Saturday, 29 March 2008

Gone to Texas

Bee Drunken is currently away from this blog, as she has (I will be back on April 16th, so don't be a stranger!)

And please, please join me for the Booker of all Bookers!

Booker of all Bookers

How well-known is the Booker Prize outside of England?

The Man Booker Prize -- usually just referred to as the "Booker" -- was first awarded in 1969 (which makes it roughly the same age of me). Although there are quite a few literary prizes, the Booker is probably the most prestigious. There is no doubt that making the short-list -- not to mention winning it -- will sell books and generate lots of interest in an author. The catch, though, is the criteria: it is given to the best full-length novel written in English by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. While the italicized criterion covers most of the English-speaking world, it leaves out the literary output of one notable, glaring exception -- the United States of America. Since most of my "readers" (bless you, dear ones) are American, I'm just wondering if the Booker phenomenon is known to you. Yes, "we've" got Pulitzer prizes, and Oprah's Book Club, and even the Nobel Prize . . . but I'm going to venture out on a limb (don't I love limb-venturing) and say that there is no literary prize in America that functions as an equivalent to the Booker. People, even not so literary ones, actually talk about the Booker. (Hmmmm . . . questioning this statement . . . not sure if Bee actually knows any wholly-unliterary or aliterary or otherwise illiterate people. But for our purposes!)

Not so long ago, there was a flutter of journalistic interest in what is being called "the Booker of all Bookers." Even as we speak, there is a distinguished panel of judges slogging through the 200 or so Booker winners and short-listers and they are reading and rereading towards the goal of producing the definitive Booker shortlist. Sometime in May, they will announce the 5 or so best Bookers -- and then the public will get involved and will actually be allowed to participate in voting for the BEST of all of the Bookers. Implicit (and perhaps explicit) in this judgment is that the best Booker will be the best novel published in the last 40 years. Excepting all of the great American novels, of course.

It is interesting to visit Wikipedia and view all of the past winners and also-ran short-listers. I did a quick survey this morning and discovered that I have read 10 winners, 10 more short-listers, and own at least 10 others. Since there are approximately 200 books in total -- there are usually 5 books on the list, but occasionally there have been 6 -- that means I have read only 10% of the contemporary English novels considered the best, the most wonderful and worthy, the most literary. How pathetic!

In order to address this frightful ignorance, I am proposing a BOOKER BOOK CLUB CHALLENGE. Is anybody with me?

Here's how I see it working . . . but if you want to "play," then you are welcome to amend the rules. I think we should all set ourselves reading goals. Everyone's reading goal can vary according to the time/interest they feel they can devote to the project. In other words, I may decide to read five books; but you, who perhaps work full-time, may feel that only one or two is possible. You might even feel that just buying a book (and resolving to read it SOMEDAY) or even reading this post will suffice as participation. It makes no matter to me. But I do think we should have some kind of "pool" -- just to introduce the galvanizing competitive aspect.

So when they announce the short-list, I think we should all publicly "vote" for our choice for Best Ever Booker. Some of us may be doing this voting quite randomly, as we might not be so well-acquainted with the books in question. Never mind; I know nothing about football and horse-racing, but that wouldn't stop me from playing a pool. Anyway, gambling has always had the chance quality.

The PRIZE: If YOU are the eventual winner, I will happily mail you the Booker book of your choice. (It doesn't have to be the winning Booker.) I am willing to award multiple prizes, should the need (doubtful) arise. If none of us are canny enough to guess the winner, I reserve the right to pick a winner based on my own subjective judgment of your PARTICIPATION. As with anything, I actually believe that participating counts for more than winning. Really.

Although I know that you are all competent googlers, I am providing you with a handy link to the official Booker website. Just to be absolutely fair -- to those of you who don't have ready access to the British press -- I will freely offer the bookies' choices.

Bookmakers William Hill has listed Yann Martel’s Life of Pi as favourite to win the Best of the Booker at odds of 4/1. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children runs a close second at 5/1 and Ondaatje’s English Patient just behind that at 7/1.
Ladbrokes has Salman Rushdie in the lead with Midnight’s Children at 4/1, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient at 6/1 and in joint third Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin at 7/1.

Now, for my own reading schedule: I have set themself the goal of reading the following Booker winners by May.

Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
Life of Pi, Jann Martel
Life and Times of Michael K., J. M. Coetzee
Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

My thought process: The Coetzee books are pretty short, and I've been given serious personal recommendations for them. I already own the Margaret Atwood and the Martel -- which I've started at least once; and Midnight's Children was the 25 year winner in 1993. Also, I've never read any Rushdie -- which is shameful for any book lover of some pretension (pretentiousness?).

What other people think: A recent Guardian Review article featured the choices of 10 English authors. They chose: Life of Pi, The Remains of the Day, In a Free State, The Ghost Road, Oscar and Lucinda, The Sea, Midnight's Children, The English Patient, Rites of Passage, Possession and Disgrace -- either as should-wins or will-wins.
Including the books I plan on reading, I will have managed to cover 8 of those -- so I feel that I can have my say as much as the next English-speaking reader.

I plan on carrying out my own little Booker Challenge, even if I have to do it by my sad-lonesome . . . but it would be a lot more fun if I had some fellow participants. So is anyone interested?

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

The "D" Word

Recently I went out to dinner with a friend whose life is a tribute to the hard graft of all of those pioneering feminists.

She has an extremely equal relationship with her husband, and if anything, he pulls more of the child-care duty in their family. She runs her own company in health administration, which regularly requires her to do battle with arrogant doctors and difficult government officials. She also manages to regularly volunteer at her daughters' school -- despite the fact that she is on the road at least half of the week. She is beautiful, witty, smart and a first-rate schmoozer. Yes, she's a great all-rounder and an awesomely competent woman; but here's the catch: Her 11 year old daughter is running rings around her.

I suspect there is a little bit of Working Mommy Guilt at work here, but that doesn't totally account for the fact that a child is holding her hostage emotionally. Despite the fact that my friend bends over backwards to do things for her daughter, she is always found wanting . . . and regularly receives critiques for her many "failings." The 11 year old is like a crotchety boss who is impossible to please. Let me provide an example: Every Saturday morning my friend wakes up at the crack of dawn to drive to a fairly distant town so that the daughter can take ice-skating lessons. Does she want to wake up early on a Saturday? No, she does not; she is a person who regularly wakes at 5 am so she can negotiate some of England's most unpleasant motorways. It should go without saying that she is exhausted by the time Saturday rolls around; particularly since the daughter is also taken skating on Friday night -- at a time when Mommy would rather be lounging on the couch with a stiff drink.

Last Saturday night she confessed to me that "she just couldn't face ice skating" that morning. But instead of just telling her daughter that, she lied and told her that the lesson had been cancelled.

Now, I rarely (if ever) make verbal judgment on the way my friends parent their children. First of all, I wouldn't presume; secondly, it's not an easy job, and I'm pretty sure that we are all doing the best we can. But in this particular instance, I jumped all over my friend. "You LIED?" was more or less the gist. This seemed to me to be a very bad policy, both for philosophical and practical reasons. Philosophically, parents do not want to "model" lying to their children. The little darlings will figure out the lying-thing on their own, and all such tendencies need to be rigorously curbed. While I want to make clear that I don't approve of lying on a purely moral basis, it is also just bad parental policy. When you have an incipient teenager in your home, signs of parental hypocrisy and mendacity are about as dangerous as just handing them the joint, the bottle, and the car keys. (This is exactly the time when you need to be brainwashing them into thinking that you have both a crystal ball and eyes in the back of your head.) Practically, I also thought it was pretty stupid because there is just no way she's not going to get caught. My highly educated friend was behaving like a two year old lying that she didn't take the candy -- when the evidence was plastered all over her face! If you ARE going to lie, surely the first rule is to make sure that you're not going to get caught!

When I asked my friend to defend this irrational behavior, she replied, "I just couldn't face L throwing a strop and being mad at me."

In the immortal words of my very own Mother, "Who's the parent, and who's the child here?"

Although I have an imperfect grasp of History in all of its comprehensiveness, I am going to go out on limb here and make a bold statement: I think that we must be the first generation of parents who have ceded our natural authoritarian rights to our children. Throughout history, children have existed to serve; to be seen and not heard; to mind, without question, their parents. Now I'm not saying that there aren't drawbacks to this sort of policy, but surely we have gone too far in our efforts to redress the wrongs of a system that gave the children the scraps to eat -- after the adults had gorged themselves.

My own husband is quite Victorian in this regard. Although we don't quite bring him his pipe and slippers when he walks in the door, there is no question of the children's needs and desires being privileged above his own. He never, ever negotiates with the children -- or asks for their approval. And not coincidentally, when he demands obedience -- and not just when he raises his voice -- he gets it. I wouldn't claim to be anything near as firm, and I reap both the benefits and the drawbacks of my flimsier parental pose. On one hand, the children are more confiding and affectionate with me; but on the other, they don't always take me very seriously.

