Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesdays - Children of Christmas by Cynthia Rylant

76. Children of Christmas
by Cynthia Rylant
juvenile fiction, 1987
first children's book for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge
finished, 11/27/11

Instead of one short story this Wednesday, I'm going to write about a collection of six children's stories for Christmas by a most wonderful writer, Cynthia Rylant.
These are stories for the older school-age child, but are interesting and heart-warming to an adult reader as well. I have read them more times than I can count, both with my children and by myself. They are little vignettes, glimpses into the lives of six people. As I read them again this year, I thought that just perhaps I've not read anything quite so fine, so clear, so full of quiet description.

The Christmas Tree Man is about Garnet Ash who has lived all by himself since his parents died many years ago. He runs a Christmas tree farm, and that is the only time of year he sees people, other than when he goes into town for supplies. This may sound deeply sad, but it really isn't. Just as in all of Cynthia Rylant's tales, characters aren't terribly unhappy even if they live lives outside the norm. They have times of true happiness and contentment, which is what each of us hopes for.

Halfway Home is about Frances and her father who have stopped to eat at a diner after shopping on Christmas Eve. There are only a few people inside, as you might expect on such a night. And then a cat appears.

For Being Good is about eleven-year old Philip who hasn't seen his grandfather for many years. The grandfather comes to visit for Christmas from Florida, and each receives an unexpected gift.

Ballerinas and Bears is a story of young Sylvia in New York City who walks and walks to escape the terrible loneliness in her apartment; her home where her mother never is, and where there is no food or comfort for a child. She feels a sense of peace only when she walks, and this night she receives consolation in shops and a church, and finally in the kindness of an unknown taxi driver.

Silver Packages tells of a man who once had a car accident in the mountains, and was taken care of by a local person. On the twenty-third of December, every single year he stands on the rear platform of the train, and throws presents to the children as a way of repaying the kindness which saved his life. For some, it is the only present they will receive. There is one little boy who always wishes for a doctor kit, and though he never gets one, when he grows up he realizes the great gifts he has received and returns to give his own gift to the people of his home area.

The last story is All The Stars In The Sky, and it is about a homeless woman, Mae. I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps the little girl in Ballerinas and Bears may one day be like her. Mae has no memory of an earlier life, but she knows what she needs to know; where to go for food and shelter and clothes. This night she is feeling ill and cannot remember where to go when she is sick. She wanders into a library with her three dogs and comes upon nourishment for both her body and her soul.

The book is illustrated by S.D. Schindler. The black and white pictures are perfect. Each story has just one. He also did the cover which offers little Christmas cards of each story.

The picture in For Being Good

This is my first book for the Visions of Sugarplums section of The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge.

Short Stories on Wednesdays is hosted by Breadcrumb Reads

Addendum: I found a lengthy biography of Cynthia Rylant here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Venice in February

I've signed up for my first 2012 reading challenge. It is called Venice in February and there's more about it here and here. Since February is my birthday month, this is a little present to myself.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Skipping Christmas by John Grisham

75. Skipping Christmas
by John Grisham
fiction, 2001
second reading
second book for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge
finished, 11/26/11

From my book notes in April 2002:
Skipping Christmas by John Grisham 2001 A-
A couple's daughter flies to Peru the day after Thanksgiving to start a year of Peace Corps work. Her father decides that since she will not be home for Christmas, they should just skip the holiday, and use the money saved to go on a cruise. The year before they had spent $6100(!) on Christmas with nothing really to show for it. The wife agrees, though is a bit reluctant at the idea. The seemingly simple idea is much harder than they think it will be to carry out. I thought this would be just a light, humorous book, but it was more than that, and I really liked it. It had a lot to say about suburban life, family, friends, and life in general. A few funny moments, but on the whole, it was quite serious and thought provoking.
And approaching ten years later, I would say much the same thing. The gist of the tale, as noted above, is that Blair Krank, the twenty-three year old only child of Nora and Luther heads off for a year of Peace Corps work in Peru. For the first time in all those years the family will not be together for Christmas. Luther comes up with the idea of going on a cruise to a warm island, and letting go their usual Christmas activities.

