Monday, October 31, 2016

This Is What Soul Tastes Like (a recipe post)

Research can take you to some interesting places at times, and it was research for... something (yeah, I don't have any idea, now, what I was actually researching at the time)... that led me to soul cakes. Soul cakes became the inspiration for a novelette which you can find in "What Time Is the Tea Kettle?" and has also become the inspiration for making some of our own every year. [I use the term "every" rather loosely as this is only the second time we have done this.]

I gave a brief history of the food item in last year's post, but I'd like to add to that by saying that soul cakes were made by the wealthy to hand out to the poor in no small part just to show off how wealthy they were. Many (many) of the ingredients were luxury items, and some of them (like saffron) were extreme luxury items. Also, this is, at least in part if not in full, where the tradition of trick-or-treating comes from.

I think this year's attempt, for which we went as authentic as we could, finding a recipe from 1604!, turned out even better than last year's. Yes, indeed, I did save some souls!

Now, here's my wife to explain the recipe:

Last year we made what is basically a modern cookie--because most of the recipes that call themselves "soul cakes" on the internet are modern cookies, by which I mean they are leavened with chemical agents (baking powder and baking soda). There is nothing wrong with cookies, but they aren't medieval food, and this year I wanted to do a more authentically medieval soul cake. That meant making one that was leavened with yeast, which led to the basic recipe that we used this year, which is from 1604: click here. Quoting, the recipe they used goes like this: "Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barme, beat your spice, & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together, & make it in little cakes, & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them and fruit."

So first off, whoa, it's like people in the late middle ages / early modern era didn't even know how to spell and punctuate or something. And second, what the heck are some of these ingredients??

Using the Gode Cookery translation of the recipe, here's what I came up with:

1/2 cup ale
1 tsp active dry yeast
2 cups flour (I use white whole wheat)
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. each nutmeg, clove, and mace
1/2 tsp. saffron
1/2 cup dried currants
2 tbsp butter
1/2 cup sweet sherry

When I looked at the recipe last year, some of the instructions made zero sense to me. But this year I was determined to figure it out, and it turns out that the ingredients in the recipe themselves lead to some pretty interesting history.

"Ale barme" is now just called "barm" and it is the foam that forms on top of fermented alcohol such as beer or wine: click here. The foam contains yeast, so, in medieval England it was routine practice to skim that off and use it to leaven breads. This barm bread was considered to be very good stuff: "The barm method appears to be an ancient method developed by Gaelic peoples in the mists of time, and was quite different to that used in Europe, which is to leaven bread with a sourdough or leaven (the French call it 'levain'). When the Romans first conquered Gaul, modern day France, they were astonished by the light sweet bread made by the Celtic inhabitants... In England noblemen's bread, manchet was always made with the barm method, whereas the commoners' bread maslin was a sourdough." link

And while I knew what the other ingredients were, I hadn't quite thought about what their meaning in the culture of the time was. Spices and sugar seem very common and easy to get and not all that expensive to us now, but that was not true in 1604 and earlier. Saffron was and still is quite expensive, and was usually an import to England (though there was some farming of it within England for a time). There was even a brief war over saffron. Saffron gave both bright color and interesting flavor to foods, AND, EVEN BETTER: Europeans thought it was a plague cure! So it was a culinary and medicinal luxury good.

The first step in this recipe is to get your saffron ready for use by extracting it in some alcohol. This helps bring out the color and flavor. Soaking the saffron in a couple of teaspoons of brandy or any other strong alcohol, it starts out looking like this:

And very quickly becomes this:

Then I prepped the "ale barm" substitute by mixing 1/2 cup of good local ale with 1 tsp of active dry yeast.

I combined the flour and sugar in a bowl, made a well in the middle, and poured in the ale barm to let it sit and proof. Were I to do this again, I would probably use instant yeast because it doesn't require proofing, and I think that might lend a slightly lighter character to the finished cake. Though it probably wouldn't be quite as authentic that way, either.

Sugar was also a luxury imported good in England, and sugarcane was being grown in Spain and Siciliy (link). In the decades after 1604, of course, the demand for sugar would drive colonization of the new world and the enslavement of many people. "Its price per pound in 14th and 15th century England was about equally as high as imported spices from tropical Asia such as mace (nutmeg), ginger, cloves, and pepper, which had to be transported across the Indian Ocean in that era." Sugar was also thought to have medicinal properties (sorry medieval people, lol, you were wrong).

Meantime, Andrew creamed together the butter and spices in a small bowl.

Look into the spoon...THERE IS A MAN IN THE SPOON! Oh, it's just Andrew.

Then I added the sherry to the creamed butter and spices. This seemed unnecessary to me, but the recipe said to do it, so I did. I ended up with lumps of spicy butter floating in sherry. Not a very effective technique, and even if you were to beat in the sherry slowly you'd still end up with this result. Since everything is going to get mixed into the dough anyway, why not just add the components separately? Anyway, sherry was an import from Spain to England, and spices came from far-away places such as the Middle East and Asia (link). I used a sweet sherry in the recipe because that's what sherry was then--sweet and probably not as high in alcohol as modern sherry. (I had a reference for that but don't know what I did with it!)

After steeping in the alcohol for a while, the saffron starts to look like a little sun in its glass.

The beginning of mixing everything together! I covered the ale barm well over with the flour and sugar, then poured in the sherry and spices and saffron. Then began to stir...

After my dough was holding together, I turned it out onto a wooden peel to knead.

Then added in the currants...

And kept kneading until they were all incorporated.

