Thursday, October 24, 2013

Guest Post by Meera Lee Sethi: Fika with Mountainfit: A Swedish Recipe to Enjoy While Reading

Today we're going to do Glorified Love Letters' very first guest post. I've had offers for writers to do blog tour-type promotion before, and up until now, I've turned them down. The reasons why vary, but when it came to Meera Lee Sethi's book Mountainfit, something about the idea intrigued me.

Sethi's book is a beautiful meditation on her travels to Sweden, where she assisted in the tracking of various species of birds. While I'm not much of a nature-book reader, nor do I particularly know anything about birds, I really enjoyed Mountainfit. Sethi's openhearted enthusiasm for what she learns and encounters is contagious, and the way she writes is closer to poetry than journalism. You can find more of her writing on her site, Dispersal Range.

For today's post, I left the topic up to her. Since I am somewhat obsessed with food and coffee breaks, her contribution today is perfect. Enjoy:

Mountainfit is a book about science, nature, place, mythology, and identity—but it's also, at heart, a book about Sweden. And you can't go to Sweden without having your daily schedule taken over by several leisurely instances of what Swedes call fika. Fika is a kind of backwards version of the Swedish word for coffee, and is usually translated as "coffee break"—but it always, always involves not only a cup of (extremely strong) coffee, but also a plateful of small and most often sweet treats.

Fika is a truly pervasive cultural phenomenon—at some offices, I was told, fika might take place as many as four separate times between clocking in and clocking out. It is a wonderfully institutionalized system of pauses during the work day, dedicated to resting, consuming something delicious, and connecting with friends.

I don't, however, see why the company you keep over your fika shouldn't be a book.

Jennie, a very dear human being whom you'll meet a few times if you read Mountainfit, made a batch of these kanelbullar (cinnamon rolls) on the spur of the moment the very last time we were together at the observatory. She wrote down the recipe for me, but she did it from memory, and my conversions may not be the most accurate.

Kanelbullar are a classic Swedish pastry, and you should note that they are very much less cloyingly sweet than American cinnamon buns. Instead, they are subtle and fragrant with cardamom. I hope you enjoy both them and Mountainfit.

Kanelbullar (Cinnamon rolls)

  • 60 g butter (a little over 2 oz.), warmed to 37 °C (98.7 ° F)
  • 25 g fresh yeast (0.35 oz. instant, or 0.5 oz. active dry)
  • 2.5 dL (1 cup) milk, warmed to 37 °C (98.7 °F)
  • 0.5 mL (1/4 tsp) salt
  • 7 dL (13 oz.) flour
  • 0.5 dL (1/4 cup) sugar
  • Sweetness and shine
  • More sugar
  • More butter
  • 1 egg or egg white, beaten
  • Ground cinnamon
  • Ground cardamom
  • Pearl sugar (optional)

  1. Mix together the yeast, milk, and warmed butter in a large bowl. 
  2. After the yeast foams, add the sugar and salt; then whisk in the flour slowly. 
  3. When the dough is thick and not sticky, let it rise covered by a damp cloth for 30 minutes.
  4. After 30 minutes, turn out the dough onto a floured surface and roll it out into a rectangle (a little thinner than the cover of a hardback book).
  5. Spread a thin layer of butter all over the dough—you can either melt the butter and brush it on, or wield a slightly softened stick of butter like a paintbrush. 
  6. Sprinkle sugar, cinnamon, and cardamom generously onto the butter.
  7. At this point, you have two choices: A: Roll the dough up like a cream roll and cut it into small segments, Or B: Cut the dough into narrow strips. Then, cut a slit almost all the way through each strip, leaving an edge at the end. Braid/tie/creatively twist the two strands into a knot or knot-like shape. This need not be a precise process.
  8. Brush a layer of egg over the top of each kanelbulle, followed by a sprinkling of pearl sugar if you have any; ordinary sugar will do in a pinch. 
  9. Let the kanelbullar rise for another 30 minutes on a baking sheet.
  10. Bake for about 6-8 minutes at 250 °C, or about 9-12 minutes at 480 (this conversion assumes your U.S. oven is not a convection oven). Or just until they're beautiful and brown.
  11. Enjoy with very strong coffee and a good book.


