Monday, February 20, 2012

Just not Pinterested

Every few days--or sometimes a few times a day--I get a notification that "XXX is following you on Pinterest." This makes me uneasy because, well, because I haven't done anything Pinteresting with my account since I set it up. I only set it up in the first place because my wife told me to. I "pinned" a handful of books, but then I felt like it was taking way too much effort, so I quit. Anyway, that was redundant since more or less all the books I've ever read are associated with me on Goodreads. And then I pinned a great video of Gordon Ramsay making great scrambled eggs. Beyond that, I haven't touched it. Pinterest just doesn't work for me, because it's so visual, while on the whole I'm more interested in text--articles, blog entries, that sort of thing. And sharing those sorts of things--not to mention pictures and videos--is easy enough on Facebook that, really, what do I need Pinterest for?

But when I get those notifications, I feel like "Gosh, so-and-so is expecting me to share something interesting, and I most certainly am not." Just having an account feels like false advertising....

Can someone make the argument for me: why should I like Pinterest enough to spend any time there?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book Review: The Magicians

The MagiciansThe Magicians by Lev Grossman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Probably more like 3.5 stars, though I'm not sure how I could possibly be lukewarm on this novel, since most everyone who's rated and reviewed it seems to either love it or hate it.

The novel follows Quentin Coldwater, who begins the novel as an academic all-star (but one who's slightly eclipsed by his best friend both in excellence and in practical matters) in his senior year of high school. An avid reader of fantasy--particularly a Narnia-like fantasy about a land called Fillory--in his younger days (and still one, albeit as a guilty pleasure), he is invited to take a test to get into a very exclusive college: one that teaches magic (which turns out to be real, obviously). In a sense, the rest of the novel is an exploration of the Wilde maxim about one of the great tragedies in life being to get your heart's desire. In another sense, you might say it's a character study of the varieties of brilliant, over-achieving nihilists.

It is, no doubt about it, a dark novel. Calling it "Harry Potter for adults" is less accurate than to call it a deconstruction of Harry Potter. There's no Dark Lord to defeat here--well, there sort of is in the end, but not really. The darkness to be fought comes from within one's self as one reacts to a world that can never seem to measure up to the fantasies of childhood, that never seems to have the heroic spirit we imagine for it as children.

Magic, in the end, isn't so magical as Quentin thinks. It's hard work, tedious work. It rarely solves problems of any real importance, and it ultimately has nothing to say about giving a life meaning, fulfillment, or happiness. I had originally understood The Magicians to be a stand-alone novel, even though I knew it was followed by The Magician King. However, given how little real growth Quentin manages, that character arc itself makes the novel feel less than complete, even if the plot elements are fairly well wrapped up. He's been through a lot, he's changed a bit, but has he grown? Not really. But then, perhaps that's all part and parcel of deconstructing the naive fantasies of childhood and of, well, naive fantasies.

It doesn't mean I have to approve it.

But anyway, I did enjoy it well enough on its own terms--well enough that I'll pick up The Magician King.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Darwin Day

As Americans, February 12 tends to resonate for us as Abraham Lincoln's birthday, even if he does end up rolled in with George Washington under the banner of "Presidents Day." But for the secular-minded and the science-minded, another great figure's birthday (in the same year) comes to mind: Charles Darwin. Some even think of the day as Darwin Day. What with Presidents Day and all, Lincoln's hardly using it anyway.

Darwin, of course, is a controversial figure, because evolution is still a contentious issue, since it challenges a religious literalist's belief system. The theory of evolution by natural selection, however, is about as rock solid as any big-picture theory in science can be. And when I thought about this entry, I thought I might spend some time talking about that, or why the resistance is so strong, or about why Darwin is, warts and all, a great man to celebrate. But now we're getting to the end of the day and I still haven't done so, and I don't have the time, energy, or brain-power to do it justice.

All that said, whenever I think of Charles Darwin, I think of my friend Dorothy Sutton, a poet who wrote a collection of poems called Startling Art, which revolves largely around Darwin and the artist Matisse (I also think of her when I look at the Matisses we have framed around here!). I'd like to share with my readers one of her Darwin poems, and since I've found it on-line elsewhere, I trust she won't mind if I share it here (and I'll happily remove it if she or her publisher don't want it up!). For whatever reason, this one particularly struck me today. As it would happen, this is not one of the 2 1/2 poems of hers that I've written choral settings for:

Edinburgh, 1826
Darwin and brother Erasmus
meet John James Audubon, there to enlist
subscribers for Birds of America.

Black wings of fear hover in the air:
the man in the street might come to embrace
the notion that human beings evolved
independent of Supernatural Source,
cracking the Church's One Foundation
to leave it in ruins. If people think
of themselves as animals, they'll act that way.
Civilization so long in building,
they whisper, reverting to savagery.

Audubon tosses his long black hair
back over his shoulder, explains, as he roughs
out the buzzard on the drawing board,
to the students here for medical school
the intricate steps of preserving a carcass
to capture on canvas each exact detail. 


And, finally, I will let Darwin speak for himself, from the end of the first edition of "Origen of the Species":

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank,
clothed with many plants of many kinds,
with birds singing on the bushes,
with various insects flitting about,
and with worms crawling through the damp earth,
and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms,
so different from each other,
and dependent on each other in so complex a manner,
have all been produced by laws acting around us.

