Stay Home and Cook

Second Hello Fresh Collage

Looking for a business model that will really prove its worth in these uncertain, touch-free times?  Maintain your social distance and give a meal kit delivery service like Hello Fresh a try.  My husband and I have been ordering from Hello Fresh for some months now – three two-person veggie meals per week for $52 to $74 Canadian – and I’ve long thought that it’s a nice (but perhaps not terribly cost effective) service for the at-home cook looking to shake up their usual kitchen customs.

Now I think it’s just this side of a necessity.  These meals, while not keeping us in total body and soul, are the loveliest little treats, and a backup for the dishes we’re making here at home out of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes, because everybody MUST be cooking with those items if they’re so persistently out of stock.  You just would NOT believe how well my three-tiered (and three-ply!) Isopropyl Cashmere Cake is coming along.

I think you’d go flat broke trying to feed your family if you relied solely on meal kits, but as a supplementary food service, or a replacement for the meals you’re not currently enjoying out at a restaurant, it’s a blessing.  There’s only so many boxes of KD you can stomach before your stomach says, “Yo!  Can we get a different flavour profile down here?”  To that end, Hello Fresh chooses its recipes – particularly the vegetarian ones – from a wide range of popular world cuisines, from Indian to Italian, Mexican to Middle Eastern, African to French.  Best of all, your meals – individually bagged and then boxed – are delivered right to your doorstep, with no signature requirement.  Smart.  Responsible.  Yummy.

Have I mentioned the yummy?  Because these vegetarian meals are SO yummy!  As well as creative, fun to prepare (get the kids involved!) and of really excellent quality.  I have no complaints.  I just hope Hello Fresh (and other meal kit services of its ilk) will be able to maintain their deliveries in the face of what is sure to be a massive new uptick in business.  Like all things these days, fingers crossed.

Curious as to the kinds of dishes you might enjoy on Hello Fresh’s veggie plan?  Take a peek at these tasty morsels we enjoyed some weeks back and set your taste buds revving:

Garlicky Mixed Mushroom Farrow Bowl with Goat’s Cheese and Candied Walnuts

Farrow Salad 1

Farrow is a kind of whole grain that looks and tastes like a cross between rice and barley.  In this scrumptious dish, it was mixed with a sweet balsamic dressing and then topped with sauteed mushrooms and garlic, leafy greens, creamy goat cheese, candied walnuts and chives.  This was a super filling – and wicked delicious – dish that reminded me in all the very best ways of this beet, goat cheese and candied pecan salad I used to love from the Manx Pub in Ottawa, Ontario (heh, Mr. Finger Candy and I enjoyed part of our multi-part first date there.) 🙂

Italian Mozzarella Panini with Herby Tomato Soup

Soup and Panini 1

Soup and a sandwich!  This was a tasty little lunch Mr. Finger Candy and I enjoyed one recent afternoon.  Actually, as I called him to the table, I thought, “You have turned into your grandmother,” a woman who was constantly calling my grandfather – who was probably off somewhere pruning a tree – in “for supper.”  My grandfather would have been horrified to have found such a meal waiting for him at the table – pesto-flavoured tomato soup that looks like a science experiment and a mozzarella sandwich with aruga-who-now? – but we thought it was pretty nummy.  A nice, light option for a midday repast.

Matar Paneer Curry with Green Peas and Yellow Potato

Paneer Curry 1

Paneer is a firm, mild cheese popular in Indian cuisine.  Owing to its high melting point, it can withstand quite a bit of cooking, and so it often shows up, cubed, in stew-type preparations like this one featuring tomatoes, peas and yellow potatoes.  The recipe actually directs you to add the roasted potatoes to the other vegetables, paneer and sauce, but I like how crispy they remain when you simply sprinkle them on top, like roasted potato croutons.

Beyond Meat Roasted Veggie Linguine with Garlic Tomato Sauce

Beyond Meat Linguine 1

As a lifelong pasta aficionado, I am always shockingly amazed at how delicious Hello Fresh’s pasta recipes are.  I truly thought I had eaten all the good pasta in the world.  This deceptively simple dish – just your basic tomato, onion, garlic and roasted veggie arrangement, enhanced with a bit of oh-so-trendy plant protein – was so friggin’ yummy!  Then again, I actually really like the taste of Beyond Meat.  Yes, it totally looks like cat food, but it’s versatile, it cooks well, and it adds a welcome shot of richness to your more basic vegetarian dishes.

Beyond Meat and Black Bean Tacos with Tomato Pepper Salsa and Crema

Beyond Meat Tacos 1

Beyond Meat strikes again in this dee-licious, but kind of unwieldy, taco dish featuring a fresh, zippy salsa and ear-splittingly tart lime crema.  Loved the flavours at work in this recipe, but the proportions here were way off – there was MOUNDS of filling to just three soft tortillas per person.  Things got very sloppy, very quickly!

