Archive for June, 2009

Links for June 27, 2009

June 27, 2009 @ 7:31 pm | Filed under:

Guernsey Literary Society Open Thread

June 26, 2009 @ 8:11 am | Filed under:

Why didn’t I think of this before?

guernsey The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows. Have you read it? Let’s discuss!

If you haven’t read it yet, be warned: there may be plot spoilers in the comments below. Hurry up and read it so you can come chat with us here!

All those marvelous personalities. Who was your favorite?

And Also? I Like Pie.

June 25, 2009 @ 7:49 pm | Filed under: ,

Well, June’s just whizzing past, isn’t it? I must have picked about thirty tomatoes this afternoon. And that’s not counting the ones I harvested at Farm Town.

A moment to hold: standing in the kitchen with Rose, eating sunwarmed tomatoes with fresh basil and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, while Rilla practiced snipping stray basil leaves.

A book I really enjoyed: the one Scott stole from me the other day, Shannon Hale’s The Actor and the Housewife. He finished it quickly and I got my turn. It’s a unique sort of book; I’ve never read anything like it—and yet it felt comfortably familiar in a very good way, as if I’d been expecting this story to come along. I hadn’t, but that’s how it felt. The novel opens with a chance encounter between Becky, a 34-year-old Mormon housewife seven months pregnant with her fourth child, and Felix, the world’s most devastingly handsome and charming British movie star. I kept shifting between picturing Hugh Grant (he’s a little too old for the beginning) and Colin Firth (because, well, duh)—but really I think there was more Hugh in Felix than Colin, and probably I shouldn’t have been picturing anyone specific at all but I couldn’t help it, because the whole thing is about the unlikely friendship between Becky, my own personal Mary Sue if ever I met one, and this British actor. You know who else would work? For the movie version, because there is bound to be one? That guy, what’s his name, tall and charming dark-haired fellow, played Julia Roberts’s other best friend in My Best Friend’s Wedding. And was also in The Importance of Being Earnest. I could look him up in two seconds. I’m being stubborn here. Wanting to grab his name, but all I’m coming up with is Rupert. Everett? Rupert Everett? Is that a person?

Jude Law would also work. Oh! EWAN MACGREGOR!

But really the guy is a total Hugh Grant.

Enough already. What is my problem tonight? See, this is how my brain really works, and then I try to scrub out all the nonsense for you before I hit ‘publish.’ Tonight I’m too punchy to bother polishing the prose. Feh.

Anyway, the book. The book that I really really enjoyed. Becky and Felix meet because Becky has managed to sell a screenplay, something that happened quite by accident and wasn’t remotely a lifelong ambition or anything like that. Felix wanders into the office at the production company that winds up optioning the screenplay, and he and Becky do not hit it off, except that really they do. They fall easily into sarcastic banter with one another, and the insults quickly escalate, but it’s really a connection between two quick-witted minds, and one thing leads to another, and—they become friends.

Both are happily, swoonily married. Neither finds anything remotely appealing about the lifestyle the other leads. There’s a question floating underneath their first encounters, a worrisome will-there-be-romance question (worrisome because of the happy marriages), and since that question is part of what this book is about, I won’t say more right now. HOWEVER, I would love to discuss the book (or any book I mention on this blog, always, got it?), so if you’d like to chat away in the comments, let’s do so—just lead off with a big spoiler warning if you’re going to get into particulars.

Of course I know it’s a new book so maybe not many of you have had a chance to read it yet. If you’re wanting one nice fat book to take on vacation, this is a good pick. I have to say I really enjoyed Becky as a character. Which is, I guess, something one should NOT admit after having already named that character a Mary Sue. But, you know, she’s a type we seldom see in contemporary fiction. Unlike the whiners who had me rolling my eyes throughout The Ten-Year Nap, Becky’s a woman who embraces the wife-and-mother gig with her whole being. She loves creating a home for her family. She’s got no restless itch—the screenplays are something that bubble out of her creative energy, not the product of unfulfilled longing or restlessness. Fabulous character. It’s about time.

