Saturday, February 27, 2010

The GREs: Grating, Repugnant, and Enervating

The GREs can be scary to anyone looking to go back to grad school. Let's face it: with the economy being so bad, it really gives you a boost to have a grad degree, so here's to everyone who is going back to school and has to take the GREs-- which is a major motivational roadblock to applying to colleges, if you ask me.

It took me forever to actually buck up and take the GREs. I had the book (borrowed from the library-- because clearly I had no desire to keep it around as a momentum after I was done with it, or to spend any extra money on a test I was loath to take). I had the time-- although I did find quite a number of excuses to explain why I wasn't studying for the GREs ("I'll study as soon as I get done making these crepes..."). I still lacked the motivation though.

My initial goal was to take them in November 2009. I read up on the grad schools I wanted to apply for, I read up on the GREs themselves and tips for taking them. I studied the kinds of questions that they would ask me, re-familiarized myself with the math and glanced over the five lists of vocab words that they said were crucial to the GREs (with fun list names like "Hit Parade Group 1" to entice me to study...?). So I wrote up flash cards and stored them away for a couple of months. I let all the math I'd relearned start leaking back out of my brain. And then all the sudden it was January, and all the sudden, I realized I was screwed. I hadn't even signed up. I had kept putting off signing up for the the GREs because I said I wasn't quite ready yet and I'd just wait until I felt a little more confident before I made the commitment of $120 (yes, that's the actual cost of the GRE as of January 2010-- and yes, you have permission to cry about it).

I realized that I was in trouble. I needed to take the GREs immediately if I wanted to get into grad school in Fall 2010. [Side note: Master of Library Science programs have later dates than most grad school programs, so if you put it off as long as I did, you'll probably be in worse shape than I was.]

So I just signed up. I had already read most of the book. I signed up for a GRE date in late January-- two weeks exactly from the date I signed up.

First things first: Taking the GREs:

The most important thing to note: the GRE is a computer-adaptive test. This means that if you answer a question wrong, then it gives you an easier question. If you get it correct, the questions get harder. However! It also means that it pinpoints your general score early on in the test. So remember, spend the most time on the first half of the questions, and the least time on the ones at the end. By the end of the test, they are only tweaking your score very minutely.

Before you take the test: The test is about four hours long, so EAT SOMETHING, MAKE SURE YOU PEE, and know that you can't take anything into the test center with you (you get a locker, and all your stuff has to stay in there). You get one 10-minute break, and that's it. I hope you don't have a small bladder.

The Layout of the test:

  • 45-minutes to write an argument essay. They give you two options for the topic-- read them each carefully. Pick the argument that you can most easily defend, and make sure that includes examples.
  • No break. You don't get a break between essays.
  • 30-minutes to write a critique of someone else's argument. You get no topic options on this one. It is crucial to remember while writing this that you are NOT trying to defend a position here or argue why you do or don't agree-- rather, you are trying to find holes in the person's argument. Do they use statistics or facts to back up their argument? Figure out what they are overlooking. That's your critique.
TEN MINUTE BREAK: Now you get to pee again, and they might allow you to access your locker for food and water. You definitely can't look at your cell phone though, or study any materials, so don't even think about it. And stretch. Stretching's good.

VERBAL AND QUANTITATIVE: You will get three sections here-- one math, one verbal, and one either math or verbal that acts as a test section. Yes, it will suck to take two of the same section, but don't get lackadaisical when you get to the repeat section! You won't know which section counts and which doesn't, and you also won't know which section you'll get a repeat of. I was lucky enough to receive two verbal instead of two math... whew! Both verbal sections seemed similar, so you can't guess which one is the test section. Beware!
  • The verbal section consists of 30 questions in 30 minutes.
  • The quantitative section consists of 28 questions in 45 minutes.
  • Pace yourself. And remember: the first questions are the most important, so take your time on those!
How to study for the GREs:
  1. Read the book-- understand the layout of the GRE so that you know how to manipulate it. Know what kind of math and verbal questions you are going to be asked. I used Princeton Review's book and it worked pretty well. Don't however, do the test questions in the back of the book -- if you're taking the GRE on the computer, study on the computer (I'll give you the best website to study later in the post.
  2. JUST SIGN UP ALREADY. Even if you feel unprepared now, it'll give you a deadline and something to work up to. Otherwise, you'll never want to do it. TRUST ME.
  3. Go to and get yourself an account. This website is a god-send. I promise. It gives you an endless supply of practice questions in verbal and quantitative (math) sections, and keeps stats about your accuracy of each kind of question (sentence completion, analogies, antonyms, fractions, percentages, etc). This way, you can see where you need the most work. Then you can also set your practice sessions so that you only get those kinds of questions. You can also review all the questions you've taken, and it gives detailed explanations for the correct answer. They also give you a timer so you can see how long it takes you, and in the stats section, it shows you your average time for answering questions. You can do as many questions in a set as you want, so even if you only have five minutes to spare, this website makes it SO easy to study on the fly.
  4. Studying vocab is tedious and boring, but it's the best way to improve your verbal score. The Princeton Review gives an overwhelming number of words to learn. I've always been a proponent of flash cards, but this was just too much for me, and so I never got around to using them. Therefore, I came up with a solution! I spend a lot of time with my iPod, especially in the car. So I downloaded vocab podcasts on iTunes which are meant to strengthen your vocab. The one I liked best was called the Vocabulist by Prestige Learning -- you can also get it online at their website. It works by using mnemonics, pairing the vocab word to a weird saying or mental image which helps you remember the word more easily. There are also plenty of other vocab podcasts out there, but I found this one to be the most useful. Listening to even a half-hour of vocab a day really helps, and it's a lot less effort than sitting down with flashcards.
  5. Read a book that you enjoy. Reading helps vocab, so don't underestimate pleasure reading to help you improve your GRE score. Comic books and nudey magazines probably don't count though, even if you do "just read them for the articles".
  6. When you feel pretty confident with how you're doing (and after you've signed up to take the test), go to the ETS website (they administer the GRE), and download their Powerprep software that simulates the actual GRE. It is the same program that they use at the test center, and you can get used to how the computer adaptive test works and also how the layout of the program works. It is a full-length (writing, quantitative, AND verbal), it is timed, and has the same rules that will be given to you at your testing site. At the end, it gives you a score on the verbal and quantitative parts so you can gauge how well you'll do on the test.
Doesn't all this useful information want to make you take the GREs? No. Probably not. But I hope it helps, and makes it a little less stressful to think about.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Do you smell what the Tarts are cookin?

