Friday, November 30, 2007

Ibsen Plays

I recently read Hedda Gabbler and A Doll's House. They were quick to read. I was investigating whether I wanted to suggest them for book group with the idea that it could be interesting to compare the two female leads--Hedda and Nora.

I started with A Doll's House, and was turned off a little bit by it. Not that it wasn't interesting--it was, and I would like to see a performance. The themes in the play reminded me a lot of Edna in The Awakening. The story, perhaps owning to the fact that it had to be condensed into a 2-hour play, was simplistic and I felt like the characterization of the main characters was too predictable. Or that Ibsen was too heavy handed in his characterizations. Nora's character especially was much more simplistic to me than Edna and her awakening seemed to come too suddenly without much nuance. It didn't resonate with me in the same way that Chopin's work did. I wondered how anyone could get so fired up--especially her husband--about her forging her father's name so that she could help her husband when he got sick. I also thought it curious that she could so easily leave behind her children (as did Edna). I am also a woman of little imagination, and so perhaps the story would really come to life in a play, while the text feels flat.

Hedda Gabbler was a woman of a completely different nature than Nora, almost her complete opposite. I never did quite grasp what Hedda was all about. Manipulative, deceitful, mean, but to what end? Especially given the final suicide scene. Was she just miserably unhappy and wanted everyone else to suffer? I didn't get it. It was certainly interesting as a psychological portrait of a woman, and was probably ground-breaking in drama for this theme. And I just found that Cate Blanchett played Hedda very recently. Again, I would like to see the play performed.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Pie Addendum

As an update to my Thanksgiving post, I found out that at my grandma's house this year, the grand pie total was 35, with 28 different varieties. Amazing. They also managed to get 42 family members to the temple and completed 418 sealings and baptisms. And to think that AJ has never been to Franklin for Thanksgiving. We've got to make it out there sometime soon.
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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Stephenie Meyer, Take Three

I read the third vampire book this week. One thing I was puzzling over were Meyer's titles. To me, they aren't very evocative of the actual content. New Moon, Twilight, and Eclipse? I don't think that I can keep them straight. And the covers of her books are equally indistinguishable to me (but are definitely Bella-Edward branded). Why put a rose on one and a tattered ribbon on another? I'm sure there are good reasons for both the titles and the covers, but I don't know what they are.

Hmm. I liked this book ok. I think it was better than her second, but still doesn't match up to the first. I find Bella to be an annoying mix of "I'm strong and independent" and "Protect me, I'm fragile." I don't really find Edward to be a compelling romantic hero (but I don't see that in Jacob either.) I find her characters to be a little flat. The plot focus on the romantic triangle gets to be a little tiresome, the whole amazingly fast disappearance of the Volturi clan was puzzling, and the whole newborn vampire thread also disappeared amazingly quickly.

I like this review.

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Thanksgiving Pies

I just put the pecan and derby pies in the oven. Last night, I baked an apple pie, and later this morning, I will finish with the pumpkin chiffon and lemon fillings. I have settled on 5 pies for this year, to share in a gathering of 7 adults and 4 children. I don't think that's overdoing it. I think around 1/2 a pie is just about perfect.

In my family, Thanksgiving, as for many families, is full of food traditions. My mother is the oldest child of 11. She grew up on a farm. A major Thanksgiving gathering at her childhood home, with her mother still at the helm , still takes place each year. I would guess that over the years, they have averaged 40-50 people each year, and it's probably gone done a bit since now there aren't quite so many kids.

Thanksgiving at Grandma's house was always entirely predictable. The stuffing recipe never varied, and was never fancy. The mashed potatoes never had garlic or rosemary, just butter and milk. And I always went back for seconds. And the rolls were just plain divine. With enough leftovers so that we could have turkey sandwiches later. That must be something like 150 homemade rolls. Amazing. It's been many years since I've eaten Thanksgiving dinner with the W family, so maybe something like Wild Rice-Walnut-Cranberry stuffing (a dish I'm making this year) is now on the menu. After all, the family has grown up and expanded, and there are several amazing cooks in the family with broad-ranging tastes. But, my guess is that no matter what more exotic dishes are on the table, all our old favorite stand-bys are there as well.

