Thursday, February 28, 2013

bookshelf as personal history

I thought it might be fun to visually document my bookshelves, a bookshelf as personal history of sorts. That we might be the sum of what we've read, re reading, or are planning, hoping someday to read. Even the books that we thought we might like to read, but gave up on. I'll post a photo and a list from time to time, as a way to keep track. My only fear is that as I rediscover some of my old favorites I might want to start re-reading them and my to-read pile will never get any smaller ...


'Salem's Lot, Stephen King - this was the first book I read by Stephen King as an adult. As a teen in high school we all passed around Carrie. It's still my favorite of his books so far. I love the quick but accurate character sketches of the people of 'Salem's Lot and their small town life, which quickly turns very, very scary and creepy.

The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens - this was my father's book. I took most of his books when he died. He was very into poetry in his later years, and Stevens was one of his favorites, along with Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Dickinson.

The Naked Man, Claude Lévi-Strauss - this book was so important for me when I was doing more visual art, painting, drawing, and collage. I loved Joseph Campbell and his ideas about how so many myths from so many different cultures and religions have similar themes, but somehow this book by Lévi-Strauss really made that argument more clearly and more interesting for me. Focusing on North and South American Indan mythology, The Naked Man is a scholarly text, but also fascinating and involving.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson - I love short stories, especially ones with supernatural or ghostly themes. This is a paperback that I picked up and forgot about, so now having unearthed it, I will finally read it — it's moved from the bookcase to the bedside table — that's progress in the to-read pile.

Catwings Return, Ursula K. Le Guin - I loved reading these books with my daughter and am now reminded that I need to dive into Le Guin's Earthsea series, which has also been in my to-read stack for way too long.

Looks like I have some books to read ...

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

murder in the rue dumas

Article first published as Book Review: Murder in the Rue Dumas: A Verlaque and Bonnet Mystery by M. L. Longworth on Blogcritics.

Penguin has released in paperback Murder in the Rue Dumas, the second in a series of detective novels by author M. L. Longworth featuring the Chief Magistrate of Aix-en-Provence, Judge Antoine Verlaque. The first novel, Death at the Chateau Bremont, centered around a family with old secrets and was a bit of a closed room murder mystery. For her second novel Longworth keeps the reader (mostly) in town, as a teacher at the University is murdered, and Verlaque, with the help of his law professor girlfriend Marine Bonnet, sorts out the clues to catch the killer.

The case centers around a prestigious academic scholarship, forged artwork, and professional reputations - all of which may have played a part in the murder of theology Professor Moutte. As much as most of their questions center around university life, Verlaque and Bonnet also have occasion to leave their beloved Aix and travel up and down the coast of southern France, to Paris, and take a side trip to Italy to solve the mystery. But more importantly, the reader is treated to the various dishes and especially the wines that the pair always find time sample during the course of their investigations.

Longworth deftly portrays a large cast of characters (some of them suspects), including theology students, professors, and friends and neighbors of Verlaque and Bonnet, including police commissioner Bruno Paulik, the chief magistrate's right hand. As interesting as the university milieu, and as intricate as the mystery are, what provides the most pleasure in reading Murder in the Rue Dumas is Longworth's description of Verlaque and Bonnet's daily lives - their up-and-down romance, their conversations, and their relationship to food and wine. The author vividly depicts the town of Aix-en-Provence, its markets, its citizens, and its glorious food. One can practically smell the freshly-baked croissants and savor the espresso on Verlaque's breakfast table.

It might add to the enjoyment of reading Murder in the Rue Dumas if one has taken a trip to the south of France, but it is certainly not necessary (although a map of Aix would have been welcome). The experience of reading Murder in the Rue Dumas is definitely enjoyable, whether one is a Francophile or not. And happily for fans of this delightful series is the news that the third book in the Verlaque and Bonnet series, Death in the Vines, is set to be released this July. Bon!
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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

tell a fairy tale day

Today is Tell A Fairy Tale Day. My mom read all sorts of books and poems to us when my brother and I were little, from Dr. Seuss to Robert Luis Stevenson, to Winnie the Pooh and beyond. But my favorites were always fairy tales. Not just tales of princesses and witches, but the Greek myths and folklore from many different countries. Here are some of the most wonderful books of my childhood, which I read to (and with) my daughter today. I have to admit that I still enjoy the stories and especially the pictures, as much now as ever.

