Monthly Archives: December 2013

Wait, Was That Blur the Holidays?

ImageMonday was the first day in several weeks that I did not have to jump out of bed to an alarm and rush off somewhere or start in on a list of tasks. I sat and read a book—which is a very good thing, because I had hit a reading wall for a few days there and was upset about it. It’s a terrible condition that hits book nerds occasionally when they’ve been reading as if their lives depended on it. But as soon as life slowed down, Across a Star-Swept Sea became fascinating, and we were back in business. (Review soon.)

I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you had a similar experience during the holidays. At work, I had a couple of projects—along with what Cinderella’s stepmother might call my “usual chores”—at the same time that our major vendor launched a new website. It may not have been as glitchy as the one where you hope to end up with health insurance, but since we were early adopters, it was a challenge. As I was determined not to even think about work during vacation, I kept meticulous to-do lists and checked off everything every day. I even got to the professional reading and shelf-cleaning on the last day, and that was that. It was rather like putting your car in park while going seventy on the interstate.

ImageWe had no money until the last few days, so shopping and wrapping were jammed into a short time, and since my brother and his girlfriend came to stay overnight with us the weekend before Christmas, cleaning was scheduled for each night after work. It was a great visit, though! I made bourbon-marinated salmon, roasted broccoli, and this new beet and pear salad from Jamie Oliver’s Cook with Jamie. It took half an hour to matchstick the red and golden beets, so when I made it again for us this week, I put them through the food processor’s shredder blade. Not as pretty, but much faster. Here is Michael’s bowl. He loves the feta cheese, obviously, and there are also sunflower seeds and mint leaves. Sounds fancy, but it’s easy, and so colorful for the winter months when vegetables can get boring. We had a chocolate raspberry low-carb cheesecake for dessert—my own recipe! We chatted late into the night and had a leisurely breakfast the next morning.

David sang in the Christmas choir this year, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Our church usually has worship teams instead of a choir, so it was a treat, although we do prefer the worship teams for regular Sundays. Our son Michael came to Christmas Eve service, which thrilled me to pieces. It is a “lessons and carols” service, which is great for Michael, since he is a big traditionalist and doesn’t like our contemporary worship. You know how those old people can be.

2013-12-30 09.08.37My husband has obviously been paying attention this year, and he knew that I wanted a heat gun to melt the embossing powder on the greeting cards I have started to make. I have a cute little pink one in my Amazon cart for about $15 or so. I was waiting for potential Amazon gift cards before I bought it. Well, what do you think was under the tree for me? David went to Lowe’s and got me an $80 heat gun loaded with testosterone. It will melt the embossing powder, the card, and the table under the card. It even looks like a gun and comes with a holster. Why get a little pink one when this one could even—dare I say it?—be used in the garage if David should have some projects? Lowes will be getting a return. David is saved because he also bought me some more of my peacock coffee cups from Pier One Imports, and because he is generally adorable.

We travelled to Lexington, SC, on Christmas day and then on to Cheraw, SC, to work on David’s mother’s house on the 28th, David’s birthday. So, of course, I had to make a special birthday dinner for Mr. Tool Time on Sunday, featuring an awesome low-carb chocolate mousse that we’ve enjoyed for years.

And now, I am done. We already have the ingredients for the wonderful North & South New Year’s dinner that we have each year, but other than that, I am reading and relaxing. The Gamecocks are in a bowl game on January first, so I might get up enough energy to cheer them on. We’re lighting the tree all day every day, and enjoying it more than we did before Christmas. My sister has written up eleven New Year’s resolutions so far, none of which have to do with losing weight or getting in shape, but I think I’m too lazy for any sort of introspection yet. After Thursday, there will be world enough and time.

Hoping your New Year is slow and sweet.

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Clementine and the Spring Trip, by Sara Pennypacker; illustrated by Marla Frazee

ImageClementine is the most charming little heroine in chapter books today. In this episode, she and her third grade class are headed to Plimoth Plantation for their spring trip. Clementine’s life is complicated. Her mother is expecting her third child; her fourth-grade friend, Margaret, has convinced her that the fourth graders on the trip will not countenance any eating noises during lunch; and the new girl, Olive, who has a food name like Clementine, has won the hearts of all of her classmates. Furthermore, Olive has taught them all how to speak Olivese, a made-up language that is a delight to everyone but Clementine. Oh, the drama of an eight-year-old existence.

My favorite ingredient of all of the Clementine stories is her thoroughly likeable parents. Her mother is a loving stay-at-home mom and her dad is hilarious. He maintains their apartment building in Boston and includes Clementine in many of his projects. Margaret tells Clementine that her divorced mother is going to marry her boyfriend, and Margaret is glad, since right now they kiss all the time, but she remembers that when her parents were married, they never kissed, so she expects all the kissing to stop when her mom and her boyfriend marry. Clementine thinks that Margaret might be disappointed, since her parents are married and they kiss all the time. Happily married people in a kid’s book! Amazing.

