Monday, January 25, 2010

Ramble: I still don't get this social media thing

I still can't figure out how to tweet.

I don't mean that I can't figure out how to type into the little box, edit my babbling down to 140 characters, and hit Update. That's not a problem.

I mean that I don't know what to tweet about. I don't understand Twitter.

I am following people on Twitter. One hundred and two people, to be specific. Other people's tweets make perfect sense to me. But I can't seem to learn from them, to figure out how to tweet myself. It's as if I can read but can't write - can't even get my head around the fact that it's the same alphabet for both operations.

What always stops me is, who would want to know what I'm about to say? How can I confidently tell an audience of potentially millions of people what I just posted on my blog, or... well, anything? That's not to say that I have millions of followers - I have a couple of dozen. But everybody can search the sea of tweets, so at any time anyone could fish out what I've said.

And that - the searching - is interesting. When I look at all of the different methods of online communication, the thing that strikes me as different about Twitter is the fact that you can search everybody's recent outputs, all at once. It's flat. It's unedited. Enter a search string and get every tweet with that string, back to the point where the exhausted frantically-working Twitter engine gives out and can't give you any more.

I have some vague notion that that fact points to the secret of Twitter, the answer to "what's the point?" But I still don't get the point.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rant: I am so done with winter

And I haven't even really had winter. But three or four days of rain, and I'm done. Ready for drought season, thankyouverymuch.

I'm so pampered, weather wise. I'm filled with indignation at the idea that I have to put something extra on to go outside?! I need an umbrella? I need puddle shoes? I can't walk and read simultaneously, the way I usually do, because the pages will get soaked? What's with that?

It's not even that I need heat. If the temperature went down twenty or so degrees, but all that water would just stop falling, that would be fine. I could grumble myself into a coat, grab the book of the moment, and charge down the sidewalk with one eye scanning the page and one watching for tripping hazards ahead of me, the way I have since I was six years old.

In fact, y'know, that's the whole problem. I say it twice, and the obvious finally hits me in the face. That's where the cranky, incredulous indignation with this weather comes from: I can't read outside when it's raining!

What's the use of an outdoors where you can't read? What's the use of any place where you can't read? That's probably why I don't like the driver's seat, either; even I can't advocate for the one-eye-scanning reading method when I'm controlling a multi-thousand-pound mobile but solid object with a belly full of explosive liquid. (Hmmm. Is this going to be a problem with the tricycle?)

I read while I walk. I have a whole etiquette for pointedly lowering the book while I cross the street, because even though I'm quite confident that I can cross at full speed while still absorbing the page, it does seem rather rude to the drivers patiently waiting me for me to get the heck across, who no doubt suffer under the delusion that reading slows me down.

I read while I do the dishes. I read while I cook. I read while I sweep and dust and tidy and do laundry and fold laundry and put laundry away. I read while I weed. I have special books for that; they can tell you their sad muddy rainy story from where they're languishing in the garden shed. I read while I'm in the bathtub. I read while I'm in the shower. Yes, it is possible to shampoo your hair with one hand while keeping the book (relatively) dry. Really. But it's inadvisable for apprentices to the art to practice it with library books.

I read while I eat. As a child, I used to be able to get my entire lunch out of the lunch box, napkin folded, peanut butter and jelly and milk carton all in their proper places, while reading, so that they'd be correctly placed while I ate. While reading.

I read. I can't read in the rain. That, I see, is what's wrong with rain. Now I understand.

BOTD: The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart (And a ramble about children's books as books.)

Yep, The Mysterious Benedict Society is a children's book. But a fat one, so I feel no guilt about counting it as one of my 100+.

Summary: Four gifted children experience alarmingly special opportunities.

Rapid Fire: Emergency. Black pawn. Trick questions. Green plaid. Hair remover. New school. Kaleidoscope. Narcolepsy. Cafeteria food. Personal hygiene. Poison apples, poison worms. Fly straight and right. Snakes and dogs.

First Paragraph Score: 3.5/5. I should be giving it a low score - it has many of the flaws that I criticize. But it made me hurry to turn the page to read the end of the paragraph, so it's a success, even if I don't understand why.

Overall Score: 3.5/5 for a children's book, 2.5/5 for books in general.

Recommendation: Worth reading. Worth buying. I'm buying the sequels and reading them, too.

The split score above made me think of books that transcend "children's bookness", becoming unarguably great books no matter what the reader's age. In my own lists, this includes Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Harriet the Spy and Ramona the Pest and much of Roald Dah's work and much of Rumer Godden's work, including The Doll's Houseand plenty of others. Harry Potter probably qualifies, too, but I need a little more time to make up my mind.

This book, while very good, isn't in that category - it's still primarily a children's book. I think that its author might be able to achieve that transcendence, but he hasn't yet in this one.

I think that this is largely because the book lapses, too often, into an adult point of view. It's the viewpoint of someone who loves and admires the child characters, but who is, all the same, separate from them.

Just one example:
Part of Kate believed this - a very important part, for Kate's sense of invincibility was the main thing that had sustained her all her young life alone. But another part did not believe this - and it, too, was an important part, for unless you know about this part it is impossible to understand how brave a thing Kate was about to do.
The speaker loves and admires Kate, but he's still putting himself in a position outside of her, a position where it's appropriate for him to analyze and evaluate her. He's not inside. In Ramona The Pest, I don't need an explanation of why Ramona feels the way that she does about, for example, that red ribbon. I feel it, in my gut. I'm inside.

The book is also a little too protective. The best children's books often have a mercilessness about them or, to be overblown about it, a savagery. Alice in Wonderland has this, and Roald Dahl's books do. The Oz books don't, and the Oz books, to me, also don't "transcend". This book seems to worry about frightening or upsetting the child reader, about maintaining some reliably decent touchstones in the world. And I think that that protectiveness is a flaw.

