Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ticket Happy and Reeking of Popcorn

The end of the year means list time, so here are my favorite movies I saw in theaters in 2007.

3:10 to Yuma: Bravo to the return of the Western, especially starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. The enigmatic mutual friendship formed between bad guy and good guy was fascinating, and the scenes of southwestern mountains dusted with snow were breathtaking on the big screen.

Juno: We just saw this one last night, and it's even better than the trailers and reviews suggest. All the actors are perfectly cast, and I'm a sucker for a smart young outcast like Ellen Page who uses sarcasm to hide her vulnerabilities. It's a movie about mostly-decent people maturing and making the best out of bad circumstances; the endings, while not necessarily expected, are believable and heart-warming.

The Bourne Ultimatum: I love this series, so I looked forward to the release of the third movie all summer and was not disappointed (excepting the absence of Franka Potente).

Ratatouille: Just as Cars was made for Nascar rednecks and The Incredibles for comic book nerds, Ratatouille is the Pixar movie for foodies, and that means me. But similar to all the Pixar films, any audience member will appreciate that it's sweet, funny, and a feast for the eyes.

Hot Fuzz: This is certainly the hardest we laughed in the theater all year. Whereas I liked the concept of Shawn of the Dead, I am a much bigger fan of this Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright follow-up tribute to stupid action flicks. My favorite part by far is Pegg's police training montage, a headache-inducing, side-splitting succession of split-second shots.

The Valet: Although certainly not the best film we saw all year, this one was a darn enjoyable farce from the French director of The Dinner Game. Gad Elmaleh is especially likable and goofy-looking as the titular valet pretending to date a supermodel.

Lars and the Real Girl: Along with Ellen Page in Juno and Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, and Ben Foster in 3:10 to Yuma, Ryan Gosling gives the best performance I've seen this year as Lars. This movie shows a family, church, and community wrapping its arms around a hurting individual, and it allows you to leave the theater believing people are pretty great after all.

Enchanted: I'm just adding this in because Amy Adams is so good I could barely stand it. She plays what could have been an annoying role with irresistible energy and refreshing innocence. She nearly stole the show in Junebug, but she completely carries Enchanted.

Favorite Netflix rentals of 2007: American Splendor, Big Love, 30 Rock, The Lives of Others, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Junebug, Donnie Darko: Director's Cut, The Departed.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Three Bewitching Tales

Over the last few weeks, I've enjoyed three great books (all British, of course), ideal for winter/Christmas. Here's a brief summary of each.

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield: I've wanted to read this ever since it came out but library copies were always checked out. At last I gleefully found a used paperback in a secondhand store down a little alley in Portsmouth. Whereas Setterfield's words are not especially artful, she tells a killer tale. This deliciously gothic yarn is strongly reminiscent of Wurthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Rebecca. The protagonist is hired to write a secretive author's memoirs, which feature a ghostly English manor house, family scandals, murder, mystery, and most importantly...twins.

Carbonel, The King of Cats, by Barbara Sleigh: This is the first of two books Chris gave me which are from the same collection as Box of Delights. In Carbonel, young Rosemary befriends a cat, with whom she can talk as long as she's holding a magic broom. Rosemary and her friend John endeavor to break the spell enchanting Carbonel. It's a charming story with an especially amusing chapter spiriting antique china out of a museum and into a public tearoom. Like Box of Delights, it's best moments feature clever children left to their own devices.

Uncle, by J.P. Martin: Also from the New York Review Children's Collection, Uncle is a hilarious, quirky tale of a millionaire elephant, his diverse followers, and his scruffy, malicious neighbors. Each chapter, although part of the story as a whole, is well-contained and the ideal length for a bedtime story. Of the long list of characters, my favorites are The Muncle (The Old Monkey's uncle who is obsessed with shoes), The Maestro (who often goes into a passion and throws himself out windows), The Little Lion (who, when feeling contrary, makes himself heavy and thereby impossible to move), and Noddy Ninety (an old man, mad about cricket, who dresses up as a schoolboy and sneaks into school to cause trouble).

The prime result of reading Uncle is one's excursion into the mind and personality of the author, J.P. Martin, a rambunctious Yorkshire minister who made up these stories for his children. I actually read the introduction (written by Martin's grandson) about the author's life twice because I found him so delightful. As the icing on the cake, the book is packed with illustrations by Quentin Blake (who illustrated Roald Dahl's similarly peculiar and hilarious children's stories).

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ring, blessed Bells, for Christmas Morn, Joy in Full Measure, Hope new-born

I have found the perfect book for Christmas.

A few weeks ago when Ickie and I were downtown for the annual Christmas tree lighting, Ickie discovered The Box of Delights by John Masefield in Longfellow Books. His eye was drawn to it immediately because of the beautiful red cloth binding and cover art, courtesy of The New York Review Children's Collection. When he flipped it over to read the summary, two quotes made up his mind that it must be purchased.

"Christmas ought to be brought up to date, it ought to have gangsters, and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols." (This quote is from Maria Jones, a hilarious spunky friend of the protagonist.)

"It is...a unique work and will often be re-read.... The beauties, all the 'delights' that keep on emerging from the box--are so exquisite, and quite unlike anything I have seen elsewhere." --C.S. Lewis

That second quote pretty much sums up my review. Delights has all the best bits of E. Nesbit and The Narnia Chronicles. In fact, it's easy to see that Delights was a major influence in Lewis's more-famous series. It's an ideal read for Advent, with Kay, the protagonist, at home on holiday with his friends, all happily free of adult supervision. Amid cozy meals, snow games, and holiday parties, Kay meets enigmatic characters and uses the magical Box of Delights to fight against a malevolent magician and his gang who have abducted the cathedral staff in an attempt to prevent the midnight mass.

Masefield's story is viewed through the willing eyes of a child: everything is magical and dreamlike. There are wolf men and Roman soldiers, talking mice and wood spirits, bloodthirsty pirates and fanciful contraptions. The final joyful chapter when Christmas day dawns brought me to tears.

Ickie read this out loud to me over the last few weeks as we sat by the tree, and it's a tradition I plan to continue. I can imagine how much I would have enjoyed this as a child.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Generous Story for Children

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart is simply that: a sweet story that focuses on the special abilities of children. Four unlikely orphans pass a series of unusual tests and find themselves a part of kooky Mr. Benedict's secret society. Their mission is to save the world from a dreaded brainwashing scheme by the wicked Mr. Curtain. The children must infiltrate Mr. Curtain's sinister island Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened.

The story is basically juxtaposing two mindsets about children: that they are intelligent, noble, and able versus that they are weak-minded infidels. Each child has special abilities: Reynie is a natural leader and clever problem solver, Sticky has a mind chock full of information (including a knowledge of countless languages), Kate is the resourceful acrobat and tool expert, and Constance is willful and stubborn. Contrary Constance is by far my favorite; she has a nearly absolute disrespect for authority that made me laugh out loud multiple times.

The plot is fast-paced, the language is straightforward yet not insulting to children, and the lessons are admirable for any young reader. The author notes that he built the story around an idea he came up with for a chess riddle, which appeals to me even if I was unable to solve the riddle myself (no surprise there). Each chapter opens with a charming juvenile drawing, and the cover art showing all the children around Mr. Benedict's ramshackle house is especially engaging. The book is a great choice for children, preteens, and adults.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Thursday, November 29, 2007


I know, I know, it has been an eternity since I've posted a book review, and that is because of my extremely slow progress in Master and Commander, the first of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin series. This is not to suggest that I'm not enjoying elements of the book; I am, and I'd like to read more of them eventually. I think Jack and Stephen's characters have a lot of depth, their "opposites-attract" friendship is engaging, and there's a lot of humor in the books. I'm told Post Captain is more of a drawing room story, O'Brien's tribute to Jane Austen; his eloquence and wit certainly qualify him for such a task.

