Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Birthday Raymond

Raymond Chronos Darcy, the 1996 Saturn Wagon Green Nookie Monster*, turned 150,000 yesterday near Flagler, Colorado. Readers with exceptional memories might recall the big guessing game of December 2002: where would Nazareth* turn 200,000?
Readers with super-exceptional memories will recall that Nazareth turned 200,000 at the Burlington, Colorado exit on I-70, between the state line (Molly's guess?) and the first place one sees the mountains (Irene's guess?). Raymond's big moment was 36 miles and 7 years from Naz's and also between the state line and the first view of Pike's Peak.
Readers must be alerted to the fact that I only drive this stretch of I-70 in this direction once or twice a year and the turning point was 415 miles from where I lived with Naz and about 1425 miles from where Raymond lives. It's an odd coincidence.
So, what can we learn from this oddity? a) I keep my cars for a long time b) my cars have unusual names c) I'm not sure-- what lesson do you think that one can draw from strikingly similar mileage birthdays?

*Raymond Chronos Darcy is named after the Nebraska wine region, the Titan (Chronos= Saturn = father of the gods), and Austen's Fitzwilliam.
** Nazareth was named by my college boyfriend after we broke up and he was driving my car while I lived in Scotland. I always wondered if he intended Lazarus, but have never known.
Naz was sold in May 2003 for $400 to a friend who coaxed two more years out of him before he was donated and refurbished and given to a woman leaving a shelter.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dianthus has toes

Recent posts about beans and books (and I have several more such to write) haven't generated much attention, so I'll pander to the crowd and post cute kid pictures.
Yes, Dianthus has toes and likes to play with them. He also smiles, sticks stuff in him mouth and shrieks in a joyful (?) way. He's visited the capitol building in Richmond (in the sling below), making him one up (and about forty down) on his grandma in the competition.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Orangutan Did It and Other Stories

I don't know how to read short stories. Should one pick one up every now and again? Read through an entire collection? Read them as a tasty morsel unto themselves or bites that make up a larger meal? It hardly seems fair to compare them to novels, but not right to say that they aren't comparable. Sometimes I think that I just don't like short stories, but that's absurd. It would be like saying I don't like novels or I don't like dessert and I think that a few of the stories of O Henry and Shirley Jackson* are some of most masterful things I have read. Still, I rarely feel fully satisfied reading short stories, although I think the fault is my method, not with the stories, but I really don't know.
This is all background for my lack of good review for the bunches of short stories I have recently been reading: Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter, a good smattering of Edgar Allen Poe, all of The Time is Not Yet Ripe: Contemporary China's Best Writers and Their Stories, that were stand alone stories, and all of Daniel A. Hoyt's Then We Saw The Flames.

In reverse order then, I'll start with Then We Saw The Flames. The stories are good, very good; some great, but Dan is a friend of mine. I had a hard time reconciling my created implied author of these stories with the person I know and like. The stories are all over the place, literally. They are set in the swamp, in Dresden, in Nebraska. The characters are teenagers, single dads, terrorists, drunks, emigrants and immigrants. I kept wondering where Dan was in these stories. Most stories involve past or present tragedy, or at least dramatic bad times. I couldn't discern whether the overall message is negative: that dramatic misfortune is the norm, or positive: that bad things happen and people are resilient. The wonder of fiction is that writers of it can lead multiple lives without directly experiencing the losses. Still, it was horribly distracting constantly wondering about my laid back graduate student buddy (here in his author photo taken by Sarah Hoyt) and how his autobiography could overlap with the narrators of his stories. Highly recommended, but I'm biased.

I felt out of my element reading the stories of The Time is Not Yet Ripe because not only were they short stories, but they were short stories in translation and they were Chinese. Many of the stories had a pervasive dour, disappointed and direct feeling. I really didn't know if that somehow stems from the language as it is translated, from the Chinese story culture, or from the subjects. The stories were all written in the 1980s and most focused on life post-cultural revolution, pre-Tianamen square. Guilt, relief, apology and apprehension about the future are central to most of the stories. I'd recommend the collection for anyone visiting China; the stories are 25 years out of date, but capture a moment well, and my favorite stories: "Ten Years Deducted", "The Tall Woman and Her Short Husband" and "The Time Is Not Yet Ripe" more generally.
I don't like being scared and I think I don't like short stories, so it surprised me when I picked up an Edgar Allen Poe collection. I was even more surprised to find many of the stories were not creepy scary (although, as a reader of Wuthering Expectations, I shouldn't have been). The analytical mysteries ("Murders in the Rue Morgue", "The Gold-Bug") may or may not be nearly as good as the creepy stories ("Masque of Red Death" "The Cask of Amontillado") but I found them great fun after having read two buried alive stories in a row (and I skipped Tell-Tale Heart). I'm excited to have read "The Gold-Bug" because yesterday, out of the blue, I was given The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers. Now I'll have some idea to what it refers.
Pushkin's "The Captain's Daughter" didn't excite me much. The Mister remembers really liking it and I remember really liking "The Queen of Spades" in my college Russian lit. class**. If I were of a more analytical bent, there's tons that could be said about the form of The Captain's Daughter; Pushkin is playing with reader sympathies, an unreliable narrator and multiple endings. If one knew more about Russian lit and Russian history, one could expound at length about the place of "The Captain's Daughter", both as a pivotal piece of fiction and as commentary on a historical event I knew nothing about. I'll leave such exposition to others and give The Captains Daughter an unenthusiastic recommendation and Pushkin overall a more vigorous nod.

Oh, in one of the above stories, an orangutan committed a crime. Seriously. It made me laugh very hard. It was not intended to be funny. Photo of Dianthus and a giant radish (a garden escapee) purely to interest my readers who are not short story readers.

*I read a review once which commented that, "Ms. Jackson seems incapable of writing a bad sentence." Since then I have regularly reminded myself, "I may not be a great writer, but I have one skill that Shirley Jackson doesn't. I am completely capable of writing a bad sentence and demonstrate that skill often."

**All of the short stories I read in my 19th Century Russian Literature class were fabulous, especially Gogol's. Why do I think that I don't like the form?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Combination Bean Supreme

The Mister and I spent huntin' week (aka the week of Thanksgiving, but schools aren't closed all week because of preparations for the day of gratitude, not when there are deer to shoot) in Williamsburg, VA with the Mister's Family (thanks MiL and FiL!) searching for bean things to write about. More accurately, we spent time with family, visited colonial stuff at Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestowne, and ate well. The bean incidents were entirely incidental, but, in a legume year, one should report them.

First, at a Vietnamese restaurant on Monday, I ordered a Combination Bean Supreme (R5 on the menu), not because I particularly wanted a sweet, cold bean drink at the end of a long drizzly drive, but because it's bean year, how could I not? The drink included mashed sweet red beans, coconut milk, ice chunks and gelatinous green spikes that may be a mung bean product (Flicker image of a similar drink). It was tasty, but is no substitute for a good Vietnamese coffee.

On Thanksgiving itself, my BiL and SiL made green bean casserole (which they first made one Thanksgiving in Normandy) with all fresh ingredients. I'm not sure that blanched fresh green beans, cream, fresh mushrooms and shallots that have been pre-fried into fantastic crunchies can accurately be called green bean casserole (Campbell's pictured here), but the results were excellent, none the less.

