Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

On Southern Food

I made three different pies for Thanksgiving this year. All were edible, but one was outstanding: the sweet potato buttermilk pie from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. This pie was lighter and fluffier than the traditional pumpkin custard. It had a creamy texture, a bright tangerine color, and a sprightly, refreshing flavor: perfect after a big meal.

I went to college in a southern city, where I experienced, for the first time, the glories of southern cuisine: sweet tea, sausage gumbo, country ham, and biscuits. Oh, the biscuits.

And the desserts. Truly, the homemade peach ice cream I had on a humid summer day twenty years ago may still be the most delicious thing I've ever eaten.

This book, from South Carolina-raised Matt and Ted Lee, is a joy for anyone who loves southern food. Recipes for cheese grits, Brunswick stew, barbecued pork shoulder and boiled peanut sorghum ice cream made my mouth water (though I haven't actually cooked any of them yet: hey, I've been busy).

Admittedly, some of the ingredients might be a challenge to find (sorghum is not stocked at my supermarket). But look at this introduction to a recipe for oyster shooters:

"At our house, the first thing we serve to guests is a drink, and the second, just moments after the drink, is an oyster shooter, a hot/sour/salty/sweet cocktail in a shot glass, composed around a raw oyster ... They're terrific icebreakers: they bring everyone in a room together for a collective flavor adventure."

Now there's a Southern tradition tailor-made for an Oregon party.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Building a house?


Here are links to some of the titles:

A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander
Black and Decker Guide to Plumbing
Framing floors, walls and ceilings, by Taunton Press
Drywall: Hanging and Taping, A Fine Homebuilding DVD

Music in the Wind

I remember finding a dime on the sidewalk, walking to the corner market, and buying candy. A nickel would buy a chocolate bar, a pack of gum, or a box of candy—I especially liked Bit-O Honey, Milk Duds, and Hershey bars. Anticipating what to pick was almost as much fun as eating it!

A similar thrill of anticipation surges through me when I log in to Freegal, the music database offered by the library. I can download three free songs a week, and oh, it can be so fun deciding which ones to select! To get to Freegal, go to our library’s homepage, and click on the icon for Freegal.

As a person who likes things neat and logical, I have to admit, Freegal could use a few good librarians to bring order to their site. I like to search by genre, but if you click on the link to “See All” genres, the chaotic organization of the site becomes evident. There are headings for Alternative, Alternative Rock, Alternative/Indie, and Alternative/Punk. There is a heading for Comedy and one for Comedy/Humor. I tend to browse mostly in Folk, Rock, and Classical.

The other day I made a list of songs I would like to download, and realized most of them were wistful tunes from my teen years. “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas, “El Paso” by Marty Robbins, and “Darling Be Home Soon” by The Lovin’ Spoonful. I would probably never buy the CDs these songs are on, but I’m so thrilled to be able to add them to my music collection (for free!) and enjoy the occasional flashback to a simpler time of life.

Just so you don’t think the site is only for Baby Boomers, I saw many of the band names my daughter grew up with, such as Pearl Jam, NOFX, and Crash Test Dummies. Freegal also has Broadway tunes for aficionados of musicals, though I found if you want the songs from Jesus Christ Superstar, don’t expect to find them under Andrew Lloyd Webber. That’s another cataloging problem I wish I could fix! For those songs, you have to search by the name of the album or the individual songs.

When I was growing up, people tsk-tsked over the names of bands: Led Zepplin, Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company; I even remember a radio host making fun of the Beatles coming to town, implying that they were insects. It just goes to show you can’t judge a band by its name. Some of the band names I found on Freegle seem even more bizarre to me: Ominous Seapods, Salt the Wound, and Made Out of Babies. Maybe I’ll like some of their music, or maybe not. But it will be fun exploring, and while I’m at it, I think I’ll go get a Tootsie Roll pop.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Class Action

In the mid-1970s, the mines of the Iron Range in northern Minnesota were compelled by the federal government to start employing women. Lois Jenson was one of the first four women to be hired by Eveleth Taconite Company in 1975. Her very first day, hostile glares and unfriendly comments from her male co-workers made sure she knew she was not welcome.

