Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Do you love Chocolat?

(and it's on sale right now at amazon, t00! $8.23 for the hardcover!)

If you haven't read Chocolat or at the very least, seen the movie, stop reading this and take care of that business first. If you have, then sit back and read on...

I remember how I felt after reading Chocolat the first time: deliciously sated, bemused, lost in Joanne Harris's dreamlike France, with a ghostly trace of chocolate on my fingertips. But also, a little bereft. I didn't wholly like the way the novel ended, with Vianne following the wind and leaving her heart in Lansquenet with Roux. So when I heard that there was a sequel novel, I was very interested. Very curious to see whether Vianne and her heart would be reunited.

The Girl with No Shadow begins with a new character who gathers identities like other Parisians gather items at the market: almost daily and with great discrimination. It's frightening how easily this girl can sift through a few pieces of mail to find enough details to access bank accounts, apply for a passport, rent an apartment. And Francoise Lavery becomes Zozie, who bumps into a 4-years-older Anouk standing outside a black-swathed chocolaterie in Paris. Anouk says she is on her way to a funeral, and when Zozie asks her whose it is, Anouk replies "My mother's. Vianne Rocher."

I almost swallowed my chocolate at that! How would a dead woman ever find her heart again? But Anouk was lying. She's eleven now, and she struggles with her differentness as she tries to find a place in the world. Soon Vianne appears, dressed for the funeral, with a nearly four-year-old redhead in tow. And as Zozie watches Anouk skip off down the street, the colors of her power trailing her like kite strings, with Pantoufle in her wake, she realizes that this girl is too luscious to pass up.

So the story unfolds, told alternately by Vianne, Zozie, and Anouk. As Anouk (now called Annie) struggles to fit in at a school where designer clothes and hairstyles defines popularity. As Zozie sweetly infiltrates Vianne's chocolaterie and Anouk's confidence. As Vianne struggles to accept the dependability a man of wealth and power can provide for her and her daughters. And as Roux returns, diffident and passionate, perhaps to disrupt everything.

It is a novel of love, of chocolate, of choices. Because of it, I bought a new pair of red shoes and ate too much chocolate and may just have booked a flight for Paris. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Beware the tall dark

I don't know exactly what I was thinking. I'm good at many things, but making a snap decision whilst in the midst of a group of friends is not one of them. And when the nice waitress asked me what I wanted to drink at the CHURCH committee meeting I just returned home from, I asked for a beer. Not a big deal. I figured, we were in a restaurant/bar, and I didn't need dinner (had just eaten), and I'm a LUTHERAN for Pete's sake, so a beer was a logical choice. I guess I would have preferred a glass of water, but that sounded too cheap. It IS too cheap.
And she asked me if I wanted a tall. Now in coffee shop lingo, a tall is the smallest size! Maybe I was thinking of that--yeah, I can use that as my excuse for the beer I got.
I am telling you no lie: this tall Leiny was ENORMOUS. I'm thinking the glass was at least 16 inches tall, and it was full to the brim with rich, smooth, creamy dark beer. And of course, as a product of my clean-your-plate upbringing, I had to drink (nearly) the whole thing.
Let's just say it was an interesting meeting, and by the end, I was feeling very friendly. And desperately in need of a bathroom. And somehow, I seem to have volunteered to make a giant calendar to hang in the narthex and call a bunch of people. Again. For the second time in a week. But right now, I'm feeling pretty mellow--not really tipsy at all. But mellow, certainly.
Clint would have known better than to order a TALL beer. He chided me when I told him about it a few minutes ago. Maybe I should drag him along to the next meeting, just to help me order.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Book Review: Sweetness and Pie

