Thursday, 30 July 2009

15 books meme

I've been tagged by The Well Read Kitty for this 15 books meme.

The rules are simple: Don't take too long to think about it, just list 15 books you've read that will always stick with you. They should be the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Then tag 15 friends (or, if you're like me, see which of your friends from the blogosphere will respond).

These are not in any order, nor are they necessarily my 'favourite' books, but these are stories which have stuck with me long after I finished reading each book.
  1. Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
  2. The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
  3. Papillon - Henri Charrière
  4. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
  5. Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt
  6. Wild Swans - Jung Chang
  7. Long Walk to Freedom - Nelson Mandela
  8. Portrait of the Artist's Wife - Barbara Anderson
  9. Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis de Bernieres
  10. Mao's Last Dancer - Li Cunxin
  11. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey
  12. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
  13. Tatiana and Alexander - Paullina Simons
  14. Survivor - Tabitha King
  15. Falling Leaves - Adeline Yen Mah

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Mouse tales

We are having a very cold winter. (Well, it's cold by Wellington standards, anyway.) There are many days when I am thankful that I can work from home, sitting with my laptop beside a hot fireplace, snuggled up in warm clothes and comfy slippers. Venturing outside the house has to be carefully planned; several layers of clothing and accessories are applied first then, once I resemble a walking snow creature, I make a quick dash to my car. The return journey is equally speedy.

It seems like I'm not the only one feeling the cold this winter. All around town, little furry creatures are sneaking inside. And who can blame them for wanting some warmth and comfort? However, I'm noticing a new, more resilient, breed of mouse sneaking indoors. These ones don't mind being seen scurrying across the floor right in front of you and into hiding places that they know you can't possibly get to (behind the wood burner is a good one). They are happy to be fed an endless banquet of food laid out for them on an assortment of mouse traps. My parents outdid themselves in catering for the two mice visiting their place; they were fed cheese, peanut butter, chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and combinations of the above until the mice, probably overweight now from their rich diet, either stopped running or got complacent. Snap!

My sweetie discovered a mouse at his place. Considering he has a built-in mouse trap (four paws and furry), this was a bit surprising. He invested in a super-duper quick reload mouse trap and caught his mouse almost immediately and with only a tiny bit of peanut butter as bait. Snap!

Then my brother and sister-in-law noticed a mouse at their place. They weren't sure how to catch it; a few attempts at a regular mouse trap and my mother's suggested menu didn't help. Eventually, one mouse was caught, but they kept the trap out just in case another was lurking. After borrowing the super-duper trap, two more visitors were snapped up within two days - still using the original peanut butter on the trap from three mice ago. Snap!

My brother and I were reminded of a friend of his who used to live in an old house near town. One night, he and his flatmates saw a mouse run across the floor in front of them. They set a trap in the kitchen, sat down to watch tv, and promptly heard it: snap! They decided to reset the trap. Snap! And again. Snap! ... 18 times in one night!! Surely that's got to be some kind of record?

I hear some rustling in the wood basket ...

Friday, 24 July 2009

National Poetry Day 2009

The Well Read Kitty informs us that today is National Poetry Day in New Zealand. Montana has been sponsoring this literary event since 1998. The first time I was aware of it was at a former workplace when a number of poems popped into my inbox one Friday from various staff members, encompassing a wide range of topics, styles and moods. That practice was, sadly, stamped out in future years once staff were prohibited from sending blanket emails to all other staff members. However, I fondly remember the poetic surprises of that day.

To be honest, while I am struck by the beauty of words and can happily read prose for hours on end, I struggle with poetry (apart from song lyrics). Try as I might, I end up expending unreasonably amounts of energy my the effort to decipher the poetic language, the meter, and whatever hidden meaning I'm sure is lurking behind the words I read at face value. I end up incredibly frustrated (at myself, more than anything else) and it usually doesn't end well, lol.

But here is a poem I've enjoyed since my childhood, possibly because I first heard it as a beautiful piano piece played by Rowlf the Dog (of The Muppet Show fame) and sung by Kermit's little nephew, Robin. It was written by A A Milne and is short and sweet. It doesn't really mean anything; it is loosely about being happy with indecisiveness. That sums me up perfectly at the moment.

