so hard to get back into the habit, to write something light and amusing, when we were all still missing her.

As a bridge back to blogging, and just because I loved her so and want to share it, I'm posting here the words I spoke at her memorial, simple and unadorned:

They say that you can’t pick your family. You’re born, and you’re stuck with them. Well, that’s not exactly true. When you decide to get married, you choose your spouse, and you choose the family that comes along with them. But there you can be stuck, too—at least, that’s what all the “in-law” jokes would tell you. Mothers-in-law, especially, can be a problem. Overbearing, interfering, critical ... those are all the stereotypes.

Well, anyone who ever met my mother-in-law knows she never conformed to any stereotype. When I married TSU and became her daughter-in-law, I discovered a woman who was generous and kind, with a sometimes-wicked wit. Although there are several stories I could tell to illustrate her thoughtful nature, there’s one in particular that stands out.

After Boy was born, we had a little mixup in scheduling. TSU had accepted a new job, but when he picked a start date he hadn’t put any wiggle room into his schedule. I guess he figured that a baby’s delivery date was like a FedEx delivery date, but Boy decided to be born a week late. So TSU began his job two days after we came home from the hospital. I was faced with dealing with a new baby, only a few days after having a C-section.

Of course my own mother took time off from work to stay with us, but she was teaching and only had a limited number of days off. It happened that my mother-in-law's winter break fell right after Boy's birth, and she used it to come help me out. Now understand, she was teaching high school. I have teachers on both sides of my family and I know what kind of hard work goes into it. But where many math or English teachers have two sections of the same class, and only have to prepare lesson plans for three or maybe four different classes, my mother-in-law taught languages. She had different levels of German class, and Latin class, and she might have even been teaching French or classes at the middle school that year. Some of her classes were split—German 3 and 4—so she could have five or even six different class preps every day. I’m sure she had many other things she could have done with her precious free time.

But she came and helped me. And boy did I ever need it. I was an only child, and when I was growing up I was never that interested in handling babies. I had no idea what I was doing. My mother-in-law, I knew, was the oldest of four children, so she’d been around babies her whole life. She had four kids of her own, and they all managed to grow up into productive members of society. Even better, they were all BOYS. I knew nothing about little boys—I didn’t know much about little girls, either, but at least I had been one once. So who knows what my mother-in-law was thinking as she watched this total novice try to deal with this little alien creature, I mean, her precious grandchild.

I don’t know what she was thinking, but this is what she did: she took care of us. She did little chores. She brought me food. She changed a diaper or two. And she never said, “You should do it this way.” Instead, she told me stories of how she had coped with being a mom. She shared her experiences and gave me valuable advice without making me feel like an idiot. She was thoughtful and generous, and during those early days she made me feel like she always did: like I was a welcome member of her team ... and, by the way, that it was nice to have another girl on the team for a change.

My mother-in-law (on left) and my mother, on a family trip we all took to Denmark.
So you do get to choose your family, and sometimes you get incredibly lucky when you make your choice. I feel extraordinarily privileged to have been part of her family, and I will miss her dearly.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Photo of the Week--12/12/11

All those funky little "details" I like to find in architecture? Sometimes nature likes to remind me that She came up with them first. I got this shot in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a lovely park that was only a block from our hotel. The tree was too huge to get in one shot—at least, not without crossing the street and putting the city back in the frame.  But I really took the shot to get the interesting vein-like appearance of this tree's roots; the pretty little dilute tortie was a bonus.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Come and major in overkill!

It's November, Boy has already sent in his college applications (and gotten one acceptance), yet still the deluge continues. I can't stop reviewing the brochures now, though; how else will I discover who won the "most persistent" award? The "furthest away" award? The "????" award? So without further ado, the latest and not-greatest in recruiting literature.

The Michigan also-rans: Grand Valley State (MI, 3), U of M Dearborn (6-8), U-M Flint (3), Oakland U (3), Wayne State U (4-6), Davenport U (3), Central MU (6-8), Western MU (1-4, welcome to the club!), Eastern MU (4-6), U of Detroit Mercy (3), Aquinas (3), Lawrence Tech, Albion (3-4)

The techies: Rose-Hulman Tech (IN, 2-3): Nation's #1 engineering school you haven't heard of; MIT (4-5): Local meeting and how-to-apply brochure. Sigh. Never mind; MO Science & Tech (5); Michigan Tech (3); NYU Polytechnic: Never mind New York City, we rank high in graduates' salaries!

Small schools, small chance: U of Evansville (IN, 2), Manchester College (IN, 3-6): Indiana now trying to vie for most colleges ignored. Northeastern (MA, 2), U of Dayton (OH, 2), Miami (OH, 3), U of Toledo (3), wait, Ohio still pulling ahead.

Last-minute pushes: U of Pittsburgh (3-7)

B1G Ten? Really only about the one: U of Michigan (3-4). Sorry, THE Ohio State U (5-6): we still don't like you or your love of articles; U of Illinois (2): Dept of Science & Engineering, I love the dot-matrix, non-graphic return address!!; Northwestern (2-3): purple!

Ignoring the Ivies: Yale (4), Penn (2), Columbia (2)

Etc.: DePaul U (3), Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt (TN, 3-4), Case Western Reserve (OH, 3), Washington & Lee (VA, 2), the Army and Marines (eep!)

The diehards: U of Chicago (17-18), U of Kentucky (16-21): Since you ignored our first 19 letters, we're sending a paper application in letter #20.

We're hoping we'll have a final answer and maybe an actual decision by the end of the year, so we're also hoping the mail will stop. That seems unlikely, however, so I'll be back with a last assessment sometime in the (hopefully not-too-far) future.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Photo of the Week--11/7/11

More things framed by other things! And all of the things are shiny! And all of the things inside one of my favorite, favorite things in the world! Yes, these lovely stained-glass windows and painted ceilings are framed by lovely marble columns inside the bestest of best places: the U.S. Library of Congress. A library! With shiny shiny pretties in addition to all the books you could ever want! No wonder I'm getting carried away with the exclamation points!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Photo of the Week--10/31/11

Annnnd next in my series of photos of things being framed by other things.... I love going sightseeing in great cities, but they can be very frustrating when you want to get a photo of a beautiful building, and you can't get an angle anywhere that let's you get the whole building—at least not unless you have a helicopter or can otherwise get onto a high floor in a neighboring building. So here I present Trinity Church on Wall Street, framed by buildings on Wall Street. It's a beautiful little building among all the giant skyscrapers in Manhattan, with a lovely little garden. I may get a chance to visit again this fall when I head to New York, who knows?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Quilting How-To: Strip Cutting

So last time I wrote about how I choose colors for my quilts. Of course the next step is to cut the fabric into pieces that fit your pattern. It's one of the funny contradictions of quilting, as a friend's husband once noted: we buy a whole bunch of fabric and cut it up, just so we can sew it together again.

Actually, I should back up half a step; unless you're deliberately seeking that shrunked, puckered fabric look after you've completed your project, you'll want to pre-wash your fabric. I always make sure to safety-pin the ends of the pieces, to reduce the amount of fraying, before I wash and dry the fabric on normal settings. Of course, I make sure to wash light and dark colors separately, to avoid staining, and use Shout Color Catchers if I'm really afraid colors might bleed.

After the fabric is pre-shrunk, and I've ironed the fabric to get rid of wrinkles, I'm ready to start strip cutting. You need three essential tools for this step, which you can see in the photo to the right: a large cutting mat (the green dohickey), a long quilting ruler (the clear plastic thingamabob), and a rotary cutter (the gadget with the blue handle). The cutting mat and quilting ruler should be at least 24 inches long, to accommodate a folded piece of quilting fabric. (They usually come in widths of 42 to 45 inches.)

So my quilt pattern required two sizes of pieces: 2½ x 4½ and 2½ x 6½ inches. When calculating how much fabric I'd need for this quilt, I figured that I'd have less wasted fabric if I started with 2½-inch strips, rather than 4½- or 6½-inch ones. So after cutting a clean edge off once side, making sure that my fold was straight at the top, I was ready to cut a whole bunch of 2½-inch pieces.

