Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical

Matilda, published in 1988, was Roald Dahl’s 14th children’s novel. Like many of his books, it features a child protagonist surrounded by unpleasant adults. The supernaturally precocious five-year-old Matilda Wormwood finds herself thwarted and oppressed by her cruel parents and her school’s Draconian headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. It’s one of Dahl’s best-known books, thanks in part to the 1996 film adaptation, and Americanized version starring Mara Wilson and Danny DeVito.

From early on, Dennis Kelly, the playwright for Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical, was very clear that would be was an adaptation of the novel, not the film. The accents are British and the aesthetic is late-eighties, with big phones and bigger hair.

When I found out that Tim Minchin was writing the music, I went from “intrigued” to “I need to see this.” Minchin is an Australian musician/songwriter/comedian. Not only is he musically talented, his lyrics are stunningly clever and funny. I think Dahl, who often included humorous poems and songs in his novels, would have approved.

Fast forward to this past Saturday. “Will you be embarrassed if I cry during this?” I asked my husband while we waited in line outside the Schubert Theater. “I might cry.”

“Yes, I’ll be embarrassed,” he said. “Don’t do it.”

“Okay, I’ll try. Maybe if I keep talking about crying then I won’t.”

I really only cried a little the first time I listened to the soundtrack, during the songs “This Little Girl” (teacher feelings) and “When I Grow Up” (reluctant adult feelings). The tickets were a sort-of-surprise Christmas present from my husband. I don’t think he was initially as enthused about Matilda as I was, but he generally likes musicals and making me happy, so there we were.

My biggest concern going in was that it would be difficult for a child actor to carry so much of the show. There are some meaty adult parts, but it really is Matilda’s story, and there are a lot of scenes that rely on her. The character is five years old, but the actresses who play her range in age from around eight to eleven, and there are usually three or four of them who share the role.

The night we went to the show we saw Mattea Conforti as Matilda. As soon as she came onstage at the end of the opening number, all my doubts were gone. Her Matilda has a big voice and a bigger stage presence, and she completely stole the show from her adult counterparts. Matilda is, as the song says, “A little bit naughty,” but she’s breaking the rules to show adults how unfair they are. It’s a message that young girls in particular don’t often hear: that it’s okay for them to speak up if they feel something isn’t right.

Actually, all the kids in the show’s company are great. They open the show with “Miracle,” a chaotic number that has plenty of opportunity for great comic acting and dancing. “Revolting Children” and “When I Grow Up,” arguably the show’s most dynamic numbers, also give the kids an opportunity to shine.

Chirstopher Sieber is hilarious as Miss Trunchbull. She is every nightmare of a child-hating teacher while also being the subject of pranks and pratfalls. My only regret is that in the 21st century people are writing new musicals in which fat and unpleasant woman characters need to be played by men. It’s done for laughs, but I think the underlying message that women who don’t conform to a certain standard of femininity are grotesque is damaging. Besides, I bet there are tons of actress-comediennes who could have sunk their teeth into the role.

Roald Dahl also usually has at least one good adult in his books to help the child hero fight the bad guys. In Matilda it’s Miss Honey, the kind schoolteacher who does her best to protect her students from Miss Trunchbull. She befriends Matilda and helps her learn to use her powers. In the musical, her character’s story is mostly the same, but we see the effects of her traumatic childhood more clearly. She’s a survivor of childhood abuse who has to face her own abuser in order to protect more children. It’s dark, but so are a lot of Dahl’s books. Maybe I was just too young to understand this layer of the story when I read the book, but to me, that version of Miss Honey seemed like a long-suffering, uncomplaining angel. The stage version paints her as an anxious, unhappy woman with complicated feelings towards her family and her past. I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling it, but Miss Honey’s character development was the most satisfying part of the musical.

Visually, this show is just fun to look at. The set is decorated with giant Scrabble-style letter tiles, which move around for different scenes. The dancing is very acrobatic. Dancers scale gates, throw around furniture, and bounce on trampolines. During “When I Grow Up,” giant swings descend from the ceiling, and for “Revolting Children” the kids in the company are literally climbing on their desks. Mrs. Wormwood, Matilda’s mother, is reimagined as a competitive ballroom dancer (at least I think this is new, I don’t remember that part from the book at all) basically as an excuse to have some very sequin-y costumes and truly impressive dancing, especially during the number “Loud.” There’s even a segment of the story told with shadow puppets, narrated by Matilda.

I can’t recommend Matilda: The Musical enough. If you have kids, you should take them. If you have students, you should take them. This show would be a spectacular field trip destination. If you like musicals, and you were a bookish kid who loved Roald Dahl, treat yourself.

Unrelated to the blog, but perhaps of interest: I had an article published on xoJane this week! It’s about my time studying abroad in Italy, and some possible reasons why more women study abroad than men. If you’re into that, go check it out!

Getting Books

I’m still rushing around doing holiday things and visiting people. I’m writing this from a hotel room in Times Square, where my husband took me last night for my big Christmas present. More on that present later, it’s bookish in nature so it will get a post of its own on Wednesday.

