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Best Books I Read in 2021

What a year, right? In 2016-2019 I felt like the tension in the world was building to something. In 2020 we imploded, but found optimism in the darkness. The audacity of that, I mean really. Instead of optimism, in 2021 I (we?) sank deeper into disillusionment, anxiety, and exhaustion. Now, it wasn’t all doom and gloom and plenty of light seeped into the darkness. For me part of that light is always, always, always art and creativity – and thus books.

I set a goal of 85 books in 2021 and read 96, so I’ll consider that a win for my soul. I read plenty of things I would consider frivolous (though, is the need to daydream and escape ever really frivolous?) and several books that took themselves… very seriously… but in all it was a great literary year for me.

I also included chapter books I read aloud to the kids. While many are not particularly stimulating to me, watching words and books mean something to them is transformative for me.

Thank you to those armies of authors who write early reader chapter books. These are not the great novels you imagined in college, I’m sure, but please know that your work counts for something – you are creating a love for reading and nurturing a growing intellectual confidence in new humans. What a beautiful gift to the world.

Alright, let’s get to it shall we? I selected several books that truly stayed with me this year, and put the full pictorial list at the bottom.

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott

A gripping novel of myth, environment, adventure, and an unlikely friendship, from an award-winning Australian author. Ren lives alone on the remote frontier of a country devastated by a coup d’état. High on the forested slopes, she survives by hunting, farming, trading, and forgetting the contours of what was once a normal life. But her quiet stability is disrupted when an army unit, led by a young female soldier, comes to the mountains on government orders in search of a legendary creature called the rain heron—a mythical, dangerous, form-shifting bird with the ability to change the weather. Ren insists that the bird is simply a story, yet the soldier will not be deterred, forcing them both into a gruelling quest. Spellbinding and immersive, Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron is an astounding, mythical exploration of human resilience, female friendship, and humankind’s precarious relationship to nature. As Ren and the soldier hunt for the heron, a bond between them forms, and the painful details of Ren’s former life emerge—a life punctuated by loss, trauma, and a second, equally magical and dangerous creature. Slowly, Ren’s and the soldier’s lives entwine, unravel, and ultimately erupt in a masterfully crafted ending in which both women are forced to confront their biggest fears—and regrets.

My GoodReads Review from April 2021:
I did not set out to read this book in one sitting, but here we are at 1am. Wow. This novel is an allegory meets tragedy meets mythology meets war time story, all of which is written in near poetic rhythm. The author depicts almost manic moments of violence and grief with such gentle delivery I never felt as though I was a reading a “war” novel. I was left with a calm, quiet, thoughtful sadness but also very content and not depressed. The magical or mythical elements are treated with extreme care and interest. Highly recommended.


The Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there’s only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god–and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it. Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

My GoodReads Review from November 2021:
The set up and characters in this book immediately grabbed my attention but I found the pacing of the first half a little hard. I sort of had to force myself through but once it turned and got more action packed and exciting I couldn’t put it down! Lots of cultural nuance in here that was fun and interesting to learn about mixed with some good old-fashioned possessions, ghosts, and gods.


Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Vern – seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised – flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world. But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes. To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future – outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.

My GoodReads Review From November 2021:
This one was brutal but beautiful and surreal but gut wrenchingly honest. An excellent commentary on colonialism in the United States, and a scary, dark metamorphosis that was also strikingly … hopeful? Hopeful is definitely not the right word, but the ending felt empowered. Check your social norms at the door and go deep into this.


A Four Book Rainbow Rowell Love Fest

Before I share the next three books I just need to be clear – Rainbow is so, so good. An author from my part of the world (she is from Omaha, Nebraska) who is as honest as she is irreverent and hopeful. Two of these are technically YA I think (Any Way The Wind Blows and Fangirl), but some discussions of sex, so definitely meant for older teens not your 10 year old. Also, Any Way The Wind Blows is the third in a fantastic trilogy, don’t start here.

Finally, please don’t write these off as “romances” or just sappy love stories. Yes, they are mostly about relationships, but then aren’t our lives? There is good, meaningful stuff in these pages. Also, If you enjoy love stories and have limited your reads to strictly heterosexual story lines, you’re missing out on some rich, meaningful story telling.

Of the four, Landline resonated with me deeply, being about mid marriage and career, with a hint of fantasy and magic baked in.

Landline

Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble; it has been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now. Maybe that was always beside the point.

