Friday, May 30, 2008

The Oversharing Meme

I haven’t created a meme of my own in quite some time. As a matter of fact, you may have noticed I’ve been pretty good about not even succumbing to others’ memes too often these days (it’s because I’m too busy reading books for all the challenges I’m doing). Anyway, I think it’s about high time for a Queen o’ Memes meme. Otherwise, I might have to abdicate my throne.

In the spirit of last week’s NYT’s Magazine cover story, which was all about another Emily (Gould) and oversharing on her blog, I’ve decided to create The Ultimate Oversharing Meme. A word of warning here: this meme is not for the faint of heart. If you decide to tackle it on your own blog, don’t come crying to me when you get comments like, “How could you?” or “Really? I thought I respected you until now.” However, you can find comfort in the fact that your answers, quite possibly, might not be as embarrassing as mine. And since I’m the one who’s jump-starting the whole thing, well, maybe I get to claim the Gold Medal in Stupidity (or is it bravery when one is willing to “overshare” this much information? I’ll let you be the judge).

So let’s get started:

1. Name the singer/band/performer you are most embarrassed to admit you actually paid good money to see in concert.
Kansas. I didn’t really want to go, but my best friend insisted, and, well, I did happen to like the song Dust in the Wind. It could be worse, though. A couple of years earlier, this same friend begged me to go see Shaun Cassidy with her, but I pretended my mother wouldn’t allow me to go to a concert (I think I even managed to get my mother to agree to the lie).

2. Which reality TV show have you watched more than once (come on. I don't believe you if you say "none," unless you don't own a TV)?
Not only did I watch it more than once, I was completely hooked on the entire first season of Temptation Island. Does it get much worse than that? I mean, really? That’s like saying, “I don’t just read porn; I subscribe to Hustler.” However, I was dying to know if these couples would stick together and had to watch it to the end to satisfy my curiosity. They all stayed together that first season, and I decided it was too much of a commitment to watch such shows and have stayed away from all reality shows since then (although I will occasionally watch Dancing with the Stars. I have to skip the end, though, because I hate seeing people get voted off).

3. Which complete trash novelist have you not only read but enjoyed enough to read more than one book of his/hers?
Kathleen E. Woodiwiss . But I was only in tenth grade. And I haven’t read her since then (although I’ve often thought of doing so, just to see what attracted me -- she admits, blushing like an innocent heroine in a Kathleen E. Woodiwiss novel).

4. What sappy musical could you watch over and over and over again?
The better question for me, really, is which one couldn’t I watch over and over? You see, I’m a complete sucker for sappy musicals. Here are just a few, to answer the question:
Daddy Long Legs (I really ought to buy a copy)
The King and I (completely politically incorrect, I know, but I just love Yul Brynner. Ian and I saw him on stage in this in London)
My Fair Lady (Sigh! I know, it’s horribly, horribly sexist and classist – aren’t most musicals? – but, still, sigh!)
The Sound of Music (yes, really. It was the first one I ever saw, and I blame it completely for my addiction)

5. Who was your first celebrity crush?
Mr. Green Jeans. Seriously. I dare you to beat that one! He was closely followed by Bob on Sesame Street. Then I graduated to Bobby Sherman, because my sisters liked him.

6. Who is the most embarrassing celebrity on whom you have a slight crush today?
I think I may have mentioned this somewhere before on this blog (is that over-oversharing?), but it’s Drew Carey. Don’t ask me why. He’s overweight. He’s nerdy-looking. He’s a libertarian who has supported Republican candidates I despise. But he’s sometimes just laugh-out-loud funny. And he can dance. Which just goes to show, looks and politics must not be everything. (Full disclosure: I have not watched The Price is Right since he took over. Maybe that would be enough to get rid of this crush.)

7. What movie that everyone else and his cousin and even his dog has seen have you never seen?
The Godfather. All references to it are completely lost on me, but I pretend to understand them, because, well, you know, I don’t want people to feel awkward.

8. What were you drinking the first time you ever got drunk?
Sherry. I was offered a glass at age 15 when we were visiting some village neighbors in England, and I thought I was very sophisticated to have graduated from shandy (beer and lemonade, which was often offered to the younger teens in our village) to sherry. I drank it quite fast, because I didn’t particularly like the taste, and when I stood up to offer to help the hostess set the table, I nearly fell over.

9. Which old re-run will you still pause to watch if you’re flicking through the channels and see that it’s on?
The Brady Bunch. Yes, pathetic as it is, I can quote, verbatim, lines from some of the episodes. A close second would be Gilligan’s Island. (When we were kids, they came on back-to-back in re-runs in the afternoons after school.)

10. What book/movie/t.v. show that only a fifteen-year-old would think is funny makes you laugh?
Meet the Parents. So, so sophomoric, but it still gets me laughing. I even liked the sequel, which I hardly ever do.

All right, that’s it. You’re tagged if you’re brave enough to overshare.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Tale of the Haunted Manse

Well, it’s official. The church organist has informed us that, according to the former pastor’s wife and daughter, the manse is haunted. I hope I haven’t just discouraged any would-be, non-phantasmal visitors among you, because my reaction to this news is, “Huh! Well, you certainly could have fooled me.” We’ve been living here for eight months now, and I’ve seen and heard very little evidence to support the existence of any supernatural housemates.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve always been under the impression that haunted houses are supposed to be, well, haunted. Lights should flicker off and on mysteriously. Doors should open and close and lock by themselves. One should get a sudden chill while reading and look up from the pages of her book to catch a glimpse of something shadowy passing by the doorway. Chains should rattle in the attic. We've had nothing of the kind here. Just my luck: I’ve moved into the retarded haunted house, the one that doesn’t have a clue how to bring out its supernatural powers.

Still, since hearing this news, my relationship with my home has changed. Last night, we had a wonderful thunderstorm and along with my general “cool” reaction that always accompanies thunderstorms was a new reaction on my part, “I wonder if this will bring out the ghost.” I don’t know why, because we’ve experienced plenty of thunderstorms since living here, and none of the others got chains rattling in the attic. But, you know, that was before I knew to listen for them. Sadly, I’m here to report that last night’s storm brought nothing, but then again, I guess retarded ghosts don’t know they’re supposed to come out during thunderstorms. Maybe ours only come out during blizzards, and since those don’t happen here anymore, I’ll never see them.

I’m also busy making up all kinds of interesting stories about the prior ministers of this church. I’m told the ghost is definitely a man, and that he showed up in his nightshirt, climbing the stairs (once and only once during the 32 years that the prior pastor’s family lived here, although they apparently heard “whispering” in the house on more than one occasion). I know enough about ghosts to know that when they do show up, they are usually reliving some tragic or sad moment. A man in a nightshirt sounds like he must have been a pastor, right? What tragedy would have befallen a pastor living next door to the church that wouldn’t be public knowledge here in this town whose population is 1500? Yet, no one has told us of the pastor who was murdered in his sleep by an angry parishioner back in 1898. Maybe he was a Jimmy-Swaggart-type pastor murdered by his livid wife. (Of course, one can understand why the townspeople might want to keep such stories secrets from the newest pastor in town.)