On Friday I posted about the books that I gave this year, so today I thought I’d post about the books I received.

Winter Stroll by Elin Hilderbrand

This was my only “surprise” book this year, one that wasn’t on my list. I haven’t read this author before, but judging from the summary this is a family comedy-romance set around a Nantucket holiday tradition. I’ve never been to Nantucket’s stroll, but I’ve been to similar events in other New England towns. I might save this one for next year when I need to get in the spirit.

The rest of the books were on my wish list, which was circulated throughout my family. Most of the books I’ve asked for over the last few years are comics. I like to read trades, which are paperback books that collect several issues of a comic book. They can be on the expensive side, usually about $20 a piece, and I don’t tend to buy them for myself. That makes it a little bit special, the perfect wish list item.

Fables, Volume 14: Witches, by Bill Willingham (author) and Mark Buckingham (illustrator)

I’ve been reading this series for a while now. It was a slow starter for me at first, but after a few volumes I fell in love with this story of folkloric and fictional characters trying to make it in modern New York. If you’re a fan of shows like Once Upon a Time and Grimm, I highly recommend this series. Willingham was fracturing these fairy tales and solving crimes with the Big Bad Wolf well before the current trend.

Locke and Key, Volume 3: Crown of Shadows, by Joe Hill (author) and Gabriel Rodriguez (illustrator)

The first volume of Locke and Key, a fast-paced supernatural mystery about a family who moves to a spooky house in a New England town called Lovecraft. Rookie horror mistake, especially when the person penning your story is Stephen King’s son. I was hooked from the heart-pounding, gory opening scene until the twisty end. The second volume is slower, with more pages devoted to explaining the characters’ backstory and the powers of the Keyhouse. The villains are still at large, the heroes are still vulnerable, and I’m looking forward to the action picking up again in this volume.

Saga of the Swamp Thing Book Four, by Alan Moore (author), Steven Bissette and Stan Woch (illustrators)

Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta was one of the first Western (read: not manga) comics I bought in high school, and in college I read Watchmen with equal enthusiasm. I took a break from him after being disappointed by my foray into The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I decided to try again when I saw that my library carried the first book from his run of Swamp Thing. Moore was writing for this series in the 1980s, and his work would influence horror comics for years to come. One of the issues in this book, Bogeyman, gets a shout out in one of my favorite issues of Sandman (see below), and I’m happy to finally get the reference. Even if it’s a gross reference.

The Absolute Sandman, Volume 4, by Neil Gaiman

I read all the original Sandman comics in high school, mostly getting the trades out of the library. Over the past few years I’ve been collecting The Absolute Sandman, which reprints the comics in huge hardcover books. I do mean huge- each book has the equivalent of two or three trades in it, plus some additional material like original scripts or stories. I can always tell when I got one of these, because it’s the heaviest present under the tree. The series has definitely rewarded my re-reading, and I’m looking forward to diving into this volume soon.

That’s what I got for Christmas. How about you? Any interesting books or book-related presents this holiday? Are you home for the holidays, home from the holidays, or still traveling? I started this post in the hotel room, but I’m finishing it in a Starbucks because my husband and I have become nomads who don’t know when we’ll have wireless again.

 

Giving Books

A short post today, since I’ll be busy hanging out with my family, opening presents, and eating lots of delicious food.

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten through the holiday season without giving at least one person a book. For a while I was reluctant about giving people titles they hadn’t specifically asked for. It seemed more like an assignment than a present.

Then I started to think about all the unasked for books that people have given me over the years. Some of those surprises have become my favorites. Now I’m less reluctant to gift books. I promise, if I give you one, I’m not going to quiz you on it later. Feel free to leave it on the shelf or regift as you see fit.

Also, if we’re friends on Goodreads, I’m going to mine your “to read” shelf for ideas before I shop.

This year I didn’t go too overboard on the book buying. My husband recently finished Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card, so I bought him the rest of the books in that series. As I kind of mentioned in Monday’s post, we’re both reading and discussing these books, so it’s kind of a present to both of us.

 

I bought my brother two books that were on his wish list, Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living by Nick Offerman and Egghead: Or, You Can’t Survive on Ideas Alone by Bo Burnham. I’ve never watched Parks and Rec so I can’t really speak to the Nick Offerman phenomenon, but I’ve seen a little bit of Bo Burnham. He first got popular as a comedian/singer/songwriter with a YouTube channel when I was in college, which is incidentally a great time in life to sit around and watch YouTube videos. I paged through this book before wrapping it, and it was mostly made up of funny, sweet, and/or satirical poems illustrated with cartoony line drawings. If you squint it’s Shel Silverstein-esque.

My family buys each other a lot of books from the Best American Series. These are collections of short fiction and nonfiction, published annually. There are several different genres, from mystery to sports writing. My favorites are the “Nonrequired Reading” books, because they’re full of interesting, not-easily-categorized work.

