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Integument
Casuistry
Disquisition
Jackstraw

Books. You never really know what you’re getting until you crack the boards and step inside. Cover art, blurbs, reviews, recommendations, they paint a picture, but as with all art, though the rest of world might love it, for you can be a big fat nothing-burger. Or worse. Will it be a breezy fun-filled page-turner? A deeply engrossing dive into the belly of the dark societal beast? A slog through a mire of typos, anachronisms, and cliches stitched together with wooden dialog spoken by lackluster characters? It’s hard to tell at the outset.

Spillikin
Tergiversate
Congeries
Houseled

A good book isn’t always an easy read. Some very good books take a lot of work to get through. Complicated, intertwined timelines can make your brain hurt. You can get lost amid involuted syntax, tripped up by participial phrases and subordinate adjectival clauses. Or you can be barraged by salvos of words unknown or unfamiliar to you. This doesn’t make the book unreadable; it just makes it a challenge. 

Bathos
Panopticon
Nugatory
Irenic

I don’t mind if a good book is a challenge. I don’t mind having to work for it. It’s part of the journey, no? Where a single “there”/”their” mix-up can be the last straw on a book already fraught with issues, I’ll work hard with another book if the prose is exceptional, the story compelling, the characters so interesting that they draw me in and hold me down as I fight my way through the convoluted plot.

I am halfway through a book right now, and have had to look up a ton of words, more than in any other book I’ve ever read. These words were either wholly unknown to me (spillikin?) or ones that I was only “pretty sure” I knew (integument, disquisition). In a lesser book, I would likely be put off by these words as being out of character or too highfalutin for the subject, but in this book these words are a perfect oriel from which I can peer into the minds of the characters (a pair of Victorian poets). And, hey, new words.

Oh, and in case you didn’t know: spillikin and jackstraw? Synonyms. 

k

Everybody Errs

We all make mistakes. Sometimes, it’s our fault. We move too fast, we don’t think something through, we misspeak, we fat-finger as we type. Other times, though, it’s not our fault because, though we do our best, we were simply ignorant of the rules.

English Grammar: 100 Tragically Common Mistakes (and How to Correct Them) can help, at least with mistakes involving the words we use.

Sean Williams, (known also by her Facebook alter ego, Captain Grammar Pants), has gifted us with a useful, readable, light-hearted tour of grammar ignominy. It is chock-full of tidbits, explanations, examples (good and bad), and sound advice. Each topic is concisely laid out, putting everything—introduction, example of the mistake, example of the correction, a brief explanation of the underlying rule, and an optional test question—all into a few paragraphs that can be read in under a minute.

Unless, like Williams, you are a grammar maven, you will benefit from this book. As an author, I’ve got a pretty good grasp of grammar, but even so I learned from reading it; sometimes I learned something new, and others, I got a better understanding of the rule behind what I already knew. Throughout, it was interesting and informative.

I recommend this book to any student, any budding writer, anyone who wants to polish up their grammar skills for work, or anyone who simply loves words and wants to use them more effectively. It’s a book you can read in bits, or all in one sitting, but either way, it’s a book you’ll come back to repeatedly.

k

In Plain Sight

Some days—not often, but on the rare occasion—I get to feel really stupid.

Stupid. Dense. Unobservant. Positively dim.

Yesterday was such a day. Continue Reading »

It came in the mail today, and it might as well have come with an honorary AARP membership because now, without doubt, I am officially an old white guy.

I opened the package, and immediately started to doink around with it before reading the instructions (oh come on; you do that, too). I scrounged up six AAA batteries to put into its belly, turned it on, and then (finally) looked at the user’s leaflet that came with it.

When I brought it out into the living room, my wife cocked her head and asked, “What is that?”

I told her, and she laughed. She laughed because she knew, too. I am officially an old white guy. There’s no denying it, now.

Continue Reading »

It’s taken a year. Or as close as makes no difference.

Last year, I initiated a purge. As part of making the (involuntary) transition from office-jockey to a full-time work-from-home employee, I pulled my office apart, replacing the major furniture and culling the—there’s no other word for it—junk that had accreted over the years. Books, letters, electronics, avocational equipment, mementos, I put absolutely everything on the block, and a lot of it went out the door.

Out the office door, that is.

It didn’t quite make it out the front door.

Just to the garage. Continue Reading »

The glass still in hand, he knelt and shifted the harness so the fat lower section of the samovar swung around his hip.  Deftly, he crooked back an arm to open the spigot.

