Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Christmas is the penultimate time of homecoming. However, when I say “homecoming,” I find that the meaning changes and grows more complex every year. When I was a child, homecoming was not a trip as it was always with my parents and sister, wherever we lived. In college it meant driving home to Pensacola, although it was beginning to feel less like my only home as I was growing up and becoming more independent. After college I spent one Christmas in Indonesia and the next in Thailand, among friends, homesick for my family and Stateside traditions, but still comforted by the familiar message of Christmas. Since I’ve been married, home has been multiple sites: my parents’ home, my inlaws’ home, and the homes my husband and I have made in three different states. The list of geographical places I come home to keeps growing, and there are all kinds of experiences that give me that peculiar feeling—smells, tastes, songs, photos, old journals, and oft-read books.

C.S. Lewis talked about people having this desire for home. And yet, when we “go home,” it’s never complete. It is happy but never permanent, we’re subject to arguments and illnesses, there are absent members and interlopers, and houses feel more or less like homes as we change. Lewis says we have this feeling because we are imperfect creatures cast out of Paradise, living in the world now as transients (regardless of whether we rarely leave our native towns or are manic travelers). We’re all born with a vague memory of Eden, and we all long for it as our ideal home. Our earthly “homes” offer small glimpses of it.

I don’t think anything expresses this idea/emotion better than my favorite chapter in The Wind in the Willows, which is set during Yuletide. You can read it online by clicking on the link below.

Chapter V – Dulce Domum

I find the final paragraph profoundly moving and always choke up. “He [Mole] saw clearly how plain and simple—how narrow, even—it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence. He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid spaces, to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.”

Friday, December 15, 2006

How is a Good Movie like a Good Book?

I love a movie that my fellow viewers and I can sit around and muse over for hours afterwards and revisit later on. In college I was able to read the same books as my classmates and contemplate them in class. I miss that, and I see a quality film that spurs discussion about characters, plot, dialogue, and ideas as a surrogate for my English major days. So here’s a list of movies I saw in the theater this year and enjoyed, and books that are related in some sense.

Match Point: It’s not cheerful, and it’s not easy to watch. I’m not a Woody Allen fan, but his work on this movie was absolutely brilliant. Jonathan Rhys-Myers is cold and calculating; Scarlett Johansson is sultry and desperate. I’ve never seen a movie with better use of a soundtrack. In scenes where you want music to relieve the grating tension, there is silence, and in scenes when it seems horribly out of place, you hear ethereal operatic arias. The viewer is manipulated into rooting for the wrong person, feeling amusement where one should feel disgust, and wondering if there is such a thing as justice. It’s basically a modern adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Thank You for Smoking: This is the role of Aaron Eckhart’s career. I’ve hated him in everything else I’ve ever seen him in, but he’s perfect in this as the un-PC spinmaster on behalf of big tobacco. Adding much to the wicked humor are Rob Lowe, William H. Macy, Maria Bello, David Koechner, Adam Brody, and J.K. Simmons. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Buckley, which I haven’t read, but if the reviews are any indication, it’s just as funny.

Little Miss Sunshine: The whole theater oscillated between roaring with laughter and smarting from the pathos. When I walked out of the theater, I wanted to turn around on the spot and see it again immediately, and I kept wanting to see it again ever since. It’s the only movie I can think of where each of the actors in an ensemble cast (six) gave an equally affecting performance. The most memorable scene features Steve Carell and Paul Dano out on a pier talking about the misery of being a teenager. They’re an insanely dysfunctional family, but they also love each other dearly in very real, convincing ways. It’s probably my favorite movie I’ve seen all year. It’s not adapted from a book as far as I know, but if you like it, you may enjoy Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man by Fanny Flagg or Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

The Prestige: Director Christopher Nolan also directed Batman Begins and Memento. The Prestige feels like a novel in the same way that Memento felt like a short story. Both are dark and brooding with countless unforeseen plot twists. Christian Bale brings the same sort of moody energy to this role as his turn in Batman, only with a baser motivation. Hugh Jackman (who I’ve never liked until now) is Bale’s more gentlemanly competitor. Nothing is what it seems here; it’s hard to differentiate between trickery and magic. There are a lot of levels to this movie regarding identity, viewpoint, time (the plot leaps around chronologically), and morality. It’s also just darn exciting—I spent much time leaning forward in my seat and gripping the armrests. The movie was adapted from the novel of the same name by Christopher Priest. I’d also recommend Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein.

Stranger Than Fiction: This was such a clever concept, ingeniously acted by Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, and Maggie Gyllenhall. It was odd and funny and tragic. The ending was a bit weak, but it could have been worse. Shots of stark modern Chicago architecture deftly represent the emptiness of a lonely existence and writer’s block. There’s an inspired scene where Ferrell has an awkward conversation on a bus with Gyllenhall—he’s sitting on the accordion-like connection between the two bus sections, and she’s on the back section, and every time the bus turns a corner he’s pulled away from her. For hilarious books that mix literature and life I recommend the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, and for a creative story dealing with free will and foreknowledge, I recommend The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (sadly plagued by an overlong ending, but otherwise good).