Am I bothered by the fact my home is haunted? Well, since we don’t exactly have flies crawling all over the windows while Jodie the Pig (and her demonic glowing eyes) makes frequent visits, or mothers' skeletons rocking up in the attic, being lovingly cared for by their sons, not really. You know ghosts and me. Rather than hiding under covers, I’m leaning more towards fantasies of a friendly ghost who shows up and answers my questions (hoping he’ll give me some great details for a new ghost story or two). However, as I once noted in that Halloween meme some of us did a couple of years ago, my relationship to ghosts changes depending on the hour of the day.

This week, I’ve had a really bad chest cold, the likes of which I haven’t had in a long time. I prefer to sleep alone when I’m sick. Thus, I’ve banished myself to the guest bedroom where I’ve been likely to be wide awake at 2:00 while my lungs seem to be making desperate attempts to escape via hacking their way up and out through my esophagus and mouth. So far, they’ve been unsuccessful and have remained imprisoned in my chest. Mercifully, today, they finally seem to have become subdued, so I’m expecting these wee-hour-of-the-morning escapades of theirs are about to end. Nevertheless, I’ve become reacquainted with one of my least favorite hours of the day: 2:00 a.m.

2:00 a.m. is not a good hour when it comes to ghosts and me, especially when I’m sleeping by myself and am drugged up on Nyquil. 2:00 a.m. is when I remember I once saw some show about haunted hotels in which many of the ghosts liked to cozy up to visitors in their homes by climbing into bed with them. A ghost who stands in the doorway and lets me ask him questions is one thing. A ghost who decides to climb into bed with me, quite frankly, is getting just a little bit too friendly. At 2:00 a.m., is the cat really chasing nothing up and down the stairs, or is he chasing some night-shirted old pastor his sharp feline eyes can see that mine can’t, the pastor who isn’t friendly but rather poisoned his wife when she became suspicious of the affair he was having with the organist, and who secretly hates all women? At 2:00 a.m., is that the house settling, or is it footsteps up in the attic? At 2:00 a.m., the hallway between the guest bedroom and Bob’s and my bedroom becomes about two miles long.

Then again, I remind myself, this haunted house is retarded. 2:00 a.m. is not the hour to be worrying. 2:00 p.m. is probably prime ghost-visiting time around here. And we all know that at 2:00 p.m., I don’t believe in ghosts. Something very odd did happen in this house a few months ago, right around 2:00 p.m. But that’s a story for another day.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Double Helix

Watson, James D. The Double Helix. New York: New American Library, 1968.

(Woo-hoo! I actually finished a book for the science book challenge.)

“I was twenty-five and too old to be unusual.” (p. 143)

That’s the last line of the book (I’m taking poetic license here, because there’s an epilogue I’m ignoring.) It’s a beautiful sentence, because it so clearly focuses the fact that Watson was so young when he and Francis Crick (with the help of others) solved the mystery of DNA, building on the work of Linus Pauling’s alpha helix to expose the double helix. Don’t worry if you don’t understand that last sentence. One of the most refreshing aspects of Watson’s book is that he clearly admits his own scientific weaknesses, something that completely endeared him to me. If you don’t believe me, here’s a quote that might convince you:

…it was my hope that the gene might be solved without my learning chemistry. This wish partially arose from laziness since, as an undergraduate at The University of Chicago, I was principally interested in birds and managed to avoid taking any chemistry or physics courses which looked of even medium difficulty.”
(p. 22)

If that hasn’t convinced you, try this one (here, Watson is referring to an article on tobacco mosaic virus – the project he was ostensibly working on at Cambridge, when what he was really doing was puzzling over the problem of what makes a gene – written by J.D. Bernal and I. Frankuchen):

I was even unable to understand large sections of their classic paper published just after the start of the war…
(p. 75)

All of this is to say that many of my life-long assumptions found themselves standing on their heads while I read this book. I would’ve thought that a scientist who managed to crack the genetic code would have been well-versed in all things science and would have had no trouble deciphering even the most complicated of scientific articles. I’m realizing now how absurd that notion is. Let’s take literature rather than science as an example. Does everyone “get,” or even want to “get” all the literary criticism floating around out there?

But even more important, in my eyes, is the whole age factor. I don’t know about you, but when I was 25, I was wandering around with an asymmetrical haircut, flitting from job to job the minute I got bored, fighting with boyfriends, and wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life. To be “unusual” was my number-one priority (as long as I could still earn money). I certainly wasn’t busy solving a mystery that might one day land me a Nobel Prize. My guess is that most in their twenties today would be more like me than like Watson, which leads me to wonder what’s happened. I often think about this, because Bob’s mother, at age 23, was the editor of the women’s section of the Dayton, OH newspaper (sitting across from Erma Bombeck, no less). Today’s 23-year-old college graduates would most likely be working as an assistant editor or receptionist or something at such a paper, hoping to work her way up the ladder, but certainly wouldn’t be given the title of Editor for an entire section.

The other thing I found amazing is how relatively quickly (well, with the noted exception of evolution, but we won’t go there) scientific knowledge becomes accepted. When I was in school studying the structure of DNA, I had no idea that when my father and mother were in school, this topic would not have been on any of their tests. I thought we were studying boring ancient knowledge and had no idea how exciting this information was and why. I wish I’d had a biology teacher who had given us the background story, who may even have had us read this book as an example of what scientists do and what an exciting field science can be. Because “exciting” is exactly what Watson and Crick’s story was.

Bob has always described this book to me as reading like a thriller, and it does. Scientists from all over the world were in a race to solve this mystery. They fought with each other, sneaked around each others’ backs, gossiped, and derided each other for “stupid” mistakes and blunders. Ultimately, though, when the race came to an end, probably awed by the beauty of the science, they were extremely gracious to Watson and Crick.

I enjoyed reading the book immensely, but a piece of it bothered me. One of the key players in the human genome project was a woman named Rosalind (“Rosy”) Franklin. The way Watson writes about her is extremely sexist and disturbing. For instance, imagine describing a male colleague in this way:

By choice, she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she even taken a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one, her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents.
(p. 20)

I would hope that no 21st-century editor would allow an author to get away with such a quote. I guess that means we’ve made some progress since 1968. The book stands as a perfect example of how difficult life could be for bright female scientists in the late forties and early fifties (and, it goes without saying, earlier decades). The men don’t like her and are very dismissive of her. What an extraordinarily strong woman she must have been, and now I want to read more about her. Granted, by the time Watson gets to the epilogue, he has realized how wrong he was about Rosy and even concedes that her life among them must have been very difficult, but that doesn’t really make up for the way he’s described her. His sexist nature can’t be denied.

Still, every work must be put in its time and place. Sexist, white, male scientists were the rule rather than the exception in 1968, I’m sure. My guess (again, being hopeful) is that a bright man like Watson changed his attitudes over the years as more and more women entered his field, but maybe not. The sexism only serves as a minor distraction, though, in what is, ultimately, a very captivating read.

