Entries in The Game is Afoot (30)


Prepare to Be Offended

That Pezmama, always stirring up trouble. Today she wants me to reveal what my ten least favorite books of all time are. She knows how confrontation-averse I am, yet she wants me to write a controversial post on a highly subjective topic. Ay-ay-ay, as Pez herself is fond of writing.

I'll do as she requests; I'll give you ten books (or series) I hate. It's not hard to make a list. Astute readers will notice that even a couple of my favorite writers are not exempt from making the occasional glaring mistake. As Joe Queenan wrote in The New York Times not too long ago, "bad books fall into three broad categories: the stupid, the meta-stupid, and the immoral. Each has its own inimitable charms." So I'm not going to tell you why I dislike the following books; I'll leave you to figure out to which category each belongs.

Just so we're clear, #1 is my least favorite book of all time; the others are slightly less egregious.

Okay. Deep breath. Here goes.

10. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown
9. A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray
8. The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell
7. His Dark Materials (trilogy), by Philip Pullman (Yes, that includes The Golden Compass)
6. Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth
5. Winter's Heart, by Robert Jordan
4. The Tommyknockers, by Stephen King
3. Earthfall, by Orson Scott Card
2. The What to Expect series, by Murkoff, Eisenberg, and Hathaway
1. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

No protests or arguments, please! Really: you have no idea how Capitol-Hill-Gangish this post is already making me feel.


The Salience of Seuss

Patrick (to whom modifiers cannot possibly do justice) contributed today's topic to my month-long NaBloPoMo Scavenger Hunt, asking (in a comment using one of his various pseudonyms), "How can one use alliteration without sounding like Dr. Seuss?"

Marcella Hazan, one of my favorite cookbook authors, once wrote that spices should be used as "as a halo and not as a club." In other words, they should enhance rather than overwhelm a dish.

I believe the same holds true for alliteration. Use it in small doses; employ assonance and consonance as well to mix it up a bit. All three can be combined very effectively in poetry:

"The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees." (Tennyson)

They are usually distracting when overused in prose, however (unless specifically employed as a mnemonic device, such as in a sermon or other didactic piece).

To be honest, I wish more people could sound like Dr. Seuss. What sets his work far above many of his imitators was not his love for alliteration but his strict adherence to his poetic meter of choice. Flaubert wrote, "Poetry is as precise as geometry," and that certainly is true of the writing of Dr. Seuss.

He wrote many of his early books, like And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, in anapestic tetrameter. What does all that polysyllabic Greek mean?

An anapest is a rhythmic unit, or 'foot,' composed of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, as in the word 'underneath' or the phrase 'in the car.' 'Tetrameter' means that there are four feet to each line. Read the title of the book in the above paragraph, and you'll get it. Or, here's Lord Byron: "And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea" (and dig that alliteration, baby).

Sometimes Seuss would eliminate the first weak syllable and/or tack one on at the end of a line, as in "In all the whole town, the most wonderful spot," which is the first line of If I Ran the Circus. But this has always been an acceptable adaptation of the meter.

He also wrote in trochaic tetrameter (trochees are feet that have a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, as in 'doughnut' or 'hard hat'), sometimes mixing it up with iambic tetrameter (iambs are feet that have an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, like 'begin' or 'to be'). In Green Eggs and Ham, the two main characters have very different poetic voices: once speaks in iambs, the other mostly in trochees.

Whatever his chosen meter, it was flawless, which makes his writing a joy to read out loud. Dr. Seuss would often labor for months over his deceptively simple texts so that he could express the story's ideas and images while maintaining pristine rhythm. My favorite of his is called "Too Many Daves," found in the collection The Sneetches and Other Stories. It's perfect, I tell you, perfect.

Imitators today don't have his discipline and discerning ear; therefore their stories sound clumsy and clunky. I won't name names, but I've read far too many children's books that use poetical meter in a halfhearted sort of way, thinking that an end-rhyme will cover a multitude of sins. Not so.

The Cat in the Hat has sold over seven million copies because even toddlers and their parents who don't know an anapest from a dactyl recognize this formula:

Brilliantly imagined plot and characters + hypnotic, never-stumbling rhythm = story that never gets stale.

(Take it from me, the mother of five Seuss-lovers; I've probably read that book two thousand times in the past fourteen years.)

If you want to create rhythmic, rhyming children's books with that kind of selling and staying power, read Byron and Tennyson and Longfellow and study their meters. Be as precise as a geometer in your content and in your form.

