Sunday, December 22, 2013

Review: Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry

The thing that makes the holidays so special is that each family has their own traditions.  Many are similar to other families' traditions, but each has a bit of personal flair.  Ours include baking and decorating cut-out cookies and peanut butter blossoms, going ice skating, sisters caroling at the piano, arranging Christmas tunes for our various musical instruments, watching White Christmas and classic Christmas cartoons recorded in 1989 on VHS.  We also read Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree aloud every year.  Published in 1963, my grandma first read it to my mom and uncle, and then my grandma would read it to me when I went to her house.  Now we have the beloved book at my mom's house, and last night my sister Jessica read it aloud to the family.

The sweet story of Christmas unity and sharing is told in rhyme and begins with one large Christmas tree.  Mr. Willowby quickly realizes that it is just a little too large for his parlor.  The solution is to chop off the tippy top.  Instead of throwing it out, the top is sent to Mr. Willowby's maid, who finds the tiny tree to be perfect for her apartment.  Well, almost perfect.  After a snip off the top, the tree looks great.  Tim the gardener finds the discarded top, and it keeps going until all the little forest families have progressively smaller trees just as festive as Mr. Willowby's.

This special childhood story will remain a little part of our Christmas for a long time.  I can't wait to read it to my own kids.

What are some of your favorite Christmas traditions?  Any of them literary? I'd love to hear about them!

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review: The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin

About a month ago, I picked up The Aviator's Wife from the shelves that house the recently returned items at the library for which I work.  This morning I finally finished the novel.  It was the fourth or fifth time the book had been on the returned shelf, a good sign, and since I have been leisurely working my way through Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea, I thought it would be fun to read an author's interpretation of the relationship between Charles Lindbergh and his wife.  I really didn't know much about either icon before reading this, so I enjoyed the little history lesson Melanie Benjamin provided.  It was an easy read with a touching ending.

To put it bluntly, however, this book was an overall disappointment.  Having read over half of Gift from the Sea, I was upset to find Benjamin's portrayal of Anne Morrow Lindbergh as a weak, submissive wife throughout the entire novel.  After reading the author's notes, I realized that belittling Anne and making her Charles' well-trained puppy was not even Benjamin's intentions.  She meant to show the world the strong, resilient Anne who made the Lindberghs the lovable couple many people remember them as now.  Benjamin failed at this goal.  It was hard to plow through the middle half of the book because the poor heroine was a broken record in her thoughts and actions, so you become bored and irritated with the mousy housewife who is herself bored and lonely with a total lack of confidence.  Instead of emphasizing her bravery, as the author's notes claim was the purpose, Benjamin makes every courageous act something Anne had no choice in and would never have done without Charles' insistence, such as becoming the first American woman to pilot a glider plane.  The novel only mentions one of Anne Lindbergh's works, Gift from the Sea, and makes it seem that it was written mainly to get back at Charles for writing a well-received memoir of his famous Paris flight.  Benjamin did emphasize Anne's exceptional aviation skills and years as co-pilot to her husband, which was truly an accomplishment, but the author entirely underplays Anne's literary career, mostly by ignoring it.

The "Anne" in Gift from the Sea is a calm, wise beacon of inspiration for women both then and now.  Benjamin's "Anne" is a vessel of wasted talent and potential, at the beck and call of the famous aviation hero.  It was painful to have someone as admirable as Anne Morrow Lindbergh portrayed in such a way.

If you want to learn about the Lindberghs, I would suggest reading Anne's diaries, Gift from the Sea or Charles Lindbergh's The Spirit of St. Louis and come to your own conclusions about the couple's extraordinary lives and relationship.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: Mr Selfridge

The fairly new ITV series Mr Selfridge follows the true story of Harry Gordon Selfridge, department store revolutionary.  The American moved to London, founded, and managed Selfridge & Co, and forever changed the way the world shops.  The talented cast includes Katherine Kelly, Aisling Loftus, Frances O’Connor (love her!) as Mrs. Selfridge, and Jeremy Piven as Mr. Selfridge.  The first season aired this spring with 8 episodes, with a second season set for 2014.  The show centers not only around the history and innovations of the store, but also the personal lives of the Selfridges and of several key employees, such as the ambitious shop girl Agnes Towler, window display artist Henri Leclair, chief of staff Mr. Grove, and aspiring entrepreneur Victor.