Friday, May 23, 2008

P.S. I Don't Hate You

All right, I know I believe in the teachings of Christ and everything, which means loving others is key, but I have to admit there are just quite a lot of a few people in this world whom I hate. I’m also supposed to be a feminist, which means I should give all my sisters the benefit of the doubt, but among those I hate, some actually happen to be women. Ann Coulter, for instance, springs to mind (although, as a follower of Christ’s teachings, I am supposed to hate the Devil, and I assume that encompasses the spawn of the Devil as well). But then there are those women who allow me to feel very good about myself as both a Christian and a feminist. These are the women I would just love to hate, but I can’t. I just can’t. I love them too much to hate them. I thought you all might like to know who they are, so here’s a list for you:

  1. THE OTHER EMILY BARTON: She stole my name! She’s an award-winning novelist. She gets asked to write book reviews for The New York Times. All this, and she’s younger than I am. However, I can’t hate her. After all, how can anyone really hate someone else who has the same name, especially when that someone else seems to have something in common (like a love of writing) with her? I have a feeling that when I finally get around to reading one of her novels, I’m going to love her even more. Besides, as I once explained, we don’t really have the same name.
  1. NIGELLA LAWSON: Does she not have the most fabulous job ever, combining both cooking and writing? Does she not also happen to have been blessed with great physical beauty? Do you not just want to hang out with her eating great food and drinking great wine and talking about whatever strikes your fancy? She’s a fabulous cook who has far more confidence in her kitchen than I could ever hope to have in mine. I don’t hate her. I just want to be her.
  1. MARGO TIMMINS: Is it really possible not to hate a woman every man I know has a huge crush on? Bob loves the Cowboy Junkies, but I’m sure he wouldn’t have taken me to see them twice in the time I’ve known him if Margo were some ugly old hag, and if she didn’t happen to have one of the sexiest voices ever recorded. I don’t blame Bob and all those other males at all. She’s just so talented, and she’s funny, too. Must be the latent lesbian in me or some former male from a previous life or something keeping me from hating her.
  1. MICHELL PFEIFFER: Shouldn’t all women hate her? I mean, she just keeps getting more beautiful the older she gets. She’s not just a pretty face. The woman can actually act. Then there’s the fact that her first husband was Peter Horton. I know the marriage didn’t last, but still: she got to sleep with Peter Horton, who wasn’t the sole reason I was hooked on Thirty Something when I was a mere twenty something, but would have been a damn good reason to watch the show even if it had been complete crap. And then she married David Kelly. I mean, some women have all the luck! But I don’t hate her. Everything I’ve garnered from what I’ve read about her is that not only is she talented, but she’s also smart, warm, savvy, and witty. My hope in life is to be described with at least a couple of these adjectives. Anyone who garners all four immediately makes it into the “People Emily Loves” column.
  1. OPRAH WINFREY: She should be extraordinarily annoying. She should be fake. There should be all kinds of hidden dirt, like she hates kids or something. I used to think I hated her until I started to pay close attention to her. She’s smart. She’s caring. She’s loyal. She’s beautiful. She’s faithful. She’s down-to-earth. And she’s still managed to be successful in an arena that would normally crush someone like that. What’s there to hate, and what’s not to admire?

So, tell me, who do you wish you could hate?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

But the Oh-So-Wonderful "Indian" Meal!

Okay, so now I’m feeling like I need to take back all the mean things I said about The Wonderful World of Indian Cookery (that’s just like me. I finally give my mean streak free rein, and she goes off and makes a fool of herself). Well, not exactly take back all of it, but maybe eat a few of my words with some cardamom and tumeric. You see, it may not have been very authentic, but thanks to the ideas I got from that very annoying cookbook, Bob and I had an absolutely awesome “Indian” meal the other night. As far as meals I’ve cooked throughout my life, this one was definitely one of my masterpieces. I wish we’d had others here to witness it. Not Indian witnesses, though. Hell, we’re Americans. What do we know about how Indian food really ought to taste? All we know is that we both loved it. Bob’s comment was, “I hope we have a lot of this left over.”

Once I discovered that “curds” meant “yogurt,” I managed to find a number of recipes in the book that I thought I might be able to make with just a few minor adjustments. So, I searched for the one recipe in the whole book that seemed easy enough to follow to the letter and then chose a couple of others to adapt to go along with it. (Sorry you vegetarians) we haven’t had much meat lately, so I chose a meat-based main dish to go with the mint chutney (pudine ki chutney) recipe that could be made exactly as instructed. I chose a potato-based side. I was going to make a salad, but, as you’ll see, the chutney pretty much became the salad.

This chutney was the first thing I made, and I did just as the recipe told me to do (assuming the “electric grinder” to which she referred is a food processor. In the recipe I’ve included at the end of this post, I note to process rather than to grind). Mine never turned into a paste as the recipe indicates it should – guess that’s one of the things that comes “with practice.” What I had was more like pesto before the oil and nuts have been added to get a paste. I suppose I could have added some oil and nuts to see what would happen, but that would have been changing the recipe too much. Besides, who cares about consistency when something smells this delicious? My eyes and mouth were both watering (always a good sign).

I never would have dreamed of mixing so much mint with so much cilantro on my own (see? I told you I need cookbooks for guidance), but this was a match made in heaven. When I tasted it, I’m sure I awakened some buds on my tongue that have been comatose for at least twenty years. But what was I going to do with it? It wasn’t exactly what I think of when I think of “chutney” – you know, a sort of viscous condiment with chunks of fruit and vegetables. Maybe what it really wanted to be was a topping for chopped onions, scallions, and celery (okay, so it wasn’t exactly a topping. What I actually did was mix one small, coarsely chopped onion, 2 large chopped scallions, and 2 large, chopped celery stalks into it to make more of a salad than a chutney). It was probably completely un-Indian served this way, but I promise you, it was scrumptious, if you happen to be a fan of cilantro. Bob and I like our food very spicy, so I used two jalapeno pepper for the “green chili peppers to taste.”

Next I made minted yogurt with potatoes (alli raita). I’m a big fan of cucumber raita. When I read this recipe which was obviously potato raita, I thought, “Hmmm…I wonder if that can be anywhere near as good as it is with cucumbers.” Trust me. It can be. I’m now a potato raita convert. Who would have ever thought potatoes and yogurt could go so well together? (Well, actually, I would, because I’ve made potato yogurt soup, but never with an Indian interpretation that includes mint, and this could easily be pureed and made into a delicious cold soup for a very hot summer day). If you’d rather stick with the raita more familiar to an American audience, I’m sure you could seed, peel, and chop three large cucumbers and use them instead of the potatoes.

I didn’t do too much adapting of this recipe, other than combining steps I felt could be combined. However, her recipe said to peel the potatoes after boiling. I’d never recommend that, unless you’re really into tears of frustration. Cubing, as she suggests to do after cooking, is probably preferable to do before cooking, as well. I cut them into chunks before cooking to help them cook faster. I suppose in cooking school students learn the formula for making cubes out of foods that tend towards the circular and oval rather than the square or rectangular, but I’ve never been to cooking school. Thus, once they were cooked, I just cut them into bite-sized chunks that any mathematician would tell you are not cubes. They taste just as good as cubes, I’m sure.

Finally, I made the meat cooked with spinach (palak gosht). I have to admit that I pretty much completely changed this recipe, doing not much more than maintaining its core flavors. My first thought was, “forget this generic ‘meat.’ This recipe should be called ‘ground beef cooked with spinach.’” It was superb as is in the recipe that follows, but I’ve now got a hankering for ground beef with raisins and almonds. I’ll add a half cup or so of raisins with the tomatoes to cook them to their proper plumpness. At the end, I’ll add a generous quarter cup (my math authors would hate me for using such language. A quarter cup is a quarter cup, after all, but I hope you know what I mean) of slivered almonds. For some reason, the flavors just seemed to beg for the sweetness of raisins and almonds, but still, it was wonderful with spinach (and a great way to eat your leafy greens).

