Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Wonder and the Reading

My favorite time to walk my dog is at dusk. In Chicago right now dusk is about 9 pm. The sky is full of color, a periwinkle blue near the stars and a glowing golden gray and rose near the horizon. The fireflies have been lighting up the sky for about 2 weeks now but tonight they were a little lower, fighting to stay aflight near the ground, likely to be gone soon.

There is a beautiful old brick Tudor style home in my neighborhood that I walk by frequently. To the side of the house is a room with a wall of large glass windows and when I walk by in the evenings the room is usually ablaze with light. In the center of the room is a large pool table with glass lamps hanging above the center of the table. The perimeter of the room opposite of the windows is lined with built in book shelves. It appears to be a gaming room that is decorated to resemble an old English Manor library. In the years I've lived in the neighborhood and walked by this home I've only seen someone in the room once before.

Tonight as I was walking by with the dog, I noticed the room was softly lit by lights hanging above the bookshelves. And there was a man in the room. He was standing facing the shelves, with a book propped open in the crook of his arm. He was bent over the book with his face only a few inches from the page, as if he had picked up the book but forgotten his glasses. As I walked by I watched him glance up from his book, search the shelves, run his hands over the spines of the books and then look back down to his book to continue reading. I smiled recognizing a man who was truly enjoying a moment lost in his books but also glad the books weren't just for decoration.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Flash Back Friday #39

Michael Jackson has been gone 1 year today. He was such a huge part of my pop culture 80's adolescence. Here is one of my favorite MJ videos. I thought he was magic in this video for Billie Jean. And his dancing...sigh...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Learning to Cook By Book and Blog

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a wee addiction to cook books. Yes it's true...I read them like fiction. So a couple of years ago one of my New Years Resolutions was to FINALLY learn how to cook. Well it's probably one of the only NYR I have ever kept, not only am I still learning but I'm enjoying the process!

You might be wondering how I've managed to raise a 17 year old, 6'5, 170 pound son without learning to cook until recently. Early on I mastered simple meals such as sandwiches, tacos, salads, homemade mac and cheese, omelets, rice dishes, pasta and soup. Plus as a vegetarian I've always prepared a lot of fresh fruit and veggies. In fact I made my own baby food for my son when he was small! I've very proud to say he never ate anything Gerber, EVER. Now that my son is older and usually grabbing a bite with his friends, I'm entertaining more than ever. For my family, myself and my guests I really wanted to learn how to cook healthy, delicious, sustainable, locally grown meals without using processed foods that included microwave instructions. (In our house we've been happily microwave free for almost 4 years).

Thanks to my cook book obsession I've cultivated a few recipes, tweaked a couple to make them my own and regularly experiment with fresh local ingredients. I also follow a few excellent cooking blogs including:

Dragon's Kitchen
Elle's New England Kitchen
Great Depression Cooking With Clara
He Cooks, She Cooks (by one of my bestest friends Heather!)
The Left Over Queen
Pioneer Woman
Poor Girl Eats Well
Recipe Girl
Tamra Davis Cooking Show

A few months ago I took an Italian cooking class and while we were sampling what we made, I was more interested in the chef's cooking tips. My favorites:

1. Buy fresh Italian parsley in bulk, wash it, chop it and store it in a canning jar in the fridge with a bit of oil to keep it moist. I have it on hand to toss in homemade tomato sauce, eggs etc...

2. Ditto with fresh onion and garlic. I find throwing together a quick pico de gallo, omelet, couscous, etc is so much easier now that I have fresh chopped ingredients ready to go.

3. Keep stocked with pantry staples like olive oil, cans of diced tomatoes, jar of chipotle peppers, chickpeas, whole wheat pasta, canned pineapple, dried or canned beans, tuna, brown rice, etc...

Last night I made a quick meal for my son and I. Here is the recipe:

Shannon's Miso Tilapia with Couscous and Lemon Parmesan Asparagus

2 pieces fresh or thawed tilapia or other mild white fish
1/4 cup mirin sauce
1/2 cup mild yellow miso paste

I use whole wheat couscous from Trader Joe's.
I added some fresh pico de gallo I had in the fridge to the cooked couscous.

