Ice Cream and Flowers

IMG_20170830_141119After nursing my knee along for a couple of days, I finally retaped it, slapped on the brace and took my garbage — five huge bags of it, including two filled with cat litter — out to the alley.  Pickup is on Thursday and I didn’t want to miss that.

I stopped to skritch neighbor dogs across the alley, and to peer at the milkweed.  Glinda had said that it was covered in aphids as well as small orange bugs, and while I saw a lot of the latter, the former was represented by one, lonely orange aphid who was getting stepped on (or possibly murdered) by a milkweed bug.CM170809-175443001.jpg

A week or so ago I took a photo or two of adult milkweed bugs mating, and what you see above, to the left, is the result of their passion.  They’re kinda cute, even though they’re trying to eat the seed pods.  I gave the plant a couple of good whacks and suddenly there were no bugs at all!  Honestly, they all think they can live rent free here.

IMG_20170830_140913I checked out a couple of other plants on the way back into the house and found a couple of bumblebees sweet-talking a sunflower.  One fled before I could snap his pic, but this one was determined.  There were also a lot of zinnias in bloom, which is always fun.  They’re so colorful.  I think so many of them look like church hats.

IMG_20170830_140953

I also noted that the Sweet Autumn clematis was not just in bloom, but seemingly taking over the fence in the Hell Strip.  The scent is just glorious, and in a couple of years, that’s all that’s going to be left of all the clematis we’ve planted there.

So many of the other flowers are blown now, and we’re just waiting to collect the seeds. One of our roses has climbed to the point where her cane must be at least 15 feet long.  I want to fasten it to the line we have running between the house and the garage and hope that she’ll bloom along it in the future. It would make an amazing looking arch of roses.

 

81joggNlusL._SL1500_[1].jpgSo, when I came inside, I was going to see what I could pull together for dinner, but I got sidetracked with an idea for a chocolate ice cream recipe.  I’d gotten an ice cream maker for review, and have been playing with various ideas ever since.  And of course I wanted to do chocolate ice cream, because… chocolate, right?  So this is what I threw together:

  • 5 squares Trader Joe’s Pound Plus dark chocolate bar or about 60g/2.2 oz of a 72% cacao or better chocolate.  Basically I had 4 squares available and I chopped the equivalent of a fifth one off a huge chunk of Caillebaut dark chocolate I got at Tony’s a few weeks ago, so the equivalent is about 60 grams, give or take.
  • 1 can of sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 pint of heavy cream
  • 1/2 C unsweetened cocoa
  • 1/2 to 1 C of half and half, to thin the mixture.
  • 1tsp Vanilla or thereabout
  • A little brewed coffee (optional)
  • A touch of cinnamon (also optional)

I don’t normally like to use the condensed milk/heavy cream recipes because I usually find the finished product way too oily, but it was what I had.

So I melted the chocolate and beat in the can of condensed milk.  The chocolate seized as I figured it would, but I kept beating as I added the milk in increments, and got a paste.  Then I added the cream in increments, and kept beating it.  When I tasted it, it was way too sweet, so I started adding unsweetened cocoa.  Once I’d added about half a cup, I got tired of stirring, and wasn’t really getting very far in incorporating the cocoa properly, so I tossed it in my blender.

A few seconds in the blender told me that it was much too thick.  I added vanilla paste, cinnamon, a touch of coffee, and about half a cup of half and half, which thinned it to the point where it felt like a proper ice cream base.  It made two pint jars of base (which will be way too much to use in this tiny ice cream maker, so I’ll probably get four batches out of it) plus just enough for two popsicles which I froze when I put the base in the fridge to chill.

While I have yet to try this as churned ice cream, the popsicles were excellent.  Glinda liked them, I liked them, and frankly, in this house, that’s what matters.  Even unchurned the consistency was smooth and creamy, which is a quality you do get from the condensed milk/cream recipes.  But what was miraculous was that it wasn’t horribly greasy the way some of the recipes have been with that mixture.  I’m guessing the cocoa absorbs some of the fat.

