Sunday, January 29, 2012

Quirkiness on the Gulf Coast

After a couple of cold but sunny days, we’re back to our usual Northwest winter rain.  What a difference a week makes.  Don’t get me wrong, the snow was beautiful but by the third time I was shoveling my long driveway, my shoulder was speaking to me and the words weren’t kind.  For just a bit, me and the shoulder were thinking a nice warm breeze off the Gulf Coast would feel awfully nice about now.  Oh, and perhaps some freshly squeezed OJ and maybe some stone crabs or fresh grouper too.

Not being the best time for a trip, I instead set off to my book shelf to spend a little time in Florida. 

My first venture was through a recent novel, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.  The story is set in the mid 80's and it is about an odd little family living on a small swampy island.  Here they raise and wrestle alligators for the tourists, but their theme park has hit hard times and the family is falling apart.  There were some interesting, quirky characters and even some magical possibilities but as we find out later in the book, reality isn’t kind.   In the late 70’s, I worked in a bar, and I was reminded of how it looked in the bright light of a Sunday morning.  Gone was the romance and soft edges of the night before; left behind was the smell of stale cigarettes and the stickiness from spilled drinks.  The disturbing moments in the book left me with some of the same mixed emotions.  I moved on. 

I decided that if I’m going to go for quirky, Carl Hiaasen was the man to turn to.  Though he sometimes writes children’s novels, he has written a number of very strange and unusual crime fiction books with a host of shady and peculiar characters.  All states have their low underbelly types and Florida is no exception.  But its version of the loser con artist is just a little sleazier than most.  Maybe it’s the humidity?   

And Carl H knows how to bring out the bizarre in his books.  Somehow, they’re less disturbing to me than the Russell book.  Mind you, I do have a warped sense of humor and these books play into that.  I think my favorite one is Stormy Weather, written about the Miami area after a hurricane hit in the early 1990s.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time in South Florida and I found that I knew not only the locations he wrote about, I knew the characters.  I could actually hear their voices in my head as I read the story.  For after the flooding and destruction, what rises to the surface in this book is the human version of cockroaches.  No wonder I hate them.  Fortunately, good does usually prevail in the end, even if Hiaasen's approach is a bit twisted at times. 

Sanibel Island, one of my favorite Florida places, is where another author, Randy Wayne White, sets his crime novels.  In these, we hang out with Marion “Doc” Ford, a marine biologist who keeps trying to leave his previous profession behind; he worked as an operative for one of the government agencies.  Unfortunately, trouble seems to keep finding him.  Though there’s plenty of murder and mayhem, it is the people who live around this mangrove bay and Doc himself that makes these books so compelling.  I especially love Tomlinson, the new age hippie who lives on a boat across the water from Doc.  Mind you, White’s got a few other quirky characters too.  The one I’m currently reading again, The Man Who Invented Florida, has a couple of old geezers who think they’ve found the fountain of youth!

So, it’s back to my adventures in Florida.  A little sunshine and heat is all this Northwest gal needs, even if it is all in my head.  Though perhaps I'll go pick up a few oranges at the store.   After all, the smell and taste of a sweet juicy orange could work wonders for my psyche...


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday Rituals

Sundays are the day of the week where many of us have our rituals.  For me, the rituals have changed a little over the years but not too much.  In my younger days, it was an early mass, a stop at the bakery and reading the comics.  As I got older, my Dad would pick up the rolls and paper and then I’d help him in the kitchen with the pot of sauce.  After that, we’d watch the Giants play and then have pasta for dinner.  

Reading the Sunday paper and cooking up some food are still part of my ritual, and when my team is on, like today, so is football.  But I’ve added something new to my Sundays since it is the night I watch Masterpiece Theater.
I’m a big fan of the shows on Masterpiece but one of my favorites is Downton Abbey.  Based on what Brian Williams reported on the Nightly News earlier this week, apparently I’m not alone in enjoying it.

What’s not to love?  It’s this decade’s version of Upstairs, Downstairs!  

The show is set in a beautiful castle with lots of fun characters, both those we love and those we love to hate. The first season started in a time of prewar elegance but we are now encountering the wartime adjustments that were partly responsible for the how the class system changed in England. 

There’s plenty of intrigue too.  Will Mister Bates and Anna get together?  What about Lady Mary and Mathew?  And just what is the deal with Sir Richard Carlisle?  I, along with the other 4.5 million Americans watching, wait with bated breath for what will happen next. 