From such a simple, honest, understandable alternative comes surprising mayhem. There are several instances of things I would call ridiculous. Here are just two examples:
1.Not giving to benevolent societies who come asking each year but saying they'll give to a summer fundraiser. Silly. They could certainly have still given, without disrupting their present Christmas plan.
2.The Kranks don't put up the Frosty on their roof which is a neighborhood tradition. So what appears on their lawn but a sign which says, 'Free Frosty' with a picture of the snowman trapped in the cellar with the Christmas decorations.

I could have done without those sorts of things, and would have been happier if the book had concentrated on the real situation. The daughter is away. The parents are sad. They spent money last year that was probably unnecessary. They decide to go on a cruise instead. Not a big deal. It isn't 'cranky' to do any of those things, so to me, even their last name is a silly play on words. On this second reading, I was interested in how I saw the negatives more. I still think Grisham had a good idea, but couldn't decide whether it was serious or slapstick.

And then, quite suddenly an event occurs - a pleasant one - which turns the Krank Christmas plans upside down. You probably all know the story but in case there are one or two readers of my letters who haven't read it, I won't give away the excitement toward the end of the book. Suffice it to say that after my irritations, I felt all warm and fuzzy again. Am I glad I read it again? Yes. Will I read it a third time? No. Would I recommend it? Yes, with some reservations. If you don't mind what they call in the movies, 'dramedies' then you might not mind the things that annoyed me. If you are fond of the movie Christmas Vacation, then you probably will appreciate the rather goofball humor. And if you like a good Christmas story with a happy ending, you will likely enjoy this, taking into account the hesitations I have noted. There really is a warm, cozy, loveable Christmas story inside the pages of the book, but this reader wishes it had been just that.

This is my second adult book for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Winter in Thrush Green by Miss Read

74. Winter in Thrush Green - second in the Thrush Green series
by Miss Read
fiction, 1961
second reading
first book for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge
finished, 11/21/11

You may remember when I wrote about the book, Thrush Green I said that the whole collection was given to me by a most kind and generous reader of my letters. Along with the books, she also gave me two handmade bookmarks - a Christmas one and a New Year's one. She asked me not to mention her name, but I would like to thank her again for her thoughtful gifts.

This installment of the Thrush Green series begins in October and continues on into March, divided into three sections: The Coming of Winter, Christmas at Thrush Green, and The New Year. The weather and the seasons get star billing in the Miss Read books.
Unless one was prepared to get one's washing out really early in October, then one might as well dry it by the fire, for the days were so short that it virtually didn't dry at all after three or four in the afternoon.

Rain continued to sweep the Cotswolds throughout November and the wooded hills were shrouded in undulating grey veils.
Young Doctor Lovell found his hands full. Coughs, colds, wheezy chests, ear-ache, rheumatic pains, stomachic chills and general depression kept his car splashing along the flooded lanes of Thrush Green and Lulling.

It was one of those still, quiet days of winter, when everything seems to be waiting. No breeze disturbed the plumes of smoke from Thrush Green's chimneys. The trees stood bare and motionless. On the hedges small drops of moisture hung; no breath of wind disturbed them, no beam of sunlight lit them to life. The sky was low and of uniform greyness.

It snowed for two days without ceasing, and an easterly wind, which sprang up during Sunday night, caused drifts several feet deep.

The mild weather allowed the schoolchildren to play outside, much to their teachers' relief. ... and the good people of Thrush Green, so long winter-bound, pottered about their gardens, admiring the silver and gold of snowdrops and aconites, and watching the daffodils push their buds above ground.
With such descriptions does Miss Read, the pen name of Dora Jessie Saint, keep the weather in the forefront as her characters go about their lives. There is a winter episode which brings a literal and figurative chill to the reader. Dotty Harmer is one of the real 'characters' in the Thrush Green series. She makes up herbal concoctions, and various foods which too often give their receivers 'Dotty's collywobbles.' She lives alone, still basking in the memory of her beloved schoolmaster father. She keeps chickens outdoors and cats indoors. They are most precious to her, indeed they are her family. When there is a big snowstorm which closes the roads and pathways around the town, Dotty gets sick without anyone knowing. There were no cell phones or alert bracelets then. She went without heat or food for days and if two young boys hadn't been 'trespassing' in a man's hedge, using it as a hideout from the world, they wouldn't have seen her across the field, leaning out her window and ringing a bell for help. On such a small thing does life often depend.

