Books by my bedside 2021/April

I’m a little shocked by how long it’s been since I last posted about what I’m reading. Considering the rather desperate way I escaped into fiction during the pandemic, I might’ve been more forthcoming in sharing what I read for that release.

Now, back to my boilerplate:

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

History

Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, Olga

Writing (Short Story as Literature)

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by Saunders, George

Fiction

Young Adult

Akata Witch and Akata Warrior by Okorafor, Nnedi

The Real Boy by Ursu, Anne

African/Feminist

Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga, Tsitsi

Mystery/Thriller

Billionaire Blend by Coyle, Cleo

A Deadly Influence by Omer, Mike

All the Devils are Here by Penny, Louise

Water Memory by Pyne, Daniel

Open House by Sise, Katie

After Alice Fell by Taylor Blakemore, Kim

Science Fiction

Shift by Howey, Hugh

Reading Notes:

Exploring the world via fiction in a year without travel

The young adult novel, Akata Witch (like its sequel, Akata Warrior), is set in Nigeria. Please see my footnote about the derogatory term in these titles if Nigerian languages are new to you as they were to me. As I have no wish to offend anyone, I will not repeat the word except within the context of the titles chosen by the works’ creator.

Like the author—Nnedi Okorafor—herself, the heroine, Sunny, is American born. Sunny is a teen living in Nigeria, an outsider due to her foreign birth, albinism, and then… all the usual stuff that sets apart the protagonist of a fantasy novel. This is not a cookie-cutter, Western fantasy! I found Okorafor’s created world fresh and fascinating, and the heroine and her friends richly detailed, complex, and very capable of keeping my middle-aged attention. My heart does tend to ache for the girl’s worried mother, however, as Sunny undertakes dangerous quests typical of the genre.

I enjoyed being immersed in the African setting of these titles. Missing my usual travels, this scratched my itch for adventure and “seeing” new places. The American-born teens in the story helped this reader make the transition to a better understanding of Nigerian culture from a perspective with which I’m more familiar.books I read April 2021 - Okorafor fantasy novels

Of course, the bulk of the story involves magical powers and the unseen world. Even if I made it to Nigeria, I doubt I’d encounter most of the creatures or powerful wizards Okorafor brings to life on her pages. As the pandemic has taught me, living through historically exciting events is not always easy or desirable.

Aside from an enjoyable young adult narrative, I appreciate Okorafor’s thoughtful approach to her craft. Regarding her success in a genre whose “great men” were often virulent racists who may well have shunned her, Okorafor wrote on her own blog:

“What I know I want is to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s deal with that .…as opposed to never mention it or explain it away.”

I believe this contemplative attitude helps explain why she opted to use a word with heavy connotations in her titles. I use her original titles as opposed to the less racially-charged British ones in an effort to show respect to the author.Copy of softbound library copy of Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga

Also set in Africa but half a continent away, I recently dove into Tsitsi Dangarembga’s masterful Nervous Conditions. It takes place in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the mid-20th Century. I devoured the novel in just a couple of days, perhaps identifying so strongly with its protagonist, Tambudzai, because of her intelligence and drive to get an education against all obstacles.

Tambu reflects upon a new school with: “Most importantly, most wonderfully, there was the library, big, bright, walled in glass on one side and furnished with private little cubicles where you could do your homework, or simply lose yourself…in…books…”

I was a girl just like that.

Quote from page 199 about the wonderful library in a girl's school

Nervous Condition is the kind of book in which I highlight multiple passages. For the library’s sake, I do that these days by photographing myself pointing to the relevant spot on the page. Less typically for me, I even highlighted some of the author’s comments in the “book club” discussion section at the back of this novel.

Tambu’s story isn’t light or easy. Colonialism, racism, sexism, and poverty all conspire against her success, though she’s quite young when the story begins. She’s complex and complicated, and Dangarembga has drawn her beautifully. Even better, the entire novel is peopled by fully dimensioned, believable characters. Dangarembga writes with a deft hand.Quote highlighted from Nervous Conditions page 183

“Marriage. I had nothing against it in principle. In an abstract way I thought it was a very good idea. But it was irritating the way it always cropped up in one form or another, stretching its tentacles back to bind me before I had even begun to think about it seriously, threatening to disrupt my life before I could even call it my own.”

I finished the book quite eager to read its successor, 2006’s The Book of Not. It was unavailable at my local library, though the third volume, 2020’s This Mournable Body could be had. I couldn’t even find book two in our statewide searchable catalog for inter-library loans. Resigning myself to an Amazon purchase, I discovered that a new edition of The Book of Not is due to be released in May of this year. Used copies from 2006 are selling for about $50 each, which is more than I can bear to spend on a paperback. The vagaries of international publishing, perhaps?