However, Master and Commander has not captured my attention in the way the Hornblower novels did. It's pleasant enough while reading, but then I set it down and lose interest. As Ickie mentioned in his review, O'Brien's novels are less steamlined than Forester's. Or as my dad put it when we were discussing the books on the phone recently, "What they really need is a good editor."

I'm sure you O'Brien fans are enraged at this suggestion, but there's something about the books that don't quite do it for me. It's not necessarily the verbosity that bothers me, and I can appreciate O'Brien's desire to wax romantic or educate the reader on the minutia of naval life, and the now-and-then action scenes do excite, but it's so slow-going plotwise. In fact, I feel the book has everything necessary (artful language, humor, interesting characters and relationships) except a cohesive plot. The Sophie goes out on cruises, returns, out and back, and to me the chain of events read more like a memoir than a purposeful plot.

All the same, the first book is worth reading, just don't expect it to zip along like other straight-up adventure stories. It is very different from the film, which I enjoyed immensely.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving Successes

Ickie and I enjoyed our second Thanksgiving of non-travel this year. I brined the turkey overnight using this recipe, with a few adjustments. I couldn't find allspice berries, so I just threw in a bit of mulling spices in the brine; I didn't wake up in the middle of the night to flip the bird over; I warmed the aromatics on the stove top instead of microwave (because we don't have one); prior to cooking I placed a few sage leaves and rosemary sprigs under the skin of the breast to look pretty; and I cooked it in an oven bag at 325 degrees until done.

I got our bird for free using our grocery store's "turkey points" and acquired it when I thought we might be having some guests, and earlier this week I felt like a gluttonous American to roast a whole 12-pound turkey for two people. However, after we tasted it, our misgivings flew out the window. It's perhaps the juiciest turkey we've ever had. What we don't eat, I'll freeze for soup.

Speaking of soup, our friend EW had us for dinner last weekend and among other things made this comforting Sweet Potato Soup recipe. We enjoyed it so much I made it myself a few days later. It's quite savory and the sweet potato flavor is not overwhelming; it tastes rather more like leek and potato soup with something a bit different thrown in. It was cold and rainy leading up to Thanksgiving, so soup was fitting.

This morning we decorated our tree, and last night we went downtown for the tree lighting ceremony. It was clear but gusty and in the upper 20s, and there were free horse-drawn carriage rides throughout the old port. We arrived bundled up at the square and realized they were not actually lighting the tree for 45 minutes but instead drawing the event out with mayoral speeches of dullness, impossible-to-see freezing ballerinas, and a beastly Jimmy Buffet sound-alike, so we went into Henry the VIII's for roast beef sandwiches while the benighted masses froze outside. After the crowd broke apart, we admired the lit tree towering in the square and then walked to the theater and watched Lars and the Real Girl, a quirky, quiet, tender movie that moves yet doesn't insult its audience, and in the end it made me feel very good.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Poem for Fall's First Snowy Day

November’s last golden leaves
Lie wilting on the forest floor.
In twilit clearings
Their outlines drowsily peek
Through sheets wispy white.

The path, close and dark,
Is rimmed with green boughs
Sugar frosted
And beneath them a shelter
For my snow-flecked head.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Gift That Makes One Laugh Hardest

Several years ago I discovered James Lileks's Gallery of Regrettable Food online. I'd sneak onto the site at work and sit at my desk hunched over in painful silent laughter ("The Unbearable Sadness of Vegetables" was a favorite title therein). Then my sister gave copies of Lileks's book to Ickie and my father for Christmas. Ickie would pick up the book and start reading it, and he'd laugh so hard I was afraid he'd vomit up his holiday dinner (which he had done on a previous occasion), so I kept hiding it. However, it remains gloriously funny reading.

Last night, after Ickie and I formed addictions to the Free Rice vocabulary game, we talked about our favorite words. I pointed out that unguent had appeared on the quiz for me, a word which was featured effectively in Lileks's chapter entitled "Submit to the Power of Ketchup." After reminiscing and getting all cracked up about unguents and deviled onions, we had a conversation about words we like.

Ick: "I like feculent. And truculent."
Toosa: "Ugh, I don't. I like feckless, but I don't like words that end in -ulent. They sound gross."
Ick: "What? Why?"
Toosa: "They sound like unguent. They sound ointmenty."
Ick: "What are some other words that end with -ulent?"
Toosa: "Opulent. That's not so bad. Ebullient."
Ick: "Ebullient is an -ullient word."
Toosa: "Well, same sound. Let's make some up. Here, let me slather your forehead with this globulent."
Ick: [recoils in horror]
Toosa: "Feeling glum? Have some of this lemonulent to perk yourself up."

This is what happens when I have a conversation too late at night. At this point I'd amused myself to the point that I was paralyzed with laughter and couldn't go to sleep...just like the Christmas Ickie received the gallery. I heartily recommend it this gift-giving season.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

When Bad Things Happen to Horses

When several days ago I finished The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle, I had a moment of panic. The book delves into very real human emotions, but the emotions and events Kyle depicts are so agonizing that they traumatized me. I panicked because I suddenly thought to myself, "If I have to write something this painful in order to be a successful writer, I don't think I can do it."

Animals is a coming of age story told by Alice, a young girl growing up on a ranch. Her mother suffers from debilitating depression, and her father struggles to maintain the ranch after Alice's older sister runs away. Friendless Alice also deals with the death of a schoolmate, an unconventional crush, and the rich clients who patronize the ranch.

Kyle is a young author and this is her first novel, and it's a notable first effort in my opinion. The preteen narrator's language is plain and raw. Alice's misery comes and goes (as is the case for the other characters), and she knows too much for a child. The book delves into achingly real human emotions, and Kyle's characters are frustratingly human. Not one of them is a hero, but none of them are villains either. Most characters are kind and cruel in equal measure.

If you're in the mood for something that doesn't make you feel as though your heart has been ripped right out of your chest, now is not the time to read this book.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Ghoulish Scenes for Halloween

On our walk in the bitter wind by the bay yesterday, Ickie and I discussed scary scenes from movies and books with relish. I dislike gore and horror flicks, but even as a child I had a slightly morbid sense of humor. When my dad would ask me to choose a bedtime story from our big children's bible, I always asked for Sodom and Gomorrah because it had the most action (I know, sick, but there you are.). I'm leaving our favorite scary movie scenes for Ickie to review, if it pleases him, and I'm going to mention my favorite written ones.

Jane Eyre: There are myriad reasons I love Jane Eyre, but one is for the gothic creepfest that is Mrs. Rochester. In the spookiest scene, Jane is in her bedroom at night, hears breathing through the keyhole, then fingernails scratching down her door. She realizes it's unlocked, quickly reaches to lock it, and immediately afterwards the would-be intruder violently rattles her doorknob and laughs maniacally in the passageway.

The Fellowship of the Ring: My dad agrees with me that although there are many scary parts of The Lord of the Rings series, the one that gives us the shudders is when Frodo and the other hobbits are being pursued through The Shire by the Black Riders (and their intent is still somewhat vague), and at one point Frodo hides in the woods with the road in sight. A Black Rider appears on the road, stops his horse, climbs stealthily off, and the hooded character creeps along the ground as though smelling the hobbits' tracks. In spite of the other scenes fraught with death and doom, it's the insidious presence of the Riders in the heretofore secure Shire that troubles me most.

The Golem's Eye: This book is the second and best book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy, and it contains the one scene in the entire series that really won me over. In Westminster Abbey late at night, Kitty and her friends break into the crypt and unwittingly awake an insane afrit (an evil spirit animating a skeleton). Everyone flees, most of them are killed, but Kitty pauses by the abbey doors when she hears the voice of her friend echoing inside the dark church. She knows her friend is dead, and she knows the monster is mimicing his voice to trap and murder her. However, in a split second Kitty decides it would be morally wrong to abandon her friend's call for help and returns inside knowing it will mean her death. I find Westminster Abbey deliciously macabre even in the daytime, so it's a setting that easily affects me, but the moral dilemma raises it above an ordinary ghost story.