And whatever the weather outside, there is nothing like a Thrush Green fireside for ease and comfort.
The fire crackled and blazed hospitably giving forth a sweet smell of burning apple wood.
Change is brewing in this book. Surprising, and not so surprising, romances bloom. An older person is even more ill than in the first book. A newcomer moves to town bringing much excitement. There is an attack on the schoolmistress. As in life, there is no sense of time standing still in Thrush Green. The seasons of the natural life and the seasons of peoples' lives move along as the books progress. The Christmas season is quite beautiful as you might expect in a small English village.
With only a fortnight to go before Christmas Day Lulling [a nearby village] people were beginning to bestir themselves about their shopping. London might start preparing for the festival at the end of October; Lulling refused to be hustled. October and November had jobs of their own in plenty. December, and the latter part at that, was the proper time to think about Christmas, and the idea of buying cards and presents before then was just plain silly.
'Who wants to think of Christmas when there's the autumn digging to do?' asked one practically.
'Takes all the gilt off the gingerbread to have Christmas thrown down your throat before December,' agreed another.
To which we, fifty years on, might heartily say, amen! Spending a little reading time in Thrush Green might be just the cure for the hustle and bustle of the season.

This is my first adult book for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Today's poem by Edgar Guest

by Edgar A. Guest (1881-1959)

Gettin' together to smile an' rejoice,
An' eatin' an' laughin' with folks of your choice;
An' kissin' the girls an' declarin' that they
Are growin' more beautiful day after day;
Chattin' an' braggin' a bit with the men,
Buildin' the old family circle again;
Livin' the wholesome an' old-fashioned cheer,
Just for awhile at the end of the year.

Greetings fly fast as we crowd through the door
And under the old roof we gather once more
Just as we did when the youngsters were small;
Mother's a little bit grayer, that's all.
Father's a little bit older, but still
Ready to romp an' to laugh with a will.
Here we are back at the table again
Tellin' our stories as women an' men.

Bowed are our heads for a moment in prayer;
Oh, but we're grateful an' glad to be there.
Home from the east land an' home from the west,
Home with the folks that are dearest an' best.
Out of the sham of the cities afar
We've come for a time to be just what we are.
Here we can talk of ourselves an' be frank,
Forgettin' position an' station an' rank.

Give me the end of the year an' its fun
When most of the plannin' an' toilin' is done;
Bring all the wanderers home to the nest,
Let me sit down with the ones I love best,
Hear the old voices still ringin' with song,
See the old faces unblemished by wrong,
See the old table with all of its chairs
An' I'll put soul in my Thanksgivin' prayers.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Celebrating an anniversary with Alabama Shakes

On this, the fifth anniversary of my first blog posting I want to thank every single person who has ever read my letters and taken a minute to write back. You have made my life richer, deeper, and happier. Here is a little thank you present. Just this morning I learned about this band from my Vermont pal, and I cannot thank her enough! I LOVE Alabama Shakes. I bought their four-song EP at the website, and it is fantastic.

Monday, November 21, 2011

How About You

I know it isn't even Thanksgiving yet in the US, but The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge begins today, and I couldn't wait another minute to write about this movie for the Fa La La La Films section of the challenge. I watched How About You on Netflix Instant a week ago. It is a wonderful, uplifting, and unique film about life in a home for older people.

The movie opens with Bobby Darin's version of the old standard, How About You. This is one of my favorite songs and it is a fun one because singers often change the lyrics; for example, 'I'm mad about good books; can't get my fill' is followed variously by:
and James Durante's looks, they give me a thrill
and Franklin Roosevelt's looks, they give me a thrill
In Bobby Darin's version he says, 'Mr. Kennedy's looks' and later 'Mrs. Darin's looks'. I so wish there were a video of him singing it, but you may listen to his version here. The song is on his album, Love Swings which you may buy (as I did) at iTunes for a penny under ten dollars - a great bargain!

