Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Weird SistersThe Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found myself without an audio book for my commute to work and needed something quick. I found this at the library and, while I might have passed on it under normal circumstances, decided to give it a try. The novel centers around the lives of three sisters. Two have arrived back in the small town they grew up in after seeking greener pastures and getting themselves in trouble. One lived in New York and embezzled money from her employer to buy clothes and live the glamorous life. The other was a drifter by nature just going wherever the wind blew. The wind blew her into a one-night-stand and pregnancy. The third sister never left her small town, is a professor at the local college (where her dad also teaches), and has a finance who has left for Oxford and wants her to come with him but she doesn't want to leave. The sisters learn that their mother has cancer and are handling that while ignoring their own problems.

The characters were well developed and interesting. The family dynamic was interesting as well. Their father is a professor specializing in Shakespeare. The daughters are named after characters (i.e. Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia). He communicates with them using lines from various plays and sonnets and they use them as well. The most interesting thing about the book was that it is told in first-person-plural. This is the only book I've ever read from this point of view. It was told as if the sisters were all one collective narrator. It took some time to adjust to the narrator inhabiting the minds of three people. After I was adjusted, I realized it was perfect. They were so interconnected as siblings, it made sense to tell their story as if they were one multifaceted person.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Salmon, Cedar, Watermelon, and the Grill

Summertime is heating up around the country.  In Texas we are around 105 degrees each day.  When the temperatures rise we take our cooking outdoors.  Air conditioning is a luxury we do not wish to spoil with dinner cooking in a hot oven.  We purchased a grill earlier in the year and it is getting more use with each passing hot day.  This Sunday's fare was part necessity and part inspiration.

My son announced during the week that he had a project he would like to do.  I asked him what it was and he said, with pride, "I want to build a birdhouse."  On Saturday we went to Home Depot with an internet blueprint for a birdhouse made from one 6 inch wide cedar fence plank.  We built the birdhouse. The byproduct of this activity was a leftover cedar plank. Now it was time for Dad's project.

I went to my favorite local grocer and purchased a two pound wild Alaskan salmon fillet to grill on the leftover plank.  I love grilling salmon on cedar because the smokey flavor is fantastic and cleanup involves nothing more than throwing a charred board away.

Wild salmon has a wonderful flavor and requires little seasoning.  The smoke from the cedar plank does most of the flavor work. I mixed a couple tablespoons of olive oil with a tablespoon of lemon juice and two cloves of crushed garlic.  I rubbed this into the fillet before grilling.

To prepare the board I soaked it in water for about 10 hours, the longer the better.  I then placed the board on the grill on high heat and closed the lid for approximately five minutes so it can start smoking.

Once the board is smoking I placed the fillet on the board (skin side down) and closed the lid.  I reduced the heat to medium and allowed it to cook approximately 20 - 25 minutes, until the Salmon was flaky but still moist.

The cedar plank caught fire a few times while grilling so I kept a squeeze bottle of water close to douse the flames and re-moisten the board. At the end I smelled like a campfire, but the result was worth it.

More inspiration came from an daily recipe for grilled watermelon salad. I'm linking to the website, because I love it, but not the recipe because I made significant adjustments. Here is my recipe:

For Dressing:
2 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Lime Juice
1/2 teaspoon dried basil

Combine the above ingredients and then toss with one Bunch fresh Watercress (stems removed and loosely chopped).

Grilling Watermelon:
Cut the seedless watermelon into twelve 1 inch thick slices (3 per salad). Remove rinds and brush both sides lightly with olive oil. On high heat place the watermelon directly on the grill and grill for two minutes and then flip and grill for two minutes on the other side.

Assembly (4 salads):
Place three slices of grilled watermelon on each plate.  Top each stack of grilled watermelon with 1/4 of the dressed watercress. drizzle remaining dressing over each salad.  Top with sprinkle of crumbled Feta cheese.

We also made herbed red potatoes as another side dish.  As an added bonus the kids made fresh butter earlier in the day as part of a church activity.  We added the freshly churned butter to the potatoes for a wonderfully fresh creamy flavor.

The kids liked the salmon, tolerated the grilled watermelon, and mostly nourished themselves on the buttered potatoes and the organic lemonade mom bought while dad was buying fish.  Regardless, it was a wonderful summer meal without ever turning on the oven.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Brass Verdict (Mickey Haller, #2)The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't usually read legal thrillers - it is too much like extended hours at work. Friends and family love them and recommend them to me regularly. If the premise is interesting, or I trust the person recommending it, then I will relent. My father-in-law, who reads more than most, said he guaranteed I would like this book. That made it worth a try. He was right, I did like it a lot.

