Summer Reading

I’ve been on a bit of a creative consumption kick again, voraciously devouring books. It’s helped that this past week has been perfect patio weather to settle into lunchtime reading, so I thought I’d kick myself back into writing mode and share what’s been on my book list of recent.

positively-natalie-summer-reading

The bad: Armada (Ernest Cline)

I desperately wanted to like this book, newly published just a few weeks ago. I loved Fanboys (a film for which Cline wrote the script). I enjoyed Ready Player One (his debut novel). I wish I could blame my disappointment on my expectations being too high, but that wasn’t the case. It’s just a bad book. Not only is it a bad book, but reading it made me reevaluate how I felt about his first book.

The premise is solid – A teenager who excels at video games suddenly finds himself swept up in a real-life defense of Earth, enlisted along with the rest of the top scorers of a game that was designed to secretly train people to pilot drone ships. Not a totally original sci-fi plot, but it’s one with promise nonetheless. But that’s about where the promise ends.

Every paragraph is peppered with pop culture references, to the point that I started to wonder whether Cline is even able to describe anything on his own without pulling from Kubrick or Konami. Then, sometimes he makes a reference and explains the reference in the same sentence. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this practice irks me. The point where I actually, out loud, exclaimed, “You have to be kidding me!” is when he inserted (spoiler alert) into a sentence about the plot of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That wasn’t me warning you about me writing a spoiler – he literally typed the phrase mid-sentence when name-dropping a film that was released in 1977.

He not only referenced books, movies, games, and television, but also tons of scientists. Which led to groan-worthy sentences like this one –

Everyone but Hawking nodded grimly.

In talking with a friend on Facebook, I realized that what I liked about Ready Player One is that it was like a love letter to the author’s childhood. And since his childhood pretty closely mirrored mine, it was a light-hearted, feel-good reading experience for me. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the world he created in that novel didn’t really involve much creativity. I described it as “not so much authorship as it is content curation,” which continues to ring true every time I come back to the statement.

And if RPO was content curation, then Armada is content curation on steroids – Cline sold the movie rights for the book two days after he announced he was writing it, two years ago.

1/5 stars

The good: Replay (Ken Grimwood)

The novel opens with the main character dying. No need for a spoiler alert here, because this is actually the premise of the book. Jeff Winston has a heart attack in his office in 1988, passes out, and wakes up in his college room (and college body) in 1963. After stumbling around in a confused daze, he realizes that it isn’t the afterlife – it’s his life, ready for him to live it again. If you’re thinking this sounds remarkably like the plot of Groundhog Day, now is a good time for me to point out that this novel was published seven years before that film was made.

I really enjoyed Grimwood’s unique variation of time travel, out of the protagonist’s control and only ever backwards, within his own life. He explores this central theme of time in a lot of interesting ways – What is time? Is it more important to use your time for yourself or for others? Is it possible to do both? Given the right tools, can one person make a difference in the world (for good or bad)? How important is money to a life well lived?

Winston was a character that it was easy to identify with, because his reactions to waking up in the past seem similar to what my own would be: Confusion, followed by panic, followed by skepticism, followed by giddy opportunism. He’s likeable, even when he’s not, and still wholly relatable nearly 30 years after it was written.

3.5/5 stars

The great: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair (Joel Dicker)

The internet seems to be squarely divided on this one – reviewers either love it or hate it. Originally published in French, it won and was shortlisted for several major literary awards. When the English translation was released last year, I immediately scooped it up… and then left it languishing on my bookshelf. At 640 pages, I was preemptively daunted every time I thought about picking it up.

Cut to the beginning of this week, and the breezy sunshine inspired me to cram the massive tome into my purse and take it along to lunch.  I tore through it, finishing the book over the course of two lunches and two evenings of reading. It is, essentially, a story within a story within a story. The character of Harry Quebert is a famous writer and mentor to the protagonist Marcus Goldman, also a writer. The book is structured as Goldman explaining the process of another book he wrote while researching the summer that Quebert also wrote his most famous book, all in an attempt to solve a murder that happened that same summer that Harry is being accused of committing in the present day after the body is discovered on his property.