Then it was time to roll the dough out into a disk, about half an inch thick...

That's a closeup of one of the saffron threads in the rolled dough. I just think saffron is really cool.

After rolling the dough out, I used a cookie cutter to make rounds, then Andrew and I marked the shape of the cross on them. After letting them sit to rise for about 15 minutes, I baked them at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes--but they might need a bit more or less in someone else's oven.

Texture-wise, these soul cakes are interestingly different from modern cookies or breads. They are flatter and chewier and a bit harder. These were sweet enough, and the flavors were good, but next time I make them I will put some salt in them, because I think they needed a bit of balance, and salt would heighten their flavors. Andrew liked them and the kids liked them, so that seemed like a pretty good success rate.

As Andrew explained above, these would have been luxury goods, indicated by several of the ingredients--sugar, spices, saffron, and sherry. And they would have been perceived to be healthful, since the ingredients had "medicinal" purposes. So, in effect, rich people handing out soul cakes around Allhallowtide would be like rich people today handing out little goodie bags of Whole Foods protein bars full of acai berries and artisanal honey or something, I think. (I wonder if kids today would even eat Halloween candy they thought was meant to be healthy??)

Friday, October 28, 2016

Dream of the Red Chamber (an opera review post)

Dream of the Red Chamber is a new opera. As in brand new. In fact, this was the world premiere. Not that we saw the first showing of it during its run. It's more like seeing a movie on opening night but seeing the 3:00am showing because the earlier showings were sold out. It's still opening night.

The opera is based on the book of the same name, or usually the same name, depending on the translation. The book is considered the book of Chinese literature and even has its own branch of scholarship, redology.

It is, however, a very long book (evidently, Martin has nothing on this guy), so the opera is based on this very particular plot arc of the book, one which involves a love triangle.

In a general sense, this is not a problem; however, the opera spends the first half (until the intermission) setting up the triangle, and it does a poor job of it. Let me explain:

The lead male, Bao Yu (all of the names are symbolic, but I'm not going to go into all of that), has grown up in the women's house, the red chamber, something not normally allowed. During his time there, he has fallen in love with Dai Yu and she with him. They have a lot in common, though she is a "plain" girl and an orphan, making her a "poor match" for Bao Yu, at least according to Bao Yu's mother.

They spend a good portion of the first half of the opera setting up the love between Bao Yu and Dai Yu, then Bao Chai is introduced. She is supposed to be exotic and beautiful, and we are supposed to believe that the presence of Bao Chai creates a romantic conflict for Bao Yu, but, other than an erotic dream he has about both women, there is nothing to support Bao Yu's supposed passion for Bao Chai. It's never quite believable.

Especially since, in the opera, it is almost immediate that Bao Yu's mother begins to push Bao Yu and Bao Chai together (as does Bao Chai's mother). Bao Yu is never torn between the two women. He wants to marry Dai Yu. But it's Bao Chai who is the "good match" and, thus, the conflict. This conflict, which is heightened by a visit from Bao Yu's sister, is not introduced until the very end of act one, leaving most of act one to be various songs about people's intentions with singers standing in place telling of their love or whatever.

Basically, there was little action, leaving act one to be fairly dull.

Act two was a complete turn around, though, as all the court intrigue around the marriage kicked in. The family is trying to force Bao Yu to marry Bao Chai, but he is taking a stand against that. Unfortunately for him, the Emperor himself wants the marriage to happen... because he has a plot underway against the two families. Needless to say, act two is quite a bit more exciting. Enough so that it makes the opera worth watching.

Actually, it's all pretty interesting. Enough so that I'm exploring the idea of reading the book. It's twice as long as War and Peace, which I haven't read yet, so that's saying a lot. I've said for a while that the quality of an adaptation can be told by whether it makes the "viewer" want to explore the source material. Based on that, I would have to say that this is a successful opera. It's certainly not bad, just a bit slow and boring through the first half.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

What Is the Flavor of Soul? (a FREE! book day)

 Tea Kettle
For someone who grew up not really liking Halloween, I seem to write a lot of Halloween flavored stuff. There's the whole disastrous trick-or-treating escapade in The House on the Corner and, then, there's "Soul Cakes." Not to mention all kinds of other creepy stuff I've done or am doing.

But back to "Soul Cakes"!

If you pay attention to the cover for "What Time Is the Tea Kettle?", you'll notice that "Soul Cakes" is included. Yes, it's a pair of novelettes, and they are some of my favorite stories. In my mind, they're just fun. I won't lie, though, and try to say that some people haven't been unsettled by them.

Oh, well.


Just in time for Halloween, "What Time Is the Tea Kettle?" is FREE! And, hey, you can't beat FREE! Seriously, pick them up and give them a read.

And be ready for the man and his cat to be back very soon. Very.
And with an actual name.
Sort of.

What are you waiting for? Click the link and go get your FREE! book!
Creepy days are here, but they're almost over.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Claude (pictures I like)

It is commonly thought that Claude is an albino alligator.
It's not true.
Claude started out a normal alligator in the swamps of Louisiana.
He had friends. Mostly other 'gators, you know, but Claude was a bit less inclusive than most of his kind and, one day, befriended a young boy. Young boys with 'gator friends aren't so uncommon in the wilds of the bayou. It's just that it usually doesn't end well.
Neither did this one but not for the reasons you might think.
While out playing one day, Claude and his friend human came across an old shack out in the swamp. It seemed abandoned. Being curious, as one might expect of a 'gator willing to have a human friend (and vice verse), they investigated.

