Wednesday, November 3

The dream of the novel

Tom Chatfield’s “Do writers need paper?“ (Prospect). As the comic novelist Julian Gough told me:
“One of the jobs novels used to do was to create a universe for characters, one that felt believable and complicated. But the complexity of life at the moment is such that no writer is able to keep up. The novel once had a dream of itself as this universal art form that could describe to the world to everybody in a way that everybody could understand, and that no longer rings true.”
Up until the minute I read this, I still had that dream, that the novel could describe the world to everybody in a way that everybody could understand. Now I may be convinced otherwise. It was a startling thought!

I think the better a book is, the better it succeeds at that dream.

But I find it freeing to think that novels no longer have the burden of being universal.

Link to original post on Book Blog!

Saturday, October 2

Malcolm Gladwell on Social Media

Author Malcolm Gladwell on Twitter, Facebook, and social activism in the New Yorker:
[Social media] is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.
The Casual Optimist - Books, Design & Culture

This passage from Malcolm Gladwell, quoted in "The Casual Optimist Blog," is a refreshing change from the good/bad dichotomies that usually arise when discussing social media. (OK, a little good/bad. . . ). What do you think?

Thursday, June 3

Ratio: the simple codes behind the craft of everyday cooking

I went through a long drought during which I couldn't get interested in books, but lately I've been reading up a storm again. I haven't felt moved to blog until I found Michael Ruhlman's Ratio: the simple codes behind the craft of everyday cooking. This is such a neat concept, and I've been pursuing this idea for years. Ruhlman gives us the ratio, by weight, of ingredients to each other in doughs, batters, sausages, sauces, custards, and more. The only hurdle to using the ratios is that you have to have a good quality scale to measure the ingredients. Even though I've been pursuing this idea for a while, I really hesitate to buy a $25 scale that I may not actually use that often. (Enthusiasm: high! Follow-through: iffy.) Ruhlman makes the point that volume measurements are inconsistent:

"A cup of flour can weigh anywhere between 4 and 6 ounces. This means that if you are making a recipe calling for 4 cups of flour, you might wind up with a pound of flour in your bowl or you might end up with 1 1/2 pounds. That's a 50 percent difference in the main ingredient, which will have a substantial impact on the finished product."

OK, OK, you've convinced me, Mr. Ruhlman, and I may never use the ratios in your book, but I still like knowing what ratios of ingredients combine to make cookie dough, and how it differs from biscuit dough.

The actual ratios occupy only two pages in the introduction. In the rest of the book he explains the theme and variations. Here are several, to make things more concrete:

Bread = 5 parts flour : 3 parts water (plus yeast and salt)

Pasta dough = 3 parts flour : 2 parts egg

Pie dough= 3 parts flour : 2 parts fat : 1 part water

Cookie Dough = 1 part sugar : 2 parts fat : 3 parts flour

Remember, though, before you rush in, it's weight, not volume.

Once you know the ratios,  you can vary the recipe. Cookies? You can add vanilla, or almond extract, or melted chocolate, or chocolate chips and nuts, or lemon zest and ginger. You can use brown sugar or white sugar. Ruhlman gives you variations, scientific background, and cooking methodologies for each type of dough, batter, sausage, etc. Way fun.

Why is this so fascinating? It's like knowing what makes a Monet a Monet, what makes Beethoven so different from Bach, which intervals and instruments signal Chinese music and which are hallmarks of Celtic music.

I'm terrible at knowing how machines work, but I love learning how cooking, art, and music work. I love reading "how to" books but seldom have any real intention of following through.  I like the ideas, and I often put them to use in other ways, once they'e been composted and mixed with other ideas. Or not. It doesn't really matter to me. I like learning a little bit about a lot of things. I like reading about the creative things other people do. The ideas and possibilities are enough.

Sunday, April 11

Top Books of 2010 So Far

BookPage offers us a list of the Top 20 Books of 2010 So Far based on the number of hits on their web page. Besides being a rough guide to books that might be worth reading, this gives you a chance to get caught up on your best-seller reading. Kind of like going to movies throughout the year so when Oscar time rolls around, you have seen one or two of the nominees for best picture. Except a lot fewer people will be doing this so don't count on anyone being impressed!

Note that the list is based on popularity, not critical reviews. But people who are clicking on BookPage are likely to be enthusiastic and discerning readers.

I just finished Chris Bohjalian's Secrets of Eden, (click for extensive review) which is on the list. I liked it, but though I'm usually clueless when reading mysteries, I guessed the ending about halfway through the book. Bohjalian's Double Bind had an unreliable narrator, and the blurb indicated Secrets of Eden would too, so my spidey senses were alert and tingling and I was able to guess "who done it." I prefer to be mystified.

A much better book, also on the BookPage list, was Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, a complex tale of family sorrow and racial identity, which I recommend wholeheartedly. Rachel, who like the author is half Danish and half African-American, survives a tragic fall in which the rest of her family dies. She moves in with her African-American grandmother, and learns how to fit in this mostly Black environment. The characters she interacts with are insightfully written.

You can click through to reviews of all the books on the list, and there are several I'm going to take a look at. I'll keep you posted!

Happy reading!

