Friday, March 30, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Southern Gothic

It's spring, everybody is busy and distracted and probably on spring break.  Let's do a short story this week.  I recently read Bride of the Innisfallen by Eudora Welty, a collection of stories published in the 1950's.  The first story, called "No Place for You, My Love" is today's assignment.  Anything by Eudora Welty is excellent, but I chose this story because the writing is so evocative of the deep south.  The plot is secondary--a man and a woman, each involved in relationships with other people, meet in New Orleans and go for a drive, heading south.  One of the characters wonders if there is anything south of New Orleans, something the reader might wonder as well.  This story contains some of the best descriptive writing I've ever read.  You become completely immersed and even now, weeks after I read the story, I can still feel it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fifty Classics

I'm joining the Classics Club, a project in which bloggers list at least fifty classic works of literature they'd like to read and set a deadline, up to five years in the future in which to finish reading them.  Follow the link to read the full instructions and to join if you want.  I hereby set my own deadline as March 28, 2017.

My list:

1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
2. The Virginians by William Makepeace Thackeray
3. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
4. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
5. Absalom Abaslom by William Faulkner
6. The Hamlet by William Faulkner
7. The Town by William Faulkner
8. The Mansion by William Faulkner
9. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
10. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
11. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
12. The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
13. Yeats--the Autobiography
14. The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
15. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
16. The Red and the Black by Stendhal
17. Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
18. Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
19. Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
20. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
21. The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
22. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
23. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
24. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
25. Old Man Goriot by Honore de Balzac
26. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
27. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
28. Ulysses by James Joyce
29. The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford
30. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
31. Point Counterpoint by Aldous Huxley
32. Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
33. The Diary of John Evelyn
34. A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne
35. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
36. Framely Parsonage by Anthony Trollope
37. The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope
38. The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope
39. Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
40. Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope
41. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
42. Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope
43. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
44. The Duke's Children by Anthony Trollope
45. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
46.  The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
47.  Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
48.  Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
49. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
50. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Some of these are re-reads--the rules say that this is OK.  I got the name Patience Crabstick from Trollope's novel The Eustace Diamonds, and I read a lot of the Dickens and Faulkner novels in college and of course I have read Mansfield Park. The definition of "classic" is left up to the person who is participating.  I don't know who considers Cold Comfort Farm to be a classic, except for anyone who has read it.  What classics would you like to read?

Edited to add that as I finish these, I'll highlight their titles according to a color-coded system I use that ranks the books I read.  Purple=LOVE, definitely read again.  Blue=Good.  Maroon=Soso. Green=Bad.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Politics and Dogs

Can it be possible that I have run out of things to blog about?  I was planning to do a round-up of all the ridiculous proposed bills and idiotic statements from politicians such as the Wisconsin politician who suggested that women with abusive husbands might be willing to stay with them if they remember their abuser's good qualities.  The stupidity of that statement speaks for itself.  Then, there's a proposed bill in Kansas that would allow doctors to lie to women about the results of their prenatal testing in order to prevent abortion.  It would even be OK to withhold from women the fact that they have an ectopic pregnancy--a life-threatening condition in which the fertilized egg is developing outside of the uterus, usually in the fallopian tube.  That's right.  It's perfectly acceptable, in some people's minds, to allow a woman to die, potentially deprive existing children of their mother, or a husband of his wife in order to "save" an unborn baby.  In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, the baby would die too, but that, apparently, is a detail of no importance.  What is important is that another woman was prevented from killing her baby.  Because that's what we women do, we sit around and plot the killing of our babies.  We're so corrupt with original sin, we can't be trusted to make moral decisions on our own and must be lied to.

But now I am angry and I don't like being angry on a Monday, so the hell with the rest of the headline roundup.

Instead I will give you this.

This is Sancho.  It may look like he is contemplating a future in which Rick Santorum, or someone like him is leading the United States, but actually he is just really, really freaked out because it is raining.  What he's afraid of is thunder.  He associates thunder with rain, and even though it doesn't thunder every time it rains, there is the possibility that it might thunder and the thing to do when you are afraid that it might thunder is sit on the landing at the top of the stairs and hold yourself in a very, very tense position until it stops raining.

He will not enter the bedrooms to take comfort in our company because of a terrible incident from his puppyhood in which Brigid somehow boosted him--he weighed fifty pounds-- into the top bunk of her bed.  Naturally, she couldn't get him down again.  It bears mentioning that she tried this experiment the day after I bought new Shabby Chic duvet covers for the beds.  

We dragged the mattress off the lower bunk onto the floor and piled it with pillows and quilts to serve as a cushion and coaxed and pleaded and tried to lift him out of the upper bunk, but he seemed to have welded his body to the mattress. We literally could not budge him. Then Jon arrived, and Sancho, realizing that Jon was the strongest person in the house, made an unexpected flying leap out of the bed into Jon's arms, knocking Jon onto his ass on the mattress-cushion pile.  The impact shook the house to its foundation.  That was six years ago. Sancho never entered a bedroom again.

Speaking of shaking the house to its foundation, we had a 3.1 magnitude earthquake last night, around 11:00pm-ish.  Did you feel it C'ville people?  I heard a deep rumble and felt a mild tremor that lasted for about 10 seconds.   That's how many earthquakes since August?  