The Eyre Affair: Though the Thursday Next series is primarily comic, Acheron Hades is a villian who gives me the chills in a big way. Early in this first book, Thursday is responding to a crime scene. As an old woman flees the scene, Thursday suddenly remembers that Acheron's mind control abilities can make him appear as someone else. She watches as the old woman steps in a puddle and leaves a man's footprint, then turns her gun on the criminal. (Unfortunately, Acheron is impervious to bullets.)

Outside Over There: This picture book by Maurice Sendak is one I loved as a child, and the most horrifying scene is when Ida finds a ghastly foundling child carved of ice in the cradle and realizes her baby sister has been kidnapped by goblins.

The Book of Lost Things: The protagonist is confronted by a bloodthirsty wolf who stands on his hind legs and talks like a man, and you realize the creature is half and half, and a cannibal of both species. At the end of the book, the revelation of who the trickster character is also terrifying, but I won't give it away.

Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell: The Man with the Thistledown Hair. Enough said.

Also wonderfully frightening: "Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower" (a short story from Susanna Clarke's collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu), The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix (I would have put this on this list but couldn't narrow it down to one scene), anything by Edward Gorey in which the Black Doll appears.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Travels Through the Wardrobe

When I was in the eighth grade, Mr. Whitney told us, "If you are assigned a book you've already read, don't mention it to the teacher. Read it again; you'll always find something new." Mr. Whitney was probably my most influential English teacher, whom I had in the sixth and eighth grades. He had a book shelf of classic novels (which he had bought), and we could choose one every two weeks to read and report on. He read out loud to us often, wrote as many helpful comments on as we wrote words in our writing assignments, and introduced us to Messrs. Strunk and White. He loved baseball, Thomas Jefferson, and good books, and he was definitely right about the rereading thing.

Generally, as soon as I've read a book, I know whether I'll reread it, and that drives me to purchase my own copy. I'm currently rereading The Chronicles of Narnia. I have two of the old paperback sets from 1970. You know them: The cover art is tacky, but I won't upgrade because they are in the proper order. I know some of you will disagree with me on this, but the magic starts in the wardrobe (I wrote my senior thesis partly on that, so I've devoted plenty of thought to the matter). When Ickie nags me about having two sets, I always answer, "One is mine, and one is for the children." (I think he assumes he'll have to share the second set with our fictional children.) I've reread these books more often and for longer than any others (since I was in the third grade), and they always fill me with joy and make me cry. Here are a few snippets I've enjoyed this time around.

A New Discovery: The Bastables are mentioned on the very first page of Magician's Nephew. The last time I read these, I wasn't yet familiar with Nesbit's Bastable children.
"In those days...the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road."

Droll Asides: I adore the way Lewis speaks directly to the reader to add in his own snide opinions. There are many instances, but my favorite one is in Dawn Treader.
"...when the Pevensie children had returned to Narnia last time for their second visit, it was (for the Narnians) as if King Arthur came back to Britain as some people say he will. And I say the sooner the better."

Residual Damage: If you've read Lewis's autobiography, you know that as a timid, bookish little fellow he was tormented by bullies at public school (boarding school). Ickie and I always appreciate his scathing description of Experiment House in Silver Chair. However, I don't recall noticing before how he attributes some of Edmund's behavior to public schooling in LW&W.
"When at last she [Lucy] was free to come back to Edmund she found him standing on his feet and not only healed of his wounds but looking better than she had seen him look--oh, for ages; in fact ever since his first term at that horrid school which was where he had begun to go wrong. He had become his real old self again and could look you in the face."
It makes me feel sorry for poor little Jack.

Close Encounters: I suppose if I can't get into Narnia myself, a trip to England must suffice.
"...just on this side of the stream lay the Lion. It lay with its head raised and its two fore-paws out in front of it, like the lions in Trafalgar Square."
The Trafalgar Aslan is the right size too, unlike the too-small one in the movie.

Views on Marriage: Lewis's little summing up of mutual attraction at the end of Horse and His Boy cracks me up.
"Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I'm afraid even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up they were so used to quarreling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently."

Happy Endings: Like Tolkien, Lewis is adept at tying adventures up in that tidy, charming English manner. Here's an example from Silver Chair:

"In the inquiry all sorts of things about Experiment House came out, and about ten people got expelled. After that, the Head's friends saw that the Head was no use as a Head, so they got her made an Inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found she wasn't much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after.
Eustace buried his fine clothes secretly one night in the school grounds, but Jill smuggled hers home and wore them at a fancy dress ball next holidays. And from that day forth things changed for the better at Experiment House, and it became quite a good school. And Jill and Eustace were always friends.
But far off in Narnia, King Rilian buried his father, Caspian the Navigator, Tenth of the name, and mourned for him. He himself ruled Narnia well and the land was happy in his days, though Puddlegum often pointed out that bright mornings brought on wet afternoons, and that you couldn't expect good times the last. The opening into the hillside was left open, and often in hot summer days the Narnians go in there with ships and lanterns and down to the water and sail to and fro, singing, on the cool, dark underground sea, telling each other stories of the cities that lie fathoms deep below. If ever you have the luck to go to Narnia yourself, do not forget to have a look at those caves."

(I really think he's mocking me with that last bit.)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Today's Grammar "Lesson"

In my short-lived job at the little local town newspaper, I spent a lot of my time deleting unnecessary quotation marks from submitted articles. So you can imagine how much I appreciate my new discovery: The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks.

If you are a grammar nerd like myself or even if you just enjoy misused quotation marks, you'll find some real gems here. Some of my favorites include: a sarcastic welcome to a business park, a birthday card recipient whose parents love him ironically, and a meditation on the nature of the Divine.

It bothers me that the blogger incorrectly places her end quotation marks inside commas and periods, but I've been trained to nitpick. We all make grammatical errors, some are just more hilarious than others.

Other fun sites mocking grammar errors: (I actually own one of their mouse pads and a shirt with an Engrish quote), Apostrophism, Why A Tittle?, Literally, A Web Log.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Green is Gold

The trees in our front yard are looking exceptional these days. Bravo, Nature, good show and all that.

Excerpt from To Autumn, James Thomson:

But see the fading many-colour’d Woods,
Shade deepening over Shade, the Country round
Imbrown; a crouded Umbrage, dusk, and dun,
Of every Hue, from wan declining Green
Too sooty Dark. These now the lonesome Muse,
Low—whispering, lead into their leaf-strown Walks,
And give the Season in its latest View.

Mean-time, light-shadowing all, a sober Calm
Fleeces unbounded Ether; whose least Wave
Stands tremulous, uncertain where to turn
The gentle Current; while, illumin’d wide,
The dewy-skirted Clouds imbibe the Sun,
And thro’ their lucid Veil his soften’d Force
Shed o’er the peaceful World. Then is the Time,
For those whom Wisdom and whom Nature charm,
To steal themselves from the degenerate Croud,
And soar above this little Scene of Things;
To tread low-thoughted Vice beneath their Feet;
To soothe the throbbing Passions into Peace;
And wooe lone Quiet in her silent Walks.

The pale descending Year, yet pleasing still,
A gentler Mood inspires; for now the Leaf
Incessant rustles from the mournful Grove,
Oft startling such as studious, walk below,
And slowly circles thro’ the waving Air.
But should a quicker Breeze amid the Boughs
Sob, O’er the Sky the leafy Deluge streams;
Till choak’d, and matted with the dreary Shower,
The Forest-Walks, at every rising Gale,
Roll wide the wither’d Waste, and whistle bleak.
Fled is the blasted Verdure of the fields;
And, shrunk into their Beds, the flowery Race
Their sunny Robes resign. Even what remain’d
Of bolder fruits falls from the naked Tree;
And Woods, Fields, Garden, Orchards, all around
The desolated Prospect thrills the Soul.