I opted to purchase the Audible audiobook version of This Mournable Body—Dangarembga’s only English language audio release, so far as I can tell—because I wanted to directly support the author of a powerful novel that moved me so profoundly.

Also, no lie, it drove me crazy that I still don’t know how to pronounce many names from the story. Unlike European languages and concepts, I struggled to search out definitions for unfamiliar terms, photos of garments about which I was curious, or quick phonetic pronunciation guides. I’m hoping that the audiobook recording will offer me the chance to hear these names spoken by a more educated narrator.

I’ve heard people argue about a lack of rich cultural heritage outside of their narrow conception of the “civilized world;” it’s hard to appreciate what you can’t see because your back is turned!

Segueing not very neatly from far away in distance to far away in time, I must comment on Hugh Howey’s sequel to Wool: Shift. They’re both part of the Silo Saga. These are really good books—if you can tolerate a dystopian future.

My librarian friend The Priestess recommended Wool to me during a weekend away together. I was complaining about how poorly most algorithms do in offering me literary recommendations. I don’t know if that’s true for anyone else, but Amazon and Good Reads do not get me at all. She’d heard good things about it, but not read it herself, I believe.

I enjoyed Wool. It was a fun read, I finished it… then I didn’t think about it again for several years. Somehow, during the pandemic, Shift came to my attention. I think, since Mr. Howey originally self-published via Amazon, that it may have been free to read with Kindle Unlimited. I was definitely hunting that source much more actively than usual in the early shutdown days when I lost weekly library access.

Here’s why I absoluely must mention Shift: I have never before read a sequel and been so much more impressed by it than I was by its precursor. If anything, I’m used to being disappointed by middling follow-ups to novels I loved. That sounds strange, because Wool was a good book. Shift struck me as an even better one, and much more profound.

Consider the Silo Saga if you enjoy Sci Fi and don’t mind reading about the end of the world in the middle of a pandemic disaster.

Myriad mysteries

The string of casual flings I carry on with light murder mysteries continues. Thankfully, our local library opened for pre-ordered, curbside lending after a month or two of darkness, but I have also relied more heavily on the monthly free titles for Amazon Prime members (most of which are mediocre, but they do pass the time) and digital psuedo-purchases, which I loathe on principle.Two Kindle ebook readers, one labeled kids, the other says Mom's

No, if I don’t have a copy of a book or song I can pass to my heirs when I die, I have not purchased it. I’ve rented a license to use my copy during my lifetime. There’s nothing wrong with the model, if it’s what people want, but calling these transactions a purchase strikes me as fraudulent! Stepping down from soapbox…

A Deadly Influence made a pretty fun read, but a single sentence late in the book stopped me cold, prompting me to check the author’s name and confirm that he must be a man. It was a description of an outfit that the protagonist put on to go out and meet a date… and it was so laughably bad, I guessed right that moment that a non-fashionable male had written its description.

The storyline there involves a professional police negotiator, Abby, the calm presence who talks down the guy on the ledge or the hostage holding one with a gun to someone’s head. She (the protagonist) was very believable, except for her dressing up scene, realistically, lightly flawed, yet still likeable. Peeking inside life in a modern cult or two also made this novel stand out from my crowd of similar whodunits. It’s one of the few Amazon freebies I’ve read where I will watch for sequels. I’d like to see Abby’s character develop, and A Deadly Influence ended on a bit of cliffhanger though one I admittedly saw coming, but I didn’t mind.

Better writing through considered consumption of literature

Finally, I can’t leave this post without some discussion of Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. I’m so in love with this book at the moment! Full disclosure: I’m only 4/7 done with it as it was due back to the library and had holds so I couldn’t renew.

George Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse. The premise of the book is to explore seven classic works of Russian short fiction, then tease out lessons to improve our own writing from literary greats Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol.

The stories are magnificent. So are Saunders’ essays!Section heading for Tolstoy's Master & Man (1895) from the book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

Perhaps the author selected just those few stories which are truly special. More likely, I have failed to read enough of the Russian masters. Technically proficient? Yes. Moving, emotionally rich? Definitely. Yet, somehow, this book is also a great deal of fun. I wish Saunders were my teacher though I’ve already spent far more time in Syracuse than I ever wished to.

I picked this up in order to plan a literature unit for my home educated teen. I thought it would complement the Russian History we’re doing this year. Note to home schoolers: it really, really does! I planned to peruse it, make some notes, then set the child to work on Saunders’ readings and my assignments over the summer term. Instead, I fell into the book myself, only reluctantly returning it on time because I’d foolishly let it sit too long on our library shelf before starting in.

