27 February 2015

Shirley: Two-Thirds Through


Set in Yorkshire toward the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when the Luddites rioted over the mechanization of mills and the mill owners suffered from the collapse of cloth exports. In spite of all this, the half-Belgian Robert Gerard Moore rents an empty mill and proceeds to introduce the latest "labor-saving machinery" -- much to the ire of the local poor who, after being stirred up by out-of-area agitators, attempt to destroy his work.

Certain inventions in machinery were introduced into the staple manufacturers of the north, which, greatly reducing the numbers of hands necessary to be employed, threw thousands out of work, and left them without legitimate means of sustaining life ... Misery generates hate; these sufferers hated the machines which they believed took their bread from them; they hated the buildings which contained those machines; they hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings.

Meanwhile, Moore's young cousin, Caroline Helstone, is in love with him ... but she senses that affection is not returned. And how could it be, she asks herself? She, the penniless niece of a country rector would be no great match for a mill owner desperately in need of capital. Better he should marry Shirley Keeldar, a wealthy and independent heiress very used to being the master of her own destiny. Better Caroline should quietly creep away and become a governess. (If only the governess she knows would stop telling her what a terrible idea that is!)

Take the matter as you find it: ask no questions, utter no remonstrances; it is your best wisdom. You expected bread, and you have got a stone: break your teeth on it, and don't shriek because the nerves are martyrized; do not doubt that your mental stomach—if you have such a thing—is strong as an ostrich's; the stone will digest. You held out your hand for an egg, and fate put into it a scorpion. Show no consternation: close your fingers firmly upon the gift; let it sting through your palm. Never mind; in time, after your hand and arm have swelled and quivered long with torture, the squeezed scorpion will die, and you will have learned the great lesson how to endure without a sob.

Add in dozens of secondary characters, subplots, and (possibly unnecessary) plot twists and you end up with a novel dense as a plum pudding (as Doris Lessing might say). And yet, dense as it is, I also found it wickedly compelling. This is probably not surprising as I love just about any novel that wants to discuss industrialization's impact on labor, the Napoleonic Wars, the social and economic plight of unmarried/unmarriageable women, and the institutionalization of poverty in 1800s England. And it has two unmarried women remaining good friends even though there's a totally marriageable man (kinda-sorta) standing between them.

I feel that I should warn prospective readers that Shirley is a decidedly different book from Jane Eyre and, if you approach it expecting to feel about it as you might feel about Jane Eyre, you are going to be disappointed. Even though I was forewarned and attempted to start Shirley with no Jane Eyre-influenced bias, I found the first few chapters hard going -- who cares about grasping, self-important curates and their dinner habits? But then I realized Caroline was a completely estimable heroine and quite fell in with the story.

Despite her seemingly gentle demeanor, Caroline's private thoughts are actually quite unconventional and satirical. As she grows into womanhood and realizes that marriage may not be in her future, she strives to embrace the mindlessly feminine tasks that are to make up her life ... while also clearly chaffing against them. Why, Caroline wonders, can't she be a useful spinster? Rather than some kind of genteel placeholder, sewing clothes for the Jew's basket and making visits until she dies? She's self aware enough to know her position is untenable, but she lacks the freedom or power to change it. (And I suspect her situation would have resonated with many a female reader of the day).

At heart, he could not abide sense in women: he liked to see them as silly, as light-headed, as vain, as open to ridicule as possible; because they were then in reality what he held them to be, and wished them to be,--inferior: toys to play with, to amuse a vacant hour and to be thrown away.

And then there's Shirley! A young woman of wealth, beauty, and breeding who cares little for traditional feminine tasks and enjoys referring to herself (and acting as) Captain Shirley Keeldar, Esquire! Is it any wonder she and Caroline should be great friends? Even though Caroline fully expects Shirley to marry Robert and lives daily with that heartache? But does she begrudge Shirley her beauty or wealth or love? No, because (and unlike the other unmarried ladies of her neighborhood) Caroline is not a husband-hunter who schemes, plots, and dresses to ensnare a husband. (Granted, I would really have liked Caroline and Shirley to talk about the elephant/man in the room and hashed everything out, but Shirley isn't that kind of novel).

If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.

Anyway, I've still a third of the novel to get through and I have guarded hopes that Caroline and Shirley will somehow manage to make marriages of equals and turn Moore's impoverished mill into a worker's utopia.

