Welcoming Spring: Book Recommendations



At the end of my recent post at Hearth, Heart, & Home, I offered my pagan readers a short list of five picture books to encourage children to tend the earth and grow something. I’ll expand on each of them here:

The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono – I can’t promote this book enough. With simple woodblock prints and an easy, yet profound tale, this is a treasure. I reviewed this before when my daughter and I first discovered it, recommended by a summer camp she attended.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney – This tale tells a similar tale as the one above, but this is of Miss Rumphius, the Lupine Lady. Having fulfilled her first two life goals, she sets about attempting to achieve the third: to make the world more beautiful. When I discovered this in a bookstore, I cried at the end and was compelled to hand over my money to the book clerk.

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown – this is the tale of Liam, an unusual boy who takes walks in a bleary, industrial town, and accidentally becomes a gardener. The plants are patient with him while he figures it out. The transformation of his town is told more in the art than the words, and each jovial illustration has much to see. Look closer with each read. There’s bound to be something you missed before!

The Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall – A family’s annual cycle of life comes full-circle in this tale of a man selling his family’s handmade goods.

Weslandia by Paul Fleischman – Wesley bucks the trends of his peers and seeks to start his own civilization based on certain facts he’s learned from school. See his summer science project come to life as he grows Weslandia.

2nd Annual Epeolatry Contest

Gold Apple ( small  and without seed ) .... Tr...

Gold Apple (Photo credit: Vietnam Plants & America plants)

Last year, inspired by a list of obscure words being removed from one of the major dictionary publishers, I held a short story writing contest for anyone who wanted to participate.  The deadline was my birthday, and three handmade prizes were awarded to the winners.

It was so much fun, I’ve decided to do it again, and in order to encourage more entries, I’m posting it here.  This is an all ages contest, purely for the enjoyment of the exercise, and the full details can be found at my LiveJournal page.

Brush up on your iambic pentameter, because this year I’m accepting both 600 word short stories AND sonnets from eager epeolatrians!

. . . and I really need to make a banner or official image for this contest.  The Golden Apple captivates viewers with its xanthic radiance, but what, pray tell, does it have to do with writing contests or the word epeolatry?

Lamb and Plum Stew in Honor of “The Hunger Games” premiere

Cover of "The Hunger Games"

Cover of The Hunger Games

Last week, I received my paperback copy of The Hunger Games, and, pardon the pun, devoured it in a night.  Sure, I didn’t sleep much, but it was worth it.  I handed it over to my daughter who did the same the next night, although she wasn’t willing to cop to being up until 4am, and I didn’t reveal to her how much faster she is at reading than I am.

Yesterday, we went to the cinema in Redmond during the day when most people are either at work or school (one of the best things about a lack of schedule as homeschoolers is having an entire movie theatre to ourselves, or nearly so).  I’d saved half of the leg of lamb I’d purchased earlier in the week, but we got home so late yesterday, we ended up eating out instead.  So, tonight we had Katniss’ favorite meal from the Capitol.  Going completely on inspiration, and not looking it up, here’s what I came up with.  Remember folks, I don’t generally measure for things like this, so you’ll have to use your own best judgment, and since I wanted this to have an intense flavor, I was fairly heavy-handed with the spices.

First, chop a pound of lamb meat into small, bite-sized pieces.  Toss into a bowl with shiitake mushrooms (or any sturdy mushroom on hand that you like) and two handfulls of dried plums (prunes).  Cover with a decent quality red wine (I believe I used either Haystack or Barefoot brands, since those are the two open on my counter at the moment).  Toss in a large quantity — approx. 3 or 4 T. each — of turmeric and paprika*.  Sprinkle a small amount of cinnamon.  Grind 2 tsp. flower pepper (black pepper with dried petals from calendula, rose, lavender, and cornflower), add this to the liquid.   Stir it all together.  Let marinade all day or over night.

When you’re ready to cook, heat a pot or large, tall-sided skillet on medium-high heat.  Add in rendered lamb’s fat (or 2/3 a stick of butter or olive oil, the heartier the fat, the better the survival in the arena), and allow to melt.  Saute minced garlic.  Spoon out plums and mushrooms into a separate bowl.  Spoon lamb out of bowl, adding a splash of the red wine mixture. Brown the lamb’s meat.

Create an opening in the center of the pan or pot, and brown the mushrooms in the center until tender.  Remove from heat, add plums, and pour in the rest of the wine mixture.  Bring to a low boil for about five minutes.

