Tuesday, April 12, 2022

What I Read: Beautiful Little Fools

I've been caught up in work things for the past few weeks, so my reading-for-fun has been a little limited. But I did finish Jillian Cantor's Beautiful Little Fools over the weekend, and it was well worth the time. It's a reimagining of The Great Gatsby from the point of view of the women of the story -- Daisy, Jordan, Myrtle, and Myrtle's sister Catherine.

Poor doomed Myrtle doesn't get a lot of page time in the book, and not much is really added to the depiction of her from Fitzgerald's novel... a woman in an abusive marriage with a dumb, mean, loutish man who she desperately wants to escape from. She gets a little backstory in that she fled a midwestern farm for what she thought would be a more glamorous life with George. Not finding that, she seeks it in her relationship with Tom.

Catherine follows her to New York, but is presented as a much more independent type -- a suffragette who largely manages to live life on her own terms. Cantor gives her a bit of a backstory with Gatsby, which helps to set up his death as murder mystery (a big twist on the original novel). She's an interesting character, and the most significant departure from the Fitzgerald story.

Jordan is fleshed out in a fascinating way, with a lot of attention to her history of friendship with Daisy, her attempts to figure out her own life, and what she is thinking and doing during that crazy summer on Long Island. Her cool, sardonic demeanor is here hiding a lot of emotional turmoil and more than a few secrets.

But of course it really comes down to Daisy Fay Buchanan, and to be honest, I'm still not quite sure how to think about her. Enigmatic and tragic, or shallow and manipulative? I still can't quite decide... Cantor's story gives her a history that offers a good explanation for her behavior with both Tom and Gatsby. But in the end, while I felt like I understood her better, I still found her as unlikeable as I did the first time I read The Great Gatsby many years ago. 

The original sets up Jay as worshipping an ideal in Daisy (who proves herself unworthy of his love), but in this version, worship crosses over into obsession, and the dark side of Gatsby that is hinted at by Fitzgerald (via ruthlessness and shady underworld dealings) lends itself to a more stalker-ish interpretation of his feelings toward Daisy that actually feels pretty on point.

It puts a new twist on the tragic events that unfold with Myrtle's death and the subsequent death of Gatsby.   The story is plausible and makes sense in relation to the original novel, and is an entertaining and engaging read on its own. 

Monday, February 7, 2022

What I Read: The Last Thing He Told Me

This one was bittersweet for reasons entirely unrelated to the book itself. For the past few years, my friend and sorority sister Allisa has organized a holiday book and chocolate exchange among her friends, including people from her neighborhood, women she has met over the past three decades as a teacher, and several fellow Sigma Kappas. It's our own southern version of Jolabokaflod... wonderful Icelandic tradition you can read about here

There are about 30 women in the group, and it's become a tradition we all look forward to. We post pictures of the books and goodies we receive and talk about the books in our facebook group. 

This year my "book buddy," Suzi Hovastak Vollrath, sent me three books and a box of fancy Belgian chocolate bars... Laura Dave's The Last Thing He Told Me was one of them. It's a fairly quick read in the mystery/suspense genre, with a hefty shot of family and emotional drama woven in. 

I finished the book yesterday, the day after we celebrated the life of our sweet friend Suzi, who passed away last week. "I hope you enjoy these," was the last thing she told me. I wish I could tell her that I did indeed. 

Thursday, January 27, 2022

What I Read: Practical Magic Series

I'm drawn to many authors who write in the "magical realism" style -- mixing the supernatural and modern worlds.

Alice Hoffman is one of my all-time favorites, and Practical Magic is the book that got me hooked. I first read it after seeing the movie. The book is quite different but had me "spellbound" many years ago when I first picked it up, and I've re-read it many times since.

Over the past few years, Hoffman has written two prequels and a sequel to the original book, and I've been "saving" them for a treat when I could really curl up on the sofa and get lost in a book or two for days (they are pretty quick reading).

So with a combination of cold weather, a long weekend, and once-again rising covid numbers that made staying home seem like a good idea, I figured January would be a good time to dig in, and decided to read all four chronologically, revisiting my old favorite in the middle.

I LOVED the chance to savor the beautiful writing. Her prose style truly is magical to me. Each book on its own, was lovely and I really enjoyed them. But something odd happened... when read as a continuum, there were inconsistencies in the storytelling that really bothered me. 

