Friday, March 26, 2010


In one of many albums at my parents' house, there's a series of photos of me at age 3 wandering around a fair in Germany eating an enormous pretzel. I have always loved big, soft, warm pretzels, and those Germans really know how to make them. Thanks to Alton Brown, and my brother-in-law Will for tipping me off, now I know how to make them too!

I made these yesterday and they are the best I've had since being in Germany. Ickie and I gobbled them up hot out of the oven with yellow mustard, and Ben enjoyed one when he awoke from his nap. Then we had a second helping with our pub-food dinner (perfect on an overcast, chilly evening), consisting of apple-squash-cheddar soup sprinkled with crispy prosciutto, and beer. The beer was a last-minute acquisition: I flipped out around 5pm realizing how necessary it was, and Ickie took Ben out to the store with him to save the day.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Book News

In light of my recent obsession with Connie Willis (see previous post), I just have to mention that she is releasing a new two-part series this year. The first novel is already out (I'm waiting on it via inter-library loan), it's titled Blackout, and it takes place in the same Oxford Time Travel Department universe as Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. There are some unhappy reviewers on Amazon, but as far as I can tell, they're angry because the end of the first novel is a severe cliffhanger. I'd love to wait until part two, All Clear, is released (this coming fall) and do it all at once, but I'm just too eager to read part one. I YEARN for the agony!

Everything is a Symbol

One of my personal highlights in the last year was discovering the works of Connie Willis. When people ask me about her, I say, "She's unique! Her books are something unlike anything I've ever read before." Okay, that's not the case for To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is a tribute to multiple works, and contains comedy equal to those works. However, Doomsday Book was spectacular; bleak at times, but spectacular all the same. And I just finished Passage. I checked it out initially from our library, didn't get around to it, and then checked it out a second time. The premise didn't pique my interest when I read the blurbs about it. But, WOW. It blew my mind. Twice.

Joanna Lander, a psychologist, and Richard Wright, a neurologist, are doing a scientific study on near-death experiences. That sounds only mildly interesting, right? Yet after reading the first 100 pages, I told Ickie, "I just read 100 pages of mostly technical dialogue between two doctors wandering around a hospital and it's GRIPPING!" Willis writes dialogue well; her books are long and filled with it, and she somehow succeeds in making scenes of dialogue referring to the wreck of the Hindenberg, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and temporal-lobe stimulation thrilling. I don't even know how she does it. The historical information is fascinating, the literary references are poetic and meaningful, and Willis's descriptive prose is lovely (on one page she goes from a discussion about neurotransmitters to a haunting description of snow falling under sodium streetlights *sigh*).

Anyway, Richard simulates near-death experiences (NDEs) with chemicals, and Joanna interviews the study subjects about what they've seen. They spend most of the book running around Mercy General, the labyrinthine hospital where they work, avoiding a neo-spiritualist hack trying to sabotage their study. Eventually, Joanna decides to undergo the NDE simulation herself. The hospital is a mirror image of Joanna's mental confusion as she struggles to understand what she has seen in her near-death state and derive some sort of medical knowledge or personal significance. I felt the same psychological turmoil and "tip of the mind" feeling that Joanna often has. There are also several other characters who offer insight: Joanna's former literature teacher, who has Alzeimer's; an overly chatty WWII vet; and a little girl with a failing heart who is obsessed with disasters.

I wish I could say more about the plot, but I don't want to give too much away, and honestly, I could write a whole other book about this book. As I mentioned earlier, something wildly unexpected happens two-thirds through, then the plot drags in bits for the last third, and all of a sudden, POW! The final chapter was simply stunning. I was curious and a little skeptical about how Willis could write a novel about NDEs and manage to say something significant, either scientifically or spiritually, without it coming off completely bogus. As in Doomsday Book, there are several Christian or "spiritual" characters whose beliefs are grating, and for a while I assumed that Willis would concentrate on a satisfyingly scientific solution to her mystery. The scientific solution was there, and it was satisfying and significant. But my mind was indeed blown a second time in the final chapter. Everyone and everything in this book is a metaphor or a message. Even the chapter-opener quotes (usually the last words of famous people) are weighty with meaning. Because some traditional/religious beliefs were represented in an off-putting light, I reacted against them (even though I believe many of them), and as a result, I arrived at the finale with open expectations, and Willis's imagery dazzled me.

Passage is a book about death and fear and hope with gallows humor and terror and the best of humanity and everything, everything, is a symbol for something. I could keep writing and thinking about it for days on end, and I wish I had a friend who just read it so that I could discuss it in more detail!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Spring: Pros and Cons

It is so lovely outside here today. Spring arrived in Maine two months early. I can see daffodil shoots in my side yard, and this Saturday it may even make it to 70 degrees.

But here's the thing: I'm only 50% excited about it. Maybe more than that. Sometimes I'm 100% spaztically ecstatic that the sun is shining and I can go jogging without swathing every square inch of my skin in fleece. But sometimes I secretly wish it weren't so nice outside. So, so nice. Because when it is, I don't have an excuse to be a cave dweller. Ben and I spent all afternoon at the park yesterday, and we'll do the same today. What is my problem?

1. I not-so-secretly love winter. I love wanting to be warm inside, actually wanting to turn up the heat and sit on the couch like a potato sack in flannel and not break a sweat all day.
2. I love not being social. Sometimes my other two family members and my cat are the absolute maximum of social I can handle. When it's nasty outside, everyone understands if you don't get up the gumption to socialize.
3. The warm temperatures signal the frightening unveiling of my pale, clunky legs. The winter uniform is so nice: pants, boots, coat. We all look relatively equal in that. I can barely handle personal maintenance from the neck up, and even then I can put a hat on it. Warm weather brings with it far too many responsibilities for a girl.
4. When it's really cold, it's my responsibility to eat casseroles and sticky toffee pudding. I have to, or I'll die. I am not ready to start eating salads and ceviche.
5. Today it's nice enough that I could dry my laundry on the line. I could have white sheets flapping gently in the breeze while I sit on my back porch breathing in the scent of clean laundry. Doesn't that sound pleasant? But it involves me lugging a laundry basket of wet laundry (wet, twice as heavy as dry) up my basement stairs and out the back door, balancing precariously on the edge of the deck, clothes pinning it all up, and then remembering to take it all down again. I could be saving the environment, but I just dumped it all in the dryer. Fine.

I really am happy that I can open the windows for the first time this year. I think I probably just need more coffee.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Looking at Things Afresh

I'll write more book reviews soon, I promise. In the meantime, I want to have this lady's outlook. Cynical me can't resist smiling when I read her refreshing, Pollyanna-like notes.

(Secretly, I can't help thinking it's easier to write these notes when you live in SoCal. I have been missing it often this winter, even though spring has arrived early up here.)