I didn’t buy any copies this year, but I’ve given Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett many times. It’s such a weird, funny, poignant, smart story. I never get tired of it, and I think there’s something in it for everyone. This was the first book by either Gaiman or Pratchett that I had ever read, and it’s a great introduction to both authors.

That’s all for this Christmas. Tell me about the best books you gave and received this holiday season in the comments.

Out of Context

Have you ever re-watched a movie as an adult that you liked as a kid and thought oh man, I totally got none of the jokes in this? Or if you’re an adult who spends time around kids, maybe you’ve chuckled at a joke that flew right over most tiny innocent heads. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just check out one of the many clickbait lists devoted to the phenomenon. The stuff kids miss isn’t always about sex or drugs, even though most of the examples in those links are. Disney’s Aladdin was my favorite movie growing up, but at four years old I was too young to fully appreciate Robin Williams as the Genie impersonating pop culture icons like Groucho Marx or Jack Nicholson.

Lots of time, especially in family films, the dissonance is intentional. Kids don’t go to the theaters by themselves, and sometimes the filmmakers want to throw in a treat for the grown-ups. After all, they pay for the tickets.

Even though reading is often a shared experience between generations, I haven’t seen as much of this phenomenon in books. There are tongue-in-cheek picture books like Go the F*ck to Sleep and All My Friends Are Dead, but they’re really aimed at adults. I got my nephew a Star Wars board book for his first birthday. He and his dad seemed equally amused by (for the first twenty readings or so), but I can’t think of any other instances of humor in books that children are really meant to miss.

Still, those moments of childhood obliviousness and adult recognition happen to readers, too. I think they’re a powerful argument for revisiting books from our youth. By the end of elementary school, I was capable of finishing books aimed at people much older than I was. Even if I understood the vocabulary, I didn’t always have the context, the background knowledge that the author assumed the average reader has. I still had a lot of fun reading those books at the time, and I enjoy the little “so that’s what that meant” moments I’ve had returning to them years later.

When I was in fifth grade, I did a book report on Cat Crimes for the Holidays. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a book of short mysteries all featuring cats and set around different holidays, including Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, and some less widely celebrated ones like Arbor Day. The teacher told me I could choose my favorite story from the bunch to do my report on. I picked the Halloween story, a short entry in Carole Nelson Douglas’s Midnight Louie universe, which features a black cat who solves crimes. The story was called “Iä Iä Iä- Iä! Cthlouie.”

At age ten I had never heard of H.P. Lovecraft or his Cthulhu Mythos, but I really loved that story. I got up in front of the class and chattered about Louie’s trip to Innsmouth while I showed off the little cut-paper tentacle monster I’d created as part of my visual presentation. I wish I could say the teacher was entertained, but I think she was as confused as my classmates. My love for Lovecraftian pastiche and parody endures to this day, and in fact eclipses my enjoyment of his original works.

There have been other many books I read without understanding their place in the larger canon, and I have really fond memories of some of them. In middle school I read The Knight of the Sacred Lake, the second of Rosalind Miles’ Camelot novels, without having read the first book or really knowing anything about Arthurian legend beyond The Sword and the Stone. Not only did I finish it, I think it ruined me for reading a lot of other Arthur stories, since I now have no patience for the ones that marginalize Guenevere and the other female characters. After my freshman year of high school I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man because a boy I liked thought it was a good book. I didn’t disagree with him on my first read, but almost two years later my English teacher made me learn something about Irish history and the meaning of the novel deepened. I started Jacqueline Carey’s Sundering duology, which is heavily based on Lord of the Rings, despite my total apathy towards Tolkein’s Middle Earth. Carey is one of my all-time favorites, so maybe I’ll even finish someday.

If there’s a lesson I’ve learned from tearing through stories that I wasn’t ready for, it’s that there’s no such thing as ready. There’s no need to track down every precedent and inspiration for what I read, unless that means I’m going to read more great literature in the process. When I ignore my inner completist and jump into a genre or series I don’t know anything about, I can learn things, and find new things to love.

And if I start to feel really lost, these days there’s always someone online who’s willing to explain the joke.

 

Reflections on The Ender Quartet

Somehow I managed not only to keep this post under 1000 words, I also wrote it with only minor spoilers for all four books. It’s a Christmas miracle!

When I first picked up Children of the Mind, I didn’t plan on writing about it for this blog. I had a few reasons. It’s the final book in Orson Scott Card’s Ender Quartet, so a stand-alone review would hold little interest for someone who wasn’t already familiar with the story. It was first published almost twenty years ago. And finally, the more I read about Card the less likeable I find him to be. I’m not sure how I feel about recommending his books to anyone, or even talking about them, to be honest.

Then when I was about three-quarters of the way through Children of the Mind, I realized that whatever flaws this series has, it really does embody some of my favorite things about science fiction. I had to write something.

Just hanging out at the coffee shop with my book

There’s something special about Ender’s Game. Card claims he never planned to write this book. In the introduction to one edition, he explains that he had plotted Speaker for the Dead and realized that he needed to explore the backstory of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin. A short story about Ender’s childhood grew into the novel we know today.

