Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Midsummer in Midwinter

Terry Pratchett's Lords and Ladies is another novel featuring Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick, the three witches from Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters. Just as Wyrd Sisters is a funnier version of MacBeth, Lords and Ladies is a darker and simultaneously sillier version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (my favorite of Shakepeare's plays). What can I say other than I absolutely loved it? I'll just include below the passage that amused me most:

"Good morning, Hodgesaargh," she [Magrat] said.

The castle falconer appeared around the corner, dabbing at his face with a handkerchief. On his other arm, claws gripping like a torture insturment, was a bird. Evil red eyes glared at Magrat over a razor-sharp beak.
"I've got a new hawk," said Hodgesaargh proudly. "It's a Lancre crowhawk. They've never been tamed before. I'm taming it. I've already stopped it peck myoooow--"

He flailed the hawk madly agaisnt the wall until it let go of his nose.

Strictly speaking, Hodgesaargh wasn't his real name. On the other hand, on the basis that someone's real name is the name they introduce themselves to you by, he was definitely Hodgesaargh.

This was because the hawks and falcons in the castle mews were all Lancre birds and therefore naturally possessed of a certain "sod you" independence of mind. After much patient breeding and training Hodgesaargh had managed to get them to let go of someone's wrist, and now he was working on stopping them viciously attacking the person who had just been holding them, i.e., invariably Hodgesaargh. He was nevertheless a remarkably optimistic and good-natured man who lived for the day when his hawks would be the finest in the world. The hawks lived for the day when they could eat his other ear.

And Now for Something Completely Different...

I'm always rather food-logged post Christmas. This year I'm full to the brim with ham, bacon, casseroles, cookies, and chocolate, so last night I made something atypical of holiday fare. First, I baked two loaves of soda bread. The extremely simple recipe from Southern Living can be found here. My only alteration was to bake it in 9-inch loaf pans for only 45 minutes (by then the toothpick came out clean). Ickie and I cut right into it after about 5 minutes: There's nothing like warm, moist bread on a cold, snowy day. The buttermilk made it taste buttery and slightly sweet but very light. It's excellent toasted with blueberry jam and tea.

For dinner I made Emeril Lagasse's recipe for Crab Pie. I won't watch Emeril (I disdain TV personalities and preachers who shout at me), but this dish is fresh and tasty. My Aunt Sara made it for us several years ago, and she's one of my favorite cooks. The pie was especially good because I added extra crabmeat (fresh Maine crabmeat was on sale at the supermarket).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Nightly Adventures

Yesterday Ickie finished reading out loud to us the final pages of John Masefield's The Midnight Folk. The events in The Midnight Folk take place prior to The Box of Delights (our 2007 Advent novel) and also feature young orphan Kay Harker going up against his loathsome governess Sylvia Daisy, the devious Abner Brown, seven troublesome witches, and a pair of treasonous cats. With the help of his old toys and a host of animals (a good cat, a cockney rat, an old owl, and others), Kay races against the wicked midnight folk to find his great grandfather's hidden treasure and return it to its rightful owners.

Written in the same dreamy style as Box of Delights, Midnight Folk is a twisting, run-on adventure in which Kay does all the things little boys (and girls, in my case!) love: sneaking out at night, riding broomsticks and foxes, sailing on a ship manned by friendly mice, eating too much pork pie, muddying his pajamas, and skipping out on lessons. It's all magic and dreams and goodness, and it's perfect for Christmastime.

The New York Review edition also features a lovely afterword by Madeleine L'Engle, who sums up this magical book far better than I am able:

"The evil midnight folk vanish with the dark, and the good midnight folk, the stuffed animals, the real old owl, the water rat, are all there to help Kay do his growing up. This poetic book makes demands on the readers, but it is well worth the trouble, and the child with imagination will find many delights."

Ditto for adults. Nothing makes us feel more like children than sitting in front of the Christmas tree in our pajamas, surrounded by cookie smells and snow-flecked windows, filled with wonder and anticipation.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sequels for the Glum

What is wrong with my Advent reading choices this year? Well, nothing, as long as you don't mind being alarmed or depressed. First I read the sequel to Octavian Nothing Volume I. Volume II is subtitled The Kingdom on the Waves. Ickie enjoyed it more than I did. The first volume is quite horrific in parts but impressively unique, and I think M.T. Anderson is a brilliant writer. Kingdom on the Waves follows Octavian as he joins a Loyalist regiment of ex-slaves during the Revolutionary War. Let's just say their experience is grim. It is also a bit slow in parts. Highlights were some backstory about Octavian's mother and a deeper portrait of his friend Pro Bono, but otherwise the book would be improved if it were more concise.

After that rolicking good time, I picked up The Dead and the Gone (the sequel to Life As We Knew It). I found it less personal and more gruesome than its companion novel. The Dead is the story of 17-year-old Alex, a Puerto Rican boy in New York City who must care for his two younger sisters. The characters are less isolated than Miranda and her family in rural Pennsylvania, yet it's up for debate whether this is an advantage. Alex's fellow New Yorkers are in turn threats and saviors. I resonated with Alex less than the Miranda, but Alex's story is still exciting. One detail I enjoyed is Pfeffer's different perspective on faith, which creates a gratifying balance between the companion novels. In Life As We Knew It, the only example of Christianity is quite negative, but the church and prayer are essential supports for the devout characters in The Dead.

Monday, December 1, 2008

We Do Not Love the Moon

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer is the apocalyptic journal of teenage Miranda. When an asteroid hits the moon and knocks it closer to earth, tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanos decimate the planet. Miranda's family (her mother and two brothers) stockpile canned goods and firewood and bunker down in their rural Pennsylvania home. As society falls apart bit by bit, Miranda's family becomes increasingly isolated.

The book's style is straightforward, conversational, and honest, just as one would expect from a young girl's diary. In the midst of the horrible circumstances, Pfeffer explores Miranda's poignant and complex relationships, such as with her divorced father and his new wife, her exceptional mother and older brother, and her born-again best friend.

The story is bleak. It's a hard book to put down but it's not a happy tale. Ickie mentioned that it reminds him of the new Battlestar Galactica in the way it explores humanity's response to the destruction and survival of our race, and in that way, Life As We Knew It is still a tale of hope. Even if everyone dies, there's something fascinatingly life-affirming about humanity's response to death, with all our flaws and our heroics.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Leftovers

I love Thanksgiving leftovers. Since we haven't traveled to see family the past three years, I only make one vegetable side dish for us and then focus my energies on the turkey, cornbread dressing, and cranberry sauce. It takes a while for me to tire of that winning trio. However, we always have lots of turkey, and I chop up the extra portion, freeze it, and then chuck it in soup for months afterward. The frozen meat hits the hot broth, and our kitchen is filled with the lip-smackin' aroma of Thanksgiving all over again. Below is my recommendation for what to make with your leftover turkey this year; just substitute turkey for the chicken.

