Saturday, April 29, 2006

A piece of earth

Well, my spring gardening has officially begun. I planted a semi-circular bed a few weeks ago to enclose a seating area I created with two Adirondack chairs and a little end table. What went in:
5 pink crepe myrtle trees - decidous flowering understory tree/bush
12 lorapetalum shrubs - burgundy leaves, flowers hot pink in spring
4 rosemary bushes - evergreen in the south, good herb for cooking, structured bush
This part of the back yard gets a fair amount of sun, and all of these plants are hardy growers in central Mississippi. What that means is that I can pretty much plant this bed and forget about it. No special soil amendments, no arduous watering schedule, no babying the plants. (Felder Rushing, our area's former extension agent and general garden guide, taught me how to plant low-maintenance in an Enrichment course at Millsaps College. I am forever grateful. It's the only way to go down here, where the summers are so hot and humid that lifting a glass of tea to your lips takes about as much effort as you can muster.) I mulched everything over with pinestraw, then moved on to my next project.

I put up a metal arbor by one of the gates to the back yard. I bought it years ago (it was a great deal!) and carted it around with me until I got to a house where I felt I could put down roots. I set it in some buried concrete and planted a confederate jasmine to grow up it. Confederate jasmine is a great climber for several reasons: the leaves stay green all year, it grows in sun or shade in this part of the country, it produces fragrant white flowers in the spring, and it's a no-fuss plant for our region. I tied it to the arbor with snipped pieces of old pantyhose, which make a great plant tie because they are pliable yet strong, so they allow the plant to grow, but they provide good support. (Support hose! Ha!)

I also planted four mock orange shrubs (aka English Dogwood) by the side fence. These grow to be pretty large specimens, so leave plenty of room around them when you plant. They are not evergreen, but they have a beautiful white flower in spring. I had them at my old house, and I enjoyed them so much there that I wanted to use them again in my new landscape. They will form a nice-sized hedge in front of the fence, and backdrop for the azaleas which I've bought but have yet to put in the ground. Because I have alot of space to fill in that bed, I bought 15 pretty little pink azaleas. They like the shade, and they will grow to 3x3 feet at most, so they should fill the bed nicely. In front of them, I plan on using a full row of variegated hostas. I will wait and see, though, to make sure that part of the bed doesn't get too much sun. Otherwise, the hostas will scorch.

Last but not least, I bought two gardenias that will grow in part shade. I LOVE gardenias for their gorgeous, glossy leaves and their fragrance. Also, because my back yard color scheme is a mix of pinks, whites, and purples, they should fit in nicely.

I've also hung my hammock up between to tall pines and placed a bird bath at the edge of the dogwood/azalea bed. (I'm trying to decide what to plant beneath the bird bath bowl - maybe lilies?) All in all, it feels great to get some plants in the ground, and the back yard (at least the left side of it) is starting to take shape. Long live spring!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Books and movies of late

Things I've seen recently that I thought I'd relate:
I saw Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, and Giovanni Ribisi, this week. This is the film that was much touted for its use of special effects rather than ANY set pieces. The plot is slim: The evil Dr. Totenkopf is planning to end the world and begin civilization anew, using research from a mysterious group of scientists known only as Unit 11. When the scientists begin to disappear and destructive robots storm major cities worldwide, ace pilot Joe Sullivan (Law) is called on to help. Gutsy reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow) follows right behind to ensure she gets the story. Technical wizard Dex (Ribisi) and army commander Franky (Jolie) help Perkins and Sullivan track down Totenkopf and foil his dastardly plan.

I thought this was a fun, escapist movie. Because the sets were not real, director Kerry Conran could do what he liked with the film's environments, and it shows. Sweeping, nostalgic city views are juxtaposed with lush jungles and fantastical mobile airstrips. The characters maneuver their way through abandoned mines, mid-air battles, and a complicated rocket-ark concoction. While the effects are clearly evident, they are lushly rendered and refreshingly imaginative. In addition, a score right out of yesteryear underlines dramatic moments and pumps up the feel of the engineered sets and effects.

While the script is no gem, it follows the movie's comic-book-like plot and feel. Snappy repartee and some great moments from Jolie keep the action moving without bogging the film down in realism or complicated explanations. While I usually prefer movies with a little more grounding, I found myself enjoying Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. At the end of the day, sometimes a little mindless entertainment is all one is looking for.

I also got the chance to see Bullets Over Broadway again recently. I just have to comment on how fun it still is. John Cusak is a genius, Jennifer Tilly is the woman we always love to hate, and Dianne West is an absolute HOOT is a send-up performance of a Broadway diva. In the movie, struggling playwright David Shayne (Cusak) is trying to get a play produced. Nick, a local gangster (played by Joe Viterelli), funds the venture in return for a role for his ditsy, annoying, talentless girlfriend Olive (Tilly). Cheech (portrayed excellently by Chazz Palmiteri) is the heavy Nick sends along to Olive's rehearsals. Cheech's job is to watch out for Olive, but he finds himself noticing how much the play STINKS. Almost in desperation, Cheech throws David some ideas to improve the script. Pretty soon, the mob goon is re-writing the whole show.

From beginning to end, it's just a delight. Pretty soon, Olive is fooling around with one of the leading men, playwright David is finding himself drawn to over-the-top star Helen Sinclair (West), and Cheech is taking care of business down by the docks. If you've never seen it, find the time to unearth a copy of Bullets Over Broadway. You won't regret it!

Lastly, I am probably one of the last people in North America to read The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. I know, I know, but I REFUSE to buy hardback novels. Brown kept trying to wait me out, insisting that no plans for a paperback were in the works. But HA! I fooled him. I waited until it came out in paperback, then snapped it up. I found the book to be an entertaining, fascinating thriller, a real page-turner. I read it in about two days, and it was certainly worth the time.

As to all the speculation it has provoked, I say (mostly) poppycock. From what we know for sure - Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. Nothing in the Bible (or any other historical document) tells us that she is. This slander came much later, when one of the Catholic popes branded her a woman of ill-repute. Nothing historical has been found to support such an accusation. In fact, Mary Magdalene had a much more central role in the early Christian movement than people seem to think. She clearly had a special relationship with Jesus, and she was one of the most prominent early Christian leaders.

Now, about the theory that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene - neither the Bible or other documents seem to dispel or confirm this theory. It very well could be true, and it could very well not be. If Jesus WAS married (and I'm not saying that he was), Mary Magdalene would certainly have been a logical person for him to have been married to. However, as I mentioned before, nothing we have found (even in the Gnostic, or banned, gospels) confirms this.

Other than that, there doesn't seem to be much to Brown's theory. He makes wild leaps with no supporting evidence from one conclusion to another. (His next conclusion is that Mary Magdalene had a child with Jesus, a child who later married into a family of French royalty. That Mary Magdalene herself was the Holy Grail, and that this secret has been supressed by the Catholic church, yadda, yadda, yadda.) If, SOMEWHERE down the line of all these theories, even a FEW points were corroborated by any kind of verifiable evidence, I might be inclined to give Brown some sort of credit. Largely, though, Brown has defended these theories because he says all the pieces seem to "fit." Well, not to this reader. (Or perhaps, they fit well enough for Brown to sell 44 million books. They all fit nicely into his 401K plan. They, plus the loads of dough he is raking in, are a perfect fit!)

Anyway, I think the best way to approach this book is as a work of fiction (which Brown freely admits that it is), and enjoy it for what it is - a GREAT story. There are also alot of historical elements that the book illuminates - the Knights Templar, symbology, etc. It's frightfully interesting, and I highly recommend the book. Just be a critical receiver of information (as I'm sure you always are, dear reader) and don't take it all too personally. :-)

I also highly recommend the online DaVinci Code Web Quest. What fun! The film version of the book, starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tatou, will be released May 19, 2006.

