Saturday, December 29, 2007

Reading Log, Overview 2007

I may get another book (or even two) finished before the year is complete, but if I do, I will simply edit this post. As it stands now, I completed 58 book in 2007, which I have listed here in roughly chronological order. Of the 58, only 10 were non-fiction, and of those 10, nine of them were at least partially biographical in nature. However, I also have three books on my "still in progress" list that are non-fiction, and two of them are not biographical--one is a series of essays, and the other is Dawn to Decadence, which is hard to classify but might be called cultural history.

In addition to my 58 completed books, I have 4 books in progress, and I partially read, then abandoned (for various reasons), 7 books.

So, here are the lists!

Books completed in 2007:

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
The Cat Who Came to Breakfast by Lilian Jackson Braun
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Children of the New Forest by Captain Marryat
Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff
The Secret by Eva Hoffman
Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman
Diary of a Nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith
Turnabout Children by Mary McCracken
Death at the Dolphin by Ngaio Marsh
Night by Elie Wiesel
The Time of Green Ginger by Armstrong King
Digging to America by Anne Tyler
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
Lady Susan by Jane Austen
Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham
The Charmers by Stella Gibbons
Thirteen Steps Down by Ruth Rendell
The Approaching Storm by Nora Waln
Christmas at Candleshoe by Michael Innes
For the Sake of Elena by Elizabeth George
Sala's Gift by Ann Kirschner
Many Thing You No Understand by Adaora Lily Ulasi
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford
Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler
Remembering by Wendell Berry
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Elena: Strengthened Through Trials by Harvey Yoder
The Beginning by Chaim Potok
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George
A Woman in Berlin (Anonymous)
Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Villette by Charlotte Bronte
Bryson City Tales by Walt Larimore
The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson
The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rineheart
My Man Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
What Katy Did at School by Susan Coolidge
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Skipping Christmas by John Grisham
Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
The Parting by Beverly Lewis
Playing for Pizza by John Grisham
The Literary Discipline by John Erskine

Books in progress:

From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun
Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
The Magic Feather by Lori and Bill Granger
Year In, Year Out by A.A. Milne

Books abandoned in 2007:

W Pustyni i w Puszczy by Henryk Sienkiewicz
The History of Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray
Sklepy Cynamonowe by Bruno Schulz
Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes
Candide by Voltaire
The Mother by Pearl Buck
Psychological thriller whose title I forgot

I have already shared both my favorite books from 2007 and my not-so-favorite, but here are some additional random statistics. These numbers are only taken from my list of completed books and don't include the in-progress or partially-read titles.

Fiction: 48
Non-fiction: 10 (of which 9 are mostly biographical)
Audiobooks: 8
Rereads: 7
Classics: 6 (unless Dracula counts as a classic, and then it is 7)
Books classified as children's or young adult literature: 3
Mystery/Crime novels: 9
Horror: 1 (Dracula again)
Fantasy: 2 (Tolkien, in both cases)
Books in translation: 3
Male Authors: 24
Female Authors: 34

I shall look forward to seeing the way other people organize and classify their end-of-year reading lists! I have no definite plans for what I'll be reading next year--I prefer to follow my inclinations of the moment, and I have a number of things in mind right now--more than I can realistically manage, probably.

Happy reading in 2008!


Monday, December 24, 2007

Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

I wish you all a blessed and happy Christmas--filled with peace, contentment, and relief from the hurry of everyday life. May the Savior who interrupted eternity to sojourn among us give us grace to interrupt our dailyness and focus on the miracle of Christmas--God Incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us.

May He be with you and yours this holiday, and everyday.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Blame the communists...

I just learned something today that I never knew before!!! I wrote a few days ago about the custom of eating carp on Christmas Eve. Other fish is eaten too--sometimes trout, and herring is very popular. But carp is not a long-standing Polish tradition.

During the lean communist years, carp was simply the only fish available. People couldn't get anything else, so they had carp, because fish was the traditional meal.

But here is what is kind of funny--not all Polish people know this! The woman who told me (in her 50's) didn't know it until recently. So here we have a glorious tradition--big stores and outdoor markets offering live carp, and people lining up to buy it...just because their parents and grandparents had to make do with this not-very-tasty fish.

There's a message here somewhere, and if it weren't so late on Sunday night, I'd try to figure it out.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Particular vs. Eternal

I've been reading, off on and on during the year, The Literary Discipline by John Erskine. I "discovered" John Erskine, who was well enough known during his lifetime, through Jacques Barzun, who probably heard him in person, or at least studied under men who had studied under Erskine.

The Literary Discipline is a collection of five articles or essays that discuss what is required of literature in order that it may be truly art, enduring and appealing for many ages, rather than mere "reporting" or "information." I have agreed with pretty much everything he has written, including the fact that timely, rather than timeless, books may still be well worth reading, even if they do not qualify as "art."

I decided to finish up the final chapter so this book could go on my "books completed in 2007" list instead of my "books in progress but not finished in 2007" list. The final chapter is called "Proper Characters," and since character-based books are my very favorite, I've enjoyed reading what he has to say very much.

