Sunday, May 1, 2016

Book Reviews April 2016

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.  I’ve heard so many good things about Elena Ferrante’s quartet of novels, of which My Brilliant Friend is the first.  Having said that, however, I realized while reading that I didn’t know any specifics about why the novels are thought to be so good; all I really knew was that Ferrante never makes any kind of author appearance, and all of Europe is abuzz over just who she might be.  (That is, is she really a literature professor or is “Elena Ferrante” the nom de plume of someone famous.  Speculation abounds).  I enjoyed the book, although I was not blown away by it.  If I understand it correctly, the quartet is about a friendship between two women, and this first book is about their childhood growing up in a slum in Naples.  The narrator, Elena Greco, excels in school, and is driven to do better by the innate talent of her classmate and eventual friend, Lila.  Education is not the norm for either Lena’s or Lila’s family, but Lena’s family enables her to continue on to middle and then high school (unheard of for that area) because of a teacher’s intercession.  Lila is not able to continue on after elementary school, although for awhile she works hard to educate herself by reading almost every book in the library.  Lila is smart and odd and ferocious, and Lena is drawn to her, although she does see her good and bad qualities.  The book is about how their paths veer and how each is envious of what the other has.  It’s also about a friendship and luck.  It was interesting and I look forward to reading the next three; I don’t quite see what the fuss is all about yet.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.  I just finished this book on the train today and am still struck speechless by it.  It’s a long novel and wonderfully written.  The writing drew me in so much that I would just barely remember to get off at the right train stop, and once I did I really didn’t know where I was or what I should be doing.  It would take me a few minutes to regroup.  It starts out being the story of four male friends who meet in college, and then she follows two of them in particular through the next almost forty years of their lives.  The main character, Jude St. Francis, is a man who had probably the worst imaginable childhood possible.  He is very scarred by his first fifteen years, mentally, emotionally, and physically, and Yanagihara focuses on how he struggles to believe himself worthy of a fulfilling life, despite his life’s beginnings.  The novel is really a love story about Jude – between him and his partner, between him and his friends, and between him and his father figure, Harold.  It is often a hard book to read – Jude self-mutilates – but there is something so magnetic about her writing that I couldn’t wait until I could open the book again.  I have a few small complaints – the organization is a little haphazard for one.  At first it seems like it is going to be about the four friends equally, but then it ends up being mainly Jude’s story.  Also, at some point through the 700 page book you realize that it is always going to be about the present, but then with bits of Jude’s past story doled out here and there, and sometimes that got a little annoying.  I’m also still working out what I think about how she presents Jude’s abuse.  There’s been a lot of controversy about this book, some of which concerns the constant victimization of Jude, and what this says about the victim culture of today.  And then Jude and his friends all end up so successful and with such money, that the book has been criticized as a kind of rich city lifestyle porn.  Both are valid criticisms, but I think the book goes beyond that and is a really impressive achievement.  It is epic.  I can't stop thinking about it.

How To Cook a Moose by Kate Christensen.  This is the kind of nonfiction I like best:  a mixture of memoir and food writing with recipes.  A new Mainer, Christensen concentrates in this book on her adventures with Maine food and the people who grow and make it.  She’s a good writer and enthusiastic and I enjoyed reading the book.  That being said, I don’t think I could find someone who I have less in common with culinarily than Christensen.  What she likes to eat, I do not; what I like to eat, she never does (she even wrote a sentence in her book that caused me to gasp in horror:  she doesn’t like sweets and desserts and never eats them.  Ever.  Except for the occasional donut.)  So I think there is not one recipe that she included that I would ever attempt to make, and that is generally the fun of culinary memoirs—you find good recipes and know the context for them.  Her comfort food tends to be very spicy red sauces on pasta.  Her writing also is without a sense of humor and tends to be very earnest.  I find her nonfiction to be very pleasant and interesting; she just isn’t my kindred spirit.

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan.  This first novel was a very entertaining read.  I began it with a bit of skepticism, as it seemed t might be a little lighter than I like, and it was relatively light, but also funny and well-done.  Alice is a mother of three in New Jersey and has to find a full-time job, since her husband was recently downsized at his big law firm.  She gets a job at a huge corporation that is planning on opening up virtual reading rooms; this company is a nightmare of corporate speak and acronyms and twentysomethings forcing Alice to be enthusiastic and join in the groupspeak and be available at all times.  Alice is a good sport about it at first, since she is happy to be back at work, but tensions escalate both at home and at the office.  It reminded me of a Liane Moriarty novel, only based in NJ instead of Australia. I recommend it.

100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write by Sarah Ruhl.  The word that came to mind while I was reading these essays is delightful.  As an essayist, Ruhl has a great voice—she is funny and wry and very thought-provoking.  I do not know much about theater and drama issues, but she’s so good an essayist that that didn’t matter.  These essays are about plays and the theater and the audience, but also about being a working mother in general and a working playwright mother at that.  It was an enjoyable read and I hope she writes more.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Kid Birthday Party

Spring seems to be the season for birthday parties, as Owen keeps coming home from school with party invitations tucked into his backpack. This is our first time on the kid party circuit, and I admit to finding the experience strange.  Especially when the experience involves teenagers dressed as superheroes dancing in a basement. 