As a certifiable foodie (and by all means self-certified), I have come to realize how important a good cookbook is. And with an enormous wall of books devoted to just that-- to be found in the non-fiction 641s-- then how do you choose just one?

Well, first of all, you don't. I feel like to get a really good balance of awesome food recipes, you have to get a variety. I mean, Paula Deen might know her stuff on Southern cooking (use excesses of fats and cream), but I wouldn't trust her to enliven my tastebuds with traditional Italian cooking. On top of that, I am extremely attracted to some cookbooks are narrow in subject, and therefore, you know exactly what you'll find when you go looking in them.

Like a book all about breads. There are so many different kinds of breads, and most books have little snippets on how to make bread, but if you really want the best kind of bread-- find the best bread book. That's where you find the kind of bread that you set out on the counter to cool, and when you come back an hour later, half of it has been demolished by hands too impatient to even use a proper bread knife (which is serated, btw-- I'm always amazed when people don't know that). Then there are the specialty breads: pannetone, stollen, cinnamon buns, sticky buns, and even the infamous bread sculptures -- such as our world-famous bread elephant. (For the record, the best bread book I've run across is Ultimate Bread by Eric Treuille).

But as far as standard cookbooks go, here are a few of my favorites:

The New Doubleday Cookbook by Jean Anderson and Elaine Hanna
This pretty much has everything you need to know about cooking in it-- how long to cook various cuts of meat per pound, what seasonings go well with different meats, an encyclopedia of herbs, and an insane amount of recipes in general. Pretty much comprehensive, and has great as well as simple recipes.

The Joy of Cooking
by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker
A good back-up manual to the Doubleday, just in case.

Betty Crocker's Cookbook by Betty Crocker
Ah, good old Betty Crocker. This is a great book for people just beginning because it's so easy to follow and has awesomely traditional recipes. On top of that, old Betty's got great tips on baking, which is definitely where she comes in handy in my kitchen. An old standard, Betty is not someone to overlook.

Now, I'm a traditionalist when it comes to food sometimes. I don't feel drawn to food simply because it's gourmet, or because it's expensive, or because it's designed to look like it has the crowning headdress of a cockatoo. I'm into the taste, the texture, and the feel. This said, I must say, I'm not a huge fan of Rachel Ray's cookbooks. She means well, she really does, and she's cute as a button. But she has a knack for fancying up a recipe that could be simplified very easily with all kinds of food-stuffs that you won't have unless you only cook by her book (which I'm sure would get pretty tedious after a while). I'm sorry that veal, pancetta, arugula, Italian tuna, saffron powder, piquillo peppers, Swiss green chard, and capocollo hot ham are not regulars in my kitchen. I actually am. These are ingredients directly from her book. Clearly there are some that I make substitutions for if not readily available or out of my meager price range (bacon subs for pancetta, spinach for arugula, etc)-- but for others like piquillo peppers, although I could look them up, it's much more likely that I will skip over that recipe involving them entirely.

As far as a series of books which verge on gourmet, but still have a reality check and also have incredibly mouthwatering pictures (another key factor in specialty cookbooks), I say you can always count on Williams-Sonoma. In fact, I'm pretty sure I don't need another dessert book after Williams-Sonoma's Desserts by Abigail Johnson Dodge. I have been fascinated by just about all of the Williams-Sonoma series books and have yet to be disappointed. They are simply written, with informative side-bars on special ingredients (and their substitutes!) or how to make something incredibly simple but absolutely delicious. My favorite thing that's come out of that dessert is on the cover-- flourless chocolate torte topped with chocolate ganache and raspberry coulis. Mmmmm... and all you needed to hear from that was "smooth chocolately goodness with raspberry topping". Yum!

