Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Sunday Salon: 5-31-2009

It's been a fun week of all things books, has it not? I've been glued to Google Reader and Twitter watching the updates from BEA, and am contemplating possibly going next year. (This will come as news to my husband The Dean, as he's likely learning of this desire through this post. But the reality is that New York City is a very doable Amtrak ride away, so it's within the realm of possibility.)

Several of us hung out Friday night at the BEAtwittyparty, which was Oh. So. Much. Fun! The Dean, spending Friday night with his own laptop (hey, wireless has been the saving grace of our relationship) was amused at my enthusiasm for this party. I'm quite serious when I say that my excitement level was higher for this than some (dare I say many?) real-life functions.

I met and visited many new-to-me book blogs such as A High and Hidden Place, I'm Booking It, Whimpulsive, Bookfool, Medieval Bookworm, and Cindy's Love of Books. There were more - many more - but with the fast-paced rate of chat (not to mention the awesome giveaways!) it was impossible to chat with everyone. (And after adding all the new blogs to Google Reader and joining Sunday Salon last week, I'm thinking I have little hope of seeing my Reader ever going below 1000+ again.)

Some folks who have been in my Google Reader for awhile now were also part of the fun, including Fizzy Thoughts (who provided tunes extraordinaire), Rhapsody in Books, Nymeth from Things Mean A Lot, Florinda from The 3 R's, Chris from Book-a-Rama, and Devourer of Books. Of course I would be remiss without a shout-out to Rebecca from The Book Lady's Blog for doing a tremendous job of organizing this!

In other reading news, this week I finished listening to Under the Tuscan Sun on audio and posted my review here. I'm still reading The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories 1978-2008 by Louise Erdrich. I'm really enjoying this collection. Maybe it's because I'm coming off of Brad Gooch's biography about Flannery O'Connor (my review here) but several of Erdrich's stories (particularly "Knives" which I read this morning, along with "Destiny" and "The Little Book") seem to pay homage to FOC. Several (most? all?) of the stories are interconnected and have appeared elsewhere in Erdrich's work.

Betty and I have a Girl Scout event this afternoon, so I hope to get back to more of The Red Convertible later this evening ... not to mention catching up with all my blogging friends in Google Reader.

Amelia Bedelia and Asperger Syndrome

Both of my kids have loved the Amelia Bedelia series for awhile now, just as I (and countless others) did as a child. Being a very literal thinker, it's been kind of interesting to watch Boo's connection with Amelia Bedelia. I've actually been sort of perplexed as to the appeal. I mean, I can see that if one has Asperger's, Amelia could be seen as a kindred spirit or maddening force.

When I woke up on Saturday morning, Boo was reading Amelia Bedelia and the Surprise Shower at the kitchen table with The Dean. For the uninitiated, this is the one where the very literal thinking (and undiagnosed Aspie?) Amelia, who is employed as a housekeeper for the wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, is asked to coordinate preparations for a shower. It is a member of Mrs. Rogers' sewing circle who is engaged. Hence, the shower. Amelia screws up a number of tasks like icing the fish (she's in the midst of icing cupcakes, so why shouldn't fish be iced similarly?), pruning the hedge, running over the tablecloth with an iron, and putting cut flowers in a bowl. Her biggest blunder is turning the garden hose on the guest of honor (i.e., giving her a shower).

"Why does Amelia Bedelia do everything wrong?" Boo asked me.
"Why do you think she does things wrong?" I said, turning the question back on him.
"Because there's two ways of understanding things."
"Right! Like when she gives the lady a shower, that means two things, right?"
"Right," said Boo. "But why do Mr. and Mrs. Rogers get angry with her?"
"That's a very good question," I acknowledged. "Why do you think they get angry?"
"Because she didn't understand what they meant."
"Right. And how could that problem be solved?" I asked.
"Amelia Bedelia should ask for help."

The irony of Amelia Bedelia is that, while she doesn't seem to be very helpful, she's one of the most helpful teachers for kids like Boo who have Asperger Syndrome.

Makes me appreciate and love one of my childhood favorites even more.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Getting a Sweetened Deal with Airport Security (or Lack Thereof)

Like many people, I've been glued to the news coverage about Bonnie Sweeten, the mom from Bucks County, Pa. who reported on Tuesday that she and her 9-year old daughter were abducted by "two black men."

For starters, this is home turf for me. I know exactly where the intersection is where Sweeten claimed to have called 911 after being stuffed in the trunk of a Cadillac after a fender-bender.

Let me enlighten any non-Philly natives: that's an extremely busy, congested intersection 24/7. Having driven through there on numerous occasions, I can tell you that any minor fender-bender - much less one that involved a white woman and a 9-year old kid being grabbed and stuffed into a trunk - would be sufficient to cause a traffic jam for miles. That's just how we roll (or don't) here in Philly. I mean, in the City of Brotherly Love, it's very commonplace to listen to a traffic report and learn that a road is backed up for miles because of the phenomenon known as the"gaper-delay" (i.e., a traffic jam caused by drivers slowing down - delaying others - because they need to gape at the mishap causing the traffic jam to begin with.)

But let's put that aside. There's a lot of blog fodder in this story: the false accusation by Sweeten that the "crime" was done by African-American males. The seemingly laissez-faire abandonment by Sweeten of an infant daughter and a teenager. An out-for-blood general public's rush to judgment about moms who (ohmigawd!) have a different last name than their children. And now, allegations of Sweeten's stealing from a local foundation established to raise funds for kids with autism, among other things, and the yet another black eye this casts on legitimate, law-abiding fundraisers in what is already the most challenging fundraising environment of our time.

I could (and may) write about all of that in the days to come. But one aspect has been absent from the news coverage (at least locally here in Philly) and that is this: how in the hell, nearly eight years post-9/11, was Bonnie Sweeten able to purchase two one way tickets to Disney World in cash and sail through airport security with someone else's ID?

Doesn't this concern anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Apparently not. Because nobody, nobody is talking about that.

And that's a bit of a problem for me. You see, I'm someone who, while flying with newborn twins in the immediate months after 9/11, was randomly selected for "enhanced secondary screening" which meant that the TSA searched every fucking Huggies diaper that we had in our seven pieces of luggage. Our stuff - all baby paraphenalia - was searched up and down the whazoo as if Betty and Boo were discovered to be hiding out in the caves with Bin-Laden himself. (No, I'm not still bitter about the inconvenience. Why you ask?)

You could make the argument that the airport security officials didn't know about Sweeten's apparent abduction, since an Amber Alert hadn't been activated until later that evening. Fair enough. But it still doesn't answer the question in my mind of how this was allowed to happen.
Someone (or several someones) working security at Philadelphia International Airport on Tuesday afternoon was still in holiday weekend mode and asleep at the metal detector. Quite simply, that is not acceptable in this day and age. Maybe there's more to this than is being reported. I'd like to think some sort of investigation is going on, but I doubt it.

What the Sweeten story says to me is that we simply do not know anyone in our lives. We're all pretenders. We're all imposters. We're all carrying fake ID as super-mom and uber-school volunteers, trying to stay on top of kids' activities and schedules, working and juggling it all.

But it's one thing for me not to know the intricacies of my neighbors' lives. And being somewhat anti-social, I don't really want to. I'm betting that not knowing my neighbors' doings isn't going to lead to a tragic event and I'm not losing sleep at night because of such.

Clearly, there are a few domestic issues going on in the Sweeten home. And when the TSA fails to give the hairy eyeball to someone paying for one way tickets to Florida in cash and proffering a false ID, there's a few more domestic issues at play, too.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Book Review: Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes

Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes

As we entered our alma mater's chapel for the funeral Mass of our classmate, I noticed a table of books. Several of us stopped at the table reverently, already overcome with the emotion of mourning our friend who had died of cancer at age 30.

Someone created a display of her favorite books (I love this idea, and I've since put The Dean on notice that I expect to see the same at my funeral, too.) I wanted to write the titles down, wanted to gather them all up at that instant and read them immediately in the spirit of remembrance. I did neither, and a decade later I can remember only two of them: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I tried to read a few years ago, but couldn't get through, and Under the Tuscan Sun.

