Monday, October 21, 2013

No, I'm not talking about Renee Zellweger, rather the author - Helen Fielding.  Sunday night, Washington D.C.'s Sixth & I cultural center welcomed Fielding and the night's event moderator, Radhika Jones from Time Magazine.  I was a fan of the Bridget Jones series long before the movies came out, having first stumbled upon the initial book, Bridget Jones Diary, while living in England.  At the time, I wasn't in my 30s yet, but I could still relate to the frustrations Bridget faced in her every day life.  And like all great romance or romantic comedy novels, the first book and, somewhat, the second book (Edge of Reason) gives the female reader the hope that there is a person out there who will love you and champion you regardless of all your imperfections and mistakes.

In her new book, Helen Fielding fast forwards around 15 years to a 51 year-old Bridget with two kids.  If you google this book, then what I'm about to tell you should not be a surprise.  However, if you have no knowledge or want to know nothing about the book, then the next section requires a major SPOILER ALERT!  I'll put it in smaller text so you can skip over it.

Mark Darcy is dead!  When I saw the news in conjunction with the book's release, I was annoyed. What purpose did it serve to kill off the white knight from the first two books?  Obviously, the question was raised and Fielding's explanation was that Mark would never leave Bridget, and at the same time she didn't want to write about a happy marriage.  The theme throughout the first two books is Bridget coping with chaos, and with Mark as her partner things would be too much in balance.  So, since divorce was out of the question, widowhood was the only choice.

While I was worried about how I would be able to associate with a lead character in her 50s, I have to say that Fielding successfully gave us the classic, flaky Bridget we expect and adore. Only this time her diary focuses on raising her two kids, dealing with other competitive and posh "mummys" in the neighborhood, trying to restart her career by adapting a book for a screenplay, and having to face the growing use of technology.  I learned a new word: twunking.  That's when you use twitter while drunk and overtweet rambling comments.  By the way, fans will be happy to know that Daniel Cleaver has not changed one bit!  And most of the friend gang is back, plus a few new major characters.  No more spoilers!!  It's a very quick and entertaining read.

Posted on Monday, October 21, 2013 by Julie

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

This is the case of a post I meant to write a week ago, had all the photos prepped and ready to go, but then life and work got in the way and it took writing another post to realize I forgot to publish this one!  So, apologies for the lack of timeliness on this one, guys.  

Washington D.C. is fortunate to have a local web magazine/event production company called Brightest Young Things that organizes some fantastic events in the city with great guests.  I believe it has been 3-years since BYT hosted their last Bentzen Ball, which is a multi-day comedy festival that showcases both stand-up, improv, and comedy variety sets of well-known performers. This year, the October 10-13 festival included people like Tig Notaro, Nick Kroll, Kate Flannery (The Office), Megan Mullally (Will & Grace), Nick Offerman (Parks and Rec), Rachel Dratch (SNL), Ian Brennan (Glee), and many more.  I was able to make it out to the Saturday night Theme Park Improv show that featured many recognizable comedic actors.  
Being an improvisor myself, it's always fun to see performances from people trained by other, more popular, improv programs (Groundlings, UCB, Second City) and compare them to the great talent we have here in D.C. that has gone through the WIT curriculum. I felt bad for the troupe that night, though, because I knew right away the set up was less than ideal for the performers. We were at the U Street Music Hall, best suited for up and coming bands with small audiences that may or may not be more interested in the bar service than the band.  First, the stage was only 3 feet off the ground and the audience was standing, filling a narrow corridor only as wide as the stage, so those in the back were never going to catch any action being performed below the actors' midsections.  Second, right away it was obvious there was an issue with the sound not traveling back, and if you've ever been to an improv show, improvisors are not mic-ed because the theaters are small enough and the seating arranged to support everyone hearing the non-amplified dialog. Also, microphones are cumbersome and get in the way of the miming and scene work being performed on stage.  In the end, the improvisors had to share up to four microphones in a majority of the scenes that night, often being distracted by the growing tangled ball of mic chords in the middle of the stage. Managing their way through an hour-long show under those conditions, I have to say the troupe of seasoned improv veterans did a fantastic job.  I got to talk to Ian Brennan and Michael Hitchcock after the show, and they confirmed the frustrations I suspected they were feeling on stage for the set.  Hopefully, next year BYT will find a more suitable venue for this kind of performance.

