Tag Archives: Blogroll

2: The Beauty of Different

The Beauty of DifferentThe Beauty of Different by Karen Walrond

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

I’ve been reading Karen Walrond’s blog, Chookooloonks, for a long time. If I remember correctly, I found it via BlogHer when she was writing for them and I was researching blogs. I searched my archives and this was the earliest post I found that mentions her. (It’s a long post; the quote’s at the very bottom.) And, aha! that quote is from BlogHer, not Chookooloonks, so there you go.

Anyway, no remainder table this time around. I found myself with an Amazon gift certificate so I decided to use it to pick up a few of the books by writers whose blogs I read and whose books I haven’t been able to find locally. (I wrote about this topic a couple years ago.)

New Books

So, The Beauty of Different. It’s a coffee table book, so let’s talk about the format first. It’s a squarish hardcover with a dust jacket. The size is nice—big enough to show off the photographs, but small enough to hold in your lap. And the quality is good–thick pages, with a shiny-matte finish. Hmm, that sounds like an oxymoron, but nope. Not glossy (that would show fingerprints) and not rough-matte (textured). Shiny-matte. The photographs are clear and bright and the typeface is easy to read. There’s more than the usual amount of text for this type of book, so that’s important.

Onto the content. Like I said, I’ve been reading Chookooloonks for a long time, so I knew what to expect. If you want negativity, you’ve come to the wrong place. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. No, really. Karen has addressed this issue, noting that while her life isn’t perfect, on her blog (etc.) she chooses to focus on good things. I understand this. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’ve come to realize that when I’m feeling sad/angry/[insert negative emotion here], doing something nice for someone or being grateful for something makes me feel hella better than stomping around ranting about whatever’s pissed me off. Anger is overrated. (Which is not to say you should bottle it up but, you know, let it out, then move on.)

/digression

Chookooloonks showcases a wide range of photographs: nature (flowers and leaves and rocks and things), places/travel, still-lifes (shots at home, at cafes, etc.), people (in action), portraits (self and otherwise). One of her ongoing projects is to photograph 1000 faces. These are very up-close (face only) portrait shots. Many of the photographs in the book are this type of photograph. In the book format, many of the faces are larger than life-size.

I enjoy the variety of the photography on her blog and would’ve liked to see that reflected more in the book. The up-close portraits are not my favorite. This is not a comment on the quality; they’re lovely photographs. But– well, there are a couple things. With so many portraits, it’s a bit like looking at someone else’s photo album—if people kept albums of 8×10 head shots. I do understand that the portraits fit with the book’s theme, but I prefer the shots that are pulled back a bit, that show a bit more of the person and their surroundings and aren’t just FACE! While I think the just-face shots are probably very meaningful for readers who know the individuals, pulling back a bit lets those of us who don’t in.

For example, one of the extended profiles is of Patrick (on page 54ff.). His portrait shot is pulled back a bit further than most, showing his neck and shoulders and some trees and sky in the background. I think this was probably done to show his collar (he’s a priest), but this photograph seems more approachable to me than some of the others because his face doesn’t take up the entire shot. But even better are the additional shots that accompany his profile: an action shot of him boxing, a close-up of his hands in boxing gloves, and a shot of the items on his desk (I assume). There is more of a story in these photographs than the just-face shots and I think that’s why I like them better. They give me more reason to linger.

Despite the format and number of photographs, I think the focus of The Beauty of Different is really the text. The book is divided into eight chapters, each focusing on a different quality (individuality, spirituality, imperfection, anxiety, heartbreak, language, adventure, agelessness). Each chapter includes an introductory personal essay, several portraits of different people (each with a quote starting “I’m different because…”), and an extended profile of one person that takes the form of an interview/conversation. There are also a few briefer ruminations at the end of each chapter.

On p. 118, there’s a list (Eight Things I’m Afraid of, but Other People Probably Aren’t). Number 2 is clowns—because they’re horrifying. Indeed. Number 7 is geese. Because one tried to attack her car. I can best that: I was actually attacked by geese and had to beat them off with a magazine. I managed to escape to the car, but not before one bit me. So yeah. Geese = evil. I also liked the bartender-generated list of things to do on a Really Bad Day (p. 150), because it sounds like a list I’d make. The book is like that. It’s like… an affirmation rather than a revelation.