Butternut Squash Ravioli with Creamy Garlic Sauce and Herby Goat Cheese

Butternut Ravioli 1

Another phenomenal pasta dish, this time sweet butternut squash ravioli enrobed – ENROBED, I say! – in a light, buttery sauce, with more roasted squash, chivey goat cheese and lightly toasted pepitas, which are a type of pumpkin seed.  Good golly, this recipe was GREAT.  I could have eaten triple the amount of this one, but that’s just me and pasta.  This dish, too, reminded me of a seasonal pasta I used to like to order from Panera.

If you’ve been on the fence about whether to give a meal kit delivery service like Hello Fresh a try, I’d say now is the moment.  There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now.  How you get some of your food and fun should not be two of those uncertainties.  So while you’re social distancing, maybe give Hello Fresh a try and see if they have any options that might work for your family.

Stay safe and healthy out there while you’re staying in, friends.

The Week That Everything Changed

TP 1

Waking up this cold, but finally, blessedly, starting-to-warm March Monday morning to a world that’s very different from the one I woke up to last week.  Early last week, the Coronavirus was still joke fodder.  Bustling about my new kitchen, putting the finishing touches on a special dinner for my folks last Tuesday, I joked with them about our drink options, noting – with a spectacular eye roll – that Corona beer was assuredly not on the menu.

Then in the span of a few hours Wednesday evening, somewhere in between You-Know-Orange’s disastrous address, Tom Hank’s sobering announcement and seemingly all professional sports getting cancelled en masse, the entire world changed, and there were no more jokes to be made.

Thursday morning my husband and I went out for groceries just in the normal course of our lives.  After 15 years of living within the very limited storage confines of a two-bedroom condo, we’ve had a difficult time adjusting to the space of a four-bedroom home, and so we rarely – still! – have anything on hand that we won’t be immediately consuming.  Old habits are hard to break.  So we needed groceries, and toilet paper!  Down to our last roll, we were.

Despite the early hour, the store was busy, and steeped in a palpably electric kind of mania, like gathering storm clouds.  At one point another shopper and I – both gloved, both trying to keep our distance – reached for the same pack of cheese, and she leaped back, hands clasped to her chest, in legitimate terror.

I had heard distressing stories about toilet paper shortages, sanitary paper hoarders and unscrupulous disinfectant fencers, but I was convinced all of that was happening “somewhere else.”  Certainly not in polite, well-reasoned Canada.  And I had already made all of the dismissive, “Do they know it’s a respiratory virus and not a pooping virus?” jokes.  So I was completely unprepared to turn down the personal care aisle at my local grocery store – never, ever the place you’ll net a reasonable price on such items – to find it completely ravaged.

As I stood in the denuded aisle with a few other disappointed shoppers, Mr. Finger Candy emerged from the front of the store with one precious 12-pack of 9 mil-ply Cashmere.  He tossed it to me with a saucy smile that I assume was worn by the very first caveman to lug home a particularly badass kill, at which point I frantically buried it in our cart like Lorraine Bracco disappearing half a kilo of coke down the toilet in Goodfellas.  Mission thus accomplished, we paid for our purchases – a bit more than we’d normally buy, but nothing outrageous – and headed home.

Thursday afternoon the border restrictions, travel bans, cancellations and closures began in earnest.  The stock market self-immolated.  The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.  Chaos and confusion asserted themselves as the overriding themes of the day.

The American Disney parks closed, an act that legitimately frightened me to my core.  I long assumed that the ghost of Walt himself would have to come down with the Coronavirus before they shuttered those parks.

I clearly wasn’t the only one spooked.  The news – local, national, international – was suddenly filled with stories of empty shelves at grocery stores and long line-ups.  And the dim lizard part of my brain, the one Stephen King often refers to as “the panic rat,” began to worry.  We had enough food and supplies to see us through the week, but nothing beyond that.  And despite assurances from retailers that there was going to be lots of stock going forward, new social distancing measures were changing how we shopped, and there was no guarantee we’d be able to do our groceries in the same manner, and with the same choice, the following week.

And so it was with that thought in mind that we ventured out to Walmart Friday morning for a (reasonable) cart full of soup and cereal, pasta and rice, canned veggies, ramen and an absolute crap ton of coffee.  We were already doing well on cleaning supplies and hand soap (thank you, Bath and Body Works) but there was no additional toilet paper to be had.  Hot buy of the apocalypse.

Pantry 1

104

And with that, we came home, where we’ve been in semi-self-isolation ever since.  Which doesn’t actually feel that different from regular life.  We’re just washing our hands a lot more and trying to steer clear of vulnerable populations.  You do what you can, and you try to stay calm.

I’ve no idea when the world will be “okay” again, if it ever was in the first place.  I’ve no idea what will be waiting for us on the other side of this experience.  But I do know it’s okay to be a little scared and a whole lot confused.  To mourn what we’ve lost, and learn to live without.  To adapt, and change, and hopefully come out of the other side of this new nightmare better people – or at least better prepared people – one day at a time, one shopping trip at a time.