Class Action: the Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law describes the years of systematic, endless sexual harassment endured by the women of Eveleth Mines. There was no recourse for the women from either the company's management or from their union.

Interestingly, as the years went by and women workers became common at Eveleth, the harassment did not die down; rather, it escalated. Crude comments, humiliating pranks, and obscene graffiti became stalking, housebreaking, groping, violent assault, demands for sex, rape threats, and death threats. A few of the events are far too disgusting to be described here.

I also think it's interesting that the women of the mine did not band together, share their experiences, and gather strength from each other. They endured stoically and in silence, rarely confiding in one another; and when one of them finally demanded justice, many of the others turned against her.

Lois Jenson put up with this treatment for nearly ten years, until a manager with a sexual obsession with her (expressed in dozens of long, creepy letters) had her transferred to his department: he became her direct supervisor. She balked, showing the letters to the union and to the mine's management. They did not help her. Finally, she called a lawyer - but Jenson's ordeal was just beginning. The case that became Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. dragged on for years.

Class Action doesn't just tell the tale of Jenson and the other women at Eveleth; it also examines the cultural influences that went into the situation, from the isolated and harsh environment of northern Minnesota; to the intense union pride felt by most of the miners, including the women; to the Anita Hill hearings, which took place during the case.

I haven't seen the movie North Country, which is based on the case; but I recommend the book. It's a fascinating story.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Ever felt skeptical about common parenting wisdom? Ever wonder if the underlying beliefs that guide your parenting decisions may someday seem as outdated as "spare the rod, spoil the child" or "children are to be seen and not heard"? Nurture Shock reviews the current literature of child development and summarizes what we really know versus what we think we know about a variety of issues. “Rather than new truths arriving on the wings of a single experiment, they have come at a crawl, over a decade, from various studies replicating and refining prior ones,” the authors point out in the preface.

The book is divided into chapters on a variety of topics. “The Inverse Power of Praise” talks about the overuse of praise. Children sincerely praised for hard work will continue to work hard; children constantly told they are smart may start avoiding challenges because they are so afraid of making mistakes and seeming ‘stupid.’ “The Lost Hour” discusses continued findings about the long-term importance of plentiful sleep for children and teens. Chronic under-sleeping can lead to poor brain development. “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” discusses how strange racial misconceptions form in the minds of kids when they’re very young, when many parents think it’s too early to talk about race. “Why Kids Lie” discusses experiments that show kids generally lie to make their parents happy, and parents’ efforts to prevent lying often backfire.

Nurture Shock covers ten topics in all, each one fascinating. The authors have previously written well-received articles for New York Magazine and Time. Their writing is pleasantly leavened with humor and a few personal anecdotes, no longer the dry, jargon-filled research from whence their information came.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How are books like potato chips?

If the books are the eight titles in Armistead Maupin's picaresque Tales of The City series, it's because they're downright addictive. No way can you stop at just one. Especially since the author has just published the last (?) in the series, Mary Ann in Autumn.

Tales of the City was first serialized in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle in 1978. It follows the adventures, amorous and otherwise, of the residents of a boarding house at 28 Barbary Lane in the City by the Bay. The characters are a patch-work crazy quilt and the series a fitting paean to the exuberance and diversity of the city in its “flower power” heyday. Naive Midwesterner Mary Ann, the sentimental Michael, aka “Mouse,” the blunt and caustic Mona, and the bewitching crone and landlady leader of the troop, Anna Madrigal, come together and become family over the eight titles and 30 years of births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and sexual realignment surgeries.

Tales of the City is a great read for those long, dark winter nights to come. The wind may be howling, the lights flickering, and the rain falling horizontally in sheets, but isn’t it nice to know you can curl up with a good book, or eight, tear into them and not gain any weight?

And you can reserve the first in the series, Tales of the City, here.

The U.K.'s Channel 4 and Showtime also produced a television mini-series, with the incomparable Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal. And you can reserve the first installment here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Voyage of the oh, I don't think so

I am not a curmudgeon. I've loved movies based on beloved books. I've even found movies that improved upon their base material (good riddance, Tom Bombadil).