Ender’s Game stands apart from the other books in the original quartet, separated by distance, time, and scope. The other three novels, set in the distant future, grapple thematically with questions of cultural and individual identity as they tell the story of three sentient species living on several culturally distinct planets. Ender’s Game is the story of Ender Wiggin, and to a lesser extent his siblings Valentine and Peter, as they come of age in a world that no longer seems so different from our own. It tackles heavy themes and hard questions of its own—at what age, at what point are we considered responsible for our own actions? Do we also need to answer for the actions of the people we’ve influenced?—but does so elegantly with beautiful prose, never losing sight of the emotional lives of the characters.

Speaker for the Dead feels is a drastic departure from Ender’s Game. Instead of Earth, it’s set on the planet of Lusitania, where the human colonists coexist uneasily with the native pequeninos, a species of sentient humanoids. It’s part murder mystery, as the seemingly peaceful pequeninos have been responsible for the deaths of two humans. It’s also part family drama, following the emotionally damaged biologist Novinha and her equally damaged but brilliant children. Ender is still around, now an adult and seeking redemption. Although he plays a crucial role in untangling some of the mysteries, it doesn’t feel like his story so much as Novinha’s story. The plot is like a really good episode of Doctor Who. The source of the conflict is a staggeringly wide cultural gap, and it takes an anthropologist, not a warrior, to resolve it.

Xenocide and Children of the Mind were originally intended to be one book, and they read like two halves of a whole. In Xenocide, the story telescopes out beyond Lusitania to other worlds and perspectives. A new scientific mystery occupies Novinha’s family, the need to neutralize a deadly virus. A faceless villain emerges in the form of the Starways Congress, a Machiavellian interplanetary governing body. Thousands of years later, humanity has forgotten the lessons Ender learned a child, and the Congress is threatening mass destruction again. Children of the Mind picks up most of the unresolved conflicts right where Xenocide leaves off, as the characters race against an impending attack on Lusitania and try to communicate with another sentient species. The conclusion left more than a few threads dangling, but I also found it too emotionally neat—there are no deaths that can’t be mourned and moved on from, and there’s a big wedding just in case anyone didn’t know this was a happily-ever-after type ending.

All four books preach the importance of tolerance above all things—tolerance in the face of fear, revulsion, and even danger. The times when the characters are most threatened by the Other are also the times they must make the greatest attempt to understand the Other. It’s a message that has continued to ring true in the years since the books were first published.

My husband pointed out that there’s a significant disconnect between that message of tolerance and the author’s actions. Card is publicly anti-gay, and was famously a member of the National Organization for Marriage an organization devoted to opposing same-sex marriage. In 2013 queer activists called for a boycott of the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game.

The question of whether we consume or not consume art based on the creator’s personal life or beliefs is difficult. Do we stop listening to The Ring Cycle because Wagner was an anti-Semite? Do we stop reading H.P. Lovecraft because he was a racist? Do we stop reading Card’s books because he is a homophobe?

We’re never going to eradicate problematic creators from the canon, nor should we try. That’s a censorship slope I have no desire to start sliding on. It’s not my place to tell anyone else what not to read, but there are authors I don’t read because I can’t separate the person from the books. Card isn’t one of those, as much as I disagree with him. After Speaker for the Dead, I bought all of his books used at Powells or Alibris, so he’s not getting any royalties. When I went to see the film adaptation of Ender’s Game in theaters, I donated the price of my ticket to GLAAD, in the hopes that their organization will help promote media with queer creators and more positive representation. That’s the compromise I make with myself, and I’m satisfied with it. You can decide for yourself. If you want to give the Ender books a try, I’d be happy to loan you my secondhand paperbacks.

The Magicians on SyFy

Like I said in my intro post, I want this to primarily be a book blog, but one that also allows me the freedom to write about other things that I’m passionate about without going too off-brand. Basically, even if it’s not a straight-up book review, I want I to have something to do with literature.

I’ve known for a while that Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy had a TV adaptation in the works. After a several years of development, the series is set to premiere on January 25th. SyFy, apparently not content to be just The Sharknado Channel forever, is trying to up their game and compete with networks that are putting out high-quality cinematic television, like FX and AMC. Good news for book nerds, all the press I’ve read so far is making The Magicians out to be a labor of love. Sera Gamble, the show runner, is a fan of the books and wanted the author to be involved in production. In this video, Grossman says that characters, setting, and plot will be mostly similar to the books, but a lot of other details have changed.

When The Magicians airs on SyFy in January, I start posting weekly recaps here. I’ll write as someone informed by the books, but I won’t spoil anything for people who are show-only fans.

magicians trilogy

I adore these books. They speak to my love of fantasy and of school stories. They get billed as “Harry Potter for grown-ups,” but Harry Potter is obviously for every human with a beating heart and a soul, so I like to call them “Harry Potter meets The Secret History.” Brakebills, a major setting in the books, is a magical university hidden in upstate New York. Going to school there is as fun as it sounds, but it can also be dangerous. The main characters, both during and after their time at school, get into some very dark situations. Yes, it’s about magic, but it’s also about growing up and realizing that you have to make your own choices and live with the consequences of your actions.