Just this weekend, there was an article about the difficulties of discipling children in our culture of liberal and permissive parenting. Apparently, DISCIPLINE is the new "D" word. Schools are hamstrung in their attempts to administer it; and parents just don't even know where to begin. We have collectively lost out authority over our children, and I think it is largely because we want to be friends with them.

From the Guardian article, "Go on then, make us!" I offer the following food for thought:

To the psychotherapist Adam Phillips, it is clear that the issue is not so much a crisis of childhood as one of adulthood. "Broadly speaking there's a real fear of being hated by children, and of frustrating them, so parents allow their children to bully them. In fact, children can only grow up by being frustrated by their parents, and the most frightening thing for them is
thinking all the power lies with them," he says. "Parents feel they have to justify themselves to their children, as if in some way their children are a court of law, and this is an
absurd and preposterous reversal."
Sigmund found these words piquant enough to share them with the breakfast crowd. There was also much chortling from his corner, as he finds it delightful to frustrate his children. He was only too happy to be justified by a psychotherapist for a behavior that comes absolutely naturally for him.
Although I err on the side of not wanting to frustrate my children, even I can see that respect and authority are intermingled.
Some lines from No Country for Old Men keep ringing in my head. Sheriff Bell: "I think once you stop hearin' sir and madam the rest is soon to follow." My father, who is 66 years old, still says "sir" and "ma'am" to anyone who he might defer to because of greater age or authority. It might be a now-quaint token of respect, but it does give a certain comforting order to things. I always felt secure as a child, because I knew that my father was a grown-up.
I realize that the "D" word has actually been on my mind for awhile.
My youngest daughter and I have been reading the "Little House on the Prairie" series for the last few months now. (My oldest daughter never cared for them, so it's been a good 30 years since I revisited these childhood favorites -- and I must admit that the saccharine television series has interfered with some of my memories of the books.) Although I had remembered that the Ingalls family was a cozy, loving one, I have been struck over and over at the absolute obedience that "Pa" demands. Of course they lived in a dangerous frontier; it wasn't all just jolly fiddle playing. But our world has plenty of dangers too . . .
In one scene, Laura gets a stern talking-to because she thinks about disobeying Pa -- not that she actually does disobey him. It was just accepted that he could better calculate all of the world's dangers than she could, and so it was her role to mind him. In another scene, she gets spanked when she hits her sister. I think that she must be about four at the time -- and she has been provoked by that goody-goody Mary. But Pa has a zero-tolerance rule about his children fighting with one another. He orders his home with a fair, but absolutely implacable, rule of law. The children may not want to wash the dishes or pick up wood chips for the fire, but there's not going to be any arguing about it. I tell you, it shames me.
I've been wondering that if you never truly serve your time as a child -- in the old-fashioned sense of the word -- it hampers your ability to grow up and be an adult. Sheriff Bell ruminates on the difficulties our generation seems to having with the "growing up" bit -- and he wonders which generation is going to raise the children of the children now currently being raised by their grandparents. (You might have to read that twice to make sense of it, but let's just say that there is at least one generation of parents missing in action.) It does strike me that we are getting stuck in a self-indulgent loop and there's no one to set any boundaries. In other words, if we are not made to be children, perhaps we then lack the ability to move beyond being children.
It just struck me as worrying that my friend -- who wields so much authority in the workplace -- is kowtowing to her preteen daughter.
(And believe me, I'm in no place to judge -- only to learn.)

Monday, 24 March 2008

Cures for Loneliness

Years ago, my husband had a colleague whose family had "rescued" a Cabbage Patch doll from a garage sale and then made her part of the family. "Charlotte," as she was christened, had an extensive wardrobe, her own toys and sporting equipment, her own passport -- complete with stamps from all of the countries the family had visited -- a place at the table and her name on the answering machine message. You know the kind: "Hello, you've reached the home of John, Sue, Amy, Tommy and Charlotte . . .

There were absolutely no limits placed on Charlotte's inclusion in this family. Absent members sent emails to her; she appeared on Christmas cards; and she featured in family anecdotes -- just as the precocious child of any doting parents would.

I'll never forget the first time the family's matriarch told me about Charlotte. We were at a cocktail party, and it was quite a switch from the usual boring questions: "What does your husband do?" and "Do you have any children?" I was transfixed; fascinated. Although Charlotte's "mother" talked about her in an arch, laughing voice, at no point did she ever acknowledge that Charlotte wasn't quite real -- and in fact, was just a . . . doll.

Although I never knew the family well, I always asked about Charlotte whenever we happened to meet up again. In fact, almost everyone did; that was the funniest, strangest bit of the Charlotte phenomenon -- we all became co-conspirators in it.

I lost touch with "Charlotte" quite a few years ago, but I thought of her again today when I saw the strange and beautiful film Lars and the Real Girl. The "real girl" of the title is a life-sized plastic doll -- meant to be a sex toy for those who are desperately lacking in human company. Bianca, the doll, is presented as Lars's new girlfriend -- and while there are some truly hilarious moments, the film never mocks Lars's plight. Bianca is taken quite seriously, and her eventual inclusion into Lars's family and community ends up providing the bridge for both love and the communication of that love. If you haven't seen this film, what will follow is undoubtedly "plot-spoiling" -- but I hope that it will be plot-enhancing as well. Anyway, I don't really think the plot is as important as the subject. Knowing what happens really shouldn't diminish your pleasure in watching the events unspool and the characters change.

This is a story about Loneliness -- something that I've been thinking a lot about lately.
The premise of this film is that a young man, Lars, is so closed off from his own emotions that he can barely bring himself to speak or look at his family or work colleagues. In the opening scene of the film, we see him gazing out of the window of a minimally furnished room. The room looks cold, impersonal and lifeless; the light is flat -- and so is the snowy landscape he looks, rather expressionlessly, out on. The locked-in winter is symbolic of Lars's emotions -- and gradually, as the story unfolds, both begin to thaw.

His sister-in-law, Karin, lives next door and she is the first person we see reaching out to him. She wants to feed him, talk to him, touch him -- and one point she actually tackles him in order to break through his self-imposed isolation. While Lars covers himself in layers of clothing, Karin is first seen running across the snow . . . barely covered in a cotton robe. Her relative nakedness is physical and emotional -- over and over again in the film, she acts as a sort of emotional conduit between the two inarticulate brothers. Karin is newly pregnant at the start of the film, and the gestation of this baby mirrors the rebirth of the central characters -- predominately Lars, but not exclusively Lars. This pregnancy is meant to be understood as a catalyst: at first Lars seems to be jumping off the deep end of insanity, but eventually one realizes that he is finally growing into a whole self. We learn that his mother died during his birth; that he was raised by a heartbroken, utterly withdrawn father; that his brother Gus, Karin's husband, feels guilty about abandoning him. All of this is offered as an explanation for his delusion that Bianca is a "real girl." A plastic doll is a safe companion for someone who is afraid of loving and being loved.

Loneliness is a theme that is threaded throughout the movie: it isn't just Lars's plight; it belongs to everyone. His doctor, Dagmar, is quoted as saying that "this far north" any family practice doctor has to be a psychologist as well. We learn that her husband has died and she is childless, not through choice. Under the guise of treating Bianca's "low blood pressure," Dagmar slowing draws Lars out. Gradually, he learns not to flinch from her gentle touch. He describes being touched as a sort of "burn" that feels exactly like frostbitten skin warming up again.

The movie is set in a small community -- perhaps in Minnesota or North Dakota. Although the story seems to be set in the present, the fashions and community rituals give the story a slightly anachronistic feeling -- as if it were in a community isolated from the modern world. One of the charming aspects of the story is the gentle way it points out how crazy the majority of us are; the state of crazy being more or less normal. Lars's delusion is accepted as being a foible not so different from one's paranoia or another's perversion. Lars's dorky workmates are only slightly further along the spectrum of loneliness than he is. One of them collects action figures; the other has a favorite teddy. An odd, childish kind of flirting takes place through the medium of these inanimate objects. At one of the turning points in the movie, Lars actually gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Margo's teddy -- who has been "hanged" by the action figure owner. Although it is obvious throughout that Margo has a crush on Lars, he spurns her shy advances at first, and then gradually warms to them. Their first real conversation occurs when she confides in Lars that she has broken up with her boyfriend -- "for no good reason; only because he was boring." When she blurts out that she is just so lonely, there is an unspoken understanding that her unsatisfactory boyfriend is not so different from Lars's silent "girlfriend." An unsatisfactory relationship is better than no relationship at all.

I've always been a bit perplexed about the Charlotte thing; but I think that I understand it better now. I wonder if she served her own funny role in connecting people -- both within her family and outside of it. I wonder if the teenage children in boarding school found it easier, in a way, to email Charlotte than to confide in their parents. I wonder if the wife and husband -- living such different, separate lives -- found a common humorous ground through her. Were these weird people? Or just people finding their own creative solutions to the common problem of loneliness? As this movie so brilliantly shows us, we are just as likely to be lonely in our family -- perhaps even more likely.

