31 January 2012

What I am Reading: January 2012

It's probably going to be a light month, as I gear up to edit another news letter for our club and also have an apa mailing to finish. But I will forge ahead in my effort to read through the books I need to return, those I want to donate/give away, and those I really ought to read so that my brain doesn't atrophy. One of my goals will definitely be to ensure that I manage at least one of those every month!
  1. Dipped, Stripped, and Dead (2009) by Elise Hyatt: Or is this really Sarah Hoyt, who copyrighted it? The first "A Daring Finds Mystery", I quite enjoyed this.--- Yes, this is Sarah Hoyt, whose science fiction I have also enjoyed. This explains the professionalism of the writing, which has been missing in the other cozy mystery debut novels that I read in the last few months. Funny, interesting characters, well-set up background. Protagonist Dyce Dare is a divorced mom of a stubborn toddler, with an ex who doesn't pay his child-support (and who she is afraid to pursue for fear that he will go for full-custody, rather than shared, because of her low-income). She strips and re-finishes furniture (therefore the title), has parents who are older booksellers and readers, a best friend who is gay and hunky, and a developing romantic interest started with the investigating officer when she finds a body while dumpster diving for salvageable furniture. A fun book and I see there was a second last year.
  2. Too Pretty to Die (2008) by Susan McBride: The 5th "Debutante Dropout Mystery", but the first I've read. It's ehh. That is, I don't find the protagonist, Andy Kendricks, a southern belle rebelling against her heritage (therefore she "ran" from her debut) and her disrespectful attitude toward her mom (who seems smarter than she is) very interesting. Late 20's, attends a "botox party" for a friend who is a reporter, lots of focus on aging (for the early 30's crowd!), when a prep schoolmate burst in, creates a scene (both by waving the standard southern issue pistol and through showing the terrible result of "bad" botox), drops the gun, is taken home by Andy and put to bed (she's wasted) and found a "suicide" in the morning (although the gun had been left at the party. With better editing and a more interesting protagonist, I would have tried the next. Maybe I'll check in again in a few more years, if McBride either writes another series or her protagonist grows up. Amazing that she got a blurb from Charlaine Harris.
  3. The Sense of an Ending (2011)by Julian Barnes: A very different Man Booker Prize winner. I have read in reviews that the prize was actually given not for this novel but for his body of work and that may be true: this is a very light novel, almost a novella (clocking in at 150 pages). Here's an NPR review. I found this a very interesting first Barnes to read: the language was beautiful— just beautiful, in the same way that I find AS Byatt's writing gorgeous. I also found the writing wry and funny and I enjoyed the book very much. I did so even though I thought the plot was poor and the ending disconnected and over the top. In a mild way. I found the looking back, the exploration of differences in how we remember things and the reality that we can't ever truly know as those who were part of our shared reality fall away, intriguing. At the end of my book club, all the members state whether they would recommend the book to others. In this case, I said that I would, but only to those over 40 (who are old enough to begin to feel what the novel is saying) and those who love English as a language. This is a particularly English novel, rife with the class distinctions and anguish of class that those of us from outside the sceptered isle can never truly, in our blood, understand (or, perhaps, care about). But it's always fascinating to see how a people that we (Americans) feel are so like ourselves can care so deeply about such a shallow distinction as inherited class structures.
I recently saw that there had been a "Mary Stewart Modern Classic" re-issue edition of her books in the UK and , while the spouse is working with a UK group, ordered them over so they were hand-carried to the office. I've been spending my time, in between dealing with household issues and a newsletter and a club mailing, reading and reveling in Mary Stewart: I'm pretty sure that I did not appreciate them enough when I read them in my early teens. In particular, I am finding it interesting reading these in chronological order, seeing the changes in societal expectations of women and looking at Europe, now as opposed to then, as someone who has lived here and visited several of these areas. These books are even better than I remembered and I think Mary Stewart really invented this type of suspense: real mysteries with relationships, with strong female leads, literate and with wonderful research and description.