Boy, that was fun! Maybe I should write about cooking more often. Meanwhile, here are the recipes for you. (By the way, if you’re vegetarian, I’m sure you could substitute chopped tofu – especially the “steak” kind – for the beef, which is something else for me to try).

Ground Beef Cooked with Spinach

4 T cooking oil (I used safflower)
3 cloves
1” stick of cinnamon, broken
½ t ground cardamom
2” piece of ginger, peeled
4 cloves garlic
1 jalapeno, seeded
1 large onion
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes, lightly pureed
½ t ground tumeric
2 t ground coriander
salt to taste
1 lb ground beef
10 oz. fresh baby spinach
chopped fresh cilantro and unsalted butter

Process the ginger, garlic, jalapenos, and onion until finely chopped. Heat oil on medium high heat in large frying pan with cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom. Add the finely chopped vegetables and fry till soft. Add the tomatoes and heat for ten minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally. Add the tumeric, coriander, and salt. Stir in beef. Heat till beef is brown. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer 25 minutes or until most of the liquid has boiled off. Stir in spinach. Heat till spinach has wilted and sticks to the beef. Serve topped with chopped cilantro and a pat of butter.

Minted Yogurt with Potatoes

3 medium potatoes, peeled and boiled
2 ½ cups of yogurt, lightly beaten
1 ½ T chopped cilantro
1 clove garlic
1 jalapeno, seeded
Salt to taste
1 ½ t sugar
1 ½ T fresh mint, chopped

Cool potatoes completely. Cut into bite-sized chunks. Stir into the yogurt. Process the cilantro, garlic, and jalapeno. Mix these ground ingredients into the yogurt and potatoes along with the salt and sugar. Stir in the mint. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Mint Chutney

1 ½ cups of fresh mint, packed
1 ½ cups of fresh cilantro, packed
green chili peppers to taste, seeded
juice of 1 ½ limes
1 t sugar
Salt to taste
1 clove garlic
1” piece of ginger, peeled and cut up

Process all ingredients together until well-combined. Add water as necessary to process to a smooth paste. (Don’t panic if it never becomes a paste. Just use it in the recipe below.)

Mint Chutney with Celery and Onions

1 recipe of mint chutney
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
2 large scallions (I’m lucky enough to be able to buy these from local farmers, and the ones I buy are much thicker and bigger than what are typically sold in supermarkets. If you’re using supermarket scallions, you’ll probably want to use 4 rather than 2)
2 large celery stalks, chopped

Stir onion, scallions, and celery into mint chutney. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Cross-posted at Soup's On!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Not So Wonderful Indian Cookery Book

Singh, Robin. The Wonderful World of Indian Cookery. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co., 1994.

(Sorry, the book is out of print, so can’t give you a snapshot of it.)

As many of you know, I work as an editor on books about teaching math. Most of these books are for educators working at the elementary and middle school levels. I am not a mathematician. Through my work on these books, I now have a pretty solid understanding of elementary-level math. Give me a calculus text, however, and I would be as lost as your average sixth-grader.

Well, lo and behold! It seems I decided to kick off the Soups’ On! cookbook challenge with the calculus textbook of cookery. Just as I have a basic understanding of math, I also have a basic understanding of cooking. Actually “understanding” might not be the right word, because I have no real understanding as to how my particular style of cooking works, other than that I seem to have sensitive senses of taste and smell and some sort of touch of magic combined with a curiosity that could kill ten poor cats. It usually goes something like this, “Hmmm, last time we ate at an Indian restaurant, it seems those lentils had hot peppers, mint, and cilantro in them. I wonder what would happen if, instead of lentils, I boiled some potatoes and then made a sauce for them with lemon, hot peppers, cilantro, and mint.” Most of the time it works quite well, but I haven’t a clue why.

Cookbooks tend to be mere guidelines for me. They help me think about different ways to combine flavors (which this one certainly did). They teach me how to do some things (like roast a chicken, which I would have no clue how to do without a little help), but they’re basically just there when I need them. I love to read them, but I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to them when I’m actually in the kitchen, unless I’m trying to do something I’ve never done before (again, like roasting a chicken).

You know, you can get away with this when all you’re doing is adding 2 + 3. However, once you start trying to figure out the area of a sphere that’s spinning around on an axis, it’s probably going to be very important to do so by the book. I guess, just as I’ve shied away from calculus all my life, I’ve also shied away from the calculus of cooking.

Well, no more. I’ve read this book from beginning to end. What have I learned? First and foremost: it can easily be donated to next year’s library sale with no regrets. Secondly, I really do want to learn more about Indian cookery, but I definitely need to find something more along the lines of Indian Cookery for Dummies. And thirdly, remember those scenes in Bend It Like Beckham when the mother is so intent on teaching her daughters how to prepare the traditional meal? Now I know why. It seems this type of cooking, like math, is something someone needs to start cultivating as soon as a child can stand on a stool to stir sauce in a pot.

So, why was this book so intimidating? I don’t blame you if you’re finding it hard to believe that a cookbook can actually be intimidating. The first answer is: ingredients. Most international cuisine cookbooks I’ve read have appendices that explain ingredients and where to get them (especially for an American audience. I didn’t find out that by “curds” she meant “yogurt” until the last chapter of the book, and there was nowhere in the book to look it up. I still don’t know what she meant by “cottage cheese,” as nobody in her right mind would try to “cube” what we Americans call “cottage cheese.” Can anyone help me out here, because some of the recipes calling for “cottage cheese,” sound both delicious and do-able?). For instance, what the hell is asafoetida, and where do I look for it? What about curry leaves (curry? Isn’t that that powdered stuff good on chicken and in salad dressings? What are these “leaves?”)? Or how about a “small piece of jaggery?” Oh, jaggery, that’s right. It’s right there in my fridge, next to the ghee.

My second answer to the question is: I’m not real big on books that tell me that with plenty of practice, I will be able to perfect this dish. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m an instant gratification sort of a gal. I want any dish I make to be perfect the first time I make it. I never pursued such pastimes as tennis and piano playing precisely because they involve practice, and I don’t have the patience for that. I enjoy cooking, because it’s typically easy to make something well worth eating the first time you try.

My final answer is: I’m tired of thinking, “This sounds like it might be do-able.” For instance, doesn’t coconut-flavored rice (nariyal chawal) not only sound delicious, but also sound like maybe all you need to do is cook some rice, add a couple of Indian spices and some shredded coconut, and be done? Nope. Let’s start by frying some peanuts. Then, let’s get a fresh coconut and split it open. She lost me when she started describing the special tool needed to scrape the coconut out of its shell and then went on to describe all the steps needed for soaking the coconut in “coconut water” (both heated and unheated). All that work for a side dish? I had to take a quick walk down to the convenience store to get a Mounds Bar to satisfy my craving for coconut.

Oh, and how about a recipe that begins this way? “The procedure for making idlis [steamed rice cakes] must start a whole 24 hours before you want to eat them.” (p. 93). Again, not something Ms. Instant Gratification is jumping at the chance to cook.