Halfway down the stairs, by A A Milne

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair where I sit.
There isn't any other stair quite like it.
I'm not at the bottom,
I'm not at the top,
So this is the stair where I always stop.
Halfway up the stairs
Isn't up, and isn't down.
It isn't in the nursery, it isn't in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head:
"It isn't really anywhere! It's somewhere else instead!"
Care to share your favourite poem for National Poetry Day today?

Thursday, 23 July 2009

A catch up with The Cupcake Lady

Yesterday, as I contemplated the queue at one of my favourite city cafés (Smith, the Grocer), I passed by the window of tempt. I always stop here to get some inspiration for my next cupcake baking project. Fortunately, I had my camera with me yesterday.

As I popped around the corner into the tempt retail space, I was delighted to find Tamara Jane (The Cupcake Lady) herself behind the counter. We had a quick catch up about what I've been doing since attending her cupcake decorating course in March. I assured her that I'd been baking up a storm ever since, including lots of cupcakes and some recipes from her recently published book, Divine Cupcakes: A Book of Temptation. She appeared genuinely pleased to hear that.

Tamara Jane is one of the most positive, enthusiastic, and energetic people I have come across in a long time. She didn't seem overly surprised that I have a list of volunteer tasters longer than my arm! We chatted about some of the recipes I'd tried, and I asked her about a few measurements and directions I wasn't sure about. It's not often you get to check out queries with chefs about their published recipes, so I relished the opportunity. Alas, we couldn't work out why my raspberry and white chocolate mud cake turned out to be 23 cm when "I just made one this morning and it was 16 cm plus a few cupcakes". Never mind, she assured me. Wasn't I "lucky" to get such a big cake that day? My family would certainly agree.

Apparently book sales are going well, and her retail business is seemingly recession-proof. (I recall something about cupcakes and lipsticks surviving even the toughest of times - small treats and all.) Her classes are now fully booked until January 2010 - gosh, I'm glad I got in when I did to be part of her first-ever course!

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Process or product?

I've long known that I am a process person, and not a product person. Metaphorically speaking, I take far more pleasure from the journey than the destination. I gain more satisfaction in working towards something than just 'getting there' and ticking something off as 'completed', or even basking in achievements. I guess you could say that I'm a typical 'work in progress' kind of person; it's not really surprising that I'm drawn to projects such as 101 things in 1001 days and Project 365.

A number of years ago, at the school where I used to teach, our whole staff of about 10 teachers went on a course related to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. During each two hour session (one a week for three weeks) we answered questions about ourselves and discussed what our preferences were for handling different situations and scenarios.

My Myers-Briggs results came out as ISTP, that is introverted (rather than extroverted), sensing (rather than intuitive), thinking (rather than feeling), and perceiving (rather than judging). Of these four continua, I scored extreme levels of introversion (I) and perception (P) and was borderline between sensing/intuition (S/N) and thinking/feeling (T/F). But what does this actually mean?

I recently carried out a search for explanations of the Myers-Briggs personality types. In one, ISTP was described as a mechanic. While some of these traits are true, most of this explanation could not be further from my personality! (You won't catch me skydiving, and I don't really care about how things work - I'm more of a 'big picture' person. And as for tying up loose ends?? LOL)

At the time of the course, the descriptions we studied all made sense. Yes, I'm very much introverted. Yes, I try to make sense of a problem before tackling it, although I tend to let gut feeling and intuition influence my final decision. Yes, I try to rationalise problems and think my way through them (not always successfully - I'm still quite close to 'feeling' on the continuum, and I'm a champion at over-thinking). It's the perceiving/judging continuum that causes most confusion when explaining it to others, though. The definition for perceiving involves someone who is able to handle multiple scenarios at once, including unresolved situations; instead, perceivers are happy to come back to them later to pick up and carry on with when ready. Judging personalities, however, need closure; they need to have the box ticked, task completed, desk tidied (that's definitely not me!) etc before they feel comfortable enough to move on to the next activity. Disorder bothers them.

