Saturday, January 23, 2010

Snails in the Shell, Graffiti on the Wall

For Saturday lunches, we like to turn out fast but tasty spreads of flavor. Summer finds us bringing home food from the Lebanese deli close by, or maybe the Greek store, or the Italian grocery...cold cuts, bread, olives, cheese and something different like octopus salad or falafal and baba ghanouj.

Teeth chatteringly cold Saturdays in the winter call for something different. I headed out this morning in 15F/-9C degree weather to do our Saturday morning shopping. Living downtown, far from the megamarkets, that usually means stopping at three or four little stores along the way. I stopped at five or six just to keep my eyelashes thawed. The last was a French cheese and vegetable store, where I picked up enough cheese to satisfy the many tastes of the family and then - on a whim - twelve butter and snail filled shells.

Nestled in aluminum foil to keep from tipping their butter out, they baked for ten minutes in an oven set to 450. We each had four and dripped the juices all over toasted bread to finish up. "I love snails," Caroline said. James said "no comment at this time." Which came out, "uhmmm, cheese". Will asked me to make more tomorrow.

We've got a can of snails we brought home from France last summer. We've got butter and parsley. That seems pretty much all you need to make your own. So I will. And maybe this time I'll remember to take pictures of the shells before we scoop out all the goodness!

{The graffiti lady in the top photo seems very city-like to me, so I thought I'd add her to a post about city living. The tag above her head reads "AIR".}

Monday, January 18, 2010

Understanding Exposure, a Start

{1} Prague castle in the snow; {2} toy trumpeter braves cold, poses at 6; {3} a sledding hill straight from Breugel; {4} C, kindly putting up with me and my photo taking ways.

And another book review...

Understanding Exposure, by Bryan Peterson *****

Peterson writes like a teacher, one of your favorites maybe, the one with the knack for using simple stories to clear up complexities. He starts slowly, explaining as he goes so that you can easily keep up. He hangs memorable tags on abstractions, neatly parsing aperture scenes into three types ("storytelling", "who cares" and "single theme") so that by the time you get a few chapters in, you can already start filling in his tags before he's finished. Success.

I like that he ties theory to his own photography too, showing just where in a view he takes his metering, and why. He suggests exercises, he explains every (gorgeous and well printed) photo in his book. His method is basic, and it works. I tried all the exercises twice, and read each chapter twice too, just letting the ideas sink in. It took me a few weeks to finish, just to make sure I got it.

And it worked. I did get it. I understand exposure; shutter speed and aperture are no longer mysteries to me. Depth of field, no problem; light metering, a cinch!

At least in theory. Whenever I understand something better technically, it takes time for that technique to show up. I start thinking too much, and thinking kills my ability to see. Or maybe it's the ton of snow and children demanding sledding time. No pictures, Mommie!

Everyone needs their excuses, right?

Even Understanding Exposure. It is a fabulous all around introduction, but I did miss a few things. Peterson skips focal length completely, and he rushes through filters as if the bell were about to ring. (Really rushes, it's sort of startling).

Still, if you're just getting to know your DSLR, or want to know what to do with the M setting on your better-than-a-snap-and-shoot, I'd check the book out. I gave Understanding Exposure a 5 star review on Goodreads, and I also gave it a kiss* when I finished. High praise indeed ;-).

*Thanks Meg, I really did love it!

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Snow in the City

Enough snow for sledding arrived in Prague last night and we hurried to the park this morning to make sure we didn't miss our chance before it melted away. The snow is beautiful - powdery and perfect for sledding; not good for snow balls, says Caroline.

{1} Sleds replace strollers when the snow gets thick; {2} trees iced in snow; {3} C stops by a graffiti door; {4} James still does not believe in snow, but he humors us; {center} ready for her first ride of the day.

As always, click to see a bigger picture.

Friday, January 08, 2010

New Year books

Picture unrelated to post, here for the red berries and snow. View from Braunwald, Switzerland.

