Friday, July 30, 2010

Mini-Review: Letter to my Daughter

by:   George Bishop
Published by Ballantine Books
copyright 2010
rating:  3 out of 5

In the early spring I was in a local bookstore with a friend browsing though the new releases, which is my absolute favorite past time.  I saw the title of this book and was intrigued.  I read the first paragraph:
Dear Elizabeth:
How to begin this?  It's early morning and I'm sitting here wondering where you are, hoping you're all right.  I haven't slept since you left.  Your father says there's no sense in phoning the police yet; you're probably just blowing off steam, and you'll be back as soon as you run out of money or the car runs out of gas, whichever comes first.  I shouldn't be so hard on myself, he says,  What with the way you spoke to me last night, it would take more forbearance than anyone's capable of not to react the way I did, and besides, it wasn't even that much of a slap.
I was immediately riveted.  This was a letter from a mother to a run away daughter -- I assume a teenager.  But wait?  Who was the author of the book again?  George Bishop.  Now this is interesting - a man writing as a mother to her rebellious daughter.  I knew I had to read it.

As is typical for new releases, I had to wait about a month before I was able to borrow the book from my local library.  I waited until the day before it was due to read it (which I easily read in one sitting).  I had every intention to write the review immediately, but then life happened.

So here I am - several months after reading the book with little more to write than my initial impressions.

I liked it.  I think I was perhaps more impressed with the author's ability to write as a convincing female than perhaps I was with the story itself.  In my humble opinion, he nailed her voice:  the deep affection for her daughter, coupled with the high levels of frustration associated with raising said daughter.  I know some may disagree -- but I think there is definitely something to the Daddy's Little Girl and Mama's Boy syndrome than just myth.  Mothers and daughters tend to fight and there is definitely a period of time where they rarely see eye to eye.  I was captivated by his talent at capturing this subtle detail in such a realistic way.

The mother begins this letter - obviously feeling remorse for having slapped her child and perhaps guilt for a possible negative outcome due to her running away -- in order to keep her mind from going down paths that she would rather not pursue (there are too many headline news stories that do not end well for runaways).  The daughter is missing for an entire day (nearly 24 hours) so the letter is along one.

The letter also serves to tell her background story to her daughter, to show that they are really not as different from one another as each might have thought.  While her story is definitely not my story, --- I do believe that all mothers and daughters share a common bond that for some reason they are reluctant to admit until later in life.
Waiting for you, writing this letter, I feel like I'm teetering between these two sentiments, a pessimism born of experience and a desperate hope born of helplessness.  In dredging up these old griefs from my past, I cling to the thought that this act itself will somehow create a better future for both of us, that with these words I'll weave a charm that will spell our reconciliation and draw you home.  (page 70)
The story does end on a hopeful note and I felt satisfied in the end.  In fact, it made me wonder if perhaps more mother/daughter relationships can be repaired "before it is too late" by the simple act of writing an honest, heart-to-heart letter.  Sometimes the free flow of words (without the heated interruptions and need to defend) can be a cleansing, reconciliatory activity for all.

So while I would recommend the book, I will do so with this caveat.  A good friend of mine read the book and was not at all impressed.  She surmised that perhaps it is because she raised only sons.  I think I might agree with her assumption.   Perhaps there is the need to have an intimate knowledge of that mother/daughter relationship to fully appreciate this epistle.  Have any of you read this book?  I would love to hear your opinions.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review: Service Included

Service Included:  Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter
by Phoebe Damrosch
Published by William Morrow (imprint of HarperCollins)
copyright:  2007
rating:  4 out of 5

I have a confession to make.  I secretly read People magazine.

I is sad, but true.  There is something about reading the lives of the rich and famous that I find intriguing.  I think it is because it is a lifestyle that I will NEVER experience (this coming from someone whose mantra is "never say never") and I almost feel as if I am transported into a fairy tale existence in the midst of my real, mundane, incredibly ordinary world (and sometimes it is good to know that the affluent have problems too - just not the same problems that I am faced with)

Another confession, although not nearly as embarrassing, is that my default television channel is the Food Network.  I watch very little television, but if I want something on while surfing the net or reading the blogs, it is the Food Network.  I distinctly remember videotaping every episode of Master Chefs when it was aired on PBS in the 80s.  This was the closest thing to the Food Network at that time and I would savor every chef - every recipe - every culinary tip.  I think if I were ever to live my life differently, I would have pursued a baking profession.

So now that you know my two deep, dark secrets - you will understand why I enjoyed this gossipy book of the food service industry.  The author becomes the captain at one of New York's 4 star restaurants, Per Se, which is owned by the famed restaurateur and chef, Thomas Keller, who also owns the French Laundry, lauded as one of the top restaurants in the United States.  I had not heard of this particular restaurant (in my NYC days the most lauded restaurants included La Cote Basque and The Four Seasons ), so I decided to do a little google search.  The menu changes daily - but on this particular search I found the Chef's Tasting Menu listed for the prix fixe of $275 per person.  This does NOT include wine (which can range upwards of $3,000 a bottle), but it does include gratuity.  On more than one occasion the author mentioned the total bill of a guest at $20,000.  This is obviously NOT my demographic group.

And yet....I found myself captivated by the behind-the-scenes details of servicing a clientele that can afford such a meal.  The attitude of "the customer is always right" and the willingness to cater to any culinary whim of said customer - whether it be a food allergy, an aversion to a particular food group, or just a personal quirk - is somehow satisfying to me.

I would think it would be rather easy for the writing of this subject matter to come across as pompous or condescending (and perhaps for some other readers it does), but I found that the author's wit and humorous outlook on life, coupled with her eloquent writing style that is so descriptive I felt as though I was sitting in the restaurant with her, riveted me to want to read more. 

