05 August 2009

Baking Cakes in Kigali

Baking Cakes in Kigali
Gaile Parkin
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Press (August 18, 2009)
5/5 stars

Angel Tungaraza moved to Kigali, Rwanda from her native Tanzania when her husband took a job at the local university. An accomplished cake maker, Angel adds extra income to her large family and gives herself much joy by making custom-ordered cakes for friends, neighbors, and strangers who have heard the good word about her fabulous creations. In addition to being a "professional someone" (as she would call herself), Angel is Mama to her five orphaned grandchildren, confidant of friends and strangers, and a true example of a good woman.

Each chapter centers around one of Angel's cakes, giving the reader shorter stories inside the larger story. It is a story of family, of community, of all manners of love and reconciliation, and of course, of beautiful cakes. I wish I could explain the plot better, to show how desirable a read this is, but I simply can't. Suffice it to say that it is a surprisingly complex plot, despite this books benign face, with Angel facing several interesting ethical issues as well as the range of various good, bad and amusing situations.

Ms. Parkin uses the fact that Angel is an outsider to Rwanda to easily explain the current situation and the bloody past of this country. It never feels contrived; the explanations happen very naturally--as does most everything in this book. . . It all feels very natural. Customs are clarified, situations set up, the reader gently led here and there and yet, it just feels "real" and lifelike, always smooth and believable. Even the conversations, held in a manner so different from Western conversations, become so real that when a Westerner does appear, using typical Western speech, it seems brash and out of context.

This is truly a masterpiece, a first novel of the highest quality. It is a lovely, heartwarming book that sparkles with gentle wit, at times tugs the heartstrings, but is above all, a joyful experience. I can not recommend this novel highly enough. What a pleasure, what a delight. I expect to see much more of Ms. Parkin in the future.


30 July 2009

The Dud Avocado

The Dud Avocado
Elaine Dundy
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: NYRB Classics; 2nd printing edition (June 5, 2007)
5/5 stars

The Dud Avocado tells the story of Sally Jay Groce, fresh out of college and ready to live life to it's fullest in Paris. Once in Paris, she goes "more native than the natives" trying to cram as much "living" as she can in two short years. Sally Jay's attempts to live it up lead her into many roles, from mistress to actress to homebody, and she embraces every role with gusto--usually with disastrous results.

Dundy's 50 year old classic is fresh and witty, and sometimes a bit racy, and her prose is as close to perfection as one can find. Add this to Sally Jay, a protagonist so alive and real, and it is easy to see why this book gained such a following upon publication.

Here is an excerpt from chapter 3, one of my favorite bits, to give an example of the delicious flavor of the Dud Avocado:

At eleven o'clock that night, in one of my dangerous moods--midnight-black, excited and deeply dreading (as opposed to one of my beautiful midnight-blue ones, calm but deeply excited), my nerves strung taut to singing, I arrived at the Ritz, only to discover all over again what a difficult thing this was to do. I tended to loose my balance at the exact moment that the doorman opened the cab door and stood by in his respectful attitude o f"waiting." I have even been known to fall out of the cab by reaching and pushing against the handle at the same time that he did. But this time, however, I had disciplined myself to remain quite, quite still, sitting on my hands until the door was opened for me. Then, burrowing into my handbag, which suddenly looked like the Black Hole of Cacutgta, to find the fare, I discovered that I needed a light. A light was switched on. I needed more than a light, I needed a match or a flashlight or special glasses, for I simply couldn't find my change purse, and when I did (lipstick rolling on the floor, compact open and everything spilled--passport,m mirror, the works) I couldn't find the right change. We were now all three of us, driver, doorman and I, waiting to see what I was going to do next. I took out some bills, counted them three times in the dark until I was absolutely certain that I had double the amount necessary, and then pressed it on the driver, eagerly apologizing for overtipping. Overcome with shyness I nodded briefly in the direction of the doorman and raced him to the entrance. I just won. Panting and by now in an absolute ecstasy of panic I flung myself at the revolving doors and let them spin me through. Thus I gained access to the Ritz.

