Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fewer Grownups = More Fun

I really lucked out at our library sale this week finding hardback copies of The Wind in the Willows (with the proper illustrations--hard to find) and The Penderwicks, among other treasures. A mom friend pointed out The Penderwicks to me, mentioning that it won the National Book Award because it was different from all the other children's books nominated that year. "They were all dark fantasies," she said. "This is just a sweet tale about children on summer vacation with minimal adult supervision."

I dove into Penderwicks as soon as I got it home and read it within three days. From the start it reminded me strongly of E. Nesbit's stories and Edward Eager's Tales of Magic, and in fact it makes references to Nesbit's Bastables and Eager's Magic by the Lake. The four sisters also reminded me a bit of Little Women.

The premise is simple: the kindly, Latin-quoting Mr. Penderwick rents a cottage in the New England countryside for his family for several weeks in the summer. The cottage is on the grounds of a large estate with magnificent gardens. Rosalind (filling in for her deceased mom), Skye (the hot-headed tomboy), Jane (the authoress), and Batty (the animal-loving preschooler) befriend a lonely boy and unwittingly get into trouble daily. The girls are all intelligent, spunky, sensitive, and oh-so-likable. It's charming charming charming.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Medley of Creepy Stuff

Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden reminded me of many things.

Wuthering Heights: The scope of its story takes place over multiple generations, and the high-spirited women of the family seem cursed as they seek happiness and love.

The Secret Garden: There's a fantastic walled garden, plus cousins--one sickly and one eager to drag the sick one out of the English manor and into the fresh air so they can share the garden. Frances Hodgson Burnett even has a brief cameo.

The Thirteen Tale: Twins, the gothic mood, creepy English manors, the suggestion of incest, etc.

The Lady in White: Secrets are revealed from multiple perspectives, although TFG's narrative bounces back and forth from 1913 to 1975 to 1913 to 2005 (and so on).

Dickens: Abandoned children and orphans are in the Dickensian vein, especially those trying to survive in Victorian slums whose only comfort comes from spinning terrifying tales about ghosts and Jack the Ripper. Also Dickensian are the cruel, low-class Mrs. Swindell and the vile Mr. Mansell.

Rebecca: The portraits are oppressive and haunting, and Lady Mountrachet pulls a Mrs. Danvers.

Jane Eyre: There's something about that old creep Linus and his withered leg, hiding in the darkroom with his stalker photos and living on the edge of insanity that recalls Mrs. Rochester.

The Faun and the Woodcutter's Daughter: A collection of fairy tales plays a central role in the story, and several of the tales are included in full in the book. TFatWD is just one of the better fairy tale collections that have a similar feel.

Everything I've read set in Cornwall: Because it's set primarily in Cornwall. (Although the bit set in Queensland puts me in mind of The Thornbirds.)

If you like all those things, especially in combination, you'll certainly enjoy The Forgotten Garden. I'll refrain from summarizing the plot and leave it as a pleasant secret to you readers. Although it felt a bit pulpy at times, there were many genuine and tender moments.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When you tire of time travel or fish and chips, you are tired of life.

First of all, I completed the Time Travelers (aka Gideon) trilogy by Buckley-Archer and enjoyed it from start to finish. It's great for kids or adults; it's even a wee bit educational. For example, there's an inside joke about Sam Johnson's famous London quote, references to the revolutionary writings of Thomas Paine and the events of the French Revolution, and a touching depiction of King George III's young family. I appreciate it when an author assumes her readers are educated and rewards them with applicable humor as well as suspense, but there's also a subtext throughout the trilogy that in order to appreciate the fantasy (or scientific invention) of time travel, it's essential to know a good bit about actual history. (That theme is similarly important in Connie Willis's books, insofar as the time travel department at Oxford is the history department.)

While you are reading your books set in London, enjoy some tasty fish and chips! Here's a recipe a partly invented for dinner the other night. I'll give credit to Mark Bittman for the original fish sandwich recipe and Giada de Laurentiis for the oven-baked fries recipe, but I've changed them enough to mostly claim them as my own.

Crunchy Fish Sandwiches with Lemon-Curry Mayo

Begin with 2 pounds fresh white fish (I used haddock. You could easily substitute cod or catfish--just make sure it's the freshest you can find. If you're a sad landlocked person, you can usually get local farm-raised catfish.). Cut the fillets into sandwich-sized pieces. Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. Dredge in a mixture of cornmeal and flour.
Pour just enough olive oil into a frying pan to cover the bottom and heat it on high until a spec a cornmeal sizzles when dropped in (this is the best part, as the fragrance of all that hot olive oil is ever so lovely). Add fish to pan a few pieces at a time and reduce heat. Fry about 3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels.

For the mayo, mix equal parts light mayo and light sour cream with fresh lemon juice and zest, salt, pepper, lots of curry powder, and a dash of cayenne. Just keep seasoning and tasting until you like it.

Our grocery bakes tasty soft white Italian loaves. I cut thin slices of these and toasted them. Then I slathered them with mayo and added the fish and a handful of fresh arugula (the arugula is essential!).

Oven-baked Sweet Potato Fries

Peel a couple of sweet potatoes and slice them into 1/2- x 4-inch fries. Coat with olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast in the oven at 425-450 for about 45 minutes until beginning to brown, stirring a couple of times. They won't be crisp like potato fries, but they'll taste great, especially dipped in the curry mayo.

Speaking of leftovers, the fish heats up nicely in the toaster oven. You can make yourself another sandwich the following day, or you can put some of the heated fish in a tortilla with fresh cilantro and a squirt of fresh lime for a simple, yummy fish taco.

Or you could just mash up the cold fish and sweet potatoes and eat them with your fingers, which is what Baby Ben did.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


London Calling, by Edward Bloor, exemplifies what young adult literature ought to be (you heard me, chintzy vampire romance novels). It reminded me of Tangerine (also by Bloor) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I don't want to share too much about London Calling's plot and risk giving too much away. Thirteen-year-old Martin hates the prep school where he's one of the few, looked-down-upon scholarship students. The story begins with an unfortunate event at school, a little background in Martin's weighty family history (and family problems), and chronicles Martin's summer vacation as he hides out in his basement, depressed.

And there's time travel. Of course. Because every book I read has time travel in it these days. In this novel, the time travel takes on a slightly more spiritual edge.

The histories and fates of multiple families are intertwined. The mystery is exciting, but even more notable are Bloor's convincing relationships among family members, particularly fathers and sons (and I'll add a special note of appreciation for Martin's wonderfully understanding big sister). Bloor also portrays faith with sensitivity and gravity: most of the characters follow a religious tradition, but many are going through the motions as they pray, searching for healing and understanding. I was moved seeing Martin find purpose, belief, self-confidence, and the love of others.

If I have one very small criticism, it's that a certain comeuppance scene goes a bit too far, both in feeling too unforgiving and too unrealistic, which I feel is out of step with the overall tone of the conclusion. However, I can see how a young reader would absolutely love this particular scene. I look forward to checking out more of Bloor's books.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

and it was still hot.

