Friday, January 29, 2016

The American Melting Pot That is My Heritage

 I've always been very interested in different cultures, traditions and family history, my own as well as everyone else's. I'm always curious to know what people know about their family history and heritage, and it's a question I like to ask. Occasionally, I've come across people who are a little suspicious of the motive behind that question. I suppose a bigot, unfortunately, may have his own reasons for asking, but I'm not coming from that point of view. I think I have more xenophilia than xenophobia.

Every spring, some of the Greek Orthodox churches in my area host Greek cultural festivals, and, every year, as I pass the signs on my commute, I think I'm going to crash one of these festivals some time. I haven't yet. I'm not Greek or so I thought. (It turns out I may be a little bit Greek, but more on that later.) I know I would enjoy the cuisine, and Greek folk dancing always seems fascinating to me.

The photo is from

Some years ago, the newspaper where I work published some photos of an event at an Armenian Orthodox Church where some ladies were making a traditional Armenian pastry. I looked at these photos with great interest and asked our photographer questions. My editor, who happens to be Armenian, was, I think, wondering what my fascination was with Armenian pastries. I remember the women were twisting dough, so I think this may be the recipe here.

This photo is from
I like Old World-y traditions, and I wish I had more connection to them. I have British heritage, but I don't have an afternoon tea habit. I have German heritage, but I don't eat German cuisine, at least not very often and not often using family recipes. I do have several German cookie recipes from my paternal grandmother and a springerle rolling pin from an aunt on that side of the family. These are treasures.

The rolling pin photo above is from but seems similar to the one we have. A couple of Christmases ago, I used our springerle rolling pin and my grandmother's springerle recipe to honor tradition.

We do celebrate St. Patrick's Day each year with a corned beef dinner, although this is more of a tradition that my mother decided to start and continue, not one with which she grew up. Mom found a recipe in the Silver Palate cookbook for Irish soda bread which we've now made almost every year for quite some time now. We love it. It's loaded with butter and baked in an iron skillet. I usually add dried currants and caraway. The recipe is called "Grandma Clark's Irish Sodabread" in the cookbook, and people could conclude that this was our family recipe. Interestingly enough, the Irish part of my heritage is not even on the Clark side.

Here's a slightly altered version of the "Silver Palate" recipe.

If you were to ask my younger self about my family history, I would have told you that I was English, German and Irish. It wasn't until I was in high school and saw some Swedish names in the Clark family tree that I knew I had any Swedish heritage. I found this quite astonishing, although Mom told me at the time that the percentage was small and didn't seem significant.

I grew up in a northern New Jersey town, Cedar Grove, that has a 29.7 percent Italian population and now live in a neighboring town, Verona, with an Italian population of 25.8 percent. My Italian school and neighborhood friends always seemed to be more closely tied to Old World cultural traditions. Some of them had grandparents or members of the family who spoke Italian. I have eaten some of the most fabulous Italian food at church pot luck dinners and community events as well as countless independent Italian restaurants in my area. I'm not complaining! I just never had quite as much sense of connection to my own heritage.

Have you seen the commercial for the DNA kit where a man says he discovers he's not at all German as he thought but Scottish instead? "I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt," he says.

My brother Bruce recently took the DNA test. Although some things confirmed what we already knew, there were quite a few surprises in those results. What would be true for my brother would be true for me too. We discovered we are of 40 percent Great Britain heritage and 22 percent Western Europe heritage. That's not the surprising part. Bruce presumed that this was mostly German, although it seems the test doesn't break it down. According to my cousin Kevin, that would include some French too.

Kevin is the family historian, looking into our genealogy and sharing his discoveries with the rest of us. He discovered that there are French Huguenots in our history on my father's side. This seems to make sense, because we have ancestors from Alsace-Lorraine, actually on both sides of the family.

For the past two years, I have performed with my Salt and Light Puppet Team for an Oktoberfest event at my church. In the first one, I did a little skit with my ventriloquism style puppet, Professor Votshisname. I told the professor something to the effect that much of the audience must have German heritage.

Votshisname: And what about you? Are you German?

Susan: Yes, I'm German. My ancestors came from Alsace-Lorraine.

Votshisname: So, you are French!

And from there, we argue while making a quick tour through the history of Alsace-Lorraine switching back and forth between French and German territory. By the way, this was a tough bit to memorize!

And now, since that event, I learn that both are true. I actually am French, at least a little bit.

So, now on to the surprises.

Surprise #1 -- I am much more Scandinavian than I thought.

According to the test, I am 20 percent Scandinavian, although it doesn't break that down into Swedish, Norwegian or Danish. This is more than my brother's estimated 12.5 percent Swedish and more than Mom had led me to believe when I first learned I had some Swedish blood.

Surprise #2 -- I'm also a little bit Finnish or northern Russian.

According to my brother's test, we are also six percent Finnish or northern Russian. Again, it's not highly specific as to which of the two. Learning this, I was sparked by curiosity about the Finns and why "Finnish" was listed separately from "Scandinavian" on this test. I did some Google searches and learned that Finland is considered a Nordic but not a Scandinavian country. This reminded me of something I learned while teaching English in Hungary in the summer of 1994. The Hungarian language has no relationship to the neighboring Romanian language, which is a Romance language, or to any of the Slavic languages in Eastern Europe. It's in its own little language group with only two other languages, Finnish and Estonian. Finland and Estonia, of course, are geographically close together, so I wondered how Hungarian language was related with these. Of course, ancient people groups migrated everywhere. Now, again, I am curious on that question. This is what research does to you, answers some questions and raises others. If anyone has some insights on this or knows of a source for information, comment below.

Surprise #3 -- Although my DNA is 100 percent European, it is not 100 percent Northern European.

Specifically, I am three percent either Italian or Greek. So, after repeatedly telling various people that I didn't have any Italian blood in me, I actually might? As I said, I live in an Italian area, so this question comes up fairly often. Someone will tell me that he or she is 100 percent or 50 percent Italian, and I'll tell that person that I'm not at all Italian. Some of the towns I cover as a reporter also have a high Italian population. I can remember covering a dinner hosted by the Sicilian Federation of New Jersey where a local politician was honored. My neighbor at the table used the placemat map of Italy to point out to me the area from which his ancestors came. It turns out that I actually may be Italian, just a little bit. I can not express how surprising that is to me.

