Saturday, August 30, 2008

Poetry Project

I think that this is a fairly little-known poem. I don't remember reading it in the canon, though it may have been there, but I read it as a child, and I've always liked it.

How Did You Die?
Edmund Vance Cooke

Did you tackle that trouble that came your way
With a resolute heart and cheerful?
Or hide your face from the light of day
With a craven soul and fearful?
Oh, a trouble's a ton, or a trouble's an ounce,
Or a trouble is what you make it.
And it isn't that fact that you're hurt that counts,
But only how did you take it?

You are beaten to earth? Well, well, what's that?
Come up with a smiling face.
It's nothing against you to fall down flat,
But to lie there - that's disgrace.
The harder you're thrown, why the higher you bounce;
Be proud of your blackened eye!
It isn't the fact that you're licked that counts;
It's how did you fight and why?

And though you be done to death, what then?
If you battled the best you could;
If you played your part in the world of men,
Why the Critic will call it good.
Death comes with a crawl, or comes with a pounce,
And whether he's slow or spry,
Is isn't the fact that you're dead that counts,
But only, how did you die?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Playing outside.

Clay has learned something new. When he wants to go outside, he finds his shoes and brings them to you with this sweet little expectant look on his face. Then, if you just sit there (because you're still sweaty and exhausted from the LAST time you took him outside), he goes and finds YOUR shoes and brings them to you. The look he has on his face at this point is less sweet and expectant and more irritated, as if to say, "Lady, did you not get the memo? We are going OUTSIDE. Get the lead out."

I have taken to hiding the shoes on occasion.

It's going to be a loooong fall.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Love is an oyster.

I made the yummiest pasta for dinner last night. Brian is not a huge fan of this recipe as it is written. He prefers switching out the oysters for shrimp. But I LOVE the oysters in this recipe. This is one of the quickest pastas EVER, and it's a great, light dish for the warmer months.

Oysters over Angel Hair

3 T. olive oil
1 c. sliced green onions
1/2 c. chopped fresh parsley
3 minced garlic cloves
4 c. oysters, drained
2 T. fresh lemon juice
1/4 t. salt
1/8 t. ground red pepper
1/8 t. black pepper
6 c. hot cooked angel hair pasta
1/2 c. grated fresh Parmesan cheese

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onions, parsley, and garlic. Cook for 8 minutes or until tender, stirring frequently. Add oysters. Reduce heat and cook until edges of oysters curl. Stir in lemon juice, salt, and peppers. Add pasta and cheese; toss well to coat.


What's fabulous about this recipe is its versatility. Don't have oysters? Use shrimp. I bet even scallops or crawfish tails would work. Don't have parsley? No bigee. Add a little extra onion, and you probably won't notice much of a difference. Most of the ingredient amounts can be easily adjusted according to your taste. I like to amp up the onion, garlic and lemon juice. Sometimes I add less oysters than the recipe calls for, and sometimes I leave out the red pepper completely.

The only things I wouldn't change - use fresh lemon juice and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. These two flavors are strong in the dish, and you'll notice if you skimp here.

This recipe is an old one I found in Cooking Light. Man, I love that magazine.

Hair removal

At book club last month, Stacey and Sandi RAVED about getting their eyebrows waxed. They told me it would result in total perfection. They said it would be easy to maintain afterwards. They said it didn't hurt.

Before I knew it, Stacey was booking us both appointments at Trio's to have our eyebrows done. Now, aside from a paraffin dip during a manicure, I have never had anything waxed. Not my legs, not my bikini line, not at a salon, not at home, nothing. (I have not waxed in a car. I have not waxed at a bar. I have not waxed here or there. I have not waxed anywhere.) So I was a little apprehensive, not about the pain (I mean, once you've pushed a kid out of your hoo-hah, pain is pretty much a relative term, right?), but about the result.

Truth be told, I always thought I had pretty decently-shaped eyebrows. But I was promised PERFECTION, and I wanted to see what that might look like. So Wednesday morning found me at the salon with Stacey to have perfection implemented on my face with hot wax.

A sweet stylist led me back to the waxing area, where I laid down on a comfy massage table. She placed the hot wax on my brows, working from top to bottom, and then used a strip of . . . something to pull both the wax and the hair off. My eyes watered just a bit when she was doing the underside of my brows, but other than that, it was a pretty comfortable process.

My eyebrows are now sparser, and they seem to sit a bit higher on my face. They are shaped into perfect curves. While I don't dislike the way they look, I am having a hard time getting used to them. They just don't look to me like they fit my face. I guess that, because I've been looking at the eyebrows I was born with for about 30 years now, I'm not used to seeing anything different perching above my eyelids. So, although I do think the eyebrow wax makes my face look a bit more open, I don't think that I'll be scheduling regular eyebrow waxes anytime soon.

But, hey, until it grows out, I will be flaunting my perfection all over town. Hee hee!

Stacey - now it's YOUR turn. You have to come and get a facial with me.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Lovely Bones

Shame, shame, SHAME on me for taking so long to read The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. This is a book you will not forget.

By the time we meet Susie Salmon, our 14-year-old narrator, she is already dead. She tells the story of her own murder, and then of her family's efforts to deal with the ripple effects of the tragedy. She peeks in on what her killer's up to. She tells us about her friends and the boy she loved, and how everyone is trying to understand how someone can be part of the world one minute and gone the next.

She describes heaven. She relishes her memories of the short life she lived, and how she still loves the people she loved while she was alive. She talks alot about how the living struggle with letting go of the dead, and also how the dead struggle with letting go of the living.

This book hooks you from the very first word. No slow starting for THIS novel. And it keeps you there, dangling in delicious attention, until the last sentence. Susie Salmon just feels real. And she expresses so many things that we already feel about our lives - how precious they are, how precarious. How fragile life is. How odd circumstance may be all that stands between us and disaster, or all that brings horror to roost on our doorsteps. How sometimes, wanting things hard enough is sufficient to make them happen.

I just cannot say enough about this novel. You will love it. Go read it immediately. Sebold has a new novel out, The Almost Moon, that has gotten mixed reviews. However, I plan to check out some of her other books in the very near future.

Grand Canyon with teeth

I have scarfed down more food in the past 48 hours than I myself can even imagine. What's up with that? I haven't even been HUNGRY. It's just that the food has been in the pantry, and I think I've been eating out of boredom.

So far, the following innocent snack foods have fallen prey: salted almonds, vanilla wafers, goldfish crackers, dark chocolate, frozen fruit bars, dried apricots, mozzarella cheese, and peanut butter and crackers. And, guys, this is in addition to the actual MEALS I am eating. (Asian soup, chicken salad, shrimp and corn, etc.)

Sometimes, I just get the munchies. (And I've never smoked pot, so Lord knows what kind of incredible hunger I'd feel if I ever did.) Over the past few months, during my successful weight-loss regime, I've appeased my cravings with a couple of well-chosen snacks per day, but that all went to hell in a handbasket over the last few days.

