Gertrude Bell, badass lady

Gertrude Bell is seated between Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence.

One day, in my spare time, I will write about famous royal women in history. Until then, I will content myself with Anne Thériault’s Queens of Infamy series over on Longreads (which you should be reading). And as a part of that series, I will make an exception for non-royal Gertrude Bell, an Englishwoman who was instrumental in getting the British out of the government of the Middle East.

How to summarize Gertrude Bell? She was the daughter of one of Britain’s titans of industry, independently wealthy, full of energy, and an adventurer through and through. Before she explored the Middle East, she climbed the most difficult mountains in the Alps, mostly because she could.

Once she started exploring the Middle East, she became omnivorous about it, learning not only the languages and the customs, but also the history and peoples and more. Many of her expeditions were to ruins and historical sites that she was the first Westerner to explore, and the maps she created were the best of their ilk.

As WWI broke out, she offered her services and knowledge to the British Empire. They eventually took her up on the offer (of course there was sexism and having to prove she deserved to be in the room before anyone would start taking her seriously), and her knowledge of the tribal structures and people in the Middle East was a great asset during the war.

She was also instrumental in setting up Iraq as an independent country after WWI. She fought to get the best structure for the future Iraqis; the British government back in London was all about doing what was easiest for them. Those two things did not often align.

Basically, Gertrude Bell was a force to be reckoned with and historically important. Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations was a lovely introduction to her. Recommended.

Not for Kates

Oh, #fashionvictim, I wanted to like you. I really did. I liked your over-the-top-ness and showing just how ruthless the world of fashion can be by incorporating actual death and the satire was lovely. But the first-person-ness of sympathizing with a mentally ill murderer was a step too far. I’d just finished another book about women being terrible to each other and couldn’t read another one.

I know your audience is out there. It’s just not me.

Enchiladas Verdes

I enjoy enchiladas verdes: the bite of the tomatillos, the yummy cheese, the unexpected radish garnish… It’s a medley of delicious flavors. It’s a weekend dish, though, not something to make on a weekday unless you really, really like cooking.

Enchiladas Verdes

4t vegetable oil (not olive oil, please)
1 onion chopped
3t minced garlic
0.5t ground cumin
1.5c chicken broth
1lb chicken breasts
1.5lbs tomatillos, husks and stems removed
3 poblano chiles
1t sugar
0.5 chopped fresh cilantro leaves
8oz pepper jack cheese, grated
12-6″ corn tortillas
2 scallions
radishes

  1. Set oven to broil setting. Heat 2t oil in saucepan over med heat, once shimmering, sauté onion for 6-8 minutes. Add 2t garlic & cumin, cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in broth, add chicken. Cover and simmer 15-20 minutes (chicken should be 160F). Transfer chicken to plate to cool, remove 0.25c liquid, reserve remaining liquid for a different purpose (it makes a delicious soup base if you’re looking for something to save it for).
  2. Meanwhile, toss poblanos and tomatillos with 2t of oil, arrange on foil-lined baking sheet with poblanos skin side up. Broil 5-10 minutes, until veggies soften and begin to blacken. Cool, remove skins from poblanos, and transfer poblanos and tomatillos to food processor. Decrease oven temp to 350F and discard foil from baking sheet.
  3. Add 1t sugar, 1t salt, 1t garlic, reserved 0.25c liquid to food processor, process until sauce is slightly chunky, about eight 1-second pulses. Taste, add additional sugar and salt to taste.
  4. Pull or cut cooled chicken into small bite-sized pieces. Combine chicken with cilantro & 1.5c cheese (you should have another 0.5c of cheese to sprinkle on top).
  5. Smear bottom of 9″x13″ pan with 0.75c of tomatillo sauce. Place tortillas on baking sheet, spray with cooking oil, bake for 2-4 minutes, until soft & pliable. After removing them, increase oven to 450F. Place tortillas on countertop, and spread 0.33c filling down center of each tortilla. Roll tightly and place in pan, seam side down. Pour remaining tomatillo sauce on top, using spoon to spread to make sure it fully coats all tortillas. Sprinkle with remaining 0.5c cheese and cover pan with foil.
  6. Bake 15-20 minutes, until cheese is melted and enchiladas are cooked through. Uncover, sprinkle with scallions & thinly sliced radishes. Serve immediately.

Sometimes romances go south for the right reasons

The romances in It Ended Badly all have bad ends – go figure. Though many (most?) of them work out for the best in the end. Five of the 13 are relationships with political implications, which, honestly, does anyone expect to live happily ever after? The remaining 8 are both fun historical gossip that also show how not to have a healthy relationship.

My favorites? I’m never, ever going to turn away an explanation of how Eleanor of Aquitaine left the King of France for the King of England (or tell you that you should go watch The Lion in Winter to see how that worked out for everyone involved).

There were two, though, that I found the most enlightening. First was the chapter about Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. I only knew the bare outlines of the story, and this fleshed it out more. Second was the chapter about the whole Debbie Reynolds/Eddie Fisher/Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton fiasco. But here’s what I learned: Debbie Reynolds was awesome. She’d already realized that Eddie Fisher was a putz before he left her for Elizabeth Taylor – she’d asked him for a divorce not once but twice. AND Debbie and Elizabeth became good friends again in their old age (they’d been friends prior to the whole affair, and then things had understandably fallen apart). There are a couple of quotes that make you realize just exactly how Carrie Fisher got to be such an awesome writer.

So if you are looking for a light-hearted romp through some history, or need a post-breakup relationships-are-terrible-ideas book that won’t make you too depressed, let me recommend It Ended Badly. I enjoyed it.