I guffawed out loud so often throughout the Dud Avocado; I read parts aloud to my husband; I laughed at and cried with Sally Jay. . . in short, I lived this book. It was pure joy to read, and one that I will certainly read a second time.


29 July 2009

The Child Thief

The Child Thief
Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: Eos (August 25, 2009)
3/5 stars

The Child Thief is a retelling, of sorts, of the story of Peter Pan. Peter, the Child Thief, steals children from this world to take into his world to use against his enemy in the long-going war in Avalon. To take a child through the Mist into Avalon, the child must go willingly with Peter, so he spends considerable effort winning the child over. Peter only picks the runaway, the abused, the abandoned child--the ones who would be eager to escape this life for the next.

The stories of the children he "steals" are full of violence and abuse (sexual, emotional, physical) and despair, all told in grim detail. While they are glad to escape from the lives, the new life Peter grants is not all that much better.

In this version of his story, Peter is not the typical hero, but is a selfish, complex, nearly amoral character. His back story is told in flashbacks through out the book, as the reader gradually comes to learn what influences have made him as he is.

Brom's writing is excellent, hence the third star. With his complex characters and thorough descriptions, he continued to propel me through the pages long after I had lost interest in the bleak, sometimes terrifying, plot. Despite not being able to enjoy this book, I would be interested in reading more by the author; his storytelling was just that good.

This is a dark, graphically violent and generally disturbing book, full of profanity and pain. In my opinion it is not one that should be given a general YA label; in fact, it is more appropriate for adults. I would advise parents to read it before giving it to a YA reader.


26 July 2009

Anniversary by the River

We celebrated our anniversary a little early yesterday (it will be on Tuesday) with a lovely day down by the river, taking photos and then riding the riverboat. (click on the photos for full-sized images; it opens in this same page though, so you'll have to click back)

It was at this very spot, 8 years ago, that he leaned over and said, "Wanna slip off and get married next Saturday?". I don't remember exactly what I said or did, but it must've been an affirmative.

Three ladies on kayaks; the colors were just lovely on the river.

My newly colored (Shocking Blue by Manic Panic), wildly windblown hair.

Lovely summer blossoms:

This couple just struck me as cute:

Architecture and monuments are my favorite things to photograph.

I like ducks a lot. Not as much as bats or turtles, but a really big much.

They sell fish food at the steamboat gift shop, and believe me, the carp expect it! They begin congregating, coming from fathoms deep, as soon as people start walking over the bridge to the steamboat office. Feeding them was amazing; they are huge and there are so many of them it felt a bit like a horror movie. Stoney snagged a quick video with his camera; be glad there is no sound as it was really gross! The ducks give a good size reference. These monsters were HUGE! (Don't fault Stoney for the poor video. Every time we upload it anywhere, it gets stretched larger than it is and that makes it look bad. But, you'll still get the point!)

The riverboat was fantastic! So relaxing and so much fun. An immemsely enjoyable hour and a half! I was excited to see that the paddles really do propel the boat. They were fascinating to watch.

We passed under three bridges, twice each of course, allowing me a lot of bridge photography from an angle I don't normally get to see. That might have been my favorite part of the whole trip, the bridges. Well that and just enjoying Stoney's company in a new place. That is always fun.

A fellow passenger enjoying the river:

It was a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon, and I think we're going to make it an anniversary tradition.

23 July 2009

The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School

The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School
Laurie Halse Anderson (Author)
Ard Hoyt (Illustrator)
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing (June 23, 2009)
5/5 stars

In The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School , we meet Zoe and her lovely, wild, untamed red locks. Her hair is so voluminous that, as a baby, she needed two strollers; one for herself and one for her hair.

Not only is her hair plentiful and beautiful, it is also talented. Her hair can turn on the tv, pet the cat, pour juice AND play on the computer--all at the same time. . . while Zoe sleeps!

