"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Love Affair With Books: The Next 10 Books of 2013

I love books.  Real books with pages and ink and spines and jackets that can be removed to (sometimes) reveal more treasure underneath.  I love books with a hands-on intensity, the way some people might love a meatball sub or a really old sweatshirt.

And because I love books the way I do, you really should not loan me yours because soon I will forget the book belongs to you and begin treating it like mine. 

I will write in it—a tiny pencil note in the margin, if you're lucky, something I can erase upon remembering.  (A.R., I am certain you will never find the remnants of the marks I made in your copy of On Writing.) 

I will take it to a Chinese restaurant and spill homestyle tofu delight on page 73 (as I did with L.L.'s copy of Horns, sorry). 

I will leave it on the floor for the cat to use as a hairball-catcher.  (I apologize, E.H., but that issue of The Sun was just not salvageable at all.) 

Or, as in the case of the book that I borrowed from my husband's boss's wife, I will remember that it does not belong to me and that it does in fact belong to an individual who I would like to think well of me, and I will be very extra careful with the well-loved paperback and will go to great lengths to protect it from harm.  Yet still, inexplicably, it will sever the corners of its own front cover mid-flight between Baltimore and Dallas.  I blame the cramped conditions of Spirit Airlines for that one.  (And I ask forgiveness, again, from B.L.)

You are welcomed to borrow books from me, just know that they will come with bent corners and Chinese food stains and photos of my dog tucked inside and notes in the margins that I have forgotten I wrote and which I will later be embarrassed to discover that you read.  Oh, and if you borrow a poetry book, know that I often read those in the bathroom.

But still, my shelves are your shelves.  Borrow away.  (And then give them back, please, Chinese food stains and all.)

What I’ve Been Reading:  The Second Ten Books of 2013

11.  Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, by Alan Eisenstock

In the 1980s, two kids in Mississippi decided to make a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  And they did it.  It took them eight years and they nearly killed themselves in the process, but they did it.  The snakes, the fiery bar scene, the submarine, and yes, the BOULDER.  They did it.  The boys grew up while making this movie; they experienced parent divorces, first kisses, and trips to the emergency room, all while filming their masterpiece.  And the final movie?  It’s awesome.  This book is the story of those boys, their movie, and how all the magic happened.

I saw their movie before reading the book, and I loved them both.  To read my more detailed and very enthusiastic review of the book on Goodreads, click here.

To see a trailer of their movie, click here.

And to see the entire movie, come over and bring some beer or chocolate to share.  I happen to own a DVD of the full film (it was a gift—I asked no questions about how it was obtained) and I would be more than happy to host a screening for interested parties.

12.  The Liberation of Gabriel King, by K.L. Going

This young adult book about the summer of 1976 in Georgia tackles the big issue of racism in a pretty tame and endearing way.  It was a good, quick read, and Going has a real knack for capturing childhood fears.  Her description of Gabriel’s first heart-thumping leap off the high tree branch onto the rope swing above the bullies at the pond (pages 90-93) is spot on.

13.  Writing Down the Bones:  Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg

This book was so good that it turned me into a criminal.  (Click here to read about my crime.)  I highly recommend it to writers, but in this case, I will not loan out my own copy.  I treated the book like a journal as I read it, scrawling all sorts of personal notes and drafts in the margins and blank spaces.  It’s now too intimate to hand over.  Plus, you need your own blank copy to do the same. 

To show you just how helpful this book was to me, watch this short video I made.

14.  The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

The day I bought The Thirteenth Tale, I had been writing for hours at Epoch coffee shop on North Loop, sitting at a table outside that overlooked the parking lot and, beyond, a large field with a few scattered headstones sticking out of the ground in no particular order or arrangement.  A cemetery, no doubt, but an odd one.  From the moment I noticed it, I wanted to take a closer look—it was fenced, but I hoped to find a gate or at least a better view—but I was so caught up in my writing that day that I kept putting off my curiosity until the sun set lower and lower and lower and finally it was the onset of dusk and here I was, the classic vampire hunter in the old movie, just now setting out to visit the graveyard. I'd had all day to do it—it was no one's fault but my own if I got bit.

