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My Christmas Message, or The Ends Justify the Means, or I Regret Nothing

December 21, 2014

Dear Friends (and assorted journalists and international investigating bodies):

After the events of last week, I received many requests to share my views on planning, creating, and hosting the perfect party. And really just to explain my ideas…my thinking…in a sort of statement if you will, from start to finish. Don’t think of it as a checklist. Every party is a unique experience, and every hostess must find her own way. Whether that way leads to despair or triumph, I can only say I believe the past is a closed book. Nothing is gained by dwelling on any one or two things you might, in retrospect, have changed. As my attorney likes to say, Christmas is a time when good intentions should trump actual circumstances. Wise words.

Let’s get started!

First, no matter what sort of party you’re planning—Mustard Gas and Mischief: Christmas in the Trenches or Merry Molokai: Christmas in the Colony—avoid choosing a date too early in the season! Before the holiday mood really sets in, the traditional activities you plan might make people feel silly or a little inclined to be stubborn. I understand the temptation to steal a march on everyone else and set the bar high (believe me, I really understand), but please learn from my experience. For example, you might detect a significant attendance drop-off during a caroling party on a muggy mid-November afternoon, and a corresponding lack of enthusiasm in both carolers and carolees as the evening wears on. I’m not being critical, just recognizing that not everyone shares my zeal for all things authentically festlich. And that’s fine. Really, it is.

Speaking of last year’s Weihnachten Schreien (Christmas Screaming): A Black Forest Rite of Celebration and Trudging, my research revealed that the chained gangs of carolers in nineteenth-century Bavaria began their rounds as early as November 1. Scholars debate why to this day, but I believe it had something to do with either the Black Death or the Massacre of the Innocent Lutherans or even the legend of Edeltraud, the Bird-Headed Girl, and the Christmas Worm. Sources differ, but the date is fixed! But the point is that times have changed and most people don’t want to sing or hear Strafe Gesang (punishment singing) on November 13, even if dirndls and lederhosen were provided and there is traditional midnight Blut Talg Strudel (blood suet strudel) and Gewürzkaninchenmilch (spiced rabbit milk) as a reward afterward. Lesson learned, my friends. Point taken.

But onward and upward, as my parole officer likes to say!

For this year’s Bludgeon the Dollymop: A Mid-Victorian Fantasia, I enlisted science to determine the optimal date for maximum Dickensian jollity! Extrapolating from original research I sponsored at Cal Tech’s Institute of Calendrical InfoMetrics (you can email the Institute for the extract if you want—it won a prize in Zurich!), I simply provided the post-docs with a few crucial party variables—kitchen work triangle dimensions, average guest weight (unclothed for accuracy), cocktails or mocktails, ratio of friends to hired re-enactors (will differ from party to party, obviously, depending on theme complexity), the number of guests’ sexual partners (as I have repeatedly explained, a “guesstimate” would have thrown off the results. The Google Docs poll was completely anonymous, so I really don’t know why there were so many complaints) etc., etc., and hey, presto: the perfect date/time for the perfect party for the perfect people. That’s you, my dear friends!

A number of you asked how (or maybe it was why) on earth I decided on Monday, December 17th, twelve minutes before moonrise (hence the Farmer’s Almanac in the September 23rd pre-party research packet) and now you know. Of course, nothing EVER goes just exactly to plan, so a slight error rate is of course factored in. A sad necessity in today’s slipping standards of guest responsibility.

I am aware some of you were the tiniest bit surprised/offended when the weekly save-the-date postcards/research packets and daily email blasts started in mid-August, but I find those extra little reminders pretty useful for us busy, forgetful types. I know how mortified I am when I realize I have INADVERTENTLY neglected to keep my hard-working hostess apprised of any illnesses, sudden childbirth arrangements, or financial exigencies that may jeopardize my attendance at her carefully planned event. And I certainly wouldn’t call such entirely natural and common-sense efforts HARASSMENT. We live in an age of hyperbole.

Speaking of email, I highly recommend a service that lets you track and analyze which recipients actually OPEN your messages, micro-targets your demographic, and gives recipients the opportunity to opt out if desired. I found the IP address spoofing/dark internet features vey helpful, but they’re certainly not necessary if your budget needs trimming. You may not find submitting to the NSA inquiry worthwhile. I did.