Optional (at my daughter’s insistence): add in 4 heaping T. of Bhutanese red rice or a similar wild, nutty grain.  Fill the bowl that held the marinade half way with water, bring to a boil again, and turn heat down to medium to simmer and reduce sauce.

When sauce has reduced to a syrupy thickness, replace the mushrooms and salt to taste.

This turned into an intensely flavored, rich stew.  It sent me into throws of bliss, but my partner said he wasn’t very hungry to start (though he ate all the lamb), and my daughter picked out the lamb, saying the sauce was too spicy for her.  She offered me her plums and rice, but I’d already had my small bowl and a third of my partner’s, which was plenty.  Small pot, very filling.


*For my mother and other people unable to eat nightshades, I’d recommend replacing the paprika with extra cinnamon, although you don’t need as much cinnamon as paprika, even with this substitution.

Norwescon Cometh

Michael Jackson dancing with the living dead.

Image via Wikipedia

For the first time, I made the deadline for this year’s Fairwood Writers’ Workshop at Norwescon.  For the first time, I will also be attempting to make a costume to enter in the Masquerade (something my daughter did for the first time last year, and she asked me to try this year).

Thanks to the help of a wonderful woman named Erin to schedule my three writing critique workshops — two novel excerpts and one short story round robin session — to accommodate all of the mandatory Masquerade meetings, I get to do both!  I guess this mean I’d better get started on my costume . . . only 27 days left.  Eep!

One of the things we do to prepare for Norwescon each year, is to remind ourselves of dance moves.  After last year’s successes, my daughter feels it’s especially important to learn the moves of the more popular ones.  If you’re a con-goer, too, and you’d like to brush up on your moves or learn them for the first time, here are some of the songs played at Norwescon dance and similar events filled with sci-fi/fantasy geeks:

Early in the dance on Saturday, we’ve tended to hear “Doctorin’ the Tardis” by The Timelords.  This is a filk of Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part II”, with an alteration to the lyrics.  Instead of the singers shouting, “rock and roll, hey!”, we hear, “Doctor Who-oo, hey!”  Most dancing is freestyle until the chorus, when everyone throws their hands high into the air for the “hey” part, and occasionally, people do a “run in place” move with elbows bent at 90 degree angles.  Sometimes.  Not always.  Not everyone.  Maybe just me.

The classic Michael Jackson “Thriller” is a frequent favorite, but unless you’ve been practicing since the 80’s, chances are, your moves mostly involve casting zombie glances, and holding your arms up like claws.  All well and good, but if you really want to get the group moving in synch, take a look at the inmates of CPDRC in the Phillipines, whose dance steps are much easier to see than those in the original video, although watching both are recommended (both for authenticity and fun, Jackson’s theatricality is legend).

At midnight, you can be fairly certain you’ll hear the “Time Warp” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  A classic I was taken to see at the tender age of seven (and I can assure you it didn’t affect my sexuality at all, and I certainly never enjoyed dressing up my boyfriends in fishnets and make-up, then . . . uh . . . anyway . . .).  I became a regular RHPS-goer at 15, and choreographed several numbers from it in my high school dance classes (much to my instructor’s irritation).  Thankfully, the song itself includes its own instructions, even from the narrator known as the Criminologist (Warning: the man you are about to see has no f*@%ing neck).  However, because the chorus includes different movements from the Transylvanians at “Let’s do the time warp again!”, there’s some slight confusion as to how to execute the move in synch.  Your best bet is to either jump or turn (my knees require the latter) 180 degrees three times during this portion of the song, and at each pause, either extend both arms, or one.  Free style dancing during the verses is typical, although the Columbia bit has seen a few purists kneeling and clapping to the beat.  But seriously, you’ll learn it best by watching the video, and don’t forget to melt at the end!  It’s a great way to make new friends!

Anyone who’s seen RHPS can attest that immediately following the group-favored Time Warp, “Sweet Transvestite” comes right after, introducing our protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your view), the venerable Frank-N-Furter, dressed in lingerie, platforms, and . . . just watch the video.  What to do during this song?  Most people free style, but others, dedicated fans, might be seen playing different characters. Once in a while, someone will be seen enacting a perfect Frank to set the gents and ladies drooling.

