Archive for the Category ◊ Books ◊

• Saturday, January 01st, 2011

This book fascinated and terrified me when I was a child. I loved reading it and re-reading it, but I knew the stories would unnerve me enough that I wouldn’t be able to sleep that night.

Looking back at it now, I wonder why that was. The stories aren’t that scary, and the storyteller, C.B. Colby, didn’t even claim that most of them were true. Many are drawn from urban legend (there are two “vanishing hitchhiker” stories in the book), folk tales, or local history, and a few are simply speculation—could there be flying saucers? Could aliens somewhere in space be watching our TV shows—or could scientists be picking up theirs?

Perhaps because I was so terrified by it, Strangely Enough has wedged itself into my memory in many odd ways. Mention Yonkers to me, for instance, and the mental picture that name conjures up is a flying saucer. David Lockhart’s matter-of-fact line drawings somehow made this book seem even more sinister than it already was.

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Category: Books, South Bend  | 9 Comments
• Friday, December 31st, 2010

My grandparents lived in a big house in the village of Louth, seven miles south of Dundalk and just a few more miles south of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. I remember it as being huge, almost a mansion, although it really wasn’t; it was bigger than the house I grew up in, though, and had a stately staircase, a drawing room, an enormous kitchen, and an actual scullery. My grandmother always had a cook (Mrs. Finnegan in my day) and a maid (who was never referred to as such—always by her first name).

There were seven children in my mother’s family, and they always had assorted other relatives living with them, especially during the war, when my grandmother’s siblings left London and stayed in Louth to avoid the bombing. So I could never figure out how they got by with just one bathroom. I guess it was a more Spartan time.

The bathroom was big and bright, painted white, with a claw-footed tub, a pedestal sink, and a most peculiar toilet—the seat was wooden, and the tank was overhead. You flushed by pulling a chain. There was only a limited supply of hot water, and when there was a drought, which happened several times during our summer visits, there was no water at all. During those times, we took turns cranking a big water wheel in the back yard to draw water up from an old well, and then brought it up in a bucket to flush the toilet.

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• Thursday, December 02nd, 2010

OtherWiseManWhen we were kids, my father used to read us A Christmas Carol aloud, a stave each night, while my mother baked Christmas cookies in the kitchen. By the time we were teenagers, though, we had too much to do, and too little patience, for this nightly ritual. We all liked the idea of it, but we seldom had the time to sit down, calm our racing minds, and just listen.

Dad understood that, and he would have liked to read us another, shorter book instead: The Story of the Other Wise Man, by Henry Van Dyke. He really loved this book, but it wasn’t as comfortingly familiar as A Christmas Carol, and Van Dyke’s flowery, roundabout Victorian style had us nodding off after the first page, so we never did make it all the way through it.

Last year, on Christmas morning, I read the book for the first time. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Buried in all that description is a really lovely Christmas story, one that closely parallels my father’s life and the lessons I learned from taking care of him in his last years.

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• Friday, January 23rd, 2009

I was poking through the bookshelves in the Trinity Episcopal Church Thrift Shop a few weeks before Christmas, and I turned up this handsome booklet, which was published in 1947 by the United Fruit Company. The cover, reproduced as a full spread here, shows a nice big hand of bananas in a pressed-glass banana stand, an item that became popular in the 1890s, the booklet tells us, when bananas first became widely available. I like the almost-symmetry of this cover; if you look at just the front cover, it is particularly striking. The design is elegant and simple, especially compared to most food-company cookbooks. But the interior is a sheer descent into madness.

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Category: Books, Food  | One Comment
• Sunday, December 14th, 2008

Every family has their little holiday traditions. We certainly had plenty—Dad would read A Christmas Carol aloud to us kids, as a result of which I had big chunks of it memorized by the time I was in high school. We all worked together under his direction to make platters of egg rolls to give as gifts—no Chinese restaurant can ever come close to my dad’s egg rolls. My mother made sausage rolls. We usually cut the tree ourselves, often at the last minute. We kids made a stocking for Mom and Dad, and when we woke up before dawn on Christmas, there would be a bulging kneesock by each of our beds, filled with chocolate coins and assorted little items and—always—a tangerine and a quarter in the toe.

According to the note on the flyleaf, this little book made its first appearance in our family on Christmas 1978. My mother undoubtedly found it either at a yard sale or at our favorite store, the St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Shop, which means she probably paid 19 cents for it.