I will say I was a little hurt that so many of you actually chose to opt out—I tried hard to make each message informative and entertaining—and frankly surprised so many overlooked returning the postage paid RSVP packet with checklist and costume reservations by the October 17 deadline. Sorry about the resulting flurry of phone calls (and I promise I WON’T call you at work next year, or visit your employers at home—at least not at NIGHT) but those velvet capes and bonnets really needed the lead time.

I hope you agree the final splendid effect as we stood under the gas streetlamp at during the midnight carol service and life-size Punch and Judy show was well worth the slight apparel surcharge. (For which, I do apologize. But with the recent volatility in world velvet markets, it was hard to predict in June what claret-colored velvet would cost in October. I could have gone with spruce, but once the soot-clouds burst, I knew the effect just wouldn’t be the same.)

For those unreachable few who “opted out” of the RSVP process but trustingly showed up anyway, I know the Workhouse Family Celebration in the garage might have felt as though you were missing out or punished, but I promise you it was as fully researched and authentic as any of the other party settings. You certainly can’t deny that the children looked absolutely adorable shivering in their authentic muslin shifts, sipping from their little wooden bowls of gruel, and happily sorting all those buttons! “Please sir, can I have some more?” Ha! I had hoped to share the photos on Facebook, but I will honor your requests and court orders.

Which leads me to the question that seems to have interested people the most! Why mid-Victorian? Why the cold and soot? Why all the tubercular orphans? Why the small-scale abattoir? Well, I can only say, “WHY NOT?” What is more fun than combining food, fun, and drink with strictly accurate and brutally enforced historical authenticity?

From the sooty barefooted urchins chasing your cars, to the steaming bowls of tongue puddings and jellied snoutlings and brandied whelk spawn, to the roving pickpockets with nasty coughs, to the spirited theological harangues in the Low Church Chapel, to the rousing games of My Lady’s Biscuit Barrel and Burn Down the Workhouse and How Many Gin Bottles Are in My Corset and Slimy Cobblestones, to the phrenology readings (I know some of you were upset by the whole “sloping forehead” thing, but it was all in good fun!), to the feminine trembling in the Laudanum Parlor, to the exhausting rounds of orphan baiting, it was a completely immersive experience.

For those of you who memorized your character dossiers, blackened your teeth, laced up the whalebone corsets (shh, Greenpeace!) or applied the cold-pressed Macassar oil sent in the final research pack, and cultivated a taste for straight gin, I know you agree it was worth the effort and slight discomfort. For those not quite willing to go all the way, I trust you enjoyed the more casual but authentic atmosphere in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison Path for Guilty Pacing painstakingly installed in the garden.

I will always view my months of work—including the extensive house renovations (especially the earth closet installation), the drug-resistant giardia I picked up from undercooked tongue pudding, defending myself from the UN’s child labor sanctions, the QUESTIONS when the opium poppies finally bloomed—oh ALL OF IT—as time incredibly well spent. The look of total appreciation on all your faces during my recreation of the Great Stink of 1858, well, I can only say how moved I was. You finally just got it. (And thanks again for your forbearance when the Health Department insisted on that totally anachronistic round of gamma globulin injections.)

You’ve all had time to think since were last together. I know a few feathers were ruffled (and I don’t mean in the Clever Little Fingers Hat Trimming Workshop), a few chilblains reopened and now festering, a few stomachs pumped, a few lawyers retained, but I hope in retrospect everyone can AT LEAST agree I meant well. I’m sure once you’ve rested up and finished your CDC-mandated course of penicillin, you’ll understand why I did what I did. And that it really was worth it in the end. Some of my measures may have seemed strict, but they were harsh times, weren’t they? The human spirit prevails. And I guess that’s the true meaning of Christmas, isn’t it?

Finally, drum roll please! Not to spoil the surprise…but I am literally agog with plans and ideas and simply can’t resist sharing!

Mark all of December for Oculos Tuos (Close Your Eyes): Saturnalian Decadence and Regret in Late Empire Rome! You don’t have to switch to lead-glazed dishes in preparation, but I definitely believe the pros outweigh the cons!

It’s going to be TERRIFYING.