I was also able to make it out for the Closing Night performance featuring Ira Glass, host of "This American Life" on NPR. To be honest, I have never listened to his radio show, but the Ira I saw seemed like a genuinely funny and endearing guy and he piqued my interest in his other work.  I suspect he was having fun co-hosting the night's show with Tig Notaro because he was relived of the FCC censorship with which he normally has to deal -- we definitely got to see a dirtier side of Ira Glass, I could tell, not even knowing what he says on his show.  He told tales of people he's met and interviewed for his show, shared the not-safe-for-air versions of stories by guests like David Sedaris, and for part of his show he did a weird storytelling with interpretive dance bit that I don't think worked as well as he had imagined it would.  Overall, a really fun night, and I hope to get a chance to hear his show on NPR soon.  In any case, I know that I will definitely be checking out the 2014 Bentzen Ball next year!

Pardon the quality of the photos that were all taken on my phone's camera.

Posted on Sunday, October 20, 2013 by Julie

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The leaves are starting to change here in Washington, D.C., and finally the weather is getting that great fall crispness.  So when I saw this recipe from My Baking Addiction come through on my Facebook feed, I knew I was going to have to set aside one weekend this October to bake some fall-flavored cupcakes.

Pumpkin Ale Cupcakes


Cupcakes - 
1 - 12oz. bottle of pumpkin ale
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs
3/4 cup sour cream
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp pumpkin pie spice
1 1/2 tsp baking soda

Buttercream -
4 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbsp pumpkin pie spice
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
2 pounds confectioners' sugar
6 Tbsp pumpkin ale

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
2. Using a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, combine the ale, milk, oil, and vanilla.
3. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, on low speed
4. Add sour cream and mix until fully incorporated
5. Mix together dry ingredients in a separate bowl
6. Gradually mix the dry ingredients with the wet using the stand mixer (batter will stay thin)
7. Fill liners in cupcake pan to approximately 2/3-3/4 full
8. Bake 25 minutes, remove from the oven and let cool in the pan before putting on a wire rack
9. For the buttercream, cream the butter in the bowl of an electric or stand mixer
10. Add vanilla extract, pumpkin pie spice, and salt
11. Slowly add confectioners' sugar until completely mixed in before adding more
12. Add pumpkin ale and mix until light and fluffy
13.  Beat on high speed for about 2 minutes, using more teaspoons of pumpkin ale if the buttercream is too thick.
14. Pipe onto cooled cupcakes and decorate as desired

Posted on Sunday, October 20, 2013 by Julie

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

I can tell I've been running on a busy schedule when I haven't had a book review post in almost 3 months!  I have also been struggling to find some really gripping recommendations for you, but am left with just one "Read This" this round.  Boo.

Must Read

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

This book being categorized as a young adult novel should not deter you from reading it.  I was hooked right away, and the story delivered a perspective of a disease I have never considered before.  The story chronicles the experience of Hazel, a 16 year old coping with a terminal cancer diagnosis and experimental treatments that are prolonging but not improving her life.  While her former classmates are continuing down the "teenager" path - making stupid mistakes, hanging out at the shopping mall, attending dances with crushes - Hazel spends most of her time at home and can't maneuver anywhere without her oxygen tank.  In an effort to bring some normalcy to her daughter's life, Hazel's mom insists she attend a teen cancer support group.  It is in this group where she meets a boy, Augustus Waters, who in a short time transforms her life through his love and optimism. The only fault I can find with "The Fault in Our Stars" is that it was not packaged with a complimentary box of kleenex.  I'm glad that no one was around when I was reading it because I sported an award-worthy "ugly cry face" look for the last third of the book.