D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths - Husband and wife Ingri and Parin D'Aulaire wrote and illustrated many children's books, but this is their highest achievement. Still in print, even paperback, with their gorgeous, lithographic illustrations.


The Tale of The Land of Green Ginger - Noel Langley wrote and illustrated this continuation of Aladdin's story, featuring his son, Abu Ali. If you can, get hold of the original version, unedited (updated), with Langley's wonderful drawings.


Wiseacre Tales, by Mary Moffat, illustrated by "Rosalee." An out-of-print British collection of fairy tales, originally printed in the 1940s, centered around animals. My favorite was "Hoa Mei (Flowery Eyebrows) The Song Thrush of China."

Many Moons - by James Thurber, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, this is a sweet story of an ill little princess who wants to capture the moon outside her window.

Some of my favorite individual fairy tales and myths:

"Snow White and Rose Red" - about two very different sisters who share a common trait, kindness (illustration by Arthur Rackham).

Jason and the Argonauts - the ultimate adventure story, with romance, magic, and monsters galore.

And if you want to check out a more adult take on classic Grimm, Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories is the best modern fairy tale book out there, with her feminist takes on Litte Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard, and much more. A modern classic.
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Monday, February 25, 2013

oscar (yawn) recap

The show started out well, with Seth MacFarlane a surprisingly (to me) funny and appropriate host. Most of his jokes hit their marks. Some were of questionable taste, but that's why you ask Seth MacFarlane to host the Oscars.

But there were some insurmountable obstacles that even the most perfect host couldn't fix. The show is still, always, and forever, just too damn long. It's time to bite the bullet and dump a lot of the awards that frankly no one really cares about. The show isn't an over-bloated spectacle because of the length of the acceptance speeches (and cutting them short with the theme from Jaws, really?), or even the musical numbers or dearly departed tribute. It's because of the overly long list of awards. The most avid film geeks could watch such "technical" awards online. The Golden Globes manages to get it all done, both television and film awards, in three hours, and that's still too long.

Four hours is just ridiculous, Oscar. Enough, already. We're just tuning in for the stars and outfits anyway. I did like the Channing Tatum/Charlize Theron Fred and Ginger routine, however. And congrats to Jennifer Lawrence, DDL, Ben Affleck, etc.

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

from a recent zoo visit ...

Hanging out near the Mayan temple.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

the month-long birthday celebration continues

Believe it or not, the kid has never been to Chuck E. Cheese. There wasn't one close to where we used to live in D.C., and most of the birthday parties we went to were hosted at the homes of her friends. So when I asked her what she would like to do this year to celebrate her last single-digit birthday, she asked to go to Chuck E. Cheese and I of course said, "O.K."

It was utter mayhem and she had a wonderful time. I have to admit I did, too. I mean Skee Ball. Took me right back to my childhood arcade days on the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore.




Happy birthday, darlin'.
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Friday, February 22, 2013

you can take the girl out of jersey ...

... but the ability to play Skee Ball is something one never forgets.

And the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

downton abbey is a cruel mistress

Everyone who's interested has already watched the season finale of Downton Abbey, in all of its "Who Shot J.R.?" glory. Yes, folks, that was a heckuva cliffhanger. Not so much considering the fate of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who we (sob) saw dead at the side of the road. The real suspense for next season involves the rest of the Downton crew. How will Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) handle being a 1920s-era single mom? Will she sink into a deep depression and ignore her newborn son? Will she become a dedicated mom to honor her dead husband? Will she go off the rails and become a flapper with a vengeance? Will she ever be nice to her sister, poor Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael)?

