Saturday, September 29, 2007

Books

My friend, Margaret Fisk, has a blog she occasionally posts in. She set up a mailing list so people who are interested can read it when she posts and not be frustrated by how long it is in between posts. Anyway, her most recent post, which you can read at Stray Thoughts of Margaret Fisk, is about her reading list. She's asking for help in choosing what she should read next. I wasn't too helpful, having only read one of the books on her list.

But, it led me to writing about what I'm reading now. That got to be really long, so I decided to post it here. I'm reading Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series. I read Dime Store Magic and Industrial Magic several years ago. Due to our financial situation, I only recently acquired the remaining books that are out in paperback--Bitten, Stolen, Haunted, and Broken. She has one more out, No Humans Involved, but it's hardcover, so I have to wait for the mass market version before I can read that one.

What makes this all interesting is how I don't like werewolves, vampires, etc., etc., etc. Really, I don't. Or--maybe--I didn't? I love these books. I can't put them down. I'm reading when I should be doing something else. A friend, knowing my taste, said I probably wouldn't like the werewolf books. Most likely because of the violence. But the violence made so much sense with the world she created and the characters in the world, that it wasn't a problem. I probably would have liked them less if the violence wasn't in there because it would have felt like she'd held back from her true imagination.

And then there's Buffy. I refused to watch it when it was on. I didn't get it, and I understand why. I didn't see it from the beginning. I came into a random episode and had no clue what was going on. Then my son shoved it into my hands and made me watch season one. I was hooked. I've watched it all the way through three times since then. He mentioned he and his wife are watching them again and it's made me feel like it's time to go for a fourth go-round, at least with my favorite episodes.

And then there's Lynn Viehl's Darkyn series. I love her writing, but I'm way behind her output. I have at least one StarDoc and two Darkyn books on my shelf. I mention them, though, because the Darkyn are her version of the vampire myth and I love it.

So, what's the point of this seemingly rambling post? I learned, yet again, not to discount a genre, a type of book, or other any general category, just because I've had one or two bad experiences with it. What makes a good story is the combination of writer and subject matter. Different writers will deal with the same subject in totally unique ways. So, while Laurel K. Hamilton or Anne Rice's take on vampires don't thrill me, Kelley Armstrong and Lynn Viehl's do.

I think, in general, people do themselves a disservice when they stick to only one genre, or only a few favorite authors. One thing I used to do, that I don't do as much anymore, is pull books off the bookshelves at random and see if they look interesting. That's how I found a lot of the authors that are now my favorites. But when the money got tighter and tighter, I started sticking to trying to keep up with my favorite writer's books. I think I want to alternate or something. I think it's important for a reader to branch out. And even more important for me, as a writer, to go beyond what I usually read and am most comfortable with.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Music

We had such a great musical day on Sunday. Dr. David Cheriwen, is a Cantor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Minneapolis and conductor of the National Lutheran Choir. He visited one of our local Methodist churches for a Hymn Festival/Concert. The choir members of the local churches were invited, so Paul and I took advantage. It was amazing.

He did mini organ solos to introduce each hymn. Then we sang the hymns. In between, members of the church read reflections on living a godly life. It was set up kind of like an old-fashioned English lessons and carols service. We brought the house down with Every Time I Feel the Spirit. It was so much fun.

Then on Sunday night, we were invited to join one of our fellow choir members and her husband for a piano concert hosted by the local Steinway Society. The pianist was Joyce Yang, 2005 Silver Medalist in the Van Cliburn competition. It was amazing. I'm always astounded by excellent pianists, probably because I can't even come close to doing what they do. I can play the notes, in correct rhythm, if the piece is simple enough. But I was never taught good technique, so, for example, I don't know how to bring out one line, with the rest as accompaniment.

I love days like that. They're definitely worth writing about.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Man, Am I Out-of-date, or What?

I was tooling around the web, looking at blogs I enjoy. I opened up Tambo's blog, Tamboblog, and saw her moon phase widget. I remembered that I used to have it on my blog and I liked it. So I thought I'd just pick it up and put it on again. No way! They've changed things so much that I'm reading the code and it's gibberish. I can see I'm going to have to learn advanced HTML all over again. Things change so fast in the online world, but I'm looking forward to challenging myself to put stuff back on my blog. I'll figure it out, but it's going to take a bit more time than I have right now, as I have to go make dinner and get to choir rehearsal. It just seemed weird to me that something that was so easy a couple of years ago has become harder, just because I haven't looked at it for so long. Thought I'd write about it, but I think this is going to be "Out-of-date--Part One". The idea is sticking in my brain, tickling it, saying that there's more to be said here--more general stuff, as opposed to specifically about the blog. So, I'm going to think on it and see what pops out--later.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Quickie Dinner

I've unpacked my cookbooks since we moved. I'm enjoying making a lot of old favorite recipes. This one is NOT low-fat, low-calorie or healthy, according to current nutritional standards. It's worth making for the occasional splurge. Plus, I don't eat a lot of it at one time. And I pair it with good, healthy stuff. It's a pasta sauce that's made by infusing cream with lemon zest and crushed red pepper flakes. I serve it over those crab & shrime ravioli you can get at Costco. I eat about 3 ravioli, because they're really filling. You don't need a lot of sauce for three ravioli, so I cut the recipe in half. Next time, I'm going to make a quarter recipe, which should still be plenty of sauce for that amount of ravioli.

