Saturday, March 31, 2018

March Wrap-Up and Plans for April


TBR Pile Challenge: Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
Nonfiction: In addition to my TBR book, I read Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and We Are Never Meeting In Real Life (which isn't what I had in mind with my nonfiction goal but it still counts!)


The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley, which I'm about halfway through.


I really like this cat who hangs out
with me at my bus stop.
I've finished the reboot of One Day At a Time. Funny story: I came to the end and was a little sad that I was out of episodes but then realized I HAD BEEN WATCHING SEASON TWO. For some reason Netflix had defaulted to the second season and I didn't realize it.

Now I'm watching season 2 of Jessica Jones, and looking forward to the return of Call the Midwife and Handmaid's Tale.


Er, I'm still working on my sleeve. I'm on the cap shaping though, so the end is in sight. Then I just have to make another one. I should be done by....October?


I bought two cookbooks: Dinner by Melissa Clark (which I mentioned last month) and Bread Illustrated from America's Test Kitchen. I've been experimenting a bit with bread from that cookbook and from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, because I've had good luck with those recipes in the past. Mostly my bread is coming out fine, but a little underdone. I think my oven temperature might be to blame - I'm going to try turning it down more next time because it runs hot, and maybe the inside will be more done by the time the outside is dark.

Blood Orange Chicken
I've cooked a lot of things, but the new recipes I tried that came out the best were the Blood Orange Chicken with Scotch Whiskey and Olives from Dinner, Black Bean Skillet Dinner with Quick-pickled Onions and Lime Crema from Dinner, Mediterranean Chopped Salad from America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook, Turnip Greens Frittata from Food52 (which I made with chard because the store didn't have turnip greens), and Baked Ziti from America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook. I think I'll be making all of these again!


I got together with my friend I've been working with and we made the above-mentioned frittata. It was much easier than the other recipes we've made, but when we get together we spend the first part of our time drinking wine and talking so by the time we eat it's all kind of a blur. But I'm pretty sure the frittata was good; in fact, I had some leftover the next day and quite liked it. The important thing is that we have fun hanging out without spending a lot of money. And the dog wasn't quite as awful this time, so that was a bonus.

Another friend and I went to see Roxane Gay at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. We bought tickets way back in September and I rearranged my work schedule for it.  It was on a Wednesday night when I usually work until 7pm so I took the day off, but there was this storm threat and I worried that the event would be cancelled, but it turned out that the storm pretty much passed us by despite all of the dire warning. (We had some super crazy winter storms this month and really didn't need another!) Roxane Gay is amazing. She's brilliant and funny and thoughtful and the audience asked really great questions. I'm so glad I went!

Petri the day we went running.
Work has gotten a lot better this month. It's not that all our problems have gone away, but now that I've hired someone for the position that has been vacant since the end of December, I can actually do things besides put out fires. I've had a meeting with a committee that I'm on that deals with intellectual freedom, and another meeting about being on a local cable show, and I've actually been able to do some planning for upcoming programs and just have thoughtful conversations with coworkers that don't feel rushed.

I went running a few times, which is great improvement over the last couple of months. I took the dog with me twice and it didn't go too badly, so I'm hoping to take her more regularly in hopes of tiring her out.

Plans for April

My niece is coming down from Maine the first weekend of April and we'll be going to visit our aunt in CT and will go into NY for the day. Then we're coming back to Boston and seeing P!nk in concert. Later in the month I'll be seeing George Ezra for the third time.

How was your March?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby (2017)

Samantha Irby is known for her blog bitches gotta eat, but I hadn't heard of her until she published this book of essays. I heard that she's hilarious and I think what really sold it for me is that she works for a veterinary clinic and has a psychotic cat named Helen Keller. I'm always up for animal stories, especially ones about difficult pets. She writes about other topics too, like her friendships, parents, anxiety attacks, diet and exercise, and romantic relationships.