When I recap, I’m going to avoid pedantic “but it wasn’t like this in the book” whining. I appreciate that an adaptation is exactly what it says on the tin—something that’s been changed for a new format. But I do reserve the right to make fun of this show if it gets ridiculous, and great source material is no guarantee of a good adaptation.

If there’s one thing that upsets me about the trailer, it’s how goddamn hot everyone is. I know it’s almost inevitable that everyone gets an attractiveness upgrade from page to screen. But the whole cast looks cut from the same primetime CW cloth. Couldn’t they have found one different face or body type? Almost no one in the novels is described as 100% conventionally attractive, but the cool thing is that they all find people to love them as they are. I hear that happens in real life sometimes too? For the record, I hate fancasts for anything but my mental picture of Quentin in the first book is always very Paul Dano in Little Miss Sunshine. That’s not really possible anymore, but whatever, fight me.

That said there are lots of things about this series I am excited for! Here they are in no particular order:

– Arjun Gupta, an Indian American actor, is playing Penny, who’s described as white in the novel. Actually pretty much everyone is described as white, so good on the show for imagining a magical world with a little more diversity. May the trend continue.

-Scenery. In the sneak peek when Quentin leaves gray New York in winter, comes through the bushes and suddenly there’s Brakebills, all these classical columned buildings on a big green rolling lawn in the sunshine? My heart may have actually skipped a beat. I just want to go live there. Also looking forward to seeing what they’ve made of the Physical Kids’ cottage. Is it the frat house-looking building we see in the previews?

-Speaking of the Physical Kids, I am beyond excited for their little dysfunctional found family. This is one of the things I related to so much in the books. I went to a small university and was part of an even smaller major, so I remember what it’s like to be so close to the same people all the time. You love them but you are also the most capable of hurting each other.

-Alice! The first teaser I watched I didn’t see her at all, and I was really worried that the show was going to push her out and, I don’t know, make Julia do her stuff instead? I’m relieved that she’s still around. This feeling of relief will last until she breaks my heart into a million tiny pieces.

-I’d like to see Eliot’s storyline updated a little. He’s a great character, but there’s some tortured closeted gay man stuff going on at first that never totally resolves itself, in my opinion. Regardless, I’m looking forward to him being the source of many great one-liners.

-They’ll be showing Julia’s backstory from The Magician King side by side with Quentin’s time at Brakebills. I think this is a much better story choice for the show. I also loved the Julia sections and I’m glad we’re getting them sooner.

I could go on, but those are the big ones, for me. I’m curious to see how the timeline works, too. How much time passes in a season? The characters have been aged up, does that mean less time before they graduate? Do we still get to go to Brakebills South?

Who else is excited for this show? Who wants to nerd out about these books with me? Is anyone saving a good bottle of wine for the premier? Tell me about it in the comments, and I’ll see you in January!

Hot Chocolate

Hot chocolate is a drink with a lot of literary connections. It starts when we’re young—who can listen to The Polar Express when they were a kid and not want to taste some melted chocolate bars? Then there’s the beginning of A Wrinkle in Time, when the insomniacs in the Murray family gather in the kitchen at midnight for cocoa. The origins of the drink get a nod in Naamah’s Blessing, Jacqueline Carey’s alternate history account of American exploration in the sixteenth century, when the scheming Shahrizai family makes alliances over precious chocolatl brought back from the new world.

I started thinking about doing a hot chocolate recipe as part of my post on Little, Big (which is forthcoming, I promise). There is one scene I love very much that mentions a thermos of spiked hot chocolate. It would have been a good match, but then I realized I have too many feelings about both that book and about hot chocolate to fit into one post.

I think I liked hot chocolate when I was a kid, but as an adult it mostly disappoints me. It’s always too sweet, or upsettingly grainy, and when it falls even a little bit below piping hot it gets sort of thick and nasty. Granted, most of the time I’m not using the best materials or methods—a packet of premixed powder, whatever milk is on hand, and the microwave. Even when I go to a coffee shop and let someone else make me one, hot chocolate tends to be a letdown.

There have been two exceptions to this rule:

  1. GROM is an Italian gelato chain that serves ciocolatta calda in the wintertime. My favorite is the fondente con crema– dark chocolate with a scoop of cream gelato.
  1. L.A. Burdick’s is a fancy chocolatier with four locations in the Northeastern United States. They are also the source of the chocolate mice that inspired the ones in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

So those are the best two hot chocolates I’ve ever had, but neither of them are practical for day to day consumption. With that in mind, I took to the internet to try to find a homemade recipe that I could manage.

Simple Hot Cocoa for One

Check out the neat retro sugar container that came with my apartment
Check out the neat retro sugar container that came with my apartment

First I tried this recipe from Kemp Minifie at epicurious. The words “simple” and “for one” in the title appealed to me. The small number of ingredients was also nice, since I was searching from my phone in the grocery store parking lot.