Lazy Weekend

Austenland and Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale

If you're a Jane Austen fan and love a good "chick-lit" book, then consider spending a weekend with Shannon Hale's Austen fantasy camp stories.  Her book, Austenland, was turned into an independent film that may still be in theaters.  It tells the story of a quiet woman, Jane, who is unlucky in love and hopelessly obsessed with the ideal of Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy. A relative dies and leaves her with a trip to England, where reality and fantasy collide at a Regency-period resort that caters to Austen fans - complete with the assignment of a love interest, her own potential Mr. Darcy.  I would be lying if I said the idea of going to Austen fantasy camp was not the least bit appealing to me. Midnight in Austenland follows a similar pattern of a single woman coming to the Austen-themed estate; however, in Hale's second book, she introduces a murder mystery to the plot that somewhat removes the magical appeal and innocence that was so much a part of the first book.

Everything is Perfect When You're a Liar by Kelly Oxford

I picked up this book because several comedians I like were raving about Kelly Oxford's keen and witty observations, especially on her Twitter page.  I had never heard of Kelly Oxford before this book was published.  Written in a comedic essay format, each chapter is a different story from Kelly's past told with her skilled voice and humorous, often self-deprecating point of view.  I think what I appreciated is that she comes of as believable and she writes to her intelligence, which in comedy is really what ends up being more successful.  Perhaps it was because of the essay format, but it did take me several months to finish this book, since it was easier to put down and not feel like I would forget the plot.

Skip This

Hollywood in Heels by Charity Gaye Finnestad

I don't know if I've read something more obnoxious than this book.  Perhaps that's because I haven't picked up Paris Hilton's memoir.  I can't tell you how many times I rolled my eyes when the author boasted about her long legs, thin body, getting into this party, getting swag bags left and right, (insert any vain comment you can think of here), etc.  If her 200+ page brag book wasn't enough, she thought it would be cute to nickname all of the people she describes to conceal their real identities, but it actually made it more difficult to follow and made me more disinclined to care about anything she had to say.  The worst part about the book is that the author truly believes that she has an unique voice, when in reality she just sounds like an average blogger with a nasty attitude who created opportunities for herself the standard Hollywood stereotypical way - sleeping her way up.  Sure, I should have just dropped the book after the first few chapters when I figured out the intellectually insulting and soon to be torturous pattern and writing style choices, but I felt like there had to be a reason why Apple iBooks had highlighted this particular book and convinced me it was worth buying it - oh, that's right, the author is MARRIED TO Robert Knodrk, VP of CONTENT FOR APPLE iTUNES!  Well played Apple - way to use your extremely talented Marketing Department to trump up the appeal of your iTunes executive's wife's book.

Posted on Saturday, October 12, 2013 by Julie

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fall is a fantastic time for food - pumpkin spice flavored whatever, bring it on! - and for a good excuse to refresh what's hanging in your closet.  With the change in the weather, I love the longer sleeves, the neck scarves, and the heavier shoes.  And refreshing your music playlists is also a must, all year round.  I'm happy to have found a new band favorite!

1. Fashion that helps others
Recently, I saw that two of my favorite bloggers went on a trip to Africa to visit the workshop of FashionABLE - a business whose mission is to fight poverty by promoting job opportunities for vulnerable women in Ethiopia.  All of the scarves are hand-woven, and the leather goods hand-crafted.
Make sure to get a scarf in a great fall color, like fuchsia.

2. Booties, booties and more booties!
For a splurge, try this Kate Spade New York "Notice Bootie" found on Piperlime:
Feeling funky?  Try this Kork-Ease "Olive" oxford wedge from Nordstrom.

For the old-fashioned look, try the Børn "Merryn" bootie from Nordstrom.
A nice suede oxford "Mya" heel from Sofft will compliment any neutral skirt and pair of tights.

3. The cobalt blue trend...especially this coat from Banana Republic
4. This band...The Punch Brothers!  I had to find a substitute for Mumford & Sons while they were on hiatus, and when I saw the Punch Brothers perform as the "house band" at a recent benefit concert, I was hooked.  Their music, while encompassing traditional folk and bluegrass instruments, has a very interesting and unsuspecting twist that takes it away from what you would suspect from the group and reflects each of their primary strengths as musicians before singers.  Of course, "Rye Whiskey" is not the best example of one of their progressive folk songs, but it's a great tune nonetheless!