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Up the Sandbox

Up the Sandbox by Anne Roiphe is one of the feminist-themed novels that seemed to be published in abundance in the early 1970’s. Its protagonist, a young housewife in Manhattan with two young children leads a double life: the daily grind of childcare and housework, and a rich fantasy life. It won’t take long to read, but its sensitive and perceptive treatment of the inner life of a stay-at-home mother is a rich reward.

I lived that life myself, when my children were young. I was very, very busy, indeed had less time for myself then than I do now with a full time job, but I was overcome with the monotony, with the perceived meaninglessness of doing the same tasks over and over again. I think the worst for me was lunchtime. Having to say, day after day, “What do you want for lunch?” and then put out plates of sandwiches and tediously cut up fruit, most of which would end up on the floor or in the dogs. And no sooner was lunch accomplished, then they were clamoring for a snack, and then it was time to cook dinner, another ordeal, although somehow easier because there was no asking, “What do you want…”

And so it is for Margaret of Up the Sandbox, who spends her days at the city playground, measuring out her day by inches, avoiding the housework, and trying to shield herself from her mother’s disapproval.

I feel like a traitor to my old self, writing this way about being a stay at home mother. I don’t mean to say that such an existence is meaningless. I felt strongly that I should not work when my children were little. I didn’t want to miss a single second of their babyhoods. I didn’t want the cost and guilt of childcare. It was meaningful when looked at from a larger perspective, but I have to admit that the day-to-day life was far from fulfilling.

In the book, Margaret’s husband wants her to go to grad school, so she will not become dull, but this option seems to her more like another burden rather than a path to opportunity. In the end, circumstances make grad school impracticable.

Nowadays there’s a weird dynamic with being an at-home mother. It has practically become a competitive sport as highly educated women channel their energy to engineering perfect childhoods for their children. And why not make wheatgrass smoothies and birthday cakes shaped like Eiffel Tower if you have the ability? Virtually all of my daughters’ clothes—even play clothes—were hand sewn and smocked by me. I had the time and the ability and I desperately needed an outlet for my creative energy. Which is exactly why motherhood has become so intensely focused on production, on accomplishments: because this is what we’ve been raised to expect out of life. There is not much sense of accomplishment in making a peanut butter sandwich, but a sandwich on home baked whole wheat bread with jam you canned yourself and organic sugar-free nut butter—now that’s an accomplishment. I’m not convinced the new standards are unreservedly good for children, but it’s unlikely that former lax standards of motherhood will become fashionable any time soon.

Anyway, if you’re a mother, if you’ve ever felt ambivalent about how you spend your days, you’d probably like Up the Sandbox.

Monday, March 19, 2012

St. Joseph's Day

Sunday morning at the Bloody Mary Bar at the Shebeen, where our friends were nursing their apres St. Paddy's day hangovers,  I tried, and failed, to recreate the Bloody Mary of my childhood.  It is an elusive thing:  Sunday mornings at Grandpa's, they were rich and peppery, with their jaunty stick of celery.  I don't know where I went wrong: not enough Worcestershire, or too much celery salt.  Jon had to finish it for me.  What's your Bloody Mary secret?

Delores Davoli will not die.  The other day I got this startling email.

I logged in as Delores, just to see what was going on and she had a wall full of posts from her "friends" but luckily, no new friend requests or messages.  

We got a letter from Ian's school saying he is approved to graduate in May.  This, of course, is contingent upon passing this semester's classes.  He is taking eighteen credits and working part time for a painter.  He called me last night to say he'd moved into a new apartment, which is good news, I think.  The old apartment was plagued with bats and his bedroom was on the third floor, so I was perpetually worried about rabies/death by fire.  The advantage of the old apartment was that it was close enough to campus to steal their wifi plus enjoy the benefits of campus public safety.  Now he is in a terrible neighborhood, in the shadow of City Hall,  deep on the lower west side, a forty-five minute commute by bus and subway to school.  He's sharing a large second floor flat in an ancient  house with two friends and is enormously pleased that he gets a bedroom and a study all to himself.  His share of the rent is $380, which includes utilities, a good thing because the heating bills so close to the waterfront must be fearsome, even for Buffalo.

Today is St. Joseph's Day, which is a big deal in Buffalo, although nobody in Virginia seems to have heard of it.  I'm not Italian, but in honor of the day I cooked an Italian chicken, braised in white wine, kalamata olives, and anchovies, for dinner last night.  We had pizelles (store bought) for dessert.  Next year I'd like to attempt a proper St. Joseph's table.  We never did one at home, when I was growing up, but it's difficult to live in Buffalo, NY and not encounter a St. Joseph's table somewhere.  My grammar school always had a big St. Joseph's Day celebration, as did my college.  St. Joseph's day isn't really a part of my ethnic heritage, but it's part of my geographic heritage, the same way Dyngus Day and butter lambs are a part of my heritage even though I am not Polish. If you know what I'm talking about, share your favorite St. Joseph's Day dish in the comments.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment Irish edition

Of course I must feature an Irish writer today, no easy task because the Irish have made a mighty contribution to literature and it's hard to choose among them.  I used to like Edna O'Brien a lot, but it's been so long since I've read anything by her, I can't write intelligently about any of her books.

Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane is another good Irish novel, but again, I read it so long ago, I can only give you the vaguest recommendation.  I read it when I was pregnant with Seamus and it enabled me to accept "Seamus" as a name for one of my children--Jon had been pushing for it every time I was pregnant and I'd resisted, not wanting to inflict an Irish spelling/phonetic mismatch on a child and have him go through life being called SEEmus--which is exactly what has happened, especially in dentist office waiting rooms.  I finally made a point, at the dentist, on how to pronounce Seamus and now the postcards that come to remind him of his next cleaning are addressed to SHAY-mus.

Anyway, even though we've already discussed J.G. Farrell's Troubles, I am assigning another book of his because not only is he Irish, he's one of the best writers of the twentieth century and The Siege of Krishnapur is his best novel, in my opinion. How can you not read the best novel of one of the best writers of the twentieth century?  The Siege of Krishnapur is classic Farrell:  a deadly serious topic treated with humor and insight.  A group of British people are besieged in India during the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857.

It has been a long time since I've read this book, but what I remember about it is that Farrell describes people who are placed in extreme stress--the heat is intolerable, they don't have enough food, they're being shot at, they have a cholera outbreak--and yet despite these large issues some of them can't let go of their possessions or their petty Victorian snobberies.  The possessions and the snobberies seem to hold equal value, if I remember correctly.  An excellent study of human nature, horrifying and funny at the same time.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

In Which there aren't enough synonyms for bullshit.

Bullshit issue I

Tuesday night I got the following email from FAFSA, the federal agency in charge of doling out financial aid:

Recently your information was provided in the parental section of your student's 2012-2013 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  The information you provided indicated that you were going to file your taxes and were providing estimated 2011 tax information.  Now that the federal tax filing deadline has passed and you have probably filed your 2011 tax returns, it is time for you to update your student's FAFSA.

I can be pretty dim, but I I do know that the deadline for filing federal taxes is April 15th, indeed I recalled hearing that the deadline had been extended this year.  At first I thought I just wouldn't worry about it because clearly they were WRONG, but then I thought, "Hey wait a minute.  This is FAFSA, a legitimate, serious, federal agency and surely the federal government can be trusted to know the date of the federal tax deadline.  So I worried:  maybe there was a special secret deadline for the parents of college students?  I did what any sensible person would do who was facing a potential multi-thousand dollar error:  I asked my facebook friends what they thought, but they were silent on the subject.

Last night I got another email from FAFSA:

We recently sent an e-mail advising you to update your tax data on the FAFSA once you have filed your tax return.  Please note that the e-mail stated in error that the federal tax filing deadline has passed.  You should disregard that sentence.  The federal tax deadline this year is April 17.  We apologize for any confusion this may have caused. 

Excellent.  I'm glad that's cleared up, but oh, how I wish I was a witness to the scene in the FAFSA office when they realized their mistake, because this email went out to thousands of people.  I am also wondering why it took them a full twenty-four hours to fix their mistake.

Bullshit issue II

Wednesday evening I got this email from a counselor at Grace's school and just about went into orbit.

Dear Ms. Bartel, 
Your daughter has still not returned the permission form for the trip.  Were you aware that the only classes she would be "missing" are English 10 (which the teacher is one of the escorts for the trip so that class is not being held), Media Asst. and PE (again, that teacher is an escort so that class will not be held)?
Unless she has a medical excuse to arrive late, she will be considered un-excused for not attending the 10th grade career day.  Just so that you know, she had expressed an interest in hearing about the following careers at the event - Police/Crime Investigation and Nursing (unfortunately her 2nd choice, child care, is held at the same time as her first choice session).

First of all, my name is misspelled.  Next, she launches straight into the topic, without preamble, as if I can read her mind--a pet peeve of mine about emails.  I especially enjoy the vaguely accusatory "were you aware," the superfluous quotation marks around "missing," implying that I am too stupid to understand that time in an alternate activity might be a worthy reason to miss class, and the frankly threatening statement about the medical excuse. Best of all is the general tone, communicating that I, a mere parent, am not qualified to make informed decisions about my child's future.

I had gotten a few emails prior to this about career day and the need to send in the permission slip, but Grace told me she didn't want to go, and I didn't see why she should have to, so I didn't fill in the permission slip, assuming she could stay at school and attend her regular classes. Note:  it is not unprecedented for students to choose to stay at school for field trips.  Indeed, they are often required to get the written permission of the teachers whose classes they will be missing, so I honestly did not think it was a big deal to allow Grace to skip career day. My older children have been to career day and they tell me it is straight up bullshit.  Brigid, who is now working on a BA in fine arts,  took a quiz prior to her career day that was supposed to predict what career she was suited for, and was placed in the construction workers group.  I am not kidding.  

Grace's professed interest in "Police/Crime Investigation" and "child care" are based on a quiz (the same one Brigid took, I assume) which she tells me she answered facetiously.   Anyway, CHILD CARE?   The city schools think my daughter's morning is best spent out of English class and instead sitting through a session on child care as a career?

I took my umbrage straight to facebook, this time eliciting many responses.  One friend suggested I couch my reply in terms that the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey would use.  I imagined myself sitting up stiffly and demanding, "What is a career?" Instead I sent a restrained response stating that I did not give my consent and that I was confident that Grace would grow up to have a rewarding career without the benefit of career day.