Sunday, January 24

60's candy

I've been looking for pictures of candy from the 60's for a project I'm working on. Remember these?

Tuesday, January 19

Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim, reprise

Here are some more mangled headlines from "Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim; and other flubs from the nation's press," edited by the Columbia Journalism Review, compiled by Gloria Cooper.        


CIA Reportedly Sought to Destroy Domestic Flies

Crash prompts change in rules; planes must clear mountains first

Beating Witness Provides Names

Old Miners Enjoy Benefits of Black Lung


Ban on soliciting dead in Trotwood

Fish & Game to Hold Annual Election

Complaints about NBA referees growing ugly

Columnist gets urologist in trouble with his peers

Dr. Tackett gives talk on moon

Stud tires out

Lawmen From Mexico Barbecue Guests

Bishop defrocks gay priest

Teen-age prostitution problem is mounting

Difference between day and night found on tour of Torrington Schools

Cabell Democrats Have Two Heads

Lucky man sees pals die

Mrs. Gandhi stoned at rally in India

Nixon to Stand Pat on Watergate Tapes

Former man dies in California

Religion: Synod of ishops rejects most of it

Do it in a microwave oven, save time

Marital Duties to Replace Borough Affairs for Harold Zipkin

Well, if you haven't laughed yet, you're not likely to. When I read the book the cumulative effect has me laughing out loud. Hope you got a grin out of one or two of these.

Sunday, January 17

Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim

Cindy and I had a conversation this morning that reminded me of one of my favorite books, a book of goofed-up headlines collected by students at the Columbia School of Journalism, "Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim."

Some other favorites from the book:

"Milk Drinkers Turn to Powder"

photo caption "Horse, on far left (not visible in photo) . . ."

I'll add some more when I get home and have access to the book.

In the meantime, here's another quote you might like:

"The remarkable thing about television is that it permits several million people to laugh at the same joke and still feel lonely."   T. S. Eliot

Enjoy your day!

Thursday, January 14

Piano Puzzler

Yeterday I heard Piano Puzzler on MPR for the first time! Great music nerd fun!

Composer Bruce Adolphe selects a tune from folk, popular, or classical music, and uses it as the basis for a short composition "in the style of" a different composer. The one I heard yesterday was Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So" in the style of Stravinsky! Man, did that thing move! Adolphe quoted phrases from some of Stravinsky's work as well as other Gershwin quotes, and wove them together into a wonderful piece. The Puzzle is done as a quiz show, with someone from the radio audience trying to identify the tune and the composer. Yesterday's contestant got both!

One of my favorite Christmas CD's uses the same trick, using carols as the basis for "in the style of" works. The best one is "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" in the style of Tchaikovsky. You hear the celestina and think you are listening to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, until gradually it dawns on you that something is a little different. It's great musical humor.

Click on the title or the link below it to visit their archives.

Tuesday, January 12

More quotations, some silly

I love this. It is very silly:

"The deep, deep peace of the double bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise longue."
     Mrs. Patrick Campbell

And now, something completely different:

" . . . my music teacher offered twittering madrigals and something about how, in Italy, the oranges hang on the tree. He treated me--the humiliation of it--as a soprano.

"These, by contrast, are the six elements of a Sacred Harp alto: rage, darkness, motherhood, earth, malice, and sex. Once you feel it, you can always do it. You know where to go for it, though it will cost you.

"In Sacred Harp we are always singing for our fathers, our mothers, our lost. We altos hug the ground, splay out our legs, and cry from the belly; we are suspect even among our own. 'I can't sing next to one of them,' complains a pretty treble, moving down the square."

     Joan Oliver Goldsmith. How Can I Keep From Singing?

Aren't you glad you're an alto? Or don't you wish you were?

And finally:

The "six most dramatic mistakes" made by people in the course of their lives, from Cicero, a Roman stateman and orator:

  • The delusion that individual advancement is made by crushing others.
  • The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected.
  • Insisting that a thing is impossible because we ourselves cannot do it.
  • Refusing to set aside our own trivial preferences.
  • Neglecting development and refinement of the mind, and not acquiring the habit of reading and studying.
  • Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.
Amazingly durable ideas.

That's all for now!

Saturday, January 9

Great quotations

Quotes I've collected:

"On recalling the first time he read The Arabian Nights, Dickends found 'all things become uncommon and enchanted to me! All lamps are wonderful; all rings are talismans!'"
    from Victorian Fairy Tale Book, ed. Michael Patrick Hearn, Introduction

Reminds me of Nikos Kazantzakis, (author of Zorba the Greek) describing his childhood "buzzing bee and honey-filled mind." Our internal life of imagination and wonder.

BTW, my sister tells me that MLA standards no longer include underlining of book titles. Imagine that! But I forgot to ask if we are now to use bold or italic. If I've got it wrong, I'm sure the deity has forgiven.

"Letters are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling."
     journalist Janet Malcolm, from
More Than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art

"no organism can survive very long without externally originating cutaneous stimulation."
     Ashley Montague. Touching: The Human Significance of Skin.

If anyone wonders why you want a hug, you can use this fancy way to say that we all need touch.

And finally,

"If freedom means anything, it is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."
     George Orwell

I have a few more which I will save for another post.