The current season, set during WWI, brought to mind a book series I’ve been reading by Jacqueline Winspear.  Maisie Dobbs, the first book, is set in 1929 London when Maisie first opens her detective agency.  Much of this book goes back to an earlier period in her life, before and during WWI, where you discover how she came to be the person she is now.  She started as a young housemaid in a large manor but it was her thirst for knowledge that brought her to the attention of her employer, Lady Compton, and a well known friend of that employer, Maurice Blanche.  Through them, Maisie is able to get an education and expand her horizons.  Some horizons, like her time as a nurse during the war, are more painful than others.  Injured herself, she has felt the horrors of being near the front line and she has seen what it did to the soldiers, both during and after the war.  It is these experiences, along with her helper Billy Beale, another war veteran, which help her understand and solve the complicated cases she encounters.  

Though this series is essentially about Maisie and the mysteries she solves in the late 20s/early 30s, the real anchor is World War I and how the aftermath of the Great War affected England’s people, both upstairs and down.  In some ways, these books could represent the people of Downton Abbey, just a few years later; for it was the rituals of everyday life that were changed and how people dealt with them.  

Rituals make our lives familiar and comforting.  Certainly change is good for us all but for now, I'll take my Sunday ritual.  There's still a little more paper to read before I watch Masterpiece Theater tonight. 

And ritual or not, incredibly, my team seems to be winning…


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Mama Mia

Mothers come in all flavors and though not all of them have given birth to those they nurture, the common theme is the love they have for their children.  Personally, I don’t have any human children but I defy you to tell my cat Angel that I’m not his mother!   

Recently, a friend packed her daughter’s suitcase with seven complete meals to take on a trip.  None of that instant stuff, mind you, these were full blown meals that included a roast, filet mignon & chops, along with all the side dishes and spices/herbs to complete each meal.  Her daughter was spending the holidays with her brother in the NY area.  For a variety of reasons, my friend and her husband were spending their first Christmas without the kids and this was her way of taking care of them.  When I commented that I guessed she didn’t do carry-on, we both laughed heartily as she told me just how heavy the extra suitcase was and how much it cost to check it.  To me, it was a warm, if a bit eccentric and entertaining, example of how some mothers show their love.    

Eccentric is good.  My own mother was, to put it mildly, a bit of a character.  She did some pretty wild and crazy things and she loved to travel, especially to warm climates.  I promised Pop that I’d keep those stories to a minimum while he was still around so I’ll have to honor that, at least for now.   

As the daughter of our family’s version of Auntie Mame, life could sometimes be a bit challenging, but it was never boring.  Mom taught me how to mix Bloody Marys when I was ten and made sure I was exposed to lots of different cuisines on our frequent Tuesday night dinner outings.  She loved to visit me when I was in college and I really did enjoy shocking people during her visits when I would introduce her at the most inopportune times…like when they were passing the uh, whatever, around the room.  Yes, it was a bit devious on my part but it was generally very amusing!

There were actual times when her maternal side came through.  One favorite example happened at LaGuardia airport.  I had been in NY for a friend’s wedding and I was heading home.  While waiting for my flight, a stranger handed me a picnic basket and smiled.  In fact, as I looked around to see who it was from, I noticed everyone in the area was smiling, unusual for New Yorkers.  Turns out my Mom, who was living in Pennsylvania at the time, had missed me.  Somehow she arranged to have the seat next to me on the flight back to Florida and this was the picnic we were to share.   It was a different time in air travel as most of what she did couldn’t be done these days but it was quite a lovely surprise and a good memory.  

It was these thoughts about mothers that had me looking to start my next book, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation by Cokie Roberts.  Unfortunately, I had picked up the wrong book so I didn't have it to read.  Instead, I decided to look online to see what else was out there about moms.  There was one about pioneer women published by the Church of LDS and at the other extreme, there’s that horrible one about Joan Crawford.  I’m still wary of wire hangers.  Neither book spoke to me.  

Then I came across an NPR site referencing a few books about hell-raising heroines.  That sounded intriguing.  As I read on, I was captivated by a description of a book titled The Journal Keeper by Phyllis Theroux.  The reviewer commented on how Theroux struggled mightily against her own worst impulses in order to gain a higher level of consciousness.  I read a few more reviews and realized that there was a heck of a lot more to this woman that just being a mother and teacher.  

Though I haven’t read it yet, something about this book calls to me.  Is it because I write my own unruly thoughts in a personal journal?  Or, given my mother, am I drawn to the books where the women are more like anti-heroines?  Does it really matter?  I promptly ordered the book.  

Mom may not have brought me up with the white picket fence approach, but for that, I’m grateful.  Life was way more interesting, and when I think of all she did expose me to, I realize she’s partly responsible for my continued interest in learning new ways of approaching life.  

After all, wasn't Auntie Mame all about living life out loud and with gusto?