Chicken, Mushroom, & Wild Rice Stew

¼ c butter

2 T olive oil

2 c chopped onion

1 c chopped celery

1 T minced garlic

2 (8 oz) containers sliced baby portabellas

6 T flour

2 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp salt

1 ½ tsp pepper

2 qts chicken broth

4 c chopped cooked chicken

3 c cooked wild rice

1 c half and half

1 tsp dry thyme

2 T dry sherry

Heat butter and olive oil over medium heat. Saute onion and celery 5 minutes. Add garlic for 2 minutes. Add mushrooms for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add flour, garlic powder, salt, and pepper; cook 2 minutes stirring constantly. Add broth, stirring until smooth. Bring to simmer; add chicken and rice and cook 20 minutes. Add cream and thyme; simmer 5 minutes. Stir in sherry.

Yield: 3 quarts

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Too Many Secrets

As a fan of The Thirteenth Tale, I couldn't help noticing the author often mentioned Wilkie Collins's novel The Woman in White, comparing it to the deliciously Gothic classic Jane Eyre. There are some similarities, but what I found most impressive was Collins's use of so many contemporary writing trends. Collins was a contemporary of Dickens and Bronte, yet her novel feels far more modern. The polite British society of the 1850s is quite recognizable, but at times the book feels more like a modern crime investigation. It's written from multiple perspectives, and each character's narration is noticably and amusingly biased.

I can hardly summarize the plot without giving away too much, and that would be tragic, as the most enjoyable feature of the book is the string of secrets revealed about so many of the characters. I expected a few of them, but each secret led to an even juicier one as the plot thickened enticingly.

I'm surprised I haven't had the book recommended to me before, and Jackamo and I were just wondering today why it's never read in schools. It's so much more entertaining than Dickens! Why must we be forced to trudge through Great Expectations (twice in my case) when we could instead be gobbling up The Woman in White? (Ditto when it comes to reading MacBeth instead of Shakespeare's comedies.) Alas, our educational institutions too often stamp out the fun of reading.

[Bonus points to the commenter who can identify the 1990s film from which I stole my post title.]

Friday, November 14, 2008

Disappointing Sequel

I just finished Cybele's Secret by Juliet Marillier, a kind-of sequel to Wildwood Dancing. Whereas I quite enjoyed Wildwood with its creative take on two classic fairy tales and exciting conclusion, I think Cybele is slow, random, and disjointed. It is a character and fantasy plot device potpourri--not in a good way--and I found the romantic scenes cringeworthy. One of the concepts of the book that is especially pointless and irritating is protagonist Paula's confidence that the magical denizens of The Other Kingdom are setting all the characters on a quest "for the greater good" and "to learn a lesson." Somehow it was easier to overlook this tiresome message in Wildwood. Cybele was diverting enough to complete, and that's about all I have to say about it.

Worrisome Day

Although it's more personal than what I usually post on my blog, I just thought I'd mention three concerns specific to this day:

1. My mom is having her first chemotherapy treatment today.

2. Jackamo's son is having hernia surgery today.

3. I woke up to the news this morning that Westmont College (where Ickie and I worked for two years) and much of Montecito, California, is burning. The college occupants were sheltered in the gym and no one is reported hurt, but I'm sure many of our friends have lost their homes. It just gives me a sick feeling to look at the photos of the fire.

Also, Ickie will be traveling to Denmark next week, and while it's probably the safest country on the planet, it's still worrisome to be apart. Also, I'm consumed with envy (very bad). So if you're not inclined toward prayer, I would consider it a kindness if you were to start on our behalf.

Here are a few photos of Westmont and Montecito pre-fire (click for enlargements):
























Friday, October 17, 2008

Repeats

It's been so long since I've posted. It's not because I'm not reading; I'm simply not reading anything new at the moment. Having a new baby makes it difficult to get on the computer, let alone think critically about what I'm reading, so I've been rereading The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. They're pleasantly familiar for my weary brain while up in the middle of the night with the boy, and both are what I consider appropriate fall reads.

My next purchase will be The Midnight Folk by John Masefield (author of The Box of Delights, which Ickie and I so enjoyed reading out loud last Advent). The New York Review Children's Collection edition of Midnight Folk was scheduled to be released on my birthday but was delayed inexplicably until this week. Ickie wants us to read this one out loud during Advent this year. Hopefully the boy will enjoy it! I was reading to him from The Sorcerer's Stone the other day and he drifted off to sleep for a catnap.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ach! Crivens!

Since Terry Pratchett has written dozens of novels, it's been an easy thing to procure stacks of them from the library. Within the last few weeks I've enjoyed Wyrd Sisters, Mort, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, and The Wee Free Men. Of those, I thought Wryd Sisters the most clever, Amazing Maurice (a retelling of the Pied Piper tale) the sweetest, and TWFM the funniest. Mort featured Death (who often makes amusing appearances in Pratchett's world) and a boy named Mort who served as his apprentice, and although diverting, I didn't enjoy it quite as well as the others.

Currently I'm reading A Hat Full of Sky, which I think is a rather spectacular title. It's the second in the series featuring young witch Tiffany Aching and the Wee Free Men, little blue pictsies with thick Scottish accents and a love of stealing, fighting, and drinking. Last night when I was up at 4 am nursing Big Ben, I laughed so hard I was afraid I'd dislodge the boy. When the pictsies start their energetic cursing and bickering in their thick Scottish brogue, I can barely contain myself. It's good to have something to help me wile away the drowsy hours of midnight breastfeeding, especially since Ben appears to be having another growth spurt (the boy is all growth spurts). Next I plan to read Wintersmith, the third Tiffany Aching story.

I highly recommend everything I've read by Pratchett. It's great fun to see his memorable characters appearing among the interweaving plots of his novels.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Stranger Than Fiction

If truth is not always stranger than fiction, it is on occasion more interesting. Such is the case with Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre, the true story of perhaps the greatest spy ever known. Macintyre chronicles the adventures of Eddie Chapman, a gentleman thief, masterful liar, serial womanizer, and shameless pickpocket who is impossible not to like. A young English thief imprisoned in France, Chapman makes a deal with German occupiers during World War II to serve as an agent. Once in England, he counteroffers his services to British MI5 as a double agent.

Though Chapman often seemed devoted to persons and sincere about his actions, it was impossible to predict his behavior or to determine his loyalties. It's never clear whether he worked as a double agent for the money, out of patriotism, or simply for the thrill of it. In addition to his adventures, Chapman's affairs and friendships are explored in great detail, and none is more captivating than his deep friendship with his German handler.

It's enlightening to learn about the real life of a secret agent and the WWII intrigues, but Chapman's enigmatic personality is the real fascination here. I've never read a more exciting spy story with a more amusingly inexplicable protagonist. The James Bond types are so utterly bland by comparison.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Big Ben

Here's the link to our new boy's blog.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Let's Try Sandpaper on the Damned Spot

Terry Pratchett has written dozens of novels in his Discworld series. I've meant to read one for quite a while, but I was overwhelmed by sheer number and wasn't sure where to start. The other day Ickie brought home Wyrd Sisters for me, and I've been chuckling gleefully over it ever since. I'm only a little more than halfway through it, but I wanted to go ahead and post about it since I'll probably be busy with other matters of importance for the next week or two.

It's hilarious. It spoofs MacBeth, occasionally playing off the Shakespearean language and featuring three witches, a usurper who washes his hands obsessively, the usurper's overbearing wife, and a ghostly king. The three witches have clashing personality quirks: one is a severe old curmudgeon; the second is a drinking, partying grandmother with a house full of rowdy offspring; and the third is obsessed with romantic, flowery natural remedies (the magical incarnation of Madeline Bassett). The usurper is a bit mad, and his mood isn't helped when the ghostly king stealthily over-salts his meals.