Ickie and I went to see Where the Wild Things Are over the weekend. I've been looking forward to it for months, ever since seeing the preview and hearing that Spike Jonez was directing. (Jonez did Being John Malkovich, which has to be the weirdest premise for a movie ever, and that hilarious Happy Days Weezer video.)

For your information, this movie is not for young children. It will frighten them. Older children might even be bored with some of it. WtWTA is for those of us who grew up loving Maurice Sendak and who are mature enough to appreciate the unfiltered anger, ecstasy, and desperation of hurting kids.

Jonez has fleshed out Sendak's story to depict Max as an older child hungering for attention from his older sister (who coldly ignores him in one scene) and his sympathetic but overworked mom, played by Catherine Keener. I love Keener in everything I've seen her in, and even though she's only in a few scenes here, she's spectacular. Jonez is able to portray a tremendous amount about Max's home life in just a few introductory scenes: in my favorite, Max lies under his mom's desk and tells her a story while she works late. Jonez's attention to details is striking: Max lazily fingering the pantyhose seam on his mom's toes, her tired but tender expression, and the sound of her fingers clacking on the keyboard recording Max's sad, made-up story. She's a good mom, as this scene critically conveys, for in the next scene she's furious with him, worn out by his antics and neediness, and Max is out-of-control and extremely unlikable.

I haven't even gotten to the wild things yet! When Max first spies them by firelight, their conversation sounds like an overheard argument on a playground. The wild things are granted individual personalities (and amusingly commonplace names: Carol, Ira, Douglas, Alexander) absent in the book. They look just like Sendak's illustrations come to life--not at all like men in costume. I don't even know how they managed to create these faces that change so clearly from one emotion to the next. The wild things are in turn depressed, manic, irritatingly needy, achingly lonely, terribly afraid, and terrifying. The wild things are children utterly out of control, struggling with playground politics, trying to mimic adults, hugging and hurting each other in equal measure. They reflect Max's emotions as well as others from his real life. And the whole movie just looks AMAZING. The fort they build will blow you away! It is worth seeing on the big screen, and though some scenes are heartwarming, you have to wade through a lot of pain and darkness to get there.

Upon leaving the theater, I felt drunk on my own emotions: exhausted and enthralled at the same time, as though I hadn't felt anything so strongly since I was a child. It's a beautiful, beautiful movie, and it adds to my enjoyment of the book greatly, an experience I rarely find in a book-turned-movie.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Okay, I am officially a very enthusiastic fan of Connie Willis. Her novel, Doomsday Book, stunned me. It's 578 pages long, and Willis succeeds in stretching the suspense out over that many pages--agonizing, but in the best possible way.

Like To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday is based in the Oxford's "history" (time travel) department in the mid 21st century. Unlike TSNOTD, it is not a comedy. Doomsday's story line follows two protagonists: Kivrin, as she travels back to the 1300s, and Mr. Dunworthy, who remains in Oxford. Their experiences complement each other, both set at Christmastime, contrasting futuristic and medieval medical care in a pandemic. The secondary characters are well developed, and it was far too easy for me to become attached to them. One of the elements I enjoyed most was the role of religion in the lives of different characters in crisis. Some are superstitious, several are infuriatingly hypocritical, a few are unexpectedly inspiring, and one character's faith is genuinely moving.

Willis has such an imagination. I found her portrayal of life in the 1300s fascinating. I also had the urge to wash all my towels and sheets in scalding hot water by the time I finished. And I'm yearning to visit Oxford again--preferably in this century.

Monday, October 5, 2009

England Circa World War II

I've been transported to England in the 1940s often lately. My previous review, To Say Nothing of the Dog, had multiple scenes that took place around Coventry Cathedral during the Luftwaffe bombing. I just completed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Plus, Ickie and I are addicted to the BBC series Foyle's War.

Guernsey is a novel in letter format, set shortly after WWII. It chronicles the fictional friendships among author Juliet Ashton and the members of the literary society on Guernsey, one of the British Channel Islands occupied during the war. Juliet and the islanders initially bond over their shared love of literature and then grow to know each other deeply. There are many stories of events during the occupation from multiple perspectives. Most of the letter writers are delightful characters, although at least one is extremely irritating, and we come to know the brightest star of the cast via secondhand stories. The novel does a spectacular job of conveying the a character's complex nature with a short, simple anecdote. There are a several enjoyable romances and one point in the book in which I cried noisily with tears streaming down my face. If you enjoyed 84, Charing Cross Road (which I did), you may see a similarity here.

Foyle's War, set in a small town on the southern coast of England, is a series about a police detective during WWII. Each episode is more than a mystery, as Foyle often turns up government corruption and espionage related to the war effort. Honeysuckle Weeks (love the name!) and Anthony Howell (Roger of BBC's Wives and Daughters) are excellent in supporting roles, but Ickie and I especially love Michael Kitchen's understated performance as Chief Inspector Foyle. He is quintessentially British, conveying a range of thought and emotion with a stiff upper lip. The scenery is lovely, featuring white cliffs, small towns, period sets, Spitfires zooming over the countryside, and stately manors. Although many of the events and revelations are quite depressing, there's also subtle humor. Mysteries and WWII stories have been done again and again, but Foyle's War is uncommon.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Glowing Review

Before reading this book, you must read:

1. Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog, Jerome K. Jerome
2. A generous helping of P.G. Wodehouse (especially his early novels and Jeeves novels)

It would also behoove you to:

1. Read some of Dorothy Sayers's Peter Wimsey mysteries
2. Have a familiarity with Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle
3. Read Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone

I mean, let's be honest, you ought to have done all that already, unless you're just some kind of shameless failure. [I'm sort of kidding because, actually, I haven't yet read The Moonstone, only Collins's The Woman in White. But I do believe a disregard of Wodehouse is a critical character flaw.]

So, have you done that? Good. Now you're ready to read a book that will make you scrunch up your shoulders and grin so wide that you feel you're attempting to squeeze out all your excess glee. It's To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. It's the closest thing to a modern writer writing like Wodehouse I've found, and I didn't think that was even possible. There are overbearing aunt types and a sappy Madeline Bassett type and a poetry-quoting, infatuated Bingo type and an absent-minded Oxford professor and a retired Colonel obsessed with fancy goldfish and imposters and imminently capable butlers. It's obviously a tribute to Jerome, so much so that Harris, George, J, and Montmorency have a cameo on the Thames, as does a tin of peaches (or is it pineapple?). And it's a mystery: What happened to the bishop's bird stump? But technically, it's science fiction. YES. Because it is about time travel.

And it's just the best thing you can imagine. It's so funny, and it's genuinely romantic, and it's set in Oxford, and it's really exciting, and the last line is excellent. Oh my goodness. I am positively in love with this book. I can't say any more about it, or I'll give it all away.

Many thanks to Jenny for the recommendation.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Don't Play Their Game!

[This post won't be of much interest to you unless you've already read The Hunger Games. If you'd like to know more about it, here's my review. The following is more of a personal rant than a helpful review. Just know that I highly recommend both books.]