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22: The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook

The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook by Jaden Hair

Jaden’s Steamy Kitchen blog is one of my favorite food blogs and so I picked up her cookbook.

The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook has a nice design. It’s hardcover (with a dust jacket even; that might be overkill for a cookbook ;-)). Every recipe is illustrated with a photo of the finished dish. This makes for good inspirational browsing—perfect coffee table material.

It opens flat and stays open, which is nice if you’re actually using it to refer to while cooking. Wouldn’t want to get sticky fingerprints on these pages. (Always the dilemma with a shiny cookbook—who wants to sully the pages with cooking debris? Solution: pull up the recipe on the blog and sully your laptop instead! hah!)

Aside: all these food bloggers who take amazing photos make me long for better light so I could take better food photos. But alas. I will just have to do the best I can with my crappy light situation.

The book strikes a good balance between personality and practicality. Recipes range from appetizers to dessert and everything in between. I especially liked that there was a sauce section, as well as various sauces/marinades included throughout. I don’t have any qualms throwing together ingredients on my own, but some guidance in the saucy area is always welcome, since the right sauce can shift a dish from ok to awesome.

Inspired to make a few things I hadn’t thought of attempting before, like potstickers and spring rolls. On the other hand, I may also have to make the food court sweet & sour chicken, just because lol! 🙂

ETA: I did make the sweet & sour chicken, since I had pretty much all the ingredients on hand and it used up some of the ketchup that’s been languishing in my fridge. It really did mimic the flavors of the “classic” dish, but the sauce was too sweet for my liking. If I made it again, I’d cut back on the sweet and add more sour/salty/spicy flavors. Especially spicy! It was crying out for some heat. (ymmv, of course!)

Sweet & Sour Chicken

3: Super Natural Cooking

Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson

I’ve been reading Heidi’s blog, 101 Cookbooks, for a few years now. I must be particular when it comes to food blogs, because I’ve got a pretty short list of ones that I love and that I’ve stuck with for any length of time (in addition to 101 Cookbooks, there’s Rasa Malaysia, Simply Recipes, Smitten Kitchen, and Steamy Kitchen).

101 Cookbooks appeals because of Heidi’s photography, the way she puts each recipe in context (what inspired it or how it came about or who it was made for), as well as her recipes, which are frequented by salads, soups, bowls of grains and veggies—and baked goods, esp. cookies! (sounds familiar…)

She’s more granola than I am (not really going for the whole canola oil = evil thing), but in general, I’m on board with the fresh/unprocessed/whole foods approach. And why not? I grew up eating fruit and vegetables grown in our yard (my parents always had a garden), so this is all SOP for me. It’s why I can’t help but be amused that growing one’s own food is now trendy. It’s green! It’s organic! It’s zen! Uh, okay. Y’all know people used to grow their own food because it was cheap, right? A few packets of seeds (+ a lot of labor) and your freezer and cold room were full for a year.

We’ve been watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution the past few weeks, and it’s got me thinking a lot about the current tendency to frame people who grow their own food (or buy from farmer’s markets, etc.) as yupsters while framing people who eat fast and/or processed food as poor/rural, when not so long ago, it was reversed: people with money got to indulge in modern convenience foods, while people without had to grow & cook their own food.

The “revolution” in Food Revolution is essentially the attempt to get people cooking from scratch instead of relying on packaged convenience foods for every. single. meal. Not exactly radical—and yet, many people are upset/offended by the program. It’s gobsmacking imo, the lengths people will go to defend egregious food choices. My “favorite” was the commenter who posited that maybe the woman featured in episode 1 was deep-frying donuts and dipping them in chocolate and serving them to her kids for breakfast because that was the most budget-friendly choice available to her. Are you kidding me, person-who-actually-said-this? Ever heard of oatmeal? Neither do I buy that the woman was making donuts because it was “convenient,” as she claimed on the show. Let’s be serious. No one is deep-frying breakfast because it’s more convenient than eating cereal or toast. They’re doing it because Yum! Donuts!

It doesn’t matter how obvious or simple the suggested change is, someone always has an excuse why the bad choice has to be chosen. A good example is plain milk vs. flavored milk in the Food Revolution schools. None of the standard defenses of unhealthy eating make sense. No one can argue that flavored milk is cheaper than plain. Or easier to access. Or more convenient. But wait! They have to serve flavored milk because (drum roll) kids will drink more sugary milk than plain! As Jamie said, duh. And also: not if you don’t give them the sugary option.