Even if the conclusion of WS is disappointing, it'll be worth it to have laughed so hard at the portions I've read thus far. Here are a few examples of Pratchett's witty writing:

The usurper duke's opinion of his subjects:

"A jolly good riot, now, that would have been more--more appropriate. One could have ridden out and hanged people, there would have been the creative tension so essential to the proper development of the state. Back down on the plains, if you kicked people they kicked back. Up here, when you kicked people they moved away and just waited patiently for your leg to fall off. How could a king go down in history ruling a people like that? You couldn't oppress them any more than you could oppress a mattress."

A conversation between the newly dead king and the grim reaper:

"'Won't anyone be able to see me?'
'Oh, the psychically inclined. Close relatives. And cats, of course.'
'I hate cats.'
Death's face became a little stiffer, if that were possible. The blue glow in his eye sockets flickered red for an instant.
'I see,' he said. The tone suggested that death was too good for cat haters. 'You like great big dogs, I imagine.'"


A description of Nanny Ogg's cauldron:

"The water under the lid was inky black and, according to rumour, bottomless; the Ogg grandchildren were encouraged to believe that monsters from the dawn of time dwelt in its depths, since Nanny believed that a bit of thrilling and pointless terror was an essential ingredient of the magic of childhood.
In the summer she used it as a beer cooler."


And finally, my favorite quote, which I immediately read to Ickie:

"Demons were like genies or philosophy professors--if you didn't word things exactly right, they delighted in giving you absolutely accurate and completely misleading answers."

New Blogs

I've created a blog where we can post baby photos once junior is born, which should be this week:
The Kid

Also, guest poster and resident tea expert (on the sidebar) Jackamo has created her own blog:
The Best Intentions

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

This Story Makes Me Gruntled

I've read a lot of coming-of-age books about boys this summer, so it's a pleasant shift to read one with a female protagonist. I stumbled upon The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart in the library yesterday, and without any prior knowledge, brought it home and read the entire thing in one afternoon. I take joy in finding characters to whom I relate, and I relate to Frankie even more than most.

Frankie is beginning her sophomore year at a New England prep school. Over the summer she transformed from a skinny geek to a pretty teen, but Frankie's physical changes are irrelevant to her self esteem. She's perfectly aware that she has become more attractive, but she didn't like herself any less when she was an awkward freshman. Her story takes place over the course of the fall semester as she dates a popular senior, discovers the school's secret fraternity, and masterminds several elaborate pranks.

(Frankie is also a P.G. Wodehouse fan and spends an entire chapter explaining a linguistic joke she developed based on Wodehouse's language. That alone would endear her to me.)

Whereas most teens (both in novels and in life) suffer angst about who they are and where they fit in, Frankie already knows herself. She knows that she's smart and funny and charming. She's aware of her dark side. Whereas most teens are aching to be prettier, more popular, more accepted, or more loved, Frankie just wants someone else to know her with the same clarity she knows herself. On the surface, some of her complaints deal with gender bias or an oppressive institutionalized culture, but ultimately Frankie's frustrations stem from her hope that her friends and family will come to understand her true character.

Although her epiphany is not free of heartbreak, Frankie realizes: "It is better to be alone, she figures, than to be with someone who can't see who you are. It is better to lead than to follow. It is better to speak up than to stay silent. It is better to open doors than to shut them on people." Frankie's experience mirrors so much of my life. My appearance improved over the course of my teen years, but even in my frizzy, gawky days, I knew who I was and liked who I was. I'd rather be understood by a few than liked by everyone. And my marriage is so happy, not simply because my husband and I love each other, but because we know each other deeply and completely.

Disreputable History is lighter than many of the similarly set books I've read (e.g., Special Topics in Calamity Physics, The Secret History, Prep); the language is cleaner, there are fewer references to sex and alcohol, there's no violence, and most of the characters are decent people--students who enjoy learning as well as play and are rarely cruel to each other.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Celebrating the Blues

It's blueberry season, and that's doubly exciting in Maine because we not only have cartons of standard blueberries, but we harvest those marvelous little jewels, wild blueberries. Wilds are the smaller, sweeter version of the big berries you see in supermarkets across America, and if you don't live up here, you can probably only get the wilds in frozen or canned varieties, which I'll just tell you right now, are going to be a disappointment. Fresh wild blueberries are so good you'll just want to eat a bowlful with a spoon (not to mention add them to your cereal).

Below are my favored recipes for both standards and wilds.

Blueberry Pie (my 4th of July dessert of choice)
Source: Southern Living

1 homemade pastry for double crust pie, chilled for at least 30 minutes
5 cups standard blueberries
1 T lemon juice
1 c sugar
1/3 c flour
1/8 t salt
1/2 t cinnamon
2 T butter
1 egg, lightly beaten with a bit of water
1 t sugar

Stem blueberries and mix with next 5 ingredients. Pour into pastry crust. Dot with butter. Cover with top crust (I prefer a lattice top b/c it crisps better). Cut vents in top crust. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 400 degrees for 35 minutes or until golden. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Blueberry Jam
Source: Southern Living

1 1/2 quarts stemmed standard blueberries, partly crushed
1/4 c fresh lemon juice
1 stick cinnamon
7 c sugar
2 (3-oz) packs of pectin

Combine first 4 ingredients in a pot; bring to boil until sugar dissolves, stirring often. Boil 2 minutes, stirring often; remove from heat. Discard cinnamon. Add pectin; stir 5 minutes.
Pour into sterilized jars and seal. Process in boiling water 5 minutes.

Loads-of-Blueberries Coffee Cake
Source: Food Network

4 T butter
3 c wild blueberries
2 c flour
2 1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
3/4 c milk
2/3 c granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 T sugar mixed with 1/2 t nutmeg

Melt butter and cool. Mix together flour, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together milk, sugar, eggs, and butter. Stir into flour mixture. Fold in the blueberries. Spread batter in greased 8- or 9-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with the sugar-nutmeg topping. Bake 45-50 minutes or until done.

Blueberry Streusel Muffins
Source: Southern Living

1 3/4 c flour
2 3/4 t baking powder
3/4 t salt
1/2 c sugar
2 t lemon zest (or more...much, much more!)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3/4 c milk
1/3 c vegetable oil
1 1/2 c wild blueberries
1 T flour
1 T sugar
1/4 c sugar
2 1/2 T flour
1/2 t cinnamon
1 1/2 T butter

Combine first 5 ingredients. Combine egg, milk, and oil and stir well. Add to dry ingredients, stirring to moisten. Toss together blueberries, 1 T flour, and 1 T sugar and fold into batter. Spoon into a dozen greased or lined muffin tins. Combine 1/4 c sugar, 2 1/2 T flour, 1/2 t cinnamon, and butter; cut with a pastry blender until crumbly and top muffins. Bake at 400 degrees for 18 minutes or until golden.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Happiness is...

So, here's my nonfiction selection for the year: The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. An interview with the author on The Daily Show, recent reports on "the world's happiest countries," and other books Ickie has read on happiness research peaked my interest. As I began The Geography of Bliss, I told Ickie I was initially disappointed by the lack of specific information and statistics--in other words, the book was less academic than I had expected. However, I came to understand that Weiner's book is simply a different (and not at all poor) concept; it's a travelogue with a running theme--the author's search for and musings about the nature of happiness.

