Monday, December 28, 2009

Year End Thoughts

The last present is opened; the remnants of the (very rare) rib roast is in the freezer awaiting resurrection as Beef Wellington, the lovely glow of Mimosas on Christmas morning has worn off - life has resumed and I finally know what day of the week this is.

Only a few days are left in the year and, like everyone else, I am reminiscing about many things, some pleasant and some not. Actually, January 1 is really just another day in the string of days that makes up our lives. But because we segment our lives into years, I guess it is a good time to reflect on the way the year played out. Now, about my reading life, let me say I had lofty goals.

Unfortunately, I didn't reach my reading goals this year - real life got in the way. In addition, I have been stuck on Armadale by Wilkie Collins for weeks now. That in itself has set me back several books on my TBR stack. But for the fact that it's Wilkie, I would have given up in frustration and moved on to something else. The story is actually very interesting - and sufficiently "twisty," but I think Wilkie could have economized on the character and plot development a bit and whittled down the 600+ pages by quite a few. I've never been inclined to read multiple books at the same time (even though I got two really nifty bookmarks for Christmas), so I'm determined to plow through the remains in order to get to the rest of the reading stack.

I had planned to tell you about my favorite and least favorite reads; however, like a mother reflecting on her children sleeping peacefully in their beds, picking a favorite is almost impossible. Conversely, the worst rushes to the finish line unchallenged. It is the only (read) book I have on the shelves that I will gladly give to a new home, and I feel more than a little guilty that it is so unloved. It's enough to make one want to read another bowser just so the two can keep each other company.

Yes, yes, I know. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski received rave reviews - some readers going so far as to say it is one of the best books of all time - comparing it to Shakespeare's Hamlet. And, after all, it was an O-o-o-o-prah book, so that seals the deal. I found it plodding, over worked, and just plain too long. I could feel it trying very hard to be precious. So I, and about 10 other people on the planet, say "blah" to this book. I give it my "Golden Toilet Plunger Award" being, I think, the only book I can say I truly hated.

In the disappointing category, I will have to nominate The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I was predisposed to really love it, but for some reason it just failed to resonate with me. The plot was ripe with promise, but it never bloomed. In fairness, somewhere in the middle of it I got a shipment of books from Barnes & Noble. I am like a bumble bee in a field of flowers when a fresh new book arrives all crisp and fragrant. I think I might have been a tad anxious to flit on to the new pretty flowers and became itchy to finish the Setterfield. I raced through the last third of it and perhaps didn't give it the attention it deserved. I did like Setterfield's writing, and I might try it again one day. But, I don't know. There are just so many books to read....

Okay, enough kvetching. Among the books I loved, in no special order and certainly not a complete list:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which was unique in its premise, beautifully written and hauntingly sad and hopeful at the same time.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. A book on the journey through grief, this memoir touched me in a very personal way, and introduced me to the straightforward yet lyrical writing of Didion. Perhaps some of its appeal for me was the timing. In any event, it was among the best of the best.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. This little novella was so clever and funny and bright. It is the perfect little book to read when life is gray and nasty and needs a quick injection of warmth.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. This novel is the first in a proposed trilogy set in the 19th century with the slave ship Ibus, the Opium Wars and swashbuckling adventure at its core. I flat out loved it. The characters are so sharply drawn and unique they could have been created by Dickens. The intricate story line, in fact, is very Dickensian. The reader may initially have a little difficulty with the vernacular Ghosh uses in the dialogue, but there is a glossary in the back and, like learning a language by hearing it and speaking it, after a time one gets the gist. Ghosh writes brilliantly; and, on the the strength of this book, The Glass Palace is next on my reading list.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is in the young readers genre, but adults will miss a wickedly wonderful read if they pass up this 2009 Newbery Medal Award winner. Nobody Owens is orphaned when his entire family is murdered in their beds. Escaping by chance, "Bod" wanders into a graveyard and the resident ghosts elect to raise, nurture and educate him, together with the man appointed to be his Guardian. The graveyard is the only place where Bod is safe, and outside its gates the murderer awaits to finish his task. I actually broke into sobs at the end of the book. This is an easy to read book (as it should be considering its intended audience) which should not be missed at any age.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick was unlike anything I had experienced before. Not really a graphic novel, this is a big book of beautifully written prose interspersed with pencil sketches which actually provides a continuum of the story. The words and the pictures interlock like the fingers on both hands to become one whole - neither will stand alone. The sketches pull the reader into the story much like a film would. And although it is very cleverly told, the story, taken by itself, is delicious.

