Sunday, March 22, 2009

Last of the Luck Books

Ojo the Unlucky becomes Ojo the Lucky because he learns to choose his own fortune as he travels through Oz on a great quest. This, largely, is the point of The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Thematically, it would work much better, if, after The Tin Woodman's rousing speech to Ojo, who has just listed reasons he is unlucky: "Every reason you have given is absurd. But I have noticed that those who continually dread ill luck and fear it will overtake them, have no time to take advantage of any good fortune that comes their way. Make up your mind to be Ojo the Lucky," the quest did not utterly fail and Ozma did not laugh at Ojo while her magicians set everything right without any effort on his part. However, the fact that a children's book with such a glaring plot and theme problem could be readable by an adult 96 years after its first publication speaks volumes about the crafting of the crazy set of characters (I want to know what a woozy is and how the glass cat will interact with the pink kitten, I care about Ojo's adventure even when I know they will all come to naught) or nostalgia (this is the first book I remember being given from my grandfather. As a second grader, at 342 pages is was far too long for me, but I struggled through because grandpa obviously thought I could read it).
Not the best children's fantasy book available by a long shot, but certainly not the worst, and lovers of fantasy all owe a great debt to L. Frank Baum for opening up fantasy lands to book length stories.

Like The Patchwork Girl of Oz , Barbara Kingsolver's Pigs in Heaven wraps up a bit too neatly. Unlike Ojo, however, all of the characters in Pigs in Heaven must do their own transforming in order to reach any resolution. As with my recent re-reading of The Bean Trees, I was expecting Pigs in Heaven not to live up to my memory, and, as with The Bean Trees, was pleasantly surprised to find I still love the book. The Kentucky and Okie accents don't bother me the way they did when I first read it , probably because I've met more people who really do speak the ways the characters do-- maybe they aren't there just for cutesy "local color." The tension about what it takes to be a good mother matters all the more to me, and I've never been particularly bothered by plots that hang on unlikely coincidences (of course the character's lives are going to intersect, that's why we've been learning about them in the first place). In this reading I did pick up my SiL's issue with the rain in Seattle: Barbara, in Seattle it is wet but it does not rain hard all the time, it is not like living in a car wash. It's amazing how one detail wrong can really throw the experience of a whole book. In this reading I also didn't see any compelling explanation for why I had to move to Scotland without fully discussing it with my college boyfriend, which I somehow did in 1994, when I instructed said boyfriend to read both The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven in order to understand me. With those caveats being made, like my on-line kindred spirit Marieke, I'm happy to report that Kingsolver's novels feel different with age, but no worse for wear.

You can't think too much about luck, good or bad. Taylor has decided
this before, and at this moment renews her vow. Lucky Buster is lucky
to be alive and unlucky to have been born with the small wits that led him
to disaster in the first place. Or lucky, too, for small wits, that allow
him so little inspection of the big picture. In the ambulance on the way to
the hospital, he wanted to go to McDonald's. (pg. 32)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Capital Beans

Last week the Mister and I ventured to D.C. for some legume tourism*. Saturday at a bridal shower I had my first ever edamame and radish tea sandwich (the filling had the color of this paste from the Artsy-Foodie blog), which was very good but not as tasty as the basil and bacon or mushroom butter sandwiches.
Sunday we went to the US Botanical Garden (on the National Mall, not to be confused with the giant National Arboretum away from downtown) and I was impressed by the number of legumes in flower. There were forced redbuds in vases, brooms in the bulb display, several economically important legumes in the "plants and people" hall, and fairy dusters in fruit in the desert. The plant which impressed me the most, however, was an Australian vine dripping with deep purple bean flowers. Hardenbergia violaceae 'Happy Wanderer' is evergreen, drought tolerant and can take freezing temperatures down to about 23 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the San Marcos Growers website from whence the image is taken. (Karen's Flicker Photo and another capture the depth of color very well).
Sunday night we introduced Mervivian to Ethiopian seasonings and were reminded that we should prepare yellow split peas along with our favorite red lentils in berber.
We drove home on a gusty sunny day through the battlefield at Manassas and Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park where mud season has not visibly given way to spring in legumes or any other plants.
This morning the Mister planted peas.