The book not only gives the reader a glimpse into the restaurant life - but also into the lives of those who frequent such restaurants (there are numerous mentions of catering to the under 12 years old age group - which in my wildest dreams I cannot imagine them appreciating the cost of such culinary delicacies).  There is also an auto-biographical narrative that is infused throughout the book that held my interest as well.  The author is actually a graduate of the MFA program of Sarah Lawrence University, and I was incredibly pleased to discover on her website that her love-interest in the book actually becomes a happily ever after story with the two of them finding an apartment together and giving birth to their first child.  

While many of the dishes I will never taste (like beef bone marrow - of which they actually organized their own sample tasting of three distinguished New York restaurants), I did find myself longing to savor the shaving of a single truffle.  

Yes, my tastes definitely lie more in line with Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives (we actually plan to drive to Omaha this weekend to visit one of his recommendations) - bud I did find this book very interesting and I look forward to reading more of this author's works.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Where does the time go?

Mandy as Madeleine - age 5
Well, as many of you know, I find it difficult to remain totally silent when I post a photo.  I guess that is why I am try to investigate a form of Journalistic Photography.  I promise my narrative to be concise.

Yesterday was enrollment day in our school district.  I waited until Mandy woke up (at 1:30PM!!) and we finally left for school around 2:00.  Normally this is not something that I would consider blog worthy - but yesterday was the last time that I will take part in enrollment activities.  I have been doing this annual event since 1991 when my eldest entered Kindergarten, and now, in 2010, I have enrolled my "baby" for her senior year.  

Mandy today 
I marvel at the passage of time.  Some days seem to pass agonizingly s-l-o-w, and yet when I look with perspective over the years, they have all sped by so quickly.  I think that is why I like to take photos of family memories - both the special occasions and the every day life - because what we feel is going to last forever, in reality, is gone in the blink of an eye.

Enjoy the journey!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review: Scout, Atticus, and Boo

Scout, Atticus and Boo:   A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird
by Mary McDonagh Murphy
HarperCollins Publishers
copyright:  2010
rating:  3 out of 5

As most of you in the book blogging world know, July 11th  marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, arguably one of the best-loved novels in American literature.  All across this great country of ours celebrations and festivals have been planned in honor of this momentous event.  Dawn of She Is Too Fond of Books organized a read-along of the classic to coordinate with its birthday month.  And Scout, Atticus, and Boo was released in June that pays tribute to the endearing characters, as well as their reclusive author, Nelle Harper Lee.

The book is divided in two parts.  In the first section, Ms. Murphy gives us a brief background of Harper Lee, life in small-town Alabama in the 1950s, and the subsequent reaction to her masterpiece once it was released.  She also gives the reader some behind-the-scenes details of the making of the movie and how Monroeville has adapted to the onslaught of tourists over the past 50 years.  Now I thoroughly love any kind of background information - especially when it relates to the writing of an All-American classic, but as Nise mentioned in her review of this same book, I was somewhat disappointed that the author used so many quotes from the interviews in the second half of the book.  In my opinion, this weakened the interview section (I had already read this information before) as well as this historical perspective (this portion of the book could have been considerably shorter had the quotes been eliminated - which would have tightened up the narrative and made it more compelling to the reader).

The second portion of the book centered on the 25 or so interviews of various people regarding their impressions of To Kill a Mockingbird.  The collection of interviewers is vast - from the child actor who played Scout in the movie, to a teacher in Monroeville in the 1950s, to Harper Lee's older sister, to various well-known personalities of our day.  I thoroughly enjoyed the content of each interview - and the different perspectives that they had while reading the book for the first time, and how those perspectives changed with each subsequent reading (I believe every person claimed to have the read the book more than once).  I often felt, however, that the editing processed was rushed, as the writing is often disjointed and bounces from one idea to another.  I am not sure if the purpose was to present a stream-of-consciousness feeling (when I say To Kill a Mockingbird, what thoughts come into your mind) or if the rush to publish the book prior to the July 11th deadline loomed overhead.  Ms. Murphy obviously did her research, and as I said, I really enjoyed what was said --- I just grappled a bit with the written presentation.

I also had a difficult time with the order in which the interviews were presented:  I am not sure there was an order.  My spatially organized brain would have preferred that the interviews be sub-categorized -- perhaps natives of Monroeville, those involved with the movie adaptation, authors who have been influenced by this book, and other celebrities.  I would finish one interview by a current best selling author (Adriana Trigiani) and then immediately have to switch mental gears to read an interview by an African American teacher living in Monroeville in the 1950s (Mary Tucker).  Both points of view were fascinating and worthwhile reading, but the juxtaposition of their perspectives was jarring for me:  it detracted from the reading experience rather than enhance it.

Having said all that I have decided to purchase the book for my own collection (I read a library copy for this review).  In the end, there were enough worthwhile quotes that I wanted to share with my class when I teach this book (for the sixth time) in January.  I think that students today need to realize that while the book is not a fast-paced action adventure story, it is one that allows the reader to be swept into another place and time, to become acquainted with characters that take hold of our consciousness and never let go, that shows that injustice does exist in our justice system, and while we may (and should) become angry and frustrated with small-minded thinking, tolerance and love as evidenced by Atticus are the characteristics worth striving for.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

TSS: 7.25.10

WOW --- July 25th.  Do you realize that it is just 5 months until Christmas?  My family is very familiar with my traditional chant, "Christmas will be here before you know it!" and I think that is probably just as true this year as any other.

