Monday, March 30, 2015

Literature in the 1960s

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson

The Italian Girl by Iris Murdoch

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

Kid Rodelo by Louis L'Amoour

Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin
Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz

True Grit by Charles Portis

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark
The Godfather by Mario Puzo

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mount Vernon Love Story (1969)

Mary Higgins Clark, the famed mystery writer, started out with a different purpose in mind. Her first book titled Aspire to the Heavens was renamed Mount Vernon Love Story in the hopes that it would find an audience but it never did well and the author switched to a more lucrative style of writing. This book, however, is probably Higgins Clark's best. It's a fictionalized account of George Washington's life based on the author's historical research. I found the book interesting but not strong enough to recommend as an educational tool or basis for fact.

I live near George Washington's home Mount Vernon. I have visited the grounds but never the house. I am familiar with many of the names and locations referenced within the book. Sally Fairfax's family is now known to us on a regular basis as Fairfax County, the largest county in northern Virginia. George Washington's Fredericksburg is where people drive or take the train (me included) for a day out and a bit of overpriced antiquing. Braddock (Road) and (Fort) Belvoir are names we might use when giving directions. I am familiar with the locale and to have the area peopled with history and activity is a pleasure to imagine.

The book is also valuable because it gives readers insight into George Washington the man. He is no longer just a Gilbert Stuart painting or an old man with wooden teeth. He is more than an icon cutting down a cherry tree. He is a young man battling his mother and finding his way in the world. He falls in love, learns to dance, decides on a career, and marries when it feels right to do so. He becomes a husband and a stepfather. He is a good friend to his neighbors. While the book provides very little detail about George Washington's career, we do get a sense about how his relationships might have been structured.

I assume Mary Higgins Clark based her account on the many letters and documents George Washington left behind for the public to read. And because Mount Vernon, the charitable organization that maintains the house and grounds, endorses the book and is using it as a 2015 fundraiser incentive to mark the 256th anniversary of George and Martha's wedding, I have to believe the book commits no major error in the telling of the story. Maybe this year, I will make Mount Vernon a destination point. Arrivals are possible by boat leaving from Old Town Alexandria.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Jeweled Daughter (1976)

From the book cover: The Hong Kong residence in which Sarah is staying is called the Pavilion of Apricots. It's a beautiful palace filled with an extraordinary art collection, but for Sarah, it has become a prison, the scene of events over which she has no control, which threaten to overwhelm her career, her great love -- and even her life.

I read this book while half asleep at night with my eyes half shut. For some non-academic reason I have made the commitment to track down and read every single book Anne Maybury has ever written completely overlooking the fact that most of her stories are lacking in plot and none of her books remain in print. It's not an easy task I have before me but I am determined to do it. So, with that in mind, here's my look at the The Jeweled Daughter:

Does the story include the necessary romantic-suspense elements?

a narrator who is ordinary and insignificant? No, Sarah is not a wallflower; in fact, she is by far the most likable lead character AM has ever created. Sarah Brent is a career woman, a jade specialist, and she travels the world for work attending auctions, appraising jewels, and studying art. She stays in Hong Kong because it benefits her career to do so, not because she is held there against her will. She has the means to leave if she chooses. She is independent and self directing.

an old house with a long history and secret passageways? Hmmm, well, in spite of the beautiful name, the Pavilion of Apricots never really materializes in my mind. The house is a compound of sorts in the middle of an old city enclosed by walls. There are interior gardens and doors to the street but the layout of the house was never clear to me. I don't think AM altered the "required" elements for a romantic-suspense novel; I think her interpretation fell short. The country house prototype works well in her other locations (Rome, Venice, and France), but not so well in Hong Kong.

a sophisticated female who is in competition for the husband who has superior beauty and status? Yes! Sarah's employer Theodora Paradine is wealthy and privileged. She gets what she wants and she only wants to acquire property, men, and more jewels. Once again, something was lacking in the description. Theodora's age was difficult to determine and, for that reason, I was never able to really imagine who she is supposed to be. Is Theodora an elderly woman with money or a middle-aged woman with means? Is she a fairly young woman with several marriages behind her? I don't know. Maybe I missed it.

a secretive husband whose trust is called into question? Yes. Sarah and her husband Marius are estranged. Marius is interested in Eastern healing practices and wants to incorporate them into Western medicine. Sarah is concerned that Marius might be willing to do anything ... including negotiate with Theodora ... to acquire the funds he needs to succeed.

an alternate male who provides support and friendship? Yes. Oliver Farache, Theodora's third husband, is visiting Hong Kong and takes Sarah out for an evening of drinks. Sarah thoroughly enjoys herself but there's no real hint of romance between them. Oliver is an obligatory character without much purpose to the story.

a murder or an attempted murder? Uh, well, the guy Sarah buys the jade from under unusual circumstances is found dead but who is he and what does his murder suggest? Unfortunately, the danger and mystery never develop into something worthwhile.

