Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Books I read in 2011, in no particular order

[Ed note: I originally posted this on 12/5, but have done more reading since then so I'm updating the date to reflect that.]

With stars next to the ones I enjoyed most:

1. Room by Emma Donoghue*
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins*
3. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
4. Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley*
5. Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller*
6. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
7. The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
8. Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad*
9. The Help by Katherine Stockett
10. Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite*
11. Everything Happens Today by Jesse Browner*
12. The Orphan Sister by Gwendolen Gross*
13. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante
14. Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali*
15. The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute
16. The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown*

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My evening

I have a sore throat tonight-- caught a plague from my buggy little children-- so I decided to make myself a cup of tea with lemon and honey. The honey I have at the moment came from the Amish Market and includes a chunk of honeycomb. Looking at it reminded me of that scene in 'Kingdom' where Judy and the midwife have it out, so in a moment of amusing myself I decided to brew it in the mug I got at the Waldorf Winter Faire. I'm going to work on my next book for a bit, then settle in with "The Weird Sisters," which I'm savoring page by page. I might even be able to get the pellet stove to work. It will be a cozy winter evening.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

On My Hopeless Longing for a Forest Friends Swirl Cake

Oscar Wilde: "Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret. The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself."

Swiss Colony: "A flavorful, easy-to-serve customer favorite!"

Long ago in the early '80s, when I was a little Jewish girl growing up in a condo on the outskirts of D.C., I had a bad, bad case of Christmas Envy. It's hard to say why. We did, after all, have a five-foot artificial Christmas tree, and stockings we draped on the stereo cabinet; but still, I had it bad. Maybe it was the brainwashing influence of It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. Maybe it was because Michelle Crampton, the girl who lived upstairs in her grandmother's smoky third-floor walk-up, told me explosive stories about her Christmas mornings: twenty-two presents! Twenty-FIVE! My Little Ponies! Cabbage Patch Dolls! It sounded like an extravaganza of all the toys I would know only from friends' houses and, later, VH-1 nostalgia specials, and the gifts my father doled out at a reasonable rate of one per night paled in comparison.

It wasn't just Christmas, though. There was Easter, too, when I'd flip through the Sunday circulars in the Washington Post to ogle all the photos of cello-wrapped baskets bursting with candy and pastel dresses that came with bonnets and gloves. I mean no disrespect against the religion of my birth by saying that Manischewitz's coconut macaroons for Passover just don't have the same appeal. It was through the deluge of holiday catalogs and sales flyers that I got my start telling stories. This is a true confession: at age six or seven I would sit in the den for hours with a stack of catalogs and a pair of safety scissors, and snip out all the little photos of things I wanted, storing them in big black plastic grocery bags I kept in my closet. This drove my mother insane. She was convinced the bags would become a breeding ground for roaches. But she wasn't really big on telling me I couldn't do things, and so every week I added to my collection like a future star of "Hoarders," all the while making up stories in my head about the people who lived in the commercial wonderland stored in my garbage bag.

The first time I ever attended anyone's Christmas celebration, at my aunt's house in Arizona, I was around 12 or 13. Prior to that, my knowledge of the holiday was all based on research. And in the early '80s, there seemed to be no more authoritative text than the Swiss Colony catalog. A great deal of real estate in my garbage bag was devoted to Swiss Colony products, thanks to the fact that they sent their catalog about every other day beginning in September, and I had no reason to doubt that its contents represented the Standard American Christmas. Everyone who was not Jewish ate summer sausage and shrink-wrapped cheese in mass quantities, found use for tiny jars of jam and a handful of mixed nuts, and entertained with trays of petits fours. Their houses, too, were decorated with the windchimes and novelty-print blankets in the back of the booklet, and on every holiday table was a glass gumdrop tree.

This year, as I started to pull Christmas together for my own family, I made a stop-- as I always do-- on the Swiss Colony website. I never actually order anything. It just gets me in the holiday mood, you know, since they haven't changed their offerings since 1983. As the page loaded I was greeted with the three smiling raccoon faces of the Forest Friends Swirl Cake, also known, for some reason, as the Orphans' Log. And for the first time it hit me: I have a Visa. I'm 35 years old and, dammit, I'm tired of looking at the Forest Friends Swirl Cake. I can buy the damn thing and have a real freakin' Christmas!

