Thursday, October 8, 2015

Pumpkin Cookies!

Last Saturday Sean had to work again and had to take our only car with him.  Owen and I were more or less stuck in the house because of Hurricane Joaquin, so I turned to food to keep us entertained.  I purchased a pumpkin cookie-cutter, and then let Owen choose a few other cookie-cutters from the eclectic collection I inherited from my Aunt Elsie:  for the record, Owen chose a dachshund, an airplane, and a hammer.

I made the dough the night before, and then Owen and I rolled the dough, cut it with the cookie cutters, and baked the cookies.  This mostly proceeded apace – although I got peevish at first when the dough was too sticky, and then Owen kept using the hammer cookie-cutter as, well, a hammer, and hammering the dough with it.  But once we made it past these hurdles, we made three cookie sheets of large cookies.

And then we made a lovely glaze and dyed it orange and iced the cookies.  Owen was in charge of the sprinkles, and he was very, very pleased to have the task of not only throwing tiny balls on to cookies, but being encouraged to do so.  He chortled with glee:

Later in the day, we got out our Halloween decorations and decorated the mantle.

Susan and Owen on Tuesday turned one of our pumpkins into a bat:

We are getting ready for the holiday!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

September 2015 Book Reviews

The Speechwriter:  A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim.  This book had me laughing out loud on the train for several days.  Swaim was the speechwriter for Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina who disappeared a few years ago claiming to be hiking on the Appalachian trail, only to have ended up in Brazil with his mistress.  He became infamous for this, as well as the bizarre non-apologetic apology press conferences he held once caught, and then went on to run for and win a SC State Representative contest.  The man has problems, and the mistress was the least of it.  He was a crazy dictator to work for, and Swaim’s descriptions of trying to guess what he wanted in his speeches, and to guess what was making him unhappy with the speeches, are truly funny.  Sanford treats all his employees (all young, because he refused to pay real salaries) as non-entities; he seemed to know nothing about any of them on a personal level.  There’s a hilarious scene where Swaim is riding in a car with him, and Sanford keeps tossing discarded items in his face from the front seat – not out of animosity, in particular, but just because once he was done talking to Swaim about an upcoming speech, it was as if Swaim was no longer there.  I enjoyed this book very much until perhaps the last chapter, in which Swaim tries to justify why he worked for Sanford pre-crisis.  At the end of a book in which Sanford is rightly portrayed as a buffoon (not necessarily a stupid buffoon, but his intelligence makes his buffoonery all the more inexcusable), Swaim tries to claim Sanford as a righteous pragmatist who was right about most issues – and fails in his justification for remaining beholden to such a horrible boss.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  This book is a gem:  all the fuss it’s been getting for the past year is deserved.  It is about two teenagers, Werner Pfenig, and Marie-Laure LeBlanc, whose lives intersect for a few hours in occupied St. Malo during WWII.  It becomes clear early on that their fates are intertwined, but the majority of the novel is getting the two from childhood to that point.  Werner is an orphan and a kind of radio/engineer prodigy, whose talents get claimed by the third reich.  Marie-Laure is blind with a father who works as a locksmith in the “key pound” of a museum in Paris.  When the Germans invade France, he is sent out of the city with a valuable diamond – or a replica of it – to keep safe.  The diamond has a history of saving its owner while cursing all who are close to its owner.  The story moves steadily on, and most of it is utterly delightful.  Doerr is very talented at striking the right pace and providing the exact right amount of detail.  It’s charming without being twee, and disturbing without being wretched.  It’s an excellent novel.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.  I did not like this book at all: it was a slog to read.  It’s about a young twentysomething, Clay, who gets a job in a very strange bookstore in San Francisco.  Most of the books available there are not for sale, and are for the exclusive use of a kind of secret brotherhood dedicated to uncoding the 16th century tome of Manutius, a man who allegedly discovered the key to immortality.  Sloan aims for whimsical and slightly grown-up Harry Potter-dom, but his writing is dreadful (at one point the two characters “crack open” a piece of falafel, and at another point, when Clay is trying to disguise a new book for an old one, he realizes the new one isn’t dusty, so picks up some dust from the shelf and “sprinkles” it on to the new book.  With his fingers.  Does dust sprinkle?!), he’s often sexist, and the whole google connection was tiresome (because he is twentysomething, and because he has a crush on a google exec, Clay uses the google super-computers to try to solve the code).  The book got a lot of really good reviews, which amaze me.  Although there are elements of the story that were interesting, the book was dreadful from start to finish.  Seriously.  Don’t read this.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen.  I’ve been a big fan of Franzen’s novels since Strong Motion in 1992, and think he is a one of the best writers out there today.  He can write about anything and make it interesting, and this skill of his is still going strong.  I didn’t, however, think Purity was a great book, as a whole, although I did enjoy reading it.  I’ll begin with the problems, which are that a lot of it seemed exercise-y to me and without the urgency that a truly superb novel contains all throughout.  That is, I feel like he mapped out the novel and then would sit down to write the backstory of this character, and then write the story of that character, and then fit them together.  I was happy each night to read this backstory, but there was a missing element somewhere.  The parts all fit into the whole, but for me they didn’t really come together, beyond how they fit into the plot.  Alchemy was missing.  He did a good job with the main character, Pip Tyler, who is quirky and smart and haphazard and always does the unexpected.  His portrayal of Anabel, however, was unsettling, and not in the way that it was meant.  He definitely is “mean” to Anabel, and almost makes her a caricature because of emphasizing her horrible faults, yet at the same time he forgives Tom for joining in with Anabel for so long.  A woman character is certainly allowed to be horrible, but there was something in the way he created her which made me uncomfortable, and uncomfortable at Franzen’s expense, not mine as a reader.  In general, his writing is so relaxed and interesting and smart, though, and I was happy to follow along and see where the book would take me next. 