Clementine does blame her parents for not naming her little brother a food name, and so she goes through a succession of vegetables whenever she talks about him—never the same name twice. On one page he is Watercress, on another Snap Pea, and on a third Summer Squash. Pets, on the other hand, are named after items found in the bathroom, so her cat is named Moisturizer. It could be worse.

This is another young chapter book that is mentioned for Newbery nomination. Although I do love Clementine, I just don’t see this competing with the more literary contenders. If it did win, though, I wouldn’t complain. No little girl should grow up without meeting Clementine.

Highly recommended for fluent readers seven and up.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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‘Tis the Season for Dead Santas, Fa-La-La-La-La-La-La-La-La!

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Call me a Grinch, but the latest craze in inflatable lawn ornaments has to be one of the most unfortunate phases in the history of suburban Christmas mania. To me, they are garish by night and tragic by day. As I leave for work these chilly mornings, our neighborhood resembles a Yuletide crime scene, with bodies strewn all over the lawns:  Santas, reindeer, Frosties. One yard in particular, well known in the area for its extravagant and expanding decorations, always looks as if the elves and reindeer had a gang war the previous night. I want to stop and say a few words for the dearly departed.

ImageYes, I know that I am the buzzkill here. We are aware that we are extremely blessed in our neighbors, all of whom are responsible moms and dads with utterly charming children, friendly and quiet—except for the gunfire. We’re the ones who can’t even seem to get our house pressure-washed, no matter how hard we plan. The kindest thing we could do for our neighbors across the street would be to construct a huge mirror, reflecting their yard right back to them. They really do make an effort. I could say that we’re concentrating on the spiritual significance of the holiday—and we do try to do that—but it’s really a combination of poverty and laziness, so that wouldn’t be quite truthful. I do get a wreath on the door every year, and the inside of the house is decorated. No, really. I swear.

ImageOscar Wilde once said, “Science is always making great improvements,” and in the realm of Christmas cheer, those improvements include adding sound to your holiday display. Yes, now they play music. I remember the first time I heard it, an eerie moaning or screaming coming from outside. I listened for a few minutes. Cats, maybe? I stepped outside when it did not stop. No, it was the caroler figurines across the street. Michael just noticed it this year. He hastened into the family room, eyes wide, and whispered, “Do you hear that?” Since I’ve explained it to him, he has taken on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, crashing into the house each evening muttering and growling.

ImageBut I don’t mind the musical balloons. They’re actually adorable, in a haunted cemetery sort of way. Plus, I comfort myself that, within hours, a virulent wasting disease will ravage the neighborhood, cutting down all the puffy toys.  In the meantime, I’ll throw on some Switchfoot and crank it up. That’ll cover anything.

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* This is a repost of last year’s Christmas article. I am sorry to report no improvement whatsoever.

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Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, by Steve Sheinkin

ImageQuick quiz: Did you know that someone had tried to rob Lincoln’s grave? I didn’t until this book. You know a nonfiction book is good when you begin to annoy your family and everyone around you by starting every sentence with “Did you know…?”

The late 1800s were a bustling time for counterfeiters. One particularly gifted artist spent an entire year creating a copy of a twenty dollar bill, but then it paid off when the bills passed as genuine over and over. Coins were even easier: just make a mold of a real coin, fill it with cheap metal and paint on a very thin veneer of gold or silver, and there you are. There was an entire industry built around counterfeit currency, and at one time it was estimated that up to half of the money circulating in the U.S. was counterfeit! It was such a problem that the government created an entire department called the Secret Service just to catch counterfeiters. Yes, you read that right! Those guys in sunglasses originally tracked down fake money. It took three presidential assassinations in less than forty years for them to come up with the novel idea of assigning someone to watch over the president, and they chose the Secret Service for the job. I’m sure it was not because they had run out of counterfeit money.

What does the counterfeiting underground have to do with Abraham Lincoln, you’re asking? Here’s the connection: Billy Boyd, the talented engraver I mentioned above, had been captured and imprisoned, and the “coney men” missed him. The bills created by other artists were not passing as readily, and things were getting dicey. One small group of crooks decided to barter for Boyd’s release by planning to break into the Lincoln Monument in Springfield, Illinois, and steal Lincoln’s body, which they would then hide as ransom until the government met their conditions.

Naturally, there are always law officers watching the criminals, and there are also always weak men whose cooperation can be bought. I won’t tell you the details of the case, but it’s a tangled cat-and-mouse game with plenty of players on either side and a monument guard caught in the middle. Thankfully, Sheinkin provides a list of characters in the beginning of the book and helpful maps throughout. There are photographs and original documents—plus a bonus section on body-snatching— sprinkled through the book to help you remember that you’re reading a true story, not just an exciting crime novel.

