Friday, 30 January 2009

Awards Season

Thanks for the beautiful bouquet!

This is my 100th post, and it hasn't escaped my attention that there is a blogging convention for celebrating that occasion. Since I am also nearly at the end of my first blogging year, I thought that I would throw some flowers at (just some!) of the wonderful blogs/people who have added so much color and beauty and interest to my life in the past 11 3/4 months.

I feel a little bit like Kate Winslet today . . . okay, she's richer, blonder, more talented, younger, more beautiful and so on . . . but we both have two kids, we both go to Reading** on a regular basis, and we both experienced an embarrassment of riches by receiving two awards more or less simultaneously.

Fantastic Forrest gave me this


The lovely Peggy gave me this

The "problem" is this: I am supposed to pass these awards forward so there will be self-perpetuating linkage and positive feedback. I realize this problem is somewhat akin to getting a bonus and not knowing how to invest it, or embarrassing yourself with your acceptance speech (yes, I'm thinking of you, Kate), but I can't help it: I am suffering from all sorts of angsty anxiety. Trying to choose between blogs is like trying to decide whether I prefer purple irises or yellow roses (and I really like both). Also, some of the blogs I like best are already highly decorated, while others are squeamish about awards. I don't want to be ungracious, and nor do I want to hurt feelings . . . oh dear, a blogging dilemma.

Since it is movie award season, I thought that I might just make up my own categories . . . Academy Award style. This proved to be difficult, too, and try as I might some of my beloved blogs didn't fit easily into any category, while others seemed to fit into every category. There is definitely a blog for every mood and interest, and some blogs are particularly simpatico to me -- for whatever reason. Chemistry in blog-ship is just as mysterious as chemistry in friendship!

Best All-Around Blogs (writing, photography, ideas, voice, generosity -- these blogs have got it all!)

Blogs which make me laugh

  • Mom Sequiter
  • About New York
  • The Accidental Housewife
  • Whittering On
  • That's Why
  • None of Your Beeswax

Blogs which make me want to write poetry and think deeper thoughts

  • Pics and Poems
  • The Writing Mechanic
  • Dick Jones' Patteran Pages
  • The Gold Puppy
  • Life at Willow Manor
  • Box Elder

Blogs with VOICE

  • Multitude
  • New England Living
  • Nimble Pundit
  • Prepare to Meet Your Bakerina
  • That's Why
  • Lost and Found in India
  • Whittering On

Bloggers who I wish would write more frequently

  • Chez La Vie
  • Tales of Brave Sir Robin
  • Bitty's Back Porch
  • Beyond Ramen
  • Mom Sequiter
  • Anapestic

Best blogging feedback

  • Tales of Brave Sir Robin
  • New England Living
  • Beyond Ramen
  • Box Elder
  • About New York
  • Whittering On

Blogs which are a hand across the world

  • Accept all Offerings
  • Couch Trip
  • Bon Bon
  • Authorblog
  • BooksEtc
  • Barrie Summy

Best new discoveries

  • Johnstone Journal
  • Moments of Perfect Clarity
  • Traveling through Time and Space
  • That's Why
  • Pigtown Design
  • Irregularly Periodic Ruminations

As Kate Winslet said at the Screen Actors Guild Awards:

"It's really an honour to be included in what I think is such a remarkable year," Winslet said. "I really feel like everybody should be given a medal."

So please, help yourself!

(and I apologize for not following the rules, and for running out of linkage steam, but you can find all of these blogs on my sidebar.)

**Reading (to be pronounced Red-ing) trivia about Kate and me. She was born in the Royal Berkshire Hospital and I had a baby in the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Also, a very lovely carpenter and general handyman has done work for me AND for Kate's family. They are artsy types who aren't very good at house maintenance. We just needed some new bookshelves!

Monday, 26 January 2009

An Oldie but a Goodie (not my husband, but the dessert)

Tiramisu, two-thirds gone

I’m not sure why, but the January birthday season definitely had a retro flavor this year. After years of loyalty to carrot cake, we revisited the desserts from our yesteryears: I had Italian Cream Cake, little daughter had Red Velvet cupcakes and Sigmund had Tiramisu.

When Sigmund and I first started dating, in the early 90s, tiramisu was all the rage. It was the hot new thing which quickly became the ubiquitous and predictable thing; however, we truly loved it. On our first date, at the legendary Carrabba’s on Kirby, we shared one. For years afterward, if it was on the menu, Sigmund invariably ordered it.

When our youngest daughter was born, we couldn’t decide on a name. My parents were staying with us – we lived in Trinidad at the time – and each day we would come up with some names to present to Sigmund. (Eventually, we both had to come up with short-lists and proceed by process of elimination.) I remember someone, probably my mother, suggesting that we name the baby “Tiramisu.” Just say that with a drawling Texas accent: TARA-ME-SUE. It was even better with our Italian surname! (Of course, we didn’t name our child after a dessert; but funnily enough, she loves tiramisu and is sure to order it if it appears on the menu.)