His primary premise (in which he agrees with Aristotle) is that the characters in art must be better than we are--show us the ideal character for which we "ought" to strive. That's his word--"ought"--and I can't help feeling that we are even further from the "ideal" in 2007 than we were in 1923, when this book was published. Our whole society shies away from the very idea that one "ought" to do anything, choosing instead to embrace the much lower principle that anything one wants to do--anytime, anywhere, should be accepted. No, celebrated. Unless, of course, what you are doing is suggesting that there are higher ideals for which we ought to strive, and then that's not so okay.

But I digress. John Erskine is wonderful to read.

Here's a long quote to give you a sample:

To ask what characters are proper to literature as an art, and to point out that the character better than life will express our ideals, and that the character worse than life will invite our satire, is only to raise in another way the old problems of the universal as against the particular in art, of the contemporary as against the eternal. To be strictly personal is in the end to be contemporary, and to be strictly contemporary is to give, whether or not we intend it, the effect of satire. If our picture of life is to appeal to the reader, and to many readers, as their own world, not simply as their neighbors' private house into which they are prying, it must have general human truth beyond what is strictly personal; and if it is to be read with that sense of proprietorship by many people over a stretch of time, it must not limit itself to the peculiarities of any one moment.

I enjoy as much as anyone an abstract discussion of universal principles, but I do like a concrete example, and John Erskine is short on them--or he refers to contemporary (for him) authors such as Edith Wharton and F.Scott Fitzgerald whom I cannot view in the same way he views them (assuming I'm familiar with their works at all). So, I tried to think of an example of a book that has stood the test of time--been widely appealing to many generations and not circumscribed by its own time, so as to render it inaccessible to future readers.

The first book that came to my mind was Anne of Green Gables. I have never, ever met someone who read that book and didn't like it. It is a favorite of many, and has withstood reading after rereading (another factor that separates literature that is art from literature that is not). So, I invite my readers (as if I had so many!) to suggest reasons why Anne as a character is universally appealing. Does she stand up to the test of being a character "better than we are"--a more ideal person whom we might strive to emulate? And if so, why?

Because, although Anne and Prince Edward Island are almost universally loved and remembered, read alike by girls and women (maybe not so many men), I am not sure I could bring myself to call the "Anne" books art. What do you think?

Friday, December 21, 2007

From the dark side of the bookshelf

I already shared my favorite books from 2007, although I still have to narrow it down to a "top ten." For some perverse reason, I felt like making a list of the opposite. So, here I present you with a list of The Worst Books I Read in 2007. Some of them, I did not even finish.

Again, in no particular order,

The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson (Here you can read what I thought about this story.)

The Charmers, by Stella Gibbons

Bee Season, by Myla Goldberg

Thirteen Steps Down, by Ruth Rendell (You can find what I said about it at the time here.)

Some psychological thriller I started, didn't like and didn't finish, but I can't remember the title.

This isn't going to be a "bottom ten" list--it just is what it is. These are the books that, for whatever reason, I did not have a favorable reaction to. Except for Henry Handel Richardson, I would still read other books by these authors, however, as I have read and enjoyed other books by them (Myla Goldberg excepted--that was her first novel. I might be willing to give a second one a chance, though.)

I was inordinately pleased to have an author's comment when I posted my "favorites from 2007" list a few days ago. I sincerely hope none of these authors reads my blog, although, again, I must reiterate that my distaste for these books is a reflection of my reaction to a given book at a given moment in time. Others may find these same books full of merit.

Fortunately, I guess, at least half of them are no longer living.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Kitchen mishaps

While preparing the gingerbread cookie dough for one of our family's favorite holiday traditions, one child, who shall go unnamed, made an error. As we rolled out the dough and baked it, I kept trying to figure out what had happened. They were behaving so strangely--not rising much, falling apart after baking, and the texture was all wrong. Finally, we tracked down the error to double sugar in the recipe. It was not done on purpose. Does anyone remember the scene in Anne of Green Gables where both Anne and Marilla (at least) add sugar to the peas, thus rendering them too sweet to stomach?

It was rather like that--the right hand didn't know what the left was doing; the sugar was added twice, and I feared that if we also added frosting to the top (as tradition dictates we must), they would be positively fearsome. I was one of the sugarers, of course, but the party of the second part was feeling bad about the whole thing, so I felt compelled to share a story from the annals of kitchen history with her.

The year I was nineteen, I came home from college for Christmas break after being away for an entire year. My mother had to go to work, but she let my nine-year-old sister stay home from school to do some Christmas baking with me. We planned to make frosted sugar cookies (the same tradition I still carry on at my house, except I morphed it into gingerbread) and divinity candy--my personal specialty.

We got out recipes and ingredients and prepared to go to work. I read over both recipes to be sure we had everything we needed, and began to mix up the cookie dough. Almost immediately, I felt that something was wrong, and after carefully checking the recipe again, I discovered that I had added the amount of sugar required for the divinity to the sugar-cookie batter. That would be four times the amount of sugar the recipe called for. I really did not want to waste all the ingredients, so I decided the only thing to do was...quadruple the whole recipe. We baked and we baked and we baked. There were more sugar-cookies than our little family could eat in a month, and I'm pretty sure my mother gave away platefuls to anyone whose hands were empty for a moment.