  1. Madame Will You Talk?(1955/2011): As I read my way through the re-issues of Mary Stewart, I wonder how much I understood when I first read her books in my early teens. This is one of her very best. Published ten years after the end of the war, the protagonist, Charity Selborne is a widow, having lost her flyer husband during the war. On vacation in Provence with a friend from her teaching days, she meets a boy who appeals to her and who appears to be in trouble. There are echoes of the war, of atrocities, of justice for the murdered, that I think I feel more deeply now than I did. What I absolutely recognize is some of the description that made me, when I finally did travel to Provence, head towards Avignon and feel the sense of familiarity that I did: her descriptions of landscape are amazing and I only wish that her novels would be- or could be- made into movies or TV dramas that could evoke the sense of time and place that her writing does. (I also remember looking Gilbert White up and reading his history after this book- all of Stewart's books benefit through literary knowledge and I wonder whether those who do not know and love Shakespeare can really see all the allusions?)
  2. Wildfire at Midnight (1956/2011): This was particularly interesting as it dealt with topics of infidelity and forgiveness that went straight over my head as an innocent 11 year old. Gorgeous descriptions of scenery on the Isle of Skye and an intriguing look at the beginning of female emancipation. Gianetta Drury is taking a break from her job as a London model at a quiet hotel on the Isle of Skye, only to discover her former husband is also staying there. Her parents have never really accepted the concept of divorce and she herself has been wearing her ring and using her married name- until she sees Nicholas and quickly changes them both. If this emotion upheaval were not enough, she discovers that there has been a "ritual" murder of a local girl, that most of those staying in the hotel and area were also present at that time, and there are more suspicious deaths. A more classic murder mystery than the others, complete with an Inspector.
  3. The Moon Spinners (1962/2011): Set on Crete, Nicola Ferris, a junior assistant at the British Consulate is taking a vacation when she runs across a Greek "bearing not gifts but a knife" (Really, how can I top the back blurb?) Wonderful scenery descriptions, great sibling and friendship relationships across nationality (as many of her books include). An Englishman has been shot and his younger brother kidnapped after they stumble upon a murder scene. Is Colin still alive and who can be involved in this? This has been made into a movie and I need to get a copy of it (although from what I see, the plot has little in common with that of the book. At least it's Hayley Mills and all the reviews say the scenery is stunning.).
  4. This Rough Magic (1964/2011): Set on Corfu (and dedicated to John Attenborough), this made me so want to watch Grace Kelley, Elizabeth Taylor, David Niven, Carey Grant movies. Lucy is an actress"resting" while deciding if her career actually has legs. She's visiting her sister, who is pregnant and awaiting the rest of the family at the ancestral new home (who will come after school- notice how ordinary the concept of leaving the kids behind is) while the old is being let to, she discovers, a famous icon of the stage. Strange pot shots at dolphins, reluctant attraction, drives with unsavory neighbors and, throughout, the love and quotation of Shakespeare, beginning, with, of course, the title quote from The Tempest. There is a wonderful semi-quote from Much Ado about Nothing and I wonder: was this the reason I read that (now my favorite Shakespearean comedy) in the first place? I could say this is one of my favorites, but I am enjoying each re-read so much I am being repetitious.
  5. Airs Above the Ground (1965/2011): Once again, I see that there are divorces, a father living with a "fiancee", and all sorts of adult implications I had not understood. I well remember this book: I was horse-mad when I read it and the sub-story of the stolen Lipizzaner had me doing lots of other research on Lipizzans. Reading it now makes me want to make a reservation for a performance at the Spanish Riding Academy in Vienna- when I backpacked Europe (in my early 30's) they were on summer break and I have still not seen them. Vanessa March has had an argument with her husband over broken plans for a vacation- he had a pressing work engagement- when an acquaintance sees Lewis is a film of a circus fire in Austria- countries away from his engagement in Copenhagen. When a card arrives from Copenhagen, signed by her husband, she becomes suspicious and agrees to accompany a young man to his father in Vienna (planning to continue onward to find her husband). But things become more confusing and Vanessa (a licensed vet) and Timothy wind up becoming associated with the circus and its performers. Once again. lovely descriptions of landscape that really resonate, now that I have visited both Vienna and the area.
Eight books in total and a few more Mary Stewarts to come next next month. Better than I thought considering how busy this month has been.