I’ll probably make the ice cream over the long weekend.  What better way to celebrate the end of summer than with a dish of homemade ice cream, right?

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Review: Jackaby, by William Ritter

23003390[1]Sherlock Holmes pastiches often delight me, sometimes infuriate me when done badly, but always underscore my sense that Holmes is the most iconic character in the mystery canon.  With R. F. Jackaby, Ritter has given a nice twist to Holmes.  Jackaby indeed sees what others do not, but it’s not an attention to detail that is his gift, it’s that he, quite literally sees what others cannot see.  He sees otherworldly creatures invisible to the rest of us.  He is as well versed in supernatural phenomena as Holmes is in cigarette ash.

In fact, mundane detail often escapes him, which is why, when Amanda Rook applies for the position of his assistant, he hires her, grudgingly acknowledging that she notices things he doesn’t bother with.  Yes, okay it’s a little strained in that respect. I can’t imagine being a detective and being sloppy about any sort of detail, but I guess if you’re tuned in to an invisible, supernatural world, you can let some humdrum stuff slide.  That’s what the police are for.

I enjoyed the story enough that I immediately bought the second volume, which is probably the best recommendation I can give.  It’s well written, fast-paced, funny, and there’s a genuine mystery or two rattling around in there.  One I guessed at pretty quickly, one I was dead wrong about.  I’m glad about the latter, it’s really what keeps me reading a mystery.  If they’re too obvious, I lose interest.

Jackaby himself is more personable than Holmes, and the other characters are well drawn enough to engage my interest.  If some of the portrayals, most notably Abigail, are a touch anachronistic, I’m willing to overlook that because I like them and the way they fit into the story.

If you enjoy a good fantasy mystery, then give Jackaby a shot.

Review: Spheres – Einaudi, Glass, Nyman, Pärt, Richter, with Daniel Hope

81PgP8iWH-L._SL1200_[1]Here’s something a bit different, an audio review.  But I’m posting it here because this album is a new favorite of mine, which is strange because while I’m a fan of classical music, the more contemporary stuff often leaves me cold. Yet, I will happily listen to Arvo Pärt, Lera Auerbach, and other contemporary composers as I listen my way through the album playlist. Possibly my willingness to accept the newer things is that they are mixed in with work from the Baroque on up to the early 20th century, and done so seamlessly that it feels as if all the music is coeval.

I discovered this album because of Hope’s performance of Einaudi’s Passaggio, which moved me to look for more Einaudi. I found I Giorni on this album and, curious about what else might be included, I listened to the whole thing. (Thank you Amazon. I can’t afford to keep your unlimited access, but in this case the trial did me a good turn.) That’s when I realized that I had to own this album, had to keep it close, rip it to my computer and my other devices. I listen when I want to think, when I want to work, or when I just want some peace. It’s extraordinary.

What I would say to others who look askance at contemporary classics is this: Listen more than once, get to know the piece. Once you do, you may find that it speaks to you in ways you never expected. And if you’re open to a big leap, listen to the whole album.

To Do/Got Done

The To-Do list is a time honored tradition with many people.  Years ago, a dear friend taught me that the trick to feeling you’re on top of your to-do list is to make the first item: “Make List.”  Then when your list is finished, you cross that off and think, “Wow look how well I’m doing!  One thing down already.”

I’ve’ accomplished a lot this weekend, thank goodness, and it occurred to me that something that might be even more helpful in many ways would be a Got-Done list, particularly so when you run out of steam and sit in your chair thinking “What the heck did I do today??” and feeling guilty for not doing enough.  Then you take out your Got-Done list and read all your accomplishments, and think, “I’m good.”

IMG_20170827_140219So here’s my Got Done list for the weekend, unfinished, I hope, because it’s still early and I’m starting to get my second wind.

Note: This list doesn’t include things I have to do every damn day like feeding the cats or brushing my teeth.

