Sunday, September 27, 2009

Singing a Novel in Blues

I recently read The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. It was, as most books are (at least in part), a story about relationships, the family you're born with, the family you make, friendship and love. This story is set in the bayous of Eastern Texas (I hadn't realized before this that Texas had bayous at all, though after looking at a map, I feel like I should have figured that out long ago.) and the stories of family and friendship are played out through an abused dog, an abandoned cat and her kittens. I truly enjoyed the book and so when I trotted off to find a link to it, I decided to take a look at what other people had to say. Some loved it, others found it mediocre. But what surprised me were the most negative reviews. Those readers complained that the book was insufferably slowed by repetition, annoyingly full of lists and, according to a few readers, "condescending."

I know interpretation is a personal thing and so on, but I think a lot of the people irked by the book are missing something. They're reading the text as words on a page, instead of hearing the story, either in their minds or spoken aloud. See, The Underneath is a pretty good book on paper, but when you read it aloud, it becomes amazing. It's full of myths and folktales (I'm going with 'folkmyths' for the rest of this post, because they both seem to be present) and draws on blues music so heavily that with only minimal work, you could probably turn this novel into a (long) song. These are the things that stayed with me through this novel, so they're the ones I'm going to discuss.

If you read The Underneath aloud, the traditions Appelt draws on show up in full force, both the Blues and folkmyths. The blues in particular are explicitly invoked early on, when Ranger's song draws the calico cat to him:
Oh, I woke up on this bayou,
Got a chain around my heart,
Yes, I'm sitting on this bayou
Got a chain tied round my heart...

This kind of repetition is present throughout the whole novel. The stories in it are told and re-told like the song - each iteration is like the others, but not quite the same. Something is added or altered - little details from before become whole stories in their own right; another character retells an earlier story. Bit by bit, the story grows.

In the reviews I read, Appelt's tendency to list things (particularly trees) draws frequent criticism. I can see where the impatient reader might find these lists tedious, but they add to the melodic tone of the book and again draw on a common feature of folkmyths and fairytales. Medieval tales in particular feature extensive lists1 while Grimm's Fairytales (the unaltered versions) are full of repetition.2 Appelt's listing of trees pulls from this tradition, but diverges from its typical use. Her lists of trees are not so much as list as an invocation: the trees are witnesses to the events of the bayou and Appelt calls on them to help tell the story. As the tale says, "Trees are the keepers of stories." One loblolly pine becomes a character in its own right. The novel tells/sings its entire life story, from a tiny seed to a lightning struck, hollowed out trunk, to its final end when it falls into the bayou, abandoned by its branches and roots.

Appelt even finds a way to turn this invocation and repetition into one of the most familiar elements of any fairytale: "A tree's memory is long, stored in its knots and bark and pulp. Ask the trees and they will take you back a thousand years...." Now perhaps this is just me, but that sounds like a tree's version of "once upon a time."3

The repetition in this novel, with the traditions of blues music and folkmyths behind it, helps pull a sweet story about a makeshift family of animals into the realm of the folkmyths it draws upon. I can see how this reiteration could frustrate those who like faster-paced stories, but it is not condescending. If anything, it is the reverse: the Appelt clearly expects her audience to understand the traditions upon which she is drawing and to see how they add to the story.

And to all those frustrated by the repetition and pace, I really do suggest that you try reading the story aloud. It's an entirely different experience.

1) You haven't read a list until you've read the Mabinogion or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Half a dozen trees have nothing on a list of all the knights with all their abilities, the names of their fathers, horses, swords and dogs. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has a particularly lengthy section on a feast, listing off all the foods eaten, what they were served on (particular mention is made of the eating utensils) and how the feasting hall was decorated while the Mabinogion has a list of knights ("The Catalog of Arthur's Companions") that goes on for several pages including such names as "Sight, son of Seer," "Boar, son of Restless" and "Watch, son of Watch-dog.")

2) "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" is a particularly striking example of this kind of repetition. Nearly everything happens in threes.

3) There is an entire essay - and a lengthy one at that - waiting to be written about the bayou/setting (trees included) as a character in this novel, but I will leave that to someone else.

Links for the interested to the book's page on Goodreads and on Amazon.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Coherency, I has it.

I keep planning to post and then Real Life keeps happening. Therefore, bullet point update. (Plus a very nifty word.)

I have:

- settled on a topic for my first self-assigned paper. 5 page close reading of the excellent Fever 1793. Self-assigned due date is October 9.

