Gone Fishing.

(Well, that’s kind of a lie, since I’ve never fished for anything but compliments.)

The truth is, I’m heading out of town and shall be Internet-less, so I’ll be in touch when I get back…

Keith’s family has been going up to Little Sebago in Maine for over thirty years; we’ll join them for a few days. While I don’t have the same history with the place as Keith does, I’ll say this with absolute certainty: there are few things in the world like lying in bed on a summer’s night in front of an open window overlooking a lake, listening to the loons and the frogs and the soft slap of the water against a boat, and feeling the cool and steady breeze against the tiny bits of skin you have purposely left out from the warmth of your many blankets for that very purpose.

I highly recommend it.

Then there was that one summer when:

  • Keith dove off the dock and swam such great lengths underwater to come up beneath a duck; he came so close to grabbing her little orange leg. The squawks she made…
  • we took the boat to this massive rock at the other end of the lake; we climbed it and threw ourselves off, and I let myself plummet all the way down and ended up scratching the tops of my left foot on the iron-rich lake bottom. When I came up my foot was torn and bleeding and stained yellow.
  • we went to the fish hatchery and it was the first time I had ever seen a moose. I was surprised because it looked just like the moose from If You Give a Moose a Muffin, minus the cardigan.
  • after a rainstorm, Keith and I took the flashlights and went for a walk on the lake road and counted up to twenty-seven tiny little frogs and toads that could have fit comfortably on the surface of a quarter.
  • the night Keith and I brought a blanket out onto the beach and while we were picking out constellations, I saw shooting stars for the first time.

And then there was that first summer, when I first drove up to the house. That night, we went into town to go to Dairy Queen, and on the way back, Keith suddenly turned off the headlights and only the faintest light came from the track indicator on the CD player. Still, it was so dark I couldn’t tell when the car started and the outdoors began. It was like we didn’t exist.

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I, Claudius and Claudius The God by Robert Graves.

Keith and I both are avid readers. Whether a book is historical, fantastical or dramatical (a joke — ha ha ha) chances are that at least one of us will be tempted to read it at some point. We often suggest books to one another; it’s not unheard of for me to ask Keith what I should read next, though I may not always listen to his recommending. For what seems like months now, Keith’s been all but begging me to read I, Claudius and Claudius The God, both by the late Robert Graves. I finally caved not too long ago, and you know what?

They’re probably the most involving and intricately-written books I’ve read all year.

Both I, Claudius and Claudius the God are novels by Graves, but neither of them read as such. In fact, they are purposefully written as though they were the memoirs of Claudis himself. Of the two books, the first (with its unwieldy title of I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, Born 10 B.C., Murdered and Deified A.D. 54) focuses on Claudius’s thoughts and observations leading up to and during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. It is in this novel that the reader first learns about how truly awkward the future emperor was, what with his gimpy shuffle, shaking fits and nerve-induced stutter. It’s actually kind of an endearing picture; who, after all, doesn’t like an underdog?

I, Claudius also introduces the reader to a slew of characters too broad to mention here; suffice it to say that I wished I had been clever enough to scribble down notes, or at least create a family tree. It doesn’t help that there are countless individuals who share a name. (I mean, just how many Tiberiuses and Julias are there, anyway?) If characters actually have names that are dissimilar, the variance is so slight that the few extra letters don’t make a bit of difference — i.e. Agrippa, Agrippinilla, Livia, Livius, Livilla. I highly suggest reading with a pad of paper, in order to keep track of everyone’s comings and goings. The sheer size of the cast doesn’t taper off in Claudius the God (or, Claudius the God: and His Wife Messalina); if anything, it gets a bit more confusing, since Graves here decides to include characters’ nicknames as well as a few explanatory footnotes.

Please, whatever you do, don’t let the seemingly daunting task of untangling a few Romans and their contemporaries like a skein of yarn prevent you from reading these two books. The combination of Graves’s impeccable storytelling and impressively thorough research is so deeply enthralling. As clichéd as it may be to say this, I stand by it: the individuals about whom Graves so deftly writes all but catapult themselves off of the page and into life. When Claudius describes the chaos of Caligula’s rule, I found myself becoming irrationally nervous — even as I read from the comfort of my sofa, even with almost two thousand years and four thousand miles between us. As Claudius’s beloved brother Germanicus suffers a terrible and prolonged death, I too felt sorrowful, along with all of Rome. And when Claudius succumbs to paranoia, I wandered around for days, trying to imagine what it must have been like to fear that behind every corner hid throngs of assassins armed with daggers, poison and swords.

