A Year of Escapist Reading

In the seven weeks or so, I have found myself strangely drawn to two types of books: science fiction (or is it technically fantasy?) and dystopian novels. Clearly a reflection of my current view of the world.

What better way to escape than to immerse myself in another world? Thus far, it’s more magic and dragons, then space ships and lasers, but I’m not adverse to the other. As for dystopian fiction, I’m not sure if it’s an escape or a warning. Nonetheless, when I look back on favorites from the past year, I’m definitely seeing these two types jump out.

The Underground Railroad – This year-end top-10 favorite is really that good. When I first read the reviews, I was intrigued and thought about picking up this re-imagining of the Underground Railroad as an actual, physical railroad that transported runaway slaves between states (both physical and states of being, of a sort). But then Oprah jumped on it, and I thought – bleh. But. It’s good. The book almost defies description. Is it historical fiction? No doubt Cora’s experiences are based on historical fact. But then there’s the fantasy of the railroad that travels under people’s homes and was built by, well, who knows who built it. And there’s the dystopian, sometimes Orwellian touches in how various states have decided to address slavery. Creative concept, beautifully written, searing descriptions and above all, a will to survive and thrive.

The Brotherhood of the Wheel – The Knights Templar of the Middle Ages, Dan Brown page turners and countless other treasure-hunting tales still exist today. They are a collection of truck drivers, bikers, cops and others who protect innocents traveling the roads. The predators? There’s your run of the mill serial killer, maybe some zombies (go with it) and something darker? And then there’s the road itself, and the power that lies beneath. A mish-mash of characters, but each with a good back story, who find themselves in a battle against evil. And if you’re a music fan, know that the author is too, and the songs that come on the radio or jukebox or wherever the characters are, well, that’s an important part of the story, as well. Oh, and there’s a sequel. Out next year.

The Handmaid’s Tale – I know, I can’t believe I never read Margaret Atwood’s classic, either. But in the wake of the election, it felt, necessary. So off it came from one of the back pages of my Kindle library. I can’t believe she wrote this 30 years ago – so much of it seems prescient: democracy ends because of Islamic terror attacks. In an all digital economy, women are easily targeted and cut off. Women are breeders or wives on pedestals or they are “unwomen.” Sound familiar? It’s not a screed though. It’s well-written and sharply descriptive. I’ll admit I’m not quite finished with the novel, but 75% of the way in, I think this certainly qualifies as a top read.

Eligible – In honor of the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen and the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, two groups have commissioned contemporary authors to retell their stories. Eligible, set in modern day Cincinnati, where Jane is a yoga instructor and Lizzie a magazine writer, with Bingley and Darcy as hot shot surgeons and Mrs. Bennett as a devotee to reality TV shows, might take the cake. It’s sharp and clever, and if you’re a fan of the original, you’ll like the modern recastings. If not, you’ll enjoy the read anyhow.

The Secret Chord – King David was the first historical figure to be chronicled from birth through childhood through adulthood and death. But what do we really know about the person? Geraldine Brooks’s David isn’t particularly virtuous or sympathetic, but he feels real and he is really flawed. Hence the tragedy. Downside: she uses traditional Hebrew (?) names so even if you are vaguely familiar with the biblical stories, you won’t necessarily recognize it right away.

Arcadia – A group of writers gather regularly at a pub in the countryside of England to read each other’s stories. Sort of like how Tolkein, C.S. Lewis and others did during WWII … Then the stories the professor writes get intertwined with his life. Is he writing a story of another timeline? The future? The past? Or is that story influencing (writing) his daily life? Add in a storyline that doesn’t seem connected until further into the book, and you have Arcadia. The threads eventually come together and yes, there is a conclusion.

Queen of the Night – This books is long and lush, with the main character moving between worlds and realities the way an opera singer moves through sets. Who is she? Well, that’s a secret that only 4 people know – a friend, a lover, the love of her life and her deadliest enemy. She’s poverty-stricken, she’s a kept woman, she’s Empress Eugenie’s servant, she’s an opera singer, she’s at the Commune – you get the picture. You become entangled in the story she’s written for herself. Can she escape it? Operatic in scope and feel.

