Archive for the ‘Books’ category

“It’s spring and I’m blind”

July 6, 2011

I recently finished reading “The Idea Writers: Copywriting in a New Media and Marketing Era” by Teressa Iezzi. Overall I enjoyed the book, which thoroughly discusses successful marketing campaigns– mostly digital– from the last decade or so. I would say the part that stands out the most is toward the beginning.

Iezzi brings up a true story about a blind beggar on a street corner. The man’s sign reads “I’m blind. Please help.” Sadly, no one is giving him money. An observant copywriter walks up to the man and changes his message to “It’s spring and I’m blind.”

This simple rephrasing changes everything. Instead of receiving nothing, he starts getting loads of money. Something about the new phrase appeals to people’s emotions, which really speaks to the power of good writing.

Some random gastronomical musings

March 6, 2011
  • The Flour Bakery + Cafe’s cookbook rocks. I’ve never actually made anything from the book (nor do I own it), but I’ve sampled two desserts from it. One was a chocolate cupcake with white butter frosting, and the other was a lemon square. A friend of ours brought over some of the lemon squares the other night, and I can’t stop thinking about how good they are.

The remaining lemon squares

  • Wegmans rocks. You’ve all heard of this amazing grocery store right? Each year, the Rochester, NY-based supermarket makes Fortune magazine’s list of best places to work. Not to mention the store has an excellent selection of produce, baked goods, meat, and much more. Well this past week, when I was in Syracuse for some wedding planning, my mom made veal and spaghetti with Wegmans’ vodka sauce.

The sauce is unbelievably tasty. Its ingredients include diced tomatoes, tomato puree, diced onions, cream, olive oil, vodka, Romano cheese, roasted garlic, and basil. She mixed the sauce with cooked mushrooms, put the mixture atop spaghetti, and served it with Wegmans-brand veal.

My mom bought some of the Wegmans-brand veal for me to bring back to Boston.

I love how the veal is nice and skinny. My mom basically dipped the veal pieces into an egg and flour mixture; then covered them with breadcrumbs. She cooked the veal in some olive oil for a couple of minutes, put mozzarella on top of the veal pieces, and microwaved them for a minute. So the cheese was nice and melted atop the crispy veal. Oh my gosh I was in heaven eating this meal. It was of restaurant quality (a good restaurant, that is)!

I stopped by the local wine store, looking for a decent boxed wine. As I was reading the back of this one, a lady giving out samples of another wine told me a couple of customers had just recommended this one. So I went with it. It was pretty reasonably priced ($15 for 1.5 liters, which is two bottles-worth), and it is organic/contains no sulfites. I’m no oenophile; I just like a smooth, decent-tasting wine. Well, this one fits the bill. I mean, it’s a little spicier than the wines I’m used to, but by no means is that a negative thing. I would surely purchase this brand of wine again.

A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton

February 8, 2011

I am in the midst of reading A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton. I heard about the book on the “On Point” radio show. As you can guess, de Botton (a Swiss-born philosopher) spends a week at an airport. In this case, it’s the Heathrow Airport in London. He’s actually asked by the company that owns the airport to partake in the project. They sort of want to show off the new Terminal 5, but also provide the public with an in-depth look at an airport.

The idea is that travelers, in their rush to get to their destination, often overlook the ins and outs of what’s going on around them (including the philosophical questions that airports and travel evoke). So de Botton is assigned to a desk in the middle of the terminal, where he makes observations, interviews travelers and airport employees, and takes notes. He put his thoughts into the approximately 100-page book. The book includes many colorful photos from his time at the airport.

