It begins!

Remember this from last January? Well, right on schedule, we’re meant to get 10 inches of snow tonight. Here’s what we’ve got so far:

I wanted to go outside and stand in it to show how deep it was, but the door to my balcony has frozen shut, so that’s no good… But it’s fine – I’ve got a parking spot in the driveway and work to work on tomorrow from home, so it can snow all it likes – won’t bother me!

I’ll keep you posted as the snow falls.

ETA: And here’s what was waiting for me this morning…

IR Fiction

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

So I felt like reading a book that I could just tear through in an hour or two, so I finally picked up Diary of a Wimpy Kid which has been very popular in the kid’s books world. It was…okay. There were parts of it that were clever and did make me laugh, but I think it was a little too simplistic. It’s more like a graphic novel than a proper kid’s novel or anything which makes it a faster read than normal.

It has a fairly sophisticated twist in that the main character, Greg, is, well, unlikable. However, I think the heavy reliance on illustrations for the humor and plot makes it more difficult to focus on character development and either make him likable despite his foibles or explain the reasons why he’s unlikable. Of course, the things that make him unlikable (he’s selfish, he’s flaky, he’s careless) are also the things that make him a kid, I guess. They’re things that he’ll grow out of (hopefully), but the format of the book doesn’t leave Kinney enough time to make that clear.

Overall, I’m afraid the humor doesn’t make up for the lack of character depth…for me, anyway.

My rating: B-

Compare and contrast.

Due to the imminent downfall of modern civilization, I’ve been re-watching Gilmore Girls. I’m in the second season right now and I have to say it once again – how is Dean better than Jess? The answer is, he’s totally not! Dean…

is just so bland! But here’s Jess, the bad boy…

WHO READS! BOOKS!!!

COME ON! Seriously, this is such an easy decision that it’s actually insulting to the concept of decisions in general.

Okay. Off to growl at Dean and drool over Jess some more.

ETA: No, I lied! Off to watch Northanger Abbey, which I actually have read. πŸ˜‰

New Torchwood!

Series 2 starts next weekend – can’t wait! (Although I still haven’t seen the last episode of series 1…) And I think we’re only actually going to be about a week behind the UK airings – awesome!

Hooray for new, scripted television! (Stupid writer’s strike is going to bring about the downfall of non-reality television, I just know it…)

Nonfiction

At Large and At Small by Anne Fadiman

So the last book review was long because it made me think things. The one before that was long because I hated it. This one is long because I love Anne Fadiman and not just because she spells her name the same as me (the correct way).

She writes essays that are interesting, funny, thoughtful, and just absolutely perfect. She may not be as ‘deep’ as Annie Dillard, but I think she’s more accessible and is often saying more than she seems to be, despite her fairly light-hearted (or at least not actively depressing) subjects.

As I’ve said before, I adore Ex-Libris, her book of, well, book-based essays and I knew I liked her writing, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect with a book of non-book-based essays.

I needn’t have worried.

Her subjects range from coffee to Charles Lamb to letter-writing to butterfly-collecting and everywhere in between. Her writing is that effortlessly clever voice, full of sparkling wit. To note:

Describing a letter from Charles Lamb to Samuel Taylor Coleridge which contains an account of the former’s most recent bout of insanity:

‘All we know of the episode is that Lamb was indisputably irrational…and that the experience was not altogether unpleasant…. The self-mocking levity was characteristic, as was the bizarrely incongruous postscript: “My civic and poetic compliments to Southey if in Bristol. Why, he is a very leviathan of the Bards!–the smallest minnow, I!” Went mad. Oh, by the way, my best to Robert. (page 32)

Totally laughed outloud. This next one is sort of convoluted to explain, so I’ll just let the quote speak for itself.

