Archive | September 2014

Sparkers Launch Party at Red Balloon

Today is the official publication day of Sparkers! It’s out in the world. It’s hard to believe this day has finally arrived, and yet today also feels like any other day. I’m grateful to everyone who has taught me, advised me, cheered me on, and kept me company along the way.

Last Friday, I had my launch party at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul. As I’ve mentioned before, this is the children’s bookstore where I met Eoin Colfer when I was in middle school. During my volunteer year, I lived in the neighborhood and loved being able to walk to Red Balloon whenever I wanted. It was a dream come true to have the Sparkers release party there.

A lovely crowd came out to celebrate with me, including much of my extended family, several of my high school friends, parents and siblings of high school friends who have left the Twin Cities, some of my parents’ friends, my 7th and 12th grade English teachers, my 5th, 9th, and 11th grade French teacher (and her friends from France!), a bunch of church members, two of my Beth Shalom housemates, my former boss at the interfaith advocacy organization, a bunch of my former colleagues from the non-profit/advocacy world, and my cello teacher. I was touched by everyone’s support and enthusiasm.

And now, a few photos from the party…




Me with books!


Red Balloon ordered this gorgeous cake, complete with edible glitter and a frosting violin


Me talking (and note Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen’s The Dark!)

friends in the audience

Friends, teachers, coworkers!


Hoping I’ve developed a consistent signature…


I’ve perfected the “little grandmother” look. (Photo by Laura C.)

Thank you to the Red Balloon staff for hosting such a wonderful party for me and thank you to everyone who came!

Autumn At Last

Sparkers‘ publication date is less than one week away! If you live in the Twin Cities or nearby, you are most welcome to join me for my launch party at Red Balloon Bookshop on Grand Avenue in St. Paul this Friday (in two days!) at 6:30pm.

I left Los Angeles last Thursday at the tail end of a short but brutal heat wave, and I was eagerly anticipating experiencing some proper fall weather. I was in luck. Within half an hour of disembarking from my plane, I was speeding toward all the best that autumn in Minnesota has to offer. My brother and I were due to play an arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon for our cousin’s wedding in two days and had yet to rehearse together, so I was heading to his school for a quick practice session.

The charming town of Northfield, MN is home to two small liberal arts colleges (and a Malt-O-Meal factory). My childhood best friend attended Carleton College, and my brother studies at St. Olaf College (or Count Olaf College, as I like to call it). Because of all these connections, my family and our family friends had often visited these colleges in the fall and bought apple cider doughnuts at a farm along the road to Northfield. I, of course, was never around in the fall, and so despite having heard about these doughnuts many times, I had never tasted one. On this trip, I was determined to have one.

So before reaching St. Olaf, we stopped at Fireside Orchards. It was a glorious fall afternoon, sunny and warm, but not hot. At the edge of the parking lot, enormous pumpkins rested on the grass, and a stone’s throw away, rows of apple trees marched down the slope. Inside the shop were the famous apple cider doughnuts, as well as apple pie, apple cider, and bags of apples (SweeTangos, the first Honeycrisps, etc.). Not to mention jams, honey, maple syrup, homemade fudge, and cheese curds.


At Fireside Orchards, about to enjoy an apple cider doughnut

The doughnut was scrumptious.

The rest of the weekend was dominated by wedding preparations and festivities. Friends and relatives came from every corner of the country (California, Florida, New York City). Everyone in the family was hosting someone. My brother and I squeezed in more last minute rehearsals. The afternoon of the wedding was sunny and breezy. For the ceremony, my grandmother wore a cheongsam handmade for her in Hong Kong in the 1960s. My brother and I pulled off the processional without a hitch. A storm rolled in, and we all drove through the rain to the reception, which was held in a chalet at the foot of a (still green) ski slope. Before dinner, the sun broke through the clouds, and a double rainbow glowed in the sky.