I picked up Catching Fire (sequel to Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games) yesterday morning and completed it this afternoon. My eyes are tired and adrenaline is coursing through my veins. What can I say? It was very like THG in quality and theme. It picks up six months after the end of the games with more star-crossed loves, more wretchedness from those Capitol despots, more fights to the death, and a heap of political unrest. There is, as I expected, an agonizing cliffhanger ending, and I have no idea when the third novel of the trilogy will be published. Sorry. Aaagh.

Katniss's character is so damaged to begin with that she isn't much changed, aside from new nightmares reminiscent of the games. She struggles to protect her loved ones, not knowing whether she ought to play the government's game or rebel against it. I'm a little impatient with her slowness to rebel within the hunger games, to be quite honest. I understand that she's just a teenage girl, and technically she has been rebelling from the start of the series by trespassing and hunting. But there are all these obvious little hints that the oppressed people from multiple districts are looking to Katniss for leadership and inspiration, and she's clueless. So I'm sympathetic to her frustration that she is being used against her will and knowledge (by more than one faction), but I want her to grab control of the situation and do something really risky and smart and effective! Perhaps my expectations are too high for a 17-year-old girl. She's done amazing things already, and she spends a lot of time admirably questioning whether her motives are selfish and/or for the good. I'm too quick to compare her to Gregor from Collins's Underland Chronicles, who is younger yet wiser and more decisive. In a comparable war situation, he aims to avoid violence, choose mercy, and urges others to do the same. But of course, my critique of Gregor is that he is too young, at 11, to be a sword fighting warrior who petitions for peace.

Herein lies the value of Collins's novels. They fill me with excitement, revulsion, pity, and inspiration to the point of utter confusion. I am frustrated with protagonists on the basis of flaws which only make them more human, and yet they are fantastic, symbolic heroes. I struggle to put my impressions into stilted prose and am just going to give it up because, once again, fiction has done the job for me. However, if there's one relatable message I take from Collins's writing, it's that children can survive a lot; they're weak and strong and surprisingly resilient and thoughtful. With Free-Range Kids fresh on my mind, I'm convinced we don't give children enough credit for their intelligence and abilities at a very young age.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Worrying Less

"There has never been a single substantiated instance of any child dying from a stranger's poisoned Halloween candy." Infant formula, BPA, metal baseball bats, cell phone brain cancer, lead, raw cookie dough, and plastic bags are either less threatening than you'd think or completely non-problematic. A walking school bus and giving kids a chance to create their own games in PE are great ideas! "If you actually wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, how long would you have to keep her outside, unattended, for this to be statistically likely to happen? About seven hundred and fifty thousand years."

Awesome. I feel better. Much better. Thanks to Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry by Lenore Skenazy, I took Ben to the playground yesterday and didn't feel nervous when he crawled further away than usual, played with friendly strangers, ate dirt and ice cream, and took off his hat when he wasn't wearing sunscreen. I really like Skenazy's message, and I laughed out loud at her humorous prose multiple times. Now The Today Show seems even more alarmist than ever before. Mostly, it reminded me of the freedoms my parents granted me as a child, how much I enjoyed them, and how very much I benefited from them.

Here's a list of some of the best things my parents let me do before I reached age 20. All of these things made me brave and curious and eager to explore.
  • I walked to school without an adult every day of elementary school. In the 4th and 5th grade, this was even more thrilling because it was a much longer walk (perhaps a mile?) and after school we would wander around and explore the huge drainage ditch. I still get an enthralled shiver when I think about that ditch.
  • In the 5th grade, I went to Wild Animal Park camp and petted a cheetah. This may be the best animal experience of my life.
  • When I was 9 or 10, I spent the night with a friend whose parents were gone most of the evening. She and I baked chocolate chip cookies from scratch. (They tasted horrible, but it's one of my most exciting baking memories.)
  • In the 6th grade, my family and I walked down Bourbon Street in New Orleans. I stood still while a street performer did a flip over my head. Everyone laughed, and no one voiced a concern that I might get kicked in the noggin.
  • I spent many many hours as a kid just wandering around our neighborhoods, the mall, the movie theater, parks, and the community pool. Without a cell phone. I came home for dinner, then went back outside to play kick the can in the dark.
  • In the 8th grade, I went on two trips with a girls' service organization from my church. On one trip to a college campus, I encouraged my friends to skip the activities and wander around the campus with me at night (I was so inspired by this that I decided right then I would go to college there, and that's exactly what I did). On the second trip we went to San Antonio, where I encouraged my friends to skip the activities and wander around the Riverwalk with me.
  • My parents took us to Washington, DC. Our hotel caught on fire, but everyone was safely evacuated. We laughed and took photos of ourselves pretending to scream in horror next to firetrucks, then went to the zoo.
  • When I got a driver's permit, my dad would often take me out in the "wart." During these drives he would recline his seat and pretend to nap, or fiddle with the overhead light and tell me funny stories. He didn't give me a lot of driving tips, he just told me not to trust other people's turn signals. Later he taught me how to drive his sports car like a fighter pilot (his profession).
  • I never had a set curfew. My parents trusted me not to get in trouble, and I didn't.
  • In my junior and senior years of high school, I went on two choir tours, during which I wandered around downtown Washington, New York, Toronto, Santa Fe, and Chicago completely without adult supervision and had a spectacular time.
  • I went off to college. Without a cell phone. My mom and sister helped my carry my stuff in, hugged me, and left. It was the best three years of my life.
  • When I was 19 years old, my parents put me on a plane to Frankfurt, Germany, with some cash and a Eurorail pass. Two days after I arrived in the little town of Iserlohn, I called my parents from a pay phone; I cried a bit and complained that I couldn't call the US on the phone in my dorm and someone had stolen my luggage wheels. When I hung up I felt better and went to eat some gelato. My parents didn't feel better, but there was nothing they could do, so they didn't. I had a glorious summer. I went on on several trips with my fellow students and two weekend trips all by myself. One afternoon when I was bored, I just wandered out of the town, up a mountain, through a thick forest of evergreens, and out into a wheat field just as the afternoon sun turned it light gold. It was possibly more beautiful because I was on my own and could have gotten completely lost (but I didn't).

Saturday, September 5, 2009

I'm so very jealous....

Just check out Neil Gaiman's personal library here.

Of note: Of course there's a cat napping in the comfy chair. This is "Cat-Crazy Gaiman," as I shall henceforth refer to him.

Things missing that would be in my personal library fantasy:
1. cozy stone hearth
2. rolling ladder attached to the shelves
3. big globe
4. massive thesaurus on display
5. chrome tea cart full of tea things

Sunday, August 30, 2009

1763: Reading about it is nice, but I wouldn't want to visit.

I just completed Gideon The Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer, and I really regret not having checked out the second book in this trilogy, The Time Thief (published under the title The Tar Man in the UK).

And let me just take this moment to say that I am tired of publishers changing titles of books when they publish them in the States. The Tar Man is a far far better title, especially if you already know this character from reading Gideon!