Got Done

  1. Made Coffee.
  2. Cleaned up coffee maker.
  3. Persisted in rinsing dishes and putting them into the dishwasher instead of dumping them in the sink and hoping the cleaning fairies will wash them. I have sucky cleaning fairies.
  4. Put together a new clothes hamper, much to the amusement of Glinda and Karen.
  5. Started filling laundry bags in new hamper.
  6. Put together the shelving unit you see to the right.  This took me about three hours, and involved one minor meltdown, some yelling, and a good deal of colorful language.  But it’s hella cool, and hella useful anyway.
  7. Started putting things away in said storage unit.
  8. Because of #6 above, I began cleaning up the cat/utility room, which is nothing short of a miracle.
  9. Cleaned the litter boxes. Ugh.  Worst job ever. Why can’t I train the cats to do this for themselves??
  10. Made lemon ice cream to test a review item. Nom.
  11. Made coffee again.
  12. Still rinsing dishes.  Go me!
  13. Chose an old hamper to put all my dirty rags into.  They’re really foul and need to be washed separately from anything else.  With bleach.  And boiling water.
  14. Walked around the house collecting dirty laundry of all sorts and tossing them into hampers.
  15. Walked around house collecting homeless lightbulbs and household electronics, and gave them homes.
  16. Did a bit of dusting.
  17. Installed new (for review) handles on a couple of cabinets and uninstalled them immediately since they were shite.
  18. Finished reading Magruder’s Cabinet of Curiosity.
  19. Reviewed Magruder’s Cabinet of Curiosity. 
  20. Reviewed ice cream maker.
  21. Cut a mat out of Leo’s ruff.
  22. Reviewed new hamper.
  23. Reviewed new shelving unit.
  24. Bagged up a bunch of garbage.  Not even close to being finished.

Look at that.  I’m good!

Review: Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, by H.P. Wood

29751347[1].jpgKitty Hayward, a young Englishwoman, travels to New York, with her mother, to join her brother. When they arrive, they learn that he has died, and not long after, her mother becomes ill.  When Kitty returns to their hotel after being sent out to fetch some medicine, she’s told that no one named Hayward is registered at the hotel, and that no one on the staff knows who she or her mother are.  Alone in a strange country, with only the clothes on her back, Kitty falls in with a con man who introduces her to the society of Unusuals of Coney Island, freaks, sideshow artists, entertainers and the like, and finds that, unlike the hotel staff, they are willing to help a young woman in distress.  Of course it doesn’t hurt that whatever illness afflicted Kitty’s mother is spreading through the city, hitting Coney Island hard.

Upfront: I loved this book, just enjoyed the heck out of it.  I gave it five stars on Goodreads as soon as I finished it, then fretted about that rating because I thought that I was putting myself in a position of having to defend my enthusiasm for a book which I thought was a bit didactic.  However, as I discussed the book with The Housemate — a voracious reader herself — I realized that while Wood’s message did seem a bit anachronistic in context — her characters are diverse in terms of race, nationality, and gender/sexuality — she has actually given us a context which goes beyond that of time and place, a society of outsiders who understand what it is to be different at a bone-deep level.  Because of this, her story is neither didactic nor anachronistic, but timeless in terms of how “different” people are forced to live in society.

I loved the characters, even the unlikeable ones.  They’re well drawn, and fleshed out, and there are very few spear-carriers in the ensemble.  In fact, Wood so deftly gives weight to all their stories that it’s difficult for me to pick out a protagonist.  Kitty, whose dilemma starts the action, might well win by default, but only just.  But the others all hold their own.  However, if you’re looking for a narrative that is focused on the travails of a single person, don’t look here.  I like this kind of ensemble cast, others will not.

Was there a mystery?  Yes.  A couple, actually.  Was there action?  Yes, some, though not breakneck.  Romance?  Oh yes, again a couple, each of which is, in its own way, transgressive.  And because of this, and because of  the themes of social justice and awareness, if you’re an enemy of diversity, don’t bother with it, or in fact with me.

Bottom line: I no longer feel I need to defend my rating.  I loved it, I think it’s a good book.  Period.