Under the Tuscan Sun is part memoir, part travelogue, and part cookbook. While some might find this trio enchanting, the format didn't quite work for me. Had Mayes simply written three separate books (and I know she has written subsequent books with similar subject matter), I think it would have worked better.

The first part of the story deals with Mayes and her husband Ed's decision to purchase Bramasole, a villa in Cortona, Italy in need of more than an ample amount of TLC. It is in this portion of her book that Mayes is at her best, writing about taking chances, chasing dreams, embracing the unexpected. Mayes writes of the "what-if's" that haunted her, despite the house's abundance of olive trees (117!) and fruit trees, scenic views, and oh, the location, location, location.

"Wouldn't we be crazy not to buy this lovely house called Bramasole? What if one of us is hit by a potato chip truck and can't work? I run through a litany of diseases we could get. An aunt died of a heart attack at forty-two, my grandmother went blind, all the ugly illnesses ... What if an earthquake shakes down the universities where we teach? The Humanities Building is on a list of state structures most likely to fall in a moderately severe quake. What if the stock market spirals down?"

(Well, we certainly know the answer to that question now, don't we?)

Frances and her husband Ed do, in fact, purchase the house and embark on the extensive renovations needed. This part of the book, while interesting, got a bit too detailed for me. I did not inherit my father's do-it-yourself-weekend-warrior-home-and-garden-project gene. I'm simply not hard-wired that way, so Mayes' details of pruning acres of foliage and fortifying 300 year old walls made my eyes glaze over. But, for people who are into renovating old houses and interested in architecture, I'd imagine this part of the book would be fascinating.

Towards the middle of the book Mayes provides several recipes from her Tuscan kitchen and several do sound delectable. (Not sure how kid-friendly they are, as Mayes and her husband don't have children together. This is a fact she refers to with the house, by equating the ongoing manual labor and renovations as being akin to having triplets. As a parent of multiples, I appreciate the humor, but I don't think you can say that anything is similar to having multiples if you haven't been there and done that. I've also never renovated a 300-year old Italian villa, either, so maybe it is an accurate comparison.) It is, however, a good idea not to read Under the Tuscan Sun on an empty stomach, as the descriptions of the food are mouth-watering. I also liked the descriptions of Cortona and of the surrounding towns, of the restaurants and the shops, the people and just general life in Italy. Mayes does a good job of writing about the summer and winter (the two seasons she spends in Cortona, as she is a university professor in California).

There is, however, a somewhat pretentious and patronizing tone in parts of Under the Tuscan Sun and it's noticeable on several occasions. It is also the reason why I wanted to read the last 90 pages of the book. (I listened to the first 190 pages of Under the Tuscan Sun on audio and read the last 90 pages on the train to the city.) In my opinion, narrators of audio books are critically important as they hold the power to make or break a story for the listener/reader. Whenever I'm not liking an audio book, I try to evaluate whether or not it is the narration or the story. If it's the former, I'll get the printed version instead and try that.

But even in the reading, I still found prose like this somewhat off-putting:

"Ah, dinner, the favorite hour. Tonight it's Caino, which we expect to be the gastronomic highlight of our trip. ... A few highly bronzed people from the expensive hotel near the falls seem to be looking for something to buy. but the shops are plain. They settle at an outdoor cafe and order colorful drinks in tall glasses .... "We're falling into a deep relaxation and exhilaration by now, just what a vacation is supposed to be. "Would you like to go to Morocco?" Ed asks out of nowhere. "What about Greece? I never intended not to go to Greece." Seeing new places always brings up the possibility of other new places. We're riveted again by the beautiful couple. ... We will have to forego dolci, but with our coffee they bring a plate of little pastries anyway, which we manage to eat. This is one of the best dinners I've had in Italy. Ed proposes that we stay a few more days and eat here every night."

Is it me or does that kind of read like your snooty relative's Christmas letter about how they've been traveling the globe and eating in five-star restaurants while you, the poor peasant, are clipping coupons and comparing circulars to see who has the best deal on SPAM?

Perhaps reading this in 1996 when first published was a very different experience than in the Great Recession of 2009. Much of the writing reads like one's diary or a writing prompt that you later revise. And speaking of edits, I think that Under the Tuscan Sun would have been a much stronger read at half its length. For example, a lengthy description about not being able to find her keys to her California home after arriving from Italy seemed extraneous; Mayes finds her keys. What was the point of including that? I could have also done without the details about Fabio the bricklayer's impending dental work (I'm serious. From page 254: "He's working in spite of toothache and shows us the rotting lower left area of his mouth. I bite my lip to keep from looking startled. He's having four pulled next week, all at once." ) That's a shame, but again, this is not essential to the book. There are too many of these types of passages to make it slightly irksome.

So, at the conclusion of Under the Tuscan Sun, I'm no closer to understanding what it was that made this book so special to my friend as to earn a place of honor at her funeral. Was it the message about taking chances, embracing all of life with gusto, living your dream? Did she dream of writing and living in Tuscany, discovering her own Italian heritage? Perhaps that's what attracts so many as devotees of this book, and perhaps those were the aspects that made this book one of her favorites.

I wish she was still here so I could know for sure.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Best of the Week: May 17-23

Errrrgggghhh, I'm a couple days late again with my Best of the Week post. Sorry, folks. I'll blame it on the holiday weekend.

Who knew Mike Huckabee was versed in the children's book, Fancy Nancy? Judging by Huckabee's ode to Nancy Pelosi, he (or someone on his staff) certainly seems to be.

The Bookworms Carnival is looking for some submissions for upcoming carnivals - and with two interesting themes. The first is Paranormal Fiction, and I know some of you are well-read in that genre. (Me, not so much. It's just not quite my thing.) That one has a June 12 deadline. Another upcoming carnival has the theme of Local (to You) Authors. I was torn between submitting my Happy 111th Birthday, Carolyn Haywood post or my review of House of Dance by Beth Kephart.

Turns out there's someone else who doesn't have a vegetable garden this summer for the same reasons I don't. Jen's post makes me want to get some strawberries this weekend ....

If you're at a get-together this summer and find yourself loathing the need to make small talk, maybe The Happiness Project's Seven Tips for Making Good Conversation with a Stranger will come in handy.

With the economy being the snafu extraordinaire that it is, parents might be interested in checking out this freebie. Participating bowling alleys are offering two free games everyday per kid! Check it out at KidsBowlFree.com. There's a list of participating bowling alleys by state on the site.

That's it! Hope your week is off to a good start!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Strawberry Fields Forever


Strawberries picked this morning by me and Betty.

It's strawberry season here, and several of our local farms have started opening the fields for pick-your-own. Betty and I went blackberry picking last year for the first time and she talked about the experience all through the cold, dreary winter. So when I mentioned to both kids that a nearby farm was opening this weekend for strawberry-picking, Betty was more than ready. (Boo and The Dean were less than enthused.)

This morning dawned cloudy and overcast, and I broke the news to her that we wouldn't be going after all. (Neither of my kids deal with these kind of change in plans well and because we've learned that such changes result in tantrums extraordinaire, The Dean and I tend to employ the adage, "It'll be a game time decision," in our parenting efforts.) I appeased Betty by saying that we would get some strawberries at the supermarket.

But apparently the black cloud was just over our house, because as we headed to the supermarket, the skies filled with glorious sunshine. I called The Dean to say we would be going strawberry picking after all, and so we did.

At 9:30 a.m., there were already about two dozen of us in the fields, filling buckets with the first strawberries of the season, ripening in the humid sun. I thought about how lucky we are, to live in an area surrounded by working farms, where open space is still a reality. I love knowing that there are two strawberry patches within a 10 minute drive of our house. It sounds cliche, but there really is something special about knowing where your food comes from. I love that the strawberries we will have in a pie this evening (or just with whipped cream) were picked this morning just a few miles from here. Can't get more local than that.

