Saturday, December 11, 2010

Junior High Girl

17 Book Rosamond du Jardin Collection

Although I read many books between 4th grade and junior high, the written record is incomplete, because I slacked off when it came to compiling my comprehensive master list. I resumed, however, in my splayed and earnest junior high cursive, writing out the titles and authors of all the teenage girl books that my friends and I were reading. As you will no doubt observe, the "mass market paperback" is well represented, but you'll also find a sprinkling of middle-brow classics.

I was better in those days than I am now at reading a number of titles by a single author. If I liked one, then I could easily remain true through half a dozen more. These days, I've grown more fickle; if I'm not totally enamoured the first time, well, it's one strike and you're out.

Way back then when the days were long, one of my reading strategies was to pick up a volume of Readers' Digest Condensed Books -- often while babysitting for sleeping children, find a story that I liked, and read it quickly to pass the time until the parents returned. Then in the following weeks, I would go to the library or the bookmobile ~ a fortnightly treat in our neighborhood! ~ and check out or request all the additional novels I could find by whatever author I had most recently discovered.

Skimpy, sketchy, and flawed though it may be, here's the list as it has been preserved:

1968 - 73

Jane Austen: Emma
Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights

Louisa May Alcott
Little Women
Little Men
Jo's Boys
Eight Cousins
Rose in Bloom
An Old Fashioned Girl

Pearl S. Buck
The Good Earth
The New Year

Taylor Caldwell
Captains and the Kings
Dear and Glorious Physician
Great Lion of God
Prologue to Love
On Growing Up Tough
The Search for a Soul: Taylor Caldwell's Psychic Lives
(by Jess Stern)

Barbara Clayton: Decision for Sally

Lloyd C. Douglas
The Robe
The Big Fisherman
Magnificent Obsession
Dr. Hudson's Secret Journal
Forgive Us Our Trespasses

Rosamund du Jardin
Class Ring
Practically Seventeen
Senior Prom
Wait for Marcy

Dorothy Eden: Waiting for Willa

Louanne Ferris: I'm Done Crying / Lillian Roth: I'll Cry Tomorrow
[I read these two together one night]

Catherine Gaskin
Edge of Glass
Property of a Gentleman

Rumer Godden & Lydia Halverson: The Kitchen Madonna

Arthur Hailey
Hotel St. Gregory
The Final Diagnosis

Victoria Holt
The Secret Woman
The Curse of the Kings
Kirkland Revels
The Mistress of Mellyn
The Pride of the Peacock
The Shadow of the Lynx
The Queen's Confession

Hope Dahle Jordan: Take Me to My Friend

Frances Kerns: The Stinsons

Grace Gelvin Kisinger: The New Lucinda

Irma Knott: This Thing Called Love

Janet Lambert: Forever and Ever

Katie Letcher Lyle: I Will Go Barefoot All Summer for You

Norah Lofts: How Far to Bethlehem?

James Vance Marshall: A Walk to the Hills of the Dreamtime

Melisssa Mather: One Summer In Between

Marjorie McIntyre: The River Witch

Florence Crannell Means: Reach for a Star

Iris Noble: Megan

Glendon Swarthout: Bless the Beasts and the Children

Willard Temple: Too Young To Be a Grandfather

Jean Webster
Daddy Long Legs
Dear Enemy

Phyllis A. Whitney: The Highest Dream

Ruth Wolff
A Crack in the Sidewalk
I, Keturah

And a final favorite . . .
Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk

. . . also loved staying up late
to watch this movie in the summertime!
(song by Doris Day, Sammy Fain, Paul Francis Webster)

I always liked what Andrea Dworkin has to say about this novel
when she describes her favorite girlhood heroes
in The New Woman's Broken Heart:

" . . . sometime about the 6th grade I got into the heavy stuff. Scarlett O'Hara and Marjorie Morningstar. . . . Marjorie. the thrill of eating bacon for the first time. of course I had eaten bacon all my life. I just hadn't ever before known how dangerous it really was. Noel Airman. An Actor. soon he would be balding, that's how old and evil he was. danger. sex. I could feel his creepy decadence. I looked for it everywhere. I coudn't find it in the grammar school I went to. he would corrupt her. he would corrupt me. . . . I might even go to Hell. I would be an artist. I would be able to feel. I would know everything. I ignored the 2nd part of the book where she married that jerk. none of that for me. keeping kosher indeed" (1 -2 ).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Even Older Favs From Even Further Back

My Old Friend Silver Chief

My last post of "Must Reads" (scroll down) began with a section of "Very Old Favorites From Way Back," way back meaning high school in the 70s. I can, however, go back even further than that. One of my oldest handwritten "documents" is my list of 100 favorite books that I read while in the 4th grade.

It's a funny list, printed in pencil on a piece of notebook paper, ranging all over the place from dog books to picture books, from mysteries to biography, from childhood nonsense to pre-teen angst. I thought of re-typing it here on my blog, for the sake of historical preservation, then realized that creating an amazon LISTMANIA! LIST would be so much more fun because it would include all of the old nostalgic cover art. Amazon has "no image available" for a few of the titles, and some of the old illustrations have been updated to something more contemporary.

However, as you will see if you check out LISTMANIA! many are as they ever were, and just the sight of them brought back vivid memories of visit after visit, down the hallway, down the stairs to the library at Intermediate School in Neosho, Missouri, in 1966 - 67. Do you recognize any old favorites?

Picture Books
Where The Wild Things Are
Nine Days To Christmas

American Classics
Charlotte's Web
Stuart Little
The Wizard of Oz

International Favorites
Snipp, Snapp, Snurr
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

A couple that I've already mentioned earlier on this blog:
The Birds' Christmas Carol
(8 December 2009: "HOLIDAY FAVORITES" )

The Witch Family
(24 June 2010: "BEEHOLD! BEEGIN! BEE STILL!" )

More Witch Books (a phase?)
Dorri and the Blue Witch
Miss Grimsbee is A Witch

Many Mysteries
everything by Helen Fuller Orton
and Catherine Woolley, author of my favorite Ginny and the Mystery Doll -- an early example of my interest in fictional dolls, leading up to the book I would write 30 years later! See my LISTMANIA! LIST: "Dolls in Literature", including my book, Created in Our Image: The Miniature Body of the Doll as Subject and Object.

