Thursday, January 31, 2008

"Never Trouble Trouble . . .

until trouble troubles you," read my fortune in my fortune cookie last night.

I dislike this because I like genuine fortunes in my fortune cookies. The Mister's "Good news will come from far away" is an actual fortune, however unlikely. "Never trouble trouble," is a proverb or tongue twister, but not much of a fortune.

However, the fortune, along with Irene's comment on the post below, reminded me to clarify that with this lucky resolution I am not in the business of meddling with the fates. I'm exploring luck the way that I've explored pink or Rodentia or sparkling wine. I'm enjoying learning about luck and immersing myself in luck, but not troubling trouble about the future.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Resolved: A Year of Luck

In 2008, I am exploring luck. There is a lengthy justification for why I am choosing luck and how I came to decide on it (there is a rationale, although it may not be truly rational). Someday if it still interests me, I may write down said lengthy justification.
In the meantime, know that in 2008 I will be doing the following things at least once a month:

  1. eating a seasonal luck-bearing food
  2. learning about something thought to change luck
  3. helping somebody else improve his or her luck

Over the course of the year, I will also be exploring lucky media and hope to visit some luck bearing locales.

What does this mean in practice?

In January, for instance, I ate black-eyed-peas on New Year's Day to bring me good luck, I befriended two black cats and I hope to write about that, and allegedly two of the tubes of toothpaste I donated to community resources this morning have already been given away to make someone's day.

In February I will be eating special dumplings for the Chinese New Year, figure out what it means to be a clever rat in the year of the rat in the auspicious year 2008 and may read Alice Sebold's Lucky or Newberry Award Winning The Higher Power of Lucky.

As a supporter of my resolution, you can find me lucky foods, fun superstitions, things with "luck" or "charm" in the title or information about lucky traditions. I will be avoiding anything meant to improve luck by hurting someone else, pyramid schemes and chain letters and anthing obviously sacred or stupid.

I will also persist with old resolutions and quests. In 2008 I will:

  • continue in the quest to drink wine from every state and sparkling wine from all over the world
  • read and share interesting books
  • share seasonal vegetable recipes
  • write interesting things about rodents as I learn them.

I'm looking forward to learning what's lucky for you.

Nonfiction Novels* of Place

Mom gave me The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls last year because it largely takes place in the state where I now live, the title includes my maiden name, and, perhaps most importantly, because Mom found it well-written and interesting. She immediately told me the book reflected poorly on my state and was depressing and, because I live here and deal with many students in poverty and from malfunctioning families, I would find it more so. Mom's book recommendations are sometimes like this.** I then avoided reading The Glass Castle until I was already blue for other reasons and rather liked it, just as Mom thought I would. My main reactions were, "How can she write these things about her family?" and "How could her family do that?" I'm not sure I recommend it for anyone, but certainly think it was worth reading and provides a good testimonial for the power of good teachers and knowing ones words.
Kitchen Confidential shares with The Glass Castle a love of New York City and a narrator of questionable character. Anthony Bourdain fascinates me because he is a jerk and he comes across as a jerk. He's annoying and his stories are annoying, yet his tales of life in the kitchen are enjoyable largely because he's an annoying jerk. Having heard about it for ten years, having worked with people who have been trained chefs and having heard Anthony Bourdain spout off in other forums, I did not find Kitchen Confidential to be a shocking expose. I'm not surprised that restaurants re-use bread or use old seafood in brunch dishes.
What I like about Bourdain is that he is unapologetically forthcoming about his jerkiness. I have a feeling that Jeanette Walls is not someone I would want to hang out with, but she spends her book trying to explain how she got to be this way (as most writers of memoirs do). Bourdain tells you in the introduction that he's a jerk and that it's his fault and gets on with the story. I also find it hard to resist a man who clearly thinks he is good at his craft who declares, without any apparent bitterness, that he doesn't have what it takes to be great and never could have. Bourdain's current problem is that he must maintain this straight-talking hard-drinking bad boy jerk of the kitchen via many different media outlets. As I suspect that he really isn't that big of a jerk, it's becoming tougher with time. If you haven't been overexposed to Bourdain's smokin' drinkin' and knockin' vegetarians through other media, Kitchen Confidential is a good read.

Kitchen Confidential also made me long for a food trip to New York City, and a $1000 food budget when I go. I pulled out Cooking for Mr. Latte and Garlic and Sapphires to compare restaurant lists. Someday . . .

*I know these are both technically memoir and not nonfiction novels. Having grown up post In Cold Blood, I've never understood the defining elements of the "nonfiction novel".

**I can laugh at my mother for inappropriate book giving, yet must recall that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was in the same batch of books from my mother. I had it packed for Ecuador when Happy Cricket broke her ankle. When she was cooped up in the hospital, I gave Happy Cricket my copy of Snow Flower because someone hospitalized for ankle surgery surely wants to read about foot binding.

