Saturday, October 25, 2014

Saturdays in the Garden - Here be Dragon.........Carrots.


I found myself having a really hard time getting motivated to work in the garden this week.  A lot of the tasks in spring and fall are similar but they seem so much less arduous in spring for obvious reasons.  It's easy to get psyched up at the thought of the green returning to the world after being locked in a frozen hell for months.  I love the Autumn but it does signal endings which I haven't quite figured out how to be happy about yet.

On Wednesday (Oct. 22) I got my beds cleaned up and planted my garlic!  That's it above in the picture of (and compost)!  I was able to plant thirty cloves which was better than I expected and all the cloves were a good size.  I left some room around the edge of the bed because I'd like to plant some carrots here next spring they are a good companion plant for garlic. *googles* And it is!  Looks like garlic is pretty friendly with most plants - the only two listed as not good companions are peas and beans.

Speaking of carrots I had a nice little surprise this week.  On Sunday or Monday I remembered that I still had some carrots that I had sort of off handedly planted last spring in the tomato and pepper bed and then never harvested.  When I pulled them, I shockingly had some of the best carrots I've ever grown!
Dragon Carrots  - Yes, They are meant to be purple  - because they are made of dragons. Just kidding. About the "made of dragons" part. 
I mean look at that middle one  - it's actually carrot-sized!  And it was crunchy and sweet and delicious because of course I've already eaten it.   Now here's the tricky thing.  This isn't the normal way to grow carrots - you don't generally let them grow for 5.5 months - but these are the best carrots I've ever grown in my shady, less than ideal back yard.  Should I do this every year? After all I'm pretty good about completely forgetting things!  Or was this just a fluke because carrots like cool, wet weather and we had a cool wet summer?  I am guessing it is the latter but by planting around the garlic bed I can probably experiment a little bit next summer.

With the snap in the air it also seemed like it was time to put up the bird feeders.  So far I've seen only white-breasted nuthatches and a red-bellied woodpecker partaking.

Or is it??
I am in the home stretch of a 2 and 1/2 week vacation.  I was away from home for only 3 days of that 2 and a 1/2 weeks and have spent the remainder of the time relaxing and addressing a long and varied house and personal life to do list.  One of my goals for the year was to find a little more balance between my work and home life.  My job is demanding, energy wise, and as a result there are a few areas of my personal life that get pretty massively neglected.  I want to try and change that.  So far, this has been a really crappy year to try and address the imbalance. I have been in charge of an extra two major projects on top of my regular duties at work that kept me non stop crazy busy from mid March through the end of September.

This two week break has been my attempt to try and re-claim my goal and despite my feeling a little guilty, lazy and irresponsible etc..., I think it was a really great decision.  I feel refreshed and more in control and organized in my home life and I am looking forward to returning to work and approaching it in a less frantic manner on Monday.  I have not been feeling that positive or motivated at my job of late so playing hooky from work for a couple weeks will in the end prove to be the responsible move.  I think.  We'll see how next week goes...

So how about you all?  How do you try to find balance in your life?  Or is that even something you strive for?  I read somewhere recently, can't remember where, that "balance" is a foolish goal because it's not really achievable but I don't know.  It's probably not something to expect at all times but on a longer time scale I think its worth a try.


Last Saturday was Dewey's Read-a-thon!  It's always nice to set aside a period of time and give yourself permission to read as much as you want.  This was my second read-a-thon and it was pretty similar to my first experience.  I read off and on from 8am to 1:30 am and got through 1 and 3/4 books.  I finished Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder - first in the the Little House series which I somehow missed as a kid.  The day after the readathon I finished The second in Alyxandra Harvey's Lovegrove Legacy series, Whisper the Dead.  It was fantastic and I'll be posting a review of it soon.  Later in the week I also finished The Pursuit of Mary Bennet by Pamela Mingle which was enjoyable but also a little...odd.

I've just started Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love which thus far is a hilarious and delightful satire.  I'm also still working through Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan (which is pretty good but better in chunks) and People of Sparks by Jeanne Duprau (which may be a DNF - apparently the only people that survive a great catclysm are mean, weak-willed and downright stupid). 