I know what you are thinking:  is career day really worth this explosion of emotion? If you are imagining career day to be a fair, of sorts, in which the kids have access to information about a wide range of careers, you would be wrong.  Career Day isn't a fair.  The kids take this bullshit quiz and are then assigned to two hour-long sessions, each about a single career. So much for choice.  So much for allowing kids the freedom to consider a wide range of options for their futures.  No, let's narrow our children's options as much a possible!  At home, we encourage Grace to think about her future, in terms of what her interests are and what she thinks she would like to do someday.  Other kids might not have parents who do this for them, so boxing them into two choices could be seen as downright harmful.  CHS is supposed to be preparing my daughter for COLLEGE, not a future as a day care worker.  I am not on board with their bullshit trade-school mentality.

Edited to add that I mean no disrespect to construction workers.  However, anyone at that school, with even a superficial acquaintence with Brigid would know that her passion was art and would immediately realize that she was not going to end up as a construction worker.  But no, they must follow what the quiz says, even if it's patently inappropriate. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Tongue Incident Revisited.

I am a bit burned out with blogging, so in honor of St. Patrick's day, I am reposting my adventures from last year when I attempted to pimp our corned beef and cabbage by preparing Alice Waters' boiled dinner.

Rereading it, I expected it to be all about my struggle with the bison tongue, which is my chief memory of the occasion, but instead I was struck by the glimpse it gave into my life as a nurse, which now seems to have happened to another person in another life.  I describe working all night, setting my alarm for noon so that I could get up and start cooking. I talk about my PhD in gross.  It's hard to believe I used to stay up all night:  twelve hours of trying to keep up with patients who were in pain, or who were confused and trying to jump out of bed.  Trying to keep DT's at bay (in patients, not myself!), running from unit to unit in order to steal sheets when our own linen cart was empty, trying to draw 04:00 labs out of central lines in the dark without waking the patient, scurrying to get my patients smartened up for 05:00 rounds.  That was my actual life!  It's like the universe was playing a joke on me and now it's over and we can have a good laugh.

Also in the tongue entry is a pathetic paragraph about how Jon never even came home for dinner that night because he stopped at a neighbor's keg party on the way home from work and stayed until long past dinner time.  The kids were out too, so I was alone in the house with this dinner I'd spent two days preparing.  I'd forgotten that part of the story as well.


I'm Irish but I'm not a big fan of corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's day.  We never cooked it at home when I was growing up, although my parents would indulge in an Irish coffee every year on St. Patrick's day.  Last year (2010) I did Alice Waters' Boiled Dinner from her cookbook The Art of Simple Food.  It was good, but since I didn't decide to make it until the last minute, I had to do an abbreviated version.

This year, with several days to plan, I decided to go whole hog.  Or, as it happens, whole cow.  The full version of this recipe involves brining and cooking a beef tongue.  First I had to procure one, and after no luck at the supermarket, I walked into the Organic Butcher, and asked "Do you sell tongue?"  This was embarrassing as I felt like I was asking for something slightly obscene. The guy at the Organic Butcher did not act at all surprised but rummaged for a bit in the game freezer and found a package in the very back.  "I think this is it," he said, "but let me check if it's beef."  A red sticker on the package clearly said "Buffalo," but who am I to question?  He walked away, leaving me with the package.

He was gone for several minutes, indeed, appeared to have left the building, while I pretended an absorbing interest in the contents of the game freezer.  I felt ridiculous standing there, and wondered, not for the first time, why I can't be a normal person and buy normal food and not make a project out of everything.  At least the market in which the Organic Butcher is housed, was emptied of the usual haughty lunch crowd.  Usually I can't walk into the Main St. Market without getting a supercilious up-and-down look from someone. At last the butcher returned from wherever he had been--I suspect he'd popped out for a quick coffee--and confirmed that the package was indeed beef tongue.  Beef/buffalo; there can't be much difference.

The tongue had to be soaked in brine overnight and when it came time to unwrap the package, I was curiously apprehensive.  Curious, because as a nurse I practically have a PhD in gross.  I've packed horrifying human wounds with enough gauze to cover a city block, scrubbed dead skin off burns, suctioned gobs of mucus straight from people's lungs, closely eyeballed and measured buckets full of vomit, digestive juices, and literally gallons of urine but nothing I have ever seen was as gross as that disembodied tongue.


It looked like it would jump out of the package and start licking things, independently. Taste buds were discernible and possibly some small hairs but I couldn't bear to look closely.   I tipped it into the brine and covered it and tried not to think about the final steps in its preparation.

St. Patrick's Day, I set my alarm for noon, having worked night shift the night before. I didn't get to bed until nearly 9:00am and managed to achieve verticality by 12:49pm.  Still plenty of time to allow the tongue to simmer for five hours before dinner, plus prepare the meal's other components.

The boiled tongue.

Taking off the skin made it look slightly less revolting, but I was distressed to note that the taste buds extend below the skin.  I sliced off some bits and gave them to the dogs, who, after a few experimental sniffs, seemed to think that tongue was an agreeable snack.  As for myself, I was not prepared for the nauseating smell.   

Sliced and made to look less tongue-like.

