Apr 29 2013

Book Reviews: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay

This review contains mild spoilers.

I’m late to this pop-culture phenomenon, obviously. I avoided the Hunger Games books for a long time because, well, the central premise involves a dystopian future where children are forced to kill each other in an arena, and I didn’t feel like I could handle that. But eventually I had a day where I was feeling thick-skinned, and thought, “what the hey, I’ll read The Hunger Games.”

They are impressively brutal books. I’d say “for YA,” but anybody who reads YA knows that genre doesn’t pull its punches. Adults may like to imagine that teen readers are seeking out nice books with good morals, but the actual audience is hungry for darkness and blood. “Brutal even for YA” would be a more accurate way of putting it. But there’s a few things the Hunger Games books, especially the first one, do to make the premise more tolerable. For one thing, we see the world through the eyes of one of its more hardened and jaded denizens. Katniss Everdeen doesn’t waste sympathy on most of the people around her, and her detachment allows us as readers to remain detached as well. Plus, Katniss keeps her hands relatively clean. She is directly responsible for a few deaths in the arena, but mostly in self-defense, and the opponents who die by her hand are older kids, trained combatants, and particularly brutal and thuggish ones to boot.

The darkest book in the trilogy is the third one, Mockingjay, which has a worldview I found really interesting. It portrays a war that is simultaneously highly glamorized (Katniss is the mascot for the rebellion, so even when she’s placed on the front lines it’s all done for the benefit of the cameras—she has a costume and a team of stylists) and yet in other ways not glamorized at all. The book is ruthless about exposing the civilian costs of warfare, and by the end of Mockingjay any distinction between the good guys and the bad guys has been blurred to the point of erasure.

The Hunger Games holds up a funhouse mirror to modern America. The world of Panem, where kids flat-out slaughter each other for the entertainment of a jaded viewing public, functions as a savage satire of a society that accepts reality programming like “Toddlers and Tiaras” or “Buckwild.” But the war of Mockingjay, which is fought in streets and in neighborhoods and most of all over the airwaves, seems less like satire and more like a fairly straightforward projection of current trends.

Apr 26 2013



I updated my last post—Sol has had a very welcome uptick in weight in the past few days. We have another weigh-in next week and are hoping to see more of a normal growth curve. He’s spending more time awake and alert—even beginning to smile—but I snapped this pic while he was napping. (He’s got a bit of a skin rash, but that’s very normal for new babies.)

Apr 24 2013


Sol had a pretty disastrous weigh in yesterday. He actually weighs a few ounces less than he did two weeks ago and still hasn’t regained his birth weight. This during a time when babies should be growing rapidly. I’ve been worried about his growth for a while and it sucks to know that my concerns are very real.

We’re making a concerted effort to make sure he nurses every two hours, and if he doesn’t start putting on weight immediately, we’ll switch to formula.

Update 4/26:
Sol’s weight check was good today (up nearly half a pound) after two days of all but force feeding him. Seriously, I’ve basically been nursing him nonstop, leaving Sam to deal with the needs of the other kids. Thank God for paternity leave.

Apr 18 2013

Children’s Fairyland


So I’ve lived in Oakland for three years now and somehow just this week managed to visit Children’s Fairyland? Built in 1950, Children’s Fairyland was the first “themed” amusement park in the U.S., the first designed specifically for children, and one of the direct inspirations for Disneyland. According to Wikipedia, it also features “the oldest continuously operating puppet theater in the United States.”


It’s a delightful little park. Its vintage character has been faithfully preserved, and its small scale combined with a slightly shabby veneer and the vague weirdness of last-century design makes the whole place immensely charming. Mostly it consists of stationary playsets built to various fairy-tale themes: favorites on our trip included Alice’s rabbit hole, Captain Hook’s pirate ship, and the “fairy music farm.”





The music farm I thought was particularly wonderful. It’s this echoey tunnel built around a pretty courtyard and fitted with various kinds of instruments—percussion, string, wind—that the kids can play with. All the noise echoes together and creates a really interesting soundscape. I thought it was great design.


Another big hit was the “Jolly Trolly”:



We bought a year-long family pass so we’ll definitely be back. This place is a treasure!


Apr 5 2013

Book Reviews: When We Wake, No Vulgar Hotel

Cross-posted from my Goodreads account

Fun sci-fi/dystopian YA! I had some quibbles with the worldbuilding (the hacking sequences are really silly and trite, and apparently in the future all teenagers are super-competent while most adults, especially those in positions of advanced leadership, are incompetent boobs) but the characters are likable and the story engaging.

Reading this book is very much like sitting still while somebody shows you their vacation slideshow. It’s in no way a useful guide to Venice, and even the most avid Judith Martin fans (of which I am one) are likely to find their attention wandering as she recounts the trials and tribulations she went through trying to sublet an apartment. There are certainly flashes of wit and humor, but I have to classify this book as “inessential,” at best.

