Playing Catch-Up….

catch_up

So – time for a general catch-up with reading and life in general. Work continues at warp speed and so I’m still not quite back to full-tilt reading, but I’m reading when I can.

I’m in the middle of a fantastic read by Gerard Woodward (whose book August I loved and reviewed a while back). His publisher got in touch with me about his newer title, Vanishing, which is great and I am finding that I look forward to every moment that I can find to read that story. More in-depth review to come, but suffice to say, Woodward is a great author!

book450I wanted to read another classic (specifically by Dickens), so I picked his non-fiction travel writing about his first visit to America called (strangely enough) American Notes. Well, I’ve heard Dickens’ writing called a lot of things, but truth be told, this book is actually very very funny in parts and has frequently made me laugh out loud when I’m reading it at the gym. I had no idea that Dickens had this dry sly sense of humor, but he does and there’s plenty of it in this book. There are, I admit, a couple of chapters which are heavy-handed (typical Victorian) writing about the state of prisons in the U.S., prison reform, slavery and disability rights, but they’re not too long and he did have a point. (The prisons were dreadful at the time and Dickens was a big advocate for changing that – especially solitary confinement – and the justice system in general.) However, once he returns to the world of travel, the tone returns to very witty commentary about his journeys. (Honestly, if I was a betting person, I would bet that Bill Bryson has read this Dickens book at some point because they both take the same tone about traveling around. If you like Bryson, you’ll like this particular Dickens. Just don’t be put off by the prison reform bits. The rest of it is really pretty funny for the most part.) Anyway, longer review to follow, but this is a good travelogue of early American life. (WARNING: It’s not always complimentary towards America/Americans but it does have grains of truth to it.)

book451Did a quick read of the graphic novel bestseller called Ghost World by Daniel Clowes. Not one of my favorite reads as both of the two lead characters are hard to like, swear like sailors and have an extremely jaded approach at life. I know a lot of people really like this read of these two disaffected teenaged friends, but I rather wish that I could take that hour of reading time back to use on something else. But it’s good to know what people are talking about when they mention Ghost World now.

movie_1

When I haven’t been reading, we’ve caught a couple of really good movies. “This is Where I Leave You” is a movie adaptation of a novel of the same name by Jonathon Tropper (both good). (My book review is right here.) The plot focuses around a family of adult children and mother who all share close quarters for a week as was the final wish for their newly deceased father. It’s poignant and funny, and I think it’s one of the most honest representations of what life would probably be like if grown-up siblings were forced to spend a whole week together after years of having their own independent lives. Bitter-sweet and an overall really good movie.

movie2Another movie we viewed was an indie flick called “In a World”, fictional drama about the world of high-level voice-over artists vying for a gig doing the voice-over for the trailer of a huge blockbuster trailer about to be released. Again, grown-up siblings closely interacting, their lives not running according to plan (because whose does, really?) and some very sly humor. Not a comedy, but more of a poignant drama which was extremely satisfying and will be added to my list of top ten fav movies. (As will the Tropper movie above.)

Still watching the fantastic series, “The Wire” – wow. Talk about unpredictable plot twists and now we’re in Season Three, we’ve got a strong background in the characters and who they are etc., so it’s always a good watch. Good for when you want a serious hard-hitting drama and a nice replacement for House of Cards (although a very different take on the world).

And it’s been raining, raining, raining a lot for this semi-arid place we live in. It is the rainy season, that’s true, but this has been a chilly and wet start to summer for these parts. Next stop: Home Depot for ark-building materials. (Certainly not complaining about the rain though. We need the moisture in these here parts.)

www,photostock.am (Fotolia.com)

www,photostock.am (Fotolia.com)

Snowflakes and Sequential Art…

LBB_snow

It’s been unusually snowy for the last few days here in West Texas, and since it is rather infrequent for our area, that means that workplaces tend to veer on the side of caution which, for me, meant a SNOW DAY for the entire university. I don’t know about you, but for us here, an entire snow day is almost unheard of and thus there was much rejoicing across the city when this news was announced very early that morning.

(And here I must beg understanding from those of you who have been piled under huge snow drifts for most of 2015. We probably only got about 4”-6” and some drifting but when you don’t get much, it’s Snow-pocalypse.)