Why didn't the Mister and I have a glass castle on our wedding cake, like this one available from

Sunday, January 27, 2008

One Rodent Book and Several Novels of Place

Rodent Book: I finished December with The Red Chipmunk Mystery by Ellery Queen, Jr. (and, according to Wikipedia, written by Samuel Duff McCoy). In the style of a classic 1946 juvenile mystery, smart-thinking kid Djuna (of no last name and indeterminate age and parentage) uses keen observation and knowledge of things like the behavior of chipmunks to save the day from villainous thieves. Chipmunks are only mentioned for their cleverness of having a back entrance to their hide-outs.

Novels of Place: In November I finally finished Peruvian writer Mario Vargos Llosa's Captain Pantoja and The Special Service. I had started it over the summer of 2006 and then lost the book in the move. The lapsed time was good for my appreciation of the novel. The oppressive and sexually-stimulating atmosphere of the Amazon jungle is a major component of the book and I appreciated the thickness of the air much more for having been in the jungle (albeit for a day) in May. Vargos Llosa moves action forward quickly by intermixing unattributed snippets of conversation from several key conversations simultaneously. He's a good enough writer that the plot is still comprehensible to the reader and a properly frantic mood is set. He uses the same basic device in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, but in Aunt Julia it fits the plot much better, and while I would recommend both books, the latter receives higher marks from me.

Immediately after finishing with the Peruvian Amazon, I moved to Botswana with Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I'd heard about the series and had planned to read them someday. I knew the books were sweet, character-driven mysteries set in Africa, but, like many other readers* I was surprised to find how engrossed I became in the town, the simple mysteries and the thornbush landscape. Like many other readers, I was then surprised to be reminded that the author (pictured) is a white expert on bioethics living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Highly recommended for Happy Cricket, Prairie Quilter, Sunflower Spinner, and Tuscon Trekker, among others.

I followed up the first of one mystery series with the first of another. My mother gave me Denise Swanson's Murder of a Small-Town Honey. My aunt had earlier given my mother several volumes of the series because it takes place in the small Illinois town my family is from**. While completely innocuous, Murder of a Small-Town Honey is not all that good. I enjoyed it much more than someone else would have because I kept noting all the details that make Wilmington, IL, Wilmington, IL. I'm not sure why Swanson decided not to name the town: her fictional town lies between two named towns just where Wilmington does, fictitious "Maryland Street" runs where real "Baltimore Street" does, the octagonal house is there, the empty train depot. . . She doesn't attempt to disguise the town.

At some point the unflattering portrait of Wilmington began to bother me. The main character is distraught to be back in town. When graduating high school at the top of her class she had vowed that once she had an education she would never come back. The town seems clannish, backward and utterly devoid of retail opportunities. I'm mostly curious as to why this bothers me. Against all familial advice, my father went to college so he could escape the town. While he has longed for the great soil, he has never seriously considered returning. My mother's family moved there in 1961 and 40 years later still felt they had never been fully accepted. My aunt, a life-long resident of the region, finds Swanson's stories hilarious. Why, then, would Swanson's dead-on description of the depressing nature of the supermarket at night rankle me?

*One of the reason's I picked up No. 1 Ladies was a post about it on Athyrium Filix-Femina, a blog by an unknown (but clearly very cool) American cook, reader and gardener living in Scotland. Athyrium is also one of the excuses there haven't been many book reviews on this blog recently. I recommended that Athyrium read The Crow Road by Iain Banks (a great, if somewhat dated in the last ten years, modern Scottish novel). Athyrium read the book and her entry about The Crow Road, like her other book reviews, provides a fabulous sense of what it feels like to be reading the book. My reviews do not do that. I want to do that, but really, I feel successful if I have just announced a book to someone who might like to read it. In the meantime, one of my siblings-in-law started a literary criticism blog. Wuthering Expectations succeeds in discussing the actual writing in great (and not so great) literature. I can't compete with that either. When I read well-written reviews and real criticism I question what place there is for my weak, short reviews. However, one friend recently reminded me that I need to blog more and that I need to share more books. She's right. I enjoy doing both. If I confined myself to doing only what I do better than anybody else, I would spend all of my days throwing groundhog parties in Kansas and talking about a leguminous prairie root, which would get old fast. Of course, while Athyrium and Wuthering are both much more well-read than I, one other reason their writing about books is much better than mine is that they do much more of it. Few endeavors exist where I can expect to improve by doing less. Writing is not one of them. In any case, as a result of these excellent book blogs, I re-read The Crow Road and Pride and Prejudice. I left wanting to visit Argyll and Darbyshire so they count for the list of books about place. I assume readers know P+P (discussed on both abovementioned blogs) is one of my all-time favorite book, but I should add a recommendation for those who somehow didn't know that.

**The idea of being from someplace still interests me. In many ways, I consider myself historically from Wilmington, IL. My parents met in high school there and it's the only place I ever visited any grandparents. However, my father's family was not from town and considered town folks quite different and my mother's family moved there when she was in high school. She visited all of her grandparents in southern Illinois and therefore considered herself from southern Illinois. So if none of my parents or grandparents considered themselves from there and I've never lived there, what claim do I have?

