Monday, December 22, 2014

Ho ho ho

"Are you ready for Christmas?"  Everyone asks this, as if it is the yearly apocalypse.  Which I suppose it is.  I have never been "ready" for Christmas.  There is always a gift I didn't get around to buying or a craft I bought the supplies for, but didn't attempt.  Right now, the foam ball that was to have become a kissing ball sits reproachfully on the kitchen bench.  Maybe next year.

I tried again with the disco balls.  Last year, the effect of the disco balls on our dark, north-facing porch was unsatisfactory, so this year I hung them under the azalea bush, hoping for a sort of Christmas fairy garden.  For about three minutes each day, the setting sun hits the disco balls and I get the sparkles I wanted.

At night

By day

You know what else is underwhelming?  A glittered pomegranate, an idea I got from a "green Christmas" book.  The glitter was basically invisible.  I don't have a picture to share, because nothing could be more pointless.  Besides, we ate it.

I did manage to cut some holly and ivy and made this wreathe, which I affixed to the mailbox.

100% biodegradable

At Halloween, I bought a white gourd, which I felt looked elegant on our black desk.  I tried giving it the glitter treatment, and that also was a massive fail, but I kind of like how it looks with the gold NOEL in front of it. And, as I predicted in the Christmas decorating post I wrote last year, I found the missing "N" at the back of the closet when I was putting the decorations away.

Christ.  Everything we own is so battered.  I didn't even notice that sugar skull until I looked at the photograph.

Nutcracker stands guard in the corner

New ornament: needle felted ball from the City Market

Christmas tree skirt in its rightful position
Brigid brought her cat home for the holidays.  For now, she's mostly living in Seamus' room.  I suppose we'll attempt to introduce her to the dogs at some point, but judging from the way Phoebe and Sancho react when a cat crosses our property, it's best if they all remain ignorant of each other for a while.

Speaking of Phoebe, we've gotten into the habit of taking nighttime walks in search of Christmas lights.  Every night, we have to go further and further afield to find lights we haven't seen yet.  She loves it, and she really seems to show an interest in the houses that are lit up, especially if there's an inflated character to bark at.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday reading assignment: Holiday indulgences

I'm reading War and Peace right now, and having a hard time getting into it.  As the title suggests, the action shifts from the battlefield to the drawing rooms of St. Petersburg and Moscow.  It's the battlefield scenes I'm having difficulty with.  So I went to the library and got something different to read over the holidays.  If it's Christmas, I ought to be able to read something comfortable and fun, right?

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.  Yes, a children's book, and one of my favorites.  I'm re-reading it and then I'll read the others in this series, which I have never read.  I picked this book off the library shelf at random, when I was ten years old.  It was around Christmas time and my family had just moved.  I *hated* my new school and was generally miserable, so this book about a girl who is sent to a horrible, abusive boarding school was perfect.

Getting it Right by Elizabeth Jane Howard.  The first sentence of the blurb: "Gavin Lamb is a thirty-one year old virgin hairdresser who lives in London...."  How could that not turn out to be awesome?

The Cranford Chronicles by Elizabeth Gaskell.  SO excited to read this.  I have seen all the excellent BBC movies made from Elizabeth Gaskell Novels (Cranford, Wives and Daughters, and North and South) and I've been dying to read her for ages.

Not continuing to struggle with War and Peace until after the holidays is my Christmas present to myself.  Are you planning any fun reads for the holidays?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: The Greenlanders

There was a meme going around a few weeks ago about "books that have stuck with you" and I wish I'd remembered to include The Greenlanders by  the incomparable Jane Smiley on my list.  I read it a long time ago (it was published in 1988) and since Grace recently wrote a paper about the Norse colonization of Greenland, I was reminded of this book.  It has been so long that I can't remember the characters' names, or any plot details but the novel's stark feeling has stuck with me.

The medieval colony on Greenland gradually became more and more isolated as the Little Ice Age took hold and their winters became longer and harsher.  One major drawback of Greenland is that it lacks trees, so as the original settlers' ships rotted and visitors from Denmark dwindled, they were literally stranded.  In the novel, there's talk of a few hardy folks making the dangerous sea voyage to Vinland (Labrador) where there are trees and they can build a ship, but it never works out.  It's this unrelenting bleakness that has stuck with me all these years: each winter harsher than the last, the livestock herds growing smaller, the growing season shortening.