Okay, back to it. In Gideon momentum builds slowly, the author taking care to develop characters and relationships. It's a time travel story about two 21st-century teens, Peter and Kate, sucked back into 1763. They receive the aid of Gideon, a former thief but gentleman, as they search for their time machine, stolen by the treacherous Tar Man. Buckley-Archer goes into fascinating detail to depict 18th-century England, as well as a few famous persons and places. Obviously I've never been to 1763 (I know you're all surprised by this), but I have one bone to pick. Peter and Kate would suffer dysentery for a week or more after eating the food and drinking the water back then!

That is my one small criticism, as I enjoyed everything else about the novel. The prose is elegant, there is occasional humor and plenty of suspense involving highwaymen, horse races, and science fiction-y stuff. Yes, it seems like it wouldn't all go together, but Buckley-Archer manages to make it work. I especially came to like the character Parson Ledbury, whom I feared at first would be a Falstaff-like buffoon or a judgmental buffoon (some kind of buffoon). He was neither and was a character who displayed greater depth and change, as well as humor and mercy, as the book progressed. What a pleasant surprise!

The cover design of the hardback edition is wicked cool. The spine looks like an 18th century volume, but the cover has a cutout crack with an eye peering through it. I picked it up at the library simply because the cover design captured my interest!

Note [added 8/31/09]: The American edition of Gideon The Cutpurse is titled The Time Travelers. I think the UK title and cover design are more interesting, but the artwork on the North American editions is still rather nice. The third Volume, The Time Quake, will be released in the U.S. in October.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Everything's on Vacation

It feels as though it has been an eternity since I've posted anything here, and really it hasn't (just since August 1). But still. It's because I'm so busy with baby care and other responsibilities, I'm having difficulty finding time to read. (This makes me feel very not myself.) In addition, I haven't read anything extraordinary lately. I did read the young adult novel Speak last week. I accidentally picked it up thinking it was by M.T. Anderson, and then Ickie pointed out to me it is by Laurie Halse Anderson. However, I saw it was nominated from some awards, so I gave it a try. It was a quick read and a well-written YA novel about a 14-year-old girl trying to come to grips with a traumatic experience. It had the high school-outcast thing going on like Veronica Mars, minus the snark and the noir. I appreciated LH.A.'s believable depictions of relationships at that age, the protagonist's difficult growth, and the open-ended finale.

What else? I read Nicholas on Vacation, which was just as funny and charming as the other Nicholas books. I'm currently reading Gideon the Cutpurse, which captured my attention largely because of the cool cover and is showing promise.

My reading choices have been slightly more limited the past two months because the state-wide library loan system has been down. Boo! It is due to restart at the end of this month, and you'd better believe I'll be flooding the system with all my requests! The sequel to Hunger Games is coming out in about a week, and my biggest goal is to find time to read it as soon as I lay hands on a copy.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

More of a Good Thing

One might argue that you can't improve upon perfection, but I say, give me more of it, and you've done so! Nicholas Again by Goscinny & Sempe and Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome are great examples. I can't say for sure I've laughed harder at these follow-ups to Nicholas and Three Men in a Boat, but I've laughed at least as much. Tears of joy have been shed; hyperventillation has been experienced; a book has been set aside as I strain to compose myself and continue. And a good time was had by all, except for, perhaps, Ickie, who has to put up with my insistence on reading snippets to him. I know he'd prefer to read them for himself, but I am compulsive in my desire to share my amusement with him.

To wit, here follow some selections from each text. Nicholas Again contains more stories of little Nicholas going to school, happily fighting with his buddies, innocently terrorizing adults, and having a fabulous time. This is from the chapter "Prizegiving Day":

"There were prizes for everyone. Cuthbert, who is top of the class and teacher's pet, got the Arithmetic prize, the History prize, the Geography prize, the Grammar prize, the Handwriting prize, the Science prize, and the Good Behavior prize. Cuthbert is nuts! Eddie, who is very strong and likes to punch his friends' noses, got the Gymnastics prize. Alec, my fat friend who is always eating, got the Regular Attendance prize; that means he goes to school the whole time, and I suppose he really did deserve the prize, because his Mom won't have him in her kitchen, and if he can't be in the kitchen, Alec would rather go to school than anywhere else. Geoffrey, who has a very rich Dad who buys him anything he wants, got the Deportment prize because he's always smartly dressed. There are times when he's come to school in his cowboy outfit or his Martian suit or his musketeer's uniform, looking really great. Rufus got the Art prize because of the big box of colored pencils he had for his birthday. Matthew, who is bottom of the class, got the Good Comradeship prize, and I got the prize for Public Speaking. My Dad was very pleased, though he looked a bit disappointed when our teacher said the prize was awarded more for the quantity than the quality of my work. I'll have to ask Dad what she meant."

In Three Men on the Bummel, "J," Harris, and George are 15 years older. J and Harris are married with children, and George, it can safely be assumed, couldn't be bothered to get up early enough to find himself a girl. The three fellows choose to go biking in Germany for this holiday. In one of my favorite chapters thus far, J chronicles the misery of being awakened by Harris's unruly children in the middle of the night. After which, the three fellows stop in London to play a joke George has devised. He found a phrase book written for Germans visiting England, with lots of dreadfully awkward, stilted phrases, and George tests them out on London cabbies and shopkeepers. (Doesn't this sound like a joke we'd come up with today?) It sends a boot salesman into a rage.

The chapters set in Germany capitalize on amusing cultural differences (primarily the German obsession for rules and order).

"All three of us, by some means or another, managed, between Nuremberg and the Black Forest, to get into trouble.
Harris led off in Stuttgart by insulting an official.... Harris did not know it was an official he was insulting. He took it for a fireman (it looked like a fireman), and he called it a 'dummer Esel.'
In Germany you are not permitted to call an official a 'silly ass,' but undoubtedly this particular man was one. What had happened was this: Harris in the Stadtgarten, anxious to get out, and seeing a gate open before him, had stepped over a wire into the street. Harris mantains he never saw it, but undoubtedly there was hanging to the wire a notice, 'Durchgang Verboten!' The man, who was standing near the gate, stopped Harris, and pointed out to him this notice. Harris thanked him, and passed on. The man came after him, and explained that treatment of the matter in such off'hand way could not be allowed; what was necessary to put the business right was that Harris should step back over the wire into the garden. Harris pointed out to the man that the notice said 'going through forbidden,' and that, therefore, by re-entering the garden that way he would be infringing the law a second time. The man saw this for himself, and suggested that to get over the difficulty Harris should go back into the garden by the proper entrance, which was round the corner, and afterwards immediately come out again by the same gate. Then it was that Harris called the man a silly ass. That delayed us a day, and cost Harris forty marks."

Friday, July 10, 2009

Object Lesson

Yesterday our neighbor came over and told us this story, which cracks me up for some reason.

"Did you hear we have a new mailman? You know, the old one died. He was a grouch. He died shoveling snow on his way to his hot tub. He was a drug addict. Okay, maybe he wasn't an addict, but he did a lot of drugs."