I've tasted tongue once before, in a Mexican restaurant where we were eating with a friend of ours from Poland.  "Tongue!" he boomed, "is great delicacy of Polack!" and he urged Jon to order it, although I noticed he didn't order any for himself.  But for this dinner, I had placed my trust in the great Alice Waters and it looked like for once she had failed me, because I could not imagine eating this without immediately vomiting.

And I still had to prepare the rest of the meal, which is no small undertaking.  I grated the shit out of my thumb making homemade breadcrumbs, which meant dealing with copious amounts of my own blood.  I had to prepare a homemade meatball mixture of ground chicken and chicken livers and stuff it into individual cabbage leaves, not to mention the actual corned beef and assorted vegetables.

Stuffed cabbage leaves.

Then Jon got distracted by a neighbor's keg party and didn't get home for dinner until 9:00pm, at which point I was half asleep on the couch, watching reruns of That Seventies Show.

I rounded out the meal with a loaf of Irish soda bread--homemade, but which didn't turn out well because I was too tired at that point, to put in much effort-- and a $6.00 jar of mustard.  I did finally taste the tongue--a lentil-sized bite--in the interests of science, and it tasted like beef.  Curiously dense beef.  I will never cook tongue again and the leftovers--except for a small piece that Jon took over to display to the neighbors-- went to the dogs, who after their first taste of tongue seemed to be addicted to it. Luna, who is elderly, began to frisk like a puppy and both dogs followed me all over the house as if they expected me to drop tongue out of my pockets.  

Why, exactly, did I go to all this trouble?  Because I don't like corned beef and cabbage?  I also don't like slaving for hours over revolting animal bits.  And washing the 10 million dirty dishes this process creates.  As Madhousewife points out, St. Patrick's Day is the one day when we don't have to ask ourselves what to make for dinner.  You can put three ingredients in a pot, boil them for a while, and your husband will treat you like a goddess for doing so.  There's nothing wrong with that, so next year we are back to traditional corned beef & cabbage for St. Paddy's Day.


And people, a gentle reminder:  it's St. Paddy's Day, not St. Patty's Day.  Or you could just say Patrick.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Blogskeeping and Other Matters.


I changed the look of my blog.  My old canned template from Blogger looked horribly amateur.  The banner image is one I took myself,  and I ditched the ghastly green text boxes. If you use blogger,  you must choose one of their canned templates.  Oh sure, you can customize them, but I don't see a way to build a custom blog from scratch.  I thought if I went back to the basic template I would have a clean slate to work with, but the basic template wrecked everything I had in my sidebar.  I deleted the "Lately Read" sidebar and instead created a reading list board at pinterest.  I've put a blogroll in its place, but it will probably take me a while to add a link to every blog I read and in working on this, I made the distressing discovery that google reader has not been notifying me about updates to several blogs that I read.

I made of trial of turning off word verification for comments after a friend told me she tried to comment eight times and was unsuccessful because she couldn't decipher the text.  Blogger has started using a different font, and it is very hard to read, even if you're not a robot.  Unfortunately, I immediately got a number of spammy comments, many with links to pornography sites, so the word verification is turned on again.

What I would really like to do is take a web design class at our community college.  The spring semester offered only Web Design II, so I must wait until fall for Web Design I. Or I could save time and money by checking Web Design for Dummies out of the library.  

Writing at Work

The big scary upgrade hasn't happened yet, but to prepare for it, we had to write test scripts, which at first were an exercise in extreme tedium, but I have since got into the rhythm for writing a step for each and every thing that is supposed to happen in a workflow.  After at least six rounds of editing, my test script reads like a weird oncology-themed Dick and Jane reader:  LOOK at the toolbar.  FIND the picture of the blue stethoscope.  CLICK the picture of the blue stethoscope.  FIND the order for Cisplatin.  CLICK on the order for cisplatin.  It got to be fun, after a while, but working with excel is like listening to nails on a chalkboard.  The audited rounds of testing start today, so wish me luck!

Literary Defeat

Henry James has defeated me.  I am trying to read The Ambassadors and I am finding it very difficult.  Last year, I tried to read The Golden Bowl, and after about three paragraphs, pronounced it unreadable and gave it up.  I have only the haziest grasp of what is happening, but I am determined to finish it.  Also reading The Bride of the Innisfallen by Eudora Welty, and it's not easy either.  I'm not defeated by Eudora Welty, but reading her stories is work because you must savor every word.  Not to do so is like pouring a rare bottle of wine down the toilet.  Have you ever found a writer whose work you just couldn't read?

The Cotton Man

I found this at Awful Library Books, an excellent site, and I just had to share.  Tired of picking up your husband's dirty socks?  Ditch him for the Hunk Pillow.  Look at that crowd of adoring ladies!  Comes with automatic spooning action.  Vibrator sold separately.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: An unscheduled childhood

I believe firmly that adults ought to read children's books, because there's something extra magical about children's lit, although it can be embarrassing to be seen in public with it.  We were at Brigid's orthopedic surgeon's office and he squinted at the book I had brought with me and pronounced Peter Duck as if he had never seen an adult with a children's book before, and yes, I felt foolish and stammered something about great children's books.

Peter Duck is one of the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, and today's assignment is Pigeon Post, another book from this series.  I just finished it and enjoyed it immensely.

