Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Gratitude roster 2008

What I've been grateful for this year:
  • Living within walking distance of work, and within driving distance of family and friends in Ohio. Those two things have made my life exponentially easier and more pleasurable in so many ways.
  • The English Department's move from Stansbury Hall (the old campus fieldhouse) to Colson Hall (the former law-school building). Finally, an office with windows! And new furniture! I don't know how my colleagues who worked in Stansbury for decades did it.

  • Lucy's graceful exit--however sad, it was quick and peaceful--and the joy of two new fuzzy weirdos.

  • White Park, a woodsy, 170-acre oasis that's a ten-minute walk from our house. It has provided me with countless hours of solace, and the chance to appreciate the beauty of every season in West Virginia.

  • The record number of voters who turned out to express their disgust with the status quo of the last eight years and their belief that our country can and must do better. Even though things won't get better overnight, at least now I think there's a fighting chance that they might not get any worse!

  • Believe it or not, I'm deeply grateful for Web 2.0. Seriously: between this blog and FaceBook, this year has been full of amazing discoveries, new and renewed friendships, many much-needed laughs, and an odd sense that my current self has been reconciled with all my past selves, if that makes any sense.

    I'm especially gratified to be back in touch with my college friend Jane, the Boulder Hathaways, several grad-school comrades I'd lost touch with, and many former students.

  • And finally, dear readers, I'm grateful to you: to be honest, I didn't think I'd keep this experiment up when I started it a year ago. It's been an interesting ride--I've learned a lot about myself as a writer and as a character (an underdeveloped and problematic one, mostly) in my writing. And I've so appreciated all your comments, feedback, and observations, and reading your blogs as well.
Let's do it for another year, shall we?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Open thread: what were the best books you read this year?

The New York Times Book Review has published its list of the ten best books of 2008, of which I have read exactly one: Jhumpa Lahiri's short-story collection Unaccustomed Earth, which I enjoyed very much. I think she's a better short-story writer than a novelist; I was blown away by her first collection, Interpreter of Maladies--the final story, "The Third and Final Continent," is one of my favorite short stories of all time.

There are a few others on the NYT list I'd like to read sometime, like the new Toni Morrison novel, but as with most "best of" lists, I don't feel especially culturally illiterate for failing to even recognize many of the titles that appear on it.

It did get me thinking, though, about which of the books I've read this year I've most enjoyed, regardless of whether they were published in 2008 or not.

Thanks to my librarian pal Don, I started keeping a log of my reading on Library Thing this year, so I have a handy reference to turn to. I used to keep this kind of a list in a notebook, but frankly, would go for months without putting stuff into it, and then would have to reconstruct what I'd read, and it was just a pain in the ass. With Library Thing, you just type in the title, click, and the book goes on your list.

So, here are a few of my favorites from this year:

Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Alexie's first young-adult novel is stylistically very much in the vein of his adult works, treading the fine line between humor and pathos, which makes his characters all the more affecting. The the protagonist here, Arnold Spirit, is a gifted geek who wants to be a cartoonist, and his drawings complicate and enrich the story in really interesting ways. A YA novel that transcends the tired formula of many YA novels.

Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader

Bennett's novella is a delightful piece of speculative fiction about what might happen if Queen Elizabeth stumbled into a bookmobile by accident, checked out a book just to be polite, and surprised everyone--most especially herself--by becoming a voracious reader.

This could easily have been a total farce, but Bennett really makes the Queen a complex character (Prince Phillip is left to bear the brunt of the "vacuous royalty" jokes). The more she reads, the more isolated she feels from the rest of the world and from human experience, generally. While it feels like a light read, this text raises some provocative questions about the profound ways in which books, and the very experience of reading, alter us.

Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

I'm a longtime detective-fiction fan, and found this book to be a fascinating analysis of the complementary Victorian obsessions with both the newly minted occupation of the real-life detective and the newly minted genre of detective fiction. (Since I blogged about this before I won't go into more detail here.)

Markus Zusak's The Book Thief

This is one of those books that you approach with dread: "A 500-page young-adult novel about the Holocaust, with Death itself as the narrator? No thanks!"

But truly, it is one of the most beautifully written and moving books I've read in a long time, and while it's terribly sad (including "the weeping hour, a.k.a. the last 50 pages," as a student who read it for my YA lit class this semester described it), it's also compulsively readable. Very different from most Holocaust novels, this one focuses on the plight of working-class neighbors in Munich, most of whom don't support the Reich but have no choice but to comply--at least publicly.

--So far, I've read 48 books this year (!--lots of young-adult novels in there; you can rack those up fast), and there are lots of others that I could mention here, but I want to leave it at the very few of those that I felt passionate about.

How about you? What did you read this year that made you want to pass the book on immediately to someone else, and then nag them to finish so you could talk to them about it?

Christmas books that I'm looking forward to reading next (lots of nonfiction, surprisingly):

The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British

The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism

Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

More tales of ritual holiday child abuse

...and then I promise, I'm going to be done.