He comes! he comes! in every Breeze the Power
Of philosophic Melancholy comes!
His near Approach the sudden-starting Tear,
The soften’d Feature, and the beating Heart,
Pierc’d deep with many a virtuous Pang, declare.
O’er all the Soul his sacred Influence breathes;
Inflames Imagination; thro’ the Breast
Infuses every Tenderness; and far
Beyond dim Earth exalts the swelling Thought.
Ten thousand thousand fleet Ideas, such
As never mingled with the vulgar Dream,
Croud fast into the Mind’s creative Eye.

O, Curly-Tailed Muse, Tell Me a Tale of ... you know, stuff

Here's a great premise: After Circe transforms Odysseus's crew into pigs and back, one man is left in pig form. He's a pig with a destiny, and it's not herding sheep.

Paul Shipton's The Pig Scrolls is quite simply hilarious. Shipton uses sloppy American slang and British panache to toy with the conventions of epic poetry and Greek mythology. He instills the porcine Gryllus with a general aversion to adventure, monsters, the Olympians (who mostly act like petulant teens), and physical activity. He's your average lazy pig/guy: Often a coward (with thinly veiled but entertaining excuses for avoiding danger), he greets his doom in its manifold forms with snide comments and ridicule. His interview with the Sphinx is especially memorable, as is his attempt at stand-up comedy to a crowd of ancient Greek rednecks in a greasy kebab joint.

After soaking up several Wodehouse books chock full of masterful metaphors and banter, I continued to enjoy Gryllus's comically weak similies and scathing invectives. Here are just a few examples:

"'That kid brother o' mine reckons you speaks the Greek good as us, pig.' On present evidence, I spoke 'the Greek' considerably better, but before I had a chance to point this out, the man went on: 'Betwixt you and me, he ain't the brightest button on the tunic. But...if you does speak and you wants to save that pigskin o' yours, speak now, eh.' I couldn't help noticing that this voice lacked the warmth that is the hallmark of most successful first meetings."

"The mountain was majestic and awe-inspiring and all that stuff, but most of all it was big."

"By now Sibyl's patience had worn as thin as a flamingo's leggings."

"The giant hooded figure took a step forward. Its echoing footfall sounded like the executioner's ax connecting with bone. Or...well, I don't know what it sounded like, do I? Like NOT GOOD NEWS."

"She spoke softly, but her voice seemed loud in the silence that lay over the entire place, not like a nice warm blanket of silence but more like a funeral shroud or something equally creepy."

I found Scrolls in the children's section, but much of the linguistic and literary humor would probably go over a child's head (unless she has been immersed in the classics, and even then...let's just say this seems more geared toward teens and adults). The sequel is The Pig Who Saved the World, which I'm looking forward to reading as soon as I get my hands on a copy.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

If I Were Rich, I Know Where I'd Spend It

Yesterday we took an afternoon road trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to see The Darjeeling Limited and then loiter around Harvard Square. We spent a good amount of time in two excellent bookstores. The first was Curious George, a children's bookstore with an inspired selection and creative toys. The second was the Harvard COOP, a four-story giant filling two buildings and most of a city block. The new building is attractive inside with winding staircases and balconies lined with extensive inventory. Our time in book paradise started us reminiscing about some of our favorite bookstores across the world, and we made a long list. Here are just a few of those.

Beckham's, New Orleans: The first bookstore I visited that taught me how great a bookstore can be. I recall sitting in the aisle by the tall windows up on the second floor, perusing their C.S. Lewis offerings.

The Book House, St. Louis: We frequented many excellent bookstores in St. Louis, including another favorite, Left Bank, but upon my first visit to The Book House, I was charmed to discover the Poetry Nook upstairs, a tiny shelf-lined room with a dormer window and rocking chair. They also had several lazy cats in residence (my favorite was a fat, amiable Siamese named Chaucer) and a ghost (who was friendly, the owners were always quick to point out).

Blackwell's, Oxford, UK: Blackwell's is another enormous bookstore with a grand selection, including used copies on the top floor. For me, their strongest points are: 1. they are in Oxford, and 2. they offer literary tours of Oxford, including an Inklings Tour.

Schuler, Grand Rapids: Our favorite place to wile away the hours on a winter evening in Michigan, Schuler's looked a bit like a Border's but had more character, including snug leather chairs by a fireplace in the art section.

The Tattered Cover, Denver: This is the best bookshop name ever, although Ickie might argue in favor of L.A.'s Storyopolis. Either way, I visited The Tattered Cover on a snowy October day, and this warm old building with cozy chairs scattered about was so inviting.

City Lights, San Francisco: Not only a great bookstore, this is a historic site of the Beat movement. Although I always feel I'm not hip enough to be in here, I enjoy it nonetheless.

Book Soup, Los Angeles: This store seems too romantic for Beverly Hills, crammed close with shelves at odd angles. We found many many reading ideas here, and I appreciated that they let you climb the ladders to the upper shelves on your own.

Unnamed bookstore, Katoomba, Australia: I saved the best for last...if only I could remember its name! I spent a damp, cold, foggy day in the Blue Mountains of Australia, but wandering into this bookshop was an instant elixir. A genial, gray-bearded man greeted me with "Come right in! Look around." Tweedily clad, he was seated in a shabby armchair with his pipe in front of the fire. Only about half of his musty leather-bound books fit on the shelves; the rest were stacked helter-skelter around the small shop, where I wandered around exploring and feeling dreamy. This is how I'd always imagined the ideal bookshop.

There are many not included on this list, such as the manifold stores on Charing Cross Road in London. I haven't yet spent enough time in New York or Chicago to discover their best bookstores, and I've always heard that Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh border is a Mecca for literary fiends, so my list needs expansion. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Coffee in a Bowl and Other Little Details

On Sunday, seated in a cozy booth by the window in a creperie in Quebec City, I was served a toothsome concoction of coffee, hot chocolate, whipped cream, and cinnamon in a white porcelain bowl. "I've never seen anyone drink coffee from a bowl before," said Ickie, as I sipped my Viennese coffee with a euphoric grin. "Yes, you have," I responded airily. "In The Bourne Identity, when they hide out at Marie's ex-boyfriend's country house, in the morning I am pretty sure you see the ex drinking coffee from a bowl."

Nevermind there is a brooding, bespectacled Clive Owen in a nearby field with his rifle trained on them, these are the kinds of details on which I fixate, only to reveal them unwittingly at a later time and embarrass myself in polite company.

I once had an argument that spanned several weeks with a close high school friend about which dress she wore to our eighth grade Christmas cotillion. Why was I interested in this? In the same vein, I'm still obsessed with a comment Angela from The Office made on the show two weeks ago when she deduced that Dwight had euthanized her cat, Sprinkles:

"Then why were there claw marks on ALL my bags of frozen french fries?"

There was a distinct emphasis on the all that suggests Angela has hundreds of bags of frozen french fries in her freezer. Why does she have so many frozen french fries? Why? For some reason this question keeps creeping back into my consciousness. I find it intriguingly ridiculous.

With that in mind, there is another reason a coffee-in-bowl reference lept to my mind. Ever since various decorative catalogs began featuring these footed bowls in delicate eggshell shades, I have been romanced by the image of drinking milky coffee out of a bowl early in the a.m. like a simple French peasant. This is the type of aesthetic that so adds to my enjoyment of things (be it food, books, church, etc.)--the inclusion of an object which carries with it a narrative scene in which I can imagine myself--this heightens my emotion. My coffee is comparatively humdrum in a regular mug or [shudder] a styrofoam cup. I can't imagine myself anywhere exciting with a styrofoam cup.

