Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lamb Ragu

Best Buddy Adam
For February, I've been working on a blog challenge to improve the site.

Most of this has been behind the scenes, but one of the out front things I've worked on is emptying out my queue of post ideas that I'm really going to get to soon if I just have the time.

And so, I'll conclude the month with the post I've been holding onto the longest.
Best Buddy Adam is a fantastic cook. No, really, check him out.

When he came to visit a few months ago, he cooked a lamb ragu made almost entirely with ingredients from our local Farmer's Market. Adam loves his vegetables, and with several local farms around, he was (understandably) excited.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review: Heck by Zander Cannon

The good folks at Top Shelf Comix sent me an advanced galley of Zander Cannon's Heck, which I'll try to review without too many puns. The following phrases have been purged from this review during editing: hell of an adventure, many layered exploration, lingers like hell.

Heck is Cannon's first graphic novel (though he's a Harvey Award nominee for The Replacement God and Eisner Award winner, with Alan Moore and Gene Ha, for Top Ten). He also worked in a Prairie Home Companion reference into his bio.

The plot is straight-forward: Hector "Heck" Hammarskjรถld is the estranged son of a sorcerer, who finds a gateway to hell in dad's basement, then decides to take up the adventuring life, acting as an abyssal currier service for grieving mortals who want to ask one last question of the dead.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Three Books Before In Search of Lost Time

My copy of In Search of Lost Time has arrived (objective numero uno on my 30 Before 30), but before I dive into Proust, I've got three books I'm reading first:

Saturday, February 23, 2013

3 Ways to Read Science Fiction and Fantasy

I'm nearly through Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood, and I'm so captivated that I can't help thinking about why we're drawn to science fiction and fantasy.

In college, I had a writing professor who basically forbade us from writing sci-fi/ fantasy. His logic (and as I've grown as a reader and writer, I've come to appreciate it more and more) was that unless we had a story worth telling, it was too easy to try to hide it by dressing it up with the trappings of fantasy. Descriptions of elves and space ships have their place, so long as they push forward a story that couldn't be told any other way.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Making Pasta

Goal #4 for my 30 Before 30 project was to use the pasta maker attachment that Carol and I received from my Uncle David and his family for our wedding. A big tradition in my family is making ravioli at holiday time, and while I've helped my mother a couple times, I've never been in charge of the project.

So last Tuesday, since Carol had the day off from work, I took the day off too. It was a fun way to replace some of the Saturdays and weekday evenings we don't get to spend together because of our work schedule.

The first step was to make the dough, divide it into balls and let it sit for an hour.

 We basically just followed the recipe from The Joy of Cooking, but we mixed in some semolina in with the regular flour.

Next we flattened the dough balls by hand and ran them through the KitchenAid over and over, each time making the opening on the roller a little smaller.

Sometimes Carol likes to surprise me with the camera. I do not, generally, find this amusing.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

I think of Ernest Hemingway and Steinbeck together. Both are writers of the Depression, and both are what I'd call double-fisted men. Their characters are men at war with the world around them; the world often wins.

Neither writes of women with considerable depth, and whether that's a flaw of their vision (not realizing that their women aren't equal to their men) or whether that's a strategic choice (realizing that they don't write well about women, and so choosing not to), is a matter I'm open to debating.

But Hemingway men and Steinbeck men fight opposite wars. Hemingway men live alone, fight alone, and die nobly alone. When Robert Jordan's leg is broken in For Whom the Bell Tolls, when Jake continuously pursues Brett in The Sun Also Rises, when Santiago battles the great fish despite the treachery of his left hand in The Old Man and the Sea, each continues to fight to show the indifferent universe what a man can endure.

Steinbeck men fight for each other, against the systems of the wider world. This seems to me to be a truer thing.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Board Games I Love: Ticket to Ride

I really didn't think I'd love Ticket to Ride. We bought it, played it a couple times, and then we tossed it in the back of the closet because it didn't do enough the things we love in games: interaction and competition.

Ticket to Ride is a race game: you have a handful of secret tasks to complete by traveling from point A to point B. Since you don't want everyone to know where you're trying to go (so they don't snatch up all the tracks that provide an easy way to get there) it's a game of silently collecting the cards you need to complete your tracks.

In silence, it is very different from my favorite games. In Settlers of Catan, you're free to trade resources, so there's a natural conversation around what different players need and what they must mean they're trying to achieve. Strategic games like Samurai Swords or Risk naturally involve a fair amount of diplomacy, with all the intrinsic deals, pleas and betrayals. Both kinds of conversation lend an urgency to every turn.

Ticket to Ride is helped by the fact that each turn is phenomenally short: you may draw cards to build with or build, never both. So, in theory, you make your plans while everyone else takes their turn.

As we've played (and re-played) I've come to appreciate how silence adds a different sort of tension. The waiting and not knowing compounds the stress of having your way blocked and having to scramble for alternate routes, especially in the 4 or 5 player version.