Also, it appears that the author wants to teach us things. That's not inherently wrong, but when it's true, I think that the original outline of the lesson needs to be very carefully and thoroughly erased. Here, I can see traces of the original checklist through the story. Demonstrate the character flaws, and how they have value in the right situation. Check. Demonstrate how very different people can form friendships. Check. Demonstrate that people often have reasons for their poor behavior. Check.

It's protective. It's loving. It tries to teach. I suppose that's why I chose that illustration up there for this post, given that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the book itself. And while all of that is admirable, it's not what makes the greatest children's books. This book is very good, but it's firmly within its niche.

Illustration: Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rambling: The Tricycle Plan

I want a tricycle.

Why do I want a tricycle? Because I want a bicycle and I'm clumsy.

Well, and I also want a self-powered vehicle that I can use to carry quite a lot of groceries. Or plants - enough capacity for six or eight one-gallon pots would be nice. Or potting soil. Or pots. Or hauling a season's worth of plastic pots back to the nursery for recycling. Or a whole lot of library books. Or, of course, a picnic. With fried chicken. Yeah. Library books, blanket, fried chicken, and glass bottles of Coke to Lithia Park. That's a plan.

I like all the possibilities that come from increasing my non-driving cargo capacity. I also rather like the idea of becoming "crazy tricycle lady". I was a little dubious about it at first, but now I'm wondering how many of those tall flapping flags I could attach, and if bicycle headlight generators would power a string of Christmas lights. And how about speakers, or at least a multi-tone bicycle bell? Embrace the crazy.

Just to make it clear, I'm not talking about a supersized version of a child's tricycle. I won't be pedaling along in a giant Big Wheel equivalent, braking with my toes.  I'm talking about a bicycle that happens to have two wheels in the back instead of one. Something like this. Or this. Or that. I'm going to get one, I just don't know which one. Then I'll figure out how to attach those Christmas lights.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, January 18, 2010

NaNoWriMo: After November

Ray: Everybody can relax, I found the car! Needs some suspension work; and shocks, and brakes, brake pads, lining, steering box, transmission, rear end -
Peter: How much?
Ray: Only forty-eight hundred. And maybe new rings, also mufflers, a little wiring...  
"Ghostbusters", 1984
My NaNoWriMo novel did reach fifty thousand words, but it's not so much, you know, done. It needs some more characters, plot, last names, some transition scenes, an ending, little touches like that. And that's before the rewrite, which is before the first round of editing, all of which comes before I'll be willing to call it a first draft.

I'm not ready for that yet; I think it needs to cook some more. In fact, it may need to cook until next year, when I could start writing it all over again, this time with an outline. It served its purpose as a writing exercise, and I'm going to leave the words behind for now, while I chew over the concept in my head.

But the writing thing, I enjoyed that. I'd like to keep it up. So what to write now?

I've considered short stories - really, because it seems more plausible that I could finish one. But a short story seems, in many ways, to be a more difficult form than a novel. They're, well, short, which means that they need to know where they're going and what they're doing, and waste not a word on the irrelevant. And do all that while maintaining the illusion of not doing it. And I'm not good at that. I could finish a very bad short story faster than a moderately bad novel, but can I ever finish a good short story? I have my doubts.

And I've considered just writing random vignettes, and analyzing them for writing flaws. But, meh. I just did fifty thousand words of writing that wasn't sure where it was going. Do I want to do more?

There is, of course, writing on my blogs. That is writing, but I'm talking about fiction writing.

Come to think of it, I could put fiction writing on the blog. That would be a new frontier - letting someone read even one word of my fiction. It's actually an interesting thought, if I could think of a format that might work.

Blog fiction. Hmmm. I'll be thinking that over.

Photo: By Christopher Ziemnowicz. Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Gardening: Leafy Gluttony - Squash Blossoms (And butter! And cheese!)

Photo of baby zucchini.
I don't like summer squash. I agree with Hercule Poirot that they taste like water.

But I love squash blossoms, whether they're from summer squash, winter squash, or pumpkins. And they continue the leafy gluttony theme of food that's better from the garden than any other way. Groceries do sell baby squash with blossoms attached, but they're generally sadly wilted - squash blossoms aren't good for more than a few minutes away from the garden.

So when I grow squash, it's for the blossoms. That means that ideally, I'd grow squash that produce plenty of male blossoms, and a minimum of fruit-producing and therefore energy-wasting female blossoms. A hunt through Google points me to Butter Blossom summer squash, but fails to find me a source for seeds. Sources suggest that Costata Romanesco and Sunray, both from Johnny's Selected Seeds, are also good producers of male blossoms.

So once you've gotten the seeds and have a handful of blossoms in the kitchen, what do you do with them? Fry them in butter, of course!

At least, that's one option, and the simplest. I rinse the blossom, pull the petals off in one flat sheet, dust them in flour, and fry them, carefully, in a generous pool of foaming butter over medium-low heat. Let them cool from the pan just long enough to allow them to crisp, and eat them. This is not a plated dinner party dish; just as the raw blossoms aren't good for more than a few hours out of the garden, the fried ones are at their best a minute or two out of the pan.

The less simple options? I've never tried them yet, but gathering some nice-looking links, I see:

Five Ways to Eat Squash Blossoms, from Apartment Therapy The Kitchn. Cheese-stuffed and fried, cheese-stuffed and baked to steamed, or in pasta, quesadillas, or soup.

What to do with squash blossoms, from Gastronomical Three. A detailed gorgeous-picture-laden description of how to do the stuffed fried blossoms.

