Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Because tonight's drive included Sylvia Poggioli's piece on Ratko Mladic...

(this one)... it seems an appropriate occasion for this piece I wrote a few years back.

Sylvia Poggioli doesn’t know it, but she helped me learn to drive.

Her voice, covering the war and peacekeeping in Kosovo, defined the spring of 1999. I was sixteen, a newly permitted driver, and NPR was the soundtrack to my driving lessons.

Although I took the more-or-less-required commercial driver’s ed class, my mother was my primary driving teacher. (My dad had given me a few lessons, but it didn’t take long for us all to decide that Mom’s temperament was better suited to the learning curve. Dad ended up with the college visits.) Initially, she decided that the radio wasn’t going to be on at all when I was behind the wheel. As I got the basics under control, NPR nudged its way into the speakers.

The UN peacekeeping mission was just getting underway as I got comfortable behind the wheel, and Sylvia was on almost every day.

Maybe that was what turned on my news junkie switch. Growing up I’d always paid attention to current events – friends like to remind me that when I was three or four years old, I explained to them that I read Newsweek “to get informed” – but not as much I did during the second half of high school. I tried not to admit that I usually listened to Morning Edition when I started driving to school – but I knew that the drive usually took 11 minutes, which generally meant that I was listening to the first story after the newscast when I pulled into the parking lot.

In my senior year, I had a free period every morning. Most days I spent the time in the library, keeping up with a news repertoire that included the New York Times, the Washington Post, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Yes, I was a nerd.

Sylvia Poggioli’s reports from Kosovo didn’t spark my interest in journalism, but they helped to shape it. Part of me wanted to be there with her, breaking the stories of the war and telling the world about a people’s fight to survive. (A more sensible part of me knew that I wouldn’t last long under foreign correspondent conditions, which is why I’m not writing this from Colombia.)

(Post pic: self-portrait at the wheel, many years after I learned to drive. And taken while the car was not in motion, obviously.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chapter 2: In which two kindred spirits are introduced

Chapter Two starts off by introducing us to a new character: Matthew Cuthbert, who spent Chapter One offscreen, is now the POV character.

Montgomery handles Matthew well -- he's amusing, but you're never really laughing at him, even when his asocial nature is on display:
"Matthew enjoyed the drive after his own fashion, except during the moments when he met women and had to nod to them."
Not just here, but throughout the book, Matthew is never an object of ridicule. He's far from perfect, and his personality quirks are presented as the minor faults they are, but Montgomery never openly mocks him.

And then after Matthew completes his peaceful drive to Bright River, the heroine herself finally makes an appearance, sitting outside the station, patiently waiting to be collected. Montgomery introduces her through two theoretical observers, one ordinary and one highly perceptive. From the first, we are led to understand that Anne is something special.1

For the moment, Anne has no idea she was supposed to have been a boy, and even if Matthew had been inclined to make some sort of explanation, girl's got a mouth.

Also, an imagination:
"I used to lie awake at nights and imagine things like that, because I didn't have time in the day."
And a vocabulary:
"But if you have big ideas you have to use big words to express them, haven't you?"
And she uses them both on the drive back to Green Gables.
"Matthew, much to his own surprise, was enjoying himself. Like most quiet folks he liked talkative people when they were willing to do the talking themselves and did not expect him to keep up his end of it. But he had never expected to enjoy the society of a little girl. Women were bad enough in all conscience, but little girls were worse. He detested the way they had of sidling past him timidly, with sidewise glances, as if they expected him to gobble them up at a mouthful if they ventured to say a word."
By the time we reach the end of the chapter, the reader's in agreement with Matthew: let someone else do the disappointing.
"He felt glad that it would be Marilla and not he who would have to tell this waif of the world that the home she longed for was not to be hers after all."
Allusions in this chapter:2
  • "The little birds sang..." from James Russell Lowell's "The Vision of Sir Launfal"
  • "so little scope for imagination in an asylum" from Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey
  • "bearding a lion in its den" from Sir Walter Scott's Marmion
  • "alabaster brow" from William Shakespeare's Othello

1 Which is a pretty standard trope for heroic orphan tales. Orphans en masse, as Sallie calls them in Dear Enemy, are objects of pity and reforming efforts. To be worthy of main character status, the orphan generally requires respectably married parents (as opposed to *gasp* illegitimacy) and special interior attributes that make him or her stand out from the community of orphans as a whole.