Consider pairing A Swim in the Pond in the Rain with viewing the Great Courses video offering History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev taught by Mark Steinberg. Lesson 21: Peasant Life & Culture is particularly apropos, but everything from Lesson 8 (The Decembrist Rebellion) to 25 (War & Revolution) will enhance your appreciation for the context of those stories Saunders offers.

† IMPORTANT NOTE: Please be aware that the unfamiliar word—if you only speak English—in the title, Akata Witch, has derogatory connotations for some Africans and African Americans.

The first book was given a new title for publication in the UK and Nigeria for that reason (What Sunny Saw in the Flames.) My internet research was cursory, of course, since I know no African languages. In spite of many contradictory definitions across the web, my best understanding is that the word is Yoruba—or possibly originated from the Fanti tribe—and is literally defined as an animal (maybe cat or fox.) The emphasis is on an uncivilized creature living outside his/her/its appropriate milieu. I’m not qualified to explain the term beyond this attempt at literal translation.

I wanted to discuss this book, but I hesitated to blindly post a sensitive phrase without this acknowledgement. Read about the term’s slang usage on Urban Dictionary if you’d like to learn more.

Costco Executive Member swap of paper Reward Certificate for online use

Today’s tip will apply to a fairly narrow audience.

  • Are you a Costco Executive Member?
  • Do you still have your annual Reward Gift Certificate that was mailed out in 2020?
  • Are you avoiding shopping in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

If all three of those points apply to you, you may appreciate something I found out last month after a bit of searching. You can submit your paper Reward Certificate to the Costco home office by mail, and they will send you a Shop Card* redeemable for online purchases as well as in person, for example, at their gas pumps.

Costco Wholesale club Executive Membership Reward Gift Certificates dated 11/01/2019 and 11/01/2020As it happens, I hadn’t even gotten around to using my November 2019 certificate when I made my last in person visit going inside a Costco back in March 2020. The arrival in November 2020 of the next one brought the matter to my attention.

I was actually a few dollars shy of the break even amount for 2019—regular membership costs $60/year while Executive Members pay $120/year but earn back 2% of their spending in the form of this Reward Gift Certificate—and the $59 coupon in my wallet had completely slipped my mind.Costco Executive membership card in black leather wallet

My shopping habits changed a lot in 2020, however, and my two figure Reward from 2019 was more than doubled this year. In addition to regular orders of 2 Day Delivery shelf stable staples and household goods, I also bought Mountain House freeze dried meals and other long term storage foods, exercise equipment, and an expensive new vacuum cleaner from my favorite big box store.

While I frequented the Costco warehouse and gas station far less often during the pandemic, I did try to order as much as possible via Costco.com. I appreciate Costco’s consistent appearance on “America’s Best Employer” lists like this on from Forbes, plus their emphasis on value for dollar vs. lower prices on lesser quality goods matches my own preferences as a consumer. I feel much better shopping there than giving more of my money to Jeff Bezos over at Amazon.

With two Reward Certificates in hand, I found this page on Costco’s web site that explained how to redeem them for an equivalent amount of online-use-eligible gift certificates. I encourage you to follow the instructions on the official site at the link above, but here are the details on how to make the swap for yourself.

Mail your Executive 2% Reward certificate to Costco at:

Costco Wholesale
ATTN: Executive 2% Department
1455 11th Ave NW
Issaquah, WA 98027

Number 10 (business size) envelope with stampMake sure to include the following in a cover letter:

  • Member’s name
  • Membership number
  • Address to which you’d like the Costco Shop Card sent
  • Phone number in case they need to reach you
  • Executive 2% Reward certificate(s)

I took the precaution of photocopying my Reward Certificates before mailing them to Costco, and I’d advise anyone else to do the same or snap a readable photo. For good measure, and because my printer also works as a scanner, I captured an image of my membership card to the same document lest a foolish typo on my part prevent me from getting my money back!

I didn’t put the date on which I mailed my Certificates on my calendar, nor did I note receiving the replacement Shop Card, but the process felt pretty quick. I’d estimate that I had gift card in hand within a couple of weeks, even with the widespread postal delays of this past holiday season.Costco Shop Card gift certificate - 1

I was given no guff about submitting two annual Executive 2% Reward certificates, and the Costco home office combined both dollar amounts onto a single Shop Card gift certificate as I’d indicated was my preference in my cover letter.Pile of money

If, like me, you are sitting on a couple of hundred dollars or more in Costco IOU’s due to COVID-19, consider taking these simple steps to gain access to the money you’ve earned via your patronage. You might also want to express your appreciation for the opportunity as I did. Once again, Costco’s commitment to customer service has made me happy to continue my patronage of the chain, and I made sure they were aware of how their effort affected my feelings about my membership.