Review: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction,  by Alan Jacobs 

9859899[1].jpgThis brief book is going to get a brief review since it’s getting late.  But to be honest, I don’t need to say much to the people who would enjoy it.  If you’re a reader, you think about the things Jacobs discusses.  You think about big issues such as how to read a book to get the most out of it — Jacobs spends a good deal of time with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, though he is not wholly in Adler’s camp — and small like margin notes, underlining and dog-earing.  You may even think a good deal about the e-book v. hard copy argument, one which Jacobs, like me, finds ludicrous.  A book is what’s on those pages, not the pages themselves.

If you’re a reader, you probably enjoy books about reading.  This year it’s been the primary theme of my reading.  And I don’t think you can do better than to read Alan Jacobs’ wonderful, immensely readable ruminations on the nature of books and the pleasures of reading.  If you’re a reader, you should read Alan Jacobs.

Review: The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

19887474[1].jpgIn 2016, Nora Jemisin was the first black writer to win a Hugo award in the Best Novel category. She won for this book, and I understand why. The Fifth Season is a complex and beautifully written examination of a world where the only thing that stands between its inhabitants and disaster are people known as Orogenes, who can control geological events such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.  And so, using the fiction that Orogenes are far too dangerous to allow to live within society, Guardians take them from their fearful families and villages, schools them, teach and terrorize them to serve society through their gifts, and turns them into grateful slaves.

This is the story of a girl who narrowly escapes murder by her own parents because they discover what she is.  This is the story of a woman whose husband beats their son to death because he discovers the child is an Orogene. This is the story of a young Orogene who is ordered to work and breed with an older one, and the tragedies which result.

This is a world so unlike any I’ve ever read, that even without the superb writing, and the deeper issues, I would have been hooked.  But with the story of the Orogenes removed from all familiar context, Jemisin does allow us to view it from the outside, without any the baggage we may carry about our own Orogene analogs. And in doing that she shows us our own truths.

I was thrilled to hear that Jemisin has won the same award  this year for the sequel to The Fifth Season, not just because she’s a writer of color, but a woman writing about women.

Review: The Cosmic Serpent, by Jeremy Narby

865516[1]I’d wanted to read this when it first came out but never got around to it.  And I’m glad I waited, because it clarified my thinking about aspects of my own writing that needed some clarity.  But beyond that I found it a fascinating examination of mythological imagery, shamanism, hallucinogenic substances, and DNA.

What’s that?  How do all those things relate to each other?  To give it to you in the proverbial nutshell, Narby believes that DNA speaks to people, specifically shamans, and specifically while they are under the influence of drugs. “Oh sure,” you say.  “Pull the other one, it’s got bells.” But Narby has done a pretty good job documenting the medical uses of plant material discovered by these same shamans, and used by their tribes for centuries, plants which western pharma companies are only now beginning to exploit, even though they still don’t actually know why the plants work the way they do.  He’s also traced a lot of ancient imagery and mythology which feature helical structures, entwined serpents, twisting ladders and stairwells; in short he feels they’re symbols of the double helix of DNA.

Because I’m not trying to convince anyone, and because in order to fully understand and appreciate Narby’s thesis, you really do have to read the book, I don’t have any real stake in anyone’s belief or disbelief.  I found the book fascinating, the more so because it has some professional importance to me.  I actually find it far more interesting and even convincing than the conclusions drawn by Yuval Harari’s Sapiens.  YMMV.

Review: Dubliners, by James Joyce

11012[1]I had no idea I was so far behind on my reviews.  It’s been a rough summer, health-wise, and also in terms of work, with me grappling with a story with which I have never been completely comfortable.  But things have picked up, I have a new job that’s come in, and the weather has broken so I hurt a lot less than I did.  In any event I may be a bit brief over some of these titles, for which I apologize, but there really are only so many hours in the day and so much energy in one old woman.