So if you're a grumpy mailman who loves his hot tub and has a lot of snow to shovel, please don't do drugs. Or if you're a grumpy mailman who does drugs and lives up north, put your hot tub inside. Or if you're a grumpy drug addict with a snow-covered hot tub, don't deliver the mail. However, if you're a mailman with a drug problem and a hot tub buried in snow, you probably can't help being a grump. Unless you do more drugs.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Boy Stuff

Reading Nicholas, by author Rene Goscinny and illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempe, is the most fun I've had in a while. Accompanied by hilarious pen and ink illustrations, Nicholas is a simple book of stories about a little boy growing up in France in the 1950s. Little Nicholas narrates in an innocent, run-on manner, and the humor is best appreciated by adults who sympathize with harried parents and teachers. Nicholas cheerfully relates his adventures, each of which ends in a fight and a mess, thereby making it that much more fun. For example, in one chapter all the little boys attempt to play cowboys and indians but spend the entire time arguing and whacking each other, and Nicholas, as always, comments that it was a fabulous time. It's what little boys are like (and occasionally dads and little girls too).

There's a charming cast including Nicholas's mother and father, Cuthbert (who is top of the class and teacher's pet and wears glasses so they can't whack him so much), Old Spuds (the grumpiest of the teachers), Mr. Billings (the neighbor and Nicholas's father's arch enemy), Alec (Nicholas's friend who is fat and eats all the time), and the rest of Nicholas's gang.

I've requested every other Nicholas book that I can find translated in our library system. I can't wait to read them! They remind me of The Magic Pudding author Norman Lindsey's theory that children are only interested in two things: fighting and eating.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tolkien Five

Here is a great little top five essay for Middle Earth fans. My favorite quote within the essay describes predominately inferior world-building by lesser authors as the "great clomping foot of nerdism."

Thursday, June 18, 2009


I'm a cynic. I approach nearly everything with at least a touch of sarcasm. But there are also quite a few times when I just like something unabashedly. Here's something I stumbled upon that made me not a cynic.

Having Everything

Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light is such a lovely, plaintive book. It interweaves the true death of a young woman in 1906 with the tale of a fictional girl, Mattie Gokey, growing up in the Great North Woods. Donnelly was inspired by Grace Brown's letters as well as the stories told by her grandmother, who grew up in the region. It reminded me a bit of Northern Borders by Howard Frank Mosher, although I resonated more deeply with Donnelly's protagonist, possibly because she's a young woman who dreams of being a writer.

The novel's chapters alternate between two time frames, and the story concludes when these time frames meet. The first storyline begins with the discovery of the drowned body of Grace Brown and the mystery of her missing partner. Mattie works at the lakeside hotel where Grace and her companion were staying. The second storyline begins a few months earlier, as Mattie struggles to finish high school, mourns her recently deceased mother, and cares for her father, younger siblings, and their farm. Mattie is bright and creative, with a love for books and words. She and her best friend Weaver, the town's only black boy, dream of going to college in New York City.

The novel is filled with the overwhelming grind of everyday life and much tragedy. So many scenes were heartbreaking and a few were amusing. On a personal note, it was therapeutic for me to read this book this week. Whenever I became overburdened with my daily responsibilities of caring for my baby, housekeeping, and freelance editing, I would pick up A Northern Light and read about Mattie's friend trying to care for her newborn twins, cook for her husband and all the farm hands, boil laundry, etc. To say life was hard is an understatement.

The mysteries of the story are thinly veiled, but the manner in which Donnelly reveals information is touching and deeply personal. She focuses more on the effect the revelation of truth has on Mattie than on manufacturing twists and surprises for the reader. I still hurt right through when I think about Mattie talking about her first kiss and how nice it felt because it was the first time anyone had embraced her since her mother's death nearly a year ago.

A Northern Light
is delicately composed and is a credit to Mattie's literary idols (e.g., Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Louisa May Alcott), and although it has obvious appeal to women, I believe men would appreciate the quality of the work as well. (At least you fellows ought to do so!)

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Most of us have a movie, book, or TV show quote that's worked its way into our daily use, serving as an inside joke among our little club of fellow fans. Who among us didn't quote Monty Python's Holy Grail constantly in high school or college? (If you didn't, you might not be nerdy enough to enjoy my blog.)

Ickie and I have several regulars in current rotation. We can always make each other laugh by saying "Go back from whence you came!" (G.O.B. in Arrested Development). As cuss-word substitutions, Ickie often uses "Frak" (BSG) and I use "Blurg" (30 Rock). But the really random, just-between-the-two-of-us quote is "When will they listen, Bob? When will they listen?" We're not even sure that's the exact quote anymore. Any deviation just makes us laugh harder. "When will they learn, Jim? When will they learn?" It comes from a Mystery Science Theater short that's a cheesey educational video about train-track crossing safety (view here). Basically, a 1950s kid gets hit by a train because he doesn't follow proper precautions, and the railroad employees comment on his carelessness, shaking their heads grimly in a laughably stilted bit of acting. We reference it all the time. You'd be surprised how applicable it is to everyday life. For example, Pizza Hut shows an ad for gross-looking pasta, some rednecks have a noisy argument on the street outside our house, Ickie's students fail because they don't apply themselves, a duck gets hit by a rock...the possibilities are endless, especially when you go around feeling superior all day long like we do. Just thinking the phrase now in my head makes me feel like laughing.

I'd love to read your favorite oft-used quotes in the comment section. Maybe I'll even make a pie chart of the results. Because pie charts are super fun.

Unwelcome Neighbors

Last night I stayed up late to complete We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. You know Jackson from her short story "The Lottery," required reading for all middle school English classes. Castle is similar thematically. The title alone made me want to read the book, as it reminds me of the oft repeated phrase from Cold Comfort Farm: "There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm." I couldn't get this phrase out of my head, which is replete with humor, so I took an undeservedly whimsical approach to Jackson's dark novel. I often do that with the most frightening of tales. I enjoy scary stories so much that my reaction is to be simultaneously creeped out and giddy.

Castle is the tale of Merricat, who lives in the isolated Blackwood mansion with her elder sister and senile uncle. Several years ago, all the other Blackwoods died when someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. Readers get a wonderfully warped perspective via Merricat's narration, who reveals more and more of her strange compulsions as the plot progresses. Jackson writes in modern, eerie prose, focusing on the cruelty of which ordinary people are capable and leaving just enough of the mystery unrevealed at the conclusion. It reminds me a bit of Jane Eyre and the stories of Flannery O'Conner.

Friday, May 29, 2009

It'll Make a Good Story

In high school, my friend H and I wrote three journals we refer to as "The Trilogy." Each recorded a separate event: vol. I, a choir tour up the Eastern seaboard; vol. II, a camping trip on our friend Scoob's farm; and vol. III, our senior ski trip. (There were also some minor works, but I'll decline from cataloging them here.) H and I had matching pocket thesauri and a shared love of purple prose. We esteemed ourselves artisans of the written word, transforming each mundane experience into a harrowing adventure or epic melodrama. We considered ourselves extremely funny, although I suspect you had to be there, and more importantly, be us.

Actually, we really were funny. Damn funny. Still are. But not as funny as Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat.