What started with a dead jack snipe on the kitchen doorstep (postage stamp skewered to his beak) progressed to a dead man in the cucumber patch, and it wasn't really even seconds before eleven year old Flavia de Luce was ready to begin crime solving. She wouldn't call herself a sleuth, I don't think. But a chemist, absolutely. She lives in a mansion in the English countryside with her distant, widowed, philatelic (that means stamp fiend) father and two sisters--Ophelia, who loves playing piano and preening before her mirror, and Daphne, who loves to read. Both sisters largely ignore Flavia. She doesn't much care for them, either. The only person she connects to is Dogger (that's his last name), who somehow helped her father in the war (World War #2, that is), during which he suffered some sort of trauma that makes him a little unreliable. But he's interested in Flavia, in what she thinks and does, and that is enough encouragement for this attention-starved child.
The novel is told through her irrepressible voice, and Flavia shows both spunk and uncommon brain power as she deduces her way through the twisted web that connects the dead bird to the dead man. Along the way, she learns more about her father's past and gains a hint of insight into his character. She also succeeds in poisoning Ophelia's lipstick (not fatally, just enough to temporarily disfigure her lips) and impressing Detective Hewitt, the officer assigned to the case.
It was a delightful new book by Alan Bradley, the first in what he promises to be a series of books about Flavia. I look forward to reading more, and to finding out whether her mother really did die in a mountaineering accident in Tibet (I have my suspicions about that one). For those of you who enjoy an engaging heroine, arcane references to chemistry, 1950s film and stage references, and loads of (occasionally too many of them, really--two in one sentence??) quirky similes, this book is a great read.
Highly recommended. Thanks, E, for lending it to me.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

On Writing

It's interesting to read old journal entries, for I find that when I'm not hashing out a new story idea or telling about something funny one of my kids has done, I lament the fact that I'm not writing--and I know I should be. But here's the funny thing: even though I complain about not writing, and even though I find excuses not to write, once I swallow the obstacles and dive in, I get lost.
It happened today. I sat down at a computer to work on a story I started last summer (and forgot about--good thing I wrote the first few pages down in a safe place!) and once I started typing, I was there, in that good place. The place I am when I write.
The rumble in my stomach, the itch on my shoulder, the soft whisper of birds, everything fades away. I inhabit this other world that I have created, watching what the characters do and moving my pen or keys as furiously fast as I can as the story emerges. It's magic and it's exciting and I wind up feeling more buzzed than I've ever felt on wine.
I'm eager to get back to that place tomorrow...might even skimp on some of my housework tonight and dive back in.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Olfactory Memory

There are three particular smells that take me back to that week every summer we'd visit my grandparents' farm in Scottville: dill, wheat toast, and pancakes.
In some ways, my grandparents were typical of their generation. They lived simply, off the land, preserving food from their garden to use throughout the year, welcoming their grandchildren with love and hugs, but not coddling us, and sending us off for hours at a time to roam the fields, play in the barn, investigate the empty chicken coop and other outbuildings.
Grandpa was a quiet man, stoic and silent as most good Germans are, but I remember sitting on one of those rickety stools at the kitchen counter as he drew sizzling animal shapes for us with pancake batter. Mickey Mouse, a snake, a turtle, maybe a dog. Whatever we wanted, he would create for us.
Aside from that once-weekly pancake breakfast, Grandma was the chief cook. She ran her kitchen efficiently, ordering her daughters and daughters-in-law around with the practiced ease she must have gained as mother of eight children. Not only did she cook and bake and preserve the bounty of her farm, she also made us personalized peanut butter-chocolate eggs each Easter, decorated with our names in pink or green lettering. There was always homemade granola on top of the fridge and an intricate web of bottles, tubes, and pipes in the corner where her wine fermented.
But although they were typical old Germans in their efficiency, economy, and stoicism (and love of card-playing and wine or beer), my grandparents were far from ordinary. They were travelers and artists, and grandma was an exercise enthusiast (she walked or cross-country skied at least 3 miles every day) and hoarder of slightly questionable wisdom. When grandma died in 1987, she left behind a score of paintings of things she had seen with her eyes and her heart. I have two of her paintings in my home, framed by grandpa. She also left a notebook of her thoughts and ideas about nature, medicine, and her own peculiar brand of common sense. My aunt shared some of the pages with me a few years ago, and I realized that my good Catholic grandma had probably absorbed a good deal of the counter-culture of the 1970s.

(That's three-year-old me, curious about what Grandpa is doing to Grandma's back)

But those smells--dill, wheat toast, pancakes--those smells take me back there, to those summer days at the farm.
And now, I continue the ritual of making pancakes on Sundays after church. And as I watch my daughter learning to make them herself, shaping the batter into a snake, a fish, another snake for her young brother, I see a glimpse of my grandparents in my children, and the smells rise in me and pour out in a sigh.
I hope that this sigh travels straight up, laden with the scent of hot pancakes.