Shirley is my first selection for the 2015 Victorian Bingo, Back to the Classics, and No Book Buying reading challenges. I claim it as a 19th Century classic for Back to the Classics and "name as a title" for Victorian Bingo.

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte (Penguin Classics, 2012)

25 February 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Someday My Spring Will Come

Green thumbs are itching for spring! Greenhouse at Elizabeth Park, Hartford.

24 February 2015

Top 10 Tuesday: Favorite Heroines


This week's Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by the mighty Broke & Bookish, is all about our favorite heroines. Since I already discussed my favorite kickass heroines, I'm going to go with unassuming heroines this time. Yes, even shy wallflowers can be heroines. Or nine-year-old girls with sticky baby brothers!

  1. Jane from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre
  2. The unnamed narrator of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.
  3. Anne Elliot from Jane Austen's Persuasion.
  4. Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, from Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl.
  5. Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.
  6. Aeriel from Meredith Ann Pierce's Darkangel trilogy.
  7. Lirael from Garth Nix's Lirael.
  8. Tiffany Aching from Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men (and others).
  9. Cath from Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl.
  10. Lark Carew of Lark Rising by Sandra Waugh.
  11. Emma from Kaoru Mori's manga series Emma.

You go, Jane.

20 February 2015

Find Me


Find Me started out with an interesting premise and quickly spiraled into a mess of unresolved metaphors. I mean, I think everything from meeting up with Marcus through their stay at the Mansion was supposed to be largely metaphorical or symbolic in some kind of Magical Realism way? I don't know. I just found this a frustrating read -- it felt as if the story was taking place on two different levels, one very real and concrete where Joy, a survivor of terrible childhood trauma, now tries to survive a terrible plague. And the other, all weird with masks and whales and buried bodies. And am I even meant to believe in either story? Joy is, by her own admittance, an unreliable narrator. And who can blame her for that? Suppressing past memories keeps her alive, even if it skews her present toward a kind of madness.

Because I feel I don't understand much of what happened in the second part of the novel, I keep thinking about it, trying to make sense of it. I find myself wondering, was anything that happened after Joy left the Hospital real? Or did she freeze to death in those woods and everything that happened from the first bus onward was just a story she told herself as she died?

And then there's the whole weird (I know I keep using that word) Alice-in-Wonderland vibe from Marcus's White Rabbit mask that makes me want to interpret the book in a completely different light. Agh. I don't know what Find Me is trying to say, but it won't leave me alone. It nags at me. I'm not tempted to re-read it, but I can't stop thinking about it either.

2 out of 5 white rabbit masks

Find Me by Laura van den Berg (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2015)

19 February 2015

Improv Challenge: Coffee & Cream

Here's a not-so-secret secret: I don't like coffee. Love the smell of it, but the taste! Nah-ah. No way. So February's Improv Challenge, focusing as it did on coffee and cream, really was a challenge for me. While I didn't want to take the coward's way out and simply skip February, I also knew that in order to succeed I was going to have to make something that didn't taste strongly of coffee.


Lots of googling showed me I could use coffee in a rub for meat, so that's what I decided to do -- I'd make a coffee rubbed roast and serve it with a creamy coffee-infused pan sauce. And, hopefully, it wouldn't be gross. I used an eye of round roast, because it were on sale and if I was going to ruin a perfectly nice piece of meat then it might as well be a cheap one!

Coffee & Cocoa Rubbed Beef Roast

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 3± lb eye round roast
  • 1 Tbsp espresso powder
  • 1 Tbsp cocoa powder (baking, not drinking)
  • ½ Tbsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp salt

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 500°F. While oven preheats, combine coffee, cocoa, paprika, pepper, and salt. Rub thoroughly all over roast.


  2. Place the roast, fat-side up, in an oven-safe skillet in the oven. Reduce temperature to 475°F. Roast for 7 minutes per pound. Turn off the oven and let the roast sit in the hot oven for 2½ hours. (Seriously, just leave it alone in there. It will be okay).