However, I will say this—she’s so awesome she makes me look bad. 🙂 I said to Scott, about halfway through, “Wow, I don’t come close to measuring up to Becky!” and he replied with appropriately Felix-like snark, which is exactly the sort of thing I married him for. Becky, let me tell you, is the kind of supermom readers of this blog sometimes mistakenly think I am, and whereas I have to gently set those folks straight with posts like this, Becky really is kind of super. I mean, she cooks! And bakes pies, extra pies for giving away! Just because!

Thank goodness she’s a fictional person. We needn’t envy her; we may simply enjoy her. Her story made me laugh out loud a good many times, and I cried at least three times. And right here is where I run into the problem I always run into when I blog about books. So much more to say, but I don’t want to give anything away. Have many thoughts (both positive and negative) regarding specific things, but don’t want to affect anyone’s first reaction. Oh dear. This is a complication of blogging I will never resolve. I have no wish to write reviews in the official book-review sense; I write about books out of my enthusiasm for the things I have read and enjoyed. So what I need you to do is read it and tell me if you enjoyed it too, and if, hmm, you had the same reaction to the ending as I did. Comparing notes! That’s what I like to do. Right.

Twitterlog 2009-06-22

June 22, 2009 @ 4:49 pm | Filed under:
  • OK. We are climbing out of this virus at last. Not better yet, but getting there. The upswing is a much better place to be. #
  • Reading Chocolate Unwrapped by Rowan Jacobsen. Am committing to eating a serving of dark chocolate every day. For health reasons, you know. #
  • (more…)


June 19, 2009 @ 10:09 am | Filed under:

Scott walked past in time to catch me giggling over the opening chapter of Shannon Hale’s new novel (for grownups), The Actor and the Housewife. He raised amused eyebrows at me.

“Here,” I said, thrusting the book at him, because that is what we do. “You have to read the first ten pages of this. It’s delightful.”

Ten minutes later, he’s the one reading and chuckling.

“How far are you?”

“Page thirteen. Did you get that far?”

“No, I was on eleven when I handed it to you.”

“Well, thirteen is the funniest bit yet.”

All well and good—but now he has disappeared, and my book along with him. You just know he’s going to reappear an hour from now and tell me I won’t believe the hilariousness of page 127.

Hello, Chocolate, My Old Friend

June 18, 2009 @ 8:31 pm | Filed under: ,

We’ve been hearing about the health benefits of dark chocolate for a couple of years now—woowoo antioxidants, right? But have you read up on the subject? I hadn’t, until Jane insisted I order a copy of Rowan Jacobsen’s Chocolate Unwrapped: The Surprising Health Benefits of America’s Favorite Passion. Rowan, you recall, is the author of Fruitless Fall, the book on bee colony collapse I wrote so much about last month.

His chocolate book proved just as interesting and illuminating.

Published in 2003 (which is to say, on the cutting edge of the chocolate-has-health-benefits revelation), Chocolate Unwrapped is a close look at what chocolate is, how it’s produced, what role it has played in history, and—the best part—exactly why it is good for us. I knew a good bit of the history, having researched cacao and cocoa for a book myself many moons ago, but I enjoyed the thoroughness of Rowan’s examination.

What I appreciated most was the in-depth look at antioxidants—what they are and why we care. I mean, we’ve all been inundated with the ANTIOXIDANTS GOOD message these past five or ten years, and we’ve seen dozens of lists of antioxidant-rich foods. If you’re on Facebook you’ve probably had those darn acai berries rubbed in your face more times than you can count. “Although everyone has heard of antioxidants,” Rowan writes, “most people have only a hazy conception of what they are.” Bingo.

“What,” he goes on to ask, “is so magical about antioxidants? How can they help prevent such a wide range of diseases?” The answer has to do with free radicals—something else I knew about in a hazy FREE RADICALS BAD, ANTIOXIDANTS GOOD way. But the science of it isn’t hazy at all.

Free radicals are molecules gone bad: they have had one of their electrons knocked off, or have had an extra electron forced upon them, so they have a charge. But (as we all remember from chemistry class), molecules don’t want a charge, they want to be neutral, so free radicals search their environment for a place to unload their extra electron, if they have too many, or steal an electron if they are one short.

Of course, the molecule victimized by the original free radical now has a charge of its own. So what does it do? It turns around and does the same thing to its neighbor. A chain reaction occurs that continues until something else comes along to intervene.