Backstories, facts and even personalities presented in Practical Magic -- the first novel written, but the third chronologically -- were changed or ignored in the new prequel and sequel novels. There were a lot of little things that for someone as familiar with the original novel as I am that really jumped at out me. If you're going to write a series of connected novels, this seems really sloppy and like something a good editor should have pointed out.

And while not technically an "error", the timeline also bothered me. The original novel was published in 1995 and seemed to have a contemporary setting, with the two main characters aged 36 and 37. Nothing in the book was specifically tied to any current or historical events, and story would work in any time, but that's where my mind "set" those characters. 

Magic Lessons, the first prequel novel, takes place in the 1600s and tells the story of the original Owens witches, so the timeline wasn't an issue.  But the second book, The Rules of Magic, takes place in the 1960s and 70s, with close references to events of the time, such as the Monterey Pop Festival and the Vietnam War drafts. Based on that, and the ages of the characters, that would now place the events of Practical Magic much later - in 2032 or thereabouts, and the Book of Magic a few years later. 

I found it hard to adjust my thinking on that one, and felt like the story would have seemed more consistent without an extra generation that really didn't play a big role (it would have made more sense to me for the April and Regina characters combined). But no fault to Hoffman, she didn't really place Practical Magic within the context of a particular time, so that's just in my head.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

What I Read: The Lost Diary of M

Since I was five years old and my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Fischel taught me to read, losing myself in the pages of a book has been one of life's greatest pleasures. I was the kid who always had her nose in a book. My family still teases me about being eight years old at an Atlanta Falcons game in the old Fulton County Stadium... the crowd roaring around me while I'm curled up in my seat with Nancy Drew. 

As a child, nothing thrilled me more than when Mrs. Hagler and Mrs. McCurdy (the dearly-remembered guardians of the Lithia Springs Public Library) allowed me to check out more books than the official limit. And I always had to staple in extra pages to my summer reading contest list. 

But as an adult, I've never really kept track of what I've read, so I thought it might be fun this year to try and keep a running list and share some thoughts.

On New Year's Eve, I finished The Lost Diary of M by Paul Wolfe. 

As a history nut who lived in DC for more than 20 years, this was my kind of read. I've always loved tales of the legendary hostesses and parties of that era.

Mary Pinchot Meyer was an actual woman - part of the Georgetown social scene during the Camelot years and a known mistress of JFK. She did, in fact, keep a diary that was destroyed by her brother-in-law Ben Bradlee and James Jesus Angelton after her highly-suspicious death in 1964.

This is a fictional reimagining of that diary. Wolfe comes from an advertising background and has a  very lyrical way with words -- without being overly wordy -- that I liked.  I found myself lingering over many phrases that just seemed beautifully put. And I think the moral complexity of JFK is probably more true-to-life than many of his admirers would like to admit.

And while I liked it, I can say that it's probably not for everyone. If you like straightforward storytelling where heroes are venerated (especially if you see JFK as a hero and not the incredibly complex man that he was), then this might not be the book for you. 

Monday, January 3, 2022

New Year, New Beginnings

Once again, a new year has begun and I’m making a resolution to try and flex my writing muscles and try to keep up this long-ignored blog. Who knows, maybe this year it will stick. Stranger things have happened… Like the “snowy mix” last night after a week of near-record highs and tornado warnings. Welcome to January in the South, where your day might start in duck boots and end in flip-flops (as long as both are monogrammed, of course).

I can’t say that I’m sad to leave 2021 behind. For me personally, it was actually a pretty good year, all things considered. The people I love are reasonably healthy, my job continues to go well, the Bulldogs had a great season and overall I’m pretty content with life, which is a good place to be as I continue to creep into my fifth decade. 

The world around us though, continues to get stranger. This COVID thing just doesn’t seem to end, the American political system seems to be in an ongoing metaphorical toilet flush, and I STILL haven’t figured out why people keep watching The Bachelor. 

But life goes on, and to (hopefully) help ensure luck, prosperity and progress in 2022, we followed all the Southern superstitions for New Year’s Day. 

