Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Book Travels - March 2009

My March reading began in New York City with Elizabeth Enright's Melendy family, and went on to Trenton Lee Stewart's fictional Stonetown Harbor area. Then I traveled across the Atlantic to London and Kent for two visits with Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs; and stayed in England with Hazel Holt's Mrs. Malory in Oxford, and with Raffaella Barker's characters in Norfolk. Then I came back to stay with the Melendys again, this time in their country house outside of New York City. I ended the month in British Columbia, Canada with Vicki Delany's Molly Smith.

This is pretty much the same journey I take every month. I'm like one of those business people that has branches in both the US and England, with an occasional foray into Canada to maybe begin a new division.

The time span this month was 1941-2009.

As I Walked Out

'As I walked Out One Evening' is the title and the first line of a W.H. Auden poem, and 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning' is the title of Laurie Lee's second autobiographical work. I love the idea of 'walking out,' and I did so myself this morning. It wasn't evening, and it certainly wasn't midsummer, but a mid-morning in March in northern New England has its own special appeal for those of us who love it here.

My choice of footwear today determined that my walking would be on our road and the main road.

Another day I'll trek up the hill but it is still too wet and muddy for regular shoes yet.

This little William Baffin rose will be gorgeous before you know it just like the big one by the gate.

The process of heating with wood is ongoing, always a provider of physical fitness as well as cozy warmth.

These are definitely not flowers, but they are popping up out of the lawn. They are molehills.

I'm kind of fond of the chickadee in flight - probably as close as I'll get to an 'artsy' photo.

I walked a couple miles thinking it was time I posted about the neighborhood. It began with a few farms, and amazingly there is still a lot of open land. The people who bought the divided farms have a fair bit of land so there aren't a lot of houses. There's a long tradition of children building on the family land when they grow up. The woman from whom we bought our house had grown up here. Her adult house was just down the road from her family farm. The son in the family across the road has recently built on his family land. And the latest addition to this tradition is (drum roll please) our daughter! She and her boyfriend want to build on this land in the lower south pasture. The animals haven't grazed down there for a few years, and most recently it has been used as a logging yard. The wood you see was cut during last year's logging operation, which Tom fully intends to write about in his farm and weather journal.

Now I'm down on the main road. Our neighbors celebrate the seasons in a lovely, whimsical way. The Christmas display is magical, and the Hallowe'en and Easter ones are just plain fun.

This is what the weather and the traffic do to the road.

The logging yard on another neighbor's property. Yes, we are officially in mud season now.

The new home of our neighbor's son and his family. He has a child who is the same age he was when we first moved here. Ah, time.

The former home of the late woman who sold us our house.

The oldest house and original farm on the road, along with ours which is off the main road. There was a young man on a ladder scraping paint, and I'm wondering what the new color will be.

Crow in flight, one of the signs of spring around here.

About half a mile from our house is the home of our 'blueberry man'! An older lady, and Tom and I buy so many blueberries from him that he took down his 'blueberries for sale' sign, and he just calls us when he has a crop to sell. We have enough for blueberries on yogurt every single morning, with some left over for desserts. Heaven.

Tumbledown stone walls are everywhere. They were all cleared from the area fields. Someday I'll show you our cellar foundation stones.

Always one of my favorite views. It reminds me of an English lane.

Patching some of the winter road damage.

On my way back home again.

The spring and summer arrangements of porch, terrace, and patio. Let the warm weather begin!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Zucchini White Cake

Zucchini White Cake

This is an old recipe given to me by a friend's late mother. It is fantastic! I hadn't made it before today, and I'll certainly make it more often now I've tasted it. So delicious.

Preheat oven to 325º F.
Grease 9x13 pan.

Melt 1 cup butter, and cool.

Beat together:
3 eggs
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 or 3 cups grated zucchini (or yellow summer squash) - frozen and thawed worked fine
1/2 of a 20-oz. can crushed pineapple
Add cooled butter

In a separate bowl mix:
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

Add to butter mixture, and beat well.

