Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saturday Snapshot: Vegetarian Lasagna

Saturday Snapshot is a weekly meme hosted by Alyce at At Home With Books. The guidelines are to post a photo that you or a friend or family member have taken and then link it back to Alyce's original post for the week. Photos can be old or new and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see.

Needing something to do Thursday I decided to make a vegetarian lasagna for the first time. I love mushrooms, so researched a few different ones and came up with my own recipe. This could have gone any number of ways but it turned out pretty good.

Quick saute of the mushrooms - cremini, white, and portabello with some garlic and butter. This was just the first batch; lots of mushrooms involved in this creation.

Steamed some spinach then chopped it into this appealing green sludge.

On to the bechamel sauce, which I'm still trying to perfect. I don't use whole milk which could be part of the issue. I stirred in the chopped spinach at the end along with salt and pepper.

The fun part - layering! I used freshly grated parmesan and mozzarella cheese; most recipes I looked at just used parmesan but I love mozzarella!

Forty minutes later - viola!  It could have used a bit more punch with the spice combo but it got great reviews. I ended up with way more than I anticipated but good to have some to freeze for later.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book Review: Leg the Spread

Leg The Spread opens with a recounting of the tragic tale of Anne McKenzie, a former commodities trader. The story was offered to author Cari Lynn as a subtle warning that the trading environment she was entering was hostile and unforgiving, that fortunes were made and lost in split seconds regardless of who you are. Lynn sets this story as a warning to the reader as well to never forget that there are real people and real lives impacted by those decisive split seconds. This message hits hard and is difficult to forget when navigating through Lynn’s own first-hand trading experiences that ground her insightful debut effort.

Lynn’s experiences come from working in the big, volatile world of finance as a clerk for The Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The Merc, as it is known, is a rough and tumble place where women are (for the most part) outsiders. This ‘old Boys Club’ however as been slowly transforming thanks to the efforts of dedicated women like Lynn who mercilessly strive daily to blow through the sexism and hammer out their rightful place in this greedy ‘take no prisoners’ society.

Lynn introduces the reader to a few women like Alice, Alexis, and Bev who have made the Merc their territory in order to put a human face on the one-dimensional activities that take place there. Numerous themes emerge from their stories, the most resonant being that a woman’s success as a trader is rarely measured simply in terms of how much money they make or the deals they broker (even though most of the women are indeed in it for the money, just like men). There are the double standards and harassment resulting from the pressure to be a ‘woman’ and yet be a ‘man’ at the same time that always taints a female trader’s successes and failures.

Leg The Spread (a term that refers to safeguarding your market position) is an engaging and involving book mainly because of the women Lynn brings forward. Their stories are inspiring and provide the reader with solid examples of how to stand up for yourself and not be intimidated by those who only want to see you fail. Although there are no warm and fuzzy happy endings here, the reader is still left with a wealth of knowledge about how the Merc works and a very strong understanding that for as far as we women have come, there is still much distance to go.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Saturday Snapshot: smart. witty. literate as hell.

Saturday Snapshot is a weekly meme hosted by Alyce at At Home With Books. The guidelines are to post a photo that you or a friend or family member have taken and then link it back to Alyce's original post for the week. Photos can be old or new and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see.

This is one of my favorite lounging around t-shirts. Unfortunately the website is no longer active but the associated book club and forums are still alive. They are located:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Review: The Big Love

Sarah Dunn’s surprisingly touching debut novel The Big Love is an interesting exploration of the empowering effects a devastating breakup can have for a woman. Alison Hopkins, an engaging and slightly neurotic 32-year-old, is happy in love with her live-in boyfriend Tom. That is, until the night Tom goes out to buy mustard for a dinner party and never returns. He calls Alison from a payphone, tells her that he is in love with his ex-girlfriend (with whom he has been having an affair for months), and will not be coming home. It is at this point of confused shock that Dunn begins her sweetly humourous investment into Alison’s despair and joy.

Alison is a writer of a weekly relationship column for a trendy newspaper in Philadelphia—“I feel I should point out that I became the kind of columnist I became before it was cliché, before the Suddenly Susan-ness of it all hit the culture full-force, before the whole thing became boring, silly, and obvious.” The fodder for her column is her relationship with Tom, meaning that the end of their relationship also means the end of her column. But not until after Alison indulges in a short fling with her new boss Henry who sees her as being the carefree girl she is not.

