Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Charmed, I’m Sure

Once upon a time there were three sisters. Fluent in the make-believe language Arnish, they spent their dreaming moments in a faery realm. Banished from her daughters’ secret world, their mother spent most of her waking moments cultivating heirloom tomatoes in her garden.

Years passed. Once so close, the sisters realigned allegiances in high school when the eldest, Elv, began rebelling. Betrayed by her sisters into rehab, Elv met Lorry. Lorry instantly ensnared her heart with a tale of a youth spent living underground in abandoned subway stations. The two storytellers, with a little help from heroin, managed a life together. Meanwhile the youngest, Claire, unable to deal with life’s loss, moved into her grandmother’s Paris apartment. After a slice of Honesty Cake (fresh eggs, flour, sugar, lemon rind, anise seed and dry cherries), Claire was hired by a family friend to work in a jewelry store. Eventually, Claire won her sister back through charms crafted for Elv’s daughter Mimi. And they all lived happily ever after.

Or did they?

Alice Hoffman, like the protagonist of The Story Sisters, is a born storyteller. She breathes life into characters that join us on our commute, read over our shoulders, linger over dessert. Like others we spend our days around, they annoy, entrance, humor, and perplex us. Equally as perplexing is the ending. Heartbreakingly tragic or sigh-of-relief sweet? I’m still not sure. Maybe I’m just disappointed the tale had to end at all.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

It's Your Turn

It all begins with a storybook wedding. Sex. Kids. And then either:

A) both parents work, children are cared for by someone else
B) one parent works, leaving the other parent as the “stay-at-home”
C) one parent works, one parent stays-at-home writing, and a housekeeper and nanny are hired

It’s a good thing she chose C.

Caitlin Flanagan has compiled a mope-conquering collection of essays examining woman’s work in To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife.

I first discovered Flanagan when I came across her article “Housewife Confidential” in the Atlantic. To Hell with All That includes an expanded version of this article which examines what the original housewife authors from Bombeck to Bracken had to say – don’t throw out your sense of humor with the dishwater.

Flanagan moves on to discuss the phenom of today’s mother’s little helper. Not valium. The nanny. After investigating the rise of the governess culminating in Disney’s Mary Poppins, Flanagan relates her own experience as the mother of twin boys and employeer of help more likely to be named Maria than Mary. Paloma, it turns out, is a godsend. She cleans, she cooks, she quiets the boys with a look. And Flanagan loves it. When she’s not questioning her own role in the whole endeavor.

After the boys have grown, Flanagan hires a housekeeper to take up where the nanny left off, which leaver her more time to manage the family’s schedule (and its clutter). Essays on both resonate and cheekily point out the ridiculousness of it all.

And then there’s the husband. Poor him. Really. He’s gone from the housewife’s main preoccupation to an afterthought somewhere between Little Gym and pet vaccinations in the stay-at-home’s day planner. Flanagan’s words from page 36:

“He must somehow seduce a woman who is economically independent of him, bone tired, philosophically disinclined to have sex unless she’s jolly well in the mood…and still doing a slow burn over his failure to wipe down the countertops and fold the dish towel after cooking the kids’ dinner. He can hardly be blamed for opting instead to check his e-mail, catch a few minutes of SportsCenter, and call it a night.”

I’m going to tape that quote to my fridge. Just as soon as I wipe that crusty stuff out of the produce bin and alphabetize the chutneys.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gum Arabic

Grand-maman presides over the table covered in her mother’s tablecloth. Beautiful people lounge in mismatched wooden chairs set on the grass. It’s Sunday and children are in from the city seeking escape from their day jobs in publishing, finance, and children’s clothing design. Carafes of wine, children in spotless white, women in tastefully wrinkled linen. Cheese for dessert.

If you’ve been waiting to recreate such a scene, here’s the manual: A Well Kept Home: Household Traditions and Simple Secrets from a French Grandmother by Laura Fronty and Yves Duronsoy.

In this book, Fronty and Duronsoy have created a tisane of beautiful photographs (straw hats, lily oil), vintage recipes (Colette’s quince water, Dumas’ butter), and practical home keeping advice (returning the shine to glassware, keeping moths away with peppercorns). Sprinkled throughout are Fronty’s reminisces about lemon balm, ivy water used to wash silk, and a time when currants, quince pips, and bergamot oil were household staples.

Although I don’t own a straw hat, my wine glasses, sadly neglected, are cloudy. I took a recipe from this book and am, as I write, hoping the vinegar/egg shell mix works its magic. If it does, I may drag my own mismatched set of wooden chairs out on the lawn, sip a glass of wine, and savor the plate of plum cake at my feet – though I daresay my children won’t be wearing white anytime soon.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Square One

My dad is a man of habit. Every morning he pours a cup of coffee, opens the paper, and after reading the news, works the puzzles. From solving the Dallas Time Herald's crossword of 30 years ago or the Ft. Worth Star Telegram's sudoku of today, he is purportedly in great shape to stave off Alzheimer's. Or so I believed until picking up Dean Olsher's From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords.

Olsher doggedly fills in the pages of this book as one might solve the Sunday New York Times puzzle - going across with one topic, down to another, then back to the stumpers. Among the stumpers he tackles are why musical theater lyricists make great puzzle constructors, why more couples aren’t doing crosswords together, and why you should try belly dancing if you are really interested in delaying the onset of dementia (are you taking notes, Dad?).

Like Olsher, I habitually become obsessed with doing crosswords. Three hours into labor with my daughter found me working the Monday New York Times puzzle. Recuperating after the birth of my son, I worked through a Variety collection of word games. Usually the Sunday morning drive to church finds me listening for Will Shortz’ weekly puzzle challenge on NPR. I actually have been intending to see Wordplay, a movie Olsher mentions about competitive crossword tournaments. Now thanks to Olsher, I’ve got a new obsession – the cryptic.

By the end of his book, Olsher's moved away (or across) from crosswords to explaining the rules for solving cryptics. Perhaps Olsher's only trying to jumpstart the publishing industry with a new wave of cryptic books. After all, according to Olsher, Simon & Schuster got its start from the popularity of a series of "Cross Word" books in the 1920s. Farrar, Straus and Giroux received financial backing from Farrar's wife Margaret, who made her living as the NY Times crossword editor in the 1940s. Whatever his motive, Olsher succeeded in getting one reader to try her hand (and even more trying, her brain) at this cryptic. You can find instructions here, reader, if you are so inclined. If not, take it from Square One.