Pour into pan, and bake about an hour.

1/4 cup soft butter
1/3 cup sour cream
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups confectioners (powdered) sugar

The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright

19. The Four-Story Mistake - second in the Melendy family series
by Elizabeth Enright
juvenile fiction, 1942
paperback, 174 pages
second reading
finished, 3/26/09

This is the second installment in the story of the Melendy family. The title of the book doesn't refer to their mistake, but rather the name their new house is known as. The original owners hired people to build a four-story house while they went to Europe for two years, and when they returned the house was only three stories (what happens when one doesn't pay attention to the builders). The family's money was greatly depleted and they could only afford to add on a cupola.

The book opens as the four Melendy children are leaving their much beloved home in New York City for a new house in the country. Randy, short for Miranda, is having a particularly hard time. She walks through the house saying goodbye to the old familiar nooks and crannies.

In the long window the scarred shade hung crookedly as it always had; for hundreds and hundreds of nights its gentle flapping had been the last sound she heard before she slept.

She could feel the emptiness of every room like an ache in her bones.

Though I am a grown-up person now, I was swept back through time as I read of her despair. There were a couple times growing up that we drove around looking at other houses, and I had a knot in my stomach fearing I would have to leave my home.

But the children do settle in, even Randy. They have a happy life here, exploring woods and streams and the house itself. They find two secret rooms, and learn about one of the daughters of the original owner. Old friends visit, and they make new ones in the small town. The Four-Story Mistake is what would be called a 'nice book.' Nothing terrible happens. The father is full of love and kindness towards his children, and Cuffy and Willy from The Saturdays move right along with the family. If you love descriptions of interiors, as I do, this book is full of details. They are so well written by the author that I almost felt like I was seeing photographs.

There's a particularly wonderful chapter about the cupola. Mr. Melendy explains how it offers 'a view apiece' to the children.

I believe that each of these windows belongs to one of you in a particular way. This one, the north one, for instance, that looks so far up the valley. It must belong to Oliver because he's always looking ahead: always straining toward tomorrow. The east one is Rush's. The view from it is all moving and changeable: the wind stirs the trees, the water dashes and foams in the brook. And the south one. See how the dark spruce branches beyond the glass make a sort of mirror of the window. That's Mona's: she's at an age where she loves her own reflection. The west window belongs to you, Randy. From it you can look back all day along the road you traveled yesterday.

But sometimes it would be nice if you and Oliver changed windows. In fact, it would be a good thing if all of you exchanged views once in a while.

The United States has entered into the Second World War, and though no one they know is fighting, the children are aware of what is going on. They work hard for the war effort, each in their own ways.

This is really a book about the differences and similarities between children, and how they should be accepted and celebrated. What a great message for readers of all ages. I loved The Four-Story Mistake.

The sweet songs of spring

Spring announces itself in birdsong. All winter, we've heard chickadees and bluejays and dear mourning doves, but when March comes along the air is filled with songs of the American robin, the red-winged blackbird, and the American woodcock.

addendum: I did not take the photographs.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Green Grass by Raffaella Barker

18. Green Grass
by Raffaella Barker
fiction, 2002
paperback, 376 pages
finished, 3/23/09

I have read many books over the years which are about my favorite theme - that moving to the country can provide joy, solace, and the source of a new beginning to one's life. All of them are a celebration of domesticity and rural living. Books such as the following (including notes from my book journals):

The Quiet Hills by Iris Bromige - theme of nature and the rural life being a healer. Many times the author notes the calm and the peace of this life, and its indoor pleasures in inclement weather.

The Pilchers, mother and son, quite often feature this view of the countryside.

The Tall Stranger by D. E. Stevenson - has a typically wonderful description of a rural home and gardens. A character who is fading away in a hospital is whisked away to the country and is healed by fresh air, good food and rest, and family love.

My Dear Aunt Flora by Elizabeth Cadell - ranks with my top favorite books. It is a cheerful hymn to country living, and the love of family and friends and dogs.

