A good book and a glass of wine

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It’s storming here in the Twin Cities–a perfect night to curl up with red wine and a good book. But what to pair? White would be required for The Old Man and the Sea or One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (on second thought, maybe skip the wine when reading Dr. Seuss). Interview with a Vampire or any of them Twilighty books would necessitate a full-bodied red. And maybe a good port for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Luckily, others have also taken on this challenge. A woman who wrote a book about wine offers some key suggestionsThe Grapes of Wrath with a California zinfandel; The da Vinci Code with an Italian chianti; Memoirs of a Geisha with saké.

An inspired Pinterest user has outdone even this list, though, by creating an entire pinboard devoted to specific vintages matched with books (however, most of the wines are from the same vineyard which makes me suspicious about her connection). So, for instance, she pairs the Tapeña Garnacha, which she deems inexpensive, yet tasty, with The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, which is a book you can find in any airport bookstore, yet I’ve heard is quite good. Her favorite wine, the Bogle Merlot 2009, which she calls smooth and satisfying, pairs with Immortality by Milan Kundera, her favorite book.

If you could pair a wine with a book, what would it be?

How to be a oenophile

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What you’ll need: a good nose…both for smelling and lifting above other people

Songlist: Red, Red Wine by Bob Marley

Further Reading: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Drink: A Social History of America by Andrew Barr

First, an ode to a word. Oenophile. Somehow seeming both perverse and esoteric, an oenophile sounds like the kind of person who should be isolated from society for being a weenie. And that might not be so far from the truth.

A oenophile is, of course, a connoisseur of wines. For the cultured American, “knowing” wines is a standard for becoming even more cultured. Ah, to waltz into a French restaurant and order the best vintage of a fine, yet obscure grape with barely a glance at the menu (and certainly not the price). Is there anything classier?

I admit to knowing practically nothing about wines. I know that some are white and some are red. I know the red ones, especially cheap ones it seems, turn my lips an embarrassing purple. I know that if I drink enough of the white ones, I get a buzz that my boyfriend has dubbed my “white wine noise.” I know the rosés are so girly-looking that not even I will touch them. I could not tell you, however, basic information about varietals or flavors. I cannot smell the specific bouquet or taste the complexities of fine wines. I do not remember wines I like enough to order them again.

Sometimes I see this as a benefit. My standard for drinkable wine is whether or not its in front of me. Once while in France my friend and I bought what we thought was wine for 1 Euro, which in hindsight I think was vinegar. We still finished the bottle.

And yet. Last night I was at a French restaurant with my family for my birthday, and they were divided about which bottle we should order for the table. They left it to me to decide, as the birthday girl. I would have dearly liked to have an opinion. Luckily, the waitress stepped in with a recommendation that wasn’t on the menu. I went with her choice. And, for just a moment when she brought the bottle and turned the black and gold label to me, I felt important. She poured a bit into my glass, I swirled, I sipped, I contemplated. I nodded my head. And I thought: I could get used to this.

Now, if I could only remember the name of that wine…

What they do in Katroo

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The morning of May 20th always meant one thing as a kid: my parents bursting into my room and exclaiming…

I wish we could do what they do in Katroo
They sure know how to say “Happy Birthday to You!”
In Katroo, every year, on the day you were born
They start the day right in the bright early morn
When the Birthday Honk-Honker hikes high up Mr. Zorn
And let’s loose a big blast on the big Birthday Horn.
And the voice of the horn calls out loud as it plays:
“Wake Up! For today is your Day of all Days!”

The tradition lasted even after I moved to college; they still managed to call me on speakerphone early in the morning on my birthday and recite the familiar lines. By then, Dr. Seuss, one of the most beloved and recognizable author-illustrators of children’s books, of course, had even more meaning: we shared an alma mater. Theodore Geisel actually became Dr. Seuss at Dartmouth College: he started writing under the pen name after getting caught drinking (this was Prohibition-era). He was told he couldn’t participate in any extracurricular activities as punishment, and so started signing his articles in the humor magazine “Seuss” so the administration wouldn’t know it was him.

Dartmouth now uses the Seussian connection to the fullest extent. Freshmen are served green eggs and ham during orientation Trips. And, just a few weeks ago, Dartmouth’s med school switched its name to the the Audrey and Theodor Geisel School of Medicine. (A friend who attends the newly christened “Dr. Seuss School of Medicine” came up with some new book titles: “Polyp on Pop,” “The Larynx,” and “Horton Hears a Heart Murmur”).

Every year on my birthday I feel just a little sad that we don’t do what they do in Katroo–no Birthday Honk-Honker, no Mt. Zorn. But, of course, Dr. Seuss includes almost profound truths in his silly tales. As he reminds us, there’s no need to be jealous of the Katroosians:

 Today you are you! That is truer than true!

 There is no one alive who is you-er than you!

 Shout loud, “I am lucky to be what I am!