Confused? I think that’s the whole point. The plot is beautifully woven together, floating seamlessly in time between different events, sometimes revisiting them multiple times. The best way I can describe it is a book written about writers, for writers, by a truly gifted writer. While I normally have trouble following a book that jumps around in time, here it felt natural and essential to telling the story.

The only reason I hold back a star is the author’s treatment of the so-called “love affair” between Quebert and 15-year-old Nola Kellergan. Multiple characters question the ethics of it, and he repeatedly explains it away with various iterations of “love is a powerful and mysterious force,” and “well, it was the 70s” and “Nola was mature beyond her years,” etc. I’m not thrilled that authors continue to romanticize this idea of a nubile child muse. I’m not saying that their affair shouldn’t have been part of the plot (I think it works as a plot device), but I do think it could have been handled better in the perspective of the narrator.

4/5 stars

positively-natalie-summer-reading-2

These three are next up on my reading list. I think I’m most excited about The Sculptor, because it’s been quite a long while since I’ve read such a substantial graphic novel. It also comes highly recommended by a handful of writers I admire, so stay tuned to see how it pans out. And if any of you have a book you’d like to recommend (or recommend against), let me know in the comments. My to-read list is epic, but I’m always ready and willing to add another book to the shelf.

Film Review – Advantageous

After spending a good chunk of the holiday weekend patriotically binge-watching The West Wing, I wanted to cleanse my streaming palate with another genre. Suffice it to say that Advantageous didn’t just cleanse my palate. It grabbed my palate with both hands and power-washed it, in the best way possible.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to write a plot synopsis, because the film is about so many different things. It’s about a mother (Gwen) wanting to do what’s best for her daughter. It’s about the intricacies of relationships within families. It’s about the pressure put on women to possess an ideal balance of intelligence and beauty. It’s about finding your place in the world. It’s about the automation of the workforce. And more and more and more.

advantageous-film-01

Advantageous is simultaneously straightforward and complex. It strikes me as a sort of dystopian feminist David Mamet play, in that most of the scenes take place in single rooms as contained conversations between two or three people. These conversations are intimate, heavy with mood and yet nuanced enough that the weight is applied in layers. You feel all the frustration, all the agony, and all of the love as well.

It’s worth adding that Advantageous also carries the mood over into the visuals. Soft pastels, muted light, large swaths of cold metallic accents, lingering shots on Gwen’s face as she looks at her daughter. It’s clear that this is set in the future, but mixed in with all the technology there are still touches of now.

advantageous-film-02

This isn’t an action flick and yet I was still on the edge of my seat, genuinely riveted by the twists and turns. I was also emotionally exhausted by the end of the film, which to me is the mark of a story well told. Advantageous is currently available to stream on Netflix, and I would absolutely suggest that you do so.

4/5 stars

Leftover makeover – Breakfast egg bake

I’m always at a bit of a loss when it comes to figuring out what to do with leftovers. Sure, you can pop them in the microwave and eat them again, but then you’re really just eating a sub-par version of the thing you ate the day before. (Unless you had soup. That reheats like a champ.)

I decided I’d try merging together last night’s dinner with this morning’s breakfast, and I’m very pleased with the results. It’s a pretty simple process, and you could use all sorts of things for the base. I happened to have roasted sweet potatoes, but that bottom layer could be any cooked vegetables, rice, beans, or even a bit of pasta. In fact, I think pasta would work splendidly.

To start, preheat your oven to 350°F. Grease a ceramic dish with your oil of choice (I went with a bit of olive), and add your bottom layer of food.

Roasted sweet potatoes

Then, put a few spoonfuls of something tomato-based on top of your bottom layer. I used salsa, but you could also use tomato sauce, chopped fresh tomatoes, bruschetta topping, etc.

Potatoes and salsa

Since these leftovers are presumably coming out of the fridge, put the dish in the oven to heat up the bottom layers. 7-10 minutes should do the trick, but this will vary based on what you use for your base. It’s not an exact science, so don’t sweat it. Whatever food you’re using has already been cooked previously, so you’re just warming it.

Take the dish out of the oven and sit it on a heat-proof surface (e.g. the stovetop or a folded dish towel on the counter). I had a slightly larger ceramic container so I was able to crack two eggs into the dish. If you only have ramekins you can follow the same steps, dividing the ingredients between two small ramekins and cracking one egg into each ramekin.