The excitement of the shopping world in London in the early 1900s is contagious, and the personal drama that the energetic Selfridge kindles is not as intense as, say, Downton Abbey or Mad Men, but it has a realistic quality that the melodramatic Downton Abbey cannot boast.  PBS advertised Mr Selfridge as something to stave off Downton Abbey withdrawal, and as another British-made Edwardian period drama, there are many similarities.  However, I would boldly say that I enjoyed Mr Selfridge more than I enjoyed the most recent season of Downton Abbey.  Because Mr Selfridge is based on historical people and their real lives, the characters are more relatable and much less irritating. *cough Lady Mary cough* The characters of Mr Selfridge are less self-pitying and self-engrossed than the DA bunch, making the show more upbeat even when unfortunate circumstances arise.

Most other critics of the show, including this NY Times reviewer and this Boston Globe reviewer, would disagree with me when I say Mr Selfridge is in many ways better than Downton Abbey.  They have called Mr Selfridge a guilty pleasure that lacks the focus and character depth of DA.  I say they are equally guilt-free entertainment.  Pretty Little Liars and The Big Bang Theory are guilt-worthy TV shows; the loosely historic Mr Selfridge is not.  While the quality of acting in Mr Selfridge is something to be desired at times, I thought that certain characters were well-done, including Agnes Towler and Rose Selfridge.  Actor Jeremy Piven seemed out-of-place playing the lively salesman at first, but he grew into the role when the darker and more personal sides of Harry Gordon Selfridge were explored.   By the end, I almost didn’t mind that there was no Maggie Smith.

From a feminist criticism perspective, Mr Selfridge does a remarkable job of expressing the powerlessness of women of all classes and situations of the time.  For example, even the highly persuasive and slightly conniving Lady Mae, with all her personal connections and love affairs, relies on her absent husband’s consent in all monetary affairs.  In the end, Lady Mae, a former show girl, only gained her persuasive power over important men like Selfridge and Selfridge’s backer because of her husband’s status.  The show also incorporates the British suffrage movement and depicts the store as a progressive supporter of the cause.

Overall, if you are a fan of Downton Abbey or other period dramas such as Mad Men, you should give Mr Selfridge a go.  The second season will be set in 1914 leading up to World War I, so it will resemble Downton Abbey even more, if that’s your cup of tea.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


Are you familiar with photographer Hana Pesut's series, "Switcheroo"?  The hilarious yet thoughtful photo series captures real couples as they are and then again after swapping clothes.  It subtly comments on the impact gender has on the entire appearance through clothing, hair, and posture.  By showing how comfortable many of the couples seem in their significant others' clothing, the series also highlights how a person is often attracted to a similar-looking partner and how couples influence one another's appearance and personality over time.  (I did a research project on this phenomenon in college.  While not the case for everybody, it's not totally untrue.)

Pesut's photos have been on my list of top five favorite ideas ever for over a year, and I have been dreaming of recreating the concept myself for about as long.  But I have found the one thing Jarrod will not do for me: be photographed wearing my clothes.  My husband would do anything for me.  Except that.  But luckily I have two sisters who were willing to help out.  Doing this with my sisters instead of my husband completely voids my version of the great gender statements Pesut creates.  But I'm ok with this.  Instead, you will realize how similar biological sisters of varying ages can be.

So, without further ado, I give you a Hana Pesut-inspired experiment.  Switcheroo: Sister Edition.

(Did you notice the little detail we forgot about during the shoot?)

Thanks for taking a peek at my little artsy project!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

            It is1953, the summer before Esther’s senior year as an English honors student at an Ivy League all-girls’ college.  She, as a skilled poet, artful writer, and top student, earns a month-long summer internship for a young ladies’ magazine in New York City.  It seems that Esther has everything going for her: a prestigious scholarship to a top college, a medical school beau, and a glittering internship.  In NYC, however, questions arise within Esther that she cannot answer, daunting questions about her future, her life after the internship, after the summer, after graduation.  They begin to eat away at her spirit and morale.  She could marry someone, perhaps Buddy Willard the med student, and clean his house, have his babies, and make his dinners.  Or she could pursue any number of professional interests such as author, professor, editor, or explorer.  She is frustrated that she must choose only one and give up the other option.  Her inability to choose one direction and forget the rest is a source of crippling anxiety.  The uncertainty of her own future terrifies this over-achieving young woman.  When Esther returns home from New York to await the start of the fall semester, her anxiety turns to apathy before spiraling into a deep and destructive depression.

            The reason this highly personal, highly autobiographical novel is viewed as more than a lost college girl’s diary entries written almost 20 years later is obvious.  Along with touching on themes of purity and sexuality, the feminist classic is a clear portrait of the tough choices young women faced not just in the 50s but for the past 60 or 70 years.  Any girl at a crossroads in her life would be struck by Plath’s ability to pinpoint the reader’s own personal fears about innocence, sexuality, marriage, education, and careers through Esther’s story.  The feminist struggle between family and career are debated from the perspective of someone with the beginning of this struggle on her horizon.