Is the conclusion of the novel satisfying?

Yes, but only because I was done with it. Overall, the story was un-engaging and fell flat. Did I miss something? Who can say but an immediate re-read is not in order.

From an historical perspective, though, the development of the female lead is interesting and quite possibly, this kind of evaluation is the real reason why I have signed on to this exercise of torture.

When I compare The Jeweled Daughter (1976) to I am Gabriella (1955), The Terracotta Palace (1970), and Ride a White Dolphin (1971), I notice radical changes how the main character is portrayed.

The earliest female lead, Karen (1955) is part of a detective duo. She works along side her husband and doesn't have a profession as far as I can remember although she may have had an inconsequential hobby.

Juliet (1970) is dependent upon her benefactors for her well being. She is employed but in between jobs and on a break. Whatever she does is merely a means to make money and her future is precarious.

Leonie (1971) is educated and was pursuing an unlikely career in something scientific but she gives it all up to be with her husband and resents the fact that she was not consulted about their relocation and that her job history will suffer.

Sarah (1976) is different. She is respected in her field. She meets and develops a relationship with a man who also has a career. Their marriage suffers when they try to balance out the demands of both professions but they come back together in the end and agree to make it work. This progressive relationship is a real testament to the social changes that were occurring during the 1970s and the way in which one small genre of fiction internalizes those changes fascinates me.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Pippi Longstocking (1945)

My sister Andi used to sleep like Pippi Longstocking. She would put her head under the covers and her feet inside the pillow case. Her daughter Asia was also infatuated with Pippi Longstocking and is shown below in costume. Me? I was a Nancy Drew girl. I liked Harriet the Spy. I knew very little about Pippi Longstocking outside of her crazy pigtails and mismatched socks.

Well, after reading Astrid Lindgren's first collection of chapter stories, let me tell you, Pippi Longstocking is pure girl power! She can defend herself against robbers, shoot pistols, and even face off with the strongest man at the circus. She is completely self sufficient. Pippi manages her own money, has two pets, cooks and cleans, and never lets anyone bring her down. She is amazing! In fact, in one episode, Pippi uses determination, creative thinking, and bravery to save two small children from a burning house. Hip hip hurray, everyone cheers, Pippi loudest of them all.

Lindgren's style of writing in translation is lyrical. Her stories flow easily and make you smile. Sometimes, though, the escapades of the little girl will break your heart, such as when Pippi who has no training goes to school for the first time or when she tries to behave at a tea party. Pippi might have the admiration of her friends Tommy and Annika but even the strongest of girls needs some love! Pippi's mother is dead and her father is lost at sea. In later volumes, I am told Pippi reunites with her father? If anyone's read the full series, please let me know how it goes. Overall, a wonderful diversion and worth sharing.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

YFU: Cody in Sweden > Food, Family, and Friends

Throughout the world, we brand our countries with food. Cultures are known by what they eat. Americans are famous for hamburgers and fries; Italians are known for pasta and the French excel at making pastries. The list goes on. Our food options include Chinese fried rice, Indian paneer, and Thai curry. My favorite is black beans and rice, Cuban style.

International Food
None of these dishes are exactly the same when prepared outside of the country of origin, but we experiment, enjoy, and come closer to our neighbors through food. How does the world view Sweden? With meatballs, cinnamon buns, and lingonberries, of course! The country is also known for herring and often times people want to know about the extreme version of that fish, surströmming.

Hi Cody, what can you tell us about surströmming?

Cody Hangs with Celebrities
Cody: Surströmming is a special type of fish. From what I've heard, you put herring in a can, wait for it to go bad, wait a month after that for it to turn to liquid, and then wait just a little longer before you eat it. We went to Ulvön when I first came here. Ulvön is famous for surströmming and we met the "King of Surströmming" (pictured left) who showed us around and told how everything was made.

