Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Review: Kindred

It took me a little while to get into Kindred. Not because it's slow - the plot kicks in immediately and refuses to let up. Nor because of the characters; Dana is an everywoman with whom it's very easy to identify. Rather, the language, which I found to be blunt and stilted, kept me distanced from the story for a while.

That language proved to be an asset though. Once Dana is fully engaged with the slave plantation, witnessing and experiencing horrors, Butler's simple, straight-forward language melts away. It's not flowery or overly descriptive. It just presents horror after horror, refusing to sugar-coat them or pack them beneath allusions and metaphor. I went from struggling with the language to being nearly unable to put the book down without even realizing it.

While I wish the book had been able to capture me from the beginning, I'm ultimately glad that the story is presented as it is. Kindred is a short novel, coming in at 265 pages, but there is so much here. So much about love and trust, humanity and monstrosity, the past and the future and the way they're linked. There is sharp insight about how hard it is to break free of the culture that raises you, about how easy it is to judge someone before you share their experiences, about home important love is.

This book is horrifying in a way that, hard as it was to put down, I couldn't just read it. I flipped ahead, needing to know that Dana and Kevin would be reunited and how long it would take. I needed to know how many trips back in time Dana would take, how long she would stay, what horrors would be visited on her. Doing this, getting the outline before the details is a method of self-preservation. It makes it easier to read about awful things when I know that they end eventually. Even if they never end completely, leaving their mark for generations to come.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Book Review: What If?

The best way to get a feel for whether or not you'd like Randall Munroe's What If book is to check out the blog that it's based on. Given that the blog is available for free and most of the book is a reproduction of the blog, it may be a little silly to buy the book. But I enjoyed reading it.

It makes an excellent coffee table book, something people can pick up and flip through and learn something new and interesting. The book also organizes the questions so that some of them build on each other quite naturally, which adds a little something extra that isn't available in the blog. But mostly I enjoyed reading the book because, frankly, I prefer books.

I spend all day at work staring at a computer screen. When I'm at home relaxing, I'd rather not be looking at a back-lit screen. It's hard on my eyes. It confines me to my office (okay, I could read on the tablet, but then I'm worrying about battery life). So even though that blog has been available for free for years, and I heard about it right when I started, I didn't get around to reading almost any of it until Kevin received the book for Christmas. Maybe I should go back and read more of the actual blog now. Maybe I'll just wait until the sequel comes out.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Valentine's Day

We had a perfectly perfect Valentine's Day this year. Well almost perfectly perfect.

I woke up with a runny nose thanks to a cold that I seem to have had forever. I worked my way steadily through most of a box of tissues before I started feeling better. Then we ran to the store to pick up stuff for dinner and spent the rest of the day being sort of lazy and not leaving the house.

By sort of lazy, I actually mean that we made ravioli. It wasn't difficult, but it took a while. Mostly because you can only work with so much of the dough at once. So you have to go through all the steps of rolling out the dough, spooning in the filling, and cutting and smushing together the ravioli a whole bunch. We also didn't have a special stamp or cutter, which may have made the whole process go a little faster.

I also made a different, and completely superior, tomato sauce from scratch. It was beyond easy (throw everything in the pot and let it simmer for 45 minutes) and I'm looking forward to making it again.

We played games and watched tv and I finished my book and napped. And then it snowed at exactly the right time to walk Kina through the snow. I love walking Kina through the falling snow, partly because she loves it even more than I do and partly because the ambient light gets reflected enough that I don't need a flashlight. Also I don't need to towel her off afterwards, like I do when it's rainy or muddy (most of Winter and Spring).

It was a great day overall and I'm glad we decided to mostly stay put in the house.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Spaghetti From Scratch

Pasta dough setting up
I've been meaning to make spaghetti from scratch ever since I got the pasta attachment for the Kitchen Aid mixer last summer. Then Kevin and I got a hankering to make meatballs. And then I received a cook book with an easy recipe for tomato sauce from scratch. So this past weekend we decided to put it all together and make a delicious home made meal.

Kneading into fat rectangles
The pasta was pretty straight forward. It's basically eggs and flour (with some water and salt for flavor and texture). I found a video online that detailed how to use the attachment, and I'm glad I watched it. Rolling out the dough and sending it through the cutter is a process. Though thankfully it didn't take quite as long as I was anticipating. And by the last batch, Kevin and I had a pretty good system worked out.

Rolling out the dough
The meatballs were a pretty basic recipe that Kevin added some spice to. We made some similar ones for my mom's birthday party in December, so we had the basic idea down. And they aren't too different from burgers when all is said and done. The extra spice made these really flavorful and delicious.