Here's to some lighter fare for the rest of the week . . . Ugh.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pouring

We returned from Portland a couple of weeks ago to two things that made me grit my teeth a little:

1.) One of our cars wouldn't start
2.) Our clothes dryer wouldn't heat up, which means that it wouldn't dry clothes. (And we had ALOT of laundry.)

And, of course, these types of things happen after you come home from a week in Portland, where you've just spent a ton of money. Arrgh.

At any rate, a couple of weeks later and a couple of hundred dollars lighter in the wallet, we are once again a two-car family with dry clothes.

Hubs, bless his handy little heart, took care of both minor repairs. He's actually getting pretty good at fixing stuff. Since we've married, he's installed/repaired two garbage disposals, a hot water heater, and a microwave. Plus, he's replaced a bunch of light fixtures, painted a ton, and removed copious amounts of wallpaper. Now, if he could just learn to replace countertops, we'd be in business . . .

And even MORE food

I finished reading Comfort Me with Apples, Ruth Reichl's second (third - if you count Festiary) book, and I loved it. She's got one more memoir that's out right now (Garlic and Sapphires), and I'm going to track it down soon. I like the way this woman writes.

Comfort Me with Apples details her years serving as a restaurant critic for the L.A. Times. It also dishes on her first marriage, its demise, her second marriage, and her quest to have a child. All, of course, bound up in her love of food. There are several recipes in this book that I plan to try later. It's interesting to me that the recipes in this book reflect how her tastes begin to become more sophisticated as a result of her work.

Also, I did a bit of research online and found out that Ruth is now the editor-in-chief of Gourmet. I held a subscription to this magazine ages ago, but I let it lapse because the recipes seemed to stop speaking to me. (Everything took forever to make, and it was all pretty bad for you.) I might buy a newsstand copy of it and see if it's changed as a result of her leadership.

On the road

I watched Driving Lessons, starring Rupert Grint, Laura Linney, and and Julie Walters, this week. Though it definitely had its trite moments, it's worth seeing for Julie Walters' great performances and to take a look at what Grint can do minus his Hogwarts wand.

Grint plays Ben, a 17-ish young man with an overbearing mother (Linney). Ben's mom, a priest's wife, makes it her personal mission to take care of all the aged people in their neighborhood, and she enlists Ben's help in caring for them. She also demands a strict schedule of driving lessons (administered by herself, of course) so that Ben can earn his license (which has been, thus far, elusive). Finally, she suggests that Ben get a summer job so that he can contribute his income to helping another one of his mother's projects - an older man who accidentally ran over his wife and is now living with them until he "recovers."

In this suffocating environment, Ben takes a job as the assistant to an aging actress, Evie (Walters). Evie is the original free spirit, mixed with equal parts vanity, insecurity, short temper, and loneliness. The two are oddly compatible, and Ben soon begins learning all kinds of things about life from Evie's quick one-liners and current struggles.

Though I thought the script could have been a bit tighter, and I thought that Grint's character could have undergone more meaningful change, I liked this film. Walters is amazing in it, and she clearly anchors the whole production. (With a lesser actress in this role, the whole film would have come tumbling down.) Grint has the hunched, insecure, shy act down pat, but I longed to see more of a transformation in him during the course of the film. Also, I would like to see Grint eventually play a character more dramatically different from Ron Weasley. If he doesn't do so, and soon, he will be relegated to this character type for a while.

Worth watching for the one-liners and for Walters' performance.

Friday, August 22, 2008

And cooking . . .

I had the chance to watch No Reservations, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, and Abigail Breslin, today. I really liked it.

First of all, the movie is about two chefs. (You had me at, "Hello.") Kate (Zeta-Jones) is the executive chef at a tony New York restaurant. She is something of a control freak, and her work has become her life. Her sister (a single mom - the dad is nowhere to be found) and niece are coming up to visit, and enroute, they are involved in a car accident. The sister dies as a result, and she leaves her daughter Zoe (Breslin) to Kate. In the midst of this personal crisis, Kate must deal with a new sous-chef in her kitchen at work. Nick (Eckhart), an established chef in his own right, takes the job because he wants the opportunity to work with (and learn from) the well-respected Kate.

As Kate adjusts to being a mother, and as she tries to guide Zoe (and herself) through the tragedy of loss, a romantic relationship with Nick slowly develops. Kate finds herself confronting her own tendencies to sabotage love (she hasn't had a relationship in 3 years) while figuring out her new life.

While this script is no Oscar-winner, I liked the performances of all three principal actors. Plus, the movie is about two people who cook for a living, and food figured heavily in the scenes (which I can certainly appreciate). This is a nice dramedy about letting go and hanging on, and I enjoyed watching it.

P.S. If you love food movies, I can also recommend Babette's Feast; Like Water for Chocolate; Eat, Drink, Man, Woman; and Big Night. I enjoyed all of these films, and food is a primary part of the storyline in each.

Eating

I've just finished reading Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table, by Ruth Reichl (restaurant critic for the New York Times), and I feel as satisfied as if I'd just had a good meal.

Reichl guides the reader through her early experiences with food, providing recipes for the favorite dishes of her youth. She also tells a good story, detailing her mother's manic entertaining style, the comforting aromas of her grandmother's house, her own initial forays into cooking exotic fare, and the wonderful food she encountered while traveling in Europe and North Africa.

Recipes that I've copied to try later include Milton's Pate (a chicken-liver pate. I've never made pate, but this one looks easy enough to try.), Claritha's Fried Chicken (I can tell from the recipe that it's going to be good.), Coconut Bread (This one just sounds so delicious and unusual that I want to give it a go.), and Alice's Apple Dumplings with Hard Sauce (which looks easy, yummy, and infinitely eatable).

I'll let you know how they come out! In the meantime, I've enjoyed this book so much that I plan to move on to her second book, Comfort Me with Apples, next. Happy eating!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Ummm, it can't be THAT good . . .

Have you guys seen the new Yahoo! ads for Shine, a site they've cooked up "just for women"? I've visited the site, and it's pretty standard "women" fare - chores, kids, books, with fashion/beauty thrown in for good measure. But what amuses me is the graphic they are using to promote the new venture.

Take a look:






Geez, it can't be all that amazing, can it? In the future, I'd recommend that the good folks at Yahoo! save this pic for truly ground-breaking discoveries. A male birth control pill, perhaps. Or maybe a robot, retailing for $2.99, that can simultaneously fold clothes, feed the kids, and give you a back rub. Otherwise, aren't we just a little TOO happy here?

Black Water

I just finished reading Joyce Carol Oates' slim novel Black Water. Though the novella is fiction, it is clearly based (loosely, at least) on Senator Edward Kennedy's Chappaquiddick incident.

A married, unnamed senator meets a young girl - pale-skinned, red-haired Kelly - at a July 4th picnic. By the end of the evening, the two are headed through the dark night to catch a ferry. Having already kissed at the party, Kelly is certain of where their evening will lead. However, the senator has been drinking, and in his rush to catch the ferry before it leaves, he drives recklessly. The rented car the two are riding in flies off the road and into a deep pool of water. While the senator manages to free himself from the sinking wreckage, a seriously injured Kelly is claimed by the accident.

