Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Please Drop In And Stay Awhile

If you would come over to the house and sit down beside the fire - it's cool enough this time of year, especially in the evening, to warrant a nice little fire - I might brew us a good pot of tea.  Earl Grey, perhaps.  I might even take down a bottle of a modest brandy (you like brandy, don't you?) and then we could settle in and talk about what we've read this year.  Please pull up that wing-back chair.  That one right there is quite comfy.

I had these chairs made for me...let me see...25 years ago.  I selected the frame style and then the fabric and waited six months for them to be completed.   The cushions are filled with down - soft on your bottom.  A little less wear on the derriere, so to speak. The cost seemed frightening at the time, but I knew they would last forever - or at least longer than I would - and they have not disappointed.  I clearly remember how old they are because on the very day they were finally delivered my daughter took a crayon and drew a lovely picture of a "princess" on the back of one of them. She was almost 4.  She was also very considerate because she chose the color pink!  At the time, the chairs were covered in a woven fabric depicting thistles in pastel shades of blue, and gray and pink.  The princess blended in after a going over with a soft cloth and some Ivory soap.  I know it sounds crazy, but I wanted to leave just a bit of the princess remaining - a slender finger pointing to a blue thorn; the hint of a happy smile peering above a curling vine.  The chair was officially in the home of a family with children and it was appropriate that it should settle in just as it did.

So please do settle yourself in as well.  If you are still a bit chilly you can wrap that knitted shawl over you.  I don't believe in heated rooms, to the frustration of the gas company, because all the oxygen gets sucked out of them.  They also dry the skin and give me twitchy airways which are things I can live without.

The best books read this year were all great surprises and I never would have guessed they would be the ones to make the cut.   One of the assistants at the office insisted I read a book by Stephen King that she had just finished.  Years ago I read The Dark Half, which by the way I read over a monstrously stormy weekend with all the attendant lightening and cracking thunder.  Perfect for a book that scared the bejeezus out of me.  After that I've never been tempted to pick up another King.  She was so enthusiastic, however, that I actually plunked down fifteen bucks and ordered a copy of 11/22/63 from Barnes & Noble.  It's hefty - over 840 pages - and I hoped I could stay engaged long enough to finish it.  We've all been there.  You're reading a book and at some point you're thinking about fixing the drip in the kitchen sink or how to get that spot out of the rug where the dog decided to punish you for forgetting to pick up his Milk Bones at the grocery.  You drag yourself back to the page and re-read that paragraph again, this time with your brows furrowed in forced concentration when the next thing you know you're wondering if you paid the lawn guy.  That didn't happen with this one.   I had a really hard time putting it down and restrained the urge to find out how it ended by jumping to the back and reading the last few pages early.  But I didn't.  I waited and it was worth the wait.  I seldom suddenly burst into tears on the last page of a book, but I did on this one.  I did not expect that to happen.  I was a mess.

The other big surprise was the audio version of The Invasion Of The Body Snathcers by Jack Finney.  I am not a huge fan of audio books, but I get them from the library because I like to "read" during my commute to work.  This particular version is read by Kristoffer Tabori and his voice and tone are pitch perfect.  I am also not a fan of Science Fiction, or at least I wasn't until now.  The story was a perfect blend of humor and horror and suspense.

I found two new authors this year:  Louise Penny and Jeanne Ray.  I don't know where I heard about Penny (but thank you Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are). Litlove over at Tales From The Reading Room suggested Ray.  (And if I knew how to link to her post on Julie And Romeo, I would do that here.)   As much as I liked the Julie, I loved Eat Cake and cared about every one of those wacky, flawed, funny characters.  That is a lot of what it's all about, right?  Spending time with people you like and cheering for them to be happy.  That one was a real gem.

Louise Penny writes a series of mysteries starring Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Surete du Quebec.  Also known as The Three Pines Series, in the books I've read so far Gamache goes about solving unconventional homicides by sifting through loads of suspects, strange characters, and the requisite red herring or two or more.  In a word, they are good, my favorites so far being The Beautiful Mystery and How The Light Gets In.

There was a little book suggested by, I think, Stefanie over at So Many Books that was subtly magnificent.  Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor is so short it can be read in about an hour.  Not really a book, but more of a short story, it is positively gripping and amazing and all those other superlatives and I hope you will take a little time to find it (I downloaded it to my Kindle) and read it.  There will be almost no investment of time, but it will stay with you I promise.

John Adams, by David McCullough has been sitting on my bookshelves for a long time and I finally got around to reading it early this year.  Do most Americans even realize what we owe this man who became the second President of the United States?  McCullough will educate them.  The book is really a love story.  The love of a man for his country and the love between the man and his wife, Abigail.  What a pair that would be to have over for dinner.  Since I've been reading about time travel, that might be a good destination.

I've re-read a couple of favorites this year which will always be "the best" reads, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, by James Hilton and the Harper Lee masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird.  The ones we know and love and can almost recite by heart are always on the best list, like the comfy flannel shirt - the one that can't be replaced even when the buttons fall off and holes pop open at the elbows.

Speaking of comfy, may I pour you another brandy?  As I do, kindly tell me what you've been up to and what you've been reading.  You have my undivided attention.  I'll be giving a presentation on the topic of "Communication" next year for a professional organization I belong to, so I had to learn how to do it myself.  It seems I've been doing it wrong all these years.  Did you know that listening is the first step in being an effective communicator?  Who knew?  I guess my mother was right all those years ago when she advised me, "If you're talking, you're not learning." Wisdom,  right there.  Right..smack...there.  So I am listening with all of my ears. What is that you say?  No, I only have two.

Oh...and please help yourself to another cookie.  They're gluten free.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas 2013 And Looking Ahead

We've come to the end of another year.  And, of course, what would the end of the year be without my boring you with a list of my favorite books read this year?