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BookBalloon Links for December 19, 2014

December 19, 2014
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The January 2015 Indie Next List

December 16, 2014

2015! I can’t believe I am already posting this. Here’s a sampling of The January 2015 Indie Next List Great Reads:

secret.wisdom#1 Pick: The Secret Wisdom of the Earth: A Novel, by Chris Scotton
(Grand Central Publishing, 9781455551927, $26)
“Struggling to recover from the trauma of his baby brother’s tragic death, Kevin and his broken mother relocate to Medger, Kentucky, for the summer. Their return to the Appalachian coal town in which their family is deeply rooted is intended to heal them both. While Kevin’s grandfather is just the person and the wild hollows surrounding their little town just the place to help him mend, Kevin finds that Medger and its citizens are in need of healing as well. Poverty, a mountaintop removal operation, and desperation are tearing their town and the land around it apart. Scotton’s finely wrought characters, perfectly paced plot, and keen sense of place make The Secret Wisdom of the Earth resonate with the reader long after the book has been finished.” —Catherine Weller, Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, UT

Descent: A Novel, by Tim Johnston
(Algonquin Books, 9781616203047, $25.95)
“Descent is a gripping, utterly engrossing account of a girl’s disappearance in the Rocky Mountains. The aftermath of this tragedy is told in alternating voices: the injured brother at the scene of the accident when she left with a stranger to get help; the mother who has been hospitalized and stunned into breathtaking grief; the father who has been unable to leave the small town where the family was vacationing when his daughter disappeared — and most stunning of all, through the words of the victim herself. A real page-turner with a brilliantly conceived climax!” —Kelly Estep, Carmichael’s Bookstore, Louisville, KY

The Girl on the Train: A Novel, by Paula Hawkins
(Riverhead, 9781594633669, $26.95)
“This is one of the most compelling thrillers I have read in years! With alternating perspectives ranging from the fantasies of a young woman who watches a couple from the window of her train commute every day, to the true story of the couple themselves, and a missing person case, the reader is plunged into a twisting, turning mystery of deception and misdirection. Rarely have there been so many shocking revelations in a single novel! Just when you believe you have a grasp on the entire mystery, Hawkins pulls the rug out from under you with yet another breathtaking plot revelation. An exceptional read!” —William Carl, Books on the Square, Providence, RI

Read the complete list for January at the American Booksellers Association site.

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The Enablers

December 14, 2014

So we had a near catastrophe here – for our cats, ourselves and our books, and it all comes from having too many bookshelves!

When we moved into this house 16 years ago David put up very cool wooden shelves attached to the walls, and staggered them so they looked unusual. Several of the shelves were attached to two vertical boards on either side. This wasn’t a problem because David kept his legos on those, so they were light.

A few years ago I complained about lack of shelving so he moved his stuff and let me have the space. All worked out perfectly- until last night when I heard a snap and a crash. Ran to the office almost tripping over the cats running out of the room to see David sitting at the computer, rather stunned. From top to bottom, the whole shelf unit dropped an inch, with the vertical shelves pulling off the wall. Amazingly no books fell off (probably shelved in there pretty tight!) So much of our night was spent taking books down, and David coming up with a way to repair damage and make it all safer. So no cats or husbands were crushed and no books were harmed.

The reason I am writing this here is that this morning it was my job to reshelve books on the repaired shelves. It was an opportunity to purge, but also an opportunity to realize what books I had, and reminisce. Not just when and where I was when I bought and read them, but especially, who recommended the book and or authors. Nine out of ten times it was the good people here: I never would have read Set This House in Order if it wasn’t for Catherine J, or Ruth Rendell and Stephen McGrath if it weren’t for Lynn, or Pilgrim (and more Tim Findley) if it wasn’t for Miriam. Pat lead me to Helen Dewitt and various historic fiction, PC recommended Louisiana Power and Light…..Joseph led me to travel books; (wish I could remember who recommended Wolf Hall).

But deeg and Kat take the cake.  Because of deeg books by Dawn  Powell , Maugham novels and the Lucia and Mapp stuff the shelves (Molly O’Keanes will be added to that soon), as do Kat’s recs of  Jane Gardam,  Jill Paton Walsh and Mary Wesley and Sara Waters, possibly too Eliz Von Arnim? I know I have forgotten other good folk and I am sorry for that. But this is an opportunity to say thanks for this great site, and for the great people here who push books on me, ones that take me places I never imagined even wanting to visit…

Just sayin…

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Books We’re Loving – December 1, 2014

December 1, 2014
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December Indie Next Great Reads list

November 17, 2014

Here’s a preview of the December Indie Next Great Reads list.