‘(The essential Coleridge-and-Wordsworth scene: A soiree at the Lambs’. Coleridge sits at one end of the dinner table, quoting Wordsworth. Wordsworth sits at the other end, quoting Wordsworth.)’ (page 97)

Oh, Wordsworth. πŸ˜‰

But it’s not all literary essays. There are discussions of the mail, past and present. Did you know that the London post used to be delivered nearly every hour? I always wondered how people in Jane Austen invited people over for tea on the spur of the moment. Also, apparently, people used to write ‘Haste, haste, haste, for lyfe, for lyfe, haste!’ to have it delivered faster. I doubt it would work nowadays, but I’m sorely tempted to try it…

She also writes an essay on coffee that is so persuasive I’m finding myself wishing I could have a cup! Do you know how much coffee Balzac used to drink? Forty cups a day! And then he started making it stronger and stronger until eventually he just began eating the coffee grounds. Amazing! And disgusting, but mostly amazing! And how romantic does this sound:

‘London had a coffee house for everyone (as long as you were male). If you were a gambler, you went to White’s. If you were a physician, you went to Garraway’s or Child’s. If you were a businessman, you went to Lloyd’s which later evolved into the great insurance house. If you were a scientist you went to the Grecian, where Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley, and Hans Sloane once staged a public dissection of a dolphin that had been caught in the Thames. If you were a journalist, you went to Button’s …. And if you were a man of letters, you–along with Pope, Pepys, and Dryden–went to Will’s, where you could join a debate on whether Milton should have written Paradise Lost in rhymed couplets instead of blank verse.’ (pages 187-188)

How awesome is that?! I wish we had some sort of forum like that now – how often have you ever seen a dolphin dissection at a Starbuck’s? That’s what I thought. I mean, I guess now the sort of coffeehouse is the Internet where you don’t need any sort of permission to say what you think about whatever you think (nor do you necessarily need to have any proof to back up what you think – although, from the sound of it, I expect those coffeehouses probably would have at least questioned you on it). Which is sort of sad, just like the death of letter-writing at the hand of e-mail (which she also discusses).

But back to the matter at hand. She also loves the Arctic (and lends one essay to the discussion of Vilhjalmur Stefansson) and the outdoors (the book ends on a more poignant note with a brief description of a trip down the Green River which I will leave for you to read) which becomes obvious by the slowing of the pace and the warmth of her voice, despite the chilly subject matter.

In an essay describing the effects of being a night owl, she describes a night spent watching Halley’s Comet on the Tasman Glacier in New Zealand:

‘After crunching a mile or so across the clean hard snow, which had been unpleasantly slushy in the afternoon sun, we stopped on a narrow col with a thousand-foot dropoff on either side. And there it was: a small white cornucopia above the northern horizon, not solid, but delicately stippled, as if produced by a heavenly dot-matrix printer. We spread our sleeping bags on the snow and crawled inside. The vantage point was dizzying. It was impossible to tell whether the comet was above us or we were above the comet; we were all falling through space, missing the stars by inches.’ (page 66)

My rating: A

Oh, dear…

Addicted! My favorite is Winterbells. And the one where you use the fan to collect roses in the floating bottle. And Wake-Up Call where you wake up butterflies.

Okay, must put computer away.

Right after this next round of Winterbells…

Just quickly…

Short post, as I’m also watching Persuasion on PBS, but I’ve just finished up the Grapefruit Sandwich cookies from the Martha Stewart baking book (I also spent all morning watching her make baked goods with various celebrities – Jennifer Garner knows what she’s talking about, Kristin Chenoweth has no clue (and is so short that she has to stand on an apple box behind the counter!)). I’ve not tried them yet as I have my piece of banana cake to try again from last night, but they look very nice…

ETA: Verrrrry sweet. And I say do not refrigerate, despite what Martha says. πŸ˜‰

ETA2: Having had a chance to actually eat a couple of these now, I think next time I’ll use my smallest cookie cutter instead of the 2-inch diameter one recommended in the recipe. I think that might make them a little less intensely sweet and rich (and easier to eat) – just little bite-sized treats instead of a dessert which demands commitment and a large glass of milk afterwards.

And then…

…I thought ‘I want cake. Non-bizarro cake.’ So I got out my Martha Stewart baking book (which I love) and decided on the Banana-Caramel Cake. And despite a couple of sunken cakes (what is up with that?! Janis, I don’t suppose you have any super-secret pastry chef tips for that?), I think it turned out pretty well. This:

turned into this:

It was quite a hit with my parents, but I think something must be off with my tastebuds tonight because everything tasted very bitter to me – the frosting and the bananas between the cakes, especially – so I sent it all home with them (except for one piece so I can see if my mouth is back to normal tomorrow).

Which means I am left with the bizarro cake. But it’s okay, we’re happy together. πŸ˜‰

So last night I thought…

…’I will want french toast in the morning.’ And so I made challah (a challah?). But I sort of forgot to take lots of photos to choose from, so this post is more a tour of my tiny kitchen (so you can see what I’m working in most of the time) than a tour of making a challah (a challah?).