After the course finished, we sat down as a staff to discuss our similarities and differences with the purpose of better understanding each other and, therefore, working together more effectively. From a teaching staff of ten, eight were judging personalities; myself and another colleague, both creative/musician-type teachers, were very firmly perceiving. I'm sure you can already picture how different our classrooms looked to the other eight teachers'. We would each have several projects on the go at once, our school reports were usually the last finished (but often of a higher quality), we preferred to spend time seeding and developing ideas rather than rushing through a process just for the sake of completion, paperwork bored us, and we were always the last to leave our classrooms on a Sunday afternoon.

Then, one day, someone came across a cartoon book of The Wizard of Id. Each cartoon was based on how the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types approaches solving a problem. This anonymous colleague had very thoughtfully photocopied my page (ISTP) and left it in my in-tray for all to see. The accompanying quote read: "Let's all just have a glass of wine and think about this later." I was gobsmacked. Well, I suppose if you substitute the glass of wine with a cup of coffee, I could be guilty as charged. (The cheeky colleague, to this day, remains anonymous.)

This invariably leads to the art of procrastination. I can procrastinate along with the best of them. I've been formulating this blog post for about a week now, and it has taken a visit from the Insomnia Fairy tonight to get me to write it. I also had plans to procrastinate this afternoon but have decided to leave that until tomorrow instead. ;-)

How about you? Are you a process or a product person? Do you know what your Myers-Briggs indicator is and, if so, does it represent you fairly?

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Ginger pistachio slice

A friend made ginger pistachio slice for another friend's birthday recently. It is unbelievably delicious! Naturally, I got the recipe off her and decided to give it a go today. Be warned: this slice is not one which can be quickly thrown together. Any recipe which includes the instructions "chop nuts coarsely" or "crush biscuits" is going to take time. Also, the quantity of pistachio nuts makes it reasonably expensive. However, if you like the taste of ginger and pistachio nuts then you'll probably agree that the result is worth all the hassle. Still, this might become a 'special occasion' slice for me.

Ginger pistachio slice

  • 1 cup pistachio nuts, shelled
  • 125 g butter
  • 1 packet wine biscuits (plain, sweet biscuits)
  • 1 cup coconut
  • 50 g crystalised ginger, chopped
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 cup condensed milk
Ginger butter
  • 2 cups icing sugar
  • 80 g butter, softened
  • 1 tbsp golden syrup
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 2 tbsp milk
  1. Lightly roast pistachio nuts at 180°C for 5 minutes. Chop coarsely. Set aside half for topping.
  2. Melt butter and leave to cool.
  3. Crush wine biscuits roughly.
  4. In a bowl, mix all ingredients except for reserved pistachios.
  5. Press mixture into greased sponge roll/slice tin.
  6. Refrigerate until firm, then ice with ginger butter icing. Sprinkle with reserved pistachios and refrigerate until icing is firm.
Ginger pistachio slice

Monday, 20 July 2009

World's largest cupcake

Here's a bit of fun ... the world's largest cupcake was baked on Saturday. It weighed in at 68 kg, measuring 2 feet wide and 1 foot tall, with 15 pounds of fudge filling (yum!) and 60 pounds of yellow icing. Wow!

I wonder how big the skewer (stick, pole?) was they inserted to see whether it was cooked? And who has an oven that big? Or a mixing bowl?? I think I'll stick to baking and decorating medium or petite sized cupcakes - the ingredients for this one alone look to be more than I'll ever use in a lifetime!

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Rachel's Holiday - Marian Keyes

Rachel's Holiday (1997) is the third novel based around the Walsh family sisters written by Irish author, Marian Keyes. This one focuses on the middle of the five sisters, Rachel, and her struggle to overcome her drug addiction. Her "holiday" is, in fact, a two-month stint in the Cloisters, a fictional rehab centre in Ireland. Of course, Rachel's not really supposed to be there; she doesn't have a problem. She feels sorry for all those other 'inmates' who are so obviously in denial and continue to screw up their lives because of their addictions to alcohol, drugs, and even food. But she's not like them, not at all. She can stop any time she wants to, if she wants to.