Any holiday bean traditions in your life?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sparkling Squirrel Friend Gift Guide

Here I shamelessly promote the cool things my friends do that you could possibly purchase as a gift.

Say you want to go on a ecotourism trip to Haiti. Or you want to contribute something so that young people in Haiti will have bird knowledge and the ability to keep their watershed clean and get jobs leading bird tours. In either case, you should definitely contact Debbie Baker through her Zwazoyo Blog.

If, on the other hand, you need rangering services in Britain, Stephen Mason could bash your rhodies, help plan your restoration, or lead a fantastic ethnobotanical hike. (I've heard he also has a charming accent but that is neither here nor there).

Need an eclectic collection of really good short stories? Daniel A. Hoyt's Then We Saw Flames should fit the bill (Amazon link here).

Need some recipes utilizing plants from the semi-arid West? Check out Alma Snell's A Taste of Heritage (note that the editor and photographer does not receive any royalties from sales of A Taste of Heritage, she just thinks that, seeing how she spent four years working on the book, it should stay in print a while).

Know a musician in the Denver area with joint pain? Massage therapist and bassist Brock Chambers specializes in massage for musicians.

She's booked at least through the holidays, but in the new year Prairie Quilter could use her long-arm quilting machine to transform layers of fabric into an artistic three-dimensional quilted masterpiece.

Harpist and composer Phala Tracy (a friend of a friend, or, more precisely, the unrequited high school interest of my college interest) sings and plays harp on Critter Songs, a collection of silly ditties with lovely music.

If you just happen to have a small business owner needing branding and graphic design work, Stephen Weis Illustration is who you should contact to talk about giving the gift of good design.
And if you need something translated English to German or German to English, I have two fabulous sisters-in-law to recommend. If I've misssed you, let me know. In the meantime,
happy gift giving and happy huntin' week.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rascal, Raccoons and what books are about

The request for suggestions of books to read while breastfeeding led to a fascinating list of recommendations, ranging from Lonesome Dove to The Count of Monte Cristo to 1491. My Sister-in-Law decided that nature and tone were critical, and brought me two "sweet" books back in August. Both were hardback, which physically didn't work with my early nursing set-up, but after finding a way to read all of Harry Potter, with its hardback and awkwardly large volumes, I knew it was time to read Rascal and I Capture the Castle (link to future post goes here).
Sterling North's Rascal was the 1963 winner of the Dutton Animal Book Award. The cover, with its Animal Book Award logo and classy woodcuts of a boy and his raccoon, prompted the Mister to comment, "that was a different time" which made me laugh, as Rascal's subtitle is "A Memoir of a Better Era". To thirtysomethings in 2009, an age when sweet books about a boy and his raccoon could be published and win awards is about as nostalgically distant as the 1918 events in the book are to the author writing about them forty five years later.

Both the Mister and I think that we've been previously acquainted with Rascal. A quick internet search reveals this is almost certainly true. Whether we know it from the Newberry Honor list, from any number of paperback printings, or from the Disney Movie of the same name, I don't know, although I imagine we aren't remembering the 52 episode Japanese anime series. The work we recall is a sentimental story of a boy and his raccoon.
Rascal the book, is, of course, a sentimental story of a boy and a raccoon. It's an autobiographical account of 11 year-old Sterling's year living with an adopted raccoon in a small town in Wisconsin, and I can totally see how fourth grade me read the book as a raccoon story. While Rascal, the raccoon, does drive the "plot" of the book, the book is about so much more. It's about the end of the carriage era and the take-over of the automobile. It's about World War I. It's about a middle aged man coming to grips with his family: long-lived absent-minded father, mother who died when he was 7, hard-working aunt and uncle fulfilling traditional farm roles and relatively conventional siblings. It's about growing up (to the point that the wikipedia entry calls Rascal "a prose poem to adolescent angst"). The me of now at age thirty seven read it as a book about wildlife conservation*.

Rascal prompted a return to a long term contemplation as to how one describes what books are about. The issue becomes complicated quickly because a single good book is about many things and the plot may be the easiest to express but is often of lesser importance (yes, A Tale of Two Cities is about the French Revolution [or Paris and London] and Pride and Prejudice is about marriage, but no, that really doesn't capture the works at all). It doesn't take wild post-modern thought to notice that readers, can, and do, read books very differently** Then there is the issue that the same person can see a book very differently through time. My mother wouldn't let my brother (two years older than I) read Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear because it involved too much sex while strongly recommending it to me because I would find all of the plant healing fascinating. I recall reading a book in elementary school that involved fourteen year-olds starting a French restaurant. It was about the horrors of being a teenager including an abortion and large boobs. I didn't know what an abortion or a "c-cup" was at the time, I knew what vichyssoise was, and that's then, what the book was about to me.

So my blog questions to you are 1) have you read Rascal in any form and what did you think it was about? 2) what books, in your opinion, are about very different things than what other people think?
As for Rascal, it is enjoyable. I think my mother, still in Whistling Season nostalgia, would enjoy it, as would many other of my readers.
*In the middle of the summer of 1918, Sterling, his raccoon, and his father travel north to the shores of Lake Superior. On this journey, Sterling is very excited about seeing deer for the first time. Having seen 8 deer at once under the chestnuts the previous evening, this struck me as funny. and sparked the idea that the world is ripe for a book examining the history of humans and deer in North America.

**A colleague in Kansas hated Bernhard Schlink's The Reader because, "there's this whole book that's supposed to be so great about reading and then you get to the climax and the big secret is that SHE CAN'T R. . . but duh, that was obvious from the beginning." I think she literally said "duh". She looked stunned when I said that the book was not about reading, but was rather about the guilt complexes of post-WWII Germans.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mountain Dal and Mung Bean Suggestions

Organic mung beans appeared in my shopping cart sometime in the early spring as something to try for legume year. It turns out I already had a bag in my cupboard. And I didn't do a thing with either bag for months.
Actually, I still haven't done a thing with either bag, but the Mister recently pulled out the beautiful Mangoes and Curry Leaves by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid* and decided to actually cook from it. Fascinating what great ideas that man comes up with. And he decided to look for recipes using mung beans, because we have them in the cupboard.

He found a recipe for Nepalese Mountain Dal, followed it, and we ate leftover rice and thick, brown, uninteresting dal for a week.

I concluded that I just like lentils better than mung beans.

He concluded that we haven't given mung beans a fair chance.

There's a third possibility that what the recipe calls for ("mung dal") is somehow different than what we have (mung beans) and some searching on wikipedia suggests this is at least partially true. Chinese cuisine seems to favor the green, husk-on "mung beans" we have (similar to what's pictured) while on the Indian subcontinent split, husked mung dal is eaten, which creates a softer, yellow, lentil-like mush.

Whether I'm right or not, the Mister is correct that we need to do give mung beans (the green ones we have) another chance. Here's where my helpful readers come in. Anyone have any suggestions?

*Thanks Molly!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Magical Books and Books About Magic*

While reading Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga, the Mister regularly remarked about how strange the books were, in a way that didn't exactly endorse them. As a result, I had no desire to read the series until he re-read the whole thing less than a year after first encountering them and I needed something for plane reading on the way to Colorado.