My kitchen is tiny. Seriously.

(a) That’s all the counterspace I have and it didn’t even come with the apartment. I have to stand in between the counter and the fridge to work (since I don’t keep a person-sized scale in the house, it’s one of the ways in which I keep track of my weight – as long as I can fit in there, I’m fine). But I’ve gotten used to it, and it’s cozy. Plus, (b) my apartment came equipped with a very convenient rising shelf (please to be disregarding the cat bed above it).

But back to the matter at hand. I wanted french toast. So I made challah.

And then this morning, I had yummy, yummy french toast.

Yummy.

Nonfiction

For the Time Being by Annie Dillard

I picked this one up from the library based on Janis’ recommendation and her call for somebody to discuss it with on GoodReads. Well, Janis, knowing she’s a favorite of yours, I read it and, though I’m not entirely sure I’m actually smart enough to discuss it, here are my thoughts!

The first thing I noticed about Dillard’s writing, at least in this particular book (not having read any of her other work, I don’t know what she usually sounds like), was that her style – by which I mean the way the book was put together – reminded me a lot of David Markson’s, for lack of a better word, anecdotal novels. (On a sidenote, if you’ve never read a David Markson book, I highly suggest them – Vanishing Point, Reader’s Block, and This Is Not a Novel are the anecdotal ones, I think Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a more traditional one in terms of format, if not content…) She has four or five disparate topics that she continually circles around, including clouds, numbers, birth, and China. At first they seem to not have any connections, but slowly, it becomes clear that she is drawing faint lines between them and it’s up to the reader to discern them.

I like books like that, but they can be exhausting and it doesn’t help that Dillard lingers on topics such as death, deformities, and religion. But I made it through and, although I’m sure I didn’t get her complete message (or even necessarily the correct one), here are some thoughts this book made me think (well, really one big thought, but it’s broken into two related thoughts):

Like I said, deformities and birth defects are some of the topics to which she continually returns. So are paleontology and the evolution of our ancestors. Things that may be considered deformities now may eventually become the norm, right? Eventually, there will be a deformity that is useful and it will become the standard and people who are born without whatever it is (gills, x-ray vision, a few more arms) will be considered to have a disability. I suppose it’s a fairly obvious thought, but there you go.

And that reminded me of a trip to the Field Museum in Chicago a while ago. It must have been an exhibit on evolution and one of the cases had a diagram of the evolution of the horse, similar to this one which I found here:

Now apparently rough estimates of human existence are at, what, anywhere from 2-4 million years? If I’m off by a couple million, it won’t really matter. My point is that, if we were horses, we would still be this horse:

It’ll be around 16 million years before we’re at the next evolutionary stop. That’s a lot of evolving we’ve got left to do.

There were also a few things she said that I found interesting, for numerous reasons, which, seeing as this is my blog, I’m going to share with you. πŸ˜‰

‘We are only about 300 generations from 10,000 years ago.’ (p. 119)

Doesn’t seem so far away when you think about it like that, does it? There’s another interesting thing about this one which I’ll get to in a minute.

‘It is interesting, the debris in the air. A surprising portion of it is spider legs, and bits thereof. Spider legs are flimsy, Oxford writer David Bodanis says, because they are hollow. They lack muscles; compressed air moves them. Consequently, they snap off easily and go blowing about.’ (p. 123)

!!! Here I thought I had enough to worry about with all the spiders you swallow in your sleep and now I hear about this?! (I know, it’s not true, but it still manages to freak me out.)

But here’s where it starts to get confusing. When describing a woman who has just given birth, Dillard says:

‘She looks like the cartoon Road Runner who has just had a steam roller drive over it.’ (p. 39)

It seems innocuous enough, but can anyone tell me what’s wrong with that sentence? That’s right! The Road Runner never got run over by the steam roller, it was always poor old Wile E. Coyote who got run over by things. What are we to make if this inaccuracy? Is she setting us up for something? I’m not sure because, finally, she says:

‘We are civilized generation number 500 or so, counting from 10,000 years ago when we settled down.’ (p. 187)

Wait, what? Annie, unless I’m misunderstanding (which is indeed very possible), you just told us earlier that we are 300 generations from 10,000 years ago, not 500.