One thing I will say in favor of this book is that it’s got gorgeous pictures. The page layout and design is stunning, too. It would make a lovely coffee table book for someone who doesn’t like to cook. Another thing I like is that a list of utensils needed follows her list of ingredients for every recipe (never mind the fact that I don’t own half the utensils. It’s the thought that counts). The book is very, very poorly edited, though. One of the recipes is missing its ingredients list, and wouldn’t you know it? The recipe that follows it is one that builds on it.

When I decided to take on this challenge, I made a pact with myself that the recipe I’d choose to cook for each book I read would be one that I would, for a change, follow to the letter. This means no recipe with impossible-to-find ingredients, no recipe that requires cooking utensils I don’t have, and no recipe that requires 24 hours to make. There’s got to be at least one besides boiled rice, right? Once I find it, I’ll make it and let you know what happens. In the meantime, please send plenty of good karma my way.

Cross-posted at Soup's On!.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Birthday Post

Funny, huh? Unlike almost everything else in my life, when I think about how old my blog is, I find myself thinking, “Only two? Can that be?” It seems I’ve been blogging forever. Usually, I’m thinking, “I can’t believe it’s been two whole years.” For instance, I still think of myself as “the new girl” at work, which I’m not. I’ve been in this position for three years, and I’ve seen plenty of people hired since I came on board.

Since it’s my second birthday, the first thing I want to do is to thank those people who were instrumental in getting me to get Telecommuter Talk up and running. First, was my brother Ian, who had stopped blogging when I started mine, but then started up again, and whose blog I still think is better than mine (but he doesn’t post as often as I do, so I’ve got him beat there). Second was my friend Elmo (not his real name, but he insists on remaining anonymous) who always encouraged me to write. The third was Danny, whose blog made me feel no one would ever bother to read mine, but he was still encouraging (a rarity: someone with incredible talent who’s also warm and generous to others, although my place of employment does seem to breed people like that).

Secondly, I want to thank those of you who’ve been with me for a very long time. My sisters Froshty and Linser, of course, were reading me from the very beginning, and Litlove, did you know you were the very first non-real-life friend/family member ever to comment (well, except for a couple of “anonymouses,” and I don’t know who they were)? It looks like Mandarine was, but that’s because he took on the laborious task of retrospectively reading my entire blog, for which I want to thank him (also for giving me the idea for my morning and evening “commutes” to and from work, and most importantly for comparing me to chocolate. The man’s a saint, really). Hobs came along early on, followed not too long after by Dorr. And Bloglily, Charlotte, Courtney, Ms. Make Tea, and Cam have all been with me almost since the beginning as well. You-all were so encouraging from very early on, and you can credit yourselves for keeping this blog going, because your comments have always meant so much to me that obsessively checking to see if you’ve said anything looking forward to hearing from you has sometimes been the only reason for writing the next post.

Of course, now there are many, many more of you, and you all contribute to keeping this blog going. I picture people coming out of the woodwork to say, “No, please don’t stop,” every time I think I ought to stop blogging and put all this writing energy elsewhere. And that is something that two years ago I never, ever would have dreamed picturing. I thought I’d be lucky to keep my family members interested in this blog. Not only do more than five people read me, but I’ve begun to meet some of you and get to know others better, and that is one of the great lessons I’ve learned from blogging: you really do meet wonderful people. It’s probably the best thing about blogging.

I decided for my birthday to go back and read my first week of posts, which begins here. To read that, you’d think I was going to be blogging about telecommuting. Huh! And I thought I was going to be able to do that for a full year. Double huh! I was curious to see if I’d changed much since that first week, but no. I’m just as delusional as ever. I was happy to find this, somewhat different, post from that week, though, especially coming up on the two-year anniversary of Bob’s graduation and thinking about all that’s come since then.

After reading posts from that week, I started browsing through the blog and stopping at random posts (quite obviously, I have nowhere near the patience and stamina Mandarine has), some of which I’d almost completely forgotten writing (does anyone else do that?). Anyway, thought I’d link you to Emily’s ten all-time favorites from the past two years to enjoy if you feel like taking a walk down Emily Lane.

Griping about some people's gall:
The Baby Question

The difficulties of advising readers:
May I Suggest a Book You Just Have to Read?

The symbiotic relationship between writers and their editors:
Editors and Authors

How "What We Said" Began (thanks to Bloglily):

An Unusual Evening with Hobs:
Of Hobgoblins and Parking Lots

So you know that inviting me to go clothes shopping with you is somewhat risky:
I Still Loathe Clothes Shopping

A lifelong affliction inherited from my mother (that doesn't afflict me nearly as often now that our lives are more settled):
A Night with the ADHD Insomniac

I was so happy to find so many others out there like me:
An Eye for an Eye

You know how sometimes, some posts are just plain FUN to write? This was one of those:
Not Exactly Minding My Own Business

My guess is that this is everyone else's favorite, since I got so many great responses to it:
#1 Book Slut

And what about you? What are your favorites from your own blog? Tell us. I’d love to know.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

LibraryThing Meme

As promised (with considerable overlap in commentary from yesterday’s list), here’s my version of the LibraryThing meme that's been all over the place, but I think I first saw it at Zoe’s Mom’s. The list consists of the books most tagged "unread" on the site. By the way, has anyone else noticed that the titles seem to differ from list to list? For instance, supposedly, there are 106 titles, but the list I copied only has 105. However, other lists I saw had books like Atonement and Beowulf, both of which I've read and The Book Thief and Possession, both of which I haven't read. Even those of you who claim to hate math should be able to do the math and figure out something odd is going on if I've got 105 books on a list that claims to hold 106 titles, and I'm missing at least four. Perhaps this is the blog meme equivalent of playing "Telephone." Maybe the final person will get a list 54 titles long. Or, being someone who does not play around at LibraryThing much, am I doing something wrong? Does the list change daily, and should I have gotten my list directly from their site? Oh well, I didn't, so you're stuck with this one.

bold = what you’ve read,
italics = books you started but couldn’t finish
crossed out = books you hated
* = you’ve read more than once
underline = books you own but haven’t read yourself

In the spirit of trying to be more positive than negative, I thought it was unfair only to mark those books I hated and not those I loved. I know you could argue that if something has an asterisk by it, I must love it, but not so. When I was in college, I often had to read books I didn’t particularly like more than once for different courses, and I’ve loved plenty of books that I’ve only read once. Thus, the books I love have bold L’s next to them.

1. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – no one who normally recommends books to me has ever recommended I read it, so I’ve shied away from it, but we have an advanced reader copy in some box somewhere that we picked up at Book Expo America one year.

L 2. Anna Karenina – you can read more about this book and me here.

L 3. Crime and Punishment – the first time I tried it, I couldn’t get through it. The second time, I thought it was one of the greatest (“great” as defined yesterday) books ever written.

4. Catch-22 – I've been meaning to read it for years. Maybe this will be the year?

L 5. One Hundred Years of Solitude – one of these days, I’ll be able to put an asterisk next to it.

6. Wuthering Heights – Dorr recently made me want to revisit this one, which highly disappointed me the first time I read it.

7. The Silmarillion -- I think by now, because I'm sure I've mentioned it everytime I've done one of these sorts of memes, and his name has come up, everyone knows how I feel about Tolkein. In case you don't: I don't like him.

8. Life of Pi: A Novel – here's another one I’ve been meaning to read for years.

9. The Name of the Rose – it wasn’t for lack of enjoyment that I didn’t finish it, and one day I plan to pick it up again and make it all the way to the end. Usually, when I tell people I didn’t get through it, their response is, “How could you not have gotten through it?”