Finally there was the sauce, which took about ten minutes according to the recipe. We should have cooked it for longer, though, to let it thicken up more. It was ultimately pretty thin and oily. It didn't help that we just spooned it over the pasta instead of mixing everything together. It separated and which led to a meal of pasta followed by tomato sauce. But next time we'll know. And I found a different sauce recipe that should be thicker.

The finished product
All in all it took a little less than two hours to make dinner. Things staggered pretty well (we mixed meatballs while the dough was setting and cooked the sauce while the pasta water was boiling). I think it may just have been worth the effort. Even if we did end up with comically long noodles. I'm excited to try again, now that we have a better idea of what we're doing. Though this definitely won't become a typical thing. It's way easier and cheaper to buy pasta pre-made.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Review: MaddAddam

The final book in Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy is less of a conclusion than I expected it to be. Instead of moving significantly forward, the book mimics the format of the previous two, delving into Zeb's past and the founding of both the God's Gardeners and the MaddAddam movements. It does resolve the conflict with the painballers, but beyond that it raises almost as many questions as it answers. The final pages look towards the future with hope, but with as little resolution as the previous two books.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. The trilogy feels both like it could be complete and like there could be another three books, following the Crakers into the next generation and their new life. Seeing if they can maintain their truce with the pigoons and continue to repopulate the world.

Zeb's story is interesting, and helps to make the world feel much bigger. His story moves from the east coast to LA and San Francisco. As far south as Rio and farther north than the Arctic Circle. It shows how interconnected the world has become at this point, how easy it was for one company to wipe out everyone. Though those connections get a little outlandish at times, with the sex club, Scales and Tails playing an almost improbably big role in bringing all of the characters together.

What I really got out of this book (and ultimately the whole trilogy) is an interesting meditation on the nature of stories. The stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell each other. The ways those shape both our pasts and our futures. And how easy it is for religions to spring up among the more ignorant or naive, like the Crakers, who crave a simple explanation for the world. Watching that form was my favorite part of the book.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Book Review: The Night Circus

This book was perfect. If I could leave my life behind and live out the rest of my days inside of a book, it would be The Night Circus.

I'll try to parse this, to explain what I loved so much about this book.

To start with, as always, the characters were phenomenal. The love story between Celia and Marco was electric and passionate. Isobel's role was tragic, but understandable. Same with Tsukiko. The children, Poppet and Widget and Bailey, were exactly the bright future I wanted. The shadowy puppet masters were perfectly aloof and manipulative. All I wanted was for everyone to get along and have their happily ever after.

The structure also played right into all of my weaknesses. I've come to realize recently that this format, short vignettes from various view points, is, if not my favorite, then one of my favorites. The story jumps in time, circling back on itself to look at events from another angle. It includes a wealth of characters, bringing them all to life. It even addresses the reader directly, allowing you to explore the circus apart from the characters who populate it.

And the circus itself is nothing short of magical. There is just enough description for you to picture it clearly, but personally. There's some mystery left, as there ought to be in a setting like this. There are holes for the reader to fill in.

I was just swept away by the book. By the language and the characters. By the epic romance and the magic of the circus. It got me thinking about the intricacies of clocks, the similarities of fashion and architecture, the battle between destiny and free will. I fell in love reading it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Home Gym

I should have switched over to a home gym years ago. Though it's possible this wouldn't have worked out as well years ago. It's possible (probable even) that I needed to spend the last few years learning about weight-lifting and discipline. Laying out the foundations for good habits.

At any rate, the home gym has been fantastic so far. I went out and bought a yoga mat and a foam roller and some dumb bells. But I'm still mostly focused on the exercise bike, only breaking out the rest of the equipment once or twice a week.

It's just so easy to get on the bike every night while we're watching TV. Instead of sitting on the couch, playing on my phone, I spend that time pedaling. And I no longer miss key scenes because my multitasking was dividing my attention. This is a much more efficient version of multi-tasking that actually allows me to do everything I want to.

The key has been to not drink with dinner. Kevin and I didn't drink at all in January, which made it easier to form this habit. Come home, walk the dog, eat dinner, and get on the bike. Or bike then dinner if I need to do laundry that night. Either way, it's been surprisingly easy to maintain, coming in to February. And skipping the beer or glass of wine in favor of water or tea can only be good for me.

I still have a few months left of my current contract with my physical trainer. I'm planning to end that and my gym membership at the end of March. In the meantime, I'm actually glad I have so much transition time. It should help me really establish this routine.

I think I've finally something that really works for me, on all counts. Fingers crossed that I'll have more progress to report soon.