Saturday, January 29, 2011

Books I Love- Every Last One | Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Today I finished reading the second of two books I so thoroughly enjoyed I am compelled to write about them even though I’m concerned that my writing skills are not up to the task of accurately conveying my feelings. How can someone who is not a great writer write about great writers and their work without diminishing it? In case I completely blow it in the next paragraphs know this: wonderful books, must read.

The first is Anna Quindlen’s latest Every Last One which I finished two weeks ago but lingered in my mind for several days afterward (this is a good thing for me). Not in an ever present way like Sophie’s Choice or Skeletons at the Feast- tortured and haunted but something quieter. Something so understated that you’re reminded of the book in your everyday life.

I am bothered because I think I ought to know an author like this, not because she was a columnist for almost a decade- not a genre I read- but because I was so thoroughly taken in by this book. If you read dust jackets (as I do) then you know before the first page that there is going to be a life changing act of violence in the main character’s life. And yet you are so completely pulled into the complex everydayness of this family’s life that you are shocked when it happens. It takes a certain gift to be able to misdirect your attention so thoroughly that even though you think you know what’s going to happen you’re mistaken.

But even that talent is not where this books shines. It’s in her portrayal of life after the fact and its quietude, desperation and new normalcy. This is what sticks with me for days afterward making me stop and think about what I may have forgotten when there is nothing.

The second book is The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. I finished it this morning and had to reread the final line before putting my hands over my closed eyes for a few minutes to absorb it.

This is another book that, on the surface, is about family life and how, despite what we might like to believe, there is no such thing as normal. In this case Rose can taste the emotions of the people who have prepared her food down to knowing whether the potatoes came from Idaho or Illinois and the cook really wanted to be an actor.

With a premise like this there is the potential to swerve into the freak show aspects of what could ensue from such a gift. Bender does not and instead we follow a young girl trying to understand life much in the same way each of us does only burdened with a talent she neither sought nor wants.

Ultimately what I love most about this book is that it is so beautifully about what lies beneath the surface. That we may only ever know a small portion of a person or life, even in our own family, and that strange things are all around us.    

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Parenting at the Library

This goes out to all those people who for one reason or another (vanity, continuation of the family or the species, need for a ‘mini-me’, too cheap for birth control) decide to procreate. Some of you seem to understand the basic rules of the game but an increasing number of you do not.

For instance one of the cardinal rules of being a mother is that unless you live in a tax bracket that means you have fulltime staff and never actually have to be alone with your spawn you are on call 24/7. From the moment that squalling slippery creature exits your womb until they enter first grade you have no rights or access to any of the following: alone time, me time, quiet time, reading time, or any daytime activity with female friends. 

Given that this is such a basic tenet of motherhood you can understand my agitation as I worked at my local library today and witnessed a fake Uggs wearing, acrylic nail mother who parked herself in the reading room with her adorable 3 year old son after grabbing the latest issues of People, US Weekly and Star. At first I didn’t pay much attention because the tot (in a cute knit ear flap cap) was so good, sitting quietly on the chair opposite his mother but after 30 minutes I was seething. The most interaction this stupid cow had with her child was to say ‘sshhh’ every time he quietly said Mommy. He behaved better than most adults would have in the situation, doing no more than giggling, laying on the floor and waving at me when I smiled at him (and so what if I was flipping off his mother behind her back- he doesn’t know what I meant). Only when she had read each magazine cover to cover did she finally gather him up and leave- of course without bothering to put the magazines back because apparently alphabetization is an advanced brain skill she did not possess.

For those of you not aware (I’ll rant on you later) libraries come equipped with children’s rooms chock full of books, puzzles, games, and toys; all kinds of things to engage their tiny minds and also allow their mothers to park their fat asses and read trashy magazines. You don’t even have to play with him but why not at least give him an opportunity to learn and have fun? I felt so bad that I wanted to go over to him with a book on trains but then I would have been the bad guy impugning her parenting skills. So I did nothing and that poor critter probably lost 10 IQ points that morning and learned nothing more than how to shift his weight from one foot to the other.