My GoodReads Review in September of 2021:
Where Attachments (her other adult fiction novel) was an improbable but possible foray into new adult love, Landline is a surreal love song to marriage – if not a love song with lots of angsty and sad verses. While ultimately a love story this book also explores the difficulty of balancing passion with love and career and sacrifice … and some light time travel. I related to a lot of the stuff in this book pretty deeply as I come up on 18 years with my husband whom I met at the age of 18. I can see how for some folks this wouldn’t appeal as much as some of the other stories she writes, but this felt like the love story I needed at age 36 with two kids, going on 18 years with the same person. It resonated in a wonderful way reminding me that the best part of my life is coming home.

Attachments

Beth Fremont and Jennifer Scribner-Snyder know that somebody is monitoring their work e-mail. (Everybody in the newsroom knows. It’s company policy.) But they can’t quite bring themselves to take it seriously. They go on sending each other endless and endlessly hilarious e-mails, discussing every aspect of their personal lives.Meanwhile, Lincoln O’Neill can’t believe this is his job now- reading other people’s e-mail. When he applied to be “internet security officer,” he pictured himself building firewalls and crushing hackers- not writing up a report every time a sports reporter forwards a dirty joke. When Lincoln comes across Beth’s and Jennifer’s messages, he knows he should turn them in. But he can’t help being entertained-and captivated-by their stories. By the time Lincoln realizes he’s falling for Beth, it’s way too late to introduce himself. What would he say . . . ?

My GoodReads Review in August 2021:
Rowell has a knack for making what are generally absurd storylines and outcomes that seem unfathomable, feel so relatable, true to life, and human. I am endlessly a sucker for a good love story and she puts out the best.

Fangirl

Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan… But for Cath, being a fan is her life — and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving. Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fanfiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere. Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to. Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath that she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend; a fiction-writing professor who thinks fanfiction is the end of the civilized world; a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words…and she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone. For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind.

My Review From GoodReads in September of 2021:
Speaking of Fangirls, I’m one of Rainbow’s. I couldn’t put this down. It was sweet, smart, brutal in its honesty. Also, reading stories that take place in the dorms I lived in and in my cities in Nebraska is this special and intimate thing. I did realize about 3/4 of the way through that I wished I had ever stayed as true to myself as Cather does (fears and self-loathing aside). I found myself reaching to personally identify with her college experience. I was/am more like Wren in my attitude and approach to life… again, for better or worse.

Any Way the Wind Blows (Simon Snow #3)

New York Times bestselling author Rainbow Rowell’s epic young adult fantasy Simon Snow series continues in Any Way the Wind Blows. In Carry On, Simon Snow and his friends realized that everything they thought they understood about the world might be wrong. And in Wayward Son, they wondered whether everything they understood about themselves might be wrong. In Any Way the Wind Blows, Simon and Baz and Penelope and Agatha have to decide how to move forward. Any Way the Wind Blows takes the gang back to England, back to Watford, and back to their families for their longest and most emotionally wrenching adventure yet. This book is a finale. It tells secrets and answers questions and lays ghosts to rest. Carry On was conceived as a book about Chosen One stories; Any Way the Wind Blows is an ending about endings. About catharsis and closure, and how we choose to move on from the traumas and triumphs that try to define us

My GoodReads Review from August 2021:
I read fantasy romance genre novels like it is my job. I love elves, halfings, witches, and wizards; I love rough and tumble adventures with ‘hero’s journey vibes;’ I love love stories. Simon and Baz in Rainbow Rowell’s trilogy is the best love story I’ve read in years. Their story – not to mention their ridiculous stop at the Renaissance Faire we love in Omaha Nebraska in the second book – is one of the truest, most brutal and gut wrenching, and beautiful stories I’ve read. These teenage to young adult men had me laughing, crying, and relating. If you enjoy love stories and have limited your reads to strictly heterosexual story lines, you’re missing out on some rich, meaningful story telling. So your sex looks different? No matter. We can all relate to being in love and all the beautiful issues that come with it. Thank you Rainbow for giving us these character


The Fifth Doll by Charlie N. Holmberg

Matrona lives in an isolated village, where her life is centered on pleasing her parents. She’s diligent in her chores and has agreed to marry a man of their choosing. But a visit to Slava, the local tradesman, threatens to upend her entire life. Entering his empty house, Matrona discovers a strange collection of painted nesting dolls—one for every villager. Fascinated, she can’t resist the urge to open the doll with her father’s face. But when her father begins acting strangely, she realizes Slava’s dolls are much more than they seem. When he learns what she’s done, Slava seizes the opportunity to give Matrona stewardship over the dolls—whether she wants it or not. Forced to open one of her own dolls every three days, she falls deeper into the grim power of Slava’s creations. But nothing can prepare her for the profound secret hiding inside the fifth doll.