- read The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. I'll be writing a mini-essay about that, too. Self-assigned due date: tomorrow, as the book is due. I always check out more than I can actually read.

- been frustrated by the fact that I can finish a hat in 48 hours, but in 2 months of work on my shawl, I've only made 7in. of knitting.

- enjoyed the first cider of the season.

- sorted out issues with my Bryn Mawr account. I can now use off-campus access to get to the Oxford English Dictionary! (I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I am about this. My love for the OED knows no bounds. It's like Wikipedia, but just for words. I go in and don't come out until half an hour later.)

- cooked very little. The kid sister wants biscuits; I am tired of making biscuits, but I feel guilty about making anything else. I did make chocolate chip cookies. They spread out too much, but were delicious anyway.

- discovered One Note. Absolutely made for organizing research and my hyperlinked brain. I'm in love.

- been nominated (kind of by myself, kind of not) for Word Nerd Knight of the Month which means I get this shiny little graphic:

Bonus! Word of the day, because the OED is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Palus: A marsh, a fen. In archaic usage, an abyss.
From Anglo-Norman palud, then Middle French palus

Discovered playing the "you can only change one letter" game online, when I was making sure I wouldn't break the game. (My word was 'pacus,' a type of South American fish.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Dumplings are Delicious

My family and I enjoyed an excellent dumpling dinner a couple nights ago. I poked and prodded the internet for a recipe that sounded like it would suit our tastes. Everything, of course, had ginger in it and my little sister is allergic, so that was going to be an obvious adaptation. Eventually, I found this delicious recipe from An Intimate Hunger. Posted below is my adaptation of that recipe. I advise going to her blog to check out the original, especially because I'm not posting the recipe for her dipping sauce here and it's excellent with the dumplings. Also, these dumplings are sweeter than most, because of the way I tweaked the recipe.

1 Pkg won-ton wrappers (We got about 50 in our package)
1 lb ground pork
2/3 T Cardamom
1/3 T Cinnamon
1/4 t Chile Powder (I used Ancho Chile Powder because it's what I had on hand. This particular variety has very little heat, but makes the other flavors richer. Vary this to suit your tastes.)
2 T green onion, minced (I prefer my onion chopped fine, but tiny little minced up bits aren't strictly necessary.)
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 T soy sauce
1 T sesame oil
1 large egg, beaten
Half an apple, grated (or more, if you like less pork and more fruit.)

Flour for dusting.

Be aware that you'll probably want a cookie sheet by the end of this. If you don't have one, get out the wax paper, because you're going to want it.

Mince up your green onions and throw them in the microwave for roughly 30 seconds to soften them up. Then, in a large bowl, combine all the ingredients EXCEPT FLOUR well. The best way to do this is to dig your hands down into the raw pork and work everything together. It is disgusting, but effective.

Refrigerate for 1/2 hour to an hour to let the flavors meld a bit.

In the meantime, make the dipping sauce.

Dust your cookie sheet or wax paper with flour. Keep a bunch of flour handy, because you're going to need to put more down. Won-ton wrappers are designed to get sticky when wet, so when water gets on your folding/wrapping surface (and it will), you need to soak it up with flour or your won-ton wrappers will rip open and you will have ruined, or at least marred, your dumpling. And that would be sad.

Have a small bowl of water handy, and a brush for brushing water on to the wrapper. Lay out your first won ton wrapper and brush the edges with water. Or the whole wrapper. Both the author of the original recipe and I just brushed water over the entire wrapper and it came out just fine. Using a spoon, place a heaping (or more or less, depending on the size of your wrappers) teaspoon of your pork mixture off-center in the wrapper, fold one half over the other and press the edges together to form a tight seal. I say off-center because it makes it easier to fold the won-ton wrapper over. Place on floured surface and continue through the rest of the wrappers and pork.

Get some steaming apparatus going. I used a frying pan with a vegetable steamer placed into it and scrounged up a lid that fit. It fit 8 dumplings at a time. Put your dumplings in and steam for 20 minutes.


Here's what mine looked like after steaming:

That's the second batch of dumplings. I only got one from the first batch because my family ate the rest without me.

I used up the entire package of won-ton wrappers, but we certainly did not eat fifty dumplings between the four of us that night. The rest were left on the cookie sheet, covered in plastic wrap and thrown in the freezer until they were completely frozen, then tossed into a zip lock bag. There's half of a one-gallon bag in the freezer and it's full of dumplings. 20 minute snack, appetizer, dinner, whatever.