I know I probably annoy people by recommending mid-series books, but with the Swallows and Amazons, you don't really need to read the series in order.  There might be references to incidents in past books, but they don't interfere with your understanding or enjoyment of the story.  Pigeon Post is the sixth book in this series, set in the 1920's about a group of British children who meet each summer and have adventures, mainly involving sailing although most of Pigeon Post takes place on land.

These books make me feel a little wistful for the free childhood that these children have.  I allow my own children more freedom than most parents do--Seamus spends so much time with his gang of boys he is practically feral--but they don't come close to having the independent adventures that the Swallows and Amazons do.  My own childhood was slightly nearer the mark--we certainly spent lots of time unsupervised in boats and climbing mountains on our own--but never did we camp for weeks on end and fend for ourselves.

Remember being a child, and being entirely engrossed in some sort of make-believe with your friends or siblings?  So engrossed that you could hardly bear to take time out for a meal or to go to bed?  It's really the ideal experience of childhood, and the Swallows and Amazons have it in spades.

In Pigeon Post, the children try their hand at mining, lured by the tale of a man who claimed to have found gold in one of the old mines under a nearby mountain, then went off to fight in WWI and never returned.  The story is a mix of make believe and real.  The children identify a strange man with a squashy hat as being their enemy, although all he really seems to be doing is minding his own business, but they also encounter real danger.  Left to figure things out for themselves, they use books to teach themselves how to build a blast furnace, how to make their own charcoal, how to separate gold from ore, how to douse for water and how to dig their own well.

The book is funny as well.   In Pigeon Post, the children are expecting the delivery of "Timothy," from their uncle, who travels all over the world.  They anticipate that Timothy will be an armadillo.   The reveal of what Timothy actually is made me laugh out loud.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Mansfield Park Movie Showdown

Mansfield Park.  As I've been writing these movie reviews, I've been assuming that everyone is familiar with Austen's plots, but just in case, here's a quick summary. Fanny Price, age 10, goes to live with her rich aunt and uncle, the Bertrams, and is raised with her four cousins, Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia, under the supervision of Mrs. Norris, another aunt and the great comic character of this novel. When they are all young adults, Fanny is in love with Edmund, who is in love with Mary Crawford, a woman of uncertain morals who is introduced to the neighborhood along with her brother Henry, a rake.  Maria is engaged to one Mr. Rushworth, but this doesn't stop her from entering a flirtation with Henry.  It doesn't stop Julia either.

Mansfield Park (1999)

I was so excited when this movie came out.  Up till that point, the only Mansfield Park movie was a highly unsatisfactory BBC version.  Unfortunately, this movie left me so indignant at what I believed to be a betrayal of Jane Austen's novel, I vowed I would never watch it again.

What angered me was the Sir Bertram-as-a-slaver theme.  It's not that I won't stand for social consciousness invading my entertainment.  It's just that, if you want to make a movie about the subjugation of one group of people by another group of people, then make a movie about the subjugation of one group of people by another group of people, but don't stick it into a Jane Austen novel like a turnip in the middle of an ice cream sundae.  Maybe that's the whole point, to let the ugly invade the drawing room, but what purpose is served in this case?  (Don't you dare say "raising awareness.")  In the book, Sir Bertram does own a plantation in Antigua, so it's safe to assume he owns slaves.  Does this mean he raped them and whipped them, as shown in Tom Bertram's horrifying drawings?  Austen has been criticized for ignoring, in her novels, the larger societal issues of her time.  But why should a writer of fiction be obligated to put anything into her novels other than what she wants to put in them?

At the end of the movie, we're told that Sir Bertram has given up his plantation in Antigua, with the implication that he has given up owning slaves.  But then we're told he has a new business interest: tobacco.  I guess someone forgot to tell the writers that the cultivation of tobacco also involved slavery.

The other irritating thing about this movie is that they made Fanny Price into an alter-ego of Jane Austen herself.  This Fanny Price has a hobby of writing.  Maybe this is a clever way to showcase Austen's brilliant The History of England but the Fanny Price character of the novel wouldn't have dreamed of writing racy, romantic stories like the character in the movie does.

Finally, I was disgusted by the implication that Mr. Price molests his daughters.  Yes, he's not a great provider for his family, has a lower social standing than his wife and has dragged her down to his level, but must he be guilty of incest as well?

That said, there is good to this movie, such as the cast.  I particularly like Hugh Bonneville as the stupid,  Mr. Rushworth, Maria Bertram's fiancee.  His foppish, regency-style haircut is a triumph.

Victoria Hamilton and Justine Waddell are excellent as Maria and Julia Bertram.  Johnny Lee Miller is adorable as Edmund.  (He played Mr. Knightly in the Romola Garai version of Emma.) Hottie Alessandro Nivola performs excellently as Henry Crawford.  I found myself rooting for him, despite the lovely Johnny Lee Miller.  The only disappointment is Sheila Gish as Mrs. Norris.  It's not that her acting is bad, it's just that she's relegated to minor character status, while in the book, she's a major comic force.

Mansfield Park (2007)

At first, I couldn't identify why this movie made me feel so dissatisfied.  It has a decent cast.  I heart Blake Ritson, who plays Edmund and Jemma Redgrave is the best Lady Bertram of all the movies. I also love James Darcy as the wild older brother Tom.  Billie Piper, on the other hand, is SO not right as Fanny.  I'm not saying she's a bad actress.  She's good in The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, but she is not convincing as plain, shy Fanny.  Girl, this is not your century.  