This affair is monumental on a couple levels. First, Henry is only the third man that Alison has ever slept with and his assumption of her carefree status throws her off kilter; so much so that she ends up storming into his office to ask about their relationship (you can imagine how well that turns out). Second, she is an evangelical Christian (albeit lapsed) and much of the emotional and psychological turmoil she processes is wrapped up in her desire to reclaim her faith.

At times, Alison feels constricted by her faith as it conflicts with her emotions and desires and constructs numerous gray areas in terms of her values. At other times though Alison’s faith provides a very real grounding for figuring out who she is, despite the love-hate relationship she has with it. It is ultimately Alison’s struggle to intertwine her quest for “the big love” with her quest for faith that gives her the perspective necessary to kick Tom out of her life for good and to embark on her own unique path.

Dunn, a columnist and one-time television writer for sitcoms "Murphy Brown" and "Spin City", has written an insightful first novel that has the interesting feel of numerous columns strung together. The writing pops off the page in equal doses of humor and wisdom. There are numerous pop culture references through out that are cleverly placed for maximum comedic effect (“toasting is the new prayer”) and provide a nice respite from Alison’s befuddling deliberations. The Big Love is a wonderful read, and Dunn has much to be proud of with the conflicted yet strong female character she has created in Alison Hopkins.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Mark: Charles Taylor Prize Shortlist

The nominees for the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction were announced this past week. This prize is one of Canada's most prestigious with the winner awarded $25,000 on March 4.

I have not heard of any of these books, which is a bit unusual. Although I don't read a lot of non-fiction I still peruse the shelves in bookstores. Sandra Djwa's book sounds the most interesting as it apparently is about one of Canada's most loved writers. I say apparently because I have never heard of her and am, of course, wondering what have I been missing.

The Pursuit of Perfection: The Life of Celia Franca - Carol Bishop-Gwyn
Born into a working-class family in 1921, Celia Franca, though a capable dancer, was an unlikely candidate for ballet greatness. But Celia possessed a drive that was almost unrivalled, and went on to become one of the most important figures inCanadian ballet in the twentieth century. When a group from Toronto was hopeful of establishing a major ballet, they brought Celia across the Atlantic to be the founder. Celia went on to build the company, the National Ballet of Canada, into a major cultural force in Canada. Commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the National Ballet of Canada, The Pursuit of Perfection tells of the battles, the heartbreaks, the successes, and the accolades Celia and the Ballet shared.
Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada’s World Wars - Tim Cook

Warlords is a fast-paced narrative that humanizes the war effort through the eyes of the prime ministers. Set against how our senior politicians governed themselves and the nation during these difficult times, it offers an invaluable perspective of war and war leaders.


Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page - Sandra Djwa
Journey with No Maps is the first biography of P.K. Page, a brilliant twentieth-century poet and a fine artist. The product of over a decade's research and writing, the book follows Page as she becomes one of Canada's best-loved and most influential writers. "A borderline being," as she called herself, she recognized the new choices offered to women by modern life but followed only those related to her quest for self-discovery. Tracing Page's life through two wars, world travels, the rise of modernist and Canadian cultures, and later Sufi study, biographer Sandra Djwa details the people and events that inspired her work.

Leonardo and The Last Supper - Ross King

Leonardo da Vinci's transcendent painting The Last Supper defined the master artist. Until now, no one has told the full story behind its creation. Political events weighed on da Vinci and all of Italy during the time of the painting's conception and creation, as his patron, the Duke of Sforza, unleashed forces leading to a decades-long series of tragedies known as the Italian Wars. Sforza was overthrown by French forces in 1499, forcing da Vinci to flee Milan with the paint on The Last Supper barely dry. The Last Supper ensured Leonardo's universal renown as a visionary master of the arts.

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy - Andrew Preston

Ever since John Winthrop argued that the Puritans’ new home would be “a city upon a hill,” Americans’ role in the world has been shaped by their belief that God has something special in mind for them. But this is a story that historians have mostly ignored. Now, in the first authoritative work on the subject, Andrew Preston explores the major strains of religious fervor—liberal and conservative, pacifist and militant, internationalist and isolationist—that framed American thinking on international issues.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Adaptation: "Just the facts, Ma'am": L.A. Confidential on Screen

When it was announced that a film would be made of James Ellroy’s fantastic novel of crime and corruption in Los Angeles during the 1950’s, it seemed a ridiculous undertaking. The novel is huge in scope and it seemed heresy to cut any storyline for a two hour film. With a plot so intricately wound around its characters it would certainly fall apart within the Hollywood machinery. However, this was not to be the case in the hands of screenwriter Brian Hegleland and the eyes of director Curtis Hanson. What was to be a disaster turned out to be perhaps one of the greatest noir crime dramas ever put on celluloid in the past fifty years.