But when it comes to the latest Chronicles of Narnia movie, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? No, no, a thousand times no.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis is not an action-packed adventure. It's full of incident, but it is a quiet book, a shining string of thoughtful wonders and Christian symbolism (quite mysterious to secular-humanist young me). It's a book that you cannot make work on film without making either a very thoughtful quiet movie, or distorting its very essence.

Take this passage, which I have abridged for length:

The first thing she noticed was a little black object, about the size of a shoe, travelling along at the same speed as the ship. Then the black thing suddenly got very much bigger and flicked back to normal size a moment later. "It's our shadow!-the shadow of the Dawn Treader," said Lucy. "Our shadow running along on the bottom of the sea. That time when it got bigger it went over a hill. But in that case, the water must be clearer than I thought! Good gracious, I must be seeing the bottom of the sea, fathoms and fathoms down."

As soon as she had said this she realised that the great silvery expanse which she had been seeing (without noticing) was really the sand on the sea-bed and that all sorts of darker or brighter patches were not lights and shadows on the surface but real things on the bottom. At present, for instance, they were passing over a mass of soft purply green with a broad, winding strip of pale grey in the middle of it. But now that she knew it was on the bottom she saw it much better. She could see that bits of the dark stuff were much higher than other bits and were waving gently. "Just like trees in a wind," said Lucy. "And I do believe that's what they are. If I were down there, that streak would be just like a road through that wood."

It goes on like this, with Lucy realizing that the sea-bed is another world, where dwell hunters and herders and great lords and ladies, and if you want to know more, you'd better get the book, because I suspect that this beautiful image of surface and depth is not going to make it into the movie.

This is the great problem with all the Narnia films. C.S. Lewis wrote simply but clearly, evoking things that come to life in the mind's eye, but that must inevitably lose all their power when deployed upon the screen. In my imagination, I can conjure a majestic Lion, the highest of all High Kings, both terrifying and compassionate. But show me a CGI lion, whose lips move and Liam Neeson's voice comes out? No.

My relationship with the works of Lewis is uneasy. Sometime in my teens I became aware that the books I had adored contained hitherto-undetected religious content. I had always understood the moral implications of the books; but the idea that Lewis had been preaching to me felt like a betrayal. When I returned to the books as an adult, I was struck by still more problems. The books are laden with unpalatable assumptions about class and race; and let us avert our eyes from the fate of poor Susan. Yet I was again seduced by Lewis' invention, his luminous prose, his power as a storyteller.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my favorite of the Narnia books. If it's been a long time since you read it (or if, unthinkably, you never have) I urge you to pick it up. In spite of everything, it still shines; it really does.

Friday, November 12, 2010

My Teenage Werewolf

Lauren Kessler, best known locally for being the author of last year's Newport Reads (and Oregon Reads) book, Stubborn Twig, has a new book out titled My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence. It chronicles Kessler’s study of and relationship with her daughter during a year and a half of middle school in Eugene, Oregon.

My first reaction-- OMG, this lady’s teenage daughter literally allowed herself to be followed around school, and EVERYWHERE! to be, like analyzed and stuff. Who would DO that?!!

So, apparently, I haven’t matured much since middle school. But to me, that’s still the most amazing part of the book. (Perhaps I would have felt differently as a teenager if my mother were an award-winning author of creative nonfiction.) In any case, Kessler’s daughter Lizzie did participate in her mother’s effort to find out what the life of a middle school girl is really like, and according to Kessler, it was a positive experience. Lizzie appreciated being the center of attention, and Kessler was able to use that as a bridge to greater understanding.

Kessler supplemented this field research with as much information as she could absorb about teen brain development, social development, and psychology, via reading and speaking with experts. The book does not have a bibliography, but some specific resources are mentioned throughout.

Parents of teen-, tween-, and pre-tween- girls may find this book informative and comforting, as Kessler weathers the ups and downs of middle school with her daughter, including mood swings, unstable friends, internet obsession, exposure to drugs, and almost daily mother-daughter fights. Parents of boys may not find it very pertinent; the book focuses heavily on specifically female issues like the multigenerational mother/daughter experience and media influence on female body image. Kessler says her two boys made it through the brain development, hormonal fluctuations, and physical and social stresses of adolescence with much less melodrama than her daughter, and leaves it at that.

