This gold inflames my senses

A translated line from Rossini's The Barber of Seville.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Minnesota Opera performance of The Barber of Seville last night. The singing, the music, the staging, the set were all well done, and a pleasure to take in. Having never been to an opera before, there were some things that surprised me.

Dan knew that it was likely that the opera would be subtitled, and as we were venturing into St Paul, I started to worry that they would be distracting or tacky but they were done really well. The subtitle board was built into the set, were in a tasteful and readable font, and timed perfectly with the staging to maximize the humor.

And speaking of humor...what a stitch! (The only other opera I've listened to in its entirety is Tristan und Isolde, which is quite the tragedy). The music and the libretto were funny enough on their own, but the staging was brilliant. Figaro (the barber) owns the stage from his first entrance, and the props (including a skeleton, a green guitar, and a handkerchief to name a few) were used most brilliantly.

I majored in Music in college, so I think I should have picked up on this at one point -- but Rossini's The Barber of Seville is actually a prequel to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which was composed much earlier. The two operas are based on the plays of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

At the last minute, I realized that I didn't have the perfect pair of shoes to wear with the dress. I called my girl Amanda to talk through the implications of wearing brown kitten heels with a red, white and black dress and, after hanging up, felt both better and immensely foolish for fretting over such a thing.

Turns out, most women in the audience should have consulted their best friend before going out last night. First, I have never seen so many four-inch heels in one setting, and second, the percentage of women who did not know how to walk in them was astounding. Yes, one is mostly sitting, and yes, it's dark. But remember, one still has to walk to the venue, and to the refreshments. Just sayin'.

All in all, a wonderful way to spend a Wednesday night.


Being frozen has its benefits

In my defense, when Top Chef cheftestants blanch their vegetables, the producers don't exactly focus on what that means. All I see is a plate of beautifully julienned vegetables.

Over the weekend I spent some time with a few food preservation books, and learned (much to my embarrassment) that blanching refers to the method of preparing -- NOT the method of cutting -- the vegetables. Blanching is scalding produce in boiling water (or a microwave or steamer) for a short (and specific) amount of time, and then rapidly cooling for the same amount of time. It is an essential step if one is going to freeze fresh produce to preserve it.

Produce contains active enzymes to help them grow while they are in the garden. When the produce is harvested, the enzymes continue to be active and work to break down the vegetables. The result is a reduction of nutrients, undesirable change in texture and loss of color and flavor. The heat process from blanching temporarily inactivates these enzymes, and the freezing greatly slows the enzymes down. This is why it is essential that the produce be cooled very quickly after scalding them, for example, by placing them in ice water.

For more information, blanching time charts for vegetables, and how-tos, turn to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, your local Extension (here is Minnesota's), or Preserving Summer's Bounty, edited by Susan McClure.


A Few fun facts for Friday

Title: The Double-Daring Book for Girls
Authors: Andrea J Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz

Summary: Book of random, fun but not-especially-daring facts.

A few times a week I look through the new books as they arrive at my library. I look through titles for interesting fiction, storytime possibilities, duplicate titles, books that might be perfect for common requests, etc. I don't usually spend a lot of time with the books before they're checked in, but I did spend some time with this one. If it weren't so big, it would be a perfect bathroom book.

Hepaticocholangiocholecystenterostomies is the medical term for surgically created connections between the gall bladder and other organs.

Measurement words to know include jiffy (1/100 of a second), quire (25 sheets of paper) and stone (14 pounds). (This is the second time this week I've seen reference to quire).

Footloose is a sailing term for when the bottom part of the sail itself (called the foot) is properly secured and dancing happily in the wind.

Historical methods of producing batik fabric have included applying wax by hand, canting (a spouted container that holds the hot wax) and cap (which is a copper stamp that is used to apply the design). The cloth is then dyed, the wax -which blocks the dye- is removed, and voila! (Okay, it's a bit more involved than that...)


My own March Madness

During the month of March, I spent a lot of my recovery time reading whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I didn't pay attention to what I *should* be reading for work, and I didn't pay attention to the order in which books were added to my "to read" pile. It was lovely. I read a total of 2,489 pages - a lot of time on the couch for this slow reader.

While I cannot possibly be as crafty or write as beautifully as the judges in the Tournament of Books, I have loved following this contest online (check it out) and, since the books I read had many similarities, I wanted to copy the format.

Also, I know that if I'm going to write about a book I should do it immediately. I didn't with these books.

