Sunday, December 29, 2013

One Holiday Bleeds Into Another

Our holidays are all mixed up.

People around here are throwing parties, assuming that we can come because all the Christmas madness is behind us.  But ours is just getting started, with kids trickling in to town, sprinkles from Christmas cookies littering the kitchen counter, and Mr. Nesquik's hands all cramped up from addressing the Christmas cards.

And to further twists things around, we ate Easter Brunch Lasagna for dinner, if only to use up the Christmas ham.  Emma said it was "weird but wonderful":

As for books, I made a valiant attempt at Peter Carey's "irrepressibly funny" Parrot and Olivier in America.  But I just don't get it.  I have laughed more during a mammogram than I have while reading this highly confusing story.  You may try it yourself and prove me wrong.  Let me know how it goes.  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Merry Christmas, Be Glad I Didn't Try Something Tricky

I just escaped the kitchen.  I had such fun, playing with the butter and sugar, the red food coloring and the rolling pin.  This is a lot easier than I thought, I told myself as I rolled out near-perfect rectangles.   Then I put the red rectangle on top of the white one, rolled it up jelly-roll style and . . . and that's where it all went wrong.

This was also my week for making treats for visiting teachees.  They should be glad I did not attempt something so tricky as the above cookies.  No, prudence prevailed (and time was short) so instead, they got:

Honeycomb Goodies 

Also, my reading life suffers.   A novel set in early America sits ignored on my nightstand.  I seem to be too busy pointing and clicking on Amazon and a few other sites that I won't mention, lest the wrong people see and get their surprise spoiled.

Not that the author made it easy.  He promised a story set in America, but sixty pages in, the two main characters have not yet gotten on their boats in Paris or Liverpool or wherever and crossed the Atlantic.

We shall see if this author redeems himself. 

Merry Christmas to you, and when all the excitement ends, the long and boring month of January awaits us all.  But why be sad?  Stock up on books and ignore the wind, the ice, the dismal gray skies. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Is the Man That Hath His Quiver Full of Them Happy?

The snow just keeps falling around here.  The wind blows down our necks.  In the hours before the storms hit, the stores empty of bread and milk.

That's OK.  Why go anywhere?  Why not just stay home, buried in Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist? 

Despite an improbably slapstick opening chapter, I lived in reading heaven for a week.  Golden Richards has four wives and twenty-eight children, and this massive household (three houses, actually) is out of control.  Golden leaves Utah's Virgin Valley every week for his big construction job over in Nevada.  He's building a nursing home, he tells the wives, except it's something else entirely.

Meanwhile back at home, first wife Beverly runs the clan with an iron will and a great many placards posted all over her house:

Please Place Shoes in Shoebox --Neatly and Quietly
Remember: Use Only Your Toothbrush and Your Toothbrush Only
Boys:  AIM!!! Please and Thank You.   

Fourth wife Trish longs for his attention, which leads to a running gag involving a piece of gum.

And Rusty, the chubby, almost adolescent child who falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, is caught trying on his sister's underwear, which earns him yet another banishment to his bedroom, and no dessert.  Don't let the underwear business turn you off to Rusty.  He is such a loveable misfit, I didn't know if I wanted the family to come to their senses and treat him nicer, or if I wanted to see his grand plans for revenge play out. 

Udall writes frankly about people's sex lives; how can you take on the subject of polygamy and not follow the characters into their bedrooms?  But he keeps it all in the service of getting the story told.  We peek through the keyhole long enough to understand what happened, then we move on.

And we meet such lovable and droll desert characters along the way:   The other seven apostles of Golden's fundamentalist sect.  (They haven't worked their way up to twelve yet.  "You'd think," says their leader, "that an outfit like this would grow.  But we just keep shrinking.")  The boss on the "nursing home" construction sight.   A creepily observant ostrich.  The wives, the tenants of Golden's rental houses, the "plyg kids," the sheriff, and even the atomic bombs going off in the nearby desert.

Yep, it was a good time for the snow to fall. 

And for dinner, we had  Slow-Cooked Chicken and Stuffing, which might have gone a long way toward feeding Golden's clan, except that the family kept dipping in for second and third servings. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Those Crazy Dreamers

I used to have a powerful People Magazine habit.  I kicked it, much to the relief of my husband. But I remember what I liked best about it--story after story of people who clung to their crazy dreams.  Much to the consternation of all who knew and loved them, they threw their all into making jewelry, or raising ostriches, or singing in backwater bars in Texas.  And their dreams worked out.

