Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wearing the (funny)pants

So, today brings us "Tina Fey's Tough Girl Feminism," by Katie Roiphe.

Except, actually, if you are on the homepage, you will see it as "Is Tina Fey Good for Women?"

Awww, Slate! Why the bait-and-switch? Is it because fewer people are going to click on an article with the f-word in its title?

Probably, yeah.

But anyway, Roiphe thinks that Tina Fey is, in fact, good for women. Fey's just published her first book, Bossypants:

Ick, that cover. I'm fixated less on the giant hairy man arms than I am by the fact that she looks like Annie Hall.

Anyway, Roiphe touts Fey's "tougher, funnier strain of feminism" as the antidote to...what, exactly? First of all, I suppose that lingering, pernicious idea that woman are just not as funny as men. I don't really understand where that came from. There are funny men and women and unfunny men and women, and in general I have found no correlation between being funny (genuinely funny, searingly funny, laugh-until-you-are gasping-and-our mascara has fled funny) and gender. What I have found is a correlation between being funny and being intelligent. In my experience, dumb people just are not very funny. And it's kind of weird, because I have not noticed that same link between intelligence and being creatively talented, and you would think they would go together, wouldn't you? It's like they're hooked into different centers in your brain.

I have a subscription to Esquire (why? I don't know, but it may have something to do with knowing that I'm more likely to see more of Christina Hendrick's boobies in Esquire than I am in, say, Cosmopolitan, AND I have found that Esquire has more practical sex tips. So there.) and one of the features I've always disliked is their "Funny Joke Told By A Beautiful Woman" page, which has a disclaimer about while they can vouch for the beauty of the woman in question (see! It's right there) they cannot vouch for how funny the joke will be.

And they're usually bad jokes.


I have conflicted feelings about Baltimore. There are a lot of things I like about the city - the beautiful architecture, the relative lack of pretentiousness (compared to DC), the cheap beer. But I have horrible memories connected to the city and always have this looking-over-my-shoulder feeling when I go there.

So, it was nice to pay a visit to Baltimore through the pages of Baltimore Noir, a collection of short stories edited by best-selling author Laura Lippman. Baltimore Noir is quirkier than most crime fiction collections and there are a few solid stories, but it's an uneven collection at best.

Building a crime fiction collection around a locale is an interesting concept. I think it's also one that's hard to handle, if you've ever read anything that's set in an area you know pretty well, because there's a fine line in writing organically and naturally about an area, and being OMFG let me rub this location in your face!! Unfortunately some of the stories veer into this territory, including some that feel compelled to list each.and.every bar in Fells Point (or Fell's Point, if you're a purist, which I am not).

The collection is divided into three parts: Part I: The Way Things Were (Baltimore, before the light industry completely decamped and the city fell in on itself), Part II: The Way Things Are (Baltimore more-or-less in the present), and Part II: The Way Things Never Were (Baltimore slightly in the future).

Lippman is undoubtedly the collection's biggest name, and it opens with her "Easy as A-B-C." A native Baltimorean is hired to renovate his childhood home in gentrifying Locust Point by a newly arrived yuppie. The story's rather predictable yuppie-bashing takes a literal, and fatal, turn. The rest of the stories in Part I are forgettable at best.

In Part II, David Simon's "Stainless Steel," about a homeless man and his younger companion's accidental death, is good despite a clunky and awkward bad-cop narrative. Lisa Respers France's "Almost Missed It By a Hair" is written like a excerpt from Clue and is nowhere near clever enough to be taken as satire.

Part III has two of the collection's best stores, Tim Cockey's "The Haunting of Slink Ridgely" and Sujata Massey's "Goodwood Gardens," which has a Palahniuk-esque streak of sarcasm running through it.

"The Haunting of Slink Ridgely" is a ghost story about a dead milkman. Slink Ridgely, swerving to avoid the golden retriever of one of his customers, flips over his delivery truck and dies in front of a young girl who blames herself for his death. The ghost of Slink, now free to noodle around between Baltimores past and present, divides his time between watching bygone horse races and keeping an eye on the girl who holds herself responsible for his death.

In "Goodwood Gardens," a rich couple buys a lavish historical home from only to begin believing that it's haunted. The story's ending saves it from aping Palahniuk's Lullaby, although the slick, avaricious real estate agent could have walked out of one of his stories.

