alexandra alger


Archive for the month “February, 2015”

And the Book for the Ages is…

My 16-year-old daughter sorted through her old picture books last night, the dozen or so that are still in her room and not in cardboard box in the attic. I wish I could say she was in need of the distilled wisdom, or the simple joy, that a picture book can offer. No, she was on assignment. Vanessa is a junior, which means nearly ever waking moment is dedicated to schoolwork. She was looking for a childhood favorite to talk about in Spanish class. She considered A.A. Milne (the unforgettable When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six) and the Narnia books. Then she found it. The one book to rule them all—hidden and lost, until now.

Barbie: The Holiday Gift.

It begins like this.

One sparking winter day, Barbie hurried to the home of Mrs. Jenson, the town seamstress, to try on her gown for the Holiday Snowflake Parade. Barbie had been voted the parade queen, and her friends were the princesses. They were going to ride together on a float in the parade. “Your dress is almost finished,” Mrs. Jenson said, as she led Barbie into her sunny sewing room. “Oh, it’s lovely,” Barbie exclaimed when she saw the dress of rich, green satin. “I can’t wait to try it on.”

Barbie’s a queen of a girl, in more ways than one. Mrs. Jenson’s young niece, Laura, is shy, but she happens to have a beautiful singing voice. Barbie comes up with an idea: Laura could join her and her friends on the float and sing a song. In no time, she wins the mayor’s approval to go ahead with the singing (yes, the mayor has to get involved!), and the teens pool their money to buy fabric for a dress for Laura—pink velvet, no less. The ever talented Barbie designs the dress, which Mrs. Jensen makes in secret. On the day of the parade, Barbie surprises Laura with the dress and her idea. Laura is suitably thrilled, and ends up wowing the crowd with her voice. Laura can’t thank Barbie enough. She tells her:

“You not only gave me new friends, you helped me overcome my shyness. Those are the best gifts I’ve ever received.”

But Barbie has the last word.

“You gave those gifts to yourself, Laura, by sharing your voice,” Barbie replied. “And what’s more, you also gave all of us a very special holiday memory.”

Oh, so many special gifts!

I read this book over and over to a rapt Vanessa. So did her beloved babysitter, Carla, who gets the credit (no blame!) for buying the book.

The stilted language, the lackluster story line—Vanessa never noticed. She couldn’t get enough of those dresses. Oh, the dresses. Aside from Barbie’s blindingly green dress, there was Laura’s. That might’ve been Vanessa’s favorite. It had ruffled tulle-ish sleeves, gold ribbons and—gasp—a rose at the waist. Barbie’s four princesses also wore gowns on the float, each a different hue—pink, yellow, blue, and oops, another pink, a deep, dusty color that I can’t seem to find a better way to describe. Which was the prettiest? We pondered this endlessly. (Unbeknownst to her, I thought they ranged from hideous to only slightly less dreadful.)

“I think this book made me think about fashion for the first time,” Vanessa said, with only a hint of sheepishness.

Barbie, a fashion inspiration? I guess that’s not so hard to believe, when the person being inspired is all of four years old. Vanessa did not fall in love with Barbies, though. Not like I did. I spent years happily playing with Barbie and like dolls. Many experts argue that Barbie’s outrageous proportions give girls the wrong idea about what’s a healthy body size. That could well be. I don’t remember thinking about Barbie’s body—except to be amused that she had leg hinges where her butt should be. I didn’t care to see her naked; the whole point of having a Barbie was to dress her. My grandmother used to make clothes for my Barbie. (She wasn’t Barbie herself, actually; she was a brown-haired chick with bangs, quite pretty ’til I dabbed lipstick on her and the lipstick rubbed off, staining her face.) Putting clothes on, taking them off, putting something else on—it was all so deeply satisfying and enjoyable.

What I suppose I’m saying is: I had a positive Barbie experience, and my daughter did, too. As to The Holiday Gift: Now that Vanessa’s rediscovered it, I’m clearly going to have to save it for her. Who knows—it could end up being something she passes down to her daughter, this little board book, published by Fun Works in 1997. It’s still out there, in a small way. I found it selling for a buck, used, on amazon. There’s a whole new line of Barbie books, I see. Now she’s a modern-day princess with…super powers! And also a vet, a pediatrician, a teacher and a ballet dancer. I’d like to see Barbie the engineer, or Barbie the astrophysicist, or Barbie the head of Goldman Sachs. Perhaps I’ll find our Barbie book again when I’m, say, helping Vanessa pack her things to move to her first house. That’s got to be a good eight, ten years from now. We’ll see what Barbie’s up to then.

