Monday, November 30, 2009

Combination Bean Supreme

The Mister and I spent huntin' week (aka the week of Thanksgiving, but schools aren't closed all week because of preparations for the day of gratitude, not when there are deer to shoot) in Williamsburg, VA with the Mister's Family (thanks MiL and FiL!) searching for bean things to write about. More accurately, we spent time with family, visited colonial stuff at Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestowne, and ate well. The bean incidents were entirely incidental, but, in a legume year, one should report them.

First, at a Vietnamese restaurant on Monday, I ordered a Combination Bean Supreme (R5 on the menu), not because I particularly wanted a sweet, cold bean drink at the end of a long drizzly drive, but because it's bean year, how could I not? The drink included mashed sweet red beans, coconut milk, ice chunks and gelatinous green spikes that may be a mung bean product (Flicker image of a similar drink). It was tasty, but is no substitute for a good Vietnamese coffee.

On Thanksgiving itself, my BiL and SiL made green bean casserole (which they first made one Thanksgiving in Normandy) with all fresh ingredients. I'm not sure that blanched fresh green beans, cream, fresh mushrooms and shallots that have been pre-fried into fantastic crunchies can accurately be called green bean casserole (Campbell's pictured here), but the results were excellent, none the less.

Any holiday bean traditions in your life?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sparkling Squirrel Friend Gift Guide

Here I shamelessly promote the cool things my friends do that you could possibly purchase as a gift.

Say you want to go on a ecotourism trip to Haiti. Or you want to contribute something so that young people in Haiti will have bird knowledge and the ability to keep their watershed clean and get jobs leading bird tours. In either case, you should definitely contact Debbie Baker through her Zwazoyo Blog.

If, on the other hand, you need rangering services in Britain, Stephen Mason could bash your rhodies, help plan your restoration, or lead a fantastic ethnobotanical hike. (I've heard he also has a charming accent but that is neither here nor there).

Need an eclectic collection of really good short stories? Daniel A. Hoyt's Then We Saw Flames should fit the bill (Amazon link here).

Need some recipes utilizing plants from the semi-arid West? Check out Alma Snell's A Taste of Heritage (note that the editor and photographer does not receive any royalties from sales of A Taste of Heritage, she just thinks that, seeing how she spent four years working on the book, it should stay in print a while).

Know a musician in the Denver area with joint pain? Massage therapist and bassist Brock Chambers specializes in massage for musicians.

She's booked at least through the holidays, but in the new year Prairie Quilter could use her long-arm quilting machine to transform layers of fabric into an artistic three-dimensional quilted masterpiece.

Harpist and composer Phala Tracy (a friend of a friend, or, more precisely, the unrequited high school interest of my college interest) sings and plays harp on Critter Songs, a collection of silly ditties with lovely music.

If you just happen to have a small business owner needing branding and graphic design work, Stephen Weis Illustration is who you should contact to talk about giving the gift of good design.
And if you need something translated English to German or German to English, I have two fabulous sisters-in-law to recommend. If I've misssed you, let me know. In the meantime,
happy gift giving and happy huntin' week.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rascal, Raccoons and what books are about

The request for suggestions of books to read while breastfeeding led to a fascinating list of recommendations, ranging from Lonesome Dove to The Count of Monte Cristo to 1491. My Sister-in-Law decided that nature and tone were critical, and brought me two "sweet" books back in August. Both were hardback, which physically didn't work with my early nursing set-up, but after finding a way to read all of Harry Potter, with its hardback and awkwardly large volumes, I knew it was time to read Rascal and I Capture the Castle (link to future post goes here).
Sterling North's Rascal was the 1963 winner of the Dutton Animal Book Award. The cover, with its Animal Book Award logo and classy woodcuts of a boy and his raccoon, prompted the Mister to comment, "that was a different time" which made me laugh, as Rascal's subtitle is "A Memoir of a Better Era". To thirtysomethings in 2009, an age when sweet books about a boy and his raccoon could be published and win awards is about as nostalgically distant as the 1918 events in the book are to the author writing about them forty five years later.

