Monthly Archives: June 2015

“Picnic in Provence – A Memoir with Recipes” by Elizabeth Bard.

This is a warm and fuzzy book about intercultural fun and confusion. The author’s first book, Lunch in Paris, was about meeting and marrying a handsome Frenchman. Picnic in Provence is about moving to a village, having a baby and starting an ice cream parlor.

Along the way, Bard writes about food, culture and child rearing, without slowing down too much or getting too serious. I’m not sure if any of her recipes will work for me, but they will be fun to try!

Inspired by Bard’s description of the French diet, I decided to fix soup for dinner. My main ingredients were a large can of chicken broth (zero fat, low sodium) and a head of cabbage. Also a small can of stewed tomatoes. There were some useful leftovers in the refrigerator – cooked greens, peas. I’ve always got carrots and onions. My husband came home a recommended precooked, smoked turkey sausage. Suddenly it smelled and tasted very good! Even better the next day, with a little grated Parmesan cheese.


“American Ghost – A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest” by Hannah Nordhaus

This book didn’t work for me. It should have – I like memoirs and family histories, and I like the American Southwest, having spent the summer of 1987 in Santa Fe. While I was there, I made a special effort to read “southwestern” authors, like Tony Hillerman and Oliver LaFarge.

Two things interfered with Nordhaus’s effectiveness. One is that the story she had to tell just wasn’t all that compelling. The deep, dark secret at which she persistently hinted didn’t exist, or couldn’t be uncovered. The other problem was her decision to consult a variety of supernaturalists (mediums, spiritualists, “readers” etc.) and included these efforts in the book. Too silly for words!

The good aspect of this book is that it documents the experiences of German Jews in the American Southwest. Santa Fe is an old, old city and it’s good to have this part of its past clarified. I would say this book is of interest to historians and sociologists, not the general reader like me.

“Looking for Longleaf – the Fall and Rise of an American Forest” by Lawrence S. Earley

(The University of North Carolina Press, 2004, 272 pages plus notes, bibliography and index. Extensive illustrations.)

This is a “must read” book! It’s a highly enjoyable combination of ecological science and regional history.

The longleaf pine forest of the Southeastern US was an astonishing natural resource. It was never truly “primeval”, being influenced by human activity since the original Americans arrived from Asia. But it was vast and rich in ways we can scarcely imagine.

Longleaf pine is “managed” no matter what is done to it. The range of outcomes (from commercial timbering to bird habitat enhancement) is broad and the time scales (from a few years to over a century) are impressive.

To my surprise, I’m currently following the progress of TWO forest management plans.

One covers the campus where I work, specifying practices for perhaps half of the 1600 acre property. It has two purposes. One is to get the campus out from under a misguided state policy that requires one-to-one replacement of every tree that gets cut for construction or other development (like parking lots). The other purpose to keep the forest healthy and enhance biodiversity. A healthy forest can hardly be taken for granted in New Jersey, battered as we have been by storms and insect infestations. (Remember the gypsy moth?) We also suffer from invasion by non-native plant species. So our woods need careful management. So far, one “prescribed burn” has been conducted and some selective cutting is in progress. This is a wonderful accomplishment! Finally we are done with decades of neglect. Leaving a forest alone is NOT the best way to care for it.

The other forest management plan in my life was developed about five years ago, to protect land in North Carolina owned by my husband’s family. Some timber has been harvested under this plan, and other steps may follow. Will this include reintroduction of longleaf pine? I don’t know, but I’m glad that preservation is being combined with management on this rural property, with its beavers, bears, rice field and aged trees.

The only forest on MY side of the family, a seven acre sliver of New England hillside, was sold about fifteen years ago. It was important to my childhood. I miss it. A peak at GoggleEarth recently showed me that it remains undeveloped. Surprising!

I recommend Looking for Longleaf to anyone interested in the fate of nature in our rapidly changing world.