I read the Amazon customer reviews, (affiliate link, yo) to jog my memory, so I can tell you that The Greenlanders was written in the style of a saga (I had forgotten that) and that the plot centers on an unhappy marriage.  Mostly what I remember is people tucking themselves into their Scandinavian built-in beds, for the duration of the winter, which is pretty much what I would like to do right now.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Made: Christmas tree skirt

As soon as Christmas was over last year, I started knitting a Christmas tree skirt.  It turned out to be an enormous undertaking. I spent nearly every night knitting, while I watched eleven seasons of Frasier reruns.  Now, nearly a year later, I am almost finished.  After searching for a free pattern online, I settled on this one because I liked the stark gray and white palette and I didn't want to do a cliched red and green skirt.

Over the year, as the skirt grew, it was hard to imagine anything less like a Christmas tree skirt than the shapeless, heavy mass of dark gray wool that hung from my circular needle.  It looked like something colonial Americans might have used to transport dead game.  By Labor Day, the body of of the skirt was finished and I could start knitting the lace, and slowly, one stitch for every two rows of lace, release the skirt from the circular needle.

It was only after I'd knit quite a lot of the lace that I realized I'd been knitting it onto the skirt inside-out.

A close up of the catastrophe

Gillian suggested I knit an i-cord to cover the mistake, which was a brilliant idea.  There's a tiny bit of i-cord still to knit, but I wanted to take the picture before the light faded.  

It looks like what Icelandic flamenco dancers might wear

I wandered around the yarn shop for ages one evening, trying to pick the right yarn for the i-cord.  Originally, I thought a sparkly silver yarn would work, but all the silver yarn was much too fine for this bulky skirt (made from local wool).  I think the red was a good choice.  It's not sparkly, but it has a subtle pearled quality.

So that's it.  Over twenty years of wrapping an old Christmas tablecloth around my tree, I now have a proper tree skirt.  And you?  Any epic holiday crafts completed for this year?

Friday, December 05, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is another one from the fifty classics project.  I dreaded reading it.  One day when I was young, my grandfather said, "Sherlock Holmes is all very well, but one must read his historical novels."  So a copy of The White Company was produced for me to read, and I dutifully read it, found it to be a bit of a slog and concluded that Sherlock Holmes was probably a big bore as well.

It turned out not to be a bore, but instead a quick, entertaining read.  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is not the collected works about Holmes, (which is what I assumed before reading it) but is the first collection of short stories about him, published in 1892 after A Study in Scarlett and The Sign of Four.  Most of the cases in this collection are about people playing malicious tricks or manipulating others, not actual crimes.  Holmes himself is as quirky as Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of him, and indulges in cocaine now and then, which was a surprise.  But who can blame him?

Gratuitous picture of Benedict Cumberbatch

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Big Feast

It has been my practice to leave work early on the day before Thanksgiving,  so I was dismayed to learn that this year I'm on call which means I have to stay at work until at least 5:00pm.

In the face of this calamity, I am planning the shit out of this Thanksgiving.  I made the cranberry sauce on Saturday and the pie crusts on Sunday.  I ordered the turkey last Friday, and picked it up on my way home from work yesterday.  (If you're local, I hope you didn't see me staggering down Monticello Ave, clutching a 20 pound turkey to my chest.)  Last night I cleaned the turkey and stuffed it with lint-free towels, as my mother taught me, to soak up the excess blood.  I also made the stuffing and cooked and pureed the giblets for the dogs' Thanksgiving treat.  They LOVE giblet gravy on their dog food. Seamus will finish the desserts for me on Wednesday while I'm at work.  I'm in better shape now than I was last year on Wednesday night, when I went to bed weeping because there was still so much to do.