The Hobbit or There and Back Again by by J.R.R. Tolkien

Ok, ok, if you’ve met me it should be pretty obvious I have already read this, long before 2021. This year, however, I read this aloud to my son Max and the experience was just so rich and meaningful. As an aside, if you’ve read aloud much of the Narnia series and found it tricky in pacing and vocabulary, I found Tolkien much easy to narrate aloud.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Written for J.R.R. Tolkien’s own children, The Hobbit met with instant critical acclaim when it was first published in 1937. Now recognized as a timeless classic, this introduction to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf, Gollum, and the spectacular world of Middle-earth recounts of the adventures of a reluctant hero, a powerful and dangerous ring, and the cruel dragon Smaug the Magnificent.


There we have it – my best books from 2021. Below I’ve copied the images for every book I read in 2021. Many of these very nearly made the full post, several were very bad. I read far fewer graphic novels this year. I don’t know that the change means anything exactly, but an interesting observation.

Be well. Read on.

Get paid.

A message (and reminder to self) to all my mid-career friends in similar situations:

When I was early on in my career I did many free speaking gigs and projects that were additional to the requirements of my job. This was good! I was new, I was building up my credentials and expertise, and my reputation. For certain causes and groups I still work for free and of course certain events are within of my regular salary and work.

More broadly though, the most important thing that I’ve taken out of the last 2 to 3 years, and a phrase I want us all to practice saying is “I can’t do this unless there is compensation for the additional hours.”

Get. Paid.

Or, if you don’t actually want to do it, don’t.

Amen.

Favorite Reads of 2020

Like everything else in 2020, I didn’t quite hit my reading goal. In fact I missed it by one – I read 99 books, out of my goal of 100. I was almost through number 100, but prioritizing family time (and probably spending too much time scrolling on my phone), made me to set it down yesterday. This morning I rolled over in bed, listening to my kids play Minecraft Dungeons in the living room, picked it up and realized I’d only had 3 pages left (3!), as the rest of it was a preview of the next book.

So, in sum, I missed my goal by three pages and 8 hours. Goodbye 2020.

Continuing in this trend, as I write this, WordPress and Goodreads are continually crashing and reloading, making my usual method of drafting this annual post not impossible, but exceedingly burdensome. I may return later (I will not), but for now I’ve just posted covers and my brief comments.

Anyhow, I read some amazing books and graphic novels this year! As always lots of fantasy and romance, which rarely make this list, but remain excellent escapes. Just like prior years, I only include graphic novel collected volumes, not individual issues. Also, many of these books didn’t come out in 2020, that is just when I read them. After the highlights, I’ve shared some honorable mentions and pictured all the books I finished this year.

“There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.” ― Bertrand Russell

My Favorite Books in 2020

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

by Kim Michele RichardsonKatie Schorr (Narrator)
My review from January 6, 2020: This novel was striking, sometimes very hard and heart breaking, fascinating, and very well written. I was/am pretty unfamiliar with this period of time in Kentucky and the condition which causes blue skin – so this was educational and engaging. Our main character is gracious, humble, brave, and stubborn. I listened to this as an audiobook and the performer was very good. Her gentle accent and inflections really added to the story.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

by Nghi Vo
I read this in October 2020. This short novel was compelling and beautiful in so many ways. Unexpected results and very unconventional writing. The imagery created intrigue – and any confusion it caused only made me read on more urgently.

Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table

by Ruth Reichl
I finished this novel on June 24 2020 and I was so sad to see it go. Ruth’s life is simultaneously an impossible, picturesque, almost liberal-cliché ideal but also raw, honest, flawed, and tragic. Her relationship to food and the food industry feels honest and equal parts inspiring and disappointing (in the experiences she has). Her affairs and marriage are really honestly portrayed here, as well as her heartbreaking adoption story. This memoir is unafraid and brutal while also being full of whimsy, passion, humor, wit, and most importantly excellent recipes (I made the crab cakes – delicious).