On the Blog this past week:

SUNDAY:  Review of Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Beautiful book that has stuck with me after finishing.
TUESDAY:  A post where I fangirl all over the fictional women I find the most inspirational.
THURSDAY: Review of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. A recommended read for true crime fans.

On the Blog in the coming week:

SUNDAY:  Review of Whisper the Dead by Alyxandra Harvey.
TUESDAY:  Top Ten Tuesday of the ten books or movies that will best prepare you for Halloween.
THURSDAY: Review of The Martian by Andy Weir.

That's it for this week.  Hope all is well with you and your patch of garden.

"Let us cultivate our gardens." Voltaire, Candide

Thursday, October 23, 2014

REVIEW: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote


Original Publication Year: 1965
Genre(s): Non-fiction(ish?), True Crime
Series: NA
Format: Audio (CDs from Library)
Narrated by: Scott Brick

Yep, it’s time to talk about this one.  My feelings about this book are partially influenced by the fact that I had to put it aside briefly.  My listening to it coincided with a lengthy stay, on my own, in the middle of nowhere.  Considering the subject matter of this non-fiction book, which is the senseless murder of a farm family in the middle of nowhere Kansas, it interfered with my calm and enjoyment of my solitude.  So be aware, it is a book that can spook you out.

I should also warn of spoilers in the following discussion/review.  I knew nothing of the crime described in the book and I think approaching it in ignorance was a good way to experience it.  However I can’t adequately speak about the book without revealing some details of the crime so if you’d like to approach the book completely ignorantly, skip the review. 

My initial impressions of the book were how odd its style was.  It oftentimes reads more like fiction than non-fiction and the tone at the start and frequently throughout the book seemed light-hearted.  Minute details are described and/or imagined of the victims on their last day, the interactions and conversations they had, their position in society and even how they perceived themselves and felt about their lives.  Much of it must be research-based speculation on Capote’s part.  His hybrid writing style was wholly unique in my reading experience. 

The first quarter of the book focuses on the Clutter family and the small community of Holcomb, KS of which they are members.  It discusses the discovery of their bodies and the initial stages of the seemingly motiveless crime – nothing was stolen and the family was well liked in the community.  The recounting is interrupted by some brief visits to two recently released prisoners who have reunited in Kansas City, over 400 miles from Holcomb.  At first these interludes are puzzling – who are these men and what do they have to do with the Clutters.  It will not be long however before the reader’s acquaintance with these men becomes all too intimate.

Capote chooses to structure things by first giving the barest sketch of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who seem to have no connection to the Clutter family at all,  revealing only that they have committed these murders but not why or how. He then begins again and takes the reader through every detail of the investigation, the murderer’s eventual capture, trial and execution.  Capote delves deeply into the character of the two men, particularly Perry which he seems to feel an affinity with, despite the fact that Perry was admittedly the trigger man.  They are an incredibly disturbing pair.  Their motive for the murder was robbery but when it turns that there was in fact nothing to steal, they seemed to have almost tripped into murder.  It was, in fact, a senseless crime.

By the end of the book the reader not only knows every detail of the case but has been given an intimate portrait of all those involved.  Everything is told in this story-like style that seems to teeter between fiction and non-fiction.  Capote definitely spins out the dramatic portions of the story just as any mystery or crime fiction writer would.  I doubt it is possible to finish the book having felt nothing.
I don’t know enough about the history of narrative or True Crime fiction but the book has a feel of being revolutionary, combining sensationalist journalism, with hard reporting and a little bit of imagination.  It felt like a very unique beast to me.

Final Verdict:  If you like true crime, I think this is must read.  I found it interesting and disturbing in equal measure, uniquely written and spectacularly well researched.  4 out 5 Stars - ✯✯✯✯

This book is on my 100 Books Project List.  I'm doing well so far in 2014!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

My Hero(ines): The Fictional Women I Most Look Up To

A few weeks ago the Offbeat Home blog posted this short post about the most inspirational fictional heroines.   This in turn inspired me to make my own list.  I am, somewhat to my chagrin, really hard on female fictional characters, particularly those in a heroine sort of role.  I expect a lot from them and when they don't meet my expectations I tend to get ranty and unhappy with the book, film or tv show.

