March 2010

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29 Mar Monday Book Quatrain

The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland:

A girl on a tropical island will hear the prediction of a crown
But gain only France, a vicomte, children and unhappiness.
Revolution and Terror vividly evoked sweep a king and queen away.
A broken widow falls into the hands of an adventurer from Corsica.

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26 Mar An Astronomical Opportunity

Not many people have seen the planet Mercury. It’s easy to find Venus and Mars and Jupiter and even Saturn, but Mercury’s small and close to the sun and elusive. According to Renaissance gossip (and I do love Renaissance gossip) Copernicus himself never saw Mercury.

However! Now’s your chance! For the next couple of weeks Mercury and Venus will appear unusually close together (they’re actually on opposite sides of the sun, but stargazing is tricksy like that). Because Venus is one of the brightest objects in the night sky you can use it as a marker to help you find Mercury. Just look in the lower western sky about an hour after sunset. The brightest star you see? That will be Venus. Look down and to the right for Mercury. Have a pair of binoculars or a small telescope? Even better. They’ll appear closest together on April 3rd and 4th, and the conjunction will continue through about April 10th.

Why bother? Well, Mercury, the planet of communication, is going into retrograde again around the middle of April. Communication snafus, here we come. So at least this time we can look Mercury straight in the eye and say, “Not with my queries/submissions/revisions, you don’t.”

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24 Mar Dogless and Quiet

An unnaturally quiet day today—both dogs are at the vet’s for minor surgeries. No claws clicking on the quarry tile! No liquid dark eyes following every bite of food from plate to mouth! All will not be right with the world (as dear Mr. Browning’s Pippa would say) until the dogs are in the house again.

ETA: Dogs are home safely. Boo looks like a fighter who’s been in one too many fights (two skin tags removed from his face, so shaved patches and scabs), and Cressie looks like a Frankenstein-dog, with two BIG shaved patches and stitched-up incisions, one on the left side of her neck and the other on the right side of her shoulder. Everything was benign, thank goodness. Now to fight the battle of “No, Cressie, no scratching!” I wonder if there’s such a thing as a backwards Elizabethan collar that fits around a dog’s waist, to keep it from scratching with its back legs. Heh.

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22 Mar Book Monday

What I just finished reading (actually for the umpteenth time): my tattered, treasured copy of Zelda, Nancy Milford’s wonderful, terrible, mesmerizing biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. This is the book I return to whenever I’m struggling with my own writing—Zelda and Scott’s struggles are always so much more heartbreaking and heartrending than my own.


What I’m going to read next: a crisp new copy of Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran. I loved Rome on HBO (Thirteeeeeeen!) and this looks like it pretty much picks up where Rome left off. I do wish they had kept Max Pirkis as Octavian. He’s certainly the Octavian I’m going to be visualizing as I read this.


Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read. —Groucho Marx

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21 Mar Spring? Where?

Today is the first day of Spring, tra-la. We woke up to this—an extremely unseasonable blanket of snow. Brrr! Boudin, a sensible Cajun doggie, refused to go out in the nasty cold wet stuff. Cressie, on the other hand, with her Canadian heritage, bounded out happily. Here you see her sniffing those special snow-enhanced smells. (We did eventually coax Mr. Boo out for a brief pit stop.)

On the far right, note the white tubs we put over our tender new rose plants to protect them from this outrage. At the top leftish-center, see the little chartreuse balsa-wood birdhouse the house wrens love so dearly, heaped with snow on top. Poor shivery wrens. Ah, the joys of spring at Casa Loupas.

Our pear trees have been denuded of their blossoms and look so sad I couldn’t even bear to take a picture of them. Who knows if they will have the heart to bloom again this year?

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19 Mar The Real Silver Casket

Am deep in sixteenth-century Scotland—want to join me? Here’s a link to photographs and details of the real silver casket which may (or may not, no one knows for sure, and of course the things no one knows for sure make the most delicious historical fiction) have held the “casket letters” which besmirched Queen Mary Stuart’s reputation forever.

Hamilton Palace : Treasures of the Palace : Lennoxlove

Where did the casket come from? What was its history before Queen Mary decided to use it to lock up her letters? (If she did.) If it’s fifteenth-century work, could the crossed F’s under a crown (if they were ever actually engraved on the casket, and not simply embroidered on the case) refer to Francois I instead of Francois II? Could its history have brought evil fortune to the queen? Could it even have been cursed? And if so, by whom?

So many questions to answer. Such fun!

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17 Mar Lucky January

Lucky St. Patrick’s Day news! NAL has moved the release date of The Second Duchess up by one month, so it will now make its debut in January 2011. Somehow that seems so much sooner than February 2011!

We readers all get book cards and book gift certificates for Christmas, right? So when you hit the bookstores in January with your Christmas book-buying booty, keep The Second Duchess in mind. And don’t worry—I’ll remind you again. Heh. Probably more than once.

And as for St. Patrick’s Day luck, well, I come from a long line of McConnells on my dear mother’s side. Sláinte!

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07 Mar Bean and Bacon Soup

Today is a dreary, rainy day, and what could be nicer on a rainy Sunday than homemade bean and bacon soup?

Read the other day in Cook’s Illustrated—one of my very favorite magazines—that rather than just soak beans, one should brine them. Yes, I know, our mothers all taught us not to salt beans before cooking them. But Cook’s did all kinds of tests and determined that soaking overnight in salted water (two teaspoons of salt per quart of water) yields better-seasoned and more evenly cooked beans in the end. So we shall see! I put my pound of great northern beans in brine last night and later today will make my soup.

As for the soup recipe itself, well, it’s never quite the same. Take some nice lean bacon and cook it crisp. Drain it and put it aside; discard most but not quite all of the bacon fat; in the remaining bacon fat sizzle up some chopped veggies, onions and celery and carrots and whatever else you like. Then add the brined beans (drained and rinsed), enough water or chicken or veggie stock to cover it all, and simmer for a couple of hours.

When the beans are tender, whizz the soup with an immersion blender (or puree about half of it in a regular blender), add more stock if it’s too thick, add some greens (I like spinach) and continue to simmer just long enough to wilt them down. Then add back in the crumbled crisp bacon, adjust the seasonings, and serve. Heavenly, and despite the bacon, very healthy. The trick is to use a smallish amount of bacon and discard most of the bacon fat. It only takes a teeny bit to produce wonderful bacon flavor.

Mmmmm, bacon.

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01 Mar Olympic Beagling

And the living room goes quiet as Boudin Loupas attempts—holy cow, ladies and gentlemen, this is a first—it’s the full Sphinx-Frog position—and he’s doing it while he’s half asleep! And he sticks the landing! <Audience goes wild.>