Book Report: Austenland


Confession time: I have actually read chick-lit. Why do I need to confess that? Because I was an English major and then an MFA person, and then an English teacher, and so it just seems like the sort of thing that would be an admission. A guilty admission.

I don’t read it often, however, and it’s not because I’m snotty. I’m not. Or am I? Would I even wonder that if I were? Well, now I don’t know. I love specific authors of genre fiction, and chick-lit is just another genre– I just happen to not be too fond of it, apparently. I like my sci-fi à la China Mieville (dense!), my fantasy à la Neil Gaiman (comforting!), and my romances à la Tessa Dare (fluffy!). Mysteries are a whole new topic, with subdivisions and stuff, so we’ll just set mysteries to the side for a while. That’s another post.

When Waitress came out a few years ago, I liked it a lot. Nathan Fillion was in it, and I was on a big Firefly kick at the time. When am I not on a Firefly kick, though? Also, I was really into Pushing Daisies, and the main character in Waitress also had a pie angle. I might just be one of the only Keri Russell fans who didn’t actually like Felicity. Is that sacrilegious? How about when I say I only liked Gilmore Girls because of Paris? Do you hate me now?

At any rate, when I heard about a Keri Russell movie involving something to do with Jane Austen, and then peeked on IMDB and saw that the male lead was JJ Field (from Ruby in the Smoke) I was all about it. I was picturing Waitress, kind of, but without pies and with Austen instead. Nice, right?

Well, I haven’t seen the movie yet, because it’s not on Instant Play and I already have two DVDs that I’m not ready to return. So I read the book.

Normally, when it comes to all things Austen, I’m a stick in the mud purist. I don’t want to know what happened to Darcy and Elizabeth after they got married. I don’t want to read alternate versions or bodice ripper fantasies with the Pride and Prejudice characters. Just the original books, please, and some of the movies. Not even all of the movies.

But this isn’t a rehashing of Austen, so it slipped through on a technicality. The main character, Jane, gets sent to a Regency era summer camp, where everybody pretends they’re Austen-ish characters. That sounded like some fluffy fun.

But then this happened:



Instantly, I went into metawriter mode. It’s like my superpower. I wondered if this was the author’s opinion about Northanger Abbey, or just the character’s opinion. Because it’s different, you know? I could respect the author if it was just the character’s opinion, but not if it was the author’s opinion trickling into the character. And I just couldn’t tell. I couldn’t tell and it drove me nuts.

It made me dislike the character from, like page two.

Do I need to explain how much I love Northanger AbbeyIt’s possible that I’ve read it more times than Pride and Prejudice, and that’s saying something. I’ve read it so many times that when it was time to take the AP English test in high school, I recognized the passage used– the first few pages– and hardly even had to read it.

I think the reason it resonated with me was because it was such an adept parody of the literature at the time. The heroine is not an orphan or mistreated in any way. She sees romance everywhere and is pitifully wrong. She actually causes drama just by misinterpreting things by trying to see her life as one big Castle of Otranto remake, which it most certainly is not. And this all rang my little high school aged bells, because it was such a teenager-ish thing to do. I did it all the time and could see myself in her, and desperately wanted a Henry Tilney to recognize something in me in the same way that he recognized something in Catherine. It gave me hope, which is the sort of thing Austen novels do.

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 5.01.03 PM

So why the hate for Northanger Abbey? I just couldn’t get over it. Eventually, I read the whole thing, but it all fell flat for me because I could not feel all the feelings I should have felt for the main character.

For the record, I often love to hate a main character. Gone Girl is a really good example of that. They were both such assholes! But they were supposed to be, whether you could see yourself in the characters or not, little facets of them and hopefully not large chunks, it was okay to dislike them and root for them at the same time.

But Austenland  should have had more delineation, because it is a fluffier rom-com kind of thing, and the genre demands less ambivalence and more clearly defined roles. I suppose that’s arguable. But I really wanted to like her, and I needed to like her for this foray into chick-lit to work, and I didn’t. And that, my friends, is all.