The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny.  This is Penny’s 13th Chief Inspector Gamache mystery, and I had originally planned not to read it.  I mostly enjoyed the first twelve, but almost all of the books take place in the same small town of Three Pines in between Quebec and the border, and with the same cast of characters, and it seemed to me to be mostly played out.  But then I saw some good reviews and was feeling warm and fuzzy towards the books and decided I would Continue.  And it IS a fairly good mystery, although I also think my original instincts were correct – that I’m done with the series.  One of the problems I’ve had with all of the books is that I feel like Penny likes her characters a little more than the reader can – especially Armand Gamache.  He’s smart and interesting and flawed, but at some point his portrayal becomes a kind of hero worship or crush, and it gets to be too much.  Yes, we know, he loves his wife!  He likes poetry and good food at the bistro!  He’s smarter than his enemies give him credit for being!  At least there is not a lot of Clara in this book, a character who only ever is mentioned as being messy to the point of always having food in her hair.  Yes, in her hair.  Because it is so hard to not spill food in one’s hair and then leave it there, sigh.  Anyway, this mystery begins when a young boy is killed and a huge missile launcher is discovered – both in Three Pines.  Gamache, who now lives there and is retired, still joins in with his former subordinates to help solve the case.  It has a faster pace than some of her books, and doesn’t rely as much on the inside characters, so in that sense it is a success.  And if you enjoy her mysteries, this one is a good one.  I think it is time, however, to move on.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Owen Flotsam

Last week was Owen’s first full week of nursery school, so of course this week is his first cold of the school year.  Sigh.  Sean and I were betting it would take two weeks for the first sickness to appear, but the cold won that bet.  Oh well!

Owen’s favorite thing to say to us right now is to admonish us to “Be patient.”  When we ask him to do something that he doesn’t want to do at that particular moment, he’ll say, “Be patient, Mommy.  You have to be patient.”  When I brush Plum and Plum gets tired of it and yowls, Owen will say, “OKAY PLUM!  BE PATIENT!”

In general, he is very interested in narrative and wants us to re-state to him what happened even when only minutes have passed.  So for example, he’ll have a conversation with Sean, and then he’ll turn to me and ask, “What did Daddy say?  And what did Owen say?”  He likes to relive any conversation as a story, which I find rather fascinating, as that is how I process things myself.  Of course, he won’t stop after hearing a recap once; he’ll want to hear the recap over and over.

Owen often will “help” me in the mornings when I feed the cats, and we went through a particular phase (now over, thank goodness) where he wanted to be the one to scoop the food into the dishes.  When one day he was trying to express to me that he wanted to do the scooping, he said to me, “You be the cook!  I’ll be the catman!” – meaning he wanted me to get our own breakfast ready, while he concentrated on the cats.

Owen was bringing me a beer Sean had poured one weekend, and the beer was dark with a head of froth.  As Owen carefully carried it into the living room, he said, “Mommy!  Here’s your chocolick and your banilla!”