After all that baking, we were not deterred. We were still going to make divinity! (I know this to be a fact, but my 40+ year old self thinks my 19-year-old self was insane.)

In spite of my heroic efforts, I believe we were simply destined to waste sugar that day. I burned the divinity syrup--burned it, and still tried to use it, and ended up with sticky fluff that could have competed with super-glue and won. I distinctly remember using the bathtub and lots of hot water to clean that pan.

And I still turned around and made another batch of divinity.

My 9-year-old sister was by my side the entire day, and I must ask her sometime if she remembers that day as well as do.

With this memory tucked away in my past, I really cannot be fazed by a little extra sugar in the gingerbread cookies. True to form, I mixed a up another batch, and we did it again. Maybe that 19-year-old is lurking inside of me yet.

Before I fall back into the habit of not posting...

This is a post that should have been made back in October or early November, but since I wasn't blogging much then, I'll give it to you now.

My two older girls (ages 14 and 10) got to craft classes at a youth center once a week. Since they are homeschooled, they don't have many opportunities (especially during the school year) to socialize (yes, that word) with Polish-speaking young people. Polish school children are the busiest I have ever seen. My ten-year-old's closest friend (who is 11 years old, at the most) takes English lessons, tennis lessons, swimming lessons, music lessons, and something else I forget right now. She has at least one activity after school every day (sometimes more), and Polish schools also assign a great deal of homework.

That's why my kids don't get to see friends very often during the school year--especially as the days grow short--and that is why the only way I can arrange a little opportunity-to-speak-Polish-with-young-people is to join 'em and sign my kids up for "after school" activities. The art/craft class is the only thing we do.

One daughter really loves the class, while the other one merely tolerates it. However, I find it beneficial for both of them.

Especially when they learn to make something really cool, such as roses from autumn leaves. I had bouquets of these sitting around all through the autumn, and I loved it.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Top Ten" for 2007

That would be my own personal list of top ten favorite books I read in 2007. This should be understood from the beginning to be a reflection of the connection between reader (me) and book at a given moment, and not a reflection on the merit of any book. I just started looking over my reading for 2007, so this is the preliminary round, and I will narrow this down to just ten favorites, but I will be choosing the ten from among these.

In no particular order:

The Time of Green Ginger by Armstrong King (Also here and here.)

Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman

The Secret by Eva Hoffman

Sala's Gift by Ann Kirschner

The Beginning by Chain Potok

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Remembering by Wendell Berry

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

The Approaching Storm by Nora Waln

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Digging to America by Anne Tyler

My apologies that all of these books don't have nice reviews, either. The ones I read during my little blogging hiatus didn't get fair treatment here!

One interesting thing I note is that none of the audio books I've listened to (and I've listened to quite a few) made this list--only books that I read with my own eyes. I think this is partly because I choose audio books almost exclusively for their entertainment value, and not to make me think or concentrate deeply. When I listen to audio books, I am doing other things, and I don't have enough attention to devote to anything too heavy, but my favorite books are always those that give me something to think about (whether I agree with them or not).

When I browse the catalog at Librivox, Right Ho, Jeeves is going to beat out Poetics by Aristotle every time. (And just in passing, I will say that the male reader for the "Jeeves" books at Librivox is brilliant, and a real pleasure to listen to!)

I promise to narrow the list down to 10, and provide a better review for any book that makes the list if it doesn't already have one.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Oh, Little Town of Ornaments

A long, long time ago in the blogosphere, I was tagged to share my favorite Christmas ornaments, but at the time, I couldn't. My ornaments were in Poland, and I was not. There is probably a word for remembering an obligation like being tagged for a blog meme and carrying it through some two years later, but I since I suspect that word is "procrastination," I won't dwell on it.

Some years ago, I bought a little ornament for myself in the shape of a cottage. The next year, I bought another little house, and that was the beginning of a collection. Each year since, I've added some little house or church to my glass village, and these are some of my favorite ornaments to hang on the tree.


I have more than I am able to share here, because uploading pictures is almost impossible. However, they are all hanging on the tree and I am enjoying them there.

And, short as this post is, I cannot resist lengthening it just a bit to add that is the 15th post, on the 15th of the month.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Dilatory reader, thy name is chagrin

While browsing through my own archives to find older posts about Christmas in Poland, I ran across a post entitled "Looking Ahead". Written almost exactly one year ago, I showed a (very tidy) picture of my to-be-read shelf, and laid out some of my reading plans.

Woe, woe is me to realize just how far short I have fallen of accomplishing what I must have thought was very doable in 2007. I abandoned The History of Henry Esmond (with very little regret). I am still wading through Dawn to Decadance, far, far behind schedule. I never finished The Literary Discipline, although I think there is only one essay left to read there. I read neither the Northrop Frye book nor the Thomas Cahill title.

I also did not read Thinking Youth's Greatest Need, Consolation of Philosophy, or the biography of C.S. Lewis. I listened to Villette as an audio book instead of reading Jane Eyre, and I never got around to that "Miss Read" book. Evelyn Waugh and Henry James remain on the "authors I have never read" list, and the Christian fiction titles are among the dust-collectors I posted about not long ago.