Are there games you've played you came to love after giving them a second chance?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

American Pastoral

Philip Roth had received a lot of attention since he announced his retirement. What was especially interesting to me was how he decided to retire: by reading nearly his entire oeuvre in reverse chronological order.

And when he was done, he decided that one of his favorite books is one of my favorites too: American Pastoral.

The plot is deceptively simple: there is a man who was the golden boy of his hometown; the man marries his high school sweetheart, the prom queen, and they have a daughter; in the midst of the 1960's, the daughter gets involved with the Weathermen and blows up a post office; things fall apart.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Sound and the Fury

How often do you put off reading a book because it is intimidating? You've been told it's great so often that you find yourself "saving" it for when you're ready.

According to The Modern Library, The Sound and the Fury is the best book of the 20th century that I've never tried to read. So I read it, and I wonder why I felt intimidated for so long.

I have been told that the first chapter of The Sound and the Fury is one of the most difficult pieces of literature ever produced. As a stream-of-consciousness tour-de-force, the fist chapter ranks with Molly Bloom's 80 page sentence in Ulysses and Lily Briscoe's meditations on art in To the Lighthouse.

Careening through the thoughts of a thirty year-old with no sense of time was not easy to read, don't get me wrong. But isn't it fun to be disoriented at the beginning of a book, and then slowly to right yourself? The clues are there, most of them repeated enough times that they were recognizable when they surface in later chapters, restored to their chronological place. It wasn't all that different from watching a movie like Memento or Inception. Coast it out and pay attention; it'll all come together.

Maybe I just love puzzles too much. Because The Sound and the Fury presented such a spectacular little puzzle that when I finished the book, the first thing I wanted to do was pick it up again and re-read that first chapter.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

DIY Chess Board Table

My little table
I didn't grow up in an especially "handy" home. My father was a decent fixer of toys, and in a summer when I was little and he was out of work he built a fort for my brother and I that stood beside our house for the next 20 years.

But in terms of passing on skills, I learned most of what I know in theatre shops (working with wood) or in the Boy Scouts (ropes, knots and catapult building). I'd like to learn more.

So in an effort to teach myself a little more, I built a chess board table, basically by following directions I found here and here. And while I still have to stain and polyurethane it (it's just been too cold), the project is done. It was never expected to be a beautiful thing, but a piece of furniture I can leave on our back porch, and play on with friends in the summer time.

Things I wish I'd known at the start:
1) I should have sanded the strips before I cut them. I cut the boards into strips, and then glued and clamped the strips together to cross-cut into squares. If I'd sanded the boards while they were strips, I probably could have saved myself some time at the end.

2) I wish I'd allowed an inch of saw-loss. I measured and marked my strips to cut into 1.5" squares, but I didn't leave any extra. By the time I ran the saw over each strip 8 times, I was left with little rectangles instead of little squares. It's hardly noticeable on any given piece, but the board is a full in longer than it is wide. Whoops!

3) Figure out a better way to build a shelf. You can see my little shelf in the picture; I figured it would give me a place to leave a set or put down captured pieces. It's just a piece of plywood resting on dowels I put in my 2x4 legs. If I'd thought it through a little more, I probably would have put a groove in the legs to slide the shelf into place.

In its way, the project was a success. And it's given me the confidence to tackle a much bigger project- building a tv stand/ entertainment cabinet for our spare room that'll hide the video game controllers and DVDs (#19 on the list). There's only one way to learn...

Saturday, February 2, 2013

30 Before 30: #27 Improve the Blog Layout

I'm not quite 100% with #27, but we've taken some big steps forward.

I put up the new banner and moved into the two column layout a few days ago. This morning I finished the top nav, including a little re-write of the base code so that Blogger's silly "You're only view posts tagged x" message won't pop up anymore on the Books & Reviews or 30 Before 30.

I love the widget in the sidebar that pulls the book covers straight from my LibraryThing account, though I kind of wish I could make it focus on books I've tagged, rather than any book I've reviewed. But that's work that can be done later.

Next up: culling the labels!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Happy Friday

The Stray Birds at World Cafe Live

Last night, I made the first of my three trips to Philadelphia (#26), to hear the Stray Birds at World Cafe Live.

I could wax rhapsodic about the quality of the sound, primarily of Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven's vocals (bassist Charles Muench held back due to a cold). de Vitry and Craven switched instruments freely, fiddle to banjo and fiddle to guitar, respectively. They played a wide range of music, performing with a texture of volume and urgency that doesn't come across as nuanced in their recordings.

To me, one of the real treats was the focus on music. Several shows I've been to, especially folk singers in intimate settings like the World Cafe, are as much story-time as concert. Sometimes that's fine, and sometimes not. The Stray Bird's focus on sound was refreshing.