Prairie Dog Predators and Plagarism

If you've managed to miss the story of text about black footed ferrets being lifted straight from a wildlife brochure into post-coital dialogue in a bodice-ripper, take a few minutes to read the story. Not only is event preposterous (the romance author even managed to use the direct quote from a wildlife biologist as part of the sexy conversation), you might learn a few facts about the one of the most voracious predators of prairie dogs.

Thanks to Abby for alerting me to this particular story.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Strange celestial events are afoot!
The Year of the Rat is just about to begin at the same time we will be celebrating our own local rodent, the groundhog. While Chinese New Year is a bit late this year, Mardi Gras is very early. The result of this strange convergence of solar and lunar calendars? A triple excuse for an early February party.

14th Groundhog Party:
Groundhog Leads the Rats on Parade:
the Chinese Groundhog Karnival
Groundhog Day, Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras Festivities
February 2, 2008
Dumpling making at 6:30, general party at 8.
RSVP either way

Yes friends, the social event of the dreary winter season is once again upon us. It's time to think spring, sip a woodchuck cider or fuzzy navel** and play pin the shadow on the groundhog. This year we'll also eat lucky Asian-inspired foods, contemplate rats and other predictors of fortune, and make Mardi Gras masks.
Bring yourself in Karnival, Groundhog, or Chinese New Year clothing* along with your spouse, friends and colleagues I inadvertently missed. Contributions of food and drink certainly welcome but don't let lack of costume or food prevent you from coming.
If you are interested in coming early and making lucky jiao zi (dumplings), let me know so I can have appropriate supplies. Actually, let me know in general whether you will be attending the party or not

**Even though this is not the Groundhog Island year (about half of the annual parties are Groundhog Island), we will have Blue Groundhogs and drink umbrellas, never fear.
*No, I don't know exactly what this means. Fortunately my friends are creative.

Image from an outdated life in Hong Kong Blog.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Virginia Racoons

After a tasty meal of Lebanese food, The Mister and I were chatting with our host when there was a loud smack from the back of our host's Sears house in residential Arlington. In came his handsome black cat, Jekyll, demanding attention. Moments later a second smack from near the pet door and then a third. Jekyll, it seems, had led the local racoon right to the food door or a bitter cold night. We had seen two racoons in the neighborhood earlier in the evening, bringing our wildlife spotting for the weekend in D.C. up to a total of three racoons and a few deer in West Virginia. Of course we saw the skeleton of the giant ground sloth* in the Smithsonian, but that hardly counts.
It's strange to see more non-rodents than rodents. Perhaps because we left the prairie dog at home.

*Sloths aren't rodents either. Somehow the giant ground sloth skeleton has just become my favorite artifact at the Smithsonian.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Giving the Gift of Rodentia

During the rodent year I saw many rodents. I read books with rodent characters. I watched movies with rodent sidekicks. I traveled with a stuffed prairie dog and have a stuffed beaver, a stuffed rat and 3 stuffed marmots around my house. I did not, however, eat many rodent things or wear many rodents. Family members helped diminish this deficiency with Christmas gifts.

Prairie Quilter gave me a tasteful new mouse barrette which I'm likely to sport tomorrow for the first day of Vertebrate Zoology. (Thanks Prairie Quilter!)

My parents gifted the Mister with some Marmot Salve from Austria. Yes, Murmeltier Salbe is made from marmot oil. No, I'm not sure exactly how one acquires marmot oil, but I am fairly certain that live marmots don't surrender, or render, their fat willingly. A gift that just falls on the cool side of the creepy-cool divide is made all the more amusing because this is not the first gift of genuine Austrian marmot salve my household has been given (my brother's family also travels frequently to Austria) and the price sticker was still attached. I find it somewhat gratifying that marmots don't part with their oil for some cheap potion but horrifying that my parents paid that for goofy marmot salve.
In any case, marmot salve is a white cream with a strong smell of menthol (although it also contains a huge number of alpine herbs including gaultheria and gentian) that is supposed to ease aching joints and cure all ills. It does tingle refreshingly when applied to sore backs. (Thanks Mom, Dad, J+C!)

The true intellectual siblings-in-law found sugar mice for me in St. Louis. Unlike those pictured from floo network, my sugar mice are on sticks, like little pink lollipops, rather than with string tails, which seems to be the thing in the UK based on my quick web-search. In any case, sugar mice are just that: sugar held together in the form of a mouse with minimal additional flavoring. As one might expect, sugar mice taste horrible. I think I report this without offending my siblings-in-law because my siblings-in-law are not stupid. One look at the list of sugar mice ingredients and it's obvious that the are not going to be mouth-watering confectionery. Of course, my siblings-in-law would also know that I would desperately want to try a sugar mouse, if I had known they existed and I'm very excited that I did. (Thanks sibs-in-law!) I just need to figure out what to do with the rest. Perhaps I shall use them to sweeten tea?