But when I opened the Columbus Dispatch here at my parents' this morning, there was yet another story about an odd Christmas tradition of terror and mayhem, this time from Iceland, where a mountain hag named Gryla, her husband Leppalud, and their thirteen nasty sons, the "Yule Lads," threaten to carry bad children off and eat them.

The article includes examples of similar traditions from Italy and Austria. After reading this piece, I have to revise my original assumption that the figure who beat my friend's father in Vienna was the Belsnickle...sounds more like he was attacked by Krampus. (These distinctions are so important! ;^)

If you click to read the article, please do ignore the Cox News Service journalist's conclusion that all of these things are "Christmas mythologies borrowed from pagan folklore." As Erica neatly pointed out in a comment to the last post, the only valid Grand Unifying Theory is the one that reminds us that "it's all in your head"!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bigfoot and Santa, separated at birth?

...That's essentially the theory of Jeffrey Vallance, whose story of making this connection in the deep woods of Lapland is pretty compelling.

I like the connections he makes between the Sami "Snömannen," Big Foot, the Grinch, and Santa, though I don't buy his assertion that "Santa Claus, the wildman and Snömannen must spring from the same ancient source." Why, O Why, must such interesting and loose cultural connections always be tied up with one impossible Unifying Theory (Which Is Also Always Ancient)? Isn't the paradox of parallel diversity more intriguing?

I found Vallance's article by way of Cryptomundo, a blog about "cryptozoology (the study of unknown, hidden, and as yet to be verified animals)," by way of a BoingBoing post that featured this family tree, drawn by Vallance:

I'm relieved to see that Vallance's theory includes a hefty dose of humor. But the real reason I'm re-posting this here is because the Wildman family tree includes the Bellsnickle (sic)!

So next time you're out in the woods, kids, don't worry about bears, or even Biggie himself--beware the Belsnickle!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ephemera, the holiday edition

It seems like a good time to trot out some of the more festive holdings from our vast collection of ephemera.

Tom tells me these German Santa postcards are relatively valuable, especially as the Santas aren't wearing the typical red garb, but purple. This antique-postcard site features some similar examples, and suggests that the one on the right is a "Belsnickle Santa."

The Belsnickle seems to be haunting me lately. Recently, a friend told me that her father was in Vienna, and had been beaten by the Belsnickle, a character who travels around with Santa and sort of plays "bad cop" to Santa's good cop. The Belsnickle carries a stick and hits those he thinks have been bad. My friend wasn't sure why her father was targeted, other than being a tourist, and an American tourist at that.

When I was teaching at Ohio State, a student in one of my folklore classes there did a wonderful (and slightly disturbing) fieldwork project about her own family's tradition of the Belsnickle, though she didn't use that term. Every Christmas Eve, one of her family members would dress up as Santa and break into the house, carrying a stick s/he would use to "beat" the kids. Before you start "tsk"-ing, there was more chasing and brandishing of the stick than any "beating," and the kids would scream in mingled horror and sounded not unlike the thrill of going to a staged haunted house at Halloween.

This student's family was German-American, and had lots of other typical German-American holiday traditions to accompany this--the usual foodways and the pickle ornament, for example. In doing some trolling around for information about the Belsnickle, I discovered a site that claims that this is an Appalachian custom, which is interesting given the stereotypical view of Appalachian folklore being rooted exclusively in Scots-Irish tradition.

The description of the Belsnickle's travels reminds us, again, that Christmas used to be a much more raucous festival of misrule than it is these days: lots of drinking, going from door-to-door demanding food and libations, and general bad behavior. We now seem to have limited that kind of thing to New Year's Eve.

Anyway, enough of the folklorist ranting--more ephemera!

Here's one of my favorites: a card presumably intended for a husband to give his wife, circa the 1930s-1940s, I'm guessing. The dishcloth on the front is actually a small piece of gingham fabric!

Ships seem to have been a popular Christmas-card theme in the 1920s and 1930s; why, I'm not sure, other than the usual church = ship connection. We bought all of these in Colorado, so it's not because they came from a coastal location. I love the stylized look of these.

This one, at least, clearly seem to be referencing the "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In" carol:

And finally, my all-time favorite. I distinctly remember finding this one: I was sorting through a box of postcards and such at an antique mall in Fort Collins, and spotted the black-bordered envelope. Having never seen an actual Victorian mourning card, I thought I'd finally found one. And sure enough, when I opened it up, the inside card also had a black border. But here's what it says:

On that cheerful note: happy holidays, dear readers! Hope it's a peaceful and merry few weeks for you, and that you don't get beaten by the Belsnickle (unless that's what you asked for).

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Divinity: Only semi-divine

Erica over at The Good Old Days has a regular "retro recipe" feature, in which she chronicles her attempts (sometimes successful, sometimes scary) to reproduce vintage recipes.

Recently, she made pecan confections, which suddenly put me in mind of divinity, a type of candy I remember making when I was a kid, which--as I recalled--also started from a base of egg whites and sugar.