Mark Twain and the Bohemians

Recently I was lucky enough to meet Ben Tarnoff, the author of The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers who Reinvented American Literature (2014, Penguin Press). Ben happens to be my neighbor’s son-in-law, and he graciously agreed to meet with our book group. Bohemians is an engaging, colorful account of a period of American literary history that I for one knew nothing about. Ben focuses on the four best known San Francisco-based writers of the post-Civil-War period—Twain, Bret Harte, and the poets Charles Warren Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith (the first poet laureate of California). Twain and Harte wrote bold, irreverent California-based stories, fiction that was new and wholly American.

Now–I haven’t finished the book, and while I can highly recommend it based on the two-thirds of it I’ve read, I’m bringing up Ben because of what he said about the writer’s life–his own. I asked him if any part of the book had been especially difficult to write, and he said, “All of it.” He said he’d finish every day of work convinced the pages he’d just written were absolutely terrible. If he felt jazzed about what he’d written, he was sure to find it abysmal the next day.

A successful young writer (he’s also the author of A Counterfeiter’s Paradise, a history of the early years of the American financial system) doubting his abilities at every turn. What else is new, you say? True enough, but it’s always comforting to hear a published writer confess his or her insecurities. I almost felt a stab of pity: I feel good about my writing some days; I don’t think it’s awful every day! I almost got there, to the stab, but I only got as far as near pity. The fact is, whatever his method is, it’s working. His book is beautifully written (at least the part I’ve read is). And I look forward to his next work, whatever that may be—and good Lord, we didn’t even get around to asking him what he was working on.

The Iceman Cometh

I can’t last through a two-hour action flick without falling asleep at least once, but guess what—last night I was alert and engaged for the entirety of a FOUR-HOUR-LONG  play. Here I thought the problem was old age, but no! The relief of it—I just needed BETTER writing and acting! In this case, I’m got superior writing and acting in the form of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

it’s not an easy play to watch. A dozen or so drunks spend their days and nights at a bar in the Bowery (the year is 1912), using booze to disguise the hopelessness of their lives. Then their friend Hickey shows up and tries to help them get rid of their illusions—which only leads to more bitterness and despair. An incredible cast, led by Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy. It’s not a flawless play—Hickey repeats himself so much it was distracting—but that seems like a quibble in light of its achievements. Another example of how powerful and enduring the best writing is.

Is it self-defeating to say I can’t hope to be as great a writer as O’Neill? I figure I’m not being self-defeating so much as realistic. The man won four Pulitzers and a Nobel, for crying out loud!  I have to point out that what I’m writing isn’t even eligible for such honors; I dream about a Caldecott.

Which reminds me: It’s time to get back to writing. Re-fueled, unexpectedly, by a spectacle of sheer hopelessness.

A Beef to Warm the Bones

How could I have forgotten about Liz Ann’s brisket recipe? It’s tender and smoky (you’ll see why in a minute) and utterly delicious, without or without a hearty roll or hamburger bun and BBQ sauce, but I recommend both. Good thing Super Bowl XLIX, or I should say the need to make food for my Super Bowl XLIX guests, led me to rediscover this tasty crowd pleaser.

Punxsutawney Phil is predicting six more weeks of winter. What else is new? We East Coasters (north of Washington, D.C., anyway) know that February is always cold and crummy, and let’s face it, much of March is, too. In other words, the time for brisket is now!

Liz Ann’s Brisket

1 brisket of beef, approximately 5 pounds
1 TB natural liquid smoke
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 cup beef stock
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine spices in a small bowl and mix well. Brush brisket with the liquid smoke, then rub spices into brisket. Place meat in a covered Dutch oven and bake until fork-tender, about 3 1/2 hours. Begin checking after 2 1/2 hours; if natural juices have dried up, add the cup of beef stock.

Remove from oven. Cool slightly then cut meat into 2-inch strips. Using two forks, pull meat apart, Return meat to pan juices (you can add more beef stock if needed).

Serve on sandwich rolls with BBQ sauce. Great with cold beer. Makes 8-10 sandwiches.

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