Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

62. Sarah's Key
by Tatiana de Rosnay
fiction, 2007
finished, 12/28/09

On Hallowe'en night some friends and Tom and I had an unusual evening. No, nothing eerie or scary. We went to visit our 'in-town' friends so we could see the little trick or treaters. In a while, two other couples came by and we all had dinner together. Eight adults who ate together for the first time ever without any of our children present. We remarked upon this fact quite often. As we were sitting around, a man asked Tom and I if we read. When we said yes, he began to rave about a book he and his wife had just read called Sarah's Key. The man said he couldn't put it down. Well, you gotta know this doesn't happen in my 'real' life very often. I have one friend with whom I talk books, but mostly that's it. Occasionally someone will mention a title, but for someone to love a book so much as this, well, I went right out and bought a copy.

Oh my gosh, I hated having to put it down to do other things in my life. It goes back and forth between 1942 and 2002 in France; a device I just love in books. We begin in 1942 with the dreaded banging on the door. A little girl and her mother are taken away. While they are packing up some things, the girl locks her younger brother in a secret cupboard, sure that she will be back soon to let him out. The father is hiding in the cellar when the police come. This sounds like other horror stories of the Nazi years, and it is, except for a startling fact. The men who come to get this Jewish family are not German, but French. One is the neighborhood policeman who used to pat the little girl on the head. Yes, the police are of course under German orders, but the cruelty they inflict upon their own fellow citizens makes them culpable in their own right.

In the next chapter, we meet forty-five year old American born Julia, who is married to a French man. They have an eleven year old daughter. The woman is a journalist and is going to do a story on what we now know as the Vélodrome d'Hiver roundup. On that awful day in July of 1942, thousands were taken away from their homes. She has never heard of the event. This may not be surprising because she is an American, but she finds people who went to school in France who never learned about it in school or from others. A sad, hidden secret.

Not only do the two stories alternate, they also interconnect, and there comes a point where the action stays in one period.

Some books are easier for me to write about than others. In a case like Sarah's Key, I really hate to give away the story. I knew nothing of this book except for our friend's enthusiasm, and I loved discovering the story for myself. If you want to know more details you can certainly find them at online bookstores or other blogs (though I haven't read about it anywhere yet). What I will say is that I was utterly in this book as I read it. I had to pull myself away to re-enter the world of my kitchen. I so rarely read something deemed as a 'bestseller' but I can see why this one is. I gave it to our daughter Margaret for Christmas, and she began and finished the book in a flash.

So, we have our friends, our daughter, its bestseller status, and now me. I can't imagine anyone not falling under the spell of this fantastic story. The event is true and the story is fictional, though the reader feels certain that it is real in many ways. The book is suspenseful and warm at the same time. We feel for the woman in the present day, as we feel for the young girl in 1942. Excellent book, that's all I can say.

Sarah's Key was great way to end a great year of reading. I won't do any favorites lists, other than the crime fiction one I did the other day. Mostly each and every book was my favorite while I was reading it; from Laurie Colwin to Henning Mankell. In general, I don't read books which I don't love. If I don't enjoy being within its pages, I put it aside and pick up another. Reading is my fondest pastime, which the dictionary tells us is:
an activity that someone does regularly for enjoyment rather than work.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Interesting article about Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell creates a 'female Wallander' following star's suicide
Grief-stricken author ends award-winning crime series after actress who played Wallander's daughter takes her own life

Paul Gallagher
The Observer, Sunday 27 December 2009

As a dysfunctional, divorced, middle-aged man with personal issues, Swedish detective Kurt Wallander has become a famous figure in crime fiction.

His creator, Henning Mankell, is about to introduce a female protagonist, caught up in an equally grim world of bizarre multiple murders, who may prove as popular as the portly figure who has captivated millions of readers worldwide. But Judge Birgitta Roslin might never have been created had a tragic, lonely death close to Mankell not forced him to adapt his award-winning formula.

Wallander first appeared in Sweden in 1991 in Faceless Killers, with the English translation arriving in 1997. Nine Wallander mysteries were written, set in bleak, flat farmland inhabited by few around the small town of Ystad in southern Sweden. Having introduced Wallander's daughter, Linda, early on as a supporting character, and later as a policewoman, played by Johanna Sällström in the Swedish TV series, the author decided to "retire" the male detective and embark on a natural progression.