A bruschetta version of the stuffed blossoms, from

A version filled with pulled pork, from the Food Network.

Basil-stuffed blossoms from SippitySup.

And finally, baked squash blossoms with ricotta and honey, from

Yum. I'm not going to have enough blossoms.

Photo: By Rasbak. Wikimedia Commons.

Gardening: Leafy Gluttony - Alpine Strawberries

Photograph of alpine strawberries.
I don't grow food to save money. That's partly about skill - I'm not skilled enough to get a substantial harvest. And it's partly about space and sunlight. And largely about laziness. I'm just not prepared to work hard enough to maximize pounds of potato, or ears of corn, or cubic feet of pumpkin, harvested from my few sunny areas.

So, why grow food at all? Largely because it's fun - I started my gardening career with vegetables, and it took me a long time to care about ornamentals. But I need more of a reason, more of a goal. That goal is to produce taste experiences that I just can't get from the grocery. And, well, to produce them lazily.

One of the first candidates for this goal was strawberries, and we've grown them rather lackadaisically a few times. I've never tasted a strawberry from a grocery, restaurant, or any other source, that compared in taste with dead ripe strawberries harvested from the garden. This is, I think, no great surprise and no testament to our skill. When a fragile fruit doesn't need to travel more than the five feet from the ground to my mouth, it's possible to grow very delicate varieties, and to harvest them at a level of ripeness impossible for a grocery strawberry.

But there's a catch: Strawberries take work. Weeding. Watering. Mulching. Nipping off the fruits the first year. Dividing the plants the third or fourth year. A second bed to grow out of sequence so that there's something to eat during the years that you're nipping and dividing. Fighting off snails and slugs and birds and probably raccoons. And they occupy generous amounts of dedicated, prime, plush, sunny bed space.

So we evicted the strawberries and planted their bed with culinary herbs. And then we missed them.

This year, I have a new theory: alpine strawberries. Rumor has it that these smaller strawberries can grow in the empty spaces in a flowerbed, instead of hogging dedicated space. Other rumors claim that they're better than ordinary strawberries, even those miraculous home-grown ordinary strawberries. The harvest is supposed to be small, but that's fine - the goal is an occasional bonus bite of something miraculous, while I'm puttering in the garden.

Photo: By James McNally. Wikimedia Commons.

BOTD: Death of an Old Goat, by Robert Barnard

Summary: An elderly Oxford professor's visit to an Australian university ends very badly.

Rapid Fire: Sydney-Brisbane Express. Tea and buns. Obliging housewives. Five-fingered discount. Spaghetti Neapolitan. Dusky Maiden. Two-wheelers. Wine and cheese.

First Paragraph Score: 3/5

Overall Score: 3.5/5

Recommendation: Every Robert Barnard book is worth reading. However, some of his books draw you into the characters and make you care, and some just draw you into his very good writing and satire, and leave you cold to the characters. This is one of the second group, so while I would recommend it, it's not one that I'd suggest starting with.

Photo: By Cfitzart. Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Books: 100+ Reading Challenge

J. Kaye's Book Blog runs a "100+ Reading Challenge", a challenge to read one hundred (or more) books during the year. Reviews are optional.

I'm going to give it a try. I'll log the books in this post, and if I review them, I'll link to the review. (And the badge, linked to this post, is down at the bottom left of the blog.)


Since I tend to read multiple books at once, I'm going to have three lists here: What I'm thinking of reading, what I'm reading, and what I've read. And just to make it more interesting to me, I'm going to enter start and finish dates.

Under Consideration:
(So I don't forget what I'm thinking of reading.)
Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and the other three.
One Man's Garden, and Henry Mitchell's other two books. It's been a few years since I read them all the way through.
The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor.
The Crazy School, by Cornelia Read.
Missing Melinda, by Jacqueline Jackson.
The Midnight Folk, by John Masefield.
The Changeling, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.