Baked eggs

On top of the eggs I sprinkled salt and pepper, then added a bit of shredded cheese. This part is very adaptable as well. Want to keep it paleo? Skip the cheese. Want to give it more bite? Add chopped scallions or a handful of fresh herbs. Want more spice? Dot the top with some Sriracha.

Eggs and cheese

Put the dish back in the oven and cook for 10-15 minutes, essentially until the whites are just set and the yolks are soft. The cooking time depends on how runny you like your yolks, and also a bit on how reliable your oven temperature is. I cooked mine for 12 minutes and it was the perfect consistency for me. There was a little bit of liquid from the salsa, so just take a look when you take it out of the oven to make sure you’re seeing salsa liquid and not uncooked egg whites.

Baked eggs

All that’s left to do is grab a spoon and dig in! If you’re a wheat-eater, feel free to dip some toast in this bad boy. Want to dip without the wheat? Rip a corn tortilla into strips and go to town.

From start to finish this took me about 20 minutes, which is a perfectly respectable amount of time to spend making weekend breakfast.

IMG_20150425_103130

How to feed (another) niche: Brunch edition

It has apparently been over a year since I last explored the bizarre treasure trove that is Williams-Sonoma. This must be remedied immediately. Since we all know that the only thing I could possibly love more than a collection of completely frivolous items is a thematic collection of completely frivolous items, this time I entered their cave of wonders with brunch on the brain.

The obvious place to start when it comes to brunch is eggs. They’re tasty any way you cook them, but there is something childishly delightful about whacking the top off a soft-boiled egg and dunking strips of buttery toast in it. However, Williams-Sonoma thinks that childish delight is… well, childish. Civilized adult-persons engaging in brunch do not decapitate their eggs while screaming like a samurai.

Egg topper

Instead, they apparently open them up with the cold, calculated precision of a serial killer. The Rösle Egg Topper description explains that it gives you “easy access to the silken white and creamy golden yolk inside.” Which is not creepy in the slightest. Nope, not at all.

Hitchhiker's Guide Arthur

The instructions read like the wet dream of a breakfast-loving mad scientist:

Simply place the topper on your boiled egg, pull the handle up, then release – the spring-loaded mechanism causes just enough vibration for the sharp blade to cut through the shell.

Unsurprisingly this item is made by Germans and only available online. They wouldn’t want you acting out your egg-topping fantasies in the store.

Toast tongs

And that aforementioned toast? Yeah, they’ve got something for that too. You can purchase Toast Tongs, which “deftly remove slices of bread from a toaster while safely keeping your hands away from the heat.” They also come complete with a magnet so you’ll never lose them (if you stick them to the toaster) or never lose any other metallic utensils that end up in the same drawer you shove them in.

Luckily, these are available in stores. You may want to go road test them so you don’t end up as disappointed as this customer was.

Toast tong review

I figure we may as well add some good fats into the mix to counteract all that buttered toast, and nothing fits the bill quite like avocado. There are all sorts of ways to enjoy avocado with your brunch, but the first step is getting it out of the skin. I’ve always just used a spoon, but apparently I am a savage who knows nothing about the finer points of avocado liberation.

The Avoloop, in addition to being terribly named, is “ideally shaped to scoop out the flesh from an avocado half in one clean sweep.” They make a point of letting you know that you could also use your Avoloop for “peeling mango, papaya, baked potato, squash and melon.”

But not kiwi. You’ll need to buy a Kiwi Loop for that.

Avoloop and Kiwi Loop

I don’t know about you, but my biggest fear is that I’ll no longer be able to serve properly made salsa at my post-apocalyptic brunches once the power grid fails. Recognizing that this is a fairly common fear, the crack team at Chef’n developed the VeggiChop Vegetable Chopper exclusively for the discerning customers at Williams-Sonoma.

I can’t decide which feature I love most – The blade’s “safety sheath”, having to pre-chop vegetables to fit inside the VeggiChop, or the fact that you operate it like a stubborn lawn mower that refuses to start. Apocalypse be damned, we will have salsa at this party! Reach for the sky, Chef’n!