Of all the books I mentioned in that post, I did read one (or two--can't remember offhand) of the Chaim Potok books, as well as The Poisonwood Bible and The Fountainhead. I am about halfway through Pickwick Papers, and it will probably be carried over into the new year (it is over 700 pages long).

The best-laid plans of mice and men, and all that. I will be posting soon about what I did read in 2007--it's not as if I didn't read anything at all--I just didn't read everything I planned to read.

So, the $64,000 question I bother planning for 2008 at all, or co będzie, to będzie--the Polish version of que sera, sera?

A gathering of posts

A few days ago, I linked back to an old post telling about a trip we made to see Christmas ornaments being made by hand here in Poland. Then I wrote about the traditional Christmas dinner featuring carp. I thought it might be nice to collect the links to other old posts I've made about Polish Christmas traditions. I haven't written about everything, but I have shared some of the more interesting.

So, if you're a new reader or want to revisit older posts, you can read about the special way Christmas greetings are shared during the Wigilia dinner. For children, December 6th is as much fun as Christmas morning, and if you're in the mood for a little Polish Christmas music, I've posted lyrics and links to some.

I hope you all are having a blessed holiday season--peace on earth begins at home in our hearts!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Oh, look, an actual book-related post. I bet some of you think I've forgotten how to read and have been subsisting on merely audio books.

But I have been savoring this book. A book like this doesn't come along all that often, and although I am 50 pages from the end, I am reluctant to rush through what I have left.

My preference in a book is always for a character-driven story. This book has a strong voice in the central character and narrator, John Ames, a preacher, son of a preacher, and grandson of a preacher. His story takes the form of a letter/journal he is addressing to his young son. He is well over 70 years old, and has a child by a rather unexpected late marriage (he lost a wife and child as a younger man). Knowing that he will probably not live to see his young son grow into manhood, to guide and instruct him as matures, he is writing this journal to share some of his history, faith, and wisdom with his son.

The journal becomes a record of both past and present, as he relates stories of his own father and grandfather--tales that carry back to the very Civil War, tales of the Underground Railroad, of drought, fire, death, senility, poverty, and friendship. At the same time, he writes of daily events--little things that happen in the home, that he knows his son will not likely remember, as well as many of his own fears and doubts about what will become of his wife and child after he is gone. He is especially worried about his wife's friendship with a man who has a checkered past--the son of his own best friend.

I don't know how the story is going to end--I don't want it to end--and yet, I'm aware that nothing I have written here makes it sound like a very compelling story. What makes it so gripping is John Ames' philosophical meanderings--the faith and doubts that war within his heart, his very love of life and all that it encompasses.

Here's a sample:
There is a tendency among some religious people even to invite ridicule and to bring down on themselves an intellectual contempt which seems to me in some cases justified. Nevertheless, i would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith. As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience. And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.

This bit was one of my favorites:

He used phrases like "forward-looking." You'd have thought a bad argument could be put beyond question by its supposed novelty, for heaven's sake. And a lot of the newness of this new thinking was as old as Lucretius, which he knew as well as I did.

This book is just full of little bits of wisdom and philosophy, but doesn't come within a country mile of being "preachy" or presenting Christianity as a sort of grape-flavored cure-all that guarantees a "happily ever after" life. John Ames' life as a thinking, believing man is a real life--one with disappointments, questions that can't always be answered, quiet pleasures, and a deep sense of personal responsibility. "To whom much is given, much shall be required."

Highly recommended, but don't rush through it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A little show-and-tell

Remember this attempt at an artistic crochet project? I really did learn a lot on that one, and I did get brave enough, a few months later, to try again.

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Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I found a really good deal on thread while we were on vacation this summer and bought about 40 spools in some very nice colors. I'll eventually get around to making a few more! This kind of work is better for the summer time, because frankly, I can only crochet with sewing thread in strong daylight, and we're about a week again from the winter solstice. "Strong daylight" isn't in the forecast for months!

If you don't want to go back and read the old post, I'll explain that these are created by holding three strands of sewing thread together. Subtle color changes are effected by changing just one of the three at a time, and the technique creates a "painted doily."

There's nothing common about "common sense"

November was a sort of official "make a blog post every day" month.

January is the month for resolutions and improvements and new beginnings.

So, could someone please explain why I chose December, month of holidays, year-end activities, baking, gift-wrapping, and general extra-busyness, to initiate my endeavor to be a more consistent blogger?

Because I sure can't.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

It's that time of year...

In all the flurry of Christmas planning, you won't want to forget to buy your main dish early. There's a good reason for this, which I will explain. Polish Christmas is mostly celebrated on Wigilia, or Christmas Eve. It has been a time of fasting, which ends with a feast, which is supposed to begin when the first star appears in the sky. Traditionally, the meal includes 12 courses, one of which is usually fish, and that fish is usually carp. The Polish word for carp is karp (and you thought Polish was a difficult language!).

Carp are bottom-feeders and refuse-eaters. Catch one and kill it to eat immediately, and it will probably taste exactly like that--mud and refuse. In order to make the taste less unappealing (I myself have difficulty believing it can be improved all the way to "tasty"), you can keep the carp alive in clean water for a couple of weeks, until it has been purged of its impurities, and is, presumably, fit for human consumption.

