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It’s an overcast, chilly morning that just begs for coffee.  And I never thought this would come to pass, but I’m drinking my coffee black.  Yeah, that’s right – no cream (Lent), no fake cream (yuck), no generous helping of sugar to try to make me forget that there’s no cream.  Just a cup of French press.  What next?  What is the world coming to?

I’ve been on a little marathon lately – in between baking squash and roasting beets and concocting the heaven that is pistachio butter and eating avocados like you wouldn’t believe, which I’ll tell you about later.  My marathon has not been exercise (ha) but rereading Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia) in preparation for getting my hands on the new book, A Conspiracy of Kings (released today).

If you’re familiar with these books, you know why I wanted to have just reread them.  If you’re not familiar with them, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?  First of all, they take place in a world of complex political negotiations, tangled personal histories, and complex, real characters (if you met Eugenides on the street (heaven help you) you’d know it was him).  So it’s good to have all that history fresh in your mind – if I hadn’t reread the books, I know I’d be reading the new one and thinking, “wait, what exactly did Gen get that character to do?”  “How was X involved in Y?”  “Who is Z again?”  You get the picture.  Fresh in my memory = greater enjoyment, because I’m awful at remembering plot points.

Second, and just as important, is the fact that I love spending time with these characters.  Sure, it can be difficult and painful, but it’s oh so rewarding.  A new book is just a big excuse to reread one of my favorite series.  Although series is a slightly misleading term for these books.  Each one as a unique flavor, a slightly different point of view.  They aren’t formulaic and they aren’t predictable, and while plot is key in each story, and the setting is handled magnificently, the characters really do grow and change between books and within each book.  I’d forgotten, for example, how Eugenides is basically a kid in the first book, and he starts out the second book like a headstrong teenager, and by the end of The Queen he’s really done a lot of maturing.  I think he finally turns into an adult in the third book.

I initially read the series in a big rush, devouring each book as I got my hands on it.  I reread The King for a class – to practice writing a book review (I was totally going to say book report at first) – and then of course that made me reread the rest of the series.  This time I read them through in order.  As with all rereading, you bring something different to each reading, and as with all good books, the book offers something fresh to readers who are willing to come back again and again.  As I wrote last time,

These are books that bear rereading.  I found myself flipping pages back thinking “she foreshadowed this, didn’t she?” or “wasn’t that an odd comment?  Will it matter…OH.”  Lots of light-bulb moments.  Lots of clever foreshadowing and hints about what the characters aren’t telling you.  In fact, that might be my favorite aspect of the series.  How much the characters keep hidden.  With clues, of course, for the reader.

“‘We might someday attain a relationship of mutual respect,’ [the magus] said softly. First, I thought, I will see gods walking the earth.”

I still get a little chill reading that.

The post title is a quote from The King, and it was a toss-up between that and “I love stupid plans” from The Queen:

“‘This is the stupidest plan I have ever in my career participated in,’ Xenophon said.
‘I love stupid plans,’ said Eugenides.”

Or “What kind of man refers to himself as safely dead?”

And I’ll shut up now if you’ll just go read the books.

Avocado Salad with Ginger and Peanuts

1/3 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
salt
2 tablespoon minced or grated peeled fresh ginger
sprigs of cilantro
2 medium or large avocados, pitted, peeled, and sliced
1/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts
Watercress, mâche, or other greens
(I might also add some jicama or sliced mango)

Put the vinegar, sugar, a pinch of salt and 2 tablespoons water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Add the ginger and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, as the dressing bubbles gently and thickens, about 5 minutes. When it gets noticeably syrupy, remove from heat, cool, cover tightly or put in a jar and refrigerate until very cold, at least an hour or so.

To serve, put the greens on a small platter, arrange the avocado on top, and drizzle with dressing. Garnish with chopped cilantro and peanuts.

and,

Beets with Pistachio Butter

4 large or 8 medium beets (about 1.5 pounds), trimmed
1/2 cup neutral oil like grapeseed or corn,
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 cup shelled pistachios
salt and freshly ground black pepper
chopped pistachios for garnish

Bake the beets in foil (over at 400F, wash them, wrap them individually in foil, put on cookie sheet, roast for 45 to 90 minutes, until tender). Meanwhile, put half the oil in a skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the garlic and cook for about a minute, then add the pistachios; cook, stirring often for about 3 minutes.