What I find the most incredible, however, is the fact that Graves originally published I, Claudius in 1934, and its sequel in 1935. At almost seventy-five years of age, these two books seem at once timeless and modern, covering thematic motifs that still remain prevalent today (gender roles, sexuality, war/aggression, etc.). In addition to that, Graves writes from Claudius’s perspective so completely that is almost as if the author ceases to exist — all that is left is Claudius himself, telling his tale.

Sunday Morning Brunch with Book Club.

Another Sunday, another brunch date with book club…

This time, we all gathered at Amanda’s apartment in Harvard Square to discuss Henry and Clara, which happens to be the fourth book we’ve read that somehow deals with the Civil War years. (The first three were March, Assassination Vacation and Afternoons with Emily.) By Thomas Mallon, this novel is the fictionalized account of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the young couple who had the misfortune of sharing Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theater the evening the President was assassinated.

Personally, I think this is a fascinating subject. After all, I have no recollection of ever, during any of my history classes, learning about the Lincolns’ box-mates. (Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t believe I even knew the President and First Lady had box-mates!) Not only that, something I also find extremely interesting is the fact that John Wilkes Booth became the first person to assassinate a president — if there were a club, I’m sure Leon Czolgosz, Charles J. Guiteau and Lee Harvey Oswald would elect Booth himself president.

Two other aspects of the novel that captivated me were the title characters — Henry and Clara — themselves. In addition to being lovers and spouses, the two were linked by another bond: they were stepsiblings. While not related by blood, their marriage was still thought of as extremely unconventional and even downright odd; their presence at Lincoln’s murder did little to elevate their status in society. In fact, Henry — already painted by Mallon as being somewhat unstable — was driven to insanity, and ultimately ruined both himself and his family. (It is a little tricky, writing about something that is a historic fact as well as an invented fiction. I keep wanting to write in present tense to describe the novel, but since it is so intertwined with that actually took place, I find myself writing in the past tense. Bear with me, please.)

Ultimately, everyone in book club seemed to like Henry and Clara very much… except for me. When the others spoke about the absorbing characters and intricately-woven plot, I thought about the lackluster writing and uneven pacing. Though I can certainly see the allure of the storyline, I still stood alone in disliking the novel.

What we agreed on, however, was a topic about which we all see eye-to-eye: the spectacular quantity and quality of food we assembled. This time around, we had some fluffy blueberry pancakes, a richly decadent quiche, sparkly mimosas and a mango-and-raspberry salad. My contribution was carrot cake (in cupcake form), made from the bunch I had received in my CSA box last week. Not only were they my first go at carrot cake baking, but also my first time at carrot cake eating. I’m pleased to say they came out quite well.

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting, from The New Best Recipe Cookbook
Makes ten to twelve portions

for the cake
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound carrots, peeled
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
½ packed cup light brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 ½ cups safflower, canola or vegetable oil

for the frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1 tablespoon sour cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups confectioners’ sugar

  1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position; heat the oven to 350°. Spray a thirteen-by-nine baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper; spray the parchment.
  2. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.
  3. In a food processor fitted with with the large shredding disk, shred the carrots (you need three cups). Add the carrots to the bowl with the dry ingredients and set aside.
  4. Wipe out the food processor and fit with metal blade. Process both sugars with eggs until frothy and thoroughly combined, about twenty seconds. With the machine running, add oil through the feed tube in a steady stream. Process until mixture is light in color and well emulsified, about twenty additional seconds.
  5. Scrape mixture into a large bowl; stir in carrots and dry ingredients until incorporated and mixture is streak0free. Pour into prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, thirty-five to forty minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway through baking time. Cool the cake to room temperature in the pan on a wire rack, about two hours.
  6. When the cake is cool, process cream cheese, butter, sour cream and vanilla in a clean food processor until combined, about five seconds, scraping down the work bowl with a spatula as needed. Add confectioners’ sugar and process until smooth, about ten additional seconds.
  7. Run a paring knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Invert cake onto a wire rack, peel off parchment and invert cake again onto serving platter. Using a spatula, spread frosting evenly over the surface of the cake. Slice and serve.