Here's the recipe--Spicy Lemon Pasta Sauce (based on a recipe from The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces by Diane Seed)

The sauce:

1-2 cloves of garlic, finely minced. Use however much makes it taste the way you like it. Judge by the size of the cloves, as well as the amount. I've seen large garlic cloves that are easily as much garlic as two small cloves.

1 tablespoon of butter

1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes. You can use 1/4 teaspoon, if you like it spicy, like I do.

The zest of one lemon. You can zest the lemon with a zester and leave it in strings or mince it, depending on your tolerance for eating cooked lemon peel. Be sure not to get any of the bitter white pith that's just under the skin of the lemon. Save a little zest to sprinkle over the top after it's done.

1 cup whipping cream. (I've tried several different ways to make lower fat dairy products work, but they tend to burn too easily.)

Salt, to taste.

Melt the butter. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper flakes. Saute briefly, just to get the oils out for a stronger flavor. You shouldn't cook them longer than a minute and the garlic shouldn't get darker than golden brown or it starts to taste bitter. Pour in the cream and add the lemon zest. Turn the heat down. Watch it carefully to make sure it doesn't boil above a simmer or it will tend to boil over. Stir it occasionally as it cooks. It takes about 45-50 minutes to thicken and get a good flavor. If it gets too thick, stir in a bit more cream. Just before serving, taste it. I usually end up adding a tiny pinch of salt. Literally a pinch--I take my fingers and pick it up between my index finger and thumb because that helps me keep from putting too much in. This doesn't need very much and it's easy to shake too much from a salt shaker.

6 crab and shrimp ravioli. Cook according to package directions. Time them to be done when the sauce is finished. Drain. Put on a plate and drizzle the sauce over the ravioli.

I like to garnish this dish with snipped chives or Italian parsley, in addition to the reserved lemon zest, just to give the dish some color. All that white pasta and lemon yellow sauce can be kind of boring-looking on the plate.

Since this dish is so rich, I serve it with a very simple salad, like mixed greens with a bit of balsamic and olive oil. It's summer and there are good tomatoes around, so I might toss in some tomato, to give it more color. Grilled veggies would also be good. Or, if you don't want any additional fat in the meal, steamed asparagus is wonderful with this.

Mangia!

Hmmm. . . it just occurred to me that I could try making the infusion with stock. Thicken it with a cornstarch slurry. Then put in a tablespoon of creme fraiche to give it the proper texture and dairy flavor. I'll try that next time and let you all know whether it works. I'm always trying to figure out ways to keep the flavor and texture of my food, but make it as healthy as possible for everyday meals. Come holidays or special occasions, I splurge. A Weight Watcher leader once said that we could have ten meals a year to eat what we wanted. Her point was that if you splurge every day, it's not special and it makes you fat. Saving it for truly special occasions makes it truly special and doesn't make you fat. So, this is one example of my love-hate relationship with weight, food, good nutrition, and so on.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Been Reading

This has been interesting. I've been reading a lot more lately. I'd forgotten what a pleasure just reading to enjoy a story is. So often, when a person starts writing, especially writing fiction, you start reading to anlyze the book. What works. What doesn't. Or worse, to critique a book--the writer should have done this or that and it would have been better.

But I've been just reading. No analysis. No critique. Just enjoying the story. Getting lost in it. Letting it become my world for a few hours. And it's wonderful. I heartily recommend any writer who has forgotten what it was about books that got them writing in the first place relearn reading for pleasure. Turn off the editor and just enjoy.

The ironic thing is reading for enjoyment makes my fingers itch to be writing my own stuff. My brain starts thinking of characters and what's going on with their lives. I start seeing the world around me from their perspective, not mine. A sure sign storytelling is imminent.

That reaction doesn't happen when I analyze or critique a book. It's probably because when I'm analyzing or critiquing, it's too similar to parts of the writing process. It feels too much like working on a book, so it pulls me away from my own stories. It also spoils the pleasure of reading the story.

I'm beginning to think that unless I'm looking to learn a specific technique or studying something a particular writer does especially well, I should analyze and critique my own stuff. And read the books I buy strictly for pleasure. After all, I bought them because I thought they'd have a good story inside. If I'm looking for how to write stories or what could be better, I'm missing that good story.