The Bear and the Nightingale

by Katherine Arden
I finished this novel in June 2020 and almost wish I’d held it for a winter night. This take on Russian folklore is magic but gritty and cruel. I love folklore and fairytales, and particularly enjoy the older versions or modernized takes, meaning versions that include the hardships, horrors, and pains that inspire storytelling in first place. This did not disappoint. I also enjoyed the authors notes on the lore’s history: “Morozko is the name of the Russian Jack Frost, a winter demon who is sometimes benevolent and sometimes cruel. He features in multiple fairy tales. What I found interesting about this character though is he has his mythical roots in slavic paganism, as a dark god of winter and death called Chernobog. He evolved over the years from a pretty powerful deity to sort of a wicked fairy-tale creature, and finally (after some European influence) to Ded Moroz, the Russian Father Christmas. I found this journey (from wicked pagan god to giver of treats to children) absolutely fascinating.”

Writers & Lovers

by Lily King
I finished this novel in March 2020, and it left me with lots of reflections, feelings, and judgements. This novel is funny but also sad and relatable.

Escaping Exodus

by Nicky Drayden
The concept of this novel is… well… bizarre? Imaginative? Insane? Possibly one of the most thoughtful environmental metaphors ever (maybe)? If you enjoy science fiction, fantasy, space travel, and social commentary, read this book. Seske Kaleigh is an engaging protagonist you find yourself cheering for again and again.

City of Girls

by Elizabeth Gilbert
When I finished City of Girls in mid April 2020 it was just what I needed. Sometimes, when the characters are good enough, stories have the luxury of meandering around without any meaningful conflict for 200+ pages. This is one of those. The first half of this book is purely scene-building and I ate up every drop. Then you have your major conflict but the following 200 pages are essentially character development, in which the only notable conflict is that WWII is one of the partial backdrops. Yet, somehow, I want to meet Vivian and listen to her for hours. This worked for me, despite its lingering pace. Maybe it’s because it never went more than a page without mentioning fabric, cocktails, or sex? I’m here for it.

In at the Deep End

The first book I finished in and 2020, and it was appropriately titled. This is an intense read; both extremely sexually graphic and very, snort your tea out your nose, funny. It makes you uncomfortable, but in a way that sympathizes you to the main character’s choices.

I often read books that fall in or intersect with the romance genre and as such they typically include a couple of sex(y) scenes, including relatively frequent LGBTQA relationships given the novels I choose, but never have I read a novel that so unapologetically rejects flowery similes for private parts. No “pearled” nipples or “the heart of my heat” here. The author talks about sex bluntly and honestly relates it back to how human’s make choices, feel about others, and manage their lives. It is graphic? Yes. Is it real? Yes.

She calls it like she sees it and the outcome is a honest look at the act of sex, humans, obsession, and comfort zones.

Some others to highlight…

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini is a very long book, which almost deterred me at first, but it moved pretty quickly. Like a lot of action-adventure stories it felt like the whole story was moving from place to place constantly and I don’t know that I could confidently pick out a “middle” but regardless I enjoyed the journey. Kira is an excellent narrator and relatable.

I fell hard for Ellery Adams’ mysteries this year. These are cozy and easy reads. While the happy ending is assured and the characters predictable, the mysteries themselves are complex and I’m often surprised by the culprits! Her novels are an excellent way to spend an evening leaving the world behind.

…and speaking of mysteries, it goes without saying that everything I read by Agatha Christie takes me to a new place and time. Clever beyond words. My favorite this year was Cards on the Table.

I try to make a point of reading some “classics” every year, some re-reads and some new to me. This year I read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (a re-read), The Best of Isaac Asimov (probably only considered “classic” by nerds, but I care not for your judgements), and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The Asimov collection starts in his early(ish) life as an author, the first story being published in 1939 and spanning some work through the 1970s. I hadn’t read any of these before. In particular, in the early works, it was notable that the only female characters were wives, whereas in some of his later novels characters like Susan Calvin were instrumental. That said his creativity, clever but simple wit, and mastery of the human condition shines through. True “before it’s time” classic science fiction.

Fahrenheit 451 is one of those American classics I swore I had probably read in high school lit, but after listening for a hour, I knew I hadn’t. It’s classic dystopian science fiction and every other page is a remarkable quote or takeaway. Tim Robbins narration was intense, rapid, and moving.

On The Edge by Ilona Andrews – The Ilona Andrews team always craft a complex mystery with remarkable world building. I found the first chapter and this one to be a bit too wordy and full of set up but eventually got into it. The book covers though? They’re embarrassing (I usually check these out from the library instead of on my Kindle) especially when the mystery is good and the romance is so secondary to the plot. 

