Archive for May, 2009

Jog My Memory?

May 29, 2009 @ 6:49 am | Filed under:

I’m trying to remember something. When I was a kid, I had a set of books—puzzle books, I think? They were big, magazine-sized, but with sturdier covers, card-stock maybe. Cartoony illustrations. I don’t remember much at all about the content, except that it was funny and I loved it, and in each issue there was a page dedicated to one of the United States, riffing on the peculiar or comical names of towns and cities in that state. Like Friendly, Iowa (was it Iowa? I can’t remember) or Normal, Oklahoma. The page would show a giant map and little cartoon people (with large noses, I think?) would be sitting or standing on the map, cracking jokes in word balloons.

Maybe they were travel books, or activities for kids traveling?

I’m reminded of them every time I see a Which Way, USA book (my kids love those, by the bye), but this was something different. Published late 70s, I’m guessing, or early 80s.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Reading Notes: May 2009

May 28, 2009 @ 6:42 pm | Filed under:

So what happened to my reading this month is Harvest Moon.

I often get letters from people wondering how I manage to read so much. I think my typical response to this question tends to be weak on substance because I don’t really know what I’d be doing with the bits of the day during which reading happens, if reading weren’t happening. Cleaning closets, perhaps? I’m pretty sure that’s how I used to explain it: our closets are very untidy, because I read a lot of books.

But now I can speak more definitively, and it turns out it isn’t about the closets after all. At least, not solely about the closets. I finished only a single book during the first three weeks of May, and my closets are no spicker than they’ve ever been, nor are they span. It turns out the answer to “How do you find the time to read all those books?” was “Because we don’t have Harvest Moon for the Wii.”

Because now we do have Harvest Moon for the Wii, and I’ve only read 1.9 books this month.

I don’t know if the .9 is completely accurate. This weekend I finished two books I began in April: George and Sam by Charlotte Moore and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I’m estimating I had about a fifth of each left to read when the calendar turned to May, and I’ve also read half of Nick Hornby’s Shakespeare Wrote for Money. So that’s .2 + .2 + .5 = .9. Am I doing that right? Jane’s my personal calculator and she’s not in the room at the moment.

Anyway, the point is that my reading slowed way down this month because I had a lot of farming chores to tend to. I have a stable full of livestock, you see, not to mention two large fields’ worth of crops to weed and water. It’s astonishing how much I get done in a day: feeding the stock, collecting eggs (duck, chicken, and ostrich), milking the cow and goats, shearing my sheep, turning her wool and the silkworm’s cocoon into yarn and dyeing those with herbs or flowers, harvesting my wildly varied crops (everything from rice to cocoa beans to honeydew melons to eggplant), catching fish to feed to the wild turtle I’m trying to lure home, mining for ore with which to upgrade my tools, pulverizing rocks with single blows of my hammer, chopping down trees, and foraging the fields, forests, and beaches for foodstuffs to eat or sell.

Really, when you consider all that, it’s a wonder I managed to read any books at all this month.


I wrote the above on Monday afternoon. Then I finished the Hornby book and read Karen Edmisten’s book (reread, really, since I’d been blessed with a sneak peek many moons ago), and hey, suddenly I’m up to five books! Fairly reshpeckabiggle, if you overlook the cheating. (Gilead really belongs to April.)

George and Sam is percolating into its own post; it’s a book about autism, an important one, I think. The author, Charlotte Moore, is the mother of George and Sam and another son named Jake. George and Sam both have autism. Moore is a keen observer who kept a detailed journal of her boys’ early childhood, long before either of them was diagnosed, and her loving, intelligent, unflinching account of life with two extremely atypical children is at once moving and edifying. As I said, more later.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows—well, you’ll know what I thought about this book when I tell you that immediately after I finished reading it (a library copy), I bought a copy to keep. It’s perfectly delightful, a novel told in letters—a device that seldom works to sustain a really rich narrative, but does work, wonderfully, in this case. It seems everyone is reading it these days, so I suppose I needn’t bother with a summary. It would be worth reading for the interesting history alone; I knew next to nothing about the German occupation of Guernsey during World War II and was fascinated to learn about what the islanders went through during those long, difficult years. Then there’s the marvelous cast of characters, a crowd of quirky, independent folks you want for your own neighbors. And some mystery, some romance…I’ve half a mind to go read it again, right this minute. Except I can’t, because my cocoa beans need harvesting.

