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.