Tuesday, May 29, 2007

So How Do You Open a Coconut?

My daughter loves fruit. If I'd let her (and some days I feel like I do) she'd live on fruit and crackers. With the occasional bowl of ice cream, of course.

Lately I've been trying to expand her tastes. She loves apples, grapes, pears, honeydew, bananas, strawberries, blueberries, plums -- and we get those fruits often. Some other fruits we don't get quite as frequently, but she still enjoys them, like kiwi. The other night at Wal-Mart we picked up some kiwi and then she noticed a stack of big, brown globes that almost looked like nuts. "What are those?" she asked.

"Coconuts," I answered.

"Can we get one?"

Well, I'm not a huge coconut fan, but I have to admit even I was curious enough to buy a whole coconut, especially when I realized it only cost a little over a dollar. And it said "Easy Open" right there on the packaging!

I even found a neat looking recipe in this month's "Your Big Backyard" magazine, one I still plan to make...if, that is, I can ever get the coconut open.

We tried this afternoon. S. was so excited, watching Mommy carefully read the directions. "Pierce the softest of the three eyes...then drain the water." Well, that was easy enough. Only one of the three dark spots on top was soft enough to actually puncture when I stabbed it with a knife. I spotted the bright white flesh of the coconut in the little hole, and we heard a satisfying sloshy sound. Then we had the fun of shaking the coconut over the sink until all the water came splashing out.

Great! Now for the final instruction. "Tap along groove." And then it said something about the coconut breaking open. Yep. It sure did say something like that.

And of course, nothing happened. I "tapped" along what looked like a dark groove (there was one going around the coconut horizontally as well as one that wrapped around vertically...I tried tapping along both, and also at their point of intersection). Well, at first I tried tapping -- with the knife. Then I tried tapping as in tapping an egg and trying to break it. And then I tried pounding the thing as hard as I could on my cutting board (little pieces of fuzzy brown hair from the outside shell went flying, but nothing else moved). By the time I'd resorted to pounding with the meat tenderizer (yes, I tried that too) the sweet girl had fled the room (not liking loud noises) and shut herself in her bedroom until it was all over.

I went to get her eventually. I managed to get out a tiny flake of coconut through the small hole on top, and she chewed it and said she liked it. The actual still unopened coconut is lying on my counter, waiting for me to come up with another creative way to attack it (or perhaps cowering in fear...can coconuts cower?).

I think my favorite moment in all of this was when S. said, oh so plaintively, "but you said it was easy to open!" To which I replied, "No, honey, the package said that. I just believed it."

Another practical lesson about truth in advertising...

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Eve of Pentecost

At family prayers this evening (otherwise known as "candles") I read the following verses out loud from 1 Peter. They're from the daily lectionary on the eve of Pentecost.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2: 9-10)

I found myself in grateful tears as I read those final words. We speak of Pentecost as the birthday of the church, the people of God, and we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit who knits us/builds us together. And these verses remind us not only of the immense grace-filled truth that we've been called out of darkness into God's marvelous light, receiving mercy when we were so desperately in need of mercy, but that we've been called into the light and bathed in mercy for a reason: that we may proclaim the excellencies of the one who called us. Amen.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Four Really Good Books

It struck me, after I posted my list of current and recent reading, how heavily weighted my reading is right now toward children's literature but also to literature for older children and young adults. I guess that makes sense. I spend a lot of time in the children's section of the library, and I tend to gravitate to the older children's (juvenile/mid-grade) literature. New books in this section frequently catch my eye; some I've heard of (and purposefully look for) but others just intrigue me. Since I happen to think some of the better children's and mid-grade books are the best books being written today period, I think it's likely good for me (as reader, writer and parent) to spend some time reading them.

It's hard for me tell the difference anymore between mid-grade and young adult work: a lot of what our library puts on the "juvenile" shelves (usually meaning readers of the 7-13 year old variety) feels awfully young adult to me. Maybe kids are being forced to grow up faster, so are being given more sophisticated fare at a younger age. Depending on the level of sophistication (and more, on whether or not the story deals well with real subjects) that can be good or bad. I hardly ever go into the actual "YA" collection at the library, which is housed in another area. Maybe that's good, as I was a bit freaked out by my quick perusal of the YA shelves the last time I went into an actual Barnes and Noble store (lots of garish covers, lots of unwholesome looking topics, and lots of tired looking plots and writing).

Well, for what it's worth, four of the best books I have read in the past six months -- meaning best books of any sort, and books I have truly enjoyed -- have been written for young people. Each one is very different from the others, and all of them -- the stories, the writing, the authors -- give me hope about the state of literature for children in this country.