It’s a bit ironic, because I think the target audience for Super Natural Cooking would be people who are already cooking, but who want to incorporate a wider variety of ingredients into their repertoire. But maybe the lesson is that you need to learn the basics of healthy eating before you can go on adventures.

It seems appropriate, given that 101 Cookbooks is built on the idea of recipes inspired by other recipes, that rather than making one of Heidi’s recipes, I share an inspired-by-Super Natural Cooking recipe. First, my basic muffin recipe (from ye olde flour cookbook):

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1 egg

I always use this basic recipe, but every time I make it I add different stuff (spices, fruit, etc.), so it’s never the same muffin twice. With that in mind, I give you:

Blueberry Muffins inspired by Super Natural Cooking / 101 Cookbooks:
Blueberry Muffin

  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 6 tbsp dry demerara sugar
  • 3 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 cups blueberries (frozen, bought at farmer’s market last summer)
  • 1 cup skim milk
  • 1/4 cup walnut oil
  • 1 free-run egg
  • 1 tsp organic vanilla

To make: mix dry ingredients together. Add in berries. Mix wet ingredients together. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients. Stir just till everything is mixed. Spoon into muffin tin. Bake at 400°F for 18-20 min. Makes 6 big muffins.

Notes: The things that were different than usual were the types of flour, sugar, and oil used.  Our regular grocery store has started to carry more variety in such staples (nice side effect of the whole green/organic trend). I decided to try whole wheat pastry flour because Heidi said it was less-heavy than regular whole wheat (it was). The walnut oil I had, but I’d mostly been using it for salad dressing.

Typically I’d use: unbleached all-purpose flour, white sugar, and canola in muffins (I know, gasp, right? ;-)). Since I was trying out the new flour/sugar, I decided to use a different oil as well. The other ingredients are all what I normally  use.

The extra half-cup of berries I threw in because it didn’t seem worth it to stick them back in the freezer made them very-berry. I think next time I’ll try 1 c. whole wheat pastry + 1 c. unbleached all-purpose to experiment with texture.

Tip 1: Freezing berries is easy. (And also cheap, if you buy in season.) Wash berries. Place in single layer on cookie sheet. Freeze. Once berries are frozen, scoop them into a plastic container, and stick them back in the freezer. Done.

Tip 2: The Himalayan blackberry may be an invasive pest, but it’s also an excellent source of free fruit—as long as you’re willing to get a few scratches.

Eyes Open

Not long after submitting the manuscript for Super Natural Cooking, I started setting aside photos I loved, and continued to keep notebooks of my favorite recipes, ideas, and inspirations. I wasn’t sure what I would do with them, or what would emerge over time, but I had a hunch something might. Or not. Either way, I don’t like the idea of rushing these sorts of things. I’ve come to believe you can’t really rush inspiration, it comes on its own schedule, emerging and intersecting my life when it sees fit. I just try to keep my eyes open.

Heidi Swanson

1: Secret Son

Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Secret Son

I have a basic policy of trying to read books written by bloggers with whom I have interacted.  I don’t really know these people, and perhaps it is a form of wanting a connection with the famous (used loosely), but I find it interesting to see how their writing works in long from as opposed to blogging. —From review of Secret Son at Collected Miscellany

For several years now, I’ve taken to scanning the shelves each time I hit a bookstore, looking for books by people I’m familiar with via their blogs (or forums). Partly it is wanting to see how book-form writing compares to blogging. And partly it’s my way of supporting fellow writers whose writing I have enjoyed for x years. Should I ever complete and publish a novel, I would hope my fan (I do have one!) would do the same.

Anyhow, it’s often easier said than done.* Want Dan Brown? No worries. Want Laila Lalami or Tayari Jones? Er…  So let me tell you, I was shocked when I saw Secret Son on the shelf in the Chapters on Robson in December. One copy. Hardcover. Y’all know I never buy hardcovers unless they’re on the remainder table. But then, in continuing to browse, more shock! I also found Jaden Hair’s Steamy Kitchen Cookbook and Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Cooking. So then I decided it must be my day and bought all three. Solstice prezzie to self! Hurrah!