In Mankell's imagination, Before the Frost, published in 2002, was to be the first in a projected three-part series where Linda would take centre stage. But in 2007, Sällström committed suicide. The 32-year-old was found alone by police at her Malmö home on 13 February 2007, shortly after being released from a psychiatric unit.

Depression, traced to her surviving the 2004 tsunami when she was on holiday in Thailand with her young daughter, Tallulah, was believed to be the cause, though no suicide note was found. Sällström had clung on to life that day by holding on to a tree with one hand and her three-year-old daughter with the other. The experience had a devastating effect.

After her death, Mankell was unable to write another novel with Linda, saying his grief and guilt were too great. The result was Birgitta Roslin, who has to endure the same sort of grim daily grind as Wallander. She plays the central role in The Man From Beijing, Mankell's latest novel, to be released in the UK in February.

Traditional Wallander themes are all present, with the opening chapter containing a crime as horrific as the one that first confronted Wallander in Faceless Killers: the victim of a savage murder is found in a sleepy hamlet buried in the snow. A crime unprecedented in Swedish history is uncovered, with 18 more victims found dead. Roslin reads about the massacre and realises she has a family connection to one of the couples and decides to investigate after disagreeing with the police's actions.

Although Mankell released a new Wallander book, The Worried Man, this year in Sweden – 10 years after the detective's last appearance and with an English translation expected by 2011 – the author has said it will be the final novel in the series. But British fans will only have to wait another week for a fix, with Kenneth Branagh returning on 3 January in the first of three new feature-length episodes based on Mankell's books. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My top ten crime fiction reads of 2009

Kerrie is asking for people's top ten favorite crime fiction reads of this year from which she will collate the books and come up with the best crime fiction reads of 2009.

These are the rules:

it is about crime fiction you've read in 2009. Year of publication doesn't matter.

about 10 titles in the format of title, author (no need for description etc).

any order will do. If you think one was so much better than the others, you might like to put it in your list twice.

You have until Jan 7 to do it.

You can help on your own blog by writing about what I am doing and pointing people to this post, so they can come here and contribute their list.

If you want your lists to be counted, you'll need to go to the site and leave them in the comments.

Here are my favorites in alphabetical order. The two I loved the very best are those by Henning Mankell.

Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear (sixth in Maisie Dobbs series)

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell (first in Wallander series)

Messenger of Truth by Jacqueline Winspear (fourth in the Maisie Dobbs series)

Ruling Passion by Reginald Hill (third in Dalziel & Pascoe series)

The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall (first in Vish Puri series)

The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan by Nancy Springer (fourth in Enola Holmes series)

The Cruellest Month by Hazel Holt (second in the Mrs. Malory series)

The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell (second in Wallander series)

The Skeleton in the Grass by Robert Barnard (stand-alone)

Valley of the Lost by Vicki Delany (second in Molly Smith series)

If you want to read my book reports, you may click the titles.

Monday, December 28, 2009

First line meme

This idea came to me from Melanie via Kate.

Once again, this fun meme is great for the end of the year. Take the first line of each month's post over the past year and see what it tells you about your blogging year.

I found it to be quite an interesting little exercise. It very clearly shows the sort of stuff I write about here. Poems, books, quotes, farm and garden life, my animals, and pictures, with a little music thrown in. Who would think that just the first post of each month could exemplify one's blog?

January: (from a poem) Another fresh new year is here...

February: (from a book report) I wonder if all of us who write about books on our blogs have our special favorite reviews.

March: (from a book report) I didn't keep all the books from when my kids were little, but I knew that I would want to read the Melendy family series again someday.

April: (talking about a singer) I'm admitting it to the world.

May: I wanted to pass along some information regarding my cat, just in case even one person is in a similar situation.

June: (from a poem) If I might see another Spring,

July: (from a today's picture)

August: (from a quote du jour) At the height of the Nazi blitz of London in 1940, special 'raid libraries' were set up at the reeking entrances to the underground shelters to supply, by popular demand, detective stories and nothing else.

September: (from a today's picture) You might ask, why on earth is she showing a dead tree?

October: (I included the title to make sense of the first line) Not a plague of locusts, but...
... of ladybugs.

November: (from a quote du jour) I like spring, but it is too young.

December: (from a book report on a Christmas book) I've often longed to spend Christmastime in England.