It took nanoseconds for my nine-year-old inner child to retrieve my credit card and place the order. It arrived a week later, attached to a complimentary box of chocolate truffles and one of petits fours (Petits fours! There really is a Santa!). I could hardly wait for the momentous occasion to arrive, and then, at long last, it was Christmas Day.

The cake was smaller than I expected, but my surprise was short-lived; celebrities are always shorter in person. Still, for purposes of scale, I took a picture of it next to an object whose size I know well:

You like what I did there? But still, you can see that this cake is really quite small, especially given that I forked over nearly $30 for it. Though delighted that those raccoon faces were looking at me and me alone, I was starting to feel glad that I had resisted buying the cheese and summer sausage boxed sets and had instead gone with some milky brie and Ubriaco del Piave from the cheese counter at Wegmans and a selection of charcuterie. Thirty bucks at Wegmans will get you an absolutely beautiful fresh fruit tart, but then again, my childhood Christmas dreams aren't made of fruit tarts, are they?

I sliced into the cake. It looked more or less like I expected: swirly and dense. The chocolate shell was thicker than expected, almost like a solid bar.

At this point, since I had decided upon opening the box that I would blog this adventure, I decided to pause and take a photo of the gift I got for my husband to enable me to hit the necessary minimum for getting the chocolaty freebies.

It would work better if I knew how to turn the photo, but as you can see, it is a blanket printed with a picture of a wolf howling at the moon. Our sectional sofa's chaise lounge is wearing out, and recently he bought a cheap acrylic blanket with a soaring eagle to cover the upholstery and prevent ripping. If I was the author of, say, The Help, or The Night Circus, I would solve this problem by reupholstering my sofa in fabric spun by the Pope's personal silkworms. But since merely reading my book's inside cover causes people to go to Confession, I decided I'd better class the place up with the wolf-pack blanket.

So I returned to my slice of Forest Friends Swirl Cake. I made it this far:

I'm going to have to blame it on the filling. It had that Crisco-y texture, as if someone had sweetened the shortening with some kind of liquid sugar to keep it from getting fluffy. The cake was dry and one-note. The chocolate coating was decent. But after all the calories I threw back today between the Brie with cranberry-walnut topping, the Westphalian ham, and those petits fours-- which, to my surprise, turned out to be quite yummy-- I just couldn't justify this one. In the end, the Forest Friends were ever so much tastier in the imaginary realm.

But I'm not disappointed. It's how these things work, after all; it's why we read, why we write, and why we usually stop short of doing the things we read and write about. Unless you happen to be longing for an Orphans' Log. In which case I'd like to recommend the fruit tarts at Wegmans.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Favorite Things #2: Mushrooms

They pop up overnight, and they're all unique-- a little bit of fairyland right in your yard. They might be toxic. They're delicious if they're not, but you don't dare take the risk. They don't last very long. I find them fascinating and lovely in their great variety. In wet weather you can often find me lying on my stomach in the grass, taking a spontaneous photo with my iPhone camera. Like this one.

My Favorite Things #1: Licorice Allsorts

My friends tease me mercilessly every time I mention my deep and abiding fondness for licorice allsorts. If I complain that my local CVS has stopped carrying them, they suggest I try a store that caters more to the elderly. They tell me to check the rack between the Circus Peanuts and the Root Beer Barrels, and sometimes they even cite FDA warnings about overdosing on licorice, telling me that my favorite candy is going to KILL ME.

No amount of mockery on their part, however, can change the fact that Bassett's Allsorts are no longer for sale at the store just up the road. Sure, they have them in the bulk candy section of Wegmans, but they look suspiciously old and dusty ("You don't say!" my friends reply. "That's because they stopped manufacturing them in 1890!". So in a fit of desperation I ordered a twelve-bag mega-pack online-- not Bassett's, but Kookaburra, which I'd only had once before. The flavor is quite different. Bassett's are thickly coated with a candy that seems to have a coconut element. Kookaburra's are much more pillowy and airy around the licorice. But there's less variation in texture because there are none of the nonpareil type, and I've decided I don't like them as much. Still, in a pinch, they will do.