We also got some local asparagus at the farm today and bright yellow lemons and red potatoes. This on top of a visit to another farm market yesterday where we bought zucchini, squash, broccoli, corn on the cob, cucumbers, carrots, and a huge seedless watermelon.

I complain about my lengthy commute to work, I know, but there's something about living here that's starting to grow on me.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to find some recipes worthy of these local treasures ....

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Sunday Salon: My First Salon Post (5-24-09)

I've been thinking about joining The Sunday Salon for a little while now, but thought I didn't read that much on Sundays to be deemed worthy. But then I thought, maybe I would give it a try and see how it goes. It looks like a few of us are new this week!

This week I finished reading Click: What Millions of People are Doing Online and Why It Matters, which I reviewed here. Unfortunately, this didn't do much for me and I found it a bit dry and technical. Oh well, you win some and lose some, right? I also started - and quickly abandoned - Charming Billy by Alice McDermott and The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. (The latter was downright creepy. I did not like it in the least.)

Seems like more than a few of us are in a bit of a book slump right now, myself included. After Click, I was undecided about what to read next. It was between The Red Convertible, by Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves, also by Louise Erdrich, or The Condition by Jennifer Haigh. All are due back to the library soon. I wound up selecting The Red Convertible, a collection of 36 short stories by Louise Erdrich. Six are new and 30 have been published elsewhere. Since I've never read any of Louise Erdrich's work, all of them are new to me. So far I've read the first two stories ("The Red Convertible" and "Scales") which I liked.

In the car, I've been listening to Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. This has been on my TBR list for (kid you not) eight years. I'm the only person left who hasn't read this or seen the movie, right? Yep, thought so.

Every night, I read a story to Betty and Boo while they have their snack and then the three of us head upstairs to the guest room where we climb into bed for more reading. It started as something that Betty and I did together, but recently Boo has been joining us. I'm thrilled about that, because he sometimes seems fickle about the notion of reading. This week, Betty finished Kit Story Collection (which is part of the American Girl series) and Rosetta's Daring Day (part of the Disney Faeries series). Boo's been entranced with Why I Sneeze, Shiver, Hiccup and Yawn (a nonfiction children's book about reflexes) as well as Forever Young, a picture book based on the Bob Dylan song of the same name. We're working on a joint review of that one. It's a lovely read.

I hope you're enjoying some lovely reads, too.

Happy Birthday to My Reading Mother

Today is my mother's birthday. I could write much about what a wonderful mother she has been, and still is, but I'll start to cry. (Being the sap that I am, I'm already tearing up thinking of what I'd write.)

So instead, in honor of her birthday, I'll share with you one of my favorite poems, The Reading Mother.

The Reading Mother by Strickland Gillilan

I had a Mother who read to me, sagas of pirates who scoured the sea,
Cutlasses clenched in their yellow teeth, “Blackbirds” stowed in the hold beneath.
I had a Mother who read me lays, of ancient and gallent and golden days;
Stories of Marmion and Ivanhoe, which every boy has a right to know.
I had a Mother who read me tales, of Celert the hound of the hills of Wales,
True to his trust till his tragic death, faithfulness blent with his final breath.
I had a Mother who read me the things, that wholesome life to the boy heart brings
Stories that stir with an upward touch, oh, that each mother of boys were such.
You may have tangible wealth untold; caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be – I had a Mother who read to me.


Happy Birthday, my reading mother. I love you very much.

Remembering Their Names

At a cemetery in Riverside, California, more than 300 volunteers have spent the last week reading aloud the names of the 148,000 veterans buried at Riverside National Cemetery.

The names are printed on pages - 2,465 pages, to be exact. Each name representing a life lost and a memory kept alive.

They read in shifts in the morning, in the hot sun, in the quiet darkness of night. They read the names so that others will remember.

Read their stories here.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Memorial Day Weekend Musings

Happy Memorial Day Weekend, everyone!

Hopefully your weekend is off to a good start. It's somewhat of a low-key holiday weekend for us, which is just the way I like 'em. Today was spent visiting good friends of ours. Their twin daughters are turning six, which meant a celebration was in order at a JW Tumbles, a kids' gym type of establishment. It went very well, and we were happy to be there. (It meant two hours in the car each way, but these are good friends of ours and Betty and Boo seemed to have a really good time.)

The party locale was mere minutes from Washington Crossing, so afterwards we stopped by the park so we could see the spot where George Washington crossed the Delaware River. Since Boo is into the presidents (although not as much lately as he previously was), we thought this would be of interest. It was, but since we were tired from the party and had a long ride ahead of us, we didn't explore Washington Crossing as much as we wanted to. It's a beautiful park, though, and if you have the opportunity to go, you should.

Otherwise, a new playground has opened nearby, so we might check that out tomorrow or Monday. Strawberry picking at a local farm is also pretty high on the agenda for either of those days. And, purchasing some sort of backyard pool. Our budget doesn't allow for us to join the swim club again this year, thanks to them eliminating the type of membership that we were previously. It will now cost more than twice as much, so ...

I'm also hoping to do some reading - both books and blogs. I just started Louise Erdrich's short story collection The Red Convertible. And if there's an opportunity to get my Google Reader under 1000+, I'd love to see that happen, too.

Hope everyone is having a safe and happy weekend!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Book Review: Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why It Matters, by Bill Tancer

Click: What Millions of People are Doing Online and Why It Matters, by Bill Tancer

I just finished this book and ... well ... I'm kind of neutral about it, quite honestly. Not exactly sure what I expected from this one. (I can hear millions of you - OK, all 35 of you - subscribers clicking over to the next blog now.) When I saw this on the library's New Releases shelf, I picked it up because the premise reminded me of Freakonomics (Bill Tancer occasionally guest-posts on the Freakonomics blog) and The Tipping Point, all of which I enjoyed.

But at the end of the day, Click was a bit too technical for me. That's not to say that Mr. Tancer has written a bad book. In fact, he comes across as a very earnest, smart individual. If you're familiar with the intricacies of search engines and SEOs, data and statistics, market research, etc., then you might enjoy this; I'm just not sure of Click's appeal to the typical Internet user.

In deciding what to write, I thought, "Well, did Click answer its own question of what millions of people are doing online and why it matters?" Yes and no. What are we doing online? We're searching on more specific terms and saving a co-pay by using Google as our shrink. (Search terms on fears and how to do things are particularly popular.) We're searching for prom dresses in January when retailers aren't advertising them until March or April. (Um ... the last prom I went to was before the freakin' computer was invented, much less the Internet, but I can tell you I distinctly remember going shopping IRL in the dead of winter for my ruffled-to-the-max-lace-laden-floor-length peach gown.) Why does this matter? Because we - our society, our culture - are changing as a result of what we're doing online.

Well ... yeah. I don't think anyone can really argue with that.

I'm giving this a 2.5. I rate my books on a scale of 1-5. A 2 means "I didn't like it" and 3 means "I enjoyed it." Click falls in the middle for me. Some people might be fascinated with this subject matter and hence, might love this. If that sounds like you, then give Click a try.

A few other bloggers also reviewed this (and a few gave this 4 stars, so maybe I just have issues.) Check out the reviews from Presenting Lenore, Callista at SMS Book Reviews, and Sheri S. at Bookopolis.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Writings of the Maternal Kind

"I guess you didn't think my poem was any good," my mother said as we chatted on the phone, her voice somewhat wistful, ever-so-slightly sad.

"Oh," I replied. "Um, yeah, it was okaaay ..."

"Because you didn't publish it on your blog," she continued.

Oh. Right.

My mother doesn't comment publicly on my blog posts but will instead communicate the old-fashioned way via email or mentioning a post during a phone conversation. So in response to my review of Billy Collins' poetry collection Nine Horses came my mother's emailed comment:

"Seems like I always liked poems, but really never understood the ones that don't rhyme. I understand the meaning, but I guess there is a certain flow that I'm not really sure about. Anyway coming back from the supermarket today this came into my head for whatever reason I don't know. If it's any good you can put in the correct punctuation. Love Mom."