An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor

61. An Irish Country Doctor - first in the Irish Country series
by Patrick Taylor
fiction, 2007
library copy
unabridged audio cd, read by John Keating
finished, 12/23/09

After enjoying An Irish Country Christmas so much, I listened to the first in the series, An Irish Country Doctor, which chronicles the coming to Ballybucklebo of young Doctor Barry Laverty. I am completely smitten with these books, and am now listening to the second in the series. I love the characters, and how they connect to one another in the village. I find the medical treatments in this small place in the mid-1960s fascinating. And it is lovely watching this young doctor fall in love with the place and its people. And now, I'll let the author speak for himself.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Our Own Christmas Story

Bo Ling Chop Suey Palace as it appeared in A Christmas Story in 1983.

Yesterday Tom read some Christmas wishes online that went something like this: we wish you a happy day, whether you are celebrating around the tree or going out to a movie and then a Chinese restaurant. I thought, my gosh, we are going to be an alternative stereotype this day! Because, as I wrote, we celebrated around the tree on the 24th, so on the real Christmas day we went to the opening of Sherlock Holmes and ate out afterwards at our favorite Chinese restaurant. It wasn't this one, which was used in the movie A Christmas Story, but was our favorite local Chinese restaurant, where we walk in and they know us, and even know what we like to order. We went with friends and had just the best time. The restaurant was packed and the man who waited on us said it's like this every Christmas. Incidentally, I loved the movie. It doesn't hurt that it stars two of my favorites, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, as the great detective and Dr. Watson. All the trailers have shown lots of action, but there are also quieter, more contemplative parts. I have never enjoyed these characters as much as in this film. And Rachel McAdams was great as Irene Adler. You get to see London as it really must have been in those Victorian days. I could almost feel the air and smell the smells.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Snapshots

Because Margaret has to work on Christmas day, we celebrated our Christmas this evening. It was such a lovely time.

Are we watching a cheery Christmas movie? Nope. Michael gave us Jaws!

Christmas Eve day bookkeeping

I can't believe I'm beginning this today, but well, there you are. I've added a new bloglist called 'Mostly Books.' I am moving blogs which are 'mostly' about books from my 'Across' lists to that list. I'm going to do this gradually, when I have a few minutes at the computer.

Addendum: I decided to call it 'Bookish' instead; a word I'm very fond of.

If you find yourself listed there and don't feel you belong there, email me and let me know. If you do not find yourself there, and believe your blog is mostly about books, again, please get in touch.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Christmas poem

An old friend sent this poem on beautiful paper with holly leaves and berries on it as her Christmas card this year. I had never read it before but have since found it all over the internet, attributed to various authors. My friend had 'author unknown' so that's how I am posting it. It may not be a perfect piece of poetry, but I found the words very moving.

Author Unknown

I have a list of folks I know, all written in a book

And every year at Christmas time I go and take a look.

And that is when I realize that these names are all a part,

Not of the book they're written in, but of my very heart.

For each name stands for someone who has crossed my path sometime

And in that meeting they've become a rhythm in a rhyme.

And while it sounds fantastic for me to make this claim,

I really feel that I'm composed of each remembered name.

And while you may not be aware of any special link

Just meeting you has changed my life a lot more than you think.

For once I've met somebody, the years cannot erase

The memory of a pleasant word or of a friendly face.

So never think my Christmas cards are just a mere routine

Of names on a Christmas list forgotten in between.

For when I send a Christmas card that is addressed to you,

It's because you're on the list of those I am indebted to.

For I am the total of the many folks I have met

And you are one of those I prefer not to forget.

And whether I have known you for many years, or for few

In some way you have had a part in shaping things I do

And every year when Christmas comes, I realize anew.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Holiday

I love, love, love this movie. It is about four people, each with their own problems and imperfections, who find out who they really are and thus find true happiness during a Christmas holiday.

Cameron Diaz plays a movie trailer company owner in Los Angeles who has just found out her live-in boyfriend is cheating on her. She's mad, she throws things, she socks him, but she doesn't cry.

Kate Winslet plays a journalist in London who writes about weddings, and has been in a hopeless, three-year relationship with a co-worker. He has just announced his engagement to someone else who works in the same office.

Jude Law works in the book publishing business in London, and is involved in meaningless one-night stands.

Jack Black is a movie music writer who has a girlfriend of a few months.

