Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Home Improvement

Hooray, two long planned projects finally finished, thanks to my son and husband. I'm great at coming up with ideas and starting projects. They are good at follow through (especially when it involves s'mores.)

First, the rain barrel is hooked up.
Having this setup makes me realize how quickly a rain barrel can fill in a heavy storm, and how quickly it empties when it doesn't rain for a while. Onto the project list... a few more barrels.

Second, the fire pit! We roasted marshmallows and put them between chocolate crackle cookies that the kids made. It was a big improvement on the traditional s'more.

Jack built the fire pit almost single-handedly and is also great at making fires.

My mom had her first s'more this evening. She likes to char her marshmallows.
My daughter likes hers slowly and gently browned.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Makes a Good Book?

By sheer coincidence the books selected for my September book groups were similar in inspiration and theme. Both were fiction based on the life of an actual person who left a letter or diary about her past and had a link with a famous institution. Both had the historical subjugation and lack of choices for women as an important factor in the character's story. Both included deaths from consumption (tuberculosis). Both had romantic aspects with relationships thwarted and moving forward. How is it that I tolerated one book and loved the other?

The words, metaphor, passion, suspense, emotion, deep description... I can't pinpoint what it is that some authors have and others don't that makes the difference but I sure know it when I read it.

The book that I got through reluctantly was Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland. It described the life of Clara who ran the women's design department at Louis Comfort Tiffany's glass studio. While she loved her artistic work creating naturalistic mosaic and lamp designs and supporting and teaching young female workers, she was thwarted by her times. Women in her department were forbidden to marry by company policy, and eventually her department size was limited to appease male-only unions.

But the prose was plodding, the relationships seemed hollow, the emotions were only on the surface. When reading, I keep a journal close by to write down meaningful or especially beautiful passages. I don't think I copied down any from this book. One of her suitors told Clara that he wanted to give her a life of "excitement and adventure." But it never came, in the relationship or the book. There was a scene in the book where Clara visited the filthy immigrant tenement of one of her apprentices. How could this not be moving and descriptive? But somehow it wasn't.

This book could have explored the sacrifices made for love and art. It did a fair job of identifying the differences between Victorian fussiness and morals and a more modern aesthetic, but the exploration was shallow. I wanted Clara to challenge the marriage policy, to break out of her confines, to live fully. She thought about how things might change, but never made the effort to change them, even in her own mind. About 2 weeks after finishing this book, very little stays with me. We'll have a pleasant book group discussion about it and move on.

Caleb's Crossing
by Geraldine Brooks, however, will be a book that stays with me for a long time, and I will seek out other works by this author. She weaves a fictional tale told by a religious, colonial woman from Nantucket Island in the mid-1600s. The historical link that inspired the story is an actual letter in Latin written by the first native American to graduate from Harvard College. But from this scrap of history she weaves a compelling, emotional and beautiful novel.

The main character (Bethia) struggles with the demands of her society and her God. But she is pulled strongly by the freedom, energy, and passion of the "savages" in her midst. In secret she befriends a native boy, and they teach each other a new language and a new way to live. Against all odds, they are part of an effort to bridge the cultural divide that separated the natives and English colonists of the era. We know the tragic historical outcome of these struggles, and this book encapsulates the story in all its complexity.

Death, illness, hunger and sacrifice are ever present for the characters. Sometimes their religious beliefs comfort them under these conditions and sometimes just the opposite. The contrast of racism and tolerance is stark. Some English in the story repeatedly doubt the "savages" ability to learn. Yet it is pointed out that they so admire and closely study the pagan Greeks and Romans.

In one passage, Bethia is "struck, as always, that the heathen poet [Homer] from long ago should know so much of the human heart, and how little that heart changes, though great cities fall and new dispensations sweep away the old and pagan creeds." This is in direct contrast with Clara and Mr. Tiffany where the characters believe that a new time is dawning because of the coming of electric light and the automobile. Yes, those things cause changes, but the core conflicts of religious struggle, of corporation vs. labor, of racism and tolerance remain.