If you are wondering where a Polish family, living in a tiny flat, keeps a live carp for two weeks, I will be happy to explain: in the bathtub, of course!

I am not making this up. Kids find this a fun and pleasant part of Christmas preparations, just like decorating a tree or singing carols might be elsehwere. Some of my children's friends, not long ago, mentioned how much they were anticipating their yearly fish pet.

I went shopping Saturday morning, and at my (large, Western-style) grocery store, a very large bin, filled with live carp, had been installed next to the usual fish counter. There was a line. You get to point out the one you want, and the lucky store clerk gets to catch it for you. I saw him holding up one live fish after another for inspection. It's still early, so there is plenty of time to get your fish, and the lines aren't too long, yet. I have seen "carp lines" that ran into the hundreds of people. I have also seen these little fish-pools full of live carp at outdoor markets.

Here's a billboard that's up right now, advertising live carp for sale at the very store I mentioned. Don't you just want to run right out and get one for Christmas this year?

In case you do, here's a traditional recipe:

Carp in Aspic
(Karp w Galarecie)

3 lbs. carp                         1 T gelatin
4 cups vegetable stock       2 T water
4 peppercorns                    1 egg white
3 bay leaves

Clean fish. Remove head and clean it. Cook head and spices in vegetable stock for half hour. Strain. Place whole fish in a pan. Cover with strained stock and simmer for half hour until tender. Remove fish and place on a serving platter. To clarify stock, add slightly beaten egg white and bring to boiling point, stirring lightly. Strain through napkin twice. Dissolve gelatin in water, add stock. Pour over the cooled fish. Garnish with carrot rings, hard boiled eggs, and lemon slices.        

If you decide to go for it, do let me know how it tastes.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Happy Belated Birthday!

Procrastinator that I am, I certainly am not surprised to find myself behind-hand on this, but I am sad that in my flurry of non-blogging, I missed something that I always meant to write about.

On November 30th, Jacques Barzun turned 100 years old, and I add my voice to the chorus wishing him well and applauding his accomplishments, integrity, and longevity. I'm still in the middle of Dawn to Decadence, and The House of Intellect is on the shelves with my other to-be-read books, so the only one of his books I've read in entirety is Teacher in America, but if I never read anything else, that would be enough to earn him my everlasting respect.

I'm still chagrined that I have lived all my life, almost, without knowing who he is, and only learned in the end because I picked up a book by chance at a flea market.

Should you, like me, need to know a little more about this remarkable man, here are a few links.

A blog dedicated to Dr. Barzun's 100th year
A tribute and brief biography
Columbia College's tribute
Another brief biography

One of those tributes says that no era can be completely decadent when it can produce such a man. I would like to this so.

My, my...things have changed!

Rather than back-dating this post, I'm merely dedicating it to December 7th (Pearl Harbor Day, by the way), since I have, once again, missed a day. (I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm glad there are no such thing as "blogger police.")

I read a passing reference to "haul out the holly," a line from the musical Mame, and since I've always liked the song that line comes from--"We Need a Little Christmas"--I searched out the song I always liked, by Angela Lansbury. (Of course, I had a little help with that part.)

I was listening, humming along, singing the lines I remembered, when one line in the song nearly bowled me over. Mame's nephew sings, "But Auntie Mame, it's one week past Thanksgiving Day now..."

And then, the song goes on to talk about rushing and hurrying Christmas.

Since when is one week past Thanksgiving "rushing" Christmas? The stores are full of Christmas stuff from November 1st onward. Probably half the population turns on their outdoor Christmas lights and has the tree up the very first weekend after Thanksgiving. The very countdown (of shopping days) begins that weekend, too. But apparently, it was not always so, although it's all I can remember. Mame came out in 1966! That's not exactly the Dark Ages.

I looked up the lyrics on the internet, and guess what? They've been changed!! The new words now say:
"But Auntie Mame, it's one week from Thanksgiving Day now..."

I can imagine that Christmas was probably more special and less stressful when it didn't consume six weeks. But that's all I can do--imagine it. Because in our world, one week past Thanksgiving isn't rushing Christmas--it means time is running out and you'd better hurry if you want to squeeze in all the shopping, baking, gift-making, gift-wrapping, carol-singing, holiday-movie-watching, pageant-planning, and general holiday hoopla that you planned.

If I feel inspired, I'm going to re-write the words to this song to match the current environment, but no promises!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Christmas Mystery, by Jostein Gaarder

After getting a comment about this book, I decided to share about it here. I first read the book in 2001, and wrote an enthusiastic recommendation for a homeschool list. It ran thus:


This book is called The Christmas Mystery, by Jostein Gaarder. I can
hardly begin to describe it--it is so unusual, but wonderful.

A little boy and his father go out to buy an advent calendar. They are
doing this at the last minute, as it is nearly (or already) the 1st of
December. Most have been sold, but they find some in a bookshop. They look
at calendars with chocolates behind each window, and calendars with plastic
figurines behind each window, but then the little boy finds an old, old
calendar. The bookseller thinks it looks handmade. This is the one the boy
wants, and so they take it home. The front calls it "The Magic Advent

When the little boy opens the first window, the picture shows a little lamb.
But, at the same time, a mysterious piece of paper falls from the calendar.
On the paper is the beginning of a story. Each day, as he opens the
windows, another short chapter in the story appears.