Both the Mister and I think that we've been previously acquainted with Rascal. A quick internet search reveals this is almost certainly true. Whether we know it from the Newberry Honor list, from any number of paperback printings, or from the Disney Movie of the same name, I don't know, although I imagine we aren't remembering the 52 episode Japanese anime series. The work we recall is a sentimental story of a boy and his raccoon.
Rascal the book, is, of course, a sentimental story of a boy and a raccoon. It's an autobiographical account of 11 year-old Sterling's year living with an adopted raccoon in a small town in Wisconsin, and I can totally see how fourth grade me read the book as a raccoon story. While Rascal, the raccoon, does drive the "plot" of the book, the book is about so much more. It's about the end of the carriage era and the take-over of the automobile. It's about World War I. It's about a middle aged man coming to grips with his family: long-lived absent-minded father, mother who died when he was 7, hard-working aunt and uncle fulfilling traditional farm roles and relatively conventional siblings. It's about growing up (to the point that the wikipedia entry calls Rascal "a prose poem to adolescent angst"). The me of now at age thirty seven read it as a book about wildlife conservation*.

Rascal prompted a return to a long term contemplation as to how one describes what books are about. The issue becomes complicated quickly because a single good book is about many things and the plot may be the easiest to express but is often of lesser importance (yes, A Tale of Two Cities is about the French Revolution [or Paris and London] and Pride and Prejudice is about marriage, but no, that really doesn't capture the works at all). It doesn't take wild post-modern thought to notice that readers, can, and do, read books very differently** Then there is the issue that the same person can see a book very differently through time. My mother wouldn't let my brother (two years older than I) read Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear because it involved too much sex while strongly recommending it to me because I would find all of the plant healing fascinating. I recall reading a book in elementary school that involved fourteen year-olds starting a French restaurant. It was about the horrors of being a teenager including an abortion and large boobs. I didn't know what an abortion or a "c-cup" was at the time, I knew what vichyssoise was, and that's then, what the book was about to me.

So my blog questions to you are 1) have you read Rascal in any form and what did you think it was about? 2) what books, in your opinion, are about very different things than what other people think?
As for Rascal, it is enjoyable. I think my mother, still in Whistling Season nostalgia, would enjoy it, as would many other of my readers.
*In the middle of the summer of 1918, Sterling, his raccoon, and his father travel north to the shores of Lake Superior. On this journey, Sterling is very excited about seeing deer for the first time. Having seen 8 deer at once under the chestnuts the previous evening, this struck me as funny. and sparked the idea that the world is ripe for a book examining the history of humans and deer in North America.

**A colleague in Kansas hated Bernhard Schlink's The Reader because, "there's this whole book that's supposed to be so great about reading and then you get to the climax and the big secret is that SHE CAN'T R. . . but duh, that was obvious from the beginning." I think she literally said "duh". She looked stunned when I said that the book was not about reading, but was rather about the guilt complexes of post-WWII Germans.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mountain Dal and Mung Bean Suggestions

Organic mung beans appeared in my shopping cart sometime in the early spring as something to try for legume year. It turns out I already had a bag in my cupboard. And I didn't do a thing with either bag for months.
Actually, I still haven't done a thing with either bag, but the Mister recently pulled out the beautiful Mangoes and Curry Leaves by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid* and decided to actually cook from it. Fascinating what great ideas that man comes up with. And he decided to look for recipes using mung beans, because we have them in the cupboard.

He found a recipe for Nepalese Mountain Dal, followed it, and we ate leftover rice and thick, brown, uninteresting dal for a week.

I concluded that I just like lentils better than mung beans.

He concluded that we haven't given mung beans a fair chance.

