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Archive for February, 2010

The Russian American writer Elena Gorokhova looks back in A Mountain Of Crumbs to growing up in Soviet Russia and the lives of her parents and family.  The title comes from a game her grandmother created to pacify her underfed baby.  With only one square of sugar and a piece of black bread for the youngest child who cried from hunger, she would crumble both the bread and sugar into two tiny piles which she called “whole mountains of crumbs.”  The child lived to die a soldier within the first minutes of the blitzkrieg in 1941.

The Russian family in this memoir requires every member to love it and to hate it, fight to get away and always answer the call to come home, judge everyone harshly and yet silently sacrifice for others.  Despite these stereotypical contrasts, each member in the three generations covered comes across as a real person, especially her mother, a babushka to be respected and handled with care.

In fiction a child can be precocious in perception and sophisticated in thought far beyond her years and the reader thinks nothing of it.  Here however we are reading the reconstructed life of the author as she grew from a small child to adult.  It is something like the making of a pearl.  In that harsh life there were often only grains of sand to be experienced.  If later in looking back the author recognizes the now developed pearl as her original grain of sand, there is truth after all.

It is a long journey from serving Russian tea with the guest tea service, the life of her grandmother and mother before and during the Soviet period, to the New Jersey coffee shops of her American life, but there are no stumbles or bruises.  The book is a pleasure from 1 to 305. 

Charles Marlin

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Well, walk my pants to town.  The man can tell a story.  And all the people quoted on the jacket say so too.  The book is Safe From The Neighbors by Steve Yarbrough, and they say, “tense, spellbinding . . . beautifully meditative and authentic,” “wickedly observant, funny, cynical, evocative,” “‘truer’ than what actually occurred,” “one of our finest . . . . spellbinding, powerful novel,” “a grace that feels effortless,” and finally, “a magnificent achievement.”  Surely he has shown all this to his mother.

The book will give the reader a nice Southern weekend.  If the ending doesn’t have the fire you expected, remember he wrote and you read.  His choice.  For those who were not graced with a cotton field childhood, all I can say is that be a pity.  I might not have earned my degrees if I had not kept that cotton sack over my shoulder.  Without fail, I enjoy a book that takes me back.

The field photograph on the top left is from the Wayne Whitsett Family Album, and the roadside photograph on the top right is from Roadfood.com.  Charles Marlin

Jackson Pollock, Cotton Pickers, 1935

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John Dryden started the fuss over proper English and the fuss lives on.  To review The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution Of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to South Park by John Lynch one should be either a war correspondent or at least a contributor on occasion to NPR.  Certainly no serious scholar would want near the topic except–well we will not go into that list.

If you enjoy writing and don’t shop for reading material at Walmart, you may delight in this book.  The tricks and tribulations will not be new to you, but it is organized into a nice series of lectures.  All the marquee villains are named.

My first teaching job was language arts, 7th and 8th grades, in a Southern location I shall not name.  Although thankful for the job I did not know how to teach.  I stressed spelling lists, grammar tests, and diagraming.  The principal could only do what the superintendent told him to do, and neither good man knew how to teach language arts.  If they had known and passed it on to me, all three of us would have been out of jobs.  My only redemption comes from my confidence I had no lasting affect on the students and I did not in any way damage cotton, rice, and bean production.  I probably fulfilled their expectations of me.

Despite the author’s admonition that I keep my head down and powder dry, I must sound the alarm at what I find among students.  First, boys to young men do not remove their caps once inside either private or public spaces.  Second, women wear sleeves and pant legs far too long.  Their hands are lost in droopy sleeves and the bottoms of their pant and jean legs look like they have just finished their farm chores.  Third, both young sexes wear too much metal.  Please, a modicum of restraint.  One pair of ear studs or small gold rings, but not both.  And one optional nipple ring.  Nothing more.  These current distasteful displays have much to do with improper English for we all know where language leads bad manners and debasement follow.  Charles Marlin

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For generations we have known the French as the most frivolous of people.  Even they admit it among themselves.  As Jonathan Swift so aptly put it, “the natural Inconstancy of that People.”  Now however the internet is exposing America, and our sister Canada, as contenders for frivolity.  Friends sent me an email on how to make an omelet in a boil bag illustrated by images using a Ziploc bag and a red square luncheon plate.  Oh, if only the story stopped there.

Once you start searching the internet you will see why I am concerned.  Half of the camping and Girl Scout families in America are very experienced in Ziploc Omelets, the other half wishes they were.  A startling number fear getting cancer from the boiling bags although none seem to know how many such omelets one would need to consume to be in serious danger.

There are some people on the internet who have good ideas.  Like, prepare and freeze the bags the day before so when the omelet call comes you only need to have a big pot of water boiling.  Or, add a bit of milk or half & half to the mixture for moisture.  And, press the excess air out of the bag before boiling.  And, use the stronger as opposed to the flimsier bags.

Mysteries remain.  We don’t know who was first to put the Ziploc Omelet on the internet, but the source for those red plate pictures is Adam, May 18, 2006, at Men In Aprons.  The plates may be Fiesta but it is hard to say for sure.  Regardless, those images have been endlessly copied.

As you know Clarion Friends to be a serious blog I will not frivolously repeat a recipe to be found in abundance elsewhere.  We are not French.  Yet we are united with all of France in our love of the egg.  Charles Marlin

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Ordinary Thunderstorms presents a quandary although not grandly enough to stick the reader on the horns of a dilemma, and readers familiar with William Boyd may have already solved everything.  What is the book?  Yes, I know the cover and title page identify “a novel,” however that is like calling those caftans we once wore to summer parties “attire.”  Covered but probably not the best covering.

It is not a mystery because we know what the bad guys are doing right away.  It is not a whodunit because we know the bad guy is the one with the weapons and we know who hired him even though he does not when the super rich guy slips into town.  It is not a detective story because the detective when she finally shows up never becomes all that important except she does enjoy sex with the main character.

Now I have it.  It is an Anglo-Greco tragedy.  The setting is London, sometimes in hotels but mostly on the streets and under the Chelsea Bridge.  The main character is Adam who is intelligent but not worldly enough to protect himself.  He is good at heart, at work, and in bed.  He has, however, a flaw.  He makes really dumbass snap decisions that cause others to die.  He runs when he should stand.  And when he finally finds happiness the reader knows he will mess it up.

With the quandary resolved, I can say that I enjoyed the book as a light read.  The description of London’s less appealing aspects was gritty, grimy, and good.  However, when I googled for images of the Chelsea Bridge I saw no indication that Adam’s hiding place under the bridge even exists.  The author may be putting us on.  Charles Marlin

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Photo from Baltimore Sun

Are you among those who have been complaining about the big snow fall, icy sidewalks, and constant low temperatures?  Of course you are.  It’s not easy to avoid even when you are a winter activities devotee.  People who aren’t into winter sports in person or on TV consider the devotees to be out of place.  Why don’t they move to Vermont?

There is a small minority to which I belong.  We of this small minority don’t mind the harsh winter but we don’t go out to play in it either.  We don’t need Vermont.  We don’t need Florida.  We are quietly thankful for all of our winter good fortune.

We are thankful for traveling I-80 accident free.  We are thankful the heavy snow has not collapsed the roof over our heads.  We are thankful we have not slipped on ice our merchant friends and borough maintenance have so frequently left for us.  We are thankful our vehicle has started every time we put the key in the ignition.  We are thankful the bears are hibernating and we can leave bird feeders outside all day and night.  And best of all, we are thankful food seems to taste best in wintertime.

So you see there is no shame in feeling good about living in Pennsylvania during winter.  It’s just not a big talking point.  And in the spirit of good neighbors, we shared this storm with Baltimore and Washington and a number of other good places.  That’s the kind of people we are here in the Commonwealth.  Charles Marlin

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The Forest County Unrestricted Fund, Bill and Judy McDaid, Founders received final approval at the Bridge Builders Community Foundations Trustees meeting on February 2, 2010.  Every fund has a contract that goes through a careful process requiring approval first by the affiliate community foundation board of directors, then final approval by the BBCF Board of Trustees.  This is a wonderful accomplishment for Forest County, the Forest County Community Foundation, and the founders, Bill and Judy McDaid.  Judy McDaid serves on the FCCF Board of Directors.

The new fund is a field-of-interest fund open to additional contributions from residents and friends of Forest County.  This type of fund dedicated to unrestricted grants is the major source used by community foundations when requests for grants are received from nonprofits operating in their service area.

Every contribution is added to the original endowment with the combined income divided between financing grants and conservatively growing the endowment.  The gift you give now grows forever and produces grant income forever.  That is the marvel that happens when you support your community foundation.  To support the fund, write the check to FCCF and on the memo line write Unrestricted.  Mail to FCCF, P. O. Box 374, Oil City PA 16301.  Charles Marlin

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