Steve Sheinkin is one of the best narrative nonfiction writers out there for kids. Last year, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. The Newbery Committee liked it, too, and it won a Newbery Honor medal. This year, Sheinkin is in the running again with Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, and since the committee likes to have a nonfiction book in the mix, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up on the list. I have to admit that I enjoyed Bomb more than this one, and that the old-fashioned typewriter font distracted me from the story, although it coordinated nicely with the old photographs and documents. Still, boys (and girls) who love a good crime story or historical fiction will relish this page-turner that will open up a relatively unknown chapter in America’s past.

Recommended for ten and up.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu

ImageOscar is a “hand” in a magician’s shop. He is lower than the apprentice, Wolf, and Wolf makes sure that Oscar is aware of it at every opportunity. But Oscar is happy in his work, harvesting and preparing herbs for the potions that Master Caleb sells, slipping into the magician’s library each night to read voraciously, and sleeping in the basement with a bed full of cats. He can’t remember anything before the time that Master Caleb brought him home from the orphanage, so he tries not to think about it.

Then comes the day that the apprentice, Wolf, goes out for a stroll with a lovely girl and is brought home in pieces in a sack. Soon after, a huge monster crashes through the front windows of the shop and eats up all the potions on the shelves. Master Caleb and the other magicians disappear from the village, and the beautiful, perfect city children begin to fall ill. It’s up to Oscar and the healer’s apprentice, Callie, to solve the mystery of the fading magic and help the children to recover.

The Real Boy is a fairy tale starring an autistic boy and a sassy girl who take on adult responsibilities and risk mortal danger to save other human beings who have never shown them a moment’s kindness. Although it was confusing at times, the reader puzzles out the answers at the same time that Oscar is puzzling out the key to his own identity. Both Oscar and Callie are winsome characters, and Ursu displays a depth of knowledge about herbs and other growing things.

I hesitated to read this one because I am not a fan of Pinocchio, and I was afraid that this novel would be heavily dependent on the classic tale. Although there is a connection, the “real boy” versus “wooden boy” theme was lightly written, and the story could be easily enjoyed without any knowledge of Pinocchio. Master Caleb was certainly not the kindly Geppetto. Some of the scenes would be quite frightening for a younger child, so I’d recommend this for ten and up.

For me, this is not a Newbery contender, as it does not rise to the literary level of some other novels this year, and some of the characters and plot threads seem to fall into oblivion. Where are all of the magicians? Why did the baker leave? When the wonderful baker is leaving, he tells Oscar to call on him whenever he needs help, but nothing ever comes of that. Are Oscar and Callie going to live all by themselves now? They are children, after all. Although it is a good story and the writing is fine, it feels uneven and incomplete to me.

Next up: a nonfiction contender.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Season’s Bleatings

ImageNot to rain on the holiday parade, but this is the worst season to be broke. Since David hasn’t had a closing for a few months, there’s been no (sugar-free) eggnog and nothing to spike it with. I could skip the eggnog, if necessary, but the spiking material would be nice. All of our finances are going toward keeping our bills paid, but we are not exactly experiencing success. However, this will all be over soon, since there are two closings scheduled in the next ten days, and I’m going to believe that they will really take place. In the meantime, I am missing so many excellent movies! Gravity, Hobbit 2, Hunger Games 2, and Saving Mr. Banks, just to name a few. I think that I will ask for half-a-dozen date nights for Christmas, all at White Oak Cinemas. Or maybe the Imax Theater, for some of them.

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Daft Punk

Thanksgiving was interesting. My 28-year-old son drove us to South Carolina to be with my mom, and of course, I was stuck in the back seat. I could make some feminist remark about women being stuck in the back seat, unable to control anything about the trip, particularly the music, but the truth is just that I have the shortest legs. Both of the guys are over six feet tall, so they get the front seats. Therefore, Michael ruled in the music selection, and unfortunately, he is a big electronic music fan. At first, Daft Punk seemed charming and innocuous, and when I got tired of that, he switched to Bassnectar, which is just like Daft Punk, only with more bass, and then deadmau5, ditto with piano. The thing about progressive/ electronic music is that although it is inoffensive, it is the same forever. You start off thinking, “This is nice and relaxing,” and then you don’t notice the exact moment that your brain liquefies and pours out the back of your head. You just know that, at some point, you really want to scream, but you can’t remember how. When I finally gathered my wits enough to complain, Michael said, “Oh, yeah? How about this, then?” and put on Lacuna Coil, an Italian goth metal band. It was so refreshing. David and I both really liked it, which, I suspect, was not the anticipated response. David was actually getting into some head-banging up there in the passenger seat.