As I was waiting at the bus stop this morning, I read this interview of Ryan Gosling -- who plays Lars in the film. Defending his character, quite rightly I think, Gosling says: "Lars has the same qualities as I do, and I think as everybody does: trouble communicating who you think you are and relating that to who you are and people's perceptions of who you are. It's difficult to be a person."

Even though my life is rich with friends and family, I realize that I started this blog -- not only to reactivate that writerly part of me -- but also to make connections. In my daily life, in this alien countryside, I have often felt lonely. Like Lars's doll, words -- flowing back and forth -- have become a sort of bridge for me.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Happy Eggs-ster

Although one might have many mental associations with the word "Easter," I think that eggs is one that we can all agree on. Personally, I would feel cheated without a chocolate egg, and so would my children . . . but a more, say natural, egg still has its place in our Easter traditions.

Several people (well one, for sure) have asked for a chicken post.

So here are my chickens: Ralph and Lauren. I think that Ralph is the skinnier one grubbing in an empty flower pot.

(I'm sure it goes without saying that oldest daughter, she who worships at the Polo shrine, named the chickens.)

As you all know, because I keep banging on about it, I live in a rural idyll. Sort of. (This is a particularly fetching shot of our drain, but what you are going to do? The photographer was cheap and she only had a cell phone to work with. Also, chickens are not very cooperative subjects.)

When you are a country dweller, it is likely that you will attend an agricultural show at some point. Not only is it a major form of entertainment in rural parts, but I think that you are naturally more susceptible to the herd instinct when you live amongst so many cows. The agricultural show is kind of like the circus for the city-dweller -- only you get to take the animals home. Last September, we attended the very show described to you in the above link -- and somehow, we came home with chickens. Well, we didn't exactly load them into the Volvo, but we had definitely paid for them and they arrived (from the Cotswolds) soon after.

How could this have happened? Well, if you don't have children of your own, let me introduce you to the miraculous power of protracted pleading and whining! If only we could bottle it and put it to work for us instead of against us . . . on those annoying limescale streaks in the the shower, for example. (We were Spring Cleaning yesterday; it just came to mind.) With the concentrated force of a laser, my youngest daughter unrelentingly bore done on me. She employed that devastating form of mother-torture which cleverly combines wheedling ("You are the best Mommy in the whole world!") with begging ("Please Mommy! We are the only children in the Universe without pets!") with promising ("You will never have to lift a finger!"). The master stroke, though, was to remind me of a foolish promise that I may/may not have made the previous year when we had just landed in West Berkshire and were still suffering slightly from shell-shock. "You said that when we got settled we could have a garden and chickens . . . "

I am, shall we say, ambivalent about pets. For me, they are an entirely redundant, and thus unnecessary accoutrement because it is my deeply-held belief that if you have children, you do not need pets. Pets and children serve the same purpose in life; you feed them and clean up after them, and they give you affection when they feel like it. (I've heard that dogs are more consistent when it comes to affection, but I wouldn't know because I have a cat and two chickens.)

As with everything in life, being a chicken-owner has taught me some things that I knew already -- chiefly, that children quickly get bored of cleaning out the chicken house and will backtrack on promises to feed the chickens without nagging. This sort of parental wisdom falls under the category of "knowing exactly how the story will end." You KNOW that they will break their winsome little promises to you about happily taking care of their pets. You know it; you know all the time you will be proven correct, but your children will never acknowledge that fact -- and yet for some crazy reason you will still knuckle under, as you also know that experience is the only effective teacher. (You also know that the youngest daughter will one day realize that getting to collect the eggs is not an adequate recompense for always having to clean out the chicken hut, but then that is part of her learning process. Younger children will always be manipulated by their craftier older siblings; it has always been so.)

Here are some things about chickens that I didn't know:
Chickens are always hungry. Chickens are stupid enough to foul their drinking water, but smart enough to hang out under the kitchen window because you once threw some bread crumbs out of it. Chickens can run really fast; especially if they are hungry (mine often chase me because they know I'm their one always reliable source of sustenance), or if the cat pounces at them. Chickens love being free! They will wander and roam, pecking and grubbing at everything in their path.

Some of you may be aware of the campaign to end battery-farming. It has got a lot of play in the UK recently, partly because Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnly-Whittingston made TV programs about what a very horrid thing it is to keep a chicken crushed in a coop for all of its short, sad life. I am proud to say that Waitrose, my favorite grocery store, sells only free-range eggs! Having said that, I believe that our chicken house -- which is a sort of two-story penthouse -- provides enough space to allow a chicken to be technically described as free-range. I will provide a visual so you can see for yourself that it is hardly anyone's notion of being "free."

While this is considered to be quite a luxurious pad for a chicken, I can assure that what my chickens really like doing is making a break for the field in the background . . . or being allowed to wallow in our flower beds.

Having chickens has really convinced me that all of God's creatures really do want to be free. Chickens, like Bruce, are "Born to Run."

When I was a child in Temple, Texas, we ate pure white eggs that had a sickly, pale yellow yolk. You will never see a white egg in England; all eggs are brown. Furthermore, the eggs have a deeply golden yolk -- almost a tangerine color. When you get used to it, you find it more wholesome to look at and thus become convinced that it is more nutritious, too.

Every egg that I eat is bursting with Ralph or Lauren's happiness at being able to wander and grub at will.

The egg yolk really does look like the sun.

When it comes to dying Easter eggs, though, the brown shell becomes a problem. The English don't seem to have the American taste for bright eggs in lurid pastels. There is not a PAAS dye kit to be found here. When I asked an English friend how they dyed Easter eggs, she shared an interesting bit of country lore with me. Apparently, people who want dyed eggs will wrap an onion skin around their egg and then boil it for 10 minutes or so. According to my friend, the egg then becomes beautifully marbled and takes on a deeper brown hue. Well: I was so dubious about this procedure that my friend demonstrated it for me. Let's just say that aesthetics are not universal. While I did detect a slight marbling, I wasn't very impressed really -- and longed for the deep duck-egg blue and shocking pink of my own youthful experience.

Later today we will be dying eggs -- but I cannot at his point assure you that we will be successful in this attempt. I've got that sinking feeling that without the controlled system of PAAS dying, any experiments with food color could yield diabolical results. I promise to report back.

In the meantime, I offer up a simple recipe for Easter breakfast -- or any breakfast. We call it EGG IN A NEST. When my oldest daughter was a toddler, it was her favorite meal.

Egg in a Nest for one:
  1. Butter a piece of wholewheat bread -- both sides, generously. (This recipe doesn't need wholewheat, but it does need a sturdy type of bread.)
  2. Using a round cutter of some sort, cut out a hole in the middle of your bread. You may eat the leftover hole, already buttered, while proceeding through the following steps.
  3. Whisk one egg with salt and pepper to your taste.
  4. Heat a non-stick pan; probably mediumish heat is required, but you might have to adjust this down slightly.
  5. Place your bread in the pan and carefully pour enough egg mixture to fill up the hole.
  6. When you think the bottom bit is sort of cooked, and before the bread starts to char, flip your bread. This is a delicate process that gets better with practice. Do not worry if your egg doesn't stay contained in its hole; it's not going to, in my experience. It will still taste good.
  7. Serve on a warmed plate (this is a nicety which I never follow myself) and ENJOY.

Happy Easter!

Thursday, 20 March 2008


K, my new fun friend from Kansas City tagged me today.

My assignment? To share things about myself in groups of 4's.

4 jobs I've had:

Waitress -- all through the higher education years I waitressed. I've worked in some memorable restaurants, too. 410 Diner in San Antonio. Kerbey Lane Cafe in Austin. Star Pizza in Houston. I loved being a waitress -- because I really like to have lots of cash in hand! (I went to a wacky astrological therapist once and she said that all Capricorns are like this!) Seriously, I love talking to people and I especially liked working the all-night Saturday shift at Kerbey Lane. All of the musicians used to come in between 2 and 4 am. Once, a hippie stoner left me a $140 tip for a cup of coffee! My coolest customer ever was Lyle Lovett at the 410 Diner.

Editorial Assistant -- I actually can't remember my exact "title" for this job, but it was the most boring job on the planet. It was my first 40 hour a week job out of college, and by the end of the year I had decided to apply to graduate school. Basically, I wrote and proofread sentences for those ghastly standardized tests that young school children are tortured with every year. (At least when I was a kid it was every other year -- which left more time to make bluebonnets out of tissue paper.) We used to spend hours making sure that no names were repeated; that we varied animals, colors, sports, etc. The only good thing about it was the people. We worked in a huge basement at long tables -- just like drones. We had to be quiet, so we acted just like children -- making jokes and trying to get each other to laugh out loud. I was always getting told off for talking, and I quit before I could get fired. The first thing I did was road-trip down to New Orleans with my boyfriend to see the Heritage Jazz and Blues Festival. I still remember the sweetness of the freedom.