In nonfiction, certainly Gladys Taber would be in the forefront of this kind of writing.

Barker's women are not city girls like Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones or Sophie Kinsella's Rebecca Bloomfield [though I love them, too], and if they do start out in the city they end up in the country, wiser, more self-assured, and with a sense of purpose and joy in their lives. I've read that the author has moved to London after years in Norfolk, and I wonder how this will affect her subject matter. A blurb about a more recent book, A Perfect Life, says, 'Norfolk's extreme ruralness is the backdrop for this novel, which questions the stereotype of the idyllic country life.' I shall wait and see until I read it, since the blurb on Green Grass says, 'so funny and acerbic.' I agree with funny, but not acerbic - not (as the dictionary says) 'sour and bitter' at all.

I found five pieces from The Spectator online which show what a really great wordsmith Raffaella Barker is. Here is the latest one from June 2008, and you may click her name at the end of the piece to read the others. Her writing on an Amy Winehouse performance matches any concert writing I've ever read. She wrote for Country Life for many years, though I'm unable to find her columns online. They would make a great book of essays. Also, from the same time is a blog interview here.

Laura and Inigo live in London with their thirteen-year old twins Dolly and Fred. They are not married but have been together for fourteen years. He's a critically acclaimed, and popular, artist and Laura essentially does all the behind the scenes work. He has the so-called 'artistic temperament,' and isn't easy to live with, though she loves him dearly. Laura, who couldn't wait to escape the country now finds herself taken with the idea of living in a cottage on her brother's land in Norfolk. It begins with just weekends including all the family or only the children, but as time goes on, she is more and more smitten with life there.

She stands on the doorstep with a cup of tea, watching the sun begin to sweep between the trees beyond her garden. It is impossible not to smile. Laura is suffused with a sense of peace, and holds onto this moment while her tea cools, before wandering out to have a proper look at the garden. Surrounded by a small wooden fence, and facing a clearing on the edge of the beechwood, Laura's Gate House is like a child's drawing, squat with a pointed gable above the front door and castellations like steps meeting at the top above her bedroom window. The garden at the front is neat, with a central path from the gate to the front door, and another path leading round the back, past a small orchard and an overgrown vegetable patch, to the shed where Grass [a nanny goat] lives. Beyond that is an area of rocketing nettles and long grass, a small silted-up pond, and then the path reappears by a dilapidated greenhouse, bringing Laura back to the front garden.

I can walk around my house, she thinks, when she has done it. What an amazing feeling. ... Laura does it a few more times, reminding herself of Pooh and Piglet's search for the Woozles as she follows her own footsteps through the long grass and back to the front door.

I love this passage. I can imagine it perfectly, and I can feel her tranquil joy.

Laura's first boyfriend lives in the area, and in another kind of novel this would be the center of the book. Is she going to leave Inigo, and join Guy? Will Inigo leave for an extended stay in New York? Because the author is Raffaella Barker and because her characters are always real people full of complexity and depth, the story is fuller and more absorbing. There are many 'homey' passages about cooking and milking goats and gardening and her new Pug, Zeus. There is real love between Inigo and Laura right alongside the problems. There is a lot about the children, and about Laura's brother's step-daughter. Descriptions and details abound. I loved it and thoroughly enjoyed being in Laura's company. I enjoyed seeing some of the characters from two previous books, Hens Dancing and Summertime. I like to think that Laura is quite like the author. Barker's women are witty and wise and full of good nature and humor. When I read Hens Dancing, I wrote, 'My perfect book! British countryside, warmth, humor, wit. It reminds me of a modern day Diary of A Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield.' That's about the highest praise I can give. And though Green Grass isn't quite as excellent it's still right up there as one of my favorite books.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Ghiradelli Classic Brownies

One of the many great features of our new stove we got last fall is a melt temperature on one burner. I love it because one, I don't have a microwave, and two, I don't have to pay any attention. The melting happens slowly and gently without any burning.

From this:
To this:

Last weekend our daughter's boyfriend helped Tom move a ceiling light in the kitchen and install these new lights over the kitchen table.