But first, it seems only natural that I should discuss Christmas - not my favorite holiday, I admit.  Oh, don't get me wrong, I love the "true meaning" of the day.  What I have always dreaded is the stress.  But this year I found a way around all that.  It was quite simple really.  Who knew?

1.  What goes up, must come down.  Keep decorating simple.  For years I erected the 10+ foot behemoth that lurks for 11 months of the year in its two coffin-sized Tupperware cases - dangerous to drag down the stairs and difficult to pull back up.  It takes an evening to set up and requires one to concentrate on the alphabet (is this row "W" or "V"?  And although I know the alphabet and have for a very long time, I still have to recite it as I go from row to row to be certain which one comes next.  One year G was attached before F and the result was a very strange looking tree.) A pox on that jazz. This year I opted for a fresh Frasier Fir not too much taller than myself...and a nice sturdy stand and Voila!  I had tons of lights and ornaments left over, but I used the most important ones...the homemade ones.  It turned out grand.
 No outside lights, just a wreath on the door.  No elaborate crystal things hanging from the chandelier.  No life-sized Santas waving hello-ho-ho or reindeer nodding their heads in unison, red-noses twinkling.  Nope.  Just a few orbs that glowed, and flowers from my brother and sister-in-law, and a rosemary bush trimmed into the shape of a Christmas tree.

 (I had second thoughts about the red lights over the fireplace.  Definitely over-kill and a mistake; I took them down but not before I snapped a picture.  I put the glowing orbs on some candle-holders I've had and I think I'll keep them up all year long.  I just won't turn them on.  I figure if people stop suing each other and decide to get along, I'll be out of a job and I can always set up a tent using the glowing orbs to tell fortunes.  You know, to pay the mortgage.  I can blacken one of my front teeth, dress in gypsy attire, and become
"Madame Gradskaya - Seer and Teller of Fortunes".  Credit me with always thinking ahead.)

So, that was about it.

2.  Avoid the Mall.  I tried to do as much shopping as I could on the Island.  What I couldn't find here, I ordered on-line.  But if one pays attention and shows some creativity there are a lot of cool things to find right in one's own backyard.  The WI Farmers Market has a few vendors about whom I am wildly and madly mad. My favorite is a beekeeper - he prefers apiarist - who lives on the Island and sells lovely honey and honey-based soaps (pumpkin spice, frankincense and myrrh, rosemary mint; lavender and mint and on and on).  And then there is the artisan pasta maker who also sells a magnificent red pepper sauce in lovely distinctive jars. Who would not welcome a basket filled with any of that?  I haven't even mentioned the breads, and cakes, and artisan jams and jellies.  Speaking of which, I made my own Hot Pepper Jelly and Savannah Cheese Straws as gifts for some friends this year.

The peppers were purchased at a local farm stand.  And there is always ACE Hardware...my Saturday morning mecca..the great and bountiful land of EVERYTHING...of barbecue accoutrement, sun hats, garden gloves, kitchen gadgets, outdoor clothing - some of which are suitable for safari in the event you are going on one - fishing equipment, scented candles, camping gear, rifles, small appliances, chimineas, night shirts with cute pictures of dozing cats, cushy warm socks, necklaces made of small Christmas lights that actually twinkle, work shirts, jeans, boots, Crocs for men, women and children, dog beds, yard flags, plants, garden ornaments, fountains,  and...as long as I'm there I might as well pick up a few paint chip samples since I'm always painting something, right?  And how about a new caulk gun?  I can always use that.  Who needs the Mall?  Not I.

3.  Get invited to dinner.

So there you have it...my prescription for a stress-free Christmas.  And it was!

So on to books...but I've run out of time I'm afraid.  I'll have to save that for another day soon.  In the meantime, But wait!  my my...what is that I see in your future? Come closer, my dear.  Don't be shy.  Look carefully...my crystal ball is misty...misty...what's this?  The light is breaking through...the mist rises...yes...yes...it is becoming clear...and clearer.  I see...what?...I see...Yes!  I see a bright and happy New Year, filled with joy and happiness and many many books for you, my pretty (or handsome) one.  Madame Gradskaya is never wrong...the Orb Sees All!  (You may put a dollar in the jar...all tips are welcome.)

Happy, Joyful New Year, my friends.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Book Thief - The Movie

I seldom get excited to see my favorite books made into movies; and, I almost always avoid the cinematic versions.  After all, whose perspective can improve upon the reader's (my) own imagination?   The first chapter book I ever read was The Wizard of Oz; but, I may have seen the movie first.  They were similar yet different from each other; I was not disappointed in either one and both remain favorites.

I can see how making a film version of Gone With The Wind and keeping it as intact as I would have wished would have been impossible.  Words like "mini-series" and "television" were hardly a part of the lexicon in 1939.  And in all honesty, the gigantic story that it is, and will remain, would certainly demand a gigantic screen no matter how many advancements to technology were to be realized in time.  Condensing a book such as that one into a movie - even an almost 4-hour movie - required some scrupulous editing of the story.   The movie is a triumph in its own right.

But other really good books have not fared well on the screen - at least not in my opinion.  Never Let Me Go and Water For Elephants disappointed me.  Les Miserables did not.  Sometimes the very things that turn a good story into a great book - detailed character development, building the foundation of background, a deft hand at plotting - do not translate themselves into a screenplay that must tell the same story in a very limited amount of time.

If I was asked to list ten titles I have read within the last ten years which have all the elements I personally look for in an exceptional book, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak would certainly make the cut.  For me, it was one of those books that, upon reading the last line, one slowly closes and is struck speechless.  Of course, a wonderful thing about reading - among many wonderful things - is that it is a personal experience not necessarily shared by every reader.  But that was my reaction upon finishing the book; I simply loved it.