But Mary is hardly the only one who will be affected by Matthew's death. Will Downton revert to his progeny, or is their another far-flung relative to cause problems on the horizon? Only show creator Julian Fellowes knows for sure. What about all of Matthew's modernistic designs for the estate? Will Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and his father-in-law the Earl (Hugh Bonneville) manage to carry on with his plans? That is, without killing each other? There are plenty of other cliffhangers too. Edith is considering surrendering her virtue to a married man. She truly is the most thoroughly modern Crawley. Cousin Rose (Lily James) is on her way to Downton as a ward of sorts, and will certainly keep the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and her aunt, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), busy trying to prevent her getting into too much trouble. Good luck with that, ladies.

Hello, and goodbye
Anyone who has internet access had probably heard that Dan Stevens was leaving the show. Even if one assiduously avoids spoilers, there were only a few ways this could be accomplished; by shipping the character off somewhere, re-casting, or killing him off. Suddenly Downton Abbey is treading on Game of Thrones territory, with two major characters gone this season — Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) also wanted out at the end of her three-year contract.

What I found most annoying about Matthew's fate, apart from the cheap theatrics of it all, was how it minimized some really nice moments that happened earlier in the episode. Viewers may have been a little bored or confused at first by the Crawleys' trip to Scotland, but the payoff was well worth it. They got to see Molesley (Kevin Doyle) drunk dance, O'Brien possibly secure a new post for herself in India (Siobhan Finneran has also been rumored to be leaving the show), and most importantly, see the Earl realize how good exactly he has it at Downton, as he learned his friend "Shrimpie" (father of Rose, played by Peter Egan) was losing the family manse and going to live out his days in an Indian outpost with a wife (Phoebe Nicholls) he doesn't love who doesn't love him. Back at Downton, the local fair attended by the (mostly) downstairs crowd afforded some both amusing and touching interactions between characters, and continued Thomas's story in an interesting way. Part stalker, part hero, he may have finally found a way to connect to his crush, James (Edward Speleers) — by being his friend. Rob-James Collier was very touching when he asked the young footman if that was a possibility. Thomas has certainly gone from a character you love to hate to one you might not want to admit it, but are starting to love.

Scenes like that are what make Downton Abbey addictive. Matthew's shocking demise may get everyone talking, but what will keep me tuning in next season are the changing times and how they continue to affect the characters, upstairs and down. I will miss Matthew, too. Sigh.
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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

poirot and marple — fan favorites

Acorn Media has released Agatha Christie's Poirot & Marple: Fan Favorites Collection on DVD. Acorn asked fans to vote for their favorite Christie mysteries, and have now packaged the results in an excellent six-disc collection.

David Suchet is the ultimate Hercule Poirot. He portrays the dapper Belgian detective with flair, humor, and intelligence. The Art Deco period sets and locations just enhance the experience. The six feature-length Poirot mysteries on three discs also feature Poirot's inimitable allies Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson), and Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran), Poirot's uber-efficient secretary. Some well-known guest stars also appear.

All six Poirot episodes are excellent, but Acorn wisely starts things off with "Murder on the Orient Express," a superb interpretation of Christie's classic whodunit, and one of the best in the entire series. Originally broadcast in 2010, with such recognizable guest stars as Jessica Chastain, Eileen Atkins, Hugh Bonneville, and Barbara Hershey, Poirot must determine who has brutally murdered an extremely unpleasant man named Ratchett (Toby Jones), a fellow passenger on the Orient Express. The claustrophobic environment (the train is stalled on the tracks during a blizzard), and the wide array of suspects, makes for a perfect Christie "closed room" murder. Suchet also gets the opportunity to explore parts of his character, such as Poirot's advancing age and his faith, in more depth than in other episodes of the series.

The rest of the episodes in the collection are from earlier in the series, but all have their great points as well. "Hercule Poirot’s Christmas," from 1995, features one of Christie's more grisly murders. Poirot is a reluctant house guest of the rich and elderly Simeon Lee (Vernon Dobtcheff), who has hired the detective to "observe" his family over the Christmas holiday. The audience may not care about the victim, who is one of Christie's most unlikeable characters, but they will enjoy the subtle humor and clever resolution to the crime, which, in typical Christie fashion, has been hiding in plain sight all along.