Living far away from the west for many years, we have had many Thanksgivings without family. In some years, members of AJ's family have come to visit. This year, his brother E is here. We've both made our own Thanksgiving dinners many times and shared Thanksgiving with others. Early on, I learned that, with their recipes, we could just about replicate the Thanksgiving dinner of the W's. Since then, although we've never completely abandoned tradition with Mexican food, for example, we've tried all sorts of variations of traditional dishes. AJ is always in charge of the turkey, and last year he went with Caribbean flavors. I think he used 20 lemons. This year, we decided to try brining the turkey. We'll see how it turns out. We like mashing Yukon Gold potatoes with cooked squash--the golden color is so beautiful on the plate.

But, the one Thanksgiving food area where I haven't deviated (not too much, anyway) is pies. Pies were the crown of a glorious meal at Grandma's house in Franklin. And here, the W family swept tradition under the table. Why have baked pumpkin pie when you can have pumpkin chiffon or coconut cream or raspberry silk pie? There were always a couple of baked pumpkin pies at Grandma's, but they were the only ones with a few slivers left by the time Sunday afternoon rolled around and we were getting ready to drive home. With so many people attending, it was easy to justify making 30 pies. The variety was enormous. Only the very most highly desired pies--like banana cream--were repeated.

Making pies was a ritual. I remember watching my grandma and several of her sons and daughters rolling on pie crusts on her kitchen counter. And I can't forget the large container of lard that was used as the fat in the pie crust. Because of these childhood experiences, having some pie variety on Thanksgiving is essential for me.

One of our first Novembers in New Jersey, we ate Thanksgiving dinner with a family from our ward. I volunteered to bring, among other things, some pies. That morning, I got up early and started to make pie crust. I called Franklin to solicit some advice. My mom and my grandma and all her family made it seem so easy. I finally got some crust together, but was left with a mess and lots of stress. And it just didn't taste as good as theirs, of course. The pies were pretty good, but I felt like I was failing my W family, in a sense.

When we got to our dinner locations, I found out that the host had purchased some pies!!! And some of the other pie contributors used Pilsbury pre-made refrigerated pie crusts. And they turned out to be pretty good, unlike frozen crusts that I had tried earlier. I'm sure that the W family and other highly discriminating palates could easily tell the difference, but to me, it was a revelation. My pies didn't have to be just like my family's pies.

At that point, I decided to continue the pie making, but to leave the crust making behind. I still tend to apologize about it when we bring pies somewhere. I guess it's time I stopped. Giving up the homemade crusts felt like a big concession and almost a traitorous act, but in the end, for me, I decided it just wasn't worth it. In a way, it's sad that a domestic art like making pie crust hasn't survived from their generation to me (although lots of my sisters and cousins are experts at pie crust now), but in another way, it feels like just another way that I've blending my family traditions with my own predispositions and talents. I know my pies don't taste as good as those my W family will be sharing today, but for me, they're good enough.
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Monday, November 12, 2007

Scanning the Shelves: Finding Books to Suggest for Book Group

We are getting ready for our session to decide all our reading selections for 2008 book group. I love hearing about books and talking about lots of books and am looking forward to it. (And of course, I want to have a great list of books to read and discuss for next year.)

I've been thinking about what I would suggest for a while and have gone through multiple ideas in my head. Some fiction written in the last 10 years that I really like with interesting things to discuss (The Sparrow, Peace Like a River A Thousand Splendid Suns) and a memoir by Madeleine L'Engle about her marriage (Two Part Invention)--I thought it would be a nice look back at her life given her recent death. Even reading some of her YA fiction would have been fun. I also went through quite a few other titles, trying to read through them a little bit and find something that would be good for book group.

But, I ultimately decided to suggest books in areas where I felt I could make a "me" contribution, that would be a little different than what others might suggest. Two of my choices are in areas where I have done some reading and have a strong interest--Mormon studies and feminism/women's studies. Of course, I won't label them that way when I talk about them since that would almost certainly signal their death knell. I hope that my ideas don't die in flames. We'll see what the group thinks. And then one of my selections is a play. I really don't know anything about drama, but it seemed like a good and different kind of choice.