Each of the stories in this book starts out as your standard, heart-warming Christmas story of magic and good deeds, then takes a sharp U-turn at the end, winding up with exploding lightbulbs, adulterous elves, and Rudolph’s flabby laurels. more…

• Friday, December 05th, 2008

Tomás Takes Charge, by Charlene Joy Talbot, was my absolute favorite book when I was a kid. It was my sister’s favorite, too, and my kids loved it when I read it to them. You won’t find it on too many lists of the classics, but for some reason it’s like catnip to my family.

To begin with, it’s the sort of story kids love, about a brother and sister living by their wits in an abandoned apartment in New York City. Don’t we all dream of leaving Mom and Dad and the backyards of suburbia and somehow making it on our own? It’s sort of like an urban version of the Boxcar Children. But it was Talbot’s straightforward writing and her eye for the telling detail that really brought this book to life for me.

In the story, Tomás and Fernanda, ages 10 and 14, are motherless children who are left completely alone when their father doesn’t come home from work. After a few days, a kindly neighbor gets involved and arranges for the children to be taken away by Welfare. To avoid this dreadful fate, Tomás and Fernanda make up a story about going to stay with their godmother in Brooklyn but really they just move to an empty apartment on the boarded-up upper floor of a nearby building. Tomás scavenges for food and other items on the street, while Fernanda, who is agoraphobic and won’t go out, takes care of the place.

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Category: Books  | 6 Comments
• Thursday, November 27th, 2008

This little book, which I picked up in the Caritas thrift shop in Geneva years ago, suddenly seems relevant again. It was published in 1942 as a guide for housewives contending with shortages and rationing during World War II; my edition, which is clearly translated from German, was apparently a premium from the Compagnie Genevoise des Tramways Electriques.

Switzerland was not a direct participant in World War II, of course, but as all the surrounding countries were at war, they experienced shortages and rationing just as their neighbors did. (Also, the Swiss have a bit of a bunker mentality—to this day, residents are required to keep certain food rations on hand at all times, more as a hedge against inflation than to ward off starvation.)

This little book actually packs quite a bit of information into a small space. The author, Madame Helen Guggenbuhl, includes instructions on how to can, dry, and pickle food, remake clothing to accomodate changing sizes as you lose weight, and make soap substitutes out of things like beef trimmings, potato peels, and ashes.

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Category: Books, Food  | One Comment
• Thursday, November 13th, 2008

My father died on September 16, after a long journey through the many stages of Alzheimer’s disease. His final decline started on a Thursday evening and ended on the following Tuesday morning. During that time, I read to him from the works of Robert W. Service and St. Faustina, who are as odd a couple as you will ever find, even at a deathbed.

Robert W. Service wrote poems about prospectors in the Arctic. Dad always enjoyed tales of manly adventure; his favorite short story, which he read to all of us at one point or another, was Leiningen Versus the Ants. The image of the ants throwing themselves into the gasoline moat, sacrificing themselves to form a bridge for the others, has stuck with me ever since.

Likewise, Service’s two poems The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew are also part of my permanent mental canon. Dad would adopt an aw-shucks attitude when he talked about Service, remarking that he wasn’t fashionable because his poems rhymed. They do stick in your head, though, thanks to a galloping anapestic meter that takes over your brain, and Dad could recite big chunks of both poems from memory. When he got stuck on a line, he would take down his red and yellow paperback anthology and look it up. We had several editions of Robert Service’s poetry, including a deluxe illustrated version of The Shooting of Dan McGrew, but this paperback is the one I associate with Dad.

As for St. Faustina, Dad discovered her when she was still just a Blessed, and he was very taken by her message. Just as Dad was the more indulgent parent in our family, Faustina was all about the Divine Mercy, so they were soul-mates of a sort. He had a special wooden rosary on which he said the chaplet of St. Faustina, which is a quicker version of the rosary that substitutes single verses for the Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

There is actually a store in South Bend that specializes in Faustinaiana, and Dad liked to go there to stock up on pamphlets. I took him there shortly after my mother died. I thought the place was kind of droll—they had posted e-mails of the Blessed Virgin’s latest messages from Medugorje—but the guy behind the counter was friendly and listened with apparent interest as Dad told him all about how he met and married my mother.

A few months later, Dad had a subdural hematoma and needed emergency brain surgery. After that episode he lost his long-term memory and never really got it back. I tried saying a rosary with him a few times, figuring that the familiar, repetitive prayers might touch a chord, but it didn’t work. He just looked puzzled, as he did when the priest came to give him Communion. So I gave it up.