And so these unexpected free hours have been spent wallowing in books (naturellement) and in graphic novels in particular. The library had had a graphic novel display last time that I had visited and there were quite a few titles that I hadn’t seen before and which looked interesting. And thus, the link between snowflakes and sequential art (another name for graphic novels, which, to be honest, seems like another name for grown-up comics – “grown-up” not in a naughty way but in a not-kid-like way.)

book340First up on the pile was a small book called “Midnight Sun” by Ben Towle (2007), a GN story that was based on a true historical event in 1928 when an Italian airship crashed in the Arctic on the way back from a trip to the North Pole (an event that I’d never heard of). The group of survivors was composed of men from European countries and theirs was a rather harrowing journey of survival (as were others around that time and before). I am not sure how much of the story was true (apart from the actual crash), but the story seemed pretty non-fiction without any magical realism elements in it and seeing as it featured snow in a starring role seemed an a propos title to start the read. Overall, this was ok but nothing too amazing.

book341Next was an English GN called “The Tale of One Bad Rat” by Bryan Talbot (1995), an author/artist who has done work with Neil Gaiman, another author out there. This title was more reality-based (but still fiction) that dealt with a young English woman who runs away from her home to escape ongoing childhood sexual abuse. So – not an easy read, but handled well. The protagonist has a pet rat that she rescued from her school lab and so they’re both on the run from horrible lives. Although this story ends in the way you’d expect it to, it was still a great read (despite the horrible issue) and was very well done. I thought Talbot nailed the slightly gritty side of England really well, and that was refreshing to see. So – this was a good one.

book342Third up was a GN titled “Country of Wolves” by Neil Christopher/Ramon Perez (2013) and this may have been good, but I didn’t get that far as it was far too scary for me. :-} It did come with a CD of the short animation film of the book, but again – too scary for this feeble creature.

And then I pulled out my old Raymond Briggs (UK author) but I’ll save those for another day.

book345And, to finish up, I really did read some comics as I happen to have a 1988 Dandy Annual (featuring old chestnuts like Desperate Dan and Korky the Cat) and which was actually groaningly humorous in places. We all three kids would get Saturday morning printed comic books of Beano, Dandy, and Beezer and there would be much sharing to make them last longer. (More of the explosions and accident humor of 1950s Tom and Jerry cartoons than the gentle comics of nowadays, and yet we survived to live the day…) 🙂

This was a fun way to spend the day, and thanks to the Weather Gods for providing us with a nice snowy day.

A Bit Windy in West Texas…

Driving to work last week...

Driving to work last week…

The spring time months in some parts of the world means flowers opening, trees budding, and a relief from severe cold weather. Here in West Texas, spring tends to mean something else: Dust.

You may have seen the dust storms in cowboy movies of the past: high levels of wind, dust close to the ground (and up) turning the lower part of the sky brown, tumble weeds blowing across the screen… My friends and country people – this is all true for where I live. There’s little Hollywood hyperbole needed to convey the dust storm experience on screen.

And we have had a dusty few days this week, including a haboob which arrived late yesterday afternoon. (I didn’t know about it as I was inside, but the pics look impressive.)

Haboob coming into town. (Photo: NWS/Lubbock.)

Haboob coming into town. (Photo: NWS/Lubbock.)

People complain about the dust, but it’s to be expected when one lives in a semi-arid environment (like where we are), we haven’t had any truly large rain storms since before Christmas (only 0.2” rainfall so far this year), we are in the midst of a severe decade-long drought, and there is little ground cover (mostly due to agricultural concerns). (In fact, I saw an article where one of our local towns was going to run out of water in 60 – 90 days if we didn’t get rain. Run. Out. Of. Water!)

Better than we were in 2011, but still in drought conditions... Illustration: NWS/Lubbock.

Better than we were in 2011, but still in drought conditions… Illustration: NWS/Lubbock.

And yet people continue to groan and mumble about the water restrictions for watering their lawns, and businesses hoist signs saying “We have private wells” so they can avoid the code restrictions and water their landscaping with impunity. Without rain and further water exploration research, it’s not unforeseeable that semi-arid (and other arid) places are going to turn in to deserted towns (a la cowboy movies).

All this to say that we made the MSN front page this morning with our dust storm of yesterday

I don’t have the answer to solving the water shortage problem – it’s not just here in West Texas – but I do wish people would focus some resources on researching options. If one of our neighboring towns runs out of water (and we get no more rain), what then?