Go forth and nom! (And if you make your own alterations to this recipe, I would love to hear about them.)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tweet for Literacy - Stories are important (for everyone)

Ms. Twitter UK (for August 2009), Rebecca Woodhead, pointed to Twitter's ability to bring a social element to reading and writing. And today, Cory Doctorow illustrated her point beautifully. Patti Smith, who teaches visually impaired kids, wrote to him to thank him for making one of his novels available as an e-book and licensing it under the Creative Commons license. She turned it into a book in Braille.

Books in Braille seem to be widely available in two genres: little kid's books and Serious Classic Works. Obviously, that leaves a huge gap and it's likely to leave the blind or visually impaired out in the cold when it comes to literature. It's not just that teachers see this as a problem - Smith's students want to read, but there's very little YA literature available in Braille. Stories are important and to my mind, the only thing worse than someone who doesn't care about reading is someone who wants to read, but is, in some way, prevented from doing so. The good news? Three cheers for the internet! Cory Doctorow posted in his blog and tweeted about the issue and so another author, Paula Johansen, sent some of her work as e-books to Patti Smith. Hopefully more authors will follow suit, because everyone deserves to have stories.

Relevant links, for the interested:

Cory Doctorow's Post & Tweet
Word Nerd Army Issue 7: Twitter Brings a Social Element to Reading and Writing
Word Nerd Army Issue 10: Stories are Important

And something I can and will plug at every opportunity: The Literacy Site Seriously, you click a button on a website once a day and a kid gets a book. Easiest way to support literacy ever.

EDIT: If you want to help with textbooks (apparently fiction is not on the agenda unless in an academic anthology), check out Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic and consider volunteering if you can get to one of their training centers.[full post]

Monday, September 7, 2009

Dried Fruit Breakfast Biscuits

When I get bored, I bake. This usually involves taking my stand-by biscuit recipe and doing strange and unusual things to it. Sometimes, the results are great (this recipe and the Cheese and Tomato Sauce Biscuits, for example) and other time, they're an abysmal flop (when I tried to add cocoa powder). These came out rather well, I think, and so I'm sharing the recipe. They're kind of like scones, but don't quite qualify.

Dried Fruit Breakfast Biscuits


2 C flour (plus a little extra)
1 T plus ¼ t. baking powder
1/3 C cooking oil
2/3 C milk (plus a little extra) - not skim, preferably
2-3 T honey (Or more, or less, to suit your taste.)
3 handfuls dried fruit (or so. I'm guessing my handfuls came to a total of about ¾ C) Use raisins, craisins, dried apricots, etc. Don't use super dry things like banana chips.
1 egg (beaten)

Preheat oven to 450ยบ F.

Mix flour and baking soda and about half of your fruit in a large mixing bowl. Add milk and oil. Don't add it all at once; it'll make stirring everything until well-blended easier. Instead, pour about half in, then add the rest so you can get the stuff that hides at the bottom. Much easier in the long run.

Add the egg and the honey and the rest of your fruit and stir until it's all thoroughly mixed together. The dough is probably a bitch to handle at this point, so add flour bit by bit until it's manageable. If you're concerned about it becoming too dry, throw more milk in.

When it's not so sticky that touching it will leave your hand covered in goop, turn the whole business on to wax paper and knead it a couple time. If the wax paper rips, consider it done. Turn on to floured surface or more wax paper. Roll with rolling pin (flour the rolling pin or the dough will stick to it and make a mess) until it's all ½ inch thick. Cut with a round cookie cutter. I used one with a 3" diameter. Aim for the big side, because the fruit will make smaller biscuits fall apart.

Place biscuits at least an inch apart (and preferably closer to 2, but you have some wiggle room on that) on lightly greased cookie sheet and bake for about 12-15 minutes. Once they start getting a bit golden brown, turn off the oven, crack open the door and let them cook in the residual heat for another 3-5 minutes.

I don't know how many this actually makes. I forgot to count when I put these in the oven and by the time I remembered to count again, several had been eaten.

Note: This recipe is based on one from my mother's ancient Betty Crocker cookbook and started out with only the flour, baking soda, oil and milk. I've obviously adapted it quite a bit so feel free to muck about with this recipe to your heart's content. Nuts, vanilla, whatever. Go crazy. If anything works out particularly well, please let me know, because I'd love to hear about it! :)