Graduate Advisor -- this was a really fun job. When I was getting my second Master's degree I worked in the Education office. As my "title" suggests, I got to "advise" people -- which was right up my alley. I didn't skimp on the advice, either -- I gave really good value. I loved the secretaries in the office; they were a hoot! That job was all about coffee, doughnuts, and gossip -- three of my favorite things in the world.

Teacher -- I worked at the International School in Port of Spain for a year -- and then I got pregnant, and that was the end of that for awhile. Anyway, I made a lifelong friend at this school, and I loved my students, too. They were a really diverse bunch and some of them had been through a lot in their short lives. I'm pretty sure that I learned more that year than they did.

4 favorite movies:

2 Days in Paris -- this is my most recent rental, and I really liked everything about it. The beautiful French actress Julie Delpy wrote, starred, and directed -- and did a fine job in all areas. It is very "talky," full of hilarious characters, and has an interesting ending. And it takes place in Paris. What more do you want?

Cousins -- I really pulled this one out of my hat. I haven't thought about it in ages, but I've seen it three or four times. It is based on a French movie, and probably influenced "Four Weddings and a Funeral" in its turn. Set in Vancouver -- spectacular scenery and that gorgeous transporting kind of cinematography. There is a large, interesting cast -- but the leads are played by Isabella Rossellini and Ted Danson. It takes everything that is funny about families and weddings and then wraps a sweet little love story around it.

Harold and Maude -- I love quirky romances, and what could be quirkier than this pairing? Everything about this movie is unexpected and original. And I adore Ruth Gordon; I want to be Ruth Gordon when I grow up.

Raising Arizona -- with apologies to Monique, this is an extremely funny movie. Nic Cage and Holly Hunter were perfect in their roles. My first taste of the Coen brother sensibility. I definitely want them on my dream dinner party guest list -- Frances McDormand, too. (Perhaps they would explain the ending of No Country for Old Men?) I need to see this again; it's been too long.

4 places I've been:

Napa Valley, California -- Sigmund and I went here the first year we were dating. How could I resist him? I want to go back now that I know little more about wine. For some reason, what I really remember were all of the delicious artichokes that I ate.

New York City -- the most exciting place in the world for me. Food; theater; movies; shopping; Central Park; people watching. All my favorite things.

Prague -- beautiful city that I visited, unfortunately, in January. I want to see it again in the spring or fall. I am fascinated by Milan Kundera.

Barbados -- we were fortunate enough to live in the Caribbean, and I've been here a couple of times. Bliss on earth is eating at The Cliff, overlooking the ocean.

4 places I've lived:

Landstuhl, Germany -- I was born here. A not-well-known fact about me.

San Antonio, Texas -- I picked my university, Trinity, largely because it was in this great city. My family has a lot of associations with San Antonio: my parents actually met there. I love San Antonio for its weather (excepting the summer months, when the asphalt has been known to melt), its food, and its wonderful fiesta spirit. There are so many great places to sit outside and have a good burger and a margarita -- and something about that exemplifies the city for me. I've been going to Mi Tierra -- open 24 hours a day; year-round -- all my life.

Port of Spain, Trinidad -- I was hugely lucky to live here. It is a really unique, stunningly diverse and multicultural place. Also fun, fun, fun. Some of the best, most memorable years so far; and every good friend I had from this era is still an important part of my life.

London, England -- when I first came to London, at age 15, I remember thinking: This is the place for me! I spent the most exciting year of my life here; I haven't been able to top it yet. I try to go up to "Town" at least once a month -- and it always gives me a charge. I would live here if property prices weren't prohibitive.

4 favorite TV shows:

Gilmore Girls -- I discovered this one in its fifth season -- we were in Cape Cod for the summer and I randomly turned on the TV while I was making lunch. I was hooked in the first five minutes. Funnily enough, I never contributed to their ratings: I have never seen it "live" -- only on DVD. It is my mother/daughter show that I see with the girls. We labor under the delusion that Rory and Lorelai are our close personal friends, and we have never totally accepted that they are fictional characters and that Star's Hollow is just a cardboard set on a lot in California. I love every character on this show -- even Taylor Doose.

Northern Exposure -- I am already detecting a pattern here. Large cast of quirky characters living in a quirky town. If Cicely, Alaska had been a real town I probably would have moved there -- even though I hate the cold. Again, I love the characters; with a special mention for Chris, Ed and Marilyn. I thought the writing for this show was genius: it had so much wit and whimsy, and I loved the literary influences. This show was the highlight of my week the first year I was in grad school.

The Royle Family -- this is a UK show about a family of four that sit around watching TV and drinking "brews." Despite the fact that it depicts a Northern, working-class family -- of which I know nothing -- it is somehow universal, which has to be the mark of great writing. The characters do very little, but it is dead funny. This show plays to my inner slacker, I guess.

BBC Historical Costume Dramas -- any and all.

4 favorite radio programs:

Fresh Air with Terry Gross (NPR) -- I love Terry Gross's voice and calm, interviewing style. I have been introduced to all sorts of good things from exposure to this show.

The Writer's Almanac (NPR) every day, at 8:35, the five or so minute program comes on NPR. First, Garrison Keillor reads a poem -- and then he talks about interesting writers/other historical personage who were born on that day.

Desert Island Discs (BBC) -- famous (and/or interesting) person tells their life story through the structure of 7 favorite pieces of music. It's been running for decades, and I've been listening to it for at least one of those decades. It is fascinating stuff if you are fascinated by people.

Women's Hour (BBC) -- another long-running program; reminds me of the days of early motherhood. Always something interesting -- books; health; politics; human interest stories -- anything that affects women, really. The presenter is intelligent and calm, and you feel like the world is a better, safer place when you listen to her soothing voice.

4 favorite foods:

Popcorn -- made in a seasoned pot at home; has to be Orville's; lightly salted. My ultimate comfort food.

Baked potatoes -- my second ultimate comfort food. I ate one, with cheese and mushrooms, every single day when I was a sophomore in college.

Steak -- medium rare; from my dad's grill or any good restaurant.

Chips and Guacamole and Queso and Salsa -- the quickest way to go from starving to way too full. I cannot resist these.

4 places I'd rather be:

New York City

4 people I want to tag:

Brave Sir Robin
The Accidental Housewife

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Does Flower Arranging Make Me a Dilettante?

Alternative titles for this topic included:

My Life as a Character in an Edith Wharton Novel
Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all you know on Earth, and all you need to know.

You will notice that I went for the most self-deprecating version; as is my wont.

Today I went to a class to learn how to arrange spring flowers. When I entered the sunlit room, I was overwhelmed by the profusion of flowers: lots of juicy orange and vivid purple colors; beautiful pale green and cream roses that looked as if they were blushing; acid yellow rananculus; pussy willow, with its fat, silky catkins; fragrant mimosa; flowering branches of blossoms, pink and white; and frilled "parrot" tulips straight out of Dutch still-life. It was glorious; breathtaking, really. It made me feel giddy and joyous. And a bit decadent, too, because what says privileged lady who lunches more than a day in a flower shop -- learning to make one's own hand-tied posy?

When a friend asked me what I was doing today, I admitted -- perhaps with a slight shamefacedness -- that I was going to take a flower arranging class. Well, this woman (fellow American; former New Yorker) looked at me, aghast, and replied: "I would never do something like that! It would just confirm my worst fear: that I'm nothing but a dilettante." Of course I just laughed. (Of course I also thought: Honey, give it up -- you are a dilettante.) But the remark did give me pause.

In the past week I've been working on applying for a teaching job, and I'm not entirely sure that I want to. Most people go out to work because they need to make some money. But if you take money out of the equation -- and with teaching, you might as well -- you have to question why you are doing such a thing. Do I really want to trade my delicious bits of leisure time -- time to read and write and gather my rosebuds -- in order to grade another batch of disappointing juvenile papers? What will I lose? What will I gain?

In the past week I have been given a compliment, been asked a question, and been pierced by a criticism.
The compliment: we were out with some friends, and the mother/wife/full-time employed person told me that her children had voted mine the "homiest" house that they knew. I think this had something to do with the fact that I make my own "biscuits;" apparently, this is somewhat unusual in the houses they frequent. At any rate, they like to come over and hang out here; and I must admit that the hostessy part of me was touched by this vote of confidence -- no matter how narrow the field of competition.
The question: a very dear friend, she who first dubbed me Bee Drunken, asked me if I liked being a stay-at-home Mom. At one time, this friend and I were students together at Queen Mary College -- part of the University of London. She went on to be a journalist in New York City, while I went on to be the youngest mom of my cohort, move 13 times, and work sporadically as a teacher.
The criticism: when asked if she had read my blog about reading, my mother confessed that she had never looked at my blog -- and furthermore, that she considered it a waste of time that could be better used on "proper" writing.