Casino Royale: This movie did for the Bond franchise what Batman Begins did for the Batman franchise. Casino is something of a throwback to the early Connery Bond movies, but in my opinion, Daniel Craig is even better. The campiness, Bruckheimeresque action, and dreadful puns are gone. There’s intrigue with some witty and amusing scenes. Craig actually looks like he can throw a punch (unlike Moore and Brosnan); he’s debonair in his tux but rough around the edges. Judi Dench gets to do some actual acting, and the bond girl can form complete sentences. The chase scene that opens the movie contains the best stunts I’ve ever seen in anything—I made audible gasps and exclamations in disbelief. Books to recommend? The originals by Ian Fleming. I haven’t read these, but my husband has and felt the same way about the movie as I did.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Favorite Reading for Advent and Christmas

I like to read books according to season. In the fall I read “questing” books, like The Hobbit, because to me fall is about new endeavors and adventure. I reserve the summer (when it’s too hot to think) for the pulpier, sillier stuff, like Bridget Jones’s Diary or this book. The spring is a mish-mash—I honestly don’t associate any books with the spring. I automatically classify books as autumn stories, winter stories, or everything else, and I don't know why.

There are several books that I just love reading during Advent and Christmas. Every year during Advent, I read The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien while cuddled up on the couch in front of our tree. They’re the letters that Tolkien wrote to his children from Father Christmas, and they contain his wonderful drawings. The letters record the amusing adventures of the mischievous North Polar Bear, and they become a bit darker near the end of the book as England enters World War II and Father Christmas is attacked by goblins.

Every couple of years I also read The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame at Christmastime. It’s one of my favorite books. My husband argues with me that it is actually a summer book because of all the pastoral scenes along the river. However, my favorite chapter takes place during Christmastime, and it has the best depiction of that familiar, yearning emotion of homecoming—I get choked up every time I read it. The whole book is glorious—funny, tender, and exciting. I love the little creatures dearly: humble Mole, pragmatic Ratty, pompous Toad, crusty old Badger, and Otter with his smile of sharp, gleaming teeth. If you’re going to read this, don’t even bother unless you get a copy with Ernest Shepard’s enchanting, sketchy pen and ink drawings. All other illustrations are garish and crass, detracting from the feel of Grahame’s stories. (Shepard is the same fellow who illustrated the original Winnie the Pooh stories for A.A. Milne.)

One year Chris and I read The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but its chapters are divided up as the 24 days of Advent, so it was enjoyable to read out loud to each other a chapter every night. Currently I’m reading the classic Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, the first part of which is framed by memorable Christmas scenes. I’m sure most of you know the story basics even if you haven’t read the book, but Alcott’s language is lovely, and I never tire of Jo exclaiming “Christopher Columbus!” in her tomboyish way, or little Amy’s snooty malapropisms.

Oh, and when I was about three years old, my favorite Christmas book was Morris’s Disappearing Bag by Rosemary Wells. It would be wrong to neglect mention of my original favorite.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Samurai Delicatessen

Samurai and Japanese feudal society are darn interesting, but add to that a mysterious cult, ninja-assassins with supernatural powers, cruel villains, beautiful sword-wielding women, an ominous prophecy, and an eye-opening role for a knitting needle. These are a few of the elements in the Tales of the Otori series by Lian Hearn (the pseudonym of Australian author Gillian Rubenstein). I have read her first three books, and she recently released a fourth in the series (which is on my MUST READ SOON list).

Rubenstein has a fascination for Japanese culture and spent years studying it. The language of the books is lovely and has a simple but elegant lilt, influenced by Japanese idioms, poetry, and art. The fighting scenes as well as the love scenes are gritty and intimate. The books feature a questing narrative, which is something I particularly enjoy—stories set in another time in exotic locations, with maps and many dangers on an arduous crusade. They are written from the first person perspective of the two main characters, Takeo (an orphaned young man with supernatural powers) and Kaede (the female heir to an ancient kingdom).

The books offer many contrasting themes: male vs. female, birth family vs. adopted parents, forgiveness vs. revenge, free will vs. destiny, feudalism vs. equality, etc. There are so many of these dichotomies that I can't list them all here, and they give the characters’ struggles depth without overpowering the intricate plot with pedantic moralizing. If you enjoyed “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as much as I did, here’s the literary equivalent.

Tales of the Otori:
Book I: Across the Nightingale Floor
Book II: Grass for his Pillow
Book III: Brilliance of the Moon
Book IV: The Harsh Cry of the Heron

Also recommended: The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama, Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe (I haven't actually read Bushido, but my husband has.)

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Jackamo's Favorite Tea Room

(This blog post has been contributed by Jackamo, owner of the Sophisticated Tea Corner in the margin.)

While strolling along High Street in Ediburgh this past summer, I came upon an absolute jewel of a find - Forsythe Tea Room. I was headed down the Royal Mile in order to view Holyrood House (the Queen's palace in Scotland), but what is a palace when compared to a wee tearoom of unsurpassed cuteness? Nothing! So we popped in for a cuppa and were not disappointed.

