Saturday, January 25, 2014

Potatoes, Candy, and Something That Claims To Be Pie

A week or two ago several of my friends on Facebook were sharing and reposting a recipe for something called "Potato Puffs", which were made out of cheese, sour cream, and mashed potatoes and looked fairly simple. My mom thought they resembled the filling of a twice baked potato, but without the potato, and I found myself intrigued enough to go get some mashed potatoes (I had everything else on hand already) and give it a try.

While buying the potatoes, I also bought these:

but we'll talk about them a little later, while the potato puffs are baking.

Also, because I love myself, I spent the extra dollar to get the pre-mashed potatoes that come in a tub rather than mashing my own or getting instant ones. It's all glamour and glitz all the time around here, I tell you.

Anyway, here's the recipe for the potato puffs, which will make you a cute side dish when you want to do something different:

3 cups mashed potatoes
2 eggs
1/3 cup sour cream
1 heaping cup shredded cheddar
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese (I used shredded, because I had that)
2 tablespoons dried chives or parsley
Salt and pepper

It's pretty simple as recipes go. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and grease/butter/spray with Pam the inside of the cups of a muffin pan. Then crack your eggs into a bowl:

I used my Pyrex Autumn Americana 404 mixing bowl, because I wanted to give my yellow Primary Color bowls a little break. That poor Americana bowl is my little Pyrex orphan. I don't have the other three bowls that go with it, and would prefer the Blue Americana set, but I was buying some other Pyrex at a going out of business sale at a junk shop and the lady running it offered to throw that bowl in with the rest for four more dollars. You can't buy a new four-quart mixing bowl for four dollars, and I don't actively dislike the set. I'd buy the other three if I saw them, but I never see them, so that bowl sits in the closet alone.

Back to the baking, after you beat the eggs, mix in the sour cream:

This smells about as good as you imagine raw eggs and sour cream mixed together smell. After that, you mix in the cheese, throw in the chives, and salt and pepper to taste. I would like to take a moment here to point out that the handheld, squeeze pepper grinder my mom gave me for Christmas several years ago:

is one of the best kitchen gadgets that I own. It lets me grind pepper with one hand, directly over the bowl.

Thanks, mom!

After you thank your mom (which you should probably do regularly even if she didn't give you a pepper grinder), add the potatoes and mix it really well:

and then spoon the mix into the muffin cups, filling them right to the top:

Bake them for 35 minutes, then let them cool in the pan for 5 more minutes. When they're done, they'll look like this:

The odd brown liquid is non-stick cooking spray; I'm pretty sloppy with my spraying. To get the puffs out, I just stuck a fork in the middle and hooked one out of the pan, and they came out like little muffins:

but inside they're creamy like mashed potatoes.

The only suggestion I would make is that they could maybe use some bacon, but that's totally optional.

While the potatoes were cooking, I tore into those red velvet M&M's:

They're a little bigger than regular M&M's, like peanut butter ones.

Spoiler: They're not red inside:

If you eat more than one at a time, you can catch a subtle flavor of cream cheese frosting, but for the most part they just taste like M&M's.

Since the potato puffs turned out so well, I thought I would try another recipe that's been haunting me. I mentioned when Bette Davis and I cooked some hash that the recipe I almost made was attributed to Karen Carpenter, but that she lost by a handful of votes. Well, now that I made Bette's hash, the door was wide open for Karen Carpenter's Chewy Pie.

It's certainly a recipe. Of some kind. For a food. Or "food".

It starts with sixteen saltine crackers:

They need to be crushed, so I put them in a ziploc bag, left some air in it, and crushed them to dust with a rolling pin:

Since I already had a handy bag, I added the sugar and baking powder to it and shook it to mix. After that I chopped some walnuts:

and then spent twenty minutes googling to find out what to set the oven to. The missing oven temperature could be a simple oversight in transcribing the recipe for the book, but I choose to interpret it as evidence that no one ever actually cooked this thing. If you happen to buy the cookbook, pencil in 350 degrees F.

Then beat three egg whites until stiff peaks form:

You have no idea what a sense of achievement doing that gave me. I've seen people beat egg whites on television, and it always seems fraught with disaster, so when I casually beat my egg whites and they actually turned into a bowl of stiff peaks, I let out such a yell of triumph in the kitchen that the neighbors probably looked at the wall for a minute as if expecting me to burst through it like the Kool Aid Man.

After gloating over my stiff peaks, I folded in the saltine mixture and the walnuts, which promptly destroyed my stiff peaks:

and spread it evenly in a pie pan:

While the "pie" was baking, I whipped cream until I created a bowl of whipped cream:

which is supposed to be the topping for this thing that looks like a giant cookie:

That's a pie?

It breaks when you cut it:

It turned out that only the top broke, and the inside is still soft, but the damn thing also stuck to the pan even though I sprayed the hell out of that pan, so the first slice out looked like I chopped it out with a hatchet:

If I wanted this kind of abuse I'd make fudge.

I managed to carefully remove a second piece and then use the whipped cream to cover the flaws:

so I finally got a decent photo. In case you're curious, a "pie" made of crackers, egg whites, and walnuts tastes like walnuts.

At this point, you're probably wondering two things, and I can answer both of those questions:

No, I don't know for sure if Karen Carpenter ever actually ate this.

And yes, it actually is chewy. Really chewy. Excessively so.