Now picture a free radical in your body. If it steals an electron from one of your cells, you then have a chain reaction of radical cells in your body. If it attacks your DNA, so much the worse. Cells don’t respond well to having their molecular structure altered. Cancer is just one of many diseases resulting from this. Blame free radicals for everything from wrinkled skin to memory loss, immune system deterioration, and arthritis….The average DNA receives 10,000 “hits” from free radicals per day.

Well, that cheerful information is enough to send me running to the fridge for my favorite comfort food. Fortuitously, it turns out that’s exactly the right move to make.

Enter the antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals in several ways. The polyphenol antioxidants in chocolate are molecules composed of a ring of six carbon atoms. Some of the bonds between the carbon atoms are double bonds, but a single bond between carbon atoms is all that’s necessary for the molecule to hold together, so polyphenols can easily “shuffle” their bonds to have one free to latch onto a charged particle that comes along—like a free radical. They then carry the free radical out of the body with them when they are excreted through normal processes.

As you can see, your body needs a constant supply of polyphenols and other antioxidants to continously eliminate free radicals from the body. Chocolate is one of the best places to get this supply.

This is where Elaine shoves Jerry: GET OUT! I mean, it’s a bit of a jump from “ANTIOXIDANTS GOOD and chocolate’s got ’em” to “chocolate is one of the best places to get this supply.” Oh but listen:

A bar of dark chocolate has twice the antioxidant content of a glass of red wine and seven times that of green tea. What about fruits and vegetables? They don’t even come close. Oranges have 750 antioxidant units per 100 grams, kale 1770. Blueberries, poster-children of the antioxidant world, have 2400. And dark chocolate? More than 13,000.

Of course, as Rowan points out quite clearly, the cocoa bean is actually the seed of a fruit. And when he says “dark chocolate,” he means the darker, the better—certainly not milk chocolate, so full of sugar and milk powder that the actual cocoa content may be quite minimal. His examination of the history of chocolate illuminates the path the seeds traveled that led to their being so heavily diluted with sugars and fats that it is practically impossible for a contemporary Westerner to think of chocolate as anything but dessert (ergo a wicked indulgence).

Also discussed is chocolate’s famed (and quite factual) mood-lifting power, containing as it does a number of brain-affecting chemical compounds, including caffeine (in minimal quantities, however), theobromine (another mild stimulant), seratonin, tryptophan, and PEA (phenylethylamine), a chemical which, “like speed and heroin…triggers the release of natural opiates in the brain, which brings on feelings of ecstasy.” As if that weren’t enough, there’s anandamide, a “pleasure chemical” found in chocolate that is “almost identical to the THC in marijuana.”

(Bonus children’s literature connection: according to this book, anandamide was named for the Sanskrit word for bliss. In junior high, I was dead set on naming my firstborn daughter “Ananda,” after the awesome dog—stay with me—in Madeleine L’Engle’s  novel, A Swiftly Tilting Planet. According to Mrs. L’Engle, the word meant “that joy in existence without which the universe would fall apart and collapse.” I thought that sounded like a pretty fine name for one’s child. A bit much to measure up to, perhaps, but I planned to call her Nan for short—an homage to Anne Shirley Blythe, of course.)

Anyway: Chocolate Unwrapped: fascinating book, another excellent source of discussion between my children and me, and exactly the justification I needed for my mid-afternoon daily dose. And, yes, for me, where chocolate is concerned, the mantra has always been: the darker, the better. Free radicals, begone.

Gone to Seed

June 18, 2009 @ 8:21 am | Filed under:

This virus has really knocked the stuffing out of me. We had to bail on almost all our planned activities this week, including (to my dismay), the extra Shakespeare rehearsals we’d planned. And I’ve ignored my garden dreadfully. All my herbs went to seed.

I would be sorry, but—


Who knew cilantro made such a lovely flowering plant?

That’s shot lettuce above it, the weedy yellow flowers.

Our nasturtiums have grown into huge bush-sized clumps, a tangle of red and yellow and orange flower cups that the bees are mad for. Sometimes the tangle of color happens on the petals of a single flower.


Elsewhere in the garden…