One more anecdote, and then I will try to get to a point:
Not so long ago, my children -- tired and washed out from a long weekend -- told me how lucky I was that I didn't have to "work" or actually do anything. When I sputtered indignantly about having to go home and clean our house (a "tip" as the English say, after a long weekend of houseguests and slobbery), and do laundry, and grocery shop, and cook, etcetera --
my daughter replied, somewhat disdainfully, that people who work full-time have to do all of those things anyway. It was a pretty debate-worthy retort, actually; and while I could have argued that full-time working mothers often hire people to do their domestic duties it would have been just an avoidance of a certain truth. Once your children are at school, is there really any justification to be a stay-at-home mom?

But who's going to let in the workmen when something goes wrong in the house? In a 200 yr old house this is not an idle question -- but rather a need that arises on a nearly weekly basis.
But who's going to take the children to the dentist? (My youngest daughter got kicked in the mouth by a horse recently and has a more or less standing appointment at the dentist. But that's another story.)
But who's going to be the one who brings beauty and calm into our house?

I have been a full-time working mom, and furthermore, nearly a single one as well -- when Sigmund recently spent 18 months working and living in Holland. It wasn't quite Edvard Munch's "The Scream," but then I do remember the constant background whine of our lives as being: "Mommy is Sooooo Tired." The truth is, when I am not working full-time outside of our home, I am much more likely to want to work inside of our home. I cook more; I don't mind if a child wants to stir the risotto; I make risotto, for that matter; I throw parties and invite people over for the weekend; I plant baskets of flowers and herbs; I recycle -- everything; I am more likely to send a birthday card or a funny just-because-I-am-thinking-of-you card; I don't complain (as much) about ferrying children around; I am more likely to read a bedtime story; I am more likely to be patient with children; I am more likely to be smiling.

Since I live with a person who works long hours, and is not genetically inclined to good cheer, and since I also live with a teenager, it is my job to be in a good mood. If I am in a good mood, there is a better chance that everyone will be a good mood. Is this an equation, or just a corollary?

On the other hand, there is the fact that I was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" (what a poisoned chalice) in high school -- and "Most Outstanding Student" in graduate school. What part talent, what part ambition, what part hard work? Any part fluke?

Is aiming for domestic beauty and happiness too trifling a goal?

Tonight there was a beautiful bouquet of tulips, and roses, and mimosa, and rananculus on the dinner table. There were homemade biscuits; there were homemade lemon cookies. Do these things really enrich my family's lives, or my own, or am I just -- in the final accounting -- a dabbler?

But if you don't have to go out and slave for a wage are you a fool to do so? Are we a generation too devoted to the idea of Work?

I am turning these questions over in my mind tonight. I am listening to The Story sing "The Angel in the House." I am asking for some input:

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Friendly Bridge: A Memoir

Dedicated to:

Ganny, my parents and my brother.

My Trinidadian Bridge Ladies: Debbie, Wendy, Edna, Doreen, Jenni, Sue, Sally.

The Italian Late-Night Club: Andrew, Jenni, Alan.

The Brockhurst Bridge Club: especially Chris M., Barbara, Judith, Geraldine, Chris S., Michelle -- and Jonathan, who organizes us.

Even if you don't play bridge, I hope that you will find something here.

Last night I attended the final meeting of the year for the Brockhurst Bridge Club. The school is about to break for Easter; and when the term resumes, our fearless leader and organizer likes to take advantage of the long, light evenings to do some gardening. My history with this club, and bridge itself, is a funny one -- and one that illustrates many of the quixotic aspects of my personality. I come from a bridge-playing family, but didn't learn how to play until I moved to Trinidad. I do not look or act much like a bridge player, but I have found some of my dearest friends around the bridge table and there is nothing that I enjoy doing more with my own family. I play infrequently and erratically, but it is something I love; however, I do not love it enough to really work at it with books and online playing and such. It is just a form of socializing for me. I only like to play bridge if I can be with simpatico people.

Some people like to play competitive bridge, and they go to special clubs for this purpose. They use bidding boxes and other specialist paraphenalia; they challenge themselves (and others) with contract bridge; they remember how to keep score and never forget who is supposed to be shuffling, who is dealing, and where the extra pack of cards is supposed to be; they know how to bid correctly, and furthermore, can correctly interpret their partner's bidding; and most importantly, they maintain a careful and respectful silence at all times.

I am not this sort of bridge player at all. I like a bit of "friendly" bridge -- where the stakes are low, and a certain amount of leeway (for all of the above conventions) is given. I like to talk during bridge, especially if I'm the dummy; I like to talk a lot in between hands. I don't mind a bit of teasing and/or mocking; in fact, I find all forms of levity irresistible. I know that losing can be just as fun as winning -- if it is accomplished in the right spirit, and if the other team is the loser! I like nothing more than bidding wildly, playing loosely, and still somehow making my contract. I love it when I have an opening hand; I hate it when I have less than 6 points and therefore have no role other than to be quiet.

I like to think that I am an intuitive bridge player. Although I am no-part gypsy, with no proven history of extra-sensory perception, I tend to put a lot of stock into how I feel about the game at hand. Although I more or less know the rules of bidding -- but am always getting confused between the American and ACOL systems, hybrid creature that I am -- I also go with my gut on whether or not we have enough points to take it to game or rather if we should play it safe because our "fit" is going to be awkward and wonky. Sometimes I am sure that I really know if my partner has, or lacks, a card.

This style of play tends to work best with a fairly conservative partner -- someone who thinks carefully before he/she bids or plays a card. My friend Andrew and I played spectacularly badly together this summer in Italy. Our characters are just too much alike: we are both over-optimistic and overly aggressive as well. We just want to play too much. Then, when things start going badly, we get even more out of control and start behaving like crazy gamblers -- bidding for even greater stakes in order to recoup our losses. Our partnership gave me new insight into the old maxim that "opposites attract." (I knew that there had to be some explanation for my marriage!)

The problem with intuitive play is that bridge is basically a mathematical game. You count points; you count cards; you assess probabilities. I am rubbish at all of that; but rather than work harder to overcome my natural mathematical deficiencies, I prefer to just pick my partners carefully. I don't really understand chemistry all that well, either, but I'm always alive to the chemistry of friendship. I try to avoid prolonged exposure to anyone whose personality reacts badly with my personality; worse than volatility is a combination that renders me dull and inert. What I want is some vinegar mixed with baking soda: lots of bubbles and lots of fizz.

Just recently, I have been reflecting quite a lot on the subjects of friendship and character. There are some bridge "rules" (guidelines, really) which can be applied to many other situations as well -- if one just thinks a bit creatively! Note: the following "terms" are a bit of Trini linguistic callaloo, but I'm sure that the behaviors they describe are universal.

  • Playing Ma Rapsey style (otherwise known as leading with your ACES). Do you lead with your good stuff, or do you hang on to it? There are advantages to both strategies: people who put it all out there make the game more transparent and reduce the opportunities for strategy; on the other hand, as every bridge player knows, sometimes you are only going to get one chance to make your Ace. Hold onto it at your peril, because somebody might just be void or have a singleton. Whether you are a Ma Rapsey or not can be compared to the way you eat your dinner. Do you eat your favorite stuff first, or do you save it? (I wonder if the Myers-Briggs people have thought of adding this one to their personality test? I think that it could be quite illuminating.)
  • Don't send a boy to do a man's job. In bridge, this rule refers to the sharp disappointment caused when you send out a trump card -- only to be out-trumped. In other words, it is when you get a taste of your own medicine. It is also when you buy a bargain, only to discover that it is cheap goods; or, you pay for what you get.
  • Don't rescue your partner. This one may not be immediately obvious to a non-bridge player, particularly since it sounds like something to do with relationship problems, co-addiction and all that. What it really means is: any action you take is probably going to make things worse. The best course of action is no action at all. I was intrigued to discover, just this week, that The New York Times featured the work of an economics lecturer who studies just this common bridge rule (although he probably doesn't think of it in quite this way). Apparently, in times of crisis -- and not just economic crisis -- doing nothing achieves more beneficial results statistically speaking than doing something. Unfortunately, the study of this phenomenon has also highlighted the perverse, contrary fact that emotionally we tend to feel better if we do something -- even if our action makes things worse. (People rushing the banks for their life savings: We're talking about you!) At any rate, good bridge players (and even pretty bad ones) quickly realize that there will be bad situations -- bad fits, shall we say -- that cannot be dodged. If you don't have any points, you've got nothing to offer. If this is all too vague and insubstantial, let me express it in this way: any attempt at rebidding will get you both into deeper doo-doo.

When I first learned how to play bridge in Trinidad, the four of us (three neophytes, one bridge guru) played outside on a terrace overlooking the sea. It was exquisitely beautiful, if a little humid; it was the Caribbean. It felt a little decadent, and let's just say it was probably outside the norm. Perhaps these early experiences gave me a taste for bridge -- but really, I think it was mostly -- like always, with me -- about the people.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Let Us Raise a Pint of Guinness

and toast the Irish!