5. Another fashion related favorite: the varsity jacket

There are countless choices out there, and I have a sweater version, a sequined version, and this one from Piperlime:
I love them all!!

Posted on Wednesday, October 09, 2013 by Julie

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Sunday, October 6, 2013

This weekend started, what I expect to be a fun fall baking season, with some mini pumpkin bread loaves with raisins.  A couple of things inspired this as my first choice.  First, I had some very mini pumpkin loaves from Whole Foods' bulk cookie section recently that were mouthwateringly delicious.  I have been looking for them the few times I have gone to Whole Foods since that day, and I can't find them!! Looks like I'm not alone in my opinion since they are selling out so quickly.  Second, I recently babysat my friend's dog who eats canned pumpkin with her food.  We ran out during her stay, so I had to get another can from Trader Joe's, and while I was there I bought some canned pumpkin because I knew I wanted to make something pumpkin-y in the near future.  So, with canned pumpkin on hand, I give you some pumpkin bread!
Mini Pumpkin Bread

3/4 cups unsalted butter, softened
3 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
3/4 cup raisins
2 cups canned pumpkin
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F
2. Cream butter and sugar together in a stand mixer on medium speed
3. Beat in eggs, one at a time
4. Combine all of the dry ingredients in a separate bowl with raisins
5. Alternate adding dry ingredients and pumpkin to the creamed butter and sugar, mixing well and ending with the dry ingredients
6. Fill the mini loaf pan (I used a 6 loaf sheet from KitchenAid) to 2/3 capacity with the batter
7. Bake for 35-40 minutes, but check earlier to see if a toothpick comes out clean when stuck in the middle of the loaf
8. Leave in the pan and cool on a rack for at least 10 minutes before removing from the pan to cool completely

Posted on Sunday, October 06, 2013 by Julie


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I think everyone can agree that there's a fundamental problem with the way Ticketmaster sells tickets, and that is that true fans often get beat to the seats by "bots" or people in the business of buying tickets just for resale on outlets like Stubhub.  For very high demand concerts, I pretty much am resigned to the fact that I'm not going to get a ticket even though I'm logged in and requesting within the first second of the presale or public sale open time.

Imagine my surprise to find that I was able to get a ticket, yes just one because I didn't want to push my luck, to the one-time concert produced by T Bone Burnett (Oh Brother Where Art Thou) to promote the music in the upcoming Coen Brother's film, "Inside Llewyn Davis."  The proceeds from this concert benefited the National Recording Preservation Foundation.  The lineup not only included several of the cast members who are featured singing in the film and on the soundtrack - Oscar Isaac (lead role), Carey Mulligan, Garett Hedlund, Stark Sands (Kinky Boots), and John Goodman - but several big name musicians (see poster above).  Alas, no Justin Timberlake because he had a concert in London, but his self-labeled "understudy" was there to fill in: Elvis Costello.

Of course my favorite part of the night was when Marcus Mumford performed with several other artists on two Bob Dylan songs, an Irish folksong, and John Fahey's "Cornbread When I'm Hungry," in addition to the song he collaborated on with Oscar Isaac for the soundtrack, "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)."  Aside from the Mumford songs, I was blown away by the Punch Brothers, who ended up jokingly being the house band for the night.  Lake Street Dive is one to keep an eye on as well, though their sound is more jazzy than folk.  Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops performed solo and got one of, if not the only, full house standing ovation for her performance of a traditional Gaelic song with the Punch Brothers.  Good news, everyone who was not able to go to the concert can see it on Showtime this December 13th.