us#1 Pick: Us: A Novel, by David Nicholls
(Harper, 9780062365583, $26.99)
“This gorgeous novel manages to be heart-wrenching and hilarious all at once. Connie tells Douglas that she suspects their 20-year marriage has ‘run its course’ right before they’re set to leave on a European tour with their teenage son. Regardless, they take the trip and flashbacks of their more passionate days are interspersed with the narrative of their everything-at-stake adventure. A brilliant and humanizing picture of mature love — and a look at whether or not people truly outgrow each other.” —Mary Cotton, Newtonville Books, Newton, MA

The Boston Girl: A Novel, by Anita Diamant
(Scribner, 9781439199350, $26)
“Diamant brings a generation of women to life through the voice of Addie Baum. Born in 1900, Addie tells of her early childhood in Boston as the child of immigrant parents; her formative years as a Saturday Club girl, where she found her lifelong friends; her career path as a typist and journalist; and meeting her husband and finding meaningful work as a social worker. Her story plays out against a backdrop of some of the most basic issues women had to face as they found their places in 20th century America. As I turned the last pages of The Boston Girl, I was left with a serene sense of satisfaction. A historical feat and a very enjoyable read.” —Jenny Lyons, The Vermont Book Shop, Middlebury, VT

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, by Stephen Collins
(Picador, 9781250050397, $20)
“Slip into a black and white world where order reigns supreme and all untidiness must be eradicated. Dave lives a nondescript life in Here, until the day an untamable beard sprouts from his chin. Could the beard be a maleficent portal to There? Collins gently addresses the tangles of human existence in this playful graphic fable, perfect for fans of Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl.” —Rhianna Walton, Powell’s Books, Portland, OR

Enter Pale Death: A Joe Sandilands Investigation, by Barbara Cleverly
(Soho Crime, 9781616954086, $26.95)
“The tales of pre-World War II Scotland Yard’s Joe Sandilands are becoming addictive. Intrigue, political manipulations, the ever-present undercurrent of class differences, and the rising spectre of Nazism run throughout the series. Joe always expected to one day wed Dorcas, a charming girl he watched grow up, and is alarmed to find that she has attached herself to her academic patron, Sir James Truelove. The detective is sent to Truelove’s family estate to investigate the death of Sir James’s wife. Murder investigations, just like true love, never run smoothly. Is Sandilands going to find the way through this snake’s nest?” —Becky Milner, Vintage Books, Vancouver, WA

The Happiest People in the World: A Novel, by Brock Clarke
(Algonquin Books, 9781616201111, $24.95)
“This satiric treatment of weighty topics, including religious intolerance, provincialism, and the American obsession with Homeland Security, ranges from a backwater in Denmark to a backwater in upstate New York. It follows the plight of a hapless Danish cartoonist who unleashes chaos in his life by authoring a politically incorrect cartoon of Muhammad. Put into a witness protection program and improbably installed as a guidance counselor in the local high school, he is at the mercy of bumbling agents of the CIA and Homeland Security, who seem to be feuding and hiding under every rock. His first time observations of America and Americans are priceless.” —Darwin Ellis, Books on the Common, Ridgefield, CT

Read the complete list for December at the American Booksellers Association site.

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And Now For Something Completely Different: Life After Monty Python | Biographile

November 4, 2014

From Biographile, five books by and about Pythons —

cleeseFrom the debut of their absurdist sketch comedy show in 1969, the members of Monty Python — Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones — had a revolutionary impact on comedy. After four television seasons and four movies, the most recent released more than thirty years ago, their influence, and their legions of fans, only continues to grow.

via And Now For Something Completely Different: Life After Monty Python | Biography | Biographile.

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Quiz Time: Stuck in the Middle

October 20, 2014

First and last lines get all the attention. From single men, happy families, boats against the current, or cultivated gardens, they’re what stick in your mind. But what about the messy middle? See how well you know (or can guess) these quotes from the meat of the matter.


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The November 2014 Indie Next Great Reads

October 18, 2014

FallingFromHorses_wideHere’s a preview of the November Indie Next Great Reads list.

