Monday, December 7, 2009

84, Charing Cross Road

I cannot tell you how many times I have seen 84, Charing Cross Road, nor do I ever tire of it. The acting is superb (Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins, Dame Judi Dench), and the story draws me in like a sponge…and is a true story.

Here’s the gist: Helene Hanff, a writer in New York, pre-WWII, goes in search of hard-to-find volumes by writing to a second-hand bookstore in England—at 84 Charing Cross Road. Frank is the manager of the store and, over twenty years of mail orders and written discourse, he and Helene grow to be very close, that friendship circle including his staff as well. As you watch this movie, you watch this little group of friends through the war and you see the events of their lives unfold through letters back and forth across the Atlantic. And the movie itself is so very stylish. Here's a taste:

If you are looking for spy action and car chases, skip this. But if you want a true, wonderful story with deep character development and a story about the best kind of friendship, you will want to brew some tea and sit down to this movie.

As I sat watching it this time, marveling at the long-distance relationship that developed between the two main characters, I could not help but think of you, my friends in the blogosphere. It was amazing when the next day I visited Willow Manor and found that she had watched the same showing (again) and had been sitting there thinking of blogging as well.

In the case of Helene and Frank, they never met personally. And, yet, they became the closest of friends. Each was dear to the other, and it is a fascinatingprogression of the movie to see that relationship deepen and the longing each had to actually be in the presence of the other. Never realized.

There is one (for me) pivotal scene, where Helene reads from John Donne of our connection with one another
All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and His hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to another.

I believe Willow Manor is right; blogging is the pen pal method of today. It is possible to come to know people with whom you have never had the pleasure of keeping company. And, it’s funny, but after reflecting, I think my blog friends may see my “essence” even more clearly than my nearer friends do. When I write my posts, there is the comfort of an air of anonymity. I am not obsessed with keeping my identity secret, but I do write at large under the pseudonym, “C.” This gives me a little more leash and, I believe, it gives my readers insight into who I really am.

I have thought in the past that blogging is a method of re-inventing myself. On my blog, I can hone the qualities I want to present and just not mention those other irritating parts of me that might be evident to those who sit in the same room. But I have come to think that, rather than re-invention, what I feel when posting is a certain freedom. It’s really “me set free,” rather than a different me.

And this ramble is to say this: I do feel connected with you. I do feel that there are those of you whom I “know” but have never met. There are some of you who, when I read one of your posts, I think, “Yes, that sounds just like ________!” And this about people whom I have never met. Some of you live on the other side of the globe (what a blessing to have that connection!!) and it is not likely I will ever meet you personally. But meet you I have.

The one time I have actually met with a blogger friend, Add Humor and Faith..., she was exactly as V and I had grown to know her. It just bolsters me in my belief that the connection of friendship need not be physical, but can be nurtured long distance. And what a blessing to be able to connect in the way we do on the internet.

Go watch 84 Charing Cross Road. See if it doesn’t remind you of “us” bloggers!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pioneer Woman Cooks

NEWS FLASH! I just ordered several copies for Christmas gifts and was surprised to find that Amazon is offering this book at a very favorable price as compared to Walmart--as in almost half! Also, I was able to get free shipping by ordering three because I am not in a hurry! Great gift at a reasonable price!

For bloggers, Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond is a hero, er, uhm, a heroine. She has crafted her blog into something to which we all aspire--fun, entertaining, beautiful, and financially successful! If you don't know her site, check it out at Pioneer Woman. To Ree, I say, "Go, Girl!" She is an encouragement to all of us in blogland.

A couple weeks ago V and I learned that Ree would be in our city at the local Walmart. We met for an early dinner (couple glasses of wine to get us in the right mood) and set off to purchase a book and have Ree personally autograph it. Oh, we knew we'd have to wait in line, but we were willing to give Ree half-hour of our time...right! This is the sight that met us at the Walmart:

We purchased books but, alas, knew that the lines which stretched three and four deep to the back of the supercenter, then left to the other wall, precluded our actually meeting Ree...or the Marlboro Man, who was also signing.

But, rather than being discouraged, V and I were ecstatic to see Ree succeed in such a huge way. As I write this post, the NY Times has Ree listed as No. 2 bestseller for hardcover advice.