Apr 3 2013

Robin and Davy

My mom took a couple good pictures of the older boys while she was here:



Apr 2 2013

Peggy Fleming’s Cottage Cheese Dill Bread

dill bread

This is the recipe that made me learn to cook.

Well, bake. I started off baking. Baking’s not easier than stovetop cooking but it involves, for the most part, a different set of skills. The two that were hardest for me were: a) learning the right temperature of ingredients for yeast, and b) learning to judge how much kneading different types of dough require.

As far as a) goes, I killed a lot of yeast by mixing it with water or milk that was too hot. The classic rubric is that liquid for activating yeast should be the same temperature as the inside of your wrist, but the truth is that you want it just a little hotter, to start with, because your bowl is probably cold. Yeast won’t tolerate really hot liquid though, and initially I was far more likely to get the temperature too hot than too cool.

And as far as b) goes, I baked a lot of rocklike soda breads before I finally learned that quick breads require a much gentler touch than yeast breads. In general I have a pretty heavy kneading hand, so the kneading times suggested in recipes are often longer than my doughs actually require. It just takes experience to get to the point where you recognize what dough feels and looks like when it’s underworked, overworked, or just right: “smooth and elastic” is what the recipes will say, meaning that it bounces back when you poke a finger into it, but that can describe a range of doughs and in the end there’s not much substitute for practice.

Anyway, this bread. I was talking to my mom about this bread, and she said, “Do you remember our Sunday night dinners, when we would just eat dill bread and cheesecake?”

“NO,” I said, “but that sounds amazing.” Dill bread and cheesecake were my two absolute favorite foods as a kid. Those Sunday night dinners must have been like heaven.

I know they didn’t happen every Sunday, though, or even particularly frequently, because if Mom had made the dill bread that often I probably never would’ve started cooking. It was craving for fresh baked dill bread that drove me to dig out the yellowing newspaper clipping that held this recipe and start figuring out how to get around in a kitchen.

You don’t taste the cottage cheese, by the way: it just imparts a moist richness. This is a pretty forgiving recipe for beginning bakers because, with two packages of yeast, it has a lot of rising power. Also, it is amazingly delicious.

Peggy Fleming’s Cottage Cheese Dill Bread

In a large bowl, mix together two eggs and two cups of cottage cheese. Mince about two tablespoons of onion and two tablespoons fresh dill weed and stir that in too. Now set your bowl aside for a few minutes, because your eggs and cottage cheese probably just came out of the fridge and they’re cold. Your dough will rise faster if you let them get to room temperature before adding the yeast. Go check your e-mail or something.

When you get back, pull out a separate, smaller bowl and pour in half a cup of warm water (but not too warm!). Sprinkle in two packages of yeast. Stir it up (I use my finger, because you can feel the individual yeast granules, and smear them into the water), then mix in two teaspoons of sugar.

Go back to your big bowl of eggs and herbs and cottage cheese. Add a teaspoon of baking powder, two teaspoons of salt, and two tablespoons of sugar. Stir it up.

Your yeast should be foaming now. If it isn’t, give it a couple minutes. When your yeast is active, stir it into the big bowl with the other ingredients. Then gradually stir in about four and a half cups of all-purpose or bread flour, adding the flour a cup at a time and mixing well between every addition. (I am very partial to King Arthur brand flour. If you want to make this recipe a little healthier, you could probably do a half-and-half mix of King Arthur’s all-purpose and “White Whole Wheat” flours, but I haven’t tried this myself.)

Time to knead your dough. Turn it out onto a floured work surface and knead it pretty vigorously until you’ve got a smooth, elastic loaf. It won’t take too long. Then clean out your work bowl, dry it, grease it with butter, and put the dough back in to rise (turning it so that both sides get a little butter). Cover with a tea towel and put it in a warm spot until the dough doubles in size (about an hour to an hour and a half, or longer if you didn’t bring the cottage cheese up to room temperature).

At some point during this time you’ll want to start heating the oven. Set it to 350 degrees, and also grease two loaf pans with butter.

When your dough has doubled in size, punch it down, knead it a few times, then divide into two loaves and place in the greased loaf pans. Bake for thirty minutes or until the tops are nicely browned and the smell of fresh bread is overwhelming you.

Brush the tops of the loaves with butter and let them cool before serving.

Apr 1 2013

Free Short Story

So I went slinking back to Amazon with my tail between my legs. Six weeks after leaving the KDP Select program my Amazon sales have not recovered, and I only sold a couple books through Barnes & Noble and Apple. Suspicious as I am of Amazon’s monopolistic market position, I’ve been forced to conclude that for me right now they’re the only meaningful game in town. And I need the extra exposure that the Select program offers.

Anyway, as an extra bit of promotion, I packaged up a previously-published short story as an e-file (sneaking in an ad for my novel at the back) and stuck it up on Amazon. It’ll be free for the next few days and 99 cents thereafter.

So if you want a free short story, go on and grab it!