Rachel hardly takes any drugs anyway, no more than anyone else in New York, and if you had a job as hard as hers then you'd need something to help you get through the day, too. She has only agreed to go to keep her family happy, and maybe spot some celebrities along the way (rehab is very trendy, darling), but she's not going to actually participate because she doesn't need to. It's a familiar tune.

Basing many of the experiences on Keyes's own battle with alcoholism, the story is told with great insight, yet Keyes's warmth and humour never fails. In no way does she belittle the inmates she introduces us to; while she paints very quirky pictures of some of the characters, she also helps readers (Rachel) to see that the source of many addictions is low self esteem and even lower self respect. However, we are all responsible for our actions and our past (or present) circumstances do not give us an excuse to abuse ourselves or anyone else.

It almost seems inappropriate to say that a book about rehab was enjoyable or entertaining to read. However, Keyes hits the mark beautifully with Rachel's Holiday, telling the tale with both humour and humility.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Recipe book - work in progress

I have decided to tackle another goal, #46 - Organise recipes. I am trying to convert all of my loose recipes into a digital format. I have yet to find a free online tool which will allow me to enter my own recipes, then organise/categorise them according to ingredients, meals, baking etc (any recommendations? Does this actually exist??). Eventually, I'll write them in HTML so I can publish/store/share them in various ways. In the meantime, I'm creating a long Word document (sans formatting) and am copying various bits of paper with the recipes accumulated from numerous sources, and over many years, which have up until now been stored unceremoniously in a large plastic bag. It's shaping up to be quite a mission.

I have begun by hijacking my mother's original recipe book, thinking that it would be good to capture some family recipes from my childhood. There's only one problem; all of her recipes are "in Italian" ... no, not the Italian language, but with no quantities stated and very vague instructions - that's a very Italian way to cook. Hmm, I can see this goal taking longer that I originally thought.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Ice Age 3

Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009) is the latest 3D movie to hit the school holidays this winter. We braved the families (some of whom had taken our allotted seats, grrr!), donned our 3D glasses, and enjoyed escaping the winter cold for a couple of hours.

The story is simple, the characters are cute, and the 3D effects take this movie to a very happy place. Manny and Ellie are expecting a baby mammoth, Diego the sabre-tooth tiger goes on a soul searching mission, and Sid the sloth decides to adopt three eggs who promptly hatch into dinosaurs, whom their mother naturally decides to retrieve. It's not necessary to have watched either of the first two movies in the series (I haven't seen any of them), but it's easy to switch off your brain for a couple of hours and enjoy some good-hearted fun - not just one for the kids!

Here's the official movie trailer (alas, it's in 2D):

Friday, 10 July 2009

The Sicilian Girl

The Sicilian Girl (2009) is a fact-based drama about a 17-year-old girl, Rita, from a mafia family who broke the code of silence to bring down mafiosi from her village. I was fortunate enough to win tickets to this subtitled movie (yes, the competition junkie strikes again) and went with a friend to one of the opening screenings yesterday.

The Sicilian Girl paints a raw, unglamourous and unglorified portrait of Mafia life quite different to The Godfather (1972) or anything by Martin Scorsese. It is angry and courageous, dark and gritty, and pulls no punches; corruption and betrayal is rife and the mafioso hierarchy rules all. Initially seeking revenge on her father's (and brother's) killers, Rita comes to see that nothing will change unless the whole mafia is brought down and she puts her life on the line to do it.

I vaguely remember parts of the court case hitting the media several years ago; I had no idea that it was a 17-year-old girl who was responsible for these mafiosi's fall from grace. I'm sure that jailing some mafia leaders will not be the end of the story, but it's certainly an historical start.
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
Edmund Burke
View the trailer here:

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Bourne to Rally - Possum Bourne

My sweetie does motorsport. Thankfully, he's not into watching endless rallies on TV but on many a Sunday I become a "racing widow". Bourne to Rally (2003), the autobiography of New Zealand rally car driver Possum Bourne, is on his bookshelf. It was completed a few days before his untimely death in 2003, when he was killed in a non-competitive car crash. Ironic, really.