In progress, with tiny whisk
In progress, with tiny whisk

The basic idea is to combine the powdery ingredients- salt, sugar, cocoa- in a little bit of milk (I used whole milk) on the stove, and once everything is dissolved add the rest of the milk and stir until it’s heated through. I needed more than the recommended 2 tablespoons of milk to get everything dissolved, and I also went light on the sugar (1 tbsp), but otherwise I followed the directions.

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The result was okay. The texture was thin enough to be drinkable but still rich, but the taste was pretty average. It wasn’t substantially better than the hot chocolate I had a coffee shop a week ago. I also feel like I dirtied a lot of dishes for just one cup of a moderately satisfying beverage.

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That said, I was still obviously going to drink it, so I loaded it up with whipped cream, cup up a mini-pandoro that I’d been saving, and brought it out to the deck with my book. Seventy-degree weather in December feels pretty weird, but I’m not complaining.

Maybe if the characters in this book had some hot chocolate they would be happier
Maybe if the characters in this book had some hot chocolate they would be happier

Polar Express Hot Chocolate

Ganache ingredients
Ganache ingredients

My next attempt was inspired by Cara Nicoletti of Yummy Books. I was trying to see if there were other famous books featuring hot chocolate besides the ones I mentioned above, and I stumbled onto her post about hot cocoa and The Polar Express. If you are into food and books, or books about food, go check out that blog. I know her book, Voracious, has been added to my virtual to-read pile.

Fluff ingredients
Fluff ingredients

Nicoletti’s recipe involves making a chocolate ganache that then has to be chilled before it can be transformed into hot chocolate. She also includes a recipe for homemade marshmallow fluff topping. Even though I have traditionally been scared off by anything that requires a candy thermometer, I decided to give both of these a go.

Ganache, pre-refrigeration
Ganache, pre-refrigeration

I had one and a half vanilla beans instead of the required four, so I used some extra vanilla extract (Google tells me that 1 inch of vanilla bean = 1 tsp vanilla extract, and the one full bean I had was about 3 inches long, so I went with that). I also used a hand mixer instead of a stand mixer. It seemed to take a really long time to get the fluff to the right consistency, but I have no experience with this and get bored easily, so it was probably average.

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Making the two recipes took me about two hours, including cleanup. The worst part was scraping out the vanilla beans. I narrowly avoided stabbing myself a few times and did not avoid dropping the pods into both the cream and egg white mixtures. The best part was licking the spoons and the beaters, because damn, these are both delicious.

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I let the ganache and the fluff chill in the fridge for about six hours, which was enough time for it to solidify a bit. I put two heaping tablespoons of ganache into each mug and poured hot milk over it, then topped with fluff.

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The result was life changing. I’m not even exaggerating. The perfect texture, sweet but not too sweet. The orange in the chocolate was subtle and perfect. This recipe has cured me of my cocoa curmudgeon status. The best part is that the ganache stays good in the refrigerator for two months, so I can enjoy this treat well into the New Year. If it lasts that long.

Eggnog and Christmas Stories

I love getting ready for Christmas. There are so many things that you only get to do in the short weeks between Thanksgiving and December 25th. It’s the only time of year we get to decorate a tree, sing carols for our neighbors, and drink eggnog.

I was anti-eggnog for a lot of years. I drank huge glasses of it when I was a kid, but eventually it started to gross me out. Then I reached adulthood and learned the value of moderation. Just kidding, I learned the value of adding liquor to things.

My husband and I are ambivalent about rum, but we like White Russians, so he invented a drink we call the Russian Christmas. It’s evolved over time, but it’s basically

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1 part vodka

1 part Kahlua

2 parts eggnog

Portions can be adjusted according to taste. Shake that up in a in a shaker with ice if you feel like being fancy and having another dish to wash, or just dump it all in a glass and stir. Feel free to substitute other coffee liqueur for Kahlua, too.

A drink, my tree, and a book about Christmas and cats. Basically paradise.
A drink, my tree, and a book about Christmas and cats. Basically paradise.

While I’m sipping one of those, I can curl up by the tree with a book. My favorite Christmas stories are mostly short—a novel is a big time investment, and I’ve got shopping to do. If you’re looking for a gift idea for the reader in your life, or if you’re looking to get into the spirit yourself, here are five suggestions:

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that has been adapted, remixed, and parodied so many times that it seems like the source material should have lost all meaning. I think this is a case where the original really is better than the imitations. I listen to the audiobook performed by Tim Curry. The novel is chilling, poignant, and funny, and Curry’s performance is perfect.

If you’re looking for a smaller time commitment, here’s Neil Gaiman reading from the abridged and notated copy Dickens used for his own public performances. I haven’t listened to the whole thing yet, but it’s about 90 minutes and I love Gaiman, so I’ll be doing that between now and New Year’s, for sure. (ETA: After I posted I listened to the first three staves/chapters, and it’s pretty cool! All the familiar elements are there, without the extended descriptive sections. There is a longish introduction that explains why this particular version of A Christmas Carol is special, but if you want to get right to the story it starts around 11:50).