The stories in Baltimore Noir seem too self-conscious about being noir, and it makes the collection feel like its reaching for something the writers don't really have the talent to back up. Of course, the very act of writing noir may seem self-conscious, since its such a style-driven genre. The city lends itself to noir very well, from the feel of decay to the ever-present crime, which is why some of the stories simply feel like they're trying too hard.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Chew on this

So I finally got around to reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's excellent and deservedly popular book.

I am probably the wrong person to review this book, possessing what have been often derided as the Worst Eating Habits on Earth. Ever.

For the past three nights I've had broccoli and jellybeans for dinner. I would have the same thing tonight, but I've eaten all the broccoli and jellybeans. Which means I am probably going to eat edamame and Junior Mints for dinner tonight.

Fortunately, Pollan's book isn't another Watersian, slow-food-worshipping polemic. Sure, Pollan is trying to gently noodge his readers towards something (which we'll get to later) but he also understands that in order to change, really meaningfully change on a large scale the way we eat in America, we'll have to dismantle our entire industrial farming enterprise, and that's as likely as the Pope on a pogo stick.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that Pollan's book has not, as of yet, made me change my eating habits (see: jellybeans, containing not only high fructose corn syrup, but artificial dye, which we now are finding out is actually Satan). But what Pollan's book does, and it does it very very well, is explain how our eating habits are being controlled by factors that we do not see, do not think about, and probably don't ever connect to the way we eat.

Pollan looks at four meals: a McDonald's burger and fries; organic chicken and vegetables from Whole Foods; chicken, vegetables, and eggs from a small, organic family farm; and finally, a meal containing only things he'd found or killed himself.

I found the first meal the most interesting, if only because I find American fast food really bewildering. My ill-advised shamrock shake adventure notwithstanding, I don't eat fast food - not in any sort of sniffy, health-conscious way (see: my raging sugar addiction and one-entire-salami-a-week habit) but simply because I am too lazy to go and get it. The irony.

Certainly, there are many other things just as bad for you as fast food, but the point that Pollan seems to be making is not only is fast food bad for you, it's bad for everything. Pollan visits a Midwestern farm that grows corn, nothing but corn, super-high-yield genetically tinkered with corn, that then delivers this corn to be processed by agribusinesses into forty zillion different corn products, from the aforementioned syrup to all kinds of other Frakensteinian concoctions, which then end up in your food. Even if that food has nothing to do with corn.

The corn also ends up getting fed to cows, which is kind of weird when you consider that cows are not grain-eaters. But as Pollan's guided tour of a vast feedlot shows, we've gotten around that in a number of ingenious ways.

'Farming' in America has become something of a massive, money-sucking shell game, and Pollan rightly points out the irony in delivering federal subsidies to "family farmers" whose farms don't grow anything you could actually eat, but rather suck up petroleum and spit out corn.

What is the intrepid consumer to do? Jump ship and head for the more colorful, life-affirming aisles of Whole Foods? Not so fast, as 'organic' farming, at least on the scale necessary to supply the Whole Foods of North America, may not use as many pesticides as other farms, but the philosophy doesn't jibe with the reality. Pollan takes a fascinating little linguistic detour here as he takes the reader through a genre he terms "supermarket pastoral," parsing the flowery snippets of prose that Whole Foods likes to paste around the grocery store.

To highlight the difference, Pollan decamps for Polyface Farm of Virginia (and if you've eaten at any of the restaurants in the area that are way out of my price range, you may have seen things like "Polyface chicken" on the menu), a real, organic, multi-use farm run by a  farmer who seems like a cross between MacGuyver and the guy from "Back to the Future" (and also seems more sane in Pollan's book than his website may lead you to believe). Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface Farms, would seem like exactly the type of small family farmer who should be rolling in federal money, but of course he's not, and USDA standards (written to the exact specifications of lobbyists for the meat industry) even keep him from producing his own beef and pork.

Pollan certainly makes a convincing case for vegetarianism, but his Omnivore's Dilemma is really about how an omnivore can make conscienable choices about what they eat in a system designed for profit, and not human or environmental health.

Pass the Jujubes.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Gratuitous food pictures.

Bowl of pho, which, I am told, is actually pronounced "fuh" as in "fuhgeddaboutit." I still pronounce it "fo," as overpronouncing words in another language when you're speaking English inspires in me a homicidal rage so intense that I cannot watch Giada de Laurentiis without shrieking and hurling objects at the television.