Jerome's popular work (written in the late 19th century) pairs Wodehousian humor with idyllic descriptions of the English countryside. But really it's just three young guys and a dog boffing about in a boat on the river, experiencing the kind of comical mishaps everyone has on a camping trip, with a generous dose of good-natured bickering. Jerome also has a great tendancy to go off on tangents, and his chapter opener summaries are a hoot. I've laughed so hard in several scenes that tears ran down my cheeks, and when I tried to read sections out loud to Ickie, I hyperventilated.

For your enjoyment, here's an excerpt. "J", Harris, and George get excited about a tin of pineapple, only to discover they haven't packed an opener. Madness ensues.

"Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out. While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the thing with the spiky end of the hitcher,and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup.

Then we all got mad. We took that tin out on the bank, and Harris went up into a field and got a big sharp stone, and I went back into the boat and brought out the mast, and George held the tin and Harris held the sharp end of his stone against the top of it, and I took the mast and poised it high up in the air, and gathered up all my strength and brought it down.

It was George's straw hat that saved his life that day. He keeps that hat now (what is left of it) and, of a winter's evening, when the pipes are lit and the boys are telling stretchers about the dangers they have passed through, George brings it down and shows it round, and the stirring tale is told anew, with fresh exaggerations every time.

Harris got off with merely a flesh wound.

After that, I took the tin off myself, and hammered at it with the mast till I was worn out and sick at heart, whereupon Harris took it in hand.

We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every form known to geometry--but we could not make a hole in it. Then George went at it, and knocked it into a shape, so strange, so weird, so unearthly in its wild hideousness, that he got frightened and threw away the mast. Then we all three sat round it on the grass and looked at it.

There was one great dent across the top that had the appearance of a mocking grin, and it drove us furious, so that Harris rushed at the thing, and caught it up, and flung it far into the middle of the river, and as it sank we hurled our curses at it, and we got into the boat and rowed away from the spot, and never paused till we reached Maidenhead."

Friend of the Book Blog World

Thanks to Felix at The Growlery for his thoughtful (and more in-depth) review of The Hunger Games. I'm glad you enjoyed my recommendation!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Being a Foodie

I reckon I had the latent potential for "foodieness" all along. My mom loves trying international foods. When I was growing up, she cooked delicious meals for us every night (her Spaghetti Carbonara and Buttermilk Pound Cake recipes continue to be two of my all-time favorites). She loves to brag that my favorite meal as a 3-year-old was steamed clams and a green salad. As we grew older, once a year Mom and Dad dressed us up and took us to The Nicest Restaurant in Town, where I cleaned my palate with a sorbet course. My grandmother visited us and made mouth-watering Southern meat-and-veg with glorious biscuits. My aunt lived with us briefly while I was in high school and made spectacular creations--I well remember coming home from school one day and being greeted by perfectly browned stuffed game hens.

Then I went overseas and tried everything that was set in front of me. I spent a summer eating wurst and gelato in Germany. I spent two years in Indonesia eating grilled fish with my fingers and cultivating an appreciation for avocado juice with chocolate syrup. I had dim sum for the first time in a Chinese restaurant in Malaysia. I ate a slice of lemon pie in Australia with a meringue so enormous it hung off the edge of my plate. I slurped enormous bowlfuls of Tom Yum soup for breakfast in northern Thailand. I dolloped fresh mayonnaise on my cold roast beef in Paris.

Food has always excited me, but I didn't start cooking until I got married. And for the first year or so of our marriage, Ickie was treated to commonplace casserole fare. Then I read Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser. I've read other food books since (I'm currently reading the beautifully written A Homemade Life by Orangette blogger Molly Wizenberg), but Mr. Latte was my original foodie book inspiration. Suddenly I was putting lemon zest in everything and making my own salad dressing.

I began to recall the noodle soup stands I frequented in Southeast Asia. They always had a basket of condiments on the tables: fiery sambal, syrupy soy, astringent vinegar. I gleaned that I could construct a great meal by combining salty, hot, sweet, sour, and bitter flavors. Then I moved to Santa Barbara, where I learned anything works if you begin with fresh produce and really good olive oil. I've become a person who doesn't follow recipes to the letter. Ever. I'm a sloppy, impatient person when it comes to creating anything, yet generally the end result is darn yummy.

We foodies are snobs in different ways. For example, I'm incredibly picky about pancakes. They have to be made from scratch, with buttermilk, cooked in an iron skillet with good unsalted butter, and served with REAL maple syrup. Yet I don't insist on warming the syrup and plates to go with my pancakes, whereas my brother-in-law does. I can make some tasty potatoes, but I don't cradle them in dish towels lovingly like Ickie's sister. I have strong opinions about wine and can really throw back Italian Nebbiolo. However, I really don't know jack about beer, a fact my beer aficianado friend probably considers unsettling. I love love LOVE corndogs.

Here are a few books I've enjoyed that pair narrative and recipes:

Cooking for Mr. Latte, A. Hesser
A Homemade Life, M. Wizenberg
Like Water for Chocolate, L. Esquivel
Untangling My Chopsticks, V. Abbott Richardi

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."

It's hard to conceive the inhumanity of which humans are capable. I don't claim to be an especially nice person, but I still can't imagine maiming someone else. I'm not even sure I could do so if my life depended on it. I wonder if only some or all people are capable of really terrible things. I often think of my rector's (from my church in St. Louis) answer when asked why bad things happen to seemingly innocent people. He said we live in a fallen world and we're all just kind of spreading the sin around.

I'm pondering this because of two stories I recently completed. One was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by Art Spiegelman. The other is Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

Maus (I & II) is a graphic novel and is a brilliant example of the genre. Spiegelman's layered narrative shows his interactions with his aging father, who in turn tells of his experiences in WWII Poland. Spiegelman depicts the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, the Poles as pigs, the French as frogs, etc. They have human bodies with these animal heads. The animal caricatures work well although I can't explain exactly why. There are many stories about the holocaust, but this one is unique in contrasting the resourceful young man surviving a concentration camp with the aging, neurotic father, as seen through the eyes of his son. Spiegelman struggles to get along with his difficult father, understand his past, and conceive of how it has impacted his own life. Ickie and I both found the last panel moving.

Hunger Games is a young adult novel Jackamo described as a cross between The Running Man and The Lord of the Flies. The main character is a teenage girl who supports her impoverished family. The story is set in a dystopia with a government-mandated annual lottery that pits teens in an arena where they fight to the death. The death match is broadcast like a season of Survivor. It's bizarre and frightening. It's also really hard to put down (I read it in less than two days). As in her Underland Chronicles, Collins' protagonist is a poor teen (who has lost a parent) forced to fight in a violent, evil world. The whole book is one big ethical headache--my head is swimming just trying to write down my thoughts and emotions during and after reading it. It's the first in a series, which is good because there's a lot more story to tell, but the ending was strong enough for this first story to stand alone.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I've been reading so many good young adult books lately, most of them recommendation from Jackamo. Here's a rundown of my recent reading activity. (There are warnings about spoilers below.)

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins: I mentioned these in an earlier post, but I enjoyed them increasingly more as I read through the series. I was deeply touched by several of the characters. This is a youth series with excitement and depth, but also a lot of death and sadness.


