About This Blog

This is yet another incarnation of my personal blog. Here's where you can read about what I do when I'm not at work: hiking, seeing plays and other shows, eating, traveling, etc.

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pussinboots catinboots
Puss in Boots
USA, 2011
Watched: in theater, Bella Botega
Rating: **** (out of 5)

This is one I would have watched on DVD years after its release, but when my brother found out (really late) that this movie existed and was rated well, he wanted to see it, and I was definitely willing to go with him. SO WORTH IT! They did a great job on this film and didn’t fall into the trap of making too many references back to the Shrek films. The animation was great and the movie was very funny, especially for people who love cats. There were so many cats! The story was great, too, a mix of fairy tale and adventure.

The Women on the 6th Floor
(also: Les femmes du 6ème étage, Service Entrance)
France, 2011
Watched: in theater, SIFF @ Uptown
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

Yay for SIFF Cinema bringing back some of the SIFF 2011 films that I didn’t have time to catch during those weeks. I volunteered for this shift in Kirkland but the film ended up selling out, so I wasn’t able to see it. This is an upstairs/downstairs story of a man who begins to take an interest in the lives and concerns of the Spanish maids who live in his building when he hires an attractive young maid to replace his old French maid. The vivacious lives of the Spanish are shown in direct contrast with the uptight, restrained lives of the rich French. The acting is superb and I loved the aesthetic of the film, but I did expect it to be funnier than it was. And in the end, it leaves me with an unsatisfying thought: is it only because of a pretty face that men see things that they should see?

The Names of Love
(also: Le Nom des Gens)
France, 2011
Watched: on DVD
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

SIFF 2011 films are tricking into Netflix availability, and this is one of them. It’s one of those “opposites attract” rom-coms, and it makes that point even more clear by starting off with alternating, contrasting cameos of the two characters’ lives and family histories. His name is Arthur Martin, as French of a name as you can get! Her name is Baya something-I-don’t-remember, and she’s the only person in France with that name! He does autopsies of dead birds for a living. She sleeps with right-wing people to convert them. He’s not that right wing, but he does wear a sport coat all the time. Underneath all of this, there are serious issues, such as racism and what it means to be French, Arab, or Jewish. I liked the movie, but I think I would have liked it a lot more if I’d watched it in a full SIFF theater. I think movies like this are funnier and more emotional when there’s energy from a crowd.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
France, 2011
Watched: in theater, SIFF @ Uptown (in 3D)
Rating: *** (out of 5)

How about “Film of Elevated Expectations”? I hadn’t seen any of Werner Herzog’s previous films, but I knew of Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World. I knew of Cave of Forgotten Dreams because it had screened at arthouse theaters in Portland and Seattle, and reviews were good. But I hadn’t made any plans to see it until Mike found out it was showing and said he wanted to go because he’d loved Encounters at the End of the World. Okay, then.

I knew a little about what the film was about before going in, but I thought that maybe the cave referred to Lascaux, prehistoric caves in the Dordogne region of France that I had come across when researching travel destinations. But no, it’s actually about Chauvet Cave, a more recently discovered and much older cave. It’s quite amazing to see those paintings and realize that they’re about 30,000 years old because their perfect preservation and relative sophistication make them look like they could have been painted yesterday. The cave itself is beautiful, too, with glittery stalactites and stalagmites, old foot/paw prints on the ground, and some well-preserved skulls. Since we’ll never get to go inside of this cave (France learned their lesson with Lascaux as black mold began to develop due to visitors and non-meticulous care), unless they build a replica as they have with Lascaux, this 3D experience is as close as we’re going to get.

Okay, let’s talk 3D. I hate 3D. Given a choice, I will always opt for the non-3D version of a film, but we didn’t have a choice this time. Herzog was also skeptical of the “gimmick” but was convinced to use it as a good way to give a real experience of the paintings, which used the bumps and curves of the cave. After filming, he has no plans to use 3D again. While it was cool inside the cave, there was plenty of footage outside of the cave where the 3D just felt distracting. On top of that, the glasses we had were really bad, showing rainbow colors anytime there were shadows. And, well, in a cave, there are a lot of shadows. It was a real strain on my eyes the entire time.

The cave footage was good, but the crew was working under severe restrictions for time, size of film crew, allowed lighting, and positioning. So there was only so much to show, and they really drew it out as long as possible, panning over the paintings slowly, then zoomed in, then zoomed out, then going from dark to light, etc. Mike noted that there was surprisingly little conjecture about why the people were doing these paintings or what they used the cave for. Finally, the end of the film went to a nuclear power plant and albino crocodiles. Listening to Herzog talk about the scene doesn’t make it any less weird:

“Are we truly the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time?” WTF, no, we aren’t?


Around the World in 52 Books: Book List

Posted by gck Thursday, December 29, 2011 1 comments

This is my book list for the Around the World in 52 Books challenge. It’s a work in progress, and I’ll update my status and changes in the list here as I go.

I am currently thinking about what to read next.

Reading Order
I decided to have themed months so it was easier to compare and contrast books. I’m aiming for 3-4 books per month, though I think that will be a pretty hard goal to reach. Bold means I have read the book.
Note: the links are broken, I know. My style is eating the anchors for some reason. I’ll go back and fix it later.

January – Countries that are new/unfamiliar to me
Cuba, Myanmar, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia
February – Countries that are considered “romantic”
France, Italy, Russia
March – Countries that have been recently affected by war
Afghanistan, Ireland (unplanned stop), Lebanon, North Korea, Sri Lanka
April – Asian countries
China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan
May – South American countries
Brazil, Chile, Uruguay
June – Native English-speaking countries
England, India, Ireland
July – Scandinavian countries
Denmark, Finland, Norway
August – Southeast Asian countries
Bhutan, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam
September – Eastern European countries
Albania, Bosnia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Hungary?
October – Central American countries (and a little beyond)
Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico,
November – African countries
Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, Zimbabwe
December – Whatever I feel like
Germany? Austria? New Zealand? Ukraine?