Remove from heat, let cool a bit, and transfer to food processor. Purée until smooth, adding more oil as necessary. The consistency should be thinner than that of peanut butter, just pourable. Taste and adjust seasoning (this can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

Slip the skins of the beets and cut them into large chunks. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put in a serving dish and spoon the pistachio butter over the top; garnish with chopped pistachios. Serve hot or at room temperature.

It’s fall – and it feels like it.  Sunday was pleasant and warm, getting hot in the sun waiting for brunch (at the Screen Door), but by Tuesday I was wearing tights and extra layers and bringing a jacket to work.  I even got caught in a sudden downpour on my two block walk from work to my car, sopping wet in spite of my (very un-Oregonian) umbrella – I’ve got to keep all those books dry, and a raincoat only keeps me dry.

Today the sun is out, but it’s chilly enough for knee socks and banana bread and an extra round of coffee to celebrate my half-day of work.  Oh, who am I kidding – I’d be baking banana bread even without the cool weather!  I came across a recipe this morning, following I don’t know how many random links to find this blog that shares a recipe from Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life for Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystalized Ginger.  I really enjoyed A Homemade Life when I read it back in July, but hot days in July are not ideal for banana bread.  So I was quite pleased to come across it this morning, when I had a few overripe bananas and some free time on my hands.

The bread is still in the oven, but I’m pretty sure it will be delicious – I licked the bowl clean (almost).  Follow the link above and try for yourself – I only had two bananas, so I added about an extra half cup of yogurt, since that perfectly polished off a carton of plain, cream-top that I’d been ignoring in favor of Greek style yogurt.  Oh, and I threw in some nutmeg and cinnamon because quick breads don’t seem quite right without them.

Fifteen more minutes!  In the meantime, coffee and a gothic novel – Michelle Zink’s Prophecy of the Sisters.

It’s a lazy Wednesday morning.  I made the puffiest of puffy oven pancakes for breakfast, and instead of having coffee with a little cream, I’m having hot milk with a little coffee.  Still delicious, but in a different way – I haven’t done a very good job of drinking up my milk this week and tomorrow is my turn to drive to the farm.  So the pancake used up some and the hot milk with coffee is using up more.  Pudding might use up most of the rest.  I’ve had a little cold for a week or so, which makes delicious cold raw milk not quite as appetizing as usual.

I finally took 150+ photos off my camera and I think I’ll post them slowly – I was just reading a post at Penni Russon’s blog about having blogger’s block (I particularly liked her comments on sadness and google searches), and either I have it, too, or I’m just lazy.  Or I’m out of the habit.  Either way, I miss it.  So I’ll try to jump-start myself with photos.  And more talking about books, of course.

Here’s a photo of the trail Bronwen and I hiked on our mini-break – conveniently photographed while on a coast drive the next day.  Yes, it really does go up and up and up.  But it was lovely at the top.

I’m reading Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s The Home-Maker, which is sort of painful to read but fascinating.  And I’m convinced the characters will become much happier before too long, so the pain is more bearable.  I think it would be funnier, too, if it didn’t in some way tap into my own fears about my desire for neatness and order.  Reading about slightly OCD behaviors loses its funny when you can imagine yourself doing some of the same things.  At any rate, I might need to take a break and read another YA novel – there’s a pile waiting for me.

I finally broke down and bought myself a new laptop recently, and it just arrived the other day.  Bliss.  I was having some keyboard issues with the 5-year-old one, which was just annoying as all get out (and made it very hard to want to reply to emails, write blog posts, etc. when I knew I’d have to copy and paste to get the letters I wanted).  The old one was also incredibly slow.  Painfully.  Torturously.  It got me through grad school and gave its life in the process.  RIP.  Well, not until my brother tranfers all my files for me…

So here I am on a lazy Saturday morning, coffee at hand and an enormous fried egg in my stomach (seriously the biggest I’ve ever eaten – the egg didn’t quite fit into it’s spot in the carton – the beauty of fresh farm eggs).