The very first essay is called "My Bachelorette Application" which sets the stage nicely by introducing herself with statements like "I'm sucking in my stomach, I've taken thirty-seven Imodium in case my irritable bowels have an adverse reaction to the bag of tacos I hid in my purse and ate in the bathroom while no one was looking, and I have been listening to Katy Perry really, really loudly in the limo on the way over here. I'm about to crush a beer can on my forehead. LET'S DO THIS BRO." I think you can get a decent sense of what she's like from that opening. Other essays include "Do You Guys Pay Your Fucking Bills or What?", "You Don't Have To Be Grateful For Sex," "A Case For Remaining Indoors," "Fuck It Bitch. Stay Fat," "Yo, I Need a Job," and "Feelings Are a Mistake."

She talks a lot about junk food, sex, and pooping. To be honest, I got about halfway through and almost put the book down. It was funny, but there was an awful lot of oversharing and it was a bit much to take. Like, a story about having to stop on the side of the highway for an emergency poop followed by one about sex that makes it sound so very unsexy, and I thought "Is this just going to be one unpleasantly embarrassing situation after another?" The answer is yes, but that turned out not to be such a bad thing. I thought I might just read an essay here, then a chapter of another book, then another essay. You know, so the experience wasn't so intense. But I guess I got over the hump because I was soon zooming through the rest of the book.

The pictures she paints of herself is an awkward introvert who has unhealthy habits and just wants to be left alone with them. In college she became close friends with a couple of guys because she didn't know any other girls who just wanted to sit on the couch for hours watching bad tv and eating pizza rolls. She doesn't want to put a lot of work into relationships and, as a matter of fact, said that ideally she and her partner would live in separate - but nearby - apartments. That is basically my fantasy. Another thing we have in common is that our parents had us late in life and our siblings are much older than we are. INTERESTING. (Oh, she uses a lot of caps and exclamation points. It's a pretty conversationally written book.)

It's also the sort of book where you think she must be exaggerating for comedic effect. I mean, can you possibly be that awkward? And how can someone so funny be as unpleasant as you claim to be? But ultimately it works, so I suppose it doesn't matter how factually accurate it is. If you like self-deprecating humor and need some laughs (and don't mind the TMI and swearing) this book might be for you.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Assata: An Autobiography

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur (1987)

In 1973 Assata Shakur was injured in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike and charged with the death of a state trooper. Alternating chapters tell the story, in her own words, of her youth and involvement with the Black Panther party, and her time in prison and multiple trials for bank robbery, kidnapping, and murder of the state trooper. A revolutionary dedicated to the liberation of Black people in America, her book focuses less on the details of her life that can be gleaned from newspapers and more on her political efforts and the unjust treatment she received in court.

Shakur is still on the FBI's list of Most Wanted Terrorists, but that image is not the picture she paints of herself in this book. A smart young woman dedicated to racial justice, she floundered a bit in her youth, dropping out of school and learning about different social justice movements. When she found the Black Panthers, she joined them in providing free breakfast to children, a program they were famous for. She describes some of the struggles working for the group, as her ideas didn't always mesh with that of BPP leadership. But they were agreed that the U.S. had a huge problem with institutionalized racism and that it needed to be changed.

It's often hard to reconcile the official view of those labeled as criminals and terrorists with the people themselves, and this case is no exception. Shakur so obviously cares about the people around her - not just her family and the daughter she gave birth to while in prison, but her larger community. It really showed when she wrote about teaching children and making breakfast for them (and she was so dedicated that it became easy for the night-owl to get up at 4:30am.) She's also very thoughtful, never just going along with what others thought, even if they were working towards the same goal. She always wanted to have conversations about the issues and look at it from different ways. She was very skeptical of the education system, and wrote a lot about the Civil War and our misunderstanding of it. She even apologizes to the people who wrote to her in prison and never received responses. The portrait she paints of herself in this book is that of a curious, conscientious, self-educated person dedicated to making the world a better place for everyone.

At times I wished she had talked a bit more about why she made some of the decisions she did. For instance, she quit school but then began going to night school. Why didn't she just stay in school if she wanted to finish? It wasn't really explained, nor was it when she dropped out of college and then went back. And she definitely skipped over parts of the story, such as her sentencing for the state trooper's murder and her subsequent escape from prison. She did include a chapter about Cuba, which is where she went and presumably still lives, and I thought this chapter, which she talked about freedom and how non-racist Cuba is, was a great addendum.