Fresh Asparagus (a large bundle, approximately 20 stalks)
1 large lemon
3-4 tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan cheese (grate your own, don't waste your time with the junk that is made by Kraft)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Whisk the mirin and the miso paste together. Wash and pat dry the fish fillets. Spray a small glass baking dish with non stick cooking spray. Coat the fish with a thin layer of the mirin/miso mixture. I brush it on both sides. Bake at 400 degrees for approximately 20 minutes. The sauce will slightly caramelize on the fish.

While the fish is cooking prepare your couscous. (The Trader Joe's whole wheat couscous takes about 5 minutes once the water has boiled) While couscous is cooking, wash and pat dry your asparagus. In a large skillet add a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil over medium heat (I drizzle 3 times around to coat the bottom). Add the asparagus and toss to combine in the olive oil. Cover and let simmer until the asparagus starts to soften slightly. While cooking, wash and dry the lemon and grate the peel (carefully, not the bitter white pith beneath, just the yellow peel). Slice the lemon after grating the peel. Check on asparagus, it should be slightly browned but not overly limp. (How I test my asparagus, grab a piece at the bottom of the stem, if it still stands up fully it's not done enough, slightly drooping at the top is how I like it). Toss in the grated lemon peel, squeeze in the lemon juice from the entire lemon and add the Parmesan cheese. Toss to combine flavors before you turn off the heat.

Remove fish from oven and serve with a large scoop of the couscous (with what ever you have added in to flavor the couscous like pico de gallo, fresh herbs, peppers, spinach etc. Although my son prefers his couscous plain) and the asparagus. I also heat up fresh pita bread which is a handy and yummy way to scoop up the leftover caramelized miso paste and couscous off your plate.


P.S. The miso fish recipe was adapted from a recipe I saw Gwyneth Paltrow make on Oprah. You can buy mirin sauce in the Asian aisle of larger grocery stores or at stores like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. Miso paste is usually in the refrigerated section of specialty food stores. I purchase from my local Mitsuwa Market.

Friday, June 18, 2010

In Chicago This Weekend 6/18-6/20

This is a great weekend to be in Chicago! Here are a few things to check out:

Taste of Randolph Street- one of Chicago's great street fests, this one features some of the best food in Chicago and terrific music. Friday, Saturday and Sunday

Watch one of the most romantic movies ever made, The Enchanted Cottage is playing on the big screen. Playing Saturday only.

Cubs play at Wrigley Field on Saturday and Sunday.

Chicago's Green City Market. Wonderful farmers market in the heart of the City near Lincoln Park Zoo. Walk to the lake front to enjoy your fresh produce.

Whatever you do, have a great weekend readers!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Best Travel Books of All Time?

My bestest friend Diana sent me a link to an article on the most celebrated travel books. Diana and I will be traveling to Europe together in September, I'm sure we will each have a travel book stashed in our carry-on luggage. You can read the article here.

How many have you read?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Little Books, Big Impact

17 years ago today my son was born. During the week leading up to his birthday my sister and brother in law have been visiting us with my darling 21 month old niece Lily. In preparation for their visit, I went to the library to check out books to read to her and found myself getting the same books my son liked when he was little. It's funny how books you love reading and sharing can become a family tradition.

Here are a few of the books I read over and over again to my son and the ones I share now with my niece.

Good Night Moon
Eloise at the Plaza

Once Upon a Potty
Stella Luna

Baby I Love You
Strega Nona

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Pat the Bunny

Stop that Pickle!