It wouldn't hurt if you could draw fantastical creatures, buildings, and machines in an accessible, instantly recognizable style while you're at it. But that's a subject for a whole other post.


Rutabaga Nights

A-scavenging we'll go, today with the help of one of the greats of blogdom: Radioactive Jam. I really can't say enough good about this certified Blog Diety. Always engaging, clever, and thought-provoking, RaJ is kind enough to share the inner workings of his eclectic and vigorous mind with the rest of us.

Not only does RaJ post consistently terrific content, but he also goes out of his very busy way to encourage the more inexperienced among us in the most gracious and self-effacing manner. He's a National Treasure. Maybe I'll create the National Treasure Blog Award and give it to him to add to his already full-to-bursting trophy case.

RaJ asked me to post about 'a rutabaga.' How timely! It's the season of the year in my hemisphere for hearty, filling root vegetables like this one that Hope is embracing in the photo above. Rutabagas, swedes, yellow turnips, neeps: they're all the same thing.

Long maligned as 'famine food,' rutabagas are only now coming back into vogue with the heritage/heirloom vegetable renaissance. But thrifty and omnivorous yankee that she was, Julia Child knew of their value years and years ago. Here's my favorite way to cook and serve rutabagas, straight out of my very favorite cookbook in all the world, The Way to Cook. I took this dish once to a church supper, and it got rave reviews.

Julia Child's Gratin of Rutabaga

1-1/2 pounds rutabaga, cut into 3/4-inch dice (4 to 5 cups)
1/2 tsp. grated fresh ginger
1 large clove of garlic, minced

3 TB butter
3 TB flour
2 cups milk
Salt and pepper to taste
3 TB bread crumbs
3 TB grated Swiss cheese

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 6-cup baking dish generously and set it aside. Place the rutabaga in a steaming basket with the ginger and garlic. Cover and steam over 1 inch of boiling water for about 10 minutes, until almost tender. Remove the steamer. Boil down the steaming liquid to 1/4 cup; reserve.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, then whisk in the flour to make a smooth paste. Stir together for 2 minutes; the butter and flour should foam together without coloring more than a buttery yellow. Remove from heat. Pour in all but 1/2 cup of the milk at once, whisking vigorously to blend thoroughly. Then stir slowly, reaching all over the bottom and sides of the pan, until the sauce comes to a simmer; simmer 2 to 3 minutes, stirring and thinnning with dribbles of the remaining milk. The sauce should be thick enough to coat a spoon nicely. Whisk in the salt and pepper, tasting carefully as you go.

Add the reduced steaming liquid to the sauce and stir well. Fold the rutabaga into the sauce and put into the buttered baking dish. Spread on the crumbs and the cheese. Bake for 90 minutes. The top should be nicely and lightly browned and the sauce almost completely absorbed.

Now my mouth is watering; I'm off to eat some turkey leftovers.


Thankful Heart

I have an amazing husband and five terrific, healthy kids. I have a lovely, safe, comfortable house, clothes to wear, and food to eat. I have extended family whose company I cherish. I have precious friends. I have faith that sustains me through difficult times. I live in a place so full of natural beauty that it sometimes hurts to look around at it all. I can read and write and listen to beautiful music pretty much whenever I want.

Thankful heart? Oh, yes.

Back to the Scavenger Hunt tomorrow, friends! Thanks for reading.


(Almost) Wordless Wednesday: Four Great Ladies

From left to right: My Grandma Ybright, Auntie Mamie, Auntie Emma, and Auntie Esther.

The women in my family live a long time. Tomorrow would have been Grandma's 98th birthday; she passed on a little over eight years ago. Grandma made her own saddles, built her own greenhouse and a deck on the back of her house, sewed exquisite wedding gowns and ballet costumes, made and decorated wedding cakes that would serve 250 people from scratch at the drop of a hat, and canned everything in sight.

Auntie Mamie died the day after her 96th birthday. She was serving lunch to the 'old people' at the Senior Center even then. She had the best laugh ever.

Auntie Emma died just shy of her 100th birthday; she made the most delectable candied pecans, and she chopped firewood for her cookstove until she was at least 98.

Auntie Esther died two years ago at the age of 98, healthy as a horse and a rabid Oakland A's fan to the very end. I think she just missed her sisters. She could still kick like a Rockette and do the splits the last time I saw her.

Happy Birthday, Grandma. I sure do miss you and my great Great-Aunties.