I’m about halfway through A Week at the Airport, and I have to say I have mixed feelings about it. Sometimes I like de Botton’s excrutiatingly detailed observations/long sentences, and other times I find they get in the way of my interpretation of what’s going on. In other words, I’m expending so much effort trying to understand what he’s saying that they slow me down. This description of de Botton’s hotel (and its surroundings) reflects his style:

“The hotel and terminal seemed like a giant machine poised in standby mode, emitting an uncanny hum from a phalanx of slowly rotating exhaust fans. I thought of the hotel’s spa, its hot tub perhaps still bubbling in the darkness. The sky was a chemical orange colour, observing the final hours of the fragile curfew it has been keeping ever since it had swallowed up the last of the previous evening’s Asia-bound flights. Jutting from the side of the terminal was the disembodied tail of British Airways A321, anticipating another imminent odyssey in the merciless cold of the lower stratosphere.”

I enjoy de Botton’s frequent philosophical musings. Like when he writes about a man who screams after arriving at the terminal too late to board his Tokyo-bound plane. The man is very upset that he can’t fly for another 48 hours, and that he’ll miss out on a day of meetings. De Botton follows the little anecdote with these two paragraphs:

“I was reminded of the Roman philosopher Seneca’s treatise On Anger, written for the benefit of the Emperor Nero, and in particular of its thesis that the root cause of anger is hope. We are angry because we are overly optimistic, insufficiently prepared for the frustrations endemic to existence. A man who screams every time he loses his keys or is turned away at an airport is evincing a touching but recklessly naive belief in a world in which keys never go away and our travel plans are invariable assured.

Given Seneca’s analysis, it was ominous to note the direction that the airline was taking in its advertising. It was promising ever more confidently to try its very best to serve, to please and to be punctual. As a result, in an industry as vulnerable to disaster as this one, there were surely many more screams to come.”

I also enjoy how de Botton’s ruminations patch together different times and places. For example, he discusses how the wealthy carry the least amount of luggage because they believe they can now buy anything anywhere. He goes on to say:

“But they had perhaps never visited a television retailer in Accra or they might have looked more favorably upon a Ghanian family’s decision to import a Samsung PS50, a high-definition plasma machine the weight and size of a laden coffin.”

While that passage referred to another part of the world, the one below refers to another time– the future. De Botton has just discussed the casual way in which ground staff and colleagues in a plane greet one another after an 11,000-kilometer journey:

“Then again, the welcome may be no more effusive a hundred years hence, when, at the close of a nine-minute voyage, against the eerie blood-red midday light bathing a spaceport in Mars’s Cydonian hills, a fellow human knocks at the gold-tinted window of our just-docked craft.”

Overall I’m enjoying the book, though I sometimes have a problem with its overly windy passages, and lack of action. De Botton muses over the simplest-seeming of gestures or happenings, but sometimes I find myself wanting to draw my own conclusions. Tell me what’s happening, and I’ll make my own interpretations. But maybe he hasn’t seen enough in a week at the airport to provide enough good stories.

Lemon flounder with capers

January 26, 2011

Lemon flounder with capers and white rice

Craving a yummy fish meal but don’t have a l0t of time? If this is your situation, consider making the lemon flounder with capers recipe I tried out last night. The fish was very well perfumed with the various seasonings (garlic, dill, lemon zest, pepper, olive oil, and capers), and the whole recipe took about 10 minutes.

I based the recipe off one in my new cookbook, “The Everything Mediterranean Cookbook.” I changed three things. The recipe called for sole, but I used flounder instead. Shaw’s had run out of sole, and the fish guy said flounder is quite similar. The second change was instead of using one and a half pounds of fish, I used one pound. I was just cooking for my fiance and I, not for six people (which the recipe is based on). The last modification was using a teaspoon of capers instead of a half-teaspoon. You can never have enough capers, right (but really, a half-teaspoon is practically nothing)?

Here’s the adjusted recipe (for two):

3 cloves garlic

3 sprigs fresh dill, leaves only

1 pound flounder

Black pepper to taste

1 teaspoon fresh-grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 teaspoon capers

1. Preheat oven broiler. Mince the garlic and chop the dill.

2. Place the flounder on a pan; sprinkle with garlic, pepper, lemon zest, and drizzle with the oil.

3. Place under broiler for three minutes.

4. Turn the fish carefully.

5. Broil for one minute longer.

6. Remove from broiler and top with dill and capers.

This dish surely goes well with white wine, but I had it with some Samuel Smith oatmeal stout. It was the perfect combination, though I’m convinced this beer would go well with most anything.