I finished an audio book that I didn’t care for – The Ghost in Love – and it seems to have put me off audio books, which is a pity since I have Sally Gardner’s The Red Necklace waiting patiently to be listened to.  Yesterday was my last day of work before two weeks of vacation, so I won’t be driving to work and listening in the car.  I might get some listening in on my trip to California, while driving from airport to farm to university town – last time my rental car had a CD player and I listened to most of Laura Whitcomb’s A Certain Slant of Light.  I remember the whole thing vividly because I (being unfamiliar with the car and the roads) accidentally hit the random feature on the CD player and couldn’t figure out for the longest time why the book was jumping around so much in time.   Hmm, that probably influenced my impression of the book (although I did go back and listen in order, parts had already been spoiled).  But I associate that story completely with that drive, and in retrospect I like the book more than I did initially.

Right now I’m reading Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman – originally from Leila’s recommendation.  It took me a while to get into it – the first 100 pages were interesting but a bit slow – and then yesterday I hit a point of starting to speed through it.  The world of the book is fascinating, and gender roles play a huge part in the story, although you could probably read it as pure fantasy.  The cover art only says “fantasy” and “dragons” but there’s a lot more going on and I’m so curious to see where the story takes me.  The world-building is impressive and the characters are complex and believable.

On the job front, things are looking good.  We’re getting there.  The job I want now exists, and I just have to get it – we’ll see what HR says about promoting me vs. making me apply and interview.

It’s a coffee morning.  Yum.  And I traded days with a library coworker, so I got to sleep in this morning instead of doing my usual rush to work (yeah yeah yeah, I know I don’t start until 10 am on Fridays, I’m a pathetic excuse for a working adult) – although, of course, that means I’m working tomorrow afternoon.  I’ll enjoy it now and work later.  Actually, I never mind going to the library – I just hate getting ready for work, packing a lunch, etc.

I’m starting to think about what I’ll bring to the annual Turkey Dinner in May that my parents host.  Last year I took home the rubber chicken in the side dish/dessert contest, so I need to find an appropriate follow-up recipe.  I’m thinking of using the Nectarine and Raspberry Tart recipe as a starting point, and doing some sort of variation.   Different fruit combinations on a similar base.  We’ve been joking about having a bake-off at work (not the library) because some of us regularly bring in homemade treats while others merely claim to be capable of such greatness.  So I’ve taken to taunting the alleged baker with descriptions of recipes like this one.  Taunting – if only that were a marketable job skill.

I think I’m going to have to make banana bread today – BUT I might branch out and try the recipe in my King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking, instead of the regular ol’ King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion. Crazy, huh?  Do you think I’m working too hard to insert variety into my life?

In bookish news, I’m reading Maggie Stiefvater’s Lament, which has a lamentably (okay, I’ve had too much coffee) bad cover considering how much I’m enjoying it – there are some zinger one liners* in there.  I picked it up after reading Leila’s review (that woman could talk me into reading almost anything) – she recommends it to fans of Melissa Marr, and while the set-ups seem very similar, this one has a deliciously snarky edge that I didn’t see in Wicked Lovely.  And you know how I love my snarky edge.

*”This was possibly the first time anyone had ever expressed interest in my personal life, and I wasn’t sure if I should answer her or chronicle the event in my scrapbook.”

Have I mentioned how much I love being out of school?  Since I moved right after I graduated, it’s like I made a clean break with that school part of my life.  When other people talk about tests or homework, it seems so long ago and far away.   Being out of school feels “normal” – which is to say that I haven’t gone all hog-wild with my free time.  Instead, I’m just trying to find new habits and patterns and enjoy my freedom until the day when I might have to show up for work at 8:30 (yawn) am.

Instead of thinking about things like projects and deadlines and the intricacies of the library catalog (although I still think about that sometimes), I can contemplate life’s big questions:

  • Should I have coffee or tea?  Coffee is more satisfying and creamy (when I add cream, which is always), and it involves more elaborate preparation rituals.  Tea gets honey, which is lovely, and it’s simple and never makes me jittery when I drink too many cups.
  • What should I read next?  Right now I have out Looking for Anne of Green Gables, Well Witched, Pippi Longstocking, Crossing to Paradise, Tales from Outer Suburbia, Wintergirls, The Home-Maker, The Surrender Tree, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, and some cooking and gardening books that I keep forgetting about.  I’m listening to The Ghost in Love in the car and enjoying it although it’s pretty off-beat.  It’s one of those books that talks about food a lot, which I love, and it has these occasional brilliant observations that you would never have made but recognize as being true.  Actually, the same is true of The Air We Breathe, which I’m also reading, although the observations have a different feel and the food is described with less reverence, and it’s not off-beat – just compelling in a 19th century novel way.
  • What shoes should I wear for Bronwen’s wedding?  This one needs research.
  • Why am I incapable of finishing bananas before they turn brown?  And how many loaves of banana bread can I bake before I cut myself off?
  • Will my balcony get enough sun to keep my plants alive?  And will the sun ever stay out for more than two minutes at a time?