            One passage that exposes the stress college and even high school girls felt 60 years ago and still feel today gripped me with its imagery and its relativity to my own life.  Esther says she sees her life branching out like a fig tree, and each fig is a different future she could pluck and bite into.

For the record, I did not mark in this library book! :) The passage had already been underlined.  What kind of library worker would I be if I wrote in borrowed books?

            The fig tree appears earlier in the novel when Esther opens an anthology of short stories to find one about a Jewish man and a Catholic nun meeting under a fig tree.  The fig tree in the Bible is said to symbol prosperity, security, and peace, which are things Esther longs for, but she doesn't know which fig seems best suited to bring her happy security.

           Sylvia Plath’s novel and writing style is blunt and haunting.  I read it over the summer, which turned out to be long, dull, and lonely for me, so I was a bit frightened when the beginning of the novel truly resonated with me.  Esther starts at sad and confused and slides along the depression continuum.  Further into the book when I found I no longer shared her same thoughts or agreed with her plans to hurt herself, relief spread through me.  I’m not sure if I would recommend this book  as a remedy for depressive moods, but it did show me that I wasn’t alone in my helpless frustration and indecision.  While I appreciated the novel's strong themes of purity and awakened sexuality and could talk about them for ages and pages, the idea that stays with me months later is the fig tree.  The Bell Jar and its fig tree imagery gave me strange comfort and even while it left me haunted and intrigued by Plath and her own tumultuous life.

Have you read The Bell Jar?  Did you like it?  How did it affect you?

Monday, October 28, 2013

5 Favorite Fall Sippers

Nothing pairs better with a book on an autumn evening or Sunday afternoon than a mug of something warm, spiced, and sweet.  Today I'm sharing five drinks I reach for when I'm turning pages in the fall.

1. Pumpkin Spice Latte
Of course, you can't have a list of hot fall drinks and exclude the Pumpkin Spice Latte!  I make my own syrup following this recipe and add it to strong coffee and warmed milk or half & half.  I adjust this recipe slightly by substituting the ground ginger for ground allspice and really overdoing it on the pumpkin puree (which isn't possible but amounts to about 1/3 cup).

2. Maple Spice Latte
I had a Maple Spice Latte a few weeks ago at a French cafe in Brookside (Kansas City).  It is reminiscent of a Pumpkin Spice version, but much subtler and more delicate.  Maple and cinnamon just go together so well.  Here's my version of the syrup.
1 cup water
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Combine everything in a saucepan, let simmer for 20 minutes, strain in a fine mesh strainer, and store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.  Add with warmed milk to strong coffee or espresso.

3. Red Tea Latte
The last latte on the list is a simple Red Tea Latte.  My mom tried one at the cafe in the beautiful Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.  Simply steep a red tea bag (Celestial Seasonings Madagascar Vanilla Red Tea is divine) in boiling water for about twice as long as recommended, warm a little milk or half & half in a saucepan, whisk to create foam, and add to the tea.  You can stir in sugar if you like, but I think it's wonderful without any sweetener at all. Try it with your favorite novel.

4. Spiced Apple Cider
Heat some local apple cider on the stove.  Maybe add a cinnamon stick, maybe a clove or two.  Put the cider in a thermos.  Take it and someone special to a park and marvel at the leaves.

5. Trader Joe's Harvest Blend Herbal Tea
This tea is just The Essence of Autumn, dried out, bagged up, and presented to you in a little golden box with a tea-sipping fox.  If you have the means, I highly recommend picking some up.

Enjoy these drinks and the fall weather!

Friday, October 25, 2013

5 Classics for Halloween

With October thirty-first less than a week away, urges for scares and thrills have been dancing around in my skull.  When you think of Halloween tales, you might think of ghost stories, told around a blazing bonfire, preferably paired with s'mores.  But a creepy classic and a mug of hot spiced cider while snuggled on the couch works just as well.  Ever since my sister Jill read Dracula for her history class, she has been raving about it.  The classic vampire novel seems like the perfect Halloween read.  But why stop with Stoker?  Poe and Shelley deserve some All Hallow's Eve time, too.  So here is a list of classics I've been wanting to read that also create some Halloween spirit.

1.  "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving.
Ghosts of Revolutionary War heros and score-long naps.

2. Dracula by Bram Stoker.
The original modern vampire novel.

3. Macbeth by William Shakespeare. 
Shakespeare's darkest tragedy. Witchcraft, murder, tyranny, Scotland.

4. "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat" by Edgar Allan Poe.
Anything by the master of horror will chill your bones, but these two tales of murder and guilt are gruesomely popular.

5.  Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
Published when she was 21 years old, the daughter of feminist heroine Mary Wollstonecraft spins a tragic tale of an evil scientist and his horrific monster.

Happy Halloween reading!