Weiner visits multiple countries, some which scored high on the happiness scale (e.g., Switzerland, Iceland), some which scored mid-range (e.g., Great Britain, the US), and the most depressing place on earth: Moldova. Actually, the chapter on Moldova was the funniest. Each time Weiner interviewed anyone in Moldova (either natives or expats), they were hard pressed to think of anything positive about the place until each person finally conceded "the fruits and vegetables here are very fresh."

In each chapter, we get a clear feel for Weiner's impression (he didn't much enjoy Qatar, but he adored Iceland). Rather than simply ranking these countries on a happiness scale, Weiner contrasts each culture's understanding of happiness. The Qataris actually seemed offended when asked if they were happy, the Thais told Weiner not to think so much, the British felt that talking about happiness was "cloyingly American," and the Swiss dubbed envy as the greatest enemy to happiness. Weiner touches on all kinds of interesting concepts that spark deeper consideration but still manages to produce a book that is light, personal, and amusing.

Do I believe happiness can be a geographic location? It's certainly true that I'm more content in some climates and cultures than in others, and I don't expect everyone to agree with me. For example, those of you who know of my disgust for hot, muggy weather will understand my affinity for this quotation:

"Ibn Khaldoun, the great Arab intellectual of the fourteenth century...believed that the great curse of civilization is not war or famine but humidity: 'When the moisture, with its evil vapors ascends to the brain, the mind and body and the ability to think are dulled. The result is stupidity, carelessness, and a general intemperance."

Attacks on humidity aside, Weiner's book was a pleasant impetus for me to meditate on my own outlook on life and what influences it. His concluding advice is simple but affecting:

"Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Off the Reservation

I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie in one afternoon. It's written from the perspective of a 14-year-old Spokane Indian boy, and whereas Junior does sound like a typical teen (fart jokes and all), he offers many true, thoughtful observations about his world. The story has a lot of standards in good coming-of-age novels (e.g., Jim the Boy, Run with the Horsemen).

When Junior decides to transfer to the more-challenging "white" school in a local town, he is treated as a traitor on the reservation. Junior is awkward, poor, and lonely, but he finds unexpected kindness from others. He mourns the loss of his best friend and multiple deaths in the family as well as the more general self-destructive lifestyle of his tribe. Part of why the narrative works so well is that it's told by Junior in the first person, so he can confide all the touchy-feely emotions deemed unacceptable for adolescent males. The novel is filled with his funny, perceptive cartoons, such as a drawing of him and his former best friend in the third grade, jumping into a lake holding hands, with the caption: "Boys can hold hands until they turn nine."

Every crisis and triumph in Junior's life is an equal mixture of pain and joy. He reacts to so many miserable circumstances with crazed laughter, and it's hard to know whether you want to laugh or cry yourself. Alexie's novel is a keen combination of tragedy and hope, capturing perfectly the language of a teen-aged outsider.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Spy Novel Versus Other Spy Novels

When I lived overseas and ran out of books to read, I borrowed a few of my boss's Tom Clancy novels. They were exciting, and when I stayed up late at night to read them, I'd hear the wild dogs rooting through my trash and imagine they were instead Russian commies.... But let's face it, Clancy, Ludlum, and the like treat their words as a technicality in the interest of fabricating a good plot. Espionage stories excite me, but they are often artlessly executed. Night Soldiers, the first novel I've read by Alan Furst, is an exception.

Most of Furst's novels are set during World War II, and his characters are often commoners caught up in the shifting European politics, attempting to survive the chaos. Night Soldiers is the tale of a young Bulgarian, Khristo, originally recruited by the Soviets but disillusioned by their methods. I had to grow accustomed to Furst's writing style, as some scenes are told from unusual points of view with ambiguous language. However, as the narrative proceeds, it grows progressively more exciting, culminating with the last few irresistible chapters.

Ickie said, "It's a spy novel, but by someone who can actually write well." Furst has obviously done in-depth research on the events and life in WWII-era Eastern Europe, a history I'd do well to understand better. Especially affecting for me were Khristo's reactions and observations upon meeting Americans, whom he sees as privileged and naive while also inspiring and admirable. Where Furst could have simply hustled along with his thrilling tale, he often pauses to consider deeper details about people and their actions. Some compare his work to Graham Greene, and while Greene's work is more contemplative (and more concerned with faith), it's a more apt comparison than to the pulpy spy novels. I look forward to checking out more books by Furst and trust they'll distract me from the inconvenience of being nine months pregnant.

Friday, July 18, 2008

"Do you need anything dampened or made soggy?"

Joss Whedon, creator of Firefly (pretty much my all-time favorite show EVER), has created a hilarious web series, Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog. It stars Neil Patrick Harris as Dr. Horrible, an aspiring super villian with a crush on a cute redhead at his local laundry mat. Nathan Fillion is a scream as Captain Hammer, the smarmy superhero who foils both Dr. Horrible's plots and love life. Act I begins a bit slowly, then takes off with the first of many musical numbers. It reminds me a bit of Pushing Daisies and Flight of the Chonchords. It features Whedon's typical witty dialog, and the songs are catchy as well.

Penny: ...I went on a date.

Dr. H: Get right out of town! How was that?

P: Unexpected. He's a really good-looking guy, and I thought he was kind of cheesey at first.

Dr. H: Trust your instincts.

P: But he turned out to be totally sweet. Sometimes people are layered like that. There turns out to be something totally different underneath than what's on the surface.

Dr. H: And sometimes there's a third, even deeper level, and that one is the same as the top surface one.

P: Huh?

Dr. H: Like with pie.


Watch the full three episodes in steaming video or download to itunes here.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Gender Bender

Today I dropped by the DMV to update my new street address in the system. While there, I pulled out my license, examined it more closely than usual, and realized they have my gender listed as "male." (I can only assume the DMV staff of last year were distracted by my muscular physique and luxuriant beard.) I turned to Ickie and asked him how he felt about having been legally married to a male for the past year. (I guess we're lucky our marriage hasn't been scandalously uncovered and dissolved now that we no longer live in California.) When I went up to the service window, I pointed out to the clerk the error on the license and said "I'll bet you don't get too many 8-months-pregnant males in here." He was so amused he ran to the neighboring cubicle to show his coworker.

In a few weeks I'll return to my official legal status of female. For now, I guess I should watch some sports on TV, grunt while I lift weights, and shout at some hot chicks from my vehicle while I still have the excuse to do so. I feel like I've missed some opportunities by not noticing this earlier.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Lovely Complexity of an Ordinary Life

Back in March I wrote a glowing post about Jim the Boy, a simply and beautifully written novel by Tony Earley about a little boy growing up in a small town during the Great Depression. I'm happy to report that the second novel Earley wrote about Jim Glass is just as good as the first. Whereas the first novel follows Jim for a year when he was about 10 years old, The Blue Star records Jim's senior year in high school. Jim's widowed mother and funny, fatherly uncles are still present as is Earley's familiar, effortless prose. The plot is somewhat more mature due to Jim's age, and World War II propels events in the town. Jim's friendship with his insightful ex-girlfriend is as moving to me as his at-odds romance with a struggling half-Cherokee girl.