Quebec City was packed with charming details this weekend. It's thrilling to think we live just a half-day's drive from a medievally walled French town.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Love, Murder, Magic, and Pie

I am positively charmed by the new show Pushing Daisies. I didn't bother watching the pilot in real time this week because I thought the previews looked overly quirky and a bit silly. Heavens, was I ever wrong! Thanks to an alert from Jackamo, I went to ABC's website and watched the pilot in streaming video today, and I just love it.

Basically, the premise is that Ned (Lee Pace, the adorably snarky brother from Wonderfalls) can bring people back to life with a touch. If he touches this resurrected person again, they'll be dead for good. To complicate matters, if the second touch doesn't occur within a minute's time, someone else in proximity dies. Ridiculous? I know. But it works because it's a fairy tale.

Ned is a piemaker by trade. (He owns a bakery called "The Pie Hole," which is actually an idea I came up with about 6 years ago and failed to trademark. Boo.) He brings fruit back to life with a touch, which makes for killer pies, and the displays of radiant pastries are bliss for me, an obsessive pie-lover. He has a partnership on the side with a P.I. wherein he questions the recently deceased about their murderers and they collect the reward. The plot thickens when his childhood sweetheart, "Chuck," turns up murdered, and Ned can't bring himself to send her back to death.

The dialogue is well timed and amusing, and Lee Pace is earnest and funny as a lonely young man with a well-founded phobia of touching people. He and Chuck are endearing star-crossed lovers. They ache simply to hold hands, let alone kiss each other, a dynamic which not only adds tension to their romance but suggests the show has the option of staying pretty clean. (I'm looking forward to when he *hopefully* bakes her a pie in lieu of the embrace, a la the sensual meals in Like Water for Chocolate.)

The colors are so vivid. The jovial narrator and light-heartedly morbid humor are straight out of a Tim Burton tale, and the narrator's habit of referring to Ned as The Piemaker adds to the fairytale feel. The fantastical composition of scenes is strongly reminiscent of Burton's Big Fish (not to mention the circus performers), and rooms are decorated with an attention to detail not unlike Wes Anderson. There's a bit of the murder mystery thrown in, with a grouchy P.I. and Chuck clad in stylish trench coats. As you know from some of my other posts, I love it when a story can mix genres successfully.

I'm writing this with the hope that anyone who reads it will watch the show! Granted, I've only seen the pilot, but it has started off so well, and I'd hate to see it canceled due to low viewership. If you enjoy Tim Burton or the short-lived series Wonderfalls (from the same creator) or are just looking for something creative and out of the ordianary to watch on Wednesday nights, check it out. If you have high speed internet access, you can watch the pilot via streaming video on for free.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

In My Defense

I continually have to defend my decision to never watch Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptations. People, I will never watch them. Stop looking at me incredulously and trying to convince me otherwise. When they were in preproduction, I watched the casting and hoped for the best, but at the same time I didn't want to see the movies because I didn't want Hollywood's images competing with the superior images I have in my head when I read my favorite trilogy. For those of you who think the on-screen version does justice to or surpasses your mental images, then for you I am sorry. I have seen enough clips to know. I wish I could invite you to hang out inside my brain while I'm reading them.

The second part of my argument is the one you hear me harp about all the time: Literature offers a different artistic medium than film, and Tolkien's is perfect as it is. It's too rich to translate. It offends me deeply when Hollywood thinks it can cut out all the history, linguistics, and poetry; delete or change parts of the plot; and manipulate characters, and somehow improve upon LOTR. Sometimes Hollywood gets it right, but this isn't one of those cases.

Anyhoo, I underwent that debate. Ickie and Jackamo, among other committed LOTR fans, saw The Fellowship of the Ring and brought back fairly positive reports with some reservations. Then they both came back with angry, disappointed reports about the 2nd movie. Ickie said the 3rd movie was the worst--ultimately boring for him; Jackie didn't even bother to see it in the theater. I trust these folks more than movie critics, and I feel utterly vindicated regarding my decision not to see them. Others (Hambone, my dad) also saw the movies and ultimately agreed I had made the right decision not to see them, at least for someone who is as voracious a fan as I.

Besides the reactions of my friends and family members, I remember being amused when the third movie came out and a critic (I can't recall who) described Elijah Wood (playing Frodo) as a "spoiled princess in a curly wig" and "a turd in the middle of a beautiful angel food cake." Tonight I read another excellent summation of the movies in an article listing several movies nominated for Oscars which should have won over those that did.

"The Return of the King skated right over [the deep places of the soul], trading the spare, almost tender, way that Tolkien crafted his characters for a slick, overly produced, ham-fisted drama that’s about as subtle as being struck in the back of the head by an actual copy of The Lord of the Rings."

Hear that, naysayers? "Ham-fisted." I rest my case.

Also, I think there could be a subtle allusion to this fight scene in The Bourne Ultimatum in there (a film series that greatly improves upon its source).

P.S. I did see the first Narnia movie two years ago, and it too was a disappointment. Aslan wasn't even close to big enough. I had none of the magical tingles I get when I read those books (especially when I read them for the first time in elementary school).

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Wildlife Encounters on My Birthday

There we were, just five minutes up the trail from the trailhead. Ickie was walking along with his head down, and I looked up the wooded path to a clearing about 40 yards ahead. In the space of a second, the following thoughts went through my head:

Oh, look, someone is horseback riding. They must have left the horse in the clearing.

Hmm, that's very tall and lanky for a horse. And dark. Is it a mule?

Slowly the creature turned its head to look back at us. It had antlers.

Oh. Dear.

It's. A. Moose.

A huge bull moose was staring at us. I froze and whispered to Ickie to stop, pointing ahead. We began to back away cautiously.

The moose turned to consider us a few more times, then sauntered up the trail and disappeared. I turned to Ickie and cursed quietly.

We waited a very long time before moving on. After that, the hike ranged from moderate to strenuous, but I told Ickie I was burning twice as many calories because my insides were still quivering with fear. We dubbed this form of exercise "Terror Exercise." Every time a squirrel or woodpecker moved in the bushes after that, we freaked out all over again.

After we returned home, Ickie looked online and discovered that fall is when bull moose are in rut and the most dangerous. Thank goodness we didn't douse ourselves with Eau de Female Moose before leaving the house.

Other tips suggested that if attacked by a moose, one should:

1. Increase the distance between you and the moose.
2. Get behind a tree.
3. Change your route.

I find the "get behind a tree" advice morbidly amusing. Unless there's a redwood nearby, I don't see how it could protect me very well from a 2,000-pound moose. However, it is recommended to make a lot of noise while hiking, and we had enough sense to do that.

Moose exits, stage right.

I practice self defense.

Ickie is startled by a squirrel that sounds like a moose.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Watoosa the Reckless

Those of you who have kept up with my transition to Maine may have heard that I was working for a little town newspaper. Today I gave my two weeks' notice after only being employed there for about two months. Many reasons contributed to my decision, all of which are too dull to bother discussing. What greatly pleases me is the realization that I can just quit the job because it is not what I wish to do. I'm rather gun-shy of work-related stress after several years of miserable work as a production editor in the bowels of Hades, and though this recently deceased job never amounted to the stress that I encountered at that dolorous den of torment, I have a merry, freeing feeling as a result of resigning. So, call me reckless, for that is how I am feeling.

I'm not altogether reckless, mind you. I'm not running off to start a skydiving business or to slaughter pigs, and I have freelance work to keep me busy. I just feel as though I have more control over my own destiny at the moment, and I'm a wee bit tipsy with that power. Tra la, tra la la la...

Now for the bookish bit. The title of this blog post comes from P.G. Wodehouse's Jill the Reckless, one of the tall stack of Wodehouse novels I checked out from the well stocked main library branch yesterday. I've been thirsty for Wodehouse of late, and that thirst must be sated! My one problem is that I have difficulty remembering the novels I have and haven't read by him. The Jeeves and Bertie episodes are especially hard to distinguish, but it's a pleasant problem to have. As a result, I began Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves the other day, and after several chapters realized I had read it once before. But no matter! This one has some of the best similes in the first few chapters, and it contains many winning Wooster-isms, in particular Bertie's snappy habit of abbreviation. Here they are for your afternoon enjoyment:

Bertie on Madeline Bassett: "She's one of those soppy girls, riddled from head to foot with whimsy. She holds the views that the stars are God's daisy chain, that rabbits are gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen, and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born, which, as we know, is not the case."