David expected either the syrupy, blazingly strong coffee of the Arabs and Turks, or the sweet minted tea that was sipped through a sugar cube held in the teeth.  Both were beverage staples for every Arab café and restaurant.  Instead, however, the man released from the spigot a stream of hot, thick, white liquid.  David immediately smelled a honeyed aroma that filled his mind with the image of pink and lavender flowers in a desert oasis.  It smelled absolutely luscious.

“What is that?” he asked bluntly.  The man looked up from his task, the thick stream still arcing into the glass.

“My friend has never tasted salep?  Ah, such a treat you are about to have.”  The glass was full, and the vendor closed the tap, catching the last drops in the glass with a move of long practice.  He shifted his position, the samovar swung back along the harness strap and settled once more into the middle of his back.  Still kneeling, he placed the glass of steaming liquid into a handled cradle of brass lacework and presented it to David as if it were a delicacy to a king.

David took the cup and ventured a sip.  Thick, hot, smooth, and milky, the concoction was a wonderful collection of taste and texture: a satiny sweetness unlike anything he had ever experienced.

Giambastiani, Dreams of the Desert Wind,
(Seattle, Fairwood Press, 2004), p24

When I lived in Jerusalem, on cool mornings I would go down to the shuk in the Old City where I’d buy two things: a semit and some salep. A semit (or simit) is a large bread ring topped with sesame and other seeds. Vendors would carry them stacked on a stick and I’d buy one, still warm from the oven. Salep (or sahlab) is a beverage made from wild orchid tubers dried and ground into a powder. The powder is a thickener, and when added to milk along with a bit of sugar, some flavorings, and topped with whatever your heart desires, it is a luscious treat. I loved this combo so much that it made its way into my novel, Dreams of the Desert Wind (excerpted above).

Finding true salep outside of the Levant is damned near impossible, and the only sources I’ve found for authentic salep powder run about $10 USD per 1oz/30g. Since it takes a tablespoon/15g of powder per cup of the beverage, that’s way too pricey for my taste, so for years I’ve been looking for an alternative. The mass-marketed “instant salep” powders cheat, using corn starch or potato flour as a thickener, and they are always too . . . something. Too bland, too thin, too insipid, too gummy.

But rice flour, specifically glutinous rice flour, this makes a thickened drink that is the closest approximation I have found. As a rule, I try to avoid posting recipes with uncommon ingredients (life’s hard enough), but in this case, glutinous rice flour and rose water are pretty easy to find, either in a higher-end grocery, a Mediterranean bodega, or online. They’re inexpensive, too, both costing less than an ounce of real salep powder.

Salep (or Sahlab)

Makes 1 serving

Hardware

  • A 1-quart saucier pan works best for this because of its rounded bottom, but any small pot or pan will work. Just get the whisk into the corners.

Ingredients

For the salep:

  • 1 tablespoon glutinous rice flour
  • 1 cup milk (whole is best)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon rose water

Optional toppings:

  • ground cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger
  • ground/chopped pistachios
  • raisins or sultanas
  • shredded coconut

Procedure

  • In a small pot, whisk the rice flour with a bit of the milk to dissolve, adding the rest of the milk when the flour is incorporated.
  • Put pot over a medium heat and warm the mixture, whisking frequently as it thickens.
  • When the salep starts to simmer, pull it from the heat. Stir in the sugar and rose water.
  • Pour into a mug or glass, and top with whatever strikes your fancy.

Notes

  • I devised this recipe is for a single serving, but it is easily scaled up for more.
  • You can replace the rice flour with corn starch or potato flour, but there’s a marked difference in consistency and umami. Not recommended.
  • Some recipes out there suggest using vanilla as well. I do not recommend this, as it cuts the flowery aroma of the rose water.

k

As regular readers know, I’m a Browncoat for life. However, I am not the sort of über-fan who will buy anything they slap a “Firefly” logo on. Yes, I have Firefly-related t-shirts, a couple of “behind the scenes” books, and on the back of my car there is an “I aim to misbehave” sticker, but I’ve passed on most of the comic books, the graphic novels, and other paraphernalia that’s out there vying for my Browncoat credits.

A series of novels, though? Sign me up.

The Magnificent Nine is the second installment in the new Firefly novel series, penned by James Lovegrove, who also gave us the first in the series (a review of which can be found here.) I was underwhelmed by Lovegrove’s first title, but I enjoyed the book despite its flaws.

Alas, this title also has its flaws, some of them serious.

But first, what’s good . . . Continue Reading »

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