I bet Greer Garson's creation won't be nearly this strange.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Dead Celebrity Cookbook: Bette Davis

Bette Davis wants you to moisten this, I thought to myself, holding a small container of cream above the bowl. Moisten. Moisten. Moist is the most disgusting word in the English language. Moyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy-st. This looks disgusting, too.

And it did:

But, to be honest, it had looked a little disgusting way before I moistened it.

Every year my grandparents give me a Barnes and Noble giftcard for my birthday, and then another for Christmas. That means that every year, right after Christmas, I treat myself to some post-holiday presents, and this year I treated myself to something very special: Frank DeCaro's Dead Celebrity Cookbook, featuring 145 recipes from old celebrity cookbooks, magazines, and other sources. Not only is it useful, but DeCaro is also hilarious, and provides a brief writeup of each celebrity along with their recipe(s). (Some celebrities get more than one.)

As soon as I started reading it I knew that I was cooking something from it this weekend, so I narrowed down the three recipes that intrigued me the most, and then asked my friends on Facebook to please pick one of the following dead celebrities, without telling them why: Bette Davis, Greer Garson, and Karen Carpenter. Yes, Karen Carpenter published a recipe once. For food. Which she claimed to eat. Poor Greer, largely forgotten by the American public, quickly fell away, and it became a neck and neck race between Bette and Karen.

Bette Davis came out the winner by seven votes.

I probably should have put her up against Joan Crawford, but Joan's recipe is for fish and I don't know if I'm there yet, or ever will be. I don't eat fish, for the most part.

Anyway, Bette Davis' recipe is for "Red Flannel Hash", a mix of potatoes, beets, corned beef, and cream. I've made hashbrowns before, but never hash with meat in it, so I was intrigued, and the ingredients were pretty easy to locate at Kroger. Most of these recipes are like that, as they are from a time before America's gourmet revolution, so there's not a lot of exotic spices or rare vegetables to track down.

The recipe starts with cooked, diced potatoes. Back in Bette's day, Bette (or the maid) had to cook up the potatoes herself, but now that we've entered modern times, I'm fully comfortable with cheating and shortcuts:

No shame whatsoever.

If you're wondering where the "red" in the name comes from, you might notice some canned beet slices draining in the sink in the right hand corner of that picture. In case you're still not getting it, or you've never cooked with beets before for some reason (like that there's something wrong with you, because how can you not like beets? Do you hate things that are delicious?), observe the aftermath of the beet dicing:

Straight up murder scene.

(Observe also my green Primary Colors 403 Pyrex mixing bowl, just because.)

After the beets and potatoes were handled, I decided to tackle the corned beef. Again, this was probably a dish meant to use up leftover beef and potatoes from dinner the night before, but since I didn't make corned beef and potatoes last night I had to settle for canned corned beef:

What is that key for, exactly? The beets just had a pop top, like most of my canned foods do. I've never eaten meat from a can that you needed a key to open, so I was a little dubious.

Then I started using the key, and became even more dubious:

It unzips the can? And that's meat under there? As a person who eats Spam, I have to say that this canned corned beef looks disgusting:

It still looks disgusting after it's diced:

and, as you saw at the beginning of the entry, after it's been moistened with cream.

It also smelled like cat food, but I trust Bette Davis, so I melted a half stick of butter in a skillet pan:

and got to work browning my hash. I wasn't sure how brown it should be when it was done, or if it would turn brown at all with the beets in there, but I figured that I would cook it until all of the liquid was cooked off and it looked at least brown-ish.

As it cooked, it stopped smelling like cat food, and started to smell like carmelized meat, kind of smoky and a little spicy. I added pepper, but figured the corned beef had enough salt to flavor the dish, and it turned out that I was right. I'm not sure if this is how it looked when Bette made it, but it tastes good.

Now I just have to decide whose recipe is next.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

79/52: 2013 in Books

Happy New Year, everybody! I had intended to spend last night trying to squeeze in one last book, but somehow ended up making mudslides, eating tiny hot dogs in mustard sauce, and watching and blogging an incredibly terrible movie, but it really doesn't make any difference. Like last year and the year before I managed to somehow meet my goal of 52 books for the year and then exceed it by a huge margin. I can think of three partial reasons for this:

1) I'm still reading at lunch. Since November I've been going to lunch by myself a lot, so I have 40 minutes to an hour of reading time every day.

2) I took one more plane trip than usual this year, when I went to Minneapolis in June. Being trapped in planes and airports, and then staying at hotels and removed from my usual distractions cranks my brain into reading overdrive. As an example, I read almost 3000 pages last week when I was home visiting my parents. Travel makes an impact on my tally.

3) I think I've started reading faster. I'm seriious. I think I've partially retrained my brain.

Since this is going to be a long list, I'm going to do something a little different this year. A friend mentioned last year that "it's a lot of words, and sometimes you don't even say if you liked the book or not". I figured that if I write about how terrible something was I don't need to actually say, "I did not like this", but I guess I can make a concession to our current "TL;DR" (Too Long; Didn't Read, for those who don't see it often in web commentary) culture and make a small change: I'm going to post a Top 10 list of my ten favorite things I read this year, and then go ahead and post the regular book review paragraphs.

We'll see how it goes.

As in past years, I do not count graphic novels usually, and don't count cookbooks. Everything else ends up on the list. Also, verbal tenses may not match in the long list since I write it in real time as I finish the books.