Leslie: That sounds like fun! I read an article online that Ruben Madsen was called in to disarm a 24-year old tin of herring last February. There was some concern that it might explode but all went well and the only result was a bad odor. The fish had completely dissolved and was impossible to eat.

Cody: Yeah, surströmming is something like Brussels sprouts. Most people don't like it. Magnus says he doesn't hate eating it but it's not something he would choose to eat. Maybe some people just eat it to show off that they can.

Leslie: I saw Magnus put a call out on Facebook for moose meat. Have you eaten any moose meat?

Cody: No moose meat yet, but I hear that many people do eat it here, along with reindeer jerky.

Real Food
Exotic foods are interesting but when time is limited, or tastes are more subdued, our diets on a daily basis are quite different from what we eat when out and about.

Leslie: What kinds of food have you been eating?

Cody: We've been eating "tonnes" of sausage at school and home, and we have fish once a week at school. With sausage we usually have noodles similar to the ones we use when eating macaroni. We also have Swedish pancakes quite frequently. I actually just had them today! They are very thin pancakes that you put jam on and roll into a sort of cylindrical shape. That's the best I can explain it.

Leslie: Are there any foods that remind you of America?

Cody: I've had tacos a few times, maybe three times in school and three times outside of school. They are very similar to American tacos, but they can also put them together with chips like we do nachos.

Traditional Food
Leslie: Thanks, Cody, let's take our conversation back a few generations and interview your grandfather Bob who lived in Sweden during the late 1940s and your dad Eric who was there in the early 1970s.

Hi Bob, what kind of food did you eat when you lived in Sweden?

Bob: When I lived in Sweden, breakfast on the farm consisted of hard black bread spread with salted lard (butter was expensive), small amounts of cheese, herring, sausage, hard-boiled eggand jams prepared from the family garden plot. It was said that some city folks actually ate corn flakes for breakfast, but corn, an import from the US, was at that time still considered animal fodder. A coffee break with sweet rolls, both morning and afternoon, was obligatory and we still adhered to the old traditional menus of pea soup, potato soup, and brown beans on specific days.

Leslie: Do you remember which days you ate which foods?

Bob: I seem to recall that the boarding house where I ate in Osby served mashed potatoes with milk and a very small piece of pork for Tuesday dinner, Wednesday was brown beans with again a small piece of pork, and on Thursday it was pea soup with a small amount of ham for flavoring. Friday we had pytt i panna which consisted of potatoes chopped in small cubes and anything left over during the week - then fried with onions. Black rye bread was served with all meals but without butter or even lard. This was the cheapest boarding house in town for good reason. But I'm not sure the memory of a kid in his mid teens is completely reliable.

Leslie: Thanks, Bob. Cody tells me he doesn't eat specific foods on specific days, either in school or at home, but I've read that yellow pea soup served with pork, mustard, and pancakes on the side continues to be a common meal in restaurants and households on Thursdays.

Hi Eric, what kind of food did you eat when you visited Sweden?

Esther as
a young woman
Eric: In 1973 my grandmother Esther lived in a typical red cottage on a small plot of land near her childhood home in Marklunde. She grew an assortment of vegetables in her modest garden. My favorite of all of her veggie dishes was rhubarb pudding. She had some chickens running around and each morning I would search in hopes of finding some eggs for breakfast. My favorite breakfast was a thick gob of butter slathered on bread, cold fish, and cheese, with a glass of milk. Yum! It's still my favorite.

I foraged for berries in the countryside and would bring home a pail or two. It was the first time I'd ever seen a gooseberry. Grandma had a pot with coils that went from one pot to another which she used to distill the crushed berries down to a highly concentrated juice. She canned them in jars and stored them in the root cellar next to her other preserved foods. Instead of Coke, or other store-bought drinks, we would just pour a little concentrated juice into a cup, add water, and voila! a delicious nutritious soft drink!

Leslie: Do you have any food memories with your grandmother?

Eric: Yes, I was invited to have a meal at a relative's house. I'm sure there were a variety of foods but I can only remember there being fish, cheese, butter, and bread. What I remember quite vividly, however, was my grandmother handing me a plate containing one lonely piece of bread with some food piled on it. I thought she had forgotten to put the second piece of bread on top, so I requested another piece. She explained that it was an open-faced sandwich and that this is how it was done in Sweden. Second slice denied.