The List

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Chronicle in Stone by Ismael Kadare

The Bells by Richard Harvell
OR Mozart’s Last Aria by Matt Rees

Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming

Shards by Ismet Prcic

The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam

Of Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
OR Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Havana Real by Yoani Sanchez
Finished on March 16, 2012. (Review)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen

The Queen of Water by Laura Resau

The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran
OR Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Door by Szabo Magdan

Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie

The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry
Finished on March 19, 2012. (Review)
Ireland by Frank Delaney

Keeping the Feast by Paula Butturini

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War by Annia Ciezadlo

Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan

The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

New Zealand
The Bone People by Keri Hulme

North Korea
Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Finished on January 14, 2012. (Review)

Anya by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

Smuggled by Christina Shea

The Jewel of St. Petersburg by Kate Furnivall
OR Anna Kareninaby by Leo Tolstoy

Saudi Arabia
The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen
Finished on January 10, 2012. (Review)

South Africa
Spud by John van de Ruit

South Korea
The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim

Sri Lanka
A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman

Taiwan Folktales by Fred Lobb

The Silence of Trees by Valya Dudycz Lupescu

The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

tajmahalAnyone who has talked to me about books has probably heard me recommend GoodReads. I started using it as a way of tracking books I had read and wanted to read, and I also found that their ratings and reviews were more meaningful than what I found on Amazon. Other features I explored later include the free book giveaways and reading groups.

There are many active reading groups on GoodReads, and since my reading habits are pretty irregular, I never participated in any of their book clubs before (though I did follow what a few of them were reading). When my friend Faith told me of a group she was joining called Around the World in 52 Books, I was intrigued. I know I can’t finish 52 books in a year, especially since I can’t completely eliminate any out-of-challenge reading in 2012, but I decided to join anyway and do what I could, maybe making it a two year world tour.

Why did I decide to do this challenge?

  • I think it will be enjoyable reading for me. I love historical fiction, and that’s a particularly good genre for finding books from other countries.
  • I’d like to learn more about countries I’m unfamiliar with. I do tend to pick up books about China, India, Iran, France, and a few other countries, but I’ve been woefully negligent about exploring Africa and South America. I’ve also never traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, and maybe reading more will motivate me to do so.
  • I like challenges.

Everyone is defining this challenge in their own way. I already made the modification for not tryingtoweroflondon to finish in a year, and I’m also loosely defining the meaning of “from the country,” with preferences towards books that are more strongly tied to the country.

My book selection criteria:
1. Books I own. I strongly skewed to this because there are things sitting on my shelf that really need to be read, including The Kite Runner, Shalimar the Clown, and Of Love and Shadows. I ended up putting down The Book Thief for Germany, despite the book being written in English by an author who was born in Australia, because I own it and need to read it.

2. Books on my to-read list. I went through my list and was a little pickier about books set in the country but written by authors that were unconnected to the country, but I still ended up adding a few like The Lotus Eaters.

3. Books written by authors from the country. Some of the ones I’m most excited about are the Scandinavian books because they’re English translations of books written in Danish, Finnish, etc. I also made the distinction that literary non-fiction and memoirs were acceptable choices, but I didn’t want any standard non-fiction.

4. Finally, books set in the country.

ayuthayaThe group has been super helpful in providing recommendations for books, including a huge master list of all the books that people are planning to read for the challenge, organized by country. I definitely got a number of mine off of the list. Someone also pointed to a travel site as a way to map your “journey.” I wanted an idea of the geographic distribution of my selections, so I put mine together. Sadly, Oceania is completely empty and Africa is still underrepresented, so I will probably be making some additions.

You can see my map here. If it really was a trip, my mom would probably be in the hospital out of worry for me. It starts out with Cuba, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia.

My reading list is posted here in a separate post so I can make progress updates as the challenge goes along.

Book Review: The Gutenberg Rubric

Posted by gck Tuesday, December 27, 2011 0 comments


The Gutenberg Rubric by Nathan Everett

Genre: Historical thriller
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)
Recommended for: Dan Brown/thriller fans, people who are interested in printing and old documents

Back-cover summary:
Did Gutenberg leave a secret?

Just months before the famous Bible that bears his name was finished, Johannes Gutenberg was sued by his business partner for misappropriating funds for a private enterprise. When Gutenberg refused to share the secret project, the court awarded the entire Bible-printing operation to Johan Fust, leaving Gutenberg with nothing but his secret. Was it an alchemical formula? A heretical treatise? A new technology? Or something far more dangerous? Why would Gutenberg risk everything?

Brilliant, eccentric professor Keith Drucker and rare books librarian Madeline Zayne are reluctant heroes in a centuries-old search for Gutenberg’s secret. Crossing continents to follow clues from an encoded rubric and stolen manuscript, the couple face injury and encounter arcane rituals and biblio-terrorism as they race to find the fabled treasure.

But once they find it, will they survive to tell the world?

My review:
Disclaimer: The author is a friend of mine, so I am not completely unbiased.

This would be a really cool book to turn into a movie. Action, global travel, secret societies, biblio-terrorism, historical mysteries, librarians... the whole thing is a lot of fun to read. Everything is well-researched, and the author was able to come up with a plot so realistic that at the end, I was left wondering where the fact ended and the fiction began. Gutenberg and the history of printing aren't commonly explored in fiction, so this novel gets props for choosing a unique topic and making it interesting to the reader.

Though the plot held my attention, was believable, and successfully immersed me into a different world, I was less interested in the characters, a common fault of the thriller genre. Here, the main characters (Keith, Maddie, and Frank) all sound pretty much the same and just take turns asking questions, answering questions, and doing their part of the plot action. Two of the minor characters, Derek (Maddie's ex-husband) and Yousef (Maddie's brother) were more nuanced and had more interesting motivations behind their actions.