I've never lived in a place which went in (or all out) for St. Patrick's Day. As I child, I remember St. Patrick's Day chiefly for that quaint trickster ritual that said that anyone not wearing green was liable to get pinched. Since I didn't go in much for pinching, or being pinched, this is hardly the stuff of of sweet nostalgia.

Despite the fact that I don't like parades or beer very much, I've always had a secret, low-grade desire to be in Boston, New York City, Chicago or San Francisco on March 17. Despite the fact that the weather will probably be foul. There is just something about Irish revelry -- something about that crazy, beautiful, tragic culture -- that gets to me.

I was 21 the first time I went to Ireland. My friend Neisha and I, two little Texas girls from Tyler and Temple, lit out for Dublin on a foggy, frosty winter's day. After a long journey from London involving various trains and a pitching ferry, we arrived in the dark, early hours of morning. Rather inexplicably, there was a delicious smell of roasting coffee in the air. In my memory, we went straight to a pub and ordered an Irish coffee; but I may be collapsing the time frame a bit. I had just finished Richard Ellmann's biography of W.B. Yeats, and I was primed to see poetry all around me. One night, on a rather meandering walk -- I think that we may have been lost -- we came to a bridge: in the inky, oily water below was a bevy of pristine swans. It was like something out of a dream. It immediately reminded me of Yeats's poem "The Wild Swans at Coole" -- in which the speaker contrasts the always vigorous, vital beauty of nature with his own weary heart. Of course, we knew nothing about this sort of melancholy: for us, the world was still fresh and new.

(I interrupt these memories to bring you the following soundtrack: I am listening to Sinead O'Connor's Irish album, "Sean-Nos Nu." My very favorite song, "My Lagan Love," is playing now. It is deeply stirring; the kind of song I can, and have, listened to over and over. Rush out and get this now if you have even the slightest interest in Irish music!)

How could I not love Ireland? It is an evergreen land with an ancient and continuous literary culture. If writers and musicians are the people you most want to keep company with, you are bound to be drawn to √Čire.

When I couldn't sleep last night, I lay awake -- not counting sheep -- but counting Irish poets. After considerable deliberation, I bring you my top ten Irish heroes/heroines:

W.B. Yeats
James Joyce
Oscar Wilde
Edna O' Brien
Roddy Doyle
The Chieftans
Van Morrison
Frances Black
Sinead O'Connor

I am always willing to debate the merits of this list -- but not to subtract from, only to add to. Let me know if I've neglected to mention your favorite Irish poet -- and I use "poet" in the most encompassing sense.

This past summer I returned to Ireland -- with my family, this time, and to the country, not the city. We visited the western coastal land, last stop before you bang up against North America: County Kerry, where so many village names begin with "K." Killarney; Killorglin; Kenmare. We were staying with some Irish friends, and their extended family, and thus were introduced to the Irish concept of "crack" (or craic). From what I could gather, "good crack" is an expression for having a good time, with lots of loud, witty banter. It may also include, as we discovered one late wine-soaked evening, dirty jokes. Apparently, the "Kerry man" is the same figure of sport in Ireland as an Aggie is in Texas. As with Aggie jokes, there are endless Kerry man jokes -- in which our hero is revealed to be foolish, credulous and bumbling. Thus it is proved that the sources of humor are universal.

Brown soda bread seems to be the stuff of life in Kerry. Everywhere we went, we ate it; and that was fine with me, as it was absolutely delicious. Not long ago, I came across "The Ballymaloe Bread Book" and I was thrilled to think that I would be able to produce this delicious bread in England. Even better, as I perused the recipe, was the apparent simplicity of the recipe. Most soda breads seem to need just four ingredients: flour, salt, soda and sour milk. (Truly a peasant food!) Another bonus is that soda bread doesn't need to rise; you just do a quick mix and throw it into a hot oven.

Feeling full of the Irish spirit, I decided to make some brown soda bread this morning. I thought that I could share the recipe with you and, well, the overall triumph of it all. Unfortunately, my soda bread -- while attractive enough, in a rustic way -- was about as dense and damp as uncut turf. I wondered if, like peat, it would slowly burn. The few bites I tasted were strong and salty -- and still lie, leaden, in my stomach. Little JC and I feed some to the chickens this afternoon, when we were taking a break from the hard work of learning to read. The chickens -- usually totally indiscriminate eaters -- were a little dubious, I think; but they may have just been concentrating on chewing, swallowing and digesting. The worst thing about this loaf is that it weighs exactly 3.8 pounds. I know, because I weighed it. That is a lot of flour, and what with the price of wheat going up I just don't know if I can afford to feed my chickens so well. I won't blame Ballymaloe, though; I should have known better than to use extra-strong whole wheat bread flour -- just because it happened to be what I had on hand.

Refusing to accept defeat -- and because I still needed some bread to go with our bean and ham soup (tonight's dinner) -- I tackled a different, smaller loaf. I had much better results with this one. My official taster, who has eaten soda bread at her Irish friend's house many times, says this one is as close to authentic as a non-Irish person is likely to achieve.

Here's the real Irish deal:

450g/1 lb plain white (unbleached) flour
1 level teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon soda (mash any lumps out)
400ml/14 fl oz buttermilk, approximately (I used all of mine in the first attempt, so I added a lemon's juice to the amount of milk called for; about 15 minutes will curdle it plenty)

  1. Fully preheat the oven to 230c/450f.
  2. Sift the flour, salt and soda into a large, wide mixing bowl.
  3. Make a well in the center. Add most of the milk. Using one hand, with fingers open and stiff, mix together, working in a full circle from the outside in. Work as quickly and "lightly" as possible. (I'm sure this vital step is where the Irish, who learned it at their mammy's knee, get separated out from the rest of us. But no doubt we can improve!)
  4. Try not to overmix the dough; you want something softish, but not too wet and sticky.
  5. When dough has come together, turn it out onto a floured work surface. You will now find it necessary to wash and dry your hands.
  6. Flour your clean hands, and gently mold your dough into a round about 2 inches high.
  7. This is the fun part! Place your dough round on a floured baking sheet. With a sharp knife, cut a deep cross in the dough -- all the way to the sides. Then prick the four triangles with the knife. According to Irish folklore, this will let the fairies out!
  8. Bake in the hot oven for 10 minutes; then turn the oven down to 200c/400f and cook for approximately 25 minutes. When the bread is cooked it will sound hollow when tapped.
  9. And it really does!

This is quick bread -- perfect for working parents, or people who have been in the potato fields all day. It takes about 5 minutes to mix, and 35 minutes to cook. It tastes homemade and simple, in the nicest possible way.

So, you may now bake your own soda bread and toast to the Irish -- who have given so much to the world of literature and music. Or you may just pour yourself a whisky; I'm sure they will appreciate that gesture, too.

Friday, 14 March 2008

My To-Read Shelf

Some people hoard food; I hoard books.

I cannot explain why I have a Depression bunker hang-up about hoarding books. It clearly has nothing to do with deprivation -- past, present or future. I wrack my poor brain for excuses, but finally I have it chalk it up to plain ole greed.

At any given time, I have a pile of books on my bedside table; another pile will be on the floor by the bed, with a third pile pushed under the bed. This drives my husband crazy. (On the other hand, I am driven crazy by his tendency to leave his clothing all over the bedroom in a semi-dirty, slightly worn purgatory between the laundry basket and the closet. So we each have our cross to bear.)

Despite the fact that I have a stockpile of books that I have been meaning to get to, I never leave a bookstore empty-handed or visit Amazon without filling (and emptying) a basket. The UK does a fine line in charity shops and I can tell you who sells books for about half the sticker price and who will do a three for £1 offer on a good day. Sometimes I donate books back, after I've read them, but not very often. Sometimes I loan books to friends, but my generosity is undermined by the blood oath that I make them take -- particularly if the loaned book is a favorite, which of course it is bound to be.

I faithfully read book reviews and constantly ask people for their recommendations. When we left Houston for England, the inevitable clear-out forced me to get rid of several years of stockpiled New York Times Book Reviews. This was extremely painful, as I was living under the illusion that I would eventually get around to not only reading the reviews in their entirety, but also ordering the books and reading them.

You know you are a book hoarder (lover) if you are susceptible to bookstore promotional strategies -- whether it is the attractively arranged feature table, the book recommendation by staff, or -- my favorite -- the buy one, get one half-price offer. Having always been a true believer in the maxim that you have to spend to save, I am a sucker when it comes to perceived book savings.

It is, of course, impossible to "catch up." A true book hoarder (lover) will never consider him or herself well-read. The true professional always dwells on the one that got away. Not the home-run, but the strike-out. Despite the fact that I have devoted 35 years to reading, I still haven't read all of the major authors, never mind the worthy runners-up. My Reading Hall of Shame includes the following noteworthy authors: J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul and Anthony Trollope. And I have books by all of these authors on my overflowing shelves! I do not deserve to call myself a bookworm; I'm just a worm.

