Monday, February 1, 2016

Book Reviews January 2016

The Dead Hour by Denise Mina.  This is the second book in the Paddy Meehan trilogy and it was another excellent read.  If you like mysteries investigated by a journalist, than I highly recommend these books.  Actually, I recommend them regardless of whether or not you are a mystery reader (I would have said I was not, until a few years ago when I discovered that good writing is good writing, no matter what the genre…).  Anyway, this novel picks up a year or so after the first one ended.  Paddy has received a promotion, and is now riding in the calls car at nights, following the police a lot of the time and seeing if there are any stories to be made from the calamities she visits.  She gets involved with one call in which a man tries to bribe her silent, but after the domestic violence call ends in a murder, Paddy can’t let it go.  Interspersed with the Paddy chapters are chapters told from the point of view of Kate, a cocaine addict who is in a lot of trouble.  Paddy starts to figure things out and of course finds herself in danger.  It’s an interesting mystery, but again what I like so much about these books is Paddy herself.  She’s a great character—she’s part of the catholic community in Glasgow but has had no faith since around the age of 7.  She wants a career, and always has, yet has to balance this with the expectations of her family and community—which are basically that she will get married and have tons of kids.  She’s also just barely into her twenties, and is dealing with her own awakening sexuality and sense of adventure.  It’s an excellent book, and although I had been going to save the third one for another month, I immediately started the third upon finishing the second.

A Slip of the Knife by Denise Mina.  This third one was even better than the first two.  Five years have passed and Paddy is now a mother with a five year-old son and her own column in the newspaper.  She is juggling raising her son, while remaining true to her desire to live her life the way she thinks is right.  An old friend of hers (from the first book) is discovered murdered, and it appears the IRA might be involved.  If so, Paddy is out of her league, and realizes this when the murderers start threatening her child and family.  Mina continues some of the story lines from the earlier books—Paddy is still up against the same corrupt head policeman, and we learn how things have progressed with certain family members and characters from the other books.  The mystery is frightening and intriguing, and Paddy is as wonderfully done as ever.  At first as I read I was sad that there were only three books, but although Mina’s endings tend to be a little underdone, I was glad to be leaving Paddy to get on with her good life.  I recommend the entire trilogy.

Palace of Desire and Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz.  I admit that my main feeling upon finishing these two novels was relief that I was finally finished with the trilogy!  All together they were about 1400 pages long and often a bit of a slog.  Like my review of the first one, Palace Walk, it was interesting to see how an upper middle class Egyptian family lived at the turn of the century and beyond, but my reading experience didn’t veer much beyond the satisfaction of curiosity: it was interesting learning, but I didn’t find the stories to be very well-crafted, per se, other than the fact that you do get caught up in all the generations of this one family, and feel badly for how life does change for the worse for so many of them.  The second novel, Palace of Desire, often reminded me a bit of Proust, in that so much of it concerns Kamal, a young man who is in love for the first time, and spends pages talking of how he aches for his beloved, who is basically not at all aware of his feelings, and goes on to marry someone else.  The more interesting story line is how the father experiences the end of the prime of his life.  A merchant during the day, he spends his evenings drinking and enjoying music and prostitutes (while all the women of his household are literally not allowed out of the house, mind you), and when all of a sudden he is no longer so desired by these women, it comes as a shock.  In the third book his health takes a turn for the worse, and he is even more diminished.  Meanwhile, the daughters of the family have had children of their own, and one has experienced great loss from typhoid.  In Sugar Street, the main characters are the grandchildren, who are coming into their own and becoming very involved in the politics of the 1930’s—one becomes a Muslim brethren and the other a communist.  Things do seem slightly better for women who are less well off—many attend school—but the upper middle class women still seem to deal with grotesque restraints, although they can at least walk around the block now.  So the trilogy was interesting on the whole and I’m glad I read it, but it did not particularly speak to me.

Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.  I borrowed this book from my father a few years ago, and finally read it.  And once I started reading a certain amount of pages from it per night, I enjoyed it.  My history knowledge is not, shall we say, bountiful, so I was glad to augment it.  This book concentrates on Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and the battles that were fought in New Jersey in December 1776 and January 1777.  Although often dragged as a kid to some of the sites of the winter camps  in Morristown, NJ, I hadn’t realized how dire the situation was at this point in time.  The British had won most of the previous battles, and were occupying New York and a good part of New Jersey (as well as Rhode Island); if not for Washington’s New Jersey battles, Philadelphia would have been the next to go.  As it was, he was able to turn things around with determination and wisdom and a lot of luck, not to mention cold feet.  The crossing took place in a full-force Nor’easter, so the painting we see of that crossing was a little fanciful, and much dryer than the actual event.  It was cold and blizzarding and icy and the crossing itself took hours longer than it was supposed to.  Most of the material was new to me so it was all interesting – for example, I didn’t know that the Howe brothers, the British Generals in charge at this point of time, were very sympathetic to the American cause and did not want to win the war by destroying the colonies.  Several times they could have captured (or killed) Washington and did not do so.  Other generals wanted to.  My main criticism of the book was that the battle scenes were a little too detailed for my tastes—not in a violence way, but in a “the fourth regiment walked one mile southwest, while the Philadelphia Associators regiment was sent to cross such and such a creek”, etc.  My mind often wandered a bit during those parts.  All in all though, it was as good book, and I liked how he used the one crossing as a way into the whole state of the war at that point in time.

Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.  This book had been on my kindle the longest, so I forced myself to start reading it, and then was very surprised to discover that I couldn’t put it down!  It’s the best nonfiction book I’ve read in a long time, and I would get annoyed when I’d arrive at my station and have to stop reading.  Demick lived in South Korea for nine years, I think, and made several trips into North Korea (heavily chaperoned of course).  She interviewed in great detail six refugees who had escaped to South Korea, and then she presents their lives in North Korea in such a way that it reads really as fiction, or as compelling stories you don’t want to end.  The characters are a mix of people with different backgrounds and different relationships to the North Korean state.  For example, there’s Dr. Kim, who was grateful to get a medical education despite coming from a poor family, but then has her eyes opened when working as a pediatrician during the famine and can’t do anything to help her starving patients; there’s Mrs. Song, who was a huge supporter of their system, and worked as a block informant; there’s Jun-Sang, who was from a high-ranking family with relatives in Japan, who was able to go to a good university in Pyongyang, and whose family received a lot of money from their relatives so had an easier life there than many; there’s an orphaned boy Hyuck, who lives on the streets; and then there is Mi-ran, who is from a very low-ranking family (her father fought in the war on the South Korean side, but then was trapped in North Korea when the border was made), and who thus does not have a lot of career or life options, yet was still able to make a go at it as a primary school teacher before kids became too hungry to go to class.  Demick follows the different paths of these people, and does an excellent job of bringing the reader into their lives and mindsets.  It was fascinating to see how they managed to survive the many famines, and also the awakenings that each had that life might be better elsewhere.  It was also interesting to see all that South Korea does for the North Korean refugees that make it to the South; they seem to really try to help them fit into modern life.  Anyway, even though the subject matter is fraught, and it’s definitely also hard to read what these people had to go through, Demick does an excellent job telling their stories.  I highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Day-Off Cake

took last Wednesday off so that I could attend my first parent-teacher conference.  I’m sure they will become a bit rote as the years pass on, but since this was my first I trotted off to it happily.

And Owen’s teacher mainly had nothing but nice things to say—which really isn’t that surprising, since he is, after all, three.  The one area where he needs work is sitting still listening to a book at the end of the morning!  As I well know, Owen either is interested in a book or is not, and if he is not, it is hard to make him pay attention.  At least he has learned since September that it is not okay to express his disinterest by lying down on the carpet and kicking his classmates.  Fair enough!  J

It turned out to be a little tricky for me to make two trips to his nursery school pushing him in the stroller, because a) people don’t really shovel their walks wide enough for even a modest stroller, and b) the intersections weren’t shoveled out at all, so one either had to turn the corner or try to get the stroller over a four-foot pile of dirty, packed snow.  America is not really a good country in which to be a walker, am I right?