Stay healthy and helpful, friends.

I Love My House

Our House

Late last year Mr. Finger Candy and I sold our two-bedroom condo apartment and made the rather spectacular leap to single family home ownership.  To say it’s been an adjustment would be an oversimplification, but not a wild one – we’re not in completely over our heads here (unless we’re talking about the snow from our driveway, now piled high on our front lawn, which, after four or five storms, now stretches way, way above our heads.)

Without a doubt, things have changed, but in very few ways have they changed for the negative.  Mostly, I think we’re just plum delighted with our new-to-us house, and thankful beyond all measure that we’re out of our condo.  We…did not enjoy living there for what I was about to say was just the last couple of months, but really, encompassed the entirety of 2019.  We really, really did ourselves in with the unfortunate quadruple whammy of deceased pet, chaotic reno, employment strife and arsehole neighbours.  It was hard to view the place, beautiful though it was, as anything but a burden after that.

So we moved on to greener pastures (or at least they’ll be green once the snow melts.)  To be sure, we have taken on a mountain of responsibility that we did not have before, but weirdly, I think we both kind of love it.  You just can’t tell me that this man, outfitted in his best Captain Canada attire, out sweeping the back patio in the middle of a snowstorm, is not getting off on this!

130

Things I frequently and delightedly note that I love about our new home?  The quiet.  Our street is – knock on wood – SO QUIET.  Or maybe it’s not and I’ve just been brainwashed into thinking that anything less than 2,000 other people thumping up and down the street every day is peaceful.

Our neighbours seem to be kind, considerate and helpful souls.  Snow has been plowed, holiday cookies have been exchanged and plans have been made for better weather get-togethers.  I hardly know what to do with this bounty of good neighbourliness.

The red heat lamp in our ensuite bathroom rocks my world.  I never bathe that I don’t have “ROXXXXXXXXXXXX-anne!” running through my head, or think that I’m somehow showering in the midst of an Alien movie.  Sometimes it’s both, which makes for a very unique bathing experience. 🙂

026

We have a finished basement!  And true, it might be colder than Cocytus, the frozen lake of Hell, but that’s just because we don’t spend a lot of time down there right now, and so the heat’s rarely cranked.  But I suspect that once the warmer weather hits AND we’ve renovated the place into the ultimate Haunted Mansion-themed home theater, it’ll become THE cool place to be, in temperature and vibe.

Speaking of the Haunted Mansion, Mr. Finger Candy gave me this dope Honeywell doorbell for Christmas, and he programmed it to play the first 12 counts of the soundtrack to the Haunted Mansion.  “Heheheheheh, you’re going to freak out so many Jehovah’s Witnesses!” a friend gleefully chortled.  Delivery people certainly think it’s amusing.  Weird thing to say you love a doorbell, but here we are. 🙂

We have storage, so much storage!  Four bedrooms’ worth of closets, two ground floor cupboards, two gigantic basement cupboards and an entire furnace room filled with floor-to-ceiling shelving.  The real kicker for us has been learning to spread out, as we’re both still in that “Maximize every bit of space you’ve got” zone we were living in back at the condo.

Every time I do the laundry, by myself, in my basement at whenever-the-heck-o’clock I please, I do a little jig of happiness.  It is so, SO wonderful not being beholden to prescribed hours of use, or having to navigate the complicated and needlessly aggressive social strata of the Friday Night Laundry Crew.

311

The wildlife that dances about our private backyard is plentiful, varied and very, very charming.  I say that now in the winter when the bunnies, squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays and other assorted woodland creatures are snatching (provided) peanuts off our back patio, but I’ll probably be singing a different tune when they’re chewing up my garden.  But I do kind of love “our” rodents.  Maybe not as much as Mr. Finger Candy, who lays out back deck buffets of tiny peanut butter sandwiches, but I’m really rather fond of the little buggers.

009

A three-minute drive out of our neighbourhood in any direction brings us to a wealth of shops, restaurants and other retail establishments.  Bit of a double-edged sword, that one.  On the one hand, we’ve made excellent use of the local offerings – Indian buffet, Chocolats Favoris, Little Caesar’s, and one particularly inspired evening, Talladega Takeout (KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Powerade.)

004

On the other hand, we’ve made excellent use of the local offerings.  Maybe too excellent use.  Our wallets and waistlines are demanding that we back off a smidge on this bounty of take-out and dine-in options and get back to our Hello Fresh-ing.

We’ve named our trees and wildlife!  The chestnut tree at the front of the house is Chester, the oak in the back is Annie (Oakley) and the tiny squirrel with the kinky tail and the light brown tummy is Brown Betty.

I don’t even mind (too much) the cosmetic renos we’re carrying out – painting, molding and more mill work than you can shake a miter saw at – because at least we have real options for temporarily escaping the mess.  Truly, this experience is night-and-day compared to the renos we had done to our condominium last year.