And two nonfiction books make my list as well:

Black Flags The Rise of ISIS – Because you can’t escape reality all the time …. Black Flags is a good, informative read on the founding of ISIS. It’s terrifying, and timely. You can vaguely remember many of the events chronicled in the book, and the stories echo in what you read in today’s news. Warrick is a good storyteller with excellent sources, particularly among the Jordanian services, who (naturally) have their own POV.

Valiant Ambition – This book about George Washington and Benedict Arnold tells the stories of the two famous Revolutionary War figures, before their places in history are set, as they are barreling toward their fates. I wish I had read a physical book, so I could follow the detailed maps and drawings, but I muddled along as best I could. It’s a reminder that we control our own destinies and that long game is the one that’s worth winning.

What were your notable reads of the year? I’m always looking for book recs!

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RIP Monsieur Le Kindle

It’s been two days, and nothing. No word from lost and found. No email or voicemail that a Kindle e-reader with a leather green cover (with light) had been found in the seat back pocket of 11A on an American shuttle from LaGuardia to National Airport (or vice versa).

He’s gone.

I’m resigned. I’ve deactivated him. He joins Original Kindle in my Kindle graveyard.

It’s fitting that I lost Green Kindle on an airplane; I learned of Original Kindle at an airport. Logan Airport in Boston, on the shuttle back to DC after a week-long work trip. It was hot. I was sweaty, and the battery on my phone was dying. Despite my rigged charging case and constant plug-ins, my phone battery was moving ever quicker to the left. I was standing in line in the jetway, about to get on the plane, when I took my phone out to turn it off. That’s when I noticed the message.

Of course, the battery indicator was already dangerously red. The number wasn’t familiar, but the area code … maybe a client or contact trying to reach me? I listened to the message in the noisy jetway, and then quickly hit the call back button.

I’m on a plane home, but I got your message. Please don’t give my Kindle away. I’ll call you when I land. You can send my Kindle to the address on my business card.

Yes, those conference booth giveaways actually give things away.

I loved Original Kindle. I bought him a periwinkle rubberized back to keep from him from getting scuffs or dirt on the clean white surface. So light, so easy to read. No more weighing down my suitcase with heavy books. Now I could pack them on Original Kindle. I could buy things to read later – yep, still trying to work my way out of that backlog ….!

Thus, I entered a new relationship with reading, where I could take Original Kindle and my new library anywhere.

But Original Kindle had a flaw. Not a flaw, more a failing. He didn’t have a light. Reading in bed still meant getting up to turn the light off, or using a rigged light on the headboard.

G, jealous of Original Kindle, bought the newer version for himself. Then he tried to insinuate himself between me and Original Kindle. Your Kindle is so old, he would say.

In time, I gave in and acquired a new Kindle, and G bought me the green leather cover with pull out light. Original Kindle went to my mom, who tried e-reading, but preferred physical books. Original Kindle passed onto her neighbor’s daughter. I think a way for my mom to encourage the girl’s extra-curricular reading habits.

Kindle III

Kindle III

So now I have Kindle III – 300 dpi, built-in light and adjusts to low light situations. It can be linked to my Goodreads account and can access all my books on the cloud. Kindle III is lighter and only holds the books that I’m reading. So I’m not even weighed down by barely there e-books.

But oh, progress is painful.

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DC Restaurant Week Blehs

I remember being excited for Restaurant Week – way back when. But now? It’s my least favorite week of the year.

In theory, Restaurant Week is a great chance to try hot new places, go for an upscale lunch or get a splurge-y dinner at a decent price. And in the past, I’ve done all three – gone to try a new restaurant or more “adventurous” type of cuisine with a group of girls … met a friend for lunch (much nicer than Potbelly) or had a date night with G.