It would be interesting to know more specifically if this line of my ancestors were Italian or Greek. The two ethnicities seem to have some physical similarities. A Greek-American writer friend, Stephanie Nikolopoulos, and I were just recently talking about Sophia Loren, an Italian actress, who portrayed a Greek sponge diver finding an art treasure in the movie, "The Boy on a Dolphin."

Photo from "The Boy on the Dolphin," taken from Amazon

However, Italy and Greece seem very culturally distinct. I know it doesn't ultimately matter, and I may never know the answer to this question. It is merely interesting.

Along with this surprising finding, I also learn that I am six percent Iberian, either Spanish or Portuguese.


Really? I would never have guessed it. This leads right into Surprise # 4.

Surprise #4 -- I'm a lot less Irish than I thought.

According to this test, we are only three percent Irish. That's much less than the 12.5 percent we thought it was. Compared to this, I have six percent Iberian DNA, which is twice the amount of Irish. This completely astonishes me.

I am reminded however of a theory I've read about the "black Irish," the dark-haired Irish. My Irish grandfather, my maternal grandfather, had very dark, dramatic and black hair and fair skin. So did his siblings and our other Irish ancestors. My mother also had black hair before it grayed. I have read an explanation, apparently a controversial one, that the "black Irish" got their dark-haired characteristics from Spanish invaders to Ireland. Suddenly, this theory seems very possible to me. Maybe some of that Iberian blood is actually through the Irish line of the family.

 I suppose I've always assumed I must have a good dose of Irish DNA, because my skin is very fair. "A Whiter Shade of Pale" could be my theme song. I don't have the bronzed Sophia Loren skin tone. I don't tan. I fry. However, just because I have Mediterranean European DNA would not necessarily mean that I would reflect that in my apperance.

This is the exact reason why I didn't blink when retired New York Jets football player, Bruce Harper, told me he was Irish. I'm not name dropping. In fact, I'll confess that I know so little about professional sports that I was not familiar with his name at all before meeting him in the context of his work with the Boys & Girls Club, where he works on the board of directors for a local club. I met him while covering another dinner event for the paper -- my job does have its perks! -- and was seated beside him. I found him to be very personable.

When he told me, "I'm Irish," being gullible, I answered, "Oh, really?" No, he doesn't look Irish, but I didn't think it was completely impossible that he might have some Irish DNA that didn't reflect itself in his appearance. He was joking with me. He went on to tell me how he had traveled to Ireland with his family and had jokingly convinced his children they were Irish in the same way he was teasing me. By the way, Harper has a great youth mentoring program, Heroes and Cool Kids.

Surprise #5 -- I am one percent Jewish!

One percent may be a tiny amount, but it is, nonetheless, interesting and surprising. I am very pleased to identify in some small way with the Chosen People. My first novel, currently out of print, "And the Violin Cried" has some Jewish themes, about a broken friendship that's repaired, a family that experiences anti-Semitic abuse and an heirloom violin that survives the Holocaust. I remember a former coworker, a Gentile, tellling my Jewish coworker that I was an "honorary Jew." I'd love to be considered an honorary Jew, although I'm not sure a goy can be the one to bestow that honor on me.

In another memory, in seventh grade, I was in line at the school cafeteria, and a boy asked me, "Susan, are you Jewish?" I said, "No." He then swung his arm in front of him, snapping his finger, in a gesture we all recognize as meaning, "Too bad." I was too stupid or too humble to understand his question had any romantic significance before that moment. On another day shortly after that, again in the cafeteria line, he asked me if I liked bagels. This time, I answered, "Yes."

I wonder what I or he would have said if I knew about that one percent at that time? His question could mean many things. He could have been asking if I was culturally Jewish, ethnically Jewish or if I was a practicing religious Jew. It's highly likely that the last option was what was most important to him.

I came across some interesting statistics about Jewish people recently. Below is one of them.

I think this is a reflection of God's continued blessing on His Chosen People. Mom and I also were very curious and interested in a list we came across of notable Jewish entertainers. Some on that list were surprises. It seems there are many accomplished Jews in history as well as in current times. This all leads to an even more recent discovery over which I stumbled, much along the same theme. I now follow Youtuber Grant Woolard who has some very creative videos, including this parody of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows What I'd Be Without You?" Disclaimer: I think his intentions are meant to be flattering, but I only wish he left Monica Lewinsky out of this, since there are better Jewish female role models he could have chosen.

So, what will I tell people now if they ask about my family history or ethnic background? I can no longer name just three or four countries of origin. Do I go through the whole list and give all of the percentages? Perhaps, I could, or perhaps I could use comedian Steve Carrell as a model. I had read that when someone asked him what sort of accent he did for the Gru character in "Despicable Me," he apparently answered, "You know Europe? From there." I think that could be my answer to this question. "You know Europe? From there."

Monday, January 25, 2016

For the Love of Coffee

I've always loved coffee from the time when I was a young girl and would rarely be allowed a few sips or taste it in the form of coffee ice cream. I not only love coffee, but I love foods with coffee flavor or mocha flavor. The cocoa bean and the coffee bean were meant to be friends, although not according to my brother Dan. He likes both, just not mixed. Although I agree with him on most points, I don't on this one.

I'm almost the only woman in my family who does like coffee. My three sisters-in-law don't drink coffee, although a couple of them admit they enjoy the aroma of coffee. I find this interesting that they can enjoy the aroma but not the taste. Even my mother had to be converted by my father, when they were first married, from a tea drinker to a coffee drinker. (Actually, she and I drink both.)

Initially, I enjoyed my coffee with cream and no sugar, as my parents drink it. It was a hairdresser, back in college days, that introduced me to sweetened coffee, bringing me some she'd fixed to her own liking while I sat under the hairdryer. Some of you might think it would be better for me if I had maintained my former tastes. I drink mine sweetened, although not necessarily with sugar.

I make an almost daily trek to the Dunkin Donuts while working at the office. The girls there call me "my friend" and usually know how I like it. Sometimes, my coffee has been fixed before I reach the counter.