*Okay, the intent of the trip was to see a dear friend who will soon by moving and take in city life for a weekend , but legumes make it sound much more interesting.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bean Baby

Long before we were serious about having children, the Mister and I spent time listing "great" names for our non-existent children (all twelve of them). By "great" I mean names that made us giggle, whether or not we would actually inflict them on a human child. We've had a series of alcohol names (Ouzo, Galiano, Schnapps and little baby Johnny Red Label), of mixed ethnic names (Jesus Goldstein, Valentino O'Dell, Katerina Suarez, Taguchi Morningstar, Bubba Li, Fitzwilliam Kim) and Old Testament names (Gad and Zilpeh currently, although Joash and several other kings have been considered). Of course, we have the actual names we call our fetus: Mervivian Phogg and Alloicious* (or Alowicious or Allouicious**) and it really is fortunate that Mr. Splashy Pants arrived when she did, otherwise the Mister would call the growing alien monkey that. We have names of creatures, names from literature, horrible adjectives and nouns, names of places, but, I realized yesterday, we don't have any bean names for our baby.
Once in my life I had a friend who was serious about having eight children and serious about naming them after ericaceous plants (plants in the heath/rhododendron family). I had a great time picking out names for her: Heath, Heather, Eric, Erica, Laurel, Kalmia, Pieris, Azalea, and Huckleberry, among others. If Fabaceae (the legumes) is one of the largest plant families (and it is) and one of my favorites, surely I can think of great bean names for my child.
I'm at a total loss, however. None of the common names strikes me as suitable: Mimosa and Indigo might be the closest. I'm more likely to use "little locoweed" than "sweet pea" as a term of endearment. Among the scientific names Glycine max sounds like an interesting character, but not a child. Robinia? Astragalus? Medicago? Psoralea? Pediomelum? Baptisia? Lens? Phaeseolus? Oxytropis? Trifolium? I think not. Any suggestions?

*Mervivian when we feel girlish, Alloicious when we feel boyish. No, we do not know the gender or our child and are not planning on finding out. The only reason I particularly want to know is because "it" is so dehumanizing in English. Still I find the question, "When will you find out what it is?" somewhat offensive, as if the only thing this child has going for it is a penis or lack thereof. Usually I answer that we're pretty sure it is a human, although we certainly haven't ruled out alien monkey based on ultrasound. I find the "What do you want?" question to be very distasteful, and I'm shocked at the women who will answer it in front of their fetus. I don't think it takes having had a miscarriage to realize that any child is miraculous, whether or not childbirth happened 10 billion times or so in the last century. "Mervivian Alloicious, we want you to be a happy healthy person (or alien monkey)."

**Hector Alloicious is a family name (my parents' pet turtle) so Mom and Dad should be able to shed some light onto the proper spelling.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Bean Books 1 and 2: Wonderous Wisteria

My first "bean book" was one I happened to have on hand, Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees. I first read The Bean Trees in college and while I did not love it the way I had loved Kingsolver's Animal Dreams, I loved it enough. Kingsolver illustrated for me that one could be a biologist and a novelist, that one could write books with interesting plots and characters that one cares about and that social issues can have a place in fiction. I clearly wanted to be her (sans the insomnia, messy divorce and rural Kentucky childhood). Sometime later I fell out of my infatuation. I enjoyed both Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer, but unlike one friend who thought they represented Kingsolver's transition into literature, I thought they were substantially less fun than her earlier works, and a good bit longer. The time I spent defending Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and the locavore movement (both to family members who did and did not read the book) exhausted me with the side effect of making me annoyed with Barbara. All told, it had been many years since I had last read The Bean Trees when I picked it up a few weeks ago, and I was expecting a disappointment.

The disappointment never came. The Bean Trees is still a wonderful book. True, the flaws are more apparent to me than they were the first time I read it: some characters are way too folksy, the plot wraps up a little too easily, there are individual bits that could be considered outlandish, outdated, preachy or downright silly. However, as whole, it works for me. Beyond that, the bean references, while only a passing part of the story, are fabulously accurate. Dead vines in a scary urban park erupt one day into a profusion of wisteria flowers. Several weeks later another conversation takes place in the park.

