Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Books read in Chincoteague (6 of 7): The Shipping News

arlier in this week of reading I very quickly judged a book to be not-my-type. The same could have happened with The Shipping News, but for the fact that Annie Proulx's writing style (unique, fragmented thought-blows of sentences) drew me in, the hope that things would improve for Quoyle, our protagonist, and the knowledge that the book did pick up in mood after the first few chapters. It was well worth it, and that very same point winds up being the heart of the book.

The early descriptions of Quoyle make him out to be a lumbering clod, barely capable of speech, unattractive in every way, making the reader feel the self-loathing of a young man lost in a highly critical world. As he begins to let his voice be heard, more of his own character comes out, slowly and painfully, and the story moves forward as we get to know him and he gets to know himself. While the beginning of the book is one calamity after another, Quoyle sticks with it and keeps plodding along, going where the winds take him until his fortunes right themselves.

spring, flowers, blossoms, tree, DC, Frederickboats, masts, harbor, marina, Eastport, Annapolis, cloudsshed, collection, yard, oddities, weird, carebears, barney

Once I was inside this world, I stopped wanting to leave. One of my favourite quirks in the book is Quoyle's habit of creating impromptu newspaper headlines about the world around him ("Man with Hangover Listens to Boat Builder Project Variables"). There was also the warmth of the closeknit community in the Northern reaches, the intriguing history and mystery of each character and the town, even an abandoned village on a desolate island. I made a point of never checking the publication date on Shipping News, because it sits fairly happily in the near-present, comfortably familiar and nonspecific. Come to think of it, this was probably my favourite book of the week.
"There are four women in every man's heart. The Maid in the Meadow, the Demon Lover, the Stouthearted Woman, the Tall and Quiet Woman."

Monday, November 28, 2011

Books read in Chincoteague (5 of 7): Rereadings

nother weakness: anything with Anne Fadiman's name attached to it. Rereadings is a collection of book reviews that Fadiman ran whilst at The American Scholar literary quarterly. Each review is a rereading of a book the reviewer (usually a writer themselves) had read long in their past. As Fadiman points out, each is more of a mini-memoir than a review of the book itself. Since I seem to currently be into memoirs and essays, this suited me just fine, plus the entire book is making recommendations for further reading! As if I needed more to read!

The eventual conclusion that each review comes to is: Everything Changes but the Past remains the same. The reviewers largely find themselves rereading with more perspective and experience, but remember their old selves, motivations and weaknesses (their ignorance and their bliss) vividly through association with the text. It makes me incredibly happy to hear others talking about their love of books, and how a life of reading has bolstered a life of writing. These aren't great literary accomplishments, these reviews, but they are familiar, as if hearing a friend tell you a long story after dinner in order to make the point: you might like the book, too.
stack, books, bought, sundial, to-read
"It never occured to me that the need to catalog the stuff of everyday life might be a sign that the authors I loved were loners and misfits. Normal people, after all, don't stand around at garden parties or lie in bed with their loved ones trying to figure out what even the smallest ordinary gesture means."

-David Samuels, Marginal Notes on the Inner Lives of People with Cluttered Apartments in the East Seventies, a rereading of J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey.

Evidence of the superfluity of books in my life: this wee pile was acquired whilst in Sundial Books, currently the best little bookshop in Chincoteague.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Books read in Chincoteague (4 of 7): Boneshaker

or once, the cover blurb is entirely accurate: "A steampunk-zombie-airship adventure[!]" Really, what more do you need to know? And yet, the characters in Cherie Priest's Boneshaker do go a bit deeper than that. They have emotional needs, frailities, a search for a father and role model, a last hope for lost love, an avoidance of kinship at the same time as a frantic search for the same. Not to mention attempts to understand another culture, come to terms with a violent history and guilt (over the same), and yes, the book contains a map.

In the desolate wastes of an alternate Seattle it's every man for himself, except when he feels the need to assuage his guilty soul by coming to a comrade's aid, but it's also all men against the undead, the darkness, without and within. Things can be simple and full of comaraderie in a society with a common enemy. And yet, men and women turn against each other in order to save themselves, to avoid or fight their inner demons, always always putting the self first, for there is very little true altruism in the world.