 My fictional guys of "Action Men with Silly Putty" are coffee drinkers too and spend a lot of time at their hangout, the art-themed Salvador Deli, for coffee and paninis ... partly because they are bachelors who can't cook. My narrator, Andy Westin, has an interesting, playful relationship with the waitress/barista girl, Janie Duveau.

Here's a good coffee scene from the book ...


"Well, seriously, why don't you try the Edvard Munch special. It's new," said Janie.

"I don't know. Is it something I can moonch on?"

Janie smirked. "Very punny."

"Will it make me ... er ... scream?" I asked, eyeing the famous Scream print on the wall across the room.


"For joy or for some other reason?"

"That all depends. You'll scream a little, sweat a little, blow your nose and then you'll just pass out ... from all the jalapenos."

"Janie, you know I don't like hot stuff."

"Of course, I know." There was that smirk again. "I'll put you down for the Rothko burger and the Van Gogh Potato Eaters fries." Janie jotted it on her order pad.

I turned to Jack. "She just wants to torture me."

"Yup," said Jack. "I'll have the same as Andy."

Janie turned to me again. "Well, at least, try a different beverage. Try a cappuccino."

"But, you ... aggravating woman, I don't want a cappuccino. I want my coffee the way I always drink it ... black. Nothing fancy."

"Trust me. You want a cappuccino."

"Don't argue with me, you ... b ... " I almost said big, although I wasn't quite sure where that was going, but thought "big" might be below the belt. No woman likes to be called big. "You little ... rascal." Rascal was the first word that suggested itself after I committed to "little."

Janie sighed and walked away, something not true to her usual pattern. Seconds later, she reappeared at the table, setting a ready-made cappuccino in front of me. I looked down into my cup. "That's cool," I said. "It's smiling at me." The cinnamon was arranged in the foam, apparently stenciled, in such a way that it formed a smiley face.

"I told you I've been going to barista training," said Janie.

I poked my chin in Jack's direction. "Does he want cappuccino too?"

"He does." Janie left us again and, moments later, set a cappuccino in front of Jack. His had a Pac Man made in foam. This place was so full of art that even the cappuccino must be works of art.

"Thank you, Janie," said Jack. "It's so cool looking that I'm afraid to drink it," and then, looking into her face, "But I will. I definitely will."


My brother Tim, a lifelong mystery fan, was tremendously supportive to me throughout my creative process in writing "Action Men with Silly Putty." The men in my family enjoy a very plot-driven story, so I was a little surprised to learn he has taken such an interest in the relationship aspects of my story. Janie and Ellen, the manager of Salvador Deli, must come into future "Action Men" stories, he tells me. I plan on it.

In related thoughts, I was among much of America that was snowed in this weekend. The snowy weekend inspired an "Ode to Coffee" vlog, featuring an 18th century poem I found online. In this cold weather, coffee is a great comfort.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Take One -- Book Reading from Action Men with Silly Putty, Chapter 1, "Toy Men, Threatening Thugs and a Teddy Bear"

I have to say I have been very inspired by the bloggers and vloggers I have "met" and seen on Google +. So, I decided to experiment with my webcam and make a recording of myself reading the first chapter of my novel. 

I am a novice at making videos, so this is a no frills video without any fancy editing. I think the reading is not bad, and I hope you enjoy hearing my book excerpt. If any of you more experienced vloggers have some suggestions for improving or have any tips for me, I would be open to input. 

This is a long excerpt, about 20 minutes, so you may need to fit this in when you have some time or listen for a few minutes and see if the story captivates you. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Berry Trifle for "Downton Abbey" Night


A professor friend of mine, a college friend's father, recently posted a photo of his wife's English trifle dessert for Downton Abbey night. I thought this was a wonderful idea. I celebrated my birthday this past weekend and thought a trifle dessert with Downton Abbey could be a part of my celebration.

I have made variations of trifle before. The last recipe I tried before this was an adapted Pampered Chef recipe, a sort of Black Forest cake variation. I remember I used a Ghiradelli brownie mix instead of Duncan Hines. It was delicious but not exactly a traditional English trifle. I've even seen variations made with Twinkies, but, obviously, great English manors in the 1920s did not serve trifle made with Twinkies. I decided to look online for a traditional recipe.

That was a trickier business than I expected. I found several trifle recipes by British TV chef Jamie Oliver. These seemed promising for being more authentic and traditional. Reading one of his recipes, I had to keep reminding myself that "jelly" meant "gelatin." (For British friends and readers, you may already know that Americans use the word "jelly" to refer to what you would call "jam." You may not know that, although gelatin is the formally correct American term for "jelly," most of us, informally, use the brand name word Jell-O in place of "gelatin.") 

Jamie Oliver's one recipe called for ready-made sponge cake or trifle sponges and blancmange, a gelatin dessert made with cornstarch and milk. It would save some steps to use ready-made products, but I didn't think I would find either of these in stores near me, at least, not easily. I would be more likely to find a ready-made angel food cake, but I didn't think angel food cake was synonymous with sponge cake. I just looked up the difference between the two, and it would seem that angel food cake is made with egg whites only and sponge cake with whole eggs.  

I then found this Williams Sonoma recipe that provides links to their recipes for both the sponge cake and crème anglaise layers and uses dried cherries and pears. That seemed both authentic and doable, if more time consuming, since it provided the recipes for components I doubted I would find in stores. In the end I used a different Williams Sonoma recipe.

I settled on making this Williams Sonoma berry trifle recipe. There were several reasons why I picked this one. 1) This one uses mixed berries, and berries are my favorite fruit. 2) This one called for ready-made pound cake, which I was more confident I could find in stores. It would also be less time consuming to use a ready-made cake. 3) Several of the recipes I reviewed and considered called for some sort of liquor, possibly a sweet sherry. This one uses orange liqueur which I already had on hand. 

I am basically a teetotaler and live in a family of teetotalers, but we do cook and bake with wine and other liquor sometimes. Occasionally, we buy liqueur for a special recipe that hangs around for ages since we don't drink it or frequently use it for a recipe. We have some kirsch that we used years ago for a Bon Appetit magazine recipe for Black Forest cake for my father's birthday. Somehow, we had some Cointreau liqueur we used for I forget what recipe, and I was glad to put it to another use and avoid buying another liquor to hang around for ages.