Little House News (Not About Books)

May 21, 2009 @ 3:52 pm | Filed under:

The Wisconsin Historical Society has published some Civil War-era letters written by members of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family, including one by Caroline Quiner Ingalls (Laura’s mother) to her sister Martha (who was named after “my” Martha, Laura’s great-grandmother).

I haven’t had a chance to read the letters yet—just got the announcement—but it sounds like at least one of them mentions Charlotte, Laura’s grandmother. This batch of letters wasn’t among the family archive material the Laura Ingalls Wilder estate gave me when I was researching the Martha and Charlotte books, so this is new and exciting stuff for me too.

The long letter from Aunt Martha to Laura full of anecdotes about the Quiner children’s early years isn’t among these. It was written after Caroline’s death and was an important source of information for Maria Wilkes during her writing of the Caroline books. I’d love to see that one published some day. I have a copy somewhere in my files, but I think the original belongs to the Ingalls Wilder estate—or possibly one of the museums? There are Laura-related treasures in many of the home sites and museums that celebrate her work and life.

From the Archives: Strawberries

May 20, 2009 @ 6:50 pm | Filed under: ,

The giant strawberry display in Henry’s this morning reminded me of this post I wrote in February, 2006, back when we lived in Virginia instead of strawberry country. Strawberries here in San Diego are plentiful and cheap months before they hit the Virginia farmers’ markets, but I still get excited when I see them piled in the produce section under a big sale sign.

I wonder if the people who bought our house when we moved left the backyard berries in place?

Strawberries_1I have berries on the brain.

Have you seen them? They’re back in the supermarkets—even our little small-town grocery store—big, shiny, alluring strawberries pretending to be on sale at $5 for a two-pint container. Do you know how fast a family of six-going-on-seven can inhale two pints of strawberries? What family can afford to wolf down five dollars in one juicy, delirious, ten-minute frenzy?

And yet…yesterday I succumbed. When I placed the bowl of berries on the table after the broccoli had been dutifully dispensed with, oh how the children celebrated! What jubilant praises rang out, what an outpouring of gratitude for the beneficence of their marvelous mother! I’m telling you, the show of appreciation topped the songs sung by Bill Cosby’s children when he fed them chocolate cake for breakfast.

(Their praise might have been tempered somewhat had they known what I was planning for my own dessert, after they were all in bed. While they snoozed in ignorance above stairs, I claimed the privilege of the eight-months-pregnant woman and treated myself to a giant helping of strawberry shortcake. Veteran readers of this blog may recall my fondness for confections consisting of berries, cake, and whipped cream.)

All right, indulging in those berries was a temporary lapse of prudence, and I stubbornly do not regret it. But it mustn’t happen again. Not too often. Um, maybe once a week. No! No, I must be strong…I need only wait a couple of months and then we’ll have berries raining down upon us like a scene from Jamberry. Hundreds of berries, free for the picking. Tiny alpines, delectably tangy. Giant, garishly red Sweet Charlies. Two or three other varieties whose names I’ve forgotten but whose merits haunt me all winter. Soon now, very soon….

I have never understood why more people don’t plant strawberries as groundcover. Perhaps my neighbors, who have been staring at dead berry leaves on my side-yard slope for four months, have a counteropinion. Sure, strawberries aren’t evergreen and by late February they look as pitiful and straggly as everything else in my yard. But wait until June. First the thick, attractive mat of leaves, then the dainty white blossoms, then the fat berries in that irresistible shade of red: a dangerous, tempting, sexy hue that suggests perhaps strawberries were the first new plant to come along after Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden. There is nothing demure about a strawberry.

Four years ago, inspired by Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots, I spent about eighteen dollars on ten small strawberry plants. I planted some of them in the strip of landscaping border by my backyard deck stairs, where you’re supposed to have nice neat bunches of liriope. The other berry plants got plunked in the middle of a large, weed-plagued mulch bed that slopes steeply down to the ditch by the streetcorner.