If you expected me to go off on brats then I guess I did- the adult kind. I’d like to believe that this selfish fool will get hers some day but more likely the rest of us will end up enduring the acting out tantrums and mind bogglingly bad behavior of a once good little boy.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Killing Time

That title is a bit more aggressive than necessary. It also connotes enough sloth to appear unflattering. So, what I mean is RESEARCH. This is what I do to help me produce more amusing, relevant, charming, controversial, and hopefully some day, lucrative posts. Hhhmmmm…..I just accidentally scrolled down and saw my post on Noodle Café and am now convinced I’ll die if I don’t get some spicy seafood stew and fried rice noodle rolls. Damn it!
OK, husband said no way in hell are we driving to Newport for food so where was I? Ah, doing research. When the creative well runs dry I turn to people from whom it feels as if being creative is like converting oxygen to carbon dioxide- completely natural and without effort. Rationally I know this is not true and the creative process is an onerous one for anyone (who said 90% of it is just planting your ass in a chair?). Here are two places I go, sometimes for hours, when I need inspiration.

Allie has recently moved to Bend, OR from Montana and she is one more of the ‘cool’ quirky people who reside in this state as opposed to those who are men trying to be women but are still men but are having babies kind of quirky. When I read the post below it was one of those laugh until you cry moments which are few and far between the older you get. Now that I follow her blog I’m pretty sure we would be best friends if we ever met. Or if I showed up on her doorstep to say hi and welcome to Oregon. Have I mentioned that I’m a bit lonely now that I don’t even have work friends to hang around with?

God of Cake
Anyway this is one twisted chick and I mean that as the highest compliment possible. Scroll through her archives and read at random (try Dogs don’t understand basic concepts like moving) and you will be amused for hours. But that’s because you’re not creative- for me it is research.

Maria Bamford
Somehow I reached my mid-forties without knowing about Maria Bamford. That may have been because I lost touch for almost 10 years with one of my oldest friends in Atlanta. Amy is exactly the type to know about Maria Bamford so it is not surprising that shortly after we reconnected (via Facebook where even crazy old friends can find you if they know how to type) she wanted to share the bounty with me. Her way of indicating that she thought I might find Maria’s humor funny was to post on my FB wall the words MARIA BAMFORD over and over for the maximum status update characters. When I called to gently question her about this (as in “Are you off your meds?”) she said nothing more than “she’s on youtube, she is the funniest damn thing ever and you must watch her right now”. When I pointed out that I was at work and watching youtube was not the same thing as dancing around to the Black Eyed Peas she began yelling “Maria Bamford” over and over until I was forced to hang up. Thanks to the marvel of caller id every time I called her after that she did the same thing.
I have the type of personality that doesn’t respond well to coercion- unless it involves a hot guy, chocolate, or booze- so this shouldn’t have worked but finally IN THE NAME OF RESEARCH I went to youtube and now I too just want to force everyone to watch Maria Bamford- and not just in this year’s Target Christmas commercials which are all right but too short. There are at least 15 episodes of her youtube show so that will hold you for a good hour and half. Then you can start all over again.

I also know why Amy and I both love her- like Allie she is very likely one of these women who seem quite nice, polite, and intelligent but inside are flying a freak flag of epic proportions with a highly skewed quick sense of humor that can leave most people thinking WTF? And like Allie, I’m pretty sure we would be best friends if we ever met.
So those are two of my go-to creative resources which I have selflessly shared with you and you could now use to become wildly successful while I languish in the minor leagues. If you have a person place or thing you think can stimulate a dried up brain let me know. Unless it's Amy reading this and then I mean it- I am NOT interested in Hoarders!!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Golden Globes

My take:

  1. Angelina Jolie has NO sense of humor (not a surprise)
  2. Brad Pitt chews gum with his mouth open (surprise)
  3. Softer hair with waves and a lovely rich toned dress really worked for Tina Fey
  4. Helen Mirren managed, once again, to pull off and glamorous AND age appropriate
  5. Despite my complete aversion to the movie I do agree with Natalie's Portman's win for Black Swan- she did an amazing job in a difficult role
  6. Claire Danes rocked color and I loved her Calvin Klein (classic!) dress 
  7. God bless Helena Bonham Carter for continuing to do wear what she wants to wear. After this long I have to respect her for it. More importantly, she is a wonderful actress.
Thoughts from any other armchair fashionistas?