047

It may be a lot to lay at the doorstep of a new house, but this place has saved us.  Back at the condo we were floundering, if not outright drowning, always desperately trying to make 800 square feet of concrete into a home, and invariably coming up short.  There were simply too many rules, too many people and too many competing interests – a truly needless aggravation on top of (at the time) a pretty stressful life.  As I testily wrote to our property manager last year, it wasn’t a home, it was merely a situation we were trying to survive.  Badly.

Then somehow, against all odds, we found this place, our real home, and it saved us.  We now have purpose, drive and positive responsibility.  We have choice.  And yes, we also now have larger bills, more square footage than we know what to do with, and a great big bloody pile of driveway snow that might just attain sentience and go off galumphing down the street, but these are acceptable trade-offs (maybe not the sentient snowman thing.)  It’s worth it to know that these are things under our purview, and that if there is an issue with our home, either positive or negative, how we approach it will be our decision, and our decision alone.

I don’t sleep well, or at least I don’t sleep consistently.  Back at the condo, the early morning hours were mostly a time to stress and worry and fret.  And forget all that “rising gently from the depths of somnolence” business – hardly a morning went by that I wasn’t catapulted into consciousness.

These days I’m still rising early, but for a different reason.  True, part of that reason is getting old/back is shit, but mostly it’s because I want to enjoy my new home in those impossibly still morning hours when it’s just me and the backyard bunnies and our plans for the future.  Feels pretty nice, and like there’s maybe no place like it.

Saturday Strata

Saturday Strata 1

Geez, when’s the last time I did some nail art just to be doing nail art?  When’s the last time I had time to do any nail art?  Since moving into our new home, life has been an endless series of new discoveries – fun, but hasn’t left a ton of time for old favourites.  Anyhow, I woke up ultra early this Saturday morn and thought, “I should do some nail art just because.”  And so I did. 🙂  I think these simple holographic nails look like very pretty, uncommonly hued layers of rock.  Strata.  Definitely not to be confused with strata, the egg casserole.  Or a strata, which is sometimes the name given to a condominium.  Basically, it means layers, which is fitting given the word’s many, many definitions and uses.  The more you know. 😉

Saturday Strata 2

Hello Yummy, Again: A Return to Hello Fresh

Hello Fresh Collage

Weirdly, for what is ostensibly a nail blog, one of my most popular and viewed posts is this one about the first week my husband and I tried Hello Fresh, a meal kit delivery service popular here in eastern Ontario.  At the end of that post I concluded that I loved everything about Hello Fresh – the creative recipes, the quality ingredients, the free shipping – but for what I considered to be a poor cost-to-value ratio.  The portion sizes, particularly for the vegetarian meals, just seemed woefully small in relation to the per plate cost.  My final word was that if Hello Fresh was coming to me at some sort of a discount, then I was on board, but I couldn’t justify the service at full price.

And that’s how I continued to approach it in 2019, making use of a number of special offers and a few damaged item rebates to fund another couple of months of delicious fresh food.  I was totally hooked, and delighted to be adding such uncommon ingredients to my food lexicon as freekeh (a rice-type grain), halloumi (salty cheese) and zaatar (a Middle Eastern spice blend) even if the small portion sizes left us habitually haunting the kitchen an hour or so after eating.

Then during the renovations we had carried out to our former condo last year, the refrigerator got unplugged, a fact that went unnoticed for some time.  Everything but our inexplicably large collection of hot sauces went bad, including six Hello Fresh entrees.  Disgusted at my own wasteful stupidity (USE THE THINGS YOU BUY, numbnuts, especially the perishable foodstuffs!) I tossed out the entire spoiled lot and cancelled my account, the end.

Well, sort of the end.  Just as we moved into our new home late last year, I received a tantalizing “Please come back” offer from Hello Fresh that, in combination with a bit of post-holiday food boredom and a fridge that’s definitely plugged in, I simply couldn’t say no to.

And we’ve been saying yes to Hello Fresh ever since, in part because they haven’t changed the things that worked (the locally-sourced ingredients, the creative recipes, the commitment to minimal packaging) but HAVE changed the things that didn’t (those weird, Franken-substance ice packs.)

The biggest positive change that I’ve noticed so far is that the portion sizes are much larger than they were before.  The recipes also seem to be more satisfying, utilizing good-for-you, fill-you-up ingredients like whole grains, leafy greens, fresh cheese, Beyond Meat and nuts.  Also a crap ton of butternut squash.  No complaints from me, I love the stuff, but there’s been a butternut squash recipe on the menu every week since we returned!  Must be in season.  But it feels like there’s some substance to these meals that wasn’t there before, and even after giving Mr. Finger Candy the lion’s share of whatever we’re having, I’m satisfied (not so much Mr. FC, but he might have a hollow leg.)

Okay, onto the fun part – what we’ve eaten the last two weeks!  Start revving your taste buds, and maybe grab a mint – there be garlic aplenty in these recipes.