I don’t know when it stopped being Sigmund’s default dessert . . . but at some point, there was that thought: I haven’t had tiramisu in ages! Don’t you agree that some of the best things in life are the rediscovered old loves?

There are many, many recipes for tiramisu, but I like the one from The New Basics Cookbook. It employs all of the crucial ingredients: ladyfingers, mascarpone cheese, espresso, an orange liqueur, Marsala wine and chocolate. Also, the texture is just right – creamy, but not too “wet,” like some restaurant versions. The crucial thing, as far as I’m concerned, is to make homemade ladyfingers for the sponge base. Now some people think that store-bought, commercial ladyfingers are fine, but I think that you need that “from scratch” touch. Ladyfingers aren’t difficult to make, especially if you have a good mixer, but they require a tiny bit of patience. I realize that my idea of a tiny bit of patience (when it comes to baking matters) is subjective. However, I promise that this recipe is its own reward.

Ladyfingers (my mother’s recipe)


6 egg yolks
4 egg whites
¾ cup caster sugar
1 cup sifted flour
Powdered (confectioner’s) sugar


Beat the 6 egg yolks until they are light, and then add ¼ cup of sugar. (You can use your paddle attachment or your whisk attachment, but you will definitely need the whisk for the next step. I use separate bowls and separate attachments so I don’t have to wash up between steps.)

In a separate bowl, beat the 4 egg whites until they are foamy. Gradually add ½ cup of sugar until the mixture is glossy and stiff – but not dry. It should look like this:

Carefully fold the egg white mixture into the egg yolk mixture. Then, sift the cup of flour – gradually – into the mixture and fold in with a large spatula. Use as delicate of a touch as possible.

Working quickly, the mixture can either be piped onto a wax paper-covered cookie sheet – or just spooned on. I do the latter, as you are going to break up the ladyfingers for this recipe anyway. I just spoon the batter into rough, fat fingers. Peasant fingers, I guess!

Cook for approximately 10-12 minutes; they should turn a slightly rosy color, not quite tan. Loosen at once with a spatula and dry between wax/parchment paper in an airtight tin. Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.

I believe that most people perform acts of devotion in their lives – we only disagree as to what we think is worth the extra bother. I’m sure that I’m sloppy and slapdash when it comes to lots of things, but I have a shortlist of things that matter to me:

A hand-written thank you note
A beautifully wrapped present
Pressed sheets
Homemade birthday cake

Happy Birthday, Sigmund! Actually, you are a bit of an oldie . . . but SUCH a goodie

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Sorry, Canadians . . . but we've got green shoots here

They are green, and they are in my garden!

It has been a gloriously sunny day – “false” spring only, perhaps – but I will take it. I meant to take a short walk to the corner store, but I got waylaid by the beauty of the day and wandered into the forest to look for snowdrops. Everywhere I looked there were people doing the same . . . I even saw two men, shirtless, out jogging! (It wasn’t really that warm, but the urge to bare one’s skin to the sun can be strong.)

One of the things that I love about Texas winter is that you only have to endure cold weather for short periods of time. That is best, I think; otherwise, winter’s harsh and antisocial qualities start to grind a person down.

I would agree that every season has its beauties, but for me, spring is incomparable. One of the things that I like best about England is that the signs of spring appear so early. Snowdrops are first, but the daffodils and narcissus will appear soon after. Then, the other bulbs: tulips and iris and fritillary. We’ve planted hundreds of bulbs this year . . . and I can’t even remember what or where now that the garden is all bare branched and knobby.

When I look out my bathroom window, I can see these green shoots. I will be plotting their progress . . .

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

We Are All Welcome Here

As I was listening intently to Obama’s Inaugural Address, I realized that I was actually LISTENING. I wasn’t just casually tuning in to the occasion, as I have done in the past. Instead, I was actively focusing on the content of the words. I felt that President Obama wanted to communicate his personal vision for the United States of America, and I truly believed that the words, the speaker and the intentions were united.

I’ve always disliked political rhetoric – and distrusted those who wanted to be politicians. The gap between words and subsequent actions always seems too great, and thus, all of that speechifying seems rather pointless. I know quite well that the slogans and emotionally manipulative language are usually a calculated “message” written by someone else -- and ultimately, so meaningless.

In the last years of Bush’s presidency, I went out of my way to not listen to him. Not only did I feel that there was a yawning gap between the ideals (as expressed in the speech) and the real (what actually happened), but I also distrusted (and despised) his entire rhetorical style.

About a week before the Inauguration, Radio 4 broadcast “Bremner on Bush: A Final Farewell” – a program which analyzed Bush’s rhetorical style over the course of his presidency. Much attention was given to his folksy, foot-in-the-mouth ways – and several of the commentators concluded that this humanized Bush and allowed people to identify with him. As a fellow Texan, the folksy shtick drove me crazy. I always felt it was terribly false and insincere. He may have sounded like a hayseed, but he was the furthest thing from it. Texans who have attended Phillips Academy and Yale and Harvard Universities just don’t talk that way. He has always been the scion of a cultured and well-connected East Coast family, and portraying himself as a man of the soil just didn’t wash with me.