Woody Toy Story

Film review – It Follows

When I visited Detroit last summer, my first impression was that it would make an amazing setting for a horror movie. I’ve never driven through such a large city that seemed so empty, void of both cars and people. And it wasn’t just a regular kind of empty. It felt stuck in mid-stride, as if it were suddenly but calmly abandoned.

It Follows - Detroit

When I heard someone actually had filmed a horror movie in Detroit, I was instantly on board. Honestly, just knowing that Detroit was the backdrop for It Follows was enough for me to know that I was going to enjoy the film. It was really just icing on the cake when the critics started raving about its fresh take on the genre, although I’m generally wary about any piece of entertainment that comes to me pre-hyped.

The basic premise of the film is fairly simple, and is laid out right there for you in the title. There is some… force. It’s not clear exactly what it is, whether it’s a creature or a spirit or maybe just fear personified. Once you’ve been cursed (more on curse transmission in a moment), this unnamed thing follows you. If it catches up with you, it will kill you. The only way to get it to stop following you is to pass the curse on to another person. But even then, you’re really not safe, because if the person you infected is killed by this force, then it will turn its attention back to following and killing you.

I should pause and say that I’m going to discuss some plot details and cinematography. While I wouldn’t consider them spoilers, if you want to go into the theater knowing nothing else beyond the trailer, here is your point to stop reading. Just know that if you’re a fan of horror (in particular psychological horror) I would recommend you see it, and see it on the big screen.

Maika Monroe in It Follows

So, how exactly is this curse transmitted from person to person? Sex, naturally. I’ve been jokingly calling it an STD – Sexually Transmitted Demon. While it could come across as tired horror trope, there are a few reasons I think it doesn’t. For starters, there’s nothing gratuitous about any of the sex scenes. That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair amount of nudity in the film, but the nudity does not come from the people you would expect it from.

Second, while the characters are young they’re not teenagers (not all of them, anyway). They are not fumbling around, having their first sexual encounters. I think this is an important point, because your classic puritanical horror equates sex with loss of innocence but It Follows definitely does not. What it also does not do is introduce rape into the equation.

Jay (the main female protagonist, played expertly by Maika Monroe) is given this curse from a guy she’s been on several dates with. He doesn’t force himself on her, he woos her. He takes her out a few times and waits for her to initiate sex. It’s not exactly spelled out, but I get the distinct impression that consent is part of the package deal with passing along the curse. That, more than any other aspect of the sexual transmission, is why I would say that this movie is more than just groundbreaking horror – It’s mature horror.

It Follows - Sisters

The other main reason to go see this film (and see it in the theater) is the unbelievably delicious ambiance. It’s due in part to the Detroit setting, but all the choices in cinematography really come together to create something new and exciting. Visually, what I like most about the movie is that it’s totally unclear when it is supposed to take place. The interior home shots could be right out of the late 70s – heavy shag carpeting; wood-paneled television sets with dials and antennae; melamine trays, bowls, tea pitchers and glasses; landline telephones with long spiral cords.

But then again, one of their friends spends the entirety of the film scrolling through The Idiot from an e-reader shaped like a clamshell compact. They drink beer out of modern pop-top cans, iced coffee from Starbucks-esque plastic cups. The cars are classic, the wardrobe both vintage and contemporary. There are no computers in their homes, and aside from the appearance of one in the opening scene, no cell phones in their pockets. It takes place now, and yet it doesn’t. It has no definitive place in time.

The other essential component to setting the mood is the stellar soundtrack. All of the music in the film was composed and performed by an artist named Disasterpeace, and the movie would not be what it is without his contribution. I think the most apt comparison would be Air’s soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides (honestly one of my favorite albums, soundtrack or otherwise). It’s the kind of music that causes the hairs on your arms to stand up, that crawls slowly into your ears and makes its way to your brain. The music is a huge part of what makes seeing the movie in the theater imperative.

Considering it started in very limited release (and only just got wider release from some larger theater chains last week) if I were you I would haul ass to a theater and see It Follows while it’s still available to watch on the big screen. The film isn’t perfect, but the plot flaws are minimal and in my opinion overshadowed by the enormity of the concept and the symphonic complexity of the execution.