Brave Strong Girl Stories
The Jennifer Wish
Becky and the Bandit
The Glass Slipper
by Eleanor Farjeon
(see 30 September 2010: "The Precious Firstlings" )

Families and Sisters
Understood Betsy
The All-of-a-Kind-Family

A Surprise:
One of the mysteries on my 4th grade list ~ The Diamond in the Window, was written by Jane Langton, who wrote Emily Dickinson is Dead, which I read just a few years ago without realizing that it was by the same author as one of my way-back favorites (see 13 September 2009: "Emily From Different Angles"),

and lastly

Animal Books:
Barn Cat by Belle Coates: A token cat story! Though I've always loved cats in real life, I never had a favorite fictional cat . . . well, not until Hello Kitty! came along."

Molly's Miracle by Linell Nash Smith (daughter of Ogden Nash)
I was, and still am, totally enchanted by this gently mystical story of evolutionary time travel in the barnyard world.

and every Silver Chief book ever written. I was a girl who loved cats way more than dogs, yet there was something about Silver Chief and all the other big dogs of the north that drew me in! On my old fourth grade list, I scribbled these words across the top:

"The best books I have ever read are:
Silver Chief Dog of the North
The Return of Silver Chief
Silver Chief to the Rescue
Silver Chief's Revenge
Silver Chief's Big Game Trail

For more of my 4th grade favorites (about 50 of the original 100), go to amazon:

My Fourth Grade Reading List, 1966 -67, first forty


My Fourth Grade Reading List, 1966 - 67, conclusion

Monday, October 25, 2010

Eclectic Course of Must Reads

The Little Prince, Most Dashing in his Traveling Scarf!

A few years back, several people all at once, each unbeknownst to the other, asked me what titles I would recommend to a reader who was starting at "Go." I mulled it over some, thinking about syllabi and reading lists. More importantly, however, I went with my heart and in an hour or so of brainstorming came up with the following list of "Must Reads."

Undoubtedly, you have only to glance down the page before a thousand omissions become apparent. No Shakespeare, for example...but maybe I wouldn't recommend Shakespeare at the starting line; better to run a couple of laps first. Not necessarily thematic or consistent or even rational, this list represents the titles that came to mind that day when I asked myself "What books are you really glad that you have read?"

I hope you will enjoy at least some of these suggestions:


These were the soul - searchers:

The Fantasticks
by Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt

Our Town

by Thornton Wilder

The Little Prince

by Antoine de Saint Exupery

I Heard the Owl Call My Name

by Margaret Craven

Doctor Zhivago

by Boris Pasternak

The Good Earth

by Pearl S. Buck

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
by Carson McCullers

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert Heinlein

The Water is Wide

by Pat Conroy


If you’re in the mood for a thriller,
I think these are all above average:

The Daughter of Time

by Josephine Tey

Summer’s Lease

by John Mortimer

The 7th of July

by Jill McCorkle

Fatal Inversion

by Ruth Rendell

The Secret History

by Donna Tartt

Turtle Moon

Second Nature

both by Alice Hoffman

The Erasers

by Alain Robbe-Grillet


As mentioned awhile back,
you should read everything by Bill Bryson;
also these American travelogues:

Blue Highways

and PrairyErth
both by William Least Heat Moon

Mama Makes Up Her Mind

and Sleeping At the Starlite Motel
both by Bailey White


Loss, sadness, and European history:

Badenheim 1939

by Aron Appelfeld

The Tin Drum

by Gunter Grass

War Time Memories

by Louis Begley

The Remains of the Day

by Kazuo Ishiguro

How German Is It

by Walter Abish


by John Hersey

Slaughterhouse Five

by Kurt Vonnegut

The White Hotel

by D. M. Thomas


Nearly all from my classes with
Professor Leonard Orr:

The Metamorphosis

and The Trial
by Franz Kafka

The Wanderer

by Henri Alain-Fournier

Death in Venice

by Thomas Mann

The Master and Margarita

by Mikhail Bulgakov

Out of Africa

and "Babette's Feast"
both by Isak Dinesen


by Banana Yoshimoto

If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler

by Italo Calvino


Don't worry, I'm leaving out Moby Dick:

Bartleby, the Scrivener
by Herman Melville

My Antonia

by Willa Cather

The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Winesburg, Ohio

by Sherwood Anderson

The Sound and the Fury

by William Faulkner

In Our Time

by Ernest Hemingway

"Appointment in Samara"
by John O’Hara

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

by Tennessee Williams

Catcher in the Rye
by J. D. Salinger


Modern and post-modern despair:

Dangling Man

by Saul Bellow

Miss Lonelyhearts
by Nathanael West

The Universal Baseball Association
by Robert Coover

Edwin Mullhouse

by Steven Millhauser

84 Charing Cross Road

by Helene Hanff

Still Life With Woodpecker

by Tom Robbins

Breakfast of Champions
Cat's Cradle

and Jailbird
all by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

by E. L. Doctorow

Bright Lights, Big City
and Brightness Falls
both by Jay McInerney


by Jane Smiley


Modern British and Irish fiction:

Far From the Madding Crowd

by Thomas Hardy

Sons and Lovers
The Man Who Died
The Captain’s Doll

all by D. H. Lawrence

Brideshead Revisited
by Evelyn Waugh

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
by Angus Wilson

Lucky Jim

by Kingsley Amis

Hurry On Down

by James Wain

My Strange Quest for Mensonge
by Malcolm Bradbury

Brave New World

by Aldous Huxley

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

by George Orwell

The Ice Age
by Margaret Drabble


and Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man
by James Joyce

The Third Policeman
by Flann O’Brien

My Left Foot

by Christy Brown

Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

A Man for All Seasons

by Robert Bolt

The Importance of Being Ernest
by Oscar Wilde


You can substitute other Dickens' titles if you want,
but I preferred these to David Copperfield or Oliver Twist:

A Tale of Two Cities

and Great Expectations
both by Charles Dickens


by Mary Shelley

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Favorites From 2010

Cover Illustration & Design by Roz Chast

The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books
and The People Who Read Them

Elif Batuman's amazing memoir of her years
as a graduate student in Russian Literature.

"I don't know if I ended up siding with the academics because I happened to be in graduate school, or if I ended up in graduate school because I already secretly sided with the academics. In any case, I stopped believing that 'theory' had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn't the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?" (22, emphasis added)

"If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that's where we're going to find them."