Had I not had a 2 1/2 month old on my lap, the first book of the series Magician: Apprentice, would have made fine plane reading. As it was, however, I didn't finish M:A and the accompanying Magician: Master until I returned here. Overall, I enjoyed the set: not enough to dive into the third and fourth book of the series, but enough to think that I will someday read them. Potential readers should be forewarned that Magician was written as a single book, and starting it means committing to both volumes. They should also be warned that the pacing is, well, unusual at best. At least two thirds of the book feels like it is set-up, and there are at least fifty pages post climax, post reasonable denouement, most of which are outlining a political intrigue that doesn't materialize. Having said that, the voluminous set-up is interesting and the worlds described are fascinating (if the full history in the middle of the second volume a bit unnecessary). I was bothered that there was a bit too much "European-like world good: Asian-like world bad" until I realized that one big point was that despite superficial differences, people and governments are all alike and all both good and bad.

I was reading Magician during unsympathetic character week at Wuthering Expectations (starting here), and noted that as soon as one character became a demi-god, the reader stopped seeing his story from his point of view, I assume because at that point he was unsympathetic. His story was then given from the point of view of one of his past small-town acquaintances (Martin), and we could feel Martin's keen sadness at the demi-god's loss of humanity. Unsympathetic Week highly recommend, Magician recommended only for those who already enjoy fantasy series.

At the Mister's influence, I recently re-read all of the Harry Potter series. I actually like it much better upon the third reading, which is saying something because I am a fan. One aim of unsympathetic character week was to push readers beyond stating "I liked the characters" and "I didn't like the characters" although several commenters mentioned that likes and dislikes are a great starting point for more thoughtful analysis. Applying this to Harry Potter, I honed the reasons for my preferences. One aspect of Harry Potter I like is that each book ends and is a self-contained story. Interestingly, the exception to this is Half Blood Prince (6), which remains my favorite. I think I like 6 the best because it has a wonderful mixture of levity, romance and fighting of evil. While reading recently, the Mister commented as to how wonderful the Felix Felicis scenes are, and I couldn't agree more. 6 also contains the only true plot twist in the series, and, even though I knew it was going to happen, I truly felt kicked in the gut when I first read that S killed D. I was surprised to learn that Order of the Phoenix (5) was the favorite of a colleague of mine (6 is his least favorite), as it is my least favorite. I've always thought that 5 is just one long dark rant of Harry whining that nobody understands him, while my colleague liked it as it showed the students united with Harry. Plot-wise we are both right, but, as I realized with this re-reading, I read much more quickly at the end of books, so the whining, which really only fills the first third, probably filled two-thirds of my reading time. A full series re-read also reminded me that I think the epilogue is brilliant. I know some readers hate it, but I feel that the speech to Albus Severus and the mention of Scorpio are essential to the resolution of the book's theme of the power of love, and don't hurt from a plot standpoint either. Anyway, readers can contact me if they ever want to chat more about H.P.

While I think that Amateur Reader's idea that one sympathizes with, or at least develops a relationship with, the author of a book is great, I realize that I sympathize with Harry, Hermione, Ron, Minerva McGonagal. Luna, Neville, Snape and even Draco, but I prefer to leave J.K. Rowling, who, for some reason, I really don't like, out of my reading experience.

*I almost re-read Inkheart so I could add "and a book about the magic of books", but it seemed like too much work just for a line in a blog post. Besides, I watched the movie on a plane over the summer more time needs to pass to prevent me from seeing Brendan Fraser as the father.

Image is of Dianthus and his first snow, Oct. 22 in Colorado. Nothing to do with fantasy books except that he happens to own a "magical hat".

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Baby Products at Three Months: Seats and Stuff

When Dianthus was little (and, yes, that already feels like a long time ago. Clearly he's giant now at twelve pounds), one of the greatest things we came up with was the fact that he fit very nicely into a rubbermaid under the bed tub. It was easy to transport from room to room (and sometimes even outside), inexpensive, and he slept very well in it. It worked well for over a month, and then suddenly he was just too big for it.

Fortunately, by the time he outgrew his tub, he finally fit into his swing and his bouncy seat. Such things really are not designed for babies much under eight pounds and, during that first month, every time we'd try to put him into the seat or swing, he just looked like a crumpled little mass. The bouncy seat we have is borrowed (Thanks Irene!) and works well as a seat. We rarely use the extra features: it has a toy bar with dangling animals that Dianthus is sometimes interested in and would apparently play music and vibrate if we put new batteries into it. The bounciness of bouncy seats varies a great deal, and some babies really like to bounce. At this stage in his life, Dianthus doesn't care, the seat is just a comfortable place to see the world from a different view. At his grandparents', Dianthus sat in a similar seat that was more sturdy and didn't bounce at all. He sat contentedly in it through most meals, and the vibrate and music options seemed to at least calm the adults around when he wasn't content (we liked to think that we were doing something). The super-sturdy non-bouncy seat was also very heavy, and, as we frequently move the seat from room to room (often with baby in the other hand), I prefer our lighter model.

We have a Fisher Price Take-Along Swing and like but don't love it. Dianthus can be calmed down in it if he's in a mood to be calmed down, but it doesn't exert any special magic on him, and if it is the height of fussy time, he can kick and scream in his swing just as much as he kicks and screams elsewhere. There is a huge price difference among swings, at $60, ours was at the less expensive end. It is fairly lightweight and supposedly folds somehow for car transport. The music is not terrible annoying, just odd (synthesizer lullabies with an extra jungle beat) and sometimes Dianthus looks at the "animals" dangling in front of him. We'll never know if he would respond really differently to the side to side rocking motion or the motorized mobile of the $150 swings, but somehow I doubt they would have been worth the cost. Like the bouncy seat, the swing can be easily machine washed, and, like the bouncy seat, this is an item I like having but would happily borrow* or find used.

My in-laws gave Dianthus a Baby Einstein play gym/activity mat. It's wonderful. At three months, Dianthus is now very into hitting and kicking (still somewhat randomly) the dangling toys and even at five weeks, he was entranced by the flashing lights and music. There are a great many things that bother me about said structure. I don't like raising a child to be constantly surrounded by bright colored plastics, mechanical music and shiny things dangling at exactly the right height for him. Still, he's three months old; if something doesn't dangle in front of him, he can't "play" with it and he really likes the lights. While in Colorado he played with a different version that I don't like nearly as well, except that it is lined up so that Dianthus could kick the ball while pulling on the toys.

The common complaint about all of these things is that they are only useful for a short period of a baby's life. I'll let you know as Dianthus outgrows them. These photos, by the way, are not all current. Below is the newest of the bunch, taken last week and some date back to Labor Day (2/3 of his life ago).

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Black Cats are Lucky

My family had a wonderful, if occasionally ferocious, black cat, Anthracite. The cantalope eating, beer sipping, vase-knocking black cat with black stripes was the epitome of "cat": a barely domesticated wild beast with refined tastes. My parents still miss him.
For unknown reasons, the Mister also favors black cats and I think we were both surprised when the cat who adopted us turned out to be mostly white.
My nieces were black cats for their first Halloweens.