How About You is based on Maeve Binchy's story The Hard Core, from her collection called This Year It Will Be Different, which I wrote about last December. I read it again after seeing the movie and though there were several changes, the heart of the story remains. The movie in fact really brings the story and the characters to life. Kate, played by Orla Brady runs a home in Ireland for older people, a residential home with a nurse on the premises. It is quickly failing because of four disagreeable rascals who drive away people who want to live there, and the employees who work there. One of the four is so bad she has been banned from all other elder facilities. These four would be labeled enfants terribles if they were younger! They argue, they criticize, they mock, they demand. And they are played by four of the greatest actors around:

Joss Ackland,

Imelda Staunton and Brenda Fricker,

and Vanessa Redgrave.

Oh, Vanessa. In her later years, she seems even more beautiful, more luminous than when she was young. In Letters To Juliet, she played a romantic heroine who reconnects with an old lover, who was her old lover in real life, and with whom she has recently gotten back together - Franco Nero. If you are interested, there is a nice interview with them.

In How About You the younger sister Ellie, played by Hayley Atwell has left college because she wants to go around the world with friends and her boyfriend. She has given up her apartment to save money, and so, a bit reluctantly and because she is quite desperate for help, Kate takes her on. She moves in and does cleaning and serving duties. Just before Christmas their mother has a stroke and Kate must go be with her. Though it is against regulations she leaves Ellie solely in charge. All the residents, the nurse, and staff have gone off for the holidays, leaving the four who have no place to go. And that is probably enough said. I want you to be able to discover and experience the joy of this film on your own, as I did.

There may be poignancy in stories of older people but poignant is not the same as tragic. Tragic is the death of a young person. The death of an older person is normal, the way it should be. In the movie, there is one dying woman who looks back at her life and says it was wonderful. She loved her late husband, and with a twinkle in her eye says she hopes to see him again.

Joan O'Hara,

who played the dying woman actually died the same year the film was released.

How About You offers surprises rather than stereotypes, joy rather than sorrow, and new beginnings rather than staying the same. I really loved this movie, and it was a perfect way to begin my holiday viewing.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cranberry Nut Bread

Please visit Beth Fish Reads for more food related postings this weekend.

I can still remember the first time I tasted cranberry bread. One Thanksgiving when I was a little girl our next-door neighbor gave us a loaf, and I thought I'd died and gone to eating heaven. I loved it. I'd only known cranberries in a jellied sort of wiggly food at Thanksgiving tables. But this, oh, it was sublime, and I feel the same way all these years later. Here is a very basic and delicious recipe which I found online.

Cranberry Nut Bread

2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 cup chopped cranberries

3/4 cup orange juice
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 egg, beaten

Pre-heat oven to 350°F.
Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl.
Add the chopped cranberries and walnuts to coat with the flour mixture.
Mix together orange juice, sugar, butter, and egg.
Add to the flour and cranberry-nut mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until just blended. (I used the mixer)
Pour into a greased 8x8 pan.
Bake 55 to 60 minutes (keep your eye on it - mine took a bit less time) or until done - a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Quote du jour/from Grey's Anatomy

I had a terrible day. We say it all the time. A fight with the boss, the stomach flu, traffic. That’s what we describe as terrible when nothing terrible is happening.

These are the things we beg for. A root canal, an IRS audit, coffee spilled on our clothes. When the really terrible things happen, we start begging a God we don’t believe in to bring back the little horrors and take away this. It seems quaint now, doesn’t it? The flood in the kitchen, the poison oak, the fight that leaves you shaking with rage. Would it have helped if we could see what else was coming? Would we have known that those were the best moments of our lives?

Grey's Anatomy
Season 8, episode 9 - Dark Was the Night

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesdays - Rikki-Tikki-Tavi by Rudyard Kipling

You may visit Breadcrumbs Reads for more short stories this Wednesday.

Today's story is by Rudyard Kipling from The Jungle Book. The title Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is very familiar to me, but as I began I realized that I didn't know this tale at all. Even though I was all alone in the house this afternoon, I decided to read the story aloud. The narrative is very poetic, and there are two song-poems which bookend the story.

I see now why this story is so famous. It is well-written, gripping, exciting, and informative. That may have been one of Kipling's gifts, the ability to teach his young readers about the natural world within the pages of a terrific story.