For more commentary:
"Holy Connection and Coincidence Batman"


Ron Hansen's historical novel about the
notorious, ill-fated Dalton Gang

For more commentary:
"Dalton Gang"
"End of Summer Sounds"


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Books by Friends and Friends of Friends

. . . and Relatives!

Art at the Speed of Life:
Motivation and Inspiration for
Making Mixed-Media Art Every Day

by Pam Carriker

On Native Ground: Memoirs and Impressions
by Jim Barnes

The Conjurer
by Cordelia Frances Biddle

The Side Door
by Jan Donley

"secrets . . . everywhere . . . under carpets, in closets, in pockets, underground . . ."

The Lost Girls
by Laurie Fox

" . . . the moment we are born appears to be the very same moment we forget we are loved. Now isn't that awkward? Shouldn't the two things dovetail, love and memory? Shouldn't a feeling that powerful be carved on a tree so no one can ignore its message? To come so far to be in this world only to forget something all - important -- what kind of journey is that? I'll bet that 90 percent of the love that surrounds us is dismissed or discounted -- the cup of tea a friend makes, the letter from a faraway auntie. The fact that no one feels loved ~enough~ merely proves my point" (43).

The Witch's Boy
by Michael Gruber

Devil's Gold
by Julie Korzenko

Why We Have Evening
by Leonard Orr

Weeping: A Fritillary Quilter Mystery
by Shelly Reuben

The Good Psychologist
by Noam Shpancer

Friday, August 13, 2010

About Opal Whiteley

Angel Mother did say,
"Make earth glad, little one--
that is the way to keep
the glad song ever in your heart.
It must not go out."

~Opal Whiteley
from her childhood diary (85)

I learned of Opal Whiteley (1897 - 1992) through the work of my cousin, Robert Lindsey Nassif, who wrote the script, music, and lyrics for Opal: A New Musical Adventure (winner of the Richard Rodgers Award). I haven't seen the play yet, but based on my reading, I feel sure that if you ever liked Our Town or The Fantasticks or A Midsummer Night's Dream, then you will be glad that you read this play. (Click to watch on youtube.)

And if you're a fan of Beatrix Potter, Edith Holden, Emily Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, or Annie Dillard, then you will find Whiteley's outlook similar in various ways to these nature-loving writers. Both the authenticity of the diary and the circumstances surrounding Whiteley's birth were disputed during her lifetime, and continue to be so even today.

There are several versions of the diary available.

Read one now and decide for yourself!

I went with:

Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart
by Opal Whiteley
Adapted by Jane Boulton

The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow:
The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whiteley

With a Biography and Afterword by Benjamin Hoff
(author of long-time favorites: The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet)

Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Mystery, and Madness
by Kathrine Beck

(Background Reading)

A Brit Among the Hawkeyes,
by Richard, Lord Acton

Includes the essay "To Live Again in Music: The Riddle of Opal Whiteley," in which Acton describes his attendance at two poignant events in February 1992: Opal's funeral mass in London; and the New York premiere of Nassif's play, Opal: A New Musical Adventure" (above).




Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dysfunctional Family Memoirs
(Fun? Not so much . . . )

Anne Taintor Postcard

The Social Contract
Jean Jacques Rousseau

All vote. All consent.
It's like a big family.
Not mine, but someone's.

by David M. Bader
Haiku U. ~ From Aristotle to Zola: 100 Great Books in 17 Syllables

Bader's literary haiku and Anne Taintor's captions are always hilarious, but all joking aside, I've recently read several family memoirs, all on the sad side, all about children making their way through minefields of dysfunction.

We Became Like a Hand: A Story of Five Sisters
by Carol Ortlip

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book. It was good, but I can't say that the proffered redemption balances out the sordid descent. However, I did love the metaphor of the title, the image of the siblings as a hand, each sister a fragile finger. Nor could I forget the sharpness of this cutting line: "I bring . . . an awareness of the razor that lives in the mind, ready to slice an opening into the world of madness if given half the chance" (219). So chilling and accurate.

Three Weeks With My Brother
by Nicholas Sparks

You might know Sparks already for his bestselling novels and blockbuster movies: e.g., Dear John, Message in a Bottle, The Notebook. Connection and coincidence: Sparks was an undergrad at Notre Dame when I was there! I'd like to say that he was one of my Freshman Writing students, but no, he wasn't! I wonder whose class he was in? Probably one of my fellow T.A.s!

In Three Weeks, he compresses the story of his life (almost 40 years) into a narrative that fits alongside the details of a three-week trip around the world with his older brother. The travelogue is fascinating but the autobiography even more so. As in Ortlip's book, the family ranks dwindle sadly, the fingers falling away one by one.

Without any hint of disrespect or rebellion, Sparks writes candidly about his parents and their casual, nearly dismissive, approach to parenting: "Yet, my mother was -- and always will be -- an enigma to me. While I knew she loved me, I couldn't help but wonder why she wouldn't acknowledge my successes. While we kids were the center of her life, she let us run wild in dangerous places, doing dangerous things. These inconsistencies have always puzzled me, and even now, I'm at a loss to explain them" (127). Not to spoil the ending, but his parents are both deceased by the time these questions arise, so he needn't steel himself for their response. He is left to make his own puzzling observations and draw his own conclusions about their apparent carelessness. I was reminded of a long ago day in my own childhood when reading his description of the time he and his brother were left alone in a hospital parking lot:

"It was hot that day, probably close a hundred degrees. We'd been left with neither food nor water, and to keep our minds off the heat, we spent the next few hours climbing the tree or walking just inside the lines of the imaginary box [the acceptable boundaries indicated by their mother]. We made a game of getting as close to the imaginary lines as we could without stepping over. At one point, I stumbled and fell over the line. I remember standing quickly, but the thought that I'd disobeyed my mom, coupled with the stress that we were under, brought me to tears. . . .

"My brother and I were a curious and sad sight in the parking lot. Strangers would see us as they got out of the car on their way to visit someone inside; hours later, when they came back out, we'd still be sitting in the same spot. A few people offered to buy us a soda or something to eat, but we'd shake our heads and say that we were fine. . . . Later in the afternoon [when his brother fell] . . . we wondered whether we should dis-obey our mom and head into the hospital to tell her about it. . . . We didn't move, though. We couldn't
[too afraid of getting in trouble]" (41 - 42)

Sparks doesn't use the words "careless" or "negligent' -- but I thought them. What's lacking in the child rearing practices he describes (e.g., letting the three kids run loose on a major highway) seems to be any deeply held conviction that children are an irreplaceable treasure that could be lost at any moment if a parent isn't careful. As one of my friends pointed out, we were typically raised in a group of sibs (not just one or two), with an attitude that any particular kid was "spare."