Although this story took place mostly in the 60s and 70s, much of it sounded unfortunately rather familiar. When Shakur wrote about how police could shoot as many Black people as they wanted without consequences, about how 1% of people in the country control 70% of the wealth, about prison conditions ad the way courts fail to deliver justice, it sounded so familiar it could have been written today. Will things never change? It's not hard to see why people would think revolution is needed because we're sure not moving towards a more equitable and just society by being patient. Which brings me to one of the big questions. What if she did do the things she is accused of? I'm not a proponent of violence, but I also don't think people should sit back and allow their rights to be trampled. Something Shakur said in her narrative really speaks to this idea:

"Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them."

She makes a great point. Many great points, actually. As much as this book isn't a fun enjoyable book to read, it's a valuable perspective from someone who has endured a lot and hasn't let anything stand in her way. I'd highly recommend it to anyone interested in U.S. history or social justice.

This book is on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge and is the fifth one I've completed this year.

Friday, March 16, 2018

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez (2017)

Julia's older sister Olga has been killed, hit by a truck while crossing the street. Now Julia is left alone with her parents and can't help feeling that their disappointment in her has grown even stronger. Olga lived at home even though she was in her 20s, with no plans to move out. She helped out around the house, cooked, and massaged her father's feet when he came home from the factory at night. This is not Julia, or the life she wants. She wants to move out and go to college and take care of herself and live her own life. Mostly she wants to get away from her mother's constant criticisms of everything she does and is and of all the ways she fails them and isn't as good as her sister was. But when Julia sneaks into Olga's room she finds some things that make her question whether Olga really was the perfect daughter everyone thought she was.

Julia feels so alone, like nobody around her cares about the things she cares about or likes what she likes. She's really interested in literature and art and going to college, but her family and friends aren't. And she doesn't hesitate to speak out about how she feels and what she thinks, which gets her in a lot of trouble. She has a pretty abrasive personality sometimes, but to be honest I liked that about her. Unfortunately a lot of this is just an expression of how unhappy she is, and that really comes to a head in a way that results in her getting some much-needed help.

As tends to be the case, her relationship with her parents was at least partly due to how little they understood each other. Julia had no idea what her parents went through getting from Mexico to the United States. And they didn't understand her, they only knew what they wanted for her. Interestingly, the daughter they thought was so perfect actually did not live up to their standards either, but her secrets were just very well hidden. I like the way Julia and her mother tried to get to know each other later in the book and be better to each other.

My only criticism is that I found the dialogue rather stilted in parts. It kind of made me wish I had listened to the audio because perhaps it would have sounded more real. I read this for my book group at work and we had a really great conversation about Julia and her family. There's a lot to think about and discuss in this book and I'm curious to see what Erika L. Sánchez writes next.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Juliet Takes a Breath

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera (2016), narrated by Lillian Claire

Juliet Palante is a Puerto Rican lesbian in the Bronx who has recently been awakened to feminism through a book called Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. She is now leaving home to travel to Portland, Oregon for an internship with the book's author, Harlow Brisbane. It's her first time away from her family and away from her girlfriend, and she waits until just before leaving to come out to her family. It's a rather dramatic scene and Juliet ends up leaving on a less-than-positive note. When she arrives in Portland, nothing is quite what she expected and the uncertainties in her life are increased exponentially.

There's a lot she's already trying to figure out, like how to handle her relationship with her family, how to talk to them about being a lesbian, and the meaning of many of the big new ideas she has found in Raging Flower. In Portland, she is now surrounded by all these hippie vegetarian white people and every situation feels like she's landed on a new planet. But I love how she approaches all the new ideas! Even when someone asks her questions that "sound like bait," rather than rising to it she carefully considers what he means by "preferred gender pronouns." She wants to know what everyone is talking about so she can figure out what she thinks of all of it. Juliet is going into everything with an open mind and a genuine curiosity and I love that about her.

As I mentioned, there are a lot of white people in Portland, and the situation is ripe for some discussions about intersectional feminist issues. Although Juliet (and many others) adore Harlow Brisbane and are inspired by her feminism, it becomes clear that she doesn't understand issues particular to women of color, and makes some pretty big mistakes. I like that Rivera doesn't paint Harlow as an insensitive racist lady but just as someone who grew up in a racist society and is a product of that and wants to do better.