The language and emotion are deep and beautiful on every page of Caleb's Crossing.

A description of Caleb:
"He had exchanged the restless, flaring energy of his boyhood for a mannerly restraint. But the sense was of fires banked, not extinguished."

When they were young, Caleb gave Bethia (which means servant) an Indian name Storm Eyes. At one point, she yearns, "I wanted to be Storm Eyes again, leaving dutiful Bethia carelessly behind me, shrugging her off, like a cloak left crumpled on the sand."

I can see so much in these short passages. The words are so descriptive and each one lends deeper meaning. Read this book!

And please comment if you can describe further what kind of literature you love and what makes it great.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Boats in Boston Harbor

When I was 15 or 16, my father and I had one of our major fallouts over a boat trip. My parents were divorced, and he was supposed to take my sister and me on vacation for a week each summer. That year, he picked us up for a surprise trip. After a long drive from NJ to Maine, we arrived at a dock to board a small sailing ship for a week cruise.

I am not a good traveler. I had been and continue to be sick in cars, planes and especially on boats. It is possible that my father didn't know of my situation since we didn't spend much time together, but I would figure that he had experienced some of my episodes during my childhood. Anyway, I was not going on that boat! After a very uncomfortable ride back, we ended up back at my mom's in NJ the next day.

In my 40s, I am still a reluctant boater. I have been willing to ride a quick ferry across the Hudson river; a catamaran cruse on my honeymoon remains a sickening but funny memory; and I have come to enjoy occasional canoeing or peddle boating on small lakes or rivers. Thus, I am very surprised how prominently boats figure in my Massachusetts life.

My son has discovered a love of sailing. I attend his races, and recently he took me out for a sunfish sail on our local lake. I'm OK with him on the water if he doesn't tilt the boat too far, and he agrees to return me to shore immediately if I don't feel well. I can reach into the water to put cool water on my face and neck when panic causes me to overheat.

Last Thursday, however, I willingly arranged a boat trip for our family. Granted, it was a quick ferry trip, but I loved it. We sped from the Boston pier to the Harbor Islands. We could see city skyline views as well as busy life on the water. The ride was not more that 30 minutes. But that's a start for me.

Boarding our ferry. The top level provided a shady and breezy ride.

There's lots to see in all directions.

A multi-sailed ship.

We saw this old-fashioned, brown-sailed ship from the shore.

A lobster boat is surrounded by a flock of eager seagulls.

Tankers and tiny sailboats share the sea.

Don't dump your wastes in this water.

A catamaran under a bridge.

This guy's enjoying his boat even when it's not moving. He's reading BoatUS magazine.

The variety and beauty of boats on the water was amazing. There is so much commerce and recreation happening here.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Roasted Tomatoes

After 5 days of rather unhealthy fried, overly-salted, or richly sweetened and buttered food in family restaurants on Cape Cod, I'm eager for my local produce! In fact, while I enjoyed our vacation a lot (I'll do a post on it next), I think vacations are meant to remind us how wonderful our real life and real home is.

I often imagine that I'd be happier if I didn't have to cook and clean so much, but my own cooking was the thing I missed most while we were away. We got home yesterday morning, and I headed right to the farm stand across the street to take advantage of their special: tomatoes 99 cents/lb when you buy 5 lbs.

Dinner was roasted tomatoes on pasta with roasted carrots from last week's CSA share. I used this recipe from Fine Cooking magazine. It's a winner that I've done for a few years. I cooked on the grill to keep the house cool, and finished our propane tank just as the tomatoes were done.

I used those local tomatoes, garlic from the share and our own thyme. I made enough to put 2 more jars into the freezer. Pulling them out in January is magical! I wish you could see how great dinner looked, but I was so excited to eat, I forgot to take the picture of the rich, glazed, finished tomatoes, or the tomatoes mixed with pasta. But here's one of the finished jars.