In the meantime, though, I’ve answered the “what to bake?” question (chocolate chip cookies) and the “what to eat for lunch?” question (tuna on sourdough with a pickle – and yes, I eat lunch at 3 pm – and you would, too, if dinner was at 10).

Oh, February!  Why can’t it be spring already?  The sun came out yesterday but of course today we’re back to clouds.

My shelf of library books has gotten a little out of control lately – either I’m not reading fast enough, or I’m putting too many things on hold.  When it comes to books, I’m an impulse shopper.   Ooh, shiny!  Put it on hold at the library!  But then other people put things on hold, too, and I can’t keep renewing things forever.  So I had to arrange my shelf with all the books with hold-lists at the front.  I have until tomorrow to finish Stephanie Kallos’ Sing Them Home (which shouldn’t be a problem) and then I’ll jump into the Newbery Honor books, and then we’ll see what comes next.

Sing Them Home is kind of rambly and full of quirky but likeable characters, and it’s one of those books that makes you wonder how the author put it all together.  Which characters did she think up first, or was the it the town?  I don’t necessarily want to know the answers to these questions, but it makes the book interesting from a structural standpoint.  What I really like, though, are her characters – and this one has a nice big cast without feeling like a saga.  Kallos does a great job of describing little things – most mornings when I make coffee, I still think of her description in Broken For You of a character making French press coffee.  The way the compulsive eater character plots out her food intake, or the description of an empty house – they’re all detailed, but give a great sense of mood at the same time.

I’m almost done with school – and it’s such a relief, after 2 1/2 years, to answer the constant question, “when will you get your degree?” with “in a few weeks.”  I’ll have a lull of free time, then, while I wait to find out about a job possibility, and possibly move, hopefully enjoy having my time be my own again.  I’ll be able to read, or bake, or go for a walk, or make plans without wondering if I ought to be starting the next assignment.

Or, Where Librarians and Computer Geeks Overlap

Instructions: after a work scheduling error, too much heat, a multiple encounters with bad drivers, you should come home, fix an iced coffee* with a spoonful of brown sugar, and plop down on the couch to finish Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.

It’s the best thing I’ve read in a while, and already on my list of favorite YA novels of the year.  First off, it has a great sense of pace and compelling characters – you’re not going to get anywhere without that.  Second, add in some real drama and plot.  Third, relate that plot to a) current events and politics, in a gripping way and b) issues dear to the hearts of librarians and computer geeks (and some of the rest of you, too) the world over – privacy, censorship and free speech.**  Oh, and don’t forget a healthy dose of humor, a touch of romance, and explanations of technology actually make sense to little ol’ me.  Throw in a few afterwards and an author’s note containing real, practical, optimistic information and plenty of advice for further reading.

You end up with something awesome.  And a much improved mood.

*I blame the book for a lot of my recent coffee cravings.

**I took a class this spring where we discussed a lot of these things – ethics, privacy, free speech, censorship, etc. – basically this book covered all the same information, but with plot.  And no homework.

Shocking, isn’t it?  Me with a cup of black coffee?  I’ve definitely done my usual Return to Tea for Lent, but those coffee-making instincts die hard and I’ve been rather enjoying it black with a tiny dab of brown sugar.  It makes me feel hard-core (not the brown sugar part, though).

I thought I would take a break from all the I, Claudius posts, mostly because I spent the weekend reading other books and neglecting poor Claudius.

I finally finished up One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke, which had gotten set aside when the Claudius craze began.  It was delightful and slightly dreamy.  I recommend it.