Big, oniony, delicious pancake.

My idea of a balanced breakfast. Also the reason I have two fake teeth (just like a rapper!) and a sugar addiction that rivals most hummingbirds. Seriously, if all the candy in the world were to mysteriously vanish, I would be out there knocking over bird feeders to get at the delicious nectar.

Another take on the King Arthur Flour muffins that I made with chocolate chips and a doughnut-like chocolate glaze.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Slothing around

Look at my adorable hat. Look at it.

From today's New York Times, an entry in the "Scientists at Work" blog about why animals sleep. 

Why do animals sleep? Why do we sleep? We still don't know, which I think is further evidence that science answers a lot of questions, but not the ones I'm really curious about.

Bryson Voirin's delightful blog entry catalogs his research amongst the three-toed sloths of Panama. Using a new, tiny electroencephalogram (or EEG, because spelling electroencephalogram right on the first try is as hard as spelling bourgeouise...bourgeoisie...bourgouise...never mind), Voirin shimmied up trees in the Panamanian jungle in search of these elusive creatures, who despite spending the vast, vast majority of their time unconscious, immobile, or unconscious and immobile, are rather hard to find:

"My first finding was that despite their being the world’s slowest mammal, the notion that they are “slow and therefore easy to catch” is false. Simply finding a sloth is an accomplishment. Sloths have an extremely cryptic lifestyle. Their evolutionary strategy is to never be seen or noticed. They typically masquerade in the canopy as a termite nest or clump of leaves, refusing to react to any movement or noise on the ground. The rain forest is full of stationary termite nests and clumps of leaves quietly minding their own business in the trees. They’re everywhere. The key to identifying one as a sloth is to painfully examine every single clump with binoculars and look for the presence of hair."

This is one defense mechanism I can get behind, since I react to threats by masquerading as an end table. (And it's worked pretty well - I'm still here, after all.)

Anyway, Voirin discovered that sloths in the wild sleep an average of about nine and a half hours a day, which means we have a lot in common, because I do too. He found out a lot of other interesting - well, interesting to the .0002% of the population desperate to learn more about the sleeping pattern of the Panamanian three-toed sloth, which includes me, because oh my god have you seen his cute little hat? - data about the wild sloths' snoozing habits, but we still don't know why they sleep. Or why we sleep.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fatal Blow

This is how Isabella Blow tried to kill herself: sleeping pills (three times), drinking weedkiller (twice), driving her car into the back of a truck (didn't work), drowning herself in a horse pond (also unsuccessful), overdosing on the beach in Goa (a taxi driver took her inert form back to her hotel) and jumping off of an overpass in London (shattered the bones in her feet and lower legs).

It was her second tango with the weedkiller that finally did her in, although it took Blow nearly three days to succumb.

Blow by Blow, written by Isabella's ex-husband, Detmar Blow (with help from Thomas Sykes) is an uneven, self-aggrandizing pile of embellishments. There are a few little sparkles here and there, but overall, the book seems less like a biography and more like a mea culpa.

No one would quibble that Isabella had problems, only some of which she brought on herself. Born Isabella Delves-Broughton, the child of the aristocratic Sir Evelyn Delves Broughton and his second wife, the greengrocer's daughter Helen Mary Shore (whose bougie roots Isabella never failed to twit her about), Isabella's childhood was marked by tragedy when her younger brother (and only heir to the Delves Broughton estate) drowned in the family's swimming pool.

Isabella's mother left not long after, and her father remarried when Isabella was a teenager. His second wife promptly moved her adolescent daughters into Isabella's room and set about forcibly trying to wrest her husband's attention from his two older children.

The flamboyant Isabella's life reads like a series of Very, Very Bad Decisions. She met Detmar at a wedding - there's a great picture of them, her in a towering crown of feathers - and he proposed to her about two weeks later. Their wedding was held in Gloucester Cathedral, with Isabella wearing a crown and wimple like a medieval queen.

The couple then embarked on their famously tumultuous relationship, complicated by Isabella's inability to have a child, their perennial financial problems (you can't pay the rent with fancy hats, alas), their inability to hold down any sort of gainful employment, and a whole host of other problems that are rather hard to dredge up any sympathy for.