The concept of going back and experiencing the day-to-day environment of school as an adult in order to better understand our kids is a worthwhile one to think about. Our own recollections, whether nostalgic or nightmarish, are colored by whatever developmental stages and childhood events were going on in our lives at the time. What our kids experience may be very different, and may explain some of their behaviors and attitudes outside of school. Read My Teenage Werewolf, and think about it.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Shameful confession of a library professional

Recently Linda Holmes, a cultural blogger for NPR, admitted that she'd never realized that Flash Gordon and The Flash were two completely different superheroes. She was embarrassed. But you know, those are (admittedly venerable and well-known) comic book characters. Holmes isn't a comic book reader, so it's not really a big deal.

On the other hand, I am a book person. I organize, handle, think and talk and write about books all day long for a living. So I was horrified to discover I didn't know something that I thought I knew.

I didn't know that Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler were two different people until quite recently.


Here are brief summaries of the two well-known, critically-acclaimed authors I thought were the same person:

Raymond Carver: poet, essayist, and short-story writer; one of the Pacific Northwest's most revered men of letters. He was born in Clatskanie, Oregon in 1938 and grew up in the Pacific Northwest. The son of blue-collar workers, his stories, collected in such volumes as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Where I'm Calling From, are filled with empathy for hard-working people and their experience of isolation and loss. Carver died of cancer at age 50.

Sample: He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he'd worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn't a florist. It was better to be feeding people.
From "A Small Good Thing" by Raymond Carver, 1983.

Raymond Chandler: one of the seminal influences on American crime fiction. Born 1888 in Chicago, he didn't begin writing full-time until age 45, when he began publishing stories in such pulp magazines as Black Mask and Dime Detective. Novels like The Big Sleep and The High Window depict corruption and murder in machine-gun prose; they also established him a great portrayer of the city of Los Angeles. He died in 1959 in La Jolla, California.

Sample: "I didn’t ask to see you. You sent for me. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a Scotch bottle. I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me."
From The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, 1939.

After my horrified realization that I had conflated these two authors, I spent an agonizing period of time combing my memory for occasions when I might have mixed them up on the job. Did I ever give a Carver book to a Chandler reader? Or had a patron ever asked me where the Carver books were, and I breezily directed him to the mystery section where the Chandler books are?

I don't think so. But if I did, I'm sorry.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Writing Away . . .

My reading has slowed down a lot this month, as I continue hacking away at the keyboard for Nanowrimo, the National Novel Writing Month challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. (I passed the 10,000 word mark last night, but please don’t ask me if all those words actually make any sense!) However, in the spirit of the month, I thought I’d do a quick blog about one of my favorite how-to-write books.

Creative writing is a tricky subject to teach. You can discuss the mechanics of writing all day, but for every rule there’s a writer who ignored it and created something new and wonderful. Great writers develop their own unique voice, drawing on their imagination, experience, and personal quirks to generate meaning and content beyond mere words. In short, writing is not a “by the book” endeavor.

With that said—here’s a book on writing that I have found useful. Elizabeth George is the author of the wildly popular and award-winning Inspector Lynley series, now available as a BBC TV show (which the library also circulates). She’s an American who convincingly writes richly-plotted character-driven British mysteries. George doesn’t worry about the metaphysical stuff—she seems to have a “count your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves” philosophy of writing.

Write Away: One Writer’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life elucidates George’s writing process, explaining not only the how but also the why of things. She’s a mapper and a planner, and goes into detail about how she lays things out ahead of time. The book has been helpful to me largely because I tend to get hung up on the mystique of writing, and George showed me that a successful, accomplished writer isn’t necessarily working magic on her keyboard. If she is, it’s the kind of magic that comes after long applications of deep thought and elbow grease. So, all you Nanowrimo-er's and other aspiring writers looking for some solid ideas on expanding your project, George's book may be worth a look.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

When your best friend is a different species

In her book For the Love of A Dog, Patricia McConnell describes the reaction of her farm dog, Tulip, to the death of a sheep:

"She lay down beside the body. She placed her big, white muzzle on her paws, sighed once - a long, slow exhalation ... and then refused to move. I don't remember how long Tulip lay beside Harriet, but she wouldn't leave her voluntarily. Finally, as darkness softened the sky, I took her by the collar and walked her back to the house."