Giving the city of Trenton another chance

I’ve never been charitable about Trenton. I’ve lived in New Jersey forty years (!!), but in that time I think I went to Trenton voluntarily only twice, to cheer for the Thunder, Trenton’s minor league baseball team. Otherwise, I went to Trenton for work, under duress, and I blessed the occasional opportunity to attend a meeting by teleconference and save myself the three hour round trip drive. (Wait, I’m forgetting… I also once participated in a political demonstration at the state capital.)

Imagine my surprise, then, upon receiving an INVITATION to a social event in Trenton! My husband’s alumni association offered a docent-led tour of the Trenton City Museum, to be followed by a potluck/barbeque at a home nearby.

In Trenton?? Yes! Said museum is located in an old mansion in Cadwalader Park on the north side of Trenton. We decided to accept this unusual proposition, and headed up Route 206 last weekend, trusting to GPS to get us to our destination.

Cadwalader Park was occupied by family groups using the barbeque grills. Our group assembled at Ellarslie Mansion. It’s present incarnation as the Trenton City Museum began in 1971. Our docent/tour guide/hostess has been a Trustee of the Museum for many years.

I knew that Trenton had an industrial past, but the details (about ceramics manufacturing) were much more interesting than I expected. Additionally, the annual juried art show was in progress. All the entries were for sale. Some were decidedly tempting!

After our tour we drove to a home half a block away, a big, old stone mansion with a charming back yard, where we relaxed and socialized.

So… I take back most of what I’ve said about Trenton! There is hope for it, and citizens are working for its improvement. The day may come when I’ll say to a friend “Let’s go up to Trenton, see the Museum, go to a restaurant…” Won’t that be a surprise?!

Stephen King – how does he do it??

I reviewed King’s book On Writing:A Memoir of the Craft on December 21, 2013. Excellent! And highly useful for those who teach writing. But I never read his books, nor did I see the blockbuster movie Carrie which brought him great fame.

I’m now ready to declare Stephen King a genius.

Last night I picked up Salem’s Lot, his second novel. I had no intention of reading it – horror is not my genre – but I was curious. I turned to the end of the book and read the epilogue, which was in two brief parts. First was a set of newspaper reports about strange deaths and disappearances. Next came a terse narrative about a man and his son. They return, apparently, to a place where they had witnessed terrible events. Accidentally or intentionally, they set a fire, and leave.

Really, that was it. So what happens to ME? I had a vivid nightmare about a fire that was out of control. People thought they had moved out of the way, but the fire emerged again and again.

OK, I have nightmares, have always had nightmares, one every six weeks or so as long as I can remember. Usually they are about generic bad guys that chase me. How on earth did King get into my brain in those few short pages?? Obviously, he an incredibly talented writer and quite a psychologist.

And I plan never to read his books. At least not when I am at home alone.

“Surrounded by Disturbing Art” by Jeffrey Kindley

I posted some thoughts about “trigger warnings” on November 11, 2014. Today this crossed my radar!

The Times “Metropolitan Diary” the other day offered the following, by Jeffrey Kindley:

I was triggered at the Frick.
Those alarming Veroneses
may appeal to certain crazies;
I felt terrified and sick.
I was triggered at the Met.
“Los Caprichos” are disgusting
with their cheating and their lusting,
and those Schieles at the Neue
are at least as bad as Goya.
I was triggered at the Guggenheim,
the Whitney and the New.
I left MoMA in a coma
and I think that I might sue.
We need signs that give us a sense of
what you’ll find in a museum:
“Works of art may be offensive.
Are you sure you want to see ’em?”

COMPLAINING: How I plan to spend my time in retirement

Everyone says you have to have a plan. You can’t just retire and goof off. So here’s my plan – I intend to complain. Not bitch and moan, not be a pain in the neck. I hope to complain constructively and politely. At least most of the time…

I pulled off a good, positive complaint recently.

Backstory: A woman died in a car accident in December of 2014. This is still a small enough town for me to take note of such a death. I read a news report and thought about where it happened. It was at an intersection I drive through several times each week. Evidently the driver ran a stop sign.

I started thinking about that intersection, and I realized the relevant stop sign wasn’t easy to see. In fact, ANOTHER stop sign, one short block BEYOND the intersection, came into my field of vision first. Maybe the unfortunate driver saw the second stop sign, got distracted, and missed the first one?

Several things contributed to this visibility problem. The important stop sign was fairly far off the road, to the right. Some tree branches obscured it. And, oddly, a black-on-yellow sign designed (graphically) to let you know you were driving parallel to a railroad, obscured the stop sign temporarily, at least for me, driving in a Honda Civic.

The more trips I made, the more I disliked the intersection and speculated about how it contributed to the fatal accident.

I decided to COMPLAIN. After a few phone calls, I pinpointed the office most likely to help. I wanted to speak to a traffic engineer, but ended up leaving a rather detailed message.

No one got back to me. I started to plan some photography and a more aggressive complaint, but, lo! One day the problem was fixed! The stop sign was moved closer to the road. The tree was trimmed, and the black-on-yellow sign disappeared entirely! Now you can see the important stop sign consistently as you approach it.  I feel safer!

I don’t know if my input had anything to do with these changes, but I feel inspired to keep complaining. Bureaucrats, beware!

Rating a State Park for Car Camping – Vermont’s Jamaica State Park gets Five Stars!

The point of this blog is to review books, but I don’t (quite) spend ALL my time reading. I spent Memorial Day weekend “car camping” in Vermont. In fact, I’ve spent the past 25 Memorial Day weekends camping with the same crowd of friends. I would guess we’ve stayed at 15 different campgrounds in seven or eight states, all public rather than private. We usually occupy 8 or 10 campsites and total around 40 campers, of all ages.

What makes for a good campground? Let’s see… Location, infrastructure, activities, staff, alcohol policy, pet policy and “atmosphere”.

There is no perfect location. As a group, our center of gravity has shifted north over time. Jamaica, Vermont (the town and state park share the name) was a seven hour trip for the families from farthest south, four hours from Boston and half an hour from those who now call Vermont home.

Under location, we can also consider geography. We’ve camped in the flat Pinelands of New Jersey, near beaches in Connecticut and Maryland, and in hilly forests. Vermont falls in the later category. We really like woods and hills!

Our basic infrastructure requirement is flush toilets and hot showers. Check! We turn down “group sites” because they often have pit toilets.

Jamaica State Park is very small, about 40 campsites, some equipped with lean-tos. Our reserved site was listed as having a “prime lean-to”. It was large and sturdy, consisting of a floor, three walls and a roof, enclosing enough space so a tent could be placed within. Given our experiences with bad weather, this was wonderful! We pitched two more tents on the ground. The weather stayed dry.

Missing was one amenity we’ve occasionally enjoyed, namely a sink at the wash house with hot water for washing dishes. Oh, well, can’t have it all.

Activities? Hiking and bicycling were at hand. The swimming area was just a place to wade in the small, fast moving river. No lifeguards, and no boat rental. Vermont is very tourist friendly, so those of us who decided to go exploring enjoyed scenery, shopping and the Green Mountain National Forest.

Our main activities are eating and talking, anyway.

The staff at Jamaica State Park was friendly, the alcohol policy was easy to deal with (no kegs or underage drinking), and dogs were allowed if leashed. To my surprise, we had six dogs along for the trip!

So what about “atmosphere”? It was great! Our fellow campers were pleasant. The employees who enforced quiet hours weren’t obnoxious. I’ll be happy to return to Jamaica or try another Vermont state park any time. (For the record, I find New York state parks creepy. New Jersey’s park employees act like they really wanted to be in the state police. Connecticut runs its megapark at Hammonasset with wonderful aplomb and professionalism.)

Vermonters deserve to be very proud of their parks. I’ll be back!