Dumped in the desert,

American Dream in flames. What happened, Zillers?

Model Home by Eric Puchner



Sometimes I get a bit impatient and want the children to grow up a little faster so I can share films with them that don't involve sarcastic cats or operatic turtles or crime-fighting dogs.

I confess I did recently make the possible mistake of letting Child the Younger watch many episodes of  I Love Lucy on library DVD with me when we were both lying ill and lethargic on the sofa. He has since stopped requesting viewings of Maisy in favor of "that funny heart show" and, really, it makes sense. If you are almost three and think your choices are between a primitively-drawn mouse and her friends who mutter mysteriously to one another in what sounds suspiciously like Serbo-Croatian OR Lucy hilariously trying to pretend twenty-five pounds of cheese is a baby (after sensibly flying to Europe WITHOUT child in tow) in order to fly said cheese home on an airplane without paying luggage fees, which would you choose?

But that is not really the sharing I meant to talk about sharing. What I would like to share is that great and bottomless treasure trove we have in the Criterion Collection. If you have limited viewing time (which, if you're like me, is already at war with your laundry-dishes-bill-paying-clean-out-this-random-cupboard-while-the-kids-sleep-time) and want to make the most of it, you really need to worship at the altar of Criterion with me. Unless, of course, you have your own reliable Mrs. Trumbull who will babysit your Little Ricky so you can fly off to Europe and see films in arty theaters. I'm guessing you don't, so here are three to get you started:

Eyes Without A Face may be the most lyrically filmed work of horror you will see in black and white.  A surgeon father in Paris is cutting the faces off kidnapped women in an attempt to cure his own beloved daughter's disfigurement.  It's suspenseful--mesmerizingly creepy--and possibly even more horrifying now that full facial grafts are a medical reality.

Ohayo is the very funny tale of two young Japanese brothers who take vows of silence to protest their parents' refusal to purchase a television set.  Set in a late 1950's Tokyo suburb, this is an exploration of changing cultural traditions with a side of fart jokes.  

The Passion of Joan of Arc was originally a silent French film released in 1928. It has been set to an amazing orchestral work, Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light, with a performance of the choral ensemble Anonymous 4. Believed lost to a fire, the film was miraculously found in perfect condition in 1981--in a Norwegian mental institution. This is art, and a higher power wants you to see it.

And if any of you do know where Mrs. Trumbull is hiding, I'd really like her number.

It's been too long since I've felt like locking my kids in a closet so I could finish a book. I do the next best legal thing, which is give myself an extended bathroom break. That door is so rarely locked that it brings momentary stunned silence to the yelling and swirling vortex of boy energy I seldom escape.

"Mommy! I can't find my spelling words and I hurt my knee!"
"What are you doing in there?"
"What's for dinner? I hate Brussels sprouts, so I hope it's not those Brussels sprouts on the counter!"
"Mama! Hold you and READ THIS BOOK!"
"Mommy? Why aren't you answering me?"

The noise swirls from tentative to insistent and back to tentative as small fists tap an impatient rhythm on the door and smaller fingers poke beneath it like the legs of exploratory spiders. The spiders push Maisy Cleans Up, a book I have read 437 times in the last week, under the bathroom door. I know it's 437 times because I have been carving decorative marks into my own arm at each reading like a prison tattoo. I ignore the cheerful white mouse and her vacuum cleaner and her cupcakes and her crocodile friend Charley. (Why do they mop and vacuum the floor BEFORE eating cupcakes? And why doesn't Charley just eat Maisy and put me out of my misery?)

The New York Times has already told you to read this book that is inspiring me to neglect my children, so you probably don't need me telling you as well. But I'll tell you anyway because I can't stop myself and really it's no use trying.

Read The Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. Yes, you may wait a long time for a library copy. But you will wait longer for another book that will knock your fictional character-driven socks off. I want to weep when I read a novel this compelling, this rich. It gives you that elusive combination of both story and story-telling when so often these days you get one or the other and maybe not so much of either most of the time.

It gives you a gift. So open it. And ignore the fat little finger worms wiggling under the door for a few minutes. It won't be hard.

My New Year's Resolution is to read more books that do not involve adorable insects driving pickle cars or underpants-clad superheroes telling poop jokes. For a good majority of the people reading this (I'd say 5 out of the 6 of you), I suspect that would hardly constitute a challenge. But trust me, it's a worthy goal within my personal sphere. My other goal is to get a handle on the food shopping and cooking in order to have more time for reading. So my work for the year is here, and has been here for quite some time, huddled in a neglected corner like a freezer-burned chicken. 