How all these people come together and change one another's lives is the 'plot' of the film. The women do a house exchange for the Christmas holiday which is how Diaz and Law get together, and Winslet and Black become friends. Another very important, and inspired, character in this film is an old Hollywood screenwriter played by Eli Wallach. I don't think I've even seen him in a finer role. He is subdued and subtle and thoroughly loveable. He and the Kate Winslet character form a quick, yet firm and lasting friendship which emboldens both of them.

That's about all I want to say in case you haven't seen it. I wouldn't want to spoil this really wonderful story for you. I'll just add that I think I'm a little in love with Jack Black when he plays a calm, romantic character. Of course, I think he is superb in movies such as High Fidelity and The School of Rock but I think Hollywood should offer him more of these toned-down sorts of roles. And Jude Law is as beautiful as ever in this film, and his character such an appealing one. Kate Winslet is utterly wonderful in the role of a woman who just can't get herself out of this 'toxic, twisted' relationship. And Cameron Diaz hasn't cried since her parents broke up when she was a teen. You bring these personalities together, played by actors who truly make the characters come to life, and you've got a terrifically entertaining and enlightening movie.

Oh, and the Cotswolds' house is my perfect home. It was manufactured specially for the movie. The outside, the setting, and the rooms are my ideal. I pause the dvd just to look at the shelves and dishes and tables and lamps and books. I so love it.

A little PS:

There is one more thing I'd like to mention. There is a little homage to one of my all time favorite movies, A Man and A Woman. The writer, director, and producer Nancy Meyers offers a playful short scene with the Diaz and Law characters. There are no words spoken but he picks her up and swings her in his arms; she is wearing much the same coat as the Anouk Aimee character, and even has the same hairstyle.

Baked French Toast, recipe two

I made this yesterday for a breakfast-at-night supper, and it was fantastic.

Baked French Toast

Cut bread into 1-inch squares; enough to cover the bottom of a greased 9 x 13 pan.

Lightly beat 2 eggs, 3 Tablespoons sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla.
Stir in 2 1/4 cups milk.
Pour over bread, turning pieces to coat well.

At this point, you may stop, cover, and refrigerate over night, if you wish.

Preheat oven to 375º F.

Combine 1/2 cup flour, 6 Tablespoons sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional).
Cut in 1/4 cup butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Scatter 1 cup blueberries and/or strawberries (this time I used just strawberries) over the bread.
Sprinkle with the crumb mixture.

Bake about 40 minutes until golden brown.

I heated some maple syrup and poured it over the top. Out of this world delicious! You may see another 'Baked French Toast' in the recipes on the sidebar, but this one is a little different. I enjoy them both.

Three more days to sign up for the giveaway if you are interested!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Canine Christmas Cards

This is the card Margaret and her boyfriend sent out.
Lexi on the left, Piglet on the right.

This is the card we sent out. Ben on the left, Sadie on the right.

An Irish Country Christmas by Patrick Taylor

60. An Irish Country Christmas - third in the Irish Country series
by Patrick Taylor
fiction, 2008
library audio cd
unabridged, read by John Keating
finished, 12/15/09

Time is the oddest thing. As I listened to this really terrific story, I was reminded of when I first watched on PBS, and then read, the James Herriot stories. I thought to myself that this could be the same kind of heartwarming story for Northern Ireland as All Creatures was for Yorkshire. And then, (this is where time comes in) I realized that when I first learned of the Herriot books it was the 1970s and his tales are set in the 1930s. So, I was looking back forty years. And then I realized that this book is set in 1964; forty-five years ago. And the part that astounds me is that I was 16 years old then! Is this possible? I don't think so. I think it has to be some kind of trick time is playing on me.

I had never heard of Patrick Taylor's books until I happened to see this cd at the library. He is a very good writer, and this book is filled with details of the village, Ballybucklebo and its inhabitants, and the work of country doctors during this time. This one has a Christmas theme, with the younger vet, Barry Laverty disappointed that his girlfriend, Patricia may not be coming for Christmas. The older vet, Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly (named for Oscar Wilde), wonders if he can reconnect with a woman from his youth. The housekeeper in this book is Mrs. Kincaid, who takes care of the house and the meals, and the men, as well. A serious concern in An Irish Country Christmas is the arrival of a third doctor in the area. Are there enough people to support three doctors? And then they begin to hear of some very odd treatments the new doctor is offering. A woman nearly dies because he hasn't dealt properly with her situation. Though this is the third book in the series, I didn't find it hard to follow. I was completely charmed by the setting, the story, the Irish lilt in the excellent narration. I've now begun the first book in the series.