Google Bushisms and you will have hours of reading material. If nothing else, Bush was certainly peerless in his inept usage of the English language. In the Bremner program, one of the commentators suggested that Bush only mangled his message – or got his words all wrong – when he was bored or disinterested in what he was saying. Apparently, he was eloquent (ie, “interested”) in the country’s defense of itself, and linguistically awkward (ie, “bored”) when it came to everything else. However, if you look at the legacy of material he left us, this “theory” can easily be debunked. Bush tripped over his words no matter which topic he was tackling.

Even when he was beating the drum for the “War on Terror,” he was subject to troubling (and telling) gaffes – for instance, this classic example: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."—Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004

Truer words were never spoken, but I’m pretty sure that he didn’t intend to send that particular message. Actually, my opinion on Bush was starting to slightly soften until I read last night (“Bush’s Final F.U.”, Rolling Stone, 1/8/09) about all of the “midnight regulations” he just managed to pass. Huge harm will be done to the environment and individual health and safety, but the energy and farming conglomerates will get to save some time and money.
There is a well-known saying in Texas: “You gotta dance with the one who brung ya.” You’ve got to hand it to him: Bush certainly always did that. Big business interests helped get him elected, and he was loyal to them to the end. As for the “little people” and the common folk, I doubt that many of them are feeling better off after 8 years of Bush’s residency in the White House.

Obama pointed out, in his Inaugural Address, that "a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.” Over and over again, Obama’s inauguration emphasized the importance of unity - of a place for everyone at the table. At first, I wondered at his controversial decision to include the evangelical minister Rick Warren, who delivered the Invocation for the ceremony. But after hearing Mr. Warren, who also emphasized the importance of unity and listening to differing opinions with “civility,” I realized what a truly harmonizing gesture this was for Obama to make. Evangelical Christians are a significant voice in the United States, and you can hardly claim to represent everyone without an acknowledgment of that fact. Joseph Lowery, the Reverend and Civil Rights leader who delivered the Benediction, put a tartly humorous spin on the theme of unity: we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around … when yellow will be mellow … when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. I liked the inclusion of these words because they acknowledged the racial problems of the past and present, but did so in a way that didn’t make it into a binary (black vs. white) problem. It is a marvelous thing that Obama’s very person harmonizes those contradictions.

On Sunday night I was killing some time in Borders and I came across an Elizabeth Berg novel titled We Are All Welcome Here. I’ve never read Berg’s work, but it has been recommended to me . . . and there was something about the title that called out to me. Coincidentally (or not), the novel is set in Tupelo, Mississippi during 1964 – against a backdrop of peace marches and voter registration efforts. The protagonist of the novel is a stubborn and often uncooperative teenager and in many ways it is a “coming of age” novel. In one of the key scenes, her mother - a white woman who has been paralyzed by polio – tries to get her daughter to recognize that a wheelchair is less confining than the frightening restrictions that the African-American characters are subject to. Through love and cooperation and the pooling of financial resources, the lives of these characters (black and white) are transformed.

No matter what else Obama manages to accomplish, his very presence is an embodiment of American ideals: that anyone can get ahead; that we are all equal by law; that we are all welcome at the table. I fervently hope that his foreign and domestic policies will live up to his words – and that there will no longer be a gap between ideals and expedience, the interests of some as opposed to the interests of all.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

At Eleven

My youngest daughter: Skating away

At eleven, my daughter has the coltish legs of someone who hasn't quite matured into her latest growth spurt.

At eleven, my daughter will fuss over her hair, but forget to brush her teeth.

At eleven, my daughter listens in on grown-up conversation. She knows a lot more than her older sister did at the same age.

At eleven, my daughter still tells me (most*) of her secrets.

At eleven, my daughter likes me to read to her. We are working our way through the Little House on the Prairie books - a series that I also loved as a child. (She got some of the more obscure titles for her birthday.) She likes books with spirited heroines.

At eleven, my daughter wants to help me in the kitchen.

At eleven, my daughter understands the world in a way that is precociously wise . . . and yet so innocent, too.

At eleven, my youngest daughter will kiss me - without embarrassment - on a city bus. (My older daughter scowls at us. "Stop it," she says, in a hostile voice.)

At eleven, my daughter is uninterested in cell phones. She enjoys her friends, but they are not all the world to her. She has a solitary streak.

At eleven, my daughter and her friends still bring their teddy bears to sleepover parties. They wear sweet flannel pajamas. They talk unselfconsciously when a mother enters the room. And yet: they experiment with make-up, know all of the lyrics to the Katy Perry album and dress up as the St. Trinian's girls. "I'm a posh tottie," one of them says to me. (I'm speechless. "That's nice, dear," I choke out like someone's maiden aunt.)