Friday, September 14, 2007

April

April slipped by with nary a post from me. In June, our church had a Sunday dedicated to reports of our trip to New Orleans, which took place in April. I had started this post, but never posted it. Instead, I turned it into my contribution to that Sunday service. Months later, I'm checking out my blog, which I'd like to resurrect and found the original draft of this essay. I decided to finish and post it. Maybe I'll even manage to keep my promise to myself to start posting regularly again.

I'm not sure how to relate what happened in April. First there was the Easter season, with lots of extra music, rehearsals, etc. That was wonderful. As a musician, I love the big religous holidays because there's so much great music written for them.

Then, right after Easter, we went to New Orleans. Easter is a season of contrasts--the rejoicing of Palm Sunday, followed by the sobering week before the crucifixion, followed by more rejoicing as we Christians celebrate the resurrection. New Orleans is a study in contrasts, too. I think that's the main impression I brought back from there.

There's the desolate neighborhoods with brick shells that used to be houses next to empty concrete slabs where the house was completely destroyed. Some lots have grass and nothing else left. No trees, flowers, nothing but the grasses that are the first things to start to grow back. Contrast that with the neigborhoods we drove through after taking the ferry across the Mississippi. They hadn't been touched. They looked like middle-class and upper middle-class neighborhoods anywhere. They were lush with the greenery that grows rampant in the area. There were no boarded up, empty stores. You could find a grocery store to go to.

Yet, there was a spirit of hope, too. Some neighborhoods had the same destruction, but every so often, you'd see a renovated home with people living there. It takes a lot of courage to go back and live in your house. Think about what it must be like to be the only people on your street with a home. Every time you leave or come back to your house, you drive by reminders of those who may never be able to come back. It wasn't just the homes and stuff they lost. It was family, friends, their community.

We went with members of our church. We spent a day and a half painting the sanctuary and new preschool classrooms of Gethsemane Lutheran. We painted part of the small dormitory. People who come from all over the country to help will be able to stay there. We planted new landscaping, which helped make the church look a bit less desolate.

We sang. Most of the people were choir members. We were part of a Musicale put on at Grace Lutheran to help raise funds to repair their pipe organ. Someone took two of the destroyed wooden organ pipes and made a cross for them. It sits in the narthex and is a testament to their resilience. They have a map of where people have come to help. People from all over the country are represented on that map.

We sang again. Our choir director is also a harpsichordist. She accompanied us on a harpsichord built by the organist of Grace Lutheran. St. Mark's escaped the devastation of Katrina, but its members did not. Yet there they were, diminished in number, but huge in spirit, helping each other recover from what they'd experienced.

We ate. There's a contrast for you. The members of Grace cooked dinner for us. It was amazing, topped off with that irresistible Southern guarantee to cause tooth decay, homemade pralines. On Sunday, our council president directed a bunch of us in a very California-style brunch. Great food, there, too. I keep forgetting to email her and ask for the recipes.

But it wasn't all work. We had time to walk around the French Quarter. Somehow, a small part of me felt a bit guilty playing when there was so much work to be done. Yet, playing is as important as work. Another contrast, but one we often forget in our supercharged Silicon Valley life. It's different in New Orleans. They have a different pace of life. If the kitchen crew isn't ready, you wait for them. If that means church is a half hour late, you just have more time to chat with everyone. And the pastor simply cuts bits of the service so it doesn't run over too long. Pastor Lisa got a bit carried away with the cuts--she almost forgot that all-important ritual--passing the offering plate. If your waitress needs to tell her story, a coworker grabs the heavy tray and lets her talk. Out here, she'd probably get fired for chatting so long with the customers.

It was the French Quarter Festival, an annual street festival they have every year. We spent some time listening to the music. But somehow, we managed to miss the jazz and get the pop stuff. Yet, on the streets, the street musicians sang and played the jazz New Orleans is famous for. You can't walk through that part of town without hearing music.

We went to the famous Cafe du Monde for beignets. Do not go to New Orleans without having some. Diets be damned. They're worth every calorie and it's open 24 hours so you can't say you couldn't find the time. As we walked back to the hotel to get ready to leave, an old guy started playing Amazing Grace on his trumpet. It was gorgeous and I couldn't help but sing along. He started singing a capella after playing one verse on the trumpet. I sang softly as we walked past. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up sign. It was a fitting end to the trip, somehow.

Because the ultimate contrast for me was that we went to help, yet they helped me more. They had every reason to whine about their lives. They had every reason to be angry with God or lose their faith, as many people do when faced with tragedy in their lives. But these people, not just those we met at the various churches, but even people like the waitress I mentioned above, who we met while exploring the rest of New Orleans, had a spirit and faith that humbled me. They put my life, which as many of you know, has been a struggle the past three years, in perspective. And I think their expression of faith helped when, near the end of April, Paul's mom died. They showed me how important it is for people to tell their stories, to share the important things that happen to them. Those stories, full of the richness of spirit they all expressed, are the main thing I bring back in my heart.