Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Books read, week of 3/21

I'm editing like mad, since my manuscript for An Infamous Marriage is due in less than two weeks, but I've managed to squeeze in some reading time:

33) The Duchess of Richmond's Ball: 15 June 1815, by David Miller. Only of interest to the SERIOUS Waterloo geek, especially if said geek is working on a novel including a scene at the famous ball. Containes a complete guest list with mini-bios of everyone present. That said, I'm not sure how far to trust any of those bios, since I caught several errors about the Duke of Wellington's background--e.g. he gets nuances of the Wellesley family's assorted titles wrong, and he says that Wellington was 3rd of 4 brothers rather than 3rd of 5 (admittedly, Gerald managed to avoid the fame/notoriety of the other four--no sex scandals that I'm aware of, for starters--but his existence isn't exactly hidden and hard to discover). Of course, in the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter that Richard Wellesley was Earl of Mornington before he became Marquess Wellesley, nor that there was a less famous clergyman brother named Gerald, but still, it makes it hard for me to trust the book on areas where I'm NOT coming in with preexisting expertise.

34) How to Be Black, by Baratunde Thurston. One of the blogs I followed obsessively during the run-up to the 2008 election and still check from time to time is Jack and Jill Politics, so when I heard that Thurston, the blog's cofounder, had a book out, I requested it from the library. While I'm white, you can't live in America without being aware of racial issues (especially if you've got a smart kid who asks all kinds of probing questions based on snippets of commentary she hears on the radio), and this book is a satirical, thoughtful look at where we are now.

35) While at Amazon preordering Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, I noticed Proto Zoa, a collection of Lois McMaster Bujold's early short stories that I'd never read before. I'm not a huge fan of short stories, because you don't have time to connect to the characters, but I like Bujold's writing so much I bought it anyway. I'm not sorry I did. It was a nice, quick read even if I didn't love the stories the way I do her full-length books.

Monday, March 19, 2012

52 Cookbooks - Week 21, Cook it Together

I'm a couple cookbooks behind on blogging this project, but I still remember what I thought of the recipes, so here goes:

Cookbook #21 was Cook It Together, a children's cookbook by Annabel Karmel. I gave Miss Fraser (age 7) free rein to choose a recipe, and she selected the exact one I expected:

Banana Bites

1-2 bananas
4 oz. chocolate (milk or semisweet)
dried coconut and/or sprinkles

1) Peel the bananas and trim off the ends. Chop the flesh into bite-sized pieces.

2) Break the chocolate into a heat-proof bowl. (Or measure out the chocolate chips.) Put the bowl over a pan of hot water to melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally. Leave to cool slightly.

3) Push a straw through each banana piece, then drizzle melted chocolate over it.

4) Roll the chocolate-covered banana in the coconut or sprinkles. Let the chocolate harden, then serve.

Our verdict? Messy yet tasty. To simplify, you could just roll whole bananas in melted chocolate and sprinkles, etc. That's the way they did it at Miss Fraser's after-school club a few weeks later, and she liked that way better.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A reading post

I'm in deadline mode, so posting will probably be a wee bit sparse for the remainder of March, though I'll try to catch up on my cooking posts and keep up my reading diary. On that note, here's what I've read so far this month. Told you my 2012 reading pace would slow down!

31) A First-Rate Madness, by Nassir Ghaemi. The author, a psychiatrist, contends that in times of crisis the most effective leaders are often those who show some degree of mental illness, or at least highly atypical personalities, including conditions such as depression, which Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln among others seem to have had, and bipolar disorder, which seems a likely explanation for some of William Tecumseh Sherman's odd behavior over the course of his life. On the other hand, leaders with more typical, "sane" behavior patterns can be ineffective in a crisis–his examples include George McClellan, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair.

It's an intriguing book, but I'm not sure how much I buy his thesis. He contends that “normal” personalities are often closed to change or exploring new options, while those who struggle with depression are often more realistic and given to empathy, and those with manic symptoms can be more creative. It's not that he minimizes the real problems caused by mood disorders, but I have my doubts that George McClellan's failure, for example, was caused by his being too sane. I do, however, agree with what Ghaemi says about the importance of resilience, which often results from facing and overcoming a crisis or challenge–whether that is surviving a depressive episode as Winston Churchill did on several occasions, or becoming president despite major health problems as both Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy did, or any number of other options. By that token, I think McClellan's real problem is that for the first 35 years of his life everything came so easily to him that he had no resources for facing a challenge when one arose, which he might have developed even with a completely typical personality if he hadn't had the bad luck of so much early good luck, as it were.