This is a sad book. Kelly is a fragile person. Shy and hesitant, she's had her heart broken in the past. She's so flattered by the senator's attention at the party. She keeps remembering her horoscope for the day, which encouraged her to claim the love she deserved. This risk with the senator, she believes, is a step towards adventure, a step towards being the laughing, confident "American girl" that she wants to be.

This is not an easy book to read. Kelly's mind veers wildly in the final moments of her life, and the scenes her rapidly dying brain focuses on are heartbreaking. And, too, the book makes you think of all the disposable women that rotate through the lives of powerful men, and what eventually may become of them.

Fittingly, Oates dedicates this book to all of the Kellys.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"Statement Enclosed"?

Ok, Arbor Day Foundation, the jig is up. I know that when you send me a piece of mail, it is not a bill. I don't have an Arbor Day Foundation credit card or car loan. So, if you REALLY want me to open your mail, you might just try writing "Please open this letter!" in sweet script on the envelope instead of "Statement Enclosed" in all cap, sans-serif type. Because there is NO reason that the Arbor Day Foundation would be sending me a statement, and I know it. You're not fooling anyone with this transparent ploy.

The funny thing is, it's probably someone like myself at the Arbor Day Foundation that came up with this weak scheme. But, really. You guys can do better.

Happily ever after

Hubs and I watched Enchanted last night. What a hoot! Starring Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden, and Susan Sarandon, this modern take on the traditional fairy tale is a fun romp through all of Disney's previous stories.

Giselle (Adams), in her animated world of Andalasia, has the good fortune to meet her handsome Prince Edward (Marsden). The two experience love at first sight. With plans to marry the following day, Giselle heads to the castle in an elaborate wedding gown. Little does she know that jealous Queen Narissa (Sarandon, playing Edward's evil stepmother) and her henchman (Timothy Spall, in a fabulous comic turn) are plotting to prevent the wedding, enabling Narissa to remain queen indefinitely.

As Giselle arrives at the castle, Narissa pushes her down into a "wishing well," sending the beautiful would-be princess to a place where "there ARE no happy ever afters." This place? Modern-day New York City. After wandering aimlessly for a while, Giselle meets world-weary divorce lawyer Robert (Dempsey) and his six-year-old daughter. (Robert himself is a divorcee, though he has plans to propose to his current girldfriend.)

Cheerily awaiting Edward to come rescue her, Giselle calls her animal "friends" to help tidy up Robert's messy apartment. (In New York, that means a rather disgusting cadre of rats, pigeons, and cockroaches show up to dust off his kitchen countertops with their tails. Yuck.) She then proceeds to cut up Robert's drapes to craft inventive outfits for herself. Lastly, she wanders into a discussion between one of Robert's clients and her soon-to-be-ex-husband, causing more trouble for Robert. Robert is, by turns, infuriated and charmed.

Once Prince Edward, back in the mythical land of Andalasia, discovers what has happened to his bride-to-be, he blunders into New York himself to do his princely duty. From then on, the desires of each character lead us to a satisfying (but thoroughly over-the-top) conclusion.

What I find interesting about this movie is that it's a conversation between an optimistic fairy tale and the jaded modern world. Does true love exist? What about love at first sight? When so many traditional fantasies have been debunked, how do we continue to believe in "happily ever after?" Or believe in love at all?

Adams provides a great rendition of Giselle, a fairytale princess come to life. More impressive, though, are the moments in which Giselle realizes that she might not be such a good fit back in Andalasia now that she's had a taste of the "real world." Prince Edward is hilariously written (without malice) as a vapid, vacant, self-absorbed prince. Sarandon gloriously chews the scenery, and Dempsey (as always) provides the best-looking brokenhearted man I've ever had the pleasure of watching on screen.

I personally thought the ending fell apart a bit. It was a little too much, and the statements that Disney was going for were a little too blatant. However, I understand that this is a family movie, and some of those choices were designed to benefit younger viewers. At any rate, I don't think the ending detracted too mightily from the preceding action, which I heartily enjoyed.

I thought this movie was a great send-up of the fairytale tradition, and I applaud Disney for being big enough to wink at its own narrative history. What a fun film!

Insomniac

In case I hadn't mentioned it before, hubby snores. Loudly. Compound that with the fact that he seems to have a lingering sinus infection, and you can only imagine the high decibel of what I am expected to sleep through each night. Even with earplugs, it's a bit difficult sometimes to get a decent night's rest.

And as I lay there two nights ago, grimly awake, I told myself in a delirious fantasy of insomnia that I bet James McAvoy DOES NOT SNORE.

Ah, me.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A literary tale

I had the opportunity this week to see Becoming Jane, starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy. I found myself enjoying it quite a bit.

The story purportedly tells of an early, real-life romantic interest of Jane Austen, the author of such English classics as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility. It reminded me a bit of Shakespeare in Love, as the story tried to illustrate how Austen's personal experiences might have influenced her later works, giving her a rich human tapestry from which to draw her characters. The greater part of the film's story is unsupported by facts (we know very little of Austen's personal life), but presents a picture of what could have happened to a young Jane Austen.

Basically, Austen (Hathaway) meets Tom Lefroy (McAvoy), who is studying to be a barrister in London. (He's been sentenced to a month or two in the country by his rich uncle - on whom he depends - for his misbehavior in town.) Of course, the two dislike each other at first, and find only upon further conversation that they have a certain chemistry. It isn't long before Austen is kissing LeFroy with passion, asking him afterwards if she did it well.

Of course, complications ensue. Austen is being pressured by her broke family to make a good match, and she has an offer of marriage from a wealthy local young man (and his querulous aunt, played by Maggie Smith). LeFroy hasn't a penny to his name, and he has his own immediate family back in Ireland depending upon him for support. You can see that this doesn't bode well for the two young lovers.

Though the movie can be uneven at times, James McAvoy is something to see in this film. I'd never seen him before in an anchor role, and (to be honest) I'd wondered in the past what all the fuss was about him. I don't think he is particularly good looking, he didn't seem super-charismatic in the interviews I'd read, etc. But, then again, I hadn't REALLY seen him act. He is wonderful. By the end of the movie, the viewer is in love with LeFroy more than Austen.

An inoffensive movie. Though certainly not a must-see, it's worth watching for McAvoy's performance. Based on this film, it looks like I should have seen Atonement back when it came out. That is going on my "see soon" list now.

Closet crimes

Ok, while the Jonas Brothers seem like nice enough boys (from what little I've read about them), who on Earth is dressing them? They always look to me like they went into a Salvation Army with a ten-spot and bought the first thing they saw that was on sale. I present exhibit A.


And these guys have won FASHION AWARDS, people! What a world, what a world.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mother's Morning Out

I signed Clay up for a Mother's Morning Out program a few months ago, confident that by the actual day it started, I'd be ready to drop my little munchkin off with someone other than a blood relative.

