More Artful Readings

Time for more book reviews.  I am seriously shocked that I’ve finished three books so far this year, and it’s still January!  Of course, two of them were started last year, but still.   First up is The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber.  This was the selection for the Artful Readings book club I belong to for January.  As soon as I finished City of Bones, I picked this one up (plus I had like only a week before book club, so I figured I’d better!).  This book was so good.  It was a quick read (I did read it in a week) and it kept my interest throughout.  It’s an interesting way to present the story.  The narrator receives a recording that is sent to him and it’s the recording that tells the story.  Chaz Wilmot is a painter who determines he must share his story, and so he records it for his old friend.  The book deals with the question of what is real and what it not – whether it be art (is it a forgery, and does the viewer get less fulfillment in looking at it if it is?), or whether it be memory (if one piece of your life that you believe to be real is proven to be imagined, then what about everything else you thought you knew to be true?).  The other thing I loved about the book was that it was about a painter, and painting as an art.  The descriptions of painting are so evocative, that you almost feel as if you are there with Velasquez, brush in hand, smelling the turpentine.  I highly recommend this book, it was truly enjoyable!

After finishing Forgery of Venus, I decided to pick up one of the past Artful Readings selections that I hadn’t finished.  I was about halfway through The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet when I picked it back up.  The story of a Dutch clerk working for the Dutch East India Company in Dejima, Japan in 1799.  This book really starts of with a bang, but then the next few chapters following the first are a bit hard to muddle through.  By the middle of the book, it has picked back up again and I think it was at that point I began to really enjoy it.  The interactions between the Dutch and the Japanese are so interesting, as well as the interactions between Jacob and Miss Aibagawa.  I loved that he painted a fan for her as a token of his feelings.  And her story that is the main focus of the middle of the book is stunning.  The ending was lovely and made me feel especially glad that I had decided to pick this one up again to finish it. Portions of it reminded me of Peony in Love (also an Artful Readings selection) and portions of it reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale. Well worth a read.

It feels good to have finished both of these, especially Thousand Autumns, because that was one that had been hanging around awhile unfinished.  And we all know that finishing things is part of cutting down on the crazy!

I’ve now started my next book for Artful Readings – Parrot & Olivier in America.  Book club isn’t until March, so I’m hopeful I’ll get this one done with plenty of time to spare!

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Focus

Years ago I started taking yoga classes at my work’s fitness center.  I loved yoga and looked forward to every Tuesday night.  Occasionally we had a substitute instructor, one of which had a rather heavy accent.  She also had this habit of constantly reminding you to “focus”, which from her sounded a lot more like “fucus”.  I’ll give you a moment to imagine.

I can assure you that it is rather difficult to maintain your pigeon pose while stifling a giggle.  But, it gives me something to think about when I am settling into cobra at 6am.  Why do we sometimes get so hung up on these resolutions for a new year?  Is it because it’s our chance at a do-over, a clean slate for a new start?  Is it because we look back at last year’s resolutions and wonder “who the hell wrote that”?  I’ve tried resolutions (because we all know I love a good list), and I’ve tried intentions, thinking that by removing the word “resolution” from them it will somehow help me to accomplish said intentions.  No such luck. 

I’ve been successful here and there – like with quitting smoking, for example.  I did that 11 years ago and never looked back.  I also managed to get my finances out of the crapper five or six years ago, and they are still looking pretty good (job layoffs not withstanding).  So, somehow I manage to do pretty good with the big stuff, except for the elusive “lose weight/get in shape/be healthy/take care of myself physically” thing.  What’s the deal there? 

Regardless, this year I’m giving myself two things to focus on – guidelines, if you will.

1. Focus on me

2. Cut down on the crazy

Now there’s a whole heap o’ goodness that could fall into either of those two categories, or both.  But, after assessing last year, I realized that I tend to not make myself a priority and sometimes that causes a lot of disappointment, hurt feelings, and adds to the crazy. 

I also realized that I spend so much time “chasing my tail” that it only adds to all this chaos in my brain.  I’m cutting back on my committments, I’m cutting down on the gift-giving, I’m trying to finish things I’ve started, I’m trying to de-clutter and simplify my surroundings, and I’m also paying attention to the company I keep.  I don’t need extra drama in my life – I can create it just fine on my own, thank you. 