Turtle was staring up at the wisteria flowers. "Beans," she said, pointing.
"Bees," I said. "Those things that buzz are bees."
"They sting," Lou Ann pointed out.
But Turtle shook her head. "Bean trees," she said, as plainly as if she had been thinking about it all day. We looked where she was pointing. Some of the wisteria flowers had gone to seed, and all these wonderful long green pods hung down from the branches. The looked as much like beans as anything you'd ever care to eat.
"Will you look at that," I said. It was another miracle. The flower trees were turning into bean trees, (pg 143-144).

Immediately upon finishing The Bean Trees, I unknowingly began reading another wisteria book, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. One of the "fun thoughtful books" from my SiL, The Enchanted April was the one I was least looking forward to, largely because I've seen the movie and remember only that it wasn't memorable. Imagine my surprise to find the book, following exactly the same plot, to be strikingly memorable. Yes, it is the story of four English women who travel to Italy to sit in a garden for the month of April (written and set just post World War I). Yes, April, Italy and gardens enchant them, and yes, very little else happens. Yet von Arnim makes things happen. As women are sitting alone admiring the freesias, conflict is broiling. It is never loud, it is never action packed, yet things definitely are happening. Von Arnim's particular skill is taking a very sweet plot and making it tart in places. Everybody is transformed by the enchanted April, but everyone remains the same. The self-absorbed twit is still a twit, the crank is still a crank. They will all return to London and still be miserable. Yet somehow it's believable that they will all be better, too. Highly recommended for those intrigued by the romance of the garden, the romance of Italy or the romance of someplace, anyplace, where it is spring in profusion.

Garden plants of all sorts play a role in The Enchanted April, but three legumes are featured: the wisteria whose promise draws them to Italy, the Judas Tree (a red-bud) that defines the a private garden and the acacias (probably black locust, Robinia pseudo-acacia) that perfumes the air and snows petals as they leave.

I have pigs

I have pigs, or swine, rather. To have pigs (Schwein haben) is to be lucky in German, although I never quite mastered the usage (I'm pretty sure one does not tell someone about to take a test, "haben Sie Schwein" the way we did in high school German class, but it usually seemed to work for us).

My pig luck started last summer, when my mother-in-law (MiL) gave me a piggy bank for my birthday. Not just any piggy bank, which she'd been generally seeking as a lucky symbol for me, but a Vino Fund piggy bank. Pretty darn lucky to have a MiL who not only supports whims (i.e. year of luck) but also connects them to my other passions (i.e. wine).

My pig luck continued at Christmas, when I received a good luck marzipan pig in my stocking (the one pictured is for sale at Admittedly, I know (ok, was) the elf who helped Santa out by putting it there, but if I've learned anything about luck this last year, it's that it can't hurt to help it out a bit. Receiving any gift from a loved one is lucky, but explicitly luck-related gifts this year included a hand-knit thinking cap (yes, it has plants on it and says "think"), a copy of Fooled by Randomness (luck plays a role in the stock market after all) and a gorgeous royal purple frilly scarf knit with all sorts of good wishes (pictured surrounding the Vino Fund).

I started planning this post back in December and kept thinking how lucky it was that both sets of parents live in beautiful places (and how lucky I am to recognize the beauty of the prairie). I didn't realize just how lucky it was to see the sunshine in Colorado and Kansas until I returned to West Virginia and received an hour of direct sunlight in the next three weeks. I never can convince my students that here in steeply hilly central West Virginia, I miss real mountains. But then, they have no idea what it is like to grow up in the shadow of Mount Evans (the image is of the view from the gas station near my parents' house. Even suburbia in the foreground does little to diminish the majesty of my favorite mountain).

Of course I am lucky in all sorts of other ways, from having friends who read my blog to having a warm house to clutter up, to having the Mister who will take me out for Valentine's meals of duck and lamb, to having a very very sweet very very silly kitten running around the house.