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."

Wednesday, July 25, 2007




So, what is there to say? Overall, I'm satisfied. I shut the book with a wide grin and a soul at peace. Even though the final novel in the series took time away from Hogwarts, Rowling still kept to her formula, and it was as pleasing as ever. Yes, sometimes a formula just works. There were some elements I didn't like and many I did.

Lupin: I was not happy with what Rowling did to Lupin's character in the chapter when he shows up trying to abandon Tonks. That just didn't seem like Lupin at all. He's always been a good mentor to Harry, and it was painful having Harry blow up at him.

Neville: I was missing Neville throughout, so when he appeared in that portrait all scarred and smiling, I was positively giddy. And when he yanked out that sword and beheaded that snake, I either cheered aloud or clapped or both, I don't recall which because I was in a state of euphoria. And when his granny told him she was proud of him, I cried happily. Jackamo described Neville as the "quintessential courageous Gryffindor" and "the Sam Gamgee character," and there's not much more that needs to be said. I think Neville is the person with the most perfect integrity in the entire series.

Kreacher: Kreacher's story was so sad, and I was absolutely thrilled that he cleaned up his act. The house elves reached an all-time high in this volume.

Sirius: I still miss him more than anyone else who's died in the series.

Ron: I'm still mad at Ron. I don't care if you have self-esteem issues, or a Horcrux around your neck, you DO NOT abandon your friends. You just don't. I forgave him a little when he explained he wanted to pop right back but was detained by Snatchers, but Ron has cut me deeply and that will not heal soon.

Ginny: Not enough Ginny. I thought she was going to get herself killed under the frustration of her family's constraint during the battle. Sure, we knew if Harry survived they would marry, but she's such a snarky, tough redhead, I would have loved to see more of her and Harry as a fun couple. Instead they received pretty bland treatment in the epilogue.

Molly Weasley: This just goes to show you that you DON'T get between a mom and her children! When Molly transformed from a worrisome homemaker into a snarling mother bear, spouting profanity and spells, I laughed gleefully. I couldn't have chosen a better person to do away with that sick tramp Bellatrix.

Draco: I loved that Harry saved him and Goyle (such a noble sort, that Harry), and I laughed hard at his befuddlement when Harry saved him a second time and then Ron punched him from under the invisibility cloak. I did think the cool but not malicious nod to Harry and Ginny in the epilogue was a nice touch.

Snape: Oh, poor slimy, awkward Snape. I think we all knew he'd prove to be on the right side in the end. His death didn't pain me as much as thinking about how miserable a life he had. I was bemoaning to Jackamo that Harry was only reconciled with him after his death, but as Jackamo pointed out: "Well, we know they could never really be friends." And the more I think about it, I don't think Snape could ever be happy either. He would always be consumed by his grief for Lily.

Snakes exploding out of old historian's corpses: Seriously? Ewww.

Hermione's useful little handbag: I must get myself one of these. I'm not sure if it would take me more or less time to get through airport security, but I keep thinking of all the items I'd put in my own. Ickie makes fun of me for my copious lists and packing early prior to trips. Well, I think he'll learn his lesson if we ever need to go on the lam as a result of a government coup, evil wizards in pursuit, or a horde of zombies (contingency plan still in the works).

Christmas: Most. Depressing. Christmas. Ever.

Dumbledore: Well, it was a bitter pill finding out about Dumbledore's tragic mistakes in his youth, but I suppose it makes him more of a real person instead of the type of powerful, benevolent, omniscient saint he seemed like in the earlier books. And it was effective juxtaposing his temptation for the hallows with Harry's ability to overcome it. When Dumbledore pointed out that he knew Harry was the better man in the end, I got a bit choked up.

Aberforth: When his blue eye appeared in the mirror shard the second time, I was really fooled into thinking it might be Albus. He was an irresistible curmudgeon.

The manifold deaths: Right. I think I cried the hardest when Dobby died (he went out with glorious heroism), but Hedwig really hurt, as did Tonks and Lupin, and Fred. Oh, alas, Fred! I can't even imagine George without Fred, and maybe Rowling couldn't either, since we didn't see that scenario.