Pending or In Progress:
American Tales, by Calvin Trillin. Started 4/3

  • 1: Death of an Old Goat, by Robert Barnard (Started ??, Finished 1/17)
  • 2: The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart (Started 1/15, finished 1/21)
  • 3: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, by Robert C. O'Brien (Started 1/17, finished 1/23)
  • (I know, but I like children's books.)
  • 4: The Killings on Jubilee Terrace, by Robert Barnard (Started 1/17, finished 1/29)
  • 5: The Remains of The Dead, by Wendy Roberts. (Started 1/30, finished 1/31)
  • 6: Miss Manners' Guide To A Surprisingly Dignified Wedding, by Judith Martin and Jacobina Martin (Started 2/5, finished 2/9)
  • 7: Something Missing, by Matthew Dicks. Started ??, finished 3/5.
  • 8: A New Leash On Death, by Susan Conant. Started 3/9, finished 3/12.
  • 9. Dead and Doggone, by Susan Conant. Started 3/13, finished 3/13.
  • 10. A Bite of Death, by Susan Conant. Started ??, finished 3/19.
  • 11. Paws Before Dying, by Susan Conant. Not a clue when.
  • 12. The Mirror Crack'd, by Agatha Christie. Stared ~4/1, finished 4/3
  • 13. Elephants Can Remember, by Agatha Christie. Started 4/3, finished ??.
  • 14. There Is A Tide..., by Agatha Christie.
  • 15. Five Red Herrings, by Dorothy Sayers.
  • 16. The Masters of the House, by Robert Barnard. Started 4/24, finished 5/1.
  • 17. Hallowe'en Party, by Agatha Christie. Started 4/30, finished 5/2.
  • 18. The Mousewife, by Rumer Godden. Started 5/3 at 1:00 pm, finished 5/3 at 1:08 pm. I declare that it counts, anyway.
  • 19. Spence at Marlby Manor, by Michael Allen. Finished 5/6.
  • 20. Meet the Austins by Madeline L'Engle. Started 5/3ish, finished 5/9.
  • 21. Shattered Silk, by Barbara Michaels. Finished 5/12.
  • 22. The Murder At The Vicarage, by Agatha Christie. Finished 5/15.
  • 23. The Thoughtful Dresser, by Linda Grant. Started 5/14, finished 5/15.
  • 24. Funerals are Fatal, by Agatha Christie. Started 5/15.
  • 25. The Language of Bees, by Laurie R. King. Finished 5/29.
  • 26. Postern of Fate, by Agatha Christie. Finished 5/29 or so.
  • 27. The Terrible Tide, by Alisa Craig. Finished 5/30 or so.
  • 28. Suddenly, In Her Sorbet, by Joyce Christmas. Finished 5/31.
  • 29. Vanish With The Rose, by Barbara Michaels. Finished 6/5.
  • 30. Simply to Die For, by Joyce Christmas. Finished 6/6.
  • 31. A Fete Worse Than Death, by Joyce Christmas. Finished 6/9.
  • 32. Wait For What Will Come, by Barbara Michaels. Finished ~ 6/16.
  • 33. Friend or Faux, by Joyce Christmas. Finished 6/21.
  • 34. Blanche On The Lam, by Barbara Neely. Started and finished 6/26.
  • 35. Dust, by Martha Grimes. Finished 6/27.
  • 36. Smoke and Mirrors, by Barbara Michaels. Finished 7/5.
  • 37. The Winds Of Change, by Martha Grimes. Finished 7/5.
  • 38. Search the Shadows, by Barbara Michaels. Finished 7/6.
  • 39: The Love Talker, by Elizabeth Peters. Finished 7/7.
  • 40. House of Many Shadows, by Barbara Michaels. Finished 7/8.
  • 41. Prince of Darkness, by Barbara Michaels. Finished 7/10.
  • 42. Witch, by Barbara Michaels. Finished 7/10.
  • 43. The Skeleton In The Grass, by Robert Barnard. Finished 7/11.
  • 44. Stuff, by Frost and Steketee.
  • 45. The Time Travelers, by Linda Buckley-Archer
  • 46. The Time Thief, by Linda Buckley-Archer.
  • 47. Green Trigger Fingers, by John Sherwood.
  • 48. The Pavilion, by Hilda Lawrence. Finished 7/30.
  • 49. The Mantrap Garden, by John Sherwood. Finished 8/6.
  • 50. Women Who Eat, edited by Leslie Miller. Finished 8/7.
  • 51. Street of the Five Moons, by Elizabeth Peters. Finished 8/9.
  • 52. Menacing Groves, by John Sherwood. Finished 8/15.
  • 53. A Bouquet of Thorns, by John Sherwood.
  • 54. Flowers of Evil, by John Sherwood.
  • 55. The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden. Finished Labor Day weekend.
  • 56. Jumper, by Steven Gould. Finished Labor Day weekend.
  • 57. Storm Front, by Jim Butcher. Finished Labor Day weekend.
  • 58. The Dancing Floor, by Barbara Michaels. Finished Labor Day weekend.
  • 59. The Velvet Room, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. 
  • 60. Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher.
  • 61. Black Rainbow, by Barbara Michaels. Finished 9/19.
  • 62. The Wizard's Daughter, by Barbara Michaels.
  • 63. Wildside, by Steven Gould. Finished 9/26.
  • 64. Patriot's Dream, by Barbara Michaels. Finished 9/28.
  • 65. Add A Pinch of Cyanide, by Emma Page. Finished 10/5.
  • 66. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. Finished 10/6.
  • 67. Death Calls The Tune, by M. D. Lake. Finished around 10/13.
  • 68. The Forest For The Trees, by Betsy Lerner. Finished around 10/18.
  • 69. Death Masks, by Jim Butcher. Finished 11/19.
  • 70. A Stranger In The Family, by Robert Barnard. Finished 11/19.
  • 71. Shattered Silk, by Barbara Michaels. I know I already read it this year, but I re-read it from beginning to end, so I'm counting it again. So there.
  • 72. Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy Sayers.
  • 73. The Monster In The Box, by Ruth Rendell.
  • 74. On Writing, by Stephen King.
  • 75. The Skull Beneath The Skin, by P.D. James. Finished 12/18.
  • 76. A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore. Finished 12/22.
  • 77. Not In The Flesh, by Ruth Rendell. Finished 12/26.
Observation Log:

Sometime: Speaking of children's books, I'm thinking of tacking on a personal challenge of some kind. I love children's books, but haven't read most of the really good ones published since I was a child. I could, of course, just include a bunch in the 100+, but given that even a children's chapter book can generally be knocked off in a couple of hours, making my list too children's-book-heavy feels a little bit like cheating. But I'm not quite ready to read 100+ adult books plus 100+ children's books.

I'll have to think that over.

3/5: Seven books by 3/5? That's ten books behind! Could I possibly have read that little, or am I failing to log things?

I suspect that this is a reflection of my habit of re-reading a few chapters of a book and then putting it down. In the past few days alone, I've read a good chunk of two Elizabeth Peters books, two Charlotte Macleods, one Robert Barnard, one Calvin Trillin, one Judith Martin (in addition to the full book listed above) and one Henry Mitchell. But I didn't start at the beginning or read all the way through to the end, so they don't count.

3/6: A post puzzling over why I'm not reading more.

4/1: Why read all those Susan Conants? I don't even like dogs. I suspect that it's just to read something thoroughly unchallenging.