Bertie on Gussie Fink-Nottle: "He looked like a halibut that's taken offence at a rude remark from another halibut."

Bertie on Stiffy Byng's dog Bartholomew: "He biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder."

Bertie on his Aunt Agatha: "...the one who eats broken bottles and turns into a werewolf at the time of the full moon."

Hobbits Are More Like Men Than Men

No doubt you (you being my few devoted readers) are curious to hear what has become of me. First, I was swamped with work. Then I went jaunting up and down the coast, and then I reread The Hobbit, which just gets better every time. My favorites are like that. And I still say it and The Lord of the Rings have the best beginnings and endings of any books I've read.

As always, I'm charmed by Tolkien's decision to use a very ordinary main character to help the reader transition into a fantastic land of dragons, magic rings, elves, and wizards. Thanks to a hobbit's tendancies to worry about lunch from day to day yet to reveal his most brave, resourceful self when placed in a tough situation, I both commiserate with and admire them. Hambone recently left a beautiful comment on my post saying she most resembled Eowyn in LOTR. I am much more like Bilbo and Sam. I also like Bilbo's poems the best, even compared to the artistry of the elves' songs.

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

There's a simplicity in these lines to which I relate moreso than the epic poems elsewhere in Tolkien's books, and I'm sure he meant for that to be the case. The lure of adventure, the exhaustion from it, and ultimately familiar landscape and home: That is something I consider daily.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

That Dead Tramp Stole My Husband

I think Alfred Hitchcock may have learned everything he knew from Daphne du Maurier.

Alright, I know some of you are getting in a huff over this statement, but it's probably those of you who haven't yet read Rebecca by du Maurier. Hitchcock directed the film adaptation, and when you read the book, you'll know it's a perfect fit. I can't remember the last book I read as fraught with suspense as Rebecca. It's been a very long time since I saw the movie, and about all I could remember was that Mrs. de Winter is a spineless sadsack (portrayed aptly by my least favorite actress of all time, spineless sadsack Joan Fontaine), Maxim de Winter is distant, and Mrs. Danvers is insidious. In fact, the word insidious only begins to approach the dizzying level of creepdom that is Mrs. Danvers. (Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in the movie version doesn't do justice to the skull-faced, vindictive wraith of the novel.)

I know you nay-sayers are asking: How can you compare a book to Hitchcock? What of his cinematography? the atmosphere? those striking black and white shots? Well, somehow du Maurier creates an equally vivid atmosphere with her detailed, flowery descriptions. I also suspect young Daphne's favorite novel was Jane Eyre. You'll see what I mean.

I'm putting the movie back on my Netflix queue for an updated comparison, although I encourage you to read the book before watching the movie. If you've already seen the movie, read the book anyway. I must note that I spent the first two thirds of the narrative ready to pull my hair out over the protagonist's infuriating, self-conscious impotence and the de Winters' complete inability to communicate openly with each other. But I managed to make it through my frustrated fantasies of slapping a large portion of sense into each character, and it certainly paid off. The ending was deliciously gothic--a sort of ominous conclusion/cliffhanger.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

No Prison Can Hold Them

What with the excitement of settling into my new jobs and visiting Tennessee just in time for some kind of allergy torture zone, I haven't posted anything for a while, but I have indeed been reading.

First off, Ickie passed on to me Passarola Rising by Azhar Abidi. The author is originally from Pakistan, although he lives in Australia and writes in English. His elegant, stylized writing reminds me of Middle Eastern traditions of storytelling, such as the Arabian Nights stories. Passarola is about two historical figures, but the events are fictional. Two brothers, living in Europe in the 18th century, create a flying ship, hobnob with royalty, flee the Spanish Inquisition (which nobody expects), and venture into the arctic. Somehow Abidi's storytelling feels both detached and formal while also delving deeply into the personal and spiritual struggles of the two brothers. The ending is transcendent. The book feels very un-20th-Century and un-American (in the cultural, not the patriotic, sense). The cover art is exquisite.

After Passarola I read Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. It's a truly unique take on super villians and heros. At first glance, Ickie and I suspected it would be hilarious (the chapter titles are genre clichés like "Foiled Again," "Welcome to My Island," and "Maybe We Are Not So Different, You and I"). Instead, the book contains a more subtle humor. As with Wodehouse and Austen, the reader is more entertained by Grossman's wit than the actual events.

Grossman makes heros and villians more real than any other attempt I've seen. The story is told from two alternating points of view by diabolical genius Dr. Impossible and crime-fighting cyborg Fatale. Superheros pop painkillers to deal with their artificial organs, undergo divorce, and suspect each other of eating disorders. Dr. Impossible has flashbacks to his unpopular school days. These themes are treated with a light, clever hand--you can't help laughing when reference is made to an army of fungus. Dr. Impossible is especially engaging with his sarcasm and optimism (noticeably lacking among the downtrodden heros). Fans of James Bond, superhero stories, and even The Narnia Chronicles will discover something personal in Grossman's first novel.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Jackamo's Cranberry Almond Cookies

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

Here is a delectable new dainty that is perfect for nibbling on while partaking an afternoon cup of tea.

Cranberry Almond Cookies

1 c butter, softened
3/4 c sugar
3/4 c firmly packed light brown sugar

1/2 tsp almond extract
2 large eggs
2 1/4 c all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 c chopped fresh cranberries
1 c slivered almonds, toasted

Beat butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy; gradually add sugars, beating well. Add almond extract and eggs, beating until blended. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt; gradually add to butter mixture, beating at low speed until blended after each addition. Stir in cranberries and almonds. Drop by rounded Tbsps onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake at 375 degrees for 9 to 11 minutes. Remove to wire racks to cool.

"Strange how a teapot can represent at the same time the comforts of solitude and the pleasures of company. " ~Author Unknown

"If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty." ~Japanese Proverb

Monday, August 20, 2007

About the Weather

The end of last week dawned with the most glorious August weather I could ask for, and it's still here. Brilliant blue sky, cool breeze, and warm sun, with days in the low 70s and nights in the high 40s. I told Ickie that as much as I complain about hot, humid weather, I make it up by how giddy I am when cooler, drier weather rolls around. We went out adventuring on Prout's Neck Friday afternoon, and I told him my mood was just like Peter Parker in the "happy montage" in Spiderman 2. This morning as I drove over to the bay, the classical station decided to play Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, which just intoxicated me further. I can't think of a more fitting soundtrack to a mild summer day, surrounded by sparkling water and green lawns.

Those of you long-suffering Southerners with 100-plus temps are going to get sick of me waxing romantic about the ideal summer weather--first in Santa Barbara and now Maine. I know it doesn't seem fair, but to you I say: We have a spare room and a long-standing promise to make pie for any visitors who request it.

This barometric arcadia led to thoughts of how my constant fascination with the weather spills over into or out from my favorite books. The critical scene from my childhood is Lucy walking through the wardrobe into snow-covered firs. To this day I cannot see a lamppost in the snow without wishing I were really in Narnia, and I'm just a wee bit sympathetic with the White Witch for preferring winter (although not without Christmas, obviously!). Kenneth Grahame and L.M. Montgomery give unparalleled descriptions of all the seasons in their books, even to the point that I enjoy their brand of summer. Certain scenes fill me with a sense of coziness that acts as a surrogate fireplace.

On the other hand, there are books that raise my anxiety simply by adding oppressive heat and damp. The first that comes to mind is The African Queen by C.S. Forester. I can't think of a more miserable scene than Rose and Charlie struggling through the mangrove swamp amid bouts of paralyzing malaria. Periodically throughout the book I would raise my head only to once again repeat to Ickie that I was NEVER going to central Africa.

The Best Ideas Are Common Property

Okay, just deal with the fact that I'm blogging a lot about food this summer. For one thing, I've got more time to devote to cooking and to thinking about what I'm going to cook. I have time to go to the shops every day to get fresh ingredients, and the seafood here is cheap and plentiful. My foodie leisure time may have culminated on Saturday night when I created a scallop dish that causes angels to weep with joy, lobsters to hang their heads in shame, and zombies to reconsider their fondness for brains. We had this small casserole with fresh Italian bread, an arugula salad, and a Gavi that KK purchased for us when she was visiting.

Beth's Scallop Pseudo-Casserole

3/4-1 lb fresh scallops
4-6 Tbsp melted butter
1-2 Tbsp good olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
sea salt and fresh pepper
2 slices of white sandwich bread in small dice
a few Tbsp finely shredded Piave cheese (optional)

Drizzle enough butter and olive oil into a small casserole dish to cover the bottom. Arrange scallops in the dish. Sprinkle with garlic, salt, and pepper. Top with breadcrumbs. Drizzle a few more Tbsps butter over crumbs. If desired, sprinkle the cheese on top.

Bake at 425 degrees for 13 minutes (more or less depending on scallop size--mine were medium). Allow to sit a few minutes prior to serving. This makes enough for an entree for two or an appetizer for four.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Welshman's Been Reading My Amazon List

I just finished Thursday Next: First Among Sequels. It's the fifth entry in the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. I think I've mentioned my devotion to this series before here. The first book, The Eyre Affair, is vastly superior as a stand-alone novel and has the most arch villain. You'll want a basic knowledge of the plot of Jane Eyre in order to appreciate it. The sequels are for more devout bibliophiles, as Fforde makes so many literary references and inside jokes that no matter how well-read you are, you'll still miss a few. Fforde's books also include generous helpings of mystery, horror, SciFi, oral tradition, and metafiction.

I'd rate First Among Sequels as one of the weaker books in the series, along with Something Rotten. The plot moved a bit slow for me, although the action picked up in the end. However, I can't resist it because Fforde appears to have looked at my list of favorites and included all of them in some way in this sequel. Pride and Prejudice plays a central role, and Thursday visits the Hornblower series, a tearoom full of aunts in a Wodehouse novel, and Cold Comfort Farm (where Thursday does, incidentally, see something nasty in the woodshed). Additionally, there are references to The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Wind in the Willows, so I was gleefully suckered in. The series never takes itself too seriously, and even at its weakest, it's funny and clever.

The Thursday Next series (thus far) in order:
The Eyre Affair
Lost in a Good Book
The Well of Lost Plots
Something Rotten
Thursday Next: First Among Sequels

Monday, August 13, 2007

Fictional Counterpart

One of the favorite hypothetical discussions among my college roommates was “Who would play you in a movie of your life?” During that time I pretty much settled on Julia Louis Dreyfus (Elaine of "Seinfeld") but now I’m moving more toward Tina Fey (of the brilliant "30 Rock"). The answer to the question is more about personality than looks, even if they are both short, curly-haired women with glasses.

With this is mind, who do you consider your fictional counterpart in the book world? For me, the following come to mind as top contenders: Emily of New Moon (heroine of the Emily series by L.M. Montgomery), Hermione Granger, Lizzie Bennett, Flora Poste (of Cold Comfort Farm), Lucy Pevensie, Josephine March, and Blue Van Meer (of Special Topics in Calamity Physics). (I also share frizzy hair anxiety with Molly of Wives and Daughters.) None of them are 100% matches (only a few are afflicted with chronic Wanderlust like I am, and none of them get as excited about Melba Toast as I), but they each have backbone, are creative, or have moments with which I resonate strongly. The critical point is they are either nerdy or unconventional enough that they don’t fit in, yet in spite of some misgivings, they are their own odd selves. Perhaps it's the narcissist in me, but when I see a bit of myself in a book, I feel a sense of ownership over that character.

So, who are you?

Thursday, August 9, 2007

No One Understands My Jane

And this is why I won't be going to see the latest Austen atrocity, which looks so LAME in the trailers with its sappy pop song and obvious Rom-Com elements. Blech! All the same, I doubt I could despise it more than the Keira Knightley horror (reading the linked review also basically explains why I hated that one, although I have so many more reasons and get so angry just thinking about it that I'm not even going to discuss it here). Suffice it to say, I am QUITE PUT OUT.

Sunday, August 5, 2007


I once knew a guy in high school who ran away and joined the circus. I swear. We all called him Tiger. He was an athletic gymnast/diver, he was very intelligent (although seemed somewhat indifferent to his grades), and we once bonded over a Lewis Carroll anthology of poems and mathematical jokes. He seemed utterly unlike anyone else at my high school, and I wasn't completely surprised when I found out he joined the circus. He returned a few months later, but I didn't know him well enough to quiz him about his experience. Although he seemed like a laid-back, contented fellow, seemingly less affected by the social pressures of high school than most of us, I remember detecting a bit of melancholy in his demeanor. I don't know if the circus caused or just coincided with that, but I can't blame him for wanting to escape W.H.S.

What I learned from reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is that life in a third rate circus during the Great Depression sucked. (I also learned that Thomas Edison was vile.) No, seriously, the circus was even worse than you think. There are some pretty gritty scenes in the book, so be forewarned.

The protagonist, Jacob, in his 90s and discontent in a nursing home, tells in flashbacks about being orphaned just before completing his veterinary degree and running away with the circus. He's basically a decent, young guy in wretched circumstances. My friend Jenn told me she couldn't put this book down, and likewise I found it difficult. The ending came as a complete surprise to me and was thoroughly enchanting.

Gruen's chapters weave the past and present together well, and her excellent story is the result of some fascinating research and assimilation of circus myths and fact. It makes me reconsider the allure of running away. There is something so thrilling and terrifying about such an adventure. Think of how many children's books whisk the little ones away from home, or ponder the dizzying spontaneity of how The Hobbit begins.

However, I won't be running off anytime soon. If I had to run off and join a group, it wouldn't be the circus, or a cult, or a gypsy caravan, or a roving zombies mob, or an autonomous collective. Pirates are always tempting, but piratical society has tragically dwindled in recent years (suspiciously contrasting the advent of global warming!). I've always fancied myself a decent spy in the sense that I wouldn't make all those stupid errors in the movies, and I have no upper body strength, so I have a stronger incentive not to get caught. Plus, who would suspect me? I might already be a spy, for all you know.

Casserole Avoidance Syndrome

The heat makes me irritable and lethargic. There have been a few summers (in particular, balmy ones in homes where we had no air conditioning) when I've announced to Ickie in a disgruntled manner that the only things I'm "cooking" all summer long are salads and sandwiches. Certainly, there's a lot of good food that can be finagled into sandwich or salad form, but summer is also fresh fruit pie season and berry jam-making season, so I eventually end up over a steaming pot or in the vicinity of a hot oven. Usually I can send our meats and fish out the door with Ickie to the grill, and that is a relief.

Mark Bittman, the NYT columnist known as "The Minimalist" and author of one of my favorite cookbooks, just wrote an article including recipes for 101 simple meals for summer. Now, here is someone who understands what I need! Like him, I have several dinners I fall back on when the weather is oppressive. There is the occasional pot of boiling water involved, but it only takes about five minutes to get the job done. The key is to buy everything fresh the same day, and then you can spend that time in an air-conditioned store instead of your kitchen.

Shrimp Boil Picnic: I boil 1-1.5 pounds of fresh shrimp and serve with cocktail sauce, french bread, and a simple green salad. For this we put our picnic blanket on the living room floor, have it with a couple of beers, and watch BSG.

Ceviche: I use Daisy Martinez's recipe for Shrimp Cooked in Citrus Juice. I make it in the morning or evening when it's cooler and leave it in the fridge overnight. It's cold, crisp, and healthy, plus it's kind of like a science experiment to see the shrimp turning a delightful shade of pink in the acid! I like it with German Riesling.

Antipasto Picnic: Again the picnic blanket comes out on the living room floor. I fill a platter with rolls of prosciutto (or speck, which I prefer), a couple of fancy cheeses (piave is usually in the mix), olives (optional, since Ickie won't eat them), and sliced pears and/or apples or grapes. Sometimes there's an arugula salad, and always there's a loaf of fresh bread with high quality olive oil for dipping. We round it all off with an Italian red.

Grilled Swordfish: I get a couple of fresh swordfish steaks, rub them with olive oil and Cavender's Greek seasoning, and Ickie slaps them on the grill. We usually add a salad (I've been using pea shoots lately!) and bread to this too--notice a trend? And of course, a Pinot Grigio or Sav Blanc.

Gnocchi: I get the packaged gnocchi and boil it until it floats to the top (about 3 minutes). Then I toss it with olive oil, finely shredded piave cheese, sea salt, pepper, and some fresh parsley or basil if I have it. If you can't find piave, a pox on your local store, and you can substitute any hard, salty Italian cheese.

Saturday, August 4, 2007


I thoroughly enjoy a good action movie, especially one involving espionage. But with "good" being the operative word, they are hard to come by. Thankfully, I can always look forward to a Jason Bourne movie. We saw the third last night, and it was excellent: sneaky fun, migraine-inducing chase scenes, and an intelligent, sympathetic, ridiculously un-killable protagonist.

For my light summer reading fare, I did actually try to read The Bourne Identity, the first book in the series by Robert Ludlum. By chapter 12 I gave it up, disgusted and bored. It vaguely resembled the events in the movie and in almost no way resembled the characters played so likably by Franka Potente and the suffering Matt Damon. It's rare, but this is one of those occasions when Hollywood has dramatically improved upon the written material. Bravo, Liman, Greengrass.

Of the trilogy, Ickie and I agreed Identity had the weakest ending (falling down the stairwell) but the best car chase (Mini Cooper). Our favorite scene in Ultimatum had Bourne brilliantly navigating his journalist contact through Waterloo station, packed with CIA agents on their tail. Supremacy has the most emotional impact of the three, lending much gravity to Damon's character. Yet all three films succeed as a nearly seamless trilogy, with the third movie mirroring scenes from the first as well as effectively repeating my favorite line from Clive Owen: "Look at what they make you give." I told Chris the only thing that could make these movies better is more Clive Owen. Wouldn't it be fun if Bourne was equally matched with and pursued by "The Professor" throughout the series? Then maybe by the end they could team up and form some kind of super good-looking rogue spy team! And also come to our house for dinner.

Also, I wish there was more of Potente (who I'd want to include in that dinner, she just seems like fun--I mean, she bought a Vespa dealership, for heaven's sake), although I agree that the loss of her character is pertinent to the series's plot. She's the moral compass, and that moral direction is cemented in Bourne as a result of her death. (I think Franka Potente is so pretty, but in a very non-traditional sense. She's got those big German features, but it totally works for her, and I loved her in Run, Lola, Run, and I kind of want to have her hair from the Identity premiere. It's so red and stripey.)

Our only negative experience in the theater last night was sitting through the wretched mix of previews for other action movies, the worst of which was National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. Apparently all the U.S. presidents have a book of secrets, and Ickie fantasized about how funny it would be if, once Nick Cage and his ragtag band of two-dimensional misfits find it, it's a little pink heart diary with a lock on it. If only! At one point I turned to Ickie and whispered "I can barely breathe what with the reek of Bruckheimer so thick in the room."

For a hilariously glowing review of The Bourne Ultimatum, click here. (Be forewarned that there's a good bit of profanity due to the reviewer's boyish excitement.) If you can't get out to the theater and need a good action/comedy on video, don't miss Hot Fuzz, which is absolutely BRILLIANT.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

When It's Just Too Hot for Anything Else

We had friends over for dinner Sunday, and I was a bit stymied on Saturday to make a menu. When it gets really hot (and in Maine it is hot and muggy enough right now, considering we don't have central AC), I just don't feel like doing anything but laying around, drinking water, and eating fruit. (One balmy day last week I ate most of an entire pineapple and not much else until sundown.) Then I had the inspiration: sangria. Chris wanted grilled flank steak with chimichurri sauce, so I figured we could have sangria and a whole Spanish/South American theme.

I mixed up the sangria right after getting home from church on Sunday, and let me just tell you that it took every ounce of willpower not to drink the whole pitcher before dinnertime. When we did, it was cold, sweet, fruity bliss. I'm planning on making a pitcher every weekend for the remainder of the summer. I could honestly drink half a pitcher every day, but I'm going to exercise a bit of self control here. Just a bit.

This recipe is from Emeril Lagasse, whom I can't watch (I'm QUITE PUT OUT by people who shout at me), but I've got several winning recipes by him.

Red Sangria

1/2 c sugar
1/4 c water
1 lemon
1 orange
1 apple, cored and thinly sliced (I used a Pink Lady.)
1 (750 ml) bottle dry red wine (Spanish Rioja is recommended.)
1/2 c orange liqueur (I used Gran Gala, which I find MUCH tastier than Grand Marnier. I added slightly more than 1/2 cup.)

Heat sugar and water on the stove, stirring until sugar dissolves. Thinly slice half of lemon and half of orange. Juice the other halves of lemon and orange. In a large pitcher, mix together sugar syrup, lemon and orange slices and juice, apple slices, wine, and liqueur. Chill for several hours. Drink as slowly as possible (this is very difficult).

Monday, July 30, 2007

Truth and Humor in Letters

I finally got around to reading 84, Charing Cross Road after watching the movie starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins at least half a dozen times over the last decade. The movie is perfectly cast, by the way, and I can hear Anne Bancroft's hysterical, eccentric voice as I read her words. For those of you unfamiliar, it's a true story in letters for book lovers. During the 50s and 60s, bibliophile Helene Hanff shared letters with Frank Doel at Marks & Co. Booksellers in London. Helene's quirky, irreverent Yankee sense of humor is contrasted with Frank's dry British reserve, but you can tell they adore each other, especially because of their shared love of literature. Is there a better bond with another human than loving the same book in the same way? Not for me.

It also doesn't hurt that Helene goes gaga for Pride & Prejudice and The Wind in the Willows. As a result, I'm able to ignore her critiques of fiction in general.

Anyway, go out and buy it. It only takes a couple of hours to read, but I need a copy for my shelves to reread often. And rent the movie, which is great. For your enjoyment I provide below a portion of one of Helene's funnier letters:

"i don't know frankie--

Somebody gave me this book for Christmas. It's a Giant Modern Library book. Did you ever see one of those? It's less attractively bound than the Proceedings of the New York State Assembly and it weighs more. It was given to me by a gent who knows I'm fond of John Donne. The title of the book is:

The Complete Poetry & Selected Prose of
& The Complete Poetry of

The question mark is mine. Will you please tell me what those two boys have in common?--except they were both English and they both Wrote? I tried reading the Introduction figuring that might explain it. The Introduction is in four parts. Parts I and II include a Professor's life of Donne mit-illustrations-from-the-author's-
works-also-criticism. Part III begins--and God knows I quote--:

'When, as a little boy, William Blake saw the prophet Ezekiel under a tree amid a summer field, he was soundly trounced by his mother.'

I'm with his mother. I mean, the back of the Lord God or the face of the Virgin Mary, all right--but why the hell would anybody want to see the prophet Ezekiel?

I don't like Blake anyway, he swoons too much, it's Donne I'm writing about, I am being driven clear up the wall, Frankie, you have GOT to help me."