L 10. Don Quixote – despite having it shoved down my throat in all the Spanish courses I ever took, having to translate passages from the windmill scene, as if it’s the only book ever written by any Spanish-speaking person, and that's the only scene in the book, I sighed almost the whole way through it when I finally read the whole thing (in English) a few years back.

11. Moby Dick – so many people whose reading tastes I so admire have told me how much they love it, but I just cannot give it a fourth go. I think three is plenty.

12. Ulysses – just seeing the title terrifies me.

13. * Madame Bovary – I understand why it’s considered “great,” but I’ve rarely read a more unrealistic female character. I had to read it three times in college, which is three times way too many for a book I hated.

14.The Odyssey – it’s been way too long and about time we got re-acquainted.

L 15. Pride and Prejudice – if you’re one of those people who has it and hasn’t read it, you’re in for a real treat.

L 16. Jane Eyre – please see yesterday’s post.

17. A Tale of Two Cities – it’s one of the ones from my thirteen classics challenge last year that I never read. I’ve downloaded it from Librivox, though, so it will get read in the not-too-distant future.

18. The Brothers Karamazov – this one started off on my list of thirteen classics last year, but was dropped when I became overwhelmed with the lengths of all the books I’d chosen. I substituted another book, which didn’t get read either.

19. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies – I've never even heard of this one (now watch me find it in one of our bookshelves some day soon).

L 20. War and Peace – I’m hoping to get around to reading the newest translation soon.

21. Vanity Fair – again, it didn't go unfinished for lack of liking or interest, but rather, because I started it just before taking on a new job, and I was too overwhelmed to read anything other than mysteries during the first few months of that job. It's another one I’d like to make it all the way through one day.

L 22. The Time Traveller’s Wife – this one's a rare thing: a contemporary novel that I really loved.

23. The Iliad – I read it in college. I don’t remember much, except, you know, what anyone who watches movies and TV might remember.

L 24. * Emmait’s my favorite Austen. I’m weird for that, I know, so no need to tell me so, or to say, “How can you possibly like that better than [Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, etc.]?”

25. The Blind Assassin – the title's familiar, but in a moment of sudden brain death, I can’t remember what this is. Is it something like a Robert Ludlum? Nah, then surely people would be reading it, right?

26. The Kite Runnerthis one and I had a tempestuous love/hate relationship throughout my entire reading of it. Ultimately, like many a lover one regrets having had, I decided it just wasn’t very good.

L 27. * Mrs. Dalloway – I loved it in college and again when I re-read it after reading The Hours.

28. Great Expectations – I just haven’t read that much Dickens.

29. American Gods – I haven't yet, but I want to read it.

30. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – I wanted to read it a long time ago, but I’ve pretty much lost interest at this point.

31. Atlas Shrugged – I missed out on reading it as a teenager, when everyone seems to think Rand is the most wonderful rebel ever, and I can’t imagine anyone enjoys reading it after the age of 21, at which point, most come to hate it (reading Old School confirmed this opinion of mine), so have never bothered.

32. Reading Lolita in Tehran – a friend of mine recommended it to me when it was first published. I finally bought a copy on sale at Barnes and Noble at Christmas last year, so I’ll read it one of these days.

33. Memoirs of a Geisha – again, another one I want to read that a friend gave me quite some time ago now.

34. Middlesex – again, not for lack of interest did I stop reading it, and I plan to revisit it.

35. Quicksilver – here's another one I don't know.

36. Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the Westit was so very, very disappointing, as I love the premise, but I just could not get into it.

37. The Canterbury Tales – doesn’t everyone read it in high school and college?

38. The Historianit needed editing, but it still kept my attention.

39. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – I keep thinking I ought to try this one, but then think better of it with all the other things I’d much rather read.

L 40. *Love in the Time of Cholera – this is my favorite Garcia Marquez (as noted yesterday). I’ve read it three times now.

41. Brave New World – it's sad that I haven’t read it, I know.

42. The Fountainhead – please see Atlas Shrugged.

43. Foucault’s Pendulum – what is it about Umberto Eco that I love him but just don't seem to be able to commit myself to him?

L 44. Middlemarch – I loved it in college; don’t know what I’d think of it now.

L 45. * Frankenstein – I’ll never forget how surprised I was the first time I read it to find out how beautiful and sad it is.

46. The Count of Monte Cristo
– I know, I know, Becky, you told me months ago to drop everything and read it. Can you believe I still haven’t?

L 47. * Dracula – it's still the best vampire book I’ve ever read and a fabulous audiobook.

L 48. A Clockwork Orange – I love the movie, too, if “love” is the right word for something so very disturbing.

49. Anansi Boys – I just didn’t like it, which may have had more to do with the narrator on the audio book than the book itself.

50. The Once and Future King – it was just bad timing when I tried to read it. I wasn’t in the mood. But I know I’ll really like it one day. It's right up my alley, and I adore Le Morte D'Arthur.

51. The Grapes of Wrath –I tried last year, but it took too long for them to get to CA, and, by the time they did, I'd lost interest (I know, very lame). However, I'll finish it one day, because I so love the way he writes; it's so memorable that I'm sure I'll be able to pick it up where I left off without having to start all over again.

52. The Poisonwood Bible – maybe I’ll finally get around to reading it now that I’ve read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The trouble is, too many people have told me I just have to read it, and so I’m balking.

53. 1984 – I’ve mentioned before that I’m just not sure whether I have or haven’t read this one.

54. Angels & Demons – isn't it refreshing to find no one's reading it?

55. The Inferno – can you believe I’ve never read it?

56. The Satanic Verses – for some reason, I’ve always had a mental block when it comes to Rushdie. I'm just convinced I won't like him.

L 57. Sense and Sensibility I’m so envious of all these people who have all this Austen to read for the first time.

58. The Picture of Dorian Gray – someone tell me: should I? I’ve never felt one way or the other about it.

59. Mansfield Park – I guess I should be envious of myself, because I’ve got this one left to read for the first time.

60. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – I wish I’d read it before seeing the movie, because it was impossible not to picture Jack Nicholson.

L 61. * To the Lighthouse – this is the book that made me fall in love with Virginia Woolf.

L 62. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – such a difficult (like watching one of those horror movies where you keep yelling at the characters, “No, no. Don’t go in there!”) but extraordinarily beautiful book that, as I said yesterday, is one of the best examinations of the horrific plight of women I’ve ever read.

L 63. Oliver Twist – ahh, finally, it's a Dickens that I’ve read, and one I loved, as well.

64. Gulliver’s Travels – I just got a copy of it at the library book sale, so I can re-read it.

65. Les Misérables – it's been in my TBR tome for about as long as I’ve been alive.

66. The Corrections – here's another one I once wanted to read, but I've lost interest.

67. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – again, one that’s been highly recommended by so many people, I’m afraid it might not hold up to my expectations.

68. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – please see comment on above title.

69. Dune – maybe the fact that I cram read it for a course in college has something to do with my hatred. Then again, I cram read Middlemarch and loved it, so maybe not.

70. The Prince -- this is one of those books one feels one really must read, so one never does. Right?

L 71. The Sound and the Fury – there must be something wrong with me. So many of my favorite books are on this list.