And what a story! It begins with a toy lamb in a department store coming to
life and running away. A little girl follows the lamb...and that is the
beginning of a strange and wonderful journey. She is joined by several
companions, and she discovers that the lamb is headed for Bethlehem. As
they journey toward Bethlehem, they are also journeying backward in time, so
that they will arrive on the night of Christ's birth.

I can't begin to list the historical references and locations that are
encountered. They visit the locations of various churches, and witness
briefly events in history. As they get closer to Bethlehem and the birth of
Christ, many of the events involve the life of Paul. Oh, they meet the
original "St. Nicholas," too, and his story is included.

Eventually, the little boy shares his secret with his parents (well, sort
of--the parents find the papers and he gets very angry with them, but after
that it's okay), and the whole family gets up at the crack of dawn to find
out what happens next.

This would be so much fun to read during December--just one short chapter a
day. There are a handful of things in the book that I didn't like, but they
can either be endured or edited. This book is just packed with living
ideas, though, that will really help you focus on Christmas! It also offers
a sense of just how thrilling it is that the birth of Jesus has gone on and
on through the centuries, thrilling generation after generation. The author
also wrote Sophie's World which I highly recommend for parents and
discerning teens. But this Christmas book is for everybody, and I'm going
to buy a copy to share with my kids in a few months.


Since then, I have read the book aloud more than once, when my kids were various ages. It doesn't take long for "To Bethlehem, to Bethlehem!" to become a rallying cry, and I'm sort of regretting that I didn't start the book this year on December 1st. Perhaps we should try to catch up.

I have since read everything Jostein Gaarder wrote that has been translated into English (he is Norwegian). His writing is all about opening your eyes and using your mind to think about the wonderful and amazing world in which we live, to appreciate everything and take nothing for granted, and not to overlook those miracles that are so commonplace we hardly regard them as such.

"There are exactly two ways of becoming wise. One way is to travel out into
the world and to see as much as possible of God's creation. The other is to
put down roots in one spot and study everything that happens there in as
much detail as you can. The problem is that it's totally impossible to do
both at the same time."--From The Christmas Mystery

Buy it, borrow it, Bookmooch it. But do read, if not this month, then sometime. You can hardly go wrong with this one.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

So says the song.

We had a very cold November, complete with two (or was it three) major snowstorms with 6-9 inches accumulation of snow. Since the calendar has flipped over to December, and Christmas is imminent, and a little snow would be festive and maybe a little welcome, instead of tedious, nary a flake have we seen. The temperatures have been well above freezing, with a selection of rain, cloudiness, and even a little sunshine, none of which will put you in a holiday mood.

Nevertheless, the calendar is relentless. Christmas is coming, the advent calendar is marking the days, and I even mentioned the word "Christmas tree" yesterday.

It may be obvious that I'm just filling in space here, because this post is a cheat. If you visited my blog on December 5th, this post wasn't here. In order to fulfill my semi-promise to blog every day, I have to make up for the lack, so I'm back-dating this.

Mea culpa, but it's my blog, and I'm doing it anyway.

If the place you live doesn't look any more festive than it does here, maybe you'd like to look at post from the past and see how Christmas ornaments are made. I blogged about it a couple of years ago, and we visited a Christmas-bulb-making-factory the year before that. My children look so young in the pictures...I believe I was pregnant with C. at the time.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The "To Be Read" pile...or is it merely "To Be Dusted Occasionally"?

When I first came to Poland, I brought the books I needed for a year of homeschooling, but I don't remember that I brought any books just for me to read. It was very, very difficult to find books in English then--mostly just a meager selection of Wordsworth Classics and Penguin Classics. They were pretty cheap, and I bought, over time (and still have) a collection that includes all of Jane Austen's books, quite a few novels by Charles Dickens, and the odd title such as Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.

During those "famine" years when paper-and-ink books were few and far between, I discovered online etexts, and read many, many books on my computer screen. One in particular I remember was Our Mutual Friend.

Fortunately, I enjoy rereading books, so I read the books in my small collection over and over. For many years, I reread all six of Jane Austen's novels each year. (Whichever one I happen to be reading at the time is usually my favorite.) I discovered the small library of foreign language books, and borrowed and read my allotted two books, then returned for two more sometimes every week. (We voracious readers are insatiable, and will go to great lengths to acquire reading material.)

Apparently, I have become too good at acquiring reading material, because I have acquired more than I can read. When I was in the US in 2005, I took advantage of book sales, garage sales, homeschool conventions, used book stores, etc... I also checked out books from the library. I read the library books, but I saved most of the other ones. Books that I really wanted to read, I virtuously piled up "to read when I'm in Poland again." I hauled them all over the US, I packed them enthusiastically, and I set them up on shelves right next to my desk when I got here (nearly two years ago). "To Be Read."

Sometime, somehow, in the last ten years, things have changed a great deal in Poland. I can walk into some half-dozen bookstores and have a decent variety of English-language books to choose from. I can go to, where they have over two million foreign language titles available, and order (nearly) anything I could get in the US. (These options are expensive, but they are available.) The library even allows me to check out three books at a time now instead of only two.