Rikki-tikki, the mongoose, is washed away from his family burrow during a great flood and manages to live only by clinging to a blade of grass. A small boy finds him, and thinking he is dead wants to have a funeral for him. His parents bring the little mongoose into the house and wrap him up warmly. When he sneezes, they are delighted he is alive. Rikki-tikki is welcomed into the household, and says to himself:
'There are more things to find out about this house than all my family could find out in all their lives. I shall certainly stay and find out.'
The mother is a bit frightened that he might hurt their young boy, Teddy, but her husband tells her that the mongoose will not bite him.
'Teddy's safer with that little beast than if he had a bloodhound to watch him. If a snake came into the nursery now - '
And the story goes on to show the truth of these words. And what a story it is. Can you imagine a cobra slipping into your house? Coiling itself around a jar near the bathtub all ready to strike when you come into the room, defenseless? And how unappealing is just the idea of twenty-five (!!) cobra eggs hidden in a melon bed 'about the size of bantam's eggs, but with a whitish skin instead of a shell.' I would sure want a mongoose to protect me!

In the course of the tale we learn that
It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity. The motto of all the mongoose family is, 'Run and find out.'
And that
it is impossible for a mongoose to stay frightened for any length of time.
And after Rikki-tikki had done his good work, he
had a right to be proud of himself; but he did not grow too proud, and he kept that garden as a mongoose should keep it, with tooth and jump and spring and bite, till never a cobra dared show its head inside the walls.
Oh, such a wonderful story. If you have children please try and read it to them, and if you don't or if your kids are grown, give yourself a real treat and read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi aloud. You'll be happy you did, I promise.

Painting of Rudyard Kipling done by Sir Philip Burne-Jones, 1899

fifth story in The Jungle Book
19 pages long
first published in magazines, 1893-94
first published as book, 1894
this copy published 1987

Monday, November 14, 2011

Today's poem by Nellie Womack Hines


My very heart’s desire is safe
within thy walls;
The voices of my loved ones, friends who come,
My treasured books that rest in niche serene,
All make more dear to me thy haven sweet.
Nor do my feet
desire to wander out except that
they may have the glad return at eventide-
Dear Home

Home! my very heart’s contentment lies within thy walls.
No worldly calls hath power to turn my eyes
in longing from
thy quietness. Each morn
when I go forth upon the duties of
the day
I wend my way
content to know that eve will bring me
safely to thy walls again.
Dear Home.

Nellie Womack Hines

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Not weekend cooking but weekend booking; and The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge

I'm going to forego my usual Weekend Cooking post today in order to catch up on some book notes on recently read books.

68. Murder Casts a Shadow - first Hawai'i mystery
by Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl
mystery, 2008
finished, 10/27/11

An especially wonderful mystery set in 1935 Hawai'i. The book is full of incredibly vivid descriptions, and very well-drawn characters. I learned a great deal about the history, the language, the culture of this most wonderful place. I've bought the second in the series called Murder Leaves Its Mark. I can't praise this highly enough. More a novel with a mystery than a straight mystery. Though written recently, it has the feel of a Golden Age mystery, and not only because it is set in the thirties. The writing is truly beautiful, and the description of a pre-WW II Hawaii filled me with longing to have lived there then.

69. Three Witnesses - a Nero Wolfe mystery
by Rex Stout
mystery, 1956
Kindle book, 44
finished, 10/28/11

I've raved about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin a few times in my letters. They are two of my favorite fictional characters of all time. This book is comprised of three novellas, or long short stories. Each one perfect. The last one involves a dog, with a most surprising, warm-hearted ending. No one can beat Rex Stout for his evocation of New York City in older days.

70. Death Among Friends (Dead and Buried, English title) - ninth in the Mrs. Malory series
by Hazel Holt
mystery, 1998
finished, 10/29/11

Not completely a Christmas book, since 3/4 of it takes place after Christmas, but it was still fun reading about Mrs M's Christmas. Not going to list it under my Christmas Books since it really isn't an important part of the book. A little formulaic but saved by sparkling wit. It took until page 106 to kill off the 'miserable cuss' as my father used to say. And it was the third 'accident' the person had had. I do get annoyed at her constant trying to make things better. Making excuses for someone's bad behavior. Perhaps this is good manners but I get frustrated with her inability, or her decision, to not deal directly with unpleasant people. Very satisfying but sad, as is often the case in these mysteries. The reader learns of the terrible things the murdered person did to many others.