He wouldn't take any money and said all he wanted was brownies, so today I made him some. It is a new-to-me recipe from the Ghiradelli Semi-Sweet 4 oz chocolate baking bar. And of course they are called:

Ghiradelli Classic Brownies

Preheat oven to 350º F.
Grease an 8 x 8 pan
Melt together 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter with one 4 oz chocolate baking bar
Stir in 1 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla
Add 2 lightly beaten eggs

In a separate bowl, mix:
3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Add to butter mixture and stir well.
Stir in 1/3 cup chocolate chips.
Pour batter into pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.

Of course I couldn't give them to him without making sure they were good, so I had a brownie and it is chewy, chocolatey, and delicious.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Givin' it up

I am sorry to say that I have given up my Eudora Welty reading for this 100th birthday year. I tried. I tried a novel. I tried many short stories. And they didn't keep my interest. I didn't care about the characters or what happened to them. And that word characters is key. They seemed like characters in a story instead of real people, people I could connect with, people I was absorbed with. I am regretful. I was so excited about this little reading venture. But it is what it is. Some people love Virginia Woolf and others don't. Some love Ernest Hemingway and others don't. Some think The Great Gatsby one of the greatest books of all time and others can't get through it. In the book Light on Snow, one of Anita Shreve's characters says,

I pick up a book I've been reading off and on, more off than on, a sign that I'll probably abandon it soon.

Well, that's the way it has been these past few days for me with Eudora. I still have fond memories of the woman herself on the Dick Cavett show, but her writing, her subject matter is just not for me.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday Supper - Rice and Cornmeal Batter Cakes

Tonight's Sunday Supper comes from the same cookbook as the Philpy recipe.

Rice and Cornmeal Batter Cakes

These wholesome griddle cakes, from a common old southern recipe, make an uncommonly hearty and delicious breakfast.

1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup cooked brown rice
2 eggs, well beaten
1 cup buttermilk (I just used milk)

In a mixing bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, soda, and salt.
Stir in the rice until it is evenly distributed.

In a separate bowl, beat eggs and beat in milk.

Add eggs and milk to dry mixture. Stir vigorously until well blended.

Heat butter or cooking spray (I used the latter) to coat the bottom of a griddle or frypan. (I used electric frypan)
Ladle batter into pan.
I cooked four at a time, and kept them warm on a plate in the oven set on lowest temp.
Cook on both sides until nicely browned.
Serve hot with maple syrup or honey. (and of course, butter)
Made about fourteen delicious, filling, healthy pancakes.

Product placement/pudding

When I was a little girl my mother used to make chocolate pudding from scratch. This 'store-bought' pudding is the closest I've ever tasted. There are many different varieties if chocolate isn't your favorite. A real plus for me is that the farm has a humane certification. You may read more about it here, and if interested may find out if it is available on your store shelves. They also offer mail order shipping to several states.

The Cruellest Month by Hazel Holt

17. The Cruellest Month (US title - The Cruelest Month) - second in the Mrs. Malory series
by Hazel Holt
mystery, 1991
paperback, 211 pages
finished, 3/16/09

We may thank Mr. Eliot for the phrase, the cruel(l)est month. From The Waste Land:

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Hazel Holt's The Cruellest Month takes place in the month of April in Oxford, England. Mrs. Malory is doing some research at the Bodleian Library for a paper called "The Home-Front Novel: English Women Writers in the Second World War" (wouldn't you love to read it!), and her "roots" are stirred. She says:

If I am honest, I must admit that my time at Oxford was the most purely happy of my whole life. That is not to say that I haven't had a marvelous life since - a happy marriage, a son, a sort of minor but satisfactory literary career - but there is something about the days of one's youth, when the world still had the dew upon it and anything seemed possible.