Claude, being a 'gator, managed to escape, but what he saw of what happened to the boy drained him of all of his color.

He's happy, now, to live in the museum. It means he's safe.
He tries not to think about the boy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Clone Wars -- "The General" (Ep. 4.8)

-- The path of ignorance is guided by fear.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

They've done a good job with making Umbara a creepy place. I may have said some of this last time, but it's full of strange, glowing lights; strange, glowing creatures; and strange, glowing death machines that look like strange, glowing creatures. It's fortuitous that these episodes have fallen during the month of October. The only other episodes I can think of that would work so well this month would have been the zombie Geonosian episodes.

General Krell continues to be completely casual about the deaths of his troopers. He doesn't care to explore options because he doesn't have a problem with throwing clones against a wall until the manage to break it down. The lives don't matter because, to Krell, they're not lives. This is brought to light early on when one of the clones, Fives, points out that the general's outstanding record of victories comes along with the highest, by far, casualty count of any other Jedi. This is contrasted to Anakin leading from the front, because Krell leads from the rear. From camp, actually, without, so far, getting involved in any of the combat, something I find odd from a Jedi who is supposed to be such a fearsome combatant.

[Actually, I don't find it odd, because I know what happens from my previous watching of the series; however, I would find it odd if I didn't know. I'm sure my first response to Krell was "what an asshole." Well, now, I already know why.]

The episode is full of some great fight sequences, and you might want to say that they're gratuitous, but they're really not. They serve two purposes:
1. To show Krell's complete disregard for the lives of his clones as he continues to tell them "frontal assault!" no matter how bad things get.
2. To show the divide within the clone ranks themselves as they dissent about whether Krell's orders should be followed.

This is a good story arc and much needed for the redemption of season four.

Also, the opening quote (seen up under the picture) is very appropriate for our own current election season.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Problem of Non-concession

I grew up not thinking much of George Washington. Of the founding fathers, I felt like he was by far the most overrated. Sure, he was the leader of the revolutionary army, but he was bad at it. It seemed to me that what he was best at, the place he really excelled, was losing battles. Of course, that's from the perspective of a teenager who evaluates everything based on whom is winning or losing. And, sure, Washington "won" the war, but that was hardly his doing considering the long list of defeats he suffered. Winning by luck isn't really winning; it's just not losing.

Needless to say, my younger view of Washington was overly simplistic at best, and I have since come to appreciate the man. For one thing, Washington knew his own limitations and, because of that, surrounded himself with people who were, basically, smarter than him and on whom he could rely to make decisions. And I think he must have been one of the most charismatic men to ever walk the planet based upon what he was able to inspire men to do.

But none of that is important. All of the important things about Washington boil down to two things:
1. He freed his slaves. Yes, he waited until his death to do it, but, still, he did it. Of the founding fathers who owned slaves, the ones everyone knows about, at any rate, he was the only one to make that gesture. He didn't like slavery; he just couldn't figure out a way to deal with the issue during the founding of the nation.
2. He stepped down as President after two terms.
If for nothing else, Washington is one of the most important men in modern history (or all of history) for that one simple thing: He stepped down!

Let me make something clear, here: This stepping down that Washington did; it had never been done before. Ever. There was no precedent. Period. Men with power did not give it up, not voluntarily. And, yet, Washington, being invested in the viability of the nation he had helped to create, and wanting to set an example of a peaceful transfer of power, chose to not run for a third term as President of the United States.

Sure, you can say that it was because he never wanted to be President anyway, because he didn't, but President was better than King, which is what everyone wanted to make him. They also wanted to call him things like "your majesty," but he worked it down to "Mr. President." In truth, the reasons don't matter. All that matters is that he DID. He did this one thing that changed the world.

Because it did change the world.

It created the precedent that in the United States we could, and we would, have a peaceful transference of power and abide by the will of the people in regards to whom is elected.There has not ever been a President who did not step down if he lost the election.

By extension, we have never had a candidate who did not concede if he lost the election.

Some people seem to be wondering why it matters that Trump won't say that he will concede if he doesn't win. They don't think it matters, evidently. But... And this is a huge BUT!
Do you think that if he's not willing to concede the election if he loses that, if he were to win, that he would willingly step out of power when his term is over? His particular brand of powermongering is dangerous, and it goes against everything, everything, that the United States has been built around.

Even if I agreed with Trump and his ideas, this one thing would be enough to stop me from voting for him. He's too much like watching Palpatine take control of the Senate in the prequels and, well, I'm not into the idea of an Emperor Trump. Or an Emperor anyone.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

October Surprise: A Cupcake Story (a recipe post)

"In American political jargon, an October surprise is a news event deliberately created or timed (or sometimes occurring spontaneously) to influence the outcome of an election, particularly one for the U.S. presidency."

In honor of the most surprising presidential election I've ever seen, and in homage to creepy month here at StrangePegs (because I have also never seen such creepiness in a presidential campaign before), I bring you October Surprise Cupcakes. They are more nutritious than cable news shows, more wholesomely hued than 50% of presidential candidates, and filled with a delicious surprise ending. Guaranteed to distract you from the nasty taste of election year for at least a moment.

The recipe has two components: A pumpkin spice cupcake and a cream cheese filling (with optional candied ginger).