Fattoush Salad with Roasted Chickpeas

078

Mmm, roasted chickpeas, toasted pita and fresh veggies tossed in a white wine vinaigrette with feta cheese.  This was amazing, like tabouleh writ large.  And such bright, sparkling flavours, too, a welcome respite from the Heavy Holidays.

Cheesy Baked Ravioli

001

Of the six recipes we’ve tried so far, this scrumptious pasta dish might be my favourite.  And don’t let that little pool of (butter) grease fool you – this delectable pasta dish was light, but still quite filling, with each plump pasta pillow draped in the perfect combination of roasted squash, wilted kale and smoked cheddar.  Holy YUM!

Winter Risotto

026

Not sure what made this creamy, comforting rice dish a winter risotto, but I do know it was quite delicious.  Could have used more salt, though (this is not surprising; I could be licking a salt block and think it needs more salt.)  I really loved the addition of the crunchy walnuts, too – made quite a nice change from the more traditional pine nuts.

Beyond Meat Veggie Taco Bowl

108

Another great new change to the vegetarian plan has been the inclusion of Beyond Meat in the recipes.  Here we have a not-very-attractive pile of red rice, sauteed Beyond Meat, kale slaw, cheese and lime crema that I swear tasted much, much greater than the sum of its tortilla-covered parts.  The portion sizes on this one were also quite large, with both of us agreeing after eating that we *might* actually be full! 🙂

Harissa Halloumi Rainbow Bowl

048

Here’s some unfamiliar words to describe what’s essentially spicy grilled cheese on a bed of rice and crisp veggies, topped with a garlicky hummus dressing.  This was SO delicious, and I even got to pickle my own red onions.  I’m not usually a fan of bowl-type arrangements (“Well, that’s a hell of a jollop,” my grandmother would absolutely say) but I loved the bright, fresh flavours of this dish, even if afterwards we were feeling like the two newest residents of Garlic City.  Truly, do not eat this one if you have a first date or a job interview the following day!

Rigatoni in Roasted Butternut Squash Sauce

070

Here’s that butternut squash once again making an appearance, this time as part of a super filling pasta dish made with (more) kale and creamy stracciatella cheese.  I generally find that Hello Fresh meals strike the perfect balance of fresh-and-filling, but this guy was way rich, and I felt hella pooched after eating, even if it was utterly delicious.

We have two more weeks of Hello Fresh meals coming to us, so please come back to this space soon to see what other combinations of kale, butternut squash and garlic we’ll be enjoying next!

Stickers for Adult Beauty Nerds

Nail Strips Collage 3

Yep, that’s nail polish strips for you – stickers for grown-ups we put on our nails as opposed to inside a photo album.  And because they come in generously-sized, multi-use packs, you can even trade them with your friends – hey, wanna swap your pink heart camos for my polka dotted reindeer?  (Parenthetically, here inside these very parentheses, I friggin’ loved sticker-collecting when I was a kid!  And my collection was THE SHIT – fuzzies and holos and googly eyes and puffies and smelly stickers for DAYS, and all of it housed in an officially licensed Sandy Lion hardcover binder with custom photo pages…and I might have just legitimately drifted off for a few minutes there as I remembered how much I loved that book and my entire sticker collection.) 😉

So it’s no surprise that I love these stickers, too, a lovely gift from the wife of one of my husband’s online gamer buddies (they’re like penpals who communicate through swapped boxes of Canadian and American foodstuffs, and midnight games of Ghost Recon.)  She’s a nail art aficionado like I am, and she’s into these nail polish strips from Color Street that she was kind enough to send along in one of the guys’ boxes.

Nail Strips Collage 2

Here I’m sporting Color Street‘s very Valentine’s Day-appropriate Crush Hour, a glittery pink camo design that, upon closer inspection, is actually made up of overlapping hearts.

Nail Strips 4

These double-ended nail strips are made from nuthin’ but nail polish, so they’re thin, flexible and dead easy to apply – simply peel, pat down and then file off the excess.  And if you’re really careful and your nails are quite short, like mine, you can absolutely get away with using one strip for two nails, as the designs are printed on both ends of the strip.  That leaves some of these fun beauty stickers to swap with friends – now, you were saying something about a trade for a polka dotted reindeer? 😉

Nail Strips 3

Literary Inspiration: The Dark Half

The Dark Half Collage

Have you ever tried to blame your bad behaviour on an evil twin?  Quite convenient if you’re actually a twin, slightly more difficult if you have a sibling, and next to impossible if you’re an only child, like I am.  Not that that ever stopped me – “Sandra!  Did you cut all of Barbie’s hair off and drop it behind the sofa?”  “Nope, you must be thinking of a different Sandra.  Or my evil twin.”  Good thing my parents had a great (and very indulgent) sense of humour about their smartass daughter.