And on a side note, does anyone know what’s up with fresh green beans? They are never in Shaw’s anymore, and Stop & Shop didn’t have them the other day either. I’m also looking for a place that sells rhubarb (fresh or frozen).

The gift of yoga

January 3, 2011

The yoga book and DVD I bought the other day

In college, my friend Michelle and I regularly attended yoga class. I enjoyed the relaxation it brought me, and learning how to better stretch my muscles (one of my favorite moves was the shoulder stand…try it sometime– it helps the whole body!).

After graduation I partook in a yoga class here and there, but it certainly wasn’t a regular thing. I have also, from time to time, done some yoga moves on my own. Well, I finally bought a yoga DVD and hope to do yoga more often. I think it will be a good complement to cardiovascular activity.

I tried out the DVD yesterday (it came with a book).  I really liked how the workout is divided into mini-workouts (like sun salutations, standing postures, and balances), the relaxing background music, and Gena Kenny‘s contribution to the exercises. She helps you along without annoying you (I’ve done other exercise videos where the fitness personality is overly peppy or just plain talks to much).

Plus, she has a cool Australian accent.

Get a taste for the video by watching this short YouTube clip:

Simon Winchester gives a good talk

November 15, 2010

Winchester talked about his latest book, "Atlantic"

I love seeing authors speak about their works, or scholars lecturing about their areas of expertise. But for some reason, I haven’t attended many of these talks over the last couple of years. I ended a long drought on Thursday when I saw Simon Winchester discuss his new book about the Atlantic Ocean at Porter Square Books in Cambridge (check out Winchester’s website to see what he looks like).

I haven’t yet read the book. I knew nothing about Simon Winchester. But I sort of became enchanted by him over the course of his one-hour appearance. This guy knows how to tell stories. The words just flow. I wish I had written down some exact quotes of his. Instead, I just took notes on some of the interesting ideas he discussed.

Here are some things I learned:

  • The Atlantic Ocean formed about 200 million years ago when Pangea broke apart (I knew the Pangea part, but not when the separation happened).
  • Scientists project the Atlantic Ocean will cease to exist in about 175 million years once the continents have shifted and water from the ocean has been squeezed out.
  • Winchester organized his book using Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” model. Let me expand a little bit upon this:

Apparently Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It” catalogs the seven stages of man’s life as infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon (an aging buffoon), and second childhood. So Winchester organized his book into these categories. The “lover” section, for instance, discusses humans’ love for the Atlantic over time. The “soldier” section describes wars that have taken place on the Atlantic Ocean. I thought this was a very interesting way to organize the book.

  • He told an amusing story about the Faroe Islands, an island group about halfway between Great Britain and Iceland belonging to Denmark.

He told us that the inhabitants of these islands are descendants of the Vikings. Because the men aren’t at war anymore, they have lots of energy to “purge themselves of.” They accomplish this through placing sheep high up on the sides of cliffs. They leave the sheep in these dangerous spots for months as the sheep eat the lush grass and fatten up.

When the men finally return to the cliffs, they knock the sheep into the water. The sheep die, come up to the water’s surface, and are collected to be turned into food. This means that if you’re ever on a boat around these islands, you should watch out for falling sheep!

The British needed a smokeless gunpowder called cordite, which was made from acetone. Weizmann developed a way to produce acetone through bacterial fermentation. British officials learned about Weizmann’s procedure from Manchester Guardian editor C.P. Scott,  and had him share his knowledge. The British set up a cordite factory in an old whiskey factory, and the rest is history.

To thank Weizmann, British officials wanted to knight him. But he didn’t want that– he wanted a Jewish state in Palestine instead. It’s largely because of his wish that this eventually happened.

  • Tristan da Cunha is the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world. According to Winchester, who has been there before, only about 250 people live there and it’s not that interesting. It’s a lot of people growing potatoes.