It is, of course, impossible to catch up. The world of books is one of exponential expansion -- and this becomes even more apparent when you have children and become aware of the creative prolificacy present in children's and adolescent literature.

I can understand why some people just stick with the classics. There is still more good stuff than a voracious reader could get through in a lifetime -- particularly if you favor the verbose Victorians, as I do. But at least you have the comfort of knowing that nothing new -- and absolutely unmissable -- is going to be written. (Mind you, a "lost" manuscript is occasionally unearthed, but that is small beer compared to the challenges facing a person determined to stay au courant with contemporary literature.)

Even though I am always reading, I make fitful progress through my stacks -- never mind the library stacks. This is partly due to my penchant for rereading. One of my dearest beliefs is that all good books bear rereading -- indeed, they benefit from it. Not only is the pleasure ever-renewable, but with each rereading there is a greater chance of holding on to some essence of the book. If you have a sieve-like memory, as I do, you will need to reread your favorites as often as every two years, and certainly at least once a decade. Even then, you will be surprised anew at the pleasures of language -- that particular fingerprint of word choice, syntax, style and voice which makes every writer unique. You might also be surprised by the storyline -- (how could I have forgotten that?) -- or struck by new insights. As you grow older, the books don't change but your relationship to them does. Some books will suffer from one's growth as a reader and person; most will only improve.

REREADING: An illustrative example

Last autumn, the BBC did a marvelous new production of Jane Eyre -- with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens as Jane and Mr. Rochester. Sunday evenings were the highlight of my week for that heady, all too-brief time. Of course, seeing the film immediately made me want to revisit the book. It is the English teacher in me: I just can't resist the pleasures of comparing and contrasting.

Just to put this into context, I figure that I have read Jane Eyre at least 10 times -- the first being when I was in 5th grade and I chose it for my book report. (I will never forget my teacher telling me that a "nice" Beverly Cleary would been been a far more appropriate choice.) I have taught this book once, and been taught it twice. All of the other times can be chalked up to "comfort" reading . . . that need to go to a book you already know and love because you know you will get satisfaction and pleasure there. And yet, last autumn, the rereading of this old friend still surprised me. (If you've been reading a lot of contemporary stuff, 19th c. verbiage is always a bit of an adjustment.) I believe that all good books have durable characters; we love them because they are "real," and anything that is real is going to also be complex. The Jane and Mr. Rochester that I met as a child are quite different to the ones that I know now. And Bertha, who I once feared and loathed, inspires different emotions in a grown-up heart that has been desired and then spurned. (I defy anyone to read Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea -- an imagined prequel to Jane Eyre -- and still see Bertha as nothing but the despised Madwomen in the attic.)

Well, I could probably talk about Jane Eyre for days. The Jane Eyre file in my brain is quite a large one, and is probably using some of the vital space that is needed to remember my daughter's play practice schedule.

However, I still need to get to my true purpose: revealing the TOP FIVE books on my to-read shelf. By submitting these books to the public eye, I feel like I am committing myself to the challenge of reading them. My reward is that I will no longer have to cringe just ever so slightly when I see them on my bookshelves; rather, I can gaze upon them with fondness and pride and perhaps anticipation for that delicious time when I will be able to reread them.

Call It Sleep -- Henry Roth
I begin with the book that has been longest on the shelf -- not the literal shelf, perhaps, but the shelf in my mental resolutions.

When I was in graduate school at Rice, I took an American Literature course covering that fertile creative period between the world wars. In addition to the list that we all read, we also had to do a more sophisticated graduate school version of the "book report" on worthy books from the time period which really weren't that well-known. Not overlooking the literary genius of Faulkner and Agee and Steinbeck, who we were also reading; but adding to them with a few dustier, less precious gems. My report was on Daughter of Earth, by Agnes Smedley -- it seems like a turquoise to me. Has anyone ever read this book? It is wonderful; thinking about it makes me want to reread it.

Well, for some reason, the description of Call It Sleep made me absolutely wild to read it. I probably would have read it on the spot if I hadn't already had about a 500 page reading load per day. Here's one critic's description: "... no one has ever distilled such poetry and wit from the counterpoint between maimed English and the subtle Yiddish of the immigrant. No one has reproduced so sensitively the terror of family life in the imagination of a child caught between two cultures." (Leslie A. Fiedler) Now who can resist that? Not so long ago, I read one of those articles in which a writer or famous person lists 6 or 7 books which have meant a lot to them. Call It Sleep was on the list and it reminded me that I always meant to read this book. Now I have a shiny new copy of it sitting on my shelf waiting to be read.

The Cairo Trilogy -- Naguib Mahfouz
I am always resolving to read more World Literature. It is just way too easy to get bogged down in all of the splendid books that English and American publishers have to offer, and neglect the masterpieces of other cultures. If you've never heard of Mahfouz, I will just fill you in on the fact that he has won The Nobel Prize for Literature. (You may now flay yourself with all of those trashy paperbacks with which you've been keeping company.)

This book (actually three books, as the word trilogy suggests) has been on the shelf since autumn 1999. My family had just moved from Trinidad to England, and before we could even be stricken by the first bout of flu that we were to suffer from that grim, gray winter my husband was "offered" (semi-forced into) a job in Egypt. Being a reader, my method for psychogically preparing for this massive change was to immediately run to Waterstone's and buy several Egyptian masterpieces. Well, being me, I started with Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet -- four marvellous, not short, books which I had already read. (Slightly racy aside: When I was 21, I had a romantic friendship with a much older man. We spent a lot of time drinking coffee, or gin, and talking about books. He gave me the first Alexandria book -- Justine -- to read. I thought that it was marvellously sophisticated and profound. On reflection, these books don't wear so well. They are definitely best to read when you are a slightly precocious 21 year old living in a world capital for the first time.)

By the time I had plowed through the Quartet, the Egyptian trip was off. Sigmund went into LNG shipping instead, we eventually moved to Houston, and I never read Mahfouz.

The Golden Notebook -- Doris Lessing
This book also hearkens back to graduate school days in the early 90s -- when I was introduced to feminist literary criticism for the first time. I don't have any personal stories to offer up; but it's a book that I feel like I should read, and I've felt that way for a fairly long time.

When Lessing won her own Nobel Prize for Literature last year I suddenly started reading lots of articles about her; the more I knew, the more my interest in this book ratcheted up. But now I also want to read at least six other books of hers . . . see, this is what happens when you read reviews.

The Group -- Mary McCarthy
This one is for my Mother. It is a favorite book of hers, and she has often mentioned bits of plot from it -- perhaps as supplemental example for whatever conversation we are having at the time. There is a bit about breast-feeding that really sticks in my mind.

My Mother would often take to her bed to read -- maybe after a hard day; maybe just because she had a good book that she was dying to read. This maternal example goes deep, and now my children are growing up with a Mother who occasionally (or frequently) takes to her bed to read.

There is a family legend that my maternal great-grandmother used to escape to the outhouse with a good book. Apparently, it was the only place she could retreat to in order to achieve the peace and privacy necessary for concentrated reading. She was obviously able to overlook noxious smells . . . but then, I imagine that most Texans, pre-airconditioning days, did have this ability.

I firmly believe that the best method for turning your child into an enthusiastic reader is just to read in front of them as much as possible. Not only will they get curious and think you are on to something, but they will also think this is a perfectly normal way to wile away the time. I was extremely gratified to learn that research bears this theory out. (I picked that up when I was doing my second Master's degree in Reading.) Is there any greater bliss in life than receiving official justification for the behavior that you would have been engaging in anyway? Now I know that reading -- rather than being a selfish act that keeps me from actively engaging with my children -- is actually a GIFT that I give to them. Even more happily, I know that it is a gift that will keep on giving.

A Dance to the Music of Time -- Anthony Powell
This is the most recent book (books, actually) on the shelf. My dear friend Jenni gave it to me for my 40th birthday last January. I think that she found the title rather irresistible -- considering the occasion. However, I know that it is a novel collection that also means a lot to her. This collection is apparently a "cycle" of 12 books, but they are grouped in threes -- in volumes titled Spring, Summer, Winter and Autumn. I find that rather appealing, not to mention comprehensive.

If you've stuck with me this far, Dear Reader, I thank you. I realise that most people visit blogs for a quick laugh -- not an essay. But it is a subject dear, so dear, to my heart . . . and somehow I've just gotten carried away. If you are in the mood for more of the same, please visit this link to read the blog that inspired this one. I am particularly referring to the blog titled So Many Books . . . So Little Time, but they are all great. By the way, BSRH, I am halfway through The Lovely Bones . . . and I, too, have had Barbara Tuchman on my to-read shelf for longer than she deserves. So you see, even though my to-read shelf grows apace of my ability to keep up, I do occasionally make a glorious dent in it.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

A Quick Dinner for the Frazzled and Time-poor

As I compose this title I chuckle at the SHEER NERVE of it.