I come from a family of secrets, not writers (although family secrets sure make for some good writing). Or so I thought, as I wondered what, exactly, to do with my mother's poem. Truth be told, I didn't quite get it - and in my sometimes blunt way, asked her what it was supposed to be about. She told me; I replied that I would post it later.

And later I remembered the large book-shaped box, Memories calligraphied in gold on the cover, that rested on my grandmother's bureau. During overnights as a child, sleeping with her in her bed while she banished my grandfather to the guest bedroom, I would ask to see its contents. And always, the answer was no - and if you knew my grandmother, that was probably the only thing I ever asked her for that I was denied.

It was my mother who opened the box after her death, and I admit feeling a sense of initial disappointment. What I expected, I don't know, but inside were the stuff of grandmothers -some family photos, an Erma Bombeck column, Crayola-ed birthday cards from me and my brother. That's it? I remember saying to my mother. That's all she had in there? All this time? What's the big secret?

There were, however, some poems. Verses written decades earlier, upon the birth of a grandchild "with problems," and upon that same child's death less than two years later. Stanzas written from the heart, without thought of form or structure, just a poem.

I didn't know she ever wrote anything, I said to my mom. I wondered what else she kept boxed up, what other writings didn't make it to the Memories box, what may have been destroyed, what may have left this Earth with her.

And it was a similar feeling on Sunday, reading my mom's email. "Seems I always liked poems ... " Really? You do? Like poetry?

So here's my mom's poem. Maybe it's not the best poem ever written, maybe you - like me - are scratching your head about its meaning. Maybe the meaning is meant to be mysterious, or maybe the meaning isn't what I've been told.

Maybe it's just meant to be what it is. A simple attempt to step out of the box.

How does she know
Why can she hear him
He doesn't know her
What's that
He's happy for me
Why!
What's it like for him
Should I be happy for him?
He says he loves me
Why can't I hear his voice?
Then I would know.

About the photo: the typewriter photo was taken by me a few weeks ago during our visit to the Please Touch Museum. The typewriter is part of an exhibit at the museum called Centennial Exploration which commemorates the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia (the first ever World's Fair). The Please Touch Museum is housed in Memorial Hall, the historical building where the 1876 Centennial Exhibition was held.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Grilled Portobello Mushroom Burgers and Quick Carmelized Onions

Can you believe that (at least in the States) Memorial Day weekend is upon us? We already fired up the grill once this season. The Dean grilled up some of these Portobello Mushroom Burgers recently, and we loved them. He bestowed the ultimate compliment on them, which was to say that he'd like to see these again. (I'm like a one night stand cook, infamous for making a recipe once and then promptly forgetting about it by the time the dishwasher is loaded.)

But these Portobello Mushroom Burgers might just become a steady menu date this summer. I served them with my own quick version of carmelized onions, and that recipe follows. These would also be a good choice if you're hosting a barbeque and one of your guests is vegetarian. (We actually liked these better than veggie burgers.)

Portobello Mushroom Burgers (as found on allrecipes.com)



4 portobello mushroom caps
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon minced garlic
salt and pepper to taste
4 (1 ounce) slices provolone cheese

Directions:
1. Place the mushroom caps, smooth side up, in a shallow dish. In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, oil, basil, oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper. Pour over the mushrooms. Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes or so, turning twice.

2.Preheat grill for medium-high heat.

3.Brush grate with oil. Place mushrooms on the grill, reserving marinade for basting. Grill for 5 to 8 minutes on each side, or until tender. Brush with marinade frequently. Top with cheese during the last 2 minutes of grilling.
(No picture of the actual burgers, sorry ... we ate them too fast.)

For the onions, I chopped up one Vidalia (love those!) into slices. Meanwhile, I had some olive oil and butter heating in a small skillet. Dumped the onions in, and let them sizzle away for about 15 or 20 minutes. You want the onions to be brown, like carmelized onions would be.



Top the burgers with the onions for a delicious addition to your cookout ... and enjoy!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Poem by Boo: Forever Old and Young

Boo just asked me if I wanted to hear a poem he wrote (inspired, no doubt, by our recent reading of Bob Dylan's new picture book Forever Young of his 1974 song by the same name.) With Boo's permission, I am sharing his poem with all of you.

(Oh, and Niksmom? I believe Nik may have inspired the third line. I'll make sure he gets a cut of the royalties.)

The photo was taken last week on the grounds of the Please Touch Museum, as we waited for the Storyball Ball to begin.

Forever Old and Young

May you live in the closet
May you live alone
May you live in a washing machine
Forever old and young.
Do you love your mom?
Do you love your Daddy?
Do you like your sister?
This is all up to you.

May you stay forever old and young.
It's hard for you to say.
But don't worry, it's OK.
It's harder every day.

May you always tell the truth.
May you always tell lies.
May you always do two things at a time.
Forever young and old.

Will you always know if it's a.m. or p.m.?
Will you know?
Will you think you're right
If you play jump, duck, and below?

Will you win?
Will you lose?
Will you be disqualified?
Or will you be the fastest?
Forever young and old.

May you be the best song singer.
Forever young and old.

The End.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Book Review: Nine Horses: Poems, by Billy Collins

Nine Horses: Poems, by Billy Collins

I'm on a little bit of a Billy Collins poetry kick lately. A few weeks ago, I saw his 2002 collection Nine Horses at the library; today, his newest collection (and I didn't know there was one) Ballistics was on the New Releases shelf. So, yeah, you could say I've become a Billy Collins fan.

I like poetry, but I also like to understand my poetry. I don't like wasting time, which was my issue with many of the selections in The Best American Poetry 2008. I just didn't understand what the hell most of the best poems were about.

That's not the case with the poems of Billy Collins, who served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003, and Poet Laureate of New York State from 2004-2006. Collins writes about the simple life moments, taking an instant or thought and turning it into a something that makes the reader think differently or see something in a different way.

Among the 51 poems in Nine Horses, my favorites included "Tipping Point," "Obituaries," "Bermuda," and "More Than a Woman." (Yes, it is about the Bee Gees song and those songs that sometimes get stuck in your head. See what I mean? How can you not love a poet who writes about the Bee Gees?)

Because I read the obits every day, I'm including this one here for you to read a little Billy Collins for yourself.

"Obituaries," by Billy Collins from Nine Horses (Random House), pg. 33.

These are no pages for the young,
who are better off in one another's arms,

nor for those who just need to know
about the price of gold,
or a hurricane that is ripping up the Keys.

But eventually you may join
the crowd who turn here first to see
who has fallen in the night,
who has left a shape of air walking in their place.

Here is where the final cards are shown,
the age, the cause, the plaque of deeds,
and sometimes an odd scrap of news-
that she collected sugar bowls,
that he played solitaire without any clothes.

And all the survivors huddle at the end
under the roof of a paragraph
as if they had sidestepped the flame of death.

What better way to place a thin black frame
around the things of the morning-
the hand-painted cup,
the hemispheres of a cut orange,
the slant of sunlight on the table?

And sometimes a most peculiar pair turns up,
strange roommates lying there
side by side upon the page-
Arthur Godfrey next to Man Ray,
Ken Kesey by the side of Dale Evans.

It is enough to bring to mind an ark of death,
not the couples of the animal kingdom,
but rather pairs of men and women
ascending the gangplank two by two,

surgeon and model,
balloonist and metalworker,
an archaeologist and an authority on pain.

Arm in arm, they get on board
then join the others leaning on the rails,
all saved at last from the awful flood of life-

so many of them every day
there would have to be many arks,
an armada to ferry the dead
over the heavy waters that roll beyond the world,

and many Noahs too,
bearded and fiercely browed, vigilant up there at every prow.


My rating: 4

Friday, May 15, 2009

For Harriet, With My Thanks

She was often referred to as "our community treasure" and indeed, she was.

When she entered the maroon door of the white library of my hometown, the atmosphere would immediately be perfumed with reverence and respect. The women I worked with stopped what they were doing, a break from typing new index cards for the card catalog, perhaps, or punching Date Due cards to be inserted into back pockets. They always seemed to have a minute to talk with her, and she them.