I was taking part in my morning ritual of coffee and blogs when I came across Stacy's clever post entitled, Christmas in July.  She asked if any of us are organized enough to shop for Christmas gifts year around, or if we tend to wait until the week of December 20th.  This reminded me of the yahoo group to which I belonged, Christmas Notebook, where the 25th of every month was devoted to crafting for the holidays.  This could be making decorations for the house, or creating personalized gifts for loved ones.  I am never quite organized enough to keep up with Christmas throughout the year, but I do tend to start making lists in September and shopping in October, with the thought of completing most purchases on Black Friday (the Friday after Thanksgiving).
I fear that this Christmas, however, will probably be a bit sparse in the gift giving department.  While Geoff and I are incredibly fortunate to have jobs, I anticipate a severe pay cut this semester.  As many of you know, I am an English teacher in a very small private school.  This school is rather unique in that it is a part of the Association of University Model Schools where students either take classes on Monday - Wednesday - Friday and/or Tuesday - Thursday.  In addition to this rather unique schedule, enrollment is cafeteria style, meaning that students can take as few or as many courses as they desire.  As a result, not only are teachers paid a small percentage of the typical public school salary (this is common for small private schools) BUT we are paid by the student.  To put this in perspective, last year I had about 90 students enrolled in my 6 classes and made a little over $20,000.  

On Wednesday I had a meeting at school and learned that so far this year my enrollment is less than half that number - about 40 students signed up for the 8 classes that I have consented to teach (I added two new classes, hoping to combat the anticipated lower enrollment figure).  I do anticipate more families signing up as the August 23rd start date approaches, but I do not expect anywhere near the number from last year.  If I didn't feel like this was truly a calling in my life, I would question my sanity.

So I find myself this week in a bit of an anxious state of mind.  On the one hand, I truly do want to continue to pursue the goal of "enjoying the journey" and taking pleasure in all the little blessings of life.  On the other hand, there are necessary expenses that must be met and I question whether I am doing the right thing by staying in a job that I love - but which does not compensate me well.  While I know that money is not everything, I would be naive to believe that it is not something.  So each morning I awake and give this problem over to the Lord --- and each evening I realize that I have taken it back again.  He is in control - He knows my situation better than I know it myself - He is all powerful and resourceful.  Why do I feel that He needs my help?!

A rather heavy post for a Sunday morning.  I had intended this to be a rather light reflection on the upcoming holiday season.  I suppose this is weighing on my mind more than I originally thought. 

So I will try to end the post on a more optimistic note.   My current calendar for the week shows NO scheduled appointments nor meetings nor chores nor errands.  In fact, it is completely open until August 12th!  While the weather in the Midwest continues to be too hot and humid to do much outdoor photography, I do hope to read some on the subject and begin to list possible subject matter for the August Break challenge.  In addition, I have started reading the textbook for the new English Composition class I will be teaching this fall (the class with my largest enrollment), and I hope to continue to make headway into writing the syllabus (I actually love the part of the job --- it is the grading of all those essays that I do not look forward to).  

I will probably not do much scrapbooking this week, but I do plan to scan all the photos for my daughter's album into the computer so that I have copies for myself.  I will try to organize all the collected supplies (papers and stickers and die cuts) so that when the fall comes, I will be ready to create lovely pages from the start.

In short, I plan to make the best of the two weeks left of summer vacation 2010.

Friday, July 23, 2010

New Idea....August Break

Today is July 23.  The first day of classes will be August 23.  I have exactly one more month remaining of summer vacation 2010.
As someone who typically looks at the glass as half empty, my initial reaction to this calendar realization is to become wistful and rather depressed -- not because I have to return to the classroom (I actually love teaching - it is the grading that bogs me down), but because I did not accomplish all that I had hoped to do in my twelve week break.  However in keeping in step with my new outlook on life --- enjoy the journey --- I am going to try to focus on the few remaining weeks and make the most of it.  

I am also trying to train my brain to think realistically - not fatalistically.  It would be my normal thought process to convince myself that I will no longer have any time to do things that I want to do because all my time will be spent doing what I have to do.  This "all or nothing" attitude is not only inaccurate, it is self-defeating.  The truth of the matter is that I will have some free time and if I prioritize and plan, I can purse these creative interests throughout the school year.

Isn't it funny that once you put your mind to something, opportunities seem to magically appear?  As many of you know, one of my creative interests this summer has been photography.  I recently found Amanda's blog, Spiral Upward, and have enjoyed her weekly posts that depict her 2010 photo journal.  Each day she takes a picture and once a week she posts them with a brief caption.  I have thought that this would be a fun idea to try in 2011.  Since I have secretly harbored the dream of traveling overseas in my retirement years and documenting the event as Journaling Photos (concentration on writing) rather than Photo Journaling (concentration on photography) - I thought this might be a good interim project.  But then.....

Yesterday I was reading Susannah Conway's blog where she has proclaimed August as the month to take a break from blogging and learn to live more in the present through the lens of a camera. I am not sure that I am willing to take a total break from blogging (although my time to write meandering posts will definitely be impacted by the preparation of lesson  plans), but I do want to try to challenge myself to document my life (or what matters most to me in life) through pictures.  Susannah has even created a Flickr group for participants to share their photos, if they so desire.

This should give me an idea if this will be a viable New Year's resolution, it will allow me to become more familiar with my new camera, and hopefully it will help me to pause and take time to smell the roses.  In essence, to capture my new-found mantra, enjoy the journey, through the use of photographs.

How about you?  Is this something that you might be interested in pursuing?  Have you ever done any kind of documentation through photos?  I would love to hear your experiences!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Life is a Verb: Week 8

I began this weekly meme at the beginning of summer when I read the book by Patti Digh.  I found many of her statements so thought-provoking, that I decided to embark on a summertime quest to get to know myself better.  Some of you indicated that you have enjoyed taking this journey with me, so I decided to go ahead and post today's exercise.