The full setlist was:

“Tumbling Tumbleweeds”- The Punch Brothers
“Rye Whiskey”- The Punch Brothers
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken”- Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings with The Punch Brothers
“That’s The Way It Goes”- Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings
“Midnight Special”- Willie Watson with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings
“I Hear Them All/This Land Is Your Land”- Dave Rawlings with Gillian Welch and Willie Watson
“The Last Thing On My Mind”- Stark Sands with The Punch Brothers
“New York”- The Milk Carton Kids
“Tomorrow Will Be Kinder”- The Secret Sisters
“You Go Down Smooth”- Lake Street Dive
“Please, Mr. Kennedy”- Elvis Costello with Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, T-Bone Burnett and The Punch Brothers
“Four Strong Winds”- Conor Oberst with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings
“A Man Named Truth”- Conor Oberst with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings
“Tomorrow Is A Long Time”- Keb’ Mo’
“Blues Run The Game”- Colin Meloy
“I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”- Joan Baez, Colin Meloy, and Gillian Welch
“All My Mistakes”- The Avett Brothers
“That’s How I Got To Memphis”- The Avett Brothers
“Road Full Of Doubt/Head Full Of Promise”- The Avett Brothers
“Did You Hear John Hurt?”- Jack White
“We’re Going To Be Friends”- Jack White
“Water Boy”- Rhiannon Giddens
Gaelic Traditional- Rhiannon Giddens with The Punch Brothers
“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”- Oscar Isaac with The Punch Brothers
“Green, Green Rocky Road”- Oscar Isaac
“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”- Patti Smith
“People Have The Power”- Patti Smith with Joan Baez, The Avett Brothers, Dave Rawlings, and Lake Street Dive
“Rock Salt and Nails”- Bob Neuwirth with The Punch Brothers
“The Auld Triangle”- The Punch Brothers with Marcus Mumford
“Go To Sleep, Little Baby”- Gillian Welch, Carey Mulligan, and Rhiannon Giddens
“500 Miles”- Elvis Costello, Carey Mulligan and Stark Sands with The Punch Brothers and Secret Sisters
“Which Side Are You On?”- Elvis Costello and Joan Baez
“House Of The Rising Sun”- Joan Baez
“Give Me Cornbread When I’m Hungry”- Joan Baez and Marcus Mumford
“I Was Young When I Left Home”- Marcus Mumford
“Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”- Marcus Mumford and Oscar Isaac with The Punch Brothers

“Farewell”- Marcus Mumford with The Punch Brothers

FYI...I really wanted to share some amazing videos I took of the concert that embody the spirit and energy of the night, but I'm getting a lot of threats from Warner Brothers Music about posting them on YouTube.  Maybe someday I'll be able to add them in an update to this post.

I read that this benefit concert may be just the beginning of what could become the next "Oh Brother Where Are Thou" album, which sold 8 million copies and was part of the last Burnett/Coen Brothers film collaboration.  Supposedly Jack White is going to tour with Burnett to promote the growth of new acoustic music.  Regardless, the music was fantastic and the people watching was equally as fun.  I got to "hob nob" with several TV and movie industry people like Paul Rudd, John Slattery, John Gallagher Jr. Taryn Killam (SNL), Glen Close, Julianne Moore, Frances McDormand, Joel Coen, Alex Karpovsky (Girls), Mare Winningham, then the others who you just couldn't place but you definitely recognized them. I heard Jesse Eisenberg and Zooey Deschanel were also in the audience, but I did not see them.  

Of course, this concert was in New York City; and when I go to New York City, I don't like to sit on my butt.  So after a morning bus ride up, I arrived in time to catch a matinee performance of the current Broadway show, First Date, starring Zachary Levi ("Chuck") and Krysta Rodriguez ("Smash").  The show was cute, not necessarily Tony caliber, but I will say I was really surprised at the richness of Zachary Levi's voice.  I didn't even know he could sing!  To be honest, his voice (and the others in the small cast) overpowered Krysta as the Broadway veteran in the show.  I was amused by all of the stereotypical traits of a first date scenario the writer was able to incorporate - hey, they are called stereotypes for a reason because they happen to all of us out there in the dating world!  Most memorable song: "First Impression."

It was Zachary Levi's birthday, so at the stage door the cast asked everyone to surprise him with a rendition of the classic "Happy Birthday" when he came out. 

Posted on Tuesday, October 01, 2013 by Julie

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