Cookbook reviews to follow. For now, Secret Son.

I’ve read Laila Lalami’s blog for a long time. Since back when it was called Moorish Girl. Since before she published her first book (Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which I have yet to find), when she was just another book blogger. One of the the things she’s written about is her decision to write in English (her third language). Part of it is that English is not fraught with the connotations that Arabic and French have for her. But as well, she’s writing for a predominantly English-speaking audience. I think translations can sometimes have the effect of erasing the language difference, i.e. you forget that you’re reading a translation and impose your own language-view on the text.

Here are excerpts from a couple reviews:

“Secret Son” gives us an insider’s view of the underlying turmoil of Morocco, access we probably wouldn’t have if she had written in another language. But something has been lost in her attempt to bypass translation: perhaps it’s the cadences of the inner courtyards of her upbringing. Her English prose, although clean and closely observed, lacks music, and her similes can be predictable, as when Youssef’s half sister, returning from California to Casablanca, feels “like a fish that had been taken out of water and put back.” —New York Times

Lalami’s portrayal of indecision, abetted by her characters’ plainly outlined conflicts, lacks tension. When she does successfully transcend her own stylistic shortcomings, which happens in two scenes that revisit key events from different characters’ perspectives à la Rashomon, such structural cunning is deadened by the same rhythmless style, where rage is always “blinding” and a character’s regret is expressed by the narrator’s asking, “What had he done with his life?” —Quarterly Conversation

What these criticisms of her writing style seem to be missing is that she’s made a deliberate choice to write that way, and I think it’s an important one. The way it’s written, to me, is designed to not let the reader slip into the mistake of thinking that the characters are native English speakers. It’s written the way a non-native English speaker, who is fluent in English, but for whom writing in English is still not the main way they communicate, writes in English. It’s one of the first things I noticed. Of course, the story is being told about the characters, but still, I think taking this approach of writing like the characters would in English makes sense because you don’t lose the sense of them being Moroccan.

The other thing is that its written in close third person. Multiple povs, yes, but close third. It’s not omniscient. Which means the writer is limited to what the characters know. She can’t break into a soliloquy on the Moroccan condition. So true, it’s not a “big” novel; it’s an intimate one. It’s looking at the world from the perspective of the characters, not looking at the characters from the perspective of The World. I actually loved the scenes that were seen from the perspectives of two characters, seeing the subtle differences between their remembrances. Really important for a novel so focused on truths and lies. I liked the ideas explored here: identity/family, dual loyalties, the old “education will set you free” trope ;-), choices (or lack thereof). I like that while the characters’ secrets are revealed, their problems aren’t solved.

It did seem like the pacing really sped up in the last quarter or so of the book, and I was wishing it would slow down a bit. But I’m going to have to think about whether or not that is a flaw or not. Although it felt like there was a rush to the ending, I can see how that might be intentional, designed to mimic how the MC, Youssef, was feeling.

Other Links:

*Yes, I’m fully aware I could just order from Amazon. However, one of my great pleasures dating from pre-internet life is haunting bookstores new and used, looking for somewhat obscure titles. Nothing beats the heart-skip you get when you see a long sought-after book sitting on the shelf in front of you. Buying online does not provide the same thrill.

This seemed apropos.

(I’d post more of these silly memes if I didn’t have to mess with the coding every time to get WordPress to display them correctly. Kind of spoils the spontaneity.)

You Are a Question Mark

You seek knowledge and insight in every form possible. You love learning. And while you know a lot, you don’t act like a know it all. You’re open to learning you’re wrong.

You ask a lot of questions, collect a lot of data, and always dig deep to find out more. You’re naturally curious and inquisitive. You jump to ask a question when the opportunity arises.

Your friends see you as interesting, insightful, and thought provoking. (But they’re not always up for the intense inquisitions that you love!)

You excel in: Higher education

You get along best with: The Comma

What Punctuation Mark Are You?

There’s a Grammar Day? Who knew?

Not me. Apparently March 4th was National Grammar Day… and I missed it! This is what happens when you don’t keep up with your feeds. The irony, of course, is that my feeds were piling up because I was grading midterms that were full of guess what? Yes, bad grammar. And spelling. (And abused apostrophes and unnecessary quotation marks.) But that’s par for the course.

At least I’ll know for next year. 😉