I realized that the reason this movie is so disappointing is that it ignores the fact that Mansfield Park is supposed to be a comedy.  All the humor of the novel is missing in this film and it progresses through its plot with all the joy of a prisoner walking to the electric chair.  

Mansfield Park (1983)

Let's start with what's good.  It is true to the book.  The Mrs. Norris character is allowed her full depth and we can see, in glorious comic detail, just how cheap, petty, jealous, foolish, and ridiculous Austen meant her to be.  Bernard Hepton is the best Sir Bertram of all the movies. (He is also Mr. Woodhouse in the Kate Beckinsale version of Emma.)  Jonathan Stephens is very good as Mr. Rushworth, and Samantha Bond is good as Maria Bertram.  (She plays Mrs. Weston in the Kate Beckinsale version of Emma.)

And now for the bad.  Let's start with the animation that plays during the opening credits.  A kindergartener, using an old cell phone he found in his toy box, could throw together something more polished.  The sets are typical of the low-budget BBC films of the period.  Sharp-eyed Amazon customer reviewers claim to have seen brief glimpses of the production crew ducking out of the way.  The costumes are dull, although some people might be amused by the dreadful wigs and, in one scene, the furry "beaver" hats that Edmund and Sir Bertram wear. The Amazon customer reviewers mock Mr. Price's absurdly red nose. 

Some of the acting is terrible, particularly Sylvestra Le Touzel's portrayal of Fanny.  She has two speeds:  deadly dull and full-on hysteria.  Whenever she has to express a strong emotion, brace yourself, because it's downright embarrassing, particularly the sobbing when Sir Bertram yells at her for not wanting to marry Henry Crawford, and her extreme reaction when she's asked to take a part in the play.  She has a curious method of using choppy arm movements to express herself.  Maybe she was instructed to do it, but it looks unnatural.  Equally awful is Angela Pleasence as Lady Bertram, possibly the most annoying portrayal of any character in the entire history of film.  In a few scenes she is positively sucking her thumb.  Robert Burbage as Henry Crawford simpers through the whole film and an Amazon customer reviewer says he looks like a "bipedal mouse" which is deadly accurate.  Jackie Smith-Wood is decent as Mary Crawford, but her performance is overshadowed, literally, by her execrable wig.  Nicholas Farrell, as Edmund, is about as interesting as a pair of brown polyester socks.  Next to him, Henry "Bipedal Mouse" Crawford is an absolute Adonis.  

I am sorry to be shallow, but WHY IS EVERYBODY SO UGLY?  Were there no attractive actors in Britain in the 1980's?  Sylvestra Le Touzel might have been attractive in real life, but in this movie, she is the victim of the worlds most unflattering hairstyle.  After Sir Bertram's return from Antigua, Fanny is declared to be much improved in looks, and this is illustrated in the film by turning her bangs into a curly frizz which makes her look even worse.



Henry Crawford

Mary Crawford

If I were to be handing out awards:

Best Edmund:  Johnny Lee Miller (1999)
Best Fanny:  There is no best Fanny, but the least bad is Frances O'Connor.
Best Henry Crawford: Alessandro Nivola (1999)
Best Mary Crawford:  Hayley Atwell (2007)
Best Aunt Norris:  Anna Massey (1983)
Best movie overall:  The definitive Mansfield Park has not yet been made.

I am trying to decide who I would cast as Fanny Price but can't come up with anyone. Who would you suggest?

Monday, March 05, 2012

Pinterest Recipe Reviews

This was the weekend I decided to try the recipes I've pinned at Pinterest.

Saturday snack:

Not an unqualified success, I must say, although, since I didn't follow the directions, it isn't fair to call this recipe a failure.  You start by making your own caramel sauce, which is where things went wrong, as I mistakenly boiled the cream with the sugar.  The resulting caramel sauce tasted fine, but had the consistency of play-doh.  That done, you put two tablespoons of the sauce into a coffee cup with a pinch of good salt and two tablespoons of hot cocoa mix, which I don't have and refuse to buy. I substituted chocolate chips.  Over that you pour coffee or espresso, top with hot milk and (optional) whipped cream, drizzled with more caramel.  The drink tasted good, but was oddly thick--no doubt because I didn't follow the directions.  It's a lot of work for a cup of coffee.

Saturday dinner:  Cornish Pasties.

I bet you thought pasties were things you stick to your nipples on New Years Eve, but they are also a food.  This is not technically a recipe I found on Pinterest, but I've been meaning to try them for a long time. Fellow blogger Jenontheedge wrote about them, but I first heard of Cornish meat pasties in Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent in which he's surprised to find authentic ones at a restaurant in New Hampshire, or someplace equally unlikely.  I've been reading Good Things in England, by Florence White, a collection of old English recipes, published in 1931 and it has a recipe for these pasties.  It goes like this: Make a pie crust-- any basic pie crust will do.  In a large bowl, combine finely chopped onion, turnip, carrot, potatoes and beef (all raw).  Season with salt and pepper.  (I salted the shit out of this because it seemed awfully bland.) White's recipe called for "steak."  I used London broil because it was the cheapest cut at Whole Foods.  Divide your pie crust into four sections, roll each one out into a square, cover one half with the meat/veg mix fold over and seal the edges with a little beaten egg.  White's recipe says to use a "good" oven at first to raise the pastry, then a "moderate" oven to cook the meat.  I interpreted "good" to mean 400 degrees, and "moderate"  to be 350.  Total baking time is one hour.  The end result is dry --OK, because these aren't meant to be juicy--with an assertive meat-and-potatoes flavor.  You feel virtuous eating these, like you're an honest, simple workman taking his humble dinner that his wife slipped into his pocket before he left the house.  Jon and the kids loved them and the dogs went nearly apoplectic begging for tastes.