It's not that Isabella wasn't talented - she was, just not in a way that was very useful. Isabella's credited with launching the careers of milliner Philip Treacy, designer Alexander McQueen, and model Sophie Dahl, but she never earned much in her various jobs at Vogue and the Sunday Times, and certainly not enough to support her opulent lifestyle.

Blow by Blow is unevenly written, and it's pretty obvious when Detmar is equivocating. There are a few genuinely funny and sad passages, but the book tries and fails to make Detmar and Isabella more sympathetic.

Nonetheless, Isabella, wherever two or more are gathered wearing lobsters on their head, there are you also.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dog days

I find myself reading less and less fiction these days, but I picked up Rebecca Hunt's debut novel, Mr. Chartwell, because it's about depression. And it has Winston Churchill in it, that toddler-faced, moribund quipster, whom I quite like.

The novel's premise is saved from preciousness by Hunt's punny, smart writing - even the titular character is a pun-made-flesh, Mr. Churchill's 'black dog' of depression come to life.

The young widow Esther Hammerhans places an ad in the paper for her spare bedroom, and a six-foot-tall, talking black dog turns up to rent it. Esther, rather understandably nonplussed, finds herself oddly drawn to Mr. Chartwell, and agrees to let him stay, although he promptly begins getting into the sort of trouble one would expect from a pro-wrestler-sized dog, from shredding the furniture to filling Esther's backyard with chewed birds.

Mr. Chartwell divides his time between tormenting Churchill, who is facing the lonely, empty shore of retirement and finding himself increasingly unable to keep the dog at bay, and courting Esther, who finds him alternately attractive and repellant.

Mr. Chartwell is an oddly endearing yet frightening character, with his doggish earnestness and subtle corrosiveness. I've always thought of my depression as resembling a metal yoke-like thing I saw in a display of torture instruments a few years ago - the weight is weirdly tangible, like something shoving down on your shoulders all the time. It's easy to see how the deadly companionability of Mr. Chartwell can be attractive. After all, how many other things can you say will never leave you?

Mr. Chartwell's conclusion is unsatisfying, as Esther banishes the black dog by simply taking her best friend's advice to find another boyfriend, which suggests that her depression is more circumstantial than Churchill's, whose family had a long history of battling with it (his daughter Diana committed suicide at 54, and his father and mother were infamously distant parents). Esther's encounter with Churchill also seems rather forced and unnecessary, but the scenes between Chartwell and Churchill's long-suffering wife Clementine ring with genuine grief.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Shake it

I'm pretty sure this is what Banner chugged before he Hulked out.

I bought my first-ever shamrock shake yesterday at McDonald's. The line for the drive-through was longer and than usual, and when I asked the disembodied squawking voice at the intercom  if they had shamrock shakes, I could practically hear the eye-roll. So I wasn't the only one out there scouting the McDonald's drive-throughs in search of the shake.

I kind of love limited-edition foods, particularly if it's candy (I still remember the PowerPuff girls ice cream with great fondness, not the least because my brother would spit out the little half-melted chocolate PowerPuff girls to see which one it was before he ate them) so I was kind of psyched about trying the shamrock shake.

Verdict? Blech. And this is from a confirmed sugar addict, too. I think part of the problem was that my little hamster brain is conditioned to getting mint in conjuction with chocolate, so as I was trying to drink the milkshake, my brain was shrieking wait wait something's wrong we don't recognize this what are you doing?!

And it wasn't just the overwhelming sweetness, it was the weirdness of the unadulterated blast of mint coupled with probably toxic levels of green food dye, which gave the whole thing a weird metallic-yet-tropical flavor, like a lead-coated limeade made in a leftover mojito glass. It also didn't help that I'm about as good at regulating my internal core temperature as a newborn left on an ice floe, so despite the fact that it was hot in the car and I was wearing my usual three layers of clothing plus jacket, I was only three-quarters of the way through the noxious brew before I was shivering uncontrollably. Which was great, because I had to go to the grocery store, and between the sticky green remnants on my face and the twitching, no one tried to talk to me.

But props to you, McDonald's, for being generous with the whipped cream and not forgetting the maraschino cherry.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Muffin top

 Orange muffins with tangerine glaze

Muffins and tangerine curd

I made these as part of my continuing quest to use up my massive stores of tangerine juice. The original recipe is from King Arthur's Flour and calls for nutmeg and a cinnamon-sugar topping, but I left out the nutmeg and added orange extract, tangerine zest, and a glaze made out of tangerine juice and confectioner's sugar.