So when a friend asked me if I wanted to see the movie this weekend,  I didn't hesitate to say, "Yes!"  But almost immediately I began to have doubts.  I convinced myself not to expect too much; I steeled myself to be disappointed.  I need not have worried.  The movie is lovely, poignant, heart-wrenching, beautiful. I am not a movie critic any more than I am a book critic.  However, as far as I am concerned this one was certainly worth the price of admission - with or without the popcorn.  (And since it was my $7.50, I figure that is quite enough.)

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Return Of The Big Book Sale

I promised myself I would stay away.   Certainly, it would take a little self-control but surely my strength of will was stronger than the addiction.  I admit, I had already made plans to take the day off from work.  I convinced myself it was not to make it easier to succumb to weakness, but only because I wanted a little rest.  I reasoned I'd putter in the garden, tinker in the kitchen.  I was not - not - planning on attending the Big Book Sale at the library.  No, sirree.  No, nope. The day broke with crashing thunder, lightening...a real frog choker.  No one in a reasonable frame of mind could have voluntarily ventured out on a day such as that.  But I was neither reasoned nor rational.  I jumped out of bed, brewed a cup of coffee, dressed in clothes made for bending and stretching, put on the most comfortable shoes I had, spent some time checking my list of books and authors, grabbed two canvas bags, and drove off into the deluge for the 45 minute journey - or it is in good weather.

Due to the storm, the crowd was much sparser than it normally is.  Those of us intrepid souls who braved the weather waited patiently in sodden shoes for the magic doors to open.  Some were equipped with suitcases on wheels; some carried mail bins stamped "Property of the U.S. Postal Service - Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law."  (Apparently for some, prison is a small price to pay.) There were canvas bags, and grocery bags, and tote bags, and a Red-Flyer wagon. As always, there was also an anticipatory air of excitement wafting over the crowd diminished in size, perhaps, but not in enthusiasm.  Here, with dripping umbrellas and hair frizzed with humidity, stood the hard core believers.  I accepted my fall off the wagon and mentally plotted my course, the well-known map of the room branded by now in my brain.  (One might think that frenzy reigns when we are finally admitted, but that never happens - no matter the size of the crowd.  People are quiet, polite and respectful.  Like religious pilgrims in a cathedral, I guess.)

My first stop on these outings is always "Cookbooks."  I opened a Bon Appetite "Hors d'oeuvres" volume and it fell open to "Slovenian Mushroom Turnovers."  I took it as a sign.  My father was a first generation American whose family came from Slovenia at the beginning of the 20th century.  My mother is also a first generation American whose family came from Slovenia.  Since he was from Chicago and she was from Jump Off Joe, Washington, it was an impossibility that they should ever meet, get married, and have three second generation American Slovenians.  Nevertheless, that is exactly what happened.  In my teen years, my father was always casting a jaundiced eye at anyone who might want to date one of his daughters.  Woe be it that the young man in question should be of some ethnicity other than Slovenian.  Our argument that the only Slovenians known to exist in our milieu were relatives simply fell on his deaf ears.  I put the "Slovenian Mushroom Turnovers" into my bag.  With that, the games had begun.

It took about two hours to go through the tables of books; I was determined to be selective.  I was particularly happy to find State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, a novel in which a medical researcher at a pharmaceutical company is sent into the Amazon jungle to investigate the death of her lab partner who had been dispatched to Brazil to unearth news of the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson.  Swenson is a scientist working for the same company and is attempting to develop a miracle fertility drug.  I have not read Bel Canto, but heard so many positive things about it I figured it this one would be worth the dollar.

I could not believe my luck when I spotted The Ghost Road by Pat Barker which won the Booker Prize in 1995.  Oddly, I had just read a synopsis of the book the prior week when I was plotting out my future reading plan and this book had been on my list for some time.  It is the last book of a trilogy, but the reviews I have read seem to agree that it could stand alone, so it went into the bag.

Clifton Fadiman is quoted as saying that in his opinion The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout was the best of all the Nero Wolfe stories.  Which, if true, would also make it one of the best detective novels period.  Not everyone agreed when it was first published, however:
"Have always enjoyed your Nero and Archie, but I read your story in the April issue of Argosy. Goodbye." ~ John Wayne (to Rex Stout)
Uh-oh.  I take it "the Duke" didn't like it very much but I suspect that had more to do with politics than with the quality of the writing.  We are decades away from the J. Edgar Hoover era so I probably won't have the same visceral reaction. Anyway, I found a 1965 first edition, inscribed with the owner's name in lovely penmanship and dated.  I could not pass it up.

Lingering in the detective genre for awhile... Margery Allingham was an English writer of whodunits - my favorites involving that intrepid detective Albert Campion - whom I "discovered" just a few years ago.  I love the Felony & Mayhem editions of her work and have four of them:  Miracle Mile, Crime At Black Dudley, Flowers For The Judge, and Dancers In Mourning.   Because it wasn't a F&M edition - with its distinctive covers - I almost missed seeing The Tiger In The Smoke.   Not caring whether it would blend in on the bookshelf with its neighbors, I eagerly grabbed it.  I understand Albert Campion takes a bit of a back seat to the villain and serial killer, Jack Havoc - who sounds like the answer to the question, "What's in a name?"

Another title on my bucket-list of books is A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving.  Found it, had to have it, put it in the bag (which was growing very heavy at this point).

I have recently become a fan of Louise Penny and the Armand Gamache series, so I bagged A Trick Of The Light.  I enjoyed The Beautiful Mystery so much after renting it from the library that I ordered How The Light Gets In, her newest, from Barnes & Noble which arrived in the mail just the other day.  Anne Perry is also a new-ish author for me, and a favorite of a friend whose taste in books can be trusted without question.  I've enjoyed the ones I've read.  I spotted a copy of  Half Moon Street in a box on the floor beneath a table squeezed next to a wall - which is why one should always wear yoga pants to a Big Book Sale.