1990's "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" is a post-WWI story involving Poirot and his friend Hastings, renewing their wartime friendship over a country house murder. It is as humorous as it is clever, and the viewer can enjoy watching Poirot tease his friend Hastings' less-than-stellar deductive properties, while marveling at how the little Belgian detective manages to keep up with the story's twists and turns before he catches the killer.

"The ABC Murders," originally broadcast in 1992, is one of Christie's more interesting plots. She sets Poirot on the trail of a serial killer with an alphabet fetish. Poirot must get into the mind of the killer, his focus more on psychology this time out than motive. Can Poirot, Japp, Hastings, and a band of interested parties - the loved ones of the killer's victims - form an effective detective squad and stop the self-named "ABC" before he strikes again?

Christie loved to send Poirot around the world, reflecting her own journeys with archaeologist husband Max Mallowan. In 1993's "The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb," an Egyptian tomb in the Valley of the Kings seems to be cursed as members of an excavation party keep dying. Poirot and Hastings travel to Egypt to discover the real culprit behind the series of mysterious deaths at an archaeological site. The locations and settings are as top-notch as ever, and the episode manages to successfully combine the Egyptomania of the period with Poirot's (and Christie's) truly ingenious solution.

The final Poirot mystery is one of Suchet's earliest outings as the character, it is 1989's "Four and Twenty Blackbirds." Viewers are treated to more aspects of Poirot's finicky character (the man must be a Virgo), especially regarding his relationship towards food, and his odd couple friendship with Japp, as the pair try to discover if there is something fishy behind the recent deaths of two estranged brothers. Are their deaths, which occurred within days of one another, coincidence or murder? Poirot's favorite restaurant, also a haunt of one of the brothers, and an unconventional artist's model, provide both exquisite period detail as well as clues to the solution of the mystery.

As for the Marple end of things, actresses Geraldine McEwan (right) and Julia McKenzie (below) offer their interpretations of the deceptively sweet Miss Marple. Christie's small-town busybody sleuth appears in five feature-length episodes from the Marple series in this set. The first three mysteries feature McEwan, and the last two McKenzie. Miss Marple's village of St. Mary Mead and its murderous denizens are portrayed in beautiful period detail, but the elderly sleuth does get out and about to solve a mystery or two. These interpretations of Christie's stories have also noticeably upped the sex angle. Sex and romance was always a feature in Christie's original tales, but the author tended to allude to such relationships more daintily than the way in which they are depicted herein.

The first episode, "The Murder at the Vicarage," originally broadcast in 2004, features the usually cuddly Derek Jacobi as the bombastic Colonel Protheroe, a self-important bigwig in St. Mary Mead. Protheroe almost seems to ask to be murdered, as he huffs and puffs his way through the village, and soon enough someone eagerly complies. Miss Marple must sort through a list of suspects who also happen to be her very good friends and neighbors--played by such talents as Janet McTeer, Jason Flemyng, and Rachael Stirling--before she can come up with a solution to the crime.

2005's "A Murder Is Announced" has Miss Marple trying to sort out why a "murder game," intended for an evening's entertainment, turned chillingly real. McEwan's Marple is more of the annoying little old lady next door than Agatha Christie's kindly, fluffy elderly spinster, who always seemed to be knitting something fuzzy in blue or pink. But her nosiness serves her well as she sorts out the complex relationships of the guests at the house party and discovers who is responsible. As with all the Marple episodes, the casting is first-rate, with such guest stars as Zoë Wanamaker, Matthew Goode, Cherie Lunghi, and Sienna Guillory.

The final McEwan Marple episode in the collection, 2007's "At Bertram’s Hotel," bears little resemblance to the original Christie story, apart from Miss Marple's affection for London's Bertram's Hotel. If Christie fans can tolerate the changes to the story, there is a lot to enjoy, especially the period atmosphere of the hotel and its regular and transient guests, played by such great actors as Francesca Annis, Polly Walker, and Peter Davison.