My TBR Pile is Bigger Than Yours


This post on Book Riot (Food Riot’s big sister-site) got a lot of people hot and bothered! Well, a commenter did, anyway, when she got judgmental and called having an over 800-book TBR (To Be Read) pile hoarding. Really, hoarding? Hoarding is serious business, something that not only negatively affects your daily life but your ability to connect to the world and function on a day-to-day level.

Your To Be Read pile is HOW big?!

Your To Be Read pile is HOW big?!

Had the commenter tossed hoarding into the fray ignorantly, as I often toss in crazypants– to be silly about something serious, which is not always a bad thing– things may have still turned out well for her. But no, she compared 800 unread books to 800 dogs in a house.

Granted, the original author seems to feel a bit guilty herself about having that many books, and so many of them unread, but ultimately she ends up unapologetic about her love for books and acquiring them. She gamely asks the readers how they feel about ever-growing piles of TBR piles.

I say, if it isn’t genuine hoarding– the books aren’t hindering your ability to reach, say, your kitchen or your bathroom, and they aren’t about to fall on your head and cause you to trip– then why not? Get rid of books to make room for more books! Get rid of books to clear up a wanted space, perhaps. But not because some stranger calls it hoarding.

I like having books of my own to pick from, a personal library. That’s not hoarding, is it?

And what about ebooks? Would the commenter be so judgmental about books that took up invisible space on a microchip? I wonder. I wonder how much of her vehemence was from personal experience, as it came out rather bitterly, and without the capacity to bend. I was so irritated at her a few hours ago, but now feel sorry for her, imagining how she developed that brittle and unyielding attitude.

So, as for me, I’ll keep acquiring new books, old books, ebooks, cookbooks and nod at her comment and next time I’m at a yard sale I’m still going to pick up a few books. I might even decline to read them and put them on my TBR pile, just for kicks. Judge away, random lady!


Cole Slaw for the Boy Who Doesn’t Like Cole Slaw


There are people in this house who hate mayonnaise. I’m not one of them. I like it okay in a dry sandwich, not excessively in American potato salads, and have been known to grill a hamburger bun using mayo instead of butter. It spreads more evenly and doesn’t burn as quickly, okay? Don’t judge! I like a good diner-esque burger. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Perhaps I gross out my husband and child the most when I dip my fries in mayonnaise? But you know what? I don’t care. It’s good.

Anyway, one of the things about this being an anti-mayonnaise and anti-vinegar household (except for yours truly) is that there’s never any cole slaw around here.

“What?!” you may exclaim.

But the other night, I figured out how to make cole slaw without either mayonnaise or vinegar, and Lo, it was eaten. Voraciously.

See, we were having salmon tacos, and we needed a vegetable, and there was no cilantro in the house (sacrilege on a taco night, I know) and we had two small heads of red cabbage from our CSA box. Cole slaw made sense (because FISH) but no mayo and no vinegar were some logistical problems I had to work around.

Look at this beauty! Tell me it isn’t a pretty plant.

Just call me Iron Chef Jessica.

Here is the recipe for Cole Slaw for Boys Who Don’t Like Cole Slaw:

– 1/2 a red cabbage, mandolined

– toasted sesame oil, a T or two

– sriracha, to taste

– salt, to taste

– sugar, about a tsp

– lemon, to taste

– garlic powder, just a tiny bit

– fresh dill, finely chopped, a few stalks

Mix it all together. If you can do it an hour before eating, it looks prettier, because then all the purple from the cabbage gets brighter. No picture, sorry! It was too delicious, and it was all gone. Instead, here is a picture of red cabbages by Van Gogh:

Cabbages always make me think of Peter Rabbit and Mr MacGregor's garden-- but here's Van Gogh instead.

Cabbages always make me think of Peter Rabbit and Mr MacGregor’s garden– but here’s Van Gogh instead.



Confessions of a Lemon Hoarder


We are lucky, here in California’s Central Valley, to have lots of sunny weather. So many people have citrus trees in their yards that when everybody’s bumper crops come in, starting as early as December, it’s often hard to find any takers when you ask, “Does anybody want a bag of lemons?”