Well, I made my way along the miles of spines.  Selected a few more.  Fourteen books - fourteen dollars.  All hardbound and all in nearly pristine condition. Some Philippa Gregory, a Daphne DuMaurier, Jacqueline Winspear.  I picked up, put down, picked up, put down and walked away from Fannie Flagg, Charles Todd, Anita Shreve, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Amitov Ghosh and a volume of poetry by Ted Hughes.  Could not find any Ishiguro or Hilary Mantel.  Said not this time to Daniel Silva  and Jasper Fforde (although that one hurt) and Barbara Kingsolver.  Barely glanced over at Cornwall and DeMille. Ignored James Patterson altogether.  By the time I got to the audio books, only cassettes remained.

But, you know, the experience wasn't all about finding treasures for myself - it never is.  I loved seeing all the Moms pushing strollers.  Hearing:  "Yes, you can pick out any books you like," and seeing kids staking out their claims to stacks and stacks, in some cases carrying loads that were nearly as large as they were.  I watched the very old gentleman whose wife sat by a big window, in a wheelchair, as he brought one title and then another to her - his slender hands patting her on her shoulder as she paged through them, one by one, and then place the "keepers" in her lap.  I wanted to hug them both.  Teachers standing near the Children's and YA sections complained about the slim pickings offered by the Board of Education and took it upon themselves to buy books for their classrooms.  ("There's no variety in what we have.  How can I interest them in reading with what I'm given?"  Response:  "Well, that's why I'm here too.")  At the "Large Print" section, I heard one lady say to another, "Anything by so-and-so is going to be good!"  And the reply, "Oh, well, then you go ahead and take it."  "No, no.  I want you to have it. Go ahead.  You won't be sorry."  "Thank you."  Books just bring out the best in people it seems.

A person can become crazed with the offerings found at The Big Book Sale. There is truly always something for everyone.  And the books are so inexpensive it is difficult to exert self-control.  The big challenge is reminding oneself that one has to have room for these books to take up residence.  I have run out of shelving, so something must be done and soon.  Perhaps I will re-donate the ones I finish reading, but that's "iffy."  I can't even seem to part with the books I end up hating. I guess it is like any type of collecting.

If I do not buy another book in my lifetime - and if I live to be ancient - I will never run out of something to read.  I will surely run out of time before I run out of books.  Which, like a nice fat nest egg, brings with it a certain feeling of security.  I do not envy my children the task of disposing of it all when I go to that great library in the clouds.   I suspect they would rather I was a collector of precious gemstones - or Qualcomm stock...don't we all, kids.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

If you'd asked me an hour before, I would have said no, I did not remember the way.  I do not even think I would have remembered Lettie Hempstock's name.  But standing in that hallway, it was all coming back to me.  Memories were waiting at the edges of things, beckoning to me. Had you told me that I was seven again, I might have half-believed you, for a moment.
 But the real "Okay, get ready" moment came when I read:

I wondered if we had ever fallen in the water.  Had I pushed her into the duck pond, that strange girl who lived in the farm at the very bottom of the lane?  I remember her being in the water.  Perhaps she had pushed me in too.  Where did she go?  America?  No, Australia. That was it.  Somewhere a long way away.  
And it wasn't the sea.  It was the ocean.  
Lettie Hempstock's ocean.
I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything.
Neil Gaiman has done it again.  He has totally confounded, dazzled, pushed, pulled, prodded, and befuddled what is left of my reason with this cautionary tale of childhood.

He tells his story through the eyes of a seven year old boy (come to think of it, I do not believe the boy was given a name) who is befriended by Lettie, an eleven year old girl who may or may not be as old as the universe.

Her mother, Ginnie Hempstock, has the ability to take her big black scissors in hand and snip out the bad things that a little boy does to get himself into trouble with his parents, and then carefully stitch everything back together so that there's no reason for anyone to be angry with him.  But care must be taken to make certain the edges match perfectly and the seams don't show.  One can't leave areas of gray emptiness where unpleasant things can creep in.  Hungry things.  Dark and shapeless things.

Old Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie's grandmother, can remember when the moon was made.

Are you getting a sense, yet,  of how very strange and magical this book is?  Well, hang on -because no one can drag a reader through the terrors which lurk in the landscape of childhood better than Neil Gaiman can.

If you asked me whether I liked The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, I would tell you I don't know yet.  It is amazing, yes.  It is.  But I will have to think about it.  I'll have to read it again before I know for certain.  I am not at all convinced it is a book one "likes" in any event.  It is a book one thinks about, and nibbles at, and sticks a toe into in order to get a feeling about it, and then dives into and swims around in...like jumping into the duck pond at the end of the Hempstock's lane that really is an ocean after all.

It is an adult book about childhood fears that somehow never leave us.  Haunting is an appropriate adjective.

The little boy is waiting in the ring of grass where Lettie tells him he will be safe. He must wait there until she comes back for him.  No matter what he sees and whatever he hears, he must not venture out of the ring.  The voices, so resigned and so practical and so many in number tell him that nobody cares, no one is coming for him.  He is alone in the dark of the world.