So how about an entire book about somebody's dream?

In Outcasts United  by Warren St. John, Luma Mufleh grows up in a prosperous family in Jordan.  She can expect a good education, a good marriage, a few Mercedes in her driveway. But she just wants to go to the United States.  She's not sure what she wants to do there.  She ends up in an Atlanta suburb, coaching a girls' soccer team.

On a grocery run to a store that carries some of her favorite middle-eastern foods,  she makes a U-turn in an apartment parking lot and finds a group of barefoot boys playing soccer "with the sweaty mixture of passion, joy, and camaraderie" that she remembers from her own country.  As she learns more about these boys, her dream takes shape.

They come from Bosnia, Liberia, Afghanistan, the Sudan and other war-torn countries.  After fleeing murder and plunder, after living in refugee camps and applying for asylum, they find themselves settled in some dilapidated apartments in Clarkston, Georgia.

Clarkston, a peaceful town at the end of the commuter train line, isn't sure what has hit them, but they mostly don't like it.

At any rate, Luma forms a few soccer teams and begins coaching the boys. Clarkston's mayor refuses to let them practice on the greenest fields in town, relegating them a rutted, glass-strewn patch of dirt behind one of the town's worst elementary schools.  And the boys themselves present no small challenge.  "After the trauma of war and relocation, many refugee kids had severe psychological and behavioral problems."

Outcasts is a fascinating look at political asylum, a growing phenomenon in American life.  It is also an account of a woman who gives her all on the soccer field, as well as her car if they need rides, her wallet if they need groceries and her time, if their parents needs help filling out endless forms in a strange language.

I could never be Luma Mufleh.   For one thing, the woman has no time to cook, even something as quick as:  

French Toast Sandwiches 

This is your first installment of french toast sandwiches.  I tasted something similar and quite heavenly at the Frango Cafe in Chicago's downtown Macy's.  I intend to reproduce it at home and share it with you, so wish me luck and keep your griddle ready. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Literary Cheese Puffs

A Montana cowpoke that falls for a night-class teacher.   Two brothers that would like to throw each other off the ski lift.  A father in mourning, doing what he should've hired a detective to do.   An Argentine aristocrat, longing for the old days.

These are some of the people that appear in Maile Meloy's short story collection,  Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It.

Meloy's characters just want to know that they matter to someone.  No, wait.  Only half of them pull your heartstrings that way.  The other half display monumental selfishness, throwing their near and dear away like empty water bottles.  Meloy's tales kept me on her what-will-happen-next hook, but when I closed the last page, I couldn't remember a single one of them.  It was as if I had wolfed down a bag of Cheese Puffs.  Airy and unsatisfying, they only make you want to search the cupboards for some other junk to fill the void.  

Maybe the trouble with short stories is that the reader moves from one person to the next--college girl, wronged wife, pitiful floozy--never knowing enough, never stopping long enough to care.  I can see the most interesting people in Wal-Mart, wearing what ought to be pajamas, and forget them a half-hour later.  But as for people at church, I remember their hometowns, their wardrobes, their visiting relatives and their oddest comments in Relief Society, simply because I'm with them long enough for all this minutiae to build up and stick.

But let us recognize Meloy for her many awards.  She writes a well-constructed tale.  A lot of well-constructed tales, actually, even if they are populated with people you wouldn't want as neighbors or relatives.  

As long as we're dealing with fleeting characters, why don't we celebrate one of nature's most fleeting foods -- the strawberry.

My mother-in-law grew strawberries, sending jars of freezer jam to our house every June.  The jam lasted not much longer than the third week in July.  The second-best way of remembering Grandma and her strawberry crop was the jello she brought to holiday dinners, rich and thick with berries she had frozen the summer before.  The woman hates cooking; she would rather spend Christmas playing with the kids and their new toys, then serve pot pies for dinner.  On the effort scale, this jello was as high as she would go.

For my children, a  holiday isn't holiday without:


1 container (16 oz.) frozen, sweetened, sliced strawberries
1 package (6 oz.) strawberry jello
2 cups boiling water
2 bananas
2 cups mini-marshmallows

Partially thaw the berries in the microwave, 1 minute at 30%.  

Dissolve the jello in boiling water.  Add the berries, stirring until they break up into bite-sized chunks.  Chill for 15-20 minutes, or until syrupy.  Slice the bananas, stir into the jello mixture.  Stir in marshmallows.  Pour into a serving bowl or 9x13-inch pan.  Chill for four hours.  Serves 8 at 200 cals. each.