But I may have found a better re-entry into reading: Agatha Christie. I just picked up The Mirror Cracked, and I was smiling from the first paragraph. I'd forgotten how tightly plotted her mysteries are - they're worth repeated re-reading, if only to see how all threads lead to the end.

So the new theory is to return and re-read my favorites of the classics. Agatha Christie - the Miss Marple and Mrs. Oliver mysteries; Poirot and I never got along. Dorothy Sayers - almost the only writer whose short stories I really like; I usually only read people's novels. Ngaio Marsh. I'll see what comes after that.


4/18: Fourteen percent of the year's books read, almost thirty percent of the year gone. Must Read Faster!

I'm tempted to pick up enough old favorite children's books to get myself where I should be right now in terms of book count, which is... um... well, yeah, thirty books, or sixteen more books than I've read so far

Rumer Godden's The Doll's House and The Fairy Doll and Impunity Jane and The Story of Holly and Ivy and Home Is The Sailor and Miss Happiness and Miss Flower and Little Plum.

And The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. And Harriet The Spy. And A Wrinkle In Time and the sequels. And The Borrowers. And A Cricket In Times Square. And The Changeling, and there are a lot of other Zilpha Keatley Snyder books that I've never read.

And Abel's Island and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and everything else by Roald Dahl. And The Light Princess. And Rabbit Hill. And The Saracen Lamp and Candle In Her Room and After Candlemas and Portrait of Margarita and everything else by Ruth M. Arthur.

Sounds like I wouldn't have any trouble finding sixteen. Cheating? Yes. But I'd enjoy it.

5/31: Well, this is encouraging - three books in three days. That's how it's supposed to go.

And also disconcerting - I almost forgot to log two out of three. Is my count low?

Ah, well. Send more books!

9/26: Wow. I really seem to like Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters. She represents thirteen entries so far, and I still have two more to read.

10/17: Puzzlement. I can't believe that I read only one book between 10/6 and 10/13, but I can't recall reading any more. I wonder how many books might be missing from the year's list?

11/19: Well, I'm less puzzled, but my book count isn't going up as a result. For the last month and a half, I've gone back to my old book-grazing habits, reading bits and pieces of all sorts of books, most of them books I've already read. So I'm reading constantly, but adding nothing to my tally. That may or may not improve - on the one hand, I'm off for Thanksgiving week. On the other hand, we're in NaNoWriMo. So we'll just see.

12/6: So, I'm at 73. On December 6. So to get to 100+, I'd have to read more than a book a day. I rather doubt that that's going to happen. But I'll keep reading, to give me a score to beat next year.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Gardening: September Bloom Project

After thinking over my lament about excessive May focus from yesterday, I've decided that this year I'm going to put some effort into getting the garden blooming in September.

Photo of purple coneflowers.
Now, there are some things blooming in September. But aside from the all-important Japanese anemones, most of September's blooms are leftovers - roses and coneflowers and buddleia and daisies that aren't quite tired enough to give up for the year. Beautiful, but I've been looking at them since June. I want to watch something new develop.

But what? For one thing, big, showy individual blossoms. I know what Henry Mitchell said about "the tremendous effect of small flowers massed". I also know that he liked flowers the size of dinner plates and leaves the size of garages. So I'm not going to hide my vulgarity. The Japanese anemones will supply the elegance, and these new flowers will supply the circus balloons. Not that I demand that the blossoms be quite that big - the size of my fist will do just fine.

Also, I demand flowers, not flowerlike structures. So, no ornamental brassicas or alliums. I realize that allium flowers are composed of many smaller flowers, but that's not what I'm after. Monstrous single blossoms, that's the goal here. (And if you tell me that chrysanthemums, say, really have flowers the size of a head of a pin and all those petals are just leaves? I'll hide under a pillow and pretend I didn't hear you.)

Photo of a large red/yellow chrysanthemum bloom.
Chrysanthemums and dahlias are top candidates- though dahlias don't generally wait until September to get going. I also read that some delphiniums bloom in autumn, and delphiniums are certainly showy enough for anybody. Hydrangeas, too, can be satisfyingly gaudy, but the appropriate shrub-sized partly-sunny spaces are already filled with moderately dignified oakleaf varieties (yes, I did forget them in the list of what blooms), so no giant puffballs for me.

I confess that I am thinking longingly of puffball hydrangeas as I consider the large spaces occupied by the David viburnums, especially since Himself hates the viburnums passionately. But it's the David viburnums, and the green winter structure that they provide, that make the skeletal winter remains of the existing hydrangeas tolerable. And they're in my flower bed, the one that Himself washes his hands of. So I think they stay.

Photo of a blossom of Lilium MartagonWhat else? One website got my hopes up by putting Gerbera daisies, fabulously gaudy things, in their "autumn flowers" list, but that appears to be a cruel joke - everyone else speaks of them as summer flowers. I'm guessing that they're autumn flowers if you're a florist.

Lilies? I only like the kind with extremely recurved petals. Martagon lilies? Turkscap lilies? My lily ignorance is, sadly, substantial. But research suggests that August is the latest that I can hope for blooms from Martagon lilies.

Oh, and phlox. The tall perennial white kind. It blooms very nicely along with the anemones, on those rare occasions when it doesn't go to mildew.Photo of a sunflower blossom. I realize that I've forgotten the biggest flower of all - sunflowers! I'll be growing the ten-foot monsters as part of the snack garden, but I could scatter the cutting kind around as well.

So it's a plan: chrysanthemums, sunflowers, phlox, possibly some delphiniums, and probably some dahlias and lilies sneaking in a few weeks early. At least, it sounds like a plan. Now, of course, to choose which ones. Good thing it's catalog season.

