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.)