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins. I read the first chapter on line. I can only recall one other occasion when reading the first chapter of a book totally grabbed me. (Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone. There was just something about Prof. Dumbledore and Prof. McGonagall standing out on a muggle street in the dead of night which made me want to read more.) This is a short book, and so utterly Wilkie that any follower will be rapturous.

Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen is what one reads instead of actually running away to join the circus. The protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, tells his story from the perspective of a 93 year old man who resides in a nursing home. It weaves in and out of the past and present, as he relives his life traveling with a third-rate circus during the Depression. Gruen has populated the tale with strange (sometimes wonderful, sometimes twisted) characters that ride the circus train from small town to small town. We get to go along for the ride. It was a super read.

There were more books, of course. Happily for me, most of them were good. But the unfinished stack looms tall and appealing, and time is a very cruel master. So, onward!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas Magic

Have you heard of the tradition of Secret Santa? You exchange names with friends or co-workers and then do small acts of kindness for that person during the days leading up to Christmas - anonymously. I've been receiving little gifts from my secret Santa the last couple of weeks, and I've been thanking my S.S. through little rhymes delivered over our network's e-mail system. The latest gift was a lovely snowman kitchen mitt. I brought him home last night, and a very strange thing happened. This will be the rhyme I post on Monday when I return to work, but it tells a tale so fraught with Christmas magic, I have to share it with you as well. (wink)

The Snowman and the Hula Girl:

The snowman on the oven mitt
Came to my house, a Christmas gift.
Around his new found home he looked
Saw pots and pans and cups on hooks.

Across the room - so sweet - so shy -
Another kitchen mitt he spied.
A Hula girl with lips ripe red,
A wreath of blossoms on her head.

She wore a skirt of island grass.
A fetching Polynesian lass.

The snowman, pierced by Cupid's dart
Called out with aching, melting heart,
"Oh Hula girl, I am quite smitten.
You are the most beguiling mitten.
You fill my head like summer wine.
Please say you'll join your mitt in mine."

The Hula girl, now teary eyed,
First paused - then sighed - and then replied,
"You are of frost and I of sun,
You're snow and ice, of which I'm none.
There is no way we can be one,"
She answered soft and warm as rum.

What happened next I cannot say.
I only know love has its way,
And in the darkness of that night
Courage reigned and fear took flight.

At break of day what do you think
I saw beside my kitchen sink?
Upon the counter they reclined,
Side by side, their thumbs entwined.

What miracle joins ice and fire?
Well - - nothing less than love's desire.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"The Time Has Come," The Walrus Said...

..."To talk of many things: Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax -- Of cabbages and kings...

And also of Thanksgiving, and Nantucket Grey walls, and preparing for Christmas, and of course, the Big Book Sale.

Katharine spent Thanksgiving with Uncle Rudy and his family. She folded the napkins and sent me this photo. I counted my blessings...not the least of which were hearing the happiness in her voice and seeing photographs of her smiling again.

Now, on to the Big Book Sale!

Lydia Bastianich, Jamie Oliver and Joan Nathan to add to the cookbook collection. It's hard to see the spine on the Nathan book, but it's titled The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. Kitchen Confidential is there because my son purloined my other copy when I was 3/4 of the way finished. Only difference, I paid $15.00 for my first copy and .50 for this one!