* Costco’s name for their gift cards

LunchBots stainless containers for life, even lids lost 10 years later

It can be hard to splurge on expensive items designed to last a lifetime when cheap, semi-disposable alternatives abound in our stores. Their ubiquity makes them seem like the obvious choice.

For parents preparing to pack daily lunches for school, stainless steel and glass containers are a perfect example. I can buy a week’s worth of plastic sandwich boxes for the price of a single stainless steel one.

Screen grab shows $17 for stainless sandwich box vs $8 for 3 plastic ones

Kids lose things. Kids break stuff. Kids aren’t necessarily careful with something just because Mom paid more for it.

And, after all, they are just children! While I want mine to grow up to be careful stewards of their possessions, I’d also like for them to be able to enjoy a meal without fretting about my reaction if the fancy new lunchbox gets dented or scratched.

In spite of such obstacles, the LunchBots brand proved to me this week that I was wise to invest a bit more cash in their products vs. the cheaper plastic competition in 2010. They stand behind their products, even 10 years after purchase!

LunchBots is one of a few companies I’ve personally patronized that opened for business c. 2008. That’s when plastic-as-poison was gaining mainstream steam, leading suburban moms like me to look for non-toxic alternatives to plastic food containers laced with BPA and other endocrine disrupting* compounds that may or may not leach at dangerous levels into what we eat and drink from them.

In 2020, LunchBots replaced a ten year old lid that my child lost. They didn’t charge me a cent, not even the actual cost of mailing it!

Replacement LunchBots Pico lid next to well worn 10 year old version Continue reading

Freeze meals in silicone bakeware to store more foodsicles in limited space

Freezing leftovers is not a new idea. Making a big batch of food and storing individual portions for later has been popular at least since mass production made containers cheaper than a home cook’s time. Sheltering at home due to COVID-19 has increased the frequency with which I do this kind of batch cooking.

Mushroom broth frozen in silicone muffin tray and stored in baggie

Recently, while browsing on Amazon, I noticed a product called Souper Cubes. These are specifically designed for freezing food in tidy, portion sized, rectangular chunks. They look incredibly functional, and I’ve added some to my Wish List.

This fairly expensive* specialty kitchen product reminded me of a similar hack I’ve employed for years. It might work just as well for you as it does for me, and it could save you money, too.

Smartware blue silicone brownie and bread pansWhen silicone baking pans first showed up at mass market stores a decade or so ago, I received a Smartware set as a gift. Since then, I’ve added a few shapes of individual silicone “muffin cups” to my collection of full size baking pans, mostly for use to create “bento style” packed lunches for my kids.

My orange Wilton muffin pan snuck into the kitchen along the way.

Frozen broth popping out of flexed silicone muffin tray

A standard size muffin compartment creates a very useful “puck” of homemade stock or broth. Half a dozen fit in a quart size freezer bag. These are easy to combine for recipes requiring larger quantities, and the small rounds melt more quickly than a solid frozen quart or even pint would.

A bread pan freezes the right portion of soup or stew for nights when I’m feeding just the kids. Couples with desk jobs would probably find this a useful size for the purpose; one large, athletic type might eat just as much. Keeping the fill to half depth or less, these “bricks” defrost in a reasonable amount of time. I reheat them back in that same blue bread pan. Being silicone, it is suitable for use in the microwave or oven.

Several stew bricks fit in a single gallon size Ziploc bag. I separate the bricks in the bag with parchment or freezer paper for tidiness and convenience.

Writing identifying descriptions and the date directly on each wrapped brick also prevents loss of external labels that tend to peel off in the chill of my freezer. I re-use the same large Ziploc over and over as long as there’s no obvious food residue inside.

A typical muffin tin or metal bread pan could obviously be used to freeze portions just as well. The main benefit of silicone containers is their flexibility. One would have to allow frozen portions to defrost quite a bit more in a rigid dish on the counter to remove them for more compact long term storage in baggies.

I think most of us are trying to shop less often to help prevent community spread during the pandemic. Freezing perishables helps me do that while avoiding feeding my family too many processed foods.

freeze silicone packed freezer - 1My freezer is crammed full, so every efficient storage trick is worth a try.

My scientist husband is particularly nonplussed by my use of the same Rubbermaid Commercial bins he uses to move frogs around his lab. It’s weird for him to pull the kids’ dinner out of one when his day-to-day experience primes him to expect a fecund xenopus.