Top 10

Book #2: 100 Dresses, edited by Harold Koda
Book #6: A Slave in the White House, by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
Book #18: Columbine, by Dave Cullen
Book #20: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
Book #30: The Watch That Ends the Night, by Allan Wolf
Book #35: The Food of a Younger Land, by Mark Kurlansky
Book #44: Paper Towns, by John Green
Book #62: The System, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian
Book #65: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Book #76: NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

Honorable mention that almost made it to the Top 10

Book #64: Last Night at the Viper Room, by Gavin Edwards

And then the regular list:

1/52: Christopher Moore's Sacre Bleu is described on the cover as a "comedy of art", and does have some funny moments, but is mostly not a comedy. Instead, it is a murder mystery, starting with the alleged suicide of Vincent van Gogh and following the quest by his friends Lucien Lessard and Henri Toulouse-Latrec to unravel what actually happened to him. Why was van Gogh afraid of a certain shade of blue? Who was the strange little Colorman trailing painters across Europe? And what does Lucien's former girlfriend and artist model have to do with it? I liked this, although it was confusing at times when there were multiple characters with the same first name.

2/52: I stayed up kind of late last night finishing 100 Dresses, edited by Harold Koda. Filled with gorgeous photography, it is a collection of 100 dresses at the Costume Institute. Many of the dresses have additional photos of the dress in context, and there is a long description on each page that tells you about the textiles, or the style at the time, or the designer, basically explaining why each dress is important and why it was selected to be in this book. I found it completely absorbing and fascinating, and every time I thought about going to bed I was like, "I wonder what the next one is?"

3/52: Nevil Shute's On the Beach was a sad, quiet story about the end of the world. After nuclear war wipes out the northern hemisphere, the people of Australia live out the last few months of humanity, waiting for the weather patterns to carry clouds of toxic fallout to kill them all. It's a story of dignity and bravery in the face of the inevitable, and at the end tears came out of my cryholes and they burned. My parents bought me the movie for Christmas, but I haven't watched it yet.

4/52: Thomas H. Cook's The Fate of Katherine Carr tells a story of murder, disappearances, and the unknown world all around us. George was a travel writer who specialized in stories of places where people disappeared: lost colonies, vanished people, and the places where those things happened, until the day that someone kidnapped and killed his son. Now semi-retired and working for the local paper, George is approached by a retired detective who is haunted by the twenty year old disappearance of Katherine Carr, a woman who had been attacked at home and then five years later vanished without a trace, leaving behind only a strange, fictional story about a woman named Katherine Carr who is being stalked by a man who attacked her. Digging through the layers of her real and fictional stories, George also begins finally facing his own. This was a good book, and gripping enough to keep me up until one in the morning to finish it. The ending could be a little firmer, though.

5/52: Lawrence Douglas' The Vices was ok, but kind of flat. It's the story of the friendship between Oliver Vice and his friend and coworker, told by the coworker after Oliver vanishes from a cruise ship in the North Atlantic, a presumed suicide. The friend tries to piece together the truth behind the Vice family's elaborate backstory, and you can tell it's supposed to be funny and witty and kind of like "The Royal Tannenbaums", but the whole thing is just kind of dull and flat and plodding.

6/52: Elizabeth Dowling Taylor's A Slave in the White House was interesting but misleadingly titled. A biography of Paul Jennings, a trusted slave belonging to Dolly and James Madison who later wrote and published a memoir of his life with them, very little of it actually takes place in the White House. It does give a very interesting glimpse of the Founding Fathers, and sheds light on how they reconciled fighting for freedom for all men while simultaneously owning slaves. Interesting things I learned:

a) Three of the first five US presidents died on the 4th of July.

b) Dolly Madison didn't actually save the painting of George Washington that hung in the White House from burning during the War of 1812, which is what I was taught in school. She ordered Jennings and a White House employee to break the frame and take the painting to safety while she and a female slave escaped in a wagon heading in the opposite direction.

c) The "not in my backyard" attitude is as old as America. Madison and many other intellectuals and abolishionists of the day were only in favor of freeing the slaves if the slaves could then be relocated somewhere else away from white people. I knew that this was how Liberia was founded, but had no idea that movement was so widespread and socially accepted.

d) Visitors and dignitaries from Europe at the time openly mocked the US for claiming to be a country of freedom while still owning slaves. This was rarely, if ever, mentioned in any US History class I took.

This kind of makes me want to go get Lies My Teacher Told Me from the library and refresh myself on things my white, heterosexual, jingoistic education may have misinformed me of.

7/52: Victor Klein's New Orleans Ghosts II was short and poorly written. It mostly collects ghost stories from other books, and has a long bibliography so that you can, presumably, read the original and better written stories.

8/52: Lisa Vanderpump's Simply Divine was a much better book about classy, elegant entertaining than Countess LuAnn's book was. Lisa gives a lot of how-to tips for parties, dinners, and related occasions, and provides a lot of recipes and suggested menus. Unlike LuAnn, Lisa seems to grasp that her audience is not rich, and offers recipe substitutions like canned beans instead of soaking dried ones overnight and buying chicken stock from Trader Joe's or Whole Foods rather than somewhere really expensive, or tips on how to dress up regular glassware or candles when you don't have lead crystal and sterling silver. Overall, it was a fun, breezy read, and there are several recipes that I want to try.