  3. Remove roast from pan, tent loosely with foil, and allow to rest while you make the sauce.

The roast turned out pretty well. The coffee and cocoa flavors were rather negligible, even the crusty ends were just ... beefy. And that was okay, really, as the beef was perfectly roasted. I used my mom's high-heat start, long-rest roasting method where she starts the beef with a blast of heat and then lets it rest in the slowly cooling oven for hours. It sounds like a foolhardy experiment in food poisoning, but her Christmas roasts are always thing of beauty.

Coffee-Infused Creamy Pan Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 tsp espresso powder
  • ½ cup Malbec [or whatever red you're drinking]
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • salt and pepper
  • browning sauce, if desired.

Instructions

  1. Whisk the espresso powder into the wine and set aside.
  2. Heat the skillet over medium-high. Add in the wine mixture and cook, scraping up any crispy bits from the bottom of the skillet, until the wine is reduced to a thin layer liquid.
  3. Turn the heat down to medium and remove the pan from the heat. Whisk in the heavy cream and return the pan to the heat. Simmer for 3-4 minutes or until it is thickened.
  4. Whisk in the mustard and, tablespoon by tablespoon, the butter. Season with salt and pepper as needed. Darken with a little browning sauce, if the sauce is too milky-looking for your liking.

The sauce definitely tasted of coffee, but it balanced nicely with the wine. It was quite thick and I'm thinking I'd reduce the wine mixture a bit less next time. Yes, there will probably be a next time as, to my surprise, The Husband really liked the roast and its sauce! I thought, at the very least, he'd think the sauce was too strongly flavored, but he sopped up every last splodge of it with his beef. You think you know someone!




18 February 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Hot Chocolate

This winter, I need an IV drip of hot chocolate.

17 February 2015

Top 10 Tuesday: Book Related Problems


Another Top Ten Tuesday! This week, we're talking about ten book-related problems -- like dropping them on your face when reading lying on your back. What? You've never done that? Suuuure you haven't. This post is pretty image heavy, as I've taken the "lazy" way out and borrowed a bunch of images from Someecards. Honestly, I was just pleased to find I'm not the only reader with these "problems!"

Sometimes, people make the mistake of asking & then I can't stop.
I'm sure it will be an delightful wedding, but ...
Tried audiobooks whilst exercising, but the exercise is too distracting.
CAN'T YOU SEE I'M READING?
More like fourteen more :(
Oh, you people in the marketing department are lying liars.
All the damn time.
I can spend more time finding the perfect edition than I do reading the book :(
Money, receipts, mail, library cards, Popsicle sticks, tissues ... everything.
Embarrassing, but it happens.

16 February 2015

Simple Slow Cooker Steel-Cut Oats

I'm enrolled in a life-style modification program at local cardiology center and I'm really enjoying it. The physician assistant I see is very kind and has, so far, managed to make the program seem fun and interesting. Currently, we're focusing on adding good sources of whole grains and fiber to my diet in ways my sensitive gut will tolerate. Oatmeal seems just the ticket -- steel cut oats are easily digested, rich in dietary fiber, have a low glycemic index, and are a good source of protein.


The PA recommended microwaving steel cut outs for a quick breakfast, but I've slow cooked them in the past with good results and that's what I decided to go back to. I don't cook the oats with much in the way of added ingredients or any sweeteners, for that matter, as I prefer to add those things when I reheat them.

Slow Cooker Apple Almond Oatmeal

Yield:Approximately 5 1-cup servings

Ingredients

  • 1 cup steel-cut oats
  • 4 cups Almond Breeze Original Unsweetened Almondmilk Coconutmilk Blend
  • 1 cup diced unsweetened dried apples
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon

Instructions

  1. Coat slow cooker insert with cooking spray. Add all ingredients and stir to combine.
  2. Cook on LOW 6 hours, stirring occasionally.


When I reheated the oatmeal, I stirred in a little more almond-coconut milk to loosen it up and sprinkled it with flaked almonds and ground flaxseed. I didn't add any sweetener as the oatmeal seemed sweet enough from the apples and almond milk blend.

Why almond milk? The PA recommended it as unsweetened almond milk is low calorie, contains no saturated fat or cholesterol, contains vitamins E and B12 as well as healthy fats that may help reduce my bad cholesterol levels. I'm not sure I'm ready to add the stuff to my tea, but it tastes just fine in oatmeal!