There is grandeur in this view of life . . .
that whilst this planet has gone cycling on
according to the fixed law of gravity,
from so simple a beginning,
endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful
have been, and are being, evolved.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Book Review: Olive Kitteridge

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not entirely sure how this book entered my radar, it might have been through a Goodreads friend (though none of them exactly gushed over it) or it might have been because it was a Pulitzer Prize winner--in any case, that I read it is owed to the fact that it was available as an audiobook to download from our library consortium.

It took me a while to get into this short-story-collection-as-a-novel about small-town life in Maine, but when I did, it really captivated me. The title character, Olive Kitteridge, who is at least referred to in each story or makes a cameo, grows from middle age to old age over the course of the book, and although I don't even qualify as middle aged yet, I think it was this aspect of the novel that grabbed me.

For my part, I grew up around adults--my mother was 40 when I was born and my father was 50 (mom was the oldest of six in her family, but dad was the youngest of four). The people I was around most outside of school were all at least middle-aged already, and over the course of my life those people have grown into old age. While none of the characters were ringers for any of my relatives or the other people in my community growing up, I had the distinct impression of getting glimpses here and there into their lives, into the reality of their experience.

At the same time, I got to know the characters in Olive Kitteridge far more intimately that I know most of the people I found myself projecting that characters' lives onto, which is always the great power of fiction, the way it lets us know characters better than we know anyone else. Strout creates such fully-formed characters with interwoven lives--just masterful.

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Food Friday: Cream Cheese

When I started cooking for myself, moving out into the real world, one of my first culinary rules was this: never use fat-free cream cheese. It's just not very good, and the point of cream cheese is, after all, that it is good. I mean good. No, really, it is good.

My mother used to say of my father that he could be happy with just a sugar bowl put in front of him, and I must have gotten those genes, because I have always loved sugar and sweets. Among my favorite sweets have always been those that one way or another involve cream cheese. Pumpkin rolls? Check. Pumpkin cookies? As long as they have cream cheese frosting? Red Velvet Cake? See previous note. And one of my favorites to make--indeed, the one that caused the above rule--was Pumpkin Cake. Easy to make thanks to all the packaged, processed ingredients, and so very good. When I want to impress and calories are no object, this is my weapon of choice (recipe below).

However, I've been eating healthier lately, following the so-called Slow Carb Diet, which basically means that every meal for six days of the week is comprised of a meat, a legume, and a vegetable. And on the seventh day, I eat whatever I want.

With that in mind, a whole cake is probably a bit much, even for me. So then, how do I get my cream cheese fix? Well, I've been experimenting.

Let me first say that I make an awesome pot of oatmeal. I mean absolutely awe-inspiring. My lucky little girl gets to eat it every morning for breakfast, but for me, it's a once-a-week treat, and that's assuming we don't go in for pancakes instead. But here's how I super-charge it: in addition to the standard incorporation of maple syrup, I like to spoon in some cream cheese and some cinnamon, turning my oatmeal into a high-fiber (and, yes, high-sugar and high-fat), smoothy iced cinnamon roll. Well, anyway, the oatmeal equivalent, and a lot less work, all in all. Love it, love it, love it.

On a similarly decadent day, I thought I would try adding cream cheese to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I have long been a fan of putting both cream cheese and jelly on bagels, so this seemed like a logical enough extension. Verdict: meh. Doesn't really add much, not worth the hassle.

One of the dishes my wife likes to make for parties are Artichoke Tarts, a recipe that she found while doing Weight Watchers, of all things. Who know cream cheese fit into WW? Well, it doesn't, at least not the fully-fatted stuff, but the recipe is yummy (what the heck, I'll include that below too).

For the Super Bowl, we put together a chip dip that was simplicity itself: spread cream cheese on a dish, sprinkle some taco seasoning (optional), layer on salsa, layer on cheese, and bake until its beauty brings tears to your eyes. That reminds me of a cold chip dip I used to make: you mix a can of refried beans with cream cheese and a can of diced green chiles. Layer a jar of taco sauce over that, then cheese, and finally diced tomatoes and green onions. Very tasty, but not nearly as quick and easy as the first one. Still, no oven required, so that's something.

Although I didn't get to eat it myself, because yesterday was not one of the food-gone-wild days, I found another good use for cream cheese yesterday: in mashed sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes + butter + cream cheese = A + M + AZING.Well, anyway, very good. Maybe my math skills aren't what they used to be. But my cream cheese skills have never been better.

Pumpkin Cake
I'm sure I got this e-mail from my mom, who got it from somewhere. Someone in the family? A cookbook? Beats me.
         1 cup pumpkin
         1 can evaporated milk
         4 eggs
         1/4 tsp nutmeg
         1 1/2 cups sugar
         2 tsp cinnamon
         1/4 tsp ginger
In mixer or right in a 9x13 pan. The mixer does make things easier. Sprinkle evenly over this
 1 pkg yellow cake mix
And drizzle with 
 1 cup butter
Bake at 350 F for 1 hour.
When cool, top with cream cheese frosting. For that, mix together
 8 oz cream cheese
 1 lb powdered sugar
 some milk
Until creamy. Spread over the cake.
The Artichoke Tarts recipe is here. I will just add that we tend to use more chopped red pepper (so as not to waste a bunch) and don't use the parsley at all.