I’m a bit of a citrus hoarder, so I admit to not asking that question often. Woe unto the friend who wants to take a few of my clementines! Such perfect tiny globes, so sweet, and the peel practically falls away in one or two pieces. I guard that tree from everybody– squirrels, parents, friends, gardeners, you name it.

The Navel oranges are good too, but I don’t get as protective of the tree. Perhaps because the branches are higher, people aren’t as inclined to pilfer from it, and perhaps because Navels are not too hard to find in the store, I’m not as stingy with them.

We also have a Eureka lemon tree, and here is where my problem lies. Lemons are one of my favorite cooking ingredients, so I want to keep all the lemons (each and every one!) but our tree is so prolific that I have the devil of a time figuring out how to use them all before the tree starts to grow new leaves and blossoms. If lemons are still on the tree during this time, new growth (next year’s crop) is endangered. It’s a conundrum. Well, for me it is, because I’m greedy.

So far, I’ve made candied lemon peels, panettone, and a few lemon pound cakes. The problem is, you can only nibble on so many candied lemon peels before you start having disturbingly lemony fresh burps, and you can only eat so much panettone before you start to actually look like a panettone.

Luckily, I’m Greek and I cook like one. We use lemon on most vegetable dishes. I use it in salads instead of vinegar, and squeeze it on broccoli or whatever greens we are having for dinner. Each batch of hummus uses up a whole lemon, and I’ve made a lot of hummus. So far, cooking like the Greek girl I am has used up the most lemons– a squeeze here, a squeeze there, it adds up– but there are still so many to use up! Each fruit hangs outside on the tree, better preserved than if I’d picked it, and it’s become a source of guilt. It has even crossed my mind that maybe, just maybe, I should ask on Facebook if anybody needs some lemons. I’m still resisting.

There are no Moroccan restaurants in my town, but I have a Moroccan cookbook that makes my mouth water every time I flip through it, and preserved lemon makes an appearance in practically every recipe. I found some ex-kimchi jars, used up all my kosher salt and in a few weeks will be able to make Moroccan food, replete with preserved lemons! Nine lemons down, 991 to go– or so it seems.

I’m using even more lemons up by making limoncello. Since my kimchi jars were being used, I bought the biggest Mason jars I’d ever seen (who knew they made them so huge?) and some vodka, and I feel like I’m waiting for the slowest Lemon Drop ever. Literally. I’ve got lemons dangling suggestively in cheesecloth, sweating over jars containing more vodka than I’ve ever bought at one time in my life. I’ve never even had limoncello before, but can’t see how it could go wrong. Lemons, sugar and vodka– how is that not a recipe for success? Unfortunately, each jar of limoncello only requires two lemons.

Two days ago, a friend’s little boy was over, and he picked up a stick and began whacking things with it. Before I knew what he was doing, he was gleefully whacking away at the new leaves on my beloved lemon tree! I ran outside and asked him to stop. He did, explaining that he was picking lemons, and of course I told him that you pick lemons with your hands, not a stick. But as I said that, I realized that to him, it was just a lemon tree with a bunch of dusty, aging lemons on it. They are about to be past their prime, and because I want to hold onto all of them, I’m about to endanger next season’s Eurekas.

Is everybody this greedy about their citrus? Is it just me? Am I any better than people who don’t pick their fruit and just let it rot on the tree all summer? I’ve had just as many candied lemon peels and lemon breads as I can take, and as a non-Moroccan, I suspect my two kimchi jars of preserved lemons will last quite a while. I haven’t even bought a tagine yet.

It goes against my nature, but I have to ask. Does anybody want a bag of lemons?

The Rise of the Machine


For years, the only yeast dough I could manage was the bread roll dough for beerocks– and even then, only because it came from a box. When it became harder and harder to find the brand of roll mix my grandmother had insisted on using, I knew I was screwed. If I ever wanted homemade beerocks again, it appeared that I was going to have to learn how to make bread. My nemesis!