(And, to bring this back to bookishness, in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, part of the back story is that Texas has withered up and been blown away to end up an uninhabitable place. And then of course, I have to mention Tim Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, Dorothy Scarborough’s early classic The Wind, and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath…)

I love living in West Texas. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not being alarmist, but the question remains: will there be a habitable West Texas to love in 20 years time?

Photo: NWS/Lubbock.

Photo: NWS/Lubbock.

Weather Report….

Source: BBC UK.

Source: BBC UK.

The town I call home happens to be located at the tail end of what’s called “Tornado Alley” which stretches from the Northern Plains way up in South Dakota to almost the bottom of the Texas Panhandle. (See pic to clear this up if you’re not up on U.S. geography.)

Tornado season is upon us (as evidenced by news coverage of the places in Oklahoma who have been slammed by these lately). I happen to work for a large university’s research institute which focuses on wind damage and mitigation, and is at the forefront of such research. I don’t do the research side of things, but I do a lot of writing and editing linked with that, so I’ve learned a lot about severe weather events (as they’re called).  They’re complex, multi-faceted, and incredibly powerful.

I’ve lived in this city for a long time – 30 years this August was when I first stepped foot on to this particular American soil – and one of the first things I noticed in the college dorms when I arrived were these yellow rip-off postcards with the steps to take if a tornado happens. I had just come from England where the rain was fairly mellow most of the time – not that many severe events – and so I was fascinated that now I lived in a place where such things as tornadoes could occur.

An example of the tornado public info cards that are commonly distributed around our town.

An example of the tornado public info cards that are commonly distributed around our town.

All this to say, that we had some severe weather last night. Huge thunderstorms, winds about 80 mph, rain and hail – all very loud and heavy. Thank goodness no tornado, but it was severe for here. Several of our windows were broken by hail (with holes in the glass about the size of baseballs or cricket balls). A big branch landed on the roof and shook the whole house. Power out. I haven’t been exposed to such extreme weather in a long time, and my massive respect for Mother Nature has now been renewed.

There seems to be nothing that you can do when you’re in the midst of a huge storm like this. I just walked around the house (which seemed to be very inadequate against the wind and rain), and got startled out of my skin each time a window pane was broken. It was as sudden and as strong as someone throwing a cricket ball or baseball through the glass. It all happened in quick succession on the West side of the house, and all you can do is stand there and jump when another pane gets broken. It’s amazing. We had our eyes glued to the weather on TV (whenever the power was on), just hoping not to get a tornado. It was one of the most awe-inspiring humbling experiences in my life.

Luckily, all is safe and sound. All the pets are fine. We’re fine. And to be honest, this is very minor when compared with the tornadoes in El Reno and Moore, OK.

So – now on to calling and arranging insurance people to assess the damage. This was an amazing experience… We did have the plan to jump into the heavy cast-iron bathtub covered with a mattress if things came to that, but thank goodness we passed through this with minor damage.

Thoughts go to those who have received much harsher treatment from the Weather Gods lately.

And then (below), here is a photo of a guy in the neighborhood who is meticulous about his front lawn. He is Hoovering the paths of his front garden after the storm had passed. Really honestly true.

Guy vacuuming his front garden paths.

Guy vacuuming his front garden paths.

The Snowflake – Kenneth Libbrecht and Patricia Rasmussen (2003)

Snowflake bk cover

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe…his eyes are dead.

Albert Einstein, 1930.

A lucky find at B&N (despite my grumble about this behemoth book store earlier). This title is a very in-depth explanation of snowflakes (or “snow crystals” to be more accurate) by one of the world’s foremost snow researchers. The explanation takes it down to the atomic and molecular levels, talk of which would normally make me run screaming in fear from the room. (Haven’t any science since I was 16. No physics or chemistry since I dropped them as fast as I could at the age of 12.)

However, Libbrecht (coupled with the microphotos by Rasmussen) makes it as clear as they can about the life cycle of a snowflake, and if I can understand it, trust me dear reader, you can as well.  The author is a professor (not sure at which school – CalTech?) who helps even a rather non-science-y person through the maze – he decodes jargon, uses metaphor for complicated theory, and doesn’t really “dumb it down” but does make it more accessible. It was a whole new world for me to enter.