If you haven't read them, I highly recommend them:

Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson
Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley
Rules by Cynthia Lord

Shulman's Enthusiasm is an amazing debut novel written as a romance/moral and manners novel (a la Jane Austen) for the 21st century. Far better than any homage to Austen's work I've ever read for adults.

Larson's Hattie Big Sky deservedly won a Newbery Honor. It's satisfying historical fiction, bringing to life the latter part of the homesteading era in the American plain states (WWI era). It also gives us a wonderfully human heroine.

Stanley's Bella at Midnight is one of the loveliest fariy-tale/fantasies I've read in ages. It's got a gorgeous classical fairy-tale feel to it, yet there are definitely some echoes of Tolkien and other fantasy writers. Bella is another heroine I'll be pleased to introduce my daughter to one day, especially since this book (written on a much simpler reading level than Lord of the Rings) will pave the way for her to love and appreciate a character like Eowyn when she finally gets to meet her.

(Side note: my husband and I are already debating how early is too early to read LOTR out loud to our daughter. We love it so much! Any reflections on this appreciated... I think we've agreed we'll start with Narnia first. In fact, we've already read LWW out loud to her, at least in parts, on a car trip last year. I say in part because I think she slept through part of it...still a bit young for it then. Maybe this winter...)

Lord's Rules is another terrific debut novel. I think this is one of the first of what will probably be many books written about families and autism. It's creative, realistic, funny and poignant. Just an all-around good story.

My longer reviews (posted at Epinions) can be found at the links above if you're interested in hearing the longer version of what I enjoyed about each of these terrific books.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Reading Round-Up, Mid-May

I haven't posted a list of what I'm reading in a while. So here goes:

Recently read:

The Art of Eric Carle
(a book on Carle's life and career)
Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley
Rules by Cynthia Lord
Darcy's Story by Janet Aylmer

Currently reading:

Simply Christian by N.T. Wright
Sacred Sorrow by Michael Card
Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader by John Granger
The Great Snape Debate by Orson Card, et al.
Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book by Leonard S. Marcus
Peril and Peace (Vol. 1: Chronicles of the Ancient Church) by Mindy and Brandon Withrow

I'm re-reading Goblet of Fire in my ongoing Harry Potter marathon re-read leading up to book 7.

I also recently read a number of poems (and found some new favorites) in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry.

Homeschooling/education resources: I used a birthday gift certificate to purchase my very own copy (at long last!) of The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer, and am reading pertinent parts regarding the overall classical approach to schooling and to kindergarten/early childhood learning in particular.

A few favorites on the sweet girl's shelf right now: Dream Snow by Eric Carle, Grandfather Buffalo by Jim Arnosky, Back to School with Betsy by Carolyn Haywood (chapter book we recently finished reading aloud). Also The Early Reader's Bible.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Say Good-Bye to the Girls

Life is really too short to mourn the passing of a television show, but sometimes certain stories seep their way into your heart. So I thought I'd offer up a few brief comments on the occasion of the passing of one of my favorite shows, Gilmore Girls, whose finale aired last night.

I'm actually feeling a bit stunned because I hadn't heard they were ending the show this season. Since we don't have television reception anymore, I haven't been able to watch new episodes for a couple of years. Through parts of seasons 5 and 6, I kept kept up via tapes sent from my sister, but life got busy for her and for me and I didn't really mind too terribly when the tapes stopped coming. Still I've been following (somewhat haphazardly) the recaps of this seventh season's episodes on "Television Without Pity," and wincing as I realized just how far the new writers had jumped the shark. The original writers ditched the show last season after, in my mind, sabotaging many of the characters and story-lines, so the incoming writers legitimately inherited a mess.

I started enjoying Gilmore Girls fairly early on in its run, though not in the very first season. I really got into it during seasons 2 and 3. When the sweet girl was a baby, I went through some pretty lonely stretches of time (new mom at home in the evenings with an infant, several close friends who had moved away, D. working nights) and visiting the wonderfully quirky fictional town of Stars Hollow each week always gave me a laugh and a lift. I didn't always agree with the characters' decisions, but I loved the characters themselves, and they were so wittily and touchingly acted. And what dialogue! No show I've ever seen could match its pace. I will miss all that chatting. I will miss Lorelai and Rory, Luke, Emily and Richard, Lane and her Mom, Sookie and Michel, Friday night dinners, and movie nights at the Gilmore house. Not to mention Taylor, Kirk, Miss Patty, Babette, and the other odd but lovable denizens of Stars Hollow!

Apparently the decision to cancel was made very recently -- just announced a couple of weeks ago. And the series finale aired last night. Thanks to a recaplet on TWP and a google search which turned up this article, I now know how they pulled off the finale. My feelings are mixed. Once the season's out on DVD, I will have to give that finale a look myself. But can I say how grateful I am that apparently Luke and Lorelai are back in each other's arms? They always belonged there. At least now we can imagine that they will live happily ever after.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Yes, I'm Your "1900 Girl"

Apparently I've become the poster girl for a century, at least in my four year old's mind.