L.A.Confidential is a hard-hitting, spare-no-mercy exploration of the crime and corruption dogging the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), where framing suspects, destroying and creating evidence, and banking some on the side is all in a day’s work.

The story begins with the murder of crime lord Mickey Cohen and the subsequent theft of a sizeable amount of his heroin (25 lbs to be exact). Through this initial story turn, the audience is introduced to the three main characters: Wendell “Bud” White, Edmund Exley, and Jack Vincennes. From here the story spirals into the Night Owl Murders, an event bringing all three officers into contact with each through a web of side plots and independent investigations. Out of this tangled web we become aware of large-scale corruption in the District Attorney’s office and the police department, a prostitution ring, and a racially motivated framing of suspects.

What really makes this tale exhilarating are the performances, in particular those of the three lead characters. Bud White (played by the always astonishing Russell Crowe) is all muscle and no brain, at least in the eyes of his superior officer, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Beyond his rough exterior, the audience gets glimpses of White’s unabashed instinct to protect women. This instinct leads him to Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger in a role tailor-made for her), a high-class call-girl who pushes all White’s protector buttons and who believes in his ability to follow his hunches regarding the resolution of the Night Owl Murders.

Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a career cop also serving out the Hollywood dream by being a consultant for a popular cop television show. He is all flash and charm, working with a low-time paparazzi Sid Hutchins (Danny Devito) to setup actors and actresses for good copy and a fifty dollar pay off. Involved in a police station brawl, Vincennes is demoted to vice squad and taken off the television show as punishment. In vice he comes across a folder of pornographic materials with a fleur de lys (‘whatever you desire’) logo embossed on the cover. This symbol matches a business card he found during one of his busts and he sets out to find out what is behind the symbol.

Also involved in the police station brawl is Ed Exley (Guy Pierce), an idealistic young officer looking to move beyond the shadow of his father’s legacy. He finesses his involvement in the brawl to secure a position in the detective unit, a shrewd move not well-received by his fellow colleagues. Exley’s first night on the job has him tagged to investigate the Night Owl Murders.

Moral confusion is the centerpiece of this story, played out through the subtle adjustments each of these characters must make to their individual moral codes as the investigations unfold. White walks a fine line of brutality and sensitivity, with the former strangling him from the inside out in his role as Captain Smith’s enforcer and the latter fueling his attraction to Lynn. Vincennes sold-out a long time ago to be part of the cult of celebrity but ultimately finds a path of redemption, a path he unfortunately only discovers at the moment of his dying breath. It is his voicing of the cue “Rollo Tamasi” which triggers the collision of the moral codes of these three characters narratively and sets into motion the physical and psychological showdown at the Victory Motel.

And it is at the Victory Motel where Exley’s struggles with doing what appears to be morally right in contrast to those around him sharply resolves into an acceptance that the only way to do what is right in the long term or big picture is to sometimes do what is potentially wrong in the present. The result of this resolution is evident in how he handles the aftermath of the gripping and explosive showdown. The lesson learned here—for him and for the audience—is ideal justice is not always so ideal or just when the heroes and villains are indistinguishable.

Attempting to visualize morality and all its complications may seem an easy feat when couched in extremes such as violence. The audience “knows” it is wrong to hang someone out an open window or setup drug busts for money. But the audience has to feel it is wrong and also somewhat right for a particular character to take such actions. It is in navigating this sketchy terrain where a clever script must be equaled or bettered by clever casting and clever directing, as is the case here.

Crowe is as good as it gets by infusing a winning combination of roughness and vulnerability to flesh out White’s demons and angels. It is still stunning he was overlooked for awards glory with this performance. Pierce is brilliant as the ambitious yet skittish Exley. Kevin Spacey nails the self-loathing and self-satisfaction of Vincennes. Not surprisingly, the film crackles with intensity whenever there is interaction between any of the three leads.

Basinger was the sole actor in the film singled out for their work and rightfully so. The character could have easily turned into just another bombshell caricature but Basinger keeps Lynn bruised but not broken. Basinger’s approach plays beautifully into the relationship between Lynn and Bud, a relationship rendered as a delicate dance between two emotionally and physically damaged people learning to expose their wounds and vulnerabilities.

All of the actors are grandly assisted by the commanding yet unintrusive presence of Hanson. This skill is best displayed in the quieter moments, the moments that come to signify the turning points for each of the lead characters. Vincennes decision to leave a payoff on the bar is powerful in its simplicity without being maudlin. But Hanson is equally deft at capturing the bombastic as is evident in the scenes at the Victory Motel. Flashes of body parts, slippery figures in shadow and reflections, punctuations of gunfire come together to compose an artistic experience like no other.