Well, today was the first day of our little adventure, and leaving him there (even though it was only for three hours or so) was harder than I anticipated. They don't allow the mommies to sit with their babies in the room for a while, so I had to just leave him and go. He screamed when I handed him off, though I stood in the hall (out of sight) for a minute or so until he quieted down.

When I came back later to pick him up, he was amusing himself happily. AND the teachers said that though he did get a bit cranky at around 10 a.m. (when he usually goes down for a nap, which he didn't do with all the excietment), he was pretty mellow the rest of the time. Hopefully, they were not just lying to make me feel better.

On the upside, I used my newfound free time to meet Stace for breakfast. (She'd just dropped her little guy off for his first day of "school," too, so we both cried in our coffee together.) We ate at Broad Street and browsed the stacks at Lemuria. Then, Stace made me laugh until I almost peed in my pants. Maybe this Mother's Morning Out stuff is a good thing after all . . . .

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Living to tell . . .

I just finished Elizabeth Gilbert's eat pray love, a memoir about a year she spent abroad coming to terms with herself, her life, and her choices.

After a heart-wrenching divorce and a failed rebound relationship, Gilbert decided to spend a year abroad, dividing her time between three countries: Italy (learning Italian and eating tons of delicious food), India (learning about prayer and meditation), and Indonesia (trying to find the balance between earthly pleasures and the divine).

What was interesting about this novel: Gilbert is a great writer, and the novel is written in a conversational style that I really like. You finish the novel feeling as though Gilbert is someone you know, a friend. I also liked the concept of the book - visiting different places for specific reasons in order to somehow learn more about yourself and life in general. (I love traveling, and I think it teaches you alot.) I found Gilbert's journeys very interesting, and she weaves a good bit of history and philosophy into this book, which makes reading it educational as well as entertaining. I liked the section about her time in Italy best, as I have a fascination with that country. (Though one comes away from the book with a nearly palpable longing to visit Bali.)

What became tiresome: Gilbert is the kind of person who has to spend a year abroad to work out her issues. This can be grating at times. There were moments when I wanted to shout, "Quit whining! Suck it up, girl! You are a well-paid writer, traveling the globe! It ain't that bad!" Gilbert herself acknowledges this, though, because she is nothing if not self-aware. In fact, she may be a bit *too* self-absorbed.

Regardless, though, I enjoyed reading the book. I loved some of the ideas about religion that Gilbert included, and it has definitely piqued my interest in yoga.

Worth reading.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

It's a Kid's World!

I spent my afternoon up at the Mississippi Trademart today, helping to man the MississippiMoms.com booth at Kid's World. Basically, Kid's World was a HUGE collection of inflatable games, booths giving away free food and small toys, local businesses raffling off prizes (our booth held a drawing for circus tickets), and other general child-mania opportunities.

We had big fun holding our drawing, giving away coupons for discount tickets to the circus, and handing out clown noses. We also sold something like 75 Mississippi Moms T-shirts and took some of the cutest pictures of kids wearing clown noses EVER. Check the site for them in the upcoming weeks.

It was big fun!

As a side note,. we're planning on attending the circus with my sister and her family on Sept. 5. Booger will either enjoy the spectacle of it or be freaked out. I guess we'll see! (Having a toddler is always such an adventure, isn't it? He did GREAT in Portland, where he learned to be more relaxed around people he doesn't know as well as how to expertly scale a futon/couch/loveseat. Sweet Lord.)

Possession

I finished reading A.S. Byatt's Possession just before getting on a plane to Portland, and I was completely blown away. It's a long book (555 pages), but, in my opinion, it's totally worth it. If you are an English major, this book is a dream come true for you. Byatt writes a modern classic, complete with literary allusions, tons of symbolism, and a gripping storyline.

Roland Michell is a lowly academic, studying the life and work of Randolph Ash, a major poet. But he's not a recognized expert on Ash, he's hardly making any money, and he spends his time applying for jobs that he never gets. His relationship with his live-in lover, Val, has soured, and he's desperately looking for a non-confrontational way out.

One afternoon, Michell is at the English National Library, requesting an old and never-perused edition of one of Ash's own books. Within the pages, he finds undisturbed notes by the famous poet, in addition to two drafts of a very urgent, emotionally-charged letter to an unknown woman (not Ash's wife).

Siezed by unbrideled excitement and curiosity, Michell clandestinely pockets the letters, determined to find out who they were meant for. What begins then is a rousing tale of literary investigation, romance, and good-old mystery.

In his search, Roland meets Maud Bailey. Maud is a descendent of Christabel Lamotte, a poetess of some small fame, but not nearly approaching the popularity of Ash. Bailey is a professor at a college, and she is an expert on her ancestral poetess. Her concentration on Lamotte has moved her in the circles of feminist/women's literature.

Together, the two track the movements of Ash and Lamotte and slowly discover all of their secrets. In the process, Maud and Roland come to know one another in a unique way, changing their own personal and professional lives.

It may sound like boring stuff, but I cannot praise this novel enough. The novel is rich with the symbolism that Byatt is so fond of, and she sets her work again in the Victorian period (as she did in Morpho Eugenia), which she obviously has a great knowledge of and affinity for. She deftly creates the poetic works of both of her Victorian writers and sprinkles them throughout the novel.

Also, much of the novel is epistolary, using the letters between Ash and Lamotte to illuminate their relationship and explain their fascination with one another.

This is a do-not-miss book. This is a must-read book. If you are in love with literature, you will love this novel. I cannot WAIT to discuss it at next month's book club.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Portland, cont.

Saturday: Brian graciously agreed to keep the baby all day so I could go play on Mt. Hood with Grace.

We stopped for a quick lunch at the Mt. Hood Brew Pub (formerly the Ice Axe Grill), and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal. We sat at the bar, and service was speedy and friendly. Grace had a gorgeous salad of greens, dried cranberries, blue cheese, nuts, and green apples. I had the Flat Iron Ciabatta sandwich (sliced beef, caramelized onions, and a yummy spicy sauce on thick peasant bread) with fries. Both dishes were excellent and arrived quickly from the kitchen. We also ordered the beer sampler, which featured a nice variety of dark and pale beers brewed on the premises. Prices were a bit high (mainly because of the restaurant's location on the mountain), but I thought the food and the service warranted the money we paid.

While Grace took care of a few work responsibilities, I made the short hike to Zig Zag Falls (at left). This was a quick hike down a beautiful trail with a gorgeous payoff at the end. I really enjoyed it. What's striking about hiking in Oregon forests is that they feel almost primeval. The trees are huge, everything is lush and green, and plants - ferns, mosses, wildflowers, understory trees - are literally growing everywhere. It's like something out of a fairytale. You know those babbling brooks and rushing mountain streams you used to read about? Well, in Oregon, they are EVERYWHERE. Waterfalls are rushing down right by the side of a regular old road. I wonder if people who live there even notice them anymore. It's absolutely beautiful.

