2015 reading challenge: July report

I only finished one challenge book this month, but I’m about halfway through Roots, by Alex Haley (man that book is long). I’ve also received my copy of War and Peace.

A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit:
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. Grade: B

Months completed: 7 of 12 (58%)
Challenges completed: 42 of 50 (84%)

2015 reading challenge: June report

This month was the first time that this project started feeling like a burden. I took a bit of a step back from it, since the whole reason I joined in was to broaden my reading material, not to torture myself or never read anything fun ever again. I ended up completing quite a few categories, but didn’t get through all fifty. I’m pretty close, though!

A book your mom loves:
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. Grade: B
[My dad actually recommended this. He’s recently started a men’s book club.]

A mystery or thriller:
Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold. Grade: B
[Sci-fi, yes, but this one’s definitely a mystery too.]

A book you started but never finished:
No Limits by Lori Foster. Grade: C

A book written by an author with your same initials:
Hard As It Gets by Laura Kaye. Grade: A

A play:
Three Screenplays by Edward Burns. Grade: C

A book with bad reviews:
Frog Music by Emma Donaghue. Grade: C
[The popularity of Amazon reviews has flattened out the rating of most books to between 3 and 4.5 stars – it’s pretty hard to find a well-known book that goes below or above that range once it’s been out more than a month or two. Frog Music comes in at 3.3 stars, as of this writing, which is closer to the bottom than the top of that range.
(The other approach, probably more intellectually solid, would have been to find a literary critic and choose one of the books they panned.)]

A classic romance:
Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer. Grade: D

A book with magic:
The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner Grade: B

Months completed: 6 of 12 (50%)
Challenges completed: 41 of 50 (82%)

I went ahead and used Laura Kaye this month for the “A book written by an author with your same initials” category – which are my first and middle initials, not my first and last – but when I was deciding what to do for this category a while ago, I did a web search and was browsing a list of famous authors with last names starting with T. On there was Leo Tolstoy. I’ve never actually read any Tolstoy, and so I figured I could kill two birds with one stone and complete that category, and the “a book with more than 500 pages” category, by actually tackling War and Peace. I’ve ordered a copy of the recent Vintage Classics translation, which is supposed to be quite accessible. It’s over 1200 pages, so it might take me the rest of the year just to finish it!

Food Friday: The Kitchen Ecosystem

A quick book recommendation for this Friday – Eugenia Bone’s The Kitchen Ecosystem: Integrating Recipes to Create Delicious Meals. It’s a sizable cookbook organized by ingredient, and each section includes ‘regular’ recipes as well as those for canning/preserving, and then recipes that use those preserved items. It’s basically what the subtitle says – a way to think about cooking and your ingredients differently. If you’re interested in seasonal cooking, occasional canning without making it a big project, and generally getting the best bang out of your food purchases, I’d recommend it. Nothing is particularly esoteric but everything’s interesting enough to feel like I hadn’t read it before.

[Link is an affiliate link.]

A garden update

I used to post about my gardening, back when I had a garden. Since we moved last year, there hasn’t been much action in that area. Most of our back yard is in pavers, which is low-maintenance and good in the drought, but rather boring. We moved south and farther away from water, so it’s noticeably hotter and drier, and it’s been an adjustment. We’ve got a small plot on one side which would be good for veggies, but it’s infested with mint and as much as we’ve tried we just haven’t gotten rid of all of it. (There’s a circle in hell, I’m convinced, for those who plant mint in the ground in regions where it doesn’t freeze regularly in the winter. It took me 5+ years to get rid of the bulk of it at our old place, and new shoots would still pop up on occasion. If you want to grow mint, please keep it in a pot. End PSA.)

In our new place, there isn’t really a front porch, more like a set of steps up to a stoop and the door. I’d bought a couple of painted pots and put them on the stoop with primroses this winter. Primroses are perennials in this climate, but they don’t like it that hot or dry, so they usually look their best in winter and eek through summer. Our front door faces west and so gets all of the afternoon sun, with the added ‘bonus’ of the concrete steps and stucco house reflecting back all the light and heat. The primroses just weren’t going to make it through the summer there, no matter how often I watered them, so I pulled them out into other containers so they could live indoors for the season. I ordered a set of self-watering pot reservoirs to retrofit the pots, and bought some lantana to put in them. Lantana loves the heat and shouldn’t go too crazy sending out shoots as long as it’s in a pot. Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, we’ve been adjusting to the drought restrictions by limiting our watering on the small grass area we do have in the front. The spouse would like to get rid of all the grass, but it probably doesn’t make sense to do it until the fall, when there will be a bit of rain again (fingers crossed!) and whatever plants we put in will have an easier time getting established. Our city was placed in the ‘reduce 30%’ band under the statewide restrictions. Thankfully they’re basing that on a city-wide average adjusted by house size, so if you have already been quite frugal you’re not being punished for your foresight. The official ‘we’ll fine you if you go over’ period doesn’t start until June 15th, so we won’t know until later in the summer how we’re doing. I read a news article recently that said that the Bay Area in general had reduced water usage 19% this spring compared to last year, which is promising, especially considering that last year we were already in a drought and lots of people were already voluntarily reducing water usage.