In the meantime, Juliet's distance from her girlfriend has taken a toll on their relationship. While doing research for Harlow, she meets a very cute library worker who she begins spending lots of time with. We also see more of her family relationships when she briefly leaves to visit her aunt and cousin in Miami where she learns more about her family and gets an opportunity to talk about her sexuality with family members who understand her more and can help give her advice to repair her relationship with her mother.

This isn't an especially plot-driven novel. Rather, it's a coming-of-age story about a young woman trying to find her place in a feminist landscape carved out for white women. Juliet does find a community of queer women of color during the book, a space in which she feels like she really belongs and people get her. This was so important to her being able to grow as a character.

It's important to note that while this novel contains a lot of discussions about issues and identity, it's also a lot of fun. I swear! Juliet has a great time, meets hot women, impulsively gets her head shaved, and just generally enjoys a lot of what is going on around her. Even dealing with some of Harlow's quirks, she manages to make light of it. When she gets her period unexpectedly and Harlow starts talking about her sacred period ritual, Juliet asks "Are you going to make me gargle with my period blood?" Juliet is comfortable enough with Harlow to joke around with her about her weirdness, and I really liked that.

It's hard to do this book justice really, because there's so much going on and so many issues, and I haven't seen a lot of this kind of intersectionality in teen books before. I listened to the audio version and the narrator was great! So I definitely recommend listening if you're into that. Whatever the format, I think this is a great choice for anyone who likes teen/new adult fiction (Juliet is college age), feminism, queer and Latinx characters, or just good refreshingly different stories.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat (2017)

I impulsively grabbed this book from a shelving cart when I couldn't find our library's copy of Ratio by Michael Ruhlman, which a friend had recommended. Both books contain foundational cooking advice: Ruhlman's is all about proportion of ingredients, and Nosrat's is about specific elements and how they are used.

The first half of the book is divided into 4 sections: salt, fat, acid, and heat. In each section she describes the science of the element and how it changes the flavor of food and gives a lot of advice on how to use it. This is all interwoven with stories about how she learned to cook, and the mistakes she made along the way. The second half of the book contains recipes.

Nosrat uses a lot of science to explain why cooking works the way it does, which in many cases was very helpful. In other cases, I got a bit lost in the details, but I've never been great at science. She tells us that the Maillard reaction is the scientific name for what happens when you brown meat and subsequently refers to the Maillard reaction every single time she mentions browning meat. Every time. 

I feel like I got a good bit of advice, much of it in the form tidbits, like:
- onions cook slower if something acidic, such as tomatoes, are present
- food should be salted as early as possible so the salt has time to do its work
- cocoa powder, brown sugar, and honey are all considered acids
- freezer burn and dehydration are the result of water escaping from inside the food and forming ice on the surface, so only freeze foods that can stand a little dehydration
- there's a difference between sizzling and sputtering (which would have been great to be aware of before cooking that salmon on way-too-high heat last weekend)
- meat should always come to room temperature before cooking so it will cook evenly (this seems impractical for cooking on a work night, but she says any time sitting out is better than none, so get into the habit of taking it out of the fridge when you first get home)

I also feel like I have a better understanding of when to use different types of salt, how to pay attention to the balance between salt/acid in foods and adjust as necessary, and just a better awareness of what's going on in my foods so I can be a bit smarter when cooking. The idea is to be less reliant on recipes, and I already feel like now I can take certain instructions with a grain of salt (see what I did there?) or fill in the blanks on recipes that don't tell me everything I need to know to execute them successfully.

I'm beginning to think of chefs and recipe writers the way I think of poets: prone to exaggeration and embellishment, and a little flaky when it comes to solid numbers. For instance, when salting pasta Nosrat directs us to add salt by the handful until the pasta water tastes like the sea. But she goes on to say she actually means it should taste like our "memory of the sea" because the sea's salinity is so high our pasta water shouldn't actually be that salty. The implication here is that we all have the same memory of the sea's saltiness, which of course isn't true, so we're supposed to salt our pasta water to her memory of the sea's saltiness level. This is not helpful instruction.