I would enjoy the convenience of a Souper Cubes tray with its calibrated portion sizes stamped right onto the container. Those tidy rectangular prisms would probably improve the appearance of my messy freezer compartment, too. That said, I’m getting most of the usefulness of this method by using silicone items I already had at a cost of $0.

* ≈ $20/tray

Or in a Stasher silicone bag for those aiming to live plastic free. I’ve tucked a quart size Ziploc bag between the largest Stasher Half Gallon (white) and the pink Sandwich bag for scale in my photo here. The little aqua one is Stasher’s Silicone Pocket. I’ve purchased most of my Stasher stash at a slight member’s discount from online organic grocer Thrive Market.

Large, medium & small Stasher silicone storage bags with quart size Ziploc bag to show size

Sandwich generation: no, it’s not my mother’s or my daughter’s

The “sandwich generation” is a constantly moving target of those adults sandwiched between caring for children still at home and parents needing more assistance as they age.

Getting dressed this morning, I noticed that I first used “Not [My] Mother’s” shampoo, then I put on “Not [My] Daughter’s Jeans.” I feel well and truly labeled as a woman living in the current sandwich generation.

I dislike these brand names. Nope, they aren’t my daughter’s. They’re mine! I use the products in spite of their mildly offensive branding because they meet my needs.

I do find NYDJ denim fits me better than most* other jeans I’ve tried on throughout my life. This was especially true during the ultra low rise trend of the early aughts when I found the “pants falling down” sensation of low riders utterly unbearable.

It was also true of my teenaged and young adult self, however. I was frustrated when trying to buy stylish clothes to fit my figure before I was old enough to drive. They sure as hell wouldn’t have been my daughter’s jeans then, but they would have fit!

I used to blame myself and my “defective” figure; I’m now very well aware that the clothing itself is to blame. My figure, whether slightly overweight or at a healthy level of fitness, is exactly what it’s designed by my genetics to be, and that includes an above average abundance of hips.

Trends in preferences for ladies’ figures come and go, but the wide diversity of shapes and sizes of human beings stays more constant. It comes down to pure luck whether you are a narrow waif or a busty bombshell at the right time to rock the latest popular fashions.

My pants—and my shampoo, for that matter—are anything but generational markers. I resent this kind of marketing because it buys into and perpetuates the steady stream of bigotry that is ageism and generational warfare. It’s loathsome stuff.

How many articles have you seen recently about snowflake Millennials and their personal failings? Perhaps you’ve read a few about the entitled Baby Boomers and their legacy of poverty for the rest of us?

Sure, there are trends that can be seen, in hindsight, to identify a group in a certain time and place. Allowing yourself a similar set of assumptions about an individual standing before you is prejudice, plain and simple, and it serves no one when acted upon.

My mother’s shampoo is a very good one, and, if my hair were color treated like hers, it would work well for me, too. I share her fine hair texture, though mine is straighter.

And, if I had a daughter, she might well have inherited my hard-to-fit lower body. If so, I suspect she would be grateful to pull on a pair of jeans that didn’t gap at the waist, no matter how uncool the brand name.

I am living in a sandwich generation. For all its occasional inconveniences, I’m grateful for the gift of my children, though they do require my time and care. I’m happy for the privilege of having elders still with us to share their love and wisdom with those same kids, and with us, too, though more and more often they are turning to us for practical support.

This isn’t a new thing; it’s an ancient role. We’ve complicated it by breaking up the extended family and living in isolated nuclear bunches, but human lives are bounded by periods of frailty.

The very young and the very old are precious resources for us all. They may require more of our time and assistance, but our entire society benefits when someone makes these “sacrifices.” At its most base, this is reassurance that, I, too, will be cared for when I am no longer able to care for myself. And at its pinnacle, it is altruistic love that represents the height of human empathy, compassion, and potential for goodness.

*FYI: the vastly less expensive Riders by Lee also work very well for wide hips with a narrow waist. I can buy five pairs of the Lee jeans for the same money as a single pair of NYDJ jeans. Overall longevity is similar, though the NYDJ details are superior. Look how much better the much older stitched brand label on the NYDJ pair has held up than Lee’s printed logo, below. NYDJ also offers more and trendier styles.

We aren’t REALLY talking about pants today, but I’m always willing to share this kind of knowledge with other women seeking pants that fit.

Jeans Riders by Lee - 1

I order my Lee jeans from Amazon. Most of my NYDJ jeans are purchased from Nordstrom during the annual Anniversary Sale.