More recently, I find Restaurant Week to be annoying. Restaurants are overcrowded and kitchens overwhelmed. Wait staff are harried and in some cases surly. They’re working as hard as ever, but making less … I’d be annoyed, too, although I hope more subtle than our server at Charlie Palmer who paused dramatically before snarkily saying “and here’s the Restaurant Week menu.” Sure, we ended up back at Charlie Palmer more than once – full price – and we even laughed at our previous Restaurant Week experience. But still.

It’s like going out on New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure restaurants are really at their best.

And where it started as a way to bring in traffic during traditionally slow periods, Restaurant Week may have outlived its usefulness. Seriously. I’m not sure restaurants are loving Restaurant Week so much anymore. Some limit their offerings to lunch and others have such limited offerings, with a supplement for almost everything, I’m not sure why they do it.

Even for lunch, so many places have regular “business man’s” lunch specials that ….

So this grouchy grandma is just going to stay home during Restaurant Week. And plan to be out in force the last two weeks of August when I might be able to sneak into some high-demand places, while everyone else is at the beach. My personal Restaurant Week(s), if you will.

 

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First Time Was Great, This Is Going Well, But …?

Making new friends at any age can be tough. The first grader I read to has a sure fire way to make friends in 5 seconds. Wanna hear it, he asked? Sure:

Hi, my name is Jay.

What’s your name?

Do you want to be my friend?

Adorable, right? If only it works for 26 and 36 and 46 year olds, as well as 6 year olds. I mean, there’s even an app for it. Mostly, adults just muddle along, picking up a random friend or two at work, in the neighborhood, or in the case of many people, at the kids’ carpool or sports team.

Every now and then, though, you connect with someone at a social event. How to proceed?

It is like dating: you need to get a blessing or at least an “okay” from the mutual friends, the unwitting connectors. G and I did this a couple years ago when we really hit it off with another couple at E & I’s party. We literally asked if it would be okay if we invited the potential new friends to a party at our house. Where current friends E & I would be in attendance, of course. It all went swimmingly, until they – the new friends – split up. But we quickly decided we were sorted as “her” friend and proceeded.

Sometimes, circumstances conspire against you. So you want to be friends and your mutual friends are supportive, but you just need one more run-in to seal the deal. Then the potential friends go dark. Before they even knew your offer of friendship was about to be put on the table. Or did they?

Then there are the couples that you run into, look forward to seeing at the mutual friends, but you’re just not sure you are ready to commit.

Earlier this summer, we were getting ready to go to a friend’s wedding, when G asked, in his very introverted way: Who do you think we’ll know?

Other than the bride and groom? Probably a couple people from where she and I used to work together, maybe some of her neighborhood friends and dog people we’ve met at her house …. Then I hit on it: the bride’s sister Karen and now brother-in-law Dan. That’s who G had in mind.

Backstory: G had been in a perverse mood when we met Karen and Dan a few years back. He decided to tell people he was a professional curler. I’m not sure why. But he stuck to the story, and a few beers seemed to enliven his embellishment of the curling story.

I hadn’t realized this, of course. So when I went into the kitchen and saw G talking to a captivated couple, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I don’t think Karen and Dan thought G was a curler, but they couldn’t figure out his deal. Or frankly, who he was.

Fast forward. We are at the wedding, socializing, and then we see them: Karen and more importantly for G, Dan. We sit down at a table with them, chatting. It’s great. I’ll venture to say the bromance was a little mutual. The spark is there. We have so much in common. We’ll go to dinner and see how it goes. We even joke about it whether we just leave things on this high note or try to get together and make it even better.

I connect with Karen on Facebook a few days after her sister’s wedding. We exchange “likes” of each other’s photos. I mention something to my friend, who laughs and says, yeah, they really like you guys, too. (I take that to be her blessing).

Then … nothing. I haven’t taken the next step. To be fair, neither does she. I’m not sure why. Inertia? Too much going on at work? With travel? Summer commitments? It’s been 2 months now, too late to extend that invitation to dinner, right?

I suppose we just wait until the next time we see them. In the meantime, we’ll always have the shared memory of fun times at other people’s parties.