22 January 2012

Cauliflower-Ginger-Potato Soup

Part of my goal of feeling healthier this year is, of course, eating healthier. I'm never going to be able to get a healthy can of soup off the shelf in Germany, but now that I can find natural and MSG-free stock, I'm going to be making a lot more soup. And since the kids are very happy just to have a quick chicken-noodle (while I'm not), I'll be experimenting more.

The last soup was a big hit with the German, myself, and Ian (who tells me that he has had an issue posting comments- if anyone else has, would you drop me a line at bigappletobigbear (at) googlemail.com so I can see if there's a general issue?). I'll be following up tomorrow with a miso version and will add it to that post, but yesterday I made Cauiflower-Ginger-Potato soup. I started off thinking I could make it parve again, but I'm afraid I went, ahem, too far with the cayenne pepper and wound up needing to add a liter of 2% milk to calm it down. The German says it's still a bit spicy, but good with the milk added.

I started with the allrecipes.com Creamy Cauliflower with Ginger soup and changed it up a bit.

Cauliflower-Ginger-Potato Soup
  • olive oil (enough to simmer the vegetables)
  • a head of cauliflower, roughly broken (I picked up organic and it was the best I have ever had- I may need to consider buying organic cauliflower deliberately in the future)
  • turmeric (I didn't have fresh, but it's definitely better. Just wear plastic gloves when scraping it or know that you fingers will be dyed a rich golden color)
  • cayenne pepper
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • onion, large dice
  • thumb+'s worth of peeled and sliced fresh ginger root
  • 2 blocks Knorr vegetable MSG-free bouillon
  • 6 cups boiling water
  • a bunch of garam masala (is any recipe with ginger not better with garam masala?)
  • cayenne pepper to taste (don't do what I did- throw a bunch in)
  • an extra potato or two, peeled and quartered (thrown in to calm the cayenne down in my case, but also making it smoother and thicker)
  • 2/3-1 liter 2% milk (you can use whole if desired)
  • salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a stock/soup pot until it shimmers.
Then add the onions and sautee for 5 minutes.
Add turmeric and garam masala, to taste or a T+ each. Add cayenne pepper, but start with 1t and add more toward the end of cooking, when you can actually taste it.
Add cauliflower (and if you will use the potatoes, add them here as well)and continue to sautee 10 minutes.
Add garlic and ginger and sautee 2 minutes (add more oil if required).
Then add bouillon blocks and boiling water, stir, cover, bring to boil then lower to simmer for 20 minutes.
Use an immersion blender to puree the soup. Adjust spices. Add milk to taste and re-adjust spices, particularly salt and pepper.

The original recipe was 8 servings at 144 cal- this would be less: more (lower fat) milk, but more olive oil, 2x the fluid with far fewer calories. Our servings are more than a cup and we have more than 10.


17 January 2012

Carrot-Ginger-Indian Spice Soup

A general cover of the standard Carrot-Ginger soup seen on so many sites, thrown together with what I had in the house. Here's Epicurious, and Jamie Oliver (next time I'll throw in some fresh-ground nutmeg) and Cooks.com. Mine is closest to the first but is vegan and non-dairy. Low calories, low fat (just the oil used to sautee the veggies), extremely high flavor. Yum (although the picture I took- not so yum. Carrot soup through my lens- not so great.)

  • 2lbs (approximately 4 cups) carrots, cut in coins
  • 2-4 large onions, diced as large as you want
  • 4-6 cloves garlic, sliced
  • thumb's worth+ of fresh (peeled), chopped ginger root
  • olive oil
  • pepper and salt to taste
  • T of yellow mustard seeds (didn't have)
  • T of coriander seeds (didn't have)
  • lots of garam masala (start with 3 T, add more to taste, contains mustard, coriander and cumin as well as other spices)
  • cumin, if you have it
  • organic lime, zested (3 tsp) and juiced (1-1/2 T)
  • 5-6 cups boiling water/vegetable stock
My soup is far more spicy than the ones linked to above, but I like it that way. I also add some cayenne and more black pepper after it's in my bowl- the spouse likes it as above.

So, sautee the onions in oil, add garlic after 5 minutes. Add all the spices and sautee a bit more. Then add the carrots and toss with the hot oil with onions and garlic for a bit.