So. Did she plant these little inaccuracies so that by the end of the book, we’d come out doubting what we thought we’d realised while reading her book? It seems like something David Markson would do. Much of the book seems spent questioning things – why we’re here, why certain things happen, etc., so maybe Dillard’s trying to keep us on our toes, trying to keep us from settling in too comfortably into our beliefs when there’s always something new that might come along and shake them up if we’ll only let it…

Or maybe she just didn’t watch enough Saturday morning television as a child, I don’t know. Janis? Thoughts?

My rating: B+

(I would have given it a higher rating, but I don’t like things that make me feel less smart than I think I am and I found it a little depressing at times which was okay this time because I also stumbled across a new book of essays by Anne Fadiman of Ex Libris (review to follow soon!), which I would read after this to sort of cleanse my palate before falling asleep, so it balances out…) πŸ˜‰

Nonfiction

Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan

This book took me almost a month to finish. I’m not proud of that. Think of all the books I could have been reading while I’ve been reading this one. And do you want to know why it took me so long to read this book?

Because it pissed me off.

If you like this book or you like Maureen Corrigan or you like her NPR radio show (Oh, what’s that you say, Maureen? You have a radio show? Well, you should have said something!), then this review is not for you.

Because I did not like this book and I do not like Maureen Corrigan.

First of all, this book is misleading. Its subtitle is ‘Finding and Losing Myself in Books: NPR’s Fresh Air book critic on life as an obsessive reader.’ That title is too long, Maureen. Book titles should not have sub-subtitles, Maureen. And most importantly, Maureen, books with subtitles, especially books with sub-subtitles, SHOULD HAVE ACCURATE ONES!

I thought this would be a charming, lovely book, a sort of mix between Anne Fadiman’s wonderful Ex-Libris (if you haven’t read Ex Libris, stop reading this review right now and go read that book – don’t worry, I’ll understand) and the ubiquitous Book Lust series. I thought it would be a memoir told through the books she’d been reading at important, funny, poignant, whatever times of her life.

It was not.

It was a weird and unsatisfying mashup of the most boring (and not particularly insightful) literary criticism of books that seem unworthy of it (yes, there is such a thing!) and a very pretentious and condescending memoir. Half of the book is spent ‘dissecting’ hard-boiled detective fiction – fair enough, but I didn’t find what she had to say interesting in the least and it certainly didn’t make me say ‘Wow, really? I had no idea hard-boiled detective fiction could be so relevant; I must rush out and read some Dashiell Hammet now!’ (and she gives away the ending of a Lord Peter Wimsey novel which I might have wanted to read someday – lame!) – along with what she annoyingly terms Female Extreme-Adventure Tales (ugh, if I hear that phrase one more time, someone is getting a copy of Jane Eyre hurled at them) and a Catholic girls’ series about Beany Malone (you may have fond memories of it, Maureen, and it may evoke memories of your childhood, but that doesn’t mean it will stand up to literary criticism!) and the other half is spent telling us how smart she is (smarter than us and her ineffectual college students who she despairs of imparting any literary knowledge to – those hopeless, ignorant children who groan at her book choice – maybe you should re-evaluate your syllabus, Maureen – maybe they’re actually CRAP BOOKS!), how wonderful her family is, and how terrific her job is. (On a side note, that may qualify as the longest sentence I’ve ever written – I think my previous record was 54 words…)

We get it, Maureen, you really wanted to call your book Leave Me Alone, I’m Better Than You but your editor thought that would lessen its marketing appeal.

Secondly, the literary criticism sections read like a poorly written college paper. Her writing suffers from Johnny Carson-syndrome (at least I think it was Johnny Carson, though it may be Jerry Lewis, now that I think about it) – on one of the Simpson’s commentaries, Conan O’Brien says that someone once told him that the best way to perform comedy was ‘to tell the audience what you are going to do, then do it, then tell them that it has been done.’ And she does. I think this is part of her superiority complex – we lowly readers wouldn’t understand what we were being told otherwise – but it really annoyed the hell out of me. Maybe in the higher levels of academia (Oh, really, Maureen, do you have a PhD? You do! Now how did I know that?), this is an acceptable practice, but it feels like pandering to me and I don’t have to like it.