Coneflower photo: Mine.
Chrysanthemum photo: By Juni. Wikimedia Commons.
Lily photo: By Marcus Koljonen. Wikimedia Commons.
Sunflowr photo: Mine

Gardening Quote: The Glories of Late May

If I may venture one suggestion to the May-struck gardener it is this: Do not allow the total space occupied by irises, peonies, roses, poppies, forget-me-nots, violas, clematis, and the other glories of late May to occupy more than 63 percent of the space. Unless, at an absolute maximum, they are allowed to occupy 76 percent. It is unthinkable that they should in any case hog so much as 94 percent of the arable area. Usually.
Henry Mitchell, The Essential Earthman
Every year, in late summer and early autumn, I regret that one more year has gone by without my planting chrysanthemums, dahlias, or other late-season flowering plants, other than the recently rhapsodized Japanese anemones.

It's not as if I don't know that these things are beautiful. It's not as if I don't know that I'll want them. It's not as if I don't remember last year's grumbling. But somehow I can't shake my loyalty to the roses, and, yes, the peonies, and the irises, and the Oriental poppies. Not enough to make a generous sunny space for even one big chrysanthemum or dahlia showoff.

Judging from Henry Michell's advice, at least this lack of foresight is not unique to me. And that's rather comforting.

Photo: By Kenpei. Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Gardening: Japanese Anemones

Photograph of Japanese Anemone Honorine Jobert.
There is a large box bush, and in front of it is a fat clump, three feet across, of the plain white Japanese anemone...

... Some might argue that no plant is beautiful or ugly in itself, but all depends on how it is used. Those who think so are wrong.

Henry Mitchell, One Man's Garden

The passage above inspired me to seek out the Japanese anemone, and subsequently to fall in love with it. You know my passionate dedication to fried chicken, right? My attachment to the Japanese anemone is similarly intense, or perhaps one might say obsessive. It is the best flowering plant. Period.

It has specific practical advantages, of course. Can I quote Henry Mitchell again?
For small gardens, which require of a plant not only handsomeness of flower but good-looking foliage and orderly habits as well, the Japanese anemone is a perfect choice. Moreover, its wonderful combination of vigor and refinement is epecially welcome in late summer when most things look a bit blowsy. It is soundly perennial, and spreads a bit but could hardly be called invasive.
Photo of Japanese anemone foliage.All of that is true, and that's why I feel perfectly sensible about having clumps of these growing on the street, and along the north side of the house. And I plan on even more in the half-shady areas adjacent to the vegetable garden and the south lawn, and maybe accompanying the roses that we're going to plant along the garage wall.  It's sensibly long-blooming - our several clumps, in varying patches of sun and shade, bloom for weeks in August, September, and sometimes well into October.

But all that sensibleness is just an excuse. It's really about the flower. To me, the white blossom of Japanese Anemone Honorine Jobert is the most beautiful flower in the plant kingdom. And without even having a perfume.

All that praise for Honorine Jobert is not to say that the others, both white and pink, aren't worth growing. Prince Henry, Alice, Party Dress, and the other relatives are less elegant, but happier and more whimsical.  All of the varieties I've tried grow very easily and survive with limited water, though they do need decent watering in order to bloom. They do bloom with a good deal of shade, a valuable characteristic in our low-sun garden.

Photo of pink Japanese anemone.
I'm a little confused about the relationships - Anemone hupehensis, Anemone hupehensis var. Japonica, Anemone Japonica - but I'm happy to grow them all. I've never grown Anemone tomentosa 'Robustissima', a larger and grander pink cousin, but I intend to.

Oddly, I never cut Japanese anemones of any type for the house, and I'm newly surprised each time that I read that they're suitable for cutting. I think that cutting them and taking them inside, then tossing them out once they fade, would just feel too irreverent.

Photos: Mine.

Link: Food: Slow Fried Chicken

Closeup of fried chicken skin.
You've got to have fried chicken!

But this blog has barely a word on the subject yet, so I wanted to link to the Slow Fried Chicken recipe over at Obsessions.

That is all. Go fry some now.

Photo: By DougsTech. Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Link: Himself's reviews of Avatar, Imaginarium, Daybreakers, Sherlock

As mentioned elseblog, Himself and myself went to one of our periodic moviefests on Saturday. We consumed a great deal of sugar and fat, saw four movies, and didn't step even briefly into the perfume store in the same mall. I'd give myself credit for self-control, but really, I just didn't have time between movies.

I planned to blog about all four movies, and may yet, but meanwhile Himself has industriously and entertainingly already done so. So I wanted to point to his post. If you don't have time to read it right away, my primary recommendation is to go see The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus while it's still in the theaters.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Food: Frances Grilled Cheese (Too Simple To Be A Recipe recipe)

Tiny glass salt shaker, fallen over, with salt spilling out.
When the bell rang for lunch Frances sat down next to her friend Albert.  "What do you have today? said Frances.  "I have a cream cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread," said Albert.  "And a pickle to go with it.  And a hard-boiled egg and a little cardboard shaker of salt to go with that.  And a thermos bottle of milk.  And a bunch of grapes and a tangerine.  And a cup custard with a spoon to eat it with. What do you have?"
Bread and Jam for Frances, by Russell and Lillian Hoban
One of my favorite books when I was small was Bread and Jam for Frances. Frances is a little-girl badger who declines to eat anything but bread and jam. Her mother provides lovely meals; Frances wants her bread and jam. Her friend Albert brings elaborate lunches to school, and offers to share. Frances still wants her bread and jam. Eventually, Frances comes to appreciate her own grand school lunch, complete with a vase of flowers. I loved the ending, and went on refusing to eat anything but peanut butter and jelly. (And fried chicken.)