Finally, this is probably the first year in the past five I haven’t included my favorite authors on this list – Neil Gaiman, Seanan McGuire, and Terry Pratchett (who is sadly deceased, but whose full catalog I have yet to complete). While I read some pieces of all of them this year, none were my favorites of theirs, though all still fantastic. That is to say, if I were trying to convince someone else to read them, the work of theirs I read in 2020 isn’t where I’d have them start so I omitted it here.

Full Pictorial List

I don’t want to do negative here, so I won’t call any titles out, but don’t consider the below covers endorsements. I read some real stinkers this year too.

Solstice

Monday was winter solstice, the shortest day, the longest night, and a time that has always deeply resonated with me.

Gratitude and gratuitous table setting will always be my jam.

We decorated our Yule log, celebrated our earth, thanked the light, and acknowledged the night by having a “dark dinner” and taking a long nighttime walk with our homemade lanterns.

One of my favorite Mary Oliver poems felt like the right fit this year.

In winter
all the singing is in
the tops of the trees
where the wind-bird

with its white eyes
shoves and pushes
among the branches.
Like any of us

he wants to go to sleep,
but he’s restless—
he has an idea,
and slowly it unfolds

from under his beating wings
as long as he stays awake.
But his big, round music, after all,
is too breathy to last.

So, it’s over.
In the pine-crown
he makes his nest,
he’s done all he can.

I don’t know the name of this bird,
I only imagine his glittering beak
tucked in a white wing
while the clouds—

which he has summoned
from the north—
which he has taught
to be mild, and silent—

thicken, and begin to fall
into the world below
like stars, or the feathers
of some unimaginable bird

that loves us,
that is asleep now, and silent—
that has turned itself
into snow

Be well and blessed be.

Moon Cakes, Mid-Autumn, and Making Time

One of our Family Lanterns

Like many families staying in because of the pandemic, we’ve watched a ridiculous number of movies in 2020. At the top of the most-watched and loved list is the Kung Fu Panda series and the Netflix original movie Over the Moon. In both the mid-autumn festival is celebrated and moon cakes and bean buns are enjoyed. About a third of Eleanor’s preschool class was from China and they did many Chinese activities, so she was delighted to revisit the festival and teach us a few of the mandarin words she remembers from her friends there. We decided we wanted to learn more about the festival and the foods – and of course I’m trying to turn myself into a cook and a baker – so we decided to make moon cakes, throw a mid-autumn festival (a month late), and do some research.

As plagiarized from Wikipedia, the Mid–Autumn Festival, also known as Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival, is a traditional festival celebrated by many East and Southeast Asian people. The festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar with a full moon at night, corresponding to mid-September to early October of the Gregorian calendar – in 2020 this was in early October. We’re celebrating a month late, but is it always a good time to stop and reflect on our good fortune, our family, and honor the changing of the seasons.

My Final Mooncakes

I became mildly obsessed with making moon cakes and watched all the YouTube videos.  There are so many cool press options and variations by culture and country. I made three filling variations as I’m an annoying over-achiever. Because I was bothering with three different fillings, I decided to do try different recipes for the dough as well, though all are along the same lines. Here are the recipes:

Right away, we needed to do some shopping. Ever wanting to support local, the kids and I masked-up, grabbed the hand sanitizer, and headed to three different Asian markets in Lincoln. I had the best luck at Oriental Market Inc. 林肯东方店 and at Hong Kong Market. I purchased golden syrup (Lyle’s), lye water, dried lotus seeds, azuki red beans, and of course a moon cake press kit, which was the most fun because of all the designs.

I did have to get the golden syrup and the press online, as stores reported they were seasonal. Everyone was also careful to tell me that I could just buy premade moon cakes and seemed to think I was a little insane, but I was undeterred. We made the cake flour at home (sift all purpose flour and corn starch) and I substituted the canola and sunflower oil for grapeseed oil (I like the fruiter taste and we had it on hand). Important tip, have a grams to cup/teaspoons converter ready!

Here are a few YouTube videos I found particularly helpful too:
How to make mooncake with salted egg yolk – Recipe By ZaTaYaYummy
How to Make Traditional Mooncake Step by Step
Cantonese Mooncake Recipe (双黄白莲蓉月饼)
Traditional Chinese Mooncakes (With 2 Fillings)

Red Bean Paste Filling:
Like anything else with beans, they needed to soak overnight. I immediately screwed up by just dumping the full package of dried beans into the soak, when the recipe said to measure one cup first. Whoops. Thankfully it was a relatively small bag, that was maybe about two cups. After the soak we did a double boil and let them simmer for almost two hours. I ended up with a lot of more paste and had to mess around with my sugar ratio once making the paste.