At eleven, my daughter is still holding tightly to me with one hand, but reaching out beyond me with the other.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Winter's Walk

Ralph (incarcerated)
I fed the prisoner some oatmeal
to warm his tummy on such a cold day.
Greedy thing! He ate it so quickly that he got
an oatmeal mustache. But when I returned with
the camera, he had rinsed it away.
He fixes me with an accusing eye.

When I can't get outside for my daily walk, I start to feel like a caged thing.

I walk, almost every day, for exercise and mental health - I'm not sure which comes first, or even if I could differentiate between them. I will walk in most weather conditions: hot, warm, cold, spitting, raining, snowing, or blowing. I draw the line only at pelting it down and that horrendous combination of wet and wind which is, for me, most insalubrious.

I know that only a Texan (or similar) would find England cold. Compared to what the Canadians and Finns (for example) have to put up with, England's winter is practically balmy. However, I think that most people would agree that England does specialize in a form of bone-chilling damp that has evolved a hot tea/hot fire/hot AGA loving people.

It might seem contradictory, but I think that proper cold is preferable to all the wettish, grayish mucky muck. After a few teasing little snow flurries and sub-degree temperatures, we awoke to a beautifully frozen world on Saturday morning. Suddenly, all of those sad shrubs and sodden grasses acquired an elegant frosting. After bundling up to feed the chickens, I felt inclined to wander out and inspect the changes that the frost wrought.

The field to the right of our back garden.

It looks so pastoral, but I have left out the view of my neighbor's junk car collection. (We live nearby the English version of Sanford & Son.) But don't those weeds look lovely?

Hillview Farm, next door on the left-hand side
Usually, it is a world of mud.
On a clear day, you can see the hill
of Watership Down on the horizon.

Our road cuts through old farming ground.

The road is dense with houses on both sides, but tiny parcels of farmland lie behind. It feels rural and strangely suburban at the same time.

I climbed up onto a high bank to take this picture.

Again, the solitary splendor of the view misrepresents the reality: a busy thoroughfare full of speeding cars, cyclists, walkers, horses and the occasional inconvenient lorry. The one-lane road must make room for many.

This rather steep hill is so densely thicketed that it stays dark on even the sunniest of days. Although it is only a mile from the bus-stop at the top of the hill to our Barn at the bottom of the hill, my daughter has successfully argued that it is a hazardous journey.

She requires car service; unlike her mother, she doesn't enjoy a nice walk.

English winter, even when frosted, is monochrome.

Monday, 12 January 2009

A little more about me

Since it is my birth-week,
I am going to indulge in the pleasure
of talking about myself!

Did anyone else have this book as a child?

I think that blogging must be
the grown-up equivalent.

Blogger Interviews
have been making the rounds this week. Two of my favorite bloggers, Willow and Elizabeth, have both participated . . . and so I have slightly deviated from the rules of the game by asking them both for a few questions.

We all drop bits and pieces of ourselves into our writing . . . and it is interesting to find out what blanks someone else might want us to fill in.

How did you manage to end up in the UK from deep in the heart of Texas?
In the spring of 1992, I was a graduate student at Rice University in Houston. With some misgivings, I allowed myself to be set up on a blind date with a “charming English man.” I had three pieces of information about him: he was a great cook, he wore old-fashioned pajamas and he had a “cute accent.” (Two of the three turned out to be true.) Not only was Sigmund witty, charming, thoughtful, intelligent and gainfully employed, but he also wined and dined me. The first year we were dating, he took me skiing, to Paris and the Loire Valley, and all over California. It was heady stuff. By the end of 1994, I was married, pregnant and living near Reading.

Tell me about the lovely barn, pictured on your sidebar.
The Barn is your typical two-hundred-year-old Money Pit. Although it was originally a barn, it is quite unlike most dwellings of that former usage. More than one person has described it as a “Tardis.” It has always been lovely from the outside, but it was hideous and dated on the inside when we bought it. We had two very small children at the time and I really, really didn’t want to take on a fixer-upper, but luckily Sigmund persisted. (At the time, he thought it was great value for money. However, we have lavished so much money on it that I’m not sure that is still the case.) We renovated it for a year, lived in it for a year, and rented it out for five years while we lived in Houston. When we moved back to England in 2005, we started renovating it again. In fact, I spent two hours this afternoon meeting with the people who are going to replace about half of the old wooden windows. (That should be fun!)

The first 12 years of my oldest daughter’s life we moved almost every year – the one exception being the three years we spent in Trinidad. We are planning on putting down some roots here now, mostly for the children’s sake. It is a good house for childhood. The walls are thick, there are lots of bedrooms (seven) and strange little cupboards, and it has an eccentric floor plan.

Which three books do you think have affected your life most?
This is probably the most difficult question to answer, as I have read so many books!