I found no gate and, darkness being what it was, probably would not have entered at that point even if I had, but I did find a sign:  The Austin State Hospital Cemetery.  (After reading about it online, I know there must be ghosts there.)  When I stopped to peer through the chain-link, I found I was not the only curious soul prowling the park that night.  Two cats, an orange one and a calico, were hanging out inside like they owned the place.  The calico sauntered amongst the tombstones, while the orange tom glared at me from a few feet beyond the fence, his eyes glowing with the reflection of the streetlights. 

The whole scene was a poem, and I tried to capture it in my head as I walked on, not toward my car, but toward the strip of shops down the street a bit, my laptop and all my writing implements strapped snuggly to my back and out of reach.  Still reciting the few lines of verse in my head, I wandered into a place called Monkey Wrench Books. 

I would describe the place as a bookstore if that description did not seem so alien. Although the small store was full of books, when I walked in I felt like I was interrupting something.  The few people in the place stopped to look at me for a moment, seemingly alarmed at my presence.  I briefly wondered if the store was closed, but since the lights were on, the door open, I continued inside.  There were new books and used books and many books on political reform, labor unions, and history, but there were other books too—one whole shelf contained modern texts of random genres, possibly used but seemingly new (in good condition anyway) and all for $1 each.  That's where I found The Thirteenth Tale.  It's title alone seemed appropriate for the odd evening I was having, so I made my choice and was ready to check out and leave. 

There were people moving furniture and talking in low voices and I suddenly felt as if I had stumbled into the middle of a revolutionary plot.  I wanted to get back out again before I discovered what we were revolting against.  I stood at the counter near the cash register and smiled at anyone who would look at me.  No response.  A girl walked by and I asked, "Do you work here?" She said yes.  I said, "Can I buy this?" and held up the book.  She said, "Uh, ask him," and waved her arm in the general direction of the guys ignoring me.  When I got the attention of the correct “him” and asked again (more timidly this time because I was truly beginning to feel like I was in the wrong place—like someone who had wandered onto the set of a play and was asking one of the actors if they could purchase a novel being used as a prop) he seemed confused/annoyed/inconvenienced, but he did work the cash register and sell me the book.  I also bought, at the last moment, a Monkey Wrench sticker, so that I could both mark the occasion and also to try to let him know that I was on his side, whatever side that might be.  Then I skedaddled. 

On the way to my car, as I walked again past the cemetery with the feline sentinels, I scribbled the first draft of the poem in my head on the blank page at the back of the book, making this perhaps the first book I have ever written in before reading a single page.

If you enjoyed my tale of odd characters and graveyards and mysterious books and possible ghosts, then you will love The Thirteenth Tale.  It kept me entertained from the first page to the last.

15.  Homer & Langley, by E.L. Doctorow

This novel, which I read for my book club, is loosely based on the real Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, who were famous in New York in the 30s and 40s for their eccentric personalities and compulsive hoarding. They both died in their massively cluttered and booby-trapped brownstone on Fifth Avenue in 1947.  The book was extremely well-written, touching at times and amusing at others, but once I learned that the characters were based off of real people, I found the true story to be even more interesting.  I suggest doing some exploring on Wikipedia.

16.  Carrie, by Stephen King

I’m late to the game on this one.  I just now got around to reading Stephen King’s first iconic novel.  It was definitely worth my time.  To see my full review of it on Goodreads, click here.

17.  Isaac’s Storm, by Erik Larson

This nonfiction account of the 1900 Galveston hurricane (which I read for another book club) could have been much shorter.  While it did paint a very vivid picture of the horror that storm created, the reader has to wade through a lot of scientific history to get there, and for me the first one hundred pages dragged.  