I really loved the ending. Whereas the events of the series come to a rewarding conclusion, it isn't all tied up perfectly and as a result feels like an honest coming-of-age story for Gregor, who is a preteen on the cusp of adulthood with more experience, courage, and wisdom than most grownups. It's melancholy, but how could it not be after all he's been through? The final detail of his toddler sister Boots finally saying his name properly closes on a hopeful note. The more I mull over the ending, the more I appreciate it.


The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare: This is rather pulpy but well-written fantasy series for teens. SWS tells me Clare has been accused of plagiarizing everyone from JK Rowling to Joss Whedon to Twilight, but I don't see any more shared ideas in this than I do in most of the other recent fantasy fiction I've read. Even if she borrows many ideas from other authors, she creates her own super fun story. Clare has another series coming out soon--prequels to TMI, and I'll certainly be checking them out.


The conclusion of this series wasn't as strong. Jackamo pointed out to me that it was written for teens (and Clare seems especially to have teen girls in mind), as the characters had some silly doubts about love, paired up tidily, and attended something akin to a ball at the end. My biggest criticism: I felt there were a lot of ideas here that could be mined for religious significance, as there is a Jewish boy turns vampire and an agnostic girl who not only discovers she has angel blood but sees an angel. These characters never seem to experience the spiritual questioning common to many adolescents, and they have greater impetus to do so! So that is a lost opportunity. The ideas needn't be "churchy" in nature, but it would have added depth to the characters to make them a bit more philosophical.


Princess Academy by Shannon Hale: With a cheesy name like this, I had expectations for something girlie and saccharine, but Princess Academy is a lovely surprise. It's a Newbury Honor Book focusing more on the value of hard work, ingenuity, and devotion than dressing up in gowns or living in a castle. If I had a young daughter, I'd strongly recommend it to her. It had a satisfying and not totally predictable ending, but I won't post a spoiler about it.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wild Things

I've got several wild things to address. The first are a series of books by Canadian author Melanie Watt about a paranoid, obsessive squirrel. I chose at random from the library Scaredy Squirrel and Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend. Ben was about as interested as he is in any picture book at this age (i.e., it looks good enough to gnaw on), but Ickie and I found hilarious Scaredy Squirrel's strict daily schedules, emergency plans, potential friend quiz, and fear of germs, walruses, and the unknown. The drawings are adorable (godzilla is town-crushingly cute) and Watt's kooky sense of humor extends even to her author's bio.

Second, I'm in the middle of reading the Gregor the Overlander series by Susan Collins. It's touted as a version of Alice in Wonderland for city kids. The opening sequence where Gregor and his baby sister are sucked down a vent from their laundry room and land in a land of giant rats, bats, and cockroaches is a tribute to Lewis Carroll's work, but the series has its own quest-driven plots. The Gregor series has many of the same elements that make Harry Potter an above-average series: Gregor is a brave kid under pressure who makes decisions with integrity. Most of the characters have complex personalities (especially my favorite sarcastic rat, Ripred), and it's interesting to watch the different species struggle to find common ground.

Third, Ickie just put me on to the trailer for Where The Wild Things Are, the classic by Maurice Sendak. You can watch the trailer here. Several things excite me when I see this trailer. First of all, it looks COOL. Ickie said, "It looks like an indie kids' movie," which is a pretty accurate description. The creatures and marvelous sets appear to have escaped from a Michael Gondry film, and the wild things have a shine and movement in their eyes that makes them look real, not just like giant muppets. They LOOK JUST LIKE the book, and I want to pat their heads to feel their wiry hair and join in the wild rumpus. Another good thing: Spike Jonze is directing it. He directed the super weird Being John Malkovich (which I enjoy for general concept as well as the company video explaining why a building has a 7 1/2 floor). Also good: Catherine Keener plays Max's mom, so even though it appears they made up backstory for Max's home life, I imagine Catherine Keener playing it well without excessive sappiness. And Paul Dano does a voice--he's awesome.

Even if WTWTA turns out to be a dud (which is hard to imagine), it's encouraging to see a children's movie creatively embrace the possibilities of fantastic children's fiction, instead of just a crowd-pleaser filmed in New Zealand or a freakish CGI hellscape. I don't know if Sendak is still alive, but I'll bet he's thrilled no one tried to turn his artistic book into something akin to The Polar Express movie, which manages to make me cringe from the oozing sentiment as well as cower in fear of the uncanny, glass-eyed, zombie children. Ook.

Friday, March 20, 2009

These Are Mine, But You Can Have Some

I made scones last night. I know it's Lent. Shut up. I didn't want the buttermilk to go bad before I had a chance to use it.

Anyhoo, I took a recipe and changed it enough that I think it's fair to call it my own now. I mimicked the technique for the biscuits I blogged about recently. The scones are the best I've ever made. Ickie loved them.

Watoosa's Scones

2 c flour
1/4 c sugar
1 tsp
baking powder
1/4 tsp
baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
optional: 1/4 to 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 stick
unsalted butter, cold & cut into pieces
2/3 c buttermilk, plus a bit more if needed
optional: currants or dried cranberries
egg wash: 1 large egg beaten with 1 tbsp milk

Whisk together dry ingredients. Cut butter into dry ingredients with a pastry cutter until butter is the size of small peas. Put flour mixture in fridge to chill for 10 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with
parchment paper.

Add buttermilk to flour mixture, mixing just until moist (drizzle in a bit more if you want moister dough). Turn out onto a well-floured surface, and knead only a few times. Pat into a rectangle; fold over into thirds as you would a letter. Repeat patting and folding twice. Pat or roll into a circle (about 7-8 inches in diameter) and cut into 6 pie pieces.

Brush with egg wash. Sprinkle with granulated sugar. Bake at 400 degrees 15-20 minutes until tops brown. Make some tea. Enjoy scones with jam and cream or just plain, hot out of the oven.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Lyrical Baby

Ickie and I are fans of Candlewick Press. They put out unique children's books, such as A Visitor for Bear, which we gave to our niece last year. The hospital where Ben was born gave us several children's books, and one of them, also by Candlewick Press, is Here's a Little Poem, which we've enjoyed reading to Ben on recent evenings. This collection features sweet, quirky poems by Langston Hughes, Robert Louis Stevenson, and A.A. Milne as well as other less famous poets. I especially love the dreamy illustrations for the bedtime poems. Here is my current favorite:

Manhattan Lullaby

by Norma Farber

Lulled by rumble, babble beep,
let these little children sleep;
let these city girls and boys
dream a music in the noise,
hear a tune their city plucks
up from buses, up from trucks
up from engines wailing fire!
up ten stories high, and higher,
up from hammers, rivets, drills,
up tall buildings, over sills,
up where city children sleep,
lulled by rumble, babble, beep.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Best Biscuits

When it's below zero and blizzarding (don't laugh, we've had plenty of that this year), I need comfort food. It's not just to make me feel better about being stuck indoors; I need calories for survival. Bring on the fat and bring on the biscuits! Any good Southerner will tell you that the best comfort food is her grandmother's biscuits, but a true southern grandma's biscuit methods are shrouded in mystery. She can toss in flour, scoop up lard with her fingers at random, and pour in buttermilk without measuring. Grandma cannot convey how this heap of dough transforms into fluffy, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth divinity, and my mom has complained that when she does the same the results are bland, white rocks.