I read the Kindle version of this novel, and the images of various printers' marks at chapter beginnings and other places in the book were really nice touches that I don't commonly see in e-books.

Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys Dan Brown style thrillers. It's a page-turner all the way to the end.

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Posted by gck Thursday, December 22, 2011 0 comments


Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity by Katherine Boo

Genre: Narrative Non-Fiction
Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)
Recommended for: readers interested in world poverty, people with too many first world problems and need a dose of perspective
Received ARC copy through a GoodReads giveaway.

Back-cover summary:
From Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century’s great, unequal cities.

In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human.

Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter—Annawadi’s “most-everything girl”—will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”

But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.

With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget.

My review:
Midway through, I asked myself how I would rate the book. At the time, I wasn't sure. A 3? A 5? I was so conditioned to expect books to behave a certain way -- for one thing, to have a main character -- that I was having an "I don't love it" reaction to this one. By the end, I decided it deserved a 4.5 star rating for good writing, really placing me in the middle of a completely different world, and themes that will resonate in my mind long after I finished reading.

I try not to read too much about a book before I actually read it, so I somehow missed the fact that what Katherine Boo writes about is all real. Hollywood and mainstream fiction had me waiting for the Slumdog Millionaire story, but it didn't appear. Because that's not how people's lives are. Ultimately, this genuine depiction of real people's stories and motivations affected me far more than a feel-good or feel-sorry dramatized plot would have. Things don't get wrapped up neatly in the end, but that's because the characters are still living their lives. Katherine Boo has an author's note that closes out the book and summarizes themes that she encountered while researching the book's material.

There are many things in the book that are shocking. The indifference to death in the slums. The selfish, heartless ways neighbors treated each other. The rampant corruption -- items and money that funnel in through well-meaning charities? Probably not going to the people who need them the most. Through the rose-colored goggles of an American, my instinctive reaction (that lasted through a good portion of the book) was to judge the people who acted "badly," blaming them for the dysfunction of the system and the suffering of others. By the end of the book, I no longer thought the same way. Katherine Boo sums it up at the end:

"In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.

It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in undercities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be..."

That is what this book is about. I highly recommend it.


The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Genre: Historical Fiction / Thriller
Rating: *** (out of 5)
Recommended for: Fans of Philippa Gregory and Dan Brown, people who like action-driven plots and the Tudor England time period.
Received ARC copy through a GoodReads giveaway.

Back-cover summary:
An aristocratic young nun must find a legendary crown in order to save her father—and preserve the Catholic faith from Cromwell’s ruthless terror. The year is 1537. . .

Joanna Stafford, a Dominican nun, learns that her favorite cousin has been condemned by Henry VIII to be burned at the stake. Defying the sacred rule of enclosure, Joanna leaves the priory to stand at her cousin’s side. Arrested for interfering with the king’s justice, Joanna, along with her father, is sent to the Tower of London.

The ruthless Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, takes terrifying steps to force Joanna to agree to spy for him: to save her father’s life she must find an ancient relic—a crown so powerful, it may hold the ability to end the Reformation. Accompanied by two monks, Joanna returns home to Dartford Priory and searches in secret for this long-lost piece of history worn by the Saxon King Athelstan in 937 during the historic battle that first united Britain.

But Dartford Priory has become a dangerous place, and when more than one dead body is uncovered, Joanna departs with a sensitive young monk, Brother Edmund, to search elsewhere for the legendary crown. From royal castles with tapestry-filled rooms to Stonehenge to Malmesbury Abbey, the final resting place of King Athelstan, Joanna and Brother Edmund must hurry to find the crown if they want to keep Joanna’s father alive. At Malmesbury, secrets of the crown are revealed that bring to light the fates of the Black Prince, Richard the Lionhearted, and Katherine of Aragon’s first husband, Arthur. The crown’s intensity and strength are beyond the earthly realm and it must not fall into the wrong hands.

With Cromwell’s troops threatening to shutter her priory, bright and bold Joanna must now decide who she can trust with the secret of the crown so that she may save herself, her family, and her sacred way of life. This provocative story melds heart-stopping suspense with historical detail and brings to life the poignant dramas of women and men at a fascinating and critical moment in England’s past.

My review:
The comparisons others have made to this book being a Philippa Gregory/Dan Brown combination is fairly accurate -- it's a historical fiction thriller. It definitely keeps the reader interested in knowing what happens next, and it's a fun book to read. I liked the fact that the main character was a nun, rather than someone at the royal court.

Personal preference comes into play with my assessment of this book. Thrillers are action-driven, and my preference leans towards character-driven books. The characters here are distinct enough to be interesting, but they don't garner a lot of sympathy or show complex motivations behind their actions. On the other hand, I didn't dislike any of the protagonists. The main character, Joanna, is almost too perfect, as many of the other characters frequently praise her so much for her intelligence, perception, connections, and overall special-ness. It's an interesting thing to have a religiously-focused main character in a book that is not religiously-focused. But maybe this, rather than the standard "character with a love interest," makes Joanna seem more distant and less relatable?

I found the plot to be somewhat uneven. First of all, the whole mission she is sent on is somewhat unbelievable. Maybe it makes sense for Joanna to have to seek the Athelstan crown, but it doesn't make sense that she should be piecing together so much of the history behind it. If the information was needed in order to find it, Gardiner should have just given it to her to begin with. Of course, that would make the story significantly less interesting. Also, some mysteries that were drawn out for a long period of time had relatively low key endings, but other things are revealed pretty suddenly at the end that almost seem to have come out of nowhere.

These aren't really things that are glaringly problematic for a casual read, since the plot is compelling enough to string you along without the need for external analysis. But it does keep this good book from being a great one.