Christina Forsythe was everything that you would imagine an elderly, Scottish tea room owner to be. Her accent was thick, her white apron was starched, her cheeks were pink, and her chit-chat was neverending...but in a good way. My family and I plopped our weary feet down for a brief respite and found that our bellies and our very souls were to be refreshed as well. Next time you're meandering down High Street, make a point to stop in and enjoy a pot of Forsythe's blend with milk and a wee bit o'sugar, the honey ham salad, and piping hot sultana scones with butter, preserves, and fresh cream. Ahhh...divine!

Address: 81 High Street, Edinburgh, Midlothian, EH1 1SR
Telephone: 0131-557-5150

Monday, December 4, 2006

Eat and Read

This past weekend, freshly recovered from a minor cold, my appetite reappeared with its typical ferocity. When I am sick, the only things I feel like consuming are hot liquid and bread. So I spent a week eating toast and drinking hot tea and mulled wine (my favorite elixir for a sore throat) and reading Heartburn by Nora Ephron (which was amusing).

To celebrate my return to gluttony and the beginning of Advent, we bought clams at the harbor to steam for dinner. I’ve never done this before, but it was glorious! If you live on the coast, give this a try. If you don’t, come visit me.

I bought 3.5 pounds of clams for two of us, because I think you can never have too many clams. Make sure the clams are alive—they should be sealed tight, or if they are slightly open with a clam foot poking out, touch the foot. If it jerks back in alarm at your giant's finger, it’s alive. Don’t store the clams in plastic—they’ll expire, filling your kitchen with the stench of death. Scrub the clam shells clean in cold water. Store the clams in an uncovered bowl in the fridge.

In a large pot with a lid, bring to boil 1/4 cup dry white wine (we used Clos du Bois’ Pinot Grigio), a handful of chopped parsley, 2-3 minced cloves garlic, and clams. Cover and steam until all clams pop open, about 8-10 minutes. Remove clams with a slotted spoon to 2 large bowls. Simmer remaining liquid in the pan, adding 3-4 tablespoons of butter to it, 1 tablespoon at a time, and reducing the liquid somewhat. Pour hot liquid over clams and serve with lemon slices, plenty of good crusty bread for dipping, the rest of the white wine, and a salad. We had it all as a picnic in front of our Christmas tree.

For more recipes like this, check out the spectacular fish cookbook that my Aunt Sara (the best cook in the world) gave me a few years ago.

I also made sugar cookies, which are endearingly fragile but not difficult to bake. Here’s the recipe. I made the lemon version, and I recommend rolling the dough balls in granulated sugar prior to baking and adding 2 teaspoons of lemon zest instead of one. I should have remembered that everything needs more zest! On Sunday I spent the afternoon eating these cookies with a glass of milk and reading The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, which is fantastically gruesome.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Cleared for Action!

This past spring I discovered C.S. Forester’s books about Napoleonic-era naval officer Horatio Hornblower. It began when we watched the BBC miniseries about young H.H., which is quite good, but the books are far better. As is often the case, there are so many details about the inner thoughts and lives of characters that are impossible to translate to film.

I began by reading the first book Forester wrote in the series, Beat to Quarters. This book features a middle-aged Captain Hornblower. Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours are Forester’s original trilogy, and while all the other H.H. books are very good, these three are the best. H.H. is a brilliant but painfully self-critical character, and he feels very real.

A lot of folks start by reading Mr. Midshipman Hornblower first, which features H.H. in his youth, and progress through the series according to H.H.’s age. I don’t see a problem with this, but I’m just telling you, the original trilogy is by far the best, and personally, I like reading books in the order an author has written them because I can watch his creative progress.

Flying Colours gave a particularly poignant account of camaraderie among three characters of different rank and different personality, and it has one of the best endings of any book I’ve read (you’ll hear me say again and again that the ending is the trickiest part of a good book). Forester’s writing is always exciting and never conventional. Conflicts are solved in astounding ways. The man was an incredibly creative writer.

Some female friends were incredulous that I was so captivated by military fiction with primarily male characters. But my response to that is the same as my response to men who think they won’t enjoy Jane Austen: A good book is just a good book, whether it features men or women, war or courtship. If you can’t appreciate Forester or Austen, it’s not because you’re the wrong gender.

This week I also read The African Queen by Forester. It was gripping—a story about a missionary’s sister (Rose) and a mechanic (Alnutt) on an adventure in central Africa during WWI. The hero is clearly Rose. As soon as she steps onto Alnutt’s boat, she is undeniably the captain. She’s the stubborn idealist with a plan, and Forester often describes her strong physical presence as overwhelming “that little man” (the practical, pusillanimous Alnutt). It’s a credit to Forester that his heroines are just as spectacular as his heroes. The African Queen has an inscrutable but excellent ending, which I won’t give away here.

For me, the most personal element of Forester’s books is that after I discovered them, my dad told me that my grandfather (who died before I was born and whom I’ve always wished I could have known) loved them too.