  The characters spend a fair amount of time sleeping and dreaming, and the book ends up with an appropriately dreamy quality to it. It’s got its details, though, and a delightfully large cast of characters, and the loveliest little descriptions of things. And while there is a great deal of coincidence, particularly at the end, the characters admit that so much coincidence is bizarre, and that things like this never happen to their family, and probably never will again: it is, of course, their one whole and perfect day. The characters cover a nice age range, too – our main character, Lily, is in high school, but we spend a fair amount of time with the parents and grandparents, with her older brother and other students at his college, all of which I enjoyed. I have to admit a particular fondness for Jessaline, the astigmatic linguistics student turned cooking student, who stays up late baking and passes around her cookies and cakes. I may have been a trifle biased in her favor.

It also continued this recent trend of characters with names similar to mine.  The first time was in Long May She Reign, in which the character was the crabby odd-ball in Meg’s dorm.  No, I don’t identify with that character, either!

I read Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell (her of Chicken Boy fame) on Sunday evening.  I’d gotten a copy from The Other Library, the one where I actually have to pay fines, so I had to hustle to read it before the due date.  It was one of those focused stories, where the action takes place in a limited time and place (one summer, mostly in an army rec center and at Jamie’s house) and doesn’t try to evoke the entire world (being a first person narrative) yet it still manages to leave you a good sense of the larger picture.

Here’s ye olde Goodreads review:

It’s a slim and focused summer story about an army brat whose brother has just left for Vietnam. She learns to develop the film he sends back to her, and she changes her perception of war. While that sounds a little didactic, things are never heavy handed with Frances O’Roark Dowell, even when they are serious (I have fond memories of Chicken Boy). There’s plenty of gin rummy, great depictions of family dynamics, and a historical element without the story being too bogged down by historical detail. The jacket flap says Dowell was an army brat herself, so you know parts of the story are based on personal experience to some degree, but there’s never that sense of nostalgia that a lot of not-so-distant historical fiction acquires (see, Criss Cross; see, books I hate). So the story was excellently done, but who do you hand it to? Jamie is twelve (“I’ll be thirteen in December”) but the story could read younger; there are mentions of the horrors of war that Jamie sees in the pictures she developes, but nothing overwhelming. I think it could be passed off to somewhat thoughtful kids who like either historical fiction or realistic contemporary fiction, because the style is really more contemporary than historical. But I don’t think this would be a crowd-pleaser, reluctant reader type hit. I would’ve enjoyed it around 5-7th grade, when I was fascinated by my uncle’s pictures and letters from Vietnam, which I found deliciously tragic. This book would have given me a better perspective.

Which reminds me, a note about the ending – it’s neither maudlin and sentimental nor brutal and tragic, although it is heart-wrenching, and I thought it was the best possible way to end a story like this.

Thirdly, I finally got around to reading the last Printz Honor, Repossessed.  It sat on the shelf looking amusing and snide and irreverent, and I wasn’t in the mood.  In reality, it turned out to be amusing and a wee bit snide but not really irreverent – almost surprisingly thoughtful.  I enjoyed reading it – plenty of laughs and a good tone that reminded me a bit of Bartimaeus as a narrator, but ultimately not something that really stuck to my ribs.

It was a very interesting mix of Printz Honor books this year, and now I’ve managed to read them all it seems even more interesting.  One fantasy, with a historical fiction feel  (the fantastic Dreamquake), one contemporary fiction (One Whole and Perfect Day), one biography in verse (the depressing Your Own, Sylvia), and one contemporary fiction/fallen angel story (Repossessed).  Not to mention the winner, The White Darkness, with its combination of polar exploration and creepy suspense.  Whew, what a year.  They’re all solid choices, though – I don’t know if I would have picked the same books, but they’re all worth reading and recommending in their own ways.

In a recent conversation about fasting, and why we fast or don’t fast, the question was raised of whether fasting might just lead to gluttony before and after the fast.  It’s kind of hard to gorge (or rather, really easy to feel satiated) after a fast, especially after Holy Week, but before a fast?  Sure, I’m more likely to take a second helping of pie and ice cream when I know it’s my last chance.  But I’d probably take the second helping anyway.  And being eased into it – first no meat, then no dairy – limits the gorging to certain items each week.

This week, knowing it’s my last chance for dairy has led to more appreciation than gluttony.  I get off work and realize it’s my last chance for a real latte until the end of April, and I hie myself to the coffee shop.  And I walk home on a nice (almost) spring evening, enjoying the last latte, just like I’m enjoying the extra hour of daylight.  And just like I’m tired from missing that hour of sleep, I’ll miss the milk and cheese and eggs tomorrow.  But it doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

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