The dough felt like 90% syrup, but came together really nicely. This recipe is for mini cakes and the dough seemed like.. like not enough dough… but that may have been because of all my red bean paste? Anyhow, I froze all my left cover paste (almost 3 cups worth) to make bean buns later on.

Mid-bake you pull the cakes out to for an egg yolk wash. I definitely used way too much egg wash, which blew out the designs. Thankful I baked off one batch as a test first so I could adjust the lotus seed variations.

After baking, the cakes need to sit for two days (yes, days) in air tight containers, letting the oils soften up the dough. This really made a huge difference! Get patient and don’t skip the wait. Max, Morgan, and I really liked these red bean mooncakes but Eleanor couldn’t believe we could eat them. While sweet, it is a much more savory and crispy treat than our palettes are used to. To be honest, they really remind me of fig newtons.

Lotus Seed Fillings:
Did you know the little sprouts grow inside of the lotus seeds and are super bitter? Now you do! The kid’s were recruited to crack open every seed and pull out sprouts, after the seeds soaked overnight. I also made the lotus paste the day before making the next round of moon cakes. This is a labor-intensive process, so I was leisurely about it.

I found the lotus seeds a little harder to get to congeal into a workable paste and my wand processor didn’t do a great job smoothing it out. I wasn’t a huge fan – though I didn’t hate it – but Morgan loved it. I was pretty skeptical about the salted egg yolks too. After opening them up I baked them for 8 minutes at 200(ish) to soften them up just slightly. In the end they made the cakes much more sturdy and the favor was much less salty and egg-y than I expected. I suggest trying them, at the very least.

Tip, again, if that egg wash goes on too thick you lose your design detail, so be sure your wash is really thin and covers the sides.

Candy:
Max liked the red bean paste cakes, but Eleanor is a bit more picky. I wanted everyone to get in on our festival so with the last five balls of dough I dipped into the halloween candy. I took a miniature Snickers, warmed it up in my hand, and rolled it into a ball. I repeated this with a Reeses. These cakes leaked just a tiny bit and turned out delicious!

Festival Time!
We threw our own Mid-Autumn festival a few days after I finished the last batch. In preparation we made 16 or so paper lanterns to hang up and learned about the moon. That evening Morgan made a Chinese feast with Eleanor’s favorite, chicken fried rice, and Max’s favorite, pot stickers. We read a few non-fiction books on the festival and it’s history and delivered a mooncake care package to my parents to celebrate family and share the love.

In all, we had a great two weeks learning about other cultures, trying new foods, and baking!

Fall Family Portraits

We haven’t had “real” photos taken since Eleanor’s birth, so when a law student (with a background and love for photography) offered an awesome fundraiser for the Student Bar Association I jumped on it! I’m not much into having posed portraits like this, but see the value in it, so a quick low pressure experience was great. She donated her photo session fees to the association and we got 30 minutes of her time. A win-win.

Thank you Dana Jurgensmeier!

Also, I never really share my kid’s faces on social media, though I sign the releases of schools and activities to do so. I’ve, pretty randomly, decided to share them here as part of our family photos. I can’t articulate a great reason for why I feel OK about this and not about day-to-day posts on social media, but formal family portraits seem like much less of an invasion of their personal autonomy. Life is full of decisions that live on a spectrum, this is one of them.

#ElsbethCooks up a serendipitous New Year’s resolution

There are a few things you need to know about me from 2019 (aside from my blissful naivety of what the following year would hold). First, I love to eat good, adventurous, and new foods, but I hated cooking. Hated it. Full on felt that the process was torture. Fortunately I’m married to a chef and I was happy to eat sandwiches when he was not available. Second, I love taking on new and difficult challenges – always have – but I was sick of fitness and body centered goals. I started toying with the idea of a cooking challenge. Truth be told, training to run a seventh half marathon, after almost a year of running hiatus, seemed more doable than learning to cook. Actually enjoying cooking seemed near impossible. So, obviously, I set a New Year’s resolution to learn to cook.

Given what 2020 held, this was a very serendipitous decision. What better thing to do in a pandemic? Cook! And cook? Cook, I have.