You can see it's very simple: make sure the top fold is straight (or anything cut with the fold in the middle will be off center), then line up the 2½-inch marker on the ruler with the edge of the fabric, as I've done in the picture. Then you carefully roll the rotary cutter along the edge of the rule. There are two main things to watch: first, don't catch your finger in the cutter, because those things are sharp and you will bleed! (And yes, I speak from experience. Fingers can really bleed a lot.) Second, you have to make sure you don't move the ruler as you press the rotary cutter against it—the tendency is for the bottom or top of the ruler to get pushed away from the ruler as you roll it. When cutting long strips like these, I usually rest my entire arm on the ruler and run the cutter in two stages: from the middle up and then from the bottom to the middle, centering my arm and checking the placement in between cuts.

Once I have my 2½-inch strips, I'm ready to cut those down into 4½- or 6½-inch pieces. Again I use the quilting ruler—I have a smaller, less unwieldy* size for cutting and trimming small pieces—to cut my strips to the required size.

This strip-cutting method can work even if you're not cutting out square or rectangular pieces. If you have triangles or even trapezoids, you can still start with strips. Measure at the widest point, then add an extra ⅛-inch to the strip; this will give you the wiggle room you need when trimming pieced angles. If you have a template for your triangle or trapezoid, put the quilting ruler on top of it as a guide, then cut out your first angles. You should be able to flip the template over (or upside down) to cut the next piece, then flip and cut again. NOTE: if you're not using equilateral triangles, or your shapes are only angled on the one side (the left, for instance), this method may not work if you're not using batik fabrics, which have no "right" or "wrong" side. If your fabric has a wrong side, you may want to check after the first couple of pieces to make sure this method doesn't give you unwanted mirror-image pieces.

When deciding whether to cut everything ahead of time or as I go depends on the pattern. If all the squares in the pattern use the same fabric, I may cut as I go, just to break up the monotony. If, as in this case, I have squares of varying fabrics, and I have to work on arranging the squares in a pattern, I'll cut everything out ahead of time, so when I'm piecing things together I don't suddenly run out of one color and end up with an imbalance of patterns. The secrets of piecing will have to wait until another installment, however.

*Word nerd aside: unwieldy: another of those fun words that we don't use without the prefix, like (dis)gruntled or (non)plussed or (in)ane.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Photo of the Week--10/24/11

Ah, the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. So orange! So shapely! And here I got to take one of my favorite kind of photos: a landscape framed by more landscape! Usually it's trees that I like to use as a frame, but who can resist a big giant hole in a rock? Certainly not me, especially when there's lot of bright, white snow to add contrast.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Quilting How-To: Fabric Selection

One of the bonuses of being done with my book—besides having time to return to this blog—is being able to spend time quilting again. I promised that when I began another project, I would document it as I went along and add to my postings of quilting how-tos. Since I had a good friend getting married, it was time to start another quilt. And so I start here with one of my favorite parts of making a quilt: choosing the fabric.

Actually, the first part of designing the quilt is choosing the pattern, which I'm just going to skim over here. I wanted something quick and easy, so I chose a two-color block with only four pieces. The blocks used several colors, combined into different pairings, so I needed several fabric colors and patterns.

I consulted my friend's registry and saw they had chosen sage and a kind of pale, silvery blue for their sheets. Hey! I thought. I've got some sages and blues in my stash, having made a purple-and-sage pattern for my own bed (still being hand quilted) and a blue-and-red lap quilt for a graduation gift. So I went through and found seven kinds of scrap that fit with the color scheme. I had enough to make one-twelfth of the squares, so I figured I needed eleven more fabrics for the project.

Next stop was my local  Jo-Ann, which has developed a decent selection of batik fabrics over the past few years. (Of course, my scraps are mostly batiks; I prefer the rich, saturated color and not-quite-patterned look most of them have.) They had a lot of olive greens, turquoise greens, and the like, but not much in sage. Fine. I found a really nice navy blue pattern and an excellent silvery blue fabric and added that to my collection. Now I just needed nine more fabrics to have a good selection to mix together.

Luckily, I had a birthday coming up, which meant a trip to Ann Arbor Sewing Center, my favorite place for quilting fabric. Not only do they have a fantabulous, to-die-for selection of batiks, they give a discount on one-yard cuts on your birthday. So driver's license in hand and my mom along to share the fun, I headed over to browse their batik room.

The batik room is a bit overwhelming at first; if you're not sure what colors you want to use, you can get stuck in front of one of the cases (there are at least half a dozen), looking at all the different shades. Luckily, I knew how I wanted to split my nine remaining fabrics: a couple darks, a couple lights, four medium tones in both grey and green, and one contrasting color to kind of "pop" out of the quilt. So I browsed and found a dark navy and one with both dark green and blue. I found two light grey, nearly white patterns (one escaped this photo), and then four mid-tone greens. You'll notice the one near the top left has almost no pattern to it; I find when you're using several fabrics in a quilt, you need a couple of patterns that aren't very busy so that the eye can rest once in a while.

I tried a lot of things for my contrasting "pop" of color: purple, a couple of burgundies, and a couple of rusts. I was leaning towards a golden-rust color when I found the fabric at the top of the picture: a batik ombre that shaded from pure golden yellow at one end to deep orange rust at the other. (In the picture one half of the fabric is sitting atop other half.) I liked the yellow, I like the orange, and it certainly was going to contrast! I got my one-yard cuts, took them home and washed them, and I was ready to start cutting! But that's a step for another how-to....

Monday, October 17, 2011

Photo of the Week--10/17/11

Sometimes the waterfalls themselves aren't all that spectacular, but where they are situated is. This one I snapped in Zion National Park, Utah. I liked the angle from under the overhang, and how that little tree is doing its damnedest to grow despite its precarious position. The multi-colored rocks are pretty cool; I'm always fascinated how water interacts with rock to create so many variations in shape and color.

Friday, October 14, 2011

What does it take to write a book? (Part 2)

So what does it take to write a book, besides letting the housework go to hell? Here's what I did for my book over the last nine months:
  • Read 40 books cover to cover
  • Read portions of another 23 books
  • Read over 100 articles or encyclopedia entries (from databases or web sites)
  • Compiled almost 1100 pages of single-spaced notes
  • About 575 of those pages were written by me on books I read
  • The other 525 were copied/pasted from online articles
  • That breaks down to about 646,000 words of notes (338K original/308K copied)
  • Chose 45 images to be included in the book
  • Chose and excerpted 16 primary sources to be included in the book
And what did I end up with?
  • A prologue and seven chapters totaling just over 38,000 words
  • 12 primary sources totaling 18,720 words
  • 10 biographies totaling 11,180 words
  • An overwhelming sense of relief and accomplishment!
There still might be a few tweaks here and there (maybe a primary source or image cut here and there), and I won't know the final page count until the book is typeset, but I think I can feel confident that I was pretty thorough in doing my research and writing. We'll see when the book comes out and the reviews come in next spring.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A weighty decision....

Okay, it's only been three months since the last time I went through Boy's pile of college brochures, but the shelf where I keep them is close to bursting and depositing all that unwanted paper on my kitchen floor. I put them all in a box and they're sitting on my ankles right now, and the box is really heavy. So in the interest of keeping my shins unbruised, I'm going to go through these a little more quickly, and only comment if I feel inspired. 