 This recipe calls for two pounds of mixed berries. I went over the two pounds, using a pound of strawberries, 12 ounces of blackberries and a dry pint (12 ounces) of blueberries. Here are my beautiful strawberries in their special berry basket of the lettuce spinner, ready for their bath (or maybe shower would be a better term.)

I hulled and sliced my strawberries.

I then added the other berries to the mix.

I then added quarter cup orange juice, a quarter cup Cointreau and a quarter cup superfine sugar to my berries to let them macerate. The superfine sugar was one ingredient that was slightly elusive. I looked for it in the nearest supermarket, Kings Supermarket, and did not find it on the shelves. I thought perhaps I would have to use confectioners' sugar. I'm not sure that would have worked as well, however; because the superfine sugar is a quick dissolve sugar to use with liquids. I came home, and we were out of confectioners' sugar. I then headed to Foodtown. (I realize these are store chains that are regional to me, but it may be helpful to those in my area.) I hoped to find the superfine sugar and knew, that if I failed to find it, I could, at least, pick up the confectioners' sugar. I did find the superfine sugar at Foodtown. Success! 

Each of these chains carry different products. Kings Supermarket caters to a sophisticated clientele. This is an advantage when tracking down a specialty product, but the shelves are sometimes filled with specialties and imports and have less room for more ordinary products. They also may not carry as many baking needs.

So, if you have a little trouble tracking down superfine sugar. Mine looked like this, in a tall plastic container with a flip and pour top.

I made one mistake though. I forgot I would need the confectioners' sugar also for my cream layer, so ... Almost success! Cooks, bakers, do you find yourself doing absent-minded things like this sometimes?

At home, I zested my lemon with a microplane. The zest would be mixed into the cream layer.

I found Entenmann's brand pound cake, which might be helpful to those in the Northeast U.S. I'm not sure in what states this brand is available, but I was surprised to see Entenmann's products in stores while I was in Florida. I bought two cakes, not knowing how much I would need to equal six cups of cubed cake. The recipe actually asks for lemon pound cake which I did not find in the store (but would likely be delicious!)

One loaf cubed was approximately equal to six cups. I did not open the second box.

My process was interrupted by my birthday dinner with Mom and Dad out at Olive Garden. I left my berries to macerate. After dinner, I bought my silly confectioners' sugar, so I could continue.

I then whipped my cream in the mixer: two cups of heavy cream, one and a half teaspoons of vanilla extract and a quarter cup of confectioners' sugar. I had some more obstacles here. I was using an ancient old General Electric mixer that dates back to the 1960s at least, so it took a higher speed and three times the time allotted in the recipe to get my cream whipped, but, at last, I got those nice soft peaks. The lever for changing speeds is also broken on this old mixer, but my clever dad created a wire gizmo to work in place of the old broken lever.

In a separate smaller bowl, I beat a half pound of mascarpone cheese to soften it. I then folded the mascarpone into the whipped cream and folded in the lemon zest.

I then alternated layering the ingredients in the trifle dish. It should be three layers each of the cubed pound cake, the cream and the berries. Perhaps because I added more fruit, I couldn't fit a third layer of cream in the trifle dish. I solved this by slicing up some of the second pound cake and serving that with dollops of the extra cream for that evening. 

Here is my finished product.

In spite of a few obstacles and absent-minded moments, it came out quite well. It was refrigerated overnight. By the time it was Downton Abbey time, as my mother put it, the flavors had married. As TV chef Emeril Lagasse would put it, the various layers of flavors were getting "all happy in there." I suppose it's fitting that these sweet things should happily marry. Fans of the show would like to see Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes just as happily married.

We watched Season 6, Episodes One and Two back to back. You may want to wait on reading ahead if you haven't yet seen these episodes.

The story line concerning Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson stood out to me as being the most touching. Mrs. Hughes has a little private talk with Mrs. Patmore, the cook, and expresses that she is embarrassed about her aging body. She wonders if Mr. Carson is expecting a full marriage or he expects to live with her more like brother and sister. In their extreme delicacy, the two ladies have enough difficulty discussing this matter as two female friends. In even greater awkwardness, Mrs. Hughes commissions Mrs. Patmore to speak to Carson on her behalf.

Mom and I felt so sympathetic with Mrs. Patmore, exchanging tense glances across the room. This photo captures how uncomfortable the poor woman is. At last, after a lot of  delicate hinting and euphemism, Carson begins to understand her meaning. We are rewarded with a rather touching speech.

Carson says, "Tell her this, Mrs. Patmore: That in my eyes, she is beautiful...."

"I want a real marriage, a true marriage with everything that that involves. I love her, Mrs. Patmore. I am happy, and tickled, and bursting with pride that she would agree to be my wife. And I want us to live as closely as two people can for the time that remains to us on earth." -- Mr. Carson

Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes meet together some time after that, and Mrs. Hughes herself has some sweet words.

"If you want me, you can have me, to quote Oliver Cromwell, 'warts and all.'" -- Mrs. Hughes. (Sigh) Very satisfying and sweet, right? We would hope spouses would forgive us all our imperfections.

Mr. and Mrs. Bates also have a beautiful moment. Poor Anna has had several miscarriages and is very concerned she can't give Mr. Carson children as he would wish. She seems to blame herself, but Mr. Bates says something lovely to remove some of that self-blame.

"To me, we are one person, and that person can't have children." -- Mr. Bates. "We are one person." That's exactly how married people should feel.

In another little story line, Edith's daughter Marigold temporarily goes missing with Mrs. Drewe, the wife of a tenant farmer who had been raising her. It's a complicated situation. It is practically a kidnapping, only she takes her safely back to the farm, and her husband helps to return the child. Mrs. Drewe tells her husband that nobody was paying any attention to the child at the outdoor event where Edith and family were looking over some pigs. I can understand some of Mrs. Drewe's feeling. She had grown attached to Marigold. The Grantham children only spend one hour a day with their parents and the rest of the time with nannies. It doesn't seem like an ideal way to raise children. I don't really want Lady Edith to be separated from her daughter, but I wonder what arrangement will be best for Marigold? Lady Edith is pursuing a journalism career and considering moving into a London flat. This seems to suit her talents, but how will this lifestyle fit with raising Marigold? It will be interesting to see where this story line goes.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Etsy Shop Finds for Bookish Women

With the help of various craft shops on, the book lover can completely accessorize herself with books or at least items relating to books. 

