Thursday, January 27, 2011

Other People's Blogs, January Edition.

From time to time I'd like to share other blogs & websites I think are worthy of your time, and I'm going to start with Deanna Raybourn.

Deanna is the creator of Lady Julia Grey, the elegant, clever heroine of five novels, beginning with Silent in the Grave. I am a self-admitted historical fiction snob, and I could not put this book down. I finished it in a single weekend. Not only that, I read it twice. Deanna not only tells a great story - she also has the increasingly rare ability to put words together in an artful fashion so that the reader is transported right into the middle of the action. Her characters are multifaceted, vibrant, and fascinating, not to mention delightfully mysterious. Lady Julia even has a pet raven, Grim, who talks and asks for treats. And Nicholas Brisbane - well, I won't give too much away. You'll just have to read for yourself.

Deanna has also written a vampire novel titled The Dead Travel Fast. I haven't read this one yet, but I've heard great things about it. It's definitely on my list. So many books, so little time. sigh

Deanna's blog can be found at her website:, and her books are available at online and in-person retailers everywhere. (Just go ahead and buy them, because you'll want to have your very own copies.) I have had the pleasure of meeting her in person, and yes, she really is that fabulous. So pour a glass of wine, put your feet up, and spend an evening or few with Lady Julia Grey. I guarantee it's time well spent.

Till next time - happy reading!

Friday, January 21, 2011

How the Violin Changed My Life.

I was a piano player from the time I was big enough to get my sticky toddler fingers on a tiny toy piano. A little later, I plunked out some tunes on my mom's friend's piano. Eventually I started lessons, and I devoted many years of my early life to the keys, until I suffered a serious burnout in my second year of college. I reached a point where I just didn't want to play anymore, and that made me sad. So I changed my major to English to preserve my sanity and my GPA, and left the piano alone for awhile, lest it become a full-blown adversary.

In the summer of 1989, I met this guy. We played a little music together - or, more accurately, he played while I sang. A year later, we were married, and he showed me how to find my way around on the guitar. I got competent enough to accompany myself in public, and we continued to play in our friends' living rooms at parties, picnics, etc. A few years later, we got into historical reenacting, and of course the music naturally followed. While we had a decent act going on, I felt like we needed more instruments besides just the guitar. At the age of 31, I decided I wanted to try playing the fiddle.

I started out renting a violin to see if it could work out; if it didn't, we weren't out a huge amount of money. The first day I brought the thing home and started fooling around with it, I knew this was going to be a long and rewarding relationship. Within a few weeks, Mister traded an electric bass he was no longer playing for a full-size Romanian-made violin. I found a great teacher, completely by chance, and I was off and running.

All those years I spent with the piano worked to my advantage, because I already read music, although my knowledge of theory had slipped a little in the meantime. And somehow, the violin felt --- familiar. I don't really know how to explain that. I had never entertained the thought of playing the violin, not ever, but once I started, it seemed like I had done it before somehow.

With the fiddle, just as I had done with the piano, I learned a lot of things by ear alone. Fiddle tunes aren't really set in stone anyway, so while sheet music can be a great help, it's more of a general guideline than anything else. And while I plugged away on my Irish & early American tunes, my teacher said, hey, do you want to do some classical stuff?

Well, yeah, does a bear poop in the woods?

We started with Vivaldi, then threw in some Bach and Handel along with some technical method blahblahblah. I always hated that as a piano student even though I understood its value in building technical ability, which had never been my greatest strength. While I don't learn classical music to play in public, it has gone a long way in improving my overall playing, plus I enjoy the challenge.

Anyhow. . . the fiddle added a lot to our act. It brought a whole new dimension to what we were doing with regard to recreating historical music. It also brought me a lot of attention - I guess some people, especially gentlemen of a certain age, still see a woman fiddler as a novelty. I think I've been flirted with by every grandfather east of the Mississippi.

A violin case is also a no-fail conversation starter. People want to know, "do you play?" Many people have told me stories about their moms, dads, grandparents, etc., who played. Kids are especially fascinated. Depending on their age, they're a little more tricky to deal with because the younger ones don't fully understand that a musical instrument isn't a plaything, but I try to accommodate them all I can. If a child is interested in music, I don't want to be the one to discourage that interest. And of course there's always someone who wants to know if I'm toting around a machine gun.