Happy Birthday Baby! I miss reading to you.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Flash Back Friday #38

My Kid finished his Junior year of high school today. He is now officially a Senior and I am old.
The summer before my Senior year was one of the best of my childhood. The year was 1987 and I had a dozen bikinis, a bottle of tanning oil, lemon juice to bleach out my hair, a best friend with a convertible, a boyfriend with a pool and friends with a cabin on the lake in Michigan. Life was good. Here is a video of the top 29 songs that hit #1 in 1987. Even my Kid would recognize some of the singers who were big 23 years ago: Madonna, Whitney Houston, U2, Bon Jovi and Michael Jackson included.
I hear them now and I'm 17 again.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Jane Eyre Film Adaption

When I was a little girl I watched the 1944 movie version of Charlotte Bronte's book Jane Eyre. The movie starred Joan Fontaine as Jane, Orson Welles as Rochester and a young Elizabeth Taylor as Jane's best friend Helen Burns. As a young girl the movie frightened me, especially the death of young Helen as she slept next to Jane. Truly one of the most heartbreaking scenes I've ever seen in film. Elizabeth Taylor was radiant and unforgettable even as a 12 year old girl. The movie also fascinated me...the British class system, the love story between a Governess and the Master of the Manor, Jane's triumphs against a terrible childhood and betrayal. I loved it all. Jane Eyre is perhaps the basis for my love of Regency historical romances.

When I was older I read the book by Charlotte as well as books by her sisters: Agnes Grey by Anne and Wuthering Heights by Emily. A good Gothic story is my favorite tale to read again and again and a good book to film adaption is my favorite to watch over and over.

So a few nights ago after reading about the Masterpiece Theatre adaption of Jane Eyre that was made for television in 2006, I rented the film and sat down with a cup of espresso to lose myself in Thornfield Manor. I wasn't disappointed. The book to film adaption was wonderful and has joined my top ten list which includes (in no particular order):

1. The 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth
2. The 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet
3. The 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen
4. The 2001 version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone starring Daniel Radcliffe
5. The 2006 Masterpiece Theatre version of Jane Eyre starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens
6. The 1939 film version of Gone With The Wind starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable
7. The 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier
8. The 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck
9. The 2001 film version of The Lord of the Rings
10. The 2001 film version of Bridget Jones's Diary starring Renee Zellweger

Funny thing happened while I was watching the DVD. Just at the part where Jane finds out about Rochester's crazy wife in the attic, just at THAT EXACT MOMENT, the DVD froze. I mean seriously, Jane was stepping into the attic and then the screen went black. The DVD had a scratch and wouldn't play. I was crazy, stomping around my house, trying to clean the dang DVD. Finally I calmed down (too much espresso at night=nutty Shannon) and watched the last 40 minutes or so of the film thanks to Youtube. Didn't miss a thing. So thank you Youtube! Whether you rent the film or watch it in 9 minute clips on Youtube (last choice only), it's a not to be missed book to film adaption.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What Do You Do When Your Favorite Author Goes Rogue?

In my home library on the shelves for "Light Fiction" I have a few favorite authors, most write (or wrote) books that I can toss in a bag when I'm traveling or laying on the beach. These authors include Mary Balogh, Julia Quinn, Jane Austen, Anne Gracie, Melissa Nathan and Kate Fforde. Then there are the books that I lug home, sometimes a dozen in a week to enjoy when (if) I have free time. I'm not loyal to one genre (I rarely read anything that is on the NY Times bestseller list) and instead enjoy reading cook books (I've blogged before about my obsession with good cook book food photography), home and gardening books, biographies, travel and historical non-fiction.

So what do you do when one of your favorite authors goes "off the rail"? You might be asking what I mean, well I mean when an author whom you are used to writing in a particular style or genre takes a 180 and starts writing something completely different. This has happened to me a few times, most recently with Nora Roberts and Anne Rice. I spent my teens and 20's following Anne Rice's series on vampires and witches. This woman is the original Dark Author. Obviously this was decades before the current trend of all things Twilight and True Blood vampires and Harry Potter witches. After Anne completed the following supernatural series, she decided to "write only for the Lord". The Goth Lady herself is writing about Jesus.