I try to write down every book I read using Goodreads, and this year I thought I'd make a point of adding a note to each title to try to remember it better. Luckily Christmas and my family were kind to me and I started the year with a nice tower of books to get through. Unless anyone objects, I think I'll start posting my list on Kolo too (more posts, what an idea!). In the meantime, here are my books read so far this January:

Peril at End House, Agatha Christie ****
The usual twisty turny Poirot plot; a perfect page turner for New Year's eve and day.

The facsimile edition added an extra star to my review - imagine a light, six inch high hardback, old-fashioned type printed on sturdy vanilla stock. The book fits just right into your hands and reads gorgeously. If you like Agatha Christie, I absolutely recommend searching out these facsimile editions, they seem to be available in the UK and Germany. If you're an expat, check The Bookdepository for the lowest prices and free shipping.

Girls in Trucks, Katie Crouch ** 1/2

Living abroad, I'm plenty nostalgic for glimpses of my hometown and the area where I grew up and if I find a book that talks about South Carolina marshes, chances are I'll read it. Remembering Katie from our childhood choir and finding Trucks on my sister's shelf turned this book into a definite addition to my reading list. For once, the details about Charleston and the lowcountry didn't disappoint and I was happy to discover that becoming a writer doesn't mean you must forget the mosquitos and stinky pluff mud that add that certain something to romantic river views.

About the book though - Girls in Trucks is marketed as a novel, but it feels more like a collection of short stories laid out in chronological order. The main characters spin in and out of the stories without resolution, the perspectives change, the language shifts - all frustrating in a novel but typical in a collection of stories. Katie is an apt short story writer too, and possesses the wit and ability to spin bon mots and endings which keep these stories satisfying and lodged in your memory.

Would I recommend Girls in Trucks? If you'd like to dip into a few chapters, yes. If you want to read a novel about a developing set of characters (particularly the protagonist), maybe not. Most of the book, I couldn't bring myself to like the main character at all. I thought a pickier editor would have split her into two - she seems sharper and possibly more autobiographical in some chapters, and then hammered into a simpler and more frustratingly destructive and sterotypical shape in another. As the book ends, she resolves too swiftly upwards in a hockey stick curve that feels editor driven. I'd recommend keeping an eye on Katie as a writer though, and trying to catch her short stories as they appear.

Sick Heart River, John Buchan ***1/2
Long descriptive passages often find me (im)patiently plodding through a page (or, hmm, just flipping right by it). John Buchan's descriptions are another story - he writes words into pictures with such clarity I read them again and again to enjoy the view along with the fast paced plots and characters I'd love to meet.

Buchan's last book, Sick Heart River, has a slower plot pace and is much more introspective than the rest of his books. The painterly descriptions remain, and because of the slower pace, they stand out even more than usual as graceful, unusual images.

It is in many ways a final book - like most authors closing down their imagined world, Buchan spends a good bit of time tieing up shutters, and preparing his characters to set off toward a further shore. He even sends the protagonist, Sir Edward Leithen, north to a land that reminds me of the country Frodo sails to at the end of the Lord of the Rings. (Spoiler alert) But here Buchan does a curious thing - rather than setting Leithen to sea with a hero's farewell, he turns the tables and ends his writing world with a humane, counter fairy tale ending I found touching and unusual.

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, Agatha Christie ***

Another Agatha Christie facsimile edition, this time a collection of short stories.

The book begins with Poirot in the country enjoying an old fashioned Christmas, complete with turkey, Christmas pudding and a thick blanket of snow. The stories are enjoyable, and the mysteries somewhat easier to solve than most of her books because the clues arrive condensed. If you can hold out until next December, I'd recommend Christmas pudding then - it's an ideal over-Christmas read for those nights when just one story will do.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

A Swiss Winter Wonderland

Christmas in Zurich is about as magical as you can imagine - with lights reflecting off lake, candles balanced on tree and even a round bellied fireplace perfect for a Santa slide (see fireplace behind Caroline). Sibling happiness reigned!

After Christmas we spent a few days in the mountains. Because we were sledding and cross country skiing, we mostly avoided the crowds and got to venture into some quite remarkably remote places. My sister introduced us to the highest upper valley in Switzerland, Urnerboden (population 40), where we skiied, sledded, and watched the dog teams race across the valley floor (sadly, I didn't have my camera when they ran by).