One of my fondest memories comes from an event at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, from several years ago. Mister and I had been invited to participate in the Day of Releasement, which was a day when the Shakers took off from work and had a picnic. (This is documented in the site's historical records. So yes, the Shakers did have a little fun every once in awhile.) We portrayed non-Shaker visitors passing through, playing a few tunes in exchange for a meal. I took a short break to visit the facility, and on my way back to the picnic site, a little girl maybe 5 years old walked straight up to me and threw her arms around my waist. Well, naturally I was surprised, because I didn't know this child, but her mother said, "That's Rosa. She's learning to play the cello." That right there was worth the 4-hour drive to play in the summer heat in 3 layers of long clothes.

I love the violin. I'm never going to be Natalie MacMaster or Joshua Bell - I know that - but so what. If I'm in a foul mood, all I have to do is play for a few minutes, and somehow everything is brighter. I still take lessons, because there's always something new to learn. (Plus, most musicians are rarely satisfied with their own ability and want to do better. It's our cross to bear.) It's an hour drive to my teacher's house and some nights I think, aw man, I don't feel like making that drive, and it'll be late when I get home, and I'll be tired. . . but I make the drive anyway, and always feel the better for it.

I write this post not only to share my love of the violin, but also to encourage you, gentle reader, and let you know that if there's something you always wanted to learn, it's never too late. If you really want to do it,  you'll find a way. I was 31 years old before I ever picked up a violin. If I had convinced myself I was too old to learn, I would have missed out on a great joy.

So don't cheat yourself. Never stop learning.

Till next time ---

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why I Changed My Mind About the Bread Machine.

Twenty years ago, my new husband and I had this grand idea that we would eventually have a little farm where we would grow all our own food, bake bread, build things, make soap, you name it. At the time, we were living in a small apartment, so growing food was pretty much out of the question, but I could still bake bread and make wizardry in the kitchen. So I did. I even made mayonnaise.

I hear the snickers among you, but let me tell you, homemade mayonnaise is a thing of beauty (if you like mayo, that is), and it's amazingly simple. But I digress.

I baked bread. I got pretty good at it. Then the bread machine came along, and I was not impressed. No, friends, I was not impressed AT ALL. I thought the bread machine was just a way for non-culinary people to say, "Hey, I baked bread!" when it was the machine doing all the work. Plus, I hadn't had any bread from a machine that had the lovely density of what I considered true home-baked bread. That was that, and I let it rest. No bread machine for me.

Fast forward twenty years. The Mister and I never got our little self-sufficient farm, but we did happen onto some musical pursuits that started to take us away from home during certain times of the year. This cut into my bread-baking time, so I stopped baking, and we just bought whatever bread was on sale at the grocery. This was a suitable arrangement for awhile, till I started taking an interest in what was actually going into my food. And friends, let me tell you, commercially made bread is one of the worst offenders. There's a lot of stuff in there that doesn't need to be in there. All that needs to be in bread is water, yeast, sugar, salt, and flour. That's it. Now, granted, specialty breads will have other ingredients like fruit, nuts, grains, herbs, etc., but for basic bread, you only need 5 ingredients. (If you want to find out what's in your food, I recomment The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, both by Michael Pollan.)

That's when I started to think again about the bread machine. Believe me when I say I had a great moral heart-to-heart talk with myself over this. I don't ever want to be one of those people who lets machines & gadgets do all their work. I've always loved creating things by hand, and considering a bread machine made me feel like I was selling out. But on the other hand, I could control the ingredients in my bread and bake a more wholesome loaf than we'd been buying at the store; plus, it would save us some money since we had been spending extra on the "good" bread. Eventually, my desire for a more wholesome bread overcame my opposition to machinery, and I bought a used bread machine on Ebay.

The machine came during one of those periods when we were frequently away from home, so it was a month or two before I got to use it. But when I did - I was impressed. The whole wheat bread had that wonderfully dense quality that I loved. I was hooked. For everyday bread, I make a whole wheat on the express cycle, which only takes an hour. (ONE HOUR! For fresh bread!!!) I have to make about three every week since a 1.5 lb home-baked loaf has less air in it than a 1.5 lb store loaf, so it yields less slices, but it's so much more tasty. And guess what? It only has 5 ingredients.

I love my bread machine. I'm looking forward to experimenting with some great new recipes. Sometimes changing your mind can be a great thing.