When Zoe started school, her Kindergarten teacher loved Zoe and her tresses, giving chores to the hair while the students napped. Unfortunately, one Zoe's first day of First Grade, her new teacher lets her differing views be known immediately. "School has rules," says Ms. Trisk, "no wild hair in my class." Naturally, this stirs up the rebel in Zoe's hair, and to Zoe's embarrassment, her hair does all sorts of naughty things to annoy Ms. Trisk.

Will Zoe, her hair and Ms. Trisk find a happy medium?

I'll go ahead and tell you: Yes! This book is about compromise and individuality, how both parties can give and take with a satisfying outcome. Though Ms. Trisk is in the wrong, there is never a question about Zoe, or her parents, following Ms. Trisk's instructions. I liked this, in that it isn't showing a rebellion against a teacher, rather a willingness to compromise.

The illustrations are lovely. Zoe's amazing hair is not a vivid, overpowering red, but rather a true to form orangey red that one sees on people daily. His illustrations are also light and engaging, adding more depth to the story.

I think this is a delightful book and could certainly give across a message of cooperation, especially if discussed afterward. For younger children, who might not understand such a message, the amusing story and lively illustrations will make a pleasure to read.

Another About Me List

I've been playing over on facebook, and this is one of the listy thingees I did tonight. Figgered I'd add it over here too. :) They are always fun to do.

1. What time did you get up this morning? Around 12 noon, don't pay much attention to clocks in the summer, which is not technically morning.

2. How do you like your steak? I don't eat red meat. I am as vegetarian as my body's needs will allow me to be.

3. What was the last film you saw at the cinema? It was Wall-E, last summer with my best friend, Bee, and her hive of kiddos. Before that. . . Goblet of Fire or Matrix 2 or the Return of the King. Whichever came last.

4. What is your favorite TV show? Don't watch TV, but it would have to be the Prisoner from the 60's.

5. If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be? Alaska, preferably the southeasterb bits around Juneau.

6. What did you have for breakfast? Read number one; I didn't have breakfast. Unless the soy milk I had before I went to bed at 4 this morning counted.

7. What is your favorite cuisine? Indian, the spicy the better, and my esophageal reflux just has to sit back and cry about it. (Believe me, it's worth it!)

8. What foods do you dislike? Red meat, mushrooms, mayonnaise, probably more stuff that I can't think of at the mo'.

9. Favorite Place to Eat? Mela in Asheville (EXCELLENT Indian), Tomato Head in Knoxville (nummy vegetarian)

10. Favorite dressing? Band-aids. I don't do salad dressing; should add that to my list of things I don't eat.

11.What kind of vehicle do you drive? We share an Escort and a Taurus, both plastered with "kill your tv" propaganda, as well as various other excellent stickers, like Marley, the Dead, "question the answers", and more of the same. I like our cars. I came with the Escort, all but about nine miles were put on by me, and my parents gifted us their Taurus when Mom got a new one.

12. What are your favorite clothes? My Chaco sandals, my loose and comfy hippie skirts, and my collection of humorous tees.

13. Where would you visit if you had the chance? After Alaska would come a literary tour of Britain.

14. Cup 1/2 empty or 1/2 full? Always half full, if not full. I have little patience for half-empties.

15. Where would you want to retire? If not Alaska, Hot Springs, NC.

16. Favorite time of day? Evening, when it cools down and the light is all red and purple.

17. Where were you born? St. Joesph's Hospital, Asheville NC

18. What is your favorite sport to watch? none, now, but of them all, I prefer hockey.

19. Who do you think will not tag you back? This is a tag-free zone tonight.

20. Person you expect to tag you back first? See above.

21. Who are you most curious about their responses to this? Everybody's response. I'm curious to the point of nosiness.

22. Bird watcher? Sure, when I'm outside. Not as a hobby, though.

23. Are you a morning person or a night person? Night, emphatically. When my sleep study was done, I didn't hit deep sleep until 4 or 5 am, if that tells you anything. My body rhythm is up all night, sleep all day.