As a 16 year old "page" working at the library shelving books after school, I wasn't exactly sure who she was or why she was so important.

And I never really asked.

Which is a shame, because she was the reason that the library even existed in the first place.

Other libraries in the town had been established previously, the first in 1871 and the second, in 1919 - only to fail a few years later due to a lack of funds and volunteers. In 1953, Harriet Anderson thought it was time to try again. (It wasn't her first civic venture; she had started a nursery school and kindergarten a few years earlier.) With 17 donated books and shelf space in a local cleaning business, the library was resurrected. Ten years later, the library moved into this former church pictured above. (It since moved again, into a more modern space.)

"Our community treasure" was Harriet Anderson, and she was also our community historian, having lived through much of it. She met her husband in while working on the U.S. Sesquicentennial celebration of 1926 in Philadelphia, married him in 1927, and graduated from college in 1929. She was a scholar of the first ladies, apropos because in a sense, she was our town's.

We just didn't know. At least I didn't, and I think it can be said that among my contemporaries, her name was not a household word in our split-level suburban homes. Had I not worked at the library in several incarnations - first as a high school student, then as a collegian needing a summer job, and then as a stay-at-home mom desperate for adult interaction for a few hours a week - her name would have just been another obituary I read this morning, when I saw that Harriet Anderson died last week at "almost 102."

There aren't many left among us, these people like Harriet who have influenced and shaped the places we cherish and hold most dear, as I do with my library (for it will always be my library, even though I now live elsewhere). Sometimes, if we're lucky, we recognize these people for the significance and the symbolism they hold while they are still with us.

In 1987, after I'd written and broadcast an award-winning editorial on a local news station about the deteriorating condition of the library (a steady rain would be enough to flood the children's room, ruining numerous books) and how our affluent township should pony-up the funds for a new facility, I remember one of my coworkers telling me that Harriet thought my speech was very well-done.

I wish I knew how much I needed to say thanks.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Search is Over (With Apologies to Survivor)

"At times it's so confusing, these questions of the heart ..."
- "The Search is Over" by Survivor (the 80s band, not the reality show)

So my new favorite hobby(I know, I seriously need a life) is tracking the search terms that landed people here. (Although I started this blog in August, it has only been two months since I've made it public, so I don't have as many crazy search terms as other people do.) What's surprising to me is the number of international visitors. It really does boggle the mind when you think that someone more than halfway around the world is reading my ramblings.

That's just too freakin' cool.

Here are some of the terms that landed folks here.

"Charlie Balasavage" attracted someone from Germany. That was this post about the corrupt judges in Pennsylvania who sentenced Charlie (and others) to time in juvenile hall - and worse - for incredibly minor, petty crimes (if you can even call them crimes).

"The Sugar Queen"attracted someone from Asheville, NC (The "notice me" hand-waving wildly in the air part of me hopes that it was author Sarah Addison Allen reading my review of her book. Hey, a girl can dream, can't she?)

"reading glasses" - someone from Australia. They landed on the Best of the Week post that mentioned Bob from Acme, who took a pair of reading glasses in order to complete his work ... and was promptly fired.

"betty boo blogspot" - from Singapore (yep, that would bring you right here).

"hannah montana movie review" from India brought them to my review of the movie.

"Helen Oyeyemi" - took the searcher to one of my Library Loot posts

"split pea soup" - from South Africa (hope you liked the recipe!)

"Foundation Grants" - from India (good luck, if you have applied for this opportunity!)

By far, the most traffic generation in the last month or so came from my linking to the CNN story about Sandra Cantu, the 8 year old murdered in California by her Sunday School teacher, in this post. Unbeknownst to me, when you link to a CNN story, they include it in the From the Blogs roundup at the end of the story. I've read them before, but never in a million years imagined that the little Betty and Boo Chronicles would land among them - much less, first.

If you found me via that link (or any of the others), I hope you liked some of what you read and that you'll hang around.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Book Review: Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, by Brad Gooch

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, by Brad Gooch

Whenever someone asks me about my favorite authors (in the plural, as there cannot be just one), Flannery O'Connor always makes the list. I was first introduced to her work during a college course called "Faulkner, O'Connor, and Morrison" where we studied the work of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Toni Morrison. That class is responsible for my appreciation of Flannery and Southern fiction.

So when I heard that a new biography had been published about Flannery, I knew I had to read it, and I am so glad I did. Prior to reading Gooch's new book, I was familiar with O'Connor's stories and I knew that she died at age 39 from lupus. (I didn't know it was the same disease that her father Edward died of at age 45, when Flannery was 15. People who know me in real life will understand my staring at the page for several minutes upon reading that.) Other than those basic facts, I really didn't know much about her life. For example, I'd always been under the impression that Flannery was somewhat of a recluse and an invalid at Andalusia, the dairy farm in Milledgeville, Georgia where she lived with her mother, Regina, and her beloved flocks of chickens and peacocks. (Hence the cover of the book.)

Rather, Gooch writes that Flannery often had visitors at Andalusia, spending hours talking literature and religion with contemporary authors and theologians. She kept up a vigorous and intellectual correspondence with many people and Gooch includes portions of these letters within the narrative of his book. She also gave many lectures and talks at various colleges and universities, visited friends in other states, and traveled abroad to Lourdes.

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor encapsulates Flannery's life from her birth in 1925 until her death in 1964. As a child, Flannery often wrote and drew and during her school years, had a passion for cartooning. (Another fact I was not aware of.) She was a cartoonist during her time at Georgia State College for Women and had planned on a career as a newspaper political cartoonist, winning a journalism scholarship to graduate school at Iowa State. Once there, however, Flannery asked to be considered for the esteemed Iowa Writers Workshop, as she felt she was not a journalist. She submitted several stories and was immediately accepted. Following Iowa, she went to Yaddo, an artists colony in New York, where she worked on her first novel, Wise Blood, a novel that was six years in the making - only to not be well received. Her short stories are what she is best known for, and endure nearly 45 years since she died.

It does make one wonder about what would have been - how much richer the world of literature would have been - had Flannery not died in 1964, had her volume of work been more. She would have just turned 84 this past March and could have potentially still been alive. It is a little sad and bittersweet to think about what we truly lost in her death.

Still, Brad Gooch's Flannery is a meticulously researched and richly detailed portrait of one of America's best writers. It's a very well-written book, but not a light read. Towards the end, much of the discussion about theology and Flannery's conversations with others about religion, her views, and her criticisms of religious writings went over my head; similarly, in some cases, there seemed to be too much extraneous detail. On the other hand, there are so many references - and connections to her life within those stories - that it makes me want to go back and re-read them, as well as her letters.

Avid Flannery O'Connor fans will likely want to do the same because inevitably, at the end of the day, this truly gifted author still continues to influence, amaze, and inspire.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Other reviews:
Jenclair from A Garden Carried in the Pocket (don't you just love that blog title? I certainly do.)

New York Times Book Review 2/26/09

New York Times Book Review 2/22/09

Washington Post 2/22/09

Wondrous Words Wednesday

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our reading. Feel free to join in the fun.

Before I get to my words (all two of them), I'm wondering (ha! get it? wondering? wondrous words?) does it strike anyone else as ironic that I can never remember the name of this weekly post? I always want to call this Words on Wednesday or Wonderful Words or some other version of alliteration than the proper Wondrous Words Wednesday.

It's been a long day. Obviously.

Here are the words I've discovered this week:

calumniation
noun: a false accusation of an offense or a malicious misrepresentation of someone's words or actions [syn: defamation]

Flannery wrote Maryat, "I decided this was an innocent calumniation."

elision
noun: 1. the omission of a vowel, consonant, or syllable in pronunciation.
2. (in verse) the omission of a vowel at the end of one word when the next word begins with a vowel, as th'orient.
3. an act or instance of eliding or omitting anything.

From The Dance Lesson: Beth Kephart Poem, as posted on Beth's wonderful blog (you'll just have to go and read it for yourself).

