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!