2015 reading challenge: May report

April showers bring May books? Sounds good to me. Here are the categories I completed this month.

A book with a one-word title:
The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum. Grade: A

A book that takes place in your hometown:
Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot. Grade: C

A book by a female author:
How to Be Both by Ali Smith. Grade: B

A trilogy:
Young Miles by Lois McMaster Bujold. Grade: B

A book based on or turned into a TV show:
So, Anyway by John Cleese. Grade: C
[A bit of a cheat, yes, since this is a biography about Cleese and his creative life, including writing for and acting in TV shows, including Monty Python’s Flying Circus.]

A book that scares you:
Trigger Warnings by Neil Gaiman. Grade: B

A book that became a movie:
As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes and Joe Layden. Grade: A
[Again a bit of a cheat, since it’s about the filming of The Princess Bride and not the book The Princess Bride itself, but I make my own rules!]

A book written by someone under 30:
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe. Grade: B
Sneaking in under the wire, here, as Munroe’s Wikipedia page indicates he was born in October 1984 and this book was published in September 2014.

A book you own but have never read:
An Atomic Romance by Bobbie Ann Mason. Grade: C

Months completed: 5 of 12 (42%)
Challenges completed: 33 of 50 (66%)

I’m tantalizingly close to being done, as you can see, which has got me wondering if I put my head down and read like crazy I could get done in June, and thus complete the whole year-long challenge in six months. We’ll see – one of the categories I haven’t yet completed is “a book with more than 500 pages”…

2015 reading challenge: April report

I’ll preface this month with one book that’s not on the list, because I didn’t finish it: Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant. I like a bit of literary fiction on occasion but this was just a slog. I got about a third of the way through and realized I didn’t care about the characters, I wasn’t engaged with the plot, and whatever allegory he was trying to construct seemed more obvious than the one-liners in Furious 7. So I stopped. Next!

Fourth month for the Popsugar reading challenge.

Here are the categories I completed in April:

A book a friend recommended:
Start with Why by Simon Sinek. Grade: B

A book with a number in the title:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Grade: A

A book set in the future:
Obsession in Death by J.D. Robb. Grade: B

A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet:
Dead Heat by Patricia Briggs. Grade: B

A book with antonyms in the title:
Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain. Grade: B

A book set in another country:
Otherwise Engaged by Amanda Quick. Grade: A

A popular author’s first book:
Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold. Grade: B

A funny book:
Mark Cooper Versus America by Lisa Henry & J.A. Rock. Grade: A

A book more than 100 years old:
Gilgamesh translated by Stephen Mitchell. Grade: A
(Figured if I was going to read something old, I’d go for really old – in fact, the oldest written fiction that exists in the world, from what I understand. This new translation is well done and compelling.)

A book at the bottom of your to-read list:
Every Idea is a Good Idea by Tom Sturges. Grade: B

I don’t think I read more books than usual this month; it’s just that most of them managed to fit in one of the challenge categories. Ten categories down this month!

Months completed: 4 of 12 (30%)
Challenges completed: 24 of 50 (48%)

Food Friday: Tres Leches Cake

I had to share this cake recipe with y’all even though I haven’t tried it yet, because it sounded so interesting. It uses the same device for moistness that my favorite Jello ‘poke’ cake does, except instead of Jello poured over the hot cake it’s a milk/cream mixture. It’s from Ina Garten’s new (2014) cookbook, Make It Ahead.

Tres Leches Cake with Berries

from Make It Ahead, Ina Garten

1 1/4 c all-purpose flour

2 t baking powder

3/4 t kosher salt

3 extra-large eggs at room temperature

1 c plus 5 T granulated sugar

2 t pure vanilla extract

1/2 c whole milk

1 1/4 c heavy cream

1 12-oz can evaporated milk

1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk

1/2 t pure almond extract

Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean

8 cups mixed fresh raspberries and sliced strawberries, for serving

sifted confectioners’ sugar, for dustin

whipped cream [there’s also a recipe in the cookbook for this, a make-ahead version that stays whipped for a while thanks to the addition of creme fraiche]

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9x13x2″ baking pan.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a small bowl and set aside. Place the eggs, 1 cup of granulated sugar, and the vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium-high speed for 10 minutes (really!) until light yellow and fluffly. Reduce the speed to low and slowly add half the flour mixture, then the milk, and finally the remaining flour mixture. Mix with a rubber spatula to be sure the batter is well mixed. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top, and bake for 25 minutes, until the cake springs back when touched lightly in the middle and a cake tester comes out clean. Set aside to cool in the pan for 30 minutes.

In a 4-cup liquid measuring cup, whisk together the heavy cream, evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, almond extract, and vanilla seeds. Using a bamboo skewer, poke holes all over the cooled cake and slowly pour the cream mixture over the cake, allowing it to be absorbed completely before continuing to pour on more of the mixture. Cover the cake with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours.

To serve, toss the fruit with the 5 tablespoons of granulated sugar. Dust the cake with confectioners’ sugar, cut in squares, and place on dessert plates. Surround the cake with the fruit, put a dollop of whipped cream on top, and serve.