There's something about Earley's writing I find impossible to justly describe. His stories are sentimental without descending into melodrama or affectation. Your heart bleeds for each character; they live humble, ordinary lives, but Earley can infuse an ordinary life and the simplest of phrases with great poignance. After finishing the book last night, Ickie asked me about it (he read this one prior to me as well as the first), and I couldn't talk about a single scene without getting all choked up. If you're a fan of Southern literature or coming-of-age stories, you'll especially appreciate Jim the Boy and The Blue Star.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Cultivating A Green Thumb

In the past I've been hopeless at keeping plants alive, but since moving into our new house, I've made an extra effort, and it has paid off. The previous owner was a master gardener, so all we had to do was watch our back hillside garden bloom in the spring and continue to bloom all summer (at present it's covered with yellow and orange lilies). I managed to plant impatiens and hostas in the front garden, and they have flourished.

Inspired by that small success, yesterday Ickie and I drove over to the most extensive and impressive nursery I've ever visited and bought a montmorency cherry tree for our yard as well as some potted herbs. The tree will commemorate our first year in the house as well as the summer The Kid is born. We'll be able to admire a tree full of these blooms next spring:














...and more importantly, a tree full of these tart cherries for pie and jam:













(Some of you know tart cherry is my favorite type of pie/jam, and I obsess about the cherry season each year.) Granted, it'll probably be several years before the tree can yield enough fruit for half a pie, and I suspect we'll need to make a concentrated effort to keep the rouge birds and squirrels from eating them, but I'm excited all the same. At the nursery I fought the inclination to buy every fruit tree in sight and turn our tiny back yard into an orchard full of apples, plums, pears, and cherries because I figure The Kid will want a bit of space for throwing a ball around without hitting one of mommy's trees.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Zack

Alright, unless you're excessively squeamish or have an unusually pathetic complex about being frightened, I demand that all of you immediately get your hands on a copy of World War Z by Max Brooks. Subtitled An Oral History of the Zombie War, it's a book both Ickie and I quickly devoured, much like a zombie devours tasty brains. Once you begin, it's impossible to put down, unless you are a zombie who has just been alerted to fresh brains in the area or a live human who needs to defend yourself against a zombie onslaught.

Many of you may be thinking to yourselves, "I have no desire to read a book about a zombie apocalypse." Well, friends, that just shows how little you know. I'm not a horror movie fan, and in general I opt for dainty tea-sipping accompanied by British humor or fairy tales. Sure, on occasion I've mentioned the importance of developing my personal zombie contingency plan, just for the sake of discussion. But I fail to see how any reader won't be drawn into WWZ.

Told after the war, in documentary fashion, WWZ is a collection of interviews with people across the globe. From political strategists to soldiers to civilian doctors to feral children, each character recounts his or her experience in the zombie war with a unique voice. Ickie pointed out that the book has a feel most like the new Battlestar Galactica series on SciFi (which you should be watching). As in that series, we're hearing from the survivors of the human race, and Brooks delves into every theme: human psychology, battle strategy, survival instinct, religion, consumerism, democracy versus communism, reconstruction, etc. Most of the tales are chilling, but all of them are fascinating. I'd like to recount my favorite chapter here as an example, but I can't choose one. It may seem odd that a book about zombies offers deep insight into the human condition, but it's true.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cranford

I honestly find it impossible to write about all the things I love about the new BBC series Cranford in a blog post of moderate length. Every detail contributes something extraordinary, including the quaintly animated opening credits to the stunningly composed scenes and beautiful photography, to a perfect British cast (Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, etc.), to the fact it’s an adaptation of an Elizabeth Gaskell novel. Likewise, it doesn’t hurt that Cranford was created by the two women (Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin) responsible for BBC’s excellent Pride and Prejudice and Wives and Daughters.

Now, I must fess up that I’ve not read Cranford, so I can’t say from firsthand experience how the show compares to the novel. However, I’ve read in online forums that even where they’ve added a bit to the storyline (it’s a relatively short novel, apparently), Birtwistle and Conklin stay true to Gaskell’s work. They even include several subtle jabs at Charles Dickens (a mentor of Gaskell's).

Chris and I laughed more in the first episode of this show than the entire P&P series (and I always laugh a great deal at that one). Cranford is a town full of gossiping (but not unkind) spinsters, so much of the humor features the hysterical Imelda Staunton jogging flustered and frumpily through the streets, nearly apoplectic to convey the latest news. My favorite character is the stalwart and puritanical Deborah, played by the marvelous Eileen Atkins. Here’s a sample of the first exchange that made Chris and I rock with laughter.

Deborah: I would prefer it if I did not enjoy oranges. Consuming them is a most incommodious business.
Matilda (Deborah's sister): There is not such a lot of juice, Deborah dear, when sliced with a knife.
Mary (Deborah & Mattie's young guest): At home, we make a hole in our oranges…and we suck them.
Deborah registers a silent expression of abject horror.
Matilda: That is the way I like to take them best, but Deborah says it is vulgar and altogether redolent of a ritual undertaken by little babies.... My sister does not care for the expression: suck.
Deborah cringes.
Deborah [in an authoritative tone]: We will repair to our rooms and eat our fruit in solitude.

The series is not only a comedy, and there are so many moving storylines and touching moments I can't begin to summarize them here. The many strong females are the backbone of the town, whereas the male characters are somewhat muted and incidental. However, there is one subplot I especially like about an estate agent working quietly and secretly to educate the young son (played by the adorable Alex Etel of Millions) of a degenerate squatter.

Everyone in Cranford has strong opinions. Many seem biased and regimented to a fault, yet every character has moments when she or he shows compassion to another person. The show has everything from cows in pajamas to funerals and romance, and I'm planning to buy the series to watch over and over again.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Significant Dates

2008 features a host of new releases from some of my favorite series and authors (all of which I've reviewed earlier on my blog). Here are the upcoming releases I anticipate most:

The Midnight Folk,
John Masefield (NYR Children's Collection): After being enchanted by Masefield's The Box of Delights during advent this year, I was both thrilled to hear tale of a prequel and distraught to find it out of print. Luckily for me, the industrious drones at the NYRCC are featuring it as one of their beautiful new editions. The fact that it's being released on my birthday is akin to adding vanilla ice cream to cherry pie. Release date: 9/30

Uncle Cleans Up, J.P. Martin (NYR Children's Collection): My adoration of J.P. Martin is comparable to Masefield, and again the NYRCC saves the day by providing me with a second farcical collection of stories about Uncle the benevolent millionaire elephant. Release date: 6/24

Superior Saturday, Garth Nix: This is volume six in the Keys to the Kingdom series by Nix, a captivating fantasy series aimed at preteens. It's coming out on the eve of my baby's due date. Will I have time to read it if baby is running late, or will I be too overwhelmed to read it if baby is born early? Either way I'm sure I'll manage to order it for my eventual enjoyment. Release date: 8/1

The Pirates! In An Adventure with Napoleon,
Gideon Defoe: Defoe's fourth book about a zany collective of pirates and their ludicrous adventures with historical and fictional characters promises to be just as funny as the other books. A snippet of Napoleon is available on his comical website. Release date: It is already out in the UK but not yet in the US.