72. Angela’s Ashes – I didn’t find it to be anything near what it was cracked up to be.

73. The God of Small Things – I've never had any real interest.

74. A People’s History of the United States : 1492-Present Day – huh? This is something others have been reading enough for it to land on a list of books people buy and don’t read? I must be missing something.

75. Neverwhere – where's Coraline, the one Gaiman I have read and finished? I guess it's the only one everyone else has read and finished, too. Still, it's odd three of his books are on this list, isn't it?

L 76. A Confederacy of Dunces – funny. I bought this one at a used book store in Philadelphia 20 years ago and it helped get me through my first visit to a city I thought was the most miserable place on earth (as you can probably guess, I’ve since changed my mind and have become very fond of Philly), having no idea it would one day be the closest big city to where I live.

77. A Short History of Nearly Everything – we’ve got it, but I haven’t done much more than read the cover copy. Despite the title, it’s not exactly what I’d call “short.”

78. Dubliners – less intimidating than Ulysses, but still I haven’t read it.

L 79. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – I read this for the first book discussion group to which I ever belonged and have meant to re-read it ever since I bought Bob a copy of it when we were first married.

80. Beloved – I have yet to figure out what all the fuss is over Toni Morrison.

81. Slaughterhouse-Five – I must get around to it, mustn’t I?

82. The Scarlet Letter – I know there are times Bob doesn’t want to be associated with me when I go on about not liking Nathanial Hawthorne. In fairness, I ought to give Hawthorne another try, but look at all the other stuff I’ve got to read.

L 83. Eats, Shoots & Leaves – how could an editor do anything but love this book?

84. The Mists of Avalon – it’s kind of disingenuous for me to italicize this one, because I only read about eight pages.

85. Oryx and Crake : A Novel -- I've only read two of Atwood's books, so I'm way behind.

86. Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed – never heard of it (I don’t know. Maybe I am from some other planet or something)

87. Cloud Atlas – I was about to underline this, but then I realized I was confusing it with Cloudsplitter, so I don’t own it and haven’t read it.

88. The Confusion – another one I’ve never heard of (but maybe I’m just mixed up about that. Sorry! Couldn’t resist).

L 89. *Lolita -- you’ve already heard me wax poetic about this one. Or maybe you haven't?

L 90. * Persuasion – every single Jane Austen? Really?

L 91. * Northanger Abbey – I guess people are watching the movies, buying the books, and not reading them or something.

92. The Catcher in the Rye – I enjoyed it, but wouldn’t exactly say I loved it.

L 93. On the Road – here's yet another one it’s time to re-read.

94. The Hunchback of Notre Dame – and here's another one that fell off the thirteen classics challenge list. (Hmm…did I actually read any of the books I had on that list?)

95. Freakonomics – much ado about nothing.

96. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – no interest.

97. The Aeneid – it's another one of those college reads I barely remember.

98. Watership Down – but I was only thirteen, and I was on vacation at my aunt's, and I was really much more interested in my Agatha Christies than a book about rabbits that seemed to go on forever. I’ve always wanted to give it another try. The Plague Dogs, at age fifteen, nearly did me in.

99. Gravity’s Rainbow – I’m not the least bit surprised to see this title on the list. Don’t so many of us read The Crying of Lot 49, get all excited about Pynchon, buy this one, planning to read it, and then lose interest? No? That’s just me? Oh well…

100. The Hobbit – my fourth-grade teacher read it to the whole class, but I don’t count that, since I just basically drew pictures and tuned him out. I’ve tried it twice since, but I just have no interest in Hobbits, I guess.

101. In Cold Blood – you’d think, after I saw the brilliant play Tru many, many years ago, I would have raced out and read everything he ever wrote, but no, I haven’t read anything yet.

102. White Teeth – yet another mysterious title. Anyone recommend I read it (or any of the others I haven't known, for that matter)?

103. Treasure Island – is it just a “boy’s book?” Should I try again?

104. David Copperfield – so much Dickens on this list (then again, he was a prolific writer), but I guess there’s even more Austen (who was not, unfortunately, so prolific).

105. The Three Musketeers – just never really been all that interested despite high praise from everyone I’ve ever known who’s read it.

Read: 40 (Less than half. Huh. What have I been doing all my life?)

Loved: 27


Thus proving that maybe I do tend to be more positive than negative. Now, everyone needs to leave me alone. Seems I’ve got lots of reading and re-reading to do.

Monday, May 12, 2008

An Alphabet of Favorites

This little exercise, which I first saw at Litlove’s (so long ago, everyone has probably forgotten it), is great, because it allows me to talk about a distinction I love to make, one that so many of the book snobs and pseudo intellectuals I’ve known don’t make. The idea is to list a favorite novel for each letter of the alphabet, based on the author's last name. Thus, I get to tell you that there is a distinction between books that I, Emily Nobody, happen to think are “great” (typically, yawn-worthy lists, because they’re so similar to everyone else’s “great” lists. I mean, let’s face it, great literature is great literature, and if you’ve read something that’s considered “great,” chances are, even if you didn’t particularly like it, you understand why it’s considered to be so) and books that I just happen to think are great reads, regardless of what literary critics and other "experts" might think.

I have a much more difficult time with the latter category. I guess it’s because I just don’t like to say something is my favorite. I mean, how does one, really, choose I Capture the Castle over A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? However, I do know what “favorite” means as opposed to “great.” In case you don’t, here’s an example: I’ve got 2 days to live, and someone’s given me the letter “T” as the letter for the last name of the author I can choose to read during these last two days. Now, let’s pretend I could actually get through War and Peace during those two days while I’m busy doing everything else I’d like to do for the last time before I die. I’d choose Thurber’s The Wonderful O over War and Peace, no question.

That distinction doesn’t necessarily make it easier to choose my favorites, though. And then, of course, there are “greats” that also happen to be favorites of mine, like Crime and Punishment. Still, I hope it helps you to understand that, yes, I know James Joyce is probably a greater author than Jerome K. Jerome. However, if you want to engage me in a conversation, you’re much better off asking, “So, who’s your favorite man in the boat?” rather than “Have you read Ulysses?” (the answer to which is, “no,” thus ending the conversation). So, book snobs beware. I’m sure you’ll be very disappointed by this list.

Alcott, Little Women –I’m a girl. What can I say?

Bronte, Jane Eyre – manages to be both an all-time favorite, cherished through each reading, and still a “great.”

Cervantes, Don Quixote – all right, so far, I’m not doing too well avoiding the “greats,” (I didn't think I was a book snob), and many of you are sick of hearing me go on and on about this one, but I was blown away by it when I finally read it a few years ago.

Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment – well, I already told you this “great” was going to be on the list.

Enright, The Melendy Family – there you go, finally a non-"great" (although Enright did win a Newbury for her very inferior Thimble Summer).

Finney, Time and Again – for once, a book everyone told me I had to read that I finished and thought, “They were so right!”

Garcia-Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera – nothing else I’ve ever read, except possibly Constant’s Adolphe, comes close to being such a perfect study of the question “what is love?”

Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles – this is one of the best studies of the plight of women I’ve ever read. It’s still very relevant today.

Irving, A Prayer for Own Meaney – so call me “middle-brow,” if to be so means I don’t have to miss out on this, the most hilarious of the Irvings I’ve read.

Jerome, Three Men in a Boat – it doesn’t matter how many times I read it, I still laugh out loud.

King, The Shining – it still scares the crap out of me.