And this year we had this delightful creature.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin

While at a cabin away for the weekend two weeks ago, the Mister and I drank a bottle of Veuve Clicqout Ponsardin champagne. My parents had given it to us at Christmas to be drunk when Mervivian Alloicious arrived. It was super tasty. I don't have the taste memory to rank it with other good champagnes we've had, but know that it was certainly up there. Sitting on the porch of a stone cabin watching the leaves fall and chipmunks frolic in the rain, discussing everything from fantasy novels to family-friendly employment practices with the man I love certainly didn't hurt the taste either.

I'm trying to write a conclusion to my earlier post about being proud of playing tennis to explain why the pride is new for me. The advice, obviously, is nothing new: "live life to the fullest 'cause you never know when you'll die" would be trite if it weren't such good advice and if tragedy didn't regularly remind us that we need to follow it. I suppose part of my typical difficulty comes from the fact that it is easier to write about personal misfortune than personal good fortune. I want to write that the cabin had mice and lots of insects, the chimney flue didn't completely work and that it rained all weekend, all of which is true, but those issues didn't make the company or the champagne any less wonderful. Coming across as boastful about my life really concerns me, but, as I've mentioned before, while boasting of good fortune may be annoying, experiencing good fortune while claiming it is bad is insufferable. My life is not perfect and I never intend to portray it that way, but I hope that I am wise enough to show some gratitude for how very good it is.

While I was in graduate school, my mother annually wrote about the parties I threw in the family Christmas letter. This disturbed me because I worked hard as a graduate student, and I didn't want family friends to think that I partied all the time. The year she listened to me and wrote about my graduate work instead of my parties, the letter ended up devoid of any me-ness. What makes me different is not that I worked hard and had ample set-backs as a graduate student (and as a professor and as a mother), but that I threw fantastic theme parties while in graduate school. While in Colorado last week, I watched my father fight with computer programs until the wee hours as he tried to assemble data to his client's changing specs. He was frustrated, achy and having trouble focusing, yet he dropped his work to take me to multiple specialty grocery stores to make sure we had serrano ham and cabrales blue cheese for his grandson's Colorado debut tapas party. It's the good humored food enthusiast refilling wine glasses that people know, not the workaholic scientist, and I think that's a good thing.

When I spoke with my mother about this, she commented that everyone knows we work hard. I'm not so sure. I still remember the sting of one high school friend telling another, who was truly appalled that I had been selected for a prestigious scholarship, "Yeah, she may act like a blond ditz but she's actually really smart" and then repeating the conversation to me as if it were a compliment. My own (very pro-education) grandfather suggested, upon completion of my doctorate, that it was time I settled down and financially supported myself. At the time I was 34, married, living in a house I had purchased while single, and over ten years into the working world.* Friends here fail to understand that Dianthus does not sleep all the time. Many times when they see him asleep in his stroller, it is because he in inconsolable any other way, and while it is great that the stroller nearly always consoles him, I cannot accomplish anything else while taking him for walks**. I'm as guilty as other friends of thinking that when my father, who often works from home, answers the phone, he is available to talk. Despite my mother's suggestion, people don't know that we work hard.

I'm just beginning to convince myself, however, that it is not the hard work that is worth talking about. My uncle died suddenly nine years ago. I'm sure he was a fine geologist, but I'll always remember him as the guy who sent my father a rock for a Christmas ornament, a man would swing me round long after I was too big too swing, and someone who would take a day of his limited vacation to take his niece and nephew to an amusement park. When he died, a great family friend commented that it further supported my father's philosophy (which stunned me, as I had no idea my father espoused any philosophy enough for others to be able to repeat it). That friend visited my parents in China, somehow convincing my father to sing karaoke (much Jack Daniels was apparently involved), danced at his daughter's wedding and helped pick champagne for my wedding before he died much too young four years after my uncle.

I wrote a really good dissertation. Most semesters I teach too much and most of the time I do it well. Dianthus cries and I deal with it. Yet, if I am remembered, it will be for balls and groundhog parties and wine tastings as a graduate student, taking off on vacation the moment that grades are in as a professor, and taking a two month old to the tennis courts and to a rodent-infested cabin for a champagne-drinking, pizza-eating weekend. And I'm okay with that. No, I'm more than okay. I'm proud of that.

*For accuracy sake, I should clarify that my parents had set aside money for my college education. When I received the prestigious scholarship, I was able to keep the money invested and later use it to buy my house. Thanks Mom and Dad!

**I am well aware that I have an easier than average child; but that still doesn't mean that spending long days with him is easy.
Image is from Dianthus's uncle, who could be known for authoring articles in high impact journals in genetics and geophysics in the same year, but will be better remembered for decorating images of his adorable nephew.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Who's not a feminist?

Lady S, the main character in Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent was no feminist. The narrator, summarizing the thoughts of Lady S, says so right there on page x*. Lady S had no use for politics or economics. Beyond boring her, she openly admits that she has no mind for the topics.
Lady S's "simple mind" wouldn't matter much if All Passion Spent (1931) were not considered a great early feminist treatise. As APS is often touted as the fictional companion to Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own**, many readers (myself included) expect Lady S to embrace feminism and excel at "masculine" pursuits. The introduction to my copy lists Lady S's denouncement of feminism and politics as the big disappointments of the book, and I was surprised to find I agreed (I found the introduction problematic, as I opine neither plot twists nor flaws should be discussed before a book is read. I should learn to skip introductions, although they fascinate me.) Lady S suddenly embracing economics, however, would not have worked with the story at all, so I think Vita Sackville-West knew what she was doing. The book, the last of the thoughtful fun books about women and their gardens given to me by my sister-in-law, (here, here and here) forwards feminist themes (that women are thinking creatures with desires of their own), without making any characters feminists. It's a good novel and much more readable than I remember A Room of One's Own being (probably because I prefer novels to essays as a general rule).
My reading of the book brought up questions I've toyed with many times in my life; "What is a feminist?" and "Why are people afraid of feminists?"
Just as I was surprised by Lady S's proclamation that she was no feminist, years ago I was shocked when I learned from my brother how much he disliked feminists. In both cases, it's clear that the others were not using the term the same way that I do. I don't know what "feminist" meant to upper-class Englishwomen in 1931, but to me it means one who is for equal rights and equal opportunity for women. My brother, who surreptitiously gave me advice about negotiating more liberal rules from my parents as a teenager, encouraged me in pursuit of a PhD in the sciences, and is proud that my niece is top of her class in math, falls under my definition of a feminist. He would be more of an activist than I would be if he learned that I was being payed less or not advancing in my career because of my gender. Yet he dislikes "feminists". The word must mean something different to him, and to Lady S., and to my fellow female biology professor who won't ever let a man park her horse trailer, but can't stand feminists and was shocked that I considered myself one.
So, what does feminist mean to you? and are you one?

*I'm writing this on someone else's computer in Colorado. I neither have access to my copy of the book nor willingness to learn how to open multiple windows and flip among them on this computer. Links and details may be added when I return home.

**Woolf and Sackville-West were friends and lovers.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Another Season Down

I almost didn't cut my basil yesterday because I wasn't ready for either the baseball or the gardening season to be over, and they are inextricably linked in my mind. However, low nighttime temperatures, while not actually freezing, have kept the basil from growing, and it was time to make the last pesto, which I did, and then the Rockies lost.