4.5/5 stars

Recipe – Chinese tea eggs

A lot of the food I miss from living in Beijing is difficult to near impossible for me to cook now that I’m back in the states. Some of it is lack of ingredients, some just lack of specialized skills, and some of it is (in my opinion) a hearty dose of wizardry. I have never had properly cooked 干煸四季豆 (Sichuan dry-fried green beans) outside of China, not even in a Chinese restaurant. It’s like there’s some sort of magnetic field that keeps all the deliciousness on the mainland.

However, one of my absolute favorite Chinese breakfast/snack foods is actually easy (and fun!) to make at home. 茶叶蛋, known in English as “tea eggs” are a staple in China. You’ll see them bubbling away in vats at grocery stores, neighborhood restaurants, and sometimes just on the sidewalk with a long extension cord reaching back to someone’s apartment.

They’re made by cracking the shells of boiled eggs and then simmering them in a savory broth. The end result is a subtly seasoned egg with a pretty marbled pattern on its surface. While they’re great for eating pretty much any time, tea eggs would make a particularly great addition to your Easter brunch or Passover seder.

Lapsang souchong tea

The most important element to a delicious tea egg is obviously the tea. I am a firm believer in using Lapsang Souchong (known in Chinese as 正山小种), a variety of tea from Fujian Province. After the leaves are picked they dry them over a wood fire, resulting in a very smoky tea. You can probably find it in any large specialty market (like a Wegmans or Whole Foods) or you can do what I do and buy it online.

Now, when I say the tea is smoky I mean very smoky. It smells like a campfire when you open the bag. In addition to tea eggs, I think it’s great for making a hot toddy, especially if you’re a fan of earthy liquors like Laphroaig. If you can’t find Lapsang Souchong, yerba mate tea also has some of the same smoky qualities.

Some people just use regular black tea, and in a pinch it will certainly do the trick. The flavor won’t have quite the same depth, but you will still get the lattice patterns. I am a huge fan of this smoky Earl Grey tea from Fortnum & Mason, and if I ever find it for sale locally I would love to give tea eggs a try using it.

star anise

There are just a few other spices involved, but it’s important that you use quality star anise here. I promise that the eggs won’t come out tasting like licorice. It helps enhance the herbal qualities of the tea, especially when paired with the cinnamon sticks. It’s also important that you buy the star anise from a shop that you trust, because there are two different types. One kind (from China and Southeast Asia) is delicious and edible, while the other (from Japan) is poisonous and should only be used as potpourri. The link I provide above is for a reputable source, and although a pound of star anise is a lot to buy, there are all sorts of amazing recipes you can make with it.

Ingredients

  • 6-8 eggs, hard boiled (reserve boiling water in pot)
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. coconut palm sugar (or your sugar of choice)
  • 1/2 tsp. celery salt (optional)

Sachet containing:

  • 4g Lapsang Souchong loose tea (equivalent to 2 tea bags)
  • 3 pieces star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick (broken in half if necessary to fit)
  • 2-4 pieces fresh orange peel

Recipe instructions

Place your eggs in a pot and add enough water to cover them, plus about two inches. I’d say just go ahead and cook them to hard boiled, but if you feel comfortable handling a medium boiled egg that would work as well. Once your eggs are cooked, remove them from the pot with a slotted spoon and leave the water in the pot. Turn the heat down to low and leave the water simmering. Place the eggs in a colander and run cold water over them until they’re cool enough to handle.

Once the eggs are cool, take each egg and tap all over the surface of the shell with the back of a spoon or the dull side of a knife. This is the only step that requires a bit of finesse – crack too lightly and the broth won’t make it through the layers of the shell; crack too hard and the shell will fall off and disrupt the pattern. I would say err on the side of gentle at first, until you get a feel for it. You can always give the shell another few whacks if you don’t think it was adequate the first time.

tea egg spices

Let the eggs sit for a few minutes on the counter before you put them back in the pot. This will allow for some of the water to drain from within the shell. While the eggs are sitting, add the soy saucesugar, and celery salt to the simmering water and stir to dissolve. Using the slotted spoon, carefully lower each egg back into the broth. Then, add the tea sachet into the pot and cover it.