As many of you know who have been reading my blog lately, I am trying to stretch my creative wings this summer. Well, in all honesty, I am first trying to emerge from the cocoon in which I have been hibernating for several decades, and then I will begin to stretch the new-found wings.  I have started to teach myself art appreciation; learn how to compose a decent photograph; dust off old scrapbook supplies and put them to use again; try my hand at artistic expression through doodling; and, of course, continue to pursue the path of creative writing.

The more I read non-fiction books on this subject (I just recently finished this week The Creative Habit, If You Want to Write, and Bird by Bird), the more I am learning about my own voice (or, as Twyla Tharp calls it, my Creative DNA).  And while I will still pursue the challenge of writing a fictional story, I believe my true voice lies in creative non-fiction.  

I found it interesting that this week's exercise incorporates this writing endeavor.
Here is a creative non-fiction story prompt.  Think of a yearning that you have....use these story prompts to write about that yearning (each prompt is to be one paragraph).  This will help to identify the yearning, as well as the obstacles that might be standing in the way - whether perceived or real. (page 174 of the Intention section).
  • Once upon a time....
  • Every day....
  • But one day.....
  • Because of that....
  • Because of that....
  • Because of that....
  • Until finally.....
  • Ever since then.....
I would be curious if any of you choose to indulge in this exercise.  If you do, and you wish to share, please leave me a link to your non-fiction story in the comments section.  I would love to hear what you are yearning to do - and how you plan to overcome those real or imaginary obstacles that always seems to stand in our way.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Who Has Time to be Bored?

I must admit that I do not relate well to those who say that they can't imagine not working a job.  They almost dread retirement because they are not sure what they will do with 24 hours in a day.  I, on the other hand, have so many outside interests that I know I will still not accomplish all I hope when I have that kind of free time, but I plan to give it a good shot!  Not only do I enjoy reading, but I have also discovered that I enjoy art (not actually creating art, but studying about art and going to museums), photography, traveling, cooking (although mostly in the baking realm), crafting (mostly paper crafts, but some day I hope to learn how to knit), etc. 

This week I have focused on one of my older obsessions, scrapbooking.  I used to be a scrapbook consultant for a number of years (in fact, I am convinced that experience led me to a teaching career), but I have been so busy with grading and lesson plans that I have allowed that hobby to lay dormant for quite a while.  Well, my youngest daughter will graduate high school in May and seeing how I have made scrapbooks for the other two as their senior gift, I have promised to make her one as well. 

photo from
On Sunday I was browsing through the newspaper ads and noticed that Michaels had a great deal on the Cricut personal diecut machine.  I have wanted one of these for three years at least (I even got up at 4:30AM on the Friday after Thanksgiving to stand in line for one, but missed the cut-off for available machines by two people!)  I immediately began to salivate and started to count my pennies.  I emailed my eldest to let her know of the sale, and casually mentioned this unbelievable bargain.  She responded immediately and said that she would love to purchase it for me as an early birthday gift (my birthday is in December, mind you).  Can I tell you how ecstatic I was?!

We planned to meet at the store when she got off from work at 5:00.  The entire afternoon I kept thinking that they had probably sold out, so I should not get my hopes up.  Well, I am here to tell was meant to be.  They had three in stock and we grabbed one the minute we walked in the door.  I also spent quite a bit of time perusing all the cartridges (they have released several more since the last time I looked) and daydreaming of all the fun I would have creating scrapbooks for every member of the family.

Well, this feeling of euphoria carried over to the next day, when I was inspired to organize all my photos of Mandy for her senior book.  I scoured Facebook for high school pictures to use, and I rummaged through boxes of personal photos to select the perfect ones for this special album.  Now I have to scan these images so that I can have copies for me before I start the creative scrapbooking process.

Tomorrow I am having dinner with a friend - and the restaurant just happens to be a stone's throw from Archivers -- only the most amazing scrapbook store in town.  I hope to have time today to think of possible page layouts and organize some of my paper and sticker supplies.  This way I will go into the store ready to make wise purchase decisions that will enhance my daughter's album.

And.....this creative theme have even carried over into my reading.  One of you terrific bloggers recommend Twyla Tharp's book, The Creative Habit, which I have thoroughly enjoyed so far.  I think the author and I have similar personalities, in that she is a creature of habit and believes that hard work is one of the greatest contributors to success in life.  So far the chapter that has resonated with me the most is Your Creative DNA --- which essentially says that we are all unique:  we are wired differently.  We need to identify what OUR creativity should be and look like, rather than try to mimic someone else.  I have always struggled with this as I have always thought myself "not good enough"  Either I try to copy someone who I consider "good enough" - which always leads to frustration because I am not them --- or, as most often is the case, I just quit.  

It seems to me that this summer I have been struggling with acceptance.  I am beginning to hear the message that I need to take the time to enjoy the journey, and not worry so much about the completed goal.  I hope to do that with this new scrapbooking adventure.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

TSS: mid-July

I find it very hard to believe that it is the middle of July already.  In four weeks I will be preparing to go back to teacher meetings, and in five weeks the students will return.  How is it that time has passed so quickly?

On the positive side, the back-to-school supplies are starting to appear in the local stores.  I absolutely LOVE shopping for new notebooks, pencils, pens, markers, folders, etc.  I think this time of year is more reminiscent of New Year's than January 1st.  It symbolizes the beginning of a new academic year -  new teachers, new subjects, new activities - a fresh start.  There is nothing like a row of newly sharpened, number two pencils, with unused erasers, ready to take notes that will somehow translate to a greater appreciation and understanding of curriculum.  Each new notebook symbolizes endless possibilities:  annotations of a new favorite book; journal entries that record another milestone event; research notes that probe deeper into the knowledge of a favorite subject.  Different colored folders and highlighters and ballpoint pens help to organize my life and my learning.  Yes, I look forward to walking the aisles of Walmart and Bed, Bath and Beyond to purchase necessary supplies and daydream of new ways to become more efficient.