I always have a satisfying feeling when ordering from Etsy, because I feel like I am helping to support a creative entrepreneur. I have a kind of empathy for all artists, even if my "art" is different in nature.

 You can order this Write On bracelet above for $39.95 from A Likely Story shop on Etsy. This is the very bracelet that I bought from this shop, and I love it. Part of the charm of this bracelet is that it is made with manual typewriter keys. To me, the manual typewriter is such a fun and romantic symbol for writers. I don't actually want to use one -- I've been too spoiled by computers and modern software -- but I like its old-fashioned charm and look. The charms include both open and closed books, reading glasses, typewriter, computer, coffee mug and memo pad with pencil. I liked this one for myself, because it seemed to represent different aspects of me as a writer and reader. The last item seems to resemble the reporter's notebooks I carry for my newspaper work. The books could represent ones I've written as well as ones I read. It had the charming typewriter as well as the writing instrument I actually use -- the computer. The coffee cup, I must say, fits me very well too. You know you're a frequent Dunkin Donuts customer when sometimes your coffee is made before you reach the counter.

There are a variety of similar bracelets from A Likely Story for authors, librarians, writers and bibliophiles. How about this Got Books? bracelet for $39.95? One of these book covers says "Romance novel" and another says "True story" to represent your diverse reading material.

For the mystery lover, either writer or reader ... 

The ptierneydesigns Etsy shop has jewelry for mystery lovers, either writers or readers. Above is her mystery writer's wearable art pin for $19.75.  The pin is a kilt pin. The collected charms include reproductions of book covers for The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie, Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle and Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe. The other charms are a revolver, an inkwell, a red herring and a cleaver. Just imagine what a conversation starter it would be to have a cleaver on your pin. Somehow, the cleaver looks more menacing to me than the revolver. It looks more, er, accident prone. Hopefully, you can assure your friends that you're only interested in reading (or writing) mysteries, not in acting them out.

This reminds me of the item below. This mug declares, "Pay no attention to my browsing history. I'm a writer, not a serial killer." I must say that I've had a few Google searches that might make me appear suspicious.

The mug is not an Etsy item, but you can get that mug here for $10 from

Back to my previous thought, I love ptierneydesigns shop. She has so many nice things for the mystery lover, including many charm bracelets themed around specific mystery books and writers. How about a bracelet that is a tribute to several of the great fictional detectives?


This one features Charlie Chan, Ellery Queen, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Nick Charles. The detectives' images are handmade with plastic and covered in sealant. The pewter charms include a fedora, fingerprint, knitting, calabash pipe, mustache and handcuffs. Mystery lovers, I'm sure you can guess which of these detectives are represented by some of these objects. You can purchase this one here.

Here is a purse that is almost identical to one I have, available from the NovelCreations shop on Etsy. You can purchase this one for $60.00 here. The purses from this shop are made with real book covers with cotton fabric on the sides, handles and button and strap closures. A Jane Austen cover isn't the only possibility. There are lots of other options like To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte's Web and even Gray's Anatomy. Maybe, you'd like a purse with a Shakespeare plays cover or Beauty and the Beast.

Can you tell I'm a bracelet lover? What about a twin set of kindred spirit rings for you and a friend inspired by the Anne of Green Gables series?

You can see these rings frame a bit of text from a book page. That text happens to include the words Diana, Anne and kindred spirits. It's a perfect gift for you and a fellow Anne of Green Gables loving friend. My friend Betty often calls me her kindred spirit, and I gave her one of these rings a couple of Christmases ago. These rings are available for $33.00 from CSLiteraryJewelry.

I know the Christmas season is past, but birthdays come all year long.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Comedic Classical Music


Some of my favorite musical discoveries over the past few years have been classical music performances that have some sort of comedic element. It's amazing how many different musicians and groups have done this. Maybe purists would feel that they are being gimmicky, trying a little too hard to make classical music entertaining to a new audience. Then again, maybe these musicians are just being creative, wanting to do something new instead of performing a piece in the same traditional way. I think it's fun. King Solomon writes in Proverbs that "Laughter doeth good like a medicine," so here is your prescription for the day. I hope it uplifts you and boosts your mood.

I suppose making light of classical music is nothing new. Those of us who grew up watching Looney Tunes got an education in classical music from some episodes without really knowing it. This Elmer Fudd "Kill Da Wabbit" solo, to the tune of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," is mentioned in my mystery comedy, Action Men with Silly Putty. I won't tell you the context, because that might be a spoiler!

As a child, I remember listening to a record we had of Saint-Saens'* Carnival of the Animals. I thought it was a kiddie album, because it had dressed animals carrying instrument cases on the cover. This particular recording also had silly poetry by Ogden Nash to introduce each piece, such as this one ...

 "Camille Saint-Saens*
 Was wracked with pains
When people addressed him 
As Saint Sanes
He held the human race to blame,
Because it could not pronounce his name.
So, he turned with metronome and fife,
To glorify other kinds of life.
Be quiet please -- for here begins
His salute to feathers, fur and fins."

The poetry added to the feeling that it was both humorous and child-friendly. Even the actual compositions sound whimsical and humorous. The 2000 Disney Fantasia movie brought more whimsy to the "Finale" of Carnival of the Animals with animated flamingos. The clip below supposedly answers the age old question of what would happen if you gave a yo-yo to a flock of flamingos.

One unique musician that seems to fall into his own niche is Victor Borge, (1909 - 2000.) He was both a great pianist and a comedian. Sometimes, watching clips, I am frustrated that he does more clowning than playing, but below is one of my favorite routines that is a good mix of both. He and his duet partner seem to play both a kind of Twister game and musical chairs while playing Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2."

