Beach read, brain candy


What’s it about?
The Vacationers is a beach read. It’s about a dysfunctional family full of people you may or may not like all heading to a small Spanish island for a two-week vacation. Will the wife forgive the husband’s affair? Will the daughter have sex for the first time? Will the son ever grow up? Will the gay couple (friends of the family tagging along) manage to adopt a child? The Vacationers will address those questions.

Why should you read it?
It’s fun, harmless brain candy. It’s not a great work of fiction, but it was entertaining. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for; sometimes, that’s all you want.

Eat your broccoli

A brief history of seven killings

What’s it about?
Plot-wise, A Brief History of Seven Killings is about Jamaica in the 1970s. It wasn’t a happy place. Two parties wanted to control the government. The CIA worried that the country would become communist, like Cuba. Gangs were aligned with both parties, full of not very nice people. The CIA was giving them guns. And Bob Marley was putting together a peace concert. There was a shooting at Marley’s home two days before the concert. This book posits what happened in the lead-up and in the fall-out to that shooting. Subject-wise, the book illustrates power relationships, what it’s like to live in a third-world country, how the CIA’s meddling in said countries screwed things up, and tries to pick apart why people do what they do.

Why should you read it?
An actual conversation with a friend yesterday:

me: Did you like Wolf Hall?
her: No.
me: Oh. Then you’ll hate this one.

Because, despite the differences between 1970’s Jamaica and Tudor England, the books are largely about the same things: power, how do people get power, how do they keep power. It is dense and not at all brief. It’s also very violent. It, at one point, made me wish I had an English degree so I could properly analyze it. It’s good and important and educational but it is not entertaining. And that’s ok. I’m glad I read it.

Carb-o-riffic dinner

spicy bucatini


Spicy bucatini is one of our favorite weeknight meals. It’s quick and easy and simple to make gluten-free by using gluten-free pasta. We eat this very regularly. We’ve been making it for so long, I’m not even sure where we got the recipe from. This one’s pulled from my memory.

Spicy Bucatini

2T olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
0.25 – 0.5t red pepper flakes (more or less depending on how spicy you like it)
0.25lb pancetta, diced
28oz petit diced tomatoes (You can use the regular diced tomatoes. I prefer the smaller cut.)
2T minced fresh sage
0.5c parmesan, freshly shredded
1lb bucatini or other long, thin pasta

  1. Heat the olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and pancetta over medium heat in a saucepan until fragrant (about 2-3 minutes). Add tomatoes, simmer for 10 minutes, until thicker. Add sage.
  2. Meanwhile, heat 4qts water to boil. Cook your pasta as directed, reserving 0.25c before you drain it.
  3. Return pasta to pot, add sauce & cheese. Stir to combine over the still-warm burner for about a minute. Add as much leftover water as needed to make it smooth.
  4. Serve, with extra cheese to pass if you like parmesan. Mmmm, parmesan.

Cleopatra’s childhood

Cleopatra VII
A bust of Cleopatra


Cleopatra was born in 69BCE. There are no records of her childhood, but it was likely very luxurious. For example, we know her palace in Alexandria had lush gardens and a zoo (Cleopatra, p27). It also seems that she was groomed for the throne along with her older sister. Cleopatra was a Ptolemy; succession was often bloody and confusion and everyone needed to know how to govern. She was almost certainly educated by the pre-eminent scholars of her day at the Library of Alexandria and its attached Museon. She studied Homer, reading, writing, Egyptian gods, Alexander the Great, rhetoric, math, geometry, music, astrology, and nine different languages. She was notably the only Ptolemy who ever spoke Egyptian. (Cleopatra, p33)

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great. Check out that hair!

Life in Alexandria
Alexandria, at this point, was the second city of the Mediterranean, only behind Rome in terms of population and wealth. It was founded in 334BCE by Alexander the Great; his general Ptolemy ruled it on his death. Ptolemy was Greek and he and all his descendants acted and spoke Greek. It was the official government language (Cleopatra and Antony). But Alexandria is also Egyptian – Ptolemy styled himself the new Pharaoh, going so far as to adopt the brother-sister marriages the Egyptian pharaohs practiced.

The Ptolemies developed Alexandria into a center of culture and learning. Alexandria was a city of marble, full of statues, home to the famous lighthouse and the more famous library. “For centuries both before and after Cleopatra the most impressive thing a doctor could say was that he had trained in Alexandria. It was where you hoped your child’s tutor had studied.” (Cleopatra, p37)

Egyptian women had more control over their lives than you might think: they were traders, owned barges (Egypt grew more grain than any other Mediterranean country [Cleopatra and Antony, p12] and transporting it was a great way to earn a living), and could initiate divorce proceedings. Women inherited property equally and independently. (Cleopatra, p 24) They ran their own businesses. Women went into the markets while the men tended the looms at home (the opposite of Ancient Greece).