I chose the recipe because they were called Doughnut Muffins, and they are pretty doughnut-like, at least, like a baked cake doughnut, and they're very easy to make. You could make almost infinite variations of this muffin by adding different things (I think I just figured out how to use up all the dried apricot I have hanging about).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Last days

Sometimes truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's better, which is the case with Terry McDermott's Perfect Soldiers and Andre Dubus III's The Garden of Last Days. Both works attempt to reconstruct the activities of the 9/11 hijackers, but Dubus' novel is a limp reimagining with shallow and floppy characters, while McDermott's book, filled with information gleaned from interviews, phone calls and e-mails, ultimately proves to be much more engrossing.

Dubus, who also wrote House of Sand and Fog, follows the hijackers on their last nights in Florida, where they visit a seedy strip club, ruminate on paradise, and discuss their revulsion to Western decadence and sinfulness. At the same time, stripper and single mother April is left without a babysitter for her three-year-old daughter, so she hauls her along to the strip club, where she's promptly kidnapped by a drunk customer while April entertains Bassam, one of the hijackers.

That Bassam is one of the hijackers is almost incidental to the plot. Despite sprinkling Bassam's inner monologues with a few Arabic words, Dubus fails at really getting inside Bassam's head, and he's one of the least interesting characters, which is saying something in a novel otherwise populated by stock figures: the stripper/single mommy with the heart of gold, the violent ex-husband who spends his time mooning around the dancers. Bassam noodles around Florida and is alternately licentious and condemning of the Western women with their low-cut T-shirts and shorts, but there's no real revelation to be found here.

In contrast, McDermott's book (portions of which were published in earlier forms in the Washington Post and New York Times) painstakingly reconstructs the paths of some of the hijackers, through training camps in Afghanistan to university in Hamburg and eventually to the United States. In doing so, McDermott reveals surprising connections in a global web and, more effectively than any of the numerous intelligence reports that began spewing forth after 9/11, shows both how nebulous and obvious the strands of information leading to the men were in the years before the attack.

Get stuffed

So I have this weird thing for stuffed cupcakes.

Chocolate cupcakes stuffed with German chocolate cake-style coconut filling

Strawberry cupcakes stuffed with strawberry jam.

I think this is because of my penchant for always going an ingredient too far. Layer cake with icing? Ha! I'll not only make the layer cake, I'll add some fruit curd or something, and then maybe stick candy all over the top of the cake. Which is why I like ridiculous recipes like Sprinkle Bakes coffee and donuts cake. A cake? Covered in donuts?? It may just encapsulate everything that is so wrong and yet simultaneously so right about American eating habits.

Coconut cleverly hidden by chocolate frosting

Strawberry-filled cupcakes covered in strawberry cream cheese icing

I was a little disappointed with the strawberry cupcakes, but I'm always disappointed with fruit-flavored cupcakes. The recipe came from Martha Stewart's website via the owner of Sprinkles Bakery in California (not affilated with the Sprinkle Bakes blog), but I added the jam filling and modified the frosting. The cupcake batter itself has strawberry puree in it, but unless you want to dump red food coloring into the cake, it only tints them pink very slightly. The original icing recipe was a standard butter and confectioner's sugar icing with strawberry puree added, but I added cream cheese, although I still thought the frosting was too sweet.

Which brings me to this:


I have a sack of tangerines, and I've decided to start making my own fruit concentrates in the hopes of finally making a fruit cupcake that is as fruity as I want it to be. My first attempt will be a tangerine curd-stuffed cupcake with a vanilla cupcake base with added tangerine concentrate, and a tangerine frosting.

No scurvy here.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Septembrists

I finally got around to watching The September Issue this week. Impressive, since it's been on my list to watch since it came out two years ago. Clearly, I have been doing other, much more important things with my valuable time.*

I have a subscription to Vogue. I used to only buy the massive fall issue, but then reading it would always make me feel fat, which is fine, because that's what Anna Wintour was going for anyway, so, way to go, Anna. Reading it still makes me feel fat, but perversely I like reading it while stuffing myself with chocolate or cake. Sort of like, hah, don't you wish YOU could be eating this? But you can't, because you're wedged into a sample size that will explode if you breathe out too vigorously.

