Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Last Chinese Chef

American food writer Maggie McElroy, recently widowed, travels to Beijing, China, to settle an unexpected aspect of her late husband's estate. Encouraged by her editor to use the trip to diverse her food tastes, she assigns her to write about the upcoming Chinese Olympic culinary competition, and while she was there to profile a half-Chinese American chef.

Written by Nicole Mones, The Last Chinese Chef delivers more than a look at Chinese cuisine, tradition, and history; the novel also shows that food and its enjoyment has the power to heal -- whether it is a broken heart or a broken family.

The Last Chinese Chef is a simple yet enjoyable read, but be prepared [heh] for a cuisine that saturates live shrimp in wine in order to get them "drunk" before they eat them -- and the Chinese can do more things with eel that we Americans have even thought about doing with chicken or cream of mushroom soup.

Just sayin'.

Thanks to my friend Celia for loaning me this book. :)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

We Had to Take Brewer

There is a particular stretch of pavement near where I live now that is constantly monitored for speeding by the local police. Even though the posted speed limit is 45 mph, the average speed by most drivers is, at least, ten miles over that. Depending on the day of the week, the Cobb County police set up their motorcycles and one or two squad cars and pull people over and issue them tickets. Last week, I saw four or five cars pulled over to the side, drivers frowning as they were cited for speeding.

No tickets for me in this time of my life, though, because I’m not in a hurry anymore to go anywhere. I guess that’s one of the perks of being retired. I go the speed limit; I got the time.

In my long, driving life so far, I have been the unhappy recipient of one speeding ticket. I have been pulled over numerous times but only ticketed once. It must be my charm or my sense of humor, or in one case, tears that has exempted me from this “road tax.”

BTW: I meant those tears; it was 1983. I was teaching full time, attending college twice a week at night for my Masters, and my daddy had recently undergone open-heart surgery. I burst into tears the minute the Cobb County police man pulled me over on Cumberland Parkway at 11 pm on a work night. I continued to weep through his kindness, his warning, and then his departure. Those tears were real.

When I was eleven years old, I remember my oldest brother Hunter getting his first speeding ticket. I don’t know how many speeding tickets he has gotten in his life, probably a few, but I know that our family witnessed his first speeding ticket in a fashion that was right out of a situation comedy, unless you were my brother.

Hunter turned 16 in 1965, and like any teenager could not wait to feel the independence and power of being in a car all by himself. I don’t know where he had been that day or what day of the week it was, but I know that the whole family was home, so I guess, it was a Sunday.

Gas was cheap in 1965 -- around 30 cents a gallon, and our generation did a lot of what we called “riding around.” Riding around by definition involved driving by the high school, by the church, by friend’s houses where a couple of blasts of the horn let them know you had been by, or just up and down streets, in and out of parking lots, over railroad tracks, just to be out and free of the parent, who had been sitting beside you for a year during your learner’s licensing and instructing you on when to slow down, speed up, brake, turn, and yield. Not good times as I recall --- probably because I learned to drive on a stick shift -- and there were some hopping and lurching moments involved. [BTFALB]

The smoothest residential road in our area was Brewer Boulevard, a winding and hilly thoroughfare, paved to smooth perfection with relatively new asphalt and a major artery for us to get from place to place. The other secondary roads and residential streets in Sylvan Hills were rougher --- the macadam still more stony than tar, better than gravel, but not as good as spanking new asphalt.

Brewer Boulevard was the best kind of road: about a mile and a half to two miles long, its wider than most streets [thus, given the name “boulevard”], the green sloping lawns that bordered each side, the cozy, brick bungalows with shining windows that nested on it, made it the most pleasant kind of road to ride or drive on. Our own home, located on a side street, fed into Brewer, and in order to go anywhere, we took a left or right on Brewer: the grocery store, school, or the park where we met our friends all needed a sojourn on Brewer to get there. We had to take Brewer.

As children, we knew every inch of Brewer; we walked it, rode our bikes down its many hills as it was the best biking thrill we had. Our young legs sometimes too tired to pump the pedals up, we dismounted those bikes and walked up in order to fly down them again. Many times, as we descended those exciting hills, we screamed the old bike riding cry: “Look, Mom! No hands!”

Of course, my mother was no where in sight. [There’s a second line to that bike riding cry -- BTFALB.]

We went to high school at Sylvan, located at the north end of Brewer. We rode the city bus mostly to school, but not wishing to wait for it in the afternoon or way-laid at school for other reasons, we walked home as we used to say, “Taking Brewer.”