24. Do you have any pets? Life without pets is a sad life indeed. We currently have three kitties. My most special kitty died in May and I miss her unbelievably. But, as it always is, the pain of the loss is more than made up by the joy of the memories.

25. Any new and exciting news you'd like to share? I started a new Warrior over the weekend and am leveling him up right and left. . . Oh, not that kind of news huh? Naw, nothing new or exciting. I live a gloriously dull life and wouldn't trade it for an exciting one EVER.

26. What did you want to be when you were little? Detective!

27. What is your best childhood memory? Dad reading Dr. Seuss to me.

28. Are you a cat or dog person? I was a dog person until I married Stoney and he introduced me to the joys of being a cat mom.

29. Are you married? Blissfully. Stoney (Bryan) and I just about to hit the eight year mark and have been honeymooning every day of it. Being married to your best friend can NOT be beat.

30. Always wear your seat belt? Always and nag others that do not.

31. Been in a car accident? I've been hit twice, but minor both times--though one time it was while test driving an Infinity. LOL

32. Any pet peeves? Bad grammar and punctuation, bigotry, people that make decisions or have firm opinons when they have not educated themselves about the issue, people that park shopping carts in the parking lot instead of putting them up, anytime the rules are not followed. . . Look, I have Asperger's Syndrome, so I expect things a certain way and sometimes I have a hard time accepting when they are not, though I'm trying hard to be more tolerant. But, that means that I have a HUGE list of pet peeves. Be glad I don't go around with a notebook writing it all down! LOL

33. Favorite Pizza Toppings? artichoke hearts, green olives, and black olives.

34. Favorite Flower? Daisies. I do so love daisies.

35. Favorite ice cream? Madagascan Vanilla, target's store brand Archer Farms, followed by nearly anything good ol' Ben and Jerry can produce.

36. Favorite fast food restaurant? If I have one, I guess it's Petros, or maybe Chick fil a.

37. How many times did you fail your driver's test? twice, maybe three times, it's been a while. But, in my defense, it IS hard to do a three point turn in a 1964 Mustang that doesn't have power steering.

39. Which store would you choose to max out your credit card? Amazon.com

40. Do anything spontaneous lately? Yup.

41. Like your job? Love it. I am one of the few people I know that can truly say they love their job with a passion.

42. Broccoli? Aw yeah.

43. What was your favorite vacation? The weekend we spent in Lexington, VA; we stayed in a lovely B&B and it snowed.

44. Last person you went out to dinner with? Depends on if you are defining "dinner" as the evening meal or the noon meal. Last evening meal was, of course, Stoney. Last noon meal was Bee and her hive.

45. What are you listening to right now? B is for Marley. . . he found it for me!! :D

46. What is your favorite color? Green, the lighter the better or limeish.

47. How many tattoos do you have? One but it is made up of seven individual bats. I am very proud of it and am strongly contemplating my next.

48. How many are you tagging for this quiz? See number 19.

49. What time did you finish this quiz? Well, there is still one more question, so I'm not actually done, now am I? But it is currently 12:06 and I assume it will only take me a few minutes to write my answer to the last one, so probably 12:08 or thereabouts.

50. Coffee Drinker? If it's sweet "frou frou" coffee, yes. Working man's coffee, no thanks.

13 July 2009

Autism and Me: Sibling Stories

Autism and Me: Sibling Stories
by Ouisie Shapiro
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company (March 1, 2009)
Recommended reading level: Grade 4–6
5/5 stars

Autism and Me: Sibling Stories is a short, but lovely book, directed at the young siblings of children who have been diagnosed with Autism.

These one page essays are written by the typical siblings about their relationship with their brother or sister with Autism. In the essays, the children are generally quite honest--one admits to being embarrassed by his brother--but yet they all show that despite the differences these pairs still have a loving relationship. The amazing photos show the pairs doing activities that can be done by both, and show the maximum affection that can be shown in each case.

