Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Creepy-Crawly Catchy

When Jezebel’s Papa leaves for the war, she runs away to the forest. Despite the “googery-boogery creepy-crawly catchy” feeling in that spooky place, she claims it for her own.

As the seasons pass, the lonely feeling of missing her Papa doesn’t. Again and again she seeks out her spot even though she’s up against spiders, swamp ghosts, and pixie lights libel to steal her soul.

The book is Jezebel’s Spooky Spot by Alice Ross and Kent Ross and illustrated by Ted Rand. Like Jezebel’s Little Brother, your listener will be hanging on to every word. And you won’t mind reading it again because how often do you get to say “lawse a mercy”?

Speaking of spooky, I've included a new link to an interview with Maurice Sendak. Look on the right side of this page under audio.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane

The scope of this novel is deceiving. Perhaps because Irish immigration is so enmeshed with potato famines, I kept having to remind myself the story begins in the 1960s rather than the 1860s. But reading of a childhood sans electricity and indoor plumbing and the flight from Ireland not on a plane but on a ship, does put one in the mindset of Tammany Hall rather than Tammy Wynette.

The title refers to Ireland’s traveling people who wander from camp to camp doing odd jobs and begging to earn money. Michael Ward grows up in a traveling family, sleeps under the stars, but longs for a permanent roof. After running away from home, he finds shelter with the Cahill family and eventually accompanies the two Cahill sisters, Greta and Johanna, to New York.

Crossing the Atlantic, Michael and Johanna have a Titanic moment. Michael finds work in building maintenance, Greta goes to work for a department store, and Johanna abandons newborn Julia to seek her fortunes in California.

We catch up with Greta’s family in the late 70s. Rather than sparking a reunion, the death of her mother a few weeks after her daughter’s birth severs all ties to her family. Skipping ahead to the 80s, we find the family has managed to save enough to buy a house in suburbia. In the course of the move, Julia finds a tin of old letters that raises questions about why she’s never met her mother’s family.

In the novel’s final section, we delve into the preparations for Michael’s retirement party. Greta soon learns, however, that her kids have prepared a surprise for her as well. The surprise, it turns out for the reader, is just one of the many reasons that makes this novel so – as the Irish say - dear.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mama-Grace’s Cakes

You owe Gaile Parkin a big thank you. Instead of reading about Shop Your Closet by Melanie Fascitelli this week, you’ll get to enjoy Parkin’s Baking Cakes in Kigali instead.

Baking Cakes tells the story of Angel, a native of Tanzania, who lives in Rwanda. When she’s not caring for her husband and five grandchildren, Angel bakes special occasion cakes out of her apartment. Each chapter of the book introduces us to a new cake client.

These clients represent different slices of Rwanda’s tumultuous history and pieced-together present. Foreign aid workers, university professors, local shop owners, and neighbors all request cakes. And in the course of filling out their order form, they reveal their, often sad, stories over a cup of tea.

These vignettes could easily have been plated as short stories, but Parkin allows Angel to introduce one client to another – creating a community that happily pitches in for the book’s wedding celebration finale.

Though many of the stories Angel hears deal with grief, Parkin tempers all the sadness with sprinkles of humor. Baby names, condoms, and Oprah all give Angel something to smile about. Smiles she surely needs since Angel is also coming to terms with her own daughter’s AIDS-related death.

Now go rummage through your messy closet to unearth those sweat pants, grab a cupcake (or ten), and dig in.

Mama-Grace’s Cupcakes
(makes a dozen)

½ cup of sugar
½ cup of Blue Band (aka 1 stick of margarine), softened
2 eggs
1 cup of flour
1 tsp. baking powder

Preaheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cream the sugar and margarine. Add the eggs. Sift in the flour and baking powder. Mix until creamy. Spoon into cupcake molds. Bake for 20 minutes or until the tops of the cupcakes are lightly browned. When cooled, ice with the frosting of your choice.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Not Those Fugees

I could have started this post by writing about living in a small town in Oregon – delivering mattresses to migrant farm worker families in the morning, eating lunch in a restaurant run by a Russian Orthodox family, and making marionberry jam with a retired farmer whose parents immigrated from Poland.

I also thought about starting this post by relaying the harrowing tales I’ve heard from my ESL students from Sudan.

Or perhaps I could have begun with the birthday party of the Kurdish women I tutored where I arrived on time (but hours early nevertheless) and delighted in watching the dancing under a hot Arlington summer sun.

Or that time I arrived for my soccer game with only one shoe…Ok, that last example didn’t happen to me. It comes from the book that awakened all these memories. Outcasts United by Warren St. John is about a youth soccer league comprised of refugees. The boys come from Liberia, Sudan, and Iraq. Their coach, Luma al Mufleh, is from Jordan. They all live in a small town outside Atlanta, Georgia.

Though they lack shoes and even at times a practice field, the team manages to win games. Even the non-sports fan will eagerly look forward to St. John’s engrossing replays of the games. Equally fascinating, are the stories that happen off the field. The players offsides include the mayor who enforces bogus park rules, police officers who are ticket happy (and at times slap happy), and the town denizens who are none too pleased with their new neighbors.

After you race through this one, you’ll want to roll out St. John’s Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer about Alabama football. It’s another slam dunk..er..touchdown.