I've often suspected that one of the things that Boomer generation parents have got right (at the risk of being called "helicopters") is that we just love our kids to pieces, in a way not readily exemplified in previous generations. For example, my peers and I can recount plenty of instances of our parents' outbursts, but they don't seem so quite so funny, not even in hindsight, do they? For one thing, I'm still amazed at how downright MEAN our parents could be -- not just stressed and confused and at their wits end, but premeditated MEANNESS. And for another, our parents never apologized to us for being out of line in their anger, whereas I have always done so as soon as I can see that I owe my kids an apology.

Over the years, I have come to realize the falsity of that old cliche about "Oh, when you look back, it won't seem so bad" or "Oh, one day you'll laugh about this." No, I think the exact opposite is true: you look back and realize that circumstances were actually way worse than you could ever acknowledge at the time because your emotional survival depended on pushing the reality out of your mind and rationalizing that all was well. I look back now at numerous incidents from the first twenty-five or so years of my life, and I think, "Oh my god, that was HORRIBLE!"

On the other hand, one of Sparks' happiest memories, referred to several times throughout the book, is the time - honored advice that he received from his mother: "It's your life / No one ever promised that life would be fair / What you want and what you get are usually two entirely different things" (127, 183, 316, 352). In fact, it is during a conversation along these lines that his mother says the magic words that eventually change his life: "Write a book!"

The Glass Castle: A Memoir
by Jeannette Walls

What selfish, inept parents! I was stunned to hear Jeannette Walls say in an interview that she wrote the book as a tribute to her parents even though they might come off in the book as somewhat flawed. SOMEWHAT FLAWED? Is she kidding? They come off as abhorrent! I kept wondering if Walls herself is not delusional? Does she really believe it when she says her parents were close and loving, that their life was intellectually stimulating and artistically nurturing, when in fact they lived in utter neglectful squalor? Or is she just trying to convince herself -- and the reader? I had to keep reminding myself that this upbringing took place in the 1970's, not the 30's. No flush toilet, no ceiling, rats on the table? That's not a nurturing environment -- that's criminal negligence, even more so, because these parents know better yet still treat their own children so shamefully.

I am left wondering if the parents were even more distasteful than Walls portrays and she just can't bear to paint their behavior any uglier or less competent than she already does. Or could it possibly be that things were not quite as bad as she depicts? It's not that she seems to be lying or exaggerating; and frankly, even if her upbringing was only HALF as bad as portrayed, it would still be horrible. But SOMETHING is missing from the equation here -- just not sure what it is.

The few times when her parents do come through for her are not even remotely enough to redeem their slovenly way of being in the world and their trashy concept of child-rearing. Her tolerance of them is mystifying to me, nor would I call it ennobling or forgiving. She wants it to be true that her parents could make a lifetime of deliberately sordid, lousy choices yet still be somehow pure of heart. No -- not possible! At best they were alcoholic (the dad) and mentally ill (the mom); at worst, fundamentally incapable of putting their children before themselves. And the author: at best, she's delusional; at worst deceiving. I'm not saying she's not a survivor -- she is. But her parents were not lovable, they were shiftless opportunists.

Have I walked a mile in Walls' shoes? No, I have not lived in poverty or squalor or alcoholic distress, but I know all about trying to put a good spin on a bad story; and what I'm hearing in this memoir is a very bad story told by a narrator who keeps insisting, "No so bad, not so bad." I'd prefer more truthfulness. Not that one has to be victimized, but -- let's face it -- once a bad story, always a bad story. I'm aware that the overwhelming response to Glass Castle is admiration for the author's courage. Well, now that she's an adult, how about attempting some mature analysis of what she experienced as a child? That's the courage I want to read about. I've been told that her next book, Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel explores some of these issues in further detail. I'll have to give it a try.

Precious /Push
by Sapphire

If you've seen this movie, or merely the previews, then you know already how the heroine, Precious triumphs over every imaginable kind of dysfunction and degradation: sexual abuse, inadequate education, an utter dearth of affection. The cover of the book plainly says novel not memoir. However, the movie goes to a great deal of trouble to present the narrative as autobiographical from the perspective of Precious; and so does the book. So I was rather disillusioned to learn how little the author's life resembles the story of Precious. The two intersect most prominently at the point where Sapphire "taught reading and writing to teenagers and adults" in Harlem. Oh, so this material is lifted from her students' journals? Well, then why not say so?

Thursday, June 24, 2010


SSR (Sustained Silent Reading)
We always loved this acronym for the quiet time / reading period
at Ben & Sam's grade school.

It's always nice to reread an old favorite, especially on a summer afternoon like today, when I pulled out The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes, the story of two brave creative girls whose drawings can shape reality (in manner of Harold and the Purple Crayon). I first read this book back in 2nd or 3rd grade and have never been without a copy, though I don't recall the last time I actually sat down and reread it from front to back (it doesn't take long).

A few memorable features have stuck with me over the years:

1. the butterfly poem
(currently featured on my Fortnightly Literary Blog):

"Non. That means no.
Oui. That means yes.
And papillion. That means butterfly.
Oui, non, Papillon -- a very pretty rhyme"

2. the way Amy, who loves written correspondence, signs all of her letters: "I love you and you love me, Amy"

3. the Spelling Bee: an amazingly literate bumblebee named Malachi who can communicate by spelling aloud (often in puns; always in all - caps). E.g., BEEHOLD! BEEGIN! BEE STILL!

And here's one more clever little detail that seems the perfect answer to a question that came up last summer. In Chapter One, entitled "Old Witch, Banished," the girls find it necessary to discipline the bad witch with a banishment that quickly becomes a banquishment: "I banquished her," said Amy proudly. Sometimes Amy joined two words together, creating one new word. Here, banish and vanquish had become "banquish" . . . I banquished her to the top of the glass hill to learn to be good" (17, 136).

Funny, I wasn't even thinking of this precedent (see "Romeo is Banish'd", August 2009) when my younger son asked me, "Mom, can you banquish? I told him that you can vanish and vanquish; and you can banish, but you can't really banquish, though it certainly sounds like something one should be able to do. How refreshing to be reminded that Amy and Clarissa have been banquishing ever since way back when!

I encountered a similar conundrum (astoundished / astonded / astonished / astounded) in The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart (192), a book I picked up only because Benedict is the name of my other son (older brother to the banquished Sam). The Benedict Society consists of four quirky little geniuses (Constance Contraire, Kate Wetherall, Reynard Muldoon, and George "Sticky" Washington) out to save the brave new world, kind of like Edward Gory's Gashlycrumb Tinies, except upbeat and resourceful instead of doomed.

A new book for me this month was E. L. Konigsburg's Up From Jericho Tel, featuring a couple of quick-witted, enterprising friends, Jeanmarie and Malcolm. Like the Benedict Society kids, these two have a mission for improving the planet; and like Amy and Clarissa, they are delightfully verbally oriented. I'm also delighted that their secret password is Papillon! -- providing yet another literary connection and coincidence for Butterfly Collection!

"Jericho Tel" is their Pet Cemetery, and for each deceased animal, they create a weathergram: "a poem of ten words or less that a person writes on plain brown paper and hangs on a tree. . . . The message is rubbed by the wind, faded by the sun, washed by the rain and becomes part of the world." For example, in honor of a deceased blue jay: "May your soul have flown to heaven before you sank to earth" and for a stricken luna moth: "Fly. Fluttter. Falter. Fall" (9 - 10, 13).

For more Konigsburg, see my previous post Summer Make Believe, July 2009.

Favorite passage from The Mysterious Benedict Society: "There was much to remember about that time, and much to tell, but the moon in its nightly travels would dwindle, disappear, and fatten again before their stories were entirely told. There was too much to do, too little time for storytelling" (473; and Harvest Moon, September 2009).

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Alexander Technique & Inner Quiet

The Poise With Which We're Born

"To look up and not down,
look forward and not back,
look out and not in . . ."
Edward Everett Hale (1822 - 1909)
American author and Unitarian clergyman

Hale's maxim for a healthy mental attitude uses the same words that Alexander applied to the ideal physical stance: up, forward, out. In the photo above, you can see how four - year - old Sam executes this motion naturally, bending and balancing effortlessly.

I came to the Alexander Technique by way of tendonitis, whether from snow shoveling, playing scales, swimming, or dragging my urban grocery cart around the streets of Philadelphia was never determined. A non-tennis player with tennis elbow, I began Alexander lessons as a way of learning how unconscious physical habits might be a contributing factor. The Alexander Technique focuses holistically on helping the student improve the "use" of the body; my "homework" involved lying flat on the floor and letting gravity pull the tension out of my joints. While the sessions do not work like magic, they do provide an instructive, calming method of learning to re-align your posture, always with the neck free, and the head forward and up. Additional Alexander imperatives are to take more time before moving any body part and to use no more energy than absolutely necessary, something I've been guilty of in piano, swimming, driving, and storming around in general. The goal is a new way of being in the world, not a way of escape.

A primary Alexander concept is to pause, as does the 265 - year - old man in The Tao of Pooh, who attributes his long life to "walking lightly" and "inner quiet" (see below, 110). The legendary F. M. Alexander, who founded the Technique, is supposed to have said on his death bed: "If I had it do over again, I think I would have been happier if I had paused more." Hmmmm. Something to think about.

Another principle is to stop doing, i.e., we can't improve ourselves by changing or doing something different but only by ceasing to do what is harming us in the first place. According to Alexander, our goal is to go forward, never back or sideways (even though going backward to a life before pain may seem preferable to our present situation). Musician and Alexander practitioner, Pedro De Alcantara invokes wise King Solomon on this topic: "Ask not thou, 'What is the cause the former days were better than these?' for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this" (see below, 4). De Alcantara says that "Stress is a stimulus, strain a response. Clearly it is the response that causes a problem . . . The stress of life is permanent and inevitable," (2). Thus we study the Alexander Technique as a way of functioning that will reduce the strain to our selves.

I trust that the following titles, drawn from my Listmania will aid in the endeavor.

Alexander Background

F.M.: The Life of Frederick Matthias Alexander: Founder of the Alexander Technique by Michael Bloch

F. Matthias Alexander: the Man and His Work by Lulie Westfeldt

Alexander Technique

Teach Yourself Alexander Technique by Richard Craze (New Edition):"The Alexander Technique is not a therapy, philosophy or creed . . . you won't be asked to change your diet, lifestyle or the way you dress. Nor will you be asked to "believe" anything. . . . And just to clear up a popular misconception, the Alexander Technique isn't a technique in the strict sense of the word. It is simply a way of learning to move our bodies in the way that they were designed to be moved"(2, 4).

Body Learning: An Introduction to the Alexander Technique by Michael Gelb: " . . . consider standing up...move into an upright posture. Congratulations! You have just re-enacted a process that took millions of years to develop. The upright posture...creates the possibility of effortless, easy movement but at the same time can cause tremendous insecurity if not functioning properly...most of us interfere with our balance by working too hard to hold ourselves up"(129).

The Alexander Technique: A Complete Course in How to Hold and Use Your Body for Maximum Energy by John Gray: "Modern living is so complex, hectic and... unnatural - we are wildly over-stimulated mentally and wrongly stimulated physically, sitting as we do for long periods at office desks or machines, cooped up in cars, rushing around leading over-busy lives or crushed together in trains and buses, frustrated and angry as we cope inadequately with what should be a full, rich life" (83 - 84).

Alexander Technique: For Health and Well-Being by Michèle Mac Donnell: "An understanding of the psycho-physical system as a whole is essentially focused on the co-ordination of the head, neck, back. If we interfere with the sophisticated and subtle relationship between these 3 regions, it can become distorted and strained. The Technique's preventive role is an efficient tool to maintain tone and general well - being, once integrated in our systems"(6).

Skill Related Studies

The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green
The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey: "Stress is a thief that, if we let it, can rob of of the enjoyment of our lives...The cause of most stress can be summed up by the word attachment . . . Freedom from stress does not necessarily involve giving up anything, but rather being able to let go of anything, when necessary, and know that one will still be all right" (117).

Indirect Procedures: A Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique by Pedro de Alcantara: "Practising localized finger exercises designed to solve a perceived problem easily becomes part of the problem. The great historical example of this folly is the permanent injury that the young Robert Schumann did to his hands while trying to improve the working of his ring fingers" (143). Of all the Alexander "how-to" writers, Alcantara is the best at showing the scientific basis for Alexander's concepts as well as capturing the philosophical side (just in case you're wondering whether it's science or religion). Written by authors who are better thinkers than writers, Inner Music and Inner Tennis are full of great ideas but not necessarily great prose. Alcantara, on the other hand, writes beautifully: " . . . the continuity of the musical line . . . is more important than getting all the notes right" (57).