She's become fascinated lately with birth years; you can see her mind waking up to the concept not just of daily time, but historical time. And it's dawned on her that her birth year, 2002, sounds and looks different than Mommy and Daddy's birth years, which begin with 19.

I remember Dana and I used to talk about this late at night when I was pregnant with the sweet girl. We'd exclaim things like "she'll never live a day in the 20th century! She'll never write a date in the nineteen hundreds except when she's writing history essays!" But talking about it in the abstract is one thing; seeing it play out in front of you as your little one grows is quite different. I guess every parent reaches a point where they realize, with amazement, how much of what they remember and know is well before their child's historical memory, but somehow that seems more acute when your child's birth straddles a new century and (in this case) a new millennium.

Anyway, we've been chuckling together a lot the past few days as S. continues to explore the whole concept of these two very different sounding centuries. At the same time, she's also very into affirming gender ("Mommy, I'm so glad we're both girls!") so she's taken to calling herself either the "2002 girl" or sometimes just the "2000 girl." And she's taken to calling me the "1900 girl."

Which makes me feel like I should be wearing a corset and shirt-waist or perhaps practicing the Charleston....

Happy Mother's Day to all you "1900 Moms" out there!

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Bennet Sisters at the Ball

I came across a small notebook where I'd jotted some poem snippets a number of months ago. Nothing profound, but I did find this funny little poem I penned about the Bennet sisters (of Pride and Prejudice) at a ball. The girls aren't listed in birth order: I decided to kick off the poem with a stanza about Lizzy.

Enjoy the silliness!


Witty and feisty
was Elizabeth B
who said most clearly
and vehemently
"Dance with Mr. Darcy?
Not on your life!"
But dance she did.
(She became his wife!)

Jane was so quiet,
so lovely, serene.
She had only to wait,
for once she'd been seen
by Bingley, who liked her
and asked for two dances --
yes two! that increased
matrimonial chances.

Mary of course had
to bloom by the wall,
for Mary (poor dear)
never once danced at all.
She would tickle the
keys of pianoforte,
but never played well
though she practised all day.

Kitty dear girl
stayed by Lydia's side.
Young sister's bad influence
can't be denied.
On the dance floor
she practiced the same
flirty looks,
though she'd be better off
reading Mary's big books.

Lydia oh Lydia, yes
it's come to the light
that wild giggling Lydia
could dance all the night
with partners in red coats,
handsome and gallant,
though picking the scoundrel
is Lydia's talent.

The Legacy of Walter Rauschenbusch

Apparently it's my day to cite the Wall Street Journal. And that's a sentence I have never uttered before in my life!

My pastor emailed a link to an opinion piece in the WSJ online, one that I understandably found fascinating because it deals with the legacy of Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel.

I wrote my master's thesis in 2001 on Rauschenbusch's theology. So much has happened since then it feels like an age ago. Still, my academic/theological/church history juices still get jumping when I read reflections about Rauschenbusch and this whole era in American history.

The piece, by Joseph Loconte, can be found here. It's brief, but sound and worth reading. I was especially glad to be reminded that it's the 100th anniversary of Rauschenbusch's book Christianity and the Social Crisis, which will probably mean a small flurry of new scholarship. Apparently there is a new centennial edition of Rauschenbusch's book with introductory essays by Tony Campolo, Stanley Hauerwas and Jim Wallis (now there's a trio!). Loconte says it's "just published" by HarperSanFrancisco but the only thing I'm seeing that looks close is still a pre-order on Amazon with a release date of August 1.

Harry Potter "Off-Shoots," 190 and counting

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal published an interesting article on Harry Potter "offshoots" or books related to Harry Potter. The article explores the phenomenon of non-fiction books that discuss HP (190 currently in print, according to R.R. Bowker) and speculates that there will continue to be a rise of such books published until the final installment of the series, and then a dip. Pretty easy to predict that, I'd say! Still, a nice article, especially since they interviewed John Granger for it and highlighted his current book and his book in progress. Way to go for John! He's quite understandably got the link to the article up on his hogwartsprofessor website.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Point of View

I've been thinking a lot lately about point of view, the viewpoint from which a story is seen and told. A lot of my reading and viewing of late keeps pointing me back to musings on how stories are shaped by who tells them.

My ongoing re-reading of Harry Potter (I'm about ten chapters into Goblet of Fire) probably first brought the issue to the forefront during this season. With John Granger's musings about narrative misdirection fresh in my mind, I've been doing a lot of thinking about that "third-person limited omniscient" view Rowling uses, and how we've seen almost all of the events of the series through Harry's eyes.