Inevitably, I turned to childhood and adolescence for the answer – mostly because that was the time in which my tastes started to form. First of all, I am going to nominate Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook. I developed a taste for cookbook reading at approximately the age of 10, and this book was my favorite. Corbitt was a larger-than-life character who worked at the Houston Country Club, the Driskill Hotel in Austin, and Neiman Marcus in Dallas. She liked food to be lavish, wholesome and beautiful. Her recipes were accompanied by all sorts of colorful anecdotes, and her writing had a very specific, very charming “voice.” (Later, when I was 23, I discovered Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and it had that same combination of food and memoir, except with less of the former and more of the latter.) Cookbooks are the bridge between my two greatest loves – cooking and reading.

My second book has to be Charlotte BrontĂ« ’s Jane Eyre. I did a book report on it in the fourth grade – (How did I even know about this book? Where did I get it from?) – and I clearly remember my teacher telling me it was an “inappropriate” book for a 10 year old. I’ve read it so many times that I cannot properly recall that first-time readerly impression – but I do know that it kicked off my lifelong love affair with English literature, not to mention my keen interest in inappropriate books!

After much hesitation, I’m going to pick Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as my third book. I read this one when I was a senior in high school, and unlike all of my other “favorites,” I haven’t reread it. I would describe it as influential, though, in the sense that it opened up my brain to a whole new world of narrative possibilities. It took the linear plot structure and reliable narrator that I was familiar with and turned them on their heads. And speaking of heads, it examined all sorts of big questions whilst still having emotional and psychological acuity in terms of the protagonist. I also remember this book for its mordant humor – something that I particularly enjoyed in The Confederacy of Dunces, a favorite from the same reading era. (I keep trying to sneak in other favorites!)

Apart from your loved ones, what is your most treasured tangible possession? I’m not very good at choosing just one thing! I have three most treasured things, really: my sapphire and diamond engagement ring (which I was given), my diamond drop necklace (which I inherited) and my desk (which I bought for myself). They are all so special to me, in different ways, but the desk is a kind of promise to myself.

What skill/ability/characteristic would you love to have? I have always wanted to be a jazz singer. I think that being able to express your emotions in that way would be the biggest kick. (Before blogging, what, if any, was your main mode of personal expression?) I’ve never thought of myself as a creative person, and I actually think that I lacked a meaningful mode of personal expression. Blogging has allowed me to express myself with writing, and it has also exposed me to so many creative people – and that in itself is most infectious!

If anyone else is interested in being interviewed, here are the rules for the game.


1. Leave me a comment saying, "Interview me."
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. (I get to pick the
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview
someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.
Audrey at Multitude
Anne at Beyond Ramen

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Happy Birthday to ME

A birthday offering to myself
Italian Cream Cake

If I had known how much spoiling I was going to get today, I wouldn't have dreaded my birthday so much! Sigmund and the girls overwhelmed me with a stack of delicious books, anti-ageing skin care products (should I be offended?), a special dinner away with friends and a pair of diamond earrings. What a way to ease the pain of January! I also got lovely cards, funny cards and a few slightly rude cards . . . which, nevertheless, made me snort with laughter.
Two of my favorites are:

My idea of housework is
to sweep the room with a glance


Inside me lives a skinny woman
crying to get out.
But I can usually shut the bitch up
with cookies!

This last sentiment (oh yes, the truth does hurt) from one of my walking partners . . .

As with so many things in life, it is tough to maintain the proper balance between exercise and baked goods. On my birthday, I don't even try. Let me eat cake is my mantra.

For some reason, this year I had a yen for Italian Cream Cake. I hadn't made one in years, partly because mine never tastes quite as good as my grandmother's always did. When I was a child, it was my favorite cake -- and it made a perennial appearance at birthdays, especially the one I shared with my grandfather. I was the first grandchild to be born, on both sides of the family, and it was truly the catbird seat. My grandfather was the rather stern father of two boys, but he was a loving, indulgent grandfather to me. As far as I can tell, I got the biggest portion of his sweetness.

My grandfather had a notable sweet tooth, and I particularly remember how much he loved cookies. My grandmother always had freshly baked ones in a jar on the counter, and he would come into the kitchen and pull out a handful. (He had unusually large hands and a really efficient metabolism.) Whether you believe in nature, nurture or astrology, you can see that the cookie problem is really not my fault!

As far as I know, Italian Cream Cake is a Texas/Southern confection and nothing like that cake with ricotta cheese and candied fruits that sometimes goes by the same name. I searched all of my cookbooks, and could only find it one other place -- a church cookbook. Emeril Lagasse did a show on Deep South Desserts, and his recipe is nearly identical to the one handed down by my grandmother. It is a moist yellow cake, rich with coconut and pecans and topped with the the sort of cream cheese frosting that also tends to go on carrot cakes. I was a bit worried to serve it to English friends, as many kids "of today" don't seem to like nuts or coconut, but I really shouldn't have wasted my time fretting. In fact, if I were inclined in that way, I could have worried about having some cake left over for tomorrow! But why worry at all? I'm not sure why, but my friends have come up trumps this year and I am going to be celebrating all week long. It's my birth-week, I guess.