Monday, January 17, 2011

Seis Cuerdas

In early December we were in LA for my company's Christmas party. You know, the one where apparently everyone but me knew my position was going to be eliminated the following week (I'm not bitter I just thought some context might help). Because it was warm and sunny we spent the afternoon before the party walking along the Santa Monica Promenade.

Here's where it gets interesting. I'm not a huge music person. I don't listen to the radio or own an ipod or any kind of mp3 player. I'm not even sure what one is. However, when I do hear something I like (no matter how far behind the trend I may be) I fixate on it- kind of like I Gotta a Feeling by the Black Eyed Peas to which I was caught dancing around my office but which I am sure had nothing to do with my not being taken seriously in a research capacity.

Where was I? Oh, strolling the Promenade and people watching when we came across these two guys playing the guitar as I have never heard before. I was utterly mesmerized, to the point of stopping while everyone else moved on. I'm not a guitar aficionado but this is absolutely amazing- a crazy good mix of classical and rock. I could hardly breathe because it felt like it would get in the way of listening. It's this kind of talent I have trouble wrapping my mind around because I could no more do it than breathe underwater (unless I'm asleep and then I can not only breathe underwater I can fly).

Here's a sample from youtube. It's homemade so lacks in quality but is still enough to give you an idea of the talent these two possess. And the happy ending to my story? My DH bought a bunch of their songs on itunes and gave me a CD for Christmas. My favorite present!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Noodle Cafe

I’ve covered a few topics in the last two months but have woefully neglected one of my true loves and the sort of thing I should be opining about more often- good food.

What I’m obsessing about right now is a small restaurant in Newport, Oregon called Noodle Café. We were in Newport for 3 days over the holidays and ate lunch there every day but Sunday (they aren’t open for lunch on Sunday).

Let me summarize in case you're too ADHD to read the details: I am STILL thinking about this food 3 weeks later and rationalizing that 4 hours is not too far to drive for lunch.

A key piece of information before I get to food specifics- all of the noodles are made fresh in-house which is critical. I’m not stating this categorically (and please feel to contradict me!) but I have yet to find an Asian restaurant in Portland that makes its own noodles. It is a dying art mostly because it is so labor intensive and difficult to do well. Lisa Cheng and her brother, Han are masters.

Now to the good stuff. Perfectly pan fried pork dumplings, not too greasy with just the right amount of pork inside. Soba noodle soup, with a clear beef broth that is both rich and filling and perfectly complements the lightness of the noodles and the zing of the thinly sliced scallions. Crab and corn soup (photo below), a light delicate broth with whole corn and large pieces of fresh crab. Served egg drop style with a lovely froth of egg white stirred throughout.
Pho with ribeye steak slices and meatballs- light rice noodles, bean sprouts and as much or little spicy heat as you want. DH did everything but lick the bowl. Shao mai (photo below), lovely little steamed packets of shrimp.

Finally, in a paragraph of its own, fried rice noodle buns. I have never heard of anything like this and have never seen them. Again, if I’m mistaken and everyone makes these tell me where you get them because I will move there. This is the same finely milled rice flour used for the noodles but it is shaped into a small roll and deep fried. The dough is so light and has the most delicately sweet flavor that, meshed with the thin crispy exterior, it is an almost perfect food. The only reason it is not is because it does not travel which I know because I attempted to purchase a dozen to take home and reheat. Lisa kindly told me she would not recommend that even though it meant losing a sale. In fact, she is so kind she gave me one on the house (my crying and refusal to leave might have had something to do with that).