So what does this have to do with grilled cheese? Well, when I make this sandwich, I like to add a number of added touches to the plate - a peeled tangerine for each person, and a few cucumber spears, and a few okra pickles, and a few marinated artichoke hearts, and some olives and grapes if we have them, or even a hard-boiled egg - and call the whole thing "Frances lunch".

So, on to the sandwich. I could just say "make normal grilled cheese, but use seedy bread and add chives to the cheese and sesame oil and salt to the butter". But, as I recently mentioned, I'm not concise. So:

Ingredients, per sandwich:
  • Two slices of white bread, preferably one with a nice seedy crust. My preference is Beckman's Three Seed Sourdough.
  • Cheddar cheese, preferably a good one that's a bit sharp, sliced barely thicker than those prewrapped cheese slices, enough for two slices thickness per sandwich.
  • Lots of butter.
  • Sesame oil.
  • Chives, dried or fresh thin-sliced.
  • Assemble the sandwiches, with bread, cheese, and a sprinkling of chives on the cheese.
  • Melt a nice generous base of butter in the bottom of a frying pan, on medium-low heat, high enough to make the butter very gently foam. Mix in a modest amount of sesame oil - somewhere between a couple of drops and a teaspoon, depending on taste. Sprinkle some salt into the foaming oil/butter.
  • Drop the sandwiches on the oil and butter and fry slowly until the bottom goes from butter-soaked to a gently crisp crust. The slow frying is essential for a proper break-through crust and for getting the cheese thoroughly melted all the way through.
  • Flip the sandwich and fry the other side, adding more butter if necessary. You need a nice generous pool to get that evil crisp crust. 
  • Flip the sandwich out and quarter it into triangles or cut it into fingers. Yes, you can just leave it in plain halves, but that reduces the silly.
  • Put it on a nice plate with whatever sour or bitter or salty or fresh or fruity bites you can find in the kitchen. And a cloth napkin. And maybe an itty bitty vase of flowers. And if you have any of those tiny individual salt and pepper shakers, that would make the whole thing complete.
  • Eat, keeping a napkin handy for buttery fingers.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Rambling: That Twitter Thing

Grumpy baby bird.
I finally broke down and got a Twitter account. And a Facebook account.

Why? Because I read that social media has more users than Internet porn.

No, I don't have any particular interest in porn, Internet or otherwise. But I've read that, historically and currently, every new communications technology is driven by it. Something that might be beating a trend that's as old as the printing press, or older, is something that I should probably be aware of. At least a little.

So I got the Twitter account. But I still don't get Twitter. I see how it works, I see what other people are Twittering - sorry, tweeting - but I don't know what to tweet myself. I'm doing a quick pointer to my Scent Of The Day, and that's about it. Oh, and I think I once complimented a restaurant's chicken salad. If there were anything going on locally in the fried chicken realm, I'd talk about that, too.

I suppose that part of the problem is that 140 character limit. If you've been reading my blog posts, you'll know that my writing could rarely be described as concise. So while I'm reasonably comfortable blogging in paragraphs to an invisible audience in the blog, I'm less comfortable with little Haiku-length messages. What can one offer in messages like that?

You can offer pointers to other things on the web, of course. Except that I generally assume that folks who share that interest already know about whatever I'm pointing out, and folks who don't, well, don't. That's an illogical assumption, because, no, I rarely already know about the things that other people tweet about. But it still makes me hesitate.

What else? Quote Of The Day? Weather reports? Tweetku? Simultaneous TV watching? Hey, how about a Twitter-based group cooking session?

I don't know. It's a puzzle. Maybe I'll go tweet this post. That could be pleasantly circular.

Photo: By Fir0002/Flagstaffotos. Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Gardening: Snack Garden (And catalog season!)

I've grumbled that we grow vegetables, but don't eat them. I rarely go out at dinnertime to corral any of that nice fresh food and bring it back to the kitchen. But I do nibble when I'm outside. I hunt for raspberries, or peapods, or I nip off the occasional lettuce leaf to eat on the spot.

So when I started leafing through my shiny new heap of garden catalogs, a plan came to me: A snack garden. If I'll only eat what I can eat in the garden, then that's the sort of thing to plant.

So, what's in these catalogs that a roving gardener could eat? And which ones would look good if the plan fails and I don't end up eating a thing?

The candidates:
  • Peas! As I recall, Cascadia snap peas, in the Territorial Seed Company catalog, are sweet enough to eat raw, right off the vine. If any of them make it inside to meet a pan and some butter, that's a bonus.
  • Can you ever eat a pepper out of hand? Territorial says that Yum Yum Gold sweet peppers have very few seeds. They're tiny and they're adorable, so I'll add them to the list.
  • Cherry tomatoes are an obvious candidate. Abundant Life Seeds has Black Cherry and Snow White cherry tomatoes, both indeterminate. A plant of each, twining together on one big stakes, could be a sort of tomato War of the Roses. I like the vision. 
  • And Johnny's Selected Seeds brags about the sugar content of Matt's Wild Cherry, and also warns that it's soft. Since I'm going to eat it six inches from where it grew, and I'm not crazy about that explode-in-my mouth feeling, soft is a bonus.
  • As another color contrast combination, Abundant Life has a Miniature White cucumber, and Territorial has a snack-sized Rocky cucumber, this one dark green. I could encourage these to share a trellis.
  • Territorial assures me that Pineapple ground cherries really do taste like pineapple. I have to try that.
  • Next, I see Mexican Sour Gherkins. Territorial says that they have a  "powerful, sweet, cucumber flavor with a tangy, citrus twist." That could be a nice contrast to all the sugary things.
  • To add even more spice, I could add rattail radishes, hot little spears of radishnyess. I haven't found these in any of the catalogs yet, but somebody's got to be selling them.
  • And as the last snack when the season's winding down, a few Russian Mammoth sunflowers, for cracking and eating as I stare at the garden and plan next year. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Link: Cranky Fitness

I'm not big on that whole exercise and fitness thing. OK, I fervantly dislike that whole exercise and fitness thing.