You may visit the author's website and read about the books, the area, the dialect.

Don't forget to sign up for the giveaway if you are interested!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Simply Corn Muffins

Not too long ago, I bought myself a new cookbook. I am a big fan of cornbread and corn muffins, and this book offers all the information I could ever want to know about them. And it is told in a cheery, fun manner. The author has a blog, and on her sidebar you may find out how she got her name, and a list of all her other books. She is the daughter of the children's author, Charlotte Zolotow.

This is the first recipe I made from the cookbook, and I will make it again and again. These were wonderful.

Simply Corn Muffins

1 cup unbleached white flour (I used half white, half whole wheat pastry)
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/4 cups buttermilk (I used regular whole milk)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs
1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar (I used 1/3 - why not?!)
1/3 cup melted butter

Preheat oven to 400º F.
Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray.
Combine the flour, cornmeal, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl, stirring well. Set aside.
Whisk together the buttermilk and baking soda in a medium bowl until the baking soda is dissolved.
Whisk in the eggs, sugar, and melted butter.
Stir the combined wet ingredients into the dry until the mixture is just barely combined.
Spoon into the prepared muffin tin.
Bake until golden brown, 15-20 minutes.

Don't forget to sign up for the giveaway if you are interested!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


On my blog anniversary, I wrote that there would be a giveaway at a 'less busy time of the year.' I decided not to wait because I thought it would be fun to offer during the holiday season.

So here's my idea! I would like to give a gift subscription to Bookmarks Magazine.

The only thing is that I cannot afford to offer it to my dear readers from Canada or across the oceans because the cost to the former is $10 more and the cost to the latter goes up $30! But, I have a way around that little problem. If the name drawn is from someone not in the US, then what I'll do is send you my copy when I finish with it. Yes, it will be a month or more late, but I don't think that will matter to the bookish among us.

Because there are six issues in a year's subscription, you have SIX days to leave a comment. On the day of the winter solstice, December 21, I shall draw the winning name. If this giveaway interests you, please leave a comment on any post on any day saying you would like the subscription. If you don't mention the giveaway, I'll assume you either already subscribe or that it doesn't appeal to you.

Again, the dates to leave a comment are December 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mrs. Malory and the Festival Murder by Hazel Holt

59. Mrs. Malory and the Festival Murder (British title - An Uncertain Death) - fourth in the Mrs. Malory series
by Hazel Holt
mystery, 1993
finished, 12/10/09

In this Mrs. Malory book, a thoroughly unpleasant man is killed, and everyone wonders how and why and whodunnit. But the mystery is the smallest part of these books for me. Here are some snatches from the Festival Murder that will give you an idea of this book, and a flavor of all the Mrs. Malory books.

The high-spot of any stay in a hotel for me is the Full English Breakfast. At home I rarely have more than a slice of toast and a cup of tea, but when I'm away I always go the whole hog. This particular morning my plate was deliciously full of bacon, egg, tomatoes, mushrooms, black pudding, and fried bread and I sat and contemplated it with satisfaction.

Time passed quickly, as it always does in the summer months - it's extraordinary how slowly time passes in the winter...

In the taxi going to Paddington, though, I realized that I had done it again. I'm always very early for everything, not just punctual, but very early indeed. It is something I have passed on to Michael [her son], something, he maintains, that has shortened his life. "The time I spend waiting about, Ma," he says, "I could have not just read War and Peace - I could have written it!"

No one can be lonely with a houseful of animals.

... I stuffed clothes into the machine, secure in the knowledge that I could now say to myself that I had Done the Washing (this is a form of conscience-salving every woman is familiar with) and could now go out and potter round the shops.

Though these mysteries would definitely be categorized as cozy, they are not simple. They are very well-written. The people are complex. The crimes are not pretty, though they do happen, as they say, 'off-screen.' They are all one could wish for in an English village mystery.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Quote du jour/Virginia Woolf

Secondhand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.
Virginia Woolf

Friday, December 11, 2009

Cornflake Cookies

Cornflake Cookies

Beat together well:

1 cup soft butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla

In a separate bowl, mix:

1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Gradually add dry ingredients to butter mix.

Stir in 1 1/2 cups cornflakes.

Add 1/2 cup nuts, if desired (I didn't).

Drop onto greased cookie sheet about two inches apart (cookies will spread).