9/52: Tom Wright's What Dies in Summer was interesting and kind of tense at the end. Biscuit lives with his grandmother for reasons which eventually become clear, and then his cousin L.A. comes to move in with them for reasons of her own. Biscuit has a little touch of the sight, not usually enough to be useful, but lately it keeps showing him a girl who sits at the end of his bed at night. After Biscuit and L.A. find that girl's body by the river, mutilated and tortured, all hell breaks loose and all of the family secrets come tumbling out as a killer closes in.

10-16/52: After years of avoiding them, I finally read the Harry Potter books. When I finished, I collected my thoughts into a blog entry. Overall, I enjoyed the read, but will not be one of those people who reads the books again and again.

17/52: Raymond McDaniel's Special Powers and Abilities is a book of poetry about the Legion of Superheroes, and it's the greatest book of poetry I've ever read. There are poems about each Legionnaire, a three page poem about the time the Legion fought Satan Girl, ruminations on costumes and planets, several poems about the death of Ferro Lad, and an extremely sad Valentine from Brainiac 5 to Supergirl. I never found out who the anonymous person was who sent this to me, but whoever you are, I love you.

18/52: Dave Cullen's Columbine is fast moving and matter of fact, but also moving and heartfelt. Cullen does an amazing job of analyzing and reconstructing an event that has been mythologized and distorted by the media, and manages to humanize both the killers and the victims. It was a really, really good book.

19/52: S.J. Watson's Before I Go To Sleep was a fun read with slowly building suspense and a quick resolution that I managed to guess about ten pages before the narrator. Every morning, Christine wakes up with no memory of who or where she is, and her husband, Ben, patiently explains that she was in an accident and has a terrible form of amnesia that erases everything she learns each day when she goes to sleep, resetting her as a blank slate every day. As horrifying as this is, Christine soon discovers that she has been keeping a diary each day to try to remember the things that slip away, and the first page says "Don't Trust Ben". Is her husband lying to spare her the pain of reliving every day everything she has lost, or is he keeping secrets for a more sinister purpose?

20/52: I reread Donna Tartt's The Secret History and blogged about it.

21/52: Douglas Perry's The Girls of Murder City was interesting and entertaining. It tells the story of the real life murder trials behind "Chicago", introducing the reader to Belva and Beulah, the ladies who become Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, and to Maurine Watkins, the reporter who is so disgusted by their trials that she gives up reporting and writes the hit play.

22/52: Todd Gregory's Need was horrible. I read it in about an hour. There's a sexy gay vampire, and a sexy frat guy, and sexy man-witches, and some other sexy vampires, and a lot of sex. It's like "Twilight" somehow got dumbed down. Way down.

23/52: Daniel Wilson's Robopocalypse tells the story of a near-future where people are helped by domestic robots, cars are safely driven by robot computer chips, smart buildings keep their tenants alive and healthy, and a rogue artificial intelligence escapes its prison and turns all of this against humanity in a violent, deadly war. This was entertaining, but structurally it was very much like someone took World War Z and swapped out the zombies for robots.

24/52: Ernest Cline's Ready Player One is set in a near future where the economy has failed, the US has mostly collapsed into poverty, and everyone in the world spends their free time every night logged into OASIS, a virtual reality role playing game where they can be and do pretty much anything. When the founder of OASIS dies, he sets in motion a game for control of the simulation, where clues and quests are buried on countless worlds, but the quest remains unfulfilled for five years, until a high school student, Wade Watts, stumbles onto the first clue and sets in motion a race to win that people are willing to kill for, inside and outside of the game. I found this to be pretty enjoyable, but in an oddly ironic twist I spent a few hours reading to the end this morning because my internet was out.

25/52: Steve Martin's Shopgirl tells the short, mostly boring story of an ill-fated affair between Mirabelle, a girl who works at the glove counter at Nordstrom's, and Ray, an older businessman. There's not really anything interesting or funny here, and I feel like it was only published at all (in hardcover, no less) because a famous actor wrote it.

26/52: I've seen Hitchcock's "Rebecca" many, many times, so I grabbed the book it is based on when I saw it at the library book sale so that I could compare them. In some parts the book is pretty close to the movie (or, I guess, the movie is pretty close to the book), but the ending is slightly different. I think I prefer the movie ending, but overall this was a good read.

27/52: Peter Cline's Ex-Heroes tells the story of the superheroes of Los Angeles and their struggle to save the people of the city from being devoured by a plague of zombie ex-humans. As they struggle to survive against overwhelming odds, including undead former friends and allies, they face a chilling new threat: a new super with the power to control the zombies, and he's not on their side. This was a very entertaining blend of genres, and I look forward to the sequel.

28/52: Owen J. Hurd's After the Fact gives short but entertaining accounts of what happened to famous and less famous characters from American history after their moment of fame was over. From Paul Revere to the Watergate burglars to Mrs. O'Leary's cow, this gives interesting followups to people that you may not have ever sat down and thought, "I wonder what else they ever did?" about.

29/52: Russ Calhoun, Sr.'s Lost Heritage documents the history of the communities and institutions that were displaced and flooded by the TVA Watauga Reservoir. Extensively researched, the book accounts for every family that was relocated, but I'm not sure who this would be of interest to. The narrative portions are rather short, and most of the book is just long alphabetical lists of families, businesses, churches, and schools that are now gone.

30/52: Allan Wolf's The Watch That Ends the Night told the story of the Titanic's maiden voyage through the free verse voices of 25 characters, ranging from the famous (the Captain, Molly Brown, John Jacob Astor) to the unknown (the telegraph agent, an immigrant girl in charge of her younger brother, a gambling con man) to the iceberg itself. I'm not sure if "novel" is the right term, or if it should be called an epic poem, but either way it was very well written and was an excellent read.