L.A. Confidential is a study in moral complexity, emotional ambiguity, psychological depth. It is a classic tale of brains vs. brawn and the achievements and destruction to be wrought when the two clash. It is a narrative requiring an audience to pay attention to the details, to think through what is and what isn’t being presented, and to determine what they would do in these situations. It is an anything but basic Hollywood film that is still highly entertaining and invigorating after repeated viewings.

"And," in the words of Lynn Bracken, “that’s all the news that’s fit to print.”

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Saturday Snaphot: Chalkboard Project

Saturday Snapshot is a weekly meme hosted by Alyce at At Home With Books. The guidelines are to post a photo that you or a friend or family member have taken and then link it back to Alyce's original post for the week. Photos can be old or new and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see.

Here's one of my latest household projects - a 'chalkboard' addition to the entrance hallway. I had a picture rail from Ikea so I placed it underneath to give an illusion of having a real chalkboard. Finally I have a place to log miscellaneous notes rather than scribbling on the back of receipts and reminding myself to remember I need something or need to do something! :-)

The whole exercise was quick and easy and clean-up was a breeze. I also completed a smaller version in the den beside my desk to keep a running task list for work.  Now I just need to figure out what to do with the almost full pint of paint left.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Book Review: The Other Woman's House

Fascinating. Gripping. Brilliant. These are all common words of choice for other people describing Sophie Hannah's The Other Woman's House. My suspicion is these people have read Hannah's previous works and somehow all of these books together combine to create something resembling those descriptors. I could be wrong but I'm grasping for a rationalization as my own experience cannot be described using those particular words.

The story started off well enough, with a catchy opening line: "I’m going to be killed because of a family called the Gilpatricks." This comes from Connie Bowskill who sees a woman lying in a pool of blood while viewing a virtual real estate tour. Then a few minutes later the body is gone and Connie is left to puzzle out if she hallucinated the body or if she really did see it.

Hannah's books are considered psychological thrillers, and this is an apt classification based on my reading of just this one. The trouble is, I didn't find much thrill and wasn't much interested in unraveling the convoluted psychological threads. In truth, I dosed off in three separate occasions while reading it. This is not, I have gathered, a common experience for her readers.

The main problem for me lied within the characters. There was Simon and Charlie, the now-married cops who are apparently the centerpieces of Hannah's works but were rendered shallow, annoying and almost absent here. There was Charlie's sister Olivia and Simon's co-worker Chris representing a pointless story line. There was, of course, the plot kick starters Connie and her husband Kit both of whom spun too far abstractly out of my emotional reach to care about as the story progressed. Then there was Connie's family, Kit's family, Simon's mother, Simon's other co-worker Sam, etc, etc.

I am good with novels having multiple characters; I am just not good with having poorly developed characters. I'm especially not good with poorly developed multiple characters ruining the promise of a good story. And this is what I feel happened here, abundantly. It's too bad, as I had hoped to have found a new book series into which I could heartily dive.

Read an excerpt.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

2012 Listening Recap

My bestest companion in the whole world is my music collection. As Nietzsche proclaimed, "without music life would be a mistake." It may be worth noting I have this quote inscribed on my iPod. :-)

With this in mind, I thought I would collect some random notes about my 2012 in music:

Most Played - Song
According to my iTunes, the 10 songs I played the most last year were (in no particular order):

Jason Mraz - "I Won't Give Up"
Howie Day - "The Longest Night"
Sara Bareilles - "Gravity"
Racoon - "Lose Another Day"
Muse - "Uprising"
Karmin - "Brokenhearted"
Matchbox Twenty - "She's So Mean"
Radiohead - "Fake Plastic Trees"
David Guetta w/ Sia - "Titanium"
Guster - "Do You Love Me"

This is an odd collection of songs. I have no insight into why these rose to the top, other than they likely earmark different emotional times throughout the year. Though with Matchbox Twenty and Karmin, I just find them so catchy! And with Guster, well, it is the darn bells!