Bake in preheated 350º F. oven for 12-15 minutes.
Makes around 30 cookies, depending on size.

This is a first-time recipe for me, and I loved the cookies. They are quite chewy so if you don't like that quality, you could probably crush the cornflakes before adding them to the batter.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas Remembered by Tomie dePaola

58. Christmas Remembered
by Tomie dePaola
nonfiction, 2006
second reading
finished, 12/4/09

I discovered Tomie dePaola when my children were little. We spent wonderful hours reading together and I marveled over both his stories and his artistic genius, but what struck me most in each of his books was his heart. The man has a heart as big as the sky and it comes through in his characters, his stories, and his illustrations.

It just so happens that Tom's parents live in the same town as Mr. dePaola, and are acquaintances. One year they went together on a group tour to Provence. That same year, Tom's parents gave us his then new book, Christmas Remembered.

Christmas Remembered gives the reader a deeper, more grown-up appreciation of Tomie dePaola. The concept is fascinating, and one I've not read before: he reminisces about various Christmases in his 'seventy-plus years.' Each chapter covers a different Christmas season. One of my early favorites is the year he got art supplies. He was eleven, and had been saying since he was four that he was going to be an artist when he grew up. 'Everyone had believed me.'

I loved reading about Tomie dePaola's childhood in Meriden, Connecticut. He grew up in a happy family with a brother and two sisters. I had a feeling of a time gone forever as I read the stories of his young life. There was a local candy store where he worked one Christmas season. There was a 'Christmas sing' at the high school. The school chorus went caroling around the city. His parents, Flossie and Joe had an 'open house' every Christmas Eve.

All the neighbors came, as well as my parents' friends and family from all over Meriden and Wallingford. The drinks were served in the half of the basement my father had fixed up with booths and a genuine bar. "Just like a real nightclub, Floss and Joe," everyone said.

One Christmas he writes about was the first one they had a television set, and all the people they knew, and many they didn't, showed up to watch the Joe Lewis/Jersey Joe Walcott fight, live from Madison Square Garden.

His first Christmas away from home, he went shopping in New York City, and got his mother a handmade silver heart pin.

I guess that was the very beginning of my love of the heart as a personal trademark.

If you look carefully, you'll most often find a small one in each of his paintings.

I don't really have a favorite among all his Christmas memories, but I do love one that he spent at Weston Priory in Vermont. At twenty-two years old, he was a Benedictine novice, and was part of a little miracle that happened there.

His Christmas in New Mexico was very different from anything I've ever known, and so, so lovely with poinsettias everywhere, and its tradition of Las Posadas, a walk around the Plaza in Santa Fe in which Mary and Joseph look for a place 'where the Child could be born.'

This is a really special book, and has become one of my Christmas favorites. I've said it is more for adults than children, but the author says at the start:

I have tried to be as honest as I could with everything in this book, including the holiday eating and drinking in my family, but if you want to read this to your children, grandchildren, or your classes, feel free to "edit" or omit the drinking spots.
Coming from an Irish-Italian family, we always had "spirits' in our hearts, our life, and in our glasses.
As Hilaire Belloc said, "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There's always laughter and good red wine. At least I've always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!"

Bringing in the tree

For a long time after we moved to this country home, we trekked out into our woods in search of a Christmas tree. Every time, we came back with a 'Charlie Brown Christmas tree' - a tree with branches few and far between that drooped when we put ornaments on them. One year I said, this is it. I want a Christmas tree that is thick with branches, and ever since we have bought our tree from a local tree farm. Usually we just get them off the lot, but this year Tom went out and cut one down so it would be fresher and not drop its needles so quickly. The smell in the house is amazing. We always, always get a balsam fir. Isn't this the essence of Christmas in a way? We always put the tree in the same place. We always use the same kind of lights. We always bake the same kind of cookies. There is something so reassuring that come December, we can count on something being the same year after year. This is why the season is so sad for those who have had a serious change in their lives. The first Christmas after my father died, my mother put up white lights outside instead of colorful ones, and it nearly broke my heart: both the change and what it represented. Tom was just telling me last night that he remembers a Christmas coming home from college, and being so disappointed to find all new lights on the tree. I sometimes dream of just white lights or even no decorations and leaving the tree as it is in its simple beauty. But, no. Not at this stage of my life. I still want the comfort of the familiar, the timeless.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Ties of Christmas

For my contribution to the 2009 Virtual Advent Tour I decided to spotlight Tom's Christmas ties. He is a 7th and 8th grade English teacher, and his ties are always a great source of interest in the classroom.