This is a classic redemption plot. We start out with a lawyer who has taken himself out of the practice of law because of personal problems. He is a criminal defense lawyer and has a famous lawyer father's shoes to fill. He hasn't had a case in a year. All of that changes when he inherits a successful practice from another recently murdered lawyer.

The lawyer, the police, and the villians (some known and others discovered along the way)are all well developed. The plot takes many twists and turns along the way as the mysteries of the former lawyer's murder, the high profile client with an upcoming murder trial, and his own personal demons are dealt with. Very enjoyable read - even if it still felt a little like being at the office.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Words in the Wilderness

I had one goal at my week long writers retreat/class: words on paper.

My current project was languishing a little under the strain of other responsibilities.  I struggled with the concept, drafted an outline, and made profiles for my main characters. But I didn't have much of the actual writing done.  I started writing before I went so that I had something to share in class if the unspeakable (i.e. writer's block) occurred.  My worries were unfounded.

These were my living quarters during the week:

This was my view each morning:

It was inspiring to be in the wilderness, somewhat turned off from my daily grind.  I still had internet (because everyone knows I wouldn't survive without it) but I limited my use of it.  We were far enough off the beaten path that my phone wouldn't get data service - which means no apps.  This was a blessing in disguise because it freed me to clear my mind and truly think about my project.

I ate my meals in the fresh mountain air surrounded by fellow writers.  We discussed our projects, brainstormed ideas, and enjoyed each others' company.

Each afternoon I hiked a ten minute nature trail to the Old Fort (circa civil war era) to share chapters with my class and receive feedback.

I wrote 8,000 words during my stay and broke through significant logic barriers in my story with the help of my instructors and the other writers in my class.

When it was time to go, I made a stop in Santa Fe. I bought handmade jewelry and a drum from local Native American Artisans. These were gifts for my family.  They allowed me to spend some of my precious free time away from them and I really appreciate it.

I also enjoyed a fantastic lunch in Santa Fe of blue corn enchiladas (served on open tortillas and smothered.  I drank a traditional Mexican horchata drink (combines rice milk, sugar, and cinnamon all served iced).  Delicious!

Thank you to all my friends that taught at or attended the SMU-Taos Creative Writing trip.  It was fantastic.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The House of Tommorow

The House of TomorrowThe House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a great character driven story. The main character is a teenager, Sebastian, who lives with his grandmother in a geodesic dome (think Epcot, just house sized) in Iowa.

 Sebastian's parents died when he was young and his intelligent, but very quirky, grandmother became his guardian and raised him in the literal shelter of the dome and figuratively sheltered from outside influences. The outside world finds Sebastian when his grandmother suffers a stroke while a woman (Janice Whitcomb) and her angst filled punk rock teenage son (Jared) are visiting the dome as local tourists.

The Whitcombs' take Sebastian's grandmother to the hospital and he is introduced to soda (e.g. the description of his first taste of it is priceless) and punk rock music. During his grandmother's recovery Sebastian has freedom to explore the outside world, first by using the previously filtered internet and next as secret diversions from errands. Sebastian starts an email discussion with Jared to ask questions about punk rock and he is adopted as Jared's only friend.  Jared had a recent heart transplant and is fragile in every way but attitude. Sebastian's guide to the outside world during the book is primarily Jared as he extols his punk rock world view. This is juxtaposed against the sheltered futurist theories of his grandmother - which Sebastian uses throughout the book to compare to the new things he is experiencing. Sebastian also develops relationships with Jared's mother, who sees him as someone in need of guidance and help, and Jared's sister Meredith whom he finds "beguiling."

The book took me back to my own teenage years and the familiar feeling of trying to find my own place in the world. Teenagers get advice from their friends, parents, and the media they choose to consume. Sebastian's only worldview was his grandmother's until the stroke and the reader gets to watch him explore, accept, interpret and/or disregard the information he receives. It is an interesting way of presenting an outsider view on a typically troubled suburban family.  The parents are separated, Jared is very ill, Meredith is promiscuous and disrespectful to everyone. Despite the dysfunctionality it is clear they all do care for each other and are just struggling with how to show that and not have it ruin them. The characters, even the supporting ones, are very well developed and have their own struggles that, as a reader, were very interesting. I always appreciate it when an author spends as much time developing the supporting characters as the main character.

This week, while I was reading The House of Tomorrow, a friend of mine from high school posted about a debate regarding what is appropriate content for Young Adult novels. Her discussion resulted in a subsequent counterpoint about details raised in the comments section of her blog. The basic question was how much of the dark topics that exist in our world are appropriate for the reading material of the teenage audience of young adult novels.