I told someone when I came back to Poland that I had enough reading material to last for "months," but clearly, I should have said "years." Because, you see, I have not yet finished reading all the books I bought in 2005. I'm not even sure how this happened, but it is definitely true, and the number of books still in that "I'm-saving-these-to-read-when-I-get-back-to-Poland" is...well, I don't know how many there are, but there are quite a few.

Here are a few random titles, fiction and non-fiction:

The Gifts of the Jews, by Thomas Cahill
Where Shall Wisdom by Found? by Harold Bloom
The Child that Books Built, by Francis Spufford
Mrs. Mike, by Benedict and Nancy Freedman
The Book of Lights, by Chaim Potok
Tomorrow's Treasure, by Linda Lee Chaikin
Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
The Well-Educated Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer
Sick of Nature, by David Gessner
The Complete Father Brown, by G.K. Chesterton
The Life and Times of Rembrandt Van Rijn, by Hendrik Van Loon

If you'd had those books sitting on your shelf (among others) for two years--books you had bought expressly for yourself to read--what would you choose to read in January? I have a feeling I should discipline myself to read these in 2008. Because, you know, I haven't even mentioned the books I've acquired, by hook, crook, and Bookmooch during the past two years. The books I've bought, borrowed, and received as gifts. The books I've read instead of reading the ones I bought in the US, and the books I'm planning to read soon which have jumped ahead in the queue.

For example, not long ago, I was given a copy of Exit into History by Eva Hoffman. That would be the Eva Hoffman who wrote Lost in Translation and The Secret, both of which I read and reviewed on this blog earlier this year, or perhaps last year. Yes, Eva Hoffman is jumping to the head of the line. But those books that have been languishing on the "to be read" shelves deserve their chance, too. They are all books I chose, packed, and schlepped to Poland because I wanted to read them.

Perhaps I'll just choose the one that looks the least dusty and dive in.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A post I hope the kids don't notice

There is no way to really understand what it means to grow up as a missionary kid, in a culture not your own, unless you do it. Even as the parent of such a young person, you cannot share the same experience that your child has. Krakovian and i realized a long time ago that the thirty-something years we lived in the US give us a foundation, an anchor in a culture that our children do not have.

Our oldest was not quite seven years old when we came to Poland over ten years ago, and we have spent less than 2 of those 10 years visiting the US. For us, those trips to the States fell under the heading of "going home," at least to some extent. For our children, it was much more a case of "visiting the US." They feel less at home there than we do, lacking the experience and years that we had there. At the same time, they are by no means entirely integrated into the culture here. As they've gotten older, we've become more and more aware of the difference. No one knows how a missionary kid feels...except another missionary kid.

Which is on reason we were so thrilled that our oldest two children were able to attend a teen retreat in northern Spain (the Basque region) last week. A total of 26 young people from several European countries gathered at a partially-refurbished barn (they were roughing it!) for several days of preaching (Dr. Hays from the The Wilds, and his wife, were there), fellowship, and fun. They have rarely had the opportunity to enjoy preaching and teaching directed at young people (and in English, too!), and it was very special for them to make friends with other young people who can talk about furlough, language issues, and...whatever else they commonly experience that young people living "at home" do not.

They came home Saturday evening positively effervescing with the joy of the experience. We haven't heard all the stories yet...they've said it will take some time to share it all...but we've heard names, jokes, meal reports, and questions such as, "Why didn't you tell us about The Wilds?" Ummm...what was there to tell? (I've never been there, either, E., and why mention a Christian Camp you're never likely to attend to you at all?)

Well, they had a great time, and they don't like me to blog about them, so I can't go into great detail. I just want to make a public *thank you*--so very much--to the generous churches and individuals that made it possible for them to go. This is a yearly event, and we'll be praying that they'll be able to attend again. K, who is only 10, is already counting the years until she can go, too.

(And that, dear few readers, is 3 for 3.)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Date-Apple Coffee Bread

December 2nd: 2nd post for December. I'm two for far, so good.

I was bored with all my usual quick-bread recipes, and so I flipped open my nearly 20-year-old cookbook, latched onto the first recipe for which I had all the ingredients, and whipped it up to take to church today. I've never made this before (my loss), but I will be making it again. I tasted it when it first came out of the oven (what if it had been awful?), but it was much, much better the second day, as anything with dates usually is. It might even be better if it sits for two days (it's very moist), but I doubt we'll ever know.

The original recipes calls for peeling and coring the apples before shredding. Riiiiiiggghhhhtt. You go ahead and do that if you prefer--I just grate the apple, skin and all, down to the core. This is a little fussier than most recipes I make as it is, without the added trouble of peeling and coring apples that are only going to be grated after all that work.

You will need:

1 tbsp instant coffee
1 cup boiling water
8 oz dates, pitted and snipped (about 1 cup or a little more)
2-1/4 cups flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 beaten egg
1 cup grated apple
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (I left these out, but they'd be good if you have them on hand)
2 tbsp melted butter or margarine

Dissolve coffee in boiling water; pour over dates in a small/medium mixing bowl. In a large mixing bowl, stir together flour, brown sugar, baking powder, salt and soda. Combine egg, shredded apple, walnuts, melted butter and coffee-date mixture. Add to flour mixture, stirring just until moistened. Pour into greased 9x5x3 inch loaf pan, and bake at 350 degrees for 60-65 minutes. Remove from pan after cooling ten minutes, and finish cooling on rack.