Stuff I Cooked…

So pork for progress (because pigs root forward or something like that. We cook pork tenderloins fairly often around here – lean, easy to make and a small one is the perfect size for two people. We did a larger one today with our favorite raspberry-chipotle marinade

Greens are for money, so collard greens fit the bill. After years of hating cooked greens, I realized that I actually only hate them when they are cooked to bitter, olive-drab death. When braised until just tender and with a spoonful of sugar added, they can actually be pretty tasty. 

Cornbread is said to represent gold/prosperity. My mom made the best cornbread ever, with a special pan inherited from her sister that was well-seasoned, used for nothing else, and NEVER put into the dishwasher. When my father departs this earth, I expect a battle for possession of this glorious item between me, my brother, and a few cousins. But for now, I usually use a mix. I’ve decided I like the Krusteaz Southern Style mix better than Trader Joe’s, which I made on Saturday, but seemed a little too sweet.

Black-eyed peas are for luck. Dried or fresh peas, a little bit of bacon and the instant pot are all you need.

I read this year that round or ring cakes are also traditional in some areas for a “full circle of luck” for the coming year. Since I had some fresh strawberries from the farmers’ market, why not make my favorite, easy strawberry yogurt cake just to hedge my bets?

And while not representative of anything, Tim got me a potato ricer for Christmas. Now you might not think a potato ricer is a romantic gift, but let me tell you otherwise. He knew I’ve been wanting to try the Joel Robuchon method for mashed potatoes like I saw on Top Chef Legends, and he’s thoughtful that way. And even though I couldn’t quite bring my Paula-Deen loving self to use THAT MUCH butter, they were absolutely the best mashed potatoes I’ve ever made. I think the key is that when you boil the potatoes whole and then peel them, they are soft, but relatively dry when they go into the ricer. Then the only moisture comes from the milk/cream and butter. 

So hopefully, I’ve gotten the year off to a good start… we’ll see!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

The time to be sweet is over...

I wrote this in a facebook post last year, but I thougth it was worth reposting here as I try to get this blogging thing going again.

This article helped crystalize something that has been on my mind for weeks now.

"Southern girls don't talk about stuff like this..." This opening to the article below has me thinking. And yes, I think it's true. While we don't lack in sass -- and will almost certainly “open a can of whoop ass” if you dare to insult or harass anyone near and dear to us – many of us belles do have a tendency to stay silent when we are the target of verbal harassment. We’ve chalked it up to “good ol boy” behavior, rolled our eyes and shrugged it off. But as I see more and more friends speak up and say “me too” – it’s reminding me that tolerating this type of unwanted verbal attention is inadvertently helping to reinforce beliefs and behaviors that often turn into more aggressive forms of sexual harassment and ultimately assault.

It’s not that we are condoning or accepting… it’s that we’re SWEET. We’re supposed to be. “Acting like a lady” means that we’re just too damn nice sometimes. Case in point, and something that’s been on my mind for most of the past year…

Several years ago, my also southern female boss asked me to accompany her to dinner with a visiting executive for an important client. I was in a mid- management position, she was even higher up, and this was the one of the oldest clients of the (also female and southern) company president.

When my boss asked me to attend the dinner, I can’t say I wasn’t warned. She flat-out told me that she didn’t want to go alone, and joked that I was the only person on the team who wouldn’t sue her the next day. She warned me that the executive was an older gentleman in his 70s, who was ultimately harmless, but had a strong penchant for bourbon and a history of inappropriate remarks and sexual innuendo.

I liked my boss and genuinely didn’t mind helping her out. I laughed, said I know what good old boys are like, and we went to dinner at one of the most expensive steakhouses in Washington. We arrived about half an hour late, and the white-haired, seersucker-suited southern good old boy (let’s call him GoB for short) was seated at the bar (with a younger colleague who was part of the client company’s legal team) and already deep into the Woodford Reserve.

GoB greeted my boss, whom he had known for several years, with an effusive hello and a joking question about whether she was coming over to his hotel room after dinner. She laughingly reminded him that they were both married and he joked that she could be his “DC wife” for the night. The poor corporate lawyer was mortified and panicking until my boss assured him that she knew GoB well and was not going to cause any problems. Over the course of the meal, the GoB passed out cold and snored into his salad course for about 10 minutes. We ignored him and went on eating and chatting with the other perfectly nice gentleman. GoB revived over the main course and struck up a lively conversation that included reminisces of previous fun times in DC “back in the day,” more wishes that we would join him later in the evening, and several observations on our cleavage. “Your tits look bigger in that top” he told my boss, and told me that “yours are pretty great too.” We laughed off every comment and took nothing seriously.