Just Play Naturally: An account of her study with Pablo Casals in the 1950's and her discovery of the resonance between his teaching and the principles of the Alexander Technique by Vivien Mackie: "It was that I must be, in my entire being, right here, with what I'm doing now . . . there is no attention to spare for what has gone before, and there is no attention to spare for what is coming next . . . I really did manage to keep at bay all the ghosts and gremlins . . . And treat the occasion as pure adventure . . . accepting what happens with open arms and meeting it as it comes" (73, 103). As part of her Prologue (xix), Mackie quotes the following from "Song of Myself":

"I have heard what the talkers were talking,
the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now.

Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now.

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now."

by Walt Whitman, 1819 - 1892
American poet, essayist, journalist, and humanist

Personal Favorites

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach: "Overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now" (87).

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff: "The Pooh Way" is consistent with "The Alexander Way," both mentally and physically. The concept of "wu wei" means without doing, making, or causing, "no going against the nature of things; no clever tampering...I go down with the water and come up with the water. I follow it and forget myself. I survive because I don't struggle against the water's superior power. That's all" (68-69, see 67 - 90). Nothing to live against!

Desiderata by Max Ehrmann: A poem for all times, perfect for the Alexander student: "Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. . . . Avoid [vexations] to the spirit. . . .Nurture strength of spirit . . . do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. . . . be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe." [See my earlier (October 2, 2009) Desiderata blog post: "Be Careful!"]

Trust Your Heart by Judy Collins: This CD is a soothing Alexander companion, especially the title song:

"Trust Your Heart"*
In the sky the phantom moon appears at midday
To join the sun in some forgotten dance
In their light our voices tremble with reflections
Of what we know and what we leave to chance

The heart can see beyond the sun
Beyond the turning moon
And as we look
The heart will teach us
All we need to learn

We have dreams, we hold them to the light like diamonds
Stones of the moon and splinters of the sun
Some we keep to light the dark nights on our journey
And shine beyond the days that we have won

The heart can see beyond our prayers
Beyond our fondest schemes
And tell us which are made for fools
And which are wise men's dreams

Trust your heart

Trust your heart


and "The Life You Dream"*

There's a time that comes once every morning
When you choose the kind of day you will have
It comes in with the sun and you know you've begun
To live the life you dream
You can light all your candles to the dawn
And surrender yourself to the sunrise
You can make it wrong you can make it right
You can live the life you dream

Pray to Buddha pray to Krishna pray to Jesus
Or the shadow of the devil on your wall
Anyone you call
will come

The night comes to you dressed in darkness
Descends on your body like a blessing
You can lie in its arms it will heal your heart
You can life the life you dream
You can wake in this vale of tears
You can laugh like a child again
You can make it right you can make it wrong
You can live the life you dream

What you see and you believe is not the answer
To anything that matters very much
Anything you touch
is gone

In the valleys you look for the mountains
In the mountains you search the rivers
You have no where to go you are where you belong
You can live the life you dream
If you call him your master will find you
Seven bars on the gate will not hold him
Seven fires burning bright only give him delight
You can live the life you dream

All your treasure buys you nothing but the moment
All your poverty has lost you everything
Love will teach your dream
to sing

* Words and Music by Judy Collins
Universal Music Corp; The Wildflowers Company

P.S. also on The Quotidian Kit:
"Dream for Your Life"
"Alexander Technique"
OT: Elbow Gazing

and my list on Listmania

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


See also my Fortnightly Post:
"Play With This!"
I can appreciate Lamott's anecdote about the evening when her son Sam hugged her good-night and they both suddenly realized how much taller than her he had grown: "Wow," he said, stepping back, "When did this happen? You're like a little gnome to me now."
(PLAN B, 150)
Speaking of which, in above photo:
My Older Son Ben, Me [Little Gnome], My Younger Son Sam
March 2010, Formby Pine Woods, Merseyside, England



I read these two Anne Lamott books about ten years ago, when my friend Etta gave them to me as a birthday present. Rather than one book about child-rearing and one book about faith, really both books are about both subjects. As I told Etta at the time, the religious parts are on the wacky side but Lamott's parenting insights are excellent, all about coping with the fragility of life and childhood passages (illness, growing pains, coming of age, etc.).

A couple of years later, I read BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE (1994), and wrote to tell Etta what a delightful book it was, about writing and life, full of wit and creativity, positive energy and good advice:

"Don't be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done. . . . Don't worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it" (226).

Etta wrote back all worried that I hadn't liked the first two Lamott books she had sent (Operating and Traveling). I had to remind her that my original assessment had been at least 50% positive. I wrote to her (thank goodness for saved mail): "Etta, go back in your mind to what I said when you sent them. I loved Lamott's wit from the very beginning. She seems like a wonderful parent, and her generous observations have allowed me to forgive myself for not being the perfect mother -- that 's saying a lot! Not many books have been able to do that! My one & only criticism was her religious mumbo jumbo, and you know that has always made me uneasy, since I was about age 9 or so! Still, everything else she says is so meaningful that I can work around the stumbling blocks. Now, do you believe me at last that the books were a wonderful present that have had a profound impact on my way of thinking and being in the world? I hope so!"

In fact, when I pulled out Operating Instructions that day (to re-read favorite passages after finishing Bird by Bird) guess what fell out -- the birthday card that Etta had enclosed back in 1999, telling me that Lamott's writing reminded her of my "funny voice." She had written on the card: "If you ever feel compelled to write, I hope you use your funny voice like this book does." What a wonderful compliment! I blushed at such high praise, and felt honored that she could see any resemblance between Lamott's tone & mine.



In Plan B you'll find Lamott at her best! Last year, in my Fortnightly post, "Rocky Road" I told the story of how this book, like the first two, entered my life as a birthday present -- this time from my friend Cate. To this day, Cate's favorite is the essay about the rock in Mary's hand. I like the one called "Diamond Heart," which contains the "Little Gnome" incident and an opening ode to puttering: "I was puttering around the house, which is my main spiritual practice" (Plan B, 149). Hey, mine too! The exaltation of puttering! You've gotta love that!