I love the King's Singers. This diverse men's acappella group often incorporates some humor into their performances. Here they are singing words to Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," supposedly telling the story of Bach's writer's, er, composer's block. Well, it starts out as Bach's "Toccata ..." but also has samples of other Bach pieces such as "Badinerie" and "Brandenberg Concerto No. 2."

Swingle Singers is another interesting acappella group that uses jazz scat singing techniques to sing classical instrumental pieces. In this performance of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," their body language and facial expressions are humorous at times, and it gets sillier and sillier towards the end, when it becomes necessary to imitate sounds of bombs and firecrackers and church bells. This performance is from the 80s. (I think one of the women is wearing a banana clip.) The group still exists but is made up of different singers.

This Italian string quartet, Paganini, is a new discovery of mine. They seem to use comedy in all of their song performances. This is a funny rendition of Pachelbel's "Canon in D." When the violinists dance off the stage, it becomes more glaringly obvious that the cellist has a comparatively boring part to play, repeatedly playing the same eight notes. He changes that up by using some plucking techniques and improvisation midway. They then change up styles to bluegrass fiddling, tango, and then some sort of gypsy/klezmer style, all with a lot of physical comedy and dancing.

This reminds me of another creative interpretation of "Canon in D" by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. I even love the punny name, "Pachelbel's 'Loose' Canon." I couldn't embed the video for some reason, but it would be worthwhile to go to the link. The guitar quartet also deviates off into multiple styles of variations on the theme, including Latin jazz, bluegrass, varying jazz styles, Spanish guitar, etc. If it doesn't exactly make you laugh out loud throughout, it is, at least, fun, and you may laugh like I did when they make an attempt to be pseudo-heavy metal and shout "Pachelbel!"

This Polish string quartet, the MozART group, are another recent discovery of mine, and they are quite entertaining. This clip shows the use of unusual instruments, a balloon, for one, and a ping pong ball and paddle as a rhythm instrument. They also have a little fun with an audience member.

I don't know if the next two pieces are classical pieces in the strictest terms. They are disco songs performed in a classical style. The Piano Guys have a punny title for their performance, "I Want You Bach," and seems to play around with the idea of what if Bach was inspired by the Jackson Five? It's as fun visually as it is auditorily.

When I first saw Igudesman & Joo's version of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," I watched it over again three times and laughed out loud each time. I showed it to my father who didn't find it nearly so hilarious, perhaps because he wasn't familiar with the original song they were parodying. I left my father at the computer and returned some time later to see him laughing until tears came to his eyes at another routine of theirs, "The Piano Teacher." This is "I Will Survive" as a kind of Russian folk song style. I especially like the melodramatic spoken part.

I discovered I like the composer Leroy Anderson and his light orchestra pieces. "The Typewriter" may not make you fall out of your chair laughing, but it is whimsical and fun. 

And so is his "Sandpaper Ballet" with some interesting sandpaper block rhythm.

How about a new classical style piece inspired by technological sounds, "The Microsoft Windows Waltz?"

This last one is more of a performance of Rowan Atkinson's physical antics, as he has some highly unorthodox style of conducting Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony." At times, he seems to enact scenarios inspired by the music and finds unusual uses for his conductor's baton, using it for sword fighting and air golf.


I hope this puts you in a light and happy mood, as well as possibly introduces you to new performances and groups.

* I tried to get the umlaut over the E in Saint-Saens, but I didn't know how to do this without copying and pasting. Copying and pasting caused all sorts of havoc with my formatting, so I removed it, although I know the umlaut should be there.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Highlights of My Reading in 2015

For the past several years, I have been tracking my reading on I liked the site as a reader even before I had an author page. Goodreads has a tremendous database of books. You can even add rare or out of print books yourself to the database. It's an excellent way to track your reading year by year and over a lifetime, keeping a digital record rather than a list on paper. There are many features of this site of which I have not taken advantage, but I do like Listopia lists. You can look over book lists in a given category, and, if you're a bibliophile, it's hard to come away from this without adding to your to-read list.

This year, in 2015, I've read 47 books. That's a fair amount, but my goal was to read 100 books. In 2013 and 2014, I came close to this goal, reading 90 and some books.

The Goodreads site gave me some interesting end of the year facts and statistics on my 2015 reading. According to Goodreads,com, those 47 books represent 10,382 pages.

The shortest book I read, only 18 pages, was Ezcape from Sobibor by David Fischler. This was a mistake. I thought I was downloading the book on which the movie was based, telling the true story of Jews that escaped this horrible Holocaust death camp. I failed to notice the Z in Escape. The story started out like a history, referencing the names of the key historical people. I wasn't anticipating the zombies, Holocaust victim avenging zombies that survive the gas chamber and wreak havoc on their persecutors. I'd like to think the writer had good intentions and that he found it satisfying for a kind of justice to be done this way, but, I found it, to put it in the politest terms, odd. I didn't like it ... at all.

The longest book I read in the past year was Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones, 608 pages.

I found myself really relating to this man as I read his biography and feeling like I was a lot like him. I'm also a puppeteer, on a smaller scale. I'm not on television. It wasn't merely the puppeteering connection I felt with Jim, and I wouldn't say that our style of creativity is similar. Every time, however, I read about some personality characteristic of Jim, it sounded just like me. He was quiet, soft-spoken, peaceful and diplomatic and hated conflict. He liked to stay out of the spotlight and let Kermit speak for him. He was also highly driven in his creative endeavors. One funny scenario I remember from the book is that Jim was in a position where he needed to fire someone from "The Muppet Show", after it got into the press that this person had bad mouthed a guest on their show. When the person was sent to Jim, however, Jim couldn't go through with it and ended up giving the guy a bear hug.

Personality typing is one of my little interests. As I read, I became convinced that Jim Henson was, according to the Myers Brigg system, an INFP just like me. (I realize that means little to you if you are not already familiar with the system, but, if you are curious, go to the link.) I did a Google search for Jim Henson and Myers Brigg and found the Wikipedia article on INFP listed Henson as a celebrity example of the type.

I learned so much from reading this book. I did quite a bit of reading on his life and career before I even began reading about either "Sesame Street" or "The Muppet Show." I found details about his early career quite interesting and had to look up vintage Wilkins Coffee commercials on Youtube to see his early work.