Grand Valley State U (MI, 2): Not just a brochure, but free parking and a meal!
U of Kentucky (13-15): Just in case you forgot about us.
Davenport U (MI), U Detroit Mercy (2), UM-Dearborn (4-5), UM-Flint (1-2)
U of Southern Cal (2-4): Come to LA this summer!
Reed College (OR, 2): No chance, but their annual Nitrogen Day sounds like a blast!
Roosevelt U (IL): Downtown Chicago! Plus my cousin teaches there!
U of Toledo (1-2), U of Dayton, Wooster (3): Come to exciting Ohio?
New York U (2): We did mention New York City, right? 
Rose-Hulman Institute of Tech (IN): The best engineering school you've never heard of.
Aquinas College (MI, 1-2): "The most open-hearted, open-minded college in America ... rooted in the Catholic Dominican tradition." Um, yeah.
Eastern MI U (1-3): Oh, Eastern. You have about as much likelihood of getting Boy to attend as your football team has of going undefeated.
Oakland U (MI, 2): Card is nice, but the dancing bear in your TV ads creeps me out.
Central MI U (1-5): Let's see how many in-state colleges we can ignore!
Kettering U (MI, 2-3): That makes the count 12? 13?
Yale U (1-3): Boy believes in equal opportunity when it comes to ignoring brochures, Ivy League! So 2nd postcard addressed to parents. Then a 124-page soft-bound book. No wonder tuition is high.
MIT (3): News supplement for its 150th year; interesting but maybe unobtainable.
University of Michigan (2): Yeah, baby, we've got the president at the Big House!
Alma College (MI, 1-2): They're called the Scots and a picture showed bagpipes. Run, Boy, run!
Carthage College (WI, 2): There's a picture of a huge lake ... that means huge mosquitoes! Run!
Bowling Green State (2): Ohio trying to outbid Michigan in the number of colleges ignored....
Ohio State (4): ... or mocked.
U of Chicago (10): Whoa. They knew we were ignoring the quirky postcards so they sent a massive brochure. Plus postcards (11-12), letter (13-15), and huge brochure (16).
Rice U (TX, 2): They put the tuition right on there to scare you away. 
Missouri S & T (3-4); U North Carolina (2); Pitt (1-2); Carnegie-Mellon (3); Olin College (MA): ????
Northwood U (MI): "Where can you get a great BUSINESS EDUCATION?" Isn't a major part of business knowing your target market? Brochure FAIL.
Manchester U (IN, 1-2): Apply early, get a FREE T SHIRT!
Rensselaer (NY): If you can spell or pronounce it correctly, you're admitted!
Army ROTC: Please, sir, may I not have another!
Michigan Tech (2): Hmm, tell me more about this full scholarship with tuition and stipend.

And that's enough for this installment. I can feel my feet again, and there's room in the drawer, so the rest can wait for a while. I'm hoping that now Boy is actually filling out college applications, the mail will slow down. Boy's senior year could slow down, too, he'll be out of the house before we know it!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Photo of the Week--10/10/11

Sometimes nature comes up with an architecture more spectacular than anything humans can dream up.... This was in Florida in 2005, on a boat a trip through Everglades National Park. Pelicans landed on the boat begging for food before we even left, and of course we saw gators, egrets, and even wild pigs. I was fascinated by the shapes we found in the mangrove swamps, where roots and branches twist and combine and create a maze on the water. On a later trip to the state we would take a canoe into the waterways around Naples, where the mangroves grew even closer together and you had to play limbo under many of the branches.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What does it take to write a book? (Part 1)

I know this blog has been pretty bare lately. That's because I spent the last nine months (and change) researching and writing a history reference book. I was given a rather broad subject—a period of 35 years—and so I spent a lot of nights and weekends reading history books, biographies, economic histories, and other materials. (My next post will go into that in more detail.) As a result, I did not spend any time cleaning my office. So one thing it takes to write a book is to let entropy take over your office, like this:

Note: I'm not the only one in our house who was reading books for fun, and not the only one who couldn't manage to put them away properly.

All the boxes contain small knitting or crochet projects I was working on as a fundraiser for the humane society. When they decided they didn't have room to house our crafts, our store shut down and my projects remained "in progress" in my office rather than put away in my craft room.

Don't ask for a picture showing the entropy in my craft room. Some things are just too embarrassing to blog about.

...aaand here's the real disaster area: my desk. More craft materials, spare books I meant to read, printer cartridges and other supplies, individual papers with notes I need to remember, stacks of feedback from my critique group I'd been ignoring for the past six months....

It took me a good three days (lazy days, at least) to get a handle on this mess. After boxing and storing and organizing and cleaning and hauling things away, this is what I ended up with:

Books stacked neatly! In single layers! (Except for series, a clever space-saving strategy!) Organized! Old ones donated!

Look! My desk is made of wood! Who knew!

But now that the desk is clean, I have to get back to work. I have to try to reduce the stack of feedback I can no longer ignore and tackle the mammoth job of rewriting my novel.

....Unless ... yes ... my craft room needs cleaning! Be back in another week!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Photo of the Week--10/3/11

I love visiting archaelogical sites, especially areas where a whole community of buildings have survived, making it easier to imagine what life might have been like when the city was occupied. This is one of the many buildings that survive from the Mayan city of Tulum, on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. It's a newer city, at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries. Tulum briefly survived Spanish occupation; it was likely abandoned after diseases brought by the Spanish decimated the population.

It's a beautiful site, with temples and a pyramid along with many other buildings, some situated right on the rocky coast of the Caribbean. I liked this photo because of the relatively few tourists in the picture (Tulum is a very popular attraction) and the look of the columns that remain while the ceiling is open to the sky.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

2011 Book Report: Third Quarter

Last quarter I managed to get halfway to my 100-book-year goal, thanks (or no thanks) to research for my history project. How did I do this quarter, and I did read anything for fun? Check out my list below.

Key: C: Children's; F: Fantasy; H: Historical; Hr: Horror; M: Mystery; MG: Middle Grade (ages 8-12); NF: Nonfiction; P: Poetry; SF: Science Fiction; SS: Short Stories; V: Verse novel; YA: Young Adult (age 13+); *not in the last ten years at least; ^for work; #e-book.

07/04/11: David Weber, More Than Honor# (SF, 3 or 4)
07/08/11: Weber, Worlds of Honor# (SF, 3 or 4)
07/18/11: Weber, At All Costs (SF, 2)
07/20/11: Weber, Changer of Worlds# (SF, 2)
07/22/11: Michael Kazin, A Godly Man^ (William Jennings Bryan bio, 1)
07/22/11: Weber, The Service of the Sword# (SF, 2)
07/23/11: Carrie Bebris, The Intrigue at Highbury (M, 1)
07/26/11: Richard Cherny, A Righteous Cause: The Life of WJ Bryan^ (NF, 1)
07/31/11: Weber, The Shadow of Saganami# (SF, 2)
08/07/11: H. Paul Jeffers, An Honest President^ (Cleveland bio, 1)
08/09/11: Henry F. Graff, Grover Cleveland^ (NF, 1)
08/15/11: Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs^ (NF, 1)
08/22/11: Samuel Gompers, 70 Years of Life and Labor^ (memoir, 1)
08/23/11: Weber, Storm from the Shadows# (SF, 1)
08/25/11: Edward Renehan, Dark Genius of Wall Street^ (Jay Gould bio, 1)
08/29/11: Richard Stiller, Queen of Populists^ (Mary Lease bio, 1)
09/03/11: Weber, Mission of Honor# (SF, 1)
09/05/11: Jean Strouse, Morgan: American Financier^ (bio, 1)
09/11/11: Ron Chernow, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.^ (bio, 1)
09/13/11: Louis Sachar, Holes (MG, 1)
09/16/11: Craig Phelan, Grand Master Workman^ (Terence Powderly bio, 1)
09/18/11: Powderly, Terence, The Path I Trod^ (memoir, 1)

Only 22 books this quarter; as you can see, I was doing a lot of research for the biography portion of my book. My deadline was September 27 and I was working weekends and nights to meet it, so I didn't get a lot  of extra reading in. (So much for the "lazy summer.") Only 10 of the 22 books were for "fun," and of those, only four were for the first time.

Although some of the biographies were well written and interesting, I have to pick Louis Sachar's Holes as my favorite. It's not a new book—it won the Newbery Medal in 1998 and was made into a movie that I saw when it came out in 2003—and I'd had it sitting around the house so long I thought I'd already read it. So I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading and realized it was new to me. It's a wonderfully plotted book, with compelling characters and a language that is simple but interesting.