Here's what I just emailed my group about my choices:

1. Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History: I started thinking about this book as a possibility for our group when Christina mentioned Susan B Anthony. This is a new book by a women named Laurel Thatcher Ulrich who is a historian at Harvard and a member of the church. (This book has really nothing to do with the church, but I find Ulrich's personal story fascinating as a women who married and had children, and then went back to grad school in her 20's and 30's, taking a long time to finish, and then has become a very successful historian.)

The title of her book comes from her first published article when she was a grad student--some obscure journal. The phrase popped into cultural consciousness when some author picked it up for a book epigraph, and now it's found on bumper stickers, t-shirts, etc. Ulrich explores various women throughout history who have broken social conventions and made history in the process. (One of the women she discusses is Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an early suffragist and friend of Susan B. Anthony.)

This isn't an academic book, and I think there would be a lot of great things to talk about.

2. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism: This is a biography of David O. McKay published in 2005, but it is as much about how the church was transformed from a culturally insular Utah institution, with long white bearded prophets, to the global church that we now know.

The story behind how the book came to be is fascinating, and I will tell you more about that when we meet in December, but suffice it to say, the source material for this book is such that the curtain around the first presidency is pulled back a bit, and we can begin to see a little more the day to day workings of a prophet and the men (yes, mostly men, although there is an amazing woman who deserves her own biography) who work with him.

This book is very readable and is full of stories of the big personalities in the church during Pres McKay's tenure, included Ezra T. Benson, Bruce R. McConkie, and Ernest Wilkinson.

Very interesting, lots to talk about.

3. Wit--this is a short Pulitzer prize play written in the last 10 years by Margaret Edson. It is about a English professor who specializes in the poetry of John Donne who is very sick with ovarian cancer. The majority of the play takes place in her hospital room.

Here's a description from Amazon

Margaret Edson's powerfully imagined Pulitzer Prize–winning play examines what makes life worth living through her exploration of one of existence's unifying experiences—mortality—while she also probes the vital importance of human relationships. What we as her audience take away from this remarkable drama is a keener sense that, while death is real and unavoidable, our lives are ours to cherish or throw away—a lesson that can be both uplifting and redemptive. As the playwright herself puts it, "The play is not about doctors or even about cancer. It's about kindness, but it shows arrogance. It's about compassion, but it shows insensitivity."

In Wit, Edson delves into timeless questions with no final answers: How should we live our lives knowing that we will die? Is the way we live our lives and interact with others more important than what we achieve materially, professionally, or intellectually? How does language figure into our lives? Can science and art help us conquer death, or our fear of it? What will seem most important to each of us about life as that life comes to an end?

Again, lots to talk about. And HBO has made a film of Wit, which retains most of the qualities of a play. Emma Thompson stars. Excellently done.

I have read probably the first 75 pages of Ulrich's book and I love it so far. Really a lot to think about in the intersection of women and history. I was so inspired by Ulrich's preface--which is somewhat of a personal essay--that I ordered her book A Midwife's Tale which won a Pulitzer and several other prestigious history awards. And then after reading her first chapter, I put material by and about Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on my Amazon wish list. And I also ordered a copy of this book to have. I'll write more about it when I finish it.

I've been thinking about the David O. McKay book for a long time. In fact, I suggested it for my Pittsburgh group, and then moved before they did it. I think it would be a great choice, and it's not dense. Lots to think and talk about.

I almost suggested Ibsen's A Doll's House and Hedda Gabbler for my third choice. I just read A Doll's House to review it and see what I thought. It was an interesting play, but there were some things I didn't like about it. It had a similar theme to The Awakening which we did this year , but I thought that the story did not develop nearly as well here as Chopin's. The ending was abrupt. I would like to see it performed, because I did like it. But, I just thought maybe something different would be better. So, I went with Wit, another play with interesting ideas.
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Sunday, November 11, 2007


This was the selection for book group for November. We picked it last December before it had been published so no one had read it. Although some members of the group enjoyed it, it was too frothy for me. Especially for a book group selection. As a book to read on my own? Borderline fluffy, even for that. I didn't love the story, I thought the characters were a little weird, and I thought the whole premise was strange. I'm not an Austen devotee and I haven't watched P&P with Collin Firth innumerable times, so maybe that's why I just couldn't relate.