Most Played - Artists
According to my iTunes and my journal, the 10 artists I played the most last year (again, in no particular order):

Matt Nathanson
Arcade Fire
The Decemberists
Sara Bareilles
Blue Rodeo
Mumford & Sons
Kelly Clarkson
Lady Antebellum

Favoritest Finds
The artists and songs which had me giddy all year:

Lykke Li
Emeli Sand
Of Monsters and Men
Jessie Ware
Carrie Underwood - "Blown Away"
David Guetta w/ Sia - "Titanium"

Favoritest Songs / Albums
This was the new music which made me go 'wow' everytime I listened (and still do have me wowing):

Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur
Serena Ryder - Harmony
Angel Haze - "Cleaning Out My Close"
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - "Same Love" (& video)

Favoritest Rediscoveries
These are the artists, albums and/or songs whose brilliance I rediscovered through various avenues:

The Killers - Sam's Town
Linda Ronstadt feat. Aaron Neville - Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind
Pete Yorn - Music for the Morning After
Rosanne Cash - The Wheel
Tears for Fears - Songs From the Big Chair
Bobby Brown - "Every Little Step"
Sam Cooke

Looking Forward to Discovering in 2013
It is not so much that I don't know of these artists and/or the album indicated. It is just I have not spent much time listening and digesting the specific album or the artist's discography as of yet. But I will. In 2013. :-)

Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel
Grizzly Bear
Amanda Palmer
Alabama Shakes

Favoritest Musical Achievement
I have never heard nor viewed "Gangnam Style." Hand to heart swear. Never. And I feel incredibly blessed. Also, I still have not heard a Justin Bieber song in full. I intend to keep it this way for as long as possible!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Saturday Snapshot: New Year's for the Win

Saturday Snapshot is a weekly meme hosted by Alyce at At Home With Books. The guidelines are to post a photo that you or a friend or family member have taken and then link it back to Alyce's original post for the week. Photos can be old or new and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see.

Behold my new year's present; I figure it must be a good omen to win something on the first day of the new year.

Happy New Year!

Friday, January 4, 2013

2012 Reading Recap

I usually do not write end-of-the-year posts. This is mainly because I am lazy and also because I am never sure what to write. But reading almost everyone else's posts I thought I'd throw something together.

So here it goes:

I read 96 books this past year, excluding books related to school. It feels like I read a lot more so this was a bit surprising. Not surprising, 85 of those 96 were fiction. I am a fiction whore.

The ratio of authors was better than in past years, with 57 female authors to 39 males. This is a pretty darn good ratio for me, as I do gravitate toward female authors more than males. This may have to do with my aversion to certain genres. *shrug*

Interestingly though (or maybe not), the books I remember most from this past year are primarily from male authors. And by most, I mean I talked about and recommended these books to others and I hardly ever do this.

Colin Meloy - Wildwood
Chad Harbach - The Art of Fielding
Patrick DeWitt - The Sisters Brothers
Markus Zusak - The Book Thief
Dave Cullen - Columbine
Marc Fitten - Elza's Kitchen
A.M. Homes - May We Be Forgiven
John Green - The Fault in Our Stars
William M. Kuhn - Mrs. Queen Takes the Train
Ann Patchett - State of Wonder
Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson - Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock and Roll
Cristina Alger - The Darlings

My favorite read overall was A.M. Homes' May We Be Forgiven. I don't really know if I got everything packed in its pages but I do know I've been thinking about the book every day since I finished it. And that is a monumental feat.

My second favorite read was The Book Thief.

One other highlight of the year was the resurrection of a local book club with former colleagues. You can find us on Good Reads as the "Sunday Brunch Club."

Side note: Patchett showing up on my list is a bit of surprise as her books are soooooo slow for me. I feel like I'm in quicksand whenever I pick one up, which is why I'm still slogging through Run and Bel Canto four years after first starting them. But I forced myself one afternoon to read State of Wonder from cover to cover; after 200 pages I finally got sucked in and sucked in good. The ending was poor but I choose to ignore it. :-)

I try not to be too disappointed by books but there were a couple which were so based on the social hype:

Emma Donoghue - Room
Ami McKay - The Virgin Cure
Gillian Flynn - Gone Girl
Alison Espach - The Adults

I Wanted To Like These More Than I Did
These are the books you wish were just the tiniest bit better so they could be on the highlight list:

Jasper Fforde - Shades of Grey
Ernest Cline - Ready Player One
Greg Oleaer - Fathermucker
Kris D'Agostino - The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac
Anouk Markvotiz - I Am Forbidden

I debated having a category for books I didn't like but this seemed unproductive. Even if I dislike a book I still appreciate the effort the author and everyone involved in the publication put into its being. Well, unless it seriously offends then appreciate is hardly the word for my reaction.

Here's to lots of great reads in 2013!

Adaptation: The Impossible

Based on a true story....let the tears begin!