The length of time that the eggs simmer is really a matter of preference. I like to let them simmer, covered, over low heat for about an hour. Then, I take the pot off the heat, leave it covered, and let the eggs steep in the hot broth for another hour. At this point, if you’d like to eat the eggs you totally can. But I would recommend transferring the eggs and the broth to a glass container (removing and discarding the sachet), covering the container, and leaving it to steep in the fridge overnight.

tea eggs

The eggs pictured here were steeped overnight and eaten cold, because I was lazy and anxious to bite into them. When I’m not feeling that lazy, I prefer to eat my tea eggs slightly warm (not piping hot). To do this, take the eggs (still in the shell) out of the fridge and simmer them in the steeping liquid until warm. Then peel and enjoy!

I think the flavor stands out enough on its own, but if you wanted to get a little fancier with your brunch presentation tea eggs also taste great with a little dollop of sriracha mayonnaise (1 part sriracha to 3 parts mayo).

Update 3/29

I had a lot of leftover tea eggs in the fridge from recipe testing, so I decided this afternoon to turn them into egg salad. You don’t get the cool presentation of the pattern, but I will say that chopped tea eggsmayo = super delicious egg salad. No other spices necessary, unless you want to add in a bit more salt.

Book review – Horrorstör

There are few pastimes in this world that make me happier than reading scary books or watching scary movies. One of those few happens to be strolling through Ikea. I know it’s probably indicative of some sort of psychosis, but I find Ikea very soothing. The second time I moved to Beijing I lived pretty close to one of the 10 largest Ikea stores in the world and I went there often. Sometimes just for dinner.

So, when I heard about a horror novel that takes place inside an Ikea knockoff store I knew that I absolutely had to read it. Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix, follows a group of employees who stay overnight at Orsk, “The Better Home For The Everyone”. They’re trying to figure out why the morning crews keep arriving to unwelcome surprises like broken Liripip closet solutions and a Brooka memory foam sofa covered with putrid goo.

Horrorstör novel by Grady Hendrix

Before I get into the finer points of the plot, I think it’s important to talk about the stunning design of this book. It’s larger format, the exact dimensions of an Ikea catalogue, and organized like one as well. The inside front cover has a map of the store, followed by a welcome page and how-to guide for shopping at Orsk. There’s a detailed home delivery order form that slyly and seamlessly integrates the copyright and publisher information.

Orsk yourself

Take it from someone who derives great enjoyment from the Ikea design esthetic, this book fully embraces their iconic combination of form and function. All of the chapters are even named for imaginary Orsk products, and the products become more twisted as the paranormal plot progresses.

As for the plot, the best synopsis I can give without spoilers is that it builds in a very expected way until very suddenly it diverges into something wholly unexpected. The characters are your standard horror archetypes: A snarky skeptic who just wants the overtime pay; A ditzy babe with a ghost obsession; A suave hunk who feigns interest in spirits to get a date; A nervous older woman with a fear of “Creepy Crawlies”; A level-headed manager whose religion is the Orsk ethos.

The basic premise is that things are getting busted up overnight while the store is empty, and Basil (the manager) wants to get to the bottom of things before representatives show up from the Orsk corporate offices. He asks Amy (the skeptic) and Ruth Anne (the nervous older woman) to stay in the store with him overnight and catch the assumed vandals in the act. They both say yes, because Amy is perpetually short on cash and Ruth Anne is a dedicated lifelong Orsk employee. Matt (the hunk) and Trinity (the babe) sneak into the store the same night, convinced the vandals are actually angry spirits, armed with gear to film a concept episode of their ghost-hunting show.

The entire first half of the book, this is what was playing in my mind:

The second half of the book completely justified the feelings of “hell no”, with a darkness that is made perhaps even more dark by the flippant humor of the first half of the book. It’s not the most original plot, but it is the most original telling of a classic plot that I’ve read in a while. Overall it was an enjoyable book, written with a unique voice and an admirable attention to thematic details.

Horrorstör is available in print or as an ebook, but if I were you I would buy a print copy. You can find it at any major book retailer or get it directly from its publisher, Quirk Books.