Mom was able to come home from the hospital this week, and after a minor setback on Wednesday, she seems to be doing well.  I have been more proactive in finding necessary help for her in the hopes that she will feel more comfortable and secure, and I can return to being a daughter rather than a primary care provider (a role in which I do not excel).  The weather is too hot to do anything outside, so I have taken advantage of these new-found hours in my day and finished reading three books this week (which is a record number of books for me):  one short story collection, one novel, and one non-fiction book.  A rather eclectic mix, but it suited me just fine.

Life Studies by Susan Vreeland was a delight from beginning to end.  As I stated last week, this is a collection of historical fiction short stories.  The first two-thirds of the book focus on artists and paintings from mostly the Impressionist era; and the remaining one-third of the book focuses on those of the modern era.  Rather than center the story on the art or artist, the author has instead told the story from an "ordinary" person's point of view.  This could either be a model in the painting, or the wife or lover or neighbor. I was very impressed with the variety of story ideas - they are all so different.  I am afraid if I were to tackle such an anthology, the stories would begin to sound the same.

I won't recant the different stories here (but I do highly recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in art or historical fiction.  Since each story stands on its own, you can easily read this along with another novel, and by reading  one story each night, you could complete the book in about two weeks).  I do, however, want to share a fantastic event that was showcased in the second portion of the book, and one in which I hope I have the opportunity to visit some year:  The Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, California.  It sounds like an amazing show where Masterpieces of Art are portrayed on stage by real-life models.  Have any of you attended this spectacular?  If so, I'd love to hear your review.

Once I completed Life Studies, I decided to skim through a few of my recent library acquisitions.  In my typical style, I read the book flaps and the first couple of paragraphs of each book to get an idea of which one to read next.  I was about three pages into The Season of Second Chances when I realized that this was the book for me at this moment in time.  Joy Harkness has been a literary professor at Columbia University for several years, and she has decided that she is tired of the politics, tired of the Big Apple, and tired of her life.  She is wooed to Amhurst by a well-respected academician and she jumps at the opportunity to start over again.  This story chronicles her move to a new city, a run-down house that is in desperate of major renovation, a new work environment, and several new relationships.  I liked that story - but I think what truly resonated with me about this book was how much I saw myself in Joy.  It was almost as if this could have been my story - in an entirely different place and time.  

Rather than keep track of significant quotes of the book, like I usually do, I decided to keep track of our similarities.  Here are just a few:

  • She lived in New York approximately the same time that I did, and her recollection of the merger of Chemical Bank and Manufacturer's Hanover (Manny Hanny) brought back many fond memories (page 3)
  • She loves to research the answers to any question (academic or household) and she marks passages of books with loads of post-it notes which "stuck out like messy tongues" (page 21)
  • She can't grow plants to save her life "I never so much as sprouted a plant from an avocado pit" (page 23)
  • She grades LOTS of papers, noticing a pattern in students' writing from year to year "the early work of first year students rarely sings with originality.  Somewhere in the year they begin to find their voice.  Somewhere in their last year they begin to exercise a degree of control over that voice, and sometime before they're sixty, if they're very lucky, they decide what it is they really have to say."  (page 39)
  • She has collected the furniture and knick-knacks of parting relatives - not really knowing what to do with it all, and yet not able to give it away because "the world might be told about me through exposure to their loveliness and the stories contained within each chip and crackle of patina."  (page 66)
  • She is not comfortable with sharing emotions and showing affection, particularly when it comes to sitting with someone in the ICU of a hospital "Oh, God.  I began to panic.  Stroke her skin?  I'm not good at this.  I'm not one to talk to someone awake, no less can't trust me to do this right."  (page 143)
  • She believes that we should all strive to be all we can be - and sometimes in sharing that message with others, we are misinterpreted --- they view us as not accepting them for who they are.  "Everybody needs to be more.  Everybody needs to find out how much more they can be.  I think that is our mission.  If there's any reason at all we are alive - isn't it to find out how much we can be and find the courage to try to be all those things in the time we've got here?"  (page 211)
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which is probably why it only took me about a day to read it!

When I finished that novel I immediately felt drawn to read, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.  Honestly, I cannot remember who recommended this book to me (one of the back-to-school items I will purchase this week is a small notebook that can be devoted to the blog:  book recommendations, site recommendations, etc) --- but whoever it was THANK YOU!!!  I do believe this is one of the best books on the writing process that I have read in a long time.  Ms. Ueland comes from the premise that all human beings are creative - we just need to be patient (creativity is not something that happens on command) and we need to free ourselves from the tyranny of perfectionism.  I think I found two or three gems to quote per chapter - but I will share the one that really spoke to me at this point in my writing journey:
For years I persuaded myself it was hard to use the imagination.  Not so.  The only hard part in using it is the anxiety, the fear of being mediocre.....But now I know that imagination comes, works, when you are not trying, when you have a peculiar passive clarity (page 160)
I have been trying to "work" on awakening the creative forces within me this summer.  I have found a few blogs that focus on creativity using a variety of mediums:  art, photography, writing, etc.  Joan's blog focuses on poetry and doodling and I have greatly admired her artwork over the past couple of weeks.  I asked her about her doodling style and she led me to zentangles.  Have you heard of this?  Well, it was new to me, but I am now obsessed.  I have looked at several photo groups on flickr that focus on tangles and have even ordered a book, Totally Tangled, which should arrive later this week.  I have no aspirations of being a "true" artist, but I think I can handle doodling.  