The Vampire Chronicles
1. Interview With A Vampire (1976)
2. The Vampire Lestat (1985)
3. The Queen of the Damned (1988)
4. The Tale of the Body Thief (1992)
5. Memnoch the Devil (1995)
6. The Vampire Armand (1998)
7. Merrick (2000)
8. Blood and Gold (2001)
9. Blackwood Farm (2002)
10. Blood Canticle (2003)

The Mayfair Witches
1. The Witching Hour (1990)
2. Lasher (1993)
3. Taltos (1994)

Needless to say many of her readers were not pleased. I haven't picked up a new Anne Rice book in almost a decade. Sad really. I was so obsessed with her writing in the early 90's I made many pilgrimages to New Orleans to find her home in the Garden District where she based her Mayfair Witches series and the cemeteries and streets were her vampires Lestat and Louis roamed. Same thing happened with Nora Roberts.

Nora Roberts is known for her romance novels and her In Death series. I've enjoyed her trilogies including the Irish Trilogy, Dream Trilogy and the Born In Trilogy. Well then she went hard core supernatural. And I don't mean just tossing in a ghost or faerie like she was known to do but hard core witches and vampires. Now I was reading Rice for vamps and witches and Roberts for romance. And then Roberts goes vamps and witches and Rice goes God.

So what do you do? I found other authors. How? I asked other readers and started looking up author read-a-likes on sites like Goodreads, Novelist and library websites. I subscribed to a few author read-a-likes e-newsletters and before I knew it I had new favorite authors that write similar to other authors or write in a time period or location I enjoy (Regency era, Irish locations, British chick lit etc). Question is, do you give your former favorite authors another chance? I tried recently with Nora Roberts new romance series, The Bride Quartet. I was thrilled to get through 2 chapters without a Dark Lord, a faerie, vampire or other mythical creature but was so bored with her characters I just gave up trying to enjoy the book. Even her romances bore me now. Ah well, I have my new favorites and my old dog eared copies of Rice and Roberts older books. Those will do.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Library Volunteers are the Heart of the Library

A couple of years ago I was contacted by a local school counselor about a potential volunteer for the library. (In addition to my job as the technology resources librarian I have also been the adult volunteer coordinator for the past 5 years.) I was eager to meet the young man who had recently graduated from high school into the Transition Adult Program through the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization. After meeting him, he began volunteering at the library on a weekly basis which evolved into a regular position each afternoon.

"J" is a quiet, hard working, gentle man who recently turned 21. He has always arrived at the library with a determination to do his best, learn on the job and complete the tasks assigned to him. In the years that I've been supervising "J" I have quietly marveled at his work ethic and his sweet demeanor. He has definitely taught me more than I have taught him.

From the beginning of his volunteer work we had talked about the possibility of finding a paying job for "J" as his desire was to work permanently in a library. In February of this year a new job was created at the library which turned out to be almost custom made for "J". I talked to his school supervisor and we agreed that if "J" wanted the job, we would be happy to have him on staff at the library. On the day he was to transition from volunteer to staff member he arrived at work, not in his customary black t-shirt and jeans, but in a suit. He was there to formally interview for a job that he didn't understand was already his and he wanted to look his best. As he left my office to meet with his new supervisor I cried and the ladies who share my office cried with me. We were so proud of him. We were proud of the pride he showed for the opportunity to work and at the happiness he had at being given a chance.

This evening "J" received the Shining Star Award from the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization in front of the school board, teachers, staff, family and friends. I was honored to be invited and to stand at his side as he received his award. "J" was honored for his diligence and hard work and for his success in obtaining employment in the community. "J" is the perfect example of the difference volunteers make in a library. His dedication to the library during his years as a volunteer resulted in a job and the chance for him to continue to do what he loves and I couldn't be any prouder of his success.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fascinating Blog on "Oddities"

I don't know if there is a weirder or more fascinating blog than this one, Oddee.

Here is a recent entry on the 10 Most Fascinating Castles and Palaces. Why not? And after you've read about castles you can skim through blog entries on everything from tattoos to cruel wives. I kid you not, it's a lot of fun. Kinda like News of the Weird and Ripley's Believe It Or Not rolled into one.