72. No Mark Upon Her - fourteenth in the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series
by Deborah Crombie
mystery, 2011
finished, 11/6/11

I could write pages about this book, but I think I shall simply say that this fourteenth in the series is the best ever. Period. The domestic life and the work life of Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James are perfectly described. The characters grow and change just like real people in real life. The mystery is particularly interesting being set in the world of competitive rowing.

I've now read this series in three formats: twelve on the Kindle, one in paperback, and this one in hardcover, and by far, I prefer the latter. I love the way a big hardcover book will just sit there on my lap. It stays open easily. And the print is a good size for any reader. My friend Kay bought this via an UK seller because it isn't yet available in the US. Why on earth does this happen? Why isn't a book offered everywhere at once? Anyhow, because she hasn't yet completed the series, she most generously offered to let me read it first. And then I shall send it off to Teri, a friend of ours, and then it goes back to Kay. Lovely.

73. Mrs. McGinty's Dead - an Hercule Poirot mystery
by Agatha Christie
mystery, 1952
Kindle book, 46
finished, 11/8/11

Not my favorite Agatha Christie. I enjoy Ariadne Oliver but I begin to see her as a caricature rather than a character, with her apples strewn all about. This is one of those books where the sins of the past come back to haunt the present, and that people will do anything, including murder, to prevent knowledge of the past becoming known. Nice little twist at the end, but mostly the characters weren't so appealing to me.

From now through Christmas, I shall be reading Christmas books exclusively, except for my Kindle books.

I am going to join The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge at the Mistletoe level, 2-4 books. I'm also going to read some of the children's Christmas books I've kept from when my kids were little so shall sign on for the Visions of Sugar Plums level. And I may even write about some of the many Christmas movies we always watch for the Fa La La La Films level. All in all, a delightful way to spend my reading and watching time for the weeks leading up to Christmas. It runs from November 21 through Epiphany, January 6. I don't have a list of books I plan to read. My titles will come from the adult books on the table,

and the children's books in the basket.

I'm beginning my Christmas reading with a reread of Miss Read's Winter in Thrush Green.

Fa La La La Films:

Adult Books
1. Winter in Thrush Green by Miss Read
2. Skipping Christmas by John Grisham
3. The Old Peabody Pew by Kate Douglas Wiggin

Adult Short Story
1. Journey into Christmas by Bess Streeter Aldrich

Visions of Sugarplums
1. Children of Christmas by Cynthia Rylant
2. The Christmas Village by Melissa Ann Goodwin
Told For Children by William Dean Howells

Friday, November 11, 2011

I wish I were in Arkansas today

Have you heard about Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art? I first read about it in a New Yorker article. Whatever we think about Wal-Mart, the heiress daughter has, in my opinion, done something utterly wonderful with her money. For years she has collected American art, and this morning at 11 am, the museum will open with her pieces and others. And it is FREE to the public. If I were rich, this is one of the things I would do.

You may read more online, here; here; here; see photos here, and view the website itself. One of the major artists displayed is Thomas Hart Benton. If you don't know a lot about him, as I didn't, there is a wonderful film available at Netflix.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesdays - The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding

Please visit Breadcrumb Reads for more short stories this week.

I am particularly fond of this old cover because it best expresses what Agatha Christie meant when she offered this collection. She says in the foreward:
This book of Christmas fare may be described as 'The Chef's Selection'. I am the chef!
Isn't that delightful?! It is just the sort of humor I imagine the great writer to have had. She goes on to say:
There are two main courses: The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and The Mystery of the Spanish Chest; a selection of Entrées: Greenshaw's Folly, The Dream and The Underdog, and a Sorbet: Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds.

She tells the reader that this story 'recalls to me, very pleasurably, the Christmases of my youth.'
After my father's death, my mother and I always spent Christmas with my brother-in-law's family in the north of England - and what superb Christmases they were for a child to remember! Abney Hall had everything! ... So let me dedicate this book to the memory of Abney Hall - its kindness and its hospitality.