But The September Issue, while about (you guessed it) the September issue, is really much more about the relationship between the forbidding Anna Wintour and her daffy second-in-command, Grace Coddington.

Wintour comes across as evil as people say she is, from the perma-pursed mouth and Botoxed forehead. She makes Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly look positively maternal in comparison. Wintour seems more like a massive praying mantis in a wig and couture, and I get the feeling that when the camera is off, she unhinges her jaw and devours farm animals.

I was all set to make fun of Wintour's prissy, unchanging bob, but then I looked in the mirror and realized we have almost identical haircuts and the same penchant for massive sunglasses, and I was suitably chagrined.

All that bathing in virgin's blood and she still has forehead lines.

Coddington is Wintour's foil: sweet, slightly dumpy, and very gentle. The saddest scene in the movie is listening to Coddington talk about her early years as a model, and the disfiguring car crash that ended it, but she doesn't seem bitter, just resigned to playing second banana to Wintour.

Other bit players at Vogue make an appearance, from the whale-like Andre Leon Talley (he comes across as Miss J's ugly sister, and seems affected and pretentious next to the religious-like fervor of the rest of the staff) to Wintour's underlings, who wither and become instantly forgettable under her scrutiny.

There are quietly affecting moments in the documentary, like when Coddington buys tarts for a photo shoot and the stick-thin model eyes them and then guiltily shoves one into her mouth; or when Coddington tears up after Wintour discards half of a photo shoot she's put together. The interviews with Wintour make it clear that she will not relax her iron grip on either her magazine or herself, but it's hard not to like her in spite of herself, especially after watching her push a young designer (Thakoon) into a lucrative contract with Gap.

*I was not actually doing anything more important.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Food fight

Pork dumplings (left) and spicy garlic eggplant (right) from Hong Kong Palace in Falls Church. Despite its name, Hong Kong Palace serves Sichuan cuisine, which means that you should get ready for some heat. It helps to bring someone who can read Chinese, but the food is pretty much all amazing, and the dumplings are awesome - crispy yet tender and full of delicious pork, with a delicately crispy underside.

Sandwiches and fries from Earl's Sandwiches in Arlington. At left is a grilled prosciutto with provolone and a fried egg on sourdough; at right is a roast beef with cheddar and a fried egg. Earl's adheres to the Rule of Sandwiches (that is, that a fried egg on any sandwich makes it automatically better). The roast beef is juicy, bloody, and tender, and the fries are salty, crispy, floppy, potatoey goodness. It's perfect hangover food, greasy and comforting, and listening to the Smiths while noshing on something so bad for you yet so good is the perfect way to start a weekend morning, along with free refills of coffee. And yes, dear reader, I ate the whole damn thing.

Cupcakes from Crumbs (clockwise from top: carrot cake, almond joy, chocolate hazelnut, and cappuccino)

So, the DC Metro area (or DMV if you are a rapper and from around here, and I'm neither, so I won't call it that) has succumbed to the Great Plague of Cupcakes that has erupted in cities nationwide. Cupcake shops have spread like some kind of massively contagious rash, breaking out in sprinkles and frosting from Tenleytown to Alexandria to Clarendon. Crumbs is a chain with locations on both coasts, and their Clarendon outpost just opened a few months ago. Crumbs does just cupcakes, and their flavors range from traditional to cutesy, but you won't find stuff like lavender vanilla or chocolate bacon.

Their cupcakes are pretty massive, and at about the same prices as Georgetown Cupcakes, a pretty good deal. They also have extraordinarily cute packaging, and their molded plastic cupcake boxes have little wells for each cupcake, which reduces squishage and icing transfer (but also lets everyone who sees you know what a piggy you are).
I do not foresee a career in food photography in my future.

The cupcakes strike me as more muffiny than cupcakey, but that could be the large, mushroom-like shape and the frosting-to-cake-ratio. I like to keep mine steady at 2/3 cake to 1/3 frosting, but Crumbs is almost all cake and barely any frosting. The carrot cake is moist, with shreds of green that I suspect are zucchini, and a fairly traditional cream cheese frosting, although they should toast their walnuts before chucking them on there (untoasted walnuts are kind of bitter).