After that, I spent a little time at the Mt. Hood Cultural Center, learning about the area, its settlement, and the adventures (and disasters) experienced by hikers/climbers on Mt. Hood. It was pretty amazing to see the evolution of climbing. They had gear from different periods on display, as well as some atmospheric photos of the mountain throughout the seasons. They also had a book of newspaper clippings that reminded me how dangerous climbing Mt. Hood can be. There have been quite a few fatalities over the years.

Once Grace finished up with her work event, we took a quick drive to Summit Meadows (at right), which is a large, green meadow filled with tall mountain grass. It was a place where settlers traveling through the area would stop and rest a bit before continuing the grueling journey through the mountains.

We also stopped by Trillium Lake, a clear, blue, man-made lake with stunning views of Mt. Hood. (Well, the views WOULD have been stunning, if the darn clouds weren't in the way at the time.) There were tons of people out on the mountain, and also at Trillium Lake, enjoying the scenery. (That was something I really noticed in Oregon. The people there don't take their public lands for granted. They are out there camping, hiking, fishing, you name it. It was actually kind of inspiring.)

After enjoying the lake a bit, Grace took me to Timberline Lodge (at left) on Mt. Hood. The lodge was built as part of FDR's Works Progress Administration, and it has been meticulously preserved. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and Grace gave me a fabulous tour of the place. After kicking back a bit in the lodge lobby, we ordered two hot coacoas, which we sipped by the big picture window as we discussed what to do next.

We decided on an easy hike at Salmon River. You can drive right up to the trailhead, and the hike takes you parallel to the river's course. There are tons of old-growth trees there, and the river makes for beautifully changing scenery.

We worked up an appetite on our hike, so we decided to have dinner at the Skyway Bar and Grill (in Zig Zag). This place is an absolute gem. Though there is an indoor dining room, featuring a full bar as well as a stage for the live music (something like 5 nights a week, I think), I thought the real scene was in the "backyard area," where they had plenty of tables for you to eat at, as well as a roaring campfire and a view of the sun setting behind the trees. The Skyway serves up fabulous barbeque (with a selection of delicious homemade sauces - huckleberry, blueberry, traditional, chipotle - we ordered a sampler of the sauces so we could try them all), and I chose the ribs. As as side item, I ate perhaps the most heavenly macaroni and cheese that has ever passed my lips. Creamy and cheesy with the crunchiest breadcrumb topping EVER. Plus, they have local beer and wine at the bar in addition to all the standard offerings. As we were finishing our dinner, some of the other diners pulled out their guitars and sang around the campfire. I know it sounds hokey, but it was totally magical. I sipped my wine and warmed my feet by the fire. One of Grace's friends brought her guitar, and she and Grace sang and played. This was perhaps my favorite evening of the trip.

We drove back down the mountain afterwards and rested up for the next day of fun! Grace dropped me off at Brian's hotel, so I spent the remainder of the evening with him.

Sunday: We slept in! When we awoke, Brian and I headed down to one of the hotel restaurants for a big breakfast. (Even though I ate like a horse while we were in Oregon, I didn't gain a single pound. It must be the mountain air. Or all the hiking.) We had HUGE plates - Brian got the breakfast buffet, and I had the Boursin omelette. Clay enjoyed liberal helpings from Brian's plate - yogurt, egg, some criossant, fruit. The kid is a bottomless pit. (He must take after his parents.)

After breakfast, we met up with Grace and headed for the Portland Saturday Market (which, oddly enough, is held on both Saturday AND Sunday). The market reminded me of the Mississippi Craftsmen's Guild. There were tons of booths featuring homemade items - fused glass jewelry, intricate wood carvings (we bought some little wooden cars for the baby), handmade soaps, food items, cute cloth bags, knitted hats and accessories, paintings and photographs, just a ton of beautiful, handmade items. There were also the less interesting booths (lots of tie-dye, incense, etc.), as well as some performance artists (some neat, others not so much) and food booths. We shopped for a bit, then got lunch from a cart (spiced chicken with tabbouleh and hummus).

Be aware - the Portland Market is a magnet for bums. There are lots of them there with signs and hats for money. What I noticed most, though, were how many of them were really young, just kids. It was heartbreaking.

At any rate, we enjoyed the market, and then we decided to take the rest of the day off from sightseeing.

Monday: Grace and I took the baby for a drive up the Columbia River Gorge. We stopped at all of the lookouts and many of the waterfalls. The Vista House at Crown Point is beautiful and offers 360-degree views of the gorge. We stopped there for a little while and stretched our legs. We also stopped at Latourelle Falls, Wahkeena Falls, and Multnomah Falls (at left). I really wanted to hike some at the stops, but it was not a possibility with the baby. So, feeling a bit like a tourist, I got out of the car, snapped a few photos, communed with nature, and climbed back into the passenger seat. Oh, well. Next time . . . !

The area is amazing, though, and the views are breathtaking. On the way back, our rumbling stomachs led us to TippieCanoe, where I had a HUGE plate of fried halibut and french fries and Grace ate maybe half of one of the biggest sandwiches I've ever seen. We also both sampled the restaurant's seafood chowder, which I can highly recommend.

We spent the afternoon at the apartment before heading out to Toro Bravo for dinner. I'd heard wonderful things about this Spanish tapas bar, and prices were supposed to be reasonable, so I couldn't wait to check it out. They don't take reservations, so we showed up at 5 p.m. (when they opened) to LINE UP (I swear, there were already people lined up.) and get a table. Luckily, we were seated immediately, and we were served iced water and a lovely little dish of toasted, spiced chickpeas to munch on while we perused the menu. We ended up choosing several small plates: 1.) Manchego and spicy chorizo with peasant bread; 2.) grilled sweet corn with a dusting of herbs; 3.) polenta with vegetable ragout and melted cheese; 4.) cheese-and-nut-stuffed dates drizzled with honey; 5.) pork croquettes. Each plate was delicious; the quality of the food here is beyond reproach. Some serving sizes were a bit small (the dates, in particular), but others were generous (the polenta - YUM). We washed our food down with two glasses of Oregon wine. All told, our tab was $50, which was a total steal for the dinner we had.

Tuesday: On our last full day in Orgeon, Grace and I headed to the Pearl District to window-shop. We checked out Powell's Books first, a HUGE book store that is independently-owned. The store is more than one story, and it covers a full city block. Inside, the most extensive collection of books I've ever imagined sat on meticulously tagged shelves. The tags were EVERYWHERE, and they denoted anumber of things - book-award-winners, staff picks, cross-references with other authors/books, even full reviews, signed by staff members. I loved this book store.