You won't find many new recipes here; the book is about how Ree actually cooks--her family's food, which closely parallels my own culinary heritage. Her recipes include mostly tried-and-true family favorites, like chicken-fried steak, chocolate sheet cake, and fried chicken. But it's fun to see Ree's take on these familiars. She also includes some intriguing recipes that I intend to try soon: "Simple, Perfect Enchiladas," (simple and perfect?! Sounds great to me!)and "Marlboro Man's Favorite Sandwich," which will be served to my houseguests over the holidays--must add something for the three manly-types who will be with us for a week!

But while Ree does not include many recipes with which I have no experience, her book remains a fun, beautiful presentation. Several copies will fill slots on my Christmas list...go buy your favorite cook one. C PS - Check out the very last page--just after the index. A little something for us girls...

Monday, November 16, 2009

EMERGENCY! This Book Will Save Your Life

Someone on your Christmas List needs this book...I just know it.

My son is really into the outdoors; he always has been. Lately, he is honing his woodsmen skills toward "survival." No, he's not a skin-headed extremist survialist. He's just using his love and skills of the outdoors to sharpen his ability to "live off the land," should he ever need to. Here he is in a "debris hut" he built on our land; one of several he has practiced making. That's snow you see in the picture. He's invited me to spend the night in one of these with him; I, however, have declined...

Anyway, I was traveling home from Chicago in March and, as I always do in airports, perused the bookstore at O'Hare. Neil Strauss' book was prominently displayed. It seemed a natural choice for my live-off-the-land son, so I purchased one.

Sitting in the plane getting ready to take off, I idly opened the book to see what it is like. A couple hours later, when my plane touched down at home, I was still reading--hooked. My son picked me up at the airport. I told him about the book I purchased for him but had to say, "You don't get it until I'm finished!"

Neil Strauss set out to learn to survive (as he puts it) When-The-S__t-Hits-The-Fan (WTSHTF) and The-World-As-We-Know-It (TWAWKI) ends. This book is informative (how to make a weapon out of a credit card; how to fend off an attack dog...), thought-provoking, and will make you laugh out loud.

I, quite literally, could not put this book down. And it made me really think about our lives. The book opens, for example, with the author's lesson in killing and butchering a goat. It was absolutely stomach-turning for him. And, yet, it occured to him (as it did me) that it is only very, very recently that we have had the luxury of being squeamish about such things. Except for witnessing in my childhood a couple of killing of chickens and rabbits to eat (traumatic), I have always foraged for my food at Kroger. And I intend to keep it that way. But, you know, that kind of life is not reality for most of the world, nor is it reality for our own culture until lately.

In short, the book makes intersting points about the abilities we are losing, the possiblities of real disaster, and the need for our assessment of what we would do if TSHTF and TWAWKI ends...could we recapture the skills we would need?

And, I can't quit this review without telling you that there is a neat surprise at the end of the it. You'll enjoy it. And you might find yourself sleeping some night just for practice in a debris hut. Not! C

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

C: The Prizewinner of Defiance Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less.

Don’t you love based-on-fact stories of victory? This is one of my very favorite movies. Why it is that more people don't know about it is beyond me. I have yet to recommend this movie, starring Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson, to someone who has already seen it. It is based on a memoir written by Terry Ryan about her mother Evelyn. Growing up in Eisenhower-era middle-America, author Terry was one of ten—yes, ten!—of Evelyn’s children.

What you see in this movie is Evelyn as the glue of the family. Woody Harrelson is soooo convincing as the volatile, alcoholic father who spends his family’s milk money on booze. There is Evelyn, at home managing this brood, and steering deftly around her husband’s brokenness to bring her family through. Her only means was contesting. She was a wildly successful jingle-writer, and it literally kept a roof over her family’s head.

One of my favorite lines? When the clothes washer and dryer she just won were delivered, she gleefully exclaimed, “No more boiling diapers on the stove!!” Egads!

I will warn that I have had people watch this movie and say it was a “downer.” I just cannot see this perspective. The movie depicts hard things: Dad's alcohol abuse, his immaturity and recklessness, the fear his children felt of his rage, and his chagrin over Evelyn’s success as a contester even though he profited from it. (Must never let the little woman think she’s anything special….). But in the end I see it as a story of triumph.