Book Review: What Came First

Posted by gck Monday, December 12, 2011 0 comments


What Came First by Carol Snow

Genre: Chick Lit
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)
Recommended for: Chick-lit readers, people who like babies
Received ARC copy through a GoodReads giveaway.

Back-cover summary:
First comes love, then comes marriage, then . . . things can get a little complicated.

Vanessa wants just one thing for her twenty-ninth birthday: an engagement ring from her longtime boyfriend, Eric. But when the ring turns out to be a mix CD and Eric turns out to be a guy who doesn't want to get married or have children, Vanessa considers a new path to having a family.

When Wendy and her husband, Darren, couldn't have children the old- fashioned way, a sperm donor seemed like the perfect solution. She never imagined she'd have out-of-control twins who'd drive her to cookie binges and scrapbooking while Darren escaped into the virtual world of computer games.

Single and career-driven, Laura didn't need a man to have a baby - at least not one that she ever met. Thanks to an anonymous donor, she shares her life with her adored eight-year-old son, Ian. She'll do anything for Ian - even fill their backyard with a bunch of noisy chickens. But the one thing Ian really wants is something Laura's never been able to give him: a sibling.

Now, to grant Ian's wish, Laura starts a search that will not only change her life but Vanessa's and Wendy's as well...

My review:
What Came First tells the story about three very different women whose lives become connected. The one thing that all three of them share is the desire to have children, and the inability to have them the "traditional way." The author develops three characters with different, believable personalities and situations.

Laura is a career-driven, independent woman who decides she doesn't need a husband and has a son via sperm donor. Wendy and her husband are unable to conceive, so she uses a donor and gives birth to a set of rambunctious twins, but her husband feels like they aren't his children. Vanessa wants the traditional husband and children, but her boyfriend isn't interested in that life.

The book is an easy, engaging read. It's chick lit and doesn't present any earth shattering perspectives about relationships or parenting, but I did appreciate the fact that the situations of the characters were relatable and not cookie-cutter. The writing is contemporary, with many references to things like World of Warcraft and Twilight, which makes it seem like it's meant to be read now but not necessarily ten years down the line.

When reading books like this, it helps a lot if the problems that the central characters are struggling with are things that the reader cares about. Unfortunately, in this case, I don't care that much about having babies, and I'm already surrounded by people who care a lot about having babies. So a bit of a subject miss for me. However, I am interested to read some of Carol Snow's other books because she knows how to tell a good story.


Discussion Questions:
(There were no discussion questions in the version of the book I received, but there should be some in there when the final version is published. They may or may not overlap with mine.)

1. What do you think about the parenting styles and abilities of the three women? What characteristics and behaviors of the children do you think were inherited, and what was due to how they were raised? Do you think genetics or environment plays a greater role in how a child turns out?

2. Natural selection occurs when individuals with more desirable genetic traits reproduce more successfully. By using technology to reproduce when it is naturally impossible or unlikely, Laura and Wendy defy this process. Do you think they should have become parents? Do alternate ways of conception have adverse effects on society?

3. Was Laura justified in what she did to find her son’s biological father? What about all of her requests afterwards? If not, at what point did she cross the line?

4. How do Eric’s attitudes towards children change through the book? What do you think of his relationships with Laura and Ian? What do you think will happen after the end of the book?

5. What are your feelings about sperm donation? A man who fathered a child would be expected to mention this to a significant other. Should he also be expected to mention if he donated sperm? Why or why not?

6. Throughout the whole book, Vanessa seems to be the character who gets the least of what she wants. Do you feel sorry for her? Does she deserve more?

The Frugal Reader’s Guide to Cheap Books

Posted by gck Sunday, December 4, 2011 1 comments

I like to read. And I love buying books. I do buy some books at full price, but there are only so many books that I’ll shell out $16 to read. And so I’ve found other cheaper ways to get my book fix.

1. The Library

Yes, the library is the most obvious way to read books for free. But not everyone takes advantage of all the features a library offers. Here are a few that my library system offers:

  • Holds – This is the #1 feature I use at my library. It’s extremely rare that a book I want to read is on the shelf at my branch. When I think of something I want to read, I can go to the website at any time of day and place a hold on the item, and it will be delivered to the branch of my choice when it’s available.
  • E-books and other formats – There are ways to read books other than physical copies. I’ve been enjoying the newly available Kindle library lending. It’s also nice to have audio books on CD for a long road trip.
  • Featured shelf – My library has a shelf of featured books. A lot of them are recent best sellers that would otherwise have a long hold line, but you can pick it right off of the featured shelf. I’ve found a lot of good books through this.

2. Used Books

This is my favorite way of getting cheap books because I get a book to keep, and I like the concept of reuse. Some good ways of getting used books:

  • Online sellers
    There are many places online to buy and sell used books. Probably two of the most popular are Half.com and Amazon. I’ve bought a lot of books through Half.com. There’s a lot available for 75 cents. Shipping costs another $3.49 for paperbacks, but if you buy multiple books from one seller, it costs less for each additional book.
  • Swapping
    With all the cheap books you’ll be buying, you’ll probably find that you don’t need to keep all of them once you’ve finished reading them. So… swap them! Swap your books for credits that can be used to get books on BookMooch or allow the automated system to find you items you want in exchange for items that you have on Swap.com. I really like the Swap.com system because it’s constantly looking for possible swaps for you, and you don’t have to look for them on your own. It also provides easy print-at-home mailing labels (it’s around $3.25) if you prefer not to go to the post office. (Update on 12-22-11: swap.com has changed its focus away from books/CDs/etc. and is now a less book-friendly general swapping platform)
  • Used book stores
    The stores are different everywhere, but there’s a good chance you’ll have at least one used book store in your area. In general, I’ve found prices at these stores to be a little better than buying new on Amazon, but it’s probably still going to run about $8 for a paperback. But even bargain bookstores have a bargain section, and I’ve managed to get books that were on my wishlist for only $1.