Continuing our streak of cooking, which needs to end soon or at least transition to cooking something a little more healthy and less buttered, Owen and I made a Day Off cake—a yellow cake from scratch with pink icing.  Owen added the sprinkles and two pairs of eyes.  It was delicious.  He had asked if it was a birthday cake, so I said no, it was a day off cake and now he thinks that is a thing.  I wonder how old a child gets before one has to stop leading him rather poetically astray?  When he first gets laughed at for saying something weird?  Something to ponder. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Blizzard of '16

We all enjoyed the big snowstorm here last week.  Had our electricity gone out, I’d be singing a different tune right now, but since our lights and heat, etc., stayed happily on, we could very much enjoy the blizzard raging outside our windows.

It was such a polite storm too!  It waited until we were all home from our Friday commute, started at about 8:00 pm here, and then snowed through till late Saturday night, giving us all Sunday to dig out.  That’s courtesy folks!  Of course, schools were closed on Monday and the train service was iffy and nothing was quite as plowed as it ought to be, but all in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better WINTER! EVENT! experience.

I dressed Owen in all one million parts of his snowstorm gear and took him outside in the morning, but he whined most of the short time we were out there.  The main problem was a rookie mistake I made in not putting on the mittens before the coat, so there ended up being exposed wrists that got all raw and cold.  

Then it was quite a windy blizzard, so the snow wasn’t going down but sideways and it was a bit rough on the face.  Plus by then we already had high drifts of over a foot, so when I plunked Owen down in the yard so that I could shovel out a small space under the bird feeder, Owen tried to walk but just sort of toppled over.

Miss Dorothy loved the snow and plowed all around the yard like the Maine girl she is.  We don’t have a coat for her though, so we had to let her in pretty quickly as she began to whimper a bit from the cold as well.

Later Saturday we went out again in the front yard this time, and I had been smart about Owen’s mittens, so no wrist was showing, plus he had the idea to bring out a few of his construction trucks, and set to on the porch steps making them dig and move snow.  We had to force him to come in after a bit.

Sunday he helped Sean shovel, and when I first went out with him, and Owen saw that he could do manly things with his father, he followed me about telling me I should go in. 

Here comes the foreman to give me my instructions:

And here he is, still telling me that I had things to do in the house.

So I hightailed it out of there and was reading a book on my bed with a warm Posy in my lap in about two minutes flat.

Later Owen and I made chocolate chip toffee bars, and Sean made a traditional stew.  And we lit a fire in the fireplace, happy that it was not our only source of warmth.

It was a nice blizzard with over two feet of snow!  I’m hoping our next one will be equally as well-timed.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Three And A Half

Owen will be 3.5 in a couple of weeks, and I’ve decided that I really do like this age.  Three for Owen came in like a lion, and whereas we aren’t lambish, and nor would I really want to be, the roars have quietened a bit, and he is overall a very fun fellow. 

The main thing about Owen these days is that he wants to help.  No, he Wants. To. Help.  Now!  Sometimes his “help” is frustrating, but he is so excited to lend a hand and to experience new things, that I’ve learned to just let him join in, and then put things to rights later. 

Since it is January and cold and we are indoors a lot, we’ve been doing a lot of cooking.  Owen has developed fine whisking skills!  He always wants to make something that we can stir in a bowl, and as of this past weekend I let him stir onions, meat and beans that were cooking on the stove, although I did tell him about 1500 times that the pan was hot and not to touch it.  (He didn’t).

If you thought that he was eating what he makes, you’d be wrong.  He eats practically nothing variety-wise, unless it is a carb and a breakfast food to boot.  But he still likes to participate in the making!  Out of the blue last week, too, he asked for a bowl of cheerios with milk, a bowl of oatmeal, and a bagel with cream cheese.  I shouldn’t be too excited about any of these requests, because you know, CARBS, but still, variety is variety.  He’s also now started asking for “a plain cheese sandwich” by which he means a plain piece of whole wheat bread, sans cheese.  Sigh.

So the eating is not good and it stresses me out to dwell on it.  But the helping is fun!  And there are two other things I really like about three:  one is that he now will play by himself for long-ish stretches.  You can’t count on him doing so at any given time, or plan for it, but many times per day he will start playing with a toy and not look up for forty-five minutes or so.  I’ve learned to put those little bits of semi-freedom to good use.