Pillage, plunder, and . . . pan fry?

I spent last weekend in Greenwood, Mississippi, attending the Viking Cooking School. For those of you who may not be aware, Viking, which makes professional cooking appliances and accessories, is headquartered in little Greenwood. As part of their corporate headquarters, they have an on-site store and a cooking school, where mere mortals such as myself can learn some of the tricks and tips of professional chefs. My class started at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and our cocktail party menu was comprised of the following:
1.) Marinated Feta Bruschetta
2.) Mint-Marinated Lamb Kabobs with Yogurt Dip
3.) Jalapeno-Lime Glazed Shrimp
4.) Homemade Potato Chips with Blue Cheese and Scallions
5.) Phyllo Chess Tartlets
Classes are traditionally made up of 12 people who split into teams of four. Each team prepares the entire menu.

We had the best time! Our team successfully completed all recipes with no major snafus. Instructor Beth Purifoy flitted around the sizable kitchen, offering suggestions and answering questions as needed. Cooking with the Viking appliances and gadgets was certainly fun, but it was even more fun cooking with new people who share a passion for food. I met William and Paula, a sweet couple from Memphis who had driven down to take the class. (They weren't shabby in the kitchen, either.) I also got the chance to meet four delightful long-time friends who traveled to Greenwood together as part of a birthday celebration. Everybody pitched in, and we ended up with quite alot of delicious food.

Of course, then came the best part. We all got to sit down together and eat! Conversation and laughter were flowing freely, and we all congratulated ourselves on a job well done. Now that my class is over, I have a tidy little book of all the recipes we made, as well as a wonderful memory. I'll definitely be back!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Fathers and sons

I've just finished reading Gilead (by Marilynne Robinson), and I found it a meditative, insightful read. The book is an epistolary novel. In it, 77-year-old preacher John Ames is writing to his young son. Ames knows that he is at the end of his life, and he wants to write a few things down for his son, who will have to grow up fatherless.

The book is much about fathers and sons, both the mortal and the spiritual kind. Ames is a very sympathetic character, and he tries his best to relate the story of his life and what he has learned from it in a humble, self-deprecating way. Ames specifically describes his relationships with both his own father and his grandfather, and he also makes much of Jack Boughton, a Presbyterian preacher and one of his oldest friends. (For many years, Ames felt alone, as his first wife and child died. He was covetous of Boughton's bounteous family, even though he knew it was wrong to want another man's blessings.)

The book is paced slowly, thoughtfully. It is not a quick read, because it is very thought-provoking. There is little, if any plot, but I still found the book useful. Ames has a knack for recognizing the wonder in the world around us. Although he lived his entire life in Gilead, Iowa, Ames appreciates the complexity and beauty of the world. It's quite moving, and it will get you thinking. You can check out an NPR interview with the author by clicking here.

I also saw Paycheck, starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman, this week. Although I found the premise of the movie highly original, and the action more than adequate to keep me interested, the scenes between Thurman and Affleck fell flat. (In addition, more than a few melodramatic moments had me rolling my eyes.) Affleck plays engineer Michael Jennings, who works on highly lucrative projects for big companies, then has his memory erased so that he can't reveal any trade secrets. He's paid millions for the privilege, of course, and everything seems to sit just fine with him.

However, on a particularly well-paying gig, Jennings awakens from his memory erasure to discover that he's traded his obscenely high paycheck for an envelope full of random personal items. As the movie progresses, we learn that Jennings has risked everything to save himself, his girl (Thurman), and (of course) THE WORLD. (Insert dramatic, booming soundtrack here.)

This movie was fairly entertaining, but it just couldn't find its heart. Paul Giamatti, in a turn as Shorty, Micheal's tech-savvy friend, struck me as the most real character of the bunch, and he didn't even have much screen time. Verdict: skip it.