Altogether, it wasn't a bad season. The Mister presided over a vegetable garden that yielded lots of heirloom French tomatoes, okra, and pole beans with reasonable quantities of peppers, spring greens and tomatillos. We harvested some peas, kale and kohlrabi. Herbs were abundant, whether or not we harvested them at the proper time. Flowers everywhere, including the porches, have started to make the place feel more like my home*. Of course there were set-backs. Deer demolished the strawberries and the peas and jumped the fence into the vegetables more than once. Something (groundhog?) dug up and ate every smidgen of the beets. Some of the tomatoes became diseased.

Similarly, after a promising first week, the Royals were awful. The Cubs made it interesting until August and the Rockies had a horrid May. But then they turned it around, started winning, and made the play-offs. And yes, they lost. And yes, the garden is done for.
But there's always next year.
And in the meantime, the spinach in the earth boxes is up and looking lovely. The Mister is talking about making frames to extend the greens season. I ate the last tomato/pepper/cucumber salad. I'm moving on to apples and butternut squash. The Broncos and the Jayhawks are both 5-0. It's football season.

*My house in Kansas was known for its fantastic cottage garden and flowering vines that completely enshrouded the front porch.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I've been playing tennis

The Mister and I have played tennis nine times in the last month. He leads the series 5-4.

By the time you read this, we will have gone away to a cabin for two nights. Hopefully we'll have done some leaf peeping, hiking, and maybe even champagne drinking. We may have taken Dianthus to his first Mexican restaurant and to see native mammals at the State Game Preserve. I've been swimming twice a week and baked the Mister a great birthday cake.

I'm living my life. Enjoying my life. And I'm proud of it.

My desire to tell you this stems from several sources. At first, "I've been playing tennis" was part of an unsaid sarcastic retort to a colleague asking me, "So, what have you been doing?" when I stopped by the office.
She asked this during the time I was still bleeding, still crying every day and feeding Dianthus was an all consuming endeavor.* To me, the question (from a mother of two who should have known better) sounded as if there were an expectation of productivity, as if washing a load of clothes and dreaming about a nap sometime in the future was not "doing" enough. At that moment, "I've been playing tennis" would have sounded to me as fanciful as "I've been sitting on the beach sipping mai tais while my minions massage my toes and accept all the requests for publications and major grants I've been receiving."

The long and eloquent explanation as to why I am so proud of playing tennis, which includes the tragic recent death of my boss's husband in a farm accident, my father doing karaoke in China, a prosective lab mate in grad school asking me how often I actually stayed in bed reading novels**, phyics tests and obligation to those who aren't as lucky, will have to wait. I've twice fed and changed Dianthus and done the laundry and tried to pack since I started this post, and now the Mister is home and I need to go enjoy living my life rather than telling you about it.

But the punch line remains the same: The future is always uncertain. I'm proud to be enjoying and living my life now. I highly recommend that you do the same.

*Now we're down to feeding and changing Dianthus being the time equivalent of a full time job with incredibly split shifts.

**Thank you Erin for transforming my life.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Baby Products at 2 Months: Diapers

We've tried all sorts of diapers with Dianthus. Here's what we've tried.
Bummis: Bummis are traditional cloth diapers except the diaper covers are breathable and quiet (no plastic pants) with velcro tabs (no diaper pins), the diapers are thick unbleached organic cotton, and one can use a flushable liner with them. We wash them on hot with an extra rinse with special soap (e.g. very plain; brighteners and stain fighters apparently can leave residues on diapers. We use Charlie's Soap* which is cheap and really, quite astounding in its cleaning power) and I line dry them. The starter set, 6 pairs or pants (3 patterned, 3 white) and 36 diapers cost $150 at the Blue Dandelion.
gDiapers: gDiapers are stretch cotton orange or vanilla bean pants, a snap in water-proof liner and a disposable insert. The plastic-free inserts are flushable, but we've been composting the wet ones and throwing away those with poop (being plastic free, they break down much faster than regular disposables). We started with a starter kit (2 pants and 10 inserts) and a case of inserts (160) from Amazon*, but the much better buy is directly from gDiapers and includes 6 pants and a case of inserts for $100. We would like to try gCloth, but they have been out since August.
Disposables: We've used Pampers Swaddlers, Swaddler Sensitive, Huggies, Huggies Pure and Natural and Baby Basics (the store brand at our grocery store). Retail prices in my town run about $12/36, $12/34, $12/36, $12 for unnamed quantity and $8/40. At Sam's Club, we bought the next size of Pampers at a much lower per diaper cost.
What we're doing now: cloth diapers while at home during the day (about 30/week), disposables overnight and in the diaper bag, gDiapers for outings and times when the cloth is being washed. Since we went from all disposables (see small child below) to this system, we have reduced our weekly diaper trash to about a third of what it was.

Our experience: Small child: We had decided to not use our cloth diapers until after Dianthus fully stopped with tar poop (about 8 days) and lost his umbilical chord (13 days). At two weeks we tried on the specialty diapers and they leaked straight out. A child under eight pounds with skinny legs will not fill out the gDiapers or the Bummis wraps. We had to continue to use the newborn size of disposables almost exclusively for the first six weeks. As most kids aren't in the newborn size very long, they are not available in very big packages, not at Sam's Club, and not in many alternative forms (i.e. Pampers makes two lines in other sizes, but for the newborns you can only buy the premium line, at least in our town).
Ease of putting on: Disposables are usually easiest, but when Dianthus was particularly wiggly and I wasn't good at changing yet, I found the gDiapers easier to put on. Now I will do any without thinking much of it. The Mister, meanwhile, is somehow intimidated by the gDiapers but has no problem with the cloth. Little note that, because gDiapers velcro in the back, they are more prone to sticking to fuzzy changing table surfaces.
Quantity: We're still talking ten plus diapers a day. We seem to go through more when we are using the cloth.
Cost vs. Environment: The more we use them, the more cost effective and more environmentally beneficial the Bummis are. Because I am doing laundry pretty much every day these days (another post), I don't mind washing them. I also hope to pass them on or use them for another child, which will further decrease the cost per use and increase the environmental benefits. Yet they were not cheap and the environmental costs of cotton production are not immaterial. At $150 for the set, I would need to use the cloth diapers at least 450 times before they start being cost effective if that were the only criterion. I've decided to consider them a gift from my ecologist friends to the environment (which they were) and thus of no cost to me. Every time I use them, therefore, I'm saving money by not buying disposables. I also think of them as something that allows me to use the more expensive gDiapers instead of regular disposables.
If the gCloth liners are any good, I would go with them along with the regular gs, so I wouldn't have the financial and environmental costs of two different sets of "permanent" pants.

Little Notes: The Mister liked the newborn Pampers better than the Huggies and both are far preferable to the Baby Basics, which we just quit using for a while because they seemed so useless. The color change strip on the regular swaddlers is much more pronounced than on the swaddlers sensitive. We don't yet use the flushable liners in the Bummis because currently the poop is basically liquid, against which the liners really are useless.
All little pants (gs or Bummis) require thought when washing to make sure that the velcro tabs are down so they don't stick to everything.