Cream Cheese Filling:

·         1 - 8 ounce package full fat cream cheese, at room temperature
·         1/4 cup granulated white sugar or substitute such as sucralose
·         1 large egg, at room temperature
·         1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
·         1/4 cup chopped candied ginger (optional)

Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes:

·         1/2 cup butter, softened
·         1/2 cup dark brown sugar
·         1/2 cup granulated white sugar (or sugar substitute such as sucralose)
·         1 cup solid packed, canned pumpkin puree
·         2 large eggs, at room temperature
·         1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
·         1 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour. Can be purchased here or at Trader Joe's, Safeway, and perhaps other locations.
·         1 teaspoon baking powder
·         1/2 teaspoon baking soda
·         1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
·         1/4 teaspoon ground cloves (or nutmeg or mace)
·         1/2 teaspoon salt

Cream Cheese Filling: Beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the sugar, egg, and vanilla extract and beat until creamy and smooth. Set aside while you make the cupcake batter.

Pumpkin Cupcakes: Cream together butter, brown sugar, and white sugar (or substitute). Add the eggs, vanilla extract, and pumpkin puree. Then add flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt, and stir thoroughly to combine. If the batter seems too thick (which it sometimes is when using whole wheat flour), add ¼ to ½ cup of water or milk to thin it out a bit.

Fill the cupcake cups evenly (about 1/3 to 1/2 full) with the batter. Make a well in the center of the batter of each cupcake and then spoon a tablespoon of the cream cheese filling into the well. Drop a dollop of batter back on top of the cream cheese filling to hide it. Place in the oven and bake for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until the cream cheese filling has set and the cupcake feels springy to the touch (a toothpick inserted into the cupcake portion will come out clean.)

Recommended serving size: All of them. Immediately. Trust me, you are going to need these if you want to survive the next few weeks.

[I didn't have any comments to throw in this time, but I can vouch for the cupcakes! With ginger, of course. And, actually, we do the sucralose substitute. They're great alongside your morning coffee.]

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Creepy Days in the Garden (a FREE! book day!)

When people think of the Garden, they think of Peace. Calm. Perfection.
Eternal Life.
Then they remember the Serpent.
The Garden hadn't suffered the step of a human for millennia upon millennia...
...until Tib came.
It had become the place of the Undying.

Creepy days continue in the Garden, but don't follow Tiberius too closely.
You don't know what he might find.

Get "The Garden" today! For FREE!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Family Used To Live Here (pictures I like)

It was foggy that last morning.
Not that that was unusual. There was often fog in the morning.
It was quite a bit thicker than most mornings on that last morning, though.
There was a strange light in the fog. Red and blinking.
Pa thought it was kinda purty.
It made him think of Rudolph, but it wasn't Christmas. Not even close.
He called to Ma in the house, "Hey, Ma, come look at this."
Little Sally, of course, came bounding after Ma as she stepped out onto the porch, "What is it, Pa? What is it?"
The women folk saw the light the same as Pa did,
Ma wanted to take Pa's hand, but Little Sally was too busy pulling and tugging on her for Ma to get over to Pa.
"Let's go see it, Ma! Com'on, Pa, let's go find out what it is!"
Before Ma or Pa could say "Stay put!" there was a bright flash of light, bright as day, and the three never moved again.
The blinking red light pulsed a few more times, then it, too, was gone.

Later, after the fog broke, a little boy was pulling his mother along through the field as they went out to market. He almost tripped on the little tin house and the little tin people. "What is it, Momma? What is it?"
The mother and the boy crouched down to look.
"I don't know," she said. "Some kind of doll house, I suppose."
The little began trying to pick up the tin house that was half as big as he was, "Can I keep it, Momma? Can I? Can I keep it?"

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Clone Wars -- "Darkness on Umbara" (Ep. 4.7)

-- The first step towards loyalty is trust.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

Finally! The show gets interesting again!
And I don't really know where I want to begin. Mostly, that's because I remember some of this arc, and I need to write this up without providing any spoilers.

Let's start with the planet.
Umbara is a planet shrouded in darkness. In fact, it is called the Shadow World and the Umbarans are known as the Shadow People. During an assault against one of the cities, the clones discover the planet itself (the fauna and flora) is as deadly as its inhabitants.
[This episode actually fits in perfectly with this month's theme of "creepy days" here on the blog. It is most definitely a creepy planet, shrouded in mists, and full of strange lights and glowing creatures.]

The major development of the episode, though, is the introduction General Pong Krell, a Jedi with a rather fearsome reputation. He relieves Anakin of command of his unit (against Anakin's wishes) because Anakin has been called back to Coruscant. It's almost immediately clear that Krell is an asshole. Um, I mean, a hardass. Despite the protest of Captain Rex, Krell discards Anakin's strategies for one that is, at best, highly reckless. It is also quite clear that Krell has no regard for the clones and refers to them each by their numbers rather than their chosen names. They are not men to Krell.

Krell is a very imposing figure, the same race as the diner owner from Attack of the Clones. With his four arms, he wields not one but two, two!, double-bladed lightsabers. And he doesn't hesitate about threatening his own troops with them. Because that's okay when you don't view your troops as quite sentient.

Now you see the setup...

Monday, October 17, 2016

The End of 'The Affair' (a review post)

My wife and I don't watch a lot of TV. In fact, we don't actually watch "TV" at all. Everything we watch is after the fact on DVD. This allows us to vet the shows we're going to watch, at least to some extent. The Affair was one of those shows that was getting a lot of buzz, and my wife wanted to check it out, so we spent a few weeks and watched season one.

I never really took a liking to the show (Well, actually, I just didn't like any of the characters. Any of them.), but I can't say it wasn't interesting. If you don't know anything about it, the first season is told by viewing the same incidents from each of the main two characters points of view. So you would watch everything through Noah's eyes and, then, watch the same events through Alison's eyes. The differences were intriguing and, from a psychological standpoint, I found it interesting enough to engage in.

Plus, there was a murder.

There's no resolution to the murder plot at the end of season one, so we decided to move on to season two. Now, here's where it gets tricky. The characters are pretty well established by the end of season one, but we don't get exactly those characters in season two. In season one, the plot flows out of the characters and their motivations; in season two, the characters are made to flow out of the "needs" of the plot, and that always makes characters behave in unbelievable ways.

It's actually one of the biggest failings of episodic television; at some point some writer will want to do a particular story that requires a character (or characters) to act out-of-character. When it causes the audience to say, "Wait, that character would never do that," you have a problem, because, the truth is, people tend to act in very predictable ways. Which is not to say that there aren't times when people don't act "out of character," but, when they do, it's not sporadic and generally has a pattern all of its own. However, when you are busy bending characters to cause plot points to happen whether those things are appropriate to the characters or not, you end up with an unbelievable show.

So we spent season two feeling out of sorts with the characters and the things they were doing. It's not that I don't understand, especially as a writer, wanting specific things to happen, but, if you can't figure out a way to have those things happen from the character's motivations, you need to find another way around.

Or, you know, be writing a horror story. Because, in a horror story, if you want to make one of your characters start eating spiders, you can totally do that, even if that character had been the most arachnophobic person on the planet. There's always a way to explain erratic behavior in a horror story!

Not that it's not kind of a horror story when your characters start getting all unbelievable on you. Creepy, I would say. And, well, actually, Noah is kind of creepy. But, then, he's a writer, and writers were rated in the top 10 creepiest professions for men. Oh, wait, I'm a writer...





Yeah, okay, I don't recommend The Affair. It's obviously one of those shows that was went with the initial idea before they'd thought it all the way through, and, now, they're just making it up as they go along. Plus, it's full of horrible people.
Did I say horrible? I mean horrible.

Friday, October 14, 2016

"The Unnamable" (a book review post)

Okay, before anyone says anything, I know "unnamable" is "misspelled." It is not misspelled because I am spelling it incorrectly; it is "misspelled" because that's how Lovecraft spelled it, so I can only assume that that was the correct spelling at the time. I'm assuming that because Lovecraft was rather a fascist of grammar, so it would be more than odd for him to have such a glaring mistake.

Now... Does anyone remember that old horror story (it was told by one of the boys in Dead Poets Society) about the person putting together the jigsaw puzzle only to have it reveal a picture of the person in question being murdered, an event which immediately happens upon completion of the puzzle? Yeah, you should just keep that in mind.

This story made me chuckle. It begins as a philosophical discussion between the narrator, who is an author, and his friend, who is a high school principal, about the author's foible of referring to things in his stories as "indescribable" or "unnamable." The principal holds that this is a "puerile device" of the author and is the reason, at least in part, that he has not become more successful. I have to imagine that Lovecraft is here reflecting upon actual comments to him as an author, because it's one of the things that has come to annoy me most about his writing, his constant retreat into saying that something is too horrifying to describe. The narrator, Randolph Carter, attempts to defend himself.

The two men are, of course, sitting on a tomb in a cemetery as they have this conversation. And, of course, something is going to go terribly wrong.

It was a clever set up. Lovecraft offers us pieces of the surroundings as he tells us about the two men talking, the dilapidated house not far away, the tombstone engulfed by a tree, the very tomb they are sitting on. Then, as Carter begins his defense about unnamable things, he relates to his friend a story, and we discover that they are in the very place where the story takes place. If you're paying attention (and, yes, I know I'm ruining this part), it will dawn on you as he tells the story to his friend, but, if not, at the end of the story, his friend says he would really like to see the house from the story. Carter replies that he can, or could have before it got too dark (because it is so dark at that point that the two men can't even see one another), because it's right over there.

And that is when things go to hell.

I liked this one a lot. That Lovecraft was willing to point out and, to a certain extent, even make fun of this failing of his as a writer, even in the midst of defending himself, is interesting to see. The story within the story becoming the setting for what happens in the story was also sufficiently subtle and interesting. I think this is possibly the most sophisticated of the stories I've read by him to date. Even if it does fall back to his favorite style of ending, which is, of course, the point.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Creepy Days of the Man with No Eyes (a FREE! book day!)

 Man with No Eyes
He's been called many things during his days walking the Earth.
"Master of Shadows"
"Shadow Walker"
"Soul Eater"
But the thing he is most often called is the Man with No Eyes.
For obvious reasons.

What happened to his eyes, you might ask?
Well, that is a tale for another time and one you might be sorry to have asked about once you've heard it. So that you understand:
"And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out. It is better for thee to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell..."

You won't find out what happened to his eyes today, but you can get "The Man with No Eyes" for FREE! today and tomorrow! Spread the word.
But don't trust the shadows.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Clone Wars -- "Nomad Droids" (Ep. 4.6)

-- Who's the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

I never watched the Droids cartoon from the mid-80s, but I feel like I am now. Which may be the point with this and the previous episode. Maybe these are meant as an homage to that series. At least it's just the two episodes.

Which is not to say that this was a bad episode. For an episode centered on the droids, it was quite good, actually. It's just that with the weak start of season four, it's at the trailing end of a series of episodes that don't live up to the quality of the previous three seasons. If this episode had been used as a one-shot between more serious arcs, it could have been a welcome addition of humor.

Still, this episode did manage to make me LOL a number of times. When I say LOL, I mean that literally. Not only does this episode feel like an homage to Droids but also to The Wizard of Oz. And, maybe, Willow. The tiny fairy-like aliens on the first planet R2 and 3PO end up on reminded me a lot of the two brownies from that movie.

Speaking of which, their introduction is handled pretty well. It's very A New Hope with the jawa introduction. Oh, with some Gulliver's Travels thrown in. You know, this episode seems to be an homage to a lot of things as I think about it, and, as I think abut it, I'm appreciating what they did here. I really do wish this episode had had better placement within the series as a whole.

Anyway... What I was trying to say is that the moment when 3PO accidentally knocks R2 over onto the leader (the Wicked Witch character) of the little fairy people and squashes him like a bug made me laugh. Even though I've seen  the episode before, I had evidently forgotten that happened, because I was not expecting that happen. Then the fairies start singing the wicked witch is dead song except with slightly altered words. It was a good moment.

And that's just in the first 10 minutes or so of the episode.

Okay, I think this one is worth watching on its merit as a singular episode. I actually kind of want to go back and watch it again right now just to see if I missed any of the allusions. I'm not going to because I have other things to do, but I want to.

"Please note, whoever you are, my counterpart here is programmed in 47 schools of self defense."

Monday, October 10, 2016

"The Rats in the Walls" (a book review post)

When I was a kid, we had squirrels in the attic. At night, sometimes, you could lie awake and listen to them roll pecans around -- we had two big pecan trees in our backyard -- and, whenever anyone needed to go up there -- which wasn't infrequent -- stray pecans could be found littering the attic floor. I actually wrote a short story, "The Squirrel Olympics," based on the whole thing, a short story that won some award or other and was published in an anthology in some local something-or-other. Hmm... I wonder if I still have a copy of that anywhere...

But I digress.

The problem with Lovecraft's story, "The Rats in the Walls," has nothing to do with lying awake and listening to rodents in your house, something I'm sure many people have experienced. The problem with the story is that it has a rather tremendous buildup that drags on and on, which is saying something for a story that's less than 8000 words, that, then, left me with the feeling of "that's all?" To say the least, I was unimpressed with where the story went.

Maybe if the story didn't follow so many of Lovecraft's normal conventions of storytelling, I would have ended up in a different place by the end of it, but it's stereotypically stereotypical Lovecraft. A man goes home to visit his ancestral home to find out there is some deep, dark family secret he knows nothing about. Of course, he is the last of his line, so he has no way of discovering the secret but, whatever it is, it has caused his family to be reviled in the place of their origin.

He sets about restoring his family home, which has fallen into ruin since his family abandoned it to escape their legacy in the new world. Once the restoration is complete and he begins living there, he begins to hear rats in the walls at night. The problem? The walls are stone. Solid stone.

But the cats in "castle" also hear the rats, and it drives them into a frenzy every night. Delapore is the only human who seems to hear the rats, though, so everyone else (the servants) are confounded by the actions of the cats.

Eventually, all of this leads to finding an underground cavern (spoiler alert!) where his family used to raise humans in pens for eating. In his horror at finding this out, Delapore immediately falls upon one of his companions and begins eating him, something Delapore can't remember after the fact.

At any rate, the reveal was not worth the build up, and the sudden cannibalism by the main character was not really believable. Not that it was less believable than a lot of Lovecraft's contrivances, but the blackout suffered by the character made it something too removed to be believed. Plus, the rats scurrying in the walls just wasn't creepy enough to make the story horrifying. Not a Lovecraft story I would recommend.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Creepy Days of Tiberius (a FREE! book day!)

It's October, and we all know what that means. We all do, right...?
It means the days are shorter and the shadows are longer. The shadows can reach farther and seem to never go away.
That's fine for most people, because the shadows don't care about most people. Most.
But there are those, those few, whom the shadows want, and when the shadows grow long and the veil grows thin, the shadows can act.
Tib has always known the shadows were after him, but he didn't always know he could fight back...

Get Shadow Spinner: Tiberius (Collection 1: Parts 1-5) today for FREE!
Seriously, go get it now! It's only FREE! for a limited time, so don't miss your chance.

And watch out for the shadows...

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Things in the Air (pictures I like)

Do you know what the things in the air are?
Do you think they're harmless?
What will you do when they come after you and you can't get away?
Suddenly, they fill your nose, your mouth, your lungs.
You can't breathe...

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Clone Wars -- "Mercy Mission" (Ep. 4.5)

-- Understanding is honoring the truth beneath the surface.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

I'm going to start by saying that this is not a bad episode; however, it does feel like a throwaway episode. Nothing significant happens in it, and it's not connected to anything else. And there are some things in it that don't make a lot of sense from an overall plot standpoint. Well, one thing: C-3PO and R2-D2 being off on a Republic cruiser with a bunch of clone troopers.

Commander Wolffe and his men are headed to some battle area when they are sidetracked by this mercy mission to aid the Aleena. C-3PO is needed as a translator, which is fine for this episode, but it doesn't explain why the droids are on the ship to begin with. C-3PO tends to stick to Padme's side as her personal protocol droid, and R2 is generally with Anakin, so it's strange that the droids would end up on this ship with Wolffe and his troops. And there's no explanation provided.

Beyond that, it's pretty standard 3PO/R2 hi-jinks. Everyone wants 3PO to shut up, and R2 goes off on his own and does things. There are also fairies and tree people, so I guess it's not quite standard. Oh, and the Aleena have a very ewok vibe with a lot of the same kind of chanting sounds, though they don't quite bring themselves to worshiping the golden droid.