King's Cross: As soon as I saw this chapter title, I thought to myself, "Well, all those religious fundys who have criticized these books as anti-Christian aren't going to have an argument any longer." I'm not completely positive it worked, but Jackamo's husband had already theorized upon finishing book 6 that Harry was the final horcrux, so we knew he was going to die as a sacrifice, but I strongly suspected Rowling would formulate a loophole so that he didn't have to stay dead or actually be dead. It's easy to pull a deux ex machina when it's a book about magic ("That's just how magic works!").

The Elder Wand: Ok. So, Draco didn't actually have Dumbledore's Elder Wand, he just expelliarmursed it from him. Hence, the Elder Wand traces its master by who has bested its master, not by who has expelliarmused the actual Elder Wand from its master. Burrr. I had to read that bit a couple of times, plus reread the death chapter in book 6 just to make sure, and I'm still not convinced the explanation is airtight. It's hard to fit in detailed exposition during the climactic duel with the world's most evil wizard, but the explanation was still a bit rushed and vague. All the same, when Harry delivered the phrase "...then I am the true master of the Elder Wand" in an overly dramatic, Hollywood reveal, I LOVED it and clapped like a trained seal.

The Deathly Hallows: Jackamo and I agreed that we wished hints about the deathly hallows had been worked in more throughout the series instead of its mythology appearing right at the end. We liked that fairy tale about the three brothers--if only it had popped up sooner. Sure, the invisibility cloak was always there, so that worked better than the stone and wand, but still. Also, the triune hallows first made me think of the holy trinity, but then seemed more to suggest the temptations of Christ in the desert. None of it was so obvious as to distract from the story. Rowling seems to borrow the general ideas of Christian ideology more than using direct symbolism, so you have these hints that point you in that direction, but they aren't as transparent as the Narnia Chronicles (not that transparency didn't work beautifully in those, of course).

The Epilogue: I thought it was weak. It was nice to know Harry's second son was named after Severus, but other than that, I would have been happier without it (we all knew who was going to marry who, for goodness sake) or with some alternative. It felt rather flat, sloppy, and tacked on.

Voldy: It was scary that he could fly and all, but he didn't turn out to be especially bright, did he?

Harry: So glad you didn't have to die, Harry, but the scenes of you walking willingly to your death were just lovely. His bravery and sense of honor and right has remained consistent throughout the series, but in this final book his intellect finally catches up with everything else. He's never been studious and has shown some cleverness, but in the final duel, when it's his mind against Voldemort's as much as anything, he was not only triumphant, he was transformed into the strong, confident, whole adult of whom we've seen the glimmerings all along. It was elating to see his character come together like that.

Harry's adventures are intriguing, his world is detailed and creative, his friends and enemies are colorful, his story is tragic and blissful (and full of symbolism), but the most gratifying element of this series, as in most good children's fiction, is seeing a child grow up. So, yes, it's a great story for children: they see a boy endure dreadful hardships but in spite of them show strength and integrity even at a young age, they see him make errors but ultimately divine the right path, they see him sacrificing his life for the people he loves.

I've left a lot out. Even after mulling over the end of the series for several days, I can't quite get my thoughts in order. Please feel free to point out my grievous omissions with your scathing wit in the comments.

Monday, July 23, 2007


I completed the final Harry Potter book Sunday afternoon, and I'll post a review of that with a spoiler alert tomorrow (after I've had more time to mull over it and organize my thoughts). In the meantime, I thought I'd share photos from Mugglefest in Portland (click photos below for enlargements). From the "Hogsmeade Station" (East End Beach) we caught the "Hogwarts Express" (Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad) to "Diagon Alley." Local businesses set up stores with clever facades inside the Portland Company Complex, which amounted to a hot, crowded warehouse full of Harry Potter frenzy. Seeing the official characters in costume, as well as most of the visitors, provided endless entertainment. Some folks were very creative: a Luna Lovegood sported a roaring lion hat, radish earrings, and The Quibbler, and a dementor towered above the crowd on stilts. I slightly regretted not dressing up as Tonks, but it was too warm for a pink wig and robe. The best part of the evening was riding the steam train around the peninsula.

The Hogwarts Express:

Dumbledore Lives!