2 By no means complete. I thought I'd done a decent job picking up literary references until I saw what The Annotated Anne of Green Gables took note of.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Chapter 1: In which we establish a mindset

Today we begin a new chapter-by-chapter series of posts.1 The goods? Anne of Green Gables.

Anne-the-book was the source of some enduring childhood experiences, and Anne-the-Wonderworks-production even more so.
  • One day in kindergarten we were asked to bring in our favorite books and read from them. And as my favorite book of the moment was Anne, I certainly didn't think there was anything unusual about my choice. But after I read a couple pages, my teacher asked me to go to the principal's office, where I got to read again. The principal gave me a red pencil for my troubles.2
  • Just so we're clear: Megan Follows is Anne. Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth are Marilla and Matthew. And so on. I was in the single digits when Wonderworks was in its heyday, and thanks to PBS pledge-drive season, I ended up with taped versions of both Anne and Anne the Sequel, which I have now watched somewhere on the order of eleventy-dozen times since the 1980s.3
So. We open with a portrait of small-town life at its most panopticon-like. (But without the title character, as she doesn't make an appearance until the second chapter.)

Mrs. Rachel Lynde sees her neighbor Matthew Cuthbert drive by, and she starts to speculate. Because that's what Mrs. Rachel does -- pay attention to the details of her neighbors' lives, and retain enough information to make generally accurate guesses about anything she's not immediately privy to.

The residents of small-town PEI are all pretty aware that they live in the public eye:
"Mrs. Rachel knew that he ought because she had heard him tell Peter Morrison the evening before in William J. Blair's store over at Carmody that he meant to sow his turnip seed the next afternoon."
See, when Mrs. Rachel just can't resist, and heads over to Green Gables, home of the siblings Cuthbert, to find out what's going on, Marilla is ready for her:
"She had expected Mrs. Rachel up; she had known that the sight of Matthew jaunting off so unaccountably would be too much for her neighbor's curiosity."
Marilla Cuthbert is the other key character we meet in this chapter. (Matthew gets a few mentions, but Chapter 2 is his turn to shine.)
"She looked like a woman of narrow experience and rigid conscience, which she was; but there was a saving something about her mouth which, if it had been ever so slightly developed, might have been considered indicative of a sense of humor."
Many, many thanks to Gail Gauthier, whose 2008 post4 pointed me to Margaret Atwood's suggestion that Anne can be read as Marilla's story just as much as Anne's:
There's another way of reading Anne of Green Gables, and that's to assume that the true central character is not Anne, but Marilla Cuthbert. Anne herself doesn't really change throughout the book.... Only Marilla unfolds into something unimaginable to us at the beginning of the book. Her growing love for Anne, and her growing ability to express that love - not Anne's duckling-to-swan act - is the real magic transformation. Anne is the catalyst who allows the crisp, rigid Marilla to finally express her long-buried softer human emotions.
Keep that perspective in mind as we read.

For now, "crisp, rigid Marilla" explains to Rachel that Matthew has gone off to pick up an orphan boy they've placed an order for, because you just can't get good help from those ungrateful French these days.5 Oh, and it's a good Canadian boy, because she wants nothing to do with "street Arabs" sent over from London by the Barnardo homes.

Ever the helpful neighbor, Rachel responds by listing all of the many things that could go wrong. But neither of them consider the one that will confront us in the next chapter.

1 Care to follow along with the Anne of Green Gables posts? Lucy Maud Montgomery's work is in the public domain the the US, so the first book in the series (and several others, but not quite all of them -- so no, you won't be the only one wondering what happened to Anne of Windy Poplars) is available from Project Gutenberg.

2 And apparently had a conversation with my parents about getting me into the district's gifted-and-talented program. I didn't find out about that until much later, but I did get the sense that he was pretty impressed.

3 On VHS, until just recently. (Thanks, MB!)

4 As in yes, I've been thinking about this, without actually blogging about it, for the better part of three years.

5 This xenophobia (or whatever the proper term for English-Canadian antipathy to French-Canadians is) will unfortunately make many recurring appearances.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Melancholy heroes, Byronic and otherwise

What does a 21st-century girl do when she's got (not so) deep philosophical questions? She turns to Twitter!

Don't laugh, 'cause I got answers.

Not everyone agreed with my premise:
When it comes to Heathcliff, I'm with Lit_Gal. But you have to admit that, at least on the level of generalities, there's something to this whole melancholy/brooding thing. Otherwise, Beauty & the Beast1 would just be a tale of cross-species vindictiveness.

Which is, I think, what both Todd and Laurel are getting at. The Beast isn't antisocial, he's "deep & emotional"!
Anindita's response brought in the other cultural signifier that we usually associate with this kind of character: the Byronic hero.

Here, I have to admit to some gaps in my reading. Byron and his fellow Romantics just don't interest me much, so I have next to no firsthand knowledge of their work. But as a concept -- yeah, Byron & Co. have a lot to answer for.

(Like Heathcliff and Rochester. Having just spent a year-plus with Jane Eyre I'm not going to spend even more pixels on it here. And I've only read Wuthering Heights once (listened to it, actually -- it makes a great audiobook, with all those Yorkshire accents), so I just don't have the knowledge base to get into it.)


When I pushed back on Vladimir's initial response, he offered this, which I love (because I never would have come up with it myself)2:

A couple other things that did occur to me, based on some favorites:
  • The Bean Trees: Esteban is already off-limits. The fact that his very appealing melancholy is the result of a pretty horrific past just adds to that -- while making him attractive at the same time.
  • Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: In his review (which was what finally prompted me to actually read my ARC), Ron Charles wrote something4 along the lines of "the underlying sadness of the protagonists is what keeps this from being cloying and twee." Not that there's anything wrong with happy stories -- I've gone on the record many times with my sheer dislike of depressing books -- but there's something to be said for depth, too.
  • Dear Enemy: Sandy's standoffishness/moodiness/Scotchness/occasional moments of sunshine are what make him an effective foil for Sallie. There would be no relationship worth reading about if he were as frivolous/upbeat/playful/etc as she was.
  • Fire: A great line from the end of the book: "Your sadness is one of the things that makes you beautiful to me. Don't you see that? I understand it. It makes my own sadness less frightening." So is the enduring appeal of the Beast character the way that it lets us (collectively, in the abstract) deal with our own versions of brooding and melancholy?
What initially inspired all this musing wasn't a book. (Well, wasn't directly a book. I was enjoying the lovely Stewart Finlay-McLennan, but Neil MacNeill was rather the Beast in the original Christy.)

(Quick primer, for everyone who wasn't hooked on period dramas in the 90s.)

Still not sure I've answered my initial question. I've got some half-formed thoughts bopping around, but none that quite make sense. So I'm still working on the topic.

Anyone else?

1 For purposes of discussion, I'm using Beauty & the Beast -- not a particular version, just the story concept -- as the prototype for this kind of relationship in books and movies and such. Because if I kept typing "melancholy/brooding/etc." at every reference, you'd be just as tired of it as I would.
2 Of course, this is totally unrelated to my collosal Twitter-crush3 on @3rdplacepress. No connection whatsoever.
3 Which is not allowed to turn into a full-fledged twelve-year-old-girl-type crush because he's on the opposite side of the country from me.
4 I'd be happy to tell you precisely what he wrote, but the Washington Post wants me to pay for articles more than 60 days old, and this one ran in March 2010. I'm not whining about newspaper paywalls -- if Buick5 hadn't offered me free reading through the end of the year, I'd be paying my $20 to the Times each month -- but archive paywalls are just dumb.
5 No, I don't get it either. But I'll take it.

Monday, May 9, 2011


As some of these are tabs I haven't had open for months, I suppose "bookmark-deleting" would be a more accurate title. However: links, not necessarily new, that are worth following:

In which Sarah tries something new

If you've spent any amount of time with me in person (or, for that matter, on Twitter), you may have noted that "I saw this in Cook's Illustrated" is something of a refrain for me.

Which is my way of saying I don't think I'd be subjecting my cooking skills to public scrutiny for anything less cool than this contest, from CI parent America's Test Kitchen. Visit the test kitchen? Yes, please.

The challenge: Make the Cook's Illustrated Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe, and blog about it.

The bonus: This gave me an excuse to break out my brand new matryoskha doll measuring cups.1

The recipe starts off nice and easy -- mix the dry ingredients.2

Then we get to the first interesting bit: for flavor, CI says to brown the butter.3 This was a new one for me.

As with all new adventures, there was some guesswork. What about all the foam? (It ended up mixing in.) What exactly counts as brown? (About 30 seconds longer than I gave it. I left the pan on the burner while I grabbed a bowl, and when I turned around it was for-real brown.)

For future reference, I'll be judging by smell -- CI calls it "nutty," but it's a little closer to "overly sweet toffee."

See? Brown.

That stick of butter, by the way, is a recent fabulous-for-single-people discovery. Land O'Lakes calls them half-sticks. There will be far less hacking through frozen butter with these around.

What do you add to the butter?4 Sugar, of course -- both brown and white for this recipe.

Except. It's reasonable, isn't it, to assume that a never-opened package of brown sugar will be fresh when you open it? Even if it was purchased six (or more) months ago?

Yeah. So much for trying to stock my cabinets in advance.

Also, note to self: acquire a terra cotta bear.5

Further note: There are conversions for these things. Instead of chipping away at the block of brown sugar, I could have tried a white-sugar-and-molasses combo.

So after the sugar battle, it was time for the egg-and-a-half. The recipe called for one egg and one yolk. The easiest way to separate the yolk, I assumed, would be to use (for the first time) the egg separator that came with my non-matryoshka set of measuring cups.

You know where this is going, don't you?

Maybe it would have been easier if I had been just a little gentler in opening the egg. Because once you've broken the yolk, there's not much the separator can do to keep it from spilling out.

Perhaps that's what the pointy thing on the end is for. This bears further investigation.

Moving on. The wet ingredients finally ended up in the same bowl, and I dutifully followed the recipe, which ordered me to put them through a mix-and-rest cycle. Then they joined the flour.

In the same bowl, I mean.

And then the chocolate chips appeared, and suddenly they were cookies. Really big cookies (following orders again).6

They disappeared into the oven, and emerged (17 minutes later, rather than the recipe's 10-14):


Just one problem: There are, as of this writing, twelve and a half of these massive cookies remaining. And -- as per the "single people" reference above -- I live alone. Unless some friends drop by, I'm going to consume all of these myself.

By the end of the week.7

Next time: Make these. Eat one. Take the rest to book club. Bask in reflected glory.

1 Yes, for real. That head, for instance, is the one-cup measure.

2 Which I actually did this time. Usually my method is to dump everything into the same bowl and mix. And I don't care what anyone says; it works.

3 Of course, they say to brown it in a stainless pan so you can see the color change, but as the only stainless pot I have is a saucepan currently reposing in the dishwasher, that was a no. Not complaining, though -- it was one less thing I had to buy when I set up this kitchen!

4 When you're mixing ingredients properly, which we've already established is rare for me.

5 Which still wouldn't have helped when the sugar was in a plastic bag that hadn't been $^$&% opened.

6 More or less -- I ended up with 14 cookies instead of the recommended 16, so my idea of a 3-tbsp mound of dough and the real thing are in slight disagreement.

7 Although sooner is not out of the question.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Quick updates

...both essential, but in different ways.

  • Guys Lit Wire (led by the ever-awesome Colleen Mondor) has just announced the school for this year's book drive. Read all the details, and give these kids some books! (Self-indulgent side note: after years of reading the Post regularly, despite being nowhere near a Washingtonian, I was actually familiar with Ballou before GLW chose it -- thanks to articles like this one. Isn't it great that even outsider's are familiar with DC's "worst high school in the city"?)
  • Kelly Fineman, the inspiration for my Jane Eyre-athon efforts, is now blogging her way through Emma. If you're not already subscribed to Writing & Ruminating, get on it.
(Post pic: taken along Mass Ave in Cambridge. Allowable use of an adverb? Your call.)