So that’s what I’m going to work on this year.  I’m gonna do some things I’ve wanted to do for myself (like learn how to take better photos), and try to keep the crazy factor at a minimum.  Of course part of focusing on myself involves working on my physical being and trying to rein in the crazy that’s going on there too.  So far, this year, I’ve seen some good losses on the scale and I’m working on some good changes in my approach to food too.  So, I plan to keep that good thing going. 

And as you can see, I’m also on my way towards taking some better photos – I was really pleased with how these two of Othello came out (nobody mention his sprinkle of gray hair). 

I’m looking forward to what this year will bring and how my new “guidelines” will unfold. 

Namaste.

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Award Season Begins

Award Season has begun again and the Golden Globes, of course, were on Sunday.  I love watching the Globes, and the red carpet is always worth a look.  This year, though, I have to say that I had to look a lot harder to find something I loved.  Olivia Wilde (above) was one of the first down the red carpet and I thought her dress was beautiful.  The ballgown silhouette may have been a bit over the top, but I liked it anyway.  And her pairing of gold Louboutins with it was fantastic.

Mila Kunis was wearing the gorgeous green shade I love.  Of the few greens I saw, hers was the best.  I wasn’t feeling that shoulder-padded version of Angelina’s.  Which is too bad, because the color was so pretty on her and reminded me of the emeralds she wore in 2009 at the Oscars.

And Jennifer Lawrence in Louis Vuitton?  Loved it.

Amy Adams looked beautiful in this navy gown.  Not a lot of this color this year.

 The more I look at Natalie Portman’s ensemble, the more it grows on me.  I want to like it (because she’s so fabulous), I think I like it, but…I’m not totally sure.  And looking at it again here in this photo, I think I have to agree with Elefantitas Alegres (unfortunately, her blog is now private), it’s good.  I’ve been dying to see Black Swan though – had hoped to get out to see it this weekend, but it didn’t happen.  Hopefully soon!

I’m looking forward to the Oscars as usual, and if I can ever make it out to see a movie, I’ll be sure to share what I think!

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Ringing in the New Year

Since we spend Christmas Eve with Eric’s family, and have Christmas Day to ourselves, we usually try to get together with my parents on New Year’s Day.  The past several years my parents have travelled to see my sister and her family for Christmas, so they haven’t even decorated their home for the holidays.  This year, they stayed home and my Dad decided he wanted the house decorated.  It’s been so long since I’ve seen their tree that I was totally blown away by how gorgeous the glass ornaments are.  Back when they were still decorating, they decided they wanted to freshen up their ornaments, so they bought all new gorgeous glass pieces.  They gifted my sister and I both with some as well, and started me on the tradition of decorating my tree with hand-blown glass.

And I was happy to see the tree skirt that my mom and I made.  It’s made of felt and has Santa and Frosty and Rudolph on it, along with candy canes between them and holly leaves and berries around the edge.  The sequins that we so carefully sewed on really reflect the light from the tree. 

My Dad lit a fire in the fireplace after dinner and we sat around the tree and visited, just enjoying each other’s company.  I can’t tell you when the last time I sat in front of a fire was!

I still couldn’t get over how pretty their tree is and how beautifully all the glass reflects the light.  Absolutely stunning!  And I’m so grateful for those beautiful pieces they’ve given me.

It was a wonderful evening.  We toasted in the New Year and enjoyed an amazing end to the first day of 2011. 

Happy New Year!

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Cozy

Although we’re already well into January, I thought I’d continue with my holiday posts and share some of my Christmas decorating.  I ended up being busier than usual, it seemed, this season and I never managed to get these photos edited until this past weekend. 

I really do love decorating for Christmas, and even though it was later than I’d have liked it to be, I was excited to pull all the trimmings out of boxes and decide how I wanted to decorate this year.  The ornament in the photo above was a Christmas gift from my dear friend, Sylvia, in Germany.  It’s a delicate little ceramic heart and I am totally in love with it. 

This year I decided to do more of a wintry woodland feel on the mantel.  I love these little silver trees I’ve had forever.  They looked right at home with the pine boughs. 

And this year we replaced the makeshift star I’ve used as a tree topper for years.  Eric chose a beautiful angel to top our tree.  I wasn’t sold on her when he picked her out, but she really looked beautiful crowning the tree.  Her wings are pretty white feathers and the red and gold of her gown match our tree skirt. 

Since 2005 (the first Christmas we spent together after our engagement), I have given Eric the annual Swarovski Christmas ornament.  This year was no exception, and they always look beautiful reflecting the lights of the tree.  And that green and red blown glass ball in the background?  That is the ornament Eric bought me when we saw the Chihuly exhibit on our second wedding anniversary. 