 

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Head On Up to Tail Up Goat

Even before the weekend started, I was in an upbeat mood about our two planned dinner events. I had been looking forward to Tail Up Goat. Good reviews and a personal endorsement from a friend who liked food (get the lamb ribs, he said). But now, I was even more inclined to like the place.

My cousin texted that he was in town from LA for a few days. Let’s get together. So I called Tail Up Goat to see if I could change our Friday night 8:30 pm for 2 to a reservation sometime that night for 3. Understanding, of course, that going from 2 to 3 meant a larger table and could be a challenge, particularly at a hot retaurant. Truth be told, I was already scanning restaurant availability at other places as I talked to the woman on the phone.

We’re really booked up, she said nicely. Sigh, totally understandable. I was about to say, thanks, let’s cancel and see you another time, when she asked me to call later in the evening, after they had confirmed all reservations. She would put a note next to my name and see what they could do. “I’m Jill, one of the owners, so please ask for me.”

Cool. And even better, when I called later that night, Jill told me she had managed to move some things around, and if we could bump back to 8:45, she could seat us then. Awesome!

The food at Tail Up Goat was as delicious and flavorful, as their management was organized, friendly and customer-oriented. In other words, it was excellent, surpassing expectation even. There wasn’t one dish that wasn’t terrific.

Since the lamb ribs were for 2 people, we added another larger, entree style plate and then selected an assortment of bites (2) and small-to-medium plates (2). Turned out to be plenty of food for three hungry people, without being too much.

Of the bites, I thought I’d like the cod fritters, but really love the rabbit sausage. It was the other way around. The fritters were perfectly fried, crispy on the outside, but soft in the middle with the cauliflower tucked in there, the mustard sauce and pickled vegetables on the plate cutting the rich fried taste. The rabbit sausage, on the other hand, while good and creatively plated, seemed to pale a bit by comparison.

Cod fritters

Cod fritters

Rabbit sausage

Rabbit sausage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best taste of the night had to the be the pici. I think both G and my cousin were slightly skeptical. Pasta with uni sauce, squash blossoms and toasted bread crumbs. It was a little hard to image, but every forkful of this creamy, buttery pasta was amazing. The breadcrumbs added texture and bite in contrast to the silky smoothness of the sauce. The pasta standing up to the rich yet delicate flavors. I could have eaten an entire mountain of this dish. But then would have rolled downhill to get home …

I suppose the seaweed sourdough with seaweed and pickled oyster was Tail Up’s variation on avocado toast. But so much better. Again, the interplay of crunchy (bread) and salty (seaweed) and rich (oyster) was perfectly balanced. I’ll chose not to think about the whipped lardo. Although I’m sure that was the key contributor to the toasted crunch on the sourdough …

Pici, best dish among many excellent dishes

Pici, best dish among many excellent dishes

seaweed sourdough

seaweed sourdough

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

lamb ribs

lamb ribs

The famous lamb ribs did not disappoint. They came right off the bone and shockingly, didn’t make a mess. The spices were rubbed into the meat, some crusted on the outside surface, but with a flavor that penetrated into the ribs. Here the beets and yogurt sauce counterbalanced the meat flavor.

The pork chop was also excellent, and the Mediterranean style beans with tomato sauce delicious. I might have just wanted the vegetables in that dish – over orzo or underneath roasted fish.

We wanted to try dessert. As in really wanted to, but it wasn’t going to happen. So putting that on the list for next time. Also, the roasted chicken, which intriguingly is only “while supplies last”

A note about the location. If you haven’t been in Adams Morgan in a while, you should stop by. There are still some divey bars and pizza by the slice places, but you also have shiny new apartment buildings and redone spaces. Tail Up Goat is in the ground floor of one of these new buildings, next to a bright, glassy coffee shop that wraps around the corner of Adams Mill Road and Lanier Place. The entire corner looks beautiful, the perfect intersection of city vibe and warm, comfortable neighborhood. Kinda like Tail Up Goat.

 

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