In case you were curious, The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best film version. The only other adaptation that matters to me is the Torchwood fanfic “We Too Have Known Golden Hours,” which casts Jack Harkness as Scrooge and John Hart as Marley and everything is beautiful.

Jeremy: A Christmas Story and Christmas Candles, Jay O’Callahan

Jay O’Callahan is one of the greatest living American storytellers, and if you’ve never listened to him tell a story before these are a great place to start. Christmas Candles is one of many stories O’Callahan tells about Pill Hill, a neighborhood based on his childhood home. Jeremy is more fantastical, almost a fable, about a young man who loves to make other people happy. These two stories are available on one CD, but I still have a cassette tape for old time’s sake. I listen to it while I’m wrapping presents. That way I can say “Nobody come in my room, I’m wrapping stuff!” and my family will think I’m just being secretive and no one will see my crying my eyes out at Christmas Candles like I do every year. Jeremy is a much lighter story that only inspires occasional sniffling. Both of them are as funny, too, and I’m forever indebted to Christmas Candles for giving me “festive” as a euphemism for “drunk around the holidays.”

A Yuletide Universe, ed. Brian M. Thomsen

This is a collection of short stories, all with science fiction or fantasy elements. If you like stories where Santa is very real, and so are robots, ghosts, or children with creepy powers, this is for you. I first read this in middle school, when the only two authors I recognized were Anne McCaffrey and L. Frank Baum. Looking at the table of contents now, it’s a who’s who of prominent genre authors- Neil Gaiman, Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, Connie Willis, Harlan Ellison, William Gibson and more contribute. My personal favorites include Barker’s “The Yattering and Jack” (a minor demon tries to drive a very boring man insane), Ellison’s “Santa Claus vs. S.P.I.D.E.R.” (Santa reimagined as a Bond-esque 1960s superspy), and Willis’s classic “Miracle” (a attempt to determine which Christmas movie is actually the best).

A Christmas Memory, Truman Capote

Speaking of crying! I have “A Christmas Memory” in one volume with “One Christmas” and “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” all three of which are autobiographical tales of Capote’s boyhood holidays. “A Christmas Memory” is the best, the sweet story of a boy, his elderly cousin, and their Christmas traditions, which include picking out a tree, homemade gifts, and mailing a fruitcake to the White House.

“The H Street Sledding Record,” Ron Carlson

I discovered this one listening to the Selected Shorts podcast two years ago, and I immediately bought a copy of A Kind of Flying, the collection it’s featured in, to give to my mom. It’s about a family with some unusual Christmas traditions. They prove that it’s not so much what we do that matters, it’s the time spent together that strengthens our bond with the people we love. It’s narrated in the first person by the dad/husband, and has a great first line: “The last thing I do every Christmas Eve is go out in the yard and throw the horse manure onto the roof.”

What are your favorite Christmas books? How do you take your eggnog? Tell me in the comments. Merry reading!

On Juggling

I’ve been a juggler for a long time. I’m not talking about balls or pins, but books. Ever since I read my first chapter book, I’ve been able to manage multiple books at a time.

I think maybe my parents had something to do with it. They took turns reading me bedtime stories. On Monday night my mom might do the dishes while my dad read me Little House on the Prairie. On Tuesday night my dad would have a rehearsal and my mom would read me A Wrinkle in Time. Sometimes they picked the books, sometimes I did. If we’d gotten to a particularly good part the night before, I might try to convince the parent on duty to pick up the other book so I could know what happened next. They were adamant, though- only Mom reads Mom’s book, only Dad reads Dad’s book. I would have to wait.

Some summer vacations I kept a different book in every room of the house. Babysitters’ Club in the basement, John Bellairs in the guest room, Bailey School Kids in the living room. My parents probably didn’t love finding my books scattered all over the place, but they never would have said a word to discourage my love of reading.

A pile of recently finished, to-be-read, and currently reading
A pile of recently finished, to-be-read, and currently reading

Even now, I still save certain books for certain places. Battered paperbacks are for the beach or the bathtub, anywhere that it might get wet or dirty. Horror or suspense is for the kitchen table or out on the deck, while the sun is shining and I’m not going to give myself nightmares. When I’m reading comics, I like to curl up at one end of the couch with the trade and a glass of wine or a mug of tea.

There are nights when I need to read to settle my mind, but I’m too tired to take in any new information. Or I’m a little drunk and I know I’m not going to remember what I’ve read, but I’m not quite ready to sleep yet. Then I’ll reach for something I’ve read so many times I have it half-memorized, like Good Omens or Kushiel’s Dart. I’ll fall asleep with the book in my hand, and in the morning I can go back to something more complicated.

Often there’s an audiobook in my juggle pile. They’re good for long drives, or for when I’m cooking or cleaning or crocheting. Old audiobooks that I’ve heard before are especially nice when I’m sick and can’t sleep, something to keep my mind off my discomfort as I slide in and out of consciousness. I’ve drifted off to Adrienne Barbeau’s reading of Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer so many times that I’m starting to think her voice has healing powers.