On my food-as-literature battlefront is the graphic series Oishinbo, a la carte by Tetsu Kariya. Journalist Yamaoka Shiro is entrusted with the task of designing the "Ultimate Menu" for the publishers of the Tozai News to commemorate the newspaper's 100th anniversary. The series builds on the expected cast of characters: handsome but unmotivated anti-hero, beautiful and loyal sidekick, clownish co-worker, forbidding nemesis who also happens to be the hero's father. Think Luke versus Darth Vader, if only the Rebel Alliance was battling the Empire for bragging rights to the finest sashimi in the star system and Obi-Wan Kenobi had lines like, "In the old days, shaving the katsuobushi was the children's job" and "I'd rather DIE than eat a farm-raised sweetfish that has no flavor or scent to it!!" Each installment of the series is specific to a particular food with chapters building to the inevitable "Ultimate" versus "Supreme" menu showdown reminiscent of my favorite Food Network program, Iron Chef. The best thing about Iron Chef was the frequently ridiculous dialog, and Oishinbo does not disappoint with its liberal dashes of awkward Japanese-to-English translation. (Where else will you read the smell of vinegar-soaked kelp described as "touching?")

In one scene, blond women (or the cloned ideal that substitutes for the stereotype of an attractive female lifeform in manga) dressed as cowboys offer sushi at a "California Rice Promotion," triggering a discussion of rice as import commodity versus rice as national identity. The series is rife with nationalistic and egocentric comments about the superiority of Japanese cuisine and details about the featured foods are painstakingly minute. If you like reading about the food and culture of Japan and don't mind doing it in an amusing comic book form, then Oishinbo is indeed "a fascinating, addictive journey." Crave rice balls, you will.

If Yoda was a Crockpot Master, he would be proud of his apprentice Stephanie O'Dea and her book Make it Fast, Cook it Slow: The Big Book of Everyday Slow Cooking. This appealing cookbook is filled withuncomplicated yet tasty-sounding recipes. As a bonus, the recipes are written using gluten-free ingredients with ordinary substitutions suggested and easily made. The book contains no pictures; this does not detract as it might for other sorts of cookery books, and actually makes the book even more appealing with clean lines and most recipes fitting into a single page. (And in the introduction, the author promises that readers can go to her website for pictures and descriptions if desired.) The book began as a personal blogging challenge to use a crockpot every day for a year, and the website contains the entire chronicle of successes and failures. She offers the honest reactions of her three- and six-year-old to the recipes in the book and her own ideas for things she might do differently the next time. She even includes some creative things to do with crockpots and kids that have nothing to do with dinner. Who knew you could make crayons and Shrinky Dinks in a slow cooker?  

This resourceful cookbook author is firmly behind the idea of experimentation and using what you have immediately available. I'm thrilled with a book containing recipes I might have ingredients for without requiring a special shopping trip. It is the difference between turning the house upside down with an exhaustive yet fruitless search for flashlight batteries and just using the light-saber Child the Elder left lying on the stairs. It works. And if it doesn't, call for pizza. The Force is with you.

*My sincere apologies to Jedi Master Yoda.

No one writes like James Herriot...

…except, of course, James Herriot himself, who passed away in 1995. If you're looking for more good animal stories, there are some recent ones out there that you may enjoy reading.

Nick Trout’s Tell Me Where it Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in my Life as an Animal Surgeon will leave you alternately laughing and crying until you begin to wonder if you have lost your mind. (For more on this title see our previous review.)

In a similar vein, you may want to try All My Patients Have Tales: Favorite Stories from a Vet’s Practice, by Jeff Wells. Fresh out of veterinary school, Wells settled in South Dakota where he treated a variety of problems. Several animals were not as cautious as they should have been around porcupines. The quills became embedded in their flesh and were difficult for Wells to remove, causing a great deal of anxiety for both him and his patients. Then he had a male cat with the classic symptoms of pregnancy! If that didn’t make him question his career choice, the pet owners were always advising him on their animals' treatment. They always thought they knew better.

If you like cats, try Dewey: The Small-town Library Cat who Touched the World, by Vicki Myron. It was 1988 and the coldest night of the year in Spencer, Iowa. Dewey was dropped into the book drop of the Spencer Public Library by some unknown miscreant. Iowa has cruel winters and Dewey developed frostbite while trapped in the book drop. He was only four weeks old and his eyes hadn’t opened yet.

Luckily, the next morning he was found by the author who was also the director of the library. Dewey recovered from his ordeal and charmed the patrons and staff of Spencer Public Library. He seemed to sense when one of the patrons needed special attention and went directly to that person to offer comfort. Not surprisingly, Dewey soon became the official mascot of the library.

If you have a soft spot for animals rescued from rather sad conditions, you may want to read Chosen by a Horse: A Memoir, by Susan Richards. Richards went to adopt a horse rescued from an owner who took very poor care of him. When she opened the door of her horse trailer at the adoption center, she was quite surprised to see one of the horses stride into the trailer before she had even had time to blink. That horse was the one who went home with her. Their relationship flourished and became mutually beneficial and nurturing.

Whether you like owls or not, you may enjoy Stacey O’Brien’s Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and his Girl. O’Brien was a student researcher at Caltech when an injured baby owl was brought in. The owl could not be rehabilitated and sent back into the wild again so O’Brien decided to adopt him.

She provides insight into the human-animal bond and many interesting facts about owls. However, if you think the book sounds dry, you may be pleasantly surprised to find yourself wanting to laugh out loud. As Wesley reached sexual maturity he was like a young human teenager who did not know how to handle the changes in his body. Stacey became the object of his affection in a new and different way.

No one writes quite like James Herriot, but perhaps you'll find some good reading here.