    I also have to give a special mention to my favorite bookstore in the world, Powell’s Books in Portland. If you’re ever there, it’s worth a stop. It takes up an entire city block! I’ve never stepped into Powell’s without buying something. It’s that good.
  • Thrift shops
    My area’s thrift stores have a surprisingly good selection of fiction books. You may not find a specific book you’re looking for, but it’s always possible to find something good to read. Value Village’s most expensive books cost $2.99. They also do promotions. Today, I dropped off a donation and got a $3 coupon, and there was also a “buy 4 get 1 free” deal on books. So I got 5 books for less than $10!
  • Periodic sales
    Okay, I must admit, I am generally too lazy to do this sort of thing. Garage sales fall into this category. Half Price Books, my local used bookstore chain, does a huge warehouse sale every so often. Seattle Public Library does occasional book sales, too. Lots of books for a buck or two.

3. Giveaways

It took me quite awhile to find out about this source of books. And it’s incredibly awesome. Books for free? Free books even before they’re released to the public? And no catch?!

Okay, I guess there is a little bit of a catch. You have to enter for each giveaway, and chances are, you won’t win. You increase your chance at winning books by entering more giveaways (which takes time). You can always increase your odds of winning by being active on the site doing the giveaways and writing reviews.

Here are the giveaway sites I’ve found so far:

  • GoodReads
    My fave so far! I’m already active on this site because this is where I keep track of books I’ve read and books I want to read. There are a lot of reasons to use this site. Virtual book clubs and book challenges, good reviews (I find the ratings much more useful than Amazon ratings), and author Q&A sessions. New giveaways start each day. You have a better chance of winning books if you’re active on the site and review the books you’ve received. I’ve been getting a few books per month through these giveaways. Examples of authors who have advanced reader copies (ARC) given away on this site: Kristen Hannah, Philippa Gregory, and Gregory Maguire.
  • LibraryThing
    This site is a lot like GoodReads, but I could never get into the interface. There are also limits on how many books you can add to your bookshelf unless you pay a subscription fee. They do a big batch of giveaways once a month. The books are probably similar to the ones on GoodReads. I never won anything, but I also didn’t try very hard or for very long.
  • NetGalley
    I just found out about this one. Advanced reader copies… but e-books! You fill out your profile, then you browse the available selection and request the ones you want. The publisher decides whether to accept or reject your request. This site is strongly oriented towards book reviewers. It isn’t mandatory to review the books, but some of the publishers won’t even consider you unless you have a book review blog with frequent updates and a number of followers. Not all have those requirements, though.

Hope this is helpful for someone out there! Enjoy the cheap/free books (but save some for me =P)!

Nanowrimo 2011

Posted by gck Thursday, December 1, 2011 2 comments


Since 2003, I’ve done one of two things in the month of November:

1. International travel (2006: London, Belgium; 2007: Spain; 2010: London, France)

2. National Novel Writing Month (2003, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2011)

It’s not part of my master plan or anything, but it has just worked out that way. Both things make November pretty frantic. If I’m writing, I’m using a lot of my time to churn out those 50,000 words. If I’m traveling, I’m busy planning, I’m gone, and suddenly it’s Christmas. But it’s really a good thing. November is the first month where the dreary Seattle winter digs its claws in, and it’s too easy to get lethargic and depressed if there isn’t something to give a little push.


Some reflection on this year’s Nano experience:

1. I’ve gotten my system down better. There have been discussions about what conditions work best for writing. At the beginning of November, thinking back on previous Novembers, I thought that I didn’t have any sort of pattern. Well, it turns out that there are optimal writing conditions for me. I feel like I spent a good deal less time writing this month than I had in previous months because this year’s system worked out so much better for me.

  • I write at night. The later, the better. I’m sure some of my co-workers were wondering if I was exchanging some of my work hours for novel hours. Absolutely not. I’d say a very high percentage of my weekday writing occurred between the hours of 12am and 2am. A few years back, I used to do some of my Nano words at lunch in the cafeteria, and I had intentions to try the same this year, but it really didn’t work out. I did a few hundred words at breakfast once. Other than that, words came best when I knew the workday was done.
  • I write in sprints. This isn’t a new one. Sandy, Jenni, and I have done Write or Die sprints in the past and found them to be effective. But this year, I have it down to a calculated system. I write in 15 minute sprints and average 450 words or so per sprint. This means if I behave, I can get my daily word count in only an hour of writing.
  • I write at home. I definitely did some of my writing outside of my house out of necessity, but I found that home made for the best conditions. In between sprints, I need other things to do, and home is where those things best exist. My cat has been happy about the fact that I’m at home and in a stationary position.


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(left: my Nano userpic, right: Kitty armrest)

2. I have not been social at all this Nano. I really didn’t intend for it to be this way. Seattle has an AWESOME Nanowrimo community. Normally, I’ll make it to a few write-ins at the beginning of the month and then retreat into my cave for the rest of it, but it just didn’t work out this year. I’m hoping to do better with this next time.

3. I probably shouldn’t be writing fiction. Or I should find a reason for why I’m writing fiction. Each Nano I do, I have this continuous line of thought in my head saying that I am just not a good fiction writer. And it’s totally true. I don’t really have a mission with my writing. I don’t have a story that I’m compelled to tell. I have no desire to work towards publication. And if I’m spending this much of my time to do this sort of writing, I think I need a better reason. It is a fun challenge, and I’ve noticed that writing each day has made me more interested in reading. When I go back and look at previous Nanos, I find little bits of potential. Is it enough? I guess I’ll have to think about it. Maybe next year will be a travel year. =)

4. Staying off Facebook made me look elsewhere for distractions. Not just any distractions… I guess a more accurate term is “sources of information.” I really wanted to read stuff. I finished five books in November (to be fair, I probably started reading two of them before November, but still…). I’ve only read 28 books so far this year, so that’s a lot of books for a month where I was supposed to be spending all of my free time writing. But books weren’t enough, and since I didn’t have Facebook sending me URLs to read, I found myself refreshing my Google Reader, Seattle Times, and Google News a LOT. I imagine there is a more productive way to take advantage of this hunger for information. Will have to exploit it more next time.