It may be better to let the past alone and go on with our lives, because upon closer examination all may not have been as it seemed. Indeed, "memory and desire" can stir up emotions that are better left undisturbed. However, there she is, at the place where she was so "purely happy" and of course the memories stream back. She recalls her first love to whom she was drawn because of his "resemblance to Peter Wimsey." She becomes reacquainted with a professor she knew in those days. The flood of memories accompanies a modern day death which has just occurred in the library. A ladder slipped, and shelving fell upon a woman, killing her. She was found by Mrs. Malory's godson. He feels that perhaps it was not an accident, and the sleuthing begins!

In a world where so many films and books feature young characters, it is a treat to read the stories about Mrs. Malory. She is in her fifties as the series begins, recently widowed, with a son at Oxford University. She is a role model for women in this life situation. She is sad, but she dwells on her happy memories. There are a lot of nonfiction books about widowhood, but I feel that sometimes a fictional character can help a reader as much as a real-life guide. Just being in her presence offers a great deal of comfort. I love these books and look forward to reading them all. For book reports on two other Mrs. Malory books, you may go here, and here.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Quote du jour/James "Sawyer" Ford on LOST

I heard once Winston Churchill read a book every night, even during the blitz; said it made him think better.

Monday, March 16, 2009

An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear

16. An Incomplete Revenge - fifth in the Maisie Dobbs series
by Jacqueline Winspear
mystery, 2008
paperback, 303 pages
finished, 3/15/09

I was so pleased when my friend Judi gave this to me for my birthday. It is a rare treat, and one all readers can appreciate, to be able to read two or more of a series back-to-back. The minute I closed Messenger of Truth, I began An Incomplete Revenge.

In this book, we travel to a place which is wrapped in pain and darkness. During the First World War, a Zeppelin dropped a bomb on a small village in Kent, killing the local baker, his wife, and daughter. Word was later received that the son was killed in battle. Many, many sons from the village also died in the war. This in itself could create such a feeling of grief, but there have also been acts of vandalism and suspicious fires over the years since the attack. They occur during the hops-picking season in September, when Londoners and gypsies come to work in the fields. The villagers distrust these two groups, and anyone else who is an outsider. Maisie is hired by a company, which wants to buy part of the local estate which houses a brickworks, to find out what is behind the episodes.

Though in many ways, the darkest of the Maisie Dobbs books so far, I really liked An Incomplete Revenge. We learn much about the Romany gypsy culture, including some of the language. I was very interested in the lurcher, the "dog of the gypsies." We get to know more about Maisie's assistant, Billy Beale, and how his family is coping with something that happened in Messenger of Truth. We hear about people from other countries who have changed their names to better 'fit into' English life. We also learn about bullying in schools, and what happens to both parties when they reach manhood. It is a book absolutely packed with historical and societal information, as well as more of Maisie's personal life. I just loved it.

At the very end of the book, Maisie's friend Priscilla gives her a gramophone and a record by "a gypsy now famous in Paris, a man who had blended French passion with the spark of the Roma."

Here is Django Reinhardt on guitar doing Minor Swing, which you may recognize from the movie Chocolat.

The next in the series, Among the Mad has just come out and I'll be buying it next year in paperback to join all the others on the shelf. These are books I can happily read again and again.

Messenger of Truth by Jacqueline Winspear

15. Messenger of Truth - fourth in the Maisie Dobbs series
by Jacqueline Winspear
mystery, 2006
paperback, 319 pages
finished, 3/11/09

I've been acquainted with Maisie Dobbs for a number of years now. From my reading journal, December 2004:

This was a truly excellent book, literary in the best sense. Well written, fully developed characters, and accessible to the reader. I learned so much about the 1914-1918 war; those years just preceding the war; and 1929. Maisie is a great character. She has very humble beginnings, but is taken under the wing of an upper class woman and her friend and given an education. She walks the line between classes as we see that very line beginning to disappear.

In this wonderful series by Jacqueline Winspear, we travel with Maisie on her life journey, watching society and the world changing, just as she herself does. The nameplate on her London office reads "Psychologist and Investigator" - an interesting and very effective combination of talents. Not only does she find out whodunnit, but also, and most importantly, why. The constant in the books is the shadow of The Great War, in which Maisie was a nurse. The man she loved was injured as they stood together on a battlefield. He has been in a nursing home all the years since, alive but unaware of the people and places around him. Everyone Maisie is in contact with has been affected by the war, from her great friend Priscilla whose three brothers were all killed, to her assistant Billy Beale, to the people in the cases she takes on. The books all feature a view of the war from a different, and deeply personal angle. In Messenger of Truth, there is a shocking story told through a work of art, and the price the artist pays for his portrayal.

Maisie Dobbs has been hired by an upper class woman to look into the death of her twin brother, an artist who supposedly fell from scaffolding while preparing to hang a very large painting. The woman doesn't believe his death was accidental. In the course of the investigation, Maisie meets a vibrant, artistic family; she visits the windswept beaches of Kent; she sees Oswald Mosley at a party. In this book, as in all the others, the characters are well drawn, and the backdrop against which they live their lives is fully described so that we know what is going on politically, economically, and socially. Maisie takes her time to really study a case. We are privy to her thoughts and feelings as she approaches various situations. She has a bit of a sixth sense when it comes to physical sensations, and can actually impart warmth and security to one in need of such strength. The author gives us domestic details that tell readers how a room is set up, how the inhabitant might live in that room, and what it might tell us about the person.

The dead artist's dwelling place:

As neat as a pin, the room had been thoughtfully decorated, though Nick had clearly retained the more attractive elements of railway carriage design. The rich wooden bulkhead walls at either end had been stripped, varnished and polished to a shine, as had the floorboards underneath. Side walls had been painted in a pale cream distemper, and there were dark linen blinds against windows that faced the sea. Two leather armchairs, the sort one might find in a gentleman's club, were positioned close to a wood-burning stove set against the bulkhead to the right of the front door.

A wood-framed bed was set lengthways against the other bulkhead, the rich burgundy counterpane hanging low over the sides to mingle with a Persian carpet woven of what seemed to be every shade of red wool, from claret to vermillion, from maroon to a color that was almost burnt umber. ... Maisie thought the compact room seemed to exude warmth, something she thought was probably essential to life on this part of the coast, whatever the season.

This continues everywhere Maisie goes. We really see the landscape, the interior space, the clothing, and we feel the air and the sun.

If you go to Jacqueline Winspear's website, you may hear a four-minute piece in which the author talks about the life and times of Maisie Dobbs. In it she says: "It never ends when it ends." The effects of the Great War (and all wars) continue on and on.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Friday, March 13, 2009

Dusty Springfield - audio and video

This afternoon I heard a terrific show on the radio about Dusty Springfield. If you missed it, and are interested you may listen here.

And I love this performance.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Frozen River on dvd

Frozen River is about mothers and children. It is about what mothers will do for their children. It is about women without husbands, or with husbands who have problems. These women are all around us. They are invisible to society at large. They barely scrape by. And these are the lucky ones. Other women are in shelters or living week-to-week in former motel units or on the streets. They are not glamorous. They are not beautiful. They live in jeans and sweatshirts and old coats. The star is Melissa Leo, who I think is the best actress working today. Tom and I first 'met' her as Detective Howard, a cop on Homicide. She has the most amazing face - it is sculptured and beautiful and yet at the same time is the face of the woman you meet in the aisle of the supermarket.

The father has just left. We learn that he is an addict who gambles away the money that should go toward a new double-wide home. The mother, Ray, played by Melissa Leo is working behind the "Yankee Dollar" store counter. She's been there for two years waiting for a promotion to working full-time. Her young male boss is condescending and you know that he doesn't even see her. His eyes are on the blonde who also works there. You know that if anyone gets that full-time job, it will be her, not Ray.

Ray has two sons, fifteen and five. She feeds them popcorn and Tang until the next paycheck comes. The rent-to-own people are going to take back the tv. The double-wide people won't deliver the home because she doesn't have the money.

I know this sounds bleak, but it is real. This is the woman who lives across town. If you are a teacher, you know her kids.

And there is more. We meet people from the Mohawk tribe who live on the 'res.' Some of them are engaged in smuggling 'illegals' into the country via the reservation which straddles the New York/Quebec border. There is a young woman, Lila, played wonderfully by Misty Upham, whose husband drowned while engaged in this work. Her mother-in-law took the baby from the hospital when Lila gave birth and is raising the child. Lila can't take regular jobs because her vision is poor, and she is too poor to buy glasses.

You know what's going to happen here. I'm not giving anything away when I tell you that the two women, the two mothers become a smuggling team. There is danger and trouble, but none of the awful things you might expect from a 'thriller' movie happen. The ending is both uplifting and realistic.

Frozen River was filmed in Plattsburg, New York. The setting is perfect for the movie, and it is almost another character. But it could have taken place here or where you live. These women are among us. I am so thankful Courtney Hunt made this important, excellent movie.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tom's Farm and Weather Journal - Winter's Over!

Tom here: Something to brighten your day if you live where it's cold. We're already done with winter! Not astronomical winter, which runs from the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year--around December 21st) to the vernal equinox in March (an equal amount of daylight and darkness--around March 21st). Instead, if you pay attention to meteorological winter (which runs from December 5th to March 5th) we are almost a week into spring. Meteorological winter is simply the 3 coldest months of the year on average.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

14. The Mysterious Benedict Society - first in The Mysterious Benedict Society series
by Trenton Lee Stewart
juvenile fiction, 2007
paperback, 485 pages
finished, 3/6/08

After reading about four children in The Saturdays, I decided to go forward almost seventy years to spend time with four present-day children. I first heard of The Mysterious Benedict Society here, and noted it on a Friday Finds posting.

An ad appears in the local newspaper saying, "are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" You might think, not such a big deal, but it really is, because what is different about these words is that they are directed to the child not to the parents of a gifted child. The children who read it and respond to it are going to be, for the most part, children who are alone; children whose parents are not in the picture for one reason or another. They may be gifted, but they are also orphans or runaways. And the writer of the ad knows exactly what he is doing by phrasing it this way. Only children may do the important work that must be done to save the world. Wow! If that doesn't draw a child reader in, I don't know what will.

The children who answer the ad have some very odd tests to complete, and though each child takes the same test, each one comes up with the answers in a way that is completely individual. And that's really the crux of the book, the little hidden message. We are all wonderful, we are all special, we all have our own particular gifts; and that when we put these gifts together with another's gifts, miracles can happen.

You might this an impossibly long book at almost 500 pages, but it felt like 100. I couldn't read it fast enough. There is a lot of action, but there is also a lot of thinking, puzzling, wondering, and feeling. A really amazing book and it doesn't surprise me that all ages are reading and enjoying it. There is a lot to make the reader think. There is mind control; there is longing for acceptance and love and family; there is an evil villain; there is humor. Really it has everything, including great writing. The children are incredibly well-drawn; so much so, that one of them absolutely drove me crazy the whole book right up until the end when a secret is revealed, and I said, whoa of course, now I understand! Could anything be better? I don't think so.

There is a quote from the excellent Horn Book magazine in the front of the book, and it is absolutely true:

Real flashlight-under-the-bedclothes material... the story flies past, thrilling us as it goes.

There are couple things which engage the reader. One is a multiple choice quiz which lets you find out which child you are most like. Of course I took it, and "You are most like Reynie! You are a natural leader and your cleverness will take you far."

And then at the end of the book is a letter to the reader.

I came upon a page that translates morse code to English and found out his name. It doesn't get more fun than this!

And there are wonderful illustrations: The artist, Carson Ellis' "has established a loyal following for her artistic collaborations with the band The Decemberists."

Here is a closer look at the cover detail.

I have the second book in the series waiting on my shelf, and look forward to continuing the story of Reynie, Sticky (so-named because 'everything I read sticks in my head'), Kate, and Constance, and of course Mr. Benedict.

Here are two other great reviews, from Jen and Kailana, and a video book report by a sixth grader.