My past attempts at yeast breads were pathetic. I could make several kinds of cookies without a recipe, but my cinnamon rolls were tasty yet stiff little spirals. And as for bread, you know when you learn about the pioneer days in elementary school? Yeah, I think I may have made hardtack a few times. Onward ho! I could manage scones and Irish soda bread with ease, but only because they don’t use yeast. Eventually, I learned to not even bother looking at the Bread sections of cookbooks. Those sections just led to grave disappointment and were a waste of flour, usually three cups at a time.

But to forgo beerocks? No. That was too much. If millions of grandmas, Martha Stewart and some of my foodie friends could manage yeasty things, then so could I! If you’ve ever had a beerock, you’d know that all the fuss is worth it. Ground beef, cabbage and onions sautéed together and put into dough purses, then baked. They’re heavenly. And because of my shortcomings as a baker, I was about to doom myself to a lifetime of store-bought beerocks.

So, I went out and bought a bread machine.

You have to understand– I don’t even own a hand mixer (because what does it do that a wooden spoon and a good balloon whisk can’t?) and at that time my only “extra” appliance was a blender. In my experience, electrical gadgets are just complicated things to wash. Until they break.

Nevertheless, I bought some yeast and some bread flour and followed the recipes in the breadmaker’s instruction booklet to the letter. I even used the wierdly shaped measuring cups provided instead of my own. After all, I had been doing something wrong over and over again for years, and I had no idea what that weak link was. Sure, it was probably my yeast temperature, but at the time I was beginning to wonder if using metal spoons and cups could have been the culprit. I was desperate.

I won’t say breadmaker bread comes out perfectly. It’s a little dense, and the recipes often call for odd things like non-fat dried milk and dehydrated potato flakes. But I did finally learn how to make bread! I learned about yeast temperatures, how the dough should look and feel after it’s been kneaded enough, and which flours need gluten added to them.

The first time I went to Whole Foods to buy a bag of gluten, I was so thrilled that I made a joke to the poor register girl about how most people were trying to eliminate gluten from their diets– and here I was buying it! She was not amused. I think she thought I was a bit too excited by my purchase, and I probably was. It was exciting, though, to experiment with different kinds of flour, all within the safety net of my teacher, the breadmaker.

By the time my breadmaker broke, as all gadgets must– the rubber washer that helped the paddle turn melted spectacularly while baking a loaf of pumpernickel– I was ready to let it go to that great big broken household appliance heaven in the sky. Well, actually my garage, since I am too attached to it to throw it out.

The training wheels are now off. I duplicate the breadmaker’s rising temperature by heating my oven to 250º for just a few minutes. I know to knead the dough until it looks like it did in the breadmaker– it should feel smooth and warm, like you’re giving somebody a massage. And some things turn out even better without the training wheels. The air bubbles in the bread are bigger now, the crust is, well, crustier, and now I can shape the dough any way I want! I have branched out into sourdough baguettes, panettone and multigrain hamburger buns and I haven’t looked back since.

As for my Luddite tendencies, I still have them. I refuse to get a hand mixer, however I eventually fell in love with a pressure cooker my husband insisted on getting. I even have a snow-cone machine, which is surprisingly popular even in the winter. But I don’t have the emotional attachment to these appliances that I have to my trusty little bread maker, my teacher, who is sitting out in the garage.

Of Mice and Mint


I was sure that January’s frost had killed all of my herbs, but no, the stubborn things are resurrecting themselves. The chives came back first, healthy spires. The old, sprouting garlic bulbs I’d planted as  experiments were never damaged in the first place. What are they? Green garlic? Garlic chives? I didn’t snip at them all winter, and they just get longer and more spiraled.

The oregano is coming back, creeping up the sides of his own pot. I cut back the dead branches– so dead the leaves were too black to even use in cooking. Now there are tiny starts of leaves clustering together.