Despite my sweetie assuring me how safe motorsport is, much of the book serves as a chronology of crashes, breakdowns, fix-ups, and near misses. Although most of the motoring terms and events went straight over my head, it is still very readable. Told with such enthusiasm, Bourne never gave up, even when the chips were down. Perhaps what appeals to me most is the importance Possum placed on family values; every team member became part of his extended family and that is how they collectively directed their passion towards their next goal or event.

Bourne's message from this book is simple: find something you love and do it.
(I'd better get back to looking.)

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Starlight Express

Roller skates. Remember them? Back in the 1980s when they were all the fashion, I was desperate for a pair, just like everyone else in my neighbourhood. The other neighbourhood children all had trendy boot skates, just like the ones you see on tv, but parents could only afford to buy me skates that strapped on around my shoes. It's true that I could still skate (and fall over) just like everyone else, but it wasn't quite the same and I couldn't help wanting what they had.

There is a small cul-de-sac of about ten houses which slopes downhill just opposite my parents' house. The neighbourhood children would skate (slide?) down this street, try to jump up onto the footpath at the bottom of the hill, then stop ourselves by smacking into the fence at the end at high speed. We would then take off our skates, walk back up the hill, and start again. Finally, shoe skates were better; those with boot skates had to walk up the hill barefoot or with their socks on, whereas I still had my shoes. Also, when others grew out of their expensive boot skates, I could still wear mine. Part of me still wanted boot skates, though.

Then along came inline skates and rollerblading. Skates with wheels were definitely not cool; they weren't even retro yet! Apart from a couple of ice skating sessions, I haven't skated since the 80s and am not particularly keen to try. Still, I can reminisce about the days when we would go whizzing up and down our street with both grace and speed, while conveniently overlooking all the scrapes and bruises.

We went to see Starlight Express on Saturday. A rock musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber for his children in 1984, Starlight Express boasts being the only musical performed entirely on roller skates. (Yes, skates, not blades!) Loosely described as a Cinderella-style story about a boy's train set which comes to life. The characters (trains) race to become "the fastest engine in the world", setting up an epic battle between steam, diesel and electricity.

From start to end, Starlight Express is action packed, fast-paced and a dazzling display of lights, costumes, makeup, choreography and skating action. In 1992, the musical was revised and some songs were added and deleted, with a couple of characters also changed. (I was disappointed to see that the beautiful piece "There's Me" made the cutting room floor; I've played it for years on the piano.) The stunt skating was impressive, as was the set design, lighting and special effects. It would take a lot to get this show on the road!

It's not often that a Lloyd Webber production comes to town. Starlight Express is not so well known in New Zealand, and with ticket prices more expensive than most shows (and a less-than convincing advertising campaign) sales were probably slower than expected. However, with so much to take in, it's easy to forget how naff the plot is and simply get caught up in enjoying the overall show as a sum of all its contributing parts.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

The Nanny Diaries

My cousin nannied her way around the globe. She told tales of living with rich families who adored her and would take her on their travels around the United States and Europe. Some had so many air points left over from all their travelling that they didn't have time to use themselves and therefore gifted them to her for her own personal travel. At the time, I was in the midst of teacher training and figured that, between teaching and nannying, my big OE would be sorted. It sounded like a good plan.

As it turns out, my OE didn't eventuate and now I'd consider my original plan to be a nightmare; while I'm still keen to travel, doing it that way is not something I'd like to try any time soon. Reading The Nanny Diaries (2002) confirms this: one would have to be mad to kowtow to the kinds of demands exerted by some of these characters, all in the name of having a family yet, in reality, not being interested in their children's lives at all. The novel by Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin is a fictitious take on their experiences in the nannying business. Many characters are portrayed as caricatures, probably taking their personalities to extremes. Still, better them than me.

This book is not much for thinking and won't provide any great academic stimulation. Apparently The Nanny Diaries (2007) has been made into a movie starring Scarlett Johanson; I'll happily give that one a miss. However, I'm laid up in bed this weekend with a bad back and this is the right kind of fluff to nibble on in between reading some more serious novels and biographies. Hopefully it will help to keep me sane during the next few days!