The other thing I love about three is his imagination.  What he makes up is so funny and odd and entertaining.  Sean was starting a handyman project the other day and asked Owen if he would help, and Owen was so excited to be going downstairs to use Sean’s tools.  He did not want me to join them, and when he thought I was doing so (I wasn’t; I was just following them into the kitchen) he came up with this long explanation of why I couldn’t help them because I was so busy, and apparently what I was busy doing was looking for a snowman.  There were lots more details, trust me.  Meanwhile I was all, carry on little man, continue down the basement so Mommy can sneak her cookie in peace.

The dialogue he comes up with between his trains and cars and other toys is also hilarious, although he will get self-conscious if he thinks we are listening and will direct us back to more appropriate activities.  He’s bossy.

Hickory Dickory Dock: school artwoik

He seems pretty outgoing to me, which is a good trait for an only child to have.  We’ve taken him to the playground a few times recently (before it finally became cold), and he runs around for an hour or so and goes up to other kids and says, Hello! I’m OwenMartinGares! And tries to see if they are receptive to playing with him.  (He’ll also talk to other kids in stores, and will be perplexed if they don’t talk back to him.  Recently at Target he said hi to another boy his age, who just looked at him, and Owen then turned to me and said, “That boy won’t say hello!  That boy is mean!”  And when I suggested that maybe he was shy or grumpy, Owen replied that “Maybe his mommy or daddy could tell him a joke to make him laugh.”  Maybe.)  At stores in general (when he isn’t feeling grumpy himself), he’ll keep up a constant running commentary on what he sees, causing many a passer-by to break out into giggles.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Owenisms in January

Owen was running around at the playground and at one point passed a father on the play structure and said:  “Hello!  I’m OwenMartinGares!  I’m here with Mommy!  Daddy stayed home because he had to poop!”  To which the man replied, “Sometimes that happens!”  But it wasn’t true!  Sean didn’t come with us because he was exercising!

Picture by Lily Hunter

We’ve been talking a lot about holidays and the order in which they come, and the other day in the car Sean asked Owen what holiday came next, and Owen replied with exuberance, “Whistlepig Wednesday!”  Um, that particular holiday hadn’t been part of our list of celebrations, although perhaps it should be?

Susan told Owen she liked his trousers and could he get her a pair just like it.  And Owen replied, “Nanny, I am not your father.”

Owen calls our dining room "the diamond room", and when he sees a carton of eggs, he calls it an egg train -- since anything that is vaguely rectangular can be put to use as a train!  Because of all his Thomas train watching, he also uses the word "cross" instead of "angry".  He'll ask us if we are cross, or will refer to a time when he was cross.

He still tells us, “I love you with all my hawt” when he is happy, and “You go to work all by yourself!” when he is angry.  Recently he’s started to ask us – after a tantrum and once he is repentant – “Can we still be friends?”  And so far we always can be.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Holiday Baking Continued Into January

Owen and I did a lot of baking in preparation for the holidays.  I had planned to include him in the first cookie-baking I did during the weekend before Christmas, but had hoped to do the next three recipes on my own—ha!  No such luck.  So Owen “helped” with most of the cookies, which basically just meant I had to do some extra cleaning.  I was worried he’d put his hands in the mixer when it was on, so I kept telling him how dangerous it would be, and I think I overdid it a bit, because now when I turn on the mixer, he practically leaps into my arms with cries of “Dangerous!”  Oops.

But anyway, we first made gingerbread men, using a recipe that came with the cookie-cutter.  It made me a little nervous, since it required zero eggs and one cup of cold tea, but it turned out to be a really tasty recipe. 

Especially once we put on a coat of icing.  Sean now informs me that from hereon in, he will be in charge of the cookie decorating/icing spreading, because – and he is right – I tend to tire of the process once the glaze is made, and then can only bother to glob it on messily.  I happily will give up this part of our gingerbread man baking next year, as long as he promises to go heavy-handed on the amount of icing on each cookie.

Owen did the sprinkles.