We investigated the creek that ran under Brewer’s one lone bridge, a bridge that collapsed at one point and detoured unfamiliar cars up and down our home street to take them to the local shopping mall or Lakewood Freeway. We sat on our front porch and watched the “traffic” caused by that inconvenience. I remember how strange a passenger bus looked as it made its way up my home street -- its large body on our narrow road like a dinosaur that had crawled out of a time warp and found itself in a place too small to contain it.

Trust me, the traffic of my youth is nothing like the traffic of now.

We knew Brewer like we knew our own street, and my brother got his first speeding ticket on that pretty road; unfortunately, the Atlanta City policeman, who pulled Hunter over, didn’t catch him till he turned onto his home street right in sight of our house and my family.

Perhaps it was my mother or father who always waited anxiously for us to get home who saw Hunter's crime.

Perhaps it was the blue swirling light of the Atlanta Police that brought us to the front porch.

Perhaps it was the police siren, a foreign sound in our neighborhood.

Perhaps, someone *cough, cough* must have been looking out the window at the time and alerted the whole family to Hunter’s humiliation.

“Look Daddy! Hunter’s been pulled over by the police!!!”

Perhaps it was simply, as we say in the South, “flat out” bad luck all around, but my brother got his first speeding ticket with an audience. Not only did it bring out the family, but it brought the neighbors to their stoops and porches to see what was going on.

The other memory I have of this day was of my daddy's walking up the street and shaking hands with the policeman. I have no idea of the conversation that transpired between any of them, but I believe, because I know the fiber of my parents and their care and concern for their children, that it was moral support for my brother who was young, alone, and "in trouble."

I don’t know if Hunter was punished in two ways for his “law breaking” on that day, once by an expensive ticket he had to pay and once by my parents, but I do know that when my siblings and I are together, one of us will say to the other: “Do you remember when Hunter got that speeding ticket at the top of our street?”

And the other will say, "Yes. Too bad -- he had to take Brewer."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sarah's Key

Early on the morning of July 16, 1942, in Paris, the French police, acting on orders from the German Gestapo, rounded up over thirteen thousand Jewish men, women, and children and marched them to an indoor stadium, the Vel’ d’Hiv,’ a facility used for bicycle races, concerts, and other events. There they stayed for six days in the heat. With little food and water, the French police held them prisoners until they could be moved by train to the camps where they would die.

That's the historical context for Tatiana de Rosnay's novel, Sarah's Key.

The story opens with a character identified as “the girl” [later Sarah] telling of her and her family’s removal on that morning and her decision, along with that of her younger brother, to hide him in a locked cupboard until Sarah can return and free him. As she confidently puts the cupboard key in her front pocket, Sarah tells him: “I’ll come back for you later. I promise”

Another story that interweaves with Sarah’s is that of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist married to a Frenchman and living in Paris. Set in May of 2002, Julia’s editor assigns her to research and document what details she can uncover about the incident as well as “France’s complicity in the murder and deportation of the Jews in Europe.” Julia’s research leads her not only to witnesses of the La Grande Rafle [the name given to the main roundup of all the Jews in Paris], but also to descendants of survivors, and then later to the camps where the Jews were deported and eventually died.

As much as I enjoyed this novel, I hated that half way through the narrative, Sarah’s chronicle came to an abrupt stop [because Tosnay chose to make what happened to Sarah a mystery] and the story became all about Julia, her determination to unearthed Sarah’s disappearance, her husband’s family, and then, what I chose to find it to be, her soap opera life.

I loved Sarah’s perspective --- Tosnay captures the palpable fear of a ten-year old girl’s life as she bewildering begins to understand what is happening to her and her family, including the sickening, panicky guilt and remorse she has over her brother's fate in the locked cupboard. Through Sarah’s eyes, the reality, the horror, and the tragedy of that day and the nightmarish atmosphere of the days that followed come alive in all its ugly. Vicariously, the reader feels the wails, the anguish, the cries of the children through Sarah as she recounts her memories. 4, 000 children taken prisoner that day, and Sarah's tragedy could easily be one of them.

Julia’s story, or as it is, her journey in Sarah’s story, becomes, at best, predictable. Not that there is anything wrong with that ---- I just liked Sarah, the character, better. :)

Thanks to Jules for recommending this book to me.

ETA: Shelley, yes, you could read this.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Eight Points with No Return

1. I want to comment on the Atlanta Public Schools' cheating scandal. I've typed out my observations [rantings] and general conclusions [more rantings], but I've found that they come across as rather scrambled and crazy. Maybe I can revise it?