Most recently is Grace Eventually, like the others a mixed bag but mostly terrific. Existential moment: "Why are we here? . . . "To live, love, help -- to decorate. To sweep our huts and find some food" (135). Another favorite line: "The lesson was on Letting Go: so I gritted my teeth winsomely" (31). Only Anne Lamott (and Roz Chast -- I can see it now) could grit her teeth winsomely. In fact, I can always count on these two for a laugh (also on my list: Bryson, Colbert, Sedaris, Vowell).

From my cynical perspective, these two books, same as with those above, contain some crazy portions that raised my skepticism. Lamott's narrative voice combines a progressive political stance with a near-fundamentalist religious outlook -- two views which, in my experience, rarely co-exist within one individual. Yet, she doesn't judge; and all of her books make me laugh and cry and feel compelled to read aloud to Gerry and think a lot about belief, faith, and forgiveness. I definitely admire her vision of what life on Earth is supposed to look like.

One thing you can say about Anne Lamott, she has the guts to expose her craziness to the world, and in a very reassuring way. More than any other writer I've ever encountered, she shows me how to forgive myself for being human, for being mean, for being wrong, for making bad choices and stupid mistakes. I need a writer like that in my life!

P.S. I tried Plan B as a book on tape, read by Anne herself. But strangely enough, I didn't feel the love, didn't hear the wryness, didn't laugh the way I do when hearing her voice in my head. The same thing happened when I saw her on The Colbert Report. She was earnest, but where was that "nice sick sense of humor" that she writes about in Bird by Bird (50)? Back home inside those books I guess. So, with these titles, even if they're available to download or as CDs, I have to recommend sticking with the written word.

P.P.S. Question / Suggestion for Anne: Why the same subtitle three times in a row? Time to branch out!

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Last year's reading opened with one
coincidence and closed with another.

SYMBOLIC SEAGULLS! Back in January, I was surprised by the unlikely appearance of two symbolic seagulls. I started off the year with volume one of M. T. Anderson's historical fiction, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, quickly followed by Gladys Reunited: A Personal American Journey, a memoir by British / Danish writer Sandi Toksvig. As I wrote a few months ago on my Fortnightly Blog of Connection and Coincidence (see "Birds of Pray"), what's the odds that that I would encounter two one-legged seagulls in two weeks, in two books so widely differing from each other?

Anderson's book is about young Octavian, brought from Africa in the 1700s, and forced to participate in an elaborate educational experiment. As a young man, he strikes out on his own, chooses "Nothing" as his surname, and makes his way through a maze of contradictory American history.

Toksvig's book describes her travels across the United States, as she engages in a marathon reunion with the girls, now women, whom she knew from her school days on the East Coast. Her narrative ranges from amusing and insightful (regarding North American social customs and popular culture) to surprisingly unkind toward her former school chums, especially those who have made life choices and followed paths different than her own (as a Lesbian and a successful writer and entertainer).
FIRE ME! The year came to a close with two fiery titles:When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris and Mother on Fire by Sandra Tsing Loh. How often does a title feature fire? I'm not sure, but I think I may have once again beat the odds with this thematic coincidence.

Not to be repetitive, but I have already mentioned When You Are Engulfed in Flames, on this Book List (see "Catching Up On Sedaris"). However, you can never really have too much Sedaris, can you? His trip to Japan yielded many humorous examples of "weird English," such as the one which, obviously, was to become the title of his book -- "When you are engulfed in flames" -- from a brochure on hotel safety; and this mysterioius one printed on a gift bag: "Only imflowing you don't flowing imflowing." (Please to translate!) He also recounts the trials and tribulations of being not just the worst student in his Japanese language class, but "clearly the worst" (283, 309). Poor David! On the serious side, here's one of his introspective observations that really stuck with me: "sometimes the sins you haven't committed are all you have to hold on to" (233). I'm going to keep thinking about that one.

Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting! is an energetic, energizing book about parenting and picking the right grade school (public vs. private) for your kids. Okay, yes, I saw the negative press about Loh and her marriage, but I'm not going to think about that. I'm going to focus instead on how much I relished her depiction of the almost perfect, all-American childhood, and the driving force behind it, i.e., a Mom on Fire! Plus, I like the way that she weaves in Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, Mary Poppins, and Charlotte's Web:

"Perhaps it is the wonder of periomenopause, but my days are suddenly shot through with luminous, almost hallucinogenic magic. All at once, I see the meaning of my whole year. . . . the wildest revelation of my unmedicated, premonopausal fever-dream: I suddenly saw what had been hitherto invisible to me, an astonishingly beautiful universe, a shimmering web made of millions of gossamer threads, tended, day by day hour by hour, patiently, by the stubborn and unsung force -- of women. Everywhere around me, in the the city, the whole time, there had been Charlottes, spinning their webs" (239).

Loh's metaphor captures the beauty of webs and being connected and taking care of each other. Charlotte must be the world's favorite spider, and what's more she is also a mother and a true friend. Certainly to me she has always seemed more human than arachnid. She's on our side. She loved Wilbur, and she saved his life. She looked to the future on behalf of her children.


Illustration by Garth Williams
from Charlotte's Web

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Colorful Cassons (& Conroys)

Click on Paint Chart to Enlarge
Enjoy Reading Humorous Captions!*

A few summers ago, when my nephew Daniel came to visit me In West Lafayette, we walked over to Chauncey Village so that he could have the fun of shopping at VON'S, the best bookstore for miles around. Daniel, a specialist in adolescent lit, checked out all the titles and settled on a book to leave behind for me to read after he returned home. He was sure that I would love it, and he was right!

That book, Saffy's Angel (2001) is the first in a series of five novels, and after just one, I was hooked! It was fun and fast (always a plus with me, the slowest reader under the sun), reminiscent of The Saturdays, Understood Betsy, and The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler -- all rolled into one.

Written by British author, Hilary McKay, the Casson Books are a great teen reading series (let's say PG 13, as there is a substantial amount of adult conflict). The Casson parents are eccentric artists, who have named all their children after colors: the girls -- Cadmium, Saffron (that's Saffy), Rose, and their brother Indigo.

The novel opens and closes with a reference to the all - important paint chart on the wall of their chaotic kitchen: "Each little square had the name of the color underneath. To the Casson children those names were as familiar as nursery rhymes. Other families had lullabies, but the Cassons had fallen asleep to lists of colors" (1, Saffy's Angel).