He did have a party at a nice playground near us that we hadn’t been to before, and indeed didn’t know was there.  So now we have a closer playground to visit, which is a plus!  This playground had a tricycle feature too: 

Owen’s birthday is in August, when people are generally dispersed, so I’m thinking that will get us out of having to have a kid party for him for another year or two.  We are birthday party scrooges.  Bah, humbug.

For the first party we went to I made the mistake of trying to involve Owen in the wrapping of the gift.  Rookie error!  Owen of course was very upset to see the cool toy that was not for him and became absolutely hysterical, poor fellow.  I think he was even more unprepared for this by the fact that he’s an only child, so all toys in our house are generally for him.  We need to practice Sharing.  However, I learned my lesson, and wrapped the second birthday present the following week on the floor of my closet with the door closed.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Polka Dot Accent Wall

For my birthday this year, I asked Sean to paint our master bedroom.  We didn’t paint it when we moved in, and I had reached the point where I could no longer handle seeing the horrible powdery green-blue color it was.  I usually like a lot of color in a room, but the two windows in the bedroom are filled with the leaves of one large tree, which lends the room its greenery, so I thought I would try to have it be white.  But since I like color, I also thought I’d try circles on one wall.

Here are the results:

I like it!  Sean thinks it looks a little bit like the outside of some of the crazy daycare centers we pass in the city, and I do think the colors are perhaps a tiny bit more circus than I was going for, but it pleases me on the whole.

And it pleases Posy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Breakfast Hit and Miss

Back in my childfree days when my commute to work was a ten minute walk, and my morning routine included time enough to talk to Martha on the phone while I enjoyed my coffee, I often would make steel cut oats for breakfast.  But then things changed, as things are wont to do, and I had Owen and a commute that included catching a train, and there was much less time for breakfast in general, let alone cooking it for thirty minutes on the stove.  I don’t like instant oatmeal though, or even quick oatmeal—too gloppy -- so I’ve long been on a quest for another healthy breakfast.  One gets tired of yogurt.

I’ll begin with the miss first.  I read a lot of food blogs and every time I would read about overnight oats (sometimes called Swiss Oatmeal?), it would seem like a great idea to me.  Oatmeal that you make the night before by mixing it with yogurt and milk and a few other ingredients and letting it sit overnight to be all ready the next morning with no further preparation necessary?  Count me in.  So over the past few years I’ve tried about six overnight oats recipe and each has been more horrible than the next.  It turns out I don’t want to find yogurt in my oatmeal, and the whole cold mushy mix (no matter if it is served in a twee jar layered with fruit and nuts) is horrid.  A few weeks ago I hopefully tried a slightly different recipe and when I pronounced it inedible the next day, I decided enough with overnight oats.

But then I decided to jump on the chia pudding train!  Chia seeds are easy to procure these days (Trader Joes even has them), and are filled with Good Nutrients (I read), and of course, they had me at “pudding”.  I’m a big fan of desserts masquerading as breakfast or vice versa, so I gave them a try.  And at first my attempt was a failure – whatever I tried always ended up runny, like a seeded beverage.  Ick.  But I kept trying, and I tinkered, and finally found the right proportion of ingredients, which are:

·         1 can of whole coconut milk (has to be whole fat; I tried the low fat kind and it doesn’t work)
·         ½ cup of chia seeds
·         1 tsp vanilla
·         ¼ cup of maple syrup.

Just whisk those four ingredients together the night before and then the next day – voila!  A nice thick, healthy breakfast pudding, with four servings.  Of course, I’ve been eating it for about two months now and am ready for a change – but I do recommend it.

Owen wants nothing to do with the chia pudding...yet.
Here he is eating "space chocolate" in his rocket ship.

Friday, April 22, 2016


Tulips are my favorite flower, followed closely by blue hydrangeas.  We’ve planted a hydrangea bush each summer we’ve been at this house, so last fall I finally got my act together and ordered some tulip bulbs.  Sean also bought a bag of surprise tulips at Lowes, along with a little bulb planter tool, and one nice day in October I planted about sixty bulbs somewhat willy nilly in our front yard garden beds.

I might have mentioned in entries past about how I am not a natural gardener.  I cannot look at a plant, like my father does, and know what it needs—more water, sun, trimming, what have you.  I have no plant instinct.  In the almost four years we’ve been at our house, I have practiced my weeding, and have worked up some skills at taking horrible predator vines off of plants and trees, but I’m still on the very beginner side of beginner gardening.  I realized this winter that there is another way that my temperament doesn’t match up well with gardening, and that is because I have become, in my old age, a worrier.  And so what did I do when we had a strangely warm December that caused the bulbs to start growing?  I worried! I worried all through January as they inched higher, and February as they inched higher still.  And then I worried in early April during our freak snowstorm.