One of our favorite requests for con is “Smooth Criminal”, and these days it’s my daughter trying to learn the moves as best she can, because not only is this one of Jackson’s biggest and most theatrical of numbers, it also includes a diminutive form of her name.  However, if you find Jackson’s dancing too hard to follow, especially given the frequent scene changes, and the difficult “lean” sequence, take a look at these performances by a friend of mine.  Her group, Dangerous, can be seen full-bodied from the front in this performance, and at a 3/4 angle in a different performance, allowing us to benefit from seeing easy and moderate moves (given practice) to use in the dance itself.  Yes, those are all talented, fabulous women.  Also, as an aside, why in the original video upload do they insist on cutting off the last few seconds?  You know, when the woman turns around, and we see her eyes have changed to those of a cat?

Anyway, no one of sound body and insane mind should avoid the next dance.  There’s nothing quite like being held up by two hairy, sweating men in kilts as you dance and hop wildly in a ring to Boney M’s “Rasputin”, which honors the late, great tall and mysterious Russian.  While the dance isn’t available, the music is available to help you prepare for the pace.  The dance involves people gathering in concentric rings, usually one large outer ring, and one smaller, inner ring.  As you move (usually to your right as you face in), you place your arms around the shoulders and backs of the people on either side of you.  Now the fun ensues . . . with the beat, you hop, supporting yourself with your left leg, and raising your right knee perpendicular to your torso.  Without setting down your right foot, hop again, this time, extending your leg forward in a low kick.  Hop again, this time switching your weight to your right foot and raising your left knee.  See where I’m going with this?  Repeat these steps until the end of the song, “Oh, those Russians!”, or until you collapse, because you haven’t spent the last year training for a dance marathon.  These days, I stand on the outside, give a few good kicks to remind my daughter of what to do, and clap on the sidelines.  Maybe I’ll get back in the ring someday, but for now, I prefer breathing and remaining upright.

Last year, I was surprised by a couple of songs I don’t recall hearing at the convention dances before.  Maybe I just wasn’t in the room when they’d occurred, but I hadn’t danced to them since high school.  Specifically, the Macarena and the Hand Jive.  Not expecting them, I had to fumble a bit the first few times to remind myself, but thankfully they’re designed to be easy for people to copy and follow along.  Watch the dancers in the original video of the Macarena and the Hand Jive from Grease.  In case you have trouble with the latter song, the hand motions are these: slap the tops of your thighs twice, clap them together twice, wave your left hand over your right hand twice, switch the motion (right over left), make two fists, and bring them together vertically four times (twice with the left on top, twice with the right on top), then extend your thumbs one at a time, and thumb over each shoulder two times.  Between this and the visuals, I hope I’ve explained it!  Also, as you can see (or remember) from Grease, the dancers embellish a bit.

This isn’t a complete list, but it’s the one we’re working with.  Convention dances contain all sorts of music including goth rock, popular and geeky dance songs like the ones above, techno/club music, psuedo-country (e.g. “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), and pagan/spiritual songs such as Rumors of the Big Wave’s “Burning Times”.

I’m really excited (and somewhat nervous) for all that I’ll get to do this year.  It will require a lot of strength and perseverance to get through the weekend, especially Saturday, but with planning and practice, I’ll be able to celebrate at the dance.

It’s Been a While


It’s been a while since I posted a phone photo.  Oops?  Ok, so I’m not feeling as guilty as I look in this (whistling innocently?), but after seeing this post from a year ago January, I decided it was high time to post something.

Though I liked my hair shorter (surprise!), I’ve been growing it out in anticipation of Norwescon, at which I might be entering the Masquerade competition, requiring longer hair for my chosen costume.  Assuming I can find time to cut the fabric, sew the basic shape, gradient dye the dress, and then alter it to take on the desired shape.  Not likely to happen since I’ve neither the money, nor the experience dyeing fabric, and my writing workshops have been scheduled in conflict with the pre-Masquerade meeting times (although I haven’t given up entirely, my writing comes first) . . . and I’m babbling again. 

Now to figure out which ONE writing sample sums up my ability to write fabulous web content.  Why did I have to use “that” so many times?

Reviewing 2011


Should I say it was inevitable?  Should I talk about all the projects I never followed through on?  Should I call the Improving Raven Project of 2011 a failure?

No, because I am not self-defeatist.  No, because I’ve proven many times now, I can see a project through to its end, and even have good results.  No, because I learned from what I accomplished, and even from what I did not attempt.