"Now, step out of the circle and come to us.  One step is all it will take.  Just put one foot across the threshold and we will make all the pain go away forever:  the pain you feel now and the pain that is still to come.  It will never happen."
"How can you be happy in this world?  You have a hole in your heart.  You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know.  They will call you, as you grow.  There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time, until your loved ones give you poison and send you to anatomy, and even then you will die with a hole inside you, and you will wail and curse at a life ill-lived.  But you won't grow.  You can come out, and we will end it, cleanly, or you can die there, of hunger and of fear.  And when you are dead your circle will mean nothing, and we will tear out your heart and take your soul for a keepsake. "
"P'raps it will be like that," I said, to the darkness and the shadows, "and p'raps it won't.  And p'raps if it is, it would have been like that anyway.  I'm still going to wait here for Lettie Hempstock and she's going to come back to me.  And if I die here, then I still die waiting for her, and that's a better way to go than you and all you stupid horrible things tearing me to bits because I've got something inside me I don't even want"....At that moment, for once in my childhood, I was not scared of the dark.... 
Gaiman knows every half opened closet door, every dark place under the bed, every whisper heard outside the bedroom window, and all the shadows from the leaf-less trees that reach out their grasping branch fingers by the light of the moon.

He might be Peter Pan.  He may be a mad genius.  Or perhaps he is a seven year old boy perched on top of a drainpipe getting ready to jump.  Whoever he is, we are lucky he is.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Requiem for Atticus

Only you and I can help the sun to rise each coming morning.  If we don't it may drench itself out in sorrow ~ Camus
What did he mean by this?  He was a complex man, was Albert Camus.  But - oh - what a self-absorbed statement was that?  Rest assured, the sun will surely rise and surely set without our assistance and life will proceed on its own path and at its own pace.  Life and time move forward with or without us.  It will press on without my Atticus, although those of us who knew and loved him will wonder why the world has not stopped to take notice at this passing of quiet greatness.

My Atticus was an attorney named Talbird Reeve Sams.  He embodied all the noble qualities that Harper Lee infused in Atticus Finch - my favorite character in all literature. He was tall, and slender, and he spoke the truth with a soft yet deep honeyed Southern accent.  He was a man who could be trusted with his word, with a handshake.  He could be trusted to be on the right side of every moral argument.  Steadfast and unshaken as he followed his conscience.  Simply put, he was a gentleman...a gentle man. Reeve loved the law; he loved practicing the law.  He was better than good at it; he excelled.

We were friends for over 40 years.  This year brought the end of another very long-term friendship over a misunderstanding.  But Reeve never misunderstood anything; he never judged.  He saw me for the person I was (am) and loved me nevertheless.

I am sad; I am happy; I am fortunate; I am unfortunate.  The privilege of not only knowing him, but of being his friend, is tempered by the knowledge that I now know the difference between a world in which he lived and breathed and one without him in it.  It is much less painful to never have loved - to which I say run toward the pain and embrace it and hold tight to it and thank Heaven for it whenever you can.

Goodbye my friend.  Godspeed.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hits, Misses, and the Tower of Broken Resolutions

Summer is apparently not conducive for blogging on Planet Grad; but, since it seems a little quiet out in the blogosphere in general I assume everyone has joined me on the beach.  I'm the one in the big yellow hat sitting just past that large clump of sea grass to the right of the wooden swing...the one not wearing a bikini (something for which you may all thank me.)

Although not blogging, I have been chugging along on my personal challenge to read 60 books in the year.  It's a very doable challenge - one book per week plus one audio book for the commute to and from work each month.  I am actually a little ahead of schedule and had hopes of exceeding the 60, but I'm not too confident that will happen.  You see, things roll along seamlessly for a while, and then I hit the skids with a bit of a clunker - or a non-clunker that becomes a bit of a slog because it is dense and difficult but too worthwhile to abandon. 

Two of the surprising "hits" have been novels by Jeanne Ray, an author I had not heard of before Litlove, of Tales From The Reading Room blogging fame, wrote a post reviewing Julie And Romeo.  It was such a delightful, happy read that I borrowed Eat Cake from the library and enjoyed it even more.  And then of course there were the usual suspects:  Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series, and a re-read of To Kill A Mockingbird.  All good stuff - straightforward, well-written and enjoyable stuff.  And, except for Mockingbird, pretty easy on the brain.

That cannot be said for two of the shortest novels I've read this year.  Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner, covers about 185 pages in which very little happens other than taking tea and going for walks and having conversations with strangers. Nevertheless, it was one of the best things I've read lately although it took me an inordinate amount of time to finish it.  If I had to describe it in one word it might be subtly compelling - which proves I need at least two words to give it proper credit.

The other even shorter novel (a mere 119 pages) took even longer to read.  In Equal Danger, by Leonardo Sciascia, someone is methodically killing officials of an imaginary country (which resembles Sicily, by the way) and Inspector Rogas is assigned the task of solving the case - but it just isn't that easy.  It never is.  What a strange little book.  Is it a thriller, a murder mystery, a political commentary, a metaphysical character study?  I never was able to categorize it, but it sure was poetry in prose.  I  took me nearly a week to read - a mere 20 pages a day was all I could muster and it made my head hurt, but in a good way.

Pulling Taffy, by Tinky Weisblat is lovely little gem of a memoir.  It covers one year in the life of a mother who is living with Alzheimer's, and her daughter who is determined that "living" remains the operative word.  Make no mistake, these are no ordinary mother and daughter.  Jan Weisblat lived an accomplished, interesting and full life most of us would envy.  It ended with grace and dignity.   If you need something funny, poignant, sometimes sad, but always uplifting, this is the ticket.

There have only been a few "misses," but when they were bad I found them awful.  She's Come Undone, by Wally Lamb was not simply a bore, it was populated by characters I found obnoxious and self-absorbed.  Unsympathetic characters are very often the death knell for a book and, thinking back, I can't remember one I liked.  The whole thing fell with a dull thud.