Full Disclosure: Sethi's publisher, CCLaP (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography), provided me with the eBook for review and were also the ones who contacted me about this guest post. I thank them, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Internal News as of 10-23-13: Record Machine, Massive Notes From Elsewhere + More

Good lord, once again I've waited a long time to do one of these update things. All right, let's get right to the boatload of things I've been up to when I haven't been posting things here.

First off, two weeks ago, I went to the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula. That photo up there has my acquired goods, more or less:

  • Blasphemy: Short Stories by Sherman Alexie (didn't get it signed because that crowd was madness and I had a friend to catch up with.)
  • What I Didn't See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler (signed)
  • Rough Day: Poems by Ed Skoog (signed)
  • Godforsaken Idaho by Shawn Vestal (signed)

Then I already owned these, but I brought them along to get them signed:

So, yes, I did buy 4 books even though I have 100 sitting here waiting to be read. WHATEVER, MAAAN.

Anyway, while I was there, I was in the audience for J Robert Lennon and Ed Skoog's podcast, Lunch Box, for Episode 42. I'd visited Montgomery Distillery instead of having lunch that day, so I'll just say that it was the gin that made me shout out something about Brooks and Dunn, just before the 17 minute mark.

And at the 33 minute mark, I mention my stylish son while also not realizing my family is sitting behind me.

(My voice does not sound that high-pitched in my head.)

Seriously though, both Festival of the Book and Montgomery Distillery's gin are well worth your time.

Moving on.

At Quirk Books: DIY, I wrote about necklaces made about typewriter keys. I own one with an S key, and I like it a lot.

My review of The Queen: A Life in Brief now also appears at Pajiba.

Okay, let's get to what I've written at Persephone Magazine:

In newsy P-Mag matters:

Other P-Mag Posts:

And now onto Notes From Elsewhere posts at Word Riot:
  • 9-17-13: 8 Literary Lists and Poet Tributes
  • 9-20-13: The Perils of Book Publication and More #Franzenfreude
  • 9-28-13: Time to Work! Prompts, Contests, Submissions, more
  • 10-9-13: Word Riot Author News, "Urgent, Unheard Stories," more
  • 10-13-13: Bowie, Slush-Pile Avoidance, Man Booker 2013, etc.
  • 10-20-13: Personal Stories, Prizes, Publishing News

I am reasonably sure that is all. Thanks for reading.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Simon's Cat vs. The World by Simon Tofield

Simon's Cat vs. The World
by Simon Tofield

We're going to do something a little different this time because, well, to be honest, the idea amuses me. While I am certainly a great lover of cats and comics/cartoons, Simon's Cat vs. The World struck me as something my six-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter would also enjoy. Anyone who knows my son knows he operates in his own amusing, creative universe, and my daughter is a voracious reader who can't believe I'm not blowing through the Harry Potter series just once while she's gone through it three times. (I'm about to start Book 4, at her insistence. Yes, I'm late to the party, as usual.)

So while I can tell you that Simon Tofield's kitty creation is both very funny and full of detail, I wanted to know what my kids had to say.

Jack: “I like the part with the couch because he's like AAAHHH!! with his paw. And the bird box is funny because the bird pops out and the birds are just like Yeah! I like the sticker with the arrow pointing into cat's mouth because it's like the cat is saying, Feed me.”

Grace: “I like the drawing lessons in the back because I like drawing a lot and I like cats. The book is really funny. The Godzilla part was my favorite.”

Jack: “And how could you conquer the Godzilla?”

Grace: “I don't know, it was the shadow of the Godzilla toy. And Simon looked fiercer the dinosaur toy's shadow.”

Jack: “Well, I don't really see how that's conquering it.”

(I think the cat's ongoing war with the hedgehogs is my favorite.)

The included stickers and drawing lessons are also a great inclusion with the full color illustrations. The way Tofield explains his relatively simple way of drawing different animals is something even a semi-inept artist such as myself could handle. My daughter, on the other hand, could practically do it in her sleep. The kids got right to work on their own Simon the Cat artwork:

Grace's kitty illustrations. The top three were tutorials in the book; the bottom two she did on her own.

Jack has the kitten and the birds watching the gnome do a little fishing. The sticker with the cat and the arrow, he stuck on the back of his NintendoDS.