*raises puny fist*

2. My friend Laura's in town from Florida and camping out at her daughter's condo so that she can be there to allow the installers of new cabinetry access to the kitchen. I hung out with her yesterday, and Laura asked [cajoled] me into helping her put together her daughter's new gas grill. There were two brains [Laura's and mine], two sets of directions [Laura had the ones in English; I had the ones in another language, but we had the same pictures], and not much brawn. We needed brawn, then brains. I guess this is why God created Adam first and then Eve.

*remembers own grill being outsourced to nephew, Andrew*

3. Tallulah has taken to camping out in a potted plant on the deck to watch the birds. She thinks the greenery camouflages her rather superb, yet geographical location to the bird bath.

*shakes head*

4. It dawned on me yesterday that I now have three former students[that I know of] who are high school English teachers: Claire, Tabitha, and now Mary.

*shakes head again*

5. I read Same Kind of Different As Me. Loved it.

6. Last week's yard work brought me this week's poison ivy. I chatted with a PA at the Clinic in the Walmart in Clayton, Georgia, just to make sure that this inflamed mess on my arm was indeed poison ivy.

Me: I just want to make sure that this is poison ivy and not a virulent form of an unknown infection or a bite from some pesky, but deadly, insect.
PA from Walmart's Clinic: Yep. Poison ivy.
Me: Why does it look so inflamed?
PA: Cuz it is.
Me: Should I buy something to put on it?
PA: You can, but it won't do no good. Two weeks with stuff on, it will be gone. Two weeks without stuff, it will be gone.
Me: I've been putting Benadryl on it.
PA: Uh huh.
Me: Any other advice?
PA: [drily] Don't get in it any more.

Bwhahaha. So funny. Except not.

7. I'm in love with Healthy Choice fudge bars. It's probably the chemical additives.

8. I heard this song the other day on the radio. The first time I have heard it in years. I know that we [my friends and I -- this song came out in 1967] used to speculate [just like the folks at the dinner table in the song's lyrics] as to why Billie Joe McCallister jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge.

But I don't think that's the point of the song.


Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Forgotten Garden

Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden embraces the old fashioned idea of good storytelling. The mystery begins in 1913, when a young girl appears, apparently abandoned, on a ship headed for Australia. The tiny girl, instructed by a lady "to wait, it wasn't safe yet," to tell no one her name that "she would be back shortly" hid from the ship's personnel until the voyage was a day out.

Taken in by a dock-master and his wife who raise her as their own, "Nell" finds out on her twenty-first birthday that the family she lived with was "adopted," and the only clue to her real family is a small, white leather suitcase, packed with a little girl's toiletries and a couple of fairy tales with elaborate illustrations. The news shatters her life, and as Nell notes, "[she] watched as the bottom fell out of her world and the person she had been vanished in an instant." She determines to find her beginnings, a quest that will last her lifetime, and the secrets surrounding her past are gradually uncovered first by her and then concluded by her grand-daughter, a woman broken by her own misfortunes.

The power of this book lies in the telling as Morton unravels Nell's past layer by layer. What I appreciated was that Morton's characters seemed real, the mistakes and choices they made believable, and Nell's past wasn't some dark and dirty perverted tale, but a past that turned "into something of an old friend, the sort who arrives and refuses to leave."


Thanks to my dear friend, Wingate, for recommending this book to me.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The clouds were low and hairy in the skies

Once by the Pacific
by Robert Frost

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent Was coming,
and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God's last Put out the Light was spoken.


I have always loved this poem.
In fact, I have always been a Robert Frost fan because he was such a grumpy, old man.
I got his grumpiness. His cantankerousness.
I understood it.
He was "ticked off"off about a lot of things;
he wrote beautiful poetry.

It's been a weird year, weather wise -- the tornadoes, the hail, the hard rains. The other night David and I were on the deck, and this storm blew in. As I took these pictures, I thought of this line from Frost's poem: "the clouds were low and hairy in the skies..."


ETA: As David and I drove through Marietta on Monday night, we passed a house across from Marietta Junior High that was home to many old, as well as large, hard woods. After the storm we had last week, a huge oak from that house had blown down and part of it lay on school property. Falling down during a storm we had last Thursday, we assumed, it must have made a terrific noise as it barely missed the neighboring house but crushed everything in its path. The roots of the oak were so huge that it pulled up the concrete of the driveway in one gigantic section like it was a piece of carpet.
The scene was surreal.

One other note: In Rabun County last month, a tornado touched down at Lake Burton where it destroyed fifteen homes and killed one lake dweller. Ivy, a girl who works at our favorite restaurant in Clayton, which is east of Lake Burton, told us that after the storm passed by , she and her boyfriend went outside to survey the damage. As they stood there, sawdust rained down on them for almost five minutes. Ivy noted that it took her and her boyfriend a few minutes to figure out that it was from all the trees that had been destroyed.