I much prefer Shannon Hales' YA books. I think I will pick up The Book of a Thousand Days and see how I like that.

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A Thread of Grace

I started reading Mary Doria Russell's latest book in Italy and finished it when I got home. This is a historical fiction book set in northern Italy in the last months of WWII after the Italians surrendered and when Italy was being occupied by Germans. She tells the story of the poor hill people and others in larger cities who help the resistance movement against the Germans and who hide Jews. I started it thinking I might recommend it for book group, but it's a definite no.

This book is complicated: there are a lot of characters and she moves between their stories quickly. It is hard to keep track of them all and I never felt like I really got to know them. It is book full of tragic stories. All of the characters seem to end up getting killed. I kept wondering what the Thread of Grace was. There seemed to be no redemption for Russell's characters. Even Renzio, the man who was tortured by his past involvement in battle and who seemed bent on self destruction, who I thought would ironically be one of the only survivor, was killed after the Germans surrendered.

This is on one of the final pages

There's a saying in Hebrew, he tells her. 'No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of grace.'
I guess maybe the thread of grace is the sacrifices these people made to help save the Jews. Russell tells the little known story of the many Italians who helped hide the Jews.

I didn't love this book.

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Thoughts from stake conference and 1 Nephi 1

This weekend is stake conference and we attended today and last night. I have a great admiration for our stake president and find his words inspiring and riveting. Today, his talk centered on spiritual safety and how gathering to the stakes of Zion facilitates that.

It was very much a "discipleship" kind of talk. I've been thinking about this a little while. I like general direction on how we can have the Spirit, on becoming followers of Christ. Pres P is putting the onus of most of the specifics on us, it seems. This is very different, to me, than the talks I've heard directed to women, for example, where there are a litany of specific directives without an overriding theme of personal revelation and finding a good fit for our personal circumstances. While I see the need for specific talks about being a member missionary (what our mission president and his wife discussed), I much prefer the idea that when I am living my life in a way that I have the Spirit guiding me, I will be inspired with regards to missionary work (or parenting or whatever happens to be the most important thing for me at the moment). Pres P's counsel seems always applicable, while very specific talks might not be at a given time. And while I need to hear counsel about home storage and financial preparation, I appreciate it so much more when it is contextualized within the larger gospel. There are a lot of things from his talk that I need to process.

One of the specifics things that he talked about was the Book of Mormon and scripture study as a key way to invite the spirit into our lives and prevent ourselves from becoming spiritually complacent and cut off from the presence of the Lord. He asked us to read the Book of Mormon in its entirety before our next stake conference, and while I think that there are better ways of studying the scriptures than chronologically, right now I am hardly getting any scripture study in at all, and in sequence is better than nothing for me right now.

I came home and started with 1 Nephi 1. Just a few thoughts. In some ways, I wish I could read it more naively or unquestioningly, like I used to be able to in the past. I have a lot of questions and sometimes concerns about what I read, and it can sometimes be a distraction.

Today, the first sentence of the introduction to 1 Nephi bothered me: "An account of Lehi and his wife Sariah and his for sons". We know Nephi had sisters. What of their spiritual journey and their attitude to their father's requirement to leave Jerusalem? We know nothing about them. Did they chose to follow Nephi? Or L&L? Or were they more like Sariah lacking some faith, but following along anyway? They are just completely absent from any narrative here and that makes me a little sad.

When the text turns to Lehi's vision, I wondered if women ever get to have visions like this. Even if they do, they aren't recorded, and so it's hard to get our minds around the idea that experiences like this are possible for women. (or is this a special prophetic vision, which would of course be limited to a very narrow category of men?)

The other thought that I had was from v. 3 where Nephi tells us that the words he writes are TRUE. I wonder about truth. Yes, he is recording what he perceives is true. But, 1 Nephi is written at what, a 20 year distance? So, memory might be an issue. And I wondered if Nephi was able to use Lehi written account as a text from which to base his words. His perspective from a 20 year vantage point on L&L might be skewed, because he knows they never repent, so maybe he focuses on the negative in them and the bad choices they make. And then there's the women in his account. While what he writes may be true, he has certainly chosen to exclude certain things.