Add the 5 cups of water/vegetable stock. In this case I added the water and then two blocks of Knorr's new MSG-free/natural vegetable stock. I was pretty excited to find that Knorr has begun to use some of its natural/MSG-free formulation in Germany: they have always sold them in Italy, but Germany had the MSG-cheap stuff dumped here. (Germans are acknowledged throughout Europe- and in Germany- to be more concerned with quantity and price than with quality.)

Bring to a boil then simmer until it's all tender (I picked the kids up from school: an hour later it was done). Puree with a stab mixer and add more water if too thick. If too thin, could cook a bit more or add a few potatoes (but would have to either have boiled potatoes to hand or let them cook before eating the soup).

Add lime zest (reserve a tiny bit to sprinkle on serving) and lime juice. Stir. Salt and pepper t0 taste (add cayenne if you want).


(You can add a dollop of yogurt or whatever, but I love that this is parve, neither meat nor milk.)

14 January 2012

Where has the month gone?

2012 ( without a checking account— they don't exist in Germany) I haven't really had to type that date very much. The German was helping T1 with studying during the holiday break and kept couching her on writing the date properly: perhaps that has helped me remember it!

In any case, I actually started this on the 10th and looked up and it was 4 days later, so I need to break my blogging log jam and get going again!

The first half of January has just been non-stop.
  • My verein has been having a bit of political upheaval and the folks I like best won't be standing for re-election, while those who are remaining seem to be mainly the obstructionists and the ones who talk a lot of work but whose hands remain unturned. I'm trying to decide whether to stay on or go, as I enjoy the work, but not the politics.
  • First the washing machine pump went (and was replaced) and then the dryer had some intermittent failures. Miele gave a few trouble-shooting tips which worked.
  • Then my tenants' Miele had the same issues and when I gave them the same tips, they decided to go ahead and get a repair call without responding to me. Now I have to decide whether to allow the unauthorized repair because we would probably have simply purchased a replacement dryer (complete with 4 year warranty, free delivery, install and removal) rather than do a "fuse replacement" that was 30% the cost of a new machine, on a 14 year old Miele. I have to make that decision and write the letter this weekend.
  • My apa in the US was due the same weekend as the largest annual newsletter for my verein and several contributors were late or simply not there, so I needed to chase them for what had to be entered and tell the others they would not be in the issue.
  • Two birthday parties for the girls. Same day, far enough away from each other that I was running madly on the U to get one child after dropping the other off. After trying to get presents that they would both like and that I did not disapprove of. (One mother was kind enough to give me guidance, the other told me to ask T1: who said "Monster High"- or "hig", as Germans pronounce it. But that toy theme is far too old and sexual for that age group, so I looked for things that weren't icky. Wound up with a charming (non-MH) tattoo set and then a bunch of associated items, like a pen case, notebook and eraser set.)
  • Tomorrow an art exhibit that we are excited about, with a childrens' mitmachen program afterward.
In goal news, I've succeeded at working out 4-5 times a week and I'm pleased about that. I'm getting a bit faster and I find the statistics motivating. My German class starts next week, but only once per week, so I hope that will still allow me some time for fun.

Decluttering continues apace and I try to do it a bit a day and update that blog when I get a chance to upload the pictures.

We changed the girls' swimming classes, as T2's teacher went back to school and the replacement was to be the girl who was just- horrible! The one who wouldn't get in the pool with the non-swimmers, who made T2 cry, and who was the reason we actually had to change days last time (to get away from). T2 loves her new teacher and keeps telling us that she's the best teacher ever: I told I. that last time and she said "practice helps"- she has been doing it for 30 years! I also noted that she spent the whole time in the pool with the children. T1 is also enjoying her new class (she made Silver level before the holidays) and it's a win-win all around.

01 January 2012

Goals for 2012

I'm not much for resolutions. They sort of drive me crazy, as if I fail in even the smallest way, I can find my resolve to do anything completely dissipated.

I do, however, want to set some rolling goals. For this year and going forward. I want to have a place where I can actually keep track of what I want to do and have these thoughts not just be on scraps of paper that I lose. I want to see where I (and we) are in the ever-changing structure and goal-setting of personal life. I also enjoy reading other people's life lists and I'd like to take a stab at at thinking about where we are and how we are progressing.