Ghaemi's historical examples are all from the American Civil War and later, but with my historical interests I couldn't help but try to apply them to some of the more familiar figures of the Napoleonic Era. I know Wellington better than anyone else from that time, since he's a major character in an as-yet-unpublished alternative history manuscript I wrote, and I couldn't make him fit any of Ghaemi's boxes. He doesn't have a typical, conformist sort of personality, and he certainly fits Ghaemi's mold of being a better crisis leader (as wartime commander) than a peacetime leader (as prime minister). But he doesn't come across as depressive or manic, either. Resilient, certainly. He had a few traits of hyperthymia, another good-for-crisis-leadership personality type Ghaemi cites, but by no means all of them. (Prototypical hyperthymic leaders include FDR, JFK, and Bill Clinton. Wellington had the energy, ability to function on next to no sleep, and arguably the libido of the type, but NSM the extroversion and charm.) But if there's a name for that hyper-cool, hyper-controlled, no-drama-except-that-which-I-choose-for-effect personality that Wellington had, it's not in this book.

32) Dancing Into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo, by Nick Foulkes. An interesting overview of the social milieu before and immediately after the great battle, focusing largely on the British in Brussels in the months, weeks, and days before the battle. Fascinating stuff, though I can't really find it shocking that people chose to party on the verge of war. What are they supposed to do, compose battle plans in their every waking hour or sit around contemplating their mortality? And it's a subtle thing, but Foulkes focuses more on how much was different 200 years ago than universal commonalities.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Judging the Rita

I've been judging Romance Writers of America chapter writing contests and the Golden Heart, RWA National's annual contest for unpublished writers, since 2005 or so, but as a new member of PAN (the Published Authors Network), this was my first year judging the Rita, RWA National's published contest.

In late January I came home to a UPS box laden with eight romances in the three categories I'd volunteered to judge--six of one, one apiece of the other two. (The category list is here, and I'm not going to say which three I judged, in the interest of scrupulously honoring my confidentiality agreement. All I'll tell you is that it wasn't Regency Historical, since that's where A Marriage of Inconvenience is entered.)

Though I'd only volunteered to judge categories I at least occasionally read, none of the books were ones I would've chosen to read on my own, and I'd never read any of the authors before. One or two names looked familiar, but that's it. My goal was to read an entry or two per week, spacing them out with other books for leisure reading to keep me fresh and dividing them up so that I didn't read two books that looked similar in theme and style in a row.

My eight books were all over the map in terms of quality, in my opinion, and I scored them accordingly. (In the great debate over whether to use the full 1-9 range or not, I tend to fall on the "full range" side, rather than what I think of as the "all the children are above average" camp. Wow me, and I'll give you a 9. Satisfy me, and you'll get an eight-point-something. But if your character motivations make no sense or your writing is awkward or the plot logic just isn't, I'm not one to say, "Oh, well, it's good enough to be published, so it still gets a 7.")

One thing that struck me was that how much I expected to like the book based on its cover design and blurb had no impact whatsoever on my eventual score. The two books I expected to like most because they seemed most in line with what I usually read ended up being my least favorite of the lot. The ideas were good, but the execution wasn't there. However, three books that I expected would be a chore to read ended up being genuine pleasures–and I was happy to give them high scores for being such pleasant surprises.

I'll be intrigued, once the finalists are announced on March 26, to see if any of the entries I judged are on the list. If any of those three I especially enjoyed are there, I'll be cheering them on at the award ceremony this summer in Anaheim. And if those two that didn't live up to my expectations make it–well, it wouldn't be the first time I was the dropped low score as a contest judge.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

52 Cookbooks - Week 20, Best One-Dish Meals

Last week's cookbook drawing gave me McCall's Best One-Dish Meals, a 1994 cookbook ("McCall's reinvents one-dish meals for the '90s!") credited to the editors of that magazine. (Which I just learned through the powers of Google and Wikipedia is now extinct, having been briefly owned by Rosie O'Donnell before ceasing publication 10 years ago.)