Laski, The Victorian Chaise Longue – it’s probably the book I’ve most recommended to others to read.

Macaulay, They Were Defeated – it’s very hard to pick this one over her Towers of Trebizond. It just ekes by for me, because, well, there are things like a fabulous female protagonist, and witch hunts, and philosophers, and atheists, and Cambridge, and England on the verge of Civil War, etc. Oh yeah, and then there’s the heartbreaking ending…

Nesbit, The Phoenix and the Carpet – the Phoenix is probably one of my all-time favorite fictional characters.

Orne Jewett, Country of the Pointed Firs – is that cheating? Is she really a “J?” Anyway, beautiful, poignant, and it takes place in Maine. What’s not to like?

Pym, Excellent Women – nothing else makes me want to board a time machine back to 20th-century England more.

Q – like other bloggers who've completed this exercise, I can’t think of anything for “Q.”

Russo, Empire Falls – I’d love to be able to write like this.

Smith, I Capture the Castle – everything in one: funny, charming, wise, romantic, and heartbreaking.

Thurber, The Wonderful O – I love wordplay, and this is the best wordplay book I’ve ever read, even better than Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, which is saying a lot.

U – here’s another letter that doesn’t work for me. Could I substitute another “S” instead? If so, it’s Stegner, Crossing to Safety.

Vargas-Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter – it tickles my funny bone every single time,and I haven't bothered to read anything else by him, because I just can't imagine anything else could be as good.

Wolff, Old School -- it's so much better than that "great" Catcher in the Rye. Anyone else agree?

X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X – I know this isn’t a novel, but nobody these days seems to be able to tell the difference between memoir and fiction. I love this book for the fact that I absolutely didn’t want to read it but was riveted from page one.

Yolen, Beauty – one of my favorite fairytales is Beauty and the Beast, and this is just a gorgeous re-telling.

Z – right there with “Q” and “U”

(Continuing along the same lines, my next post will be the meme of unread books from LibraryThing, which will have considerable overlap with this list, I’m sure.)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

I Get Paid to Do This?

[Update: I just found out from Dorr that one of the other friends who joined us last night is also a fellow blogger, which I didn't know, so just want to include a link to The Reading Nook.]

Yesterday, I went up to Manhattan (it still sounds weird to say “up to Manhattan” instead of “into Manhattan”) to visit a school. One of the most fun “duties” of my job is visiting schools. I don’t really go visiting as often as I should. So many other things seem to be burning on front burners all the time, while schools just sort of simmer nicely on back burners, needing a stir, oh, every six months or so.

Thus, I haven’t visited a school in ages, but while I was out at conferences last month, I realized I needed to get back into some classrooms, especially those where certain math curricula are being used, so I can see what they’re like in practice. I was invited to visit this particular school over a year ago, and I decided I’d better R.S.V.P. before they forgot all about me. Besides, an excuse to go to Manhattan in May? Well, who really needs one of those? (I had, two, though, because after my school visit, I was meeting up with fellow bloggers Becky, Dorr, and Zoe’s Mom, as well as other friends, to celebrate Becky’s new job at Big Name Publisher.)

We’ll ignore the fact that Manhattan was more like Bangladesh in January than itself in May yesterday. I was in Manhattan. The weather didn’t deter me. It was great to be back. Prior to arriving, I’d had a blissful three hours on trains and in train stations all to myself. I stepped off the train at Penn Station and bought a Krispy Kreme doughnut.

Then I arrived at the school. What a fun school! Schools have certainly changed since the days in which I was forced to sit quietly at a desk in the middle of a row listening to my teacher and working on worksheets. I walked in the door and was greeted with the loud sound of happy and engaged kids working and exploring the world around them.

When I visit schools, my favorite classrooms are the kindergarten through second grade classrooms. These kids, for the most part, have absolutely no qualms about talking to this stranger who’s appeared on the scene (I hope I’m not striking fear in the hearts of those of you with children this age. Never fear. When I do this, I’m typically accompanied by someone like the assistant principal, as I was yesterday). I can wander around the classroom, squat down to their level, and ask them what they’re doing. They will explain to me in great detail exactly what they’re doing and why. The fifth-graders are much more cautious. They either eye me warily, or look at me as though I’m the village idiot when I ask questions. I mean, it should be perfectly obvious exactly what they’re doing.

The child psychology is fascinating. At what age do children quit viewing questioning adults as people to help and inform and instead start seeing them as people who are suspect? Maybe around age ten or so, just prior to adolescence, when adults become plain stupid and embarrassing?

One of my favorite classroom questions came from an eighth-grader in a room full of kids who were completely guarded around me from the moment I walked in the door. Finally, one of them turned to the author who was my “tour guide” that day and asked, “How can you write a whole book about math?” The follow-up question, left unvoiced, but definitely written in the girl’s thought bubble was, “And why would you want to?”

After my tour of the school and observing some lessons, I sat with the math coach and the assistant principal who are two extremely warm and fun people. We had a great time looking at samples of student work, talking about the integration of the revised math curriculum they’ve been using this year, and brainstorming ideas for books to write and publish. While I was doing so, I wondered why neither of them is extremely obese, because two kids had birthday parties at the school, and I gather the custom is to come down and offer goodies to those in the office (yesterday, it was cupcakes from one child and chocolate chip cookies from another). With 750 students in the school, that’s an awful lot of birthdays, and an awful lot of goodies. To tell you the truth, I was surprised. You wouldn’t believe all the horror stories I’ve heard from principals and teachers about kids with food allergies and having to enforce bans on such parties altogether, or at least bans on such food at parties (always extremely disappointing to me when I hear it, because these parties with such sweets were the highlights of my elementary school career).

Sounds like a fun day, doesn’t it? I’m not complaining that I get paid to do such fun work (and believe me, there are times when my job is not fun). I am very, very glad I get paid to do it. When I was sixteen, I made the decision that no one was ever going to support me, that I was going to make my own way in this world. I wasn’t going to be dependent on my parents for money, nor would I be dependent on a husband. However, I always imagined the work I did would be a real chore, nothing more than a means to an end. I had no idea it could be so much fun. Does it not seem somewhat unfair that some people have to put in hideously long days in coal mines to earn much less than I do visiting cool schools with cute kids? I recently took that quiz about being privileged. I’d say considering this question makes me feel far more privileged than most of the questions on that quiz did.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering: the day ended perfectly. I met up with the others at The Algonquin (where else would a group of people, almost all of whom work in publishing, meet up for drinks? Dorr was our one sane voice, being the lone non-publisher in the group. I’m still hoping we didn’t bore her to tears with all our “shop talk”). I’d say we probably had a far better time than the original members of the Algonquin Round Table. Afterwards, it was macaroni and cheese (a very buttery and delicious macaroni and cheese, I might add) at Juniors and then back to PA, fully satiated with NYC, good work, good friends, good drinks, and good food. And believe it or not: I was actually happy to be back in PA. Philly’s 30th Street Station is becoming as familiar as Penn Station (and I like it better. Of course, I will never like any train station better than Grand Central).

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Yet Another Mindless Test


Which really just doesn't tell you much at all, does it? But the test was kind of fun. Of course, if I were really creative, I'd be working on my novel instead of taking mindless tests.

Off Visiting

I'm over at the ecojustice challenge blog today, if you want to take a peek at what I have to say there.