What words did you learn this week?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Happy National Children's Book Week!

Judging from the number of recyclable bags of books we shlep to and fro the library each week, you'd think that every week is National Children's Book Week here in the Betty and Boo household.

I mean, seriously - as I type, there are 82 books checked out on my card and 87 books checked out on Betty's. (Boo doesn't have a library card yet; I keep asking him if he'd like his own, but he always says we can do it another time.) And, like their mother, they also own piles of books too.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Before they were born, I started buying books for my kids. I was committed to having books around from the get-go, as well as reading to them. I don't remember reading to them in the NICU, but I do remember telling these four and five pound babies all kinds of stories. We told them about astronauts, about the denizens of our family tree (full disclosure about what they were getting into and all that), about beetles and Beatles, about President Millard Fillmore. (Yes, The Dean really did talk to the twins in the NICU about Millard Fillmore and President Chester Arthur. Don't even ask ... that's a whole 'nother blog post.)

All this to say that we are big fans of children's books in this house. As if you didn't know that already. Duh.
* *
On Friday, Boo's teacher invited parents to visit the classroom for Read and Relax Day. She does this once a year with her students, where parents come in from 1:00 - 2:15 and read with their kids. I didn't think I would be able to make it due to some work obligations, and I was genuinely disappointed to miss this. (One of those days laden with the mommy guilt, on the eve of Mother's Day weekend, no less!)

As it turned out, a lightning strike to our house on Thursday knocked out the motor to the electric garage door, our entire wireless system, the cable service, our landline phone, and partial electric. (Fortunately we and the house are completely fine, but we now have a new mantra: surge protectors.) Restoring the essentials of life our house proved to be a bit time-consuming, so while waiting for the repairs to be done, I went down the street and joined Boo and his classmates and a handful of other parental units for 75 minutes of reading time.

It was wonderful. Boo and I sat on the colorful carpet and read together, choosing book after book from the dozens of baskets filled to overflowing that Boo's teacher had placed all over the room. Several parents brought children's books from home and read aloud to the class. These are the ones I brought with me as potential read-alouds, in case I was selected as a parent reader. (I wasn't, but that's no big deal.)




(One of the other moms brought in Jamie Lee Curtis' I'm Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem too, so that was kind of cool.)

At one point, Boo wanted to read by himself (but with me by his side, just like we do each evening). I took a short story collection out of my purse, sat down at his table, and started reading. Almost immediately came the question.

"What are you reading, Mommy?"

I showed him the book which was, ironically, You Won't Remember This, by Kate Blackwell.

"You won't remember this?" he asked, quizzically.

Oh, but I will, Boo. You can bet I most certainly will. And hopefully so will you.

Happy Children's Book Week, everybody. This week (or any week), find a kid to read to or just spend a few minutes in your favorite bookstore or library rediscovering some of your favorites from when you were a kid. (Oh, and I'm interested to know: if you had to read to a group of first graders, what book or books would you have chosen to bring?)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Best of the Week: May 3-9

Author Karen Harrington over at Scobberlotcher shares five thoughts to inspire our writing.

Did the speaker at your college graduation inspire you? Do you even remember who it was? Mine would be Mark Singl, former lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, who used the occasion to reminisce about his Penn State days. (Which would have been fine, if I'd actually graduated from Penn State instead of a small, Catholic liberal arts college.) Proof positive of Daniel Rubin's column in The Philadelphia Inquirer where he informs graduates that the selection of a commencement speaker is not about you. (And if I can add my two cents? The sooner one learns this critically important life lesson, the better we'll all be. Thank you, drive through.)

What are the things you'd like your kids to know by the time they are finished school? (As if one is ever finished learning ... no, never.)

In college, I spent an evening or ... um, maybe two or three (my mom, mother-in-law, and boss all read this blog, people!) listening to the flower people while watching the "rock-u-mentary" known as "This is Spinal Tap" starring David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel, and Derek Smalls. (Perhaps you know them better as Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer?) For those Tap fans among you (and you know who you are) doesn't this "Unplugged and Unwigged" concert sound hilarious? I'd love to go to this ....

Perhaps one of these 20 Pocket Change Date Night ideas from Small Notebook might bring you back to your salad days.

Freakonomics has a post about the Espresso Book Machine, which allows one to order, print, and bind any book of one's choice in a matter of minutes. There are about five such Espresso Machines in the United States. I'm not sure I like this ...

J. Kaye told us about a new book site in town ... FiledBy.com is a new place to connect with readers and authors. Check it out.

And Dawn from She is Too Fond of Books gives us a tour of Louisa May Alcott's home in her post, On the Road to Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House. Doesn't this sound like a wonderful place to visit? (Dawn's blog is a great place to visit, too.)

Congratulations to readergrlz for winning a National Book Foundation Award! If you're not familar with readergrlz, here's the description as found on Vivian's blog, Hip Writer Mama, where you can read more details about the award: readergirlz is an online book community for teen girls that is designed to make reading hip, compelling, and fun, as well as to promote teen literacy and leadership. Their mission is to get teens to read, reflect, and reach out. Using social networking sites, YouTube, and other online resources, teens are able to chat with their favorite Young Adult authors. readegirlz is led by five Young Adult authors: Dia Calhoun, Holly Cupala, Lorie Ann Grover, Justina Chen Headley, and Melissa Walker.

I don't have that many Twitter followers (sniff ... :( but if I did, I'd be getting myself the Nest Unclutterer, as described here on Unclutterer. (I love that blog.)

And for Mother's Day ... BookFinder.com gives us the 10 worst literary mothers ever.

Some lovely tributes to mothers can be found with Cathy Kaye's Saturday Soliloquy for Mom, and Beth Kephart's post Finches, Ghosts, and Writing About Our Mothers. and this post from Jess Wilson's blog Diary of a Mom which is so beautiful, so poignant, and so true.

For those of you who are mothers ... cherish today.
For those of you still on your journey towards motherhood or missing a special mother ... a wish for comfort and peace.
For those of you who have ever cared for and nurtured anything, be it animals, people, plants ... a Mother's Day embrace.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Betty and Boo Go to the Ball!

Guess where I'm taking Betty and Boo tonight? I'm taking Betty and Boo to the Storybook Ball at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. We must have a Fairy Godmother looking out for us because I happened to win tickets to this event. Doesn't this event sound like ... well, a ball ... for little ones? I'm looking forward to it.

Boo, on the other hand, is a little more pragmatic about this. "There's no such thing as a Ball," he says. "It's just a name for a stupid party."

Yeah, something tells me we're all in for quite an enchanted evening. (I'm doing this solo, because The Dean is working today and then is off to Baltimore to enjoy a Yankees game.)

I'll post more about the Ball later ....

Friday, May 8, 2009

Boo's Going Green

For months now, Boo's been undergoing a little transformation of sorts when he gets angry or frustrated. He'll grit his teeth, ball his hands into fists, tense his little body so much he begins to shake, and snarls at us. We've seen enough of these occurances (like on a daily basis or so) to know these are (usually) fairly short-lived, and we've become accustomed to this as Boo's way of holding on to whatever self-control he can muster up in the face of extreme frustration. (And in some ways, I guess this is more productive than hitting people or breaking things.)

So this morning, Boo was being incredibly obstinate about getting dressed and if we were going to make it to Moms for Muffins (also known as "have breakfast in the cafeteria with your child for Mother's Day") at school, then his book of choice (Captain Underpants) needed to be put aside and real underpants and clothing needed to be put on.

"Let's get a move on already!" I hollered, for what seemed like the upteenth time. And, predictably, he started this nonsense with the fists, the growling, the teeth baring. I rolled my eyes in response.

"What are you trying to do when you do that?" I said, exasperated.

"I'm trying to turn my whole body green!" Boo yelled, with all seriousness.

And with that I lost it, laughing. "You mean like The Incredible Hulk?"

"YES! I'M GOING TO TURN GREEN RIGHT NOW!"