And then I kept seeing rabbits in our front yard and started worrying that they’d eat the flower heads.  (They didn’t with the tulips, but might have done with the daffodils?)  At any rate, despite my worrying, the tulips look lovely, if a bit in need of some weeding:

Our backyard woodchuck was late in reappearing after her hibernation.  I didn’t see her until April, and then the second time she appeared, Dorothy, all primed to chase cats from our yard, forgot that she is friends with the woodchuck and chased her back under the shed with her bulldogge fangs a millimeter from the woodchuck’s derriere.  Sigh.  I haven’t seen the woodchuck since, although I did give her a few apples as a peace offering.  She likes them cut into quarters and left outside of her main hole.  I’m hoping she does not hold a grudge.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Heroes For Days

For the past month, Owen’s vast collection of Thomas trains have remained in their basket, while his toys of choice are his large (Avenger?) superheroes and the small ones with big feet (for easy standing on surfaces).  He plays with them for hours per day, and the play usually involves groups of them fighting with other groups.  He always wants us to play with him too, although I like to annoy him by having my assigned superhero (usually the Hulk) request that everyone sit down and talk about their feelings.

Sometimes his affection towards his heroes coincides with his affection for his toy kitchen and foods, and then we get a moment like this one below, where all of the heroes are having a picnic (note one has a delicata squash on his lap).

Sean has also brought home a few large boxes from work so that he and Owen can build a rocket ship and go on missions.  I often come down to the living room to see this scenario: 

Poor Dorothy is assigned the role of Space Monkey, who attacks the ship and gets battled.  When the ship is quiet, it will attract a smaller space explorer, like so:

Ground control to Major Tom!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Recent Owenisms

When it was still winter, I would have to urge Owen to go outside in the cold with me for some exercise.  Apparently he was listening to what I said, since one day when we asked if Sean wanted to come and Sean said no, Owen said to him:  “You don’t want to turn into a blob, Dad!”  And:  “don’t you want roses in your cheeks?”

We were on a walk one day with Owen in the stroller and were talking politics. 
Owen: What are you talking about, guys? 
Me: Government and money.
Owen: The Government?  Are those the bad guys?
Me: --

Owen can be a bit of a klutz these days (let’s face it, he comes by it naturally, since I myself can barely go through a doorway without hitting one side of it).  When he hurts himself, he doesn’t want us to kiss the hurt or anything like that.  No, he wants us to scold the object that hurt him.  He’ll say, Mommy!  Tell that bush not to hurt OwenMartinGares!  And then when I do, he’ll prompt:  Tell it, “Owen is my little buddy!”  And I do.

One of his favorite outside games is to play “Shiver Me Timbers” on the back deck.  He pretends that he’s a pirate and the back deck is his pirate ship.  Dorothy, who is often lying in the grass chewing a stick, is the shark that might attack the ship and steal the treasure.  This was fine until one day I went in for water and came back out to see Owen chasing Dorothy with his large plastic bat, trying to smash the shark.  Sigh.

I was getting Owen ready for his bath one night and gave him a little pat on the butt in the direction of the bathroom.  Owen started lecturing me:  “The teacher says, keep your hands to yourself, Mom!  Keep your hands to yourself!  Unless you are going to hug and then you can use your hands.”  Well alrighty then; good to know.

I have a book which I read to Owen on occasion about a little boy raven named Edgar who always is telling his parents, “Nevermore!”  Sometimes I wonder if Owen is paying attention to my reading, as more often than not while I am doing so, he is jumping on the bed and/or bouncing around his room.  But I know some things sink in, because when he gets mad now he will bellow at us, “NEVER!!!” in the same tone I use to have Edgar say, “Nevermore!” 

I’ve always said that I’d like to raise Owen to be a chivalrous feminist, and I’d say we are headed in the right direction, as he is very protective of his mother.  He likes to chatter (nonstop) about how Dorothy is a guard dog, and he, Owen, is my guard boy.  Sometimes Dorothy’s a watchdog and Owen a watchboy.  This pleases me until he starts talking about punching burglars in the face and then I feel we have to tone things down a notch.

We were reading a book about an astronaut and I said to Owen (always trying to push the Jean-Luc Picard lifestyle on the boy), maybe one day you will be an astronaut and go to the moon.  And Owen replied, “Can Mommy and Daddy come too?”  I said sure, why not.  And then he said, “Can dogs go to the moon?  Can we bring Dorothy?” 

He is VERY into action figures right now – mainly the Avengers and other superheroes.  I admit to not being able to keep track of who is who.  He also has some old green army men, and the other day he asked Sean to help him find a certain one, “the one with the thumb”.  Sean had no idea what he meant by that, and offered him a few different ones, all of which were turned down by Owen.  Owen explained further, “No, I want the one with the thumb sticking out!”  And finally, Sean realized that the one he wanted was holding and pointing a gun.  Ha!  He let him think that it was the man’s thumb.  Peace out!