Overall, Alexandria was a cultured and modern place.

Ancient Egyptian Territory
Ancient Egyptian Territory

Egypt’s place in the world
Rome was slowly taking over the entire Mediterranean. It conquered Carthage – near modern Tunis, Tunisia – in 146 BCE, and Pompey (a Roman general whose name will come up again) conquered Macedonia, Syria, and Jerusalem in the early 60sBCE. Egypt was becoming surrounded by Roman land and forces. In fact, Egypt had made a series of treaties and agreements with Rome going back to 193BCE, but the agreements were more and more in Rome’s favor.

What about Cleopatra’s family?
All the brother-sister intermarriage wasn’t helping the Ptolemaic bloodlines. Cleopatra’s grandfather wasn’t right in the head; there’s a particularly gruesome story about him dismembering his own child. (Cleopatra and Antony, p18) Ptolemy Auletes – Cleopatra’s father – was rumored to care more about the arts than governing. Which doesn’t make him crazy, but might make him incompetent.

Rome annexed the Egyptian province of Cyprus in 58BCE. Auletes couldn’t retaliate militarily and was forced to travel to Rome to bribe various senators to  get the island back. The Egyptians weren’t happy about losing Cyprus without a fight, and as soon as Auletes left, Cleopatra’s older sister Berenike seized the throne.

It’s worth mentioning that no one knows where eleven-year-old Cleopatra was during this coup. She may have been with Auletes in Rome, where she would be getting a lesson in diplomacy. Or she may have fled to the countryside with her handmaidens (many of whom were her illegitimate half-sisters), getting a lesson on how to relate to your subjects. Either way, she was gaining valuable experience.

Auletes eventually bribed enough of the right people in Rome, and Roman troops, led by Marc Antony, put Auletes back on the Egyptian throne. One of the first things that Auletes did was put Berenike to death. (Antony’s stay in Egypt, this time, was brief, and it’s unclear if he ever saw Cleopatra.)

Auletes ruled until 51BCE, and the last year of his life he co-ruled with Cleopatra. His popularity had never recovered from the whole Cyprus incident. Cleopatra was 18 and she was effectively co-leading Egypt with her ill father.

Next week: Auletes dies. Cleopatra is forced to co-rule Egypt with her younger brother-husband Ptolemy XIII. It doesn’t go well.

Clickbait headline: why is this book so inspiring?

lessons of hope


What’s it about?
Lessons of Hope is a gossipy semi-memoir of the NYC’s education chancellor in the 2000s. Joel Klein details his struggles with the powerful NYC teachers union, the reforms they undertook and why, and a bit about what it was like working for Michael Bloomberg. They nudged towards teacher accountability and constantly created smaller schools, sometimes even housing multiple schools in the same building. The other main initiative was creating strong principals who were allowed to be fully in charge of their schools. It was a very interesting read.

Why should you read it?
NYC is a special case. It’s bigger than other districts and has more needs to fill. Not all of the remedies will work for all school districts. But Klein’s passion and energy for better schools serving the children comes through loud and clear and is infectious. He emphasizes the need to prioritize the less well-off students. Children of upper-middle and upper class parents will be fine; poorer students don’t have that luxury. At one point he says, “You have to measure what the school brings to the children, not what the children bring to the school.” It’s easy to do well by bright, well-off children. It’s harder to do well by poorer children; that’s where schools can really make a difference. So: I like Lessons of Hope because of his passion and focus.

Family day in Monterey

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a lovely place, and I was glad to get some camera practice time there. It’s more interesting to go now that my daughter’s older and interested in the exhibits more. When she was little all she wanted to do was run around from one to the other, like “ok I’ve glimpsed this one, off to the next!” We never got a chance to explore ourselves. It’s one of the nice things about her growing up.

I think this is one of the best photos I’ve ever taken, and I wish I could attribute it to something other than blind luck.


kelp forest
This is the kelp forest – the sheer diversity in this exhibit is incredible. They pump water in from the Bay outside. This exhibit recreates the environment in the Bay in a way you can see it. I just wish I could have captured more types of fish.


sea turtle
Sea turtle belly! I have a soft spot for giant sea turtles – they’re amazing creatures.


Soup for the whole family

tortilla soup

I freaking love tortilla soup. I love its warmth, its spiciness, how filling it is, and I love that it’s a soup the rest of my family will eat. I’m the soup person in my family, and finding one that we all like can be a challenge. This is a go-to. Note: this is a weekend recipe, not a weeknight recipe. It takes 60-90 minutes to make, so unless you have extra time, don’t try to squeeze it in after work.