As far as the original YouTube videos go, I'd never seen them before reading the book, yet somehow my daughter had already caught a few through some of the sites she visits. They are also funny and so very “essence of cat.” I watched a few after reading, and I saw so much of my cats in them.

Simon's Cat vs. The World is one of those books that manages to stay interesting for both parent and child (or just a kitty-loving adult in general), and while I'd say the videos have a certain edge over the book — the sound effects are perfect, for one thing —  this internet-cat book does not disappoint.

Full Disclosure: Akashic Books sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Half As Happy: Stories by Gregory Spatz

Half as Happy: Stories
by Gregory Spatz

You know a book is good if you only stop reading so that you can tell the author, at 1 AM via Facebook, how much you are enjoying it. The evening I began reading it, I'd plans to watch Doctor Who, which, if you know me, is serious business. I thought I would read a little, then turn on the TV. No, I kept reading. Let it be known: Gregory Spatz's new story collection, Half as Happy, is a wonderfully gratifying little book.

This is the passage, from the story “Happy For You,” that had me thinking, Jesus, this guy is good at opening paragraphs, and that's when I jumped online to tell him so:

For the moment, she is asleep — an ethereal gray sleep, something like the color of brain matter or of wet cement at dawn, or of the light seeping across her ceiling. A window fan at the foot of her bed whisks air into the room — wet, early spring air — furls and unfurls it around her, keeping her aloft in her dreams.
[…]The phone rings, jerking her from this gray ethereality, aches in her joints and muscles all previously dissolved out of reason magically reasserting themselves.

Spatz takes what is normally a somewhat clichéd story opening — a character awakes — and creates something so perfect and true that it could never be any other way. I know what it is like to be (for once!) deep into an all-encompassing sleep, only to come back to the world with the unceasing reminders that I will likely never be pain-free.

However, the woman in “Happy for You” is much older than I am. She's a mother, divorced, and constantly worried about her gay son. “Half their relationship since he'd finished high school — no, more than that, seventy, eighty percent — has taken place over the telephone,” she thinks as they discuss Easter plans. It's a great story.

Many of the stories have a lovely tenderness amidst loneliness, and many also concern music. Spatz plays in two different bands himself, so this influence comes as no surprise. Where they overlap is something that interests me greatly, so when music is written about well, it makes me want to get to work.

Another opening passage, this time from “No Kind of Music”:

He sat in one of the lower rows of the balcony section, high enough that the musicians in their black and white appeared to him diminished and foreshortened, but not so distant their sound was lost or tone compromised. He like to imagine that being this elevated raised his own position within the music, Godlike, and that the distance between himself and the players might erase mistakes and mismatched pitches, causing the notes to arrive to him sweetened and more perfectly blended, more purely themselves; and he watched the players for evidence of a divine or magical connection to some essential truth within the music moving so uniformly through them, innervating them. He knew this was a fiction — any player up close was a lot of suffering joints and contradictory impulses, bad breath, weak eyesight, creaky digestion […] ; if there was evidence of magical or divine connections to be beheld in them it showed in their fingertips, bitten nails and torn cuticles, chapped mouths — all the places where they'd worn through themselves trying and trying and loving the music so habitually, so imperfectly. They were only human, after all — mortal, mutable. Nothing in the world was ever otherwise.

Having played viola and then cello in school orchestras, as well as playing with Great Falls' youth symphony in high school, I know that difference between the individual and the whole when it comes to large groups of musicians. I've spent a lot of time listening to our professional symphony — one I've found to be superior to some other cities', despite our out-of-the-way location — and the theater in which they play is a beautiful 1930s structure with a full balcony. One does feel different while listening from above.

Questions of intimacy, of friendship, and of just how far a person can push a situation — all are themes Spatz explores with deft clarity. I liked or completely loved every story in Half as Happy, and it made me want to read more of his writing.

Middle of the night declarations, the desire for more, and the knowing uplift one feels during music? Yes, of course I recommend Half as Happy. It is a book just dying to wedge itself into a small corner of your heart.

Full Disclosure: Engine Books sent me an advanced reading copy for review. Because of this, my pull quotes may differ slightly from the finished version. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#30 (Yes, since reviews #23-29 appeared on sites other than this one.)

This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.