After that, we legged it around the area for a bit, stopping for a bit of Stumptown coffee (which is locally roasted) as a souvenir. When hunger struck, we hopped over to Chinatown because Grace had never tried dim sum. I'd read in my trusty guidebook that Fong Chong's served a good version of it, so we bellied up to a nice table there to find out. Now, Fong Chong's doesn't look like much, I'll grant you. It's kind-of a hole in the wall, and the bathrooms are less than appealing. But you might decide that doesn't matter when the dim sum carts come out. We loved the ginger chicken, and we ate a huge variety of steamed and fried dumplings. The carts kept coming, too, with sliced meats and green beans, more dumplings, more of everything. We got a ton of dim sum, with tea, and paid something like $23. Great food, and lots of it, at reasonable prices. I think Grace really enjoyed herself, and I did, too.

After lunch, we headed back to the apartment to relax before dinner. Grace made a delicious chicken parmesan for us that night, and we prepped for our departure. The next day, we just finished packing and hit the airport! Clay was an absolute angel on the flight from Portland to Houston, sleeping most of the way. After about an hour and a half layover, we boarded our flight to Jackson, which was blessedly uneventful. (The baby ate his snack and watched a Baby Einstein DVD for most of this flight.) Then it was home, bath, and bed. Ahhhhhh!

We had a great time in Portland, and my sister was a wonderful host!

Portland!

We're baaaack! We had a GREAT time in Portland! Here's what we did:

Wednesday: We woke up early on Wednesday and had a lovely breakfast at La Provence, a charming little bakery in Lake Oswego (a suburb of Portland). It was decorated like a French bistro, but with a wonderful lit case of pastries and baked goods on offer as well. I had the banana-pecan french toast (a HUGE portion, served the creme anglaise), and my sister Grace got the ham and cheese croissant (completely decadent - buttery, gooey, warm). Service was a bit slow at first (the dining room was packed), but it picked up as some of the diners trickled out.

The food was absolutely amazing, so good that we stopped by the bakery counter on our way out and picked up a bag of pastries to eat during the week. We chose the pain au chocolat, the lemon turnover, and plain croissants. They were delicious heated up for a bit in the microwave, even days later. It was a bit pricey ($25 for two breakfasts plus a bag of treats for later), but I thought it was good enough to warrant the cost.

After that, we headed to the International Rose Test Gardens (pictured at left). Things grow like crazy in Portland (probably because of all the rain), and there were alot of botanic gardens on my sightseeing list. We really enjoyed our trip to this one. First of all, admission is FREE! The garden features some 7,000 rose plants, spread over several acres. There is a gorgeous variety of specimens, and all of the gardens were very well-maintained. We spent about an hour there, strolling among the blooms. Clay had huge fun running around the Shakespeare Garden within this attraction, too, because it had bricked walkways and nice, flat turf. (An FYI - Part of the garden is wheel-chair/stroller accessible; steps must be used to access other areas.)

Following that outing, we decided to stop by the Portland Japanese Garden, which is absolutely gorgeous. To enter, you can either walk the short (but steep) .25-mile trail up to the garden's entrance or take a convenient shuttle. Guided tours are available at specific times, but we chose to enjoy the garden on our own, with a handy brochure to help us identify important features. We loved the zig zag bridge, set among iris and ending in front of a beautiful waterfall. Statuary throughout, along with lush moss, ferns, and the artful arrangement of natural stone, make the gardens particularly striking.

My only complaint is that a good portion of the garden is hard to navigate with a stroller (which also means that patrons in wheelchairs can't enjoy most of the gardens. Boo. Hiss.). Soooo, that meant that Grace and I had to either forego seeing most of the garden or tote little man around. We chose the latter, and we ended up carrying him aloft as if he were an emperor up and down steep stone steps. I kept saying "peace and tranquility, peace and tranquility" over and over to myself. But still, this is an awesome botanic garden, and not to be missed. Admission was $8 each for adults.

After that, we decided to let booger stretch his legs for a bit. We headed to one of the playgrounds at Washington Park, where he got a big kick out of running around with the other kids and just generally getting all his ya-yas out.

We stopped at Bijou Cafe in downtown Portland for lunch. YUM! We had a 5-minute wait for a great table, and our waitress quickly came over to take our orders. I thought I'd try the famous oyster hash, which, I must say, lived up to the hype! Large, fresh-tasting oysters, breaded in cornmeal and fried to a turn, along with onions, potatoes, and parsley. YUM! Grace chose a smoked mushroom panini, and our hungry toddler was accommodated with a fresh fruit plate, some whole wheat bread, and some cheese. Service was speedy, and though our waitress did seem less than happy to see us sit down with a 1-year-old, other staff members got a hoot out of kidding around with the tyke.

After that, we went back to the apartment and collapsed in a heap! We tried to combine sightseeing with some downtime, both for us and for the baby.

Thursday: Grace had to work on Thursday, so Clay and I rented a car and headed to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. What fun! They had a dinosaur exhibit up, with casts of dinosaur skeletons, animatronic models, and some actual whole-skeleton fossils. It was amazing to see. While the museum was busy, we did not find it overcrowded. For us, the highlight of the facility was the Discovery Playground, an interactive indoor environment where kids 6 and under roam free. Clay LOVED this place. There were stations where kids could play with playdough, learn about how water powers things (complete with waterproof smocks and little rubber boots so the kids don't get dripping wet), a puppet theatre with puppets the children can play with, tables with legos and other toys, and tons of other stuff. While we also enjoyed the rest of the museum (some cool areas that teach you how turbines are powered, some life sciences exhibits about human development, etc.), the Discovery Playground was wonderful because it allowed booger to blow off some steam and play with other children.

Friday: Hubs met up with us. We started the day with a visit to Portland's Chinatown to check out the Classical Chinese Gardens. (Our last botanic wonder, I swear. But the weather was good, and we decided to take advantage of it.) This was my favorite botanic garden in the Portland area, and, considering how many gardens Portland boasts, that's saying something. The vegetation is amazing, and the structures in the garden are beautiful and provide countless opportunities for spectacular views. There are gorgeous specimen plants in addition to mossy green ponds, and even the gift shop is cool. The garden is completely ADA-accessible, so we had zero problems pushing Clay's stroller around (which was great, because he slept through the first half of our visit).

But what put this attraction over the top was the teahouse located in the midst of the garden. Operated by the Tao of Tea, this was a WONDERFUL place to stop for fine tea and a delicious snack. The selection of teas, is mind-boggling, but the helpful staff will be happy to recommend something you'll enjoy. They brought us pots of three different teas, plus a plate of almond cookies. It was delicious. Clay woke up while we were in the teahouse, and we used this opportunity to feed him his own little snack. Afterwards, we enjoyed the rest of the garden.

For lunch, we decided to check out a food festival, called Bite of Oregon, that was being held in Waterfront Park. Restaurants from all over the state had set up tents, and you could sample (or order whole meals) from them. We paid our admission, and we each decided to pick up lots of small plates instead of eating big meals, so that we could try more of what was on offer. Then, we each shared a bite or two of what we got with each other, so that between the three of us, we probably sampled a fair percentage of what was being sold.