Anyway, I was so enthralled with Ms. Ueland's book that I requested my own copy from Paperback Swap and it should arrive this week.  I look forward to re-reading the book again and again.

Now, as if this were not enough new books to come into my household, let me explain why I am a little late writing this Sunday Salon post. The family took advantage of the Half Price Bookstore 50% off coupon today.  All five of us -- my eldest and her husband, my youngest, my husband and myself, left the house around 9:00 and went to shop #1 where I was able to purchase a lovely two-book set on What Great Paintings Say for $15.00 (score!!)  We then had a scrumptious breakfast at Ma's 39th Street Diner, which was featured a couple of years ago on Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.  We then hit store #2 where I was able to purchase a copy of The Christmas Cookie Club for $3.50 (I enjoyed the book when I read it over the holidays - and I have another book idea that is told in this format, so I wanted my own copy for research purposes).  We then hit store #3 where I could not resist the purchase of The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England for $6.50 (I plan to read this book prior to teaching the Canterbury Tales as enrichment for myself that hopefully I can pass along to the students).  We returned home exhausted around 3:00.  It was a very good day!!

This week looks low-key which hopefully means I will have time to read and write.  What plans do you have?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Weekend Cooking: Coke Cake

Weekend Cooking is hosted each week by Beth Fish Reads.  It is a fun meme that provides great new recipes, cookbooks, and other foodie finds.  Follow the link to discover the new posts for this week.

Well, summer has arrived in the Midwest with a vengeance.  The weather forecast for the next seven days sounds like a broken record: excessive heat warnings with temperatures in the 90s and heat indexes hovering around 105 degrees!  It is the kind of weather that zaps the energy out of everyone.  Fortunately, I have central air conditioning and lots of books to help me through this difficult weather pattern.

While it is too hot to even think about cooking, I do often select one weekend day to grill chicken and steak on the barbie (well, I don't actually do the grilling...I delegate that responsibility to my hubby) and I always plan for extras to have on hand for salads for the rest of  the week.  I currently have chicken breasts marinating in  the refrigerator, and I will head out later today to purchase some steaks that happen to be on sale (the only time we ever eat steak, really, is when it is on sale).   We will also have corn on the cob, homemade ice cream (again - I just LOVE the stuff), and possibly Coke Cake.

I mentioned this family favorite a few weeks ago and there was some interest in the recipe, so I thought I would feature that today.  I really don't know the origins of this dessert, I just know that my mom has made it ever since I was little and it has remained a favorite for nearly five decades.  Some say that it is reminiscent of a Texas sheet cake, although I have not tried one of those to make the comparison.

Now this cake is loaded - I mean loaded - with sugar, so it is guaranteed to appease any sweet tooth you may have.  The high levels of sugar, coupled with the three sticks of butter, makes this a rich, decadent cake where a small piece can really go a long way.  However....somehow the cake never seems to last more than a couple of days around our household.

While the cake is fabulously rich, moist, and deletable on its own - you can really kick it up a notch and serve it warm with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream melting over the top.  Now that is heaven on a plate!

Coke Cake
(with a couple of adaptations from me)

Ingredients for cake:
  • 1 cup butter
  • 3 tablespoons cocoa
  • 1 jar marshmallow fluff (original recipe called for 1.5 cups chopped marshmallows)
  • 1 cup Coke
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 eggs - beaten
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

Directions for cake:
  1. In a large saucepan, add the butter, cocoa, marshmallow fluff, and coke.  Bring to a boil and set aside to cool slightly.
  2. In a large bowl, add the sugar and flour and toss together.
  3. Pour the warm mixture over the dry ingredients and blend together.
  4. Stir in the eggs, buttermilk, and soda until just incorporated into the batter (don't over mix)
  5. Pour into a greased 9x13 pan and bake at 350 for about 30 minutes or so
  6. Once cake is taken from the oven.....immediately prepare the icing.
Directions for icing:
  1. In a saucepan, bring 1/2 cup butter, 3 tablespoons cocoa, and 6 tablespoons Coke to a boil.
  2. Boil for one minute and remove saucepan from burner.
  3. Add a box of powdered sugar and mix until smooth.
  4. Pour icing over hot cake and let cool.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Life is a Verb: Week 7

I began this weekly meme at the beginning of summer when I read the book by Patti Digh.  I found many of her statements so thought-provoking, that I decided to embark on a summertime quest to get to know myself better. I wonder if perhaps this meme has outlived its usefulness, however,  Last week's post did not seem to resonate with many of you, and this week's personal issues have put my writing/contemplative life on hold.

My mom was hospitalized again on Friday - released on Tuesday - showing signs of mental strain on Wednesday.  I seem to be pulled in many directions and none are conducive to self-discovery.  I will quickly post the meditative question for the week, but not sure I will be able to give any kind of response.
Sometimes taking flight means letting go; letting go takes faith; faith takes letting go; it all requires wings....This year I needed to let go of a project I had been holding on to, one that was lucrative, but deflected my attention from my real work.  I needed to really let it go, not pretend to let it go, or hold on to vestiges of it to keep me comfortable (page 147 in the Intuition section)
Is there something "good" that you are holding on to that is perhaps keeping you from experiencing something "great"?  This truly deserves meditative thought - and I will try to do so later this week (hopefully)....

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Some July Library Loot

click on button to find other Library Loot participants
I went to the library after dinner tonight to return a few books - and pick up a few more on hold.  Along with more books on Impressionist art (you would think I'd read all of them by now), I also managed to snag a few titles that have been on hold for over a month.