*Next to the new dishwasher, Amazon prime is about the best baby product around for those of us who live nowhere near shopping. Shipping on BOB alone almost paid for the year of "free" two day shipping.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Books with strange senses

I recently re-read two books by authors with twisted senses of humor: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More by Roald Dahl and Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. As it happens, both books fit my size requirements and were on the shelf next to where I feed Dianthus at night. I've long thought that both men bring out humor in very odd ways. I see the series of unfortunate events as a natural descendant of Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, except that, unlike Lemony Snicket (whose creator went to college with my sister-in-law or something like that), Roald Dahl isn't smug about the pathetic (and darkly humorous)predicaments his characters are in and most of the time the "good" child prevails in the end. And until recently, I thought that Vonnegut wrote Roald Dahl books for adults.
With this reading, however, I realized a very big difference. I'm unconvinced that most Vonnegut it funny or is supposed to be funny. Yes, the author emphasizes the absurd and yes, there are lots of penis jokes. But, as with my reading of Hocus Pocus late last year, I found reading Breakfast this time to be downright depressing. No matter how silly the drawings or absurd the context, unmitigated rampant racism, sexism, pollution and greed just aren't that funny. I imagine that both men took their writing very seriously and put effort into making it appear effortlessly thrown together, but the stories in Henry suggest Dahl had fun creating his stories and Breakfast implies that his stories depressed and only moderately amused Vonnegut.
As for the books themselves, I have always enjoyed Dahl's eclectic Henry Sugar collection, particularly the title story, The Hitchhiker and his autobiographical piece about British boarding school life which helped explain Harry Potter to me. Danny the Champion of the World is by far my favorite Dahl work, but Henry Sugar falls second (perhaps because they are the only Dahl books I've ever owned, perhaps because I prefer realism to fantasy sometimes).
The Mister and I agree that Vonnegut wrote some great books, some good books and some pieces of trash, but disagree exactly what falls on each list. The Mister rates Breakfast as one of the greats. I categorized it as merely good prior to this reading, and there it stays. This reading also made me wonder if I'd find those I consider great and funny to be either anymore, but I'm not going to read them soon to find out.
Anthony Bourdain reveals his strange sense of right and wrong more in the collected essays of Nasty Bits than he does in his other works I've read or seen (chef right, demanding customer wrong, unless the chef is a celebrity or into silly fusion or foams and the customer is a real person requesting real food served promptly and simply, in which case the customer is right). Bourdain is a man clinging to a bad boy image while finding himself a respectful and overall respectable grown-up. The essay collection has a bit too many repeated themes: restaurant work is hard work; trends are bad unless they are bringing more good food to more people; simple food can be great; good chefs are hard to find, but overall they work. I particularly like that he included follow up comments at the back of the book in which, more often than not, he admits he was wrong and arrogant when he wrote the original essay.
Finally, I should report upon A Valley in Italy by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, who just has strange sense. Written before A Year in Provence or Under the Tuscan Sun, A Valley in Italy is about an Englishwoman moving to a small village in Umbria and trying to fix up the local dilapidated castle enough to be inhabited. Fortunately, unlike the other books named, Aubin de Treran doesn't ooze wealth, doesn't marvel about the slow pace of life and then bitch about work never getting done, and understands that, overall, her family, rather than the villagers, are the freaks of this scene. While I revel in authors who don't take themselves too seriously, I was surprised by how much Aubin de Teran's bohemian sensibilties bothered me. In my opinion, a woman in her thirties, living in her third country and in her third child-producing relationship, should not be encouraging her teenage daughter to go and model in Paris and then plan a giant wedding for a pair of seventeen year-olds. Then again, nobody is selling books about people with my life: (went to school, worked hard, went to college, worked, went to graduate school, met single smart man, married him, found jobs, had child with husband).

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Nerdy, Nerdier, Nerdiest?

The Mister: I wonder if the pattern of Dianthus's hair is a fibonacci series.

My colleague (upon learning that the Mister had said this): well, it shouldn't be that hard to figure out the molecular angles in the amino acid.
Me: But it's not just the kinking of the disulfide bonds in the keratin of the hairs, it would also be the cell cleavage in the formation of the scalp.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bean Boy Rising

Before I met the Mister, he had informed me that he was working on perfecting the preparation of gallo pinto, a Costa Rican beans and rice dish. This thrilled me, "Here," I thought, "is a man who can really cook and is into legumes: I think I am smitten."*
Imagine my disappointment when I learned that he used his diswasher only for storage, the meals he did prepare consisted of a piece of meat grilled on the George Foreman, and the tamale cookbook he had on the counter was apparently just for show.** On our first date we ate at a new Thai restaurant and he never once mentioned the spicing on his seven spice fish curry or asked me about my panang. The Mister ate pinto gallo while in Costa Rica and garden green beans when he visited his parents and didn't think about them otherwise. The Mister was not a good cook and didn't give a hill of beans about bean hills.

How much has changed.

In the six plus years I've known the Mister, the greatest transformation I've seen in him is becoming a great daddy. This transformation, however, is mostly just one of opportunity. Nobody who knows the Mister is surprised he's a great daddy, but before the arrival of Dianthus, great daddy-ness remained dormant. The second greatest transformation I've witnessed (or second third and fourth, depending on how you count) is to becoming a really good cook, a crazy foodie and an intense gardener.

This transformation came about gradually. By the third date we were discussing the food (Malaysian) and watching a charming Japanese food movie (Tampopo, highly recommended) and somewhere during the first six weeks of dating (before I left for summer field work in Montana) I taught the Mister that sauteing the onions before adding the other omelette ingredients makes all the difference. He credits me for bringing about the onion change which somehow led to cooking all sorts of wondrous things, most of which involve the fragrance of sauteing onions when one walks in the door. These days, he cooks more often than I do.

He'd probably object to the term "foodie" as it implies some sort of snobbery (as do "gourmet" and "gourmand"), but the Mister now cares about food. He talks about it, he plans around it, he'll analyze it in his spare time. Since I have always been like this***, I'm not sure I noticed at first. Sure, we agreed that nice meals were a good use of money. Yes, the Mister started reading cookbooks and buying ducks to roast. And, yes, he purchased Where to Eat in Canada before the Canadian Maritimes trip so that we could plan what amounted to a culinary tourism vacation properly, but somehow I didn't really realize until this summer.

Travelling from Como to Rome in May we bought separate train tickets Como to Bologna and Bologna to Rome so that we could eat lunch in Bologna at a restaurant we chose after consulting three books and two websites. The Mister purchased Anthony Bourdain's Nasty Bits at full price for light summer reading and started a new list of places for us to eat in New York City when someday we go. For our anniversary in July, we spent the weekend in Pittsburgh. The Mister not only made reservations for a fabulous six course tasting menu at a nice restaurant, but also consulted several websites to find out where we could stop for Thai food on the drive there and back. While we ended up eating at Olive Garden going and Long John Silver's coming back, it was not for lack of trying on his part, which is when I decided that I needed to write an anniversary post about how very well suited the Mister is for me.

Of course, Dianthus arrived soon thereafter, so this post has been lurking in my brain unwritten. It is now a birthday post for the Mister. And Dianthus is demanding attention at the moment, so the parts about the Mister being a great gardener and bean cook will still go unwritten (but notice the great bean structure he made in the vegetable garden he created and cultivated).