I admit, I wasn’t offended at the time. I never felt threatened, or that my job was at risk, or that I HAD to go along with the dinner or agree to any of his wildly inappropriate suggestions. And when telling some good friends later about the dinner, I laughed about it and said I hadn’t realized there were still GoBs like that alive anymore. He seemed like a harmless dinosaur of a man, a caricature of eras past.

But lately I’ve been thinking about how wrong that situation was. I felt like I should go to that dinner to support my friend and colleague, and SHE felt she needed to do it to please our boss, who certainly knew of his past prior behavior, yet felt like SHE had to put her employees in an uncomfortable position to ensure the company’s success.

I mean really, how f-ed up is that? We’re talking about three smart, successful, savvy and experienced women -- used to working with politicians and executives of fortune-500 companies and in a daily working environment that was absolutely supportive of female empowerment. And yet none of us were comfortable saying no to that dinner – we felt like we had to be SWEET.

I wonder what may have happened when he pulled that routine on younger, more vulnerable women. Women who didn’t have the professional security to laugh off a joking innuendo, or to truly say no if the talk had turned into aggression. Women less powerful than us, who would have been afraid to put their careers at risk by turning down an unwanted invitation.

Working with college-age women over the past few years who come to me for professional advice, I’ve come to realize that we have to do better. We have to stop passively condoning inappropriate behavior by laughing or shrugging it off. We have to find our voice, stop being sweet, and letting out that can of whoop-ass in our own defense.
Monday, January 2, 2017

Happy New Year, southern style

Well, I suppose it goes without saying that my new years’ resolutions include: do a better job keeping up with this blog…

But I have to say, despite the grim reaper knocking off the idols of my teenage years left and right, and the mass insanity of the American electorate… 2016 was a pretty good year for me. And 2017 got off to a great start yesterday, with a family dinner at my house that was full of ”pinterest wins” that deliciously satisfied the southern requirements for luck and money in the coming year. 

When my family gets together, everyone contributes. My brother and sister-in-law put their new pressure cooker to use making black-eyed peas (less than half an hour, no soaking, and they were amazing!). Dad and my stepmom brought cornbread, mac and cheese for the kiddos, and Dad baked a pound cake on a whim.

Since I was hosting, I got to try out lots of new recipes:

Of course the Barefoot Contessa made it into the mix. Maybe that means I'll get a little Ina-and-Jeffrey mojo this year. If not, I’ll still have this yummy maple-roasted carrot salad in my life. I could eat a plateful of the carrots just on their own, but they shine in this wonderful sweet-tart–crunchy salad. I used spring mix instead of arugula, which worked well here too.

Pigs were represented by the most amazing slow cooker Cuban pork from Amy at Belly Full. I used a five-pound butt, and upped the ingredients a bit. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender and really flavorful. I’ll be eating the leftovers with black beans and rice for lunch this week, and its definitely going onto my make-again list.

The greens were collards, cooked the traditional way. I didn’t like collards well into adulthood, then I made an amazing, if blasphemous, discovery. I don’t like collard greens the way my mom cooked them.  One of the very few things I can say that about, I realized that when they are not cooked to a bitter, olive drab death, collards can be pretty tasty. I followed this guideline from Simply Recipes for the most part, although I used seasoning bacon and after reading some other recipes, I added two teaspoons of sugar to the pot to cut the bitterness.   Even the 10-year old ate them, so I must have done something right!

Since I didn’t get around to baking cookies before Christmas last year, I tried two of the recipes I had been eyeing on pinterest. Smitten Kitchen never disappoints, and the “Browniest Cookies” were no exception – Insanely dense, decadent, chewy, chocolaty goodness. But my nephew doesn’t like chocolate, so for him, I made brown sugar cookies from Sally’s Baking Addiction that were soft and yummy, with just a hint of cinnamon. Hint: Penzeys ceylon cinnamon has a mild, fruity flavor that was great here.

Obviously, the diet started today! To all of my friends and family out there, Happy New Year and here’s hoping that 2017 is filed with wonderful adventures, good times and lots of love!