Now, I don't know where or when he would have even heard or seen The Incredible Hulk (is he making a comeback of sorts?) but having Boo turn into the Hulk could come in handy around here. You see, apparently there was a thunderstorm yesterday afternoon while we were all at school and work, and lightning struck our wireless system, security alarm, and cable. We also lost partial electric power, and the motor to the automatic garage door was zapped. We're all fine, so is the house, and after 24 hours our Internet access has been restored. The only casualty seems to have been the busted motor to the garage door.

Which is somewhat unnecessary now that the Hulk is lurking about, if you think about it. All I need is for Boo to get angry (easy enough to do) and turn into the Hulk and voila, he can charge right through the garage door or open it simply by lifting a finger. Cheaper than a new garage door and Boo gets to go green at the same time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Book Review: The Center of Everything, by Laura Moriarty

The Center of Everything, by Laura Moriarty

You know you're listening to a great story when you're sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic during a Friday afternoon rush hour, during a downpour, knowing your commute home will be twice as long ... and you're thinking, "Awesome! Now I have twice as long to listen to The Center of Everything!"

And when, a couple days later, you find yourself thinking the same thing as you sit in a traffic jam, the audiobook captivating you again.

Yes. The Center of Everything is really that good.

I've had this on my TBR bookshelf for ... oh, quite awhile now, and a few weeks ago I saw the audio at the library. I picked up the audio, thinking that by listening to this I could knock one TBR book off my list. Anyway, none of that matters. What matters is that this coming-of-age story about Evelyn Bucknow and the people in her life is incredibly well-written and superbly layered - especially when one considers that it is Laura Moriarty's debut novel.

The Center of Everything is set, literally, in the middle of everything. Evelyn's small town of Kerrville, Kansas is 63 miles from Wichita, a town where I've had the chance to spend some time. (Our Kansas days add up to only a few weeks, but it was enough to give me an appreciation for that part of our country.) Passages like this brought the expansiveness of the landscape back immediately.

I look out my window, down at the yellow lines whizzing under us in the middle of the highway. There is nothing but fields of wheat on each side of the road, their feathery tops swirling in the heat. Last year, Ms. Fairchild read some of My Antonia to us. She said she wanted us to see Kansas and Nebraska the way it is in the book, beautiful, a breadbasket that feeds so many people. She said Kansas is beautiful if you look at it the right way, and that we shouldn't believe anything other people try to say about it. The abundance of it, she said, spreading her arms in her Wednesday dress, as if she were holding something large.

Almost immediately upon being meeting Evelyn, the reader knows that she is not your typical fourth grader. She's keenly observant and perceptive, wise well beyond her years, and academically smart (especially in science). I kept thinking she reminded me of someone, and the answer is provided in the book when at one point, Evelyn's mom compares her to the character of Darlene on Roseanne.

The Center of Everything is set in the Reagan years - an era of MTV, friendship pins on shoelaces, Ocean Pacific and Guess? sweatshirts, Nancy Reagan just saying no, the controversial teaching of evolution in the classroom, the must-see-TV Iran-Contra hearings starring Oliver North. Moriarty absolutely nails all of these cultural references. I found myself grinning at these 80s references, remembering all too well what it was like to be a pre-teen growing up in that decade.

Beginning when Evelyn is a fourth grader, the novel spans several years, ending with Evelyn bound for college. Time marches on, but the people in Evelyn's life - her mother, her grandmother, her friends Travis and Deena, her teachers and classmates - remain constant presences. One central relationship is that between Evelyn and her mother, who she loves while being fiercely determined to not make the same mistakes she made. Evelyn makes different choices; she walks the straight and narrow and you find yourself rooting for her time and time again.

I don't want to give too much away - and there is a lot going on in these 335 pages. There are multiple themes and storylines, but Moriarty is such a masterful writer that each of them tango and co-exist beautifully. Given the timespan that the story encompasses, this is necessary to advancing the plot and keeping the reader engaged, which The Center of Everything absolutely does. (It is a rare audiobook that keeps me listening for 2.5 hours straight while driving.)

There is one fairly predictable storyline, but for that one there are several others that completely surprised me, leaving me agape in the middle of the traffic jam, applauding to the car stereo when I was proven wrong.

The Center of Everything is a very, very strong novel. Everything comes together in this one. For starters, there are several key characters in this novel, and not a weak one in the bunch. By that I mean that Laura Moriarty gives the reader a strongly defined, well-identifed group of characters. Sure, some are more likable than others, but each one is memorable. This is a huge accomplishment for a writer, especially in a work that spans a long period of time and when the point of view is in the first person. Secondly, the prose is wonderful. Moriarty really captures the voice and emotions of a young girl in Evelyn. Regardless of the personal circumstances that a reader brings to this story, everyone will be able to identify with something in Evelyn.

There's only one thing that I didn't like about this book, and it's this: it ended.

On the cover of my copy, there's an endorsement by Anna Quindlen, who says, "One of those novels that makes you feel sad when its over." And that is so true. After 335 pages, I'm left wanting more - in a very, very good way.

Rating: 5 stars. Initially, I was thinking a 4 or 4.5 because of the one predictable storyline. But the more I thought about it, the more I realize that storyline is essential to the novel, so I bumped this up to a 5. This would be a great choice for a book club, and Julie Dretzin is fabulous as the narrator of the audiobook. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Review: Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now, by Peggy Noonan

Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now - by Peggy Noonan

Early in Patriotic Grace, Noonan writes about being at Ronald Reagan's funeral in Washington, D.C. (Back in the day, Noonan was a speechwriter for Reagan.) She describes being with "a portion of the Old America, of people who'd been raised in the '30s and '40s and '50s and who knew, had been formed by, that vanished place" that June 2004 day in the Capitol. Suddenly, someone burst into the room shouting that the Capitol was being evacuated because of an incoming low-flying aircraft.

As they ran out of the Capitol, Noonan happened to turn around to see 84-year old wheelchair-bound Oatsie Charles at the top of the Capitol steps. Oatsie was "a fabled Washington social figure, pillar of the old Georgetown, friend to Presidents from J.F.K. on .... [s]he symbolizes for me the old bipartisan Washington, an old social ideal. "

Two uniformed officers eventually carried Oatsie, in her wheelchair, down the steps. For Noonan, this gesture symbolized something greater. "Before this is over we'll all be helping each other down the stairs."

The "this" that Noonan writes of can be interpreted a few different ways. She could be referring to the election (Patriotic Grace was written last autumn, just prior to the November 2008 presidential election, and in the book the outcome of the election is not known), or another terrorist attack against America that she opines is inevitable (more on that in a bit), or this particular time in our nation's history where we are pitted against each other in the name of politics. What is needed, Noonan writes, is a new kind of discourse and civility among Americans, one that returns us to the unity we experienced right after 9/11 but which withered away in the seven years of George Bush that followed. That unity, then, is what Noonan means by patriotic grace.

"... a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we're in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative. What does this mean in practice? It means, to begin with, that we must change not only the substance but the tenor of our political discourse ...."

We need to get back to a time pf patriotic grace, to reclaim it and forge a new path because it is no longer morning in America. We aren't that shining city on the hill. We are divided among ourselves, disliked by other nations, and our dialogues have become reduced to talking points shouted at each other. We can't continue on like this, says Noonan.

I have great respect for Peggy Noonan, who also writes a column in the Wall Street Journal. I may not always agree with everything she says, but in Patriotic Grace, I agree with the majority of what she says. And to that regard, I liked the premise of this little book (and it is a little book, size-wise) and I think Noonan presents much to think about. There is, however, a slight rambling, off-topic tone at times to Patriotic Grace - and while I wouldn't go so far as to say it is a disorganized piece of writing, there are times in the reading where there's the tendency to wonder how we got onto a particular subject.

But, who can argue with the call for a kinder, gentler nation and the need for such? Who can argue with the notion that with both Bush and Clinton, the presidency became about the personality and how detrimental that was to the country? Who can argue with the possibility that another terrorist attack could occur? Noonan admits to a preoccupation with the idea that such a strike could come in the form of an attack on our "frail and vulnerable" electrical grid and systems. (I heard an interview recently about this very subject and was chilled to the bone listening to how unprepared we are in the event of such an occurance.)