Julia McKenzie takes over as Marple in "A Pocket Full of Rye," which was originally broadcast in 2008. This adaptation features a much more down-to-earth Miss Marple. Here, she is tasked with determining who wanted a wealthy businessman (Kenneth Cranham) dead — and the list of suspects is quite long. But her job is also a quite personal one as young maid named Gladys, from St. Mary Mead, has been murdered as well. McKenzie's Marple is sharp as ever, but perhaps without the acerbic edge that McEwan brought to the role. The impressive list of guest stars includes Rupert Graves, Matthew MacFadyen, and Helen Baxendale.

The final Marple episode in the collection is 2010's "The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side." One of the best entries in the Marple series, the mystery finds the villagers of St. Mary Mead starstruck when a Hollywood actress (Lindsay Duncan), and her director husband, move to town. Joanna Lumley is clearly having a blast as Miss Marple's dear friend Dolly Bantry, and although the story has some quite tragic elements, there is an overall feeling of brightness and fun to the episode. Caroline Quentin and Hugh Bonneville guest star, and McKenzie proves that she truly is Marple in this third filmed adaptation of the novel (previous entries featured Joan Hickson and Angela Lansbury).

The mysteries in the collection are in all color, 16:9 widescreen format, with stereo sound, and SDH subtitles. The Poirot set has a total running time of approximately 503 minutes and the Marple set approximately 463 minutes. The Marple set includes a bonus booklet insert that includes the recipe for the "Delicious Death" chocolate cake featured in "A Murder Is Announced."

Acorn has released all of the individual mysteries before, and has done so in a wide array of sets. Even so, Agatha Christie's Poirot and Marple: Fan Favorites Collection is a boon for folks who want to dabble in the Agatha Christie mysteries, or who are missing a few of the full sets. The quality of the DVDs is as high as ever, and fans of Christie and British mystery should experience hours of enjoyment from this collection.
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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

number 9 ...

Happy birthday, nine year-old girl. As lovely today as ever. But boy, time sure does fly ...


At the Hirshhorn

Mounts Botanical Garden



Monday, February 18, 2013

pre-birthday smile

, originally uploaded by xoxoxoe.

She's 8 for just one more day ...

Sunday, February 17, 2013


One of our favorite programs at our local library is storytime — for dogs. The kid signs up and picks a book and then the pampered pup gets to cuddle up and hear a story. It's great fun for all involved.

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

a smile for a saturday

, originally uploaded by xoxoxoe.
Always welcome.

Friday, February 15, 2013

hope springs (no, not the one with meryl streep)

Romantic comedies get a lot of flack, but when they're done right, they can truly be a lot of fun. An example of a nice little rom-com I caught recently on cable is Hope Springs, a 2003 British film directed by Mark Herman (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Brassed Off, Little Voice), and set in a a New England town of Hope, Vermont — one of those quirky little towns populated by friendly eccentrics that only seem to exist in the movies.

A British artist named Colin (Colin Firth), after a traumatic dumping by his long-term fiancee Vera (Minnie Driver), decides to move as far away as he can from the source of his pain, to America. He choses the town of Hope as a good omen of a fresh start in a place with a positive name. He checks into a hotel where the proprietor, Joanie (Mary Steenburgen) thinks she might have just the cure for what ails him — she goes about trying to set him up with her best friend, a home nursing aide named Mandy (Heather Graham). The stuffy Colin is at first put off by the free-spirited Mandy, but the two soon fall for each other and all is hunky-dory until Vera decides that she wants Colin after all and shows up in Hope, determined to get him back.

Colin woos Mandy with a butterfly ring.
"You can't smoke on the golf course."
Being a romantic hero requires some heavy lifting.

Colin tries to describe Vera to Joanie:

Joanie, "And she's English?"
Colin, "Welsh. Well, half Welsh."
Joanie, "Half Welsh and half ..."
Colin, "Monster."

Hope Springs is a very gentle-humored movie — it's main running joke centers around Vera being told by everyone she meets, whether indoors or out, that she can't smoke — but it is all so good-natured that it's hard not to like the film and its cast of characters. Also on hand are Frank Collison (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Big Year), as Fisher, Joanie's loving husband, and Oliver Platt as Hope's locally ambitious mayor.
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