#1 Pick: Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir, by Alan Cumming

(Dey Street Books, 9780062225061, $26.99)

“Every so often reading a memoir feels like a conversation rather than a strict narrative or — the death knell for memoir — a self-indulgent romp down memory lane. Cumming’s memoir is a gorgeous, intimate conversation and it reads beautifully. The pace is perfect, the presentation truly lovely, and I felt like a close friend rather than an impersonal audience. Cumming’s early life was a struggle and he hardly shies from relating details, but the driving force behind this book is the demonstration of the many ways one can bring oneself to peace after hardship. I enjoyed it immensely.” —Demi Marshall, Park Road Books, Charlotte, NC

The Book of Strange New Things: A Novel, by Michel Faber

(Hogarth, 9780553418842, $28)

“Peter Leigh is an evangelical Christian pastor whose mission to serve the Lord leads him into space, where he ministers to an alien race. But is he truly converting them, or is his faith leading them astray? Questions abound: Why wasn’t his wife allowed to accompany him? Why is everyone in the human base camp uninterested in the catastrophes that are befalling Earth while they are light years away? Why was Peter’s appointment as pastor to the aliens so urgent? Faber does a great job addressing the question of faith and its consequences. A great book group selection!” —Susan M. Taylor, Market Block Books, Troy, NY

Crooked River: A Novel, by Valerie Geary

(William Morrow, 9780062326591, $25.99)

“Debut author Geary has written an engaging psychological thriller set in rural Oregon. After their mother’s sudden death, Sam and Ollie McAlister move to live with their recluse beekeeper father, Bear, in a tepee in the middle of a meadow. Shortly after their arrival, a young woman is found dead in the nearby river and their father is arrested for the murder. Both girls know their father is innocent — younger Ollie has been shown the real killer by the spirits that only she can see — and the sisters take it into their own hands to prove their father’s innocence.” —Liz Heywood, The Babbling Book, Haines, AK

Falling From Horses: A Novel, by Molly Gloss

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 9780544279292, $25)

“Falling From Horses is the story of a young man, a young woman, and the early days of Hollywood set against the memories of growing up in eastern Oregon among the horses, cattle, and hard work it takes to live there. Bud, the son of ranchers, buys a bus ticket to Hollywood to be a rider in cowboy movies. On the way, he meets Lily Shaw, a sassy screenwriter, and their lives become intertwined with the telling of what led Bud to leave home. Both brutal and beautiful, Falling From Horses is filled with stunning descriptions of the world of early movie-making and the landscapes that shape us.” —Rene Kirkpatrick, Eagle Harbor Book Company, Bainbridge Island, WA

Read the complete list for November at the American Booksellers Association site.

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All the Young Dudes, Carry the Brews

October 15, 2014

What happens when an E.F. Benson-worshipping, unreliable narrator-loving, BBC-lady-cop digging, feminist eye roller is compelled to read a flannel-clad, irony-free paean to cold beer and the dudes who quaff it?

(Originally posted in the What Are You Reading Now? discussion thread in the BookBalloon Forum [which, by the way, JOIN IN] with just a little editing.)

Well, I finished Shotgun Lovesongs, mainly by listening to it at double speed in the car and skipping a few chapters.

And, whatever.

The salt-of-the-earth farmer dude who BY THE WAY is as handsome as a movie star. (This is an actual description from the book. Handsome as a movie star!) The head-injured rodeo dude who is still rodeo-lean and brutally handsome. (Another actual description.) The cocky commodities trader dude who is slickly handsome and has a wife with shiny hair and fingernails. The rockstar dude who is just too SOULFUL and CONNECTED and REAL and SAINTLY. Music, man, and beat-up guitars and old trucks and cold, cold beer. When will HE find the worshipful wife he deserves? All these dudes deserve hot, worshipful wives! And the personality-free, long-limbed woman who has loved and worshipped the possibility in all the dudes but mainly worships her farmer dude husband (there are several hymns of praise to his simple quiet handsome awesomeness), and their deep, thrumming, strumming, connected, rich, nothing fancy, church supper hotdish of a real American wild goose on the wing and woodsmoke in the crisp air life. Drinking Pabst at the VFW, and loving that movie star-handsome man as he tills the soil with his ropy flannel-clad forearms life. And friendship, man. Deep, rolling, dudely, strong-handclaspy, sitting-on-watertowers-at-dawn friendship.

Also, there are literally four weddings, all lit with golden light (both day and candle) and seemingly dreamed up by Blake Lively’s copywriter and/or planned by the Etsy hobo wedding people.

And a stripper with a heart of gold.

This book? Was. Not. For. Me.

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