There's a third possibility that what the recipe calls for ("mung dal") is somehow different than what we have (mung beans) and some searching on wikipedia suggests this is at least partially true. Chinese cuisine seems to favor the green, husk-on "mung beans" we have (similar to what's pictured) while on the Indian subcontinent split, husked mung dal is eaten, which creates a softer, yellow, lentil-like mush.

Whether I'm right or not, the Mister is correct that we need to do give mung beans (the green ones we have) another chance. Here's where my helpful readers come in. Anyone have any suggestions?

*Thanks Molly!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Magical Books and Books About Magic*

While reading Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga, the Mister regularly remarked about how strange the books were, in a way that didn't exactly endorse them. As a result, I had no desire to read the series until he re-read the whole thing less than a year after first encountering them and I needed something for plane reading on the way to Colorado.

Had I not had a 2 1/2 month old on my lap, the first book of the series Magician: Apprentice, would have made fine plane reading. As it was, however, I didn't finish M:A and the accompanying Magician: Master until I returned here. Overall, I enjoyed the set: not enough to dive into the third and fourth book of the series, but enough to think that I will someday read them. Potential readers should be forewarned that Magician was written as a single book, and starting it means committing to both volumes. They should also be warned that the pacing is, well, unusual at best. At least two thirds of the book feels like it is set-up, and there are at least fifty pages post climax, post reasonable denouement, most of which are outlining a political intrigue that doesn't materialize. Having said that, the voluminous set-up is interesting and the worlds described are fascinating (if the full history in the middle of the second volume a bit unnecessary). I was bothered that there was a bit too much "European-like world good: Asian-like world bad" until I realized that one big point was that despite superficial differences, people and governments are all alike and all both good and bad.

I was reading Magician during unsympathetic character week at Wuthering Expectations (starting here), and noted that as soon as one character became a demi-god, the reader stopped seeing his story from his point of view, I assume because at that point he was unsympathetic. His story was then given from the point of view of one of his past small-town acquaintances (Martin), and we could feel Martin's keen sadness at the demi-god's loss of humanity. Unsympathetic Week highly recommend, Magician recommended only for those who already enjoy fantasy series.

At the Mister's influence, I recently re-read all of the Harry Potter series. I actually like it much better upon the third reading, which is saying something because I am a fan. One aim of unsympathetic character week was to push readers beyond stating "I liked the characters" and "I didn't like the characters" although several commenters mentioned that likes and dislikes are a great starting point for more thoughtful analysis. Applying this to Harry Potter, I honed the reasons for my preferences. One aspect of Harry Potter I like is that each book ends and is a self-contained story. Interestingly, the exception to this is Half Blood Prince (6), which remains my favorite. I think I like 6 the best because it has a wonderful mixture of levity, romance and fighting of evil. While reading recently, the Mister commented as to how wonderful the Felix Felicis scenes are, and I couldn't agree more. 6 also contains the only true plot twist in the series, and, even though I knew it was going to happen, I truly felt kicked in the gut when I first read that S killed D. I was surprised to learn that Order of the Phoenix (5) was the favorite of a colleague of mine (6 is his least favorite), as it is my least favorite. I've always thought that 5 is just one long dark rant of Harry whining that nobody understands him, while my colleague liked it as it showed the students united with Harry. Plot-wise we are both right, but, as I realized with this re-reading, I read much more quickly at the end of books, so the whining, which really only fills the first third, probably filled two-thirds of my reading time. A full series re-read also reminded me that I think the epilogue is brilliant. I know some readers hate it, but I feel that the speech to Albus Severus and the mention of Scorpio are essential to the resolution of the book's theme of the power of love, and don't hurt from a plot standpoint either. Anyway, readers can contact me if they ever want to chat more about H.P.

While I think that Amateur Reader's idea that one sympathizes with, or at least develops a relationship with, the author of a book is great, I realize that I sympathize with Harry, Hermione, Ron, Minerva McGonagal. Luna, Neville, Snape and even Draco, but I prefer to leave J.K. Rowling, who, for some reason, I really don't like, out of my reading experience.