Eighteen dollars: less than four times the amount we paid for last night’s gone-in-a-flash berry feast. And now I get a steady stream of berries from June to September. Like the wantons they are, the plants have multiplied with abandon: we must have hundreds of individual strawberry plants now, each fertile and heavy with fruit in its season. I am a neglectful gardener (just ask my neighbors) and I do nothing to baby these plants. I ignore them. I don’t do chemicals and I can’t be bothered with fertilizer or compost. We have terrible soil: thick red Virginia clay that is not at all disposed to encourage root growth. The kids’ caterpillar farm (fennel and rue) springs up right from the middle of the strawberry bed. The strawberries don’t care. They thrive on adversity. They scoff at the miserable growing conditions; they sneer at the crabgrass; they launch themselves over the retaining wall and bloom in mid-air. They send exploratory runners into the lawn, and Scott mows right over them. For this callous treatment, they reward us with a riotous, bountiful harvest. You can’t beat us down, they proclaim. You only encourage us to flaunt our fertility. We will, we must, reproduce! We will fill the world! Let those fat, bland, expensive greenhouse-grown excuses for berries beware! We are sun-warmed and sweet. We will make you weep for joy.

There is no modesty in strawberries.

Legend has it that if you share a double strawberry with someone, the two of you will fall in love. I doubt this has ever been proven: who shares a strawberry? Go pick your own!

Strawberries were long believed to be the symbol of Venus, Goddess of Love. This does not surprise me. Later, during medieval times, strawberries came to be associated with righteousness and perfection. Perfection, I can see. But righteousness? I think not. They are too decadent, almost indecent: so beautiful, so delicious. And yet you’ll sometimes see them carved on very old church altars and pillars, the signature of the stonemason. He was probably looking forward to a bowlful of berries and cream after work.

Jacques Cartier, traveling along the St. Lawrence to Quebec in 1534, wrote in his diary about “vast patches of strawberries along the great river and in the woods.” One wonders that his journey did not end right there!

“Doubtless God could have made a better berry,” wrote William Butler in the year 1600, “but doubtless God never did.”

Amen to that.

Children’s books to feed your strawberry appetite (as if such a thing needed help):

The First Strawberries by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Anna Vojtech. Engaging retelling of a Cherokee tale about the origin of strawberries, which were the sun’s way of patching up a quarrel between the first man and the first woman. Oh, canny sun: he causes the berries to spring up at the woman’s feet as she runs away from her husband; naturally, they distract her long enough for him to catch up, by which time her mood has greatly improved.

The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood. Oh, how I sympathize with the little mouse’s attempts to protect his one perfect berry from the ravenous bear!

Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski. 1946 Newbery Medalist about the struggle of a poor Florida family’s struggle to protect their berry crop from crows, the neighbors’ pigs, and weather. Gritty and honest, this middle-grade novel has been a frequent re-read for my two oldest daughters.

(More to come, but Wonderboy just woke up from his nap.)


The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang. Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous. A wordless picture book about the efforts of a comfortably frowsy-haired old woman to escape the thieving grasp of a mysterious creature who has his eye on her basket of berries. (Who can blame him?) I’m linking to Chinaberry for this one because that’s where I discovered this gem of a book years ago. And a hat tip to Sherry of Semicolon for reminding me of it. (And don’t miss the poem she posted in the comments.) I think I’ll send Jane upstairs to hunt for this book right now…I’m not sure Beanie remembers it, it’s been so long since we pulled it off the shelf.

Now Our Turn to Share

May 19, 2009 @ 8:09 am | Filed under: , ,

Jane really appreciates the great optical illusions and Escher-art book suggestions. She has added more than a few promising titles to her birthday wish list, so perhaps we’ll have some reviews to share in the months ahead. In the meantime, here’s a nifty YouTube clip we found. Jane was looking for help in drawing “impossible shapes”; I didn’t know what she meant until she showed me pictures in the Harold Jacobs Mathematics book. (Highly recommended, by the way—we have never used the Jacobs books as textbooks, but rather they have been ‘fun reading’ for Jane and others for several years. She has Mathematics: A Human Endeavor and the algebra book, and actually the Jacobs geometry book is item number one on her birthday list.)

Back to the video clip. Jane spent a good bit of time yesterday working out how to draw the “impossible triangle.” This morning we found this Paint tutorial demonstrating that triangle and several other “impossible” shapes. Simple and fun.


May 18, 2009 @ 8:37 am | Filed under: ,

Did you notice the bee had some company in that last photo? I didn’t, until I looked closely at the next one. Nasty little sapsucking beasties. And yet—they’re rather lovely, aren’t they, all rosy in the morning light?