So at 74 books for the year I'm just shy of my goal of 100 for the year. With my book project—and the need to research—all done, will I make my target for the year? Check back in three months to find out.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Photo of the Week--9/26/11

Oh, right, I was also looking for architectural things that caught my eye on this go-round of vacation photos, and it doesn't get much more interesting than Frank Lloyd Wright. This, of course, is his famous building for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which we visited in the fall of 2003. I love that except for one guy probably getting his own picture taken and thus imposing himself on my picture, the place looks deserted. In reality, it was pretty busy, with lots of people enjoying the selection of Impressionists and 20th-century artists. Or not enjoying, depending on your taste for weird art. In any case, it was fun to look up and down the spiral "staircase."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Photo of the Week--9/19/11

Although flowers are nice, they aren't necessary to create a beautiful garden of growing things. This lovely scene is part of the Botanical Gardens of Montreal, which I encourage any tourist to the city to visit. Just make sure you save most of the day: you won't want to choose between the bonsai gardens, orchid greenhouses, outdoor water gardens, lovely walkways, and indoor displays.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Photo of the Week--9/12/11

September is here and in full swing and I am dragging my heels and hanging on for dear life to summer.... Usually I love everything about fall—football, cooler temps, back-to-school—but this summer has flown by and I feel like I haven't been able to stop and smell the flowers. So here I'm virtually stopping to look at the flowers; these were at the Anne of Green Gables House on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Of course Green Gables wasn't a real place, but there is a house that inspired L.M. Montgomery when creating her classic series ... at least the Canadian government says there is, as long as there are hundreds of tourists coming to PEI each year to check it out. The garden is certainly worth a visit.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Photo of the Week--9/5/11

I know, I know, enough with the waterfalls! It's September, and it's starting to get cool outside, we don't need to imagine cool sheets of water falling on our head. I hear, and I obey: instead of a cool Icelandic waterfall, I give you a hot Icelandic geyser! Geyser, by the way, is one of the few English words of purely Icelandic origin, although the two languages have many words with  Old Norse roots in common.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Photo of the Week--8/29/11

Yes, I'm still posting picture of Icelandic waterfalls. (At least this one is taken from behind the waterfall.) And yes, my brain is still flooded with research for my book. I have four more weeks to finish everything, and while I could list everything I have left to do, the prospect makes me want to run around the yard screaming, so I'll spare us all. Just think of the cool, refreshing water....

Monday, August 22, 2011

Photo of the Week--8/22/11

Yes, it's another waterfall. It's like someone was experimenting in Iceland: "Hmm, let's try a blue water waterfall. Let's try a black stone waterfall. I know! Blue water AND black stone!" (Given his proclivity for the Norwegian fjords, I suspect Slartibartfast from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.) In any case, this waterfall, Barnafos, was another beautiful variation on what you can do with rushing water and a little gravity.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Janespotting: Aunt Celia by Jane Gillespie

Jane Gillespie is one of those authors who has dipped into almost all of Austen's works as inspiration for her own, including a fun if forgettable take on Mansfield Park, a look at the naughtiest characters from Northanger Abbey, and a sweet, witty take on one of the neglected characters from Sense and Sensibility. So how would she approach our lovely Emma and her shenanigans?

Again, Gillespie eschews he main character and follows one of the more overlooked characters from the original, Mr. Weston, father of Frank Churchill and husband of "poor Miss Taylor," Emma's former governess. This novel opens almost two decades after Emma, with the widowed Mr. Weston and his nearly-adult daughter, Celia, anticipating a visit from Frank and Jane Churchill and their large family. Celia wonders if she still will be friends with the Churchills' eldest daughter Stella, who is two years younger and livelier than her "Aunt" Celia.

Besides these visitors, who are staying at the larger Donwell Abbey, the Westons are hosting the widow Mrs. Petteril. Mr. Weston, a kind soul, thinks Celia needs female company after her mother's death. Celia would be just as happy to spend her time cheering her father, because Mrs. Petteril is not a very sympathetic lady. In fact, the impoverished widow is scheming to have her wastrel son Henry marry Celia, and then marry Mr. Weston herself.

While Celia manages to escape these machinations—mostly—she does not find comfort with her relations, either. Her Uncle Frank is rather severe (family life has made him responsible and boring), and her Aunt Jane is occupied with her younger children. The Churchill boys are a bit rambunctious, and barely under the control of their tutor, James Aske, who hopes to devote some of his time to poetry. Stella is a bit of a flirt and a flibbertigibbet, and enjoys teasing James about his ambitions; she is egged on by Henry, who has his own plans to find a rich wife. Celia is sympathetic to James, and is further intrigued when his brother, Captain Aske, shows up to drag his younger brother back home to their parents Lord and Lady Langleigh. Nobility? Oh my!

Captain Aske is a rather humorous, straightforward type. There is no urgent reason for him to bring James home, except that he has promised to do it and is impatient to finish the job. A chance meeting with Stella in the village leads him to enlist her help by passing a message to James. The message goes astray and causes a misunderstanding; in her panic Stella lies and says Celia was the intended target of improper intentions. She runs away and is taken in by Henry, who runs away with her. She is not discovered as missing until Celia has managed to be falsely accused of involvement with three different men and cleared her name. The serious Captain Aske takes the blame and goes in pursuit; Celia discovers James is intrigued by her as well; and Stella is returned home, abashed, unblemished, and ready to settle down.

Scheming villains, innocent maidens wrongly accused, and happy endings with wealthy and handsome young men ... we can check off many of the elements that make a good Austenish read. This one had the added benefit of a very appealing heroine; Celia is considerate and patient (without being a doormat), so seeing her triumph over the plans of selfish people to make herself and her family happy was a pleasure to read. So another thumbs up for a Gillespie "sequel": fun if not earthshaking.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Photo of the Week--8/15/10

You may be wondering, What's up with all the waterfalls? Well, there were so many different kinds I saw in Iceland, I thought it would be interesting to compare them. Or perhaps the waterfall is a metaphor for my longing for escape from my current, labor-intensive project. Or for the state of my brain, which feels like a droplet of water lost and unable to swim as it flows over the tall cliff of work-to-be-done to be beaten upon the rocks of quickly-arriving-deadlines. Or maybe it's just pretty. Pretty water! Water so sparkly pretty!

Yeah, it's a metaphor for my sad brain. :p

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Recipes from Fish Camp: Sweet Potato Rice Salad

Another year, another fish camp with the family. Which means another chance to try a new recipe! This one went over fairly well, and I took the leftovers home and they were still good a week later. Keep in mind I made a triple batch of this recipe, so check out the asterisk to see about my substitution.

3 cups chicken broth
1 cup wild rice (uncooked)*
2 cups sweet potato, peeled & cubed
1 T. + ½ t. olive oil, divided
⅓ cup red delicious apple
¼ cup orange juice concentrate (thawed, undiluted)
¼ cup green onions
¼ cup raisins
optional: mint sprigs

*Do you know how expensive wild rice is? I only found one size of box, with barely 1 cup, so when I tripled the recipe I used 1 cup of wild rice and 2 cups of brown rice. Tasty and a nice texture.

  1. Bring the chick broth to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add rice; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 45 minutes or until liquid is absorbed.
  2. Preheat oven to 400F.
  3. Combine sweet potato and ½ teaspoon oil in a bowl, tossing well to coat. Arrange sweet potato in a single layer on a jelly-roll pan. (Cover in aluminum foil & coat with cooking spray to make cleanup easy.) Bake at 400F for 30 minutes, turning once.
  4. Combine diced apples with orange juice concentrate in a small bowl. Drain, reserving concentrate. Combine 1 tablespoon oil with reserved concentrate; stir well with whisk.
  5. Combine rice, concentrate mixture, apples, green onions, and raisins; gently stir in potato. Cover and chill 1 hour. Garnish with mint sprigs, if desired.
  6. Eat! 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Photo of the Week--8/1/11

Still hot, so still continuing with Icelandic waterfalls. This one, Svartifoss, looks like it would be nice to take a shower under in 90-degree heat ... not that it ever gets up to 90 in Iceland, but I'd like to transplant this beautiful waterfall into my backyard for the summer!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Please ... think of the trees!