So, I tracked down a recipe in a 1943 edition of The Joy of Cooking that we keep around for a few of the old-school dishes that the current edition ditched in favor of things like "Penne with Vodka Sauce."

Not only was there a divinity recipe in there (several, in fact), the previous owner had hand-written yet another divinity recipe on one of the blank pages in the back. That one was too complicated for our tastes (it required boiling the sugar syrup twice, once to the soft-ball stage and then to the hard-ball stage). So we stuck with the original.

If I made this as a kid, I seem to have forgotten the part in which you have to put the syrup-egg white mixture back over the heat and beat it until it forms stiff peaks. Let me tell you, you have to work for this candy; working in shifts, the two of us beat the mixture for a good 15-20 minutes before it started to set up, and this is not light whisking...this is serious muscling-around of an incredibly thick and viscous substance. Our arms are gonna hurt tomorrow.

Then into a greased pan...

And later, after it solidified, we cut it into pieces, and--having determined that it was way too sticky to store--wrapped up each individual piece in waxed paper. That's right. About 80 pieces, total.

The verdict? Meh. The flavor and texture are a lot like a really heavy marshmallow fluff, but with chopped pecans in it. Subtle flavor, not as sweet as you might expect...I suppose it's kind of like a nougat.

But is it worth the time and effort? I don't think so. It was fun to make it again and remember what, exactly, divinity was, but unsurprisingly, it didn't live up to my memories of it. No Proust moment here!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Wanna write a blog that's a guaranteed success? Start one about Bob Seger.

We haven't yet contributed to the "who's visiting your blog?" discussions that Jim and others have posted, mostly because at least 40% of our traffic is from people looking for images of Bob Seger. Seriously. I'm talking visits from virtually every continent on earth, though old Bob seems to enjoy a particularly obsessive fan base in Germany and France.

So, welcome, Seger fans. Though I don't share your appreciation of the "Bruce Springsteen of the Midwest," as one commenter described him, I'll aid your search by adding the following:

For those of you here for other reasons--searching for "biology geek comebacks," "tetris bookbags," or "fantasy plots we hate"--sorry. I mean, I'm really sorry.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Remembering Terry

It's a well-worn story by now that the first time I met Terry, my late brother-in-law, he was wearing nothing but a pair of briefs, squinting into the afternoon sunlight from the door of his room at the Red Roof Inn.

My sister and I had just woken him from a nap, a ritual of his that my whole family would soon become familiar with. He was utterly unabashed about his state of undress, glad to meet me, and was then as always a "hale fellow, well met," as the Brits say.

The Hathaways need in-laws to function, in my experience. They break the usual cycles of interaction, push boundaries, and complement us in necessary ways: Tom, I think, provides a measure of centered calm, while Suzanne provides its corollary with her intensity and candor. Angela's spirit radiates and somehow purifies everything.

Terry added a whole host of qualities, and his arrival in the family circle inspired a range of new traditions, from the "barfing-cow gravy" dispenser to the "Sleeper of the Year Award," given annually to the person who'd had the roughest year and most deserved a rest. Terry won so many years consecutively that eventually we gave him a Lifetime Achievement award in the form of a stuffed Eeyore toy. And while he complained about the long, lingering evenings around the dinner table, I don't think he ever realized that he was the reason for many of them: he was our favorite audience.

Terry's "sad-sack" persona was well known: his motorcycle buddy Scott tells a story about he and Terry meeting up once on a trip. They hadn't been very specific about when or where to meet, but Scott found Terry with no trouble whatsoever by, as he says, "looking for the biggest, blackest cloud in the sky." He knew Terry would be under it, and he was. I can attest from several vacations with him that rain did indeed seem to follow in his wake.

But Terry also embraced life with a mischevious zeal that was unmatched. As the photos here attest, he would wear any kind of hat for a laugh. With Terry, the simplest outing could become an event; a routine drive might lead to the rescue of a wayward tortoise or runaway horse, or the acquisition of a classic bike leaning against a barn on a remote side road. He was perpetually playing practical jokes; gifting people with motorcycles, scooters, and 4-wheelers; and generally encouraging folks to behave badly. This, more than anything, was the gift he brought to our family.

For myself, though, it's Terry's salt-of-the-earth nature that's his most lasting legacy. The spring before he died, I was visiting and told him that I was thinking about leaving academia. "You've already got your PhD; no one can take that away. But what you do for a living doesn't really matter." Those words meant the world to me at the time.

Terry died two years ago today, so he was gone by the time I got the job here in West Virginia and moved back east. But I credit him, to a large degree, for enabling me to see that no job is worth sacrificing your quality of life for. I'm still in academia, but in a place that feels much happier to me.

Terry's memorial service was attended by friends ranging from surgeons to mechanics, social workers to business executives. Their presence and their words made it clear that Terry was, above all else, a good friend. A professional friend.

Honestly: what else matters?