I had a whole plan laid out for what I’d begin doing each new moon, and how I’d progress. It didn’t happen.  I even slid back on some of the good habits I’d begun incorporating.  However, I am more and more returning to the healthy habits I initiate.  I brush my teeth daily now (I used to forget, or get tired, or get too busy, and ew, I know.)  Most days I still remember to take my supplements and get enough water to drink.  Some nights (not tonight) I remember to go to bed before midnight.

Also, thanks to a bit of luck or readiness or some divine force, I have a friend in my life who is a certified trainer, who is helping me regain some of my mobility through simple stretches and exercises that re-train my brain.  Although my health is far from perfect, I finally feel like I have hope again for the first time in a long while.

Thanks to 2011, I have learned how to garden a little, how my body responds to certain vitamins and enzymes, what certain pains in my body mean, what my limitations and potential are, and how much better it feels to stop eating foods my body finds toxic.

I also learned how important it is to me to make my writing a priority, not just in the creative process itself, but in sharing those stories with the public.  I am, at this very moment, quite giddy and nervous.  After years of considering submitting excerpts of some of my writing projects to a critiquing workshop at the local sci-fi/fantasy convention (and failing to the make the deadline), I actually put forth the effort, and submitted pieces, which I will then have the opportunity to improve thanks to the work of people already succeeding in the field. I’ve also submitted short stories to several publications. While nothing’s been bought, thus far, I’ve received helpful feedback from several of the editors, some of whom encouraged me to submit for future collections.

As for 2011, it wasn’t the failed end of the Improving Raven Project, it was just the beginning of what will be an on-going journey to dance again, minimize the obstacles created by chronic illness, add beauty to the world through art, and take all the other steps to get me from where I began to the person I want to see in the mirror every morning.

Irish Stew for Nana and Nopa

Guinness Pint

Image by Stephen Edgar - Netweb via Flickr

My mother asked me, “What seasonings do you use in Irish stew?”  I replied, “Salt.”  Then our discussion led to the realization she needed my help.

Warning: this recipe requires time and dedication.  If you can’t devote about six hours for this meal to reach the right flavor, switch out the Guinness and substitute red wine, but then it’s just a tasty meat stew, not Irish. (Next you’ll be asking me how I have the right to decide what’s Irish and what isn’t, and I’ll . . . I’ll . . . well, it’s my kitchen, damn it.)

Start with half a stick of butter and a pound and a half of stew meat.  If the beef is lean (lamb is always fatty, so ignore this), use the whole stick of butter.  Melt the butter in the stew pot, and chop the meat into chunks if the butcher hasn’t done this already.  Brown the meat with crushed garlic.

Add a single bottle of Guiness Extra Stout.  If you’re living in German beer country, or you can’t find Guiness available, choose a hearty ale or beer–something sturdy that could be considered a meal in a glass.  Pour in enough water or stock to cover the meat and, eventually, the vegetables.  Bring to a boil and let boil for twenty minutes, then turn down to a simmer.

Here’s another warning: this is going to stink.  And it’ll stink for about five and a half hours, and you’ll think, dear God, what have I done to that beautiful beef? Don’t worry, because sometime around that fifth hour, the stink goes away, and it starts to smell really good.

But before that glorious moment arrives, you still have to be near the damned stuff.  So, about hour four (and a half? basically, an hour before you expect to serve the stew), add in small potatoes or chunks of large potato.  I like getting those baby reds by the pound for a stew, but sometimes I like less potato. About half an hour before finished,  add in at least three to five carrots, sliced into thick rounds.  Season the pot with salt, cracked black pepper, and thyme the same time you add carrots.

Then you wait.  When it starts to smell good, visit with the stew.  Breathe it in.  Take a careful taste.  If it’s still bitter, you have to wait at least another fifteen minutes.  When the bastard is finally ready, when its stout, meaty flavors have blended into a rich, tender broth, then serve it in giant bowls with giant spoons and hunks of Irish soda bread smothered in Derrygold butter, and enjoy it, because I can’t eat it anymore, and you won’t want to go through the process again for at least a year . . . around the time you start to miss the taste.

“I saw a book entitled ‘Irish Cuisine,’ and I laughed my balls off! Irish Cuisine?! What are we famous for cuisine-wise? We put everything in a pot and we boil it for seventeen and a half hours straight, until you can eat it with a straw . . . It’s not a cuisine, folks. That’s penance.” –Denis Leary