Tortilla Soup
tortilla strips
8 6″ corn tortillas, cut into 0.5″ wide strips
vegetable oil

2 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts (or 4 bone-in, skin-on thighs)
8c chicken broth (you can used canned, but homemade is yummier)
1 large white onion, root end trimmed, and quartered
4 medium garlic cloves, peeled
8-10 sprigs fresh cilantro
1 sprig fresh oregano
2 medium tomatoes, cored, quartered
0.5 medium jalapeño
1 chipotle chile in adobo + 1t sauce
1T veg oil

1 lime, cut in wedges
1 avocado, diced fine
8 oz cotija (crumbled) or monterey jack (cubed)
cilantro, chopped
minced jalapeño
sour cream

  1. Heat oven to 425F. Spread tortilla strips on baking sheet, drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt. Cook for 7 minutes, flip strips over, cook for another 7 minutes.
  2. While tortilla strips bake, bring chicken, broth, 2 onion quarters, 2 garlic cloves, cilantro, oregano, and 0.5t salt to boil. Simmer for 20 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through. Transfer chicken to plate (or cutting board), and strain broth into bowl. Discard solids in strainer.
  3. While broth is simmering, puree tomatoes, remaining onion and garlic cloves, jalapeño, chipotle, and adobo sauce in food processor until smooth. Once broth is strained, use soup pan to heat veg oil over high heat until shimmering. Add puree and cook (still over high heat), stirring nearly constantly, until mixture has darkened in color and most of water has evaporated – about 10 minutes. Stir strained broth back into tomato mixture. Bring to boil, then let simmer for 15 minutes.
  4. Cut chicken meat into 0.25″ cubes. Add to broth, then simmer for about 5 minutes. To serve, place portion of tortilla strips in bowl, ladle soup into bowls, pass garnishes separately.

How to market your idea

made to stick


What’s it about?
Made to Stick is a book about how to get people to remember your idea. The authors presume that the idea is about your company or your cause or a product you make or your marketing message. They posit that there are six things you need to make your idea sticky (e.g., get people to remember it): simplicity, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and it has to tell a story. They give examples and go into detail about what each criteria means.

Why should you read it?
This is actually a re-read. That’s right, Made to Stick is a business book I went back and read again. I’ve been doing a lot of communications work in my volunteer causes – email newsletters, websites, the like – and I wanted to refresh my memory on their criteria to guide me through some of my own writing and presentation. How should we talk about fully funding public education? How should we ask people for money? How should we portray our programs? I remembered it being helpful, but I needed a refresh. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s marketing a small business or organization.

Cleopatra: context is key

Before I get going on Cleopatra, there are two big things I want to point out.

  1. You can’t talk about Cleopatra without talking about Rome. Why? Well, Rome was busy taking over bits of the Mediterranean; it had been for awhile. In fact, Rome ruled almost the entire Mediterranean at this point. Egypt was just about the only place left that it didn’t. As a result, Rome was the 500-lb gorilla. Egypt was full of grain and exotic and Rome had its eye on it. In fact, Rome takes over Egypt when Cleopatra dies. Which leads me to my second point…
  2. Augustus (Rome’s ruler at her death) really, really didn’t like Cleopatra. He portrayed her as a “inebriated whore” (In Our Time, 2 Dec 2010) who tempted Antony into rebelling against him. In fact, it was Octavian (as Augustus was then known) and Antony disputing over who should rule Rome which lead to a civil war. Cleopatra threw in with Anthony, which put her on the losing side. Augustus  could portray her as a temptress, luring Antony away from Rome. Since Augustus was Rome’s ruler for the next forty-five years, he got to tell the story. In fact, he burned two thousand documents that disagreed with his version of events. (Cleopatra and Antony, p5) It’s important to keep in mind just how skewed the sources are.

So even though Cleopatra rules Egypt, we’re going to talk a lot about Rome.

Next week, I promise a more meaty post about the Ptolemys and Alexandria. Alexandria sounds like it would have been a great place to live.

A weeknight pasta

salmon and farfalle


Salmon with farfalle is one of our long-standing pasta dishes. It precedes our gluten-free days, but easily adapted since it’s pretty easy to find gluten-free pasta. We use Barilla – but they don’t make it in farfalle form – so we used penne here. My kingdom for all the different pasta shapes with gluten-free ingredients…

Salmon with Farfalle
2T olive oil
2 medium minced garlic cloves
0.25t hot red pepper flakes
20oz can petit diced tomatoes
0.5t salt
0.5lb salmon filet, skinned and coarsely chopped
0.5c heavy cream
ground black pepper to taste
2T minced fresh basil (we skipped it this time as it’s not basil season)
1lb gluten-free farfalle (or regular farfalle. whichever.)

  1. Heat oil, garlic, and hot red pepper flakes in skillet over medium heat until fragrant. Add tomatoes, simmer for 10 minutes. Mix in salt. Add salmon & cream, mixing to blend. Heat for another 5 minutes, until fish is cooked. Add pepper and basil.
  2. Meanwhile, heat 4 quarts of water over high heat for the pasta. Once boiling, add 1T salt and pasta. Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain. Return to pan. Toss with sauce. Serve immediately.