Busy author/mom/day-jobbed grant analyst that I am, I'm all about the one-dish meals. Anything quick and convenient that's still reasonably healthy and tasty is a blessing. Despite that, I've rarely turned to this cookbook--I don't even remember how I got it--but I was game to try and chose recipes for two meals.

Pumpkin-Peanut Soup

- 1 sugar pumpkin or butternut squash (3 lbs) or 4 cups canned solid-pack pumpkin puree (NOT pie filling)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
- 4 T butter
- 1 c. chopped onion
- 1/2 c. finely diced sweet red pepper
- 1 large jalapeno pepper, cored, seeded, and minced
- 4 c. chicken broth
- 1/4 c. creamy peanut butter
- 1/2 c. heavy cream or milk
- 2 T fresh lime juice (which I interpreted as "juice of one lime')
- thinly sliced green onion

1) If using fresh pumpkin or squash, roast at 350F until soft. When cool enough to handle, scoop flesh into a bowl.

2) In a Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion, saute for 15 min or until golden brown. Add the pumpkin, red pepper, jalapeno, and chicken broth. Heat to boiling. Cover; reduce the heat to low. Simmer 10 min, stirring occasionally. Remove all but 2 c. of the soup solids to a food processor. Puree in batches. Pour the puree into the reserved soup in the pot. Add the peanut butter and heavy cream. Over low heat, cook, stirring, until the peanut butter melts. Add the lime juice, salt, and pepper. Sprinkle each serving with green onion.

I made this as a weekend dinner, accompanied by warm French bread and andouille sausage, and I thought it was tasty. To me, the hint of peanut butter and the brightness of the lime juice made the flavor pop. Mr. Fraser, however, thought it far too peanutty, and the very finicky Miss Fraser took one bite and turned up her nose. So I probably won't make it again, especially considering that when something is advertised as a one-dish meal, I don't expect the sink and counter to look like this when I'm done:

Granted, the sink wasn't 100% empty when I started--I think there was a frying pan from the previous night that hadn't fit into the dishwasher, plus a coffee cup or two. Still, that's without the actual soup pot, which was still on the stove when I took the picture.

Later in the week I tried chicken hash:

Chicken Hash

- 2 baking potatoes (about 1 1/2 lbs), scrubbed and cut into 3/4-in dice
- 2 t salt
- 2 t chopped fresh rosemary leaves or 1/2 t dried rosemary
- 1 t freshly ground black pepper
- 4 T unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 c. sweet onion, cut into 3/4-in dice
- 1 sweet red pepper, cut into 3/4-in dice
- 3 1/2 c. cooked chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 T olive oil
- 1/3 c heavy cream

1) Place potatoes in a medium saucepan with enough water to cover. Add 1 t. salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 4-5 min or until the potatoes are cooked through but not mushy. Drain the potatoes and rinse under cold running water until thoroughly cooled. Drain well.

2) In a cup, combine the remaining salt, the rosemary, and the ground pepper. Stir until blended, set aside.

3) In a 12-in cast iron skillet (or just a regular skillet, which I used with good results) over medium-high heat, melt 2 T butter. Add onion and red pepper and saute 5 min or until tender. With a slotted spoon, transfer vegetables to a bowl. Add 1 T butter to skillet. Over med-high heat, when the butter is foaming, add the chicken and half of the herb mixture. Cook about 2 min, turning the chicken only a few times. Transfer chicken to bowl with vegetables. Add remaining butter and olive oil to skillet. When the butter is foaming, add the potatoes and remaining herb mixture to skillet. Cook 6-8 min or until potatoes begin to brown, turning the potatoes twice during the cooking time.

4) Add the chicken-vegetable mixture to the potatoes in the skillet. Toss until well mixed. Lightly pat down the hash. Pour the heavy cream around the edges of the skillet and over the center of the hash. Cook for 5 minutes, turning the hash occasionally, until it is crusty.

Again Mr. Fraser and I had a difference of opinion. I thought it was delicious, in a soothing homy, salty, buttery sort of way, while he gave it a "meh." That said, I'll probably make it again, because it's quick and simple, more so than the recipe makes it sound.