Ultimately, Evelyn triumphed in her home and life, just like she did in all those contests. The town in which this family grew up was, indeed, “Defiance, Ohio.” I think that name was no accident for Evelyn, for she stood in absolute defiance of her situation.

But Evelyn’s defiance was not of her husband or her circumstances. It was a defiance that was fiercely protective of her entire family, including that husband whom many of us would have kicked to the curb. She is shown as a determined, loyal and loving mother. Her children never, never doubted her love and determination for them. And even her husband would let slip his total dependence on this strong woman. There is one scene where the landlord has visited the home to advise that the family must move in two weeks. Naturally, the children are disturbed and meet Dad at the driveway when he comes home from work. They give him the news of the impending move and express their worry, to which he replies, “Don’t worry. Mother will figure something out.” Yes, always Mother…

I love stories of strong women, especially in an era when society did nothing to promote independence and strength in women. It was not Evelyn’s ambition that drove her, but her love of her family. I found it absolutely uplifting. And, furthermore, when Evelyn finally gets to meet with her contesting community--other bright women finding their way out of bondage through contesting--I am so reminded of my blogging community!

I’ve not read the book, but it is on my short list.

Here's a trailer for just a taste:

The acting is superb. The story is triumphant--and TRUE! What more could you ask for? If you take the time to watch this movie, be sure to wait at the end credits when you will be told what happens in adulthood to each and every one of Evelyn’s ten children. Believe me, they—each and every one—did her proud!! I would have expected nothing else. C

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Christmas 2008 my sister and brother-in-law gave me a for-me-totally-unheard-of book, The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell. They had browsed the bookstore and noticed a display of this book on the Puritans in early America. (That’s “Puritans,” folks, not “the Pilgrims”) Knowing of my penchant for history, they bought it on a hunch. Boy, did they strike gold!! This is right up my alley.

For me, Vowell’s book is one of the most entertaining history books I have ever read. She has researched this subject, drawing heavily and quoting from the Puritans’ copious journals of their early-New-World life. Vowell makes the point that one thing the Puritans did to excess was write—hence her title reference to them being “Wordy.” It is to our great benefit that they did.

This author writes with such humor that I found myself smiling throughout the book at her clever turns of phrase and, on occasion, I chuckled out loud. This is an oddity for a history book—at least for me. But her humor does not impede her depth. I have read others’ reviews that her sarcasm was an annoyance; I did not find it so. But be warned: she’s a little edgy. Nevertheless, I think, she is effective as she teaches about:

Puritan theology and religious practice;

Puritan – Indian relations (tenuous at best!). The wars and treaties with the native peoples….amazing!!

Puritan – Mother-Country-England Relations (also tenuous at best). It was interesting to see the beginnings of the American revolution in the Puritan desire for self-government; at such an early stage!

Puritans fighting amongst themselves. Oh, yes, lots of petty fighting. Earliest Boston was not especially harmonious. Puritan punishment for sin included outright banishment from the settlement. This was not small thing. Think of being kicked out of known circles into wilderness where there were no other people except for those native Americans!

Banishment happened to Roger Williams, who was resourceful enough to turn lemons into lemonade and become (through his VERY close association with them because of his exile) the leading authority on native folk for his fellow countrymen. He even wrote a native American translation dictionary! So useful in the wilds of the New World!

Vowell is an unabashed atheist, so her assessment of the Puritans and their outlook is through that lens. She is careful to reveal her own stance, and I, for one, found her once-removed-from religion-assessment helpful.

Once I started it, I could not put this book down. And I’m a lot wiser about early America for it! C

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Emily Hahn--A Wonder Woman, For Sure!

Emily “Mickie” Hahn was my kind of woman (aside from her dabble in adultery, that is). Born in 1905, she was absolutely determined to break down the thick-high barriers keeping women from, well, just about everything! She was, unequivocally, a “Wonder Woman,” if there ever was one.