5. I’m not saying much about what I’m writing, and I don’t know when I will finish it. The main reason why I’m not talking about my novel is because I don’t like it. However, this doesn’t bother me all that much because I didn’t like the other things I wrote for Nano either, but I’ve had more favorable opinions after leaving the manuscripts alone for a few years and revisiting them. I intend to do the same with this one.

I guess those are my thoughts. Finally, I can sleep before 1am. For anyone out there who’s considering participating in National Novel Writing Month, DO IT! Give it a shot. Aim for the 50,000. It’s possible, no matter what your schedule. And it’s totally worth it.

Girls and a Goat

Posted by gck Sunday, November 20, 2011 0 comments

One in a series of very overdue posts about a Girltrip to Chicago back in October. Jenni, Sandy, and I like to do 1-2 weekend trips each year, alternating between our locations (Seattle, San Francisco Bay Area, and Chicago), and this is one of them.

When trying to decide where to eat other than Alinea, I took a look at suggestions from my workplace’s Food & Wine mailing list. Moto was an option, but they weren’t open on Sunday nights. Another restaurant that got a lot of recommendations, if you could get a reservation, was Girl and the Goat. I saw that they had Opentable reservations (a big plus in my book!) so I did a search for Sunday night and saw one spot available at 9pm. So I took it. You know how perceived scarcity increases perceived value? Well, when I saw that there were no other weekend reservations available for many weeks out, I wanted to eat at the restaurant even more.

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Really, I didn’t know that much about the restaurant beforehand other than the good reviews. Sandy did, though. Girl and the Goat is the restaurant of Stephanie Izard, the winner of the fourth season of Top Chef. I don’t have television service and I’ve never watched Top Chef, but Sandy watched that season and the chef impressed her enough to give her quite a bit of interest in the restaurant. The ambiance at the restaurant was decidedly different from Alinea. Things seemed more dark, earthy, and casual, reflected both in the décor and the food.

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left: chickpeas fritters . eggplant-tomatillo caponata . crave brother's mozzarella
right: steamed mussels . goat sausage croutons . cilantro . caesar

The best way to experience the menu at Girl at the Goat is to share as many of the small plates of food as you can fit in your stomach. We tried seven and were completely full at the end. One of the first dishes to arrive was the chickpea fritters. It definitely didn’t match what I had pictured as a chickpea fritter, but the dish was delicious, one we all agreed was probably the best of the night. The mussels themselves were just okay (I’m spoiled with Washington mussels), but their accompaniments were good.

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left: sauteed green beans . fish sauce vinaigrette . cashews
right: roasted cauliflower . pickled peppers . pine nuts . mint

Both the green beans and the cauliflower came highly recommended by online reviews and our waitress. We loved the cauliflower, but the green beans weren’t as tasty as the typical garlic preparation we were used to from Chinese restaurants. I did like the cashews and the acidity of the vinaigrette as a nice change from the typical, but I’d still go with the garlic preparation if I had to choose.

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left: confit goat belly . bourbon butter . lobster n' crab . fennel
right: grilled pork ribs . tomatillo-mushroom slaw . grilled scallion vinaigrette

They say to come to Girl and the Goat with an open mind. Makes sense. After all, the restaurant has “goat” in the name, pictures of a cartoon goat all over the restaurant, and a good half dozen dishes that contain goat, a meat that isn’t that standard in American cuisine. We took a “goat lite” approach, getting little tastes of it through the goat sausage with the mussels and a small portion of goat belly. It won’t say the experience elevated my love of the meat to duck and pork level, but it was still good to eat. The pork ribs smelled delicious and came easily off the bone.

wood oven roasted pig face . sunny side egg . tamarind . cilantro . potato stix

Remember the open mind thing? All over reviews on Yelp, people universally exclaimed, “Get the pig face!” Of course, we had to get the pig face. We aren’t extremely squeamish eaters, but once you hear “pig face,” it’s hard to get the image of a pig’s head staring at you out of your head. Of course, that’s not what the dish actually is. It’s just a piece of meat from the face (hidden under the egg in the picture) – a rich, sweet cut of meat. The idea behind the dish is “breakfast for dinner,” and I definitely agree that it’s a must try dish at Girl and the Goat.

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Great dining experience, very reasonable total bill, and the good thing about the late reservation was that we got free parking! They really ARE very full. Make weekend reservations months in advance or walk in and eat at the bar. Stephanie Izard wasn’t there when we went (she actually made a stop in Seattle not long after I got back), but you can probably see her in the open kitchen if you pick a day she’s there.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2011 (November)

Posted by gck Monday, November 7, 2011 0 comments

It’s Day 7 of National Novel Writing Month, and since I just returned from a weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I’m behind on my word count. And so my typing should be going towards that or towards the job that pays me so I can write a novel or attend a Shakespeare Festival. But I find that I have other thoughts that want to be written. And not really an audience to write them to. These posts don’t belong on Facebook. Most people don’t read Livejournal anymore. And I’ve deserted this blog so much that I’d be surprised if anyone checks it anymore. Oh well, thoughts to a mystery audience, that works just as well.

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(right: fall colors in Jacksonville, left: historical charm in Jacksonville)

It’s been a week of what I can best describe as “passion overload.” I love this sort of feeling. It’s why I spend as much time as possible at the movie theaters when SIFF comes around each year. It’s why I drive almost 1000 miles twice a year to see 2-3 plays in 24 hours at OSF. It’s why I squeeze in full day hikes to gorgeous places as many times as I can during Washington’s limited summer season. It’s why I love the Seattle Nanowrimo community.