People often ask Owen how old he is, but he still doesn’t quite grasp the concept of numbers.  He can identify them up to 25 or so, but when he counts items, for example, he’ll say when counting four blocks, “One, two, three, four… Nine blocks!”  Anyway, we told him our ages the other day while explaining to him that he was three, and now if you ask Owen how old he is, he’ll say 44.  Just like his Daddy.  J

I took Owen to the mall to buy him a new pair of sneakers (sneakers, which for some reason he refuses to wear now), and we walked through the makeup section of Bloomingdales on our way to the mall.  Owen looked around and said, loudly, “It’s lipstick and chapstick!”

Owen’s biggest insult still is “You go to work!”  He says it when he is mad at us and wants us to go away.  Now he’s added a bit to it though and will say, “You go to work!  By yourself!”  And he’ll say it with venom!

Tonight I walked into the living room and found Owen perched on the couch next to Sean.  He said, "Mommy!  It's your two mans!  Daddy and Owen."

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

3-Day 3's

Owen started nursery school yesterday and we were all excited!  He is in the “3 day 3’s” class, so goes three mornings per week.  On Friday Sean, Owen and I went for orientation to meet his teachers and see his classroom.  I had talked up the fact that he would have new teachers and a new classroom, so he didn’t seem unduly put out by the changes.

Owen immediately started playing with the kitchen set, and then the trains, and except for one moment when he asked us if we can “move that girl” who had joined him at the stove, everything went quite well.  Sean and I folded ourselves into the tiny seats and listened to the teacher explain the schedule.

They play outside daily, weather permitting, and do an art project and have story time.  On Fridays they have music class and they also have a lot of field trips come to them, instead of them going on the field trips.

I was very pleased with the teacher and the room, and also pleased that out of the 15 kids in the class, 7 have July and August birthdays, so are around Owen’s exact age (I was a bit worried he’d be the youngest).  There are also 8 boys this year, in contrast to last year when there were 2.  I think Owen really enjoys being around his peers, and he needs the practice! 

Susan brought him to school on Monday and reported that he left her without a glance back and made a beeline to the toys.  And so it begins!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

August 2015 Book Reviews

The Expats by Chris Pavone.  I decided to read this, Pavone’s first book, after enjoying his second, The Accident, last month.  The Expats apparently was even more of a best seller, and is being made into a movie, but I didn’t like it as much.  What I liked about The Accident is that it was very smart and stripped down.  The Expats is baggier and a little more obvious, and contains one of my main pet peeves, which is to jumble up the chronology of the scenes for no apparent reason other than cheap suspense.  That is, the book starts with a scene towards the end of the timeline of the plot, and then jumps back to the beginning, and continues this jumping backward and forward in a way that is not necessary to the plot.  It’s a crutch and used too much, in my opinion.  The story is basically this:  Kate moves to Luxembourg with her I.T. husband and for the first time is a stay at home mom to her two young boys.  She is befriended by the expat community there, but soon becomes suspicious of a couple with whom they spend a lot of time.  It turns out the reader should take Kate’s suspicions seriously, since the career she resigned was as a CIA agent – and an assassin.  Kate begins to dig into the background of her new friend, Julia, and as she does, begins to realize that her husband might not just be the na├»ve tech guy she thought he was.  You get the gist.  It’s a fun read, too, but not the most skilled of books.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson.  I’m still really working out what I think about this novel.  Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite writers and I think her previous novel, Life After Life, is brilliant.  A God In Ruins centers on Teddy Todd, the brother of Ursula, the main character of Life After Life.  I do think you need to have read the first book to really appreciate the second.  I’m not sure I would have cared enough about the characters if I were meeting them for the first time in this book.  The two points I keep returning to mull over are this:  first, in Life After Life, Ursula keeps redoing her life as things go wrong.  She is born again and has to live through certain events again until she gets them “right.”  What IS “right” is never really resolved or spelled out in that book.  Yet in A God in Ruins, Atkinson picks one version of events to continue forward.  (She talks about this in an epilogue, and what she says there is fascinating and complicated.)  Atkinson also backtracks a bit about choosing the one course at the end of this novel too.  I like that she does this more than I dislike it, but it brings up so much to ponder about both novels, and I’m not done doing so yet.  The second snag I keep returning to is that in this novel, Teddy’s life is sad in a mundane way that becomes very depressing.  He made a vow during WWII that if he made it through the war, he would be kind and delight in the small things of life.  He does this , and isn’t unsatisfied.  But his relationship with his wife (Nancy Shawcross) is rather sad (if very ordinary) and they have a dreadful daughter who is a narcissist at best.  I keep thinking of what this all means in the context of Life After Life (and all of Teddy’s promise):  it is not unlike Eliot’s Middlemarch, in a way, in that it is a book about what happens in the “happily ever after part” – after the wedding, after the war, etc.  Atkinson is a brilliant writer and also a really good story-teller.  She goes back and forth from the war to after the war, to Teddy’s midlife and the end of his very long life, and does it all with skill and not mere manipulation.  Teddy was a fighter pilot in the war and she delves into this in detail.  So in a nutshell:  in this as always, Atkinson’s writing is superb.  I’m still mulling over how this fits in with and changes Life After Life, as its sequel. It can be read on many levels though and enjoyed, albeit in a bittersweet way, as the story of one man’s life after life:  the “after” he thought he’d never make it to see.