Let me begin by stating:  I love Neil Gaiman.  The Graveyard Book is one of my all-time favorites as is The Anansi Boys so it really pains me to say that American Gods was a big, fat loser for me.  In the "book world" this will sound like heresy, I know, but hear me out.  Look...I don't use profanity very much myself, but it doesn't particularly offend me and by the time one reaches my age almost all of it has lost its shock value anyway.  I get that some of the characters are very rough around the edges and it would seem that their vocabularies should follow suit. Ditto the sexual situations - although very graphic and in many cases unnecessary to the plot, no big shockeroo there either.  Here's what I found tedious about the book.  I equate it to being at a cocktail party populated with colorful and exotic characters...interesting characters I'd like to talk to.  But for some reason, the weird drunk gloms onto me and drones on and on about some topic upon which he believes himself to be an expert.  The drunk thinks he is erudite and fascinating.  In the meantime, I'm looking around the room, the condensation from my drink pooling in my fingers, trying to catch the eye of someone sane who will come and rescue me by taking me by the elbow and leading me over to the chips and dip table.  Alas, salvation never comes.  After that crazy drunk wanders off, another takes his place.  One after the other, all night, until I've had enough and all I want to do is go home where it's quiet.  That is my review of American Gods.  But my disappointment is not enough for me to swear off Gaiman and his newest is right there in my Tower of Broken Resolutions.

Which leads me to this:
I only made one New Years Resolution:  I was to read only from books I already had on my shelves.  At the time I not only meant it, I thought I could do it...cold turkey...without a twelve-step program.  The above stack represents my falling off the No-More-Buying-Books wagon and does not include books I purchased at the library's Big Book Sale in March (which I think numbered 17) nor does it include additions to my cookbook collection.  Additionally, there have been loans from the library.  In my defense, two of the above books were review copies I received directly from the authors (The Almond Tree and The Deadfall Project) and two are gifts (Catching Fire and Mockingjay)  At this point, once these books get put back onto the shelves, I will have officially run out of bookshelf space.  Normal folks would simply refrain from any further purchases, or resort to giving some titles away.  Book-folk think more creatively and a little less pragmatically.  They decide where to build more shelving and calculate the cost later.  

There is one more photo I must share with you.  Behold my $185 Japanese eggplant!   After purchasing the containers, soil, mushroom compost, watering can, and plants at the aforementioned cost, I have harvested that-there eggplant and those little yellow pear tomatoes, which are not yet ripe but which have been hanging on for dear life for 3 weeks without any intention of ever becoming ripe. The green sprig is oregano, which is prolific.  I was complaining to my brother about the sparse harvest and the fact I could have had a truck-load of eggplant delivered to my front door for the cost of that one lovely specimen, when, with the wisdom and sunny outlook on life that all true gardeners seem to possess, he sighed and explained, "But, that's not the point, Linderino."   Looking at my Tower of Broken Resolutions, I think I know what he meant.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Make My Day

We all have ways to cope.  When life brings its stresses, as it always does and will continue to do, we seek comfort.  For some it is drink, for others it is shoe shopping.  Some of us get a massage or a manicure, while others scope out the nearest French bakery.  I can personally attest that chocolate works quite well.  All of the above sound very fine and I would welcome any one of them.  But the ultimate for me is walking into a book store, which is what I did yesterday.  The smell of a book store is probably as alluring to me as an opium den was to Sherlock Holmes.  The world suddenly seems a kinder and gentler place.

As always, I headed straight for the sale table.  Even in the distance I could see it.  At first, I doubted my perception thinking my eyes must be cruel deceivers.  I could not...simply could NOT...believe them.  Stacked in beautiful, plump splendor were three copies of "Essential Pepin", the cookbook by Jacques Pepin that accompanies his PBS TV cooking series.  I honed in on the table like a hawk that had spotted a mouse (fearing a hoard of shoppers had noticed the same thing at the same time and was hot on my heels to grab them up before I got my chance) to snatch a copy.  I ran my hands over the cover and hugged it.  Yes.  I hugged it.  My mission was accomplished in spades.  No.  More than spades.  In fireworks and a brass band.  No.  More than that even.  Not a brass band.  An orchestra...with Pavarotti singing the famous aria from Nessun Dorma. "vincero,  vincero,   vinceeeeerrrrrooooo".  Well, I might be exaggerating just a bit.  But it was pretty darn exciting nevertheless. The TV show is on The Create Channel, a public broadcasting channel in South Carolina.  It comes on in the middle of the night, though, and unless I can't sleep (which is not usually a problem) I miss it.  And now, here he was...Jacques, in all his adorably handsome and culinary splendor for the bargain price of $11.68 - with my B&N membership card - a substantial savings over its original $40 cost.  I admit it might not work for everyone, but it made my day.

After returning to work and doing what I  get paid to do, I finally went home, patted the dog on the head, scratched the cat under her chin, and put dinner on to cook.  I poured myself a glass of Pinot Grigio and hit the play button on the stereo - Doo Wop on that day.  Comfortably seated in my reading chair, I released Jacques from his shopping bag and noticed for the first time that the cover announced the book came with a 3 hour DVD!  Could this get much better?  Yes.  When I opened the front cover I saw that the book was signed!  In the DVD Pepin shows in detail all the techniques I would ever need to know (from how to tie an apron - seriously, he explains the correct way a chef ties an apron - to proper knife work, prepping vegetables, making meringues, the difference between croissant dough and puff pastry and why the techniques are different, the special preparation needed for certain vegetables, classic French omelets, correct techniques for making proper French breads, dealing with shell fish, as well as the preparation of certain wild game - which I admit I had to fast forward through because, let's face it, French cuisine or not I doubt I will ever need to know how to remove the lungs, liver and kidneys from a fresh rabbit carcass.  And then, of course, there is some discussion of wines.  It just goes on and on and on.  3 heavenly hours of learning at the feet of the Master.)