But there's a chance - just a chance, mind you - that I might start reading a recently-discovered blog, Cranky Fitness. It's funny. It's casual. It's friendly. It's not a guilt trip. Just a link, in case you like it too.

Illustration: Wikimedia Commons.

Wrong Food: Candied Yams

Buffy: It *is* a sham. But it's a sham with yams. It's a yam sham. 
Willow: You're not gonna jokey-rhyme your way out of this one. 
(Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 4, Episode 8, "Pangs".)

Melting butter with sugar.I like candied yams. (Sweet potatoes, to be technically accurate.) Or perhaps I should say that I like butter and brown sugar, and I like them even better when they're yam-flavored.

You might, too, so I offer my candied-yam method, extensively tested this holiday season. It's not fundamentally different from anyone else's, except possibly for the alarming amount of butter and sugar, and the long slow cooking. Well, and the lack of marshmallows.

Wrong Food: Chicken Chips (Link)

You've got to have all the wrong food in the right place. So I wanted to link to the Chicken Chips recipe over at the Obsession blog.

Photo by Stephen.job. Wikimedia Commons.

Gardening: Ennui, and Books to Cure It

It's been a long time since I was in the throes of full-fledged garden obsession.

During catalog season, I used to carry around stacks of gardening catalogs fat enough to fall over.  I'd write and rewrite lists of seeds and bulbs and plants, perfecting my orders to minimize shipping. ("If Seeds of Change has rainbow chard and floating row cover, I can eliminate my Burpee order altogether!")

I'd drive to the Grange and come home with so many plants that they overflowed the trunk and the car floor. I'd guiltily put six-packs of seedlings on the passenger seat, hoping that the dirt would brush off later.

It's been a long time since I experienced that happy garden obsession. I've theorized about why, but I know the most likely answer. I think that it's because the garden is full.

Filling the garden is the goal - perhaps more for me than for some gardeners who follow a sparser style. I like every last inch of space to be covered in plants. Ideally, I'd use every layer - trees, then shrubs, then subshrubs, then perennials, then ground covers, then those little flocked-wallpaper-height groundcovers like creeping thyme and Irish moss. Oh, and bulbs, blooming in late winter and early spring and late spring and so on.

And the garden is fairly successfully fulfilling that goal. I don't get the credit for this - it's mostly the work of Gardener Artist/Miss Mosaic, who hasn't gotten much mention in my blogging, because of the whole reduced gardening obsession thing. In between creating wonderful things in the Artist part of her career, she keeps our garden in a condition that we couldn't possibly achieve ourselves.

But, of course, the downside of the garden being lushly, beautifully, fragrantly full is that the garden is full. We're rapidly running out of empty space.

There is nothing more exciting in a garden than empty space. I can stare at it endlessly, sitting in a lawn chair with a notebook and a garden book in hand, moving the chair to different viewing angles. I can prance around placing pots in the mud, deciding exactly where the hydrangea should go in relation to viburnum, for hours. And then come back the next day and change it all, having decided that, no, it's sunny enough for roses after all.

Blank space is the ultimate garden wealth. The jealousy that one feels over a new car or a freshly-built mansion is nothing to the jealousy that one feels observing a friend's newly dug sixty square feet of dirt.

We have no more of those big glorious spaces. But we do have some spaces. Little spaces. There's a spot about six feet by three feet next to the neighbor's fence on one side. There's room for three roses by the garage, though we'll have to chop through the ivy first. There's a bed slightly larger than a sofa cushion in the kitchen garden. There's a nice little terraced area, quite possibly even that sixty square feet, where nothing but trees grow because everything else dies in the shade of the trees. There are several square feet of sparsely-filled dirt by the front fence.

That should be enough to generate excitement. But I just glance blankly at those spaces when I walk by and vaguely plan to make a plan to think about doing something.

The only cure that I can think of is garden books. They're what got me started on this obsession, so they ought to be able to pull me out of this slump, even without a big blank patch of fluffy dirt to motivate me.

So, which books?

Henry Mitchell, of course, is the most likely cure. That is, his books On Gardening, One Man's Garden, and The Essential Earthman. His garden was full, too. He struggled with the desire to have everything on a modest city lot. But he took endless pleasure in the garden and the puttering and the plants. Come to think of it, perhaps some of the pleasure was in the writing - his books came from his newspaper columns. Maybe just blogging could be the cure.

Cheryl Merser, in A Starter Garden, takes a similar pleasure in all the puttering details, though she's more focused on filling the empty garden than on entertaining oneself in the full one. But she enjoys it so much that I'll read it again.

Anne Lovejoy's Organic Garden Design School is the book to read when I want to get more play value out of apparently fully-planted spaces. Her "sandwich gardening", a method of stuffing a plant in every possible layer and season, might tell me how I can buy still more plants, and after bare dirt, nothing sparks gardening enthusiasm more than piling plants into the cart at the nursery.

There are many more. Elizabeth Lawrence, Christopher Lloyd, Allen Lacy, Patricia Thorpe. Wait, Growing Pains and The American Weekend Garden were both written by Patricia Thorpe? I've really been away from my garden shelves for too long.

Reading will commence. I'll return with an update.

Photos: Mine