The almond joy cupcake is a basic chocolate cake with a vanilla frosting center, chocolate ganache frosting covered in coconut, and a bizarrely heavy hit of amaretto. I like amaretto, but the Almond Joy candy bar for which it's named has almonds almost as an afterthought, and the coconut topping seems to have been soaked in the stuff, so you get a nose-clearing alcoholic hit of almond when you bite into it.

The chocolate hazelnut is my favorite, with a deliciously, slightly bitter, perfectly roasted hazelnut cream center and icing. They got the balance of hazelnut and chocolate just right.

The cappuccino is okay, but I'm not a fan of using chocolate chips as decorations - I tend to spit most of them out instead of eating them. The coffee icing is bitter and dense, although that could be my own partiality to coffee buttercream.

It's kind of disappointing that the cupcakes are so heavy on the cake and light on the frosting, especially since the chocolate cake is rather bland and on the dry side (but that could have been because I bought them at the end of the day). But they're the perfect size to split, although I will admit to hogging the frosting, especially on the carrot cake.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Squid vicious

China Mieville is one of my favorite authors. When the Twilight books were beginning to gather steam, I spent a lot of time squawking and flapping my hands around and speaking in a high pitched voice about how awful it was that crap like that became so popular, while there were other, much better works out there sadly not being read. Oh yeah? Like what? whichever unfortunate I polemicizing to would ask, and I would say, well, there's this author named China Mieville and his writing is really great and complex and unexpected, and they would go well what sort of stuff does he write? and then I would say well it's sort of like science fiction, but not really science fiction, but kind of like that, and rather fantastist but not really fantasy, with some futuristic yet very archaic elements and then the person would go well this has been really fascinating but I just set my own leg on fire so I could get out of this conversation, so if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go attend to that.

But anyway, China Mieville doesn't really need my help anymore, because if you'll notice on the top of his most recent book, Kraken, it says "New York Times Bestselling Author." Mieville is doing just fine.

But for what it's worth, when I saw this on the shelf in the new fiction section at the library, I let out a little squee of joy and snatched it up. True, Cthulu has been done to death, gone from serious to kitsch (the short stories on, a plushie, even his own perfume line), and it was with some trepidation that I saw that Mieville was preparing to fling himself off the Lovecraftian plank, but I shouldn't have worried.

I think this is one of Mieville's most ambitious works yet. To someone who has read all of his fiction, there are a lot of similarities, both in content and style, but the reach of the novel is much bigger, as are the demands that Mieville is making on his reader.

But first, a quick summary - Kraken takes place, as does most of Mieville's work (excepting the Bas-Lag trilogy), in London, where Billy Harrow works as a curator in the London Museum of Natural History's Darwin Centre, where he specializes in preserving molluscs. Harrow got to work on the museum's only Archeteuthis, or giant squid, which is the big draw for the tour groups.

Until one day, Harrow and a tour group discover the the squid, jar and all, has somehow vanished, and in doing so, kicked off a chain of events that are rapidly leading to Armageddon.

There are two Londons in Kraken. As in Mieville's other works, particularly Un Lun Dun, King Rat, and his short stories in Looking for Jake, there's the London that most everyone wanders around in, and then there's the London under that. In Kraken, this London is populated by a dizzying panoply of sects, churches, cults, and other groups, all clutching to their own particular belief systems, and all determined, in one way or another, to fulfill their various prophesies.

Think of it as fundamentalism on steroids, with an extra helping of witchcraft and brutality. Kind of like if evangelical Baptists had been around in the Middle Ages, but had access to things like guns and the Internet at the same time.

The hapless Harrow finds himself being pursued by acolytes of the Church of God Kraken, who worship the giant squid and would very, very much like to find it, a mysterious branch of the police force dedicated to handling crimes relating to the cults, supernatural, and the like, a sadistic crime boss known as the Tattoo who is, in fact, a tattoo, and a pair of murderers called Goss and Subby who are two of the most frightening characters I've stumbled across in a book lately.

Scooped up by a Teuthist gone rogue named Dane who is determined to find the squid and thwart Armageddon, Billy begins a nightmarish journey across London, trying to track down the whereabouts of the squid and avoid dying in various extremely nasty ways, while London's various cults get ready to duke it out over who gets to have their Armageddon first.