As for recipes, I've departed a little from our usual and am trying a few new recipes I've found on blogs and pinterest. (Linked below in the menu list.) The cranberry sauce is Graceful Fitness' kickin' cranberry sauce.  I'm not usually motivated to make our Thanksgiving food healthier, but it does bother me a little to drown fresh cranberries in white sugar.  This recipe is sweetened with dried dates plush fresh apple and pear and flavored with fresh ginger.  The sauce turned out pretty tart, so I added about two tablespoons of maple syrup.  I considered, then rejected the kale gratin from this month's Country Living.  (Beware recipes published in decorating magazines; they are often terrible.) I'm going to make broccoli-mandarin salad from Mel's Kitchen Cafe.

I don't do anything special to our turkey--just slap a bunch of butter on it and perhaps push some whole garlic cloves under the skin.  We also like ordinary bread stuffing that is devoid of wild rice or chestnuts or prunes or any of the other things that some people like to use.

I have always made Tasha Tudor's rolls for special occasions, but this year I'm trying the buttermilk potato rolls from Mel's Kitchen Cafe because they seem less fussy and I love potato bread.  Pumpkin pie from my great-grandmother's recipe is a must, but I always add an alternate dessert.  This year it's a Guinness chocolate cheesecake from a recipe I found on pinterest.  The blogger is unknown to me, so this is risky.  I've read the recipe and I think it will be OK.  I've seen some blogger recipes with such half-assed proportions that there is no way they've been tested thoroughly.  And frankly, if you're getting paid or sponsored to create a recipe, you owe it to your readers to measure your ingredients exactly and test the recipe carefully before publishing.

Our menu

Cranberry Sauce
Yam Gratin with chipotle cream (from The New York Times Cookbook)
Broccoli salad with mandarin oranges
Fluffy buttermilk potato rolls

Pumpkin Pie
Guinness chocolate cheesecake

What's on your Thanksgiving menu this year?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Ankle Deep

I stumbled on Angela Thirkell by accident while looking for something else at the Alderman Library.  I could tell just by how they looked on the shelf that these were books I was likely to enjoy.  I selected a book at random and saw something in the blurb about how Thirkell's books are a continuation of the Barsetshire chronicles and that she is the new Anthony Trollope and I realized I had stumbled onto something wonderful.  I selected Wild Strawberries, which you can read about here, and added all of Thirkell's novels to my book list.

I read August Folly while I was in Cape Town, but didn't feel inspired to write a post about it.  Ankle Deep is Thirkell's first novel (published in 1933) and it's probably fair to say it's an immature example of her work.

Fanny Turner is one of those annoying people who thinks her misbehavior is cute.  Impulsive, exacting, childish, demanding; one of her favorite activities is finding girlfriends for an old friend, Valentine Esnor.  Fanny herself is comfortably married with several sons, conveniently away at boarding school. Fanny hosts a weekend house party and among the guests is Aurea, an old flame of Fanny's husband.  Aurea is married and lives in Canada but is visiting her parents in England.  Fanny, whose motive is her own amusement and to cause as much irritation as possible, encourages Valentine to spend time with Aurea, while simultaneously throwing Aurea in front of her husband.

Aurea's marriage is unhappy; she is, as  her father states, one of those unfortunate women who has outgrown her husband.  Her husband is described as a basically inoffensive though unimpressive guy, but Aurea clearly loathes him, and so is ripe to fall in love with Valentine, which she does.  Valentine obligingly returns her feelings and what follows is a tortured description of a relationship between two people who love eachother but won't touch eachother.  To be honest, it got a bit tedious.

I didn't really like any of the characters in this book.  Fanny needs a good smackdown.  Her husband Arthur doesn't come into the story much except to roll his eyes at Fanny and pointlessly fall in love with Aurea too. Aurea is a wishy-washy damp washcloth,  has no sense of humor, and is obviously no fun to be around.  I don't know what Valentine sees in her.  Valentine himself is pretty one-dimensional.  Some of the writing is really irritating.  There's one excruciating scene that goes on for pages and pages in which they won't stop talking about how they're going to be late for dinner, and must still dress for dinner.  THEN GO UPSTAIRS AND DRESS FOR DINNER.  That said, Thirkell does a good job of describing (through dark hints) the murky waters of long standing marriages gone wrong.  It was also nice to read a romance about people my own age.  I'm committed to reading all of Thirkell's works, and as I progress, it will be interesting to see how her writing matured.