Things started slowly and a bit painfully. I initially focused primarily on vegan and vegetarian dishes. My husband is a meat lover and as our primary family cook, almost every meal includes it, so I wanted to lighten our environmental impact. I continue to be interested in more plant based cooking, but have to admit I found it difficult to make things I really wanted to eat – though it was all rather pretty and colorful. From there I sort of unofficially turned to focusing on food from other cultures (Indian, Thai, traditional Mexican, etc). Now, since August or so, I’ve been enjoying using old cookbooks – be they gifts from our wedding over 10 years ago, hand me downs from various grandmothers, or 25 cent garage sale buys Morgan picked up years ago, I’m loving cooking my way through the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

I had some pretty major flops, from rock hard cookies to cold sides to being completely unaware that lemon cucumber skin is extremely bitter. I… I did not always love this challenge. Like all good goals my journey has includes many “why the fuck did I decide to do this?!” moments.

I find the most difficult thing to master is timing. It feels like I spend an hour prepping everything, I turn on the stove or oven, and then EVERYTHING HAPPENS AT ONCE AND MY KIDS NEED HELP USING SOME ELECTRONIC THING AND THE CAT THROWS UP AND NOW STUFF IS BURNING AND WHY IS THIS NOT HOLDING TOGETHER? BABE CAN YOU HELP ME? OH SHIT THIS IS BURNING!

Shockingly though, against all odds, around April I found myself enjoying my time in the kitchen. Timing is still an issue and mistakes are still a regular occurrence, but somehow, I’m finding this fun. I think the change is related to confidence. I hated cooking because I was intimidated by it and bad at it. Every task felt like a judgement on my competency. This challenge forced me to try and in the end forced me to build up some confidence. Confidence to have fun, try things, throw away disgusting mistakes, and the confidence to say “it’s ok to like doing something you’re still not very good at.”

Lately, I’m finding myself drawn to baking as it relates to cultural tradition. This month, for example, we’re celebrating the mid-autumn festival popular throughout Asia a month late by making moon cakes. I masked up the kids and together we shopped our way through three Asian food markets to find lye water, golden syrup, lotus seeds and more. This process will involve combining indigents I am completely unfamiliar with, but look delicious. My moon cake press is in the mail and the kids have been ordered to work on paper lanterns as we learn the history of the festival and about the other cultures around us (stay tuned)!

For 2021 I want to keep it up, and in addition to some yoga and strength training goals, I’m setting a new New Year’s resolution to keep me in the kitchen: I’m going to bake my way through the Great British Baking Show technical challenges. This show may well be one of the reasons I decided on this challenge in the first place. Acknowledging that baking and cooking are two different arts, I’ve been taking both on in turn. This show, while a competition, is so cheery and supportive. I believe it has also convinced my husband to buy me a Kitchen Aid mixer for Christmas (thanks Paul and Mary!)

I look forward to recreating the tent in my own kitchen and imagining some ducklings and sheep wondering outside my window – perhaps kids and guinea pigs will be proper substitutes.

I’ve been posting Instagram stories of my cooking adventures with hashtag ElsbethCooks, though I’m slowly drifting away from having any social media accounts (Instagram is my last). I may share these baking adventure there, here, or no where – but know that most weekends I’m probably at home, cursing and baking.

A Lost Semester: A Note on The 2020 Pandemic From Executive Director Magilton

The letter being shared in our Program’s 2019-2020 Annual Report and with our alumni this September.

As our team put together this report and reviewed the full gamut of events and activities we completed this fall, I felt a new wave of loss over all the great plans we had for spring 2020 that were, of course, cancelled. When the world stopped this March and all the “out of an abundance of caution” cancellation emails started rolling in, academic programs everywhere were suddenly forced to change course. Of all the losses and pain that COVID-19 has caused globally cancelled conferences and academic events are, with out doubt, some of the least important. Acknowledging that, it was still hard to cancel work we had put our hearts and souls into. There was so much I looked forward to sharing with you here that is missing – and that hurts.

Even more seriously, the rug was pulled out from under students everywhere. I am proud of how Nebraska Law responded and we did our best to support students and employees who suddenly found themselves learning and working from home. From “old school” efforts like student phone trees, to more modern efforts in helping students navigating Zoom classrooms, we took efforts to the next level to retain our community.

Did we do it perfectly? No. Spring 2020 was an unprecedented time, and it continues to be so as I write this. There is no blueprint to help us establish best practices for building community when our community can’t be together in person. The past six months have taught us a lot of lessons – and while I hope we don’t have another occasion to apply them in the same context, opportunities to learn always provide opportunities for gratitude.