For dessert we had lemon and almond cake from The New York Times Cookbook.  The cake requires lemon curd.

Making lemon curd is a highly satisfactory cooking experience.  From a few basic ingredients (lemons, sugar, eggs) comes this beautiful translucent yellow pudding.  The cake batter is sticky, almondy and eggy.  You plop dollops of lemon curd over the top before you bake it and you serve the cake with whipped cream.  It was delicious.

Sunday breakfast was a pumpkin pie smoothie, one of my very first pins.

A sad disappointment.  I was supposed to use vanilla flavored almond milk and plain Greek yogurt, but what I had on hand was plain almond milk and vanilla flavored Icelandic yogurt.  I didn't think it would make much difference to switch these two ingredients, but maybe it does.  I also omitted the ice cubes because I have the only freezer in America that isn't stocked with ice.  The other ingredients are half a frozen banana, pumpkin puree, spices.  The smoothie had the consistency and flavor of wallpaper paste.  I couldn't finish it and was left with a partially-consumed can of pumpkin to deal with.

I had no choice but to make the pumpkin French toast for the kids.

This was delicious.  It's basic French toast batter with 1/4 cup of pumpkin puree, brown sugar, and pumpkin pie spices added. I will definitely make this again, and not only because I still have leftover pumpkin.

Sunday lunch:

This is supposed to be avocado/grape/brie only, confused by the fact that the recipe also calls for cream cheese, I forgot to buy the brie.  I felt the sandwich would be OK without the brie.  After all, cream cheese and avocado are both pretty rich.  For this sandwich, you take two slices of seedy-wholegrainey bread, spread one slice with grainy mustard, the other with cream cheese.  Then put on red grape halves and sliced avocado (and brie, if you're bothering).  Fry.  Eat.  The sandwich isn't bad--I was right that it doesn't need the brie--but it also isn't very exciting.  You get a little zing from the mustard but the grapes are weird.  If I were to make this again, I'd omit the grapes and find a substitute--sliced ham, for example.

Sunday dinner:  Rib roast with mushroom mashed potatoes.

Of course I know how to make mashed potatoes, but since this was a pinterest weekend, I searched there for a new recipe and decided to try the mushroom ones, since I happened to have all the ingredients (except the truffle oil, which I ignored).  These mashed potatoes are KILLER.  It's not the mushrooms that make them fabulous, it's the entire head of roasted garlic.  The secret to perfect mashed potatoes is to NOT use a potato masher, but to run them through a ricer or a Foley food mill--I got mine at a rummage sale somewhere in Michigan in the early 1990's, for making baby food, and it's been churning out perfect mashed potatoes ever since.

Foley Food Mill

It takes about three years to make a pot of mashed potatoes this way but it's worth it.  I usually add a big chunk of cream cheese--the mashed-potato secret of the Tasha Tudor Cookbook.  I ran the roasted garlic through the mill too, so it was evenly distributed.  I pronounce these mashed potatoes:  Good enough for Thanksgiving.

And now for a week of fasting.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Politically Incorrect

The Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser has grown on me over time.  When I read the first book,  Flashman, I was so shocked by the violence, the sexism and racism barely crossed my radar.  Then I read the second book, Royal Flash, and thought, "oh," but by that time (like most ladies) I had succumbed to Flashy's charm.  Flashman gets around.

The Flashman book I'm featuring today is Flashman and the Mountain of Light.  There is no need to read these books in order, because the order in which they were published is does not a chronological account.  Mountain of Light follows the basic Flashman formula:  It's 1842, Flashman is in a foreign land (India, this time) thinking he can finally board a ship for England and have a nice long rest, when he is recruited into the army's service again, this time to infiltrate a potential uprising among the Sikhs.  Flashman has a hero's reputation, acquired by accident, as he's actually a coward.  This is what makes these books so funny, as Flashman contrasts his outward behavior with his cynical thoughts.  Anyway, in this book, Flashman escapes various dangers, sleeps with several women, and spends some time undercover in disguise--all standard Flashy fare.

I've often wondered what Flashman is supposed to look like. The book covers depict a mustache-twirling bounder in tight pantaloons but I can't imagine women being attracted to that.  Flashman's age, depending on which book you're reading, ranges from early twenties to mid-forties.  I've been trying to figure out what celebrity would make a good Flashman.  It would have to be someone muscular, with dark hair, dashing and bluff and not very sensitive.  Any suggestions?

The Flashman books are a lot of fun, but you must keep in mind that Flashman is a white, upper-class, Victorian man, and has the opinions of a white, upper-class Victorian man.  You might wince, you might feel (rightly) he's telling only one side of a complicated story, but Flashman never pretends to be giving any version of history but his own.  (The author, on the other hand, provides footnotes and appendices to give more information about the real people and events in the books.)