It's a fine episode, I suppose, and it might have been a nice one off as a break between heavier stories, but as the fifth episode of this season in which nothing significant is happening, it just feels like more nothing. I've gotta say, though, the uniforms of Wolffe's group are pretty cool for clone trooper gear.

"Welcome to our disaster. Glad you could come."

Monday, October 3, 2016

Andrea Chenier (an opera review post)

How do you really know that fall is here? Because opera has started! Yes, the new opera season has begun, and my wife and I have begun our opera pilgrimages. We decided to become season subscribers for the 2016-17 season because that makes the opera fairly affordable. Honestly, as long as you don't mind sitting up where the air is thin, the opera actually is fairly affordable. Guess where we sit. Yeah, we take oxygen tanks.

It's not really that bad, being up in the top of the balcony, and, actually, doing the season subscription got us better seats than we could afford if we were buying seats for individual operas.

But I digress...

The first opera up was Andrea Chenier by Umberto Giordano. Chenier is the only opera of Giordano's more than a dozen pieces that is still ever performed, and with good reason, evidently. Not that Chenier wasn't good or watchable -- I'll get to that more in a moment -- but, if this is the best of his works, it's understandable why this is the only one that's still being done. I'm assuming it's being presented now because of the setting: the French Revolution, the ultimate disagreement, let's say, between the 99% and the 1%.

The problem with that as a reason is that the revolution is just a prop for the love story, so the class division is barely touched on. It's unfortunate because what could have been powerful social commentary is undermined by a rather ineffective love story.

Of course, looking at this love story, which was first performed in 1896, does at least slightly inform us as to why insta-love in stories is such a thing. The opera opens with a party at the home of Maddalena di Coigny (the female lead) at which Andrea Chenier is present. Now, Chenier is an actual historical figure, a French poet who got himself into trouble during the revolution and was executed for it. So Chenier is at this party in 1789 just before the revolution gets started, and our leading lady, Maddalena, makes fun of him for being a poet in front of all of her friends, all of whom get a good laugh out of it. Chenier responds by improvising some poetry on the spot, putting Maddalena to shame and causing her to flee the room.

Five years later, Chenier is an important figure in the revolution and Maddalena is in hiding. She decides to seek him out to help her, which she does initially by writing him anonymous quasi-romantic letters. However, when she finally comes face to face with him, she opens with, "Hey, do you remember me? I've always thought of you like a brother, so I was hoping you would help me." In my head, the responses go something like this:
"Sure, I remember you. You made fun of me in the middle of your party and made everyone laugh at me."
"I met you one time! What do you mean you think of me like a brother?"
"Ew! You think of me like a brother, but you've been writing me love notes? You're sick, lady!"
Again, "I met you one time! You're part of the aristocracy that we're fighting against. Why would I want to help you?"
All of those make sense, right? What we get, instead, is this:
"I love you!"
And she responds with, "I love you, too!"
Thus, we have a love story. That part was hard to swallow. And the two leads are about as interesting as their love story.

However, the opera is saved by the character of Gerard, who is also in love with Maddalena, and who is a fully formed and complex character. The actor playing Gerard, George Gagnidze, does a great job with the role on top of the singing. The two leads are fairly flat in their performances, but Gagnidze puts obvious emotion into Gerard and was well worth watching. His pseudo companion, The Incredible, played by Joel Sorensen, is also very good.

The ending is also difficult to accept for reasons I'm not going to go into other than to say that the character who shows that his love is true in the sense of wanting what is best for the other person is not Chenier. To say that the ending was unsatisfying doesn't really say enough about how empty it is, although I think it was supposed to be some "love conquers all" kind of statement.

So, yeah, there was some issues with the story, but opera is not all about the story. The singing was great even if it was almost all of the stand-in-place-and-sing variety. The sets and costumes were magnificent, especially the sets. I mean, the sets were impressive.

It wasn't a great opera, but it wasn't bad, either. Certainly, it was much better than last year's Usher opera. My wife and I have already decided that if this is the worst of the operas this season that we won't be disappointed.

[Make sure to check out yesterday's recipe post!]

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Pumpkin Spice Latte (a recipe post)

Hello, blog readers. I am Sarah, Andrew's wife. We are doing a special Creepy Days thing here where we post things that are fall-themed / Halloween-themed. I offered to Andrew that I would help out with recipes, because I am the recipe person in our relationship. [This is true. I do most of the cooking, but my inclination, often, is to just wing it. Sarah researches and provides recipes to keep me more on track.] So here is your first recipe for Creepy Days: Homemade Pumpkin Spice Latte!

First, what is a pumpkin spice latte? Historically, it's a flavored espresso drink invented by Starbucks and first sold in 2003. [Link]  It has a pretty rabid fan following, and also inspires non-fans to become snarky about "the PSL" (as those in the know dub it, apparently). I don't really know why people become snarky about it, because 1. it's a coffee drink that no one is forcing anyone else to drink, 2. "pumpkin spice" is a delicious melange of flavors generally, 3. the PSL feels autumnal, right? are these people who are snarking actually FALL-haters, and wouldn't that mean they are anti-American?? 4. the eggnog latte seems to slip under everyone's radar and not come in for any abuse at all, despite being a legitimately gross concept, [She says this in a house in which all of her children love eggnog and, though none of them have discovered having it as coffee, they will probably love that, too.] and 5. who even has enough energy to waste on getting cranky about an espresso drink, unless they are in a circumstance where the barista just spit in it? Oh you're not in that circumstance? Then maybe stop being snarky about freakin' coffee!