I just love seeing the tree all lit up and the stockings hung from the mantel. 

Eric puts his Polar Express train around the base of the tree, which just completes the whole thing. 

And my village grew this year!  I have two more pieces than I had the last time we put it out.  It took a bit of rearranging, but Eric is a master at space planning.  He managed to get them all to fit on our side table in the dining room.  (Of course, when we celebrated Christmas with my parents, I received another house, so we’ll be space planning again next year!)

As we’ve done the past couple of years, we put up a second smaller tree in the entry.  I would love to replace this with a larger tree that fits the space better, but that’s a task for next year.  And you can see my wreath of Christmas cards on the wall.  It’s fun to fill that up as we receive cards from our friends and family. 

The entry tree is full of handmade ornaments.  I just love seeing them all together.  There’s just something about handmade ornaments that makes me smile.  Some I’ve made, and some were given to me.  I intersperse red glass balls on this tree to fill in a bit.  But, it’s nice to have a tree that is so different from our living room tree which is full of crystal and blown glass ornaments.  There’s a train around this tree too!

Such a beautiful sight.  And I just love the warm glow from Christmas lights – they fill my heart with joy. 

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Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve used to be a night spent at Eric’s parents’ house.  But the past couple of years, Eric has wanted to host Christmas Eve at our house.  He always does a magnificent job with planning the menu and creating an amazing meal.  This year he asked me to make a dessert, so we went on the hunt for something worthy of our fancypants holiday meal.  We decided on Giada’s Zuccotto.  On Christmas Eve morning, I got to work on my dessert.  I used a premade poundcake, as Giada suggests.  After all the baking I’d done the week before, I didn’t want to bake anything else!

Once you cut the slices into triangles, it makes this pretty spiral in the bottom of your bowl. 

Once you get your “shell” created, you put in both layers of filling – an outer chocolate layer and an inner almond layer. 

Once you’ve put your filling in, you create the base of the dessert by adding a layer of poundcake in another spiral over the top of your bowl.  After it sets, when you’re ready to serve, you invert your dessert and it comes out looking like a very intricately created dome that is supposed to be reminiscent of the dome of a Cathedral.  A sprinkling of cocoa powder over the top and you are ready to serve. 

It’s a pretty impressive looking dessert that doesn’t require a lot of prep.  And it tastes so good.  The chocolate/almond pairing is wonderful.

Of course, it’s a long while before we get to dessert.  We always start out the evening with antipasto and champagne.  This year we served bruschetta, two kinds of marinated olives, several kinds of cheese including a Triple Cream, one with truffles, a Dubliner, and of course Provolone.

There was prosciutto and hard salami.  And Eric did a wonderful take on caprese salad – he stuffed cherry tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella and a little fresh basil.  So delicious!

Of course I always somehow get too busy eating and never get photos of the actual meal.  It was amazing, once again.  Eric’s menu consisted of seven courses:

Antipasto

Steamed Clams

Italian Caesar Salad with sundried tomatoes and pine nuts

Pasta with Pistachio Pesto

Tuscan-Style Grilled Tuna Steaks with Garlic-Roasted Asparagus and Zucchine al Forno

Roasted chestnuts, Fenoccio and Figs

And Zuccotto for dessert.  Eric’s sister also brought the traditional Pizza Dolce – and we had both!

It was such a delicious dinner, and as usual spanned several hours.  I had a lovely time and was so proud of my husband who makes such wonderful meals.

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Holiday Entertaining

One of the things I enjoy about the holidays is entertaining.  It’s a lot of work, but so worth it in the end.  Every year we hold an Eggnog & Dessert Party for our families.  It’s one of the few times both families get together during the year.  This year, I spent the week before baking and preparing for the party.  You may remember I spent a good amount of time trying to decide what to make this year?  I finally decided I would make cranberry walnut bread (since Eric had been asking for some, salted chocolate cake balls (because I really wanted to do something with sea salt and chocolate) and old-fashioned butter cookies (why not?). Of course, each year whatever I make seems to be a new experiment as more often than not, I’ve never made these things before.

I was really happy with how everything turned out, with the exception of the butter cookies.  I had intended to use a cookie pan for these that has holiday shaped forms to press the cookies into.  Well, batch number one was undercooked (so Eric ate those – he can’t stay away from cookie dough) and batch number two was overcooked.  At that point I just scratched the idea of using that pan and just made drop cookies, which Eric helped me decorate with sprinkles.  They tasted good, just not what I had in mind.