As he was dying, though, I dug out the St. Faustina book and found his wooden rosary. I closed the curtain around his bed and said the chaplet with him. The prayers were unfamiliar to me, and I stumbled a bit at first, but eventually I got into the rhythm. Repeating the same short verses over and over again was calming and consoling for me, although I don’t know if they reached Dad or not. Over the course of the next few days, my sisters and brother and I said the chaplet with him several more times, singly and together. We said it one last time with him shortly before he died, and we buried him with his wooden rosary twined around his fingers.

Category: Books  | 2 Comments
• Wednesday, November 01st, 2006

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When I was 12 or 13, I was fascinated by all things Irish, and I read a lot of Irish literature. At some point, my parents decided that James Joyce was Not Suitable, and I was forbidden to read his works. So every morning I would set my alarm clock for the unspeakably early hour of 6:30 a.m. and sneak downstairs before anyone else was up so I could read a short story from this copy of Dubliners, jumping every time the stairs creaked for fear of being caught. When I had read the story, I would carefully insinuate the book back into its place in the living room bookcase so no one would notice it had been disturbed. Whether because of the anxiety or the passing of time, I can’t remember a single word of this book.

Ironically, if they had caught me they probably wouldn’t have cared. Most likely they were worried about Joyce’s later works, not Dubliners. But I did get that thrill of the forbidden.

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• Tuesday, October 03rd, 2006

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I got this book as a birthday present when I was 7 or 8 from my good friend Steve Stasheff (I suspect his mother picked it out, actually). I don’t remember doing much cooking when I was a kid, but I did spend a lot of time reading this book, and I memorized a lot of the pictures. Even today, when I make pancakes or meatloaf, the images from this book are lurking in the back of my head.

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First of all, I was fascinated by the test kitchen cooks whose faces and comments were sprinkled throughout the book. Who were they, and what did they know that I didn’t, that they got to get their pictures in the book? They looked kind of nerdy, but they were in a book and I wasn’t. That didn’t seem right.

The book started with a section on Beverages, the whole concept of which just puzzled me. Why bother? The only beverage I was interested in was pop, which we seldom got. I used to squint over the recipes, trying to figure out if they had slipped in a recipe for pop, but all they had were nauseating concoctions like Red Rouser (vanilla ice cream and cranberry juice), Choc-o-Nut Milk (milk mixed with peanut butter and chocolate syrup), and Cheery Cherry Drink: Stir maraschino cherry juice into milk and then “drop a maraschino cherry ‘surprise’ into each glass.” I didn’t think a bright red blob would be a good surprise in a glass of milk.

In the Salads section, the Betty Crocker folks rolled up their sleeves and got down to business, which in this book meant one thing: Making food look like something else. In the Betty Crocker cookbook, “Rocket Salad” did not involve arugula; it was a banana, set upright in a slice of canned pineapple and topped with a “nose cone” of half a maraschino cherry.

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The salad section relied heavily on such artifice. Canned pears become bunnies (with almond ears and tails of cottage cheese). Carrots cluster, points inward, around a clump of olives to form a black-eyed Susan. And someone even made a Raggedy Ann Salad, using a marshmallow for the head, shredded cheese for hair… I’m going to stop there.

With the exception of the hideous “Ham” Loaf Hawaiian (the scare quotes say it all: It’s Spam, studded with pineapple rings and baked), the section on main dishes is pretty solid. The food stylists did go a little nuts on Meat Loaf a la Mode (meatloaf baked in a pie tin and topped with scoops of mashed potatoes), but other than that, it’s straight-up home cooking. The cookies are pretty basic as well. But then we get to the cakes.

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This is the Enchanted Castle Cake, and I wanted it. Bad. I used to sit and look at the little chocolate bar doors and just desire that cake. I never got it, of course, which is probably just as well as there is no way that reality could live up to that image. This one was too freakish for me, though:

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I could never figure out what that creature in the center was supposed to be, but it didn’t look appetizing. And note the popcorn-ball clowns lurking in the background. The entire scene just screams “forced gaiety.”

I leave you with the best page of the whole book, a chocolate cookie recipe that really works—my 12-year-old daughter uses it when she bakes cookies, and they are still delicious. But what makes it perfect is the dollop of sarcasm added by my sister at the very end. Happy eating!

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