Friday, 3 July 2009

Rapsberry and white chocolate mud cake

I have never baked a mud cake before but I've sampled lots this year. ;-) Actually, I'm not even certain what makes it a mud cake apart from being richer and containing lots of actual chocolate and butter. It is my sister-in-law's birthday today so I have made her a birthday cake and also get to try another new recipe. The original recipe called for a 16 cm round cake tin; I tried using one that was 19 cm but saw that it was in danger of overflowing, so reverted to a standard 23 cm round tin instead.

Raspberry and white chocolate mud cake

  • 300 g plain flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 450 g caster sugar
  • 250 g butter
  • 150 g white chocolate buttons
  • 250 ml milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • 150 g frozen raspberries
White chocolate ganache
  • 600 g white chocolate (buttons)
  • 250 ml cream
  1. Preheat the oven to 160°C. Line the base and sides of a 23 cm round cake tin with baking paper.
  2. Sift the flour and baking powder together into a bowl. Melt the sugar, butter, chocolate and milk together in a separate bowl in the microwave. Stir until smooth. Pour into dry ingredients and mix well with a whisk. Add the eggs and vanilla and stir to just combine - do not over-beat. Gently stir through the raspberries.
  3. Spoon mixture into prepared tin and bake for 1 1/2 hours, or until cake is soft but cooked in the centre. Place on a wire rack and allow to cool in the tin overnight.
  4. When cold, remove from the tin. Peel off the baking paper and place on a cake board.
  5. Make white chocolate ganache: Melt the chocolate and cream together over a saucepan of gently simmering water or in the microwave on low power. Stir to combine and set aside to cool before use.
  6. When thickened and cool, use a palette knife to spread ganache all over the cake.

Raspberry and white chocolate mud cake with white chocolate ganache

Thursday, 2 July 2009

101 goals 1 year on

Yesterday marked one year since I started my 101 in 1001 project, or 101 things to do in 1001 days. My handy countdown timer tells me I still have 20 months, 90 weeks, or 635 days to go. I thought I'd do a quick roundup of how things are going for me one year on.

Firstly, I started considering this project a little over a year ago when I came a few blogs whose authors were taking part. I followed the trail of comments between some blogs and saw that an online community had started to develop whereby bloggers would support others in their goals as they posted about their progress. So next it was on to the Day Zero website, where I browsed a few lists. 101 tasks seemed like such a mammoth feat so I considered just setting a few personal goals and keeping my list private, with the intention of blogging about some of the things I'd achieved along the way. However, I quickly saw the benefits of 'going public', especially after I sat down to compile a list and was surprised at how easily I got to about 80-90. Wow!

While a couple of my goals have changed or modified slightly, my list is largely as it was one year ago. It is still a collection of activities, large and small, which I want to make time for during the next year or so. Many can be shared with others, but I also have some which are individual pursuits.

So what have I managed to complete? Goal #100 (put aside $10 for each goal achieved) informs me that I have $410 put aside, therefore I have finished 41 goals. There are many more in progress. I'm working away at my ongoing goals (reading books, playing the piano, blogging regularly etc); I guess these won't turn purple until the end of the project. Some goals simply involve seizing the moment (taking a photo of a butterfly is not something you can easily plan, nor is jumping in a puddle); others need to be considered more carefully (anyone got a dolphin I can swim with?). #48 is always there - find something to be happy and thankful for each day; some days it's harder than others, but I think that overall I'm succeeding.

I have started a side project which is partly related to #69 - take meaningful photos of my local area. I began my own Project 365 a month ago, taking a photo a day. I am building up a collection of local photos, some of which I am publishing on that blog.

For anyone considering starting a list of their own, I'd highly recommend it. This project is something which can be as big or as small as you want it to be. I really enjoy the support and connections gained from the online community I have become part of during the past year or so and look forward to this continuing beyond the end of my list.

And, Sweetie, goal #101 is still top secret; you can read about it in my blog if I get there! :-P