Villas At Table is more a treatise on the joy of eating than a cookbook, although it does have some recipes. Grandmother and the Priests by Taylor Caldwell was published under a different name (which escapes me) in the U.K. and The Poisonwood Bible I've already explained.

The Wizard of Oz was the first chapter book I ever read. I was thrilled to find this volume of The Sea Fairies by L. Frank Baum at the sale (despite the rather grotesque and creepy cover illustration).

The DuMaurier was published in the sixties and is, I believe, set in Cornwall. This is a book club edition and it will fit in nicely with The Glass Blowers and The Flight of the Falcon, which I got as a teenager when they came out as book club selections. Du Maurier was my favorite author in high school, along with Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle. And The Hudson River In Literature speaks for itself.

A Louise Mae Alcott book I'd never heard of - about obsession and stalking. A Long Fatal Love Chase was published about 100 years after her death, was it not? Very un-LouisaMaeAlcott-ish I should think. Whatever was Louisa thinking under those lilacs? Still waters...

Please don't laugh. As soon as I saw it I absolutely HAD to have this book from 1955. Apparently, I need not have worried about someone arm wrestling me for it. I would hate to think of its fate had I not saved it from the dump pile. It still has the little card pocket glued into the back cover and sign out card. Poor little thing had only been checked out about 8 times since it first came out. ("That MUCH?" said one of my daughter's friends. Always a smarty pants.) But Mr. Himsworth, an Englishman, is totally enamoured with his subject. He addresses it with such gusto! Oh, it gets even better (or worse depending on your perspective). This book began as a series of lectures. So...people actually got dressed and went to a hall somewhere to hear Mr. Himsworth wax poetic about cutlery and, hopefully, stayed awake. Mr. Himsworth's lectures were a - destination. And if that were not remarkable enough, some editor somewhere actually suggested he work the lectures into a book, and then a publisher published it!! How cool is that? You can't imagine how much there is to know about the story of cutlery until you start to think about it - which apparently few people ever do. Please note, it is not a history of cutlery - but rather the story of cutlery. A subtle yet important distinction. Cutlery has a story to tell, and Mr. Himsworth was the one to tell it. Perhaps not a book you take to bed on a cold winter night, nevertheless it has a quirky charm I could not pass up. As an aside, the back cover shows a lovely depiction of a pair of shears.

The complete stash.

Running in Heels is in there simply because it looked like fun, and The Mitford Bedside Companion for reasons I cannot now remember, especially since I've never read any of the books in the Mitford series.

Now, the Nantucket Gray walls:

This is the sunroom (my flash wasn't working very well, but you can get the general idea of the stencils - oh - hello, Grad. I can see your reflection).

Magnolia Blossom and a better picture of the magnolia blossoms (soon to be history) The walls will be (what else?) and the trim work will be a glossy bright white, rather than the dull creamy white it is currently. The photo is crooked, but I assure you the door, in reality, is not. I'll unveil my "after" pictures, well...after.

The sunroom will soon become the same Nantucket Gray, shown here in my kitchen. The feeling it evokes is calm and restful - not gray and depressing as the name might imply. I've never been to Nantucket, but I would like to see where my Nantucket Gray would fit in. By the way, the illustrations come from the 1926 Radiograph yearbook, from The Girl Graduate fame. I didn't take Evie and Viola's yearbook apart, though. I wouldn't have had the heart. However, the 1926 Radiograph was from Duffy's senior year. The drawings represent Humor, Organizations, and Athletics, and are delightfully art deco. There is one additional plate entitled "Seniors" which will also go up on the wall - as soon as I find the identical frame.

Tonight I'll go home and put up the Christmas tree. I might begin taping off the woodwork in the sunroom. On Friday I'll open my nice new gallon of paint, purchased at the hardware store on Saturday (together with a wonderful squeegee that extends up to 7 feet for cleaning those tall windows.) And who knows, I might just crawl into bed with The Story of Cutlery and a glass of wine after all.