The book itself is hefty and is lovely to hold.  It has what I can only explain as a padded, hard cover.  The pen and ink artwork is, well, artsy - with lots of flourishes.  There are no pictures of the dishes, but my favorite cookbooks don't have them anyway.   But the endpapers do contain photos of Jacques in his many stages of life, my favorite being the one of him and Julia Child facing the camera.  He is seated and she is standing behind him, with her arms around his neck in a warm hug.  I felt a warm hug myself as I slowly turned the pages.  Once again, life was good.

Monday, May 13, 2013

LOL, "Like" and IMHO

"The human mind is so constituted that in many instances it finds the truth when wholly unable to find the way that leads to it." ~ Justice Logan E. Bleckley (1879), Chief Justice, Supreme Court of Georgia.

 If I were able to have a conversation with Justice Bleckley I would add sometimes we simply get "gob-smacked" with a stinging truth for which we were not searching. This happened to me recently when I e-mailed an old and, I thought, dear friend about the recent death of a former classmate. I admit I was surprised that my friend did not remember the Dear Departed One, since I recall a letter she sent me decades ago about a conversation they had during a particularly trying time for the classmate. So troubling, in fact, that the letter stuck in my memory even though I was not involved in the conversation. By return e-mail my friend stated she did not recall the girl and I explained why I had gotten the impression they were close friends at one time.  I told my friend that I knew she was of some comfort all those years ago to the (now dead) classmate. Something I said apparently sounded "terse" to her.

Thus began a string of electronic communications that eventually led me to the realization that to her, if maintaining a friendship with me required an effort beyond Facebook postings, it was simply not worth it. I am still trying to sort it out since the entire situation developed over a 24 hour period (which also happened to be my birthday AND Mother's Day) leaving me feeling a little confused, then irritated and eventually just saddened by an argument over something falsely perceived by her which triggered it all.  The best I can piece it together, her criticisms of me were that I had not posted anything on her Facebook page (I assume for a while, although she did not specify) leading her to believe I was harboring some unspoken anger. At first I wondered if she remembered I called her just a few months ago. Eventually the e-mails devolved into her remembering I failed to send her the gift I bought her at the duty free shop in Ireland in 1970. As I remember, the gift was a set of six etched aperitif glasses. I can't recall now why I never sent them.  (I have a reputation in my family for buying cards and then never sending them.  I apologized to my brother, once.  I said I was sorry I wasn't more thoughtful.  Because he is a prince among men, he said, "Linderino, you're thoughtful...you're just not do-ful.")  But with respect to the aperitif glasses, only one survived a collapse of the glass shelving of my drinks bar years ago, so it is really too late to make amends in any event.

 Nevertheless, over the years I have sent other things.  I have written letters.  I have telephoned.  But the fact that I failed to comment on her Facebook page was perceived as a snub.  It did not seem to matter that I never received letters or telephone calls in return for mine.  It did not seem to matter that books I sent to her when she was not well, did not warrant a simple thank you note.  I realized that she saw me as her Facebook friend whereas I saw her as my true friend and we have very different ideas about the care and feeding of our most cherished friendships. The "modern" tendency is to eschew the pen and ink, and even the telephone, in favor of a quick posted comment or a tap on the "Like" button.  It appears that is what currently poses for communication (derived from the Latin communis to share.)

 Granted, much of my business communications are quick e-mails, although there are still multiple occasions daily when I must write an actual "letter" letter. A letter written on stationary that someone will take out of an envelope, read, and put in a file to molder away. As I said to her, and as I firmly believe, relying solely on Facebook is a very lazy way to maintain important relationships - if they truly are important. Quick comments dashed off onto someone's Facebook page are fine and have a place. They keep us in touch with people we would otherwise lose track of, with people we were close to at one point but whose lives zigged when ours zagged, or with members of our extended families separated by time and distance. It is nice to hear what an old acquaintance is doing and to see pictures of his or her family. I am happy to have those people back in my life, if only through electronic media. But that kind of communication alone, no matter how heartfelt, is not good enough, nor should it be, for my close family members or dearest friends - especially those relationships that have survived longevity and the triumphs and tragedies of life. It isn't good enough for the people who have walked along beside me, and propped me up when I needed propping up. Not by a long shot.

 I was told that I was obviously one of those "people of a certain age" who was just too stubborn and stuck in my ways to embrace modern technology. And as odd as it may sound, with that comment she finally said something with which I can totally agree. If being "modern" means that a quick sound-bite or thumbs up on someone's public page is all that is required of me in order to maintain my most precious relationships, then I am unashamedly a fossil of the very first order.  But when I think of my children and their friends, Facebook seems to be used "in conjunction" with keeping in touch by telephone...or in person.  They are there for each other both figuratively and in reality.  So perhaps I am not quite the dinosaur I seem.

I will grant you, letter writing appears dead and buried.  There is a reason why schools no longer teach penmanship - aside from the cost cutting reasons. Penmanship is no longer needed; handwriting has become a lost art. Why strive to express oneself in a handful of written pages when you can simply hit "Like" or take brevity to its ultimate economical end and type "LOL". Why call a friend to share your happiness over their good fortune, when a smiley face on their Facebook page should be all they need or deserve? Call me a fossil; say I am an old fuddy-duddy who is obviously out-dated. Write me off as a person of a certain age who will never be cool. Worse...as someone without aspirations of techno-savvy coolness. In the meantime, I think I'll phone a friend, and then I believe I'll write a letter...a letter in which I will drone on and on my expansive and brilliant thoughts. If he or she is friend enough, it will at least be perceived as semi-brilliant.  It may not be the equivalent of letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, or Avis DeVoto and Julia Child (aren't we lucky there was no Facebook back then?), but it will be a tangible little bit of something from me that, if useful for nothing else, can be folded up and used to prop up the wobbly leg of a table.  Try doing THAT with a Facebook comment!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dewey Decimal Doesn't Live Here

I'm not one who makes resolutions at the start of a new year.  In the past I never kept them, which is disheartening.  It is far better to make a resolution that will last for only the day.  If it works out, it can be extended to the next day and then the next.  If it doesn't work out no harm has been done since the resolution evaporated at midnight anyway, unless it was revived.  This year I made a decision, however, and that is far more liberating than a firm pledge.  I want to read from my own library this year rather than buy anything new.  This decision came about as I tried to get organized.  I may fall off the wagon as the year rolls forward, but how bad can that be?