Well, one piece of bread just didn't seem right to me and how was one supposed to eat this open-faced sandwich without getting their fingers all over the food anyway? I figured that no one must have shown them the right way to make a sandwich, so I made plans to do so. Alas, my request for a second piece of bread was met with quick withering glances from the relatives, some guttural throat noises, and a quiet … no. It's been forty years since then and I still think two pieces of bread are better than one.

Leslie: Thanks, Eric. I hope all of your sandwiches come complete with two slices of bread. Now back to the modern day.

Foreign Food
One of the benefits of becoming or hosting a YFU student is that the experience is a cultural exchange. So, in the spirit of sharing, Cody and his host family invited 19 people to a traditional American Thanksgiving Dinner last weekend.

The menu was extensive. Teresia, with the help of her friends and family, prepared two big turkeys, mashed potatoes and gravy, a green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, potatoes au gratin, macaroni and cheese, glazed carrotsasparagus, corn pudding, corn bread, cranberry bread, cranberry sauce, spinach/artichoke dip, pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, pecan pie, ambrosia salad, and ice cream (plus whipping cream for all of the deserts).

Leslie: How did you preface the Thanksgiving Dinner to your guests?

Cody: I told everyone that Thanksgiving was originally a feast that the native Americans had and they invited the European Colonists to eat with them. But then they stopped inviting the Colonists (for some reason) and Thanksgiving stopped until Abraham Lincoln brought it back to unify the country during the Civil War. I also told them that Thanksgiving is now mainly about giving thanks for the things that we have and being able to see relatives we don't usually see every day.

Teresia: I thanked Cody for being with us.

Leslie: I hear you downloaded a football game?

Cody: Yes, we did, the Bears vs. the Lions. I can't remember the score because, much like a real Thanksgiving football game, we used it as background noise.

Leslie: What did everyone have to say about the celebration?

Cody: My friends, Mert, Olivia, and Leo, said there was so much food they didn't know what to do!

Teresia: Everything tasted soooo good. The most unusual food I think was the sweet potato casserole with marshmallows. We have never tasted anything like it.

Magnus: It was a very good party! A lot of new tastes for all of us Swedes. I think everybody was satisfied.

Cody: Yep, it was a perfectly accurate Thanksgiving Dinner.

Food, Football, Family, and Friends, American Style, in Sweden.
Mert, Cody, Olivia, and Leo
With Special Thanks to Teresia for putting so much heart into such a wonderful party. This blog series and Cody's YFU experience would not be possible without her love and willingness to share.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

YFU: Cody in Sweden > The Great Darkness

Gimme me some sun!
Be careful and watch out. Today, in Örnsköldsvik, the sun rose at 8:47 and set at 14:19. That was only about five and a half hours of daylight. In December, when our northern hemisphere is at its most extreme tilt, the daylight hours will reduce even more so that by Christmas there will only be about four and a half hours of natural light per day.

This increasing lack of sunlight and rise in melatonin is known to cause depression and lethargy. While most people talk about how cold Nordic winters are, I am told the greatest difficulty is in learning how to overcome the great darkness. Let's see how Cody is adapting.

Hey Cody, how's it going now that the weather is colder and the days are shorter?  

Cody: I have been sleeping way too much during the past three months. -- It was officially three months last Tuesday since I arrived in Sweden. -- I don't know if I have been sleeping so much because of the lack of sun, doing exhausting things all day, or just being a teenager, but it has been extremely difficult to get up now. I've started setting multiple alarms in order to get up.

Leslie: You've experienced a lot of new things recently and that's bound to make you tired. Do people use sun lamps to combat SAD (seasonal affective disorder) or take vitamin D supplements? 

Cody: I haven't heard of anyone using sun lamps or taking vitamin D pills, but maybe up in the far north they do.

Leslie: I read an article that describes how they added special UV bulbs at bus stops in Umeå to simulate sunlight. They call it light therapy. Are there any special efforts being made to account for the increased darkness in Örnsköldsvik?

Cody: Right now the city has put up Christmas lights on nearly every street so that helps keep it light out.

Leslie: What would you say is the most difficult thing about the darkness?

Cody: I think the thing most affected by the darkness is my hanging out with friends. Before it wouldn't be uncommon to hang out with my friends after school, but now it's so dark at 16:00 that you can't see your hand in front of your face without street lights.

Leslie: Wow. I did not realize it gets that dark. Is that degree of darkness a safety issue for pedestrians?