It's been five months since I left off going through the pile of Boy's college brochures, and since then he's added very good ACT score and a second top AP to his credit. The stack is ready to spill out of its hidey-hole, so it's time for me to peruse the pile and add my snarky comments....

Rice U. (TX): glossy one-fold brochure with six reasons on "Why Rice?" Carbs not one of the reasons.
Boston U.: we're hedging our bets ... enter with a major in Engineering, like you said on your ACT survey, or discover "an unexpected new passion or career path."
Wayne State (3): Take a peek at your future ... wait, you can move your hands from your eyes, Detroit is safe now!
Northwestern U.: nice glossy brochure: we're fancy but not stuck up! And purple!
North Carolina: "May I tell you why I love UNC?" Actually, I think the question is "Can you," and the answer is "No."
Grand Valley State: Sign up for the Laker Experience! Does it involve Laker girls? Because Paula Abdul is so passe.
Brown U.: Combines the best of both worlds ... an Ivy League education and a name that lends itself to immature jokes!
U of Kentucky (11): New slogan "See Blue." Every month, it seems like.
U of Southern Cal: "As a top-rated private institution in the heart of Los Angeles, $$$$$$$$$$$$$." Sorry, I couldn't bring myself to read further.
Oakland U (MI): wouldn't it be so easy to stop by an check us out? Not as easy as trashing this postcard.
THE Ohio State U (2): Looks like no change from the last brochure, and no change in our response: AHAHAHAHAHA!
Ohio Northern (2): Big brochure with key facts, among them these seemingly contrary ones: School mascots are the Polar Bears, but the school colors are orange and black? Are they Halloween polar bears?
Harvey Mudd College (CA): Awesome holographic brochure! Focus on math, science, and engineering! And 35 minutes from Disneyland!
DePaul U (2): Come to our local reception in metro Detroit to hear about Chicago!
College of Wooster: Choose your adventure now ... in Ohio?
OSU (3): come visit and learn more ... or visit our tattoo shops for extra cash!
Sarah Lawrence: no need to mention we're co-ed, unless you count name-dropping Joseph Lawrence and Star Wars in the first sentence.
U of Michigan ... Dearborn (2): Damn.
Penn U: Ben Franklin founded us ... we're Ivy League but we don't need to mention it until the last paragraph.
Embry-Riddle: Aeronautical University! in Florida! Where you could train to work on the shuttle progr—erm, never mind.
Lake Superior State (MI): The one picture with snow shows kids wearing sweatshirts ... and neither does the flyer that came a few days later. Yeah, not buying it.
Penn State: Take five seconds to return this postcard ... or five minutes to try and unfold this brochure.
Michigan Tech: Visit our virtual booth at our online College Fair!
U of M Dearborn (3): Sigh. Great value, though!
Mercer U (GA): these Bears don't believe in hibernation! (And they're trying to attract teens?)
Miami U (OH): ACT score = potential $10K per year scholarship!
Princeton U: We're so Ivy League, we don't need to mention it.
Penn State (2): Check out our local meeting!
Bowling Green State (OH): Young eyes could read tiny white letters on a bright orange background, but old parent eyes can't.
George Mason U (VA): attend our National Youth Leadership Forum on National Security. Gulp.
Macalester College (MN, 2): This may be your last piece of mail from us, unless ... Promise?
SUNY at Albany: College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering ... Nano, nano, nano!
Kentucky (12): Ooo, a glossy newsletter instead of the usual letter .... zzzzzz.
USC (2): Big brochure with pretty pictures.
U of Chicago (8): Emphasizing research instead of the usual quirky stuff ... setting up for the big brochure coming soon.
U of Illinois: "We practically invented engineering. Ok, maybe not."
DePaul U (3): The postcard literally says "Hi." We say, "Bye."
Miami of OH (2): "successful students like you earn special perks," which sadly do not include free cars and tattoos.
Wooster (2): "Follow a path that's all your own," along with all the other students.
New York U: New York City, kids, with guaranteed housing!
U of Chicago (9): Includes big poster designed to give students "warm fuzzies imagining my future as a college student."
University of Michigan...: ... Ann Arbor! Hooray! It took you long enough. But hey, we had the president at our last commencement.

Since Boy actually wanted to read that last one, I'm going to stop here. I've still got a stack two inches thick, but that can wait for another installment.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Photo of the Week--7/25/11

It's hot here in the Midwest. I even went up to the UP of Michigan on vacation, and it was still hot (ie, above 85). So I can't resist photos of cool, cool water. This is another Icelandic waterfall, the magnificent Dettifoss. The last picture I showed was of a slow, seeping, blue beauty; this one is gray and huge and nasty, but still beautiful. And look! Do you see any guide ropes, any railings, any "DANGER" signs? Nope. Either Icelanders assume tourists are smart enough to figure it out, or else they don't have many liability lawyers. Either way, it was easy to get a great photo!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Quilt Files, Episode 23

It's been a while since I've detailed any quilting projects on the blog, because it's been a while since I've worked on any projects. I still have a king-sized piece I'm hand-quilting, but it will be a long time until that's done. In the meantime, I got invited to a summer wedding, and thought I'd find a little project to supplement a gift on the gift registry. I saw a kit in a catalog for an insulated casserole tote, and thought it looked like a fun little project. Then I opened the pattern, and saw the directions required 60 feet of cotton clothesline ... what the heck? I looked at the directions. What had looked like thin sewn strips in the tiny catalog picture was actually fabric-wrapped pieces of clothesline. So after a four-store search to find cord of cotton-blend, not polyester (which wouldn't be good with heat), I was finally able to get started. I wrapped twelve strips of fabric around the line, then zig-zagged the pieces together. I cut them into smaller slices and sewed the slices together to make the body of the carrier. (Click on a photo to enlarge.)

 For the covers, I pieced more strips together and made a sandwich: strip-pieced top, insulative batting in the middle, and solid bottom. Then I put a mitered binding around three sides of each cover. I didn't bother tacking down the binding by hand, I could stitch in the ditch and catch the underside without a problem.

Next was to take the covers and attach them to the top of the zig-zagged clothesline sides. That could be done by machine, and once the tops were attached to the sides I could do more binding on the top of the clothesline sides. Pulling the binding to the inside and tacking it down (again by machine) hid the seam very well, as you can see in this picture. I butted the edges of one cover right next to another; in the picture you can see one cover is flipped back (the black part on the left), while another is lying on top of where the casserole goes (the black and white stripes).

Next came the fun part—NOT! I had to attach the binding at the bottom of the clothesline sides to the reinforced, cloth-covered bottom by hand. Since this seam had to hold the weight of a glass casserole, filled with food, the pattern recommended using tapestry thread. As you can see from the picture, it's pretty heavy, at least three strands, and I had to use a tapestry needle to fit the thread. Pushing a tapestry needle through regular cotton fabric is tough, and I had to start over twice to get the circular side to line up with the square bottom. It was painstaking hand-work (emphasis on the pain, that's big needle to wield), but I finally finished.

And here's the finished product! You can't see, but there is a casserole dish on the inside, nestled under four layers of insulated covers on the top and kept secure by four ties that were sewn directly onto the bottom of the base. Something pretty, functional, and hand-crafted to accompany the casserole dish that was on the registry. It was a fairly work-intensive project, but I liked how it turned out so much I might make it again for myself.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Photo of the Week--7/11/11

I've seen bigger waterfalls, and taller ones, and ones terrifyingly fast, but never one as cool as this one, Hraunfoss in Iceland. If you look closely you can see yes, that the water is actually coming out through the rocks and not over them. Coming through the rocks is what turns the water that unusual and very lovely opaque aqua, as minerals leach into the water. It was just one of the wonderful sights we saw in Iceland.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Photo of the Week--7/4/11

Now this is one of the prettiest city hikes I've ever taken. Back in 2002 we took a cruise of the Norwegian fjords, and spent a day in Tromso, Norway. A cable car took us to the top of a ridge, and as we walked over a tundral meadow (Tromso is north of the Arctic Circle) we got this lovely view of the city. Blue skies, blue waters, white snow, white clouds ... sun giving just enough warmth to make it comfortable. On days like today when we have a forecast approaching 90F, this kind of summer sounds great!