The morning after we returned, David and I were watching a news program, and I suddenly had to text Michael at work: “Guess what they used as bumper music? Daft Punk. Oy! I can’t escape.” Of course, he responded, “Bwahaha!”

ImageA few days later, I was again in my morning spot, watching a breakfast show, as the Brits say, and I thought I saw something dark move out of the corner of my eye. Just as I announced this to David, who was in the kitchen doing coffee-related things, the little intruder popped out from behind the bookcase again. I shrieked and jumped up, said no to breakfast, and wouldn’t come downstairs for the rest of the day. David set a couple of traps, and we caught him by the next morning. I apologize to those of you who might find that offensive, but when they’re in my house, the only good mouse is a deadmau5.

Even as I type this, David is under the house, sealing up the hole so that none of this rodent’s relatives need to die a violent death. Unfortunately, he is doing this instead of setting up the Christmas tree, and it’s getting late in the day. We are having a hard time rustling up the Christmas spirit, since we are all in shorts and t-shirts, wilting with humidity. Fortunately, the weather forecast calls for plummeting temperatures, so it will be frosty by morning. A year or so ago, I read a gardening book in which the author said that no one ever pulled on a sweater in September and rejoiced that fall had arrived. I quickly flipped to the author bio in the back and saw that— aha!— the author lived in Canada. First of all, let me say that no one in North Carolina ever pulled on a sweater in September, period. However, when we do pull on sweaters in, say, October, we do indeed sigh, “Oh, thank the good Lord. Summer’s over.” Except this year, it’s not, apparently.

ImageHo! Ho! Ho! Hope you all have a wonderful season, filled with family, great music, fabulous movies, and not a single mouse.

 

 

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Dog reindeer photo via http://www.ohhopscotch.com/2012/11/gomez-grumpy-reindeer.html. This blogger also does paleo, so check it out.

Helmet mouse photo courtesy of http://foundwalls.com/animals-helmets-mouse-trap-mice/. It seems to be associated with Triangle Pest Control, in which case I think they’re going about this all wrong.

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Ghost Hawk, by Susan Cooper

ImageLittle Hawk is growing up in what is now New England in the 1600s. Since he is eleven, he will soon leave for his trial of survival in the forest, supplied with just his treasured tomahawk. Even though he faces blizzards and wolves all alone, his real trial will begin when he returns. In the meantime, John Wakeley is being raised in his Puritan family nearby. When his mother remarries, John is apprenticed to a cooper in another village for seven years. He would rather be a farmer, but his host family is kind, and he has the opportunity to see the lovely Huldah each week at church. These two boys meet when Squanto brings some settlers to visit Little Hawk’s tribe, and then they meet again years later in a most tragic episode.

Susan Cooper wrote this story when she moved out to a lonely patch of ground on the Massachusetts coast that had originally belonged to the Wampanoag tribe. Her appealingly written novel goes over the well-trodden ground of European settlers bringing sickness and the belief in private property to the peaceful tribes of North America. There is so much to mourn in this passage of our history, even if, like me, the reader is the descendant of later immigrants, rather than the Anglo-Saxons on the Mayflower. However, Susan Cooper seems to have another message, as well. The label “Christian” was continuously applied to the Puritans—aptly enough—and they were shown to be a suspicious and racist bunch. Not all of them, of course, but it seems that those who were not actively evil were at least scared enough to react badly. However, the Pilgrims and other separatists were described more as free-thinking philosophers, when in reality they were more legalistic Christians than the Puritans. Although the separatists were more my spiritual forebears than the Puritans, who remained tied to the Church of England, I felt that Cooper wrote about the two groups with an uneven hand. It is tempting to foist our now-familiar belief in the freedom of religion backward onto people who had never before entertained such a concept. Roger Williams was always portrayed in unreservedly glowing terms. Williams truly was an interesting character, and even though my parents are from Rhode Island, the state that he helped to found, I have always thought of him as a wild man—in a good way, naturally. Once, when he was in Providence Plantation while his wife was still back in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he wrote her a letter that said (very loosely paraphrased), “I believe that there are only two people left on earth who are worthy to partake of the Lord’s Supper: me and you—and sometimes I worry about you.”

As a story, this novel works very well. I was reluctant to read what I thought would be a gritty survival chronicle, and although that is certainly a part of it, this book takes a huge turn about a third of the way through, and my interest never flagged. For boys (nine and up) especially, this would be a great book to show just how hard their ancestors worked and how young they were when they took on adult responsibilities! Both of the protagonists are sympathetic characters and represent the best of their respective cultures. The Newbery Committee will probably look very favorably on this title, perhaps particularly because of my reservations. I would like to pass this on to a friend who is both Christian and Native American, just to get his perspective. Susan Cooper is, of course, the Newbery-winning author of The Dark Is Rising and many other fine books for children.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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