Mad-Eye Moody with a tiny Draco Malfoy in the background:

Muggles swarm into the Owlery:

S.P.E.W. members, clad in pillowcases, organize a protest march:

Me and a favorite character, Snape (fanship partly due to my not-so-secret crush on Alan Rickman):

It's Just Miserable in Afghanistan

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is a well-formed story, but it's just so darn brutal. I generally enjoy stories in foreign locations, where I can learn about another country's history and culture and yet connect with a character who is in dramatically different circumstances than I. It's also a story about redemption, which is a big plus for me, and it's a story that reaches its fulfillment in a second generation rather than the first, which is one of the elements I love about Wuthering Heights. Hosseini's language is simple and emotional, although it doesn't approach the artistry of Kazuo Ishiguro.

But good grief, is it hard to handle. As I said, it's brutal, and it takes you deeper into the horror of Afghanistan than a news report could. There's rape, torture, murder, public execution, disease, and emotional damage aplenty. I wasn't properly prepared for it all when I began reading. These elements were not simply added for shock value, however, and Hosseini's desire to depict the horrors Afghans have experienced and afflicted upon each other is a critical part of the main character's development. There's still a lot of beauty about this culture, and you see much of it prior to the Russians, Mujahideen, and Taliban's arrival. It makes me wonder how people survive and how such a marred society can ever be put to rights, but the story is optimistic. Humanity is amazing--its cruelty as well as its capacity for healing.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Beautiful Agony

I just completed Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day. This book had so many positive reviews, but I was hesitant to read it because I feared it would be depressing, not at all the light summer reading I aim for in balmy July. However, the library had it, and I certainly don't regret checking it out. It was a sublime story, and it hurt every fiber of my being to read it. Ishiguro's Remains of the Day was focused on the idea of a wasted life, and this book also succeeds beautifully with that same theme.

Never Let Me Go is narrated by Kathy and are her reminiscences of growing up at Halisham (which on the surface appears to be a boarding school/orphanage) with her closest friends Ruth and Tommy. The three have a relationship that is fractured and fragile, but also deep and strong. Indeed, that seems a complete contradiction, but the conflict is precisely what makes their relationship so familiar and believable. As the story progresses, you learn more about their mysterious life at Halisham and their purpose as students. I won't give that away here, although most other descriptions of the book do so, and finding out beforehand won't spoil the reading.

Kathy's narration is the largest part of what makes this book difficult to put down. It's somewhat stream of consciousness, so you feel like you're sitting in a coffee shop listening to a friend reminisce, one memory spurring her on to the next and then the next. Kathy's language is conversational, and she scrutinizes past events or absent-mindedly refers to memories not yet known to the reader. She provides the reader with explanations and defenses, and in the most emotional moments, Kathy attempts to downplay her grief, which of course makes it that much more poignant--you're hearing this story from a friend, not just a character, and it hurts that she can't just fall apart in front of you instead of retaining her composure.

Hambone told me she felt the book didn't have a traditional ending, with all the bits neatly tied up, and that's certainly true. But it's a tenderly wrought ending, the kind I like, which will stay with me for weeks afterwards as I mull over it. If like me you're hesitant to read Never Let Me Go because you fear it will be too sad, well, that's true, it is sad, but that sadness is essential to its loveliness.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Summer is for Wizards and Carnies, Apparently

In case some of you kind, devout readers are wondering why I haven't posted lately, it's simply because I'm not reading anything new. I reread Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince while we were waiting on our furniture, and now I'm rereading the Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix. All are thoroughly enjoyable the second time around, and I didn't cry nearly as much at the end of HP6 this time.

What's on my summer reading list? Nothing in particular. I checked out Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, so hopefully I'll get around to it before it's due. On the lighter side, I happily stumbled upon Whales on Stilts! by M.T. Anderson at the library and couldn't resist the wacky cover. Ickie was sitting out on the porch guffawing as he read it just now, so it appears that Anderson is just as talented at campy humor as he is with serious SciFi (Feed) and historical drama (Octavian Nothing).

I'm also hoping Water for Elephants will soon be returned to the local library, as I've seen many positive reviews of it, and I suspect summer is an appropriate time to read about carnies. Those colorful freaks seem more summer-worthy than winter-esque, although I think that devilish circus in Something Wicked This Way Comes came around in the fall. (Eeek. Seriously, Disney and Ray Bradbury? Explain.) Anyhoo, I recommend that you avoid the tatoo-and-deformity-bedecked carnies for the Independence Day holiday and go see Ratatouille instead, which I think is my personal favorite of the Pixar movies thus far. That's not just because I'm a bit of a foodie, it's also because it's a really sweet, clever movie.