Anyway, Winchester told a really funny (and true) story about how he’s banned from the island.

  • The “Skeleton Coast” in Namibia is known for its shipwrecks. Winchester actually went there to see where a ship attempting to rescue another ship crashed into the shore. He visited the graves of the two brave souls who died during this incident, and mentioned them in his book. It’s a way to keep their memory alive as many seem to have forgotten about them and their heroic efforts.

I love how Winchester took us to different parts of the Atlantic we’ve never heard of and filled us with rich imagery, poignant stories and humorous anecdotes. I really want to read this book now! For a glimpse of how Winchester talks, check out this short YouTube clip about “Atlantic”:

Five years of my life are lost (at least the details of these years)

September 8, 2010

My journals were all quite different, like these ones.

From around junior year of high school to junior year of college I kept a journal. I would write in it every day or two, and ended up filling up more than 10 journals.

But a couple of years after graduating from college I threw all the journals away. They have probably long been chopped up into little pieces.

I regret that I did this. How cool would it be to read thoughts I had from so long ago (nine to 13 years ago)? I have lots of memories from this period of time, but many of them are rather vague. Plus, I have certainly forgotten certain happenings or thoughts, and may never remember them again.

I know exactly why I threw out those journals. Actually there were two reasons. One reason was I felt my thoughts weren’t worthwhile. I felt I had written about pretty mundane stuff (what I was doing that day, feelings about friends, thing I wanted to do over the next year) that would be boring to read about one day.

The other reason was I was going through a period where I felt I had to do away with material objects. I was thinking of moving to France permanently, and thus felt it wasn’t practical to have many possessions. Whenever I went to the store to buy something I’d consider its size. Was it significantly small enough to bring to France?, I contemplated.

Eventually I got over this fear of having too many possessions, though I still try to throw away as many unnecessary items as I can. I don’t like clutter, or having useless objects around.

But if I still had my journals today I would decide to keep them. I would consider them valuable, despite their commonplace topics. They’d help me understand how I got where I am!

Photo credit:

Refuse, refuse, refuse (so you can get what you want)

February 19, 2010

I recently came across this quote:

“Remember that in giving any reason at all for refusing, you lay some foundation for a future request.”

It is from Arthur Helps’ 1890 book “Essays Written in the Intervals of Business,” a sort of self help book of its time.

This statement really spoke to me. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that saying “no” is key to getting what you want and need.

It took some time to realize this, though. When I was young, I wanted to please everyone. I would join a club because friends were doing so, go out with someone because he liked me, or accept every babysitting job because it felt like the right thing to do.

Maybe a lot of young people are this way.

As the years went by, I realized I was doing things for others and not for me. And the thing is, I don’t know that saying “yes” all the time actually benefited others.

I mean, on the surface it may have. But I think eventually this behavior hurt people. When I realized I was in a relationship or job that actually wasn’t right for me, I ended things abruptly.

While it’s good I was honest about how I felt, I wasted some people’s time in the process. They would have wanted someone around who was committed to the relationship or project at hand. (more…)

When you lose a significant other, you also lose a pseudo-language

February 10, 2010

I really like Tom Ashbrook’s show “On Point” on NPR. I usually don’t get a chance to listen to his entire show, but today I did.

The topic was “American Love Stories”.

Author John Bowe and some of his friends traveled the country asking people about how romantic love works (or doesn’t work) for them.

They compiled their anecdotes and findings into the book “US: Americans Talk about Love”.

One thing Bowe learned from his project is that many lovers share a sort of “mystery code,” or code that others don’t understand.

For example, one man he spoke with said he and his girlfriend would stay up 30 hours in a row, working on a drawing, listening to music, and high on crystal meth.

They would imagine that the singer of the song they were listening to was right next to them, and they were on a stage.

They would start to “see” methane and oxygen and use their minds to create balls of magnetism. The man would direct them around the room, and the girlfriend would follow them. They played other “cool” games like that, too. (more…)