Most dog owners, seeing this reaction, would believe that their dog was experiencing grief. McConnell, who has a Ph.D. in biology and is a certified animal behaviorist, admits that she has observed Tulip display exactly the same behavior, the same soulful expression, while lying next to a chew toy.

The subtitle of her book is Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend. In it, McConnell discusses the changes in brain chemistry that accompany emotional reactions in both humans and dogs. She describes the visual cues that dogs give to communicate their emotions: the flick of a tongue that indicates nervousness; the round-eyed, sideways glance that shows true fear and might precede a flashing bite. She talks about the way observant dog-owners can learn to better understand their dogs.

However, as the anecdote about Tulip shows, sometimes it is simply not possible understand what our dogs are feeling. My own dog recently gave me a reason to remember that lesson.

This is Lalo. I took this picture a few summers ago, holding a tennis ball above my head to capture his eager expression. Nowadays when I hold a ball, Lalo looks just the same; it's hardly noticeable that he's not focusing on the ball. Lalo is almost totally blind.

I realized he was blind when, on a walk, he lost me. I was standing in daylight on an open expanse of lawn, and Lalo could not find me until I made a noise. The vet confirmed that very little light was getting through Lalo's cloudy eyes - and probably hadn't for at least a year. How had I been unaware of this for so long? I walk him and play with him every day, and I had never noticed.

Undoubtedly Lalo compensates for the loss of his eyesight extremely well. Is it actually unimportant to him? Or does his blindness make him feel anxious or vulnerable? Is he aware of what he has lost? If I think so, am I anthropomorphizing him?

The truth is, I'll never know.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Christine Falls is just another dead body, until Quirke’s brother-in-law Malachy is discovered tampering with her file. As the medical examiner, Quirke takes some offense, and sets about rather drunkenly poking his lugubrious nose into Malachy’s affairs. As it happens, it’s much more complicated than the kind of ‘affair’ he suspects. Quirke follows the trail from Dublin to Boston, where he learns things about his family and his own past that he’s not sure he can face. This 1950’s mystery is notable for its dry wit and dark tone, although Quirke’s family relationships and love triangles are twisty enough to confuse the issues, and Quirke’s clinical depression can be wearying.

Benjamin Black is a pseudonym for John Banville, who is better known as an award-winning literary author of such novels as The Sea and Doctor Copernicus. As Black, he’s slumming it a little in the field of crime noir; apparently he writes thousands of words per day when working on his crime novels and only about a hundred per day on his literary gems (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Banville.) Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book enough to check out the sequel, The Silver Swan, and if you like crime noir or Irish mysteries, you may as well.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Karbon Karma

In 2015, Great Britain issues each citizen a "Carbon Card" to limit energy use. Laura Brown begins her diary on January 1 to document life in light of the new restrictions.  She is a normal teen; she hates her sister, Kim, is embarrassed by her parents, has a crush on the cute boy next door, and plays guitar for an eco-punk band called "The Dirty Angels."  As the reality of rationing starts to affect her daily routine, she vents in her diary. Showers are down to 5 minutes a day, computer use is restricted, and driving is no longer an option. Laura's father loses his job as a Travel and Tourism instructor and sinks into alcoholic despair, her mother leaves to work in a women's collective, and Kim is sent to Carbon Offenders Boot Camp.

Conditions spiral downward as weather patterns change because of global warming, and England experiences a drought, then a catastrophic flooding and cholera. Laura's diary entries gradually shift from complaining about her parents and teachers, to becoming involved in the fight for survival. The Carbon Diaries 2015, by
Saci Lloyd, is often laugh-out-loud funny, in spite of the hardships, and never predictable. I look forward to reading the sequel, The Carbon Diaries 2017!