Cousins of the groom and processional musicians

Last but not least, I may have missed the Glewwe reunion earlier this month, but my family saved me this genuine paper grocery bag from one of the Glewwe grocery stores in South St. Paul. Somebody found a box of them in their house. The first Glewwe grocery store was opened in 1905 by Henry Glewwe, the brother of my great-great-grandfather (or my grandfather’s great-uncle). He ultimately opened three stores, and the last Glewwe’s closed in 1986.


What I’ve Been Reading: 2014 Releases Edition

My almost-one-book-a-day streak didn’t last (which was probably a good thing for my productivity in other areas), but I did tear through four YA novels in the last week. Call it the last hurrah of the summer. All four books happened to be published in 2014, though none of them are debuts. Below are some thoughts on each one. I can’t promise there aren’t spoilers.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

I did not guess the twist, so in that respect this book succeeded for me. I do think all the hype surrounding We Were Liars and knowing that there was going to be a huge twist lessened its impact, but when the reveal came, I did get one good shiver out of it. Also, wow, what a toxic family. Widowed patriarch playing his three malicious daughters off one another, said malicious daughters forcing their children to manipulate their grandfather into giving their mothers pieces of the inheritance… It makes one grateful not to have been born into a family so wealthy it owns a private island.

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

I read Complicit directly after We Were Liars and was struck by how much the two books have in common. (Here’s where you have to watch out for spoilers!) I mean, they both feature unreliable narrators who cannot remember the past, including the fact that they set deadly fires. They both have suspenseful plots that build to a major twist. In the case of Complicit, I did go in knowing the main twist, because I’m one of those people who always blithely clicks “view spoiler” when reading reviews online, even when I haven’t read the book yet (okay, I made an exception for We Were Liars because the twist was so hyped). Knowing the truth didn’t spoil my enjoyment of Kuehn’s novel, though, and in fact I hadn’t realized the full extent of the twist, so there were still shocking revelations above and beyond what I was expecting. And that ending! So chilling.

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles

This book is about two girls, Biddy and Quincy, who become roommates after graduating from their high school’s Special Ed program. The writing is lovely and spare, conveying much in a few words, and the story is unflinching in its approach to the really horrific things Biddy and Quincy go through. It’s not sensational, though, and at its core, this is a book about friendship and hope. It’s funny in places too. I really loved it.

Like No Other by Una LaMarche

This is a modern tale of star-crossed love between two teens in Brooklyn. I don’t read a lot of books that are “just” romances, but when I heard this one was about Devorah, a Hasidic girl, and Jaxon, a West Indian boy, who get stuck in a hospital elevator together during a hurricane, I had to read it. And I really enjoyed it! Devorah and Jaxon both had engaging voices, and I thought the Hasidim were portrayed with sensitivity (though obviously I’m far from an expert). The ending was well done, neither unrealistically happy (love doesn’t always conquer all) nor utterly crushing. My one quibble was that Devorah and Jaxon go from being strangers to saying they love each other in the space of a few weeks. Literally their entire relationship from beginning to end lasts less than one month, and yet in the middle of that they believe not that they’re “in love” but that they actually love each other. I just had trouble buying that. Maybe this is a sign that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager, but. Precipitous love aside, though, I thought this book was wonderful. Maybe my obsession with Chaim Potok meant I was destined to like it.

中秋節 – Mid-Autumn Festival

Monday was the Mid-Autumn Festival, a Chinese celebration of the harvest and the full moon. On Saturday, my roommate and I traveled to Chinatown to buy moon cakes for the occasion. We first met a friend of mine who goes to Caltech for lunch at Sam Woo, where we ate braised fish with tofu (a dish which included, to our surprise, a fair amount of pork), green beans with minced pork, and beef pan-fried noodles with pickled vegetable.

We then walked to Phoenix Bakery for the moon cakes. The bakery sells quite an assortment of pastries and confections, from French-style viennoiseries to mochi ice cream, from enormous frosted cakes covered with sliced almonds to savory buns and dim sum items. And moon cakes, of course! What’s more, they were 25% off!

