Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, The Host, Prague Winter, Shakespeare in Italy, and Seven Daughters of Eve

Let’s talk books! The good, the pedantic, and Stephenie Meyer’s already-made-into-a-movie foray into science fiction.

Animal, Vegetable, MiracleAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three stars, because this book can only be described as uneven. On the one hand, I was absolutely fascinated by the Kingsolver family’s adventures in producing most of their own food for an entire year. Probably because I already had my own fantasies about moving to a farm and subsisting on my own heirloom vegetables and heritage farm animals. I loved the recipes and seasonal menus, as well as the practical information on homesteading, including hilarious accounts of things like mushroom hunting, using a year’s bounty of zucchini, and breeding turkeys. And of course I related to the trip to Italy.

On the other hand, judgmental much? Really, who is she to talk if my daily vice happens to be bananas rather than coffee? The constant preaching (even if with me it was largely preaching to the choir) kind of ruined what could have been a really good book. The Kingsolver family (the book is co-authored by her husband and daughter) come across as supercilious, fanatical, and completely out of touch with the reality of most people’s lives. And sorry, but they are way too eccentric and uneven in their application of moral principles to really be taking the kind of moral high ground that they do. The effect was probably heightened by the fact that I listened to the audiobook of this one, so I heard the litany falling from the very lips of the authors.

In sum, there’s lots of wonderful information here, much of it very engagingly presented, but only if you can get past the egregious tone.

The Host (The Host, #1)The Host by Stephenie Meyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Invasion of the Body Snatchers from the point of view of the body snatchers. You’ve got to admit it’s a novel plotline. Like something you’d come up with to entertain yourself on a mind-numbingly boring drive through the wastelands of Arizona. Which, yes, is exactly how Stephenie Meyer says she originated this story.

And it really isn’t all that bad. It’s true that there is still some of the unbelievably sappy romantic dialogue you have a right to expect from the author of Twilight. But the novel does explore some interesting themes related to the relationship between the body and the soul, individual identity, and the problematic aspects of absolute morality.

Even more than with Twilight, I recognized some fundamentally Mormon ideas and attitudes, like the transcendent importance of experiencing life in a physical body, or the excessive self-abnegation exhibited by the main character (related in some ways to Bella Swan’s chronic lack of self-esteem and passivity in all matters other than dramatic self-sacrifice). Again, we see the cult of the all-sacrificing mother in Meyer’s work.

However, as before, what Meyer lacks in depth and finesse she makes up for in sheer originality and teenage romantic appeal. As an easy, fairly entertaining escapist novel that’s slightly sci-fi without any technological blather, The Host was a perfect distraction on a long plane flight.

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a perfect mix of the personal and the historical. Albright’s father was a key figure in the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile during World War II. She revisits the period through a combination of his personal papers, auxiliary historical research, and her own childhood memories. The Czechoslovakian experience of WWII is an aspect of which I knew relatively little before reading the book, and it was interesting but heartbreaking to read the story of a small, proud country that played a pivotal but relatively helpless role in the continent-wide, and then worldwide conflict.

Albright is a perfect narrator of these events, not only because as a little girl she was surrounded by them, but also because like her father she grew up to be a keen analyst of international relations and events and an important actor in those events. When she writes about difficult decisions undertaken by world leaders in the midst of harrowing circumstances, she is speaking from a position of experience and understanding, and it shows.

This is a thoroughly worthwhile and pleasurable read; well-written, passionate, and insightful.

The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown TravelsThe Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels by Richard Paul Roe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my goodness, I loved this book so much. In what is the culmination of a lifelong study and love affair, Richard Paul Roe posits that because of the intimate knowledge of Italian culture, geography, and history demonstrated in Shakespeare’s plays, he must have been a cultured, erudite upper-class Englishman who spent significant time traveling in Italy, and not the traditional, untraveled Bard of Avon. As a caveat, I am a scholar neither of Shakespeare nor of 16th century Italy (I just happen to adore both), so I can’t really speak to the real plausibility of Roe’s thesis. But I finished this book utterly convinced.

Roe explains why Shakespeare give harbors to inland Italian cities (they were on well-traveled rivers connected by intricate systems of canals). He finds actual inns, houses, and churches referenced in the plays and long languishing in obscurity (and yes, this goes well beyond Juliet’s celebrated and embellished balcony in Verona–did you know that there in actually no mention of a balcony in the stage directions or text of the “balcony scene” from Romeo and Juliet?) Perhaps most intriguingly, Roe locates A Midsummer Night’s Dream in an Italian city–Sabbioneta, Lombardy, the so-called “Piccola Atena.”

For lovers of Shakespeare and lovers of Italy alike, this is a captivating and compelling book that will make you want to take a trip to Italy and re-read the plays where Richard Paul Roe says they were conceived, and even possibly written.

The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic AncestryThe Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry by Bryan Sykes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed reading Sykes’ account of how he used the mitochondrial DNA that is passed down unchanged from mother to daughter to trace our evolutionary roots as humans. After using the minute mutations that occasionally occur in mitochondrial DNA to track the route of colonization of the original inhabitants of the Polynesian islands, Sykes manages to extract DNA from Ice Man, an early man who perished in Italy’s alpine snow 5000 years ago. Even more remarkably, he went on to identify an ordinary British woman as the genetic descendant of Ice Man. After that, he expands the project into an exploration of the genetic heritage of Europe, tracing modern Europeans back to seven individual women.

The science in this book is very engaging by itself, and Sykes really should have left it at that. Instead, he concludes with several schmaltzy chapters in which he imagines a completely fictitious history for each of these “seven daughters of Eve,” and then launches into an incurably sentimental attempt to emotionally connect his readers with their distant ancestors.

Read the first half, and if you can’t skip the last chapters, skim like I did.

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The Three Billy Goats Gruff

These are our newest little friends. We recently met them through a passion we share: raw goat milk. We first got hooked on raw milk back when Tony was going to school at B.Y.U. Every week, I would drive with baby Axa out to a farm in Payson to see the gentle jersey cows and pick up a couple of gallons of what could most accurately be described as “liquid flowers.” When we spent a year in Washington State, raw cow milk was unavailable, so we were introduced to the glorious earthy decadence that is raw goat milk. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when we moved to our little 1-acre “farm” in Fallbrook, and became the delighted owners of two lovely (albeit devious) la mancha goats.

Every time we move somewhere new, one of the first things we look for is whence we can source raw milk. In fact, one of the first times I correctly deciphered a sign in Italy was when I saw the wonderful and almost unbelievable words “latte crudo” over a small shop. It actually was a store selling raw milk, icy cold out of a vending machine, as well as fresh mozzarella, scamorza, and creamy ricotta. Heaven.

Here in Florida, we have been even luckier than usual. Only fifteen minutes away, we can drive to an adorable little farm for our milk.

Westwood Farm specializes in Nigerian Dwarf Goats, which are perfect little miniature dairy-type goats. Fortunately, we have a strict HOA, or after our first visit to the farm, we might have come home with a pet goat.

Aren’t they just too cute for words? This one is only a couple of weeks old, and Axa and I were both utterly smitten.

Goats are naturally friendly and inquisitive, and these have been bottle-raised. So they love people, and think everyone is coming to bring them a snack.

They are agile and love to play. Here at the farm, every goat pen looks like a jungle gym.

Here are the wise old mamma goats, who give us our weekly milk. Can’t you just tell how much personality they have?

Someday we’ll have goats again!

Fall at the Pumpkin Patch

Last Friday we drove an hour up into the hills to pick fall apples. We filled three buckets with Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Empire, and Rome apples, enough to grandly fulfill Grammy’s dehydrator ambitions, eat all the sweet, crunchy apples we could want, and have apple crisp with vanilla ice cream for family home evening treat tonight.

On the way home, we decided to stop by the pumpkin patch.

We only intended to stay an hour or two, but Murray Family Farms is no ordinary pumpkin patch. It’s a 360-acre autumn extravaganza. After eating our picnic lunch on a shady table outside, we let the children play in a sandbox thing full of field corn. It was actually pretty fun. The corn went down so deep you couldn’t even reach the bottom if you stuck your arm all the way down.

Unfortunately, Tony got so involved in playing in the corn that his wedding ring slipped right off. If you think back to the last time you lost your wedding ring in a bottomless sandbox full of field corn, you will remember that each individual grain of corn feels exactly like a wedding ring when you are running your hands through the corn in a frantic and fruitless search.

Tony eventually gave it up, and got out of the corn box to put his shoes back on and go in the store to see if they had a metal detector. But I was determined to stay in that corn box until I found the ring. I kept thinking about the day I went to get it engraved before we were married, and how I couldn’t imagine replacing it. Corn cascaded around me as I dug furiously for the missing ring. Finally, I glanced over at the corn I had most recently unearthed from the depths, and there it was, glistening on top.

By this time, we had had enough of the corn box, and decided to visit the petting zoo, where we found peacocks, goats, chickens, and a pony. One of the black silkie chickens was running loose, and since we used to have chickens and we’re total experts on taking care of them, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I managed to corner and catch the chicken, and deposited her in the pen containing the only other black silkie chicken on the farm. Unfortunately, the resident chicken immediately and furiously attacked mine. So I let it back out, concluding that maybe leaving well enough alone wasn’t such a bad idea.

The next thing on the agenda for the children was what Murray Farms called a “jumping pillow.” And that’s pretty much what it looked like: a gigantic yellow pillow. Somehow they had filled it with air from underneath, and it made pretty much the awesomest trampoline ever. My favorite thing to watch when they were jumping was their hair. Axa’s was tamed in ponytails,

But Raj’s flew free in the wind!

It was with difficulty that we finally pulled them away from the jumping pillow. Next we navigated the cherry tomato maze, with frequent stops to gobble up handfuls of delicious red, yellow, and purple cherry tomatoes.  The children also spent quite a long time with a rubber duckie race, where each duckie was propelled along by water from an old fashioned red pump. We also tried out the giant rocking horses, the kid-sized spider web climbing toy, and the ant farm.

Then came the actual visit to the pumpkin patch. We piled into the hay wagon, and a tractor pulled us down the road and out to the pumpkin patch.

After an exhaustive search, we chose, of course, the most beautiful pumpkins in the entire several-acre patch.

Then we were ready for home, delayed only by detours in two large corn mazes, and a more-or-less harrowing encounter with Shelob.

Looks like we’re well on our way to a holiday season brimming with good, old-fashioned American culture. Bring it on!

The Dog That Walks By Himself

Perhaps we are in need of a dog after all. Before last week we had no one to steal our socks, lick up spills from the floor, or cover our hands with warm kisses.

I guess we can consider him an “oops baby” of sorts. After further grilling of all our neighbors, we were able to uncover the story of how a little black puppy came to be all alone yelping in the street outside our house. Apparently, the nice old man who lives across the street and spends hours every day sitting outside on his front porch was sitting there as usual two Fridays ago at 7:00 in the morning. A strange car drove down the our dirt road and stopped almost in front of our house. The woman inside the car opened the passenger door, and a dog jumped out. Then she shut the door, drove off, and left him!

Our “found” signs haven’t resulted in any phone calls either, so after two weeks, we are considering Luca officially ours. I hope I’m not starting to sound like one of those dog owners, who can’t talk about anything but their dog, and think the entire world revolves around him. But he is such a little charmer. As far as we can tell, he seems to be a Basenji mix. Here’s a photo of purebred Basenji for reference:

Notice the huge ears and the wrinkly forehead. Luca also has some typical Basenji personality traits. Basenjis are described as independent and curious to the point of being almost cat-like. Supposedly, Basenjis are also the second hardest dog breed to train. I have to confess, Luca doesn’t really act like the labrador retriever guide dog puppies my sister raised. He learns pretty quickly, but his intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate into overly impressive obedience. And I don’t really get the feeling that he worships the ground I walk on. But I know he loves me. He even steals my underwear so he can sleep with it.

Luca does have tons of energy. He gets as much exercise as the rest of our family put together. He runs in the afternoon with Tony, and we take him to the beach to play in the mornings and on our evening family walk. My special time with Luca is our sunrise walk on the beach. The sun comes up over the old city on the rim of a lavender-pink sky, and lines every wave with gold. As we walk along the beach, I can smell everyone’s last Ramadan meal, and see the fishermen already out in their boats. I wouldn’t really feel comfortable out and about by myself at that hour, but with Luca things are great. I’m no longer a foreign woman, just a person with a dog. A fierce, scary dog too.

O.K., so he may not look that fierce, but he has a obvious dislike of strange men, and he doesn’t mind letting them know. Which suits me just fine. Looks like our Luca is here to stay!

photo credit

How Much is that Doggie in the Window?

We are not a family in need of a dog. Yes, it’s true that we’ve always kind of wanted one, but we are certainly not at the point of going out and buying a puppy. In fact, we exercised remarkable restraint a few months ago when the half wild dogs on the beach had six cute little roly-poly puppies, and Rambo kept asking us if we wanted one.

Yesterday, though, as we were heading off for our morning time at the beach, we walked out our front gate to so much yelping I thought there must be a dog fight. It turned out to be just one dog, and not a very big one, at that. He was in the bushes next to our dirt road, and I assumed he must be upset because his owners had left him outside for a few minutes.

When we got back a couple of hours later, he was still there, although no longer yelping. Nobody on the street knew where he had come from. Tony coaxed him out from behind the car where he was hiding, and he was actually quite friendly. It was a warm day, so we gave him some water, since the puddle in the street he had been drinking from had dried up. Tony and I sat down to play with him, and think about what to do for him.

Ever since an incident with a rescued bat three years ago, Tony takes it upon himself  to keep our house from becoming a menagerie. In Italy we did take in a dove after it had a run-in with the neighbor’s dog, which I successfully released a day or two later. And we found an errant turtle a few weeks ago, which lived on our porch for a couple of days, until our landlord gave us another one, and it got to be too many turtles on one little porch. But we’ve not done much rescuing otherwise.

There are plenty of animals in Tunisia in need of rescue. Stray cats abound. Feral dogs too, although they take care of themselves, and I’d be nervous to try to rescue one. In Yasmine Hammamet, where the fancy hotels are, you can walk down the street and see enough sad, mistreated camels, hawks, monkeys, and tiny fennec foxes to make your heart bleed. They’re not really a job for an amateur rescuer, though.

This poor little dog was a simpler matter. He was only a puppy really; dark brown with a cute white tummy, a snippet of white on his forehead, and four little white feet. One of his big ears was ever so slightly adorably droopy, giving him a perpetually vulnerable look. He was obviously lost, not feral, and was even wearing a collar, which we immediately examined for clues. It had a nifty little snap-on identity patch, which said “address on the other side” in Italian. Unfortunately, the other side was blank. Poor thing.

Tony wanted to just feed him on the street, but I voted for bringing him home. Our discussion was interrupted by a little elderly Italian tourist, who was obviously terrified of the puppy, and begged us to keep him away from her. That settled it. What could we do? We took him in and gave him chopped-up boiled eggs and leftover beef stew and couscous, since that was the closest thing we had to dog food in the house.

We were about to go out to the Medina for gelato, and I suggested we bring the puppy, since everyone who comes to Hammamet goes to the Medina. I thought there was at least a chance that his family might see him there, and we might preside over a happy reunion. However, things around the Medina are pretty dead at 8:00 p.m. during Ramadan, since everyone is home eating dinner. We were lucky to even find an open gelateria. The nice Italian woman who scooped our ice cream clucked over the puppy, and gave him a little ice cream cup full of water, and his own ice cream cone (sans gelato).

We left our phone number with her, the Italian restaurant around the corner from our house, and the main hotel in our area of town. Today we made a sign for the public entrance to the beach too. Rambo is on the case, although we suspect that he’s not so much interested in finding the puppy’s family as finding a buyer and making some cash off the poor lost puppy. We’ll watch for funny business. I’m sure the poor owners are frantic. We hope we’ll be able to find them.

In the meantime, he’s sleeping at the foot of my bed, all tuckered out from a morning playing at the beach. Since he’s presumably Italian, I’ve been calling him Luca, after my favorite Italian singer. We are not a family in need of a dog. But if the worst happens, and his own family can’t be found, I’m afraid we’ve completely lost our hearts to Luca.

Let the Chickens Stay

Have I told you how much I love our landlord? We have lived in a lot of different places since we were married, and had some pretty interesting experiences with landlords. So I know how to appreciate a good one. Ours is a doctor, who (for us at least) does house calls. He fixed Tony up with the proper medications after an unfortunate run-in with a hammam foot fungus. He doesn’t tell us to turn off the lights or take short showers, despite the fact that our utilities are included in the rent. He doesn’t try to give me lessons in cleaning. He loves our children, and has never once complained that they are noisy. In fact, while we were moving into our new apartment, he arranged Axa’s room just how she wanted it, and let her help.

The new apartment is another thing I love about him. Planning ahead is not really our strong point. Three months ago, we rented his apartment until the end of June, because we weren’t sure at the time where we would be going afterward. Turns out that we’re not going anywhere. Unfortunately, July is pretty much the most awful time to try to find a place to stay in Tunisia. Housing is scarce, especially in our beach town, and prices quadruple, or worse. In fact, many Tunisians in the area move out of their houses for these two months so they can rent them out to tourists at top dollar (or top euro or pound, as is more generally the case). Tourism may be down, but Hammamet is still getting pretty crowded with unfamiliar faces these days.

So we were thrilled when the Doctor found us another place for the exact same price. The icing on the cake? It was only two doors down. So yes, we will still be able to watch the camels walk down our street in the evening.

We were able to just walk our stuff over (and wonder how we had accumulated so much extra stuff in only a few months). He also gave us the keys a couple of days early, so we could have plenty of time to move. There’s actually a lot of icing on this cake. We now have a balcony off our bedroom, which I have always wanted and never had. Our kids have their own rooms again, which is wonderful for bedtime. And we even have one of those under-the-stairs closets, which of course had to be immediately emptied and made into a playroom for the children, bringing back fond memories of the house where Dominique was born in Vancouver, Washington.

Much to Axa’s and Dominique’s delight, a few days ago the Doctor got six chickens. One escaped and made it into our yard during the very first evening. It was just like old times on the farm in Fallbrook, California. Unfortunately, there was one person who was not happy about the chickens. Alistair, our elderly British downstairs neighbor, promptly announced that he has an “irrational fear” of chickens, and that he “absolutely loathes” them. The next day, they disappeared! Whether the Doctor was persuaded, or there was foul play by Alistair (I couldn’t resist the pun), we still don’t know. But the fact is, the chickens are gone.

It reminded us all too much of when our new neighbor Bob objected to our rooster. He had just moved to rural Fallbrook from posh Coronado Island, where uncivilized things like chickens are prohibited by city ordinance. His realtor had somehow convinced him that his house was located in an exclusive San Diego development, when really it was just across the street from a lot of avocado and orange groves, and us and our acre of goats and chickens. First he tried to reason with us by insisting that keeping livestock was an unworthy pursuit for intelligent people. Then he threatened to call child protective services and make up stories about us and our children. Finally, we got tired of his antics and just got rid of our rooster. It was a sad, sad day when we said goodbye to The Great Achilles, who had been the glossy iridescent black absolute monarch of our little farm.

We’re going to tell the Doctor that if Alistair doesn’t like his chickens, he can keep them at our new house. Because everyone deserves to have a pet chicken, especially people as nice as our landlord.

The Little Prince

“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince. “There is a flower… I think that she has tamed me…”

The Little Prince is one of my favorite books. Gentle, whimsical, yet wise and illuminating. I checked it out on audio for Axa last week. When I asked her, she said she didn’t like it so much. It’s not “battle-y” enough. “Battle-y” is her own term, and her main criterion for literature. That’s why The Iliad for Children, The Lord of the Rings, and chapters and chapters of the Bible and Book of Mormon make the cut. And The Little Prince does not.

All of her clothes are pink, I promise. We don’t encourage this. Well, not too much at least. There was the shield she got for Christmas and all the stick bows I string with dental floss for her. And I guess I was the one who burned the battle-y books on her mp3 player and read Lord of the Rings to her and told her stories from the Aeneid.

Here’s my defense: Raj wears blue and camouflage and listens to all the same books and stories as Axa. He received a shield for Christmas too. But he turns to me, full of concern, as I read him Mother Goose, and assures me that he will give food to Mother Hubbard’s dog.

I guess we don’t go in too much for stereotypes here. Although perhaps if I had eight children split evenly I might be able to draw some generalizations. I only have one of each. Almost le choix du roi (a son to inherit and solidify the kingdom, and a daughter marry off and expand it). Although if you ask Axa, she’s definitely planning to inherit the kingdom.

There are some things that can compete with battles even still. We had decided not to acquire any more animals, and Tony only relented at the last minute, but yesterday I became the proud owner of an adorable little freecycled hamster. He’s just a baby, I think, and he came free with cage, bedding and food. His own little compact world. I just can’t stop myself from looking at him over and over and snuggling his little cute furryness. Axa and Raj are both entranced too. And when we were considering his christening this morning, Axa said, “let’s call him The Little Prince.”

Spring is the mischief in her

We have two goats. Sweet Betsy, as her name implies, is a patient, gentle creature who trip-traps tidily to the milking stand and back. While Sweet Betsy is the intelligent one who jailbreaks them periodically from every fastener we put on their gate (she’s currently working on a combination lock), she does sedately allow herself to be returned to her pen when discovered truant.

Not so Hershey. Her flighty mind is not fitted for the painstaking care of opening fences. But once she has escaped, she prances like one possessed. I amble in her general direction with my rope, speaking to her calmly as if we were friends. She watches me intently, and then just before I get close enough to slip the rope over her head, the devilish gleam surfaces in her eye. She feints right, leaps left, and scampers away to safety. Then she makes for the top of the compost heap to crown herself queen of the mountain, lording it over me as I trudge after her. This charade is repeated several times in a row, until I am forced to call out reinforcements. With one small child on either side of me, I am finally able to herd her back into her pen, where she continues to prance, tossing her head rakishly at me.

Here there are no cows. But our goats will eat your apples, rosebushes, and yes, the cones under your pines. And even a good fence won’t keep them in forever.

Chickens

At present, we have five lovely little hens that were gifted to us last month. We’re enjoying them very much, but three of them are too young to lay eggs, and one is suspected of being hermaphrodite. So one lone chicken is shouldering the heavy burden of laying eggs for the Familia family. She does her best, no doubt, but we get around one egg every three days. Split between four people . . . well, you get the picture. We’re still buying eggs.

But last night we were given another wonderful family of chickens. We haven’t brought them home yet, but we’ve named them. Two are the cute, chubby kind with black and white barred feathers. Tony christened those ones Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Axa named the two strikingly dark red hens The Foxy Ladies. And I claimed the privilege of naming the two golden pheasant-type chickens Demeter and Persephone (continuing in the same vein as Venus and Daphne, two of our current chickens). But most wonderful of all is the large black iridescent rooster. Several weeks ago, Axa had said when we got a rooster he would be named High King Peter. But when she saw him, she decided it didn’t fit. Not at all. He is as tall as her waist, and utterly fearless. After some deliberation, she decided he would be called The Great Achilles. Ironic, I thought. Being a rooster, I would say his heel is his very least vulnerable part.

Hopefully, all the chickens get along. And hopefully, I’ll soon stop buying eggs.