18.  Crossing the Trestle, by Jim Meirose

I picked up this tiny book (only fifty small pages) for free from Write By Night. I hate to say this, because I too am a new, struggling writer, and I want to be supportive, but it wasn't very good.  The introduction was the best part.  The three stories inside were... odd.  The first was extremely short and seemingly pointless.  The second and third had good overall ideas but were tedious to read, partly due to the many (in my opinion) unforgivable typos.  I am actually surprised (and confused) about that.  The copyright page asserts that all three stories were previously published in various journals.  Putting aside my feelings about the content (maybe I am wrong and these stories are brilliant) I do not understand how such poorly edited stories could make it to print.  Examples of errors include (but are certainly not limited to):  "but" for "buy", Ford (car) not being capitalized, and questions not ending in question marks.  I am puzzled as to why these reviews would publish work with so many errors.  And if they didn’t print them that way, then why did the author revert to sub-par work when publishing his little book?  I wanted to like Crossing the Trestle. I truly enjoyed the story in the introduction about the father carrying the dogs over the trestle time and time again, but I did not like the stories inside.  Two of them were on the verge of being… something… but they never quite got there, and the glaring mistakes were too distracting for me to get past.

19.  Transfer, by Naomi Shihab Nye

Although Nye is one of my all-time favorite poets, this was not my favorite book by her.  Still, it contained some wonderful words within its pages.  To see my full review on Goodreads, click here.

20.  Ghost Story, by Peter Straub

This was a good book, very creepy in places, and one night I actually had nightmares after reading it.  I enjoyed the first half much more than the last, but then again I’ve always thought that ghost stories are scarier before you know for sure what the thing is that you’re dealing with—once something has a face, a name, a purpose, no matter how ugly it is, some of the terror is gone.  The end was a little confusing to me, but I also had a fever when I read it.

Be on the lookout for these titles in the next 10 books of 2013:


Friday, May 10, 2013

From Carie's Kitchen: Coca Cola Cake, Taco Pie, & Fun With Magnets

Carie's Kitchen / Dog Kennel
(Today we focus on the kitchen portion.)

Ever since I quit my job, I have found that I have a lot more time on my hands.  Thankfully, I have put 90% of that newfound time to good use.  I write.  I clean.  I spoil my pets (husband included).  And I have learned how to cook. 

"Learned" doesn't seem like the right word.  It's not like I took a class or anything.  And it's not that I was a bad cook before and now I am a good one.  I just wasn't a cook before.  I was physically and mentally and emotionally incapable of teaching all day, driving an hour to get home, and then making dinner.  My stomach couldn't wait that long to eat, and spending even a few minutes to cook something seemed like a "waste of time" when I had all those papers to grade waiting for me as soon as I scarfed down my food.  But let's not take this blog post in that negative direction.

Suffice to say, I ate a lot of take-out and pasta and cereal for dinner (not at the same time, ew) and we also went out to eat a lot.  (Too much.)  To his credit, Mark sometimes made dinner for us, but he had a full-time job and an hour commute too, so he wasn't too inclined to take on that task either.  Once in a while on a Sunday, I would cook, and it usually turned out ok, and I still baked cookies from scratch now and then (which were often delicious if I do say so myself) but I could not under any circumstances be called a "cook".

Now though... things are different. 

One of my fabulous
greenroom notebooks.
These days, Mark and I rarely go out to dinner more than once a week, sometimes not even that often.  And while those cereal or sandwich nights still exist (sometimes that's just what we want—Mark in particular really enjoys his PB&J with goldfish crackers on the side) I do cook.  At least three nights a week, I make dinner, and 9 times out of 10 it turns out pretty good. 

I enjoy my new hobby and am proud of it, and I would like to start sharing some of my favorite home-cooked meals and desserts.  So… here are a couple of recipes from Carie's Kitchen.  I hope you like them!

Recipe for Coca Cola Double Chocolate Cake:

This one has been going around on Facebook.  That's where I saw it at least.  There are many versions of this, but I am posting the actual recipe I used here.  However, I found that the cake needed to be baked a lot longer than 20 minutes.  I used a Pyrex dish and left it in for 30-35 minutes.  (I think it was actually 33.)