Now you must understand my ritual.  Once I bring home the books, I take each one out of the bag and sort them.  I typically have about 4 or 5 piles:
  • Fiction
  • Non-Fiction -- writing
  • Non-Fiction -- photography
  • Non-Fiction - food/cookbooks
  • "Novel" books - those that I think will be helpful in my personal writing project
Once the books have been properly sorted, I then take a few minutes and review each one individually (yes, I am sure I have OCD tendencies -- but it works for me) .  I read the back cover - the book flaps - the table of contents - and sometimes I will read the first page or two.  The two books that I wish to showcase in this post immediately grabbed my attention and I hope to be able to read them quickly - while at the same time remaining focused on the writing endeavor.

The first one is a "foodie" book and was recommended by one of you marvelous bloggers, but for the life of me I cannot remember who it was (I tried to do a google search, but to no avail).  Anyway, the title of the book is, Service Included:  Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phoebe Damrosch.  In reviewing the Table of Contents was intrigued by the title of the second chapter:  Food Porn, so naturally, I had to take a peak.  Here is a portion of the initial paragraph:
I had a crush on the French Laundry Cookbook for ages, but considered it way out of my league, both in price and in required skill.  I stalked it in bookstores, ogling the glossy photographs in dark aisles and secluded corners where the only witness to my infatuation were other desperate faux-cook foodies who probably couldn't roast a chicken to save their lives and had to resort to drooling over centerfolds of gleaming striped ass, glistening gelee, and statuesque towers of perfectly peeled tomatoes.  (page 13)
Just two sentences but I am already captivated by her wit and writing style.  If you have read and/or reviewed this book, please let me know in the comment section and I would be delighted to edit this post to include a link to your website!  

The second book that captured my attention was The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier.  I remember reading Nicole's and Kristen's reviews of this book and immediately requesting a copy from the library.  Since it took a little more than month for my turn to finally arrive, I had to refresh my memory as to why I had requested it in the first place.

Well, first of all I was drawn to this book because the primary character, Joy Harkness, is a professor at Colombia University.  I am always drawn to stories that take place in an academic setting, and the fact that at least a portion of the book was going to take place in New York  City was an extra bonus.  I was not three pages into the book when the author managed to transport me back in time to Spring, 1985, when I was living in Greenwich Village and working in the market research department for a major financial institution:
I opened an account at Chemical Bank within days of landing in Manhattan.....Four months after my move, Chemical merged with Manufacturers Hanover and my bank became known as Manny Hanny.  In New York, I was always just a tad late for the party. (page 3)
I worked for Manny Hanny!  I have not heard that term in years - and I can't tell you what nostalgic memories came flooding back to me:  I am walking down 5th Avenue towards the village in my navy blue suit with white oxford blouse and silk bow tie (yes, it was the 80s) with my Reebok sneakers on my feet and my classic pumps in my briefcase.  Oh my --- those were the days!!

The other amazing detail about this book is that Joy and I are somewhat mirror images of one another.  She started in the Midwest (St. Louis) and moved to New York City, and I started on the East Coast and moved to the Midwest (Kansas City).  We are both middle-aged and while I will never be a professor at an Ivy League University (or any other university for that matter), I do try to instill a love for English literature to my high school students.

Joy has had enough of the Big Apple and desires a change of scenery - and a change of life.  When she is offered the opportunity to go to Amherst and assist one of the icons of education in a new academic venture, she immediately jumps at the chance.  She puts her apartment on the market and is somewhat surprised when it sells four days later for $50,000 above listing price.  I was once again transported back in time when the narration focused on the potential buyers' reactions to the apartment, and Joy's interior monologue which refutes every point they make:
A parade of seven couples and a single man marched through my rooms in the first two days of the listing, attended by their real estate agents and mine.  Everyone seemed to think that the apartment was such a gem, with its high coffered ceilings, parquet floors and the bowed window that looked out onto broad Eighty-sixth Street.  Wait until you hear the bus, I thought, but I didn't say a word.  I smiled when they talked about the light.  I needed when they mentioned the perfect proportions of the rooms.  I knew it was a crowded, dark, mean little apartment with a fireplace that didn't work and too few closets.  Two real estate agents mentioned that the building was promising to install an elevator at the back service stairs.  I didn't tell them that our co-op board had been arguing about that imaginary elevator for all of the sixteen years I'd lived in the building.  (page 7)
Oh my goodness --- have any of you ever lived in Manhattan (or, I would imagine, in major metropolitan city)?  This conversation is SO typical!

I sure hope that these first seven pages are an indication of the rest of the novel.  If so, then I am sure to LOVE it!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Review: Mimi with the Watering Can
I mentioned on Saturday that I am working my way through another one of Susan Vreeland's books (I was so taken with Luncheon of the Boating Party that I searched for another book on her writing about artwork).  This book, Life Studies, is actually a collection of short stories.  The first one is called, Mimi with the Watering Can, and is based on Renoir's painting, Girl with Watering Can.

In these stories the author has chosen to focus on the ordinary people of the time period, rather than on a particular artist. In fact in this short story, Renoir only has a token appearance.  He is captured by Mimi's beauty and free spirit while watering the flowers in a friend's garden, that he requests the opportunity to paint her later in the week.

The story instead focuses on Mimi's father, Jerome - who in the beginning is rather melancholy and depressed.  His own father passed away just two short months ago and Jerome is becoming more philosophical.  He has been reading Ennui by Baudelaire and has begun to subscribe to the belief, what is the use?  He is content to stay inside all day and socialize with no one.  His wife tries to suggest otherwise.  She entices him to go with her to a garden party in Montmontre and he reluctantly agrees.  On the way to the house we are privy to his interior dialog, which adequately sums up his view on life:
From there, he could see the huge foundation for Sacre-Coeur, a basilica planned to be as magnificent as the cathedrals of the Middle Ages.  Though it meant little to him, he didn't particularly like that it would be so monumental.  Maybe none of it made any difference.  Another seven hundred years would go by in a blink and none of it would matter (page 9)
When he first arrives at the party his melancholy state is obvious to all, but slowly, as he watches his young daughter look in awe at the miracle of nature, he begins to realize that are some things in life that do matter.  By the end of the story our protagonist has decided that life is too short to waste, and he makes a conscious decision to be grateful for his family, friends, and the beauty of the world around him.