So.. the first week of Nano, two plays at OSF, lots of reading and plotting… I’m full of energy of people creating things, faraway worlds, and umm, the thrill of political assassination? I get into work today, sit down, and I am given a harsh reminder that my life and most of my time isn’t full of passion, visions, and creations. Running Powershell commandlets was so far out of the world my head was in that it yanked me immediately back to reality. Hello, dreamer. It’s time to wake up.

Every once in awhile, I find myself wishing that my life was completely different. (And oooh, that makes me sooo original.) Today is one of those days. Today I wish I could be an artist, a musician, a writer, even some fringe technical whatever in a creative production. The thoughts won’t last, of course, but for now, it’s nice to have them.

banners outside julius caesar
(banners outside of the New Theatre, photo credit: DK)

Hearing “Beware the Ides of March” yanks me back to high school English immediately. Probably the only thing that’s more effective in this area would be “sucks to your assmar,” but I don’t anticipate seeing a stage production of Lord of the Flies anytime in the near future. (OSF is kind of doing Medea in “Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella” next season so I might get to experience this regression again)

(OSF’s production of Julius Caesar, photo credit: Jenny Graham)

Julius Caesar was powerful. Even before we entered the theatre, it was clear that the production was a bold statement, from the very much talked about casting of a female (Vilma Silva) to the provocative banners along the entrance way and within the lobbies of the theatre featuring victims of political assassination and conflicting perceptions of them. Stark, minimalist set, with lots of black, tan, white, and bright red blood. Dramatic changes between dark and focused, bright lighting and silence and sudden, loud noise added to the suspense. Highlights for me were Caesar’s bloody death and haunting presence after her death, the very effective persuasions of Cassius, and Mark Antony’s famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech that really showed the audience how he swayed people from seeing the assassins as heroes to murderers. Yeah, okay, I should have re-read the play before I saw this. It’s been awhile. But even though I couldn’t remember who Metellus Cimber was or didn’t realize until afterwards that Calpurnia was missing, this production still had me completely engrossed. I’ve been a huge fan of Danforth Comins (Mark Antony) after seeing him in All’s Well that Ends Well and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Vilma Silva (Caesar) and Gregory Linington (Cassius) have been at OSF for a long time, but I’ve somehow managed to not see any of their performances until now. Hope I see more in the future!

Also saw The Imaginary Invalid, which completely lived up to my expectations of being continuous LOL. Really entertaining and a nice balance for the not-so-funny Julius Caesar, but it’s not something I’ll be musing about for years to come or anything like that.

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(left: statues in Jacksonville, right: ducks in Lithia Park)

Rest of the trip: My friends Yamini and Nithish came along for this one (and they say they enjoyed it enough to do a repeat next year). All the driving time doesn’t allow for much extra stuff, but we did get to do some tax-free outlet mall shopping, Powell’s browsing in Portland, and exploring in Jacksonville. I love the Jacksonville Mercantile and that was my motivation for that stop. I was in great need of more aged balsamic vinegar, and now I’ve developed a new addiction to their toasted onion avocado oil, thanks to the free samples.

Looking forward to the 2012 season, and until then… back to the Powershell commandlets.

TR: Rampart Lakes (Autumn Wonderland)

Posted by gck Tuesday, October 18, 2011 0 comments

Distance: 10 miles
Elevation gain: 2800 feet
Trailhead directions and more information on WTA.

If you’ve ever hiked with me before, you’ve probably noticed that I never lead the group. Part of the reason is because I like to hang back to take pictures. But the more important reason is that I have no idea where I am going. More on that later.

October is probably my favorite month to hike. Fall colors make up for the lack of flowers, there are sometimes berries to eat, it isn’t hot outside, and most of the crowds and idiots are gone. This weekend, I was tempted by some crazy hiking ideas, but reports of snow in the Teanaways made me give that up. Rampart Ridge has been on my list for awhile, and I really wanted to take the primitive shortcut way in (via Lake Lillian) this fall, but it was only going to happen if I had a navigator with me. So I hiked the Rachel Lake trail.

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(left: waterfalls on Box Canyon Creek, right: fall colors)

I hiked the Rachel Lake trail last summer. If you don’t remember my trip report, I think I spent most of it complaining about crowds and a couple trying to argue that it was okay for their unleashed dog to trample the wilderness and practically knock me over in the process. Fortunately, those people are gone. There were enough people around that I felt okay going solo, but they were spread out so I got sufficient solitude. It also helped that the biggest party was a group of 3.

SLR people who love their glossy waterfall pics: this is a great trail for those. Box Canyon Creek follows the trail most of the way up to Rachel Lake, and you get a lot of glimpses of little falls. But you better be dedicated in your love for creeks because this trail is all about creeks… you’re crossing them (bring poles) and walking through them a LOT. Seriously, like half of this trail is steep, rooty creek. It’s rough and exhausting both ways. On the plus side, there are things to see along the way – the waterfalls, Hibox Mountain views, and fall foliage (or wildflowers in the summer).

(Hibox Mountain)

Rachel Lake is really pretty on a day with sunlight – you get those bright turquoise shades in the shallow edges. It’s tempting to stay there, but it’s worth it to keep going up. In the series of social trails leading to campsites before you hit the lake, there’s a sign that says “Trail ->” pointing to a trail going to the right of the lake. This is the one you want to take you up above the lake to Rampart Ridge. From the lake, Rampart Ridge looks pretty high up, but the hike up wasn’t bad at all. The trail is in decent condition and you get nice views down at Rachel Lake as you go up. At the top, you get a choice: left to Rampart Lakes or right to Lila Lake. The Lila Lake direction is also the way to go for Alta Mountain. Next time.