To round things up, I'll mention the other series I'm eager to continue. I reviewed the first book of the Percy Jackson and Olympians series by Rick Riordan, but as I continued with volumes two through four of the series, I enjoyed it more and more. Now I'm dangling on cliff's edge as I await Riordan's next offering, and there's no word on when that release will be. Alas! But the kindly Mr. Riordan has provided a list of recommended young adult lit for greedy, impatient readers like myself on his website.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Snail with Character and Two Dull Young Men

I probably post more quotes from Wodehouse novels on my site than from any other author, but I find them endlessly amusing. In this case, the excerpt comes from the excellent Sam the Sudden, one of my new favorites. Wodehouse has a gift for metaphor, as I've mentioned before, and he also attributes hilariously introspective personality traits to animals and inanimate objects. In this case, I offer you a simile about a dog named Amy, followed by possibly the most ever written about a snail in Western literature:

"Like Niobe, she [Amy the dog] had mourned and would not be comforted. But now, to judge from her manner and a certain jauntiness in her walk, she had completely resigned herself to the life of exile."

"By nature sociable, she [Amy the dog] yearned for company, and for some minutes roamed the garden in quest of it. She found a snail under a laurel bush, but snails are reserved creatures, self-centered and occupied with their own affairs, and this one cut Amy dead, retreating into its shell with a frigid aloofness which made anything in the nature of camaraderie out of the question."


Another of Wodehouse's gifts is in conveying a character's manner of speech secondhand. In this case, the omniscient narrator describes the comments of two "rabbit-faced" young men at a dinner party.

"'I gave her a plot for a story,' said Sam.

One of the rabbit-faced young men said that he could never understand how fellows--or women, for that matter--thought up ideas for stories--or plays, for the matter of that--or, as a matter of fact, any sort of ideas, for that matter.

'This,' Sam explained, 'was something that actually happened--to a friend of mine.'

The other rabbit-faced young man said that something extremely rummy had once happened to a pal of his. He had forgotten what it was, but it had struck him at the time as distinctly rummy."

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Morning Walks

Ever since moving into our new neighborhood, Ickie and I have taken a 2+ mile loop nearly every morning--I walk it and he runs it. Here are some of the things I've enjoyed on my morning waddle.
  • yammering swans on the Presumpscot River
  • the aroma of greasy Mexican food from the Fajita Grill
  • a blood-red cardinal
  • Saccarappa Falls by the old Dana Warp Mill
  • huge blooming bushes of forsythia, rhododendron, and lilac
  • a sleek black kitten with bright jade-green eyes
  • the towering stone of St. Hyacinth's Catholic Church
  • a white-spotted chipmunk
  • dome-covered desserts on the counter of Olivia's diner
  • toddlers hassling the seagulls hassling the ducks in the park
  • aimless teens hanging out on the railroad bridge
  • a house that smells like sauerkraut
  • little league baseball games on Saturday mornings
  • neighborly pedestrians who make room on the path for the pregnant woman
  • the hot dog cart next to the playground, crowded with children
Update (06/15/08): The other morning I saw a man riding down Main Street on one of these. Sadly, he was not arrayed in period costume and handlebar mustache to match. He just looked like he was riding to work, which actually made it all the more curious.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Don't Judge Him by His Nickname or His Scales

I'm a chapter away from completing Poo-poo and the Dragons by C.S. Forester (author of the Horatio Hornblower series). It's a charming book of stories Forester made up for his son, who refused to eat when his mother went out of town. Forester made an arrangement with his child that as long as the boy ate, Forester would continue with the stories, and he reported being shocked by the amount his child could put away.

It's not at all surprising that the little boy was willing to stuff his face for hours simply to hear these stories. They're told with wry humor, inserting dragons into the everyday life of a typical family and treating every outrageous situation as anything but extraordinary. When Horatio, the male dragon, goes to work at the local grocery to make up for swiping watermelons or accompanies young Harold (nicknamed Poo-poo) to school, it's treated as only slightly unusual. When Ermyntrude, the female dragon, enters into a beauty salon for a makeover, the owner welcomes her, simply pausing to ensure the dragon has enough pocket money to pay for services.

This is definitely a book aimed at elementary school-aged children--its language is far simpler than a young adult series--but I'd imagine any child would enjoy it, and any adult would enjoy reading it to her child. Forester constantly interjects little parenthetical asides in the narrative, quizzing young readers about characters' names and traits. The chapters are episodic and the perfect length for bedtime stories to boot. The only disadvantage? The book is out of print. Ickie had to special order it for me through the college library. It's a shame because I can think of many little ones for whom it would make an ideal Christmas gift.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Not Told in the Style of Dr. Cornelius

I went to see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when it came out in the theater. My boss convinced me that Georgie Henley as Lucy and James McAvoy as Mr. Tumnus had such excellent chemistry it made the other shortfalls of the movie worthwhile, and I must agree that their bewitching teatime scene together was the best part of the film. Also, Tilda Swinton was pretty convincing as the White Witch. However, I won't be seeing Prince Caspian (probably not even on video). To me the trailers look pretty poor, and this review sums up my worst fears. In typical Hollywood fashion the movie makers appear to have turned it into a superficial action fest, and I saw a clip of Reepicheep, who looks nothing like Reepicheep ought to look. Blurg.

Sometimes I wonder if Hollywood producers/directors/writers can even read a book and determine on their own what makes it great, or if they are utterly devoid of this ability.

Update (5/29/08): Jackamo was roped into seeing this cinematic atrocity over the weekend and reports it is even less like the book than I originally suspected. Apparently, it only vaguely resembles the book in that it has a character named Prince Caspian (albeit played by what appears to be a male model in his mid 20s); otherwise it was completely rewritten as one long battle scene. AAARG. I'm going to have to start writing hate letters to the Disney Corporation. I knew when they got the rights to this series they'd screw it up royally. Insipid troglodytes!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Tagged

Jen tagged me to write a meme. Word games = hard to resist. I could spend weeks on this and obsess over it, but I'm going to make it easy on myself and put forth the first sentence that comes to mind. I'm stealing two adjectives from my husband (who said years ago that the best two terms to describe me are "impish and vivacious") and the noun "bookworm" from Jen, who was kind enough to describe me as such.

Impish, vivacious, wandering bookworm adores pie.

Just for laughs, here's a photo of me in my pjs celebrating last summer's fresh, tart cherry pie.

Meme rules:
1) Write your own six-word memoir about yourself.
2) Post it on your blog and include a visual illustration if you'd like.
3) Link to the person that tagged you in your post and to this original post if possible, so we can track it as it travels across the blogosphere.
4) Tag five more blogs with links.
5) And don't forget to leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play!

I'm not fond of "tagging" or forwarding emails to people when I'm told to do so (that's my impish disrespect for authority coming through), but if you read the meme rules and want to play, I look forward to reading yours.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Goodbye, Fraggle Green Carpet!

Several folks have asked for some before and after photos of our new house. Here are the rooms we've worked on thus far, plus some spring garden shots.






My Sister's Wedding

My sister got married on May 1, and I was fortunate to be there for the wedding. It was a small but lovely ceremony...with bagpipes of course! (Little Sis and I have created a family tradition of having at least one man in a kilt at our weddings.) Here are a few photos.




Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Modern Greek

It feels like an eternity since I've written about a book. What with renovating, moving, traveling, and then coming back to more unpacking and renovating, I haven't been reading as often as I'd like. Plus, now that I'm in my third trimester, I find afternoon naps are once again a necessity (as they were in the first trimester).

With all of that in mind, there is a book I finished last week that was a good deal of fun. It's another young adult novel called The Lightning Thief. Penned by Rick Riordan, it's the first book in the series entitled "Percy Jackson and the Olympians." Though not a work of art (it's no Octavian Nothing), it combines a creative premise with a beguiling, quick-paced plot. Percy, a preteen who can't seem to fit in, discovers he is a classical hero in the truest sense: his father is an ancient Greek god. After entering a summer camp for half-blood children, Percy discovers how the gods have moved West with progress, leaving illegitimate and gifted progeny in their wake. Percy soon embarks on a quest with two friends.

I'm wondering if modernization of Greek myths is the latest trend because Lightning Thief portrays the gods tongue-in-cheek similar to The Pig Scrolls, which I also read this year. Considering the nonsense and soapy melodrama rampant in classical mythology, there's endless potential for snarky, modern adaptations.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Another Shower Photo

Jackamo sent me more baby shower photos, so I thought I'd post one more especially good one here.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Friends from Far Away and Long Ago

This week I was in Pensacola for my sister's wedding and received a surprise baby shower the day after the wedding. Jackamo, in a rush of concern that I wouldn't be given a baby shower as a result of a fairly recent relocation, spent months collecting letters and gift cards from friends Ickie and I have made in our various jaunts across country and globe. As a result, I sat down to read dozens of notes from friends spread hither and yon, and I must say that all of you make Ickie and I look so much better by association. As I was grinning sappily in my airline seat yesterday, I had the thought: "If I were to crash and burn right now, I'd go down feeling utterly loved." We are beyond fortunate to have you in our lives and hardly feel worthy of your generosity.

HR and KH, friends since grade school, also attended the teatime soiree and asked if they would "make the blog." Here are photos of us all!



Thursday, April 17, 2008

In Common

The New York Times recently ran an amusing article about reading and dating. The funniest bit to me was mention of a woman who broke up with a guy "because he was very keen on Ayn Rand." I feel that.

Monday, April 14, 2008

We Heart Carbs

I tried my hand at making tortillas last week, and Ickie announced they were the best ones he's ever eaten, even fresh ones made by actual Mexican people. I think they're the best ones I've had as well, and they're very easy to make.

Flour Tortillas

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
t tsp salt
1/2 cup Crisco
1 cup warm water

Mix together flour and salt; cut in shortening with a pastry blender until crumbly and well incorporated. Adding water a bit at a time, stir until dough forms. Knead for several minutes on floured surface until smooth. Split into 3 separate balls, cover with towel, and allow to rest for about an hour (can be less).

Split each ball into 3 smaller balls (to make 9 tortillas). Roll out on floured surface to 9-inch rounds. Bring an ungreased skillet to medium heat. Set one tortilla on skillet. Wait until it puffs up and starts to brown a bit on the downside, then flip over and cook the other side (second side won't take as long). Wrap cooked tortillas in a towel and keep in a warm oven until they're all done and ready to serve.

If you have any leftovers, just allow them to cool, store them in a zipper bag in the fridge, and reheat them wrapped in foil at 300 degrees for about 10 minutes. They are just as good reheated the next day, and they don't last any longer than that around here. I have been serving these with carnitas (Mexican pork roasted in the crockpot).

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Fairytale Cocktail

Whereas Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier is no work of art, it was darned enjoyable and exciting. It's an appealingly dark, quasi-feminist, creative retelling of the fairy tales of the Twelve Dancing Princesses and The Frog Prince, set in Romania (hence, the inclusion of vampires). About a third of the way into the book I found it nearly impossible to put down. The characters had just enough depth to make them interesting, and I was fond of Jena, the practical young heroine and second sister. I did spend most of the book wanted to slap Tati, the eldest sister, who was dying of a consumption (i.e., uber-dramatic, self-imposed starvation a la Wurthering Heights).

There were some nice little details; my favorite was when a thus-far intimidating character smiled for the first time at the end of the book, and his crooked teeth "turned him from coolly handsome to charmingly plain." How often in fairy tales (or any tale) does a character improve by going from beautiful to ordinary?

That's pretty much all I have to say about it. It was very fun. I regretted coming to the end and being left with no more to read.

Monday, April 7, 2008

I'd like to know how these guys got their job...

If you have BBC America in your cable line-up, I strongly recommend BBC's Top Gear, which presently airs on Monday nights (you can also watch videos on the website). It's a hilarious show, not just for able motorheads but for girly folk like myself with only enough knowledge to change a tire. (Actually, I've always found driving exhilarating, thanks to being taught by a fighter pilot in a Toyota MR2.)

Anyway, Top Gear is the latest TV obsession for Ickie and myself. The three hosts have an side-splitting rapport, rather like the Car Talk guys but with British accents, and they come up with the most bizarre stunts and practical jokes. In recent episodes I watched them race across Botswana in secondhand jalopies, pit an Alpha Romeo against a man wading through mud, race BMW and Mercedes station wagons down a burning runway, race a convertible against a man on rollerblades with a rocket pack, and compete in a demolition derby with several dilapidated campers.

Of note is that Ickie read a recent article about an American network planning to make their own version of the show, which I assume will be an abysmal disappointment.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Aaargh

I haven't put up a book post in a while because I've spent what felt like an eternity slogging through The Arsonist's Guide to Writers in New England these past few weeks. Back before Christmas in Longfellow Books I had picked it up and read the first chapter, which I found amusing, but as I read the book, aside from a few darkly amusing moments, I just found the story and characters incredibly frustrating and the end unsatisfying and depressing.

This novel with the appealing title by Brock Clarke is "the memoir of a bumbler," namely, Sam Pulsifer, who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson house in his youth, went to jail, got out 10 years later and started a new life, then screwed it all up worse than he did the first time. Sam seems incapable of telling the truth, and he's an expert at making the worst decision imaginable in any given situation. To make matters worse, his family members are all as screwed up as he is, and they are selfishly unwilling to help him. (The story feels like the antithesis to Lars and The Real Girl, a movie about a suffering guy who is surrounded by gentle, caring souls who help him in every way imaginable.)

Reading Arsonist's Guide irritated me to the extent that I found it difficult to read more than a few chapters at a time (in the same way I can't watch a marathon run of BBC's The Office without getting all stressed out). Ickie enjoyed it more than I did, and whereas I admit the author can turn a phrase well and tell an attention-grabbing, unique tale, I ended the book feeling bitter about being forced to spend 300 pages hating every jerk featured therein.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Fair Weather

“In blue and yellow from its grave
Springs up the crocus fair”
–Harriet Beecher Stowe

Yesterday I went for a walk in the sunny, blustery, 40-degree weather and was charmed and ecstatic to discover cheerful, bright little crocuses peeping up in a few yards bordering the woods. I might have done a little dance right there if I weren't afraid people would think I'm mad. Also, the big belly was only affording me enough energy to finish my walk, not perform jigs.