Coca Cola Double Chocolate Cake
(Mark is only fake-smiling because 
he hasn't tried it yet.)
Cake Ingredients:
1 cup Coca Cola (real thing, not diet)
½ cup oil
1 stick butter
3 tablespoons cocoa
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs
½ cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla

Frosting Ingredients:
1 stick butter
3 tablespoons cocoa
6 tablespoons cream or milk (I used 2% milk)
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 ¾ cups confectioners sugar

In a saucepan, mix Coca Cola, oil, butter, and cocoa and bring to a boil.  In another bowl, combine sugar, flour, and salt.  Pour the boiling Coca Cola mixture over the flour mixture and beat well.  Pour into a greased and floured 13x9 inch baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 (or in my case 30-35) minutes.  Remove pan.  Cool for about 10 minutes before frosting.

In a saucepan, combine the butter, cocoa, and milk.  Heat until the butter melts.  Beat in the remaining ingredients and spread on the cake while it is still warm.

Mark was extremely skeptical about this cake for some reason.  The cup of Coke in the ingredients baffled him.  He helped me make it, but was doubtful about the final product the whole time.  In the end?  He LOVED it.  This recipe makes a BIG cake.  We baked it for his mom's visit, and the three of us ate a slice every day for the five days she was in town, but when she went home, there was still a lot of cake left.  I helped Mark with it for a couple of days, but after that he was on his own.  He finished it.  It became sort of an obsession by the end.  He would lie in bed at night thinking about the cake.  And when it was finally gone, he immediately started begging for another one.  His devotion reminded me of this scene with Homer Simpson and his sandwich.

So, I recommend the Coca Cola Double Chocolate Cake.  It is very tasty.  Just know that it takes a while to bake and may cause addiction.

Oh, and Mark wondered aloud yesterday if there is such a thing as a Mountain Dew cake.  All I can say is... dear God, I hope not.

Recipe for Taco Pie:

This has been a favorite in my family for more than twenty-five years.  My mom tore the recipe out of a magazine when I was in elementary school I think.  I still make it, but I replace the ground beef with veggie meat.  

This is my favorite brand.

1 deep dish pie crust shell
1 pound ground beef (or veggie meat)
1 small chopped onion
1 package Old El Paso Taco Seasoning Mix (or other favorite taco seasoning)
1 can refried beans (16 oz.)
1/3 cup picante sauce
2 cups shredded cheese

Preheat oven and cookie sheet to 400 degrees.  Thaw pie crust 10 minutes.   Prick bottom and sides of crust thoroughly with fork.  Bake pie crust on pre-heated cookie sheet for 10 minutes.  Remove from oven and reduce temperature to 350 degrees.  In skillet, cook onion and ground beef until meat is browned.  Drain excess fat.  Add taco seasoning mix according to directions on package.  In a small bowl, combine refried beans and picante sauce and mix well.  Layer half of bean mixture in bottom of pie crust.  Top with half of meat & onions and half of the cheese.  Then repeat layers.  Bake on cookie sheet 20-25 minutes.  Remove from oven and top with lettuce & tomato (optional.)  Serve with rice and slices of fresh avocado.

It’s all the deliciousness of Tex-Mex in a pie crust.  What’s not to love?

Recipe for Fun:

As I said before, I have put 90% of my new-found time to good use, buut there is still that other 10%.

When Mark and I got married, our family and friends decorated our get-away car.  Almost three years later, those "JUST MARRIED" magnets are still on our refrigerator.  Sometimes, when I am bored or procrastinating on a writing task or waiting for water to bowl, I rearrange them into new messages for Mark to see when he comes home.  It's not really that weird—lots of people have poetry magnets on their fridge.  It's just that ours are huge and limited to only eleven letters, one of which is the annoying "J". 

Here are some of my favorite “Just Married” concoctions:

This one is on our fridge most of the time.  :) 

This one rarely gets used, luckily.

So there you have it—dinner, dessert, and something to do when you're bored this weekend.  Feel free to post your own favorite “Just Married” anagrams in the comments.  But keep it fairly clean, please.  :)