The plot of the story is simple, the characters few, and the theme transparent.  But the true joy of this story is the writer's ability to craft ordinary life into extraordinary word pictures.  There were two passages in particular that resonated with me:
"A spider's web," Elise said.  "Look, Jerome.  How Beautiful."
It was strung from a tree branch to two  places on a lilac bush.  The sunlight turned the silk iridescent.  How that tiny creature could launch himself into the void, spinning a filament of thin trust, and catch hold of something, anything, and build his three pointed kingdom from such a slender thread."  - page 16
And then.....
There was nothing unusual about that watering can - tin turned bluish green, with a sprinkler head on the spout - yet he felt a tenderness toward it out of all proportion to its value.  How Mimi's fingers, like little white  minnows, grasped its handle.  how she wielded it with an authority beyond her years.  It made no difference that the trickle of water drops falling on leaves and petals was a mere decoration and would never nourish the plant deep down in the earth where the roots searched for sustenance.  She had a job, a purpose.
If only he were a poet.  Or if Baudelaire could see her, and see inside him to his love for her, he wouldn't have written about l'ennui.  he watched her dance through her enchanted world, arms out to catch the fleeting impossible, her world where sprinklings on petals mattered, and his heart followed her. -- page 17
I have also enjoyed reading the short stories based on the works of Monet, Manet, Morisot, and VanGogh.  I look forward to completing the stories in this collection and savoring the author's word pictures, as well as the masterpieces about which she writes.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

TSS: Summer Progress

I am a realist - although some people might choose to translate that as pessimist.  I really don't try to look at the glass as half empty, but that is the way my brain interprets the sight.  Having said that, I must report that for me, summer is now half over.  Teachers report the week of August 16th and students return to the classroom on the 23rd.  Truth be told, I will have to start working on lesson plans before that - so yes, my summer is quickly disappearing.

It has not been the summer that I anticipated nor expected.  At first I thought I would be studying in Oxford and visiting all sorts of quaint British villages, but that fell through.  Then I thought I would spend twelve weeks in total selfish abandon - honing photography skills, creating scrapbook pages, whittling away the TBR pile, and filling  moleskine notebooks with written prose.  While I have accomplished a bit in all those areas, I have not come anywhere close to meeting my expectations.  My immediate reaction is one of sadness and disappointment, but if I am to follow my own advice from Life is a Verb, I must choose to respond with acceptance of what has happened, and anticipation of what I can still accomplish over the next few weeks.

Part of the reason for my less-than-stellar summer accomplishments is due to Mom's health.  She is in the hospital - again.  I feel as though I am working towards an RN degree whether I want one or not.  I know more about hypertension, orthostatic-hypertension, and congestive heart failure than I truly care to.  While typically these are three conditions that can be easily controlled through medications, Mom's situation is exacerbated because the drug used to manage one creates adverse effects in the other two.  It is a delicate balance game of tweaking the meds to her best advantage, knowing that at some point in the future (two weeks in this case - but it could be as long as six months) they will need to be tweaked again.  This not only requires that I physically be there with her, but it also exacts a certain amount of mental and emotional energy that takes away from my creative productivity.

But I also have learned something about myself that has been an eye-opener:  I am rather self-defeating.  I have always been a goal-driven person and to that end, I am highly organized with to-lists and deadlines.  While I do not think there is anything wrong with being wired this way, I do think that it can be taken to the extreme - and I have most definitely taken it to the extreme (I can now envision my husband and daughter vigorously nodding their heads and shouting "It's about time!")

I become so fixed on the goal and the deadline, that I suck all the joy out of the project.  I have done this for years - sometimes out of necessity, but oftentimes out of my own warped sense of duty.  Take for example this novel project.  When I began the process this spring, I was afraid that I wouldn't come up with an idea.  Not only have I come up with one idea, I am beginning to create more and more narrative situations as time goes on.  This is quite exciting, as I thought I had atrophied this portion of my brain beyond repair.
While I truly want to try to write for me - this particular project is fueled by the creative writing class that I will be teaching in the fall.  I decided that in order for me to truly sympathize with the students, I should undergo the curriculum myself.  Mind you - no one else has specified this requirement:  not the principal, not the parents, not the students, not the creators of the program.  Just me.  And with each passing week I become more and more agitated because I am not as far along as I think I should be in order to meet the deadline of August 16th.  Good grief, Molly --- change the deadline!  Who cares if it isn't complete by then?

I have been reading numerous books and blogs by published authors who talk about spending years writing a book (I believe Susan Vreeland spent three years researching and writing Luncheon of the Boating Party and she is an accomplished bestselling author).  Why do I think I have to write my first novel in twelve weeks?

I have also discovered that I really enjoy the time period in which I have set this historical fiction piece.  I have always loved all things French (which is why I was a French major in college) and I am learning to really appreciate the art and artists of the Impressionist era.  I have been immersing myself in this time period, by reading historical fiction, educational non-fiction, visiting museum exhibits, and writing a bit on my own; this is a great escape for me.  And I truly believe that the more I surround myself with this kind of literature, the more realistic my own narrative will be.  So why am I denying myself the pleasure of the process in order to meet this arbitrary goal?  I have no valid answer for that, which necessitates that I change this way of thinking.

So while this is not a big an earth shattering idea for many of you, this is a major break-through for me.  I vow to continue writing and developing the story idea.  But I also vow to enjoy the journey.
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