Italian Cream Cake


4 ounces of butter
4 ounces of shortening (Crisco or Trex)
2 cups of sugar
5 eggs, separated
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
8 ounces buttermilk
2 cups moist coconut (do NOT use dessicated coconut)
1 cup chopped pecans


Prepare three 9 inch cake pans by greasing the sides and bottoms, and then lining the bottoms with wax or parchment paper.

Cream together the butter, shortening and sugar until light and fluffy.
Add the 5 egg yolks, and mix until the ingredients are creamy and well-incorporated.
Sift together the flour and the soda, and then gradually add to the butter mixture – alternating with the buttermilk. You should end with the flour.
Slowly beat in the coconut and pecans.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they have firm peaks. Fold carefully into the batter.

Divide the mixture between three 9 inch pans. Bake at 350F/175C for 30-35 minutes. I baked my three layers in two different ovens. The top oven only required about 33 minutes, while the bottom oven needed about 38 minutes. The cakes should be golden brown, should spring back to the touch, and will pull slightly away from the sides when they are finished. Cool on wire racks.

Frosting ingredients:

8 ounces of cream cheese
4 ounces of butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
16 ounces/1 pound box of confectioner’s (icing) sugar, sifted


Cream together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla. When the mixture is light and fluffy, gradually add the sifted confectioner’s sugar. If the frosting is too stiff, you can thin it with a small amount of milk.

Not as good as Grandma used to make,
but everyone did have seconds!

Friday, 9 January 2009

January movies: The Reader

Kate Winslet and David Kross in The Reader
Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon (c)

is not my favorite month, true, but it is one of my abiding beliefs that there is always an upside -- a silver lining.

As a movie lover, I look forward to that winter flurry of films aimed at the (let's just admit it) thinking adult market. In other words, the Oscar-worthy for your consideration kind of films. The kind of films that are adapted from literary sources. The kind of films that tackle moral/ethical gray areas. The Reader, adapted from Bernhard Schlink's German novel of the same name, is just that sort of film - not exactly "feel good," but it will certainly get you thinking.

"Cynically calculated Oscar bait is rarely as ethically problematic as The Reader," says Wendy Ide, reviewing for The Times (01.01.09). That first part of that sentence sort of amuses me -- so stroppy, Wendy! I suppose that if you are going to involve Stephen Daldry (director), David Hare (screenwriter) and the gilded acting duo of Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes in a production then you are bound to be opening yourself up to such criticism. While I would like to think that the financiers of the project had no goal other than to make the finest possible film, who would deny that nominations and prestigious awards actually do help sell tickets? We went to this film on its opening weekend -- in Basingstoke, admittedly -- and the (smallish) theater was hardly half-full. I had been looking forward to this film -- as I had adored the novel, still clear in my mind despite being read ten years ago -- but I was obviously in a minority. If Kate Winslet (practically a hometown girl, being from nearby Reading) manages to carry off a gold statue for her role as Hanna, I assume that will bring out a few more Berkshire and Hampshire punters.

Do people who dislike spoilers ever read movie or book reviews? In the case of this movie, it is impossible to talk about the characters and not give away some of the plot's secrets and surprises. Can I just hint at time and place? Although the story unfolds during several time periods, with cross-cutting between various "presents" and "pasts," it is underpinned -- and haunted -- by events which take place in Germany during World War II. In the previews for the movie, which were dominated by Defiance and Valkyrie, it was obvious that WWII is the favored theme for this winter's films. Later, I realized that a whole clutch of current films -- amongst them Australia, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Good -- also concern themselves with this still-troubling war. Although I haven't seen many of them yet, I've read enough to know that each story revolves around individuals who have to examine, and then act upon, their personal convictions in the midst of a violent cultural current which has its own imperatives.

I read somewhere that most of the recent movies about Iraq have tanked at the box office. The reviewer suggested that that war is just too close for comfort. Perhaps this proliferation of WWII stories suggests that we prefer our war stories to be at an emotional remove. It's just so much easier to judge events from the past.

I can't help but think of the tragic battling over the Gaza Strip, which happens to be playing out for real in this conflict-obsessed movie season. At the moment, even journalists hardly have access to that closed and dangerous area. Who knows how long it will be before we can put together a coherent history about what is happening in that time and place? Will the heroes and villains prove to be closed-and-shut case of black and white, or rather more difficult to typecast? Although WWII ended more than six decades ago, it is obvious that Israel's fears and sense of entitlement still flow fresh from that source. Israel believes that it has legal rights, but also moral ones -- and the two are not always the same.

In the novel of the The Reader, which I was compelled to reread of course, the central character describes his relationship to the law -- which is both profession and intellectual obsession for him. He says, "For a long time I believed that there was progress in the history of law, a development towards greater beauty and truth, rationality and humanity, despite terrible setbacks and retreats" (Schlink, p. 179). Later, the character of Michael Berg comes to understand the law as a sort of perpetual journey: "motion both purposeful and purposeless, successful and futile," (Schlink, p. 180).