The Christmas tree tie in the middle belonged to Tom's late grandfather. You may see above that it is shorter than the others. They must have worn them that way in his day.

This is the tag on the back of the tie.

Alfred E. Newman from Mad Magazine, one of Tom's favorites when he was a kid.

The ties run the gamut from a sedate blue one of Christmas presents wrapped in white ribbons to a wild Santa and reindeer and penguins(??).

I'm quite fond of the multi-Santa tie, and the musical instruments with red bows.

The twelve days of Christmas was a gift from Tom's aunt. I love this one.

And then, the queen of the ties is this one made for Tom by one of his students years ago. This girl was only 13 or 14 then, and she must have spent hours on all that beadwork. She is now a teacher herself, and still creates art.

Remember the fun of opening a window or door each day on an Advent calendar? Well, reading the daily entries on the Virtual Advent Tour is a bit like that. And just as the calendars vary greatly in their design, so do each of the Advent writings. Some are remembrances, some are recipes, some are music. I have found the site to be a lovely way to begin each day during this Advent season.

Monday, December 7, 2009

And now they're all gone

Liam Clancy died on Friday.

This has long been my favorite Makem & Clancy song. May all the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem be singing together again in Heaven.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Rumpole Christmas by John Mortimer

57. A Rumpole Christmas
by John Mortimer
fiction, 2009
finished, 12/2/09

What a pleasure for fans of the late John Mortimer to have this collection of Rumpole Christmas stories. I don't know if the author planned for their publication or if someone else decided to compile the themed tales for this first Christmas after Mr. Mortimer's death. They were published in various places between 1997 and 2007. The titles are:

Rumpole and Father Christmas
Rumpole's Slimmed-Down Christmas
Rumpole and the Boy
Rumpole and the Old Familiar Faces
Rumpole and the Christmas Break

Horace Rumpole is such a wonderful character. He is very much a 'what you see is what you get' sort of person. He doesn't change. He's who he is. He sees the worst side of people, and often is the man defending them in court, yet he is still cheerful, and gets great satisfaction from his simple pleasures: his wine -

I filled our glasses with Château Thames Embankment. His Lordship drank and pulled a face. "I say, this is a pretty poor vintage, isn't it?'
"Terrible," I told him. "There is some impoverished area of France, a vineyard perhaps, situated between the pissoir [look it up!] and the barren mountain slopes, where the Château Thames Embankment grape struggles for existence. Its advantages are that it is cheap and it can reconcile you to the troubles of life and even, in desperate times, make you moderately drunk.

his Christmas celebration -

Christmas was not usually much of a "do" in the Rumpole household. There is the usual exchange of presents; I get a tie and Hilda receives the statutory bottle of lavender water, which seems to be for laying down rather than immediate use. She cooks the turkey and I open the Château Thames Embankment, and so our Saviour's birth is celebrated.

and his food -

... bacon and eggs with sausage and fried slice

He is one of those rarities: a happy, contented man who doesn't think about his life. He simply lives it.

I'd read only one of the stories before, but really I can read any Rumpole story or book over and over again and receive the same deep pleasure every time. I love the character as if he were a real person. From what I've read about John Mortimer, he was a bit like Rumpole himself: a man who was who he was. A man with warts he didn't try to hide. A man who loved life. As his daughter, Emily Mortimer wrote:

He had caused plenty of trouble in his life, but he died wishing he could have made some more. Morally, my dad was at best naughty, at worst selfish and in his own words 'greedy.' If he were ever to have been psychoanalysed, it would have been decided that he had all sorts of hang-ups and 'issues.' But as it was, he got away with it. He was always being let off the hook, for the simple reason that he was the best company in the world. People who live life like there's no tomorrow are famously good company. But the ones who are also bright, funny, kind and original are just plain killer.

May John Mortimer rest in peace, but still be having a good time wherever he is now.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Kay's Fudge Cake

The batter
The finished product

Tom's birthday is in a couple days, and we are celebrating this evening at the home of Margaret's boyfriend. I've had this recipe for eight years. It came from my friend Kay, so I call it:

Kay's Fudge Cake

Melt one cup of butter.
Add 1/4 cup cocoa and 6 Tablespoons water.
Stir well.