 Thank goodness I’m not just a clam or a ham 

Or a dusty old jar of sour gooseberry jam! 

I am what I am! That’s a great thing to be!

 If I say so myself, 


More of Dr. Seuss’s wise messages

Wild Things

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This week’s edition of The New Yorker includes an excerpt of an interview with the recently deceased Maurice Sendak. He’s pictured in the magazine looking like Yoda–cane and robe–next to his dog. The excerpt starts:

I am in my bathrobe in the forest with my dog, Herman, who is a German shepherd of unknowable age, because I refused to ever find out. I don’t want to know. I wish I didn’t know how old I was.”

This from the man who wrote and illustrated Where the Wild Things Are, a book that more accurately and delicately explores the complexities of childhood than most other children’s books. No wonder Sendak was not interested in growing old.

The excerpt ends thus:

It’s hard to be happy. Some people have the gift of pulling themselves up and out and saying there is more to life than just tragedy. And the there are those who can’t, and I’m one of them. Do you believe it when people say they’re happy?”

Max, the main character of Wild Things, is sent to his room after having a temper tantrum. He travels for a long time to the land of the wild things, where he becomes their leader. Still a child, though, he becomes homesick and journeys back to his room, from which he emerges to find dinner waiting, still warm. Is there any greater happiness than that?

Hanukkah goblins, beautiful daughters, and blind mice

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Though Belle uses her imagination, Gaston isn’t such an idiot for wanting pictures in his books. He probably just never progressed past a third-grade reading level.
Looking over the Caldecott winners from the past seventy years, I saw some of my favorite books from childhood, all of which are illustrated in beautiful and very distinct styles. Here are some of the best:
1990 Honor: Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

Hershel shows a goblin he can crush a rock in his bare hands

1988 Honor: Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters

Yet another Cinderella story

1993 Honor: Seven Blind Mice

Elephant quest ’93

And the gorgeous 1992 Winner: Jumanji

Follow the rules, kids, or you could be caught in a rhino stampede


How to be an illustrator

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What you’ll need: art skillz, unique style

Songlist: Adele’s Painting Pictures, For the Kids by Waylon Jennings

Further reading: Anything illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg or Graeme Base

A scene from Graeme Base’s “11th Hour”

3 things: I overestimated the amount of time and interest I would have in writing while in Europe and way overestimated the amount of wifi that would be available in small Bavarian towns. Thus, I was not able to update this blog as a travelogue as often as I wanted over the last few weeks. The second thing is that when I got back from Germany last Tuesday night I was unexpectedly exhausted for the next several days. It felt like something more than jet lag–motivation lag, let’s call it. And so last week became the first week in a year and a half that I didn’t update this blog.

The last thing is that it’s my birthday this coming Sunday. Thus, it seems even more important than usual that I come up with a topic that’s really me (and, after my first week of absenteeism, I need to come back with a bang!). Everything that I truly love in my current life–flamenco dancing, novel writing, dogs–was already covered. But birthdays are a celebration not just of who we are but how we’ve become ourselves. And I can think of no larger influence on my childhood imagination than my favorite illustrated books.

It’s a relatively short time in our lives that illustrated books have their greatest appeal–say, ages 5-8 or so–when we seek a wonderful story accompanied by beautiful and interesting images. And yet these books live with us forever.

Another German lion

I worked as a literacy tutor two years ago for kindergartners through third graders, and the best part of the job was reading my favorite childhood books with my students and rediscovering them through my students’ eyes. One of the kids–a second-language learner from El Salvador–got really into Graeme Base’s mystery book The 11th Hour and together we found the clues and decrypted the codes on each page (I LOVE codes).

The lion dream I had two weeks ago stayed with me all through my trip. As I was falling asleep during my last night in Germany I suddenly had an epiphany: there’s a children’s story lurking somewhere in my brain. The main character is a Bavarian lion named Maximilian, and he at some point travels through the Black Forest and medieval castles (while driving through the Black Forest, my friend and I agreed we understood Hansel and Gretel’s predicament more clearly–that landscape is brimming with creepy fairy tales). That’s as far as I’ve gotten, though. All I know is that it will be beautiful and a little dark–just the kind of thing that will stay in one’s imagination for a lifetime.

Of lions and dreams

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One side effect of travel that I’ve often noticed is crazier dreams than usual. Last week, before beginning our road trip through Germany, I had a dream that we had a lion for a pet. In the dream I realized how neglected our poor lion was: I never let it outside since it would scare the neighbors, and I knew I hadn’t been feeding it properly. When the lion stood, I saw that its back legs were severely arthritic and it was dying.

I would’ve forgotten the dream except that I saw a lion statue the next day. And I’ve seen some representation of a lion every day since. Lions, as it turns out, are the symbol of southern Germany. And so, since my dream, I’ve felt a strange connection to this part of the world and all of its aging lions.


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