I have always been completely intimidated by physics since I was much younger and optioned out of that class as soon as I could. However, I have worked in medical, scientific and engineering worlds since then, and can actually see the point of these things now. (Not at all clear in my 12-year old head back then so there was a lot of time spent burning wooden spills in the Bunsen burner instead of really listening…)

The chapters are organized logically, going from the big picture (“why is snow white?” and the genesis of snowflakes) to the micro level and is clearly illustrated by photography from both Libbrecht and Rasmussen. Libbrecht has a snowflake lab where he and his team can study the morphology of snowflakes, and yes – even design their own personal snow flake if they so wish. There is a section called the Field Guide to Snowflakes (for identification: stellar dendrite, anyone?) and it’s just plain interesting.  It was also cool to see overlaps between wind and snowflakes (seeing as I work in wind science and engineering). I actually had no idea it would be *so* interesting to be honest.

Due to the science stuff covered, I wouldn’t call this the easiest read in the world, but if you don’t freak out about the jargon and physics in general, perhaps you’ll find it as fascinating as I did. (Read it on Sunday afternoon – could not put it down really.)

A Snowy Dough-y Day…

Here in West Texas, the weather can be somewhat unpredictable and extreme at times – extremely hot, extremely cold, and sometimes in the middle. Yesterday meant a huge snow storm (for around here). We knew the storm had been coming – lots of it on the news – but still, I was surprised at how persistent the snow was. It snowed on and off (but mostly on) for all of the daylight hours of Sunday. As I do not have that much snow experience, I found it to be hypnotic when I gazed out of the window at the flakes falling from the leaden sky. There were a lot of really huge snowflakes floating around, and it was easy to fall into a reverie after a while if you weren’t careful. Perhaps you get used to this if you are exposed to snow a lot where you live – to me, it was fascinating.

This is what the front looked like when we got up in the morning:

This is what it looked like around tea time:

(I recognize that this small amount of snowfall is paltry compared to some places. It’s just exciting when it happens in a place where it doesn’t come much. This snow fall (and the accompanying ice) led to Monday’s school cancellations, the university closing for half the day, and numerous other delays. Lubbock tends to err on the side of caution about snow.)

So, whilst all this snow was falling from the sky, I read my book (shocker!), made bread (much more of a shocker), and made loads of beef stew. It was a good day to be in the kitchen. (If ever there is a good day to be in the kitchen, it’s a rare snowy winter day here in Texas.)

So, the bread:

After having been seduced by the gorgeous and enthusiastic writing of Jane Brocket’s “The Gentle Art of Domesticity”, I wanted to make bread to see if it was really that hard and complicated.  I found a whole wheat bread recipe on allrecipes.com (great site, btw), and just followed all the instructions. I had read that it’s important to follow the directions to the “t” with baking, so didn’t do my usual “caution to the winds” style of cooking that I usually do (being approximate with measuring ingredients etc.). The only thing puzzling – all the bread recipes I found kept mentioning “bread flour”, but when I went to the grocery, there was no bread flour anywhere that I could see. “Bread flour”? Is this a special kind of flour? (I presume that it is.) Anyhoo, I just used normal whole wheat flour, and it seemed to work out ok…

The finished product (above). (Shiny because the recipe made a big point about brushing the crusts with melted butter right when the loaves came out of the oven to prevent a hard crust.) I thought the loaves would be taller (i.e. rise more), but perhaps that is what the elusive bread flour does.

The loaves tasted really good (especially warm from the oven and slathered with strawberry jam), and the kitchen smelled fantastic. I think someone should bottle that smell as an air freshener. Yum. So, this was my first experiment with the bread world (without using a bread machine which we had, never used and sold), and I quite enjoyed it. I don’t think making bread will become a regular habit, but this was the perfect day for it and I actually had all the ingredients and the time to do it. Good times.

(I also made two hundred gallons of beef stew which is perfect for snowy days and freezes well for future cold days.)

MONDAY UPDATE: This being Lubbock, Texas, most of the snow is now melting, it’s going to be a high of about 70 degrees, and the sky is bright blue. Odd weather. It was about five degrees yesterday (as the high when 32 is freezing).

Avi Puppy loved the snow as well. Muttley the Ancient One, not so much. Both cats, of course, bolted into the house as soon as the door was opened. They know a warm place when they see it.