I'd like to say I'm waiting for a renewed trend in this particular candy, but since haute comfort foods and food trucks are super-popular right now, and people still can't get behind a back-to-basics candy like allsorts, I think it's missed its window. I'll just have to find a better old-lady store.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Going to the Faire

"Want to come to the Waldorf Winter Faire with me?" my friend E texted me a couple of weeks ago. Then, because she knows me so well, she added, "Not joking."

Oh, yes. Count me in.

I loaded my two youngest kids in the minivan and drove an hour north. I have been to Washington Waldorf School numerous times, and to my oldest son's Waldorf preschool many-many, but this was the first time I had been to the Waldorf School of Baltimore.

Now, here I will make a confession. I had not been into a Waldorf school since I started writing 'Kingdom' several years ago. I wanted to, but I felt like it would be smarmy to stage a visit to one just to collect material for a book they wouldn't necessarily like. I didn't want anyone to feel deceived or used. And the important thing is, I had been inside them so many times I felt like I was solid on the setting. Boy, was I ever right.

As soon as I walked in, there was a guy playing "Puff the Magic Dragon" on acoustic guitar.

There was yarn, yarn, and more yarn.

The handwork room was a fantasyland for anyone who has ever crafted.

Evidence of hands-on math projects was everywhere, and it was lovely.

Did I mention the yarn?

And it wouldn't be Waldorf if it wasn't all about the gnomes. My sons paid their entry into Gnome Land and received a glittery plastic snowflake as a souvenir.

Oh no, it's Bach's Rescue Remedy... weapon of choice for teachers in a jealous rage.

Main Lesson books were clipped up in hallway displays-- this one is about Cain and Abel. This one seemed particularly apt.

All of the colors, but not black. Black was not allowed. (Actually, there were black crayons to the right of this photo, but a much smaller selection kind of stuffed in at the end. Because it's true-- most schools do not use them in the younger grades.)

Ohhhh, the toys! Be still my heart! If you look at the bottom left edge of this photo, you can see a little blond figurine wearing a painted blue dress-- that is the girl from "The Star Money," the fairy tale that is mentioned several times in 'Kingdom.' I was practically quivering with enchantment-- but restrained myself from buying it. Believe me, WSOB was getting its fair share of cash out of me already.

The daily kindergarten schedule, with healthy and organic snacks listed and a mini nature-table assortment alongside.

I loved seeing this banner. The Winter Faire was done along a Robert Frost theme, so lines from "Stopping in Woods on a Snowy Evening" were on large banners all over the school. Given that I was operating purely by memory when writing 'Kingdom,' I was beyond delighted by how accurate my representations were in the book. There wasn't one moment when I winced and thought, "oh man, I got that part wrong." But when I saw the banners and thought of the one in the book's fictional history classroom-- "Man is both a fallen God and a God in the becoming"-- I was thrilled. It was a detail I had gotten right, and almost by accident.

Since 'Kingdom' was published, I have drifted between an open criticism of Waldorf philosophy and a poignant sense of connection with it. I'm fully aware of so many of its flaws and the areas where it fails to hit the idealistic mark it sets for itself, or that its community sets for it. But I still find it beautiful and appealing, and I'm sorry that I was never able to be more a part of it, for the most part due to money. Being at the school this past weekend served as a reminder to me both that I am an outsider and that I am an admirer, and it's likely that I will always be both of those things and nothing more. Not an enemy, not a member of the community. Just someone who wrote a book.

The Winter Faire, though, was beautiful and enchanting. We had a great time, and I hope to go back to more events in the future. As long as they let me in the door.

Monday, December 5, 2011

My ambitious reading list for 2012

I have a lot of samples on my Kindle and a daunting TBR pile. I seem to be on a book-a-month plan, and try to read what's very popular (as it comes up), so this is an ambitious list for me.

1. Germinal by Emile Zola
2. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
3. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
5. Shopgirl by Steve Martin
6. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
7. The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
8. The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst
9. A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres
10. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde