March Madness

March has always been a crazy month – volatile, unpredictable, kind of like the stock market at the moment.   You can expect snow, sleet, rain, howling winds, warm breezes, sunny days, gray skies or all of the above.   Despite the Rodent and Company’s optimistic predictions for an early spring we have not had very many warm days and the few we did have were overcast.   In fact March came in like a lion with a big snowstorm, so hopefully it will go out like a lamb.  (It did not….3 C – 37 F today).

snow

Thankfully, the snow melted quickly, like the wicked witch of the west – revealing snow drops a few days later.

snow drops

I have a lovely view from my kitchen window as my neighbor has about ten clumps of them scattered around the base of an old tree, like a little fairy woodland.

The daffodil shoots were up the first week, growing by leaps and bounds. 

Our imaginations can leap forward to this vista of sunny yellow.

daffodils

On St. Patrick’s Day we had grocery shelves reminiscent of the great Potato Famine, 

empty shelves potatoes grocery store

but a spring rain changed the grass to Shamrock green overnight,

green grass

which was then covered up by more snow on March 23….ugh….

daffodils with snow

This is Spring?

The library might be closed due to COVID-19, 

Library closed

but the crocuses in front of it were open for business.

crocus in front of library

The robins were back,

Robin bird

and the tundra swans crossed the border early because our Prime Minister had ordered all international travelers home!

Tundra swans Lambton Shores

They winter in Chesapeake Bay and rest at the Thedford Bog, an Ontario marshland, before flying on to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. 

The March winds were brisk and perfect for kite flying.   There were rare sightings of children in the park trying this ancient activity, well their dad was trying.   They looked too young and seemed more interested in examining the ground as toddlers like to do, while the dad was busy untangling the string.    (No picture as he couldn’t get it airborne).

Airborne - kites - AMc

“Airborne” by Joni’s mom

I’ve never seen so many people out walking before, entire families have taken up the joy of exercise and their dogs are happy too.   I met Millie a Golden Retriever puppy who was ecstatic at being in The Great Outdoors, but at 12 weeks soon tired of walking and had to be carried home.  

We might be out of bread and soup,

but they will return, just like these old faithful perennials.

Dandelions

These dandelions need to practice social distancing….

On March 25, there was finally a day warm enough to sit on the front porch, sheltered from the wind, with a magazine and a mug of tea.   It’s so nice to feel the sun on your face after a long cold lonely winter (the Beatles).  

lawn chair and Victoria magazine

While the stores and restaurants may be closed and the grocery shelves empty, we can replenish our souls with nature and rejoice!   May the Gods of Spring place a pox on COVID-19!

PS.  As other people have observed, this crisis may be the Earth’s way of healing from all the climate change, by calling a time out – a message from Mother Nature.    

 

 

 

 

 

Girl Put Your Records On

       One of the few things I miss about work is that the daily commute guaranteed me an hour of music every day, half an hour in the morning to rev up and half an hour after to wind down.   As I drove along a rural highway with no stop signs I could set the car to auto-pilot and zone out.  Now the only dose of music I get is my on my I-Pod if and when I walk – not a good track record so far this year although I enjoy it if I do.   My playlist might be classical, big band, oldies but goodies, 60/70/80’s, country,  or musicals but that small dose of music always lifts my spirits.   If I’m in the car running errands I don’t even turn the radio on as I don’t like much of what’s played.   I have an older model Honda, so no Apple Car Play or Sirius, nor do I Spotify, stream or bark instructions to Alexa at home.   I guess I’ve gotten out of the habit of listening to music. 

While cleaning out the basement this past winter I came across a stack of old records, which I searched through recently for a copy of Tapestry by Carole King – there was a tribute show at the theater which had sold out.  Every teenage girl in the 70’s owned this record, but it must have belonged to my sister with whom I shared a room growing up (although there was a line dividing said room), as no copy was to be found.  

Included in this treasure trove of oldies but goodies are three albums dating from the fifties which belonged to my mother.    When I say albums, this is what I mean,

leather bound books with sleeves containing individual 78’s.   For those of you unfamiliar, 78’s were the old thick breakable records which only held one song.   There was an A side and a less popular B side.   Looking through them, I remember a few of the songs, but I have no idea if they are worth anything now or even what to do with them.

78’s were eventually replaced by 45’s (smaller versions with one song and a plastic thing which fit the hole in the middle), and 33 LP’s which were the extended play albums with many songs which the boomers may remember growing up.   While I’ve been on a few Is-Your-Record-Worth-Anything sites, they all want you to register and list and describe your gems which must be in pristine condition.    My memory of these is that they were  worn and scratchy even then – they certainly look well-used.   

I thought I might listen to a few for old times sake, as I still have one of those Sears Record/Tape/CD combo units in the basement somewhere, but apparently you can ruin the stylus on a 33 record player by playing an old 78.  I’m also somewhat ashamed to admit that my Pioneer turntable and speakers from university is down there too.   My parents bought it for me in second year as they had bought one for my older sister, but I had 32 hours of classes and labs and was hardly ever in my room other than to sleep and study.   The Pioneer set-up cost a pretty penny back then, roughly the same price as tuition I recall.   Some years ago I had some interest in it from a younger colleague whose hobby was frequenting record-stores – in retrospect I should have sold it to him, as there it sits in the original boxes taking up space, large speakers and all.  

I promised JP, a fellow blogger (link to JP’s blog) that I would report on my basement findings, so here goes.   Now I should mention that JP is a jazz/music expert, as well as being a lawyer and a contrarian (his words).   The Button Up Your Overcoat song on my recent coat blog, served as the muse for his post on the many recordings of that song from 1929 to the present day.  Although I’m not much of a jazz person, I particularly enjoy JP’s dry sense of humor.   His posts Dear Queen Elizabeth,  in which he writes a letter to the Queen suggesting that he and his Mrs. change places with Harry and Megan, No Fair, in which he once again fails to attend his state fair despite living a few miles away, and the brilliantly written Quitting the Newspaper, a step by step guide to cancelling a subscription, are among the funniest I’ve ever read.   As we all need more humor and music in this time of COVID craziness, be sure to check out his blog. 

No pressure, JP – I don’t think any of these ancient relics are jazz – except maybe Baubles, Bangles and Beads (Side A) and Somebody Bad Stole Da Wedding Bell (Side B).   

records old - Baubles Bangles and Beads

Although I’ve never heard of Georgia Gibbs, I vaguely remember this song, so it must have been one of the ones we played a lot, plus it looks quite beat up.

There’s some Gene Autry – Have I Told You Lately That I Love You/Someday You’ll Want Me to Want you, and of course Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer/If It Doesn’t Snow on Christmas.    These were so popular, they can hardly be worth anything, kind of like Michael Jackson’s Thriller – everyone had them.   Many copies means less money, honey. 

Then there’s old Bing.    Silver Bells/That Christmas Feeling, Silent Night/Adeste Fideles/Oh Come All Ye Faithful, and Dear Hearts and Gentle People/Mule Train, from a movie soundtrack, Chattanoogie Shoeshine Boy/Bibbidi-Bobbii-Bo – was that from Cinderella?

records old - Rosemary Clooney

And of course, Bing reminds me of Rosemary Clooney.    I always loved her in White Christmas, but the best we can do is This Ole House – something which would have come in handy when I was renovating.   Hey There is on the flip side.

records old   Tennessee Waltz

Tennessee Waltz, but alas not by the popular Patti Page, but by Jimmie and Leon Short.   Long Gone Daddy is on the B side. 

Burl Ives – Blue Tail Fly and I’m Going Down the Road and other side Big Rock Candy Mountain, again from a musical Sing Out Sweet Land.  I only know Burl Ives from his Christmas classics.   

records old - coconut song

I do remember I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, (Fred Heatherton), but my version was from a seedy bar, The Brunswick, which we would occasionally frequent near campus.   Beer was 50 cents in the more upscale upstairs and the downstairs entertainment by one of the regular patrons dressed in a long grass skirt, was well – best not described but you can imagine from the lyrics, and this was long before the days of karaoke.   

records old  Perry Como

Here’s another one I remember, the alphabet song, A – Your Adorable – Perry Como, When is Sometime on B side.    

That’s it for what I recognize.    The rest are: Old Shep/My Queen of Prairies,  The Life and Death of John Dillinger/Awaiting the Chair (both Wilf Carter), The Cry of the Wild Goose/The Donkey Serenade (Tennessee Ernie),  Riders in the Sky/Single Saddle (Vaughn Monroes), Soldiers Joy/Flowers of Edinburg (Don Messier), Anniversary Song (Larry Douglas), Peg of My Heart (Floyd Sherman),  Deck of Cards/Somebody Else Not me (Phil Harris), Bouquet of Roses/Texarkana Baby (Eddy Arnold), Cruising Down the River/Sunflower (Russ Morgan).   There’s A Bluebird on your Windowsill (Elizabeth Clark).   Blue Skirtz Waltz/Charlie was a Boxer (Frankie Yankoose and his Yanks).    Many of these are backed by orchestras, and others sound like country and western, but I don’t remember my parents listening to much C&W, well not until Kenny Rogers.   My mother has no recollection of any of these.  They didn’t have much money in their early married years, so perhaps these were bargain bin finds or one hit wonders.   She does remember watching Hit Parade on Saturdays nights, and there is one record that just says Popular Hit Parade – Go On With the Wedding/Lullaby of Birdland and Why Do Fools Fall in Love/Chain Gang, with no singer’s name.   I find it odd that none of the records are dated, although many of them were minted in Canada, often Montreal, and certainly there are no album covers to provide clues as they are stored in individual sleeves.    

I do remember most of the children’s music, probably because I was not yet in school but in charge of keeping my younger brother entertained.   I have a  vague memory of these being played on a small portable record player which even a young child could operate.   Later when in the 60’s we had a tabletop record player with built-in speakers, and later still one of those big wooden stereo cabinets with an 8 track player. 

records old Horace the Horse

Horace the Horse was always fun, as it’s all about perspective folks.   Poor Horace was sad that he was the last horse on the merry-go-round, but when he turned around, he saw he was actually the first!   (link to song)

records old childrens

Pete Petersen’s House, was also a favorite – I remember it as a fast-paced tune.    Did You ever See a Lassie, On Top of Old Smokey, Oh Susanna, Clementine – the names alone bring back a flood of memories. 

records old - musicals

Cue forward to the 60’s and the first album I bought with my own money – Oliver – I wore that record out.    Music musicals were big that decade.   

records 45's sixties hits

We bought 45’s as they were cheaper, and you didn’t get stuck with a bunch of filler songs you didn’t like.     Black Velvet Band – Irish Rovers.  This Guy’s in Love – Herb Albert.   Harper Valley PTA (the lyrics were considered scandalous).  Pleasant Valley Sunday – the Monkees.   Abraham, Martin and John (my grade 8 teacher was a hippy and music was her poetry).

old records albums 60's

My parents listened to adult contemporary:   

records old - Christmas

And who can forget the old Christmas albums, Andy Williams and Sing along with Mitch which came on Saturday nights. 

Then came the 70’s and the Cadillac of Stereo Systems which was the envy of all my dorm-mates.  On Friday nights if we stayed in we might break out any of these, but more likely they were played during the getting-ready-to-go-out part of the evening.

records old albums 70's

The 70’s decade started with Rod Stewart and ended with disco.

records old albums 70's Thriller was probably the last album I bought.  

old records albums - 70's and 80's

I know these are worth anything, as visit any record store and there are tons of them.   We’ll have to wait another 100 years, I guess. 

By the mid-80’s tapes and Sony Walkmans were in and yes, they’re still down there too, along with a box of CD’s.   The question is what do I do with all this old stuff that nobody wants?   I know I could advertise them online but I try to avoid those Kijiji-like sites ever since that poor man got murdered here trying to sell his truck, and now with social distancing and all.   So back down to the basement they all go.   In the meantime, this post has reminded me that I need to have more music in my life – “Girl put your records on, tell me your favorite song….”

Corinne Bailey Rae – Put Your Records On. 

The Literary Salon – The Great Influenza

In view of the current fears about the spread of coronavirus COVD-19 this month’s literary salon will feature a New York times bestseller first published in 2014, The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry.   The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 was first recorded in army training camps in the US in the spring of 1918, spread to Europe with the mobilization of the troops and eventually infected about one-third of the world’s population, killing an estimated 17-50 million people worldwide (mortality rate 2-3%), more than the number who died in the war.    While most patients will likely get a mild version of COVID-19 and recover quickly, when you think about the 2-3% mortality rate, the implications are staggering considering how many more people there are in the world today.   For more about the 1918 pandemic see Wikipedia link and CDC link. 

 The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in HistoryThe Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest P andemic in History by John M. Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Publisher’s Blurb:

At the height of WWI, history’s most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. It killed more people in twenty-four months than AIDS killed in twenty-four years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. But this was not the Middle Ages, and 1918 marked the first collision of science and epidemic disease. Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research and now revised to reflect the growing danger of the avian flu, The Great Influenza is ultimately a tale of triumph amid tragedy, which provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon. John M. Barry has written a new afterword for this edition that brings us up to speed on the terrible threat of the avian flu and suggest ways in which we might head off another flu pandemic.
About the Author:
John M. Barry is a prize-winning and bestselling author and noted historian with such an extensive C.V. that I scarcely know how to summarize it.    Here’s a link to his website –link.
Observations:
My interest in reading this book in 2014 was sparked by the 100th anniversary of WW1.   I was preparing some information for a museum display of the Great War and came across this postcard of a hospital among my great uncle’s war memorabilia.     
WW1 Uncle Charlie hospital
This eventually led to a blog where I traced his journey from Canada to Britain, France and Germany and back again.   Uncle Charlie had caught the Spanish flu in 1919 and was six months recuperating in a British convalescent home before he was well enough to be sent home.   His prolonged illness was most likely complicated by being gassed in the war, as those with bad lungs always seem to suffer the most with influenza once it enters the respiratory phase.  
Family Portrait

John and Ellen Family Portrait – 1912

As well I had a great aunt, Jenny, (the girl in the middle front row beside her father), who died of the Spanish flu, leaving behind two young children and a grieving husband so angry at God he never darkened the door of a church again.   Jenny’s name is engraved on the bell of the parish church as she was one of the young girls who helped to raise the most money for it’s installation.  
Having been stricken with the H1N1/swine flu myself in the fall of 2009, one week before the vaccine was available, I am grateful to be retired now.  Certainly it was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life, for the longest.   Two weeks of misery, off work, followed by four weeks of weakness, while working, although never in any danger of dying despite some SOB, and I do remember exactly the middle aged woman who coughed all over me, as she was wearing flannel PJ’s.   I worked one block from a busy ER so we saw a steady stream of patients in for the antiviral Tamiflu,which was provided free by the government, and when the drug company ran out of the suspension for kids we made it from scratch just like in the old days.   It annoyed me greatly that I, the Queen of Hand Sanitizers, was the only person in my workplace who came down with it, me and one ER doctor, but H1N1, like the 1918 flu, seemed to strike younger healthy people and could in a perfect cytokine storm (inflammatory overreaction of the immune system) sometimes lead to multi-organ failure.    Of course we had antibiotics and ventilators to treat the respiratory complications unlike in 1918.   And then there was SARS in 2004, with all of those unnecessary deaths in Toronto as the health care system did not even know what they were dealing with until it was too late.      
While I don’t remember the specifics of this book, as it was six long years and many books ago, I do remember it was a fascinating read, but then I’m always up for a good non-fiction book.   Of course I may be biased, but you don’t have to have a medical background to enjoy it as it was written for the average lay person.   It was evident the author was a noted historian as the book was meticulously researched and presented.   It won the National Academies of Science award for the year’s outstanding book on science or medicine and is a highly recommended read, whatever your reasons for wanting to know more about pandemics.   
At any rate it might be something interesting to read from a historical point of view, while we are all encouraged to shelter in place.    (As all the libraries are now closed here for three weeks, I note that both Amazon (book and kindle version) and the bookoutlet site have it for half price).   
I remember thinking at the time well if we do have another pandemic, we’ll be better prepared….and of course we are in some ways, but here we are again, a hundred years later, the best of modern medicine facing off against another smart wily little virus.  May science and cool heads prevail.   Stay in and stay safe! 
Coronavirus   COVID-19
    

Irish Soda Bread and A Family Letter

My great-great grandparents Patrick and Mary and five of their six children, immigrated from Ireland in 1846 during the Potato Famine.   I’ve blogged previously about my Irish roots and a visit to an Irish Graveyard, but today’s post will be about a letter from Ireland.     

Patrick and Mary - edited version

Patrick and Mary – tintype picture

They came in a party of twenty or more but lost three relatives from typhus  on the way over.    While in the quarantine station, more of the passengers started to get sick so they decided to jump ship, losing one teenage son in the Quebec bush in the process, who was never found.   They later traced him to northern Ontario, but he had moved out west before they could get word to him.

Family Portrait

John and Ellen Family Portrait – 1912

Their 14-year-old son John (my great grandfather in his old age, sitting in the chair) had stayed behind because he had the chance to go to school with the overseer’s son, an opportunity too good to pass up.   He came two years later through New York and an uncle was sent to pick him up.   A family story tells of the letter that was sent from Ireland about his expected arrival.  

In the spring of 1847, their second year, a surveyor came through the woods and inquired who they were.   He informed them there was a letter for them at a post office near the river, presumably word of where and when their son John was to arrive.   Mary, reportedly a tall robust woman, set out walking to collect it.   The country was all wilderness then, with no roads, just a blazed trail with trees felled across the swampy areas to walk across.   When she got to the post office six miles away, they told her they had sent it on to another hamlet four miles south, so she walked along the river trail to that post office, where they told her that they hadn’t known of any settlers with that name, so they had forwarded it to a larger port to the north.  Mary walked along the river to that town and finally got the letter, although it’s unlikely she could read it as she signed the land deed with an X.   It began to get dark and Patrick became worried that she had not returned home.   He set out along the trail and encountered her carrying a big sack of flour on her head which she had purchased in town.   All told she had walked over thirty miles to get the letter!   Having already lost one son in the bush, she must have been overjoyed when John finally arrived safe and sound.

While admiring Mary’s strength and determination to be reunited with her son, what has always struck me about this tale is the sack of flour.    In my uncle’s genealogy notes, he writes it was a fifty pound bag, surely an exaggeration as when I tried to hoist a 25lb bag at the grocery store I could barely budge it off the bottom shelf.    

Flour

10kg = 25 lbs

Admittedly, I am neither robust nor strong, but Mary in the photo above doesn’t exactly look like an Amazon woman either,  so I assume that must have been a wee bit of blarney!   

In the early days when the land was sparsely populated, grist mills were few and far between.   They were usually located on the banks of a fast flowing  river or stream and and powered by a water wheel.  I took this picture of a flour mill display at a history museum last summer.  

grindstone display museum Note the cotton flour bags and the heavy grist-stone.

grindstone - museum

While large grist-stones were associated with commercial mills, many farms had their own smaller grindstones for grain or sharpening instruments.  (My brother kept ours from the farm).  Once settlers had harvested their grain, they then had to grind it by hand using a mortar and a pestle or a pair of grindstones placed on top of one another, both time consuming methods.      

So for Mary to be able to buy a bag of ground flour at a mill in town must have seemed the height of luxury, an endeavor well worth the effort involved in lugging it home.   When we toss butter, milk, eggs and flour into our grocery cart, we forget how much of our ancestors time was spend just obtaining the simple necessities of life, although I do sometimes think about this family story when I pull out the flour from my pantry to do some baking.   Flour

Today we’re going to make Irish soda bread.   There are many versions of this bread, some are more scone-like with white flour, sugar and raisins, and some are like the denser darker brown bread traditionally served with orange marmalade at breakfast, but I’m going to experiment with something in between.   As I’ve never made any kind of bread before, wish me the luck of the Irish.    

Irish soda bread was popular in Ireland as it could be baked in a covered skillet over the fireplace, and did not require an oven or yeast like more traditional breads.   It relies on the chemical reaction between the sour milk/buttermilk and the baking soda instead of yeast.   Here’s the recipe.

Ingredients:

1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour

1 3/4 cups all-purpose white flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 (level) teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons cold butter, cubed

1 egg

1 2/3 cups buttermilk

1 tablespoon oats 

Irish Soda Bread

I made one small change – as I only had self-rising white flour with the salt and baking POWDER already added, I cut the salt back to 1/2 tsp.   The baking powder didn’t make any difference, it just made it rise a bit more.

Instructions:

Heat the oven to 425°F (215°C).   Mix together the flours, salt and baking soda in a large bowl.    (NB: make sure the baking soda is a LEVEL teaspoon otherwise the bread may taste funny and/or turn green!) 

Irish Soda Bread Add the butter and rub into the flour mixture with your fingertips until it resembles bread crumbs.    (I did not take a picture here, as my hands were too messy.   Those food network divas must have their own photographers!)

In a separate measuring jug, whisk the egg and buttermilk together.  The egg is optional but makes the batter richer so I added it.   Pour 3/4 of the liquid into the centre of the dry ingredients.   

Irish Soda Bread

Using your hands mix the flour and liquid together to form a loose dough.  The dough should be soft, but not too sticky.   Add more of the liquid as needed, but try not to overwork it.  

Turn onto a floured work surface and bring the dough together into a round shape about 1 1/2 inches thick.   (Again, no pictures but I used my new glass kitchen board, new as in found in the basement cleanup.   For someone who doesn’t cook that much I seem to have a lot of kitchen stuff).glass work board

Place formed loaf on a baking sheet dusted with flour.   Brush a bit of the left over liquid on the top of the bread and then sprinkle the rolled oats on the top.   This gives it a nice rustic-looking appearance. 

Irish Soda Bread

Now for the most important part.   Using a sharp knife, score the bread by blessing it with a deep cross on top.  Then poke a hole in the four quarters of the bread to release the fairies and stop them from cursing your bread.  Do not skip this last step, unless you wish to incur their wrath!   

Irish Soda Bread

Bake for 15 minutes at 425 F in order to give it a nice crisp crust, then turn down the oven to 400 F and bake for 30 minutes more.   When done the loaf will sound slightly hollow when tapped on the bottom.    Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.    

Irish Soda Bread

As I’ve never made anything with buttermilk or whole wheat flour before I have nothing to compare it too, but I was very pleased with the way the bread turned out – the rustic taste, appearance and ease of preparation – and would definitely make it again.   I was especially keen on the part about the blessing and the fairies as I like a bit of folklore with my baking.     

Irish Soda Bread

Serve warm slathered with some chilled fresh butter and enjoy!   Goes great with potato soup, but we’ll save that for next year, as we’re already over 1400 words.    (It was nice the next day too, served with jam).    

Now, we’ll have a wee small toast to John, using his own crystal decanter and glasses.   I think he’d like that it’s whiskey imported straight from his old homeplace, Leitrim County. 

Maybe another thimble or two…

Whiskey decanter two

I should clean out the basement more often….

For those who don’t drink, I experimented with this no-alcohol low-calorie version of an Irish Coffee, adding an ounce of Skinny Syrup, Irish Cream flavor, to a mug of hot coffee and topping with a squirt of low-fat whipped cream from a can.    Magically delicious! 

 Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

St. Patricks' Day leprechaun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

         

 

 

The Literary Salon – Mary Higgins Clark R.I.P.

I did not include Mary Higgins Clark’s latest in my Books and Brownies round-up of the winter’s best reads, as while I enjoyed it, I detected a slight difference in style with this one.   I noted that she had dedicated it to the memory of her late husband (2018) and thanked her son who was with her every sentence of the way, which along with the six months delay (she usually publishes around Mother’s Day), I wrote off as being due to the inevitable life crises which sooner or later affect us all.   So I was surprised to see from an in-memoriam display at my local library that she had passed away on Jan 31 at the age of 92 of natural causes.   As she has blessed us with decades of good reading, this month’s literary salon will pay tribute to the original Queen of Suspense.  

Kiss the Girls and Make Them CryKiss the Girls and Make Them Cry by Mary Higgins Clark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Her Highness delivers as usual, her latest and unfortunately her last.   R.I.P.

About the Author:     Mary Higgins Clark was born in 1927, of Irish descent.  Her family owned an Irish pub and was fairly prosperous but fell on hard times at the end of the Depression after her father died.   She worked as a secretary, copy editor and airline stewardess before marrying and having five children.   A gifted storyteller right from the start, she took writing classes at NYU, and started selling short stories to supplement the family income, and later turned to mysteries after being widowed in 1964 at a young age.    First published at 43, she had her first bestseller in 1975 with Where Are The Children,which she sold for the low price of $3000.   Six months later when the paperback rights went for $100,000, she quit her day job at an advertising agency and devoted herself to writing full time.   She sold her second book for $1.5 million and was at one time the highest paid female author in the country.   Her net worth is estimated at 140 million and over 100 million of her books are in print in the US alone, plus many international translations.   She has written 56 books, 38 of them suspense novels, four collections of short stories, a memoir (Kitchen Memoir), five books with her daughter Carol and six with Alafair Burke – the Under Suspicion series.   All I might add, with the same publishing company Simon and Schuster, and the same editor Michael Korda – here’s a link from S&S and for more on her story see Wikipedia link.   

Why I Read Her Books:    While the market today is saturated with psychological thrillers, for a long time Mary Higgins Clark was the designated Queen of Suspense, and the only suspense novelist I read.   (I was never a fan of Agatha Christie).    She was popular, and while considered fluffy formula writing by some, her books were immensely readable and you were always guaranteed of a happy outcome.   Her main protagonist was usually an independent young woman no older than 35, and while there was often the suggestion of a romance, it was not the main course.   While suspenseful, there were no gory forensic reports or ambiguous or surprise endings – nor were her books so creepy that you went around double-checking the locks at night.   She was dependable – her books could be counted on for a good light read.   

I remember when Maeve Binchy died in 2012, and she was only 70.   When you are used to reading a favorite author every year, it can be upsetting to realize there will be No More Books!    Although Maeve’s husband continued to publish a few short stories which hadn’t seen the light of day and a biography, it just wasn’t the same as having a new novel to crack open.   I wonder if that will be the case with Mary Higgins Clark, (although having seen the final episode of last weeks PBS Sanditon mini-series, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s last unfinished manuscript, sometimes it’s better if things are left undone).   While I’ve read a few of her early short stories, including one about her experience as a Pan-Am stewardess dealing with a stowaway on board, I’ve never read any of her earlier books including Where Are The Children or A Stranger is Watching, so these will have to do next summer when I need a M.H.Clark fix at the beach.             

What does it take to produce an annual bestseller like that?    Maybe it came easy to her, (Danielle Steele once said she could knock off a manuscript in a weekend), in which case she was lucky, but I suspect it took a fair degree of dedication and determination and a lot of hard work and  perseverance.   As she aged into her 80’s, it amazed me that she was still churning them out – her books stayed up to date, with cell phones/gadgets and modern settings and plots.   Her last book concerned the #metoo movement, and another, a murder at the famous MET gala costume ball.   She had a passion for writing and a zest for living until the very end.    Maybe that’s what everyone needs when they get older – a reason to keep on going.    I hope she is up there in the big library-in-the-sky (which is how I like to think of the afterlife for book lovers), resting in peace and reading her heart out….and maybe sending some gentle plot suggestions to a few of us earthlings looking for guidance.              

 

   

Bermuda Blues

It’s time for my annual non-travel blog in which I warn of the hazards of travel and extol the virtues of staying home.   I feel it is my civic duty to make those of us stuck at home feel better, so I started this tradition last February with a post comparing today’s airport hassles with The Golden Age of Travel.   While  it’s nice to escape to someplace tropical when the Hollywood version of winter has deteriorated into dirty snowbanks and salt stained boots – sand, sea and sun await only those who choose wisely!    

Bermuda (2)

In this photo, you may see a picturesque cottage on the lovely shores of  Bermuda, an island softly kissed by warm trade winds.   It’s set high on a bluff – there’s a pink sand beach below with clear turquoise waters.   Note the striking contrast between the coral and the blue of the pool and sky.   It looks nice, very nice – everything you would expect Bermuda to be.

While I see a drafty old cottage with no hot water, banging shutters and howling winds, set on a steep cliff straight out of a Daphne Du Maurier novel.

This picture was taken the morning we left Bermuda – the only day of sun and warm temperatures the whole five days.   You never want to go to Bermuda in February – believe me.   It’s not tourist season.   While I knew Bermuda was not as far south as the Caribbean, the travel agent was definitely an optimist.  She assured us the average temperature would be 70ish – golfing weather, but it was really why-didn’t-I-pack-warmer-clothes weather.     

And you certainly never want to arrive late on a Friday, when the proprietress hands you the key to your pretty little cottage and promptly disappears until Monday.   There was no front desk and no restaurant, and it didn’t take long to realize there was no hot water either.   There didn’t even appear to be a hot water tank.   We left a message at the booking office.  (This was in the days before people were instantly available).        

 I’m not that fussy when it comes to winter vacations – give me a pool to sit beside and read my books, and a couple of shore and sea excursions and I’m happy.   Otherwise, pick an island, preferably one not too close to the equator as my hair can’t handle too much humidity.    When you live in Canada, you don’t care where you go, it’s just winter you want to get away from.  

Bermuda pic 3 (2)

We decided to check out the pool but it was hardly pool weather.  As it hovered around 50 F all week the only pool sitting was the huddled-in-layers kind.       

Bermuda pic 4 (2)There was a slightly warmer reading nook up near the Adirondack chairs sheltered a bit from the blustery breeze.   

There was no restaurant onsite, but the cottage had a kitchenette, so we treked a mile or two or five down the road, mopeds whizzing by, to a variety store, where we bought the worlds most expensive peanut butter and some white bread, plus coffee, tea and milk for breakfast…and I think there might have been a bottle or two of wine…Merlot most likely as it goes best with stormy weather.   (This was back in the days when I was able to drink a little).  

The main thoroughfare was like the Indy 500.   Dare step off the curb and you’d get crammed by a moped going the wrong way, but then I’m one of those people who can’t tell right from left.   We decided we weren’t brave enough to rent mopeds so we took taxis or the bus when our cash ran low and we were down to coins. 

Most of the restaurants were closed, but we hailed a cab and found a pub for supper.   The taxi driver informed us it wasn’t tourist season and many of the inhabitants were off-island this time of year.   Really – is that why there’s nobody around?   We had a nice meal, including a wonderfully rich English Trifle, which started my love affair with this dessert, and a very smooth sherry afterwards, (Bermuda is a British island), and thus fortified returned to the cottage immensely cheered – only to find it still had no hot water and there was no return message. 

As I’m one of those people who can’t go to bed without having a hot bath first, I decided to channel my inner Laura Ingalls and set about boiling water on the stove, (being a British island, there was a proper teapot and tea kettle), just like my pioneer ancestors – thus providing me with about three inches of tepid water, enough to wash the travel grime off, but not enough to soothe my cramps.   Luckily, when I travel I bring a whole pharmacy with me, so Motrin to the rescue.  

When we woke the next morning it was still overcast.   Turning on the radio, the weather forecast was for more of the same.   After that came the lost pet report, where listeners could call in and report their lost dogs and cats.  We got into the habit of listening to the Lost Pet Petrol every morning while drinking our coffee.   It was in many ways a charming island.   

Scrounging up enough cash for taxis was a challenge as there wasn’t an exchange place open anywhere and the banks were all closed on the weekend.   Bermuda – one of the banking capitals of the world – go figure.  (Yes, once upon a time there was no such thing as an ATM machine).   The streets of the main town were pretty but deserted on the weekend. 

Bermuda pic 5 (2)

The shopping was pricey and rather staid.   I recall there being a Marks and Spencer-like department store downtown, where I bought a soft mohair afghan in bright pink as a souvenir – which came in handy as the cottage was chilly at night, (blame the British again for the lack of central heating or rather any heating).   It also made a cozy pool cover-up.   

Pink mohair afghan

The wind howled up on the cliffs – so loud I couldn’t sleep.  There was a shutter banging loose somewhere.   It was the perfect murder mystery setting, rich with Rebecca-like atmosphere.   (In fact I think I might put it in my book someday).    

Bermuda pic 6 (2) Manderley

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again….

On Monday when the owner returned, she switched on the hot water, the tank was hidden in a separate building – hallelujah!   Never underestimate the rejuvenating power of a hot bubble bath.   But the weather continued gloomy, (did I mention it was a British island).  

We managed to find a restaurant open each night.   One evening when it was raining, I wore socks with my sandals, a fashion faux pas, but I figured no one would notice – and they didn’t as we were the only ones there.   It was like dining in your own private restaurant.    I tried duck a la orange for the first time, not something I would ordinarily order – but with perfectly crispy skin it wasn’t half bad.   Cherries Jubilee and Bananas Flambe for dessert – popular choices for high end dining back then.        

We took a flat bottomed boat out to the ocean for lack of anything better to do, and watched them feed the hungry fish.   

Tropical Fish - AMc

Tropical fish with a watery whitewash finish – Art by Joni’s mother.

It was either that or some Indiana Jones cave expedition, complete with stalactites and damp claustrophobic caverns. 

Bermuda pic 8 & 9 (3)

Bermuda pic 8 & 9 (2)                                              Where is the underground cave entrance……

We walked the beaches a lot….and talked a lot….solving all the worlds problems and our own, scheming and dreaming in the manner of younger souls.  

Bermuda pic 1 (2)

The sky was pretty in a menacing kind of way (and no it was not hurricane season).

Bermuda pic 7 (2)

It was beachcombing season….

On Wednesday, our last morning I was so overjoyed to see clear blue sky and so annoyed about going back to work with the same pale face that I sat out in the Adirondack chair reading my book and soaking up the sun, sans sunscreen. 

Bermuda pic 10 (2)

It was only for an hour or so before we had to leave for the airport, but I had on jeans with a cute white cotton top with a scoop neck and I didn’t want to get it dirty with greasy lotion The warmth of the sun felt absolutely glorious after five cool and overcast days.    

On the way to the airport the taxi driver commented how nice it was, 80 degrees and the same forecast for the rest of the week.   Really – thanks for sharing.   The plane was delayed by a few hours.  By the time we disembarked in Toronto, my skin was starting to hurt and by the next day it was as crispy as that duck skin, so red it almost blistered, all from an hour in the sun.  Stupid, I know.

Now I’m content to stay home.   However, it wasn’t all terrible – despite the inclement weather, I didn’t come back with a cold the way I normally do, just a souvenir sunburn, and some bad dreams of Manderley. 

(1500 words – next week will make up for it.)

PS.  Book of the Day:   Amazingly I found a classic copy of Rebecca, complete with pretty ribbon, at the January used book sale, a book I have not seen since high school, which begs to be re-read.  

PS.  Quote of the Day:  “There’s nothing like staying at home for real comfort.” (Jane Austen)    Especially true when winter winds are howling – pass the merlot.     

PS.   We might have missed a few things – which way to the Bermuda Triangle?   

Song of the Day:  Gordon Lightfoot – Triangle.

PS.   Have you had any vacation experiences which turned out disappointing?

 

 

 

Easy Strawberry Trifle

Chocolate and strawberries are traditional Valentine’s Day desserts, so here’s an easy strawberry trifle to make if you are craving something light, fruity and not too sweet – and it’s much better than my low-fat chocolate brownie disaster.  As an added plus, it’s not so much made as assembled, requiring only three ingredients, cake, instant custard and strawberries.

Strawberry trifle

Grocery store strawberries are not so good this time of year in Canada, so I mixed them with some strawberry freezer jam from last summer.   (Click here for blog link).   As I use No Sugar Pectin in my freezer jam, it’s more of a strawberry puree than a sweet jam, but you can also mush up the strawberries and add sugar to taste.   

Strawberries For the cake you can use those mini golden cakes from the grocery store or angel food cake, but I had some leftover cake which had been in the freezer for awhile but when thawed it was just as fresh as the day I made it. 

The last time I made this dessert I used French vanilla pudding cups, but this time I decided to use the more traditional custard.   I bought a package of instant custard from The British Shop, a brand recommended by the owner as I figured the British must know their custards (she also told me last year the shop spent $20,000 on import fees).Custard

Just add 360ml of BOILING Water and stir for a minute and Voila – a nice and creamy custard.   (Next time I might add a teaspoon of Vanilla extract as it was fairly bland). 

As I’ve just spent a fairly productive week cleaning out the basement storage areas and reorganizing things, including some old family heirlooms and crystal, I decided to use my  grandmother’s parfait glasses.   

Crystal glasses

I never met my grandmother as my dad’s parents both died before I was born, but I’ve often wondered what her life was like.   She married in 1919 and as an older mom had her kids at 37, 40 and 41 and died fairly young at age 65, after breaking a hip.   So it’s possible these glasses are a hundred years old – maybe they were part of her wedding trousseau?   My mother said they were in the old farmhouse when she got married in 1952.    Or they may even have been from my great grandmother Ellen farther back in 1900, part of a  collection of crystal from the Edwardian age, of which I have several pieces.   I remember my mother using the matching glasses at family dinners along with her good china, but they are so thin and delicate they require hand-washing.   There are only seven parfait glasses left, plus two with small handles which look like they might be hot toddy glasses.   Anyway, I felt they deserved an outing sometime this century!

I crumbled the cake in the bottom, then layered the strawberries and custard, then cake again (I could have used more cake), custard and more strawberries on top.   You can also garnish with whipped cream and a strawberry, but I ran out of room.      

Strawberry trifle

The parfait glasses seem tiny, so I suspect portion sizes were smaller back in the days of Downton Abbey.    The same with plates – compare this new red Rachel Ray plate to the older pink plate from the thrift shop.    

Pink and red plates

The same with supersized restaurant plates.   While it’s customary to want to fill your plate, maybe that isn’t such a good idea anymore? 

This makes a nice light dessert after a big meal.   There’s something to be said for moderation and family tradition, and strawberries in the middle of winter!  

Happy Valentine’s Day!

PS.  For those of you who are mad for plaid like I am, the plaid charger plates are from Michael’s craft store, after Christmas sale – $1.50 each vs regular $8.        (600 words) 

Pink plates and Valendtine's Day

Low-Fat Chocolate Brownies

          Last week’s Books and Brownies blog left me craving something chocolatey and as Valentine’s Day is fast approaching I decided to make brownies.   I’m not one to say no to convenience food if it tastes good, being perfectly content to bow to the expertise of Betty Crocker, but my favorite mix had turned out dry the last few times I made it.   I used to take brownies to work for birthdays and my brownies had always been a hit, the secret ingredient being butter not oil – I was raised on a dairy farm where butter ruled.   It was always a treat getting off the school bus if my mother had made a big pan of brownies, chewy, no icing but walnuts in them, usually still warm from the oven, but even back in the sixties she used a mix.   After a family member was diagnosed with gallbladder problems, I switched to a low fat mix which eliminated the added oil/butter, but then it too was discontinued. 

Brownies

What’s up Betty Crocker?

After wasting more time than I care to admit pouring over low-fat recipes in cookbooks, online and on that food vortex otherwise known as Pinterest, I discovered that both applesauce and strained prunes can be substituted for some of the fat in a recipe.  I settled on one that called for strained prunes, the baby food kind was okay it said.   So I set out for the grocery store which apparently doesn’t even sell baby food anymore as everyone makes their own.   Luckily, the drugstore had an organic line in plastic pouches – they might want to revisit those old glass jars which can be recycled in all kinds of ways.   A pouch held 125ml, exactly the amount I needed, but when I opened it, it tasted so awful, that I decided to use a different recipe with applesauce instead.   The reviews were all good, except for one dissenter, who said don’t bother, waste of ingredients.   Here’s the recipe for Rich and Chewy Low Fat Brownies.   

Brownie ingredients

Ingredients

½ cup cocoa

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 ¾ cup white sugar

2 egg whites

¾ cup applesauce unsweetened

  • Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl using a hand mixer. Add egg whites, applesauce and vanilla.
  • Mix all other ingredients in a separate smaller bowl and add to the wet ingredients in the large bowl. Do NOT overmix!
  • Spray 8×8 dish with PAM and bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes.   Yields 16 brownies.

The lumpy texture was a bit strange, not sure if that was from the applesauce or my failure to read the recipe as I dumped the sugar in with the dry ingredients by mistake.   They baked up alright, a bit denser than my regular brownie mix but the appearance was good, soft in the centre, slightly crusty at the edges and on top. 

The Verdict:   Well they were certainly rich and chewy, but were they good? 

Never having made brownies from scratch before I had nothing to compare them to but they seemed tasteless, kind of like eating cardboard.   Guilty as charged IMO.   The rest of the jury was polite but noncommittal, preferring the slightly safer remark, “They’re okay, but they don’t taste like your regular brownies.”    Several people thought they were cake.  

I did cut back on the sugar by half a cup to 1 1/4 cups as some of the reviewers had suggested as it seemed like a lot of sugar for a small 8X8 pan.    My chocolate powder was the very expensive French imported stuff which possibly made it too rich.   They didn’t seem sweet at all, even smothered in my regular 2 inches of Canada’s favorite icing (see label). 

brownie icing chocolate

They did look pretty on my pink plates though. 

Brownies

But food is to eat!   I hate it when you’re in a fancy restaurant and you order something outrageously expensive off the dessert trolley because it looks good, and it turns out to be disappointing.   Of course not everyone is a fussy  foodie like I am (except that lone dissenter), but I would not have served these to company.   They were mediocre at best – if I’m going to indulge in a brownie I want it to be great. 

Were they even as healthy as promised?  Here’s the nutrition label:

Serving Size: 1 (812) g

Servings Per Recipe: 1

AMT. PER SERVING% DAILY VALUE

Calories: 147.9

Calories from Fat 16 g 11 %

Total Fat 1.8 g 2 %

Saturated Fat 0.9 g 4 %

Cholesterol 3.8 mg 1 %

Sodium 118.6 mg 4 %

Total Carbohydrate 31.9 g 10 %

Dietary Fiber 0.8 g 3 %

Sugars 21.9 g 87 %

Protein 1.8 g

Add in the nutrition label from the icing:

Betty Crocker icing label

Add up the 1.8g of fat from the brownie, but you would be lucky to get 16 brownies out of a small pan like that so let’s round that up to 4g, with the 5g of fat from the 2 tablespoons of icing (again a stretch), and you have about 9g. 

Now compare that to Betty Crocker’s new product, Fudge Brownie in a Mug with fudge topping:

Mug cake brownie

Nutrition Label:

Mug cake nutrition list

You add some water and nuke it in the microwave for one minute.  One pouch with fudge topping also gives you 9 g of fat, and about the same number of calories as the low fat recipe, but better taste, in fact it was so rich tasting I could only eat half of it.   Is there such a thing as too chocolatey?   I know death by double chocolate is all the rage but I much prefer regular milk chocolate over the often bitter darker stuff.   Plus unless you’re baking for a family who ever eats just one brownie?  The mug box has built-in portion control –  not sure how they came up with 3 portions, why not 2 or 4, but maybe the extra one is to stash away for an emergency on days you need chocolate.   So why not let Betty do all the work?   Now it’s back to the pastry board for a better Valentine’s Day dessert…stay tuned.    (950 words)  

PS.  Do you have a favorite brownie recipe or mix?  

 

 

 

Books and Brownies

It’s winter – prime reading season, so time for a round up of some of the best books I’ve read over the past few months.  These are best savored with a cup of tea and a brownie…or two…..the kind with lots of icing.

Brownies

As I’m trying to practice an economy of words these days, I have condensed the summaries.   Click on the link for the full publishers blurb.    The list is in descending order of greatness. 

The Family UpstairsThe Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A page-turning jewel of a book, her best yet.

Libby Jones receives a letter from a lawyer on her 25th birthday,  telling her the identity of her birth parents and also that she is the sole inheritor of an abandoned mansion in one of London’s fashionable neighborhoods.  Young and struggling, everything in her life is about to change.   But others have been waiting for this day too.   Twenty-five years ago, police were called to the house with reports of a baby crying.   When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib.  Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note, and the four other children reported to live there were gone.

Think your family is dysfunctional?   After reading a Lisa Jewell novel they might seem quite normal by comparison.   I find many of her books disturbing in a creepy psychological way – but this is the most bizarre yet.   There’s definitely an art to weaving a story like that, and she’s mastered it in her latest.        

Someone We Know

Someone We Know by Shari Lapena

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

                                                                                                                   

                                                                                                                     

“This is a very difficult letter to write. I hope you will not hate us too much. . . My son broke into your home recently while you were out.”   In a quiet, leafy suburb in upstate New York, a teenager has been sneaking into houses–and into the owners’ computers as well–learning their secrets, and maybe sharing some of them, too.   Who is he, and what might he have uncovered? After two anonymous letters are received, whispers start to circulate, and suspicion mounts. And when a woman down the street is found murdered, the tension reaches the breaking point. Who killed her? Who knows more than they’re telling? And how far will all these very nice people go to protect their own secrets?

While this is obviously one of those you can’t trust anybody tales, Shari Lapena takes a simple premise, a snooping teenage hacker, and gives it enough twists and turns to make it an entertaining ride.   Having read all of her previous bestsellers (An Unwanted Guest, A Stranger in the House, and The Couple Next Door, I expected this to be good, and it was.   She used to be  a Toronto lawyer – I hope she never returns to practicing law.  

If You Knew HerIf You Knew Her by Emily Elgar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Emily Edgar is a new author and I hope this is the first of many.

                                                                                                                         

The perfect life, or the perfect lie?   Cassie had it all – the fairytale wedding, the stunning home, the perfect husband. But when she arrives on the intensive care ward in a coma it soon becomes clear that she has a secret.   Alice, the chief nurse on the ward begins to feel a connection with Cassie and can’t help but wonder if things are not quite as they seem.  Frank, another patient, can hear and see everything around him but cannot communicate. He understands that Cassie’s life is in danger and only he holds the truth, which no one can know and he cannot tell.

A first time author, Emily Elgar has another one coming out in 2020, Grace is Gone.  She wrote this book after taking a novel-writing course at the Faber Academy UK in 2014.   I enjoyed the medical background, although I did guess the ending.   Still, A for effort and for getting published in 37 countries.  A very auspicious beginning – I enjoyed it so much I ordered her new one.  

Grace is GoneGrace is Gone by Emily Elgar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Meg and her daughter Grace are the most beloved family in Ashford, so when Meg is found brutally murdered and her daughter Grace missing, the town is rocked by the tragedy.   Who would kidnap a sick teenager? Who would murder a mother who sacrificed everything?    As the community come to terms with what’s happened, an unlikely pair start searching for answers: Jon, the most hated journalist in Ashford and Cara, the young woman who found Meg’s body. But once they start digging into the past, they will soon realize there’s no going back.

Her second book is even better, much more layered and complex.  In the jacket photo she looks about twelve, but is married and just had a baby so she must be older.   I hope she finds a good babysitter and continues to write.      

I’m wondering why all these psychological thrillers only have three or four words in the title?    I guess they’re trying to sum up the book in the fewest words possible.  

The Shape of FamilyThe Shape of Family by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the international bestselling author of Secret Daughter and The Golden Son comes a poignant, unforgettable novel about an intercultural couple facing a family crisis.   Jaya, the cultured daughter of an Indian diplomat and Keith, an ambitious banker from middle-class Philadelphia, meet in a London pub in 1988 and make a life together in suburban California. Their strong marriage is built on shared beliefs and love for their two children: headstrong teenager Karina and young son Prem, the light of their home.    But love and prosperity cannot protect them from sudden, unspeakable tragedy, and the family’s foundation cracks as each member struggles to seek a way forward. Jaya finds solace in spirituality. Keith wagers on his high-powered career. Karina focuses relentlessly on her future and independence. And Prem watches helplessly as his once close-knit family drifts apart.

A family drama about an intercultural couple, and while it might sound predictable, it’s not.   It’s also immensely readable.

The GuardiansThe Guardians by John Grisham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the small north Florida town of Seabrook, a young lawyer named Keith Russo was shot dead at his desk as he worked late one night. The killer left no clues behind. There were no witnesses, no real suspects, no one with a motive. The police soon settled on Quincy Miller, a young black man who was once a client of Russo’s.  Quincy was framed, convicted, and sent to prison for life. For twenty-two years he languished in prison with no lawyer, no advocate on the outside. Then he wrote a letter to Guardian Ministries, a small innocence group founded by a lawyer/minister named Cullen Post.   Guardian handles only a few innocence cases at a time, and Post is its only investigator. He travels the South fighting wrongful convictions and taking cases no one else will touch. With Quincy Miller, though, he gets far more than he bargained for.

One of his better legal thrillers, but his books often make me wonder about  the US justice system, especially in small sleepy southern towns. 

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true?   Gladwell also revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath.   While tackling all these questions, Malcolm Gladwell (The Tippling Point, Outliers), discusses the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.

This book was such a mish-mash of seemingly unrelated chapters, including the bizarre one on Sylvia Plath, that I was left wondering – what was the point of it all.   Unlike his previous books (Outliers, The Tipping Point), it didn’t seem to have a cohesive theme.    I’m not sure what the type of gas stove sold in Britain in the 1960’s has to to with talking to strangers, but maybe anything related to Sylvia Plath sells.   Why not a chapter about Jane Austen’s romances, or a Bookshop in Paris?  (All references guaranteed to sell a book no matter what).   While it could have used more editing, it was an interesting read anyway, and helped to pass the time (6 hours) in the ER dept with a sick family member.   Sometimes that’s the best thing about a good non-fiction book –  you can read a chapter here or there, no need to stay up late to see what happens next.   

I hope you have enjoyed my winter selections, but you’re on your own for the brownies!   Have you read any good books lately?     (1500 words – most of them not mine)