Ken Cuthbertson has written a book on Hahn’s life, Nobody Said Not to Go, that I found fascinating. It made me wonder if there was any way—on God’s green earth—that I could have found the courage to tackle the exploits that Hahn did. Cuthbertson records Hahn’s amazing, cram-packed life that includes:
Gaining a college degree in mining—unheard of (often not allowed) for women in the 1920’s;

Traveling—alone!!—in 1930 through the Congo. She went halfway across the continent to visit a “friend” at a Red Cross outpost, where she stayed two years. When he went a little crazy, she left. But, did she go back the way she came? Oh, Noooo!!! She’d seen that half the continent! She gathered a little contingent of native porters and trekked across the other half, earning food and provisions by deciding legal disputes by sitting as a “great white judge” for villages along the way! Who’da thought…?

She became the first woman writer for the New Yorker magazine, and continued to write well into her 80’s.

She spent some of WWII in Shanghai and Hong Kong, basically living by her wits. (Would’ve scared the wits outta me!). The title of the book, “Nobody Said Not to Go” refers to her trip to Nanking at a time when it was being ravaged savagely by the Japanese—no place to be at the time!

Her life includes meeting with many, many famous people.
I could go on and on. Her exploits border on the unbelievable, but Cuthbertson writes well, holds attention and convinces that his research has proven out the remarkable tales of Emily Hahn.

I’ve purchased several copies of this book to hand to young women at graduation. I want them to grasp just a scintilla of Emily’s determination that nothing could stand in the way of her dreams and ambition—not even her gender!! C

Friday, October 30, 2009

Da Chen. A True Story of Growing Up in China...Remarkable!!

Author Da Chen is one remarkable person. He was born and raised in rural China of a family who suffered intense persecution during the “Cultural Wars.” His two-volume memoir spins a story that fascinates the reader and educates those (me!) who have grown up in the coziness of America to the horrors of that time for the Chinese.

Da’s childhood story in Colors of the Mountain, takes us through the hardships of his family’s persecution, which devolves eventually into this child—showing maturity far and away beyond his years—coming to grips with the fact that his future is up to him, alone. His family is supportive, but all they can give is love and moral support. You watch on the pages as this child turns his eyes on his future and takes charge. The pay off for his hard work was tremendous: Da ended up graduating from Columbia Law School and achieving success that he had no right to expect, given his beginnings.

This book was a stunner for me. It, very deservedly, went on to become a New York Times Bestseller. If you have missed Da Chen, don’t put off reading him.

There is a toned-down children’s version of Colors of the Mountain(which contains strong language and circumstance), called China’s Son, which is designed to impart the powerful lessons of Colors of the Mountain to children.

Sounds of the River picks up where Colors leaves off, continuing with Da’s trek through life. These books, with their roots in China, are really just another telling of the great American success story of triumph gained through grit and perseverance. I cannot recommend these books highly enough. C

Sams, Ferrol. A Great Southern Author--Don't Miss Him!

Yes, I know, I am a Southerner, born and bred, but I’m still entitled to my opinion: The American South is full of charm and, well, quintessential “Americanism.” I love, love it. If I had not been born here, I’d choose to be here. Enough about that…let’s talk about Southern literature which springs from this Southern character.

When you think of Southern lit, you might think of some greats: William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams (New Orleans), Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Mark Twain…need I go on? What can I say? The South just spins good yarns.

But one Southern great who may have escaped your attention is Ferrol Sams, a truly-gifted physician-turned-writer from Georgia. His trilogy which chronicles the childhood-through-adulthood of Porter Osborne, Jr. (“Sambo”) is one of my favorites. Sams draws heavily on his own childhood and family background in Georgia. So many of his stories evoke my own memories of my Uncles “Chet” and “Mac” sitting around at family dinners, telling some of the same type stories.

Sambo’s family stories will make you turn page-after-page and draw you into this depression-era rural Georgia life. I promise you that these books will not disappoint; instead, they will, by turns, make you laugh out loud or grow quiet with thought. They are some of my favorites.

If you can, start this reading with Run With the Horsemen. It is the first in Sam’s trilogy, and introduces you to Sambo and his family. Follow with The Whisper of the River, which takes you with Sambo into college. Finally, you won’t want to stop until you have read When All the World Was Young, in which Sambo struggles through medical school and into the travails of World War II.

If you’re looking for wonderful writing, an entrapment of story, and a look into American “Southernism,” I can’t think of any books which top these! They are great literature and great “reads.” C