The story begins with a man from the government asking Hercule Poirot for help. He is accompanied by a young man, an engaged 'potentate-to-be, the only son of the ruler of a rich and important State' who has committed an indiscretion in England. While dining with a woman, he let her wear a famous ruby from his country's collection. She leaves to 'powder her nose' and disappears with the jewel. The government fellow, Mr. Jesmond requests that Poirot spend Christmas at a country house where he expects the ruby's thief will be in attendance. Hercule Poirot is not enthusiastic about the idea, thinking the place will be cold and uncomfortable. 'In the winter, I do not leave London.' Mr. Jesmond woos him by saying the old house has been modernized with central heating and hot water and radiators in all the bedrooms.

A lot happens in this short story. Someone tries to drug Poirot. He receives a note telling him not to eat the plum pudding. The owner of the house almost chokes on a piece of 'red glass' in his Christmas pudding and Hercule Poirot quietly pockets it. There is a staged murder which may be the real thing. And there is a group of young people with high spirits and great energy. And at the end M. Poirot is even kissed under the mistletoe! A thoroughly enjoyable and fun mystery! I expect I shall read more of these stories in the next few weeks.

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, an expanded version of a story with the same name which first appeared in The Sketch magazine December 11, 1923. It also appeared in other collections over the years, including Double Sin and Other Stories, 1961, in which it was called The Theft of the Royal Ruby. This collection was published in England in 1960.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Smitten with sunshine

The average amount of sunny days (not including partly sunny) in November in New Hampshire is 6. We are now 8 days into the month and I am quite sure every one of them has been sunny. Some days are crisp and others are warm, but the sun has been a constant.


And outdoors

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sunday Supper - Buttermilk Waffles

I realized that not only have I stopped writing about Sunday Suppers, I've stopped making those special, weekly breakfast-for-supper meals. Well, I'm going to start anew this first Sunday in November because both Tom and I love these sorts of suppers: waffles, pancakes, bread puddings, etc.

With Weekend Cooking on Saturdays and Sunday Supper on Sundays, it looks like Letters from a Hill Farm will be all about food on the weekends. Please do stop by for a bite to eat!

Because that buttermilk in the fridge runs out tomorrow, I chose buttermilk waffles for this return of the Sunday Suppers. The recipe comes from the Joy of Cooking.

Buttermilk Waffles

Sift together:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/3 teaspoons baking powder (you may wing it on that 1/3 t. - did they used to have such a measuring spoon??)
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Beat in a separate bowl until light:
2 egg yolks
Add and beat:
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
6 Tablespoons melted and cooled butter

Combine the liquid and dry ingredients with a few swift (don't you love that word?) strokes.

Beat until stiff, but not dry:
2 egg whites
Fold them into the batter. I use a rubber spatula to do this.

Cook in greased waffle iron.

Serve with anything you wish: confectioners sugar, fruit, maple syrup. We used the latter tonight.

P.S. If you'd like more such recipes, you may scroll down to 'Letter Topics' and click on 'Sunday Supper.'

In the waffle iron

On the plate


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Buttermilk Cookies

To read more weekend cooking posts, or to join in yourself, please visit Beth Fish Reads.

There are altogether too few cookies being baked in the Windy Poplars kitchen! It is time to remedy this problem. Yesterday I looked in the fridge and saw some buttermilk that I needed to use up. I typed buttermilk cookies into google, and came up with this great recipe. They take no time to make, the house smells divine, and the cookies are delicious! Honestly, these are some of the best cookies I've tasted.

Buttermilk Cookies

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup buttermilk

In the mixer, beat the butter till light. Add sugar, egg, and vanilla and continue blending.

In separate bowl, sift together flour, soda, and salt.

Turn down the speed of the mixer, and add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk.

Drop onto greased cookie sheets, and bake in preheated 375º F. oven for 10-12 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. Cool on cooling racks.

Frost with a buttercream frosting:

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups confectioners sugar
enough milk to make it smooth

The batter is delicious

as are the cookies!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Today's poem by Mary Oliver

Song for Autumn
by Mary Oliver

In the deep fall
don't you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don't you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think

of the birds that will come - six, a dozen - to sleep
inside their bodies? And don't you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.