All that said, I was impressed with the power of the book that the Savior gave Lehi and the impact that it had on him. I read some other verses from the Bible about sacred books and how they are used. I love Jeremiah 15:16:

Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart; for I am called by they name, O Lord God of hosts.
I am going to do better with making scripture study a higher priority and more consistent habit.
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Friday, November 02, 2007


There is no world without Verona walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.

Hence banished is banish’d from the world,
And world’s exile is death;
--William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene III

Verona is probably best known as the setting for Romeo and Juliet's tragic love story as immortalized by Shakespeare. But it is full of many other interesting things. I got to spend a day in Verona all by myself the day before AJ and MJ got in. C and I had planned on taking T and going together on an ITR trip, but he was still sleeping in, and we decided to let him sleep rather than waking him to go.

ITR trips are fascinating to me. ITR stands for Information, Tickets, and Reservation Office and it is a service provided to those affiliated with the military. They set up all sorts of trips, complete with bus transportation, guides, and hotels if needed and all you have to do is sign up, pay your money in dollars, and you're set to go. It is a really easy way to see the sights in a foreign country you have been assigned to live in. I can see the great service that it is, but I personally think it's "cheating." All the research, trying to decide what you want to see and do, all the travel planning are completely out of your hands. I feel a little snobbish towards those who would only choose to use ITR for their travelling.

AJ's parents have gone on a few ITR trips, but they have done A LOT of travelling on their own. On the other hand, the woman I sat next to on the bus almost only travels with ITR. She went to Provence that way. And there were several people on this trip who were planning on going to Rome over Thankgiving. (That's probably an 8-hour bus ride. UGH. Train is much better.) When we were in Italy before, we went on an ITR trip to Florence. It was a bitter cold day and a long bus ride to and from Vicenza, so we didn't get to see Florence like we wanted.

Anyway, Verona is only an hour's drive from Vicenza, so it is much more doable. I think T would have been fine on the bus, but it was sure nice to go on my own. After driving through the city, we went to the Giardino Giusti, a Renaissance era garden of a wealthy Veronese family. It seemed to be dedicated to Bacchus, as there were several statues of him around. At the top of the hill, there was a giant monster like face with its mouth open and they could light a fire inside the mouth. Supposedly, it was a place where philosophers and other thinkers gathered to talk (and party too). There were rows of tall pointed cypress (I never really knew what they looked like before) a lot of shaped hedges, and a small maze.

Then, we walked over the river and went into the main city area. We saw the Gothic tombs of several of the members of an important Veronese family, Della Scala. The three males were nicknames Cangrande, Il Mastino, and Cansignorio--Big Dog, The Mastiff, and Mr Dog. They were memorialized with big statues on pedestals.
And surrounding the area was an iron gate with each little intersection including the Scala family crest, including a symbol of a ladder or scaletta in Italian. You can't see it well in the photo, but here is the crest.
When Dante was in exile from Florence, he stayed for quite a while in Verona with Cangrande hosting him.

And of course, we went past the Romeo and Juliet sites. I saw Juliet's house the last time we were in Verona, which was a good thing because it was completely mobbed this time around. I find the great tourist attraction to this pseudo-historical site to be laughable. There is a home that would have been similar to Juliet's home, complete with balcony, which tourists come to gawk at. The name of the family that owned the home was the Cappellos, similar to Shakespeare's Capulets, which probably triggered its original link to the fictionalized Juliet. In the small courtyard, there is a statue of Juliet, and supposedly, if you put your hand on her right breast, you will have luck in love. (Ugh. What kind of horrible tradition is that? I refused to participate and I didn't let AJ either. I can't remember if he wanted to or not.) As a result, the finish on her right breast is completely worn off.

I also saw the Roman era arena. It is right off the main piazza at the entrance to Verona's city center. It doesn't have the majesty of the Colisseum, mostly because the interior was currently set up with lots of chairs and a stage--it is used during the summer season as a performance venue. AJ's parents saw a performance of a Romeo and Juliet opera there this summer. With the Colisseum, you can see all the excavated cavities under the main arena floor.
And here is a medieval bridge, the Ponte Scaligero, built by Cangrande. After the Germans blew it up, the Veronese dredged the river to salvage the masonry in order to rebuild it.

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