In any case, please wish the Mister a happy birthday**** and know that I know I'm lucky.

*Okay, the legumes weren't a particularly big deal at the time and it wasn't just his professed cooking ability that smote me so quickly.
**I just found this out a month ago. While I had wondered why meeting me made him stop making tamales from scratch, it never occured to me that a man with a tamale cookbook and masa on his counter hadn't actually ever made them. I am such a sucker for a well-placed ethnic cookbook.

***Always implies an awfully long time, but before you accuse me of hyperbole, know that you are reading the blog of someone who can still list most of the meals she ate on a vacation in 1981, wrote her big eighth grade investigative "I-search" on cheese tasting, and checked out The Magic of Herbs from her elementary school library over ten times.

****Birthdays are major celebrations in my family and very minor celebrations in the Mister's. I'm trying to change his thinking on this as well. It has, thus far, not worked as well as sauteing onions, but I have considerably fewer opportunities to exert my influence.
The image is of the Mister and William playing "wheeee" which they both enjoy and which makes me melt every time I see it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

For Dianthus from the Dandelion

Back at the end of March, my dear Kansas friends (many of whom no longer live in Kansas), threw me a surprise baby shower while I was in town. They gave me a gift certificate to The Blue Dandelion, a downtown Lawrence baby store, the kind of store that sells organic cotton sleepers on sturdy wooden hangers, all-terrain strollers more expensive than BOB and Scandinavian design high chairs. In short, it is the kind of store that I love but would never consider actually buying something at unless I had a compelling reason. Thanks to my friends for giving me a compelling reason. With that gift certificate reasons, I bought:
The Bummis set of unbleached cotton cloth diapers and the accompanying flushable liners and cute "whisper wraps"
A super-soft duckie sheet
A sleeper with a chipmunk
A sleeper with turtles
Six pairs of monkey socks and
Two wash clothes

All are made of organic cotton. More on the usefulness of all this later, for now, a big thank you to those great friends.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Boys are also brave": Books About Nursing

"Boys are little men comprised of complex qualities like love, learning, laughter, and most of all, life!" If this statement from page 144 of the Better Homes and Gardens Baby Book (1969) seems a little vague, we can read specifics on the next page. "Boys find laughter and excitement in the simplest things; a birthday balloon bouncing in the summer breeze . . .", "Boys are also brave. They can pick up worms and thread them on hooks . . . If mothers were as brave as their sons, a boy's room would be a small private zoo." "Boys believe it is better to give than to receive. . . " "Being mechanical is just part of being a boy. If it's possible, boys are constructive and destructive both at the same time. They delight in tearing something apart to see what makes it work. In the process of re-assembling the thing, there are always spare parts-- but then this happens with Daddy too."

All of this information is critically useful in helping me to raise a son. The text on girls, meanwhile, is relatively scanty, but if I had a daughter I'm sure the photos captioned, "I wish I had a birthday once a week," and, "See Kitty, now I look just as pretty as Mommy," (pg. 173) would be equally useful.

Note: more generally interesting post about books I've read while nursing below.

One must assume that one can pick out useless (or worse) advice from modern parenting books just as easily as one can pick it out from older ones. That's part of the reason that I'm sure good mothers Irene and Ad Astra are correct that parenting is about what feels right and works with one's child rather than what's stated in a book. However, there are a heck-of-a-lot of details about which one has no intuition (if breastfeeding is not instinctual, the appropriateness of changes in poop frequency would hardly be) and it is really nice to have an authoritative book to consult. And another when one doesn't like the advice given in the first. And perhaps another in case the first two are wrong.

I have the second edition of Heidi Murkoff's What to Expect The First Year. It is easy to read and non-judgemental, but the month-by-month format doesn't work as well for parenting as it does for pregnancy. Would one necessarily think to look under the third month for diaper rash or the fourth month for wriggling during changing? Still, overall it is recommended, as is the handy, Your Baby's First Year issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics. This 4" x 7" paperback has the advantage of being small enough to thumb through while nursing. While What to Expect is written to sound like one is chatting with a friend (who happens to have consulted a bunch of pediatric literature), Your Baby's First Year is considerably more authoritative (I particularly like little boxed "Where We Stand" features that inform the reader that the AAP officially supports breastfeeding and car seats and officially opposes cigarettes and fire arms near babies). The organization of Your Baby's is just as awkward as What to Expect, with a similar hybrid of whole chapters on feeding or safety interspersed with chapters on month by month development which contain boxed essays on particular feeding or safety issues. Fortunately, the index is good.

I ordered The Nursing Mother's Companion by Kathleen Huggins during Dianthus's first week when I could learn from the previous books that breast feeding was not going well and that this was not uncommon, but not how to resolve the problem. At the time, the arrival of The Nursing just made me cry more. The book contains specifics about what I was doing wrong and some guidelines for correcting the problems and Dianthus and I still couldn't make it work. Despite that, I really like the book and highly recommend women who are considering breastfeeding (especially those that don't have breastfeeding classes and are over a hundred miles from a certified lactation consultant) read at least the first few chapters before giving birth or buying breastfeeding supplies.

From my mother I also own the aforementioned Better Homes and Gardens Baby Book, which is not as useless as the quotes I picked out suggest, and The New Revised and Enlarged Edition of Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care (first published in 1948, revised and enlarged in 1968). I haven't read much of either, but both are useful as reminders about how things change (e.g. Dr. Spock thinks that a baby should sleep in a 60 degree room), as support for any methods I like that are contrary to current thought (e.g. Dr. Spock thinks that three hours outside is vital) and for corroboration (methods recommended for sixty years carry more weight).
Images of Dianthus included because he is better looking than these book covers. Note that these images are both about two weeks old; he has much less hair now.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Books While Nursing

The range of suggestions for what I should read while feeding Dianthus has been vast, from happy stories (nothing too scary or dramatic), to Lonesome Dove (long, easy and compelling) to fantasy adventure (dramatic enough to keep one awake). My mother and sister-in-law both brought me books and my general to-be-read list has grown. While I have read a fairly wide range, I have found that I don't read in the middle of the night, rather I look at the patterns on the quilt hanging on the wall. My major limiting factor in selecting the following was format (they are all paperbacks that I didn't mind bending in odd ways as I tried to turn pages with one hand or keep my place while burping Dianthus), but, with the exception of Strangers in the Mist, none is exactly the right size the way that the Pyrdain Chronicles are. In the order I read them:

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder was given to me by my mother. She had been told to read it by my brother and sister-in-law, as had I, but given my family's history of not reading what family members recommend, neither she nor I had read it. Mountains Beyond Mountains is a non-fiction account of a crazy American doctor (Paul Farmer) starting and running a health clinic in the poorest part of Haiti (and TB programs in Peru and Russia) while working in infectious disease at Harvard. In many respects Mountains is comparable to Three Cups of Tea (my review here) as a book length account of an American giving it all to a somewhat unlikely cause. Mountains does not have the exotic setting of the Himalayas that Three did; Haiti is portrayed vividly, but as desolate and very very poor; nor the timely factor; while there should perhaps be some political involvement in Haiti, Haiti is not newsworthy the way that Pakistan and Afghanistan are, but altogether I found the book more enjoyable (I admit that my affection for Three diminished somewhat following raych's scathing review. I hate to be that feeble in my opinion, for I stand by my assessment that it is an extraordinary book, but some of the faults that raych points out are real). I think, in the end, that Mountains is more enjoyable because Farmer is a nicer guy than Mortenson and, more importantly, because Kidder is a more sympathetic character than Oliver Relin. I have spent the summer pondering* why I like books with sympathetic characters so I can explain it to Amateur Reader, but I have failed. None the less, Kidder is sympathetic; he lets himself become a character in Mountains and raises questions that readers have. Farmer is fascinating, but almost non-human in both sustained zeal and physical stamina. While following Farmer around, Kidder is frequently in awe, but is also both gleeful and guilty when he finds flaws. Kidder's hang-overs and exhaustion help transform a listing of noble deeds into an enjoyable read. Highly recommended for my mother and most of my friends, and imperative for SalSis if she has not already read it.