Then there are magazines-- like Cooking Light and Gourmet and all that. But I think the best by far (and I think many library users would back me up on this one), is Cook's Illustrated. It's just awesome. Their spiel is that they have a test kitchen where some lucky cook gets to test the hell out of a traditional recipe for something, such as say German chocolate cake or meatloaf. They find out everything that could possibly be wrong with it, deduce how to make it the best through scientific methods, and then come out with an awesome product. In the meatloaf article, they actually made 110 meatloaves and used 260 pounds of beef... talk about dedication to perfection. Plus, they explain the whole process in a well-written way. They also have user tips that weren't written by morons, and the writers of this magazine actually take into consideration both the time it takes to make a dish and the availability of the products they are using, which is pretty refereshing. They also rate kitchen supplies, telling you which ones they recommend and which they don't, and take price into account when deciding what the best is for your money. Awesome!... oh and did I mention that they don't have any ads at all?

Also remember, that most cookbooks are just guidelines and can help you think about what you might want to make, but tweaking a recipe is what makes it unique to your own tastes. However, in baking, this is a horrible horrible idea. Don't do it in baking unless making very minor changes, because that seems to make a huge difference in the chemistry of baking.

My best advice, however, is: get yourself a 3-ring binder and copy recipes like a madman/woman. Write down your favorites that you use all the time, and record the changes you make so you can make it again the same way if it was good. Make sure that you've tabbed it so things are easy to find. I call mine the Tried-and-True cookbook. I save up recipes to try, and put them in a separate folder. Then once I've tried them, they get put into THE PAGES. If I'm good enough and if the end result is pretty enough, I sometimes take my own picture as a sort of trophy. Since I scimp on ink though, this tends to lead to a build-up of pictures on my computer that don't get printed out and put in the pages. But maybe when I'm a rich and famous librarian I will have the means to do that... haha.

Til then, bon apetit!

Also-- minor note: Mad Pie Day is officially March 6th this year (it occurs on the first Saturday of March every year since 2008). Go eat pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Quiches, fruit pies, chicken pot pies, and then get creative! This year I think I'm going to try the asparagus-parmesan quiche. There will probably be coverage of this event in the aftermath, so I'll keep you posted. In 2008, we had about 15 people throughout the day, and 12 pies. 2009 showed growth with 19 people and 18 pies. This year it's expected to grow beyond the bounds of our own house. It's up to you, dear citizens, to take this Mad Pie Day and embrace it with all your might. Invite all your friends, make each party bring a pie, and let the madness begin!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Calories don't count when you're reading a book

I have always been a big fan of cooking food (and naturally eating it, too) but after working at the library with literally a wall of cookbooks, I know now that my food interest borders on obsession.

I noticed and accepted this when I realized that in addition to checking out multitudes of cookbooks, I have also begun checking out novels written about food.

A while back, I read a book by Sarah Addison Allen called Garden Spells. In addition to being beautifully written, having well-developed characters, and being absolutely addictive, I found myself drawn to the magical realism in it. The story takes place in a small town in North Carolina, where every family has their own unique gift. The Waverly sisters are known for their magical gardens, and Claire Waverly is at the core of it, weaving her home-grown herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables into recipes which can change the way people feel, see, and understand things.

Some time later, I read Chocolat by Joanne Harris. Pretty good (although, I'm sorry to say I liked the movie with Johnny Depp which develops a romance between the main character Vianne and the gypsy Roux). It incorporates some magical realism into it also, with the idea that her delicate candies and pastries are able to touch people.

The next I read was Sweet Love by Sarah Strohmeyer, about a middle aged woman who meets up with her teenage crush while enrolled in a dessert class. The things they cooked sounded so delectable that all I could think about was making desserts.

Now onto Anthony Capella, my new hero, and the reason I decided to write this today. He's my new hero. Well, okay, I only read one book of his, The Food of Love, but I'm about to read his other two: The Wedding Officer and The Various Flavors of Coffee. I absolutely loved the Food of Love (his first novel!), a story about a girl Laura studying art history abroad in Rome (le sigh!), and this guy Tommaso who pretends to be a chef to woo her, while his friend Bruno, also in love with Laura, actually cooks the food that she goes nuts over. On top of the way Capella talks about food, recipes, and the way food makes people feel in this book-- he includes beautiful snippets of art and culture, and delightfully crude Roman remarks, which had me cracking up the entire time. This guy really REALLY knows his stuff. Oh... and there are recipes in the back. Did I say that Anthony Capella is my hero? I really meant it.

I sure am glad that reading about food doesn't make you pack on the pounds like eating it does.