But the zombie star here is the spearmint. She has her humble beginnings– one of those Trader Joe’s buckets. Originally there was spearmint, English thyme, and stevia. The thyme was the first to go, strangled out by both the stevia and the mint. Eventually, though, the stevia was killed by the mint and the Fresno heat. I thought for sure the mint had met her match, though, in January’s big frost.

This last frost was so hard that I almost killed myself on the front steps. That clear sheet of ice was so treacherous that even though I had just warned my husband to be careful of it as he maneuvered his bicycle outside, I stepped on it myself and went flying! I held onto one of the porch supports for dear life. We’re from Fresno, we get excited about raindrops. Ice is just for drinks around here.

But I should have known that my spearmint would be hardier than all of us. She looked completely dead in her plastic, fake terra cotta bucket– but almost overnight she sprouted leaves and new sprigs, and every day those leaves get bigger and bigger. Just now, while checking on the dog’s water dish, I noticed that the spearmint has somehow jumped her pot! New sprigs are in the dirt, mixed in with the grass. Just to be sure, I picked a leaf and squished it between my fingers. She’s had babies.

I butcher the mint every few weeks when she is in her heyday, because it’s surprisingly hard to find dried spearmint in Fresno (unless you go to an Armenian deli or mini-mart) and I use a lot of it when I make Greek meatballs or other beef dishes. I tried the packets of mint you can find with the Mexican seasonings, the ones usually next to the corn husks and big dried peppers– here in Fresno, those are on the supermarket end caps. [Sometimes I wonder about supermarkets in other states. Can you just get tamale ingredients at any old supermarket in other states? I suspect not, but I've lived here my whole life and can take these things for granted, THANK GOD.] But the Mexican mint (made in the US, maybe? I don’t know) had mouse fur in it! Gross! I could just imagine whatever mechanical scythe they use reaping up mice and mint together. Maybe if I was really lucky, I’d find a skull? At any rate, I wasn’t going to buy the Mexican mint anymore.

Then I tried getting mint from my CSA box. They offer all kinds of dried and fresh herbs, and it’s good stuff. I wrote on their Facebook page and asked them if their dried mint was peppermint or spearmint, and they replied it was spearmint– but when I got it it was too… minty. It’s as if a few rogue peppermints found their way into the spearmint patch. What. The. Heck. I made meatballs and they tasted faintly of peppermint tea. My husband and kid thought they tasted all right, but I kept tasting tea. During the dark months of winter I still buy mint from them though, because at least there’s no mouse fur in it.

But now my scraggly, stubborn girl is back and soon I’ll be able to harvest a bunch of real spearmint, dry it, and make non-tea-tasting meatballs. YAY!

Hello, Gorgeous!

Hello, Gorgeous!

This is what I was doing this morning– besides fixing the DVD player and sticking pokey things up the vacuum cleaner’s bum, trying to clean it out. Taking an inventory of the garden, seeing what really died and what has returned to life, and it felt like Easter, which is appropriate, since today is the first day of Lent. Christmas is great, but it’s Easter that has the most meaning, because that idea of resurrection is so irrevocably tied to Nature that you can have your varying ideas about God and Religion and all the differences don’t really matter. Because every Spring there is a resurrection. Plants come back after seeming to be dead. There’s nothing to argue about there. And it’s a miracle.

In Which I Have an Uneasy Relationship with the Internet


Last night our internet went down, and after a brief scare that perhaps we didn’t pay the bill (we were two of those 40 million people who had their debit card numbers breached in that whole Target fiasco, and we got new cards– did we change all of our autopays?) we realized that the blustery rain in our old neighborhood was the more likely culprit. We decided to not call the phone company until the morning, if the internet was still out.

Normally, my husband would surf on the computer as soon as he got home from work, then he and our daughter would watch a documentary before she went to bed. And since Breaking Bad’s last season is now on Netflix, he had a date with the last few episodes of that. But our routine was interrupted. I kept finding myself composing tweets or statuses while washing dishes. My husband paced a little more than usual and got a little cranky. My daughter did not understand that her Nook also needed the internet if she wanted to watch a show on it.

