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."