The average length of books I read in 2015 was 247 pages.

The most popular book in 2015 is "1984" by George Orwell. The least popular book is "Holidays in Verse" by Marie Clark Miller.

I see that "1984" seems to be required reading for most high schools, but it wasn't required reading for me as a high schooler or even for one of my college classes as an English major. It was always on my reading list as a book I should probably read some time, but I wasn't always in the right spirit of it. Now, I have read this influential book, and it makes me think of much of the nonfiction I've read on repressive governments.

It doesn't surprise me that "Holidays in Verse" is the least popular of my 2015 reads. I added it to the Goodreads database. It's a book written by my paternal great aunt. My cousin who joined us for Thanksgiving brought it to show that I was not the only writer in the family. My Great Aunt Marie was better known as a painter, but she illustrated this book of her children's poetry with her paintings. I'd love to learn more about this aunt. Some searches on Google brought up some interesting things, even her autographed photo for sale. 

I did read the Escape from Sobibor by Richard Rashke, the book I had meant to download when I downloaded the zombie story. This is another sort of book for which you may need the right spirit. I remember sometimes wanting a break to think of something more cheerful. Sobibor, of course, is far from cheerful, but the story of the prisoners' escape and survival gives hope. The writer went to a lot of work in tracking down the survivors and traveling around the world to visit with them, giving updates on their (then) current lives.

In the past few years, I've been reading both a lot of mystery fiction and true crime books. The nature of the crime in The Devil in the White City is perhaps a bit more grisly than the average crime book that I read, but it was written in such a way that I was not overwhelmed with the grisly details.

This book tells the story of the man pictured below, H.H. Holmes. He had a hotel especially built with some murderous purposes in mind with a gas chamber and incinerator room among them. He was doing his murderous business at the time of the Chicago World's Fair. The writer alternates between telling the story of the planning of Chicago World's Fair, which I found tremendously interesting, and the story of Holmes and his murders. It was an interesting look at a murderer with some con man characteristics. He apparently seemed very gentle and likeable.

I really loved the description of the first Ferris wheel built for the World Fair with the idea of outdoing the Eiffel Tower. If this crime story seems too grisly for you, perhaps you would enjoy this bit of comic relief. The first Ferris wheel was quite a novel and fearful thing at the time, and each of the cars held a lot more passengers than just one or two. This story of a terrified passenger stood out to me.

Wherritt staggered in panic from one end of the car to the other, driving passengers before him like 'scared sheep,' according to one account. He began throwing himself at the walls of the car with such power that he managed to bend some of the protective iron. The conductor and several male passengers tried to subdue him, but he shook them off and raced for the door ... As the car entered its descent, Wherritt became calmer and laughed and sobbed with relief -- until he realized the wheel was not going to stop. It always made two full revolutions. Wherritt again went wild, and again the conductor and his allies subdued him, but they were getting tired ... A woman stepped up and unfastened her skirt. To the astonishment of all aboard, she slipped the skirt off and threw it over Wherritt's head, then held it in place while murmuring gentle assurances. The effect was immediate. Wherritt became 'as quiet as an ostrich.'

I also read Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.

I had already seen two film versions of it, the 1974 version, starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave ...

And the 2010 version starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. After watching a number of episodes of the BBC "Poirot" series, Suchet and Poirot, to me, have become synonymous in my mind. Now, when I read a Poirot novel, I visualize Suchet.

The story, as you may know, has a very interesting twist ending. I enjoyed reading the novel even after knowing the surprise ending, but the story itself was filled with so much complexity and complications, I found it enjoyable still.

Another historical true crime book I read was The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. The victim of this 1860 murder was a two-year-old boy who was found with his throat slashed in a privy. It was interesting to learn that this crime story was influential on the English manor mystery and on early mystery fiction writers.

This prompted me to read The Moonstone by Wilkie Colllins, one of the books the writer believes was influenced by this case. I had already read Collins' The Woman in White in recent years and enjoyed it.

I did enjoy this classic mystery of a stolen diamond. There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding between some of the key characters. At times, I found the behavior of Rachel Verinder to be very strange, like she was making strange assumptions, and I began to wonder if Collins really understood women or if Victorian women were just different in nature than today's women. I remember there was a time when the plot seemed predictable and I was losing some interest, but then it turned and became suspenseful again.

Last year, my friend Debra recommended the BBC series The Paradise to me, and I watched the full season on Netflix.

I liked it so well that I was motivated to read the book on which the series was based, The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola. Sometimes, I am motivated to read books because the movie version is coming out or sometimes motivated to read a book because I saw a movie based on or related to the book. There are some differences between the original book and the drama, character names for one, but also plot differences.

You wouldn't think a story about a department store could be very exciting, but it is multi-faceted, a story about big business pushing out smaller independent ones, about a woman's career ambitions and romance. I like descriptive passages and was surprised at Zola's ability to beautifully describe rather feminine things, so you had a real feeling of the fictional atmosphere. Here's an example ...

At first stood out the light satins and tender silks, the satins a la Reine and Renaissance, with the pearly tones of spring water; light silks, transparent as crystals -- Nile-green, Indian-azure, May-rose, and Danube-blue. Then came the stronger fabrics: marvellous satins, duchess silks, warm tints, rolling in great waves; and right at the bottom, as in a fountain-basin, reposed the heavy stuffs, the figured silks, the damasks, brocades, and lovely silvered silks in the midst of a deep bed of velvet of every sort -- black, white, and colored -- skillfully disposed on silk and satin grounds, hollowing out with their medley of colours a still lake in which the reflex of the sky seemed to be dancing. The women, pale with desire, bent over as if to look at themselves. And before this falling cataract they all remained standing, with the secret fear of being carried away by the irruption of such luxury, and with the irresistible desire to jump in amidst it and be lost.

The final metaphor is wonderful too. These descriptive passages may not be to every reader's taste, but I love it.

The Princess Bride is another book I saw in movie form first -- several times.

The dialogue, of course, is just like the movie dialogue, but I think reading the book would be worthwhile for his humorous narrative style which can't completely translate into a movie script. I felt I got more backstory on some of the characters which was not included in the movie. I also enjoyed reading the book's extras and learning about the author.