And finally, there were so many instances where I was like ‘Oh, where’s a pencil when you need one?!’ so that I could underline a particularly condescending passage or sentence, but then I thought ‘When this book eventually ends up in a used bookstore, I don’t want someone to pick it up and think I was underlining insightful moments,’ so I didn’t. Thus my review here lacks actual hard evidence of her pretentiousness, but it’s impossible to miss if you end up flipping through it at the bookshop or library.

For example, near the beginning of her book, she casually drops an anecdote about how the nickname by which a particular author is now commonly referred to was bestowed upon him by her in one of her early review for the Village Voice. And it’s just thrown out there like something you’d say with a snooty chuckle at a cocktail party where you’re speaking just a little bit louder than you need to so that everyone in your vicinity hears your witty, sparkling bon mot and thinks ‘wow, that person is cool.’ Then she often stops for a moment and says that it’s very aggravating to read reviews or literary criticism where the tone of the writing becomes condescending toward the work itself (What the hell are you talking about, Maureen? You should worry more about the tone of your writing toward the reader!) and coyly remarks that she hopes she hasn’t fallen into that trap. You have, Maureen! You have! And finally, circling back to what I said earlier about her book choices for the courses she teaches, I am this close to being certain that she picked a great number of the books she talks about merely because no one’s ever heard of them which makes her look smart and cool. Now everybody does this – I do this with books and music – but at least I admit that I do it! And the books and music I like are actually good – Maureen is trying to convince us that these obscure books are obscure for no good reason when I would happily argue that there is more than likely a very good reason that no one else likes them.

I know it sounds like I’m being hard on her because her book ended up being not what I expected it to be, but I gave her a fair chance because who doesn’t like reading about books? But she just kept letting me down. And then she made me so mad that I just wanted to finish it so I could rip it apart here for you.

So does anyone out there listen to her radio show? If you’re a fan, I hope you didn’t make it this far and if you did, I hope we’re still friends. If you are a fan, you’ll have to let me know what it is you like about her and how she sounds on her show.

My rating: F-

ETA: Sorry that’s so long – I promise I won’t be offended if you don’t read it – but it feels so good to get that off my chest and out of my head. Now I shall move onto other, better books and soon My Blank Page will once again become a happy, rant-free place. πŸ˜‰

Holy cake disaster, Batman! Or,…

…how to make a cake with one substitution too many.

Now, I’m a relatively intelligent person (or so I like to think) and a fairly successful baker (or so I like to think). I knew that I shouldn’t be attempting to make the yummy, yummy caramel cake from Smitten Kitchen. But I really wanted something sweet in the house and so, despite the fact that I did not have cake flour, buttermilk, heavy cream, or corn syrup, I headed into the kitchen. And imminent disaster.

And I’m going to show it to you because you’re my friends and I know you’d never laugh at me too hard.

I used all-purpose flour plus corn starch for the cake flour and milk with cream of tartar for the buttermilk (a substitution I’ve used in the past to great success). I should have stopped when the cake came out of the oven.

Exhibit A:

Looks fine, right? Until you see it from the side…

Exhibit B:

It’s less a cake, more of a cake-sized reservoir, really. At this point I should have just thrown in the towel, covered the cake in jam and called it a day. But no, I carried on with the caramel glaze, using milk and butter for the heavy cream and honey (suspiciously old-looking honey) for the corn syrup.

Exhibit C:

Looks fine, right? Wrong! I think something must have curdled (milk can curdle, right? It’s really the only thing in there I would have thought could look like that). And even then, foolhardy baker that I am, faced with curdled caramel glaze, I poured it over my cake-sized reservoir. Silly me.

Exhibit D:

Good lord.

ETA: Well, I tried it – because my standards for eating sweet things are shockingly low – and it’s really not that bad. I think the bits in the glaze that looked like something curdled are actually caramel that was just at a different stage than the rest of it. I was supposed to let it boil until it reached a certain temperature, but I also don’t have a candy thermometer, so I was just guessing. I would certainly never serve this to anyone, but I’ll definitely eat this despite its horrible appearance and I’ll keep the recipe to try again when I actually have everything I need…

Happy New Year!

I know most of you have gone already, but I think there’s still a few of you to follow, so hope you’re all having a great (and safe) new year’s celebration (I’m on the couch watching a Kathy Griffin marathon with my mom – I rock!) and are looking forward to a fantastic new year! πŸ˜€