Friday, July 1, 2011

2011 Book Report: Second Quarter

Research for my history project helped me reach 28 books read in the first quarter, a good start on my 100 per year goal. How did I do this quarter, and I did read anything for fun? Check out my list below.

Key: C: Children's; F: Fantasy; H: Historical; Hr: Horror; M: Mystery; MG: Middle Grade (ages 8-12); NF: Nonfiction; P: Poetry; SF: Science Fiction; SS: Short Stories; V: Verse novel; YA: Young Adult (age 13+); *not in the last ten years at least; ^for work; #e-book.

04/03/11: Jane Austen-Leigh, A Visit to Highbury (H, 1)
04/10/11: John Steele Gordon, The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street^ (NF, 1)
04/12/11: Kenneth D. Ackerman, The Gold Ring^ (NF, 1)
04/18/11: Clark, Judith Freeman, The Gilded Age^ (NF,1)
04/23/11: Joan Aiken, Jane Fairfax (H, 1)
04/24/11: Charles R. Morris, The Tycoons^ (NF, 1)
05/01/11: Jane Gillespie, Aunt Celia (H, 1)
05/05/11: Robert C. McMath, Jr., American Populism^ (NF, 1)
05/14/11: David Weber, Field of Dishonor# (SF, 5 or 6)
05/18/11: The Rise of Big Business and the Beginnings of Antitrust and Railroad Regulation, 1870-1900^ (NF, 1)
05/20/11: Weber, Honor in Exile# (SF, 5 or 6)
05/25/11: The Great Strikes of 1877^ (NF, 1)
05/27/11: Robert V. Bruce, 1877: Year of Violence^ (NF, 1)
05/27/11: Weber, Honor Among Enemies# (SF, 5 or 6)
05/29/11: Weber, In Enemy Hands# (SF, 5 or 6)
05/30/11: Milton Meltzer, Bread—and Roses^ (NF, 1)
06/01/11: Weber, Echoes of Honor# (SF, 5 or 6)
06/07/11: Weber, Ashes of Victory# (SF, 4 or 5)
06/16/11: Paul Krause, The Battle for Homestead, 1880-1892^ (NF, 1)
06/21/11: Ian McEwan, Atonement (1)
06/26/11: McEwan, Solar (1)
06/26/11: Pete Hautman, Godless (YA, 1)
06/27/11: R. Hal Williams, Realigning America^ (NF, 1)
06/29/11: McEwan, On Chesil Beach# (1)

I'm amazed I managed 24 books this quarter. It felt like all I was doing was reading history books to research my project, but when I look at the stats, only ten of the books I read (just over 40%) were for work. (To be fair, though, I probably read part or half of another dozen books that I didn't list.) I did manage three variations on Emmaalthough I've only managed to blog about one of themand just to give my brain a break I read half a dozen books in one of my favorite sci-fi series.

Which brings me to an aside: I attended a workshop by author Pete Hautman (see the 6/26/11 entry) in May, and we talked about how people read. He asked if anyone skipped a lot while reading, and said he often skipped whole chapters in books, or put a book aside altogether if it didn't hold his interest. I thought I'm not like that at allI can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've started a book for fun and not finished itbut then while I was re-reading these books I realized I was skimming quite a bit. Every time there was a long description of a space battle, with the captains giving commands about acceleration and heading and gravities, I started skimming. I wanted to get to the more personal bits, the character development and political intrigue, which are what I really like about the series. Granted, this was the fourth or fifth time reading some of the books, so I knew I wasn't missing anything, but still ... I skim on occasion.

So anyway, of the few (7) non-research books that I read for the first time this quarter, which was my favorite? It was clearly Ian McEwan's Atonement, which was made into a very good film a few years back with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. I actually saw the movie first, and was reminded I liked the other books of McEwan's I had read while I was living in England. I wrote a piece on him last summer, so I decided to read a few of his more recent works. Atonement has a historic sweep (it's mainly set before and during World War II), characters driven by strong passions, and a doozy of a final twist. Even more intriguing to me was how it was a meditation on writing, and it inspired this weekly haiku from me:

Words: a blend of sound
and revelation; with them
we remake the world.

So with 52 books for the first half of the year, I'm on pace for my goal of 100 books. Will I keep up during the "lazy summer" months, or will my not-so-lazy summer be too filled with writing for reading? Check back in three months for a progress report.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Photo of the Week--6/27/11

Now this is what we're talking about! You probably can't see that Boy has a smile on his face—a rarity on our later trips—but it's definitely there because we found a trebuchet! Treb-oo-what, you may wonder? It's an old-fashioned siege engine, sort of like a catapult but using counterweights to fling projectiles through the air. It was just one of the things that made our visit to Urquhart Castle in Scotland such a fun time, although we did not detect a monster in the Loch behind the castle.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Janespotting: A Visit to Highbury by Jane Austen-Leigh

To begin my review of the various sequels to Emma, it's only appropriate I start with this one penned by Austen's own great-great-great-grandniece. A Visit to Highbury is subtitled "another view of Emma," and that's exactly what this provides, retelling the story from the point of view of Mrs. Goddard, who runs the school that Harriet Smith attends. The novel is epistolary, meaning it is told entirely in letters, which can provide charm but also have limitations.

Because Mary Goddard is well outside Emma's inner circle—she is the one left keeping Mr. Woodhouse company when Emma goes off to parties without him—her view of the novel's events is fairly tangential. But she speculates and passes along gossip in letters to her sister Charlotte Pinkney, who is living in London with her new husband and wondering if she has made the right decision in marrying him. In her letters back to Mary, she clamors for more gossip, looking for ways to entertain herself because her husband treats her as merely a housekeeper. Mary complies, speculating about the mysteries of why Mr. Elton has suddenly run off to Bath, who gave Jane Fairfax a piano, and why Frank Churchill has stayed away from Highbury so long. She also admonishes the tart-tongued Charlotte to be more dutiful and open towards her husband.

In Charlotte's letters, we get a few outside views of events, as the Pinkneys share an apothecary with John and Isabella Knightley, and on a trip to Bath they encounter the future Mrs. Elton and her family. Mostly, however, Charlotte Pinkney writes of her growing accommodation with her husband and their new friendship with a young girl who is being mistreated at the girls' school next door. She claims their sympathy by being the daughter of a missing naval officer and by sharing the name of Charlotte, and gains their friendship because of her sweet nature. As the elder Charlotte makes small overtures to Mr. Pinkney on the younger one's behalf, she discovers there is more depth to him than she had bothered to notice, and they grow closer. Mrs. Pinkney even shares the mysteries of Highbury with her husband, who has some very perspicacious theories.

The novel concludes with several happy endings: besides the three matches in Austen's Emma, we get one for the young Charlotte, whose father reappears and can bless her match with a young naval officer. We also get true love between Mrs. Pinkney and her husband, an expected baby, and—most desired throughout the book—an upcoming visit between the two sisters, which brings an end to their letters.