The book was pretty good, a fascinating and light frolic through a fledgling universe with some mystery thrown in along the way. The steampunk aspects are not obnoxiously overwhelming, but the "blight" victims (the zombie hordes) seem a little gratuitous (I think this is pretty much always the case with the undead). At four hundred fourteen reasonably dense pages, I could have gone for a lot more detail of the world and development of some of the characters' relationships. I'm told there are further developments to be had in subsequent novels.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Books read in Chincoteague (3 of 7): Not Becoming My Mother

eople of first world countries in the twenty-first century have a tendency to take an awful lot for granted. While many in democratic society worry that their freedoms are shrinking, it also seems as though they are expanding. Even a few decades ago a more conservative U.S. might not have put up with the diatribes of certain "grassroots" movements, more likely dismissing them outright as being incoherent and extremist. Today we still have the great benefit of an equal voice for all, even though some may be less deserving of serious consideration.

Orchid lying on a page from VogueAll of which is, for some reason, leading up to my notes on Not Becoming My Mother, this short memoir by Ruth Reichl about her mother's search (somewhat in vain) for a life as a non-homemaker in the middle of the 20th century. I have a certain weakness for reading about the lives of others, who, while not consequential or influential on any grand scale, have at least merited some well-written words and a bit of immortality on the bookshelf. No one is really inconsequential, in the big chaotic world of butterfly wingbeats, but some are significant only to a small circle of fortunate insiders.

Reichl's search for her mother's story focuses on the the fortunes of mid-century homemakers, facing proud and territorial husbands in a difficult job market after the Depression and World War II. Reichl had originally made the mistake of assuming that everything changed to roses for women after the 19th Amendment was passed. In truth, society took much longer to adjust to the change, and families behind closed doors longer still. Traditional patriarchal values (often maintained by the physically larger and stronger sex, and accepted by women who aren't sure how to do otherwise) still linger today. Reichl's mother did her best to instill deep seated independence and self-reliance in her daughter, such that she might never feel the need to ally herself with a husband in order to get by. Anyway, the thing was inspiring, comforting and entertaining, a quick read. Recommended.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Books read in Chincoteague (2 of 7): Hell to Pay

his was a bit of a disaster for me. I think I encountered George Pelecanos mentioned among a list of the best DC based authors (including Marie Arana). When I heard he wrote crime novels set in DC, I had to read one. Unfortunately, the first chapter I attempted was not to my liking (I believe that was The Big Blowdown), and I dropped that attempt back at the library in favor of a different set of a characters and plot. Come some booksale, I picked up two more, and brought Hell to Pay along to the beach in hopes that it would be a good fluffy crime/thriller to keep me going.

Nooo such luck. If I could've gotten behind the writing the story might have been decent, but it seemed bogged down in vernacular (like the books written in a Scottish "accent"), not just in the characters' voices but in the narrator's as well. The overwhelming number of scenes drenched in sexual innuendo and indiscriminate flirtations were nauseating and unappealing and I didn't care in the least whether the crime was solved or not (although at the point I got to, a quarter of the way in, there had yet to _be_ a crime commited). So perhaps this is simply not the book, nor even the author for me. Oh well.

Washington, DC, New York Avenue, downtown, snow, traffic

Friday, November 18, 2011

Books read in Chincoteague (1 of 7): Catch-22

s I finally wrapped up the last chapters of Catch-22 and went to enter this triumph in my book log, I discovered that I had begun this one not just months ago, but last November. Horrors, that I had left a book neglected for so very long, thinking that I wasn't in the mood for it, not giving it a chance. Well, to be fair, I probably wasn't in the mood for it, nor would I ever have been, but finally, on the porch swing overlooking the marsh, I at least felt comfortable enough to forge my way through the latter third of Catch-22 without going crazy myself.

Having been told by two reliable sources that this was a hilarious read, full of wit and whimsy, albeit dark whimsy, I figured I ought to at least give it a chance, read the whole damn thing and be able to reflect on it. Having done so, I'm glad I did, but the journey was one of the most depressing I've been on, stretching thin my last shreds of faith in a decent world.

Anyway, horrifyingly obtuse and, yes, hilariously conniving as Colonel Cathcart and Milo are, clearly this is a pretty good book because it did _get to me_. And I did understand Yossarian's plight, the desperation and the confusion, the fear that the world really is nuts, that this must be some deep level of punishing inferno, and the emotional grasping at what few friends could be found in the midst of war.

cavern, catacombs, McMillan, sand filtration, Washington, DC, underground, columns

What spun me for the greatest loop was the ending. I guess I shouldn't say here, (oh, heck: SPOILERS!) but it didn't seem in keeping with the rest of the book. In fact, I was so thrown by the ending that I felt certain I missed an important detail and Yossarian was deep into some fever dream, or was heading off for the promised land. The entire last two chapters or so took a sharp left and nearly tossed this passenger out around the curve. I suppose I'm glad it ended the way it did, with a hope for the future, an open ending and striking out for a new world. All is not lost, life goes on, "persevere."