So… James Joyce.  Much has been said about his work, which is one of the problems with Joyce.  We all know of him, but how many of us have read him?  I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man many years ago, and remember almost nothing of it.  And like many others before me I tried to tackle Ulysses and got about ten pages in and said, “Bugger this!” (Imagine me saying it in my poor approximation of an Irish accent, and you’ll get the idea.)  But it occurred to me that hearing the words spoken might be exactly the way I should approach Joyce this time, and if it worked, if I found myself enjoying one of the more accessible books, then perhaps the audio book of Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake would go on my list.

In the end I discovered that I liked Joyce.  I’m not a huge fan, but I like the sound of his words, particularly when read by Irish actors.  And in the Caedmon version, the quality of the narration is up and down, with possibly the best reading being done by Stephen Rea, who gives us a version of The Dead that sounds as if it comes from the depths of a weary soul.  Props also to Ciaran Hinds, Colm Meany, and Dan O’Herlihy.  Alas the one Irish actor I’d have loved to hear narrate one of these stories was not included.  Donal McCann, who left us far too soon, would have done an outstanding job, but it was not to be.

As for the stories themselves, I began to see that they were all about who people think they are and why.  They’re brief glances into events, even moments of the characters’ lives that are so telling, that make their identities so clear that you come away from each one understanding what they hope for, and why they are suffering.

One story in particular — I don’t recall the title at the moment, so apologies for being vague here — is the best sketch of an alcoholic I have ever read.  I listened, becoming increasingly impatient with him until I wanted to shove him down the stairs.  And then I recognized the knowledge that he was fleeing from, and felt terribly sad.  It didn’t excuse him, but it did explain him.

I’m not sure if I will go any further with Joyce, even in audio form, but I did enjoy Dubliners tremendously, and that’s all you can ask from a book.

Review: Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix

22729262[1].jpgBook #101 for this year was a surprise to me.  It was absolutely not the parody of horror novels I thought it would be, but a wry, dryly funny honest-to-god horror story. And it was damn satisfying in spite of being horror-lite.

The action takes place in the Orsk the “all-American furniture superstore in Scandinavian drag,” an IKEA knock-off where the prices are lower and, presumably, the merchandise reflects that.

You have your usual cast of characters.  Amy is a disaffected 20-something who is beyond barely making ends meet.  If she doesn’t pay the $600 rent she owes, she’ll have to go back and live in her mother’s trailer.  She hates her job, hates her life, and sees no percentage in making any sort of effort.  Consequently she always feels as if she’s on the verge of being fired.  Basil, her manager, comes from the gung-ho-memorized-the-entire-manual school of management, and Amy hates him.  Ruth Anne is an older woman who is beloved of everyone because she’s unfailingly nice, and she works hard.  That these three are the people who stay after hours to figure out who is vandalizing the store (broken items, human, uh, substances left on the sofas) is a recipe for, well maybe not disaster, but you know it won’t end well.

When they do find the intruder, a homeless man named Carl, and are joined by two other employees who think the store is haunted and are trying to document the supernatural activity in hope of selling their show idea to Bravo, things begin to get strange.  The police are called, there’s a seance, Amy gets a dose of reality that shakes her out of her don’t-care attitude, and there are ghosts. Lots of them.  Because the Orsk property has a horrible history.

Screenshot_2017-08-17-18-29-18Most of the humor comes out of the send up of IKEA, their product names, and the products themselves, and Hendrix has a really good ear for that kind of parody.  It’s funny without ever going over the top, and without ever blunting the real horror.  The product names become more sinister — Mesonxic struck me as Lovecraftian — and the products themselves become less faux Scandiavian and more Scando-Spanish Inquisition style. I laughed even while I was thinking, Euuu, that’s SO wrong!

Terrible things do happen, people die, bits get torn off, and ultimately those who get out alive come away with the sense that this isn’t finished.  When I reached the end, I thought, There has got to be a sequel.  I want a sequel!

So yeah, I enjoyed the heck out of it.  And if it’s a little lightweight, that’s fine.  I don’t need buckets of gore with my horror.  I like it when my imagination is a big part of why I have The Wiggins.  I don’t often smile when I think about horror stories, but this one does make me grin even as I think, Well, I’ll never look at IKEA the same way again.