And it was GOOD. We first had seared chicken with creamy macaroni and cheese. Then we tried kobe beef chili, hot dogs, and slider burgers. We also ate some spicy soft tacos, some lobster ravioli, some great marionberry pie, and a strawberry shortcake. We washed it all down with rasberry lemonade. I really loved this festival. There was live music, there were kids and families everywhere, even the portapotties were clean. It was very well-organized, and everyone seemed to be having a great time eating tons of great food.

More later . . .

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

My little traveler

Mmmkay, I know I said I wouldn't be posting on vacation (and I probably won't be posting too much over the next week), but booger's napping and I HAD to tell you about what a circus yesterday was!

I awoke yesterday at 4 a.m. to check the status of our 6:10 a.m. flight. Initially, the Web had it reading as "delayed," but not by how much. Thinking it might only be an hour or so, I still starting getting everything ready and loading the car. Before I woke the baby, though, I checked it again. The flight now read "delayed - 3 hours and 30 minutes." Eeek! Needless to say, I let Clay sleep. Quickly realizing that a delay of this magnitude would affect our ability to make our connecting flight, I started searching for the next flight from Houston to Portland. (We had originally carefully arranged things - and paid $150 more than the cheapest ticket - to purchase a ticket with the shortest total travel time. Beause toddlers, as you probably know, are not patient little people.)

With the delay, we'd be ariving in Houston at about 11 a.m., way too late to make our connecting flight (which, miraculously, left Houston on time at 9 a.m.). Sooo, when was the next flight for Portland leaving for Houston? FOUR P.M. I kid you not. Due to some storm activity off the coast of Texas, tons of flights out of Houston were cancelled or delayed. Those that were leaving were FULL. So, sitting there at about 6 a.m., I had to make a choice: 1.) Chuck the whole trip and try again later. 2.) Summon my courage and have the agent book us on the 4 p.m. flight.

Being a woman of either immense chutzpah or extreme stupidity, I chose the latter. We arrived at the Jackson airport at about 8:30 a.m. for the now 9:45 a.m. flight. They confirmed that the phone agent had, indeed, re-booked me for the 4 p.m. out of Houston. Security was a breeze. It looked for a minute as though our flight out of Jackson would be delayed again (or even cancelled), but in the end, we boarded and took off at 9:45 a.m.

This flight was fairly uneventful. I had to hold booger the whole time due to turbulence (even though there was an extra seat next to me), and he didn't love that. But we managed, and he fell asleep shortly before we touched down. He continued to sleep for about an hour in the Houston airport. (Thank God I gate-checked the stroller. He was quite cozy in there.) I took the opportunity to have a nice, protein-packed lunch, as I had no idea if I'd eat again that day. By the time I finished, he was starting to wake up, so I put him in the restaurant high-chair (which I mercifully remembered to have brought over earlier) and fed him.

Then, we proceeded to our gate, where I re-confirmed we were on the 4 p.m. flight and confirmed that, so far, it was still going out. (If this flight had been delayed, I'd already resolved to grab a cab and get a hotel for the night in Houston. There's only so much a little 13-month-old can take.) Oh, and I must take a moment to mention that Continental Airlines put an angel at gate C32 on Aug. 5. When Debbie saw that I was traveling with little man, she re-assigned my seat so that we had three seats in a row all to ourselves. This helped immensely during the flight. She also had a fabulous attitude. I am writing a letter to Continental about how wonderful she was.

For the next few hours, I put Clay's little toddler harness on, and, man, we walked ALL OVER Concourse C. We inspected the shops. We listened to our voices echo under the domed ceiling. We made friends with other travelers. We played with other babies in the concourse. I wore that child OUT. And the kid was good. Not alot of fussing. No fits. Just a bunch of curiosity about everything going on and a really surprising flash of outgoing personality. (Which, considering how shy the kid is, I am still finding difficult to comprehend.) I mean, the dude made FRIENDS.

By the time we finally boarded at 3:45 p.m., I was sure that he'd either conk out on the plane or throw some serious tantrums. To my absolute shock, he kid amused himself happily for about 3 1/2 hours with me, with the few toys we brought, with the cute little boy sitting behind us, and with the absolutely saintly older gentleman across the aisle from us, who must have played peek-a-boo with him for so long that his arms ached.

During the last half hour of the flight, his little head finally dropped onto my shoulder, but he perked back up in the baggage claim and was awake for the whole ride from the airport to Grace's apartment. I gave him a quick bath and put him to bed (where he fussed for maybe 15 minutes before passing out from sheer exhaustion) while she went and picked us up some Pad Thai.

May I simply say a prayer of thankfulness? This little guy continues to blow my mind. Today, we've mainly futzed around the apartment and adjusted to the new schedule. (I got some heavenly cuddle time with him this morning in the bed! Usually, he wakes up and he's raring to go. This morning, though, he allowed me to snuggle with him for nearly 30 minutes before deciding to check out the apartment.)

He's napping now, and when he wakes up, it's off to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry! Let's hope that, though enjoyable, it's WAY less of an adventure than yesterday.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Wonderful things Clay's doing now

Now, when you ask Clay if he wants a cookie, and he heads to the kitchen for it, he says, "Cook! Cook! Cook!" It's pretty adorable.

He loves attacking our poor, beleaguered cats. When he's after Missy, she'll hop up on the top of the piano, where he can't get to her (yet, anyway). He'll stand at the bottom of the piano, making grunting and screaming noises in her direction, as if to say, "Get down here! Get down here right now! Did you HEAR me?" Missy will look down at him, completely unperturbed, and rearrange her haunches and tail.

He understands the word "book." If I ask him to go get a book so we can read together, he'll bring me one off the floor or from the shelf. This slightly assuages my guilt that one of his first words seems to be a version of "cookie."

He's walking well now in his shoes, and he even does a pretty good job walking on our uneven lawn. He's learned how to turn around and back his way down a step, too. The little dude is smarter than he looks.

Well, as I've mentioned before, you might not hear from me over the next week or so. Booger and I are headed out to Portland in the morning. Please send good vibes my way for the flights and the airports. Aaaack!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Two short books

I recently finished reading two books that had been on my list for a while - The Light in the Piazza and Into Thin Air.

The Light in the Piazza is by Elizabeth Spencer, a Mississippi writer. (Spencer has a great Web site, by the way. You can check it out by clicking here.) I'd been meaning to read it ever since the Broadway show based on this short novella won so many Tony Awards a few years back. Plus, when I read Joyce Carol Oates' When Madeline Was Young (which I thought was pretty good), she noted that she'd been inspired by Spencer's short work about a woman and her daughter traveling abroad.

The novella tells the story of Margaret Johnson, an attractive, wealthy American traveling in Italy with her beautiful daughter Clara. Due to an unfortunate childhood accident, Clara (now 26), has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. During their stay in Florence, Clara meets Fabriccio, a handsome young Italian man. Fabriccio immediately begins courting the young woman despite Margaret's protests.

Soon, Margaret finds herself meeting the boy's family, who are clearly interested in making a match between their son and the beautiful young American girl. At first, Margaret tries to tell the family about Clara's condition (which has gone unnoticed by anyone thus far, due to the language barrier). However, as the courtship continues, Margaret begins to allow herself to dream of Clara's wedding, her life in Italy, etc.