Stephen King has a sort of literary evil twin in the form of Richard Bachman, the nom de plume he used to write such works as The Running Man, The Long Walk and The Regulators.  I think Bachman is the name King uses when he wishes to indulge in his more sadistic and puerile impulses – The Regulators in particular is a candy-coated slice of suburban torture porn.  But over-the-top violence and bombastic bloodshed is a young person’s dark game, and one that cannot be played indefinitely.  King himself seemed to recognize this when he mostly retired the Bachman name after being outed in the mid-80s (via death; “cancer of the pseudonym,” it was) and then again in the late ’90s when he allowed Rage, a short story he wrote in 1977 about a school shooting, to go out of print, amid fears that it might inspire similar incidents.  I also suspect, as happens to most of us as we get older, that King – yes, even Stephen King, the Master of Horror – simply aged out of that stage of his life that got off on violence and bloodshed.  And maybe Bachman had become a kind of literary crutch, a former friend-turned-unwelcome house guest.  It’s a theory I’m inclined to accept after reading The Dark Half, King’s 1989 novel about a Kingsian author who jettisons his popular pseudonym, with horrific results.

The Dark Half 3

It’s been said a time or 20 that you should always write what you know, and indeed, The Dark Half is an amped-up, supernaturally-tinged version of real life events involving King and his pseudonym, Richard Bachman.  In the book, Maine novelist Thad Beaumont has grown tired of writing under the guise of his popular – but brutish and inelegant – pseudonym, George Stark.  When he began writing as Stark, he was an angry young man in the depths of both alcoholism and a major career depression, and literary bloodshed seemed like just the balm for his broken writer’s soul.  But after becoming a happy, contented father to twin babies and finally, blessedly, sorting his life out, he finds he no longer cares for Stark’s brand of outrageous carnage, and seeks a return to writing under the Beaumont name.

At the same time, an opportunistic young bookseller/law student/aspiring novelist lucks into the well-kept secret that George Stark is actually author Thad Beaumont.  Thinking that he’s landed on valuable information that Beaumont would undoubtedly pay to keep secret, he approaches the writer with well-mannered blackmail on his mind, oblivious to the fact that Stark is already halfway out the door.  A week or so later, Beaumont puts the final nail in Stark’s coffin AND the bookseller’s blackmail attempts when he outs himself in People Magazine, along with a multi-page photo spread detailing Stark’s funeral, complete with shots of a mournful Beaumont laying flowers at the grave of his homicidal nom de plume.  The bookseller is furious, and vengeful, but hasn’t time to indulge in either on account of the fact that he and absolutely everyone associated with Beaumont’s writing are then hunted down and brutally murdered.

To this point – and obviously absent the sadistic murders – this mirrors King’s own experience.  Stephen King’s substance abuse issues have been well documented, and he’s said himself that he really didn’t get his shit together until after his children were born.  He has also shown distaste for some of his/Bachman’s earliest works, particularly Rage, writing of it in 2007, “Now out of print, and a good thing.”  And he raised virtually no fuss when he was outed as Bachman in 1985 by a Washington bookstore clerk, and actually went so far as to sit down for an interview with the guy to confirm his findings.  It was during this period that King basically retconned Bachman into an early retirement via death, and absent a few subtle nods to the name – his wet work character on Sons of Anarchy was named Bachman – King’s evil literary twin has stayed mostly silent for 30-some years now.

But King’s fictional alter ego in The Dark Half doesn’t fare as well as King did under similar circumstances, especially not once the killing starts and it’s revealed that Thad Beaumont has a lot more in common with George Stark than he ever thought possible.  And because this is a Stephen King book and what you see is sometimes exactly what you get, I can’t reveal any more without revealing everything, and so here’s where I’ll stop.

The Dark Half 1

I read The Dark Half in service of my friends’ 2019 reading challenge, but darned if I know what theme I was going for with this one!  I think at one point last year I just decided that if I wanted to read something, I was going to read it, and so that’s how we wound up at The Dark Half.  I enjoyed it, but as always with King, the ending just kind of fell off the table in a flock of sparrows.  Sparrows have a particular importance to Thad Beaumont and George Stark in The Dark Half – heaven help us all if they start flying again, and so I thought it best to confine them to my nails.  See, not so evil after all. 😉

Literary Inspiration: The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones Collage

It’s the great unanswered question: What happens to us when we die?  Where do we go, what do we do, who do we become?  Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel, The Lovely Bones, seeks to answer those unanswerables, as viewed through the lens of a 14-year-old murder victim analyzing her death – and its devastating effects on the living – from the afterlife.  It’s a sad, contemplative, upsetting story about a bright life cut brutally short, and the familial fallout experienced by those left behind.  But it’s also a hopeful story of imagination, exploration and, finally, acceptance – on all sides – of those things we vehemently wish we could change, but cannot.