That feeling is the one I want to leave you with: gratitude. I could outline our response plans, discuss how our online program made us uniquely suited to make the switch, tell you what it felt like to watch our students graduate and move away without being able to hug them, but instead I want to thank our community for rising up to meet the challenges we faced this year.

When all the networking mixers, airport connections, conferences, and “hustle” is stripped away, what is left is the heart of the mission, the research, and the community. This has been a year for introspection, creativity, empathy, and making space for new ideas. While this isn’t the year I would’ve wished for, there is space for gratitude for what this year has been.

To our alumni, friends, and loved ones who have been impacted by COVID-19, our hearts and thoughts are with you.

Elsbeth Magilton
Executive Director of Technology, Security, and Space Law Initiatives
Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law Program
Nebraska Governance and Technology Center

Starting School.. in fall 2020

We finally made a choice about how the kids will be attending school during the first quarter amidst the pandemic.

We are under no obligation to validate it and fellow parents – neither are you.

This all sucks, big time. Everyone has different situations professionally and financially and by-and-large our leaders failed us. We’re all just doing the best we can with the options available. If you’re panicked, frustrated, angry, sad over back-to-school: I am too. Always up to talk and commiserate, however your kids are attending this fall. 

For what it’s worth our kids will be going for the first 10 days so they can get to know their teachers and get some in-person instruction on using their chromebooks for remote learning, which they’ll switch to until we reassess in mid-October for the second quarter. 10 days is the time set by our district to stick with one method or the other – so 10 days in and one and half months remote. It is an imperfect plan, but still at least reduces exposure over the next 9 weeks, while acknowledging other needs. 

Eleanor is starting kindergarten and I’ve lost so much sleep and cried many tears processing this. 

I do want to say that I feel the folks in our public school system have had their hands tied and are doing the best that they can. We are so proud of the work our elementary school has put into keeping kids safe, using classroom cohorts, and with masks on. 

We are proud Roadrunners! #beepbeep 

But also.. #fuck2020 

Yule

“I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.
‘We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,’
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.”

Oliver Herford, I Heard a Bird Sing

I’m not a Christian, nor is my husband, but we celebrate Christmas. It’s kind of gross, I know. Ingenuine and dishonest. The holiday has so permeated our culture, particularly here in the Midwest, that I don’t have the heart to rip it away from my children. I’m not strong enough to deny them the tree, Santa, or jingle bells. Judge that for what you will.

I still feel, however, a need to be spiritual during winter each year – and not just in discussions of gratitude, giving, and family joy (which are also important) but in a deep and old way. I believe strongly in honoring the land and the earth. I don’t have any defined beliefs regarding what lays beyond our world and my suspicions vary day to day. One thing I’m sure of though, is that the cycle of the earth and the ground beneath our feet deeply matter in some ancient way.

To be clear, while it appeals to me somewhat, I’m not Wicca or Pagan either. I’m simply an agnostic descendant of Scandinavians who likes trees and experiencing all the seasons. It’s not a flashy station with a settled dogma, but it’s mine and here we are.

For the past few years I’ve held a special Winter Solstice dinner for my children by candlelight – this is the traditional “dark dinner” where we light every candle in the house and turn off every light bulb. We “light the night” to welcome back the sun as our days begin to stretch longer again. This year I added yule log decorating, some historical discussion of winter holidays that existed before Christmas existed, creating our own solstice lanterns, and a “moon walk”. The day was truly something special between my kids and I (my husband had to work that evening, but did join us for a follow up dark dinner the next evening).

I rarely require much decorum or silence my kids, but I asked for some while I read a few poems about nature, winter, and introspection. They agreed that serious moments, while potentially boring, “make things feel important.”

From our crafty family to you yours – Love, light, joy, and reflection.

“I speak cold silent words a stone might speak
If it had words or consciousness,
Watching December moonlight on the mountain peak,
Relieved of mortal hungers, the whole mess
Of needs, desires, ambitions, wishes, hopes.
This stillness in me knows the sky’s abyss,
Reflected by blank snow along bare slopes,
If it had words or consciousness,
Would echo what a thinking stone might say
To praise oblivion words can’t possess
As inorganic muteness goes its way.
There’s no serenity without the thought serene,
Owl-flight without spread wings, honed eyes, hooked beak,
Absence without the meaning absence means.
To rescue bleakness from the bleak,
I speak cold silent words a stone might speak.”

Robert Pack, Stone Thoughts