Simon Van Booy's collection of five stories, Love Begins in Winter, was also given to me by my mother. I reluctantly came to really like it. The stories have issues. I felt the whole time that Van Booy was trying too hard. Too many attempts at “deep”, too many childhood tragedies haunting adults, too self-consciously obtuse. Yet, overall, I found I really enjoyed the collection of five love stories, particularly the last three and give the collection a mild recommendation.

I purchased Katherine by Anya Seton because I was looking for something along the lines of Phillipa Gregory (since I have never read any Gregory, it is a reasonable question why I didn't just buy it). I did not realize that Seton wrote “the classic love story of medieval England” in 1954, making it much less steamy (smutty?) than the modern Gregory novels and, at 500 densely packed pages, a hefty bit of history to read. I first attempted Katherine while in the hospital waiting for Dianthus to emerge and found it to heavy to deal with IV lines. The book was almost too heavy to read while nursing (physically), but I prevailed and am very glad I did. Like other good historical fiction, Katherine made me feel ignorant (“Why don't I know who the Plantagenets are?) and question little historical asides (“Was Chaucer really the brother-in-law of John of Gaunt?” “Was Richard II really such a twit?”). Seton does a commendable job of taking a long historical saga, the affair of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, and crafting it into a credible personal story. The genre is not for everybody, but if you enjoy this sort of thing (I imagine Beth, Jenny and Sunflower Spinner would), Katherine is a good example.

Stranger in the Mist by Lee Karr is a Silhouette Shadows book. The last of my trashy romance collection from my library book sale days, Stranger is the type of book I wouldn't have bought if series romances weren't selling for $1 a bag (a price that always led to indiscriminate gathering), because the Shadows line is supposed to “send shivers up your spine and chill you even while it thrills you”. I don't enjoy being scared and, over time, have become the most malleable of audience members. Play sappy music and I cry, introduce nightmares and murderous pasts and I'm scared no matter how stupid and far-fetched the premise. Despite not being my type of book, Stranger is fine, and, if, for some reason, you want to read a typical Silhouette romance with sections that seem inspired by The Shining and Dead Again, by all means, read Stranger in the Mist.

Maria DermoĆ»t's lovely 1958 novel The Ten Thousand Things (translated from the Dutch by Hans Koning) was given to me at Christmas by my SIL among the fun, thoughtful books. The Ten Thousand Things is a connected series of stories concerning a garden on a small spice island in the Moluccas. At first I was somewhat dismissive of the book. The pacing is unusual, the transitions are odd, and a ghosts of young girls, or maybe not ghosts, appear in the first chapter. I'm drawn to magical realism in concept but not in actuality (I'm glad I read A Hundred Years of Solitude, but, like Marieke and unlike The Mister or MBIL, I'm not espousing its greatness to all), and I assume my initial reluctance was because soon I was going to be told that it was all carried away in a cloud of butterflies and I just wasn't ready to suspend disbelief that way. Fortunately for me, magic abounds in the book, but the only definitive magic is the magic of the island; while there may be ghosts and curses and love potions, only some of the characters believe in them, and the reader, like the main character, may choose alternative explanations. Plot-driven readers may feel that not much is happening, that most of the book is vivid description and an exotic atmosphere, and find themselves surprised, at the end, to have read of multiple murders and many passions. I'd recommend The Ten Thousand Things to Happy Cricket, both mothers, Amateur Reader for the “Indonesian Reading List” he'll surely make someday, and anyone traveling to Southeast Asia or the South Pacific.

Links and images to arrive when Dianthus does not need full attention, as he apparently does now. It's Book Blogger Appreciation Week, so I have linked to the three book blogs I read regularly: Wuthering Expectations (Mostly appreciation of 19th Century literature), books i done read (hilarious reviews of an eclectic mix of books), and Anthyrium filix-femina (an American gardener and writer now living in Scotland).

*when I haven't been doing other things like giving birth, feeding a baby, gardening, reading, trying to catch up with thank you notes and loads and loads of laundry.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Baby Products at One Month

I'm going to start endorsing products so that I can "monetize" this blog* and do it full time (a la or, more likely, because I have an outrageous number of pregnant and wanting to be pregnant friends and grandparents of the very young are probably my largest audience.

While I wander the streets of my small town, most comments I receive are that my baby is exceptionally cute (which is true) or scrawny (not true!). Beyond that, people envy the sling ("I wish they made those when I had kids"**) and Dianthus's stroller and tell me they didn't know I was pregnant (I clearly was).

The sling is a Balboa Baby from Target. The Mister and I both use it, and while it seems outrageously priced for a piece of cotton, two pieces of elastic and two plastic rings, I now think it is well worth the purchase price (thank you to my aunt and uncle who purchased it for us). Among other things, it can be used with a child under 8 pounds (unlike the Baby Bjorn, which we have not used yet), it is easy to load the baby in by oneself (a big difference from the Moby Wrap) and the Mister has a system of tucking in crying baby so that Dianthus can lie in the pouch contentedly sucking on a pacifier without losing it in frustration.

The stroller is a BOB revolution. BOB is a three wheeler (with air in the tires) off road or jogging stroller. The front wheel pivots and it has an incredible turning radius and handles beautifully. My parents had offered to buy Dianthus a stroller, and it felt like expensive overkill*** when I asked them for BOB (and the extra attachment that allows a small baby to use BOB by clicking in to his car seat), as I don't jog and don't have big plans for trail running. My town, however, is short on sidewalks and those that we do have are very crumbly. Dianthus and I have walked into the grass or gravel to avoid traffic on several occasions already. BOB is fabulous for here. Thanks to Mom and Dad for BOB.

Dianthus is awakening, and I've already written this post in four installments, so you'll have to wait for the next in this series for information on musical plastic, pacifiers, disposable diapers and the other things never planned to own.

*Blogger has a button for this on the dashboard and it makes my brother-in-law and me laugh.
**This makes me laugh, because the idea of strapping a baby to your waist with a cloth over a shoulder is probably as old as cloth. True, they weren't always available at Target, and if one used one in 1970 it would appear very ethnic or hippie, but the idea is not new.
***But given that there are $1000 strollers on the market, it's not so hard to justify $400 for a BOB.