Although this sudden veering into the topic of the law might seem digressive, it is directly related to perhaps the central question of The Reader, at least as I understand it. Should we be judged by law as it is codified in our particular context, or is there a law (ie, morality) which transcends context and is the ultimate arbiter of human actions? Since the courts of law can only abide by the first sort of law, whose role is it to decide and dispense the presumably higher kind of law?

To me, it was an odd (or is it apt?) coincidence that an interview with Lynndie England -- the infamous Abu Ghraib guard -- featured in The Guardian Weekend (03.01.09) magazine. Although England was much vilified for her treatment of detainees, I was left with the impression that she still doesn't entirely understand why. She seems firmly convinced that the injured parties were "bad guys;" furthermore, even the Senate armed services committee ultimately concluded that official policies "conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees" (p. 16). In other words, Lynndie was (more or less) just doing her job as she understood it. (If you know the story of The Reader, you will get that I am being sneaky here . . . while trying to avoid an obvious spoiler.)

From what I've read, Kate Winslet has been universally praised for her portrayal of Hanna. The only criticism seems to be that she did her job too well; she made a dubious character all too sympathetic. As Michael Berg says in the novel,

I wanted simultaneously to understand
Hanna's crime and to condemn it.
But it was too terrible for that.
When I tried to understand it,
I had the feeling that I was failing
to condemn it as it must be condemned.
When I condemned it as it must be condemned,
there was no more for understanding.

I wanted to pose myself both tasks --
understanding and condemnation.

But it was impossible to do both.
(The Reader, p. 156)

Frankly, I think that the filmmakers had exactly the same problem.

Afterword: Sigmund sent me this link to an interview with Stephen Daldry, the director of the film. If you are interested in this story, it is very worthwhile.

Monday, 5 January 2009

The inevitable post-Christmas crash

As I was putting away the last of the Christmas decorations this afternoon, I couldn't help but ponder the cyclical nature of things.

I was having a few "deep" thoughts -- death, morality, war and such -- but mostly I was thinking about my melancholy task, the upcoming January birthday season, my complete inability to keep to my New Year's resolutions (already!) and the defensive driving class that I took last night.

For me, January is the cruellest month -- never mind what T.S. Eliot said.

My living room looks so spare and empty without the Christmas greenery and baubles -- and the landscape outside my windows is equally drab and uninviting. I know that the post-holiday letdown will eventually follow the burst bubble of seasonal anticipation, but my feelings about it are just as fresh every time. Equally predictable? The fact that my eager decorating helpers (ie, children) will be suspiciously scarce when it comes to the Christmas shakedown.

The next three weekends will be given over to birthdays - mine, then youngest daughter's, then Sigmund's. Interspersed between these are the birthdays of an extraordinary number of friends, other relatives and godchildren. You would think that we made some pact to only consort with January babies. It's like Christmas all over again, but I've already used up the good gift ideas.

I have pretty much the same feelings about my birthday as I do about New Year's Eve: I would prefer ignoring it, but on balance it makes me feel worse to do nothing about it than something. My birthday often falls on the first day back to school -- appropriate, as it always has something of that cold, achy and unwilling quality to it. One of my childhood birthday parties had to be cancelled because of snow -- statistically improbable in central Texas -- and I've been emotionally guarded about the day ever since. Sadly, my children's birthdays -- which I once did enjoy -- now have a similarly feet-dragging quality about them. I still like making the birthday cake, but other than that, they seem to be a complex negotiation involving How Much? and How Many? I find that mass sleepovers have little to offer the parent.

Honestly, I'm in a bad position regarding gift-receiving. We opened nearly all of our presents on December 13th, before we left for the Bahamas, and none of them have been formally thank-you noted. As with emails, I find it best to "strike" when the gift (and gratefulness) are still fresh. A tardy thank-you note just always feels stale -- both for the giver and the recipient.

And that reminds me: I haven't done a durn thing about catching up with my emails. I know that developing better correspondence habits is a long-haul kind of resolution, but my start has been so slow that it doesn't bode well for the mid-stretch. I've also broken my promise to Sigmund -- that we would go to bed at a decent (ie, before midnight) time. No matter how much I can acknowledge that going to bed earlier and waking earlier would contribute to better moods and greater productivity, my natural body rhythms are resistant. I could hardly be expected to go bed last night at 11 pm when I had only awakened at 11 am. Right? Also, the six hours lost to my defensive driving course meant that I had hardly experienced life that day.