Basil Pesto Pasta

There are multiple of us in the house who are allergic to nuts, so pesto is a dish that doesn’t happen much. At least not traditional pestos.

But a few years ago we found a basil pesto that we like. It’s simple and easy and makes for a good quick weeknight dish, especially in summer when there’s more basil than anyone knows what to do with.

It’s not especially filling – so consider pairing it with a simple meat, like a roast chicken. Or hell, maybe just use the sauce on the chicken and skip the pasta. That might be good too.

Basil Pesto Pasta

2c packed fresh basil leaves, washed and well-drained
1.5c grated Romano cheese, plus extra if desired
0.5c olive oil
0.5c butter
6 large cloves fresh garlic, crushed
1 lb spaghetti

Place basil, 1c of cheese, oil, butter, and garlic in the blender. Plus to blend until you have a coarse puree. Makes about 1.5c of pesto. Spoon 1c over freshly cooked spaghetti, mix, and then add leftover cheese. Mix again. Serve with additional pesto and cheese.

Store any leftover pesto up to a week. Surface will darken when exposed to air (like guacamole).

(We typically only put ~0.75c over the spaghetti; then again, we use gluten-free pasta which comes in packages of 12oz, so we can get away with less. Then you have enough pesto for two meals.)

Revisiting my childhood, in a way

The Wizard of Oz is a cultural touchstone – the movie, not the book. There’s a young girl, a quest, a triumph of good over evil. Who on earth, you might think, would ever read a version of that story turned into a dystopia where Dorothy and Glinda have both become evil and are ruling the land for their own particular gain?

The answer to that is me, the person who owns all 14 of the original Oz books by L Frank Baum (yes, there was a series, and The Wizard of Oz is the weakest of them all if you ask me) from her childhood, spines cracked and often re-read. I am here for your alternative universe Oz.

In these books, there’s a new girl from Kansas, Amy Gumm (a direct reference on the fact that Judy Garland’s original surname was Gumm) who gets brought to Oz by another tornado. Dorothy, as previously mentioned, is both evil and in charge. Amy is rescued, introduced to the current evils in Oz, and then is taken under the wing of The Wicked, a magical resistance movement. Adventures ensue, teenagers fall in love, friends and enemies are both made.

I enjoyed the series and would recommend it to other people like me, who enjoyed the original Oz books way more than the movie.

#actuallyOCD

Someone I love was recently diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, aka OCD. This is a specific kind of anxiety disorder, less about being neat and tidy, and more about not-so-fun things like sometimes disturbing thoughts randomly popping into your head and being convinced something bad is going to happen if you don’t do x. Whatever x happens to be, and it’s specific to the person.

John Green has OCD. (This is a lovely podcast where he talks about it.) Turtles All the Way Down is about a teenaged girl with OCD. So I read this book not from an enjoyment standpoint, but from a help-me-learn-what-it-feels-like-to-have-this standpoint.

For me it did a good job, especially showing Aza’s deterioration because of her refusal to regularly take her medication. (Seriously: TAKE YOUR MEDS, KID. Love, a mom) It’s all handled with a deft and loving touch and explains so, so much.

Turtles All the Way Down helped me, the story was enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about what living with OCD is actually like.

Too many facts, not enough information

I wanted so badly to like The Witches. Stacy Schiff has a lovely storytelling writing style, and the history of witches is interesting! (Ok, that’s a link to a specific story about witches in Norway, but I loved it and wanted to take this opportunity to share it.)

But her storytelling style of first-this, then-that was ultimately confusing. There are too many people in this book without enough context, both in terms of relationships between people and historically. I did get a good idea of why some of the suspicion existed between neighbors, a sense the isolation of New England in the late 1600s, and the weird city-country dynamics that affected how the situation played out.

But ultimately, I was done in by the fact that there was so much detail about each individual, who was accusing whom, and what specifically was going on, that I lost the forest for the trees. I ended up putting The Witches down when I didn’t want to. But the reading was so hard (and my to-read pile so big) that I felt like I had to. Maybe I will pick this up again at a later date when I have more time and brainpower.

The Girl Before is terrible and misogynistic

I read The Girl Before for book club, and I can safely say that I hated it. I don’t often despise books, but this one deserves it. Why?

  1. It’s written by a dude (and he’s not a man, he’s a dude) from the perspective of two different women. He has very little idea of what a woman’s inner life is actually like or how women work.
  2. The brilliant male architect who may or may not have committed the murder ultimately is given the most robust characterization and is arguably the main character of the novel, despite it theoretically being about women.
  3. Said architect and his talent are completely fetishized.
  4. There’s another, not brilliant, man in the book who is dehumanized because he is NOT the brilliant architect.

I am done with books about brilliant men making art and saving the world, despite their flaws. ESPECIALLY when women are used as the vehicle for both the motivation AND the storytelling but don’t actually get to be robust characters.

Seriously, fuck this book.

Modern romance stories are better than you think

The Proposal was a super-sweet, very swoony modern romance set in Los Angeles. The actual wedding proposal takes place at the beginning of the book: a public proposal on the big screen at a Dodgers game that was definitely not discussed ahead of time. Nikole is rescued from her upset now-ex-boyfriend and an angry crowd by Carlos and his sister. Nikole and Carlos go on to have a very enjoyable romance.

Recommended, especially if you need a pick-me-up.

An aside, not just about this book: one of the things I like about most modern romance stories is how they deal with issues of diversity, living in a social media filled world, consent, sexism, and generally what it’s like to be a woman navigating the current world. These are books written largely by and for women, and they are sometimes written at an amazing clip, which means they can react to the issues of the day faster than other genres. And it’s all wrapped up in a happy package, a thing that can feel radical in and of itself.

So consider a good romance novel the next time you’re looking for a book.