I am a stay-at-home Mom who has left the house precisely twice today. Once, to take the child to school (other child is on a field trip; and I have a "lift-share" -- cute English term -- in the evening); and once to get milk. I'm glad that England is (usually) not a violent culture, and grateful for the fact that West Berkshire is largely handgun-free, because otherwise someone would probably come shoot me for having so much free time.

People, please have mercy on me in your judgment. And know that tomorrow I will NOT be able to spend hours playing on my computer because I will actually have big, important things to do like get my Volvo serviced.

Yes, the hours flew by today. I was a blogging fool with my shiny, fun toy.

Sum total of today's accomplishments: sent 18 emails (4 of them could be classified as "business" as they were loosely associated with my half-hearted job hunt -- so that's okay). Two of them were to Sigmund. His response to the first was, and I quote: Have you been drinking ? I then had to form a rebuttal as I was drinking nothing but lightly caffeinated tea. (hence the need for milk) One of them was to someone who may or may not be in Managua. Several had something to do with blogging, although they weren't actually blogs.

I also engaged in a debate about the impending food crisis and rising grain price --with all of its attendant causes.

I also commented on an article in More Intelligent Life . . . and envied, not for the first time, the perfection of someone else's writing and observations.

I also checked in with my favorite food blogs and my favorite person in south Texas in a town that begins with "port."

I also updated my profile, which meant some time scanning my bookshelves and Ipod and thinking about all of my favorite things.

I then randomly clicked on "A Thousand Acres," "Jonatha Brooke," and "Moving On" -- and found a fellow enthusiast for each of these special interests. My new friends, in case you are interested, are a creative writer who lives in the north of England, a really funny Mom who lives somewhere in the U.S, and a blues musician from Chicago. He had a very detailed post about the music scene in Chicago -- past and present. I couldn't say much to that, so I offered him a story about me and "Moving On" that no one else in this world knows.

Well, it was all fun and games and I was complacent about dinner because I had fed the youngest child two pieces of cinnamon toast (from the last of the homemade oatmeal bread) and Sigmund said he was going for a run after work. (Sigmund has been engaging in both the Dutch and the British drinking cultures this week.) Then, so suddenly, it was 8 pm and Sigmund was home and I couldn't find the recipe for the chicken thing that I was going to make for dinner! What to do?

Well, I looked to Nigella in my hour of need. I have already referenced Nigella, in these few short weeks of posting, and I can't promise that it won't happen again. Nigella and I have been friends for a long, long time. I was reading her food columns in British Vogue back when the 90s were middle-aged and I was first in line to buy the wonderful "How to Eat" in 1999. This was back in those halcyon days when Nigella could do no wrong. These days, the UK public (or at least press) makes mock of Nigella on a regular basis. But I put that down to envy, as Nigella is rich, beautiful, a good writer, and someone who still has a thin face even when she puts on weight.

It has come to my attention that some people have trouble getting dinner on the table not because they have been frittering away time in the blogosphere but for more worthy reasons. A 12 hour working day combined with single parenthood would be one good example.

For these good people, I offer up the following recipe: brought to you by Nigella, and made by me tonight. It was quick, nutritious, and crowd-pleasing. (If you can call three people a crowd.) It also had the virtue -- which I must say is a first for me in last-minute cooking -- of only containing ingredients which I just happened to have on hand.

Voila! "Pollo alla Cacciatora"

1 T olive oil
75 g pancetta cubes
2 shallots (or similar)
clove or two of garlic
1 t rosemary, finely chopped (I used fresh, because I have it in the garden, but I'm sure dried is perfectly fine)

500 g chicken breast (I used two breasts -- frankly, I've got no clue about what 500g might be. The beauty of this recipe is that it doesn't really matter. If you think I stuck to the recipe you don't know me and you are having a laugh.)

1/2 t celery salt (I actually had this, but I doubt you need to bother)

125 ml white wine (this is the good part; you can either use the manky wine left in the fridge that someone brought you, or you can open a decent bottle and drink the rest of it with dinner. I went for a combination of the two approaches.)

1 400g can chopped tomatoes (please don't ask me to convert into ounces; it's just that standard medium sized one)

2 bay leaves

1/2 t sugar

1 400g can cannellini beans (if you don't have these, just serve it over pasta or rice)

Saute the onion, garlic and rosemary in the olive oil a couple of minutes.
Add the chicken (cut up smallish; but hey, cut it however you like) and sprinkle with celery salt.
Pour in the wine, and let bubble before adding everything else but the cannellini beans.
Simmer for 20 minutes -- during which time you can either see to some chores, or sit down with the paper and a glass of wine (my choice).
Drain the beans and add to the pan. Give them a minute to heat up and you are good to go.

I just served this with bread. I would usually bother with a salad, but tonight I didn't. Anyway, I counted at least three vegetables in this dish plus one legume.

Enjoy, my frazzled friends, your "express" but still reasonably home-cooked meal.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

The Poetry Wars

Since I devoted yesterday's post to the misery of the English character, today I shall seek to redress this imbalance by extolling the virtues of its newspapers. One of the delights of living in the UK, daily renewable, is the quality of the journalism. This is not to say that the UK lacks trashy journalism -- indeed, it excels in it. However, there are at least four excellent broadsheet papers and they are available every day.

Bee's Primer for UK journalism
(highly subjective, and possibly prone to error)
This is not a trivial matter, people: the paper you read is a highly coded business in class-bound England. It says as much about you as your accent does.

The broadsheets: all high-quality journalism; may differ in political slant -- although that is not always obvious to me, Sigmund and Jenni once had a lively debate on the topic.

The Guardian/Sunday Observer -- traditionally the "left-wing" newspaper; associated with intellectuals and liberals. Nigel Slater and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are the regular food columnists -- foodies take note. Simon Hopkinson also does the odd column.

The Daily Telegraph -- conversely, this is the Tory paper. Rich public school boys. "Sir" Conrad Black headed it during the 90s, and we all know what happened to him. Tamasin Day-Lewis wrote the food columns for many years; not sure who is doing it now as Sigmund won't let this paper cross the threshold. (Not too sure why, exactly, as he regularly gets in bed with oil and gas folk and bankers. Maybe leftover bias from working class immigrant origins?)

The Independent -- as its title proclaims, it aims for some non-political space or middle ground. More like The Guardian than The Telegraph. I think it has the smallest readership of the four; appeals to iconoclasts, who are always a meager group in the population pie-chart.

The Times -- the classic. Still has the largest readership. If you read a novel from before, say, 1970, the characters will invariably be reading The Times. Middle-brow; middle-weight according to my friend Jenni, who is a snob about such things. Home of the acerbic, prolific columnist A.A. Gill. I really like the Sunday Times, which has good Cultural sections, but Simon says that The Observor does proper news better.

The Daily Mail -- in a Venn Diagram, The Daily Mail would occupy the middle ground between quality broadsheets and tabloid trash. It is a middle to lower-middle class paper. My mother-in-law, and most of the nation's elderly, read it. It does a good Sudoku and TV section. There is little to no international news, and an over-emphasis on various smalltime outrages, scandals, and swindles. The dominant theme seems to be that the country is going to hell in a handbasket and any right-thinking person might as well emigrate. Ironically, the paper is very hard on immigrants -- who are blamed for much of society's problems.

The tabloids: all trash
The Daily Express -- trash which devotes 3 out of 5 front pages to Princess Diana. Madeline McCann is the backup for Di's days off.
The Daily Mirror -- just trash; not sure what kind they specialise in
The Sun -- trash best-known for their "Page 3 Girls" (boob shots, basically)

Now that we have that sorted . . .
Because the big four battle it out for the literate and presumably more affluent portion of the population, there are often incentive "supplements" to entice the consumer. These may take the form of DVDs, or "best of" guides, or educational pamphlets of some kind. This week, The Guardian and The Independent are battling it out with their Great Poet guides. So far I've gotten a John Donne and a W.H. Auden. I should have had a T.S. Eliot, but when I got home from the grocery store I was sad to find that my paper was poet-less. The little book must have fallen out somewhere.

Is it just me, or do others find it charming that there is obviously a belief that poets can sell papers! I just can't see this happening with the Houston Chronicle vs Austin American-Statesman.

By the way, I'm really quite bummed about the missing Eliot guide. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is probably the first "adult" poem that really grabbed me. At one point, I had several stanzas of it memorized, but my sieve-like brain has lost most of them. Incidentally, did anyone catch the "Prufrock" reference in my "Beans" post?

This is really stretching the poetry topic further than it was ever meant to go . . . but I was poetry in motion this morning on the tennis court. My volleys were crisp and precise, and my serve was killer. Non-tennis players: There is a resounding, perfect THWACK that you get when you hit the ball just right. It is one of the most satisfying physical sensations. "Sweet spot" sounds so salacious for a reason, you know.

And finally, for all the Democrat homeys out there working to take the White House back from the Bushian stranglehold: some words from Gore Vidal.

Half of the American people have never read a newspaper.
Half never voted for President.
One hopes it is the same half.