My dear grandma hasn't baked her biscuits in years, but I still remember when she came to take care of us when I was in sixth grade while my parents were away. When we got home from school in the afternoon she had a full supper of biscuits, meat, and veg hot and waiting. I never hope to recreate her masterpieces, but I did recreate a reasonable facsimile by following this recipe from Southern Living. I substituted all-purpose flour with baking powder and salt, but otherwise I followed the folding directions precisely. Scarfing one down hot out of the oven, Ickie pronounced them the best he's ever had.

Scarred for Life

On a recent visit, my friend JW recommended Blindness by Jose Saramago. Saramago won a Nobel Prize for this novel, and although it's an impressive achievement, it's as desperate as anything you can imagine.

A sudden and unexplained epidemic of white blindness infects the population. The story follows the small group who are the first to go blind and are interned in a dilapidated mental asylum. Like many of the epidemic/apocalyptic stories I've read lately, this one explores human nature, be it compassionate or degenerate. Saramago's run-on sentences, minimal punctuation (dialogue jumbles together), and unnamed characters convey well the chaos and confusion of the epidemic.

Like other stories in this vein, survival depends on humanity's basest needs: the search for food, shelter, companionship, and a functioning toilet. (I don't mean to be flippant here; let's just say I have a fresh appreciation for plumbing.) Yet Blindness is not utterly without hope. There are many horrors, but some characters act selflessly, wisely, and honorably.

I was worried before beginning the novel that Saramago would have an obvious agenda or message, but his story is richly enigmatic. Near the end of the novel, two of the main characters make a brief and eloquent suggestion of what the blindness might symbolize, but the reader is left to her own theories. The conclusion snuck up on me: suddenly I turned a page to discover I was at the close, and even after all the horror, this lovely, warm, vague emotion washed over me. I didn't end with any clear insight, I simply experienced beautifully written art.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Befuddled at the Close

I believe endings are hard to write. You can have a great story idea, even an entire excellent novel, but when things come to the end it gets tricky. I often prefer stories that are a bit open-ended, so as to spur continuing thought and debate, as opposed to stories where all the ends tie up neatly and seem a bit forced. But sometimes an ending is just odd. In this case I'm referring to the finale of Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud. Stroud also wrote The Bartimeaus Trilogy; he writes Heroes like Bartimeaus: it's unique, it's witty and dark, and Stroud can really DO creepy. The scene in Westminster Abbey in the second Bartimeaus book is one of the eeriest scenes I've ever read.

Stroud does some good things in Heroes of the Valley. He creates a captivating mythology in an isolated valley reminiscent of medieval Scandinavia. The myths frame every chapter and are incorporated into the story well. There are tunneling-zombie-troll monsters that make my hair stand on end. As soon as the reader is convinced of the truth of these old tales, Stroud introduces cause for doubt, so the reader can hardly predict what will happen next. The characters are interesting yet flawed (as in Bartimeaus, the heroine is far more likable than the hero). But the ending, well, it was weird. I did not like it. I didn't hate it, I just didn't get it at all. It wasn't so much a weak conclusion as a strange one. I can't seem to put into words why it's so problematic. Nevertheless, the book was worth reading.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bloodsucking Hilarity

Hooray! I found another of Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax stories (no thanks to you readers, who didn't share that information with me). Well, no hard feelings. Carpe Jugulum is a funny spoof of vampires, who are accidentally invited to a royal christening and decide to take over the kingdom with their "modern" ideas of vampirism. It's all very silly and clever, with a kooky Igor, a nerdy priest, and vampires running through castles craving tea instead of blood (how I love British humor). However, as a new mom, I especially enjoyed the following passage in which new mother Magrat packs up the baby's things for an emergency outing:

"When she looked up her face was set with purpose. She pointed at Oats.

'You find a bag or something and empty into it all the stuff in the top drawer over there, and take the potty, and the little truck, oh, and the stuffed animals, and the bag of nappies, and the bag for used nappies, and the bath, and the bag with the towels, and the box of toys, and the wind-up things, and the musical box, and the bag with the little suits, oh, and the woolly hat, and you, Agnes, find something we can make into a sling....'

There was a clatter from the direction of Mightily Oats. He already had both arms full, and a large stuffed rabbit in his teeth.

'Do we need all of that?" said Agnes.

'You never know,' said Magrat.

'Even the box of toys?'

'[Her father] thinks she might be an early developer,' said Magrat.

'She's only a couple of weeks old!'

'Yes, but stimulus at an early age is vital to the development of the growing brain,' said Magrat, laying baby Esme on the table and shuffling her into a romper suit. 'Also, we have to get on top of her hand-eye coordination as soon as possible. It's no good just letting things slide. Oh yes...If you can bring the little slide, too. And the yellow rubber duck. And the sponge in the shape of a teddy bear. And the teddy bear in the shape of a sponge.'"

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Familiar Characters

I'm a little disappointed because I've now read all of Terry Pratchett's novels featuring Granny Weatherwax. Oddly enough, I read last the first book in which she appears: Equal Rites. Although her character is somewhat better developed in later novels, this one's plot is very fun, especially watching Granny go up against the snobbish, sexist wizards at Unseen University when they refuse to admit Granny's young apprentice, Eskarina. I'm always sorry when I complete a series I've enjoyed and there aren't any additional stories with these characters (at least as far as I know), but I'd happily reread any of these, especially Wyrd Sisters.

In other news, Ickie has begun reading a Winnie the Pooh story to Ben and I each evening. We gave Ben a Winnie the Pooh treasury for Christmas, and I had forgotten how darling and quietly amusing A.A. Milne's little characters are. Of course, my favorite bits are the illustrations by Ernest Shepard. I adore his sketchy pen and ink drawings in Kenneth Graham's novels and refuse to read any editions with "updated" (i.e., ruined) pictures of Toad, Rat, Mole, and the lot.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Legendary Troublemakers

I just finished Witches Abroad, another fun Terry Pratchett novel featuring Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick. This one played on several fairy tales (including a brief cameo by Gollum). It was creative and fun, although I slightly prefer the witch stories that are versions of Shakespearean plays. I'm currently reading Equal Rites, Pratchett's first book in which Granny appears. She's a really wonderful curmudgeon.

Prior to Witches Abroad, I read Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips. In it, the Greek gods are living in somewhat reduced circumstances in London and, as the title aptly puts it, behaving very badly indeed. Actually, Artemis is the only really reasonable member of the quarrelsome family. All the gods (except Artemis, goddess of chastity, and Eros, who has converted to Christianity) are sleeping with each other or causing trouble, so several chapters are fairly vulgar. By contrast, Alice and Neil are two mortals interested in Scrabble, tidiness, and each other, but who are too timid, wholesome, and polite to make it work. Alice and Neil are especially likeable when contrasted with the likes of the Apollo and Aprodite. The plot stays true to the classic formula, the gods playing tricks and getting even with each other, and of course a hero with a quest and a bit of immortal assistance. It was a well-formed story and a fun read.