I found this a charming little novel, approaching Austen in tone and wit and giving a little embroidery to the events of Emma. Mrs. Pinkney is open enough in her letters to make her an interesting character, while the gently chiding Mrs. Goddard keeps a bit of the formal flavor of an Austen novel. If you're the kind of Austen fan who hates to see people take liberties with the original characters, this is the kind of "sequel" for you.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Photo of the Week--6/20/11

I love it when historical places, like the city of Carcasonne in France, can spare a little corner to let visitors play pretend and live a little history. Carcasonne is an old-fashioned walled city and you can really be transported back in time as you walk the cobbled streets and see the fog move against the walls. And when you can look out of an old-fashioned fortress door and pretend to shut Mom out, well, that's the best!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Janespotting: Clueless

So about the same time the Austen film renaissance began in the mid-1990s appeared this teenage comedy from writer-director Amy Heckerling, starring Alicia Silverstone as a privileged California teen. Not all reviews acknowledged it (and it wasn't in the credits), but Heckerling freely admitted she stole liberally from the plot of Emma for her film. Standing in place of Emma is Cher: a pampered rich girl who is queen of her high school but is not interested in high school boys, whom she considers "dogs." She skates along on charm, wrapping her daddy around her finger, and when she can't get her cranky debate teacher to change her grade, she tries to fix him up with history teacher. With a little makeover from Cher, the ruse works, cheering her teacher and boosting her grade. Looking on with disapproval—and standing in for Mr. Knightley—is Cher's stepbrother Josh, a college student she calls "granola breath" who is always chastising her for her shallow selfishness.

Feeling cheered by her good deed in matching her teachers, Cher adopts the new girl/Harriet Smith-analog Tai, who is kinda grungy and attracted to a slacker student. Cher and her best friend make Tai over, then try  to set her up with classmate Elton, who admires a picture of Tai Cher has taken. As in the original, Elton is admiring the artist, not the subject, and when the three go to a party he engineers giving Cher a ride home, makes a move on her, then shows he is too snobby to be interested in Tai. After Cher ditches him, she gets robbed and has Josh come rescue her. Cher shows she has a bit of a brain by correcting Josh's obnoxious girlfriend, who is misquoting Hamlet.

The Frank Churchill role is filled by a new boy at school named Christian. He has a rat pack vibe and Cher is  interested in a date although it's clear to the audience he is gay. (This neatly avoids too many characters by cancelling the need for a Jane Fairfax analog.) They take Tai to a party with Josh's friends, where Josh dances with Tai because she looks lonely. Tai is rescued again while shopping with Cher, when Christian rescues her from some pranking boys. Tai's story makes her popular, to Cher's detriment, and things go downhill as Josh criticizes her again and she flunks her driving test.

Making things worse is Tai's request that Cher help her charm Josh, when Cher thought she wanted Christian. Being no demure Harriet, Tai calls Cher "a virgin who can't drive" when Cher hesitates and the two quarrel. Just as Emma suddenly discovered her feelings for Mr. Knightley, Cher has a sudden realization she wants to be with Josh. She doesn't know how to act around him, so she undertakes a "makeover for the soul" by organizing disaster relief. She also makes up with Tai and encourages her to pursue the slacker boy. The denouement travels far from Austen, as there's no question of Josh's Knightley-analog being in love with someone else. With all the bickering between the two, however, it's not clear he knows his own feelings, so instead Heckerling shows the two working on research for her dad's court case. When another lawyer chides Cher for screwing up, Josh comforts her and they confess their feelings—and we have a cute rom-com ending.

Although "Clueless" is built on the skeleton of Austen's plot for Emma, it's totally a typical teen comedy of the time. There is partying and drinking, an emphasis on brand names and fashion (even satirically so), and practically invisible adults. And yet, the dialogue is a cut above what you might expect from a teen comedy, with lots of big words; one character even comments, "Wow, you guys talk like grownups." The reply: "Well, this is a really good school."

As a teen comedy Clueless is fun—especially with Silverstone's charming portrayal of Cher—and maybe a little deeper than the usual raunchy teen flick. As an Austen adaptation, it's an interesting curiosity, showing how many of Austen's themes and even character types are timeless.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Photo of the Week--6/13/11

Now that's what I call a castle--hewn into the very living rock of the Welsh countryside. Caerphilly is the largest castle in Wales and the second largest in Britain (after Windsor Castle, the queen is number one in everything). It was built in the 13th century and has everything you look for in a castle: a huge moat, tall towers, and a little bit of ruins to give it character. I'd certainly rather be defending it than assaulting it, that's for sure.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I'm glad ...

... there haven't been any complaints about my lack of blog posts lately. I have been busy, and complaining might make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm so angry I'm blind with rage:

Monday, June 6, 2011

Photo of the Week--6/6/11

Madrid is a city that knows how to light its landmarks. Ironically enough, this is the Fuente del Sol ("Fountain of the Sun," but it sure looks great at night!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Photo of the Week--5/30/11

Now that's what I call an airport with a view. It's a very small airport on Gibraltar, but I bet it's easy enough for pilots to find, being at the very southernmost tip of Europe with a giant rock at the end of the runway. Spending four years overseas and taking advantage of to travel, we certainly saw a lot of different airports, and this was one of our favorites.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Photo of the Week--5/23/11

Shiny! Those Europeans, they sure know how to gilt it up. During a lovely New Year's trip to Vienna, we stopped at the Natural History Museum, which opened in 1889. It has a great collection of dinosaur skeletons, among other cool things, and is housed in this lovely building erected specifically to hold the vast collection of the Hapsburgs. Of course, being Europe and being the late 19th century, you had to have the awesome gilt ceilings! We stopped for a snack and I looked up and snapped this photo. I'm not sure how high up the ceilings are—high enough that I wouldn't have wanted to do the artwork!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I'm a lying liar who lies...

That's right. Last month I promised I wouldn't neglect this blog so much. After all, I was close to finishing a deadline, the next deadline wasn't until July, and I'd managed to finish my portfolio for my taekwondo black belt testing (that involved scrapbooking three years of photos and events, no minor feat). Then I looked at the calendar. That deadline in July means I have three weeks each to complete four chapters, each of which involves around 5000 words of writing and reading a few more books for research. My TKD testing is in the beginning of June, and I haven't finished making the costumes for my skit. It's spring, and I had to plant 200 annuals in my garden. (Well, I didn't have to, but it would have been a waste of the four flats of flowers I bought from the annual marching band sale if I hadn't.) So although I have watched another Austen-inspired movie,  read three "sequels," and have a growing stack of college brochures to mock, I have not managed to find the time to blog about any of them. And I probably won't, until I make it through my testing in two weeks. So June, I promise, I'll be more faithful.

Assuming I'm not lying again. :p

Monday, May 16, 2011

Photo of the Week--5/16/11

Nighttime, lights, water, reflections: all things I love when I'm taking a photo. This one was during our trip to Budapest, Hungary, back in fall of 2001. The Chain Bridge is a major landmark of the city, bridging the two parts split by the Danube, and at night I couldn't resist the lovely sight of it glowing over the river.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Janespotting: Emma (2010 miniseries)

So a few years ago, PBS presented a whole season of Austen adaptations, five of them new ones. (Pride & Prejudice being the lone exception, of course. You don't mess with your audience.) And despite having two relatively new versions of Emma barely more than ten years old, the powers that be (in this case the BBC) decreed it was time for a new one—and why not, if you're going to make it a miniseries?

With almost four hours to tell the story, we're treated to a relatively faithful telling of the story, plus lots of scenes that further develop both major and minor characters. Most important is the opening that contrasts the early childhoods of Emma, Frank Weston, and Jane Fairfax. We see all three lose their mothers, but Emma is kept at home while Frank (now Frank Churchill) and Jane are sent away from loving homes for their own good. This is a very effective contrast, and further scenes of Emma as an older child hearing Miss Bates natter on about Jane, with another nattering 7 years later, make her distaste for Jane a little more understandable.

Another added scene is of a young Emma claiming to see a future match between John Knightley and Isabella—something Mr. Knightley finds ridiculous—but she is proven right at their wedding, also shown. Although this doesn't happen in the book, it gives her self-confidence in matchmaking an added boost, especially after she foresees the wedding of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston. We might find Emma a bit insufferable by now, but we also get a scene portraying Emma's loneliness after Miss Taylor marries and leaves, making her a bit more sympathetic.

With this leisurely pace, we don't even meet Harriet Smith until over 20 minutes in. We do get to see the discussion between Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston over Emma's friendship with Harriet (although not the line about Knightley wanting to see Emma in love with some doubt of return, boo). He seems to agree with her advice not to press Emma about it, but when Emma helps Harriet reject Robert Martin (whom we see apply to Mr. Knightley for advice in an earlier scene), he can't help but start a big argument. At first he seems more frustrated than angry, but the discussion becomes very heated, as only true friends can argue. "Men don't want wives who argue," Knightley tells Emma, adding that "Harriet and Robert are not your dolls" and warning she will regret her meddling. As the first hour ends, we see the argument has made Emma thoughtful.