They had the traditional red bean paste and lotus seed paste fillings I like, so I bought one of each, both without egg yolks inside. The moon cakes were labeled in Chinese and had quite poetic names. The lotus seed one was marked 雙鳳蓮蓉月 (shuāngfèng liánróng yuè), which means “double phoenix lotus seed paste moon.” (The character for lotus, 蓮, is in my Chinese name.) My roommate’s lotus seed moon cake with two egg yolks was labeled 雙黃 (shuānghuáng), “double yellow” instead of “double phoenix.” To my surprise, the red bean paste moon cake was labeled 玫瑰豆沙月 (méiguī dòushā yuè), which means “rugosa rose bean paste moon.” I’m not sure why a red bean moon cake is called rose. Maybe because roses can be red?

We waited until Monday, the day of the festival, to taste the moon cakes. Both the red bean and the lotus seed were very good.

Red bean paste moon cake

Red bean paste moon cake

Lotus seed paste moon cake

Lotus seed paste moon cake

Blurry inside of lotus seed paste moon cake

Blurry inside of lotus seed paste moon cake

Since I figured it would be a long time before I had another chance to visit a Chinese bakery, I bought a couple of other things too. First, a baked barbecued pork bun, which I hadn’t had in ages and which tasted exactly how I remembered.


Second, a rice dumpling (粽子 – zòngzi), which the bakery called a Chinese tamale. It’s a packet of sticky rice filled with pork, Chinese sausage, a salted egg yolk, and other tidbits (I’m accustomed to mushroom and peanuts, but this one had neither and I think had mung beans), the whole thing wrapped in bamboo or lotus leaves and tied with string. Zongzi are associated with the summer Dragon Boat Festival, but I will happily eat them whenever. They are so good. My great-grandmother used to make them.


Sadly, when we visited, the bakery didn’t seem to have any egg tarts, the delicious yellow custards in flaky crust that you can get at dim sum. If there had been any, I definitely would have bought one. Or several.

Adventures in Russian Cookery

On a class trip to the Russian enclave in West Hollywood, my roommate bought a bag of frozen chicken-and-pork pelmeni (Russian dumplings that honestly look kind of like tortellini to me–hope that’s not blasphemy). We cooked the first half of the bag in chicken broth, except we didn’t have sufficient chicken broth to make up the amount of liquid the instructions said to use, so I added water. Since one way of eating pelmeni is in soup, like wontons, we tried eating them that way first, but dumplings in watered down chicken broth are really not that good, so we stopped. We read that traditional condiments for pelmeni include butter, sour cream, mustard, vinegar, and tomato sauce, but most of those things didn’t really appeal to me (and we didn’t actually have any tomato sauce). Mustard was the best of the lot, and even that… I don’t know. For the second half of the pelmeni, I wanted to make a sauce, even if it wasn’t a Russian sauce.

Inspired by a meal of homemade gnocchi a couple of my college classmates prepared sophomore year, I decided on a sage brown butter sauce. I had never made a brown butter sauce, nor did I know exactly what it was, except that it sounded vaguely classy, the sort of thing they rhapsodize over in BuzzFeed Food lists. Turns out it’s precisely what it sounds like and simple to make.


Making the sage brown butter sauce

I sautéed some onions in butter to put on the pelmeni as well. Overall, it was a success; I liked the pelmeni better this time around.


Pelmeni with onions and sage brown butter sauce

In other news, I spent several days tracking down a traditional French Canadian song that was stuck in my head but whose words, for the most part, I couldn’t recall. I found it in the end, but I must say, Googling is hard when you don’t know how vocables might be spelled (ridon or ris donc? laridaine or laridène?) or even the lyrics, when some texts try to be more phonetic than others (On prend une platée de crème vs. On prend un’ platée d’crèm’). Anyway, in case you’re curious, the song is variously called “Ridondon,” “Ridondon laridaine,” or “Ris donc la ridée,” and there are recordings by groups with such splendid names as La Vesse du Loup (means Puffball, as in the mushroom), Le Bal à l’huile (The Oil Ball? Like, with dancing?), and Le Diabl’ dans la Fourche (The Devil in the Pitchfork–am I missing something here?).