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(left: NW Forest Pass at Rachel Lake, right: tarn on Rampart Ridge)

So about an hour into my hike, I realized I had done something stupid. I was using my Forest Pass as a bookmark in my hiking book so I could easily flip to the directions while I was driving. Unfortunately, I forgot to stop using it as a bookmark. I realized this about an hour into the hike, which was too late to turn back. I figured there was a good chance they wouldn’t be ticketing that lot that day, but just in case, I took a bunch of pictures of my pass in front of landmarks on the trail so I could try to talk my way out of a ticket if I did get one (I didn’t).

After walking on Rampart Ridge for a little while, I started seeing tarns surrounded by beautiful autumn foliage. Social trails went all over the place. It was pretty, but I was a little afraid that these were the Rampart Lakes, which would be disappointing because they were so small. But they weren’t – it’s just some bonus stuff to explore. The lakes were just a little further, and they were definitely lakes, though small enough to walk around.

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(left: tarn, right: creek and social trails)

A cold sandwich doesn’t really cut it when it’s 30-whatever degrees up there. I hauled in my Ms. Bento container for a warm lunch of chili, green beans, and bread. Up in the sky, there were about seven hang gliders enjoying the nice weather. Other trip reports have mentioned them, so there must be a known launch spot nearby. Oh, and despite this being opening weekend of some hunting season, gunshots weren’t really an issue. I passed a few camps on my way in, but it was nothing close to the mess that is Teanaway Road at this time of year.

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(left: hang gliders in the sky, right: Ms. Bento lunch)

After lunch, I wandered around the lakes, trying to explore all of them (I think I hit 4 of the 5). Some of the best views were from the less accessible sides of the lakes, and I got a few tasty huckleberries along the way, too. I could definitely have spent more time leisurely walking around, but it was already 2pm and I wanted to be out of there well before dark. Unfortunately, I was on the other side of a lake that turned out to be larger than I expected. A series of wrong decisions in the interest of finding the shortest route got me onto an island in one of the lakes. Yeah, I know, right? Two options: 1) Go back a long way. 2) Take off boots and walk through shallow but freezing water for about 10 feet. Man, it was cold. I don’t recommend this.

Anyway, social trails really aren’t my friends. I love views and when there’s a trail that goes somewhere, I know there’s something to see, and I’ll follow it. When there’s a whole network of these, there’s no way I’m going to be able to retrace my steps. My path from Rampart Lakes to the trail down to Rachel Lake had very little resemblance to my path in – I got a lot more trees in my face on the way out. The lake traversal disaster cost me more time than I expected, and going down the creek section of the Rachel Lake trail also took a long time. I ended up making it out before dark, but only with about 30 minutes to spare.

(one of the Rampart Lakes)

I’d love to spend more time on Rampart Ridge, though. There are some lovely campsites up there, and I even saw a sign indicating that there was a toilet. This was a very nice hike to end my hiking season this year, since snow is coming and I’m not as comfortable with unpredictable, potentially dangerous weather. I’ll be back in 2012 for more hiking!

Creamy Polenta with Fresh Leeks and Corn

Posted by gck Friday, September 9, 2011 0 comments

I’ve been cooking a lot again this summer, thanks to the weekly supply of veggies from my CSA. But I haven’t been all that great about posting about it because most of what I’ve been making has been really simple. For example, tonight, I fixed some Rice-a-Roni, but I added half a can of cannelloni beans and two shredded zucchinis. Actually looks like real food, but I can’t write a whole post about it.

About a week ago, I felt like doing something that was a little more involved than steaming vegetables or making a chopped salad. I’d eyed the summer issue of 30 Minute Suppers by Cook’s Illustrated / America’s Test Kitchen after seeing it in an airport or something, but I couldn’t bring myself to pay $8 for it. With 40% off at one of the Borders closing sales, though, I snapped it right up. I’m actually a terrible fit for America’s Test Kitchen because they go to all this effort to find the perfect recipe, and I never follow recipes exactly and these days I don’t even bother measuring most things. But whatever, I liked the pictures in this magazine.


It was also kind of dumb because most of the recipes in the magazine involved a lot of meat, and I’ve basically stopped cooking non-seafood meat at home. But when I saw the recipe for polenta with leeks and corn, I knew I had to make it. I love polenta. I love leeks. I LOVE corn. I even had leeks from my box. And if it were last year, I’d have corn, but for some reason it’s really late in the boxes this year.

My assessment? Yummy recipe! They called for both parmesan and mascarpone cheese and fresh corn, and I used only parmesan and corn from a can. I also substituted half and half and water instead of whole milk because that’s what I had on hand. And if I were to make this again, I’d do it all on the stove instead of microwaving. I don’t mind stirring, but I do mind being burned by the steam that comes out of a bowl that has been covered in the microwave for 10 minutes. Finally, the one thing about polenta is that it doesn’t taste as good once it has cooled because it solidifies.

Creamy Polenta with Fresh Leeks and Corn
serves 4

2 cups whole milk
2 cups water
1 cup medium-grind cornmeal
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter
3 leeks, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise and sliced thin
1 can corn
2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1. Whisk milk, water, cornmeal, 1 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp pepper in large microwave-safe bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and microwave on hgih power until cornmeal is thick and creamy, 15 to 22 minutes, whisking cornmeal and replacing wrap halfway through cooking.

2. Meanwhile, melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks and corn and cook until softened, about 6 minutes. Transfer half leek-corn mixture to bowl with basil. Cover to keep warm.

3. Stir microwaved polenta into saucepan with remaining leeks and corn. Whisk in Parmesan cheese. Simmer over medium heat until creamy and cheese is melted, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper. Divide polenta among individual bowls and top with reserved leek-corn mixture. Serve.