She also has some strong opinions about American Thanksgiving dinner with which I disagree. She claims the reason we pile so much food on our plates is because none of it is very good and we keep eating in hopes we'll eventually be satisfied. Those are strong words, and also don't make much sense. I don't know about you, but I do not eat less of things I like and more of things I don't like. And I happen to love mashed potatoes with a deep, heartfelt passion. I also found it VERY strange that at one point when she was talking about how to cook s'mores (another thing about which she is grossly mistaken) she mentions putting your marshmallow on a coat hanger. A coat hanger! Who the hell uses a coat hanger to toast marshmallows? It just goes to show how little she actually knows about some things.

There are no photos in the book, though there are lovely fun illustrations. This was intentional, as Nosrat explains, because she doesn't want people to feel like what they've made isn't as good as the beautifully photographed dishes in the book. While that's a very understandable idea that I can kind of get behind, I've come to dislike cookbooks without photos because it means I have to spend time reading all the recipes to try and envision the end result. I didn't have the patience for that and just sort of skimmed the recipes with only mild interest. Which is fine - I got this book for the more general advice, not for the recipes.

Despite some criticisms of particular aspects of the book, I gained some understanding I didn't have before about how cooking works, and enjoyed her stories about her own journey to being a better cook. I did copy one of the recipes (Glazed 5-Spice Chicken because I have a ton of Chinese 5-spice powder) and others looked like they'd probably be good if that's what you're looking for, but the real value of this book is all the general knowledge in the first half.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Red Clocks

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (2018)

The American Constitution has a new amendment in this brand new novel from Leni Zumas. The Personhood Amendment says that from the moment of conception fertilized eggs have all the rights of any people, which changes everything for women. Not only is abortion illegal again, but so is IVF, as the procedure would move embryos without their consent. The novel moves between several women, identified by their roles rather than their names. Mattie, the Daughter, is a teenager desperate to end her pregnancy. Her teacher Ro, the Biographer, is just as desperate to become a mother, but she is single which greatly limits her options, especially with forthcoming legislation that won't let single people adopt. Susan, the Wife, is a mother of two whose marriage is falling apart. Gin, the Mender, is a healer who lives out in the woods and is often visited by women who can't get what they need from licensed medical professionals.

The women all have a relationship, or at least an awareness, of each other, but of course what unites them are the restrictions placed on them by this society and the roles it envisions for them. Mattie's situation reflects the reality of a country in which abortion is illegal: women try to cross the border or seek out someone who will perform the procedure illegally, often with disastrous consequences. The truly desperate will try to perform it on themselves. Ro is possibly destined to never be a mother. She has tried artificial insemination many times and is on an adoption waiting list, but unless someone chooses her very soon her opportunities to adopt will be over. Gin is somewhat of an outcast, which doesn't help when she is accused of a crime. Her herbal remedies are often sought out by women with a variety of complaints - including unwanted pregnancy - so as much as she is isolated by the community, she is also of great value to them. Out of all of them, Susan is the one who is living the role intended - she's a wife and mother - but she is very unhappy. She loves her kids, but she no longer loves her husband and dreams of once again having a career.

It's actually supposed to be about five women, the fifth being Eivor, a 19th-century polar explorer, about whom Ro is writing a book. But because her snippets are just a few sentences here and there, she isn't brought to life at all. Her story didn't add anything for me and could have just been left out, though I would have preferred it be expanded and made more relevant to the rest of the book because it could have been an interesting story.

Short chapters, some of which are just a few sentences, make for quick reading. The prose itself was a bit stilted at times, and I never quite got into the groove of the author's style. This passage is fairly typical: "House has light so ship won't crash. Light has beam so sea won't swallow. Ship has watchers, wary squinters, men in raincoats scared of dying." It's not all like this - I think maybe it was just Gin's parts, though I'll admit I can't recall for sure if that's the case.

I keep hearing this book described as a dystopia comparable to The Handmaid's Tale. The comparison is understandable but in fact, the setting is just present-day America with one additional amendment to the Constitution, and this similarity to reality makes it all the more unsettling.

I can't say that I loved it, but I do keep catching myself wanting to pick it back up to see how things are going with the characters before realizing that it is over. So maybe my biggest complaint is that there wasn't enough of it. I know a couple of my friends have read it too, so I'm really looking forward to talking with them about it.