As I read the discussion, and the comments in reaction to the discussion, I kept thinking about Sebastian. This book did not have the dark topics like suicide, rape, cutting, or other things that were used as the most serious offensive material.  It wasn't completely clean either (e.g. Sebastian steals a bass guitar to play in a punk band with Jared).  Sebastain's grandmother expressed the same justifications for her sheltering of him as some of the commenters in the blog discussion. Most of them claimed that "kids" can't understand the darker topics in their books so they shouldn't be exposed to it or their parents should screen their children's reading material for any inappropriate topics.

There are things I wouldn't want my kids to read or see, but I know that it is futile to try and keep them away from everything - probably anything.  The best option, in my opinion, is to let them have the freedom to read what interests them - even if I don't like it - and make sure I'm involved in the discussion while they read.  Commenters seemed universally in favor of parent involvement in some form, it was the degree of parental censorship that seemed to vary.

At the end of the story Sebastian is a better person for having lived in the Whitcomb's somewhat broken household, having experienced things that are less than wholesome, and having pushed the limits of acceptability to find where his own personal creed both begins and ends.  I think this is a necessary part of growing up and helps kids set their own limits.  Which are the only limits they actually follow when Mom and Dad aren't watching.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Culture and the Land of the Cowboy

I live in Texas and most days I like it here. The people are friendly and we live in a safe neighborhood with good schools. I enjoy my job and the cost of living is low enough that we have a comfortable lifestyle. It does get hot during the summer, but we avoid the months of snow that our previous locations inflicted on us each winter. The days I don't like it are usually because I miss an aspect of our old home on the east coast (i.e. Washington D.C. and New York).

My wife and I left college and headed to New York for our first real jobs and adventure as grown ups. We were married in college and it always felt like playing house until we had degrees and a job to go to each day. That didn't happen until we moved to New York. We lived in New York for almost two years until I was accepted to law school in Washington D.C. We lived in Washington D.C. for all three years of law school and then another three years of work before taking a job in Texas. It is fair to say that we became adults on the east coast - even though we still act like children sometimes.

The guys I knew in New York and in Washington, D.C. were different then the guys I know in Texas. They enjoyed sports, muscle cars, red meat, and other decidedly manly things. However, this was not all they enjoyed. Many of them unabashedly attended and enjoyed things like the theater, the ballet, the symphony, and other cultural experiences. This was never met with odd glances questioning their manliness. They also read books, and lots of them. I took the Subway in New York and the Metro in D.C. into school and work. Everyone, men included, had books in their hands and many of them were novels. When you talked with other men they would tell you about books they were reading, or had read, and what they thought about them. They talked about politics, and not just to complain about our country going to hell in the proverbial hand-basket.

I maintain email, facebook, and twitter relationships with some of these guys but I miss the actual interaction at parties or other gatherings. I mostly miss talking about books with other guys. I read fiction knowing that it has little value beyond the entertainment it provides. Perhaps it will make me think about some situation differently, but mostly it is just an entertaining way to spend my free time. This lack of clearly cognizable utility in reading fiction seems to be its largest drawback among the guys I meet here. If they have time for entertainment the last thing they pick up is a book. If they are going to pick up a book they choose to read about new personal organization techniques, leadership skills, or financial management. They will read historical fiction, but mostly about wars. I'm NOT knocking those books - I own several and read some of them every year because they ARE useful or intellectually stimulating. I just wish more men in my current circle appreciated novels as a worthy method of entertainment.

I'm not looking for "sensitive" or "high-brow" guys - I'm neither. In fact, I want the opposite. I want to talk about books the same way that I talk about sports, guns, and my wife. I want to talk about books like a guy. That is what I had with my east coast guy friends. They weren't men in touch with their feminine side, they were just regular guys who read books for fun. I thought I might find one of these guys in my various writing classes, but I never did.

My desire to find another like-minded guy in my writing class is purely selfish. When I learned to golf it was easier to learn when I had a golf buddy to go with and we could make mistakes together, poke fun at bad shots, give each other constructive and nonconstructive criticism, and honestly congratulate each other when things went well. It made golf enjoyable and brought me into a game I don't think I would have continued playing otherwise. I need that for my writing.

I need another guy slogging through the same process of writing a novel to motivate me and make the experience more fun. Men and women are different, and thank heavens for that. I appreciate my wife and women friends for the kindness and concern they possess that is beyond my capability. However, I'm a guy and some things must be done the guy way. I want someone to make fun of my writing when it sucks and be mean about it. Women are careful about hurting feelings. I want someone to admit they failed to write what they were supposed to write and made offensive doodles on their paper instead, and then share the handiwork. You can't share offensive doodles with women in your class - it's bad form and could get you sued. I need and want an honest opinion on whether or not something is good from someone who doesn't give a flying rat's a$$ about my feelings. When I get a compliment from my golf buddy I know it's legit because he is looking for a chance to ask me if my husband also plays golf.

These guys exist in Texas, I play golf and talk sports with them all the time. I just wish some of them were reading novels and trying to write their own.