Did I love The Lovely Bones?  No.  I’m not sure it’s a book – or a subject matter – that lends itself to love.  It’s tremendously difficult – not to mention unpleasant – to listen to a naive teenager recount the horrifying circumstances of her rape and murder at the hands of a next door neighbour.  And that’s in the first 20 pages.  The ending actually fares much worse, undoing hundreds of pages of largely unearned goodwill with a laughable deus ex machina that fares particularly poorly in today’s consent-conscious era.  And absent Milton’s efforts in Paradise Lost, I’ve never jived well with simplistic descriptions of heaven, even the ones where every day ends with a musical dog party.

The story is this: Walking home from school one chilly winter afternoon in 1973, 14-year-old Susie Salmon is lured into a rudimentary bunker dug in the field behind her house by her neighbour, Mr. Harvey.  While her mother stands on the back porch calling her in to dinner, Susie is raped and murdered, her body dismembered and disposed of by Harvey with indifferent, ruthless efficiency.

When Susie next becomes aware of her surroundings, she’s in heaven – in this book, it’s always with a lower case H.  That’s because this is Susie’s version of the afterlife, a young girl’s heaven populated by joyous evenings filled with stirring music and ecstatic parties-in-the-park.

The Lovely Bones 1

For those descriptions, this novel, an Oprah Book Club entrant, earned the colloquial title of “That book where the little girl describes heaven.”  But Susie’s musings on heaven – a place where you are supposed to be at eternal peace – are actually few and far between, and are of a kind of boring, static place where questions about the past are discouraged.  Which sits poorly with Susie, a young woman caught somewhere between knowing ALL the secrets of the universe, and none.

Back down on Earth, Susie’s friends and family are faring even worse.  They have absolutely no answers, and for a time cling to the dim hope that she has been snatched.  But after mounting physical evidence points to Susie having come to great harm, they accept that she’s been murdered, and then set about the unenviable task of completely setting fire to their lives, in ways great, small and utterly predictable.

As the Salmon family’s lives spiral, Harvey evades justice, if not suspicion – you just can’t be a dollhouse-constructing, bridal tent-erecting single weirdo in a neighbourhood where a young girl mysteriously disappears without arousing some suspicions.  But with no evidence to tie the man to the crime, beyond a grieving father’s absolute certainty that this is the bastard who killed his daughter, Harvey walks, and after a period of laying low, silently moves out of the neighbourhood in the dead of night and out of their lives.

The Lovely Bones 3

From her heaven, Susie sees all of this, and as the days, weeks and months following her death stretch into years, her friends and family try to move on without her, while at the same time being utterly consumed by her memory.  Much like the idea of being granted a personalized heaven, this is a simplistic approach to loss – that our passing has so much impact, decades will pass before anyone will even attempt to make themselves whole again.  I also found I didn’t much care for heaven’s “What’s done is done, now let’s all calm down with a cup of tea” approach to grief.  Over and over, Susie is advised by Franny, a kind of heavenly caseworker, to let the past be, that there’s nothing to be gained from tormenting herself over things that cannot be changed.  But in doing so, Susie is robbed of an important part of the healing process – pure, earsplitting rage.  It’s not the most productive emotion, but it is satisfying, and if a person can’t take a grim sort of satisfaction from challenging the circumstances of their own death, when can they?

The Lovely Bones was a fine book, but for all the things I didn’t care for about it – the least of which was the appalling subject matter – it’s not one I’ll be picking up again.

I read this one in service of my friends’ reading challenge for the 19th theme of “Pick your own.”  Long before I ever read The Lovely Bones, I did, however, think that its cover artwork was beautiful.  The lush tropical blue fading to a light, washed-out haze is the perfect design choice to convey Susie’s insistent, but fading, presence in the world, as is the image of her dulled, but beloved, charm bracelet.  So I chose that as the inspiration for these nails.

The Lovely Bones 2

Literary Inspiration: Dreamcatcher

Dreamcatcher Collage

Right, so because I can’t stop whinging on about it – one of my New Year’s resolutions is to stop bitching about my life! – I may have mentioned a time or 30 that 2019 was not a particularly good year for your friendly neighbourhood blogger.  It just stunk.  And a good chunk of that stinkiness came directly from the source, like a self-perpetuating loop of doom and gloom I was utterly unable to drag myself from.

Absent a November and a December that were so jam packed with activity, I may never need to socialize again (joke) I didn’t get much done last year.  Blogging was a sad afterthought, favourite TV shows failed to inspire, and virtually every challenge or project I began fell by the wayside, even the ones I was excited to participate in, like my friends’ 2019 reading challenge.  It just seemed like every time I’d pick up a book, I’d find some reason to set it right back down again.

But I tried!  And in doing so, somehow managed to best my 2018 score of a dozen reads with 14 whole books!  And only two and a half of them were Stephen King, I swear. 😉

Jay and Julie have created another reading challenge for the new decade, but before I leap into that (gotta find somewhere to slot that half-King, right?) I’d like to finish up my 2019 efforts, starting with – yup, you guessed it – Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, which I read in service of the 25th prompt of “A happy little accident…or a book that has a title Bob Ross would appreciate.”