31/52: My gay book club once again marketed porn to me as an actual book, instead of just porn, and I ordered The Moon's Deep Circle because I thought it was a mystery about this kid on the swim team and his vanished older brothers' locked bedroom that their parents never talk about, but it turned out that the mystery of what happened to the brothers was kind of secondary to the journals one of them left behind about his gay pagan sex rituals that the swim team kid reads to the other members of the swim team and it incites them all to have a lot of really porny porn sex and oh yeah, they also solve the mystery and I'm pretty sure he ends up in a porny pagan orgy with his brothers and the swim team and some other guys but by then I was skimming so I may have this wrong. To summarize: PORN. IF YOU LIKE GAY PORN, THIS IS THE BOOK FOR YOU.

32/52: Long ago I enjoyed one of Jane Smiley's books enough to read it more than once. This isn't that book. Ten Days in the Hills was the long, boring story of a washed up director, his agent, and his extended family spending ten days together in the Hollywood hills that also happen to be the first ten days of the Iraq war. It was so slow and dry that I read the previous book while reading this one, and I haven't done that since I read the Bible or Les Miserables.

33/52: Arthur Drooker's American Ruins was an interesting survey of historical ruins across the US. Alaska was missing, but he did make it to Hawaii and lots of places in between. The book is mostly gorgeous photography, but there is a description of each ruin and how it ended up abandoned.

34/52: Sarah Vowell's The Partly Cloudy Patriot was an entertaining collection of several short essays ranging from politics to popular culture to history to travel. I like Vowell's humor because it is literate without being stuffy, and her writing is light enough to make reading about history not be a chore.

35/52: Just before WWII, the writing division of the WPA started an ambitious project called "America Eats!". The goal was to produce a book, or series of books, about regional cuisine from all around the country, but when WWII hit the WPA writing program turned toward patriotic work and then was eventually dismantled before the book was published. In The Food of a Younger Land Mark Kurlansky selected pieces from the archives of the project in the Library of Congress and presents a fascinating book that shows us food from a time before the interstate highway system, the big box supermarket, and the fast food restaurant. Covering the United States according to the regions that the original project was divided into (and the 48 states that comprised the US at the time), there are stories of New York City's Automat, the proper way to clean and fry a beaver tail in Montana, Coca Cola parties in Georgia, and the birth of the vitamin industry in Los Angeles. I found this book really fascinating.

36/52: Isaac Marion's Warm Bodies was a funny, touching zombie story, and the first one I can think of in a while that's told from the zombie's point of view. R doesn't remember his name, his job, or how he died, but when he eats Julie's boyfriend something changes in him: he feels something for Julie and maybe, eventually, their love can change the world. I don't know how the movie was, but the book was really enjoyable.

37/52: Somebody in something I was reading was talking about how Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was so salacious and controversial and how it had been banned in the USA until the 1960's, and I was thinking, "Really? It was written in the '30's. How smutty could it be?" The answer would be really, really smutty. Six pages in he was talking about how this lady could probably fit whole musical instruments in her snackbar now that he'd banged her so hard with his massive wang that she was all stretched out and could probably barely walk, and the whole book continued from there in pretty much the same fashion.

38/52: Portia de Rossi's Unbearable Lightness was incredibly honest and painful, but also a fast, matter of fact read. It gives a profound understanding of the mindset of a person in the grips of an eating disorder, but in some odd way it also makes me want to get back on a regular exercise plan just because I recognize that doing so would be doing something good for myself. I guess that means this is also inspiring.

39/52: Adam West's Back to the Batcave is a stunning tribute to Adam West's ego. I blogged about it a little.

40/52: Bill McKibben's Eaarth is the "Life of the Mind" book that all of the freshmen are required to read this year, and I'm kind of shocked that it was picked. The basic theme is not only that climate change is real, but also that it's too late to fix it and that we need to instead find strategies to live on a warmer planet with radically different climate so that we don't all starve to death and die. It reads kind of like a textbook, but the science is presented in a way that's very difficult to argue with, which is why I'm surprised it was picked. We live in Tennessee, where people deny the idea of climate change and especially the idea that mankind has had any kind of causal relationship with it. Kids are going to tell their parents that they are reading this, and people will freak out. Not only that, but staff members are signed up to facilitate discussion, and I know several who are also climate change deniers. How are they going to present this book to students?

41/52: I finished Amber Dermont's The Starboard Sea this morning, and even though it was kind of good but also sad, I'm left wondering: does all-male boarding school always include sexual assault in real life, or is that a standard cliche of the male-boarding school novel?

42/52: In David Kowalski's The Company of the Dead, a lone time traveler appears on the Titanic and hands the night watchman a pair of modern-era binoculars. Although he means well, the unintended consequences of his actions spiral through the twentieth century, leading to a world where the Germans occupy the east coast of America and the Japanese the west. As the two empires prepare for war with America trapped between them, a special team of six people are the only ones who know what happened and how to fix it, and are in a race against time to get to the time machine and correct the path of history before nuclear Armageddon. Alternate history is always fascinating, but this seemed a little long.

43/52: Kathleen Collins' Watching What We Eat was an interesting history of television cooking shows, but I didn't really learn a lot. I was wondering about that, but I realized while reading that I've read a lot of the other books that this book mentioned, so I may just be well read in this area.

44/52: I added John Green's Paper Towns to my reading list because my friend Stan read it last year and it sounded interesting when he wrote about it. It tells the story of Quentin, a high school senior who has loved Margo from afar for nine years without acting on it until the night that Margo climbs through his window and enlists him into a campaign of brilliant, hilarious high school revenge. In the morning, Quentin is even more in love, but Margo has vanished, leaving a trail of clues in her wake. Can Quentin find the clues, find Margo, and maybe find himself, and if he does, will he still want to? I really enjoyed this book, and feel like it would make a great movie, but didn't get a lot of deeper thought out of it other than being entertained.

45/52: Chuck Palahniuk's Damned, like a few of his more recent books, turned out to be not quite as clever as he thought it was. It introduces us to Madison, the recently deceased daughter of a movie star and a wealthy industrialist, who wakes up dead and finds herself in Hell. Surrounded by an undead Breakfast Club of new companions, socially awkward Madison and a nerd, a jock, a wealthy, pretty girl, and a leather-jacketed rebel set off across a hellish landscape of roving demons, bad candy, and wifi dead zones to confront Satan for reasons that they never clearly explain. The book is a collection of amusing images and half formed ideas, but never seems to come all the way together.

46/52: I read my friend Jenny's book, Ice 'n' Go, and enjoyed it, but a lot of it was kind of outside of my interest area. It offers some good life lessons, and a lot of discussion about positive approaches to sports for kids.

47/52: When I saw Lauren Weisberger's Revenge Wears Prada, a sequel to The Devil Wears Prada, all I could think was, "Hmmm. Somebody must want another movie deal." Now that I've read the book, a long rambling story where Andy and Emily are now best friends and own a bridal magazine that Miranda Priestly wants to buy, that's still what I think. The writing is fine, but there didn't seem to be a need to tell this story or revisit these characters.

48/52: The meaning behind the title of Owen King's Double Feature is explained in the book as the combination of movies shown at a drive-in. According to Booth, the protagonist's B-list movie star father, they show the first movie before the sun is fully down, so it's always a little hazy and disconnected, but the second movie, the second half of the double feature, is always the better one, which is why they save it for full darkness. The book is about letting go of the mess of the first half of the narrator's life and starting a strong second half, but this story never really comes together for me. It's long, and a little boring.

49/52: Brad Warner's There Is No God And He Is Always With You caught my eye at the bookstore, even though religious philosophy is usually pretty far outside of my normal reading. The back cover talks about whether you can be an atheist but still believe in a higher power, or how to reconcile your spirituality between fundamentalist and complete skeptic, but the book itself just seemed to suggest that everyone give up on the idea of the Judeo-Christian omniscient creator and start believing in the Zen Buddhist "God is everyone and everyone is God" outlook instead. It didn't really answer any questions for me, but I guess it gave me something to think about.

50/52: Peter Clines' Ex Patriots returned us to the superheroes in a zombie apocalypse world of his previous novel, Ex Heroes, which I read in March. The heroes have carved out a community for human survivors in Hollywood, and things are going reasonably well when the army shows up with a team of enhanced human super soldiers from Project Krypton. Is this the first step on the road back to normalcy, or does Project Krypton harbor a dark, terrible secret? If you've read enough comic books, you know the answer already, but this is still entertaining.

51/52: Ex Communication, the third book in Clines' series, brings us back to the now familiar heroes of the Mount as they work to expand the human survivor territory and better life for the survivors. Just when it seems things are starting to go well, though, multiple friends and foes from the past return, and one of them has the power to destroy everything that the heroes and survivors have built. Can they survive, and what will it cost them?

52/52: I haven't spoken to Robb Young since we graduated from high school, but some parts of Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians & Fashion are so distinctly written in his voice that I could hear it in my head. It's an interesting read, and actually does present a global perspective. The many case studies also serve the unintentional point of emphasizing how far behind the US is with regard to women in power. Even allegedly oppressive Muslim dominated countries have had female heads of state, but not us.

53/52: In Mary Higgins Clark's The Shadow of Your Smile a young lady doctor is in trouble because she might be the granddaughter of the secret lovebaby of a nun on the verge of being sainted, but also the rightful heir to a patent fortune that's being embezzled and spent by murderous descendents who will stop at nothing to protect their ill-gotten gains. It's entertaining in the way that all MHC books are entertaining, so if you like that, you'll like this.

54/52: I was about halfway through Michael Crichton's Airframe, a novel of an aircraft company trying to prove that their plane design is safe after a deadly in-flight accident, when I started to think, "I wonder if Michael Crichton is a Republican?" The reason I started to wonder that was that there is a subplot about the company shipping a whole bunch of jobs overseas, and all of a sudden the workers are dropping tools onto management from overhead, deliberately wrecking company trucks, destroying shipments, chasing management across the factory in front of an entire shift of workers to shove them off of tall catwalks, and when the lady protagonist vice president complains, everyone is like, "Well, the workers are mad, and you know what those union bullies are like. It's completely unsafe for you to be here at the factory by yourself, because of the union."

55/52: In Tom Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher, Ruth is a former sex ed teacher, who has been forced by the school board and a group of protesting religious parents to teach abstinence-only instead. Tim is a reformed substance abusing rock and roller turned child soccer coach who, impulsively leading his team in a post-game prayer of thanks, is thrust into the role of God-warrior, a role that he's not comfortable with, and now Ruth and Tim are on a collision course with each other. This was a pretty good read.

56/52: I finished Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, and found it to be pretty engaging after a slow start. Ursula Todd is born at home in the winter of 1910, but Ursula Todd also dies at birth. Ursula Todd is saved from drowning as a toddler by a man on the beach, but Ursula Todd drowns in the ocean as a toddler because no one is there to save her. Ursula Todd lives the same life over and over, wandering through her days with a dreamy sense of deja vu, trying her best to save the people she loves from disaster by taking it on herself each time instead. In the end, I found this to be really enjoyable, although I'm not sure what change finally caused the ending.

57/52: Peter Heller's The Dog Stars takes place in the near future, when Hig has survived a pandemic and lives in a small airport hanger with his dog and a somewhat unhinged survivalist neighbor, keeping their perimeter safe and themselves alive. When Hig hears a distant radio call on his Cesna, he has to decide whether they maintain or whether they take a chance on the hope that something greater might be out there, just out of reach. I enjoyed this, but it was also a little sad.

58/52: In Unfamiliar Fishes Sarah Vowell walks us through the destruction and annexation of Hawaii by white people. It was informative and entertaining, but made attending the "Welcome Back to School" Luau a little uncomfortable.

59/52: Frank Abagnale and Stan Redding's Catch Me If You Can is even more entertaining than the movie. The movie streamlines some of the plot, as movies often do, but also edits out Abagnale's unique voice, which is hilarious.

60/52: I feel like I've been reading Benjamin Ginsberg's The Fall of the Faculty forever, but I'm glad I stuck with it. While it's supposed to be an account of how university power slipped away from the faculty and into the hands of professional administrators, it also has some almost hilarious parts where Ginsberg, a clearly disenfranchised faculty member, falls completely into ranting. Less than twenty pages in, he casually labels all administrators and deans Nazis, which kind of undermines his argument that universities are now administratively bloated, but he also presents some interesting facts to back up his argument, like pointing out that in 2007 Vandy had 64 non-teaching staff for every 100 students. It was an interesting read, as he disagrees with pretty much everything that my division does, but there were also some good points in there.

61/52: Cecily von Ziegesar's Class, originally published as Cum Laude (and only changed on the cover; the top of every page inside says Cum Laude), was described as a "satire" of the freshman year of college, but I feel like it wasn't written as one. I think von Ziegesar, author of the "Gossip Girl" series, intended this as a serious book, and then when it came out and everyone was like, "This is hilarious!" she was like, "Yes. ON PURPOSE."

62/52: Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian's The System was a fascinating exploration of Division 1 college football. I bought it because part of it was about Tennessee, but I learned a lot, and the part about Tennessee was one of the least interesting parts.

63/52: Jane Addams' Twenty Years at Hull-House is a memoir covering the years 1889 to 1909 in Addams' life, detailing her early education, commitment to others, and the founding and growth of Hull-House in Chicago. Reading this in the current era is a little saddening, as any length of time watching the 24 hour news cycle will show you that the national attitude toward and dialogue about the lowest paid workers in society, immigrants, and the poor in general hasn't really changed.

64/52: Gavin Edwards' Last Night at the Viper Room chronicles the brief life and sad death of River Phoenix, which happened my freshman year of college. The overall tone of the book is straightforward but also somewhat sad, as if the author is disappointed in Phoenix for basically throwing his life away. While reading, I thought about how odd it was that I still think of River Phoenix as a movie star but that people who are in their freshman year of college now probably have no idea of who he was and haven't seen any of his movies except for, maybe, "Stand By Me".

65/52: Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch was a really good read. It starts out as the story of Theo, a young boy who loses his mother in an explosion that leaves his story entwined with that of a painting by a master painter who was also killed in an explosion. As the story moves through Theo's adolesence and early adulthood, it also moves into a tense thriller involving international drug dealers, art thieves, art forgers, and a collection of lost masterpieces. I really enjoyed reading this.

66/52: Greg Herren's Lake Thirteen gives us a ghost story that isn't all that spooky. Three families vacation together every year, and this year Scotty is nervous about the trip because he's just come out to his lifelong friends in an email prior to the trip. He's worried they won't accept him, but they barely have time to care because a late night trip to the local cemetery leaves Scotty possibly possessed and the five teens trying to unravel a decades-old murder mystery that seems to be haunting them all.

67/52: David Quammen's Spillover is a detailed but easily readable history of zoontic viruses, the kind that pass from animals into people. He talks about the Next Big One, but doesn't really speculate, emphasizing instead that it's much more important how we respond to it than what it is.

68/52: In John Connolly's The Gates, Samuel Johnson decides to get a head start on Halloween by going trick or treating three nights early. Instead of candy, he finds his neighbors accidentally opening a portal to Hell, and he and his friends only have four days to stop the gates of Hell from opening wide. This was a fast, light-hearted read.

69/52: Amy Sutherland's Cookoff chronicles the year that Sutherland spent on the national cookoff circuit, following first timers and up-and-comers as well as the contestors, a group of semi-professional bakeoff and cookoff contestants who enter hundreds of recipes in dozens of contests a year. Sutherland manages to convey the sense of tension and the drive to win while also making interesting observations about the way America relates to food and competition. While entertaining and surprisingly gripping, I was a little put off by her tone sometimes. She seemed a little bit snobby when discussing the National Cornbread Festival, but was hilarious describing the wet T-shirt contests at a Texas chili cookoff.

70/52: Chuck Klosterman's Downtown Owl takes the reader to the town of Owl, North Dakota in the fall of 1983. The town is stagnant, there's nothing to do and nowhere to go, and Klosterman manages to capture all of the bleak horror of small-town living with the same people for your entire life. Reading this made me so glad to escape.

71/52: Someone online recommended Jay Bell's Something Like Summer as a good gay read, and I guess it was sort of ok. It's part of a trilogy, with each book being told from the point of view of one of the characters in the same love triangle, but I can't see myself seeking out the other two. Amazon listed it as one of their Best Gay Books of 2011, but it just didn't resonate with me. I can't point to anything specific and say, "This part was kind of bad", but I also can't think of anything specific that would make me say, "This part was good."

72/52: Steve Fischer's When the Mob Ran Vegas gives just what it promised on the cover: "stories of money, mayhem, and murder", and they're pretty entertaining. Unfortunately, they could have used a little tighter editing, because it would have been so much better if the stories followed a linear timeline rather than hopping all over town. By the end, there's so many guys named Tony and Lefty and Swifty and Stabby that the overlaps in chapters aren't always clear.

73/52: Richard Ford's Canada tells the story of Dell, a teenage boy whose parents plan and botch a bank robbery in the first half of the novel and then farm him out to a relative of a friend who has criminal secrets of his own. There are a lot of characters in this book who should be interesting, including the main characters, but none of them feel fully realized, even the narrator.

74/52: Jay McInerney's Bacchus & Me is a collection of essays that McInerney wrote about wine during his years as the wine columnist at "House & Garden" magazine. I've only read one of his novels, and was somewhat lukewarm about it, but in this book I found his voice and tone amusing and entertaining.

75/52: Stephen Michael Shearer's Gloria Swanson was a bit slow but overall very fair look at Swanson's life and career. He does point out where her autobiography falls short or glosses things over, but he also makes people understand that she really was the biggest star of her time. It's sad that most people only know her from "Sunset Boulevard" or don't know of her at all, because she really did shape the way our society views the idea of celebrity. She also helped smuggle Jewish scientists out of Nazi Germany, was one of the earliest advocates for an all natural diet, and had a long affair with Joe Kennedy that included getting walked in on by a tween JFK more than once. There's something in this book for everybody.

76/52: I plowed through all 700+ pages of Joe Hill's NOS4A2 in just over 24 hours because it was that good. It tells the story of Vic(toria), a little girl with a magic bicycle that lets her peddle to wherever lost things are when she thinks about them, and Charlie Manx, a little old man with a 1938 Rolls Royce with a NOS4A2 license plate that lets him take children for rides, after which the children are never seen again and Charlie Manx lives forever. One day Vic and Charlie's paths cross, and Vic becomes the only child ever to escape him. Years later, Charlie comes back, and the child he now has in the back of the Rolls is Wayne, Vic's son, and she'll do anything to get him back. Part horror story, part thriller, all I could do was keep reading to see what would happen.

77/52: I saved Stephen King's 11 22 63 until the end of the year because it was so long, but I was excited because everyone kept talking about how good it was. It wasn't terrible, but King continues to mine his old books for ideas in his quest to tie them all together into the Dark Tower series. This book tells the story of Jake, a high school teacher whose friend discovers a hole in time in his diner that goes back to a specific day in 1958, always the same day at the same time. After some experimentation, the pair use the time hole to save a girl from being accidentally shot by a hunter, then a family from being killed by their drunken father, and then they decide to go for the big one: save Kennedy from being assassinated in Dallas. Jake has to live in the past for four years, tracking Lee Harvey Oswald, but also falling in love and building a life and trying to decide what's worth sacrificing for the greater good and what's worth hanging on to, and along the way he meets some of the characters from It and Insomnia and I feel kind of sad that he can't just write a standalone story anymore. If he wrote Carrie today, she'd probably end up meeting the lady from Gerald's Game halfway through, just because Stephen King can't stop himself.

78/52: Annalee Newitz's Scatter, Adapt, and Remember ended up on my wishlist back in the summer when the Life of the Mind book for freshmen was all about how humanity would have to survive in the horrible new world we're making through climate change. Newitz has a similar idea, but rather than dwelling on how humans caused this, she points out that the history of earth has always been a history of mass extinctions and a new form of life rising to dominate. She's not a climate change denier, but just says, "Yeah, something's happening no matter whose fault it is, so what are we going to do about it?" Her main idea is that the only way the species survives is by leaving the planet, since all of our eggs (literally) are in one basket as long as we stay here. I thought it was an interesting read.

79/52: Edited by Richard Bensam, Minutes to Midnight is a collection of essays about "Watchmen". For starters, it makes me want to read "Watchmen" again (not a bad thing; I reread it at random times anyway), because these people saw things that I've never noticed before and I've read it at least a dozen times. The only thing I didn't like about this is that there isn't any sustained criticism of the book. Even in parts where it mentions that some people don't like the "Watchmen" graphic novel, the essays just go on to explain why those people are wrong. One thing I thought it did really well, on the other hand, was the essay explaining how the movie can be a faithful adaptation while still being completely flat and hollow.

Onward to 2014!

My goal this year is 52 books, but I'm setting a second goal: I want to review each book on Amazon as I finish, because I've heard that if you become a steady reviewer and get good scores then they start sending you free books. We'll see how this works out.