In Your Prime:  Older, Wiser, Happier by India Knight.  This is a fun advice book about enjoying middle age.  I don’t know much about India Knight, although I know she is English, lives in London, is in her late forties, and is known primarily as a nonfiction writer, although she’s also written novels.  This particular book concentrates on the physical, and her advice runs the gamut from what to do during menopause, to what face cream to use, to more general, state-of-mind metrics.  She’s opinionated and fun, and whereas some of the topics are obvious to the point of being surprising that anyone would need to be told this stuff, as the book progressed I fell into the rhythm of it and found it enjoyable on the whole (even though I fell into a category that she often scoffs at in the book – old people with young kids.  Harrumph.)  She’s witty and bossy:  it’s an amusing, “how true” kind of read.

The House At Riverton by Kate Morton.  I read Morton’s fourth novel, The Secret Keeper a month or so ago and enjoyed it, so decided to read her remaining novels in order in which they were written.  This is her first, and it really wasn’t up to the same level of writing as her fourth.  (So, progress!  I guess that’s a good thing).  It seemed a bit derivative of Downton Abbey to me (although it came first), and the characters fell a little flat.  Most were stereotypes of both downstairs and upstairs folk – the noble butler, the hardworking, self-effacing ladies’ maid, etc.   And the life that the main character, Grace, goes on to have seemed a stretch, as did the main reason for the central plot twist of the novel – which was why Hannah would stay in her loveless marriage.  It was an okay light read and in it Morton shows promise in her ability to tell an “intriguing” story, but overall the characters weren’t well done and the plot twists were too made up out of thin air.  Basically, the story is told by Grace, a one-time ladies maid and house servant, at the end of her long life.  She wants to unburden herself of a secret which she kept since the 1920’s, and decides to tell the details to her grandson via tape.  She then discloses her experiences working for an aristocratic family on the down and out pre and post WWI.  She ends up working for the older sister, Hannah, after she gets married and moves to London, and plays a part in a deception that proves fatal. 

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout.  I loved this book.  Elizabeth Strout’s writing is wonderful, as is her character creation.  I looked forward to reading it each night and was sad when it was over.  She writes about the Burgess family, three adult siblings from Maine.  The Burgess brothers left Maine to live in NYC, while their sister, Susan, stayed in their home town of Shirley Falls.  Both brothers are lawyers, but the oldest, Jim, became famous in the nineties for successfully defending a pop star, while the other, Bob, ended up doing nonprofit law.  We learn right away in the book that when Bob was 4, he released the brake in a parked car, causing it to roll down a hill and kill his father.  This of course haunts him, and he seems to have lived his life in a bit of a muddle and in awe of Jim.  When the story begins, Bob and Jim return to Maine to help out their nephew, who has gotten into trouble involving the Somali community in his hometown.  The return sets off a series of events that upends the relationship between the siblings, but also changes how they appear to the reader.  It’s an interesting plot, but I think her characters are genius.  We see things from all the siblings’ point of view, as well as Jim’s wife and Bob’s ex-wife.  They are somehow better than real, and Strout is able to reveal their foibles and weaknesses while remaining kind.  It’s a sad book at times, and there is a rather strange prologue framework in which the “author”, also a Mainer living in NYC, decides while gossiping with her mother to write about the Burgess Boys from their hometown.  This “author” never appears again in the book, so I’m not quite sure if that extra layer of narrative is needed.  It’s a truly delightful book.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Rainy Maine

Owen and I are enjoying our second week of vacation in Maine right now, despite the preponderance of rain for the past six days!  The days have really been more cloudy than rainy, and there have been pockets of nice in the mix, including one beautiful beach afternoon on Monday.  But we are not letting the clouds and fog hinder our activity.  For example, here we are this morning on a cloudy walk, admiring the foggy view:

One of the advantages of being the youngest grandchild by seven years is that your Granny will interrupt her exercise walk every few feet to pick you wild blackberries from the side of the road, while you sit in your stroller like a wee king.  Then since you forgot the blackberry tupperware, she will feed them to you one by one, while you busily point out more possible bushes for her to clamber to even further from the road.