What was I thinking when I signed up (in November) to take a defensive driving course on Sunday, January 4, from 5 pm to 9 pm? I had nearly forgotten about it altogether, because I still haven't flipped over to the new 2009 calendar. I was shopping in Waitrose, thinking about the nice roast dinner I was going to make for my grateful family (who had been living off of leftovers since January 1st), when it came to me in a blinding and sickening brain-flash. I barely had time to drive home, thrust an already roasted chicken in the general direction of my husband, and speed (well, not literally; this being the crime that I was "done" for) down the motorway to the appointed destination. I suppose that there never is a good time for this sort of thing, but a Sunday night coming off of a holiday seems like a particularly bad time. There was an upside, though. One of the participants, an amazingly chatty Australian, had obviously decided to have a post-holiday clearout -- and had brought boxes of biscuits and Quality Street to pass around. There was also a coffee machine which freely dispensed coffee and hot chocolate -- and all of the inmates took full advantage of this amenity. (The woman behind me drank six hot chocolates -- not that I noticed.) Yes, there was about one hour of information dragged out to fill four, but at least we had snacks.

Artificial group activities are always fascinating to me. Even in a crowd of middle-aged, white people -- yes, we were truly a bourgeois set of rule-breakers -- you could immediately tell who were going to be the talkers, the leaders, the clowns and the non-participants. Temporary bonds form (and antipathies rear up) no matter how limited the interaction. I did learn a few things, though.
  • Only 4% of collisions occur on motorways. You really need to watch out for the intersections and rural roads.
  • There are approximately 300 speed cameras in the Thames Valley, but only 30 or so will be actually working at any given time. They get moved around. Apparently, it costs about 30,000 pounds to install each one, but they can't afford to keep them all running at the same time as there would be too many offences to deal with.
  • There were slightly less than 3000 fatalities in 2007 - the lowest number since 1934. A dubious sort of progress.
  • You will be offered a defensive driving course if you don't have any points on your license, and if you were not going more than 10 miles over the speed limit. After completing your course, you get a "clean slate" again. My criminal record has now been expunged . . . I suppose that's some kind of January progress.

Friday, 2 January 2009

I resolve:

Little daughter, screaming with delight
Christmas 2008

How about this for a symbolic New Year's image? Wouldn't it be thrilling if we could all enter into the new year as if reborn?

I could definitely use some kind of cleansing at the moment.
I like the idea of January 1 as a fresh start -- hope springs eternal and all that -- but the truth is that I tend to feel fuzzy, lumpy and headachey on the first day of the year. This year, I felt jetlaggy as well . . . as we re-entered England just in time for my mother-in-law's 80th birthday celebrations, which quickly segued into the 48 hour food and drink fest also known as our annual New Year's Eve house party. I need the holiday bit where you hang out in your pajamas and watch old movies for a couple of days . . . and then I might be ready for a rebirth.

Although we were in the Bahamas this time last week, only the pictures and my daughters' peachy tans could prove it. I am as wan and logy as can be.

Poor Sigmund never did make it to the Caribbean, and we spent our first Christmas apart in 17 years -- first and last, we have resolved. We ran up such a big phone bill that our service got cut off . . . and we hadn't even realized that we had a spending limit! We both ended up being with our original families, and the cultural contrast was undeniably amusing. My Texas family spent the day swimming and beach-walking, and the day culminated in a chicken-foot domino tournament. Our biggest indulgence was passing around the Christmas candy, and we were all in bed by 10:30 pm. Sigmund's English family spent the afternoon at the Caterham pub, followed by a big Christmas dinner -- "all the trimmings" and then some. After feasting, they drank, smoked and danced their way to a 4 am finish. Which Christmas would you have preferred?

When it comes to pleasure domes, we all have our own notions.

The island we stayed on was called Paradise -- optimistic, hubristic or just opportunistic? Although you can't entirely spoil the Caribbean, I would describe it as crassly commercial -- but you wouldn't get my youngest daughter to agree. Sun and sand really are her idea of bliss. She was born in the Caribbean, just after Christmas in fact, so perhaps the islands are embedded in the pleasure center of her brain. My ideas of paradise are rather different . . . and probably most closely resemble being in my own bed with a good book! Or, if I'm feeling more adventurous, perhaps I'd read that book at some city bookstore or café. While my gutsy children and their cousins swam with dolphins and parasailed, I tended to be on the sidelines holding the camera. Is it just a coincidence that the only picture of me on the camera is the one below?

My idea of "going native"
(The Bahamas are totally Americanized.)

Which brings me to the subject of New Year's resolutions!

During my frenzied spree of pre-holiday Christmas carding, I made haphazard contact with a college English professor -- who was loved, admired and feared by me (and many others) in equal measure. I sent her my blog URL, and she replied, "really, beedrunken?" by email. Is it just me, or is there a raised eyebrow, a withering tone, in that "really?"

I do realize that Bee Drunken gives off a whiff of the Girls Gone Wild for the uninitiated; ironic, really, as I am such a boringly teetotal sort of person. And yet, it has so much personal resonance for me. I need to remind myself, pretty much daily, to live my life with emotional intensity -- to not detach myself. My loner side and my more extroverted side war with each other every day, and so often that loner side wins.

Which brings me to the corollary and concrete aspect of my New Year's resolution: I resolve to return phone calls and emails more promptly and faithfully! Thus resolved, I have many Christmas thank-yous to dispatch . . . and bloggy friends to visit.