Current goals, very general:

  1. Get in better shape. Do that through spending at least 4 sessions a week doing a proper cardiovascular activity. Which should be attainable, rather than daunting.
  2. Decide where we will be next fall. We are moving. The question right now is, exactly where. It's either Munich or not. Now that we have achieved German public health insurance, the world is our oyster, as we will always be able to return to it. A huge, huge relief.
  3. Make a little more time for our friends and family here in Germany, because we may not always be here. We just had a wonderful time over the holidays. The most relaxing and pleasant time since we got here 4+ years ago. We did it by actually having enough time to spend with them and we planned that time. We fell short of our goals- I had hoped to meet up with another cousin (+family) and aunt/uncle, as well as a blogger with whom I had been chatting (and to whom I owe an apology for not meeting)- but I accept my limitations and I'll try again in the spring. We did spend two nights with a friend and her family (so the girls played merrily), met up for a long afternoon with current friend and former au-pair, had an afternoon and evening with cousin (and family- kids had a blast), a birthday party with sister-in-law (and family, more masses of kids), time just chatting over the table with the in-laws and the sister-in-law and her friend. Good times.
  4. Make more time for myself (cf #1) but also, note that the time that I have been spending on German classes has left me in a place where I have had not time to enjoy myself here in Berlin. Since taking the last 10 weeks off, the apartment is in better shape, the kids are getting more attention, and I have finally had a manicure: my first in this country. I'd like to continue in the path of spending more of my time making our family life less chaotic and more time enjoying this time when I am not required (and it would actually be deleterious) to work outside the home.
  5. Get back to the Museums. I made a decent start on that last year, but then class and the kids' activities impinged. Since I will only be taking a 1 day grammar course this semester, I expect to spend much more deliberate time enjoying Berlin. I hope I can find a few folks to share the touristing with, but if not I will do it anyway.
  6. Try to decrease the paper and book clutter in the house! I am constantly working on this (cf other blog) and this year we added another bookcase and a DVD case, which has helped. In addition, I am working my way through reading a very great many genre books, some of which will be returned to my mom, some which she doesn't want back and others of which I won't want to re-read when they are read: they are being gathered and will be 1. shipped back to Mom, 2. given to friends, 3 offered for sale locally and on Amazon and 4. given to a local library when the former don't pertain. Last year I donated 80+ books, this year I hope to achieve and surpass that level. So far I have 54 assembled, so there's not much chance of missing this goal.
  7. Make certain that we have at least 1 family vacation and at least one vacation that I enjoy. This past year we had several weekends without the kids, through the joy of hotel points. Those vacations involved culture and walking through cities in other countries. We also had several with them. Of course, their favorites involved Disney, play grounds, pools (they don't need to leave a hotel to be happy- they only need a pool), and playing with other children. We are already starting to plan more for this year.
  8. Try to stop over-planning. A major source of my stress in the last few years has actually just been about over-scheduling. Since the German is gone the majority of the week, we try to schedule things so we don't just veg. The kids really don't need that- they would be happy to just hang around in their pjs with us. Both my in-laws and my friends mentioned how much more relaxed the German was this last week. I think that was because, although I had scheduled our time (because otherwise we don't do anything), I both scheduled wisely and crossed out several activities (cf. meet blogger friend, meet with cousins and uncles) that, although we would have enjoyed them, would have mean that we were go, go, go non-stop.
  9. Don't take things as seriously. It's hard to believe that at my age I am still so amazed, and sometimes hurt, at the bad behavior of others. I have made strides in just 1. cutting people who behave badly out of my life and 2. setting limits on how I will allow myself to be treated when not able to cut people who behave badly. This can be as simple as not allowing racist and xenophobic and sexist remarks to pass without open remark and as complex as needing to realize how deep these beliefs and behaviors may be in others' psyches, so deep that they are incapable of recognizing how sexism, patriarchy and racism have informed their understanding of normality.
  10. And to round up the list, try to be more mindful of how happy my life is right now. It really is. This time with the kids is something that I am grateful for (no matter how stressful and annoying their behavior may sometimes be). It's a gift, they are a gift, my life is a gift, and I should enjoy every minute of it.
So, on the whole, life is getting better and more organized. There have been some hardships in our time here, and some health issues. But we are all in a good place now and it looks like , wherever that place is, it will only get better.