I usually like to make two or so old recipes and two or so new ones.  This year I made my usual peanut butter balls with chocolate hats, but it will be the last time I ever make them, since the last two attempts have not turned out!  The frustrating thing is that I made them for many years in a row and they always worked, and the last two years they have turned out to be soft and gloppy, with the peanut butter part melting a few minutes after they are taken out of the fridge!  I can’t figure it out, since I have not changed any of the ingredients.  Luckily my mother informed me that someone who she knows makes a great peanut-butter ball with chocolate hat, and she has promised to get me that recipe.  Right, Jean?

Then I tried a recipe from for seven-layer fudge.  I don’t quite understand the “7”part of that, since there are actually 4 layers, each with multiple ingredients, but I ignored the math of it and happily made the fudge, although I didn’t so much “make” it as melt and reconstitute each layer.  It’s a peanut-butter chocolatey layer, followed by a marshmallow nougat peanutty layer, followed by a caramel layer, followed by another peanut-butter chocolatey layer.  Not sweet at all.  :) They were good—they didn’t travel too well, since our travel day going north was strangely 70 degrees, but I think in normal winter conditions they would have been fine.

The last cookie I made was a cookie recipe that I saw in a magazine and that looked strange yet oddly compelling.  It was for Greek sesame cookies, made with olive oil and red wine and was supposed to be served with a milk punch.  I nixed the milk punch of course (who has time for that?!) and made the cookies.  They were really, really good fresh from the oven, but a few days later a good portion of the toasted sesame seeds had fallen off each cookie, and they were a little dry and austere.  I’d make them again, but not for the holidays and not for travel.

And now the holidays are over, but I’ve continued with the trying of new recipes, since it is January, a month that cries out for calorie comfort.  Owen and I made a cake on the Monday after we returned from Boston, and then I tried out a black-eyed pea and collards recipe from The New York Times for New Year’s Day (very delicious!), and then Nigella Lawson’s Sunshine soup last weekend.  It, too, was good, but since my roasted yellow and orange peppers got a bit blackened, my soup was not so much sunshine in color as it was vomity.  So an F for aesthetics but a solid B for taste.  Next up is Nigella Lawson’s “crustless pizza” which seems to me to be the love child of a pizza and a dutch baby – and who can pass that combination up?!  Not I.

And Sean’s birthday is coming up, so Owen and I will put on our aprons and whip up another something chocolate on chocolate, Sean’s favorite.  All week I’ve been telling him that we are going to make Daddy a cake on Sunday, and each time he responds, “Right now?!”  Three year-olds, like pug dogs, don’t have a good sense of the future tense.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Book Reviews: December 2015

Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford.  Reading this book was quite a journey:  I was very annoyed at it for the first third, mainly because the main character, a 26 year-old New Yorker named Evelyn Beegan, is putting all her energies into breaking into the upper echelons of New York society.  She can think of no greater thing than being accepted by this crowd, and the way it is written, it’s presented that the author thinks so too.  That is, there is no space between Evelyn’s desires and how they are presented, so it was frustrating to read if you do not share the goals of Evelyn.  However, it very gradually became obvious that Stephanie Clifford was doing this on purpose, in a kind of unreliable narrator technique way, so that we can really get inside Evelyn’s very, very gradual and tough disillusionment with her own values and goals.  The novel got more and more absorbing and well written, and by the end of the second third it really began to seem to me to be a modern day Edith Wharton novel.  And although I still wish there would have been some kind of acknowledgement or separation between Evelyn’s goals and how they are presented, I do think Clifford ended up pulling it off and I could not put the book down.  It’s a really good older coming-of-age story in a way, as Evelyn is gradually forced to confront all her missteps and to try to find a better way to be.  I recommend it.