There you have it. This restaurant has it all- a charming atmosphere, friendly and knowledgable owners (Lisa is also the waitress), and food that is well portioned, very reasonably priced, made with care and mouth wateringly delicious. Writing about it has been a selfless act on my part because it has induced extreme hunger pangs and longing for something I can't have but that's the kind of person I am. You're welcome.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Black Swan

Blood, more blood, stabbing and scratching- with glass, nail files, one's own fingernails, and a fair amount of sex. That about sums it up. 

If Blood Swan was a look into the psychological complexities behind the competition that exists among prima ballerinas then this movie failed utterly for me. As a reasonably intelligent adult I don't need any of the above components to get that point across. A 13 year old boy or a horror film buff might have appreciated Aronofsky's viewpoint but for me, nuance is much more interesting than being mentally bludgeoned. In fact, using such physical manifestations of inner turmoil feels like a real cop-out.

I get that I'm in the minority based on the number of nominations and stellar reviews but when the movie ended I laughed. I was that over it. The guy next to me did too so we're the only two people in America who missed the point of this movie completely. Lots of good dancing though.

Disclaimer: Obviously I'm not a movie critic nor do I claim to be. I just watch a hell of a lot of movies.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


Anyone else have a spouse/partner/companion who seems to take an almost perverse pleasure in parking only in the spot furthest from the store's entrance? Every time? Even if the entire front row is available? 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Top 5 favorite holiday treats

Before I go back to including foods other than sugar into my food pyramid I wanted to take a moment and reflect on the sweets that most say holidays (and later guilt and self loathing) to me.

1. Homemade caramels. My mother has been making these soft chewy luscious deligths since I was a little girl. Bite size caramel on top and crushed walnuts on the bottom individually wrapped in wax paper twists. Two words: labor intensive. The making of the caramel requires endless stirring and checking of the mixture because too long and you have a solid sheet of inedible sugar- unless you want to lick it (which I have done but with limited success). Then there is the cutting and wrapping. Each wax paper square must be the exact same size as the other and requires a complicated tuck, fold and twist to perfectly encapsulate the caramel. If this was your task there was no eating allowed and Mom would usually end up sitting with you to police the operation (mostly because my brother has no self control- unlike me). Although I put these first on my list they are sadly a thing of the past as she no longer makes them and none of her slacker children have taken up the tradition. Instead we just call her and whine about it.
BREAKING NEWS: Just picked up the mail and my dear sweet mother made me a box of caramels. 2011 is shaping up to be a banner year.

2. Almond Crescents. There are at least 30 names for these things but once again Mom prevails as I have never tasted any as good as hers. As far as I know the recipe is 2 pounds of butter, crushed almonds and powdered sugar. Melt in your mouth sugary rich goodness. This one I could master but again inertia rules so I shamelessly call my mother and mention the drek I recently ate that someone has tried to pass off as her cookies but she has yet to take the bait. 

3. Peppermint Bark. There are plenty of store made brands out there but my sister-in-law makes this amazing recipe with chocolate graham crackers turned into a crunchy crust with caramel, chocolate chips melted on top and crushed peppermint candies on top of that. Then you can either break it up into pieces and serve it to guests or break it in half and eat it until you're queasy. 

4. Frosted sugar cookies. The classic Christmas treat and, in this case, one that I actually make myself. And none of that Pillsbury roll out dough shit. From scratch cut into Santas, reindeer and bells. Decorated with yummy frosting that is nothing more than powdered sugar and milk and potentially carcinogenic food coloring. LOVE them and next year I will actually make them again.

5. Rice Pudding. A bit esoteric but if you have ever been to Lincoln restaurant in Portland you will know why it makes my list. It is a warm creamy bowl of happiness- often with a lovely surprise like dried cranberries and almonds stirred in. The only thing wrong with it is that it is not always on the menu. My rice-pudding-whore friend Michael has gone so far as to get the chef's husband's business card (he's the charming front of house) but rather then parlaying that into a guarantee of rice pudding the last time we were there he wussed out. Tragic. Still a dessert that reigns supreme in part due to its elusiveness.

So now you know my top 5 holiday sweets- what are yours?

Riddle me this

If sleep is supposed to be the ultimate source of rejuvanation and relaxation then why do I wake frowning, hands and jaw clenched?
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