So, on to the organizational effort:  I've been slowly adding my library to Goodreads.  Slowly because it takes a considerable amount of time to pull them out, one by one, note the ISBN numbers, dust them and put them back on the shelf.  Climbing up and down the step ladder is great exercise, which is a bonus, and I figure it counts as my daily "work out" plan.  Who knew reading was so healthily cardio-vascular?  I'm up to 222 entries; there are hundreds more to go, so it will be a long term project and I fully expect my thighs and tush to look splendid by summer.

This library project reacquainted me with books I never knew I had.  More correctly, at one time I knew I had but had forgotten I did.  And what marvelous books are living here!  I do believe that if I was cast away on a deserted island, or up on a mountain top in Tibet, with no contact with the outside world and without much knowledge of it, I could cover my education quite well if these books were with me.  There are certainly a few clunkers and some pulpy fiction; but, they could only work to make me a nicely rounded human being.

I managed to hang on to a great many of my school books - from kindergarten on.  So, I imagine if I was dropped on that island or mountain top as a child who knew the alphabet, I would be able to start with the reading primers and eventually work my way through a degree in history or English lit, or, for some reason...botany.  I only recall taking several biology classes in high school and none in college, so I am not certain why I have so many books that cover photosynthesis, geotropism and Gregor Mendel.  I suspect some of these were the result of my newly gained interest in gardening when I moved to the Southeast; others must have belonged to my children.  I would be able to learn German, Spanish and Latin...and psychoanalyze myself, taking notes in Gregg Shorthand, seeing as I have volumes 1 and 2 of "The Diamond Jubilee Series"!  I can actually still read some of the squiggles that make up shorthand.  Unfortunately, if I wanted to learn Greek I would be out of luck, but I would be able to discover Why The Greeks Matter and that John Adams thought it was sacrilege that his son, John Quincy, was not reading Demosthenes at school.  I do not believe I have anything by Demosthenes, but I haven't been up and down all the bookshelves yet, so there may be some surprises in store.

What I have found so far, not surprisingly, is I have a great many books about history - ancient, European, American, Russian, modern...but I was very surprised to see that I have so many by or about Presidents, politics and First Ladies.  de Tocqueville once observed that there is hardly a political question in the United States which does not, sooner or later, turn into a judicial one.  So, naturally, a girl needs a compendium that contains everything she would want to know about the Supreme Court and its decisions.  Oh, and also a compendium on skin care, diet and an figuring out what hair style looks best with her face shape.  That is a very important reference work as well.  Sherlock Holmes, inspecting my bookshelves, would deduce that I was avidly interested in the Civil War.  He would be correct - as always.  He might also be embarrassed to learn that I was deeply smitten with him and have followed his every sleuthing moment...repeatedly and without boredom...to the dog-eared detriment of The Complete Adventures of himself.  Of course, considering his ego he may find such adoration "elementary."

There are volumes of mystery, murder, mayhem, ghostly tales, spies and the Classics.   Christie and Sayers and Poe and Wilkie Collins - they stand around with their cocktails and canapes and get along quite well, carrying on some very interesting conversations about poison.  Gertrude Stein is, as usual, talking about herself and boring everyone within earshot.  Sylvia Plath just looks morose.  I think it's because she can't smoke in the house.  Ron Weasley is trying to find a Horcrux and Sigmond Freud is just trying to find himself - a total couch potato if there ever was one.    Sweet ole' Bill gossips about what an honorable man Brutus was, but would bury Caesar in a heartbeat rather than praise him - and we all know it.  He is a sloppy drinker and spilled red wine on my carpet.  "Bill, shouting 'out damn spot' does not work, trust me."  Someone, hand him the Woolite.

There aren't many volumes of poetry, but the ones that hang out here are good ones.  I admit, they need more friends.

There are books on sailing, knitting, sewing, and home decorating, but not about sailing while knitting.  Now that would be one interesting book!  There are volumes that teach the techniques of watercolor painting and how to make decorative gift boxes and objets d'art using dried herbs.  And then, of course, there are the cookbooks.  I never met one I didn't love.  At the public library Big Book Sales, my internal GPS guides me directly to the table where they sit in all their plump and promising splendor.  Assuming I could find the proper ingredients on my island or mountain, I could cook the world.  I even have a book on The Story Of Cutlery (a prize find at a book sale and probably the only one still in existence...for good reason, I'm afraid).

I've also joined a self-imposed "2013 Reading Challenge" at Goodreads.  Sixty books in one year.  Unfortunately, even though we are only in mid-January, Goodreads informs me I am already "two books behind."  Not encouraging news.  The first book I've selected from my library is John Adams, by David McCullough.  I believe it won the Pulitzer Prize, but I must have purchased it before the award was announced because the dust jacket does not bear the Pulitzer logo that later editions do.  In any event, it has been sitting patiently for over a decade, waiting for some attention which I am happily giving it.  I am currently a third of the way through and am mesmerized by every sentence.  (At over 700 pages, I wonder if I should count it as two?  It's a thought, but I imagine it would be cheating.)

So on and on it goes.  Up the ladder, down the ladder.  Dust, note, replace.  Eventually I would love to have the books themselves truly organized in some efficient and meaningful way - as they are in a well-kept library.  Little chance of that in the near future.  As it is, they rub elbows with the oddest neighbors.  But personality conflicts aside, the community remains peaceful...and I'm working those glutes.