Here is Owen later on in the day, looking like Christopher Robin as he jumps in "muddy puddles":

Owen is at an age where he loves to be helpful, and he has very much enjoyed helping his Granny clean and do whatever projects she might be attempting, including picking blueberries and veggies in the garden.

I'm sure my mother does not want me to post the pictures I have of Owen helping her scrub the tub or make salad or change the sheets, but trust me when I say there are a lot of those photos and they are awfully cute.  Owen keeps an eye on her activities so that he can run over at the slightest sign of activity and say, "What are you doing?" and "I want to help!"

Today a highlight of his morning was helping Pa call Nellie down from upstairs.

I am sure that when the vacation is over and we are back in Pennsylvania, I will hear many Granny and Pa stories, told repeatedly, and then told again.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

To Feed Or Not To Feed

We live within short walking distance from the Penn State Abington campus, and we walk there frequently to enjoy the woods.  Lately we’ve been visiting the pond on a Sunday and feeding the geese.  Now I know that this is a somewhat controversial statement – it turns out that some people are against feeding wild geese, and especially feeding wild geese bread – which is Very Bad for them.  I asked the worker at the store where I get my wild bird seed what one should feed geese and she told me I should not feed them at all in the spring/summer, and that they should have moved from ponds to streams to do their breeding, scold scold.

Although when I googled it to find out if indeed bread is bad, it seems that non-moldy bread is okay, it’s just that it doesn’t meet their nutritional needs, so it’s the equivalent of getting your caloric needs met by a mealful of twinkies, say.  We saw on-line also that a good alternative to feeding bread to geese is peas.  Geese love green peas!  You can get a bag of frozen peas and let them thaw and voila!  A geese buffet.  Except that no one had informed the geese at Penn State Abington that they were supposed to love peas.  We tossed them peas and they picked them up in their beaks and then promptly spit them out with a ptui!  The pair of mallards that used to be at the pond felt the same way about the peas.  No thank you.

I did some more on-line searching and found out that cracked corn is something geese like and it’s good for them.  If I ever find some cracked corn I shall give it a try, but in the meantime we are giving them a bit of whole wheat bread on a Sunday and hoping that we are not doing them a disservice.  This particular family had six tiny goslings when we first saw them, which became five tiny goslings a week later – and now all five goslings are full grown and hard to tell apart from the parents.  I also discovered online that geese are as smart as dogs (can this be true?) and can recognize you after they’ve seen you a few times.  This seems to be true with “our” geese family, since they will be in the field grazing a bit when we walk down the hill, and when they see us walking down the hill, they will go to the pond and swim over to the side where we feed them.

About a month ago when we were there feeding the geese Sean heard a splash on the other side of the pond and then saw two turtles coming towards us, their heads sticking out of the water as they made their way.  Now I will usually try to keep the geese occupied so that Sean can lob bread out to the turtles.  The only problem is that the pond is teeming with fish and the fish will often rise up and grab the bread before the turtles can get it.  I worry a little about the amount of fish in this pond.  It seems very crowded and with not a lot of natural greenery for the fish to eat.  We used to occasionally see a heron at the pond, but we haven’t seen it this year.  A heron could thin out the fish school a bit.  When Owen and I were at the pond last week a HUGE fish swam up to inspect our bread – it was whitish in color and was at least 14 inches long.  A goldfish gone amok?  The other fish we see are black and about four inches.  Anyway, I pointed out the fish to Owen and told him he was Douglas the Pond Monster, a Scottish serpent, and Owen talked about Douglas the whole way home.  And in fact is still talking about Douglas.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word “monster” in Douglas’s epithet.

Update:  We did end up finding cracked corn at the wild birdseed store, and for two weeks the geese loved it (even though I found that feeding geese cracked corn ensured that for the rest of the day I had "Jimmy Crack Corn" stuck in my head.)  But the last time we went to the pond, the geese were gone!  I'm hoping it was just time for them to join up with the flock that flies over our house several times daily, landing on the nearby playing field for some grazing.  We still have corn left if they should need it.