The second hour begins with the Christmas party at the Westons; the scenes are quite amusing, showing Emma's growing realization that Mr. Elton is making a play for her. As we had seen her before being very giggly with Harriet over the match, we also see her truly upset at Harriet's disappointment. There are also some very amusing moments, for instance when Emma has not received an invitation to the Coles' party and discusses it with Mr. Knightley. They have some very witty exchanges, with Knightley sometimes sarcastic in response to Emma's silliness—but always amused, never nasty.

The rest follows fairly closely to the plot of the book, but that isn't what I like best about this version. The miniseries format gives it a steady pace and depth that allows the film to portray both Emma and Mr. Knightley's growing feelings for each other. At the Coles' party, we see Emma very thoughtful as she considers Mrs. Weston's idea that Mr. Knightley gave Jane Fairfax a piano. When Emma is upset at the upstart Mrs. Elton and complains to Mr. Knightley, we see how he wishes she could get out and experience more of the world. We also see Mr. Knightley's growing jealousy of Frank Churchill—although after he dances with Emma at the ball, he shouldn't need to worry, as the scene wonderfully hints at the pair's growing feelings for each other, as do the scenes of both remembering the dance.

The casting and acting is also uniformly good, with care in all the minor roles. Jane Fairfax is quiet and reserved, as she should be, but we do see occasional hints of more as she reads Frank's letters or gets excited about the ball. We get additional scenes with the Bateses, and Miss Bates is appropriately dignified and flighty. Mr. Elton is suitably obsequious and ingratiating, while Mrs. Elton is infuriatingly interfering. And finally! We have a Harriet that looks the part, a sweet round face framed by lovely blond curls. Although she is obviously inexperienced and inferior in wit to Emma, we can also see her improvement in sense and sophistication over the film, enough that you might actually believe a sensible gentleman could overlook her background or her more polished friend.

Best of all the minor characters is Michael Gambon, better known as Professor Dumbledore in the later Harry Potter films; he is terrific as missish Mr. Woodhouse, obsessing over cake and health risks. In other versions the character can seem somewhat peevish, but Gambon shows his worry as grounded in losing the ones he loves, and we see him genuinely doting upon Emma and his family. To emphasize this, John Knightley's grumpy worrying provides an amusing counter to Mr. Woodhouse's loving concern.

BBC/PBS Masterpiece
Of course, the film really belongs to the two actors who play Emma and Mr. Knightley, Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller. I had never seen Garai in anything before, but I particularly liked her approach to the character. She made Emma able to hold her own with Mr. Knightley without seeming bratty, and really captured the combination of overconfidence and inexperience that makes the character. As for Jonny Lee Miller, he is not very tall, or darkly handsome, but I do believe he is my favorite Mr. Knightley. After all, Mr. Knightley is not supposed to be a lofty dreamboat like Mr. Darcy; he's the steady guy who's the treasure that's been under your nose for a long time but you were too stupid to see it. And as Miller plays him, we see his steadiness, his frustration (rather than anger), and his journey as he realizes the friend he has guided for so long means more to him than just a friend. I guess the Emma and Knightley in this version feel more like real, complicated people who evolve, rather than characters who follow a prescribed plot. This is the version that makes me understand why some people might find Emma their favorite Austen novel, so I recommend it if you're a fan.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Photo of the Week--5/9/11

Okay, so I'm a week late to celebrate the royal wedding, but here is a photo from Merrie Olde England, a veddy British garden at beautiful Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. It had been a medieval castle once visited by Queen Elizabeth I, then fell into disrepair, was built and re-built, housed prisoners of war in the 18th century, and was finally rediscovered by married writers Vita Sackville-West and Sir Harold Nicolson in the 1930s. They're the ones who designed the marvelous garden, which was full of beautiful blooms when we visited in summer of 2001. I'm hoping I'm going to have some beautiful blooms of my own in my garden soon.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Janespotting: Emma (1996 TV film)

Not long after the feature film version of Emma came out in 1996, this BBC adaptation appeared on American television. Although it was written by Andrew Davies, the same screenwriter who penned the previous year's Pride and Prejudice miniseries, this version was only two hours long. Nonetheless, the film opens with a scene that isn't in the book but is crucial to the conclusion: someone robbing a hen house and stealing chickens.

We are then very quickly taken through Emma and Harriet's interactions with Mr. Elton—we get no "courtship" puzzle to encourage them—and after just 20 minutes we are at the start of the Weston party, where Emma finally realizes that Elton has been courting her, not Harriet. Despite skimming over a lot of the Elton story, the film does take time to show Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley discussing Emma's relationship with Harriet (he thinks it is a bad idea), and throw in the line from the book that Mr. Knightley should like to see Emma "in love, and in some doubt of a return." I don't know why more adaptations don't use this line—probably because it suggests that Mr. Knightley is not thinking of Emma as a match for himself at this point— but I like it because it's nice ironic foreshadowing.

In any case, we swiftly get Emma's soon-broken vow to stop matchmaking, our first visits from Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, the introduction of Mrs. Elton, and the events on Box Hill. The strawberry party is left out entirely (or else mashed together with Box Hill so thoroughly I didn't recognize it), which is no great loss, as the two events are rather similar. We do get a scene of Jane Fairfax weeping in a field, cluing us in to the revelation to come. However, in this version we don't see Emma really encourage Harriet in her new infatuation, which Emma thinks is for Frank Churchill but is really for Mr. Knightley, no comment that "raising your thoughts to him is a mark of good taste." This may seem like a minor quibble, but without it, Emma's discovery that she and Harriet love the same man loses a bit of effectiveness.

All is resolved happily, of course, and we get an added coda not in the book: a harvest dinner in which Emma gives an invitation to Robert Martin and sisters and gets to dance again with Mr. Knightley. The final scene is of more chicken raiding—so crucial to getting Mr. Woodhouse to agree to the marriage, as my college professor stressed when we read the book. I won't quibble with these additions, as they help illustrate the change in Emma's character while bringing the story full circle.

So the plot condensation had some pluses and minuses. What about the casting and acting? As Emma, Kate Beckinsale—the lone brunette to play the role—conveys a real sense of youth and inexperience, and is very good at conveying Emma's interior confusion and doubt when things don't turn out the way she expects. She's probably the most likeable Emma on film, although that may not be truest to the character.

Mark Strong is brooding and attractive, but his Mr. Knightley is very angry in arguing with Emma, almost uncomfortably so. He seems better suited to Mr. Darcy than Mr. Knightley, whom Austen describes as having "a cheerful manner, which always did him good." Raymond Coulthard's Frank Churchill has much the look of Ewan McGregor's, with charm and amiability but a little less smarm (and much better hair). The jewel here is Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax, who is very good at showing subtle hints of her fondness for Frank Churchill. The screenplay also wisely includes her comment comparing the "governess trade" to the slave trade, giving her more wit than most adaptations, which make Jane as insipid as Emma thinks she is.

The one real drawback, again, is the miscasting of Harriet. Again, I remind you of Austen's description of the  "very pretty" Harriet: "She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness." While Samantha Morton is a very good actress with two Oscar nominations to her credit, and as such gives Harriet the right temperament, her face is thin and sharp-featured, foxy rather than plump. Compared to Kate Beckinsale's radiantly elegant Emma, Harriet looks plain, again making it hard for me to believe that men would overlook her dubious background, or that Emma might believe she is a serious competitor for Knightley's attention.

So all in all, I think I prefer the other 1996 adaptation to this one, which doesn't have quite the wit and easiness of the Gwyneth Paltrow version. It's definitely worth a viewing, though, especially for comparison purposes. If you're at all interested in the mechanics of story, it's always a fun exercise to see what someone thinks are the essential elements when they create their adaptation.