Whew! OK. I myself do not care for the PSL as it is formulated by Starbucks; however, I am not going to snark at people who like it that way. More power to them in their chosen method of enjoying the seasonal spirit of autumn. For my own preferences, I want a PSL that is more pumpkin-y and less sweet. A lot less sweet, both because I don't like things that are overly sweet and also because I want to avoid consuming a lot of sugar. If you like the idea of the PSL but you would prefer not to have to visit your dentist and cardiologist after each one you consume, then this recipe may be right up your alley.

Now, this recipe is more of a formula than a recipe per se. I recommend that you adjust the formula components to suit your own desire; this could take experimentation. Delicious experimentation. [We do a lot of that.] I consider that a feature rather than a bug as regards this recipe. So does Andrew.

Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) Formula

Pumpkin flavor. Once upon a time, the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte did not contain any actual pumpkin, rather it was artificially flavored. In 2015, in response to consumer pressure about the drink not containing "real" pumpkin, it was reformulated to contain some quantity of pumpkin; Starbucks doesn't indicate how much. To me, this is not a knock against the drink itself (because, I mean, come on--any of Starbucks' sweetened drinks are really just dessert in liquid form, and extracts are often used in desserts to supplement flavor), though to some people it might matter. Rather, I say this in order to make you aware that you have two basic options as regards flavoring your own personal PSL:
  • Pumpkin flavor. Pros: Can be purchased here from my favorite baking-supply company, King Arthur Flour; using a very small amount will apparently give you a big flavor; won't add any texture to your drink as real pumpkin does. Cons: Waiting for your flavor to reach you in the mail; isn't "real pumpkin."
  • Real pumpkin. Pros: It's real pumpkin!; it's easy to find in the stores this time of year; adds some Vitamin A and other nutrients to your coffee drink. Cons: It will add texture to your drink, depending on how much you add in; some people don't like the "raw" taste of it (you can cook it before using it in your drink if that is an issue). [We go for texture. Just sayin'.]
Milk base. Totally up to you what to use here. If you like your lattes made with milk, do that; if you prefer almond milk or coconut milk or something else, that is also fine. Just maybe no goat's milk, that doesn't seem like such a great idea.

Coffee. Do you have an espresso machine? Use a shot of espresso! [If you don't have an espresso machine, you should totally get one. It's well worth it and will provide you a reason to redecorate.] Do you keep instant coffee in your cupboard? It's OK to use that too! (We have both, because we love espresso but sometimes we're lazy and/or I need the instant for baking with.) Or are you a kid or someone else who hates the taste of coffee? NO COFFEE FOR YOU!

Sweetness. Andrew and I are sugar-avoiders, so I use sucralose to sweeten our homemade PSLs; a little less for him, a little more for me. You can use sugar or honey or stevia or maple syrup (that sounds interesting!) or agave or whatever you want. I recommend starting with less and going to more because, as my mom always said, "You can put more in, but you can't take it out." (Good advice for cooking AND pretty good advice for managing your retirement account, too.)

Spices. If you have "pumpkin pie spice" in your cupboard already, you may as well use that. If not--e.g., if you are a crazy baker like me [She is the baker; I just do the cooking.] and have a collection of 30+ spices and herbs that are getting regularly used (ok, except for the ghost chile curry powder that Andrew bought on a whim, that stuff is never going to get used up because no one in our household, mysteriously, wants to have their tongue burned off) [Not true! I use it when I make things that require curry powder! It's just that I didn't buy it until the end of our run on Indian food experimentation so haven't had a lot of opportunities to use it since then.]...anyway, if you have the individual spices you can just use those, and if you have the individual spices then you also probably know that you want to be using some combination of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and/or allspice. Or, if you enjoy masala chai (AKA "chai tea" to Americans), a bit of cardamom will add that flavor. Or try turmeric and black pepper if you're feeling adventurous and want to add an extra dash of warm color and heat to your PSL (black pepper boosts the beneficial effects of turmeric).

Vanilla extract. Why a flavor other than pumpkin and spice and coffee? Vanilla is a great balancer and rounder of other flavors.

Salt. Salt is an enhancer of other flavors. It also moderates the bitterness of coffee.

Whipped cream. Totally optional, unless you are our daughter, in which case whipped cream is literally the most important part of this drink or, indeed, of any dessert. In fact, if we were to allow her to put whipped cream on her breakfast cereal, she would probably be really eager to do that; but please, no one put that idea into her head, because we are already exhausted from saying "NO, YOU MAY NOT PUT WHIPPED CREAM ON YOUR WHIPPED CREAM, THAT IS ENOUGH WHIPPED CREAM."

Pumpkin Spice Latte - 2 servings

4 oz canned pumpkin
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ginger
1/4 to 1/2 tsp blend of other spices such as cloves, nutmeg, mace, allspice, cardamom, black pepper, turmeric
2 cups milk
2 to 3 tbsp sugar or substitute
2 tbsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
1 to 2 shots espresso

In a small saucepan, heat up the pumpkin, along with your chosen blend of spices.

Add in milk, sugar, vanilla, and salt. Stir to combine, then heat up. If you're using instant coffee instead of espresso, this is the time to add it in to your mixture, so that it dissolves. If you want your drink frothy, you can use a hand-held blender to do that when the milk is warmed up.

Pull espresso shots and pour into your favorite mugs. Top with the latte mixture, and whipped cream if that's your thing.

Then, enjoy your fall-themed hot beverage!