Round 1 Fledgling, by Octavia Butler, vs. Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler wrote the majority of her novels and short stories in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but I only discovered her this past January. If I only considered plot when looking for books to read, I would never have picked up her books. Alien species, shape shifters, time slips, and vampires don't typically hold interest for me. Yet, her prose and her capability to explore human nature are astonishing, and her perspective as an African American woman yields a tone I haven't found in any other science fiction. Her books are beautiful.

Fledgling is about a vampire who suffers amnesia after a violent attack. Octavia uses the amnesia device well to let the mystery of who Shori is and why she's so controversial unfold marvelously. Shori learns that her coven of vampires were dabbling in a bit of genetic engineering, and were trying to improve their kind. The improvement? Shori is (the first) black, and her skin gives her serious advantages but is also cause for outrage among the oldest conservative vampires.

Wild Seed is about two ...um...entities...they aren't exactly human... who live for centuries and whose fates are completely intertwined. Doro is trying to breed the best qualities into humans -much like you would breed horses- and Anyanwu is exactly the seed that Doro wants. They struggle, defy each other, hate each other, love each other and try to stay away from each other but cannot. There's a lot I'm not getting into here, but the story crosses centuries and continents - from African slave ships to American plantations and European cities and is extremely well done.

Round 1 Winner: Fledgling, by Octavia Butler for Shori's strength and honest questioning of the status quo, and easier reading.

Round 2 Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman vs. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
I heart Neil Gaiman. Heart heart heart. I liken reading his books to listening to neoclassical music, like Stravinksy's Pulcinella Suite. It sounds familiar, but the harmonies are mysterious and surprising. His books are perfectly composed, but the hints of magic, twists in character development and simple (thus outrageously hilarious) premises are surprising and delightful.

Anansi the Spider is a trickster character from West Africa, much like Brer Rabbit. Well, Anansi is alive and well in the 20th Century and living in Florida -- that is, until he died while doing a karaoke number in a dive bar. Anansi Boys tells the story of Anansi's kids -Charlie and Spider- set in modern day London and America. The book is, to quote, "a mythology for a modern age -- complete with dark prophecy, family dysfunction, mystical deceptions, and killer birds. Not to mention a lime." Neil Gaiman incorporates elements of the legends into the story, but the real joy in reading these books is discovering the humor and poignancy in everyday situations.

I read about 50 pages of American Gods. Although this is one of Gaiman's more well-known and celebrated titles, I couldn't get into it. Released from prison a day early due to his wife's untimely death, Shadow is approached on his way home by a man who seems to know more about Shadow than he should and seems to assume that Shadow is going to accept the job he's offering. Shadow, like Charlie, is just going along for the ride but for some reason, I felt like Shadow wasn't objecting to the ride enough. Or something.

By the way, if you haven't watched Stephen Colbert interview Neil Gaiman about his recent Newbery Award winning novel, The Graveyard Book , do so now. Really. Now.

Round 2 Winner: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman because I cannot resist a modern day folk tale.

Round 3 Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet vs. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Two epic works that read completely differently from each other. Pillars of the Earth reads like a dramatic thriller, Anna Karenina reads like a heavy Russian novel.

I feel like I have to defend myself. I loved Pillars. At first it felt anachronous to the time period, but given that I don't actually know what lifestyles and mannerisms of 12th Century England were like, I decided to suspend any doubt and just get into the story. And, oh, what a story. Built around the building of a cathedral, the tale is complete with passion, deceit, hatred, being screwed over by your bosses and their alliances, guilt, love. The characters (too many to go into here) may not be fully well rounded, but like Gone with the Wind, the perspective gives insight into each character's motivations for their actions, and they are all recognizeable.

Anna. Oh, Anna. First off, I should say I'm not done with it yet. Second, I have a Ukranian-American friend whose insight into the Russian psyche is affecting how I view the extended conversations about the state of the world that the upper echelons of the society engage in throughout the novel. Third, Anna's decline is so rapid given how strong she is in the beginning. Although I know that people's spirits can erode that quickly when they're carrying the agonizing weight of their mistakes on their shoulders, I'm so disappointed that I have to distance myself from her. Epic novels aren't about one storyline alone, but I've surprised myself with how much I've disconnected myself from the title character.

Ironically, Anna Karenina tells me more about the physical earth, and the landscape dictates the fate of the characters much more than Pillars of the Earth. It is also probably the better novel, if I were going to judge on technicalities. But a) I don't know enough or care enough to objectively rate novels, and b) that's not why I read anyway.

Round 3 Winner: Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet because I could not put it down.

Okay, and here is where the format falls short. I would need a fourth round for a true tournament. And I'm just gonna skip all the semi-final/zombie/final rounds and say that the book I enjoyed reading most last month was Pillars of the Earth.