The salted cake balls were delicious!  And OMG I got so many out of this recipe.  I decided to make half salted and half unsalted (because our families are not known for being adventurous).  Well, the salted ones were a total hit and now I’m wishing I’d just done them all that way.  Live and learn!  The recipe I used for these fortuitously came from a tweet and subsequent blog post by symigoddess.  I can’t thank her enough, these were delicious!

And ever since we’ve started having these little shindigs each year, I’ve wished I had holiday napkins.  Well, guess what.  This year, I finally took matters into my own hands and swore that I would have holiday dessert napkins if it killed me.  So, half an hour before our guests arrived, I was still sitting at my sewing machine, pedal to the metal, making napkins.  But, damn are they cute!

I bought yardage of Kate Spain’s 12 Days of Christmas fabric and my little napkins turned out about 5 inches square once folded – the perfect dessert size!

Of course, with all this baking I thought of one more thing I really should have added to my list for Santa…

Maybe next year…

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Opposite Ends of the Spectrum

With the holidays and everything, I’m just now getting around to posting about the latest books I’ve finished.  One of my goals for this year is to finish up the books I’m in the middle of (there are about 5 or so).  It seems silly to just keep jumping from book to book without finishing them.  In an effort to do that, I recently picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (which for some reason, I keep referring to as the Big Kahuna in my head).  This book was one of the Artful Readings selections (my book club) over the summer.  I was so excited to read it, because I loved The Poisonwood Bible.  And you may remember, I even had Prodigal Summer out to read over the summer as well (I never got around to it, unfortunately).  But, I started Lacuna for my book club and was enjoying it, I just didn’t get it finished in time for our meeting.  I go anyway when this happens, because the discussion is still worth it and oftentimes it spurs me into finishing because the discussion is so good (plus there’s wine).  I put down Lacuna afterwards and actually didn’t pick it up again until late in the year.  But once I picked it up again, I was hooked.

Harrison’s friendship with Frida was so interesting, and his life in Mexico was so rich with color and imagery. I was thrilled with the twists and turns throughout the book as well as the symbolism of the howlers and the Lacuna itself, even the little jade figure. In a book so rich with vivid details, I found this one to be the one that stuck with me from early in the book…

“At the end of the tunnel the cave opens up to light, a small salt-water pool in the jungle. Almost perfectly round, as big across as this bedchamber, with sky straight up, dappled and bright through the branches. Amate trees stood in a circle around the water hole like curious men, gaping because a boy from another world had suddenly arrived in their pool. The pombo trees squatted for a close look, with their knobbly wooden knees poking up out of the water. A tiger heron stood one-legged on a rock, cocking an unfriendly eye at the intruder. San Juan Pescadero the kingfisher zipped back and forth between two perches, crying, ‘Kill him kill him kill him!’

Piles of stone blocks lay in a jumble around the edges of the pool, a broken-down something made of coral rock. Vines scrambled all over the ruin, their roots curling down through it like fingers in sand. It was a temple or something else very ancient.”

I loved the juxtaposition in the book between Mexico and the US, between the ancient world and the threat of the bomb and Communism.

I highly recommend this one.  And just like Poisonwood Bible, I think this is a book that is going to stick with me for a long while.  Really a beautiful book.

After finishing Lacuna, I treated myself to a new purchase in honor of passing my certification exam that had been hanging over my head for months.  I decided to pick up City of Bones by Cassandra Clare.  I’d heard good things about this series and I needed a good, quick read to finish out the year.  I didn’t quite get this one finished by the end of the year (I just finished it last night), but it was a good way to end the year nonetheless.

This is a YA book, and I love the world Cassandra Clare has created.  The characters are interesting and interact with each other well.  I love the backstory of the Nephilim as well as the use of runes to mark themselves.  So interesting.  Clary is a great main character, and while the ending took a twist I wasn’t expecting and I’m not entirely sure I’m happy with, I can’t wait to delve into the next book in the trilogy.

So, there you go – a little glimpse into what I’ve been reading lately – two totally different books.  And as for what’s next, I’ll be reading The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber for book club later this month.  Then I think I’ll get back to some of the books I’ve got in progress and finish them up.  I’ve got lots I want to read this year and I can’t wait to get to them!

What are you reading?

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