*I almost re-read Inkheart so I could add "and a book about the magic of books", but it seemed like too much work just for a line in a blog post. Besides, I watched the movie on a plane over the summer more time needs to pass to prevent me from seeing Brendan Fraser as the father.

Image is of Dianthus and his first snow, Oct. 22 in Colorado. Nothing to do with fantasy books except that he happens to own a "magical hat".

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Baby Products at Three Months: Seats and Stuff

When Dianthus was little (and, yes, that already feels like a long time ago. Clearly he's giant now at twelve pounds), one of the greatest things we came up with was the fact that he fit very nicely into a rubbermaid under the bed tub. It was easy to transport from room to room (and sometimes even outside), inexpensive, and he slept very well in it. It worked well for over a month, and then suddenly he was just too big for it.

Fortunately, by the time he outgrew his tub, he finally fit into his swing and his bouncy seat. Such things really are not designed for babies much under eight pounds and, during that first month, every time we'd try to put him into the seat or swing, he just looked like a crumpled little mass. The bouncy seat we have is borrowed (Thanks Irene!) and works well as a seat. We rarely use the extra features: it has a toy bar with dangling animals that Dianthus is sometimes interested in and would apparently play music and vibrate if we put new batteries into it. The bounciness of bouncy seats varies a great deal, and some babies really like to bounce. At this stage in his life, Dianthus doesn't care, the seat is just a comfortable place to see the world from a different view. At his grandparents', Dianthus sat in a similar seat that was more sturdy and didn't bounce at all. He sat contentedly in it through most meals, and the vibrate and music options seemed to at least calm the adults around when he wasn't content (we liked to think that we were doing something). The super-sturdy non-bouncy seat was also very heavy, and, as we frequently move the seat from room to room (often with baby in the other hand), I prefer our lighter model.

We have a Fisher Price Take-Along Swing and like but don't love it. Dianthus can be calmed down in it if he's in a mood to be calmed down, but it doesn't exert any special magic on him, and if it is the height of fussy time, he can kick and scream in his swing just as much as he kicks and screams elsewhere. There is a huge price difference among swings, at $60, ours was at the less expensive end. It is fairly lightweight and supposedly folds somehow for car transport. The music is not terrible annoying, just odd (synthesizer lullabies with an extra jungle beat) and sometimes Dianthus looks at the "animals" dangling in front of him. We'll never know if he would respond really differently to the side to side rocking motion or the motorized mobile of the $150 swings, but somehow I doubt they would have been worth the cost. Like the bouncy seat, the swing can be easily machine washed, and, like the bouncy seat, this is an item I like having but would happily borrow* or find used.

My in-laws gave Dianthus a Baby Einstein play gym/activity mat. It's wonderful. At three months, Dianthus is now very into hitting and kicking (still somewhat randomly) the dangling toys and even at five weeks, he was entranced by the flashing lights and music. There are a great many things that bother me about said structure. I don't like raising a child to be constantly surrounded by bright colored plastics, mechanical music and shiny things dangling at exactly the right height for him. Still, he's three months old; if something doesn't dangle in front of him, he can't "play" with it and he really likes the lights. While in Colorado he played with a different version that I don't like nearly as well, except that it is lined up so that Dianthus could kick the ball while pulling on the toys.

The common complaint about all of these things is that they are only useful for a short period of a baby's life. I'll let you know as Dianthus outgrows them. These photos, by the way, are not all current. Below is the newest of the bunch, taken last week and some date back to Labor Day (2/3 of his life ago).

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Black Cats are Lucky

My family had a wonderful, if occasionally ferocious, black cat, Anthracite. The cantalope eating, beer sipping, vase-knocking black cat with black stripes was the epitome of "cat": a barely domesticated wild beast with refined tastes. My parents still miss him.
For unknown reasons, the Mister also favors black cats and I think we were both surprised when the cat who adopted us turned out to be mostly white.
My nieces were black cats for their first Halloweens.

And this year we had this delightful creature.