13 February 2015

Wee Free Men


The Wee Free Men is the first of the Tiffany Aching books which, while marketed and shelved as young adult books, are perfectly appropriate for adults. In making that declaration, I am not without bias, as the Tiffany Aching books are one of my favorite Discworld sub series and I cannot wait until the fifth book, The Shepherd's Crown, is released in 20whenever ... and I am an old woman of nearly forty.

I’ve read The Wee Free Men multiple times now and so was quite surprised by how fresh and entirely new Briggs’ reading made the audio. His Nac Mac Feegle (irrepressible tiny blue men whose swords glow blue in the presence of lawyers) are a hoot and, miracle of miracles, sound exactly like the Nac Mac Feegles in my head. And the female characters are similarly well-rendered and I frequently forgot that the actual human “being” Tiffany was male. Tiffany remains one of my favorite Discworld characters due to her for love of learning, her mad cheese-making skills, and her strong sense of self. She’s an excellent role model for everyone and I'd love there to be many more Tiffany Aching books.

5 out of 5 frying pans

Wee Free Men written by Terry Pratchett & read by Stephen Briggs (HarperChildren's Audio, 2005)

11 February 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker loves himself some peanuts.

Same male Downy Woodpecker from the back. So pretty.

10 February 2015

Top 10 Tuesday: Romance Novel Shenanigans


For this week's Top Ten Tuesday, we're talking about the top ten things we like and/or dislike about romantic fiction. Valentine's Day always makes me feel a bit cranky, so I'm sticking with dislikes. My dislikes are in alphabetical order, because ranking them in order of annoyance was too difficult. How much I dislike InstaLove, for example, greatly depends on how it is handled within the book I am reading. Sometimes I reallyREALLY hate it ... and sometimes, it's not terrible.

  1. Angry Sexual Tension Jumps Straight To Kissy-Face HEA. Sometimes you meet someone and they annoy the shit out of you and, yet at the same time, they have a certain je ne sais quoi. In the real world, you'd get to know them better, realize they're not that annoying, and feel perfectly right in snogging them like mad. I get that. But the story can't just go "ARGH! YOU MAKE ME SO ANGRY! YOU SEXY MAN! I HATE YOU! KISSY! KISSY! SHAG! HEA." There's got to be character development. A reason fall in love with Hot Annoying Character. Unless it's not a love story -- just sheer eroticism -- then, please, have all the angry shags you like.
  2. From BFF To Lovers. I know it happens in real life, but the rate at which it seems to happen in fiction really suggests some writers (or their publishers) feel men and women can't "just" be friends and that just makes me want to make rude gestures.
  3. Her Mouth Said No, But Her Eyes Said Yes. Nope Nope NOPE. You wait until her mouth matches her eyes, sonny boy.
  4. Historically Unlikely Sexual Shenanigans. Properly bred young virgin ladies desperate to make a good match don't lose their virginity on divans in conveniently located shadowy alcoves at balls. Or on picnic blankets in conveniently private corners of Hyde Park. Just ... NO. (Of course, you PBYVLs could be getting it on with each other ... who would know? Marriageability would not be tarnished).
  5. Improbable Love Barriers. Seemingly unresolvable issues that drag out an otherwise straight-forward romance. Usually the issue(s) could easily be resolved if, say, the characters trusted each other and dealt honestly with each other ... like grown-up people in love are supposed to do.
  6. InstaLove. I fully accept InstaLust is a thing, but love at first sight? Tell me another fairy story, grandma.
  7. Love triangles. Love is complicated enough without adding extra angles. I can accept a character can be infatuated with two people at the same time, but love two people at the same time? No. That's a pale, dingy kind of love. (Also, why does the character have to chose? Why isn't polyamory an option?).
  8. Magickal Baby. Getting pregnant solves all relationship woes. NO. Also, hate the whole "she thinks she's barren or has been barren because she didn't meet The Right Man yet." I had a friend who struggled with infertility for manymany years before she successfully had a baby and it had nothing to do with boffing The Wrong Man. This ... plot nonsense ... just makes me want to do an angry Kermit flail.
  9. Revenge Love. Man hates Woman or Woman's Family or what Woman represents, so sets out to destroy her life and/or family by making her fall in love with him ... but then falls in love with her. It's difficult to believe a love founded on betrayal will have much long term success.
  10. Unnecessary Sex Scenes. Sex is FUN. Yes. But if it's just there, in the midst of all that romance, to pad out the story with extra steaminess and not, say, carry the story forward in any way, then it's not that much fun for me. Unless, again, it's supposed to be straight up erotica and not an actual romance.