In Saffy's Angel, each of the children is up to something. Saffy is searching for the meaning of her name and for the angel that is her inheritance, Caddy is learning to drive, and Indigo is learning to be brave. A few months ago, I wrote a Quotidian blog post about Indigo's quest for courage: "Indigo thought about it, and it seemed to him that he had been born afraid of almost everything. He made a list. He wrote down on a piece of paper all the things that frightened him most, and he set about to cure himself" (24, Saffy's Angel).

Each successive novel features one particular sibling, though we learn about all of them in every book: Indigo's Star (2003), Permanent Rose (2005), and Caddy Ever After (2006). Naturally, each child has a special talent, but it's Rose who seems to have inherited her parents' artistic tendencies:
"By now the morning was bright with heat. Rose, who saw the world in terms of pictures, thought that if she had wanted to paint it, she would need the sort of colors they were expected to use at school. Flat yellows and oranges, and hopeless, unshining greens. She squinted up to the sun as if to ask what it was thinking of to allow such unpleasantness. The sun glared back down at her like an overbearing adult who had finished with pandering to the likes of Rose." ~ from Permanent Rose (75)
As the youngest, Rose requires a bit more time to grow up. Thus, to the great delight of her readers, McKay has written one more novel on Rose's behalf: Forever Rose (2007). I can say for sure that Daniel and I would be happy if this series just went on and on and on . . .

Follow - Ups
Summer 2014: latest installment Caddy's World
Spring 2015: and now there's Rose's Blog

No doubt about it, McKay knows how to create a fun, lovable family, with plenty of sibling rivalry to go around, but also great affection. Before the Cassons, there were the Conroys, a family of four sisters -- Ruth, Naomi, Rachel, and Phoebe -- who call themselves The Exiles. In this trilogy -- The Exiles (1991), The Exiles at Home (1992), and The Exiles in Love (1996) -- McKay has recreated Little Women in present day England. Very clever and well done; every parallel is there!

A few favorite thoughts about thinking:
"Only people with no mental resources get bored."
~ from The Exiles in Love (122)

"Rachel's diary . . . In it every meal she had eaten that summer had been carefully recorded. Writing accounts of mere events, she had soon decided, was a waste of time and not at all necessary. For example, she could look at the previous Sunday's entry: 'Ordinary breakfast, roast chicken, peas, pots, runny trifle pudding, egg sandwiches, chocolate cake, ginger cookies,' and the whole day's happenings would immediately spring to mind and insert themselves neatly between the appropriate meals. Rachel thought that everyone's brain worked this way."
~ from The Exiles (148, 201)

Even better than Rachel's "meticulous record of . . . eating" (which I think just might work for me as a method of recollection!) is the girls' description of their grandmother's way of thinking: " . . . she doesn't forget things. She notices everything and it goes into her head and makes patterns. Or something. So the more she notices, the more she knows."
~ from The Exiles at Home (102)

*The humorously captioned color chart is a trade postcard,
advertising the BBC Good Homes Show 2002,
held at the National Exhibition Center
in Birmingham, England, 3 - 6 May 2002.

Sunday, January 10, 2010



The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas (1991) by Jeff Smith (1939 - 2004) is the best holiday cookbook I know of. Both my latkes and my mincemeat are from this source. One of my sisters gave me this book for Christmas back in 1996, and I gave a copy to one of my brothers a couple of Christmases after that.It's that good. Once you've read it, you'll want to give it as a present to someone else!

More than a collection of recipes, it is also a fascinating narrative of cultural history and seasonal tradition, ingeniously illustrated and creatively organized. Each chapter presents a dish for a different character from the traditional manger scene: angel hair pasta for the angels, green olive soup for the shepherds (I tried this recipe one year -- odd), lamb chops for the tax collector, Persian meatballs for the Magi, right down to milk and honey for the Baby Jesus.

Then there's The Frugal Gourmet Keeps the Feast: Past, Present, and Future (1995), a book about food as sacrament and celebration. Smith was an ordained minister as well as a chef, and the first half is a collection of articles about theology and feasting. The second half is organized into chapters such as "Old World Soups," "Salads from the Ancient World," and "Eggs on the Biblical Table." All things are ready! Come to the feast!


Which brings us to another favorite, The Feast of Christmas: Origins, Traditions, and Recipes (1992) by Paul Levy (b 1941). Filled with beautiful food photography, vintage illustrations, and lots of narrative, this book asks: "What is it that distinguishes the attitude of the feaster from that of the ordinary eater?" Answer: Sensory expectation, social pleasure, and intellectual reward. Levy says that "Instinctively we know the importance of feasting," but only rarely do we practice the art of eating reflectively: "Once a year [Christmas!] our dismal diet disappears, and . . . we are given a glimpse of what food can mean" (7).

In the same vein is The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (1967) by The Rev. Robert Farrar Capon (b 1925), an ordained Episcopal minister who combines theology, food, and digression. How so? "It is easier than you think" says Capon, "the road from temple to kitchen is quite plain. It lies through the subject of knives. . . . The oldest fingerprints in the world are those on tools: and of all tools, the knife remains supreme. . . . the one tool used by more people, more of the time, than any other. All the kitchens . . . are filled with knives. With your permission I shall" . . . digress! (53 - 54). You get the idea.


Along with these books I just have to mention once again the goddess Laurie Colwin (1944 - 1992). How we miss her! What a gift she had for keeping the feast! Whether or not you like her fiction, you just have to read her two narrative cookbooks Home Cooking (1988) and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen (1993). The recipes are great, but even better is her sister - to - sister commentary. Totally engaging! Recommended by Jes. I have been touched and inspired by the honor Colwin ascribes to the custom and ceremony of food preparation:

"These two delicacies ["Spiced Beef" and "Country Christmas Cake"] have that profound, original, home-made taste that cannot be replicated, no matter what you spend. They make the person who made them feel ennobled. After all, it is holiday time. Aren't we meant to draw together and express our good feelings for one another? What could be better than to offer something so elementally, so wholesomely down-home and yet elegant? And both go a long way: You can feed a lot of loved ones with them. . . . If I did nothing else, I would still make this cake and spiced beef and fill my head with visions of candles and pine boughs. The sun goes down at four o'clock, the air is damp and chill, but in the pantry my cake is mellowing, and soon I will spice my beef as centuries of people have done before me" (More H C, 209 - 210).