There are a few characters however, that I can absolutely say without hesitation, that I see as role models and people I wish I emulate more.  Here are some of the characteristics that I most admire:

- They are confident/comfortable with themselves.
- They embrace life with gusto.
- They have a strong moral compass and
- Are always brave enough to choose the right path even if it's the more difficult/less comfortable.
- They make mistakes and take responsibility for them while not giving in to self-loathing.
- They are independent.
- They are smart.
- They are strong.
- They are courageous and opinionated.
- They have compassion.
- They pursue love and intimacy without making it the end all be all.
- They have great senses of humor.

Not all the fictional women below embody all these characteristics but they have at least one and usually more.

The first two on the list are the career women.  They are workaholics (one a tad more reluctantly than the other) who are the best at what they do and they are scientists who can also kick some ass!

1) Dana Scully
Despite what the GIF says, Dana Scully is not flawless.  For one she falls in love with the most exasperating man in North America possibly the world, who is most of the time too obsessed with aliens to notice how seriously awesome his partner is.  Despite his cluelessness, she is, in fact, so so great.  She has integrity and loyalty in spades.  She is smart and independent and makes up her own mind about things using facts and her own prodigious brain.  She is also grounded and loyal and while good ole Fox may be the charismatic one, he would be nothing without her cool rational mind.  I also really admire women who are able to compartmentalize and have the strength to push through emotional pain.  Also she's flipping gorgeous but you could never just dismiss her as a pretty face - she won't let you.

2) Samantha Carter
I not only want to be Sam Carter but I have a lot of affection for her.  She's a gigantic nerd who gets so flipping excited about physics and anything remotely science related that she annoys everyone around her.  She's also super tough though.  Like Scully above she is a woman working in a world dominated by men so she must push harder, endure more and be that much smarter so that she is taken seriously.  I am also a scientist and work in a field dominated by men that gets pretty heavily macho from time to time so I love Scully and Sam as role models in that arena.  They don't get bitter or angry, they are just better than everyone else.

3) Buffy Summers
Joss Whedon has a talent for creating strong and incredibly compelling female characters.  Buffy is a woman who has been given an immense responsibility and despite the fact that she longs to be a regular teenage girl, her compassionate heart and rock solid sense of right and wrong keeps her fighting.  She sacrifices an immense amount and does it with a sense of humor and a ton of ferocity.  I love how she's smart but not necessarily at the the whole school thing and she has a strong sense of who she is.    

You can buy these as posters!

4) The Women of Firefly
They are all awesome in their own special, shiny ways.  Kaylee loves life and sees everything through the lens of her cheery and generous spirit.  She's also really great at what she does, takes pride in her work and is completely comfortable with who she is and where she is in the world.  River is a bit mad but she's held on to what she could of herself through sheer determination and strength.  Zoe is calm and cool personified. She's brave, incredibly loyal and will kick your ass if you deserve it.  Unfortunately the show didn't last long enough for us to figure out what darkness was in Inara's past but whatever it was she's come through it to be fiercely independent and self-contained.  Yes, she's a futuristic Geisha but everything she does is on her terms and she uses what she has to make others feel valued and good about themselves.  

5) Anne Shirley
Oh how I've wished to be Anne and not just because she's captured the heart of the dreamy Gilbert Blythe.  Anne is another who lives life to the fullest every moment of every day. It frequently lands her into predicaments but she takes it all in stride and never backs down from a challenge.   She is independent and smart and can charm the pants off of anyone.  She excels at everything she does because she works hard and is driven.  

5) Lucy Pevensie
Lucy is feisty and doesn't back down from the truth even when her older siblings doubt her and are really quite crappy about it.   She also serves as the moral compass for her family - she is the most compassionate and caring and is strong in her convictions. And she's pretty jolly and friendly on top of it all.

7) Veronica Mars
When I first watched Veronica Mars I was WELL out of high school but that didn't stop me from looking up to her.  She goes through a horrific tragedy and has her whole life turned upside down at the awkward age of 15 or 16 no less.  She comes out the other side snarky as hell and cute as a bug.  One of her greatest advantages is that people frequently underestimate her because of her aforementioned youth and cuteness while she proceeds to run circles around them.  Veronica has every reason to be bitter but as is a popular catch phrase of the show - she's a marshmallow.  She is incredibly compassionate but don't cross her or those she loves because she will take you down. 