As I said, Kraken requires a lot more from its readers than Mieville's earlier works. The Bas-Lag trilogy, while full of the same arcana, was still set in a universe that operated according to a certain set of more or less plausible rules. Here, Mieville is making them up as he goes, and the result is rougher, more hasty, and less seamless than his earlier works, but consequently more exhilarating. The writing is even less polished, and in some places, feels more overdone, as though it's missing a final scrub, but the sheer scale of the various myths, religions, scientific ephemera, and bits and pieces of history that Mieville is manipulating is impressive.

In many ways, Mieville's work is evocative of Neil Gaiman's, particularly Gaiman's series and later novel Neverwhere (Mieville's Goss and Subby seem to echo Gaiman's two assassins, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar.) But Mieville's work is more complex, more willing to tip itself off the deep end and trust the reader will accept it. This can be wearing at times - for example, characters trying to explain who the murderous Goss and Subby are just give up and splutter that it's Goss and Subby, for Chrissakes and leave it at that, as though Mieville couldn't come up with an explanation either, and is willing to simply let them exist.

But if you're prepared to go flying blind into Mieville's nightmare London, Kraken is a hell of a ride. I find it best to read Mieville's work straight through, let it sit for a day or two to percolate, then pick it up again and Wiki my way through the pages, looking up the little breadcrumbs and hints that he scatters through his pages.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Natalie, we need to talk.

Natalie? It's me, Mike. We need to talk. Young lady, I'm --

Jeez, Mike. I'm not a baby anymore. Actually, I'm 29. And I look like this now:

See? Total grown-up.

Buh? 29? God, that's so surprising I went all pixelated. I still kind of think of you as being -

Gawd! Mike, I know. Most people probably do. But I'm twenty-nine.

Right. Okay, well, I need to have a serious chat with you. Which is why I'm not wearing a suit and I'm looking sort of folksy. Just ignore the microphone. Natalie, there's no easy way to say this, but you're glamorizing single motherhood. I don't know if you know this, but having a single mother is the single biggest cause of a child starving to death, having no health care, and being left on a hillside to be eaten by wolves. Do you want your child to be eaten by wolves, Natalie? Do you?

Wolves, Mike? That's what you're concerned about?

Dammit, Natalie! Listen to me! Impressionable young girls everywhere in America look at you with your glowing hair, enviable cheekbones, impossibly white smile, adorable new fiancee, and say, "I can do that too!" Then they go out and get knocked up by the first dipshit to buy them a Bud Light!

'Sup, guys.

Goddamit, Levi! Not now! I'm lecturing Natalie Portman about how her decision to have a baby at 29, when she's rich enough to stay home with the kid even if she never works another day in her life, and about to get married to her fiancee, is incredibly irresponsible and something I should definitely be talking about. God, next thing you know she'll be ditching the kid to go on Dancing with the Stars to try to make ends meet. She may not even finish high school!

Mike, I have a degree from Harvard for Chrissakes! I've been published in two scientific journals! I speak Hebrew! I just won an Oscar!

Oh, hey guys. Bristol here. Are we talking about what we've accomplished?

Bristol, for the love of Christ shut the hell up. I am trying to tell Natalie here about how her kid is going to get eaten by wolves.

Hey Dad! It's your son, David. Are you talking about wolves? Because I hanged a dog once at summer camp. But you're totally right, Pops, Natalie's kid is probably going to grow up to be a pasty, chunky, animal-torturing psycho because she didn't have a ring on it when she got pregnant.

Okay, okay. You know what? I give up. Fine. Go ahead and have a bunch of out-of-wedlock kids, Natalie. They'll probably grow up to be smart, gorgeous, accomplished people just like you. But don't say Mike didn't try to warn you! Now if you'll excuse me, my Mike-sense is tingling. Some young, naive girl out there is about to make another horrible life decision, and I have to do something about it!

Hey guys! Good news!

Well, shit.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wish list.

These are the new Dots Sour Slices in Pink Grapefruit (image from the wonderful CandyBlog).

I love sour candy, as the unfortunate individuals who once saw me eat an entire bag of Skittles Zours in one sitting, and then demand they look at the blood oozing from my lacerated tongue, will attest. And I love pink grapefruit, both in fruit, candy, or perfume form. Also, I love that the word for grapefruit in French is pamplemousse (which the Germans then ripped off in the form of Pampelmuse and the Romanians didn't even try being creative with grepfrut).

Sadly, finding the Dots Pink Grapefruit will probably now become the overarching motivation for continuing to exist.