About a half hour after dinner, everyone seemed more at ease. My husband had a cup of tea and watched John Candy’s Delirious on network TV– there’s more than one way to zone out, it seems! My daughter and I played four games of Uno before bed.

I learned two things.

One, my kid is a ruthless Uno player. She will dump all of her +2′s and +4 wild cards on you and never look back. She will also unabashedly inform you that she is going to win, and you are a lo-o-ser– even if you end up winning the game. I suspect she has a healthy ego.

Two, if I want my goal for Lent to be met, I’m going to have to scale waaaaaay back on my Facebook time. I post a lot. If I read something funny, I share it or comment on it. If my kid says something funny, I post it. And then, of course, I check to see if anybody commented or is up to anything interesting. The thing is, I’m terribly nosy. It’s part of being a writer, I think, that nosiness. When I was teaching, as much as I despised giving essays grades, I absolutely loved reading about my students’ thoughts and lives. Facebook is the same for me. With the click of a button, I can see what in-town and out-of-town friends are up to, read some book reviews, and look for clues about peoples’ personalities based on their Facebook likes. I’m nosy and I know it. I’m not even sorry for it. I can’t even begin to understand people who have no interest in what other people think, do, or say. I just don’t get it.

But it is time consuming when it becomes a kind of itch that I can’t help scratching and therefore scratch it all the time. Also, it’s not healthy to scratch something all the time. You get a rash or something. A hotspot, if I were a dog. I don’t want a hotspot, and I do want more control over my time, so I’m going to have to cut down severely on the Facebooking. I read a quarter of a novel last night in the interim time between doing the dishes and playing all those games of Uno with my kid, and I didn’t check my Facebook once. It was nice. So, while I may not be giving up Facebook for Lent, I am giving it up so that I can reach my writing goal for Lent.

I’ll have to check it once a day, because I’m not a very social person  in real life, and I don’t actually want to miss out on an event  or invitation that I might only know about through Facebook. Also, there’s something kind of needy about declaring on Facebook that you are “taking a break” from that very site. I’ve done it myself– no shaming here!– and in retrospect I was half expecting to hear a, “But we’ll miss you!” and that’s not the right reason to take a break, you know? So I think I’ll check it once a day and just leave it at that. Unless you are reading this post, you won’t even know the difference!

In other news, I am halfway through Jo Nesbø’s The Bat (Oops! SPOILER ALERT if you click that link, dammit), which is the first Harry Hole mystery. He is a different character, not as fractured. I think I like the later, fractured Harry better than this more idealistic, almost happy fellow. Or perhaps it was Nesbø himself that hadn’t quite found his footing yet. Had I read this one first, however, I still would have gone on to the rest in the series, so there’s that.

There are a number of suspects, and one is about to get snatched up into custody– but I’m only halfway through, so I am fairly certain this is a red herring. I think I know who did it– I think, but am not sure– and thank goodness this is on my Kindle or I would have flipped to the end already to check! I do that. With a good book like this, it would be a shame for me to revert to habit and see who the serial killer turns out to be, if my hunch is right, but most of the time that little habit saves me hours of reading mediocre books.

I don’t know how to put it really, without sounding like I am complaining, but the writing in The Bat does not take as many lyrical turns and I don’t have the foreboding sense that everything is going to go to Hell in a handbasket in 3… 2… 1…, which is how I normally feel while reading one of the Harry Holes. Still, compared to a bunch of other mysteries out on the market– and especially those that were popular in 1997, when this came out– it is a standout, full of commendable mystery things, like believable twists and interesting characters, a noir-ish detective, and just plain good storytelling. Also, Australia features as an actual character, and I love books that do that (mysteries and regular fiction), and that’s one of the reasons why I love the Soho Crimes so much. This isn’t a Soho Crime, but it might as well be.

I have the other half of the book to finish, though, so this isn’t a full book report.

As for cooking, I am still waiting on those preserved lemons, but I’ve been looking for tagines. I think I’m going to get this one at Cost Plus.

Isn't it pretty?

Isn’t it pretty?