Cody: Everybody seems to wear reflectors here. Even I have started to wear them now. I have two. One goes around my arm. The other goes on my backpack. It's supposed to start getting light longer on the 21st of December. Everything is longer after that.

Leslie: Yes, the winter solstice is less than one month away. Thanks, Cody. I hear November is the toughest month to endure.

Here are some tips I have found online that are said to help make the darker months easier to get through.

Keep active. The most often cited tip for enduring dark and cold winters is to keep active. Cody has joined a gym and works out three times a week with some of his friends from school.

Create Light
Everywhere, in all kinds of ways, using candles, lamps, and fire. Maia, an American woman living in Sweden, published an interesting and in-depth article here about how light is created in Stockholm. She, like Cody, mentions Christmas decorations as being a good source of light.

Enjoy the Snow
The snow is said to reflect the street lights and make everything brighter. Rather than looking at the snow as something difficult to endure, a lot of people look forward to snow and see it as something positive.

And, when all else fails …

Plan a Vacation
Stay tuned to the "Cody in Sweden" series to find out just what he has planned for late February 2015. It might look a little something like this …

Photo from Lonely Planet. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

YFU: Cody in Sweden > MODO Hockey

When Cody first arrived, it was still late summer in Sweden. There were plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy: fishing, hiking, boating, and grilling. But now as the weather gets colder and people are forced indoors more often, one of the activities of choice is ice hockey.

MODO Hockey (SHL)
Örnsköldsvik is a hockey-friendly town with six indoor skating rinks, including the Fjällräven Center where MODO plays. Cody tells me kids under 18 can attend games for free!

Founded in 1921, the ice hockey club MODO (Mo och Domsjö) is well known for players like Peter Forsberg (inducted into the Hall of Fame this past week) and Marcus Näslund. Other notable players born in Örnsköldsvik include Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Anders Hedberg, Niklas Sundström, and Andreas Salomonsson.

MODO took home the Le Mat trophy in 1979 and 2007. Currently, MODO has two Americans on their team: Klye Flanagan from New York and Travis Roche from Alberta.

Washington Capitals (NHL)
Back in the day, I made a decision to like hockey. It's not like I was raised up with the sport. No one introduced me to hockey. I looked around at all of my local teams and decided which one to follow. For superficial reasons, I went with hockey instead of football, basketball, or baseball. The players were good looking and not too tall. I like the speed of the game. I know how to skate. Plus, there were months and months of games. The season runs from October until June (if you include the Stanley Cup finals) and, best of all, hockey is a sport kind to age. With tennis, players are gone at age 30, but, hockey will keep a man in the game well into his 40s. Michael Nylander (AIK IF) and Jaromír Jágr (NJ Devils), both one-time Caps players, are still skating pro at age 42. 

Helmet Rules
My first few games were back in the day when Rod Langway was grandfathered in and did not have to wear a helmet on the ice. The rule book changed in the 1980s and while I agree it's essential for all players to cover their heads, there was something exhilarating about watching Langway skate without a helmet.

Fighting on the Ice
Yes, hockey's becoming gentrified. It's a fast-paced sport. It's loud. Sticks clash. Bodies slam against the walls. Players fight. That's been the game of hockey for years but there's an ongoing debate in the NHL about the elimination of fighting. Many people feel that the skill of the game should be the focus of the sport and brawlers should be removed. An October 2014 article in the Boston Globe compares hockey without fighting to coffee without caffeine. Where's the kick, they ask?

Let's see what Cody's host dad thinks. He's a former left wing who knows the game well. In fact, he's played many times against Salomonsson, mentioned above.

Hey Magnus,
What's your opinion about fighting in professional hockey? Do you think there's room for it or do you think it should be eliminated?

Magnus: I wouldn't want the old times back when a player can stay in the NHL with no other talent than fighting; however, my belief is you should be very wary with changes in the rules. I think big tackles and even some fighting belongs in the game.

Leslie: And there you have it. We all need a little caffeine in our game. What about Skröder? Some of the forums I have read say that Per-Åge Skröder (age 36 BTW) is a fighter. Do you think Skröder is a fighter, or is he simply a player who can take care of himself?

Magnus: Skröder isn't a fighter, just a great power forward with a nice ability to score goals. His last year was disappointing but he looks to be back in good shape.

Leslie: Thanks, Magnus. I hope Cody learns to enjoy ice hockey as much as we do. And I hope MODO does well this year.

Cody and Magnus on their way to a MODO hockey match.