People have, apparently, often compared this book to the work of Henry James. Having not read James in a loooong time, the only real comparison that strikes me is that James also wrote of Americans traveling abroad in Europe, feeling somehow "outside" of the entrenched customs and way of life there, feeling as though their "Americanism" was their defining trait among Europe's social strata.

Regardless, Spencer's book is beautiful, thoughtful, and interesting to read. She plumbs the depths of Margaret Johnson without malice, showing the reader Margaret's hopes for Clara, but also her dreams for herself (long forgotten since Clara's time-consuming condition came about). Still attractive and vibrant, Margaret wonders how Clara's absence will change her relationship with her husband, etc.

Clara herself if presented as more of a pretty blank page; Spencer does not attempt to unravel her mind (such as it is) to us, but she does emphasize Clara's fondness for Fabriccio and her willingness/desire to marry him.

This is a short, worthwhile read. As I've mentioned before, New Stage Theatre in Jackson will produce The Light in the Piazza this season. Don't miss it!

Ok, next I read Into Thin Air. Yikes. This is a true account of a fatal expedition to the summit of Mount Everest in 1996. Jon Krakauer, a journalist and hobby mountaineer, went with a group of climbers on their quest for the summit in order to document the effort for an American publication. Due to bad weather, some poor choices, and competition between summit guide companies, four of the five teammates in his climbing group never made it back down the mountain. The book seems to be a way for Krakauer to purge some of the demons that have plagued him since Everest, but also a tangible way to factually account for how disaster struck the expedition. Krakauer takes great pains throughout the book to honor the memory of those climbers who perished during the descent.

I learned so much from this book. I never understood how risky climbing such a high peak was - the freezing cold, the unbelievably thin air, the tiny ridges which must be navigated, the crazy interdependence you must share with the other climbers on the mountain. Without bottled oxygen, most climbers would never make it to the top and back. The incredible lack of oxygen at high altitudes causes swelling in the brain, leads to fluid seepage into the lungs, etc. Combined with the freezing cold and the probability of bad weather, it's a miracle that anyone makes it up the mountain and back down in reasonably good health. The more I read this book, the more I understood how truly crazy you have to be to undertake climbing Everest.

I also found the commercialization of climbing Everest utterly mesmerizing. Experienced guides can charge clients $70,000 a pop to guide them to the summit, and competition among guides for business is cutthroat. So, in some cases, you may see guides who are taking risks to get clients to the summit because they've anted up the money AND because guides want a high success rate of getting clients to the top. (A success rate they can later emphasize in order to drum up new business.) This would all be capitalism as usual, of course, if getting to the top of the mountain wasn't such a risk of life and limb. Krakauer mentions on more than one occasion that one could frequently see corpses on one's way up (or down) the mountain, a sad fact of how dangerous the endeavor can be.

Although this book isn't a pleasure to read, the story is gripping and true. Krakauer goes to great pains to demonstrate the veracity of his account, with footnotes and a lengthy response to those who have criticized his documentation of events. At heart, the man is a journalist, and he fact-checks via exhaustive interviews with other climbers on the mountain and cites from interviews individuals have granted to other outlets to bolster his account.

I found it a fascinating tale of one of the deadliest seasons the mountain has ever seen. Not to be missed.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Movies

This week, I caught two movies that I thought I'd share.

The first one, Stealing Beauty, was one I'd heard about before but never gotten around to watching. It stars Liv Tyler, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, and a host of talented Italian actors. (I only mention the names preceding because those are probably the names you will recognize. Other than Tyler and Irons, most of the substantial roles seem to have been performed by Italian actors.)

At any rate, Tyler stars as Lucy Harmon, the 19-year-old, virginal daughter of a famous poet who has recently committed suicide. Lucy, upon going through her late mother's things, finds evidence that the man she thought was her father is not, indeed, her father. Her mother's notes suggest that an Italian man is Lucy's true father. Curious, Lucy goes to an art colony (of sorts) in Italy that her mother used to frequent to find out more.

There, we are introduced to a bohemian way of life and an eccentric cast of characters. Lovable Alex (Irons), a writer with a terminal illness, becomes fast friends with Lucy. As the summer progresses, Lucy discovers the identity of her father and finds her first love.

This film is beautifully shot. It takes a nostalgic, romantic view of Italy and the artist's life. The film explores the concepts of love, secrets, and youth. I enjoyed watching most of it, though there was a bit too much nudity and profanity for my taste. This is definitely an adults-only film, but there are some good performances (notably Tyler, Irons, and a solid turn by Sinead Cusack) that make the film worth watching. (The film actually reminded me a bit of an arty version of those old "losing your virginity" movies of the 80s. It's sort-of the same concept, but treated with a loftier, more serious tone.)

I also had the unbelievable good fortune to stumble upon Guinevere, starring Sarah Polley and Stephen Rea. I really enjoyed this movie.

Polley plays Harper, a young, insecure woman on the brink of attending Harvard Law School. At her sister's wedding, she meets Connie Fitzpatrick, an aging wedding photographer. He strikes up an easy rapport with her, guessing quickly that she's not cut out for law school and flattering her with a compliment or two. Connie also slyly accommodates her request not to be photographed in the traditional wedding shots, but he surprises her with a beautiful portrait that he took (featuring only her) in an unguarded moment. When Harper visits Connie to thank him for the portrait, he invites her to stick around with him and learn about . . . art.

Before she knows it, Harper is chucking the idea of law school and moving in with her new lover. The two seem oddly happy together, though Harper's own low self-esteem and Connie's need for adulation are more than a little self-destructive. Harper soon discovers that she's one in a string of Connie's many "pupils" - all young, all insecure, all taken in by his talk of art and his Irish accent. Connie has fed them all the same lines, tried to inspire all of them to create art, called them all his "Guinevere." Despite that, however, Harper decides Connie's a better bet than her own dysfunctional family of backbiting lawyers. Eventually, however, Connie and Harper have a sad parting.

The film comes full circle four years later, when news of Connie's impending death reaches his former loves. The women all gather (without malice, no less) to say goodbye, and, strangely enough, most of them have gone on to become accomplished artists - painters, photographers, etc.

I thought this movie was very interesting and very well-done. The characters are not always likable - Harper, jealous of her older sister's close relationship with her father, runs to Connie as a substitute; Connie, though an excellent photographer, is also an old lech with too much of a taste for girl-flesh; Harper's family is made out to be an intelligent but thoroughly hatable group whose main characterization is their vocation - law.

Rea and Polley hold the film deftly in ther capable hands, and their performances are wonderful. I'm beginning to really love Polley. I thought she was stunning in My Life Without Me and I LOVED her in The Weight of Water. (The girl's been acting for more than 20 years - you might remember her from "The Road to Avonlea" - so she ought to know what she's doing, eh?)

Though there is a little nudity, some sexual content, and plenty of profanity in this one, I thought it was very much worth watching.