Pour over a mixture of 2 cups flour and 2 cups sugar.
Add 1/2 cup milk.
Add 2 lightly beaten eggs.
Add 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon cinnamon.

Beat well for a few minutes until very smooth.

Bake in greased 9 x 13 pan in preheated 350º oven for 25 minutes.

5 minutes before the cake is done:
Melt 1/2 cup butter.
Add 1/4 cup cocoa, about 3 cups confectioners sugar, 6 Tablespoons milk, and 1 teaspoon vanilla.
Mix well and pour over cake right out of the oven.

This is a wonderful chocolate cake!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie

56. Hercule Poirot's Christmas
by Agatha Christie
mystery, 1939
finished, 11/29/09

I wonder how many people open an Agatha Christie book for the first time expecting a light, cozy, uncomplicated little mystery. I think I used to view her work that way. I've read enough now to know this isn't so, yet each time I begin a new one I am surprised at the depth of human emotions she portrays, and how she doesn't shy away from complex individuals and situations. Hercule Poirot often is the only touch of humor and warmth in the stories in which he is the sleuth. Here is an example:

"Nothing like a wood fire," said Colonel Johnson as he threw on an additional log and then drew his chair nearer to the blaze. ... Cautiously he [Poirot] edged his own chair nearer to the blazing logs, though he was of the opinion that the opportunity for roasting the soles of one's feet (like some medieval torture) did not offset the cold draught that swirled round the back of the shoulders.

Colonel Johnson, Chief Constable of Middleshire, might be of the opinion that nothing could beat a wood fire, but Hercule Poirot was of the opinion that central heating could and did every time!

In Hercule Poirot's Christmas, also published as Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder, we are in a country house with a heavy atmosphere of tension and pain. Simeon Lee is a widower with many children. Some are estranged, some are the children of his late wife and some are the children of other women. One lives at home with his wife. He is the dutiful, uncomplaining son and his father treats him poorly. It hurts his wife immensely to see the way her husband takes this punishment. Not all the sons do so, however. One left after his mother died because he hated his father for the way he treated her. Another son roams the world on money given to him by the father. And the other son is a politician. After years and years of not being under the same roof, the father invites them all for Christmas. In addition to the men and their wives, Lee invites his late daughter's child, a young woman he has never met. And a young man turns up at the door, the son of Lee's former partner from his days in South Africa in the diamond trade.

Well, you put all these people together with their various resentments and hatreds and you just know there will be a murder. The father is killed; 'throat cut like a pig. He bled to death in less than a minute.' It is up to Hercule Poirot, who just happens to be visiting a local policeman, to solve the mystery. This is a particularly interesting story which kept me guessing right up until the surprise ending. Another great book by Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie, A Reader's Companion by Vanessa Wagstaff & Stephen Poole offers a picture of the terrific first edition cover, with the words:

The striking first-edition jacket of Hercule Poirot's Christmas with a bright red cover gruesomely suggestive of blood.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Christmas is Murder by C.S. Challinor

55. Christmas is Murder - first in the Rex Graves series
by C.S. Challinor
mystery, 2008
finished, 11/26/09

I've often longed to spend Christmastime in England. And what could be better than an old country house which has been turned into a hotel? And a snowstorm that keeps the guests inside by the cozy fire with a library full of books? Ah, a dream come true. Except if the other guests start dying off (and not in the same way). And because of the snow the bodies must stay in the house. And the worry that you might be next.

This is the story in Christmas is Murder, a first mystery with Reginald (Rex) Graves who is a Scottish barrister. He happens to be invited to the house for Christmas because the owner is an old friend of his mother's. He spent some time here in his childhood. It was a wonderful home in those days, but since then it has had to be turned into a hotel because the husband died. The mother is in mourning for her son, a soldier who died in Iraq. She resents being a hotel owner, and has no sign out front. The only guests must be invited by her. I suppose that way it feels less like an ordinary place where any old person can put down their money and have a room for the night.

This book offers one of my favorite features of a mystery story: a list of characters right at the beginning so the reader can go back and see who's who.
According to the author's website, there are two books following this one. I look forward to them. I want to know more about Mr. Graves, and I want to find out if he is still in touch with a certain woman he meets in this book. He's a quiet, kindly man who drives a Mini Cooper (Les!) and smokes a pipe, and is a wonderful new addition to the mystery genre.