All those things that annoy me? At one time or another, I've liked them. If carefully and skillfully done, the most annoying and unlikable plot point can transform into something completely okay. (Except magickal babies and rapey sex. Those are just never going to work for me).

08 February 2015

#ShelfLove No Book Buying Challenge: Monies


In 2014, I spent approximately $170 on books, including e-books and graphics. In 2015, I'm trying to spend $0 ... but it will probably be more like $50 because I'm not amazingly good at forgoing shiny new books with prettypretty covers. Seriously, the Penguin Pocket Hardbacks make me itch to get all spendy. That said, if I could, I'd happily buy a copy of every book designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith just so I could have them to look at.

What am I doing with all the money I "save" by not buying books? I'd like to say it's going into something awesome like a travel fund to go bird watching in Ecuador, but it is more likely to just vanish into the gaping maw that is general household expenses. Ah, the joys of being a responsible adult.


Yeh.

07 February 2015

Chicken Soup Is The Thing

We all woke up under the weather at Chez Savory Tart so today has been all about comforting food like bananas, saltines, big cups of tea, and chicken soup. Yeah, because chicken soup really is good for what ails you. (And I forgot how much I actually like saltines).


The soup took, maybe, twenty minutes to make and might seem a little bland to healthy people, but was just the thing for we tender-tummied folk. I usually cook with low-sodium chicken broth, but since we were a bit dehydrated, I stuck with the regular, full sodium version. Both the broth and the chicken were organic, because that's just the way I roll.

Easy Chicken Orzo Soup

Yield: 4 generous bowlfuls

Ingredients

  • 1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • ½ chopped carrot
  • ½ chopped red onion
  • ½ frozen peas
  • 2 cups water
  • ½ cup orzo
  • Half a lemon
  • Dried parsley, as desired

Instructions

  1. In large pot, bring chicken and broth to boiling. Then reduce heat and simmer uncovered about 15 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove from broth and seat aside to cool.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a skillet and cook carrots and onion until tender.
  3. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, dice into small cubes.
  4. Add vegetables, peas, chicken, orzo, and water back into the large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes or until the orzo is tender.
  5. Stir in parsley and a generous squeeze of lemon. Serve.

04 February 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Snow Removal

Shifting mounds of snow ahead of the next storm. Still six more weeks of winter, you know.


03 February 2015

Top 10 Tuesday: Books I'm Embarrassed I Haven't Read


This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic is "Top Ten Books I Can't Believe I Haven't/Want To Read From X Genre," and I've decided my genre limiter will be classic works of American Literature (I know that's not really a genre, but it's my blog). I've actually read a fair amount of 'em ... just not a lot of the popular or "significant" titles that tend to appear on "50 Greatest American Novels of All Time" type lists. Once I left school, I found my way back in Classic AmLit quite accidentally and continue to find my way more by luck than deliberation. But, still, there are titles I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't read.

Come, see my shame! Watch me lose all credibility as a reader!


  1. Another Country by James Baldwin
  2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  3. Light in August by William Faulkner
  4. Native Son by Richard Wright
  5. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  6. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  7. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
  8. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  9. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (I live 30 minutes from the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, for Pete's sake!)
  10. Washington Square by Henry James

01 February 2015

Pantry/Whole Kitchen Challenge: The End


Jessica's Pantry Challenge over at at Good Cheap Eats is officially done now and, although I still have things in my pantry/freezer I'd like to be rid of, I'm quite pleased with how I've done.
The freezer and pantry are tidier than they've been in yonks and I've gotten back to thinking about what I already have on hand before I start menu planning. Sometime in the past year or so, I'd started skipping that step -- I'd just see a recipe I like, add it to the menu plan, and then shop for all the ingredients regardless of what was already on hand. That was bad, obviously. Unless, of course, the plan was to end up with a pantry of triplicates. And bags of freezer-burnt vegetables.
Senseless. Impractical. Wasteful. Ugh.
So, hurrah for Good Cheap Eats! Hurrah for the Pantry Challenge, which has restored a measure of rigor and commonsense to my menu planning and kitchen management. Will I do this challenge again next January? I think I'm going to have to!