I think the key to juggling is contrast. If I read books that are too similar in tone or genre, I get bored or confused. Right now I’m in the middle of rereading John Crowley’s sprawling fantasy family saga, Little, Big, with an eye towards writing a longer blog post about it. During this reread I also finished one of L.A. Meyer’s Jacky Faber books, which are fast-paced historical YA adventures. On a recent plane ride, I dozed to N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms read by Casaundra Freeman. For something really familiar, I’ve been falling back on Naamah’s Kiss, another favorite by Jacqueline Carey.

Are you a juggler or a literary monogamist? How many books are you reading right now, and what’s the best one? Tell me in the comments.

Coming soon: The Little, Big post, my favorite Christmas books, and some festive drinks.

Book Review: Lagoon

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The aliens have landed. They’re here, on Earth, and they want to help. They’re going to use their amazing powers and advanced technology for the good of our planet. This is it. This is first contact.

What’s the catch? The first first contact wasn’t with humans. It was with the denizens of the deep ocean, some of which aren’t very happy with the way humans have been treating them and their waters.

This is the basis for Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon. Her aliens haven’t come to New York, or Los Angeles, or even Cardiff. They’ve come to Lagos, Nigeria. Okorafor is an American writer with Nigerian parents, and her exploration of the city itself is one thing I loved about this book. Bits of Nigerian history, culture, and language are interwoven with the alien story in a way that never feels dry or preachy. She’s even dedicated the book to the people of Lagos—“animals, plant, and spirit.”

This isn’t an unconditional love song to the city or to Nigeria, however. Okorafor takes us to a place that is beset by poverty, political corruption, and failing infrastructure. The president is infirm and incapable of producing real change. So-called religious leaders use superstition and intimidation to grow their own fortunes. Petty crime is rampant.

Out of the ocean and onto this scene step our alien visitors. They can take any shape they want by rearranging their body’s molecules, and several come in human form as ambassadors to the people of Lagos. The visitors are peaceful and want to help, but they’re not putting up with any violence from humans—see, they can rearrange our molecules too.

The main story revolves around three humans, Adaora, a marine biologist, Agu, a soldier, and Anthony, a musician. The three are approached by Ayodele, an alien who takes the form of a beautiful woman. After a predictable amount of dithering about What To Do Next, the A-Team decides to go to the president, so Ayodele can take him to her leaders.

The news of the alien landing spreads quickly thanks to the Internet and social media. There are riots in the streets and the traffic is so bad that no one can get out of the city. The narrative leaves the A-Team for a long time to explore how first contact affects everyone else in Nigeria. And I do mean everyone. There are chapters about students, LGBTQ activists, a prostitute, a priest, a visiting American rapper, a homeless mute boy, an alien-enhanced bat, a seven-legged tarantula…the list goes on.

This was where the story started to feel thin for me. While the cross-section of Nigerian life was fascinating, I had a hard time connecting to the characters, many of whom come and go in the space of a single chapter. I would have been happy spending more time with Adoara. I wanted to know more about her family and her struggle for normalcy and acceptance despite her mysterious abilities. Adoara, Agu, and Anthony all had experiences with the paranormal before the aliens landed. The revelation of their powers, and of how they can use them to help Nigeria, is the most satisfying payoff in the book.

That’s my other favorite piece. Lagoon features not just aliens, but other powerful creatures that have been here all along. If you’re familiar with Igbo culture or you’ve read Okorafor’s young adult novel, Akata Witch, you’ll recognize Ijele Masquerade. Legba, a West African voodoo god, makes an appearance, as does Udide Okwankwa, story-telling spider and spiritual cousin to Anansi. These types of characters don’t get a lot of play in science fiction or fantasy. It’s always aliens or gods, science or folklore, the future or the past. Lagoon gives us both and it’s awesome.

At the end of the book, my biggest complaint was the flatness of so many characters. That’s a big one, for me, enough to knock this down from four stars to three. This is a personal thing. I love some books that have cookie-cutter settings, no plot, and clunky dialogue, but I stay because I like the characters. The inverse can also be true. If the people in the book don’t feel real to me, I’m out.

I’d recommend Lagoon if you love alien invasion stories but need a shakeup in the setting. If you do read it, you should know that there’s a useful glossary of terms in the back of the book. The sections of dialogue in Pidgin English weren’t too hard to understand without it, but if you’re the type of person who doesn’t like reading unfamiliar dialects this could be handy.

After the acknowledgements there’s a very fun “post-chapter” that gives us a glimpse of the American reaction to aliens invading Nigeria. Three college students sit around watching the video footage and debating whether or not it’s all a hoax. The deciding argument is all-too-true comment on the state of diversity in American media:

“And look at the ‘stars’ of the show. They black. Even the heroes are black. You think they gon’ spend they money to put somethin’ together that looks this real and actually allow black folks to star in it? Real Africans? And they set it in Africa?”

If they did, I would totally go see it.