I work with children with Autism and Asperger's Syndrome, and I know from personal experience that the typical sibling/atypical sibling relationship is a top concern for most parents--as well as the typical siblings. This beautiful little book would be a good one for the typical sibling of this age group to read (perhaps with the parent) so that he/she will know that his/her case is not unique and that others out there have succeeded in this same situation.

Granted, siblings older than this age group may not find it appealing, may feel that it sugar coats and may want a book that talks more about how to actually deal with a sibling with Autism. That is not this book, nor should the reader wish it to be. This book is directed at a younger audience, meant to give encouragement to that particular demographic who is wondering if brother or sister will ever really play with, or love, or even notice them.

I will be recommending this to the families of my preschoolers to read with older sibling in the recommended age group and I am appreciative to the author, and her niece and nephew, for the creation of this fine little book.

Edit: I am bowled over by the negativity that this book has gotten on amazon for the very reasons that I gave it a positive review, and by some who say they work with children with or have siblings who have Autism. Perhaps, as an adult on the spectrum myself, I am more inclined to see the need of a positive outlook? Regardless, I found this to be a wonderful book for the intended audience.

11 July 2009

Not My Frivolous Usual

It's been a lovely relaxing day. Other than a trip to the yard for cats to nibble grass and barf it up, I've not left the house. Lovely, lovely, lovely. I really could be a hermit, you know. During the summer, it's nothing for me to go all week without opening the door.

Yesterday, was busier, though, and Thursday. . . Well, Thursday I felt like I was caught in a tsunami.

My great-aunt, a very special lady who has always treated me with great love and affection and has shown my husband the same, died Tuesday afternoon. She was an octogenarian, had lung cancer, and had chosen not to pursue treatments. We saw her in May, then again in about four weeks later, and it was obvious that she was starting to fail. It was also obvious that she was ready for death in a way that I have never witnessed. Most people won't understand this, but that's okay. She was ready, willing, for death. I have never seen a person that did not have something holding them back. Not her. And not in a morbid, "I just want to die" way either. She was very cheerful, and happy to live, but also, just as happy to die. I wish I could explain it better. It was so beautiful.

I got to participate in this death of hers in a way that I didn't anticipate, and would not have agreed to, had I had a choice.

Three of her grandchildren have been gifted with singing voices, and without meaning to be vain, I have been given that same gift. Not an operatic voice, or even a pop star voice, but the voice of my foremothers: an Appalachian, folk, or even bluesy voice. It's generally perfect for a capella, and I remember singing for my grandfather's graveside funeral, when it carried just perfectly.

I don't like to sing in public, though. Anxiety hits like you wouldn't believe and I'd rather just sing for Stoney and the cats and myself.

On the way to Althea's birthday gathering in June, I knew in my soul, my spirit, my inner most being, that I was to sing "Swing Home, Sweet Chariot" for her. No way, was my reaction. Not gonna do it. That is morbid.

If you don't know the words, it contains a reference to getting to heaven before me. . . much better for a funeral. Much better to not sing it at all, was my thought. And fought with that other part of me the whole 1 1/2 drive over that. Never mentioned it to Stoney. Too personal and besides, I was not going to do it.

She asked her grandson to sing, which he did marvelously. And I knew. I had to give her that gift, that song, or die.

I stood up, in front of twenty or so close and distant family members and told her how I'd been fighting it, but that I needed to sing her this song. I cried. I sang. Her daughters smiled and cried. She beamed at me, through the whole thing. Yes, I'll get there before you, her eyes said, and I can't wait.

I didn't want to be a part of that, but I was, and I was blessed as a result.

Her passing was quick; she was actually ill for only a week or so and then her heart just stopped. It was the most beautiful death I've ever encountered--and I generally find death ugly, and mean, and unfair. She set a new standard that I doubt I'll ever see again.

So, Thursday night, Stoney and I made a quick trip up to the funeral home. He was unable to get off work for the funeral on Friday, but we wanted to show support to her family, who are so good to us.

I've got stuff to tell about our yummy meal afterward, complete with pics, but it seems to frivolous, so I'll save it for later.