Not sure the photo is relevant, but since I didn't have anything that really is... this underground catacomb is from an exploration of the old McMillan sand filtration site in NE DC I did with DCUrban Explorers in late October.

This review also appears in part on LibraryThing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Books Read in Chincoteague (0 of 7): Introduction

am a reader. If I could be The Reader I would be, but in this day and age it seems that all of the archetypes have all been claimed, and all one can do is occupy an indefinite article.

In order to avoid a[nother] rant about [the sad state of] contemporary society, I will simply describe the situation, the setting for the seven posts I will make in the forthcoming fortnight. Once a year, every year for the last [20+] my family has vacationed in a small cottage on Chincoteague Island for a week. When I was smaller and/or younger, the purpose included daily trips to the ocean for sandcastle making and mole-crab catching, mom-made sandwiches and hours spent sitting in the porch swing listening to books on tape. 

books, boneshaker, not becoming my mother, shipping news, hell to pay, rereadings, vacation, readingNow the entire purpose seems to be to bike around the [nice, flat] island a bit, go for a long walk or two on [what's left of] Assateague Island and spend as much time as possible reading book after [quality] book. In my teens, I blazed through every book Anne McCaffrey had written in the space of approximately 48 hours (Slight exaggeration. May have been 72.). While I'm still not reading Joyce and James and Dostoevsky in the space of hours, I did manage a few decently mature books in the space of a week; a book a day for soothing a soul. 

And, somehow, the books I brought along matched my mental state and future-goals with aplomb. Each stood up and made its point across time and space, reaching me through excellent authors, stories and words. 

The overarching themes in a nutshell: From The Shipping News to Catch-22, a frabjous sense of optimism or hopeless-hope in the face of disaster, despair and delirium (Endless tie-in!), lessons on the paths we take through life to the place Ruth Reichl's mom teaches us to be: unshakably within our selves.

Then, from Boneshaker back to Shipping News, a sense of community and grand purpose pervading humanity in times of challenge and need. Reichl's mother proselytizes steadfast self-confidence, but the citizens of Proulx's Newfoundland will tell you: in the end, only the wind and the sea will have their way.

Stay tuned for seven (7!) upcoming (short) book reviews...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Photos of phood (now with vastly improved imaging capabilities)

tortellini, fresh, pasta, homemade, butternut, squash, stuffed, local

Apparently Mondays are good for making something different. The last time I did tortellini was at least a year ago, but this week I had nabbed a butternut squash at market and have enough eggs to burn on pasta. The squash wasn't terribly flavorful, so wrapping it in pasta seemed like a good plan. The photo shows some unrolled pasta circles, a bit of filling (squash + whatever herbs were lying around) and a few of the finished tortellinis. Cheese is really fantastic in these, but squash is a heckuva lot cheaper. They come out pretty big because I can only roll the pasta so thin with a rolling pin, and any less filling isn't sufficient.

I wont write out the entire process, but the pasta recipe is basically: for each egg, use a bit less than 100g of flour. I used 5 eggs and maybe 450g flour to start, a bit more for rolling, which makes for a very soft pasta dough, but is so much easier to work with.

The method: make a pile of flour with a well, put eggs in the middle, slowly stir flour in from edges until everything is integrated enough to knead (and not run off the counter). Knead. Let rest, covered. Divide, roll out to 1/4" thick slabs. Rest covered. Roll out as thin as you like, dry on a rack to slightly leathery feel. Cut. Dry some more if just doing noodles or stuff with stuff and let dry a bit. Freeze if not using right away, drop (fresh or frozen) in boiling water for ~5 min (mine, as I said, are very thick). Tada.

chocolates, sugar cube, designer, painted, truffles, Alexandria, VAchocolates, sugar cube, designer, painted, Alexandria, VA
chocolates, sugar cube, designer, painted, Alexandria, VA

And because I had these photos of pretty chocolates from the Sugar Cube in Oldtown lying around, here are some pretty chocolates. They also tasted good, of course, very smooth, nice Autumn flavors.

Monday, November 7, 2011


palmiers, pig's ears, elephant's ears, pastrypalmiers, pig's ears, elephant's ears, pastry

Last week I got one of the most ironic phone calls I can remember receiving. It was my dental hygienist, calling to remind me of my appointment... and to ask me if I might bring baked goods. So, last night, at a loss for what to make, I tried pastry for the first time. These are palmiers, and are made exclusively with flour, butter, water, salt and sugar. Even the dentist himself agreed that they were fantastic.

palmiers, pig's ears, elephant's ears, pastry