But I guess the real question IS, does Bob Ross enjoy ass weasels?  ‘Cause this book be chock-a-block with alien critters, and they’re all comin’ out our butts. *mic drop*

Dreamcatcher 2.jpg

The familiar Kingsian story goes a little something like this: Four friendsbound by childhood trauma in the haunted town of Derry, now in their 30s and with various responsibilities of their own, head off to the Maine woods for an annual long weekend hunting trip.  While there, aliens – Gray Boys to the trigger-happy government installation also banging about the woods – crash land in the forest.  And then shit completely goes to hell.

Literally.  Because King seems wildly preoccupied with providing as much squicky detail about how the aliens enter – and exit – our bodies as possible.  It’s not just enough to describe the itchy, blazing red, sumac-type virus that spreads across our skin.  Naw, we also have to describe – in intimate detail! – the skinless, eyeless creatures I call butt weasels (ass weasels, if you’re nasty) and their amazing adventures in, and outside of, our lower colons.

This book is SO PUERILE.  Also juvenile, scatological, and deeply, deeply inane.  It’s also hilarious.  I defy anyone – even those of us mired in a year of bad luck and unfortunate events – not to laugh at a folksy Maine hunter insisting that the screaming and various other apocalyptic noises coming from the other side of the bathroom door are merely the result of eating some bad berries out in the woods, and not a lower GI tract stuffed with ass weasels.  I literally shrieked with delight when the folksy hunter with the tum full of alien parasites grumpily responds to the concerned men gathered outside the bathroom with a “Can’t you go away and let a fellow…let a fellow make a little number two?  Gosh!”  That “Gosh!” just utterly slayed me.  Think we’re a bit past the “Gosh!” stage of things when the bathroom door is bulging outwards on its hinges, dude, but you do you.

Written in 2001 following the car collision that nearly claimed his life, Dreamcatcher is both bound to and untethered by King’s typical style.  The usuals are all here – Maine, childhood friends with secrets, Derry, telepathy, cloaked government installations, good guys, bad guys and guys somewhere in between – yet there’s a kind of weary, been-there-done-that feeling to the setting and the story.  At this stage of his career, King seems tired.  Tired of pain, probably, but also maybe a bit tired of his own schtick.  Hence the introduction of the ass weasels to, I dunno, shake things up a bit?

In the end (heh) I really enjoyed Dreamcatcher, needless gory bits aside.  It was exactly the kind of low committment, high entertainment paperback I needed in my life at that time, and I’m glad I read it.

Dreamcatcher 1

Also glad I decided to go with this design inspired by the sumac-type Ripley virus (Ripley, get it?) as opposed to the butt weasels.  Some things should just stay off your nails, you know?  Bob Ross would certainly approve. 🙂

Bubbly

Bubbly 1

Didn’t actually have any on New Year’s Eve – these shimmery nails are as close to champers as I got this year.  We actually went to an 11 pm showing of Rise of Skywalker at the theatre just down the road from our new home, and rang in the new year staring at Poe Dameron’s handsome face (SO handsome!)

All part of my 2020 plan to get out there and live a little bit more.  And by that I mean step outside my comfort zone, do something a little unexpected, and just deal with the (temporarily) scary feeling that goes along with trying new things.

I’ve never been one to make resolutions, but I think that’s going to change this year.  Here’s a few I’d like to stick to:

Deal with things head-on.  I can – and occasionally do – procrastinate myself into a hole in the ground.  I’m just not great at dealing expeditiously with the administrative aspects of life.  But after organizing pretty well the entirety of our move, as well as the sale of our condo and the purchase of this house, in a little under a month, I KNOW I can do these things.  So I should.  It’s actually pretty rewarding to strike that thing you just didn’t want to do! – say, going to the DMV to change your address – off your to-do list.

Flowing from the first point, I’d like to get out and engage with the world a little more.  I’m a real homebody, which means I have the great/terrible problem of both loving my home and never wanting to leave it.  Believe it or not, going to the movies the other night was a pretty major leap – the urge to stay at home, cozy warm and unbothered by everything beyond our four walls, was nearly overwhelming.  But I also really wanted to see Rise of Skywalker on the big screen, and I wanted to do something a little bit unexpected to ring in the new year.  Adventure is out there – I just have to occasionally leave my house to find it.

Beyond that, here are a couple of specific resolutions that I’m already doing quite well on – cutting Starbucks out of my life, because I hate it (to clarify, I hate the culture, not the coffee) and nixing my perverse addiction to American political news.  I go through phases where I forget how furious and anxiety-ridden both tend to make me, and suddenly I’m haunting CNN 24/7, two venti mochas shoved into either side of my latte-drinkin’ helmet.  I like staying informed, but I also need to protect my sanity.  And lose some weight.  Cutting out the mochas will definitely help with that. 🙂

Have you made any resolutions for 2020?