"Everything in America runs on electricity. Communications - the phone, the TV, the radio, the Internet. The lights, the heat, the ATM, the bank, the pump, the refrigerator. The machines in the operating room, the lights on the runway. ... If something bad happens we will get information, instructions, inspiration and help from things that are plugged in. And we will be largely without information, instruction, data, assistance, and inspiration if everything goes down. Everything. Depends. On. Electricity."

Noonan continues: "There is near-universal agreement among experts that the national grid is in bad shape - aging, overstretched, overburdened, inefficient. And vulnerable not only in case of terrorist attacks but also to cyber attacks. ... And you know the American leader who has engaged passionately on this issue, with focus and leadership, breaking through as Mr. Electricity and forcing people to focus on the grid? Yes, I believe that would be: no one. You know how often Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama have spoken of the national grid? Yes, I believe that would be: zero. Let's play nightmare. Something happens in New York. You've been watching cable TV, on CNN, from the Time Warner building. There's a sort of blip on the screen, and then it goes dark. You go to MSNBC, from out of Rockefeller Center. Blank. You go to a major network. Blank. You surf, looking for a news show based in Washington. The anchor is looking distracted and saying, "We've got reports of something going on in New York and we're - " And then that goes blank. Then a sputter, and lights out everywhere. Everything off. The radio? You forgot the batteries. The neighbors? They're stuck in the elevator. Darkness descends, no word in or out, streets dark ... and this goes on for days. Then weeks. Maybe at some point you'll get news of what happened: a suitcase bomb, a mass cyber attack, a terror event of some sort. And maybe by the time you get word, things will have turned very difficult indeed."

It begs the question: who, then, is going to be left to carry us down the steps?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Accepting Applications

I came across this grant opportunity while doing some work this morning, and thought I would pass it along to my blog readers. I'm not connected with this program or either of these foundations, but perhaps one of you might be a good candidate. It's worth checking into.

Creative Capital Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Accepting Applications

The Creative Capital Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant provides project grants to individual authors whose work addresses contemporary visual art. The program is spearheaded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts as part of its broader Arts Writing Initiative and is administered by the Creative Capital Foundation.

The Arts Writers Grant Program issues awards for books, articles, short-form writing, blogs, and new and alternative media projects. The program aims to support the broad spectrum of writing on contemporary visual art from general-audience criticism to academic scholarship.
Only individuals are eligible for a grant. Applicants must be an art historian, artist, critic, curator, journalist, or practitioner in an outside field strongly engaged with the contemporary visual arts. Nominees must also be at least 25 years of age and be a published author (specific publication requirements vary depending on project type).

Applicants are not eligible if applying on behalf of an organization or for a project in which his/her primary involvement will be as an editor. Full-time students in degree-granting programs (with the exception of those students who are simultaneously maintaining professional careers as arts writers) are not eligible.

The program supports approximately twenty to twenty-five projects a year. Grant amounts range from $3,000 to $50,000 each, depending on the scope and complexity of the project.
Visit the program's Web site for project-specific requirements and application procedures.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Best of the Week: April 26 - May 2

Parents of kids with special needs belong to a club that nobody wants to be in. But if I must be part of this club, I'm sure glad to know that Jess Wilson is on the welcoming committee.

Here's one reason why I'm glad Betty isn't into Barbies.

It's been said that the Internet is both good and bad. We saw evidence of the dark side this week, when book blogger Gautami Tripathy lost her blog Reading Room to malware. I cannot even imagine how traumatic this is, and one of the few ways that many of us are helping is by spreading the word of Gautami's new blog, Everything Distils Into Reading. I hope you'll check it out and give her some support.

If your kids, like mine, spend a bit of time on the computer, they might enjoy reading these original stories at Free Children Stories. Recognizing that children's books can be nearly $20 each and that not every child has easy access to the library, they created this site. This is also good for kids like mine who tend to breeze through their library books in a nanosecond.

More benefits of berries, cherries and oats.

Brian Williams wrote a commentary about the "plane stupid" flyover that occured in Lower Manhattan this week. He writes: "[E]ven after all these years, among many New Yorkers, 9/11 still feels like it was about 10 minutes ago. The pit is still there, though it's now a construction zone. The losses don't go away. No one is bringing my neighbor back to me. I will drive by his house on my way home from work tonight, and he won't be there. We still look up at the sky (in ways we never did before) when we hear low-flying aircraft, and we still worry. Lower Manhattan is no place for an unnanounced low-altitude jumbo jet-and-fighter-jet flyover. Someone should pay for this." Exactly.

They say you start to look and think alike the longer you've been married. That's transcended into the blogosphere with me and The Dean, coming up on 16 years of wedded bliss next month. In what was a first, The Dean and I blogged about the same topic (the ridiculous aforementioned flyover photo-op) on the same day. His post is here. (My usual disclaimer applies: The Dean's post contains strong language and is intended for mature audiences only.)

One point that I did not know until reading The Dean's post was that this flyover was only the FIRST OF TWO PLANNED FLYOVERS. Yes, there was apparently a second one planned for ... oh, right about now, in Washington D.C. That was reported in one of the seven daily newspapers that The Dean reads online daily. (Not sure if it was the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal.)

As always, I'm sure there's something I've forgotten. I'm trying to make peace with my Google Reader and understanding that I will likely never see a three-digit number in All Items again. It's been 1000+ for awhile now. That's the price I'm prepared to pay, I suppose, for my blog addiction and penchant for subscribing to any blog that interests me. (Pushing 200 blogs, last I checked. Is there a 12-step program for this?)

Have a great week!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

No Kiss for You!

Who would have guessed that I actually have something in common with Joan Collins?

Admittedly, I've been known to channel my inner Alexis Carrington from time to time. But that was mostly back in the day when people actually knew who Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter Monroe was. Maturity and meds have, I believe, mellowed me juuuuuuust a tad.

And that's where the similarities between me and the Dynasty queen ended, I thought ... until I heard about Joan Collins telling singer Lily Allen to kiss-off.

In the Tweet heard 'round the world, Allen reported being rebuffed at some swanky soiree upon attempting to give Diva Joan a friendly kiss in the way of greeting. "I don't kiss people I don't know," Collins responded to Allen's overture.

And to that I say: Joan, you go girlfriend! With that Joan Collins is my new heroine. I mean, maybe Joan was just worried about catching the swine flu. With a world pandemic imminent, who could blame her?

Like Joan, I'm no fan of social kissing either. Greeting people with a kiss or two or - good Lord, three - made me uncomfortable even before we were all informed that we were all going to die from the swine flu, or H1N1, or whatever the politically-correct terminology is today for what's amounting to a mild version of the common cold. Personally, I'm hoping that all this hysteria over the swine flu is the kiss of death for this social protocol. It could be the best thing that ever happened to society. Indeed, even CNN reports that all this could lead to a 'social distancing' trend and Dr. Sanjay Gupta is advocating that we greet one another with an "elbow bump."

And if we all adopt the idea of greeting each other with "el-bumps," I envision a new career-revitalizing move for the 75-year old Joan Collins. She could become the internal spokesperson or honorary chair of an undoubtedly soon-to-be-launched nonprofit organiation, People Embracing Elbow-Bumping As A Greeting (PEEBAAG).

Wouldn't the Carrington clan be so proud?

A footnote: does it strike anyone else as amusing that Joan Collins' outfit in this Dynasty photo below is remarkably similar to the one worn at this week's event where she dissed Lily Allen?


(Photo on left: DVD cover of Dynasty's third season. Photo on right from the Selfridges Big Yellow Festival opening party this week of Mayor of London Boris Johnson who looks scared shitless to be standing next to Joan Collins.)

And does anyone else find it amusing and a tad bit ironic to recall that one of the infamous Krystle-Alexis catfights was in a lily pad?

(Or maybe I just need to get out of the '80s and, oh, maybe get a life.)