Then the other evening I watched, for the first time in many years, the 1984 Milos Forman film Amadeus. Once again, I found myself musing about the way the story was told -- in this case, Mozart's life and career is given to us completely through the filter of Salieri's memories. And because he was a rival composer, one who became jealously obsessed of Mozart's gift (at least in the film, though probably not to this extent in real life) our own understanding of Mozart is completely colored by the fact that all we learn about him comes through Salieri's view.

Not long ago I also happened upon this interesting article by Peter Leithart, entitled Jane Austen, Detective, in which he reflects on how Austen's "control of information" is one of the ways she shows her skill as a detective or mystery novelist (not words we hear used to describe Austen too often). As he put it:

"The other way that Emma reveals Austen's skill as a "detective" novelist is her control of information. She provides most of the information we need to draw conclusions about what's going on, but she doesn't make that information obvious. We don't know that we have it most of the time, because it comes largely through the stream of consciousness that flows from Miss Bates. She holds back information carefully, revealing hints enough that we can figure out something is up, particularly when we are seeing things through the eyes of Mr. Knightley."

Thinking about Austen's masterful use of point of view and the "control of information" within her stories led me to pick up a copy of a contemporary novel called Darcy's Story. It's subtitled "Pride and Prejudice Told From A Whole New Perspective" -- and that perspective is, of course, Mr. Darcy's. Interestingly, the writer has attempted to tell the story through third-person limited omniscient (in faithfulness to Austen, I think) though she keeps us pretty firmly behind Darcy's eyes, instead of Elizabeth's. I'm part-way through it, and as usual when I'm reading an Austen homage, I have mixed feelings about the whole endeavor, but this book too is challenging me to think about point of view -- as a reader, as a writer.

Then just yesterday I was looking through and organizing some books I'd not looked at in a while, and came across a little book by Orson Scott Card called Character and Viewpoint. I bought this several years ago when I was hoping to have more time to devote to writing fiction. Card's use of viewpoint is absolutely masterful, especially when you consider his two novels Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow (my two favorite Card novels). Essentially they are the same story told from different points of view -- the second novel is told by Bean, whom we readers (at least) believed to be a very minor character in the first novel. I have a lot to learn as a fiction writer still, and I plan to go back to Card's chapters on viewpoint in the coming weeks.

As usual, when I find several different things coming together -- movies, books, conversations -- I find myself wanting to follow a stream of thought. For now, I just wanted to do an initial post to mention that I'm in the middle of this stream -- thinking a lot about stories and point of view. I plan to keep thinking out loud about all this in posts to come.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Reading Poetry as a Spiritual Discipline

Here's a gift. Just as I launched my own "personal poetry month" where I'm consciously trying to spend more time writing and reading poetry, I find a recommendation of a recently published article on reading poetry as a spiritual discipline.

The article is by author T.M. Moore; it's called The World in a Ray of the Sun. Hat-tip to Hearts and Minds Book Notes Blog, which I really need to read more often because it always points me to wonderful books and articles. In fact, I just added Hearts and Minds to my sidebar list of blogs I love to visit.

I've only read the article once, but I've printed it out and will no doubt go back to it. There's much to treasure and ponder, including Moore's helpful analysis of three beautiful poems by Christian poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Denise Levertov, and Wendell Berry. I know all the poets, but all three poems were new to me, and they're gems.

Most of all, however, the article contains one of the most clearly written encouragements I've ever read about the importance of regular poetry reading as part of one's spiritual training and health. It makes me a bit wistful for a group of people with whom I could read poetry regularly.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Poem A Day...

April was national poetry month, but I didn't have much time to devote to either reading or writing poetry. Turned out April was marked, for our family, by several bouts of illness (we seemed to pass germs back and forth most of the month), travel, a lot of work hours, and tax preparation! Oh yes, and those odd wintry temperatures that we, along with lots of other places, experienced well into the month.

Which is not to say that even April didn't have its lovely moments. I just wasn't able to string together much time for poetry.

I've decided to make May my personal poetry month. Not just reading it more, but writing it more. In fact, I'm going to attempt to write a poem each day.

Not necessarily a good poem, or a long one, or a complete one...just a poem or at least a stanza, a conscious attempt to play with words for a few minutes.

Day one and day two have come and gone (well, two will soon be over) and thus far I've only managed what I'd call snippets or jottings. But I have managed to spend some time with a pen in my hand, and that's a start.

I'm not trying to be wildly productive. I just want to re-cultivate a more quiet and observing mindset. I need to remember how to look and listen. I need to remember what it feels like to sit in front of white space and not be afraid of it. I want to re-join the creative conservation. The letting go into beauty -- just because.