There's still snow covering the paths in the woods and piled up in many other spots, but our yard is nearly clear of it, and crocuses are unassuming yet...heraldic.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Story about A Boy

Jim the Boy, by Tony Earley, is a nearly flawless novel, quiet and not at all showy, the brief, simply told story of a boy growing up in North Carolina during The Depression. At the opening we read a letter about Jim's father's death, his mother's grief, and Jim's birth one week later. The story follows a year in the life of Jim, raised by his fragile mother and three kindly uncles on a farm in the small town of Aliceville.

Ickie (who read the novel first) pointed out that even though the narrative is told in the third person, it's still from Jim's perspective, and often the reader deduces subtleties that young Jim does not, such as when he suspects he'll be punished on his birthday although it's pretty obvious he won't be. I found the understated affection of Jim's uncles to be all the more poignant, who are able to communicate more love with a phrase like "I don't care what anyone says, Jim, you're all right," than with any manner of gushing. Although Jim is obviously a good-hearted, intelligent boy, what makes him special is the sense of caretakership everyone in the town (and a few from outside of it) exhibit over him. Although Jim misses his father, he is only vaguely aware of the charmed life he leads through belonging to everyone else.

As I mentioned earlier, the novel is brief and can easily be read in a day or two, and when Ickie completed it, he was rather speechless with emotion, insisting shortly thereafter that I read it immediately, and I'm grateful he did.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sleepers Awake!

"Sleepers, wake!" A voice astounds us,
the shout of rampart-guards surrounds us:
"Awake, Jerusalem, arise!"
Midnight's peace their cry has broken,
their urgent summons clearly spoken:
"The time has come, O maidens wise!
Rise up, and give us light;
the Bridegroom is in sight.
Alleluia!
Your lamps prepare and hasten there,
that you the wedding feast may share."

Zion hears the watchman singing;
her heart with joyful hope is springing,
she wakes and hurries through the night.
Forth he comes, her bridegroom glorious
in strength of grace, in truth victorious:
her star is risen, her light grows bright.
Now come, most worthy Lord,
God's Son, Incarnate Word,
Alleluia!
We follow all and heed your call
to come into the banquet hall.

Lamb of God, the heavens adore you;
let saints and angels sing before you,
as harps and cymbals swell the sound.
Twelve great pearls, the city's portals:
through them we stream to join the immortals
as we with joy your throne surround.
No eye has known the sight,
no ear heard such delight:
Alleluia!
Therefore we sing to greet our King;
for ever let our praises ring.

Words: Philipp Nicolai, 1597
Music: Wachet auf

Thursday, March 13, 2008

New World

This morning I read The Arrival by Shaun Tan, and it's one of the most extraordinary, fantastic, moving things I've ever read (I cried at the end of it, but in a good way). I use the word "read" loosely because the book is all pictures, and these pictures are more effective than any commentary I could write about the book, so here you go:






Monday, March 10, 2008

Sandwichville

Many of you know I love inventing dishes and having them turn out well. I also love yummy sandwiches, according to me and confirmed by this blog. Ickie and I are fans of the PBS show Sandwiches You Will Like and regularly update our personal list of favorite sandwiches. Here are a few highlights:

*Pot Roast Sandwich, Good Eats Cafe, Grand Rapids, Michigan
*Steak & Cheese, Llywelyn's, St. Louis, Missouri
*Chicken Cranberry, Marie Catrib's, Grand Rapids, Michigan
*Lobster Roll, Red's Eats, Wiscasset, Maine
*Grilled Cheese, Hog Island Oyster Co., San Francisco, California
*Hot Pastrami, Italian & Greek Market (now closed), Santa Barbara, California
*Original French Dip, Philippe's, Los Angeles, California

This past Saturday Ickie had a Cuban pork sandwich at La Familia in Portland that probably needs to be added to the list.

Today when I was hungrily making my way home from the gym, I was considering what I had in the fridge and what I could create from it. Hence, I invented this scrumptious sandwich, which I scarfed down too quickly to take a photo.

Bacon-Squash-Cheddar-Spinach Sandwich

2 pieces thick-cut bacon, cooked
2 slices crusty Italian bread
Irish cheddar
Leftover roasted butternut squash
Spinach
Jalapeno jelly

I placed a slice of cheese on one bread slice, mushed some squash onto the other, and toasted it in my toaster oven. I added the bacon and spinach when it came out and had the jelly on the side, which I spooned onto each bite. I think chutney would work well in place of the jelly.

This is pretty much what happens when I watch reruns of Top Chef at the gym.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Welcome to Kid World

If you're looking for a book that will make you laugh out loud many times, as it did me, consider The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson. Ever since reading Bryson's A Walk in the Woods about 10 years ago, I've been a fan of his amusing travel logs. Thunderbolt Kid is his memoir of growing up in Des Moines in the 1950s. It's packed with humorous childhood episodes and is an idyllic snapshot of life in a small Midwestern town during a time when Americans were happily obsessed with Jell-O and household appliances.

Bryson's writing is both loving and snide, adoring his parents for their rather doubtable optimism and poking fun at his boyhood community. In one of my favorite chapters, Bryson recounts his humiliation when his mother made him wear a hand-me-down pair of his sister's lime capri pants to school.

I've always thought Bryson's word choice was exceptional when it came to depicting in great detail a place or event rife with humor and/or wonder. For example:

"The last stop on every shopping trip was a corner grocer's called Benteco's, where they had a screen door that kerboinged and bammed in a deeply satisfying manner, and made every entrance a kind of occasion."

"We did sometimes (actually quite routinely) give a boy named Milton Milton knuckle rubs for having such a stupid name and also for spending his life pretending to be motorized. I never knew whether he was supposed to be a train or robot or what, but he always moved his arms like pistons when he walked and made puffing noises, and so naturally we gave me knuckle rubs. We had to."

"Essentially matinees were an invitation to four thousand children to riot for four hours in a large darkened space."

"Mrs. Vandermeister was seven hundred years old, possibly eight hundred, and permanently attached to an aluminum walker. She was stooped, very small, forgetful, glacially slow, interestingly malodorous, practically deaf. She emerged from her house once a day to drive to the supermarket, in a car about the size of an aircraft carrier."

Similar to Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon stories and Jean Shepard's In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash (which inspired the movie A Christmas Story), Thunderbolt Kid made me yearn for a time when children could wander around town all day long without parental supervision, getting into mostly harmless mischief and talking to strangers at will.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Infinite and Inexpressible Grace

I'm reading Dante's Purgatorio for Lent this year, and I came across a beautiful passage today. In it the Angel of Caritas speaks to Dante:

"It is because you focus on the prize
of worldly goods, which every sharing lessens
that Envy pumps the bellow for your sighs.

But if, in true love for the Highest Sphere,
your longing were turned upward, then your hearts
would never be consumed by such a fear;

for the more there are there who say 'ours'--not 'mine'--
by that much is each richer, and the brighter
within that cloister burns the Love Divine....

...Because within the habit of mankind
you set your whole intent on earthly things,
the true light falls as darkness on your mind.

The infinite and inexpressible Grace
which is in Heaven, gives itself to Love
as a sunbeam gives itself to a bright surface.

As much light as it find there, it bestows;
thus, as the blaze of Love is spread more widely,
the greater the Eternal Glory grows.

As mirror reflects mirror, so, above,
the more there are who join their souls, the more
Love learns perfection, and the more they love."