Getting Things Done by David Allen.  This book has some strong practical advice.  It probably is only necessary to read the introduction and skim the rest of the chapters, however, as they tended to be repetitive.  He claims to have a simple system that if followed can be used to keep track of all aspects of your life, thus freeing up your mind to think and work on important things, rather than trying to remember all that you need to do.  It clearly was written for executives (and I’d say male executives at that), and talks of what you can have your secretary do, etc.  But if you ignore things like that, the actual advice that he gives is pretty good.  In a nutshell, he suggests that you write down everything you have to do (or use a computer or your phone, he doesn’t care how low or high tech your system).  Then once you have everything written down and placed in an “inbox,” you go through and turn it all into next action steps.  So you end up with lists that do not have things like “get the car fixed” on them, but instead, “call the mechanic to make an appointment,” etc.  You have lists of next actions, “waiting for” lists – where the next action is dependent on someone else, tickler lists where you don’t have to do anything until a certain day, etc.  Two things he said also really made sense:  the first is that you should never write “to do” items on your calendar, but instead just have things on the calendar that absolutely have to be done that day, like appointments, etc.  Otherwise you end up not doing something on your calendar, and thus begins the shame spiral.  He also points out repeatedly that it doesn’t really matter what kind of system you use, as long as you put everything into it, and then check it daily and review it weekly.  The point is to be disciplined enough in your list-making, so that you never have to worry that any task is unaccounted for.  I have nothing to quibble with there!

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.  This is a pleasant enough book, which I neither loved nor hated.  It’s at least on the surface literary, with the main character, A.J. Fikry, owning a small bookstore on an island off the east coast.  When the book begins, he is struggling to cope with the sudden death of his wife.  Time passes swiftly in this book, and soon A.J. finds himself friends with the local police officer, becomes the adoptive father of a young toddler, Maya, and then married to Amelia, a publisher’s representative.  It is entertaining, but also a little random, careless, and slightly sloppy.  The point of view in each chapter changes, but haphazardly:  we get a lot of Amelia’s point of view in the beginning – and it’s a good one – but then once they get married we never hear from Amelia again.  Each chapter begins with book synopses that Fikry is writing for those he loves, but these too are a little short and random.  It’s enjoyable enough, but it did not make me want to read her many other novels.

Field of Blood by Denise Mina.  This is the first book in Mina’s “Paddy Meehan” series of novels (I think she wrote three before moving on to another series), and it was a really good read!  So good, in fact, that when I finished it I immediately moved on to the second in the series.  It’s about a young woman in Glasgow in the eighties who has her first job as a “copyboy” at a newspaper.  Paddy is catholic – or her family is; Paddy herself is secretly not religious – and from what I can tell, this sets her apart in Glasgow; her family is part of a minority group that keeps to itself.  Paddy’s a great character:  she’s irreverent, and funny, and smart.  She is desperately trying to create a career for herself.  When the novel begins, she is engaged to Sean, but unbeknownst to him, she really has no plan of becoming a mother and a housewife.  Mina does an excellent job of making Paddy real and charismatic and believable, and very astute in her interactions with other people.  There is a big case in the news involving a missing three year-old boy, and Paddy soon notices that the story the police put forth doesn’t quite add up.  She tries to figure out the truth in the hopes of getting her big break at the paper.  It’s all very well and simply done.  Paddy is a treasure.

Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie.  This is a whirlwind of a book, as Rushdie novels always are these days.  I don’t think he has ever written anything quite as good as his novels Shame and The Satanic Verses, and the reason for that, I think, is that his biggest flaw is also his greatest strength – he puts everything into his novels, and his writing has become a jumble of political, cultural, pop cultural, philosophical references.  It’s all there (and sometimes all there within one sentence), and it is up to the reader to sort everything out.  I do think this keeps his books from being great, but they are still fun to read, and since the last six or so have been this way, I don’t think he is going to change his style anytime soon.  I find his writing to be very funny too, and poignant – it’s just that the reader has to work to sort everything out.  Like a lot of his novels, this one is a mixture of eastern and western references; it takes place mostly in New York, but it is a New  York that has been invaded by jinn (jinni, jinnia?  He uses all versions.  Basically the eastern version of genies.)  The separation between the jinn world and our world has been breached, and it is turning everything in our world amok.  One jinnia, Dunia, who loves humans, decides to fight against the others jinns who are against us, and enlists some of her progeny in the effort.  It also becomes, in a circuitous way I won’t try to explain, a battle between reason and religion, and it’s not hard to guess which side Rushdie himself is rooting for.  It’s a fun book in a unique, Rushdie way – he’s a brilliant observer of the world, and I think his novels are worth the effort it takes to read them.