8) Lizzie Bennet
Austen has a number of good heroines but Elizabeth Bennet is arguably her most admirable.  Not because she doesn't make any mistakes - she makes some pretty dismal judgment calls - but Lizzie is who she is.  She's smart and funny and affectionate towards and defensive of her family even though they are seriously loco or you know, a little uncouth.  She enjoys life and doesn't take it too seriously though when crisis does strike she is the voice of reason. 

9) Scarlett O'Hara
So you may be thinking "Seriously? Scarlett O'Hara?" Scarlett is a spoiled brat, vain, self-centered, and her moral compass is way out of whack but she is one seriously strong lady.  She's independent and calls the shots in her life during a time when women didn't really do that.  When things got rough, like "middle of a war, we might starve" rough she was never beaten and did what needed to be done to survive.  She most certainly embraced her life with gusto and was comfortable with who she was in all her crazy glory. 

So that's my ode to the fantastic fictional women that have inspired me through the years.  What fictional women have inspired you?  How about real women?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

REVIEW: Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Original Publication Year: 1988
Genre(s): Literary Fiction, Historical
Series: NA
Format: eBook borrowed from Library
Narrated by: NA
 “For a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.”
If I’m honest about it, I have always been a bit skeptical of literary fiction.  Sure, I’ve read and really enjoyed a number of books that could be placed in this “genre” but that has not stopped me of being a little ornery and irritated by the classification as a whole.  I think it’s this impression that it is somehow better or higher quality than books of another persuasion and that those that read these books exclusively are more intelligent or at least more intellectual.  This could be its own post, but I mention it briefly here to say that I think this book has made me realize that I need to drop the attitude.  Because Kazuo Ishiguro is a literary writer and while this is only the second of his books that I have read both have been very “literary” and both of them have completely blown me away. 

This book is not about “nothing” which is a frequently lobbed criticism of literary fic but
it is a quiet introspective examination of one man’s life. I can’t say that it swept me away and in fact right after putting the book down I gave it four out of five stars. But now, a month or so later I think I will be changing that to a five because it has stuck with me and upon further reflection I become further aware of all the themes and ideas Ishiguro managed to convey in the excessively formal, repressed and somewhat unreliable narration of a mid-century British butler.

The book is structured as a travel journal of sorts, written by the consummate butler, known as Stevens, of a “Grand House” in 1950’s England. He writes as if his words are addressed to other professionals such as himself and while he mentions his travels he is really reflecting on his life. In a way he is having the world’s most civilized mid-life or really three quarters life crisis. The voice is formal in the extreme, distinctive and never wavers. The reader must almost literally read between the lines to see the huge ocean of emotion underlying the simple and often misleading account. Stevens would like his audience to believe certain things about him and his career and his life but truly most of what he is saying on the surface is codswallop, sort of. It is such a complex portrayal, expressing a man’s unwavering beliefs about himself, his life and the world and his unwilling subconscious that realizes he may have been incredibly and completely wrong about it all and coming to terms with that. For example, Stevens is constantly defending his long-time noble employer because he himself feels betrayed by having served a man who in the end was very mistaken in his endeavors (see the quote above with the flash of honesty).

There are so many touches that serve to further illuminate the narrator. His own father was a butler tried and true and I found the scenes between father and son extremely disturbing and sad. There is also a humorous and continual throughline regarding the art of bantering. Stevens is concerned because his new American employer interacts with him in a bantering way and seems to expect bantering back from Stevens. This is so outside of the persona that Stevens has made for himself but to he feels compelled to be the best he can be for his employer so he endeavors to cultivate some witticisms. While the two times he tries to exercise his wit in the book, what he says is quite clever and funny, the response he gets is bemusement because his manner of delivery is so practiced, formal and cold. He seems completely unaware of what he must do differently.

And all of my babbling is just the tip of the ice berg. The writing is beautiful and completely mesmerizing. It portrays England as it approaches and then narrowly survives World War II and, most importantly for Stevens, begins to move into a modern world where butlers and huge household staffs will no longer be needed. It ranges in scope from one man’s life to the momentous changing of the world. There is also some romance, repressed and tortuous as it is.

Final Verdict: This has one of the most distinctive voices in any book I have ever read and manages to convey so much food for thought in a compact and mesmerizing narrative.  Highly Recommend!