In mystery fiction, it seems there is an almost endless supply of books in this genre, and, if you discover new fictional characters or a new author you like, most likely, you've discovered a series. After reading The Dante Connection by Estelle Ryan, I would like to read more books from this series. This mystery features an art-related crime, which got my attention immediately. Also, Genevieve Lenard, the key sleuth, is a person with both Asperger's and a genius IQ, so I was very intrigued by the character and both of her strengths and weaknesses. She writes Mozart in her head when she is deeply stressed. She doesn't understand idioms which leads to some occasional humor and doesn't have a natural instinct for reading body language, but through study and several degrees, body language is her area of expertise which helps her in her detecting.

I don't read much science fiction, but I do like time travel stories. I also love blue Morpho butterflies.

The Blue Butterfly by Lynn Murphy involves both. In fact, butterflies are the method by which the characters, the four members of the Donovan family, travel through time. I thought it was an intriguing concept.

This would, I think, be considered a YA novel, but I enjoyed it. The parents of the family are a physicist and a historian. Their children, Mollie and Jake, are highly gifted kids with their own areas of intellectual interest. When their parents disappear, Mollie and Jake go traveling through time after them. Suspenseful situations arise, because their time travel discovery is not fully understood. They will be led back in time to a time in history in which they have been thinking. They are not completely sure if they are completely able to direct the where and when of their travels, so parents separate from children and brother from sister. Various family members visit Matisse's Paris, the Titanic, the French Revolution, Darwin at the Galapagos Islands, etc. 

I almost left I Am Malala off the list, not because it was not a highlight, but because I read it in early 2015 and thought it might be harder to remember my impressions. Another blogger reminded me of how special this book is. Malala Yousafzal is the Pakistani girl who, after becoming visible as an advocate for girls' education, was shot by the Taliban and survived. Although the girls' experiences are different, it reminded me somewhat of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. I was so impressed by Malala's intelligence, the depth of her thoughts and the beauty of her words in expressing herself. She says she does not remember being shot, but, while still in the hospital, looked at her injured self in the mirror with a scientific curiosity. 

I am currently reading The Map Thief  by Michael Blanding. It's a true crime story about a rare map dealer who became a thief, cutting rare maps with an X-Acto knife from books in various libraries. It also has a lot of history and intriguing details about this man's life.

In 2016, already I have several mystery fiction books I wish to read.

From Amazon, "When fashionista and television celeb Gina Monroe goes home to attend the funeral of her late grandmother, the last thing she expects to encounter is murder. And the reading of the will is anything but fashionable as unanswered questions arise. Who is the dead woman in the woods behind the family house? And why is she dressed in Milano designer clothes?"

From Amazon, "Crime is merely a hedgerow away in the sleepy British village of Halfereton, pleasingly nestled among gently rolling hills, cozy Old World cottages, and the latest unsolved murder.
As England's most reluctant murder host, Hugo Anstead is even more reluctant to believe that the latest village murder was anything but accidental.
But ambitious journalist and voice of the village Marjorie Branell-Markson can't dismiss the accidental death of local resident Camilla Alden, whose death might not have been as accidental as it seemed. And when a mysterious French railway timetable is found in her garden, she crosses her fingers indelicately, convinced that coincidences always lead to more crime. And she is right. Soon, another wide-eyed local becomes the focus of a string of crimes, and is attacked before she realizes the connection between her recent travels in France--and Camilla Alden's death.
But there's more than cafe and croissants on the menu, as the village's Amateur Sleuth Society travels to France to uncover the secret of a mysteriously illuminated fifteenth-century religious monument...before there's another murder.
Pack your bags for The French De Ception...and don't forget your passport!"

From Amazon, "In a landscape strewn with dollars, how do you catch a killer who's playing for higher stakes than money?

Ex-detective Evan Adair has a gift for working out how the dead got that way, but the truth never brought anybody back. After twenty-three years at the NYPD and a devastating private loss, he wants no part of another investigation.

But an old colleague comes calling with a tantalizing riddle. A Wall Street wunderkind, a young quant with everything to live for, has taken a bizarre public dive from an opera balcony. Was the fall his own idea? And his injuries, as it turns out, weren't enough to kill him. So how -- and why -- did he die?

Soon there is another death, this one a vicious knife attack. The dual investigation draws Adair into the byzantine worlds of finance and high-stakes biotech. He finds secrets with long histories and numbers that can talk -- if only he can figure out how to listen."

From Amazon, "Digital photographer Maggie Thornhill has been asked to do the impossible. Authenticate a Van Gogh painting, missing since World War II, by simply using a photograph. The challenge is presented to her by her long-time friend, Ingrid Rettke. When Ingrid is murdered, Maggie makes it her mission to analyze the photograph, find the painting and in doing so, track down the killer.

The photograph in question was passed down to Ingrid by her grandfather, Klaus Rettke. Maggie learns that Rettke was a key member of the German ERR, the Nazi organization appointed to confiscate art from the Jews. Obscure references in Klaus Rettke’s diary convince her that Rettke stole the painting from the Nazis.

Maggie works with homicide detective, Frank Mead, and two art experts, Emil Kahn and Henri Benoit, to track down the painting and the killer. Complicating her life, Maggie’s in the middle of a divorce, she is attracted to Mead, but also to Henri, who tries to seduce her.

She develops a software program to match certain key criteria of known Van Gogh paintings with those of the painting in the photograph. However, even using the latest digital photography methods, authentication of a painting must rely heavily on the word of experts and the provenance, or history, of the work.

Maggie heads to Paris to trace Rettke’s footsteps, hoping they’ll lead to the lost Van Gogh. After piecing together all her clues, she now believes there were actually four paintings: an original and three forgeries. She begins to fear for her life when one of those copies comes to light and its owner is murdered.

Encountering deception within deception in the high-stakes art world, she peels the layers back to reveal not one, but two killers. Both art experts have killed for the painting. Now one is dead and the other intends to kill Maggie. To stay alive, she reveals that she has the genuine Van Gogh. Now she must protect the precious painting . . . and herself from the killer."

My to-read list is almost infinite, which is why I hope to do a lot of reading in 2016!