Eat. Savour. Repeat.

I've been missing out all these years. I wonder what random recipe I should try next?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Reading Log, November 2007

Yes, I do feel so terribly punctual and enterprising, in an On Top of Things kind of way. But never mind.

I listened to more audio books in November than I read in paper-and-ink format, and that, I think, is a thing that has never happened before. But my hands have been busy, my ears have been free, and Librivox is a wonderful thing.

The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson (audiobook)--A boarding school story, written and set in early 20th-century (colonial) Australia. Some of the story was entertaining, but I never entered much into sympathy with the main character. She was rude and ungrateful to her mother, conniving and scheming at school, made up false stories that could seriously have injured an innocent person, gave way to depression and emotionalism to the detriment of her school work (and there was no excuse for it, for she was intelligent), and finished her career by cheating on her final exam, and getting away with it. I have no idea what the point of this book was supposed to be. I kept waiting for the "wisdom" part to be worked in, but it never was, unless I missed something major. Not recommended, simply because I can't think of any reason anyone would ever want to read this. I haven't read many Australian authors, but I won't hold this book against them as a class.

The Circular Staircase, by Mary Roberts Rinehart (audiobook)--Listening to mysteries on audio is both fun and frustrating. You can't peek ahead at the last page (not that I ever would do that, you know), nor can you read very fast to find out sooner what is going to happen. Unfortunately, the readers for the second half of this book were very difficult to understand. If the story had begun with them, I probably wouldn't have listened, but by the time they came on board, I wanted to find out how it all came out.

My Man Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse (audiobook)--I wonder how much Jeeves was paid? Each chapter here was a stand-alone story, and they were all funny in one way or another.

What Katy Did at School by Susan Coolidge (audiobook)--Another school story--better than the last one. Nothing remarkable about it, really, except that you have a lot more respect for the school girl who decides to hang on and live down a false accusation than for one who cheats and makes false accusations, as in the other book. Really, I'm sure the best "school story" about girls is A Little Princess by Frances Hodgeson Burnett, and no matter how cold and formidable other schoolmistresses might be, they aren't Miss Minchen.

Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens--I'm trying to keep up at least some of my self-imposed reading goals, and for nearly ten years now, it has been my custom to read one novel by Dickens each year--for many years now, that means one that I have not read before. This was Dickens first published novel, serialized in the newspaper, and it made his reputation. It reminds me of Diary of a Nobody, which I read earlier this year, and it also ties in with Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, as one of the character in that book abhors Dickens, and another likes him so much that he is run over by a train while absorbed in reading an episode of Pickwick Papers. In the back of my mind, too, is Little Women, which has a chapter devoted to Pickwick, a "society," and the girls took the names of the Pickwick Club members for fun. I have to confess that Pickwick Papers doesn't really seem like a novel to me--more like a comic "soap opera" on paper. There are many episodes, and a certain amount of continuity, but not what I would call plot. I'm not quite half finished, so I need to be diligent if I want to finish by the end of the year.

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson--This came highly recommended, and I can hardly say enough good things about it. This is one of the best-written books I've read recently. I love the way the story is told, in the form of a long letter/journal written from a very elderly father to his very young son, to be read later, as there are so many things he won't be able to tell his son before he dies. The story runs back and forth between memories of the past, including stories told by father and grandfather (which makes the history reach back to the Civil War!) and current, daily events. I'm not finished, so I'm not sure how the tension will be resolved, or how the book will end, but I am savoring this one--it's likely to be one of my favorites for 2007, and I'll be looking for other books by the same author.

The Magic Feather, by Lori and Bill Granger--This book is subtitled "The Truth about 'Special Education,'' and is the story of one family's horrifying experience with the psychological testers and bureaucratic bullying of both public and private schools. When their 6 year old son was tested, he knew how to read, and they told the testers that. Nevertheless, the results showed that he had an IQ of 47, and was "trainably" mentally handicapped, but not "educable." How ridiculous is that? Their experience took place in the mid 1970's, and the book was published in the mid 1980's, so the statistics in the book are dreadfully out of date, but who can imagine that the situation is any better now than it was then? I'm not finished with this book, either, so that makes three books I need to keep working on.

Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham--A reread, and no apologies. John Grisham tells a good story, and this one is no exception. Luther Krank is every bit as engaging as Ebenezer Scrooge, and this would make a great movie. I think the one already made doesn't count (and I didn't even see the whole thing). If this were done right, it could be a perennial classic similar to 'It's a Wonderful Life.' But you don't have to wait for that. It's a quick read and too fun to miss.

I have this vague idea that there might be something else, but these are the ones I'm sure about!

I decided, since I missed November as a "blog every day" month, I'd try in December. I say "try," because I'm notoriously bad about keeping up here, but I'd like to.

Tonight, my oldest two children, who have been in Spain this week, are coming home! You'd like to hear about that, wouldn't you? So would I--I can't wait to hear all about their trip!