Monday, December 22, 2008

Favorite Holiday Books & Music

Gift photo by Thomas Hawk

If you're frantically wracking your brain for those last-minute gifts, I've compiled a round-up of the holiday books & music I've written about in the past. Don't forget to check out the Alternative Gifts posts, too!



Other Lists Worth Visiting:

Friday, December 19, 2008

Grab Bag Friday Movie Vault: Elf

Over the last few years, Elf has slowly made its way onto my list of favorite Christmas movies. It's that perfect blend of fish-out-of-water, mistaken identity, and slapstick humor that I love in a comedy.

If you haven't seen it (and you *should*), Will Ferrell plays Buddy, a human who has been adopted and raised by Santa and his elves. When he leaves the North Pole for the first time to look for his birth father...well, I'll just say that hilarity ensues!

Here are three of my favorite clips for your Friday enjoyment:

Buddy arrives in New York City:

Buddy gets a job at a department store "North Pole":

Buddy meets the department store's "Santa":

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas with Etta Jones

Last night, I was up until *midnight* wrapping up all the presents that need to be shipped off to Wisconsin by Christmas. (You should know, midnight is insane for me...probably the equivalent of 2am for most people!) It could have been one of those frantic nights of tearing through the house looking for scissors and wrapping paper, slapping on bows and rushing around. Thankfully, it wasn't.

Mainly, because I put on Christmas with Etta Jones, which I just discovered two years ago. Despite the cheesy, old-school cover, it is one of the most soulful, soothing Christmas albums you can find. Because I'm too sleepy to wax on, here are samples of all the songs, so you can hear for yourself:

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Local Level: Feeding America

Maine author, Cynthia Lord, wrote a blog post today about the problem of childhood hunger in America. She quotes this statistic: There are 35 million Americans who don't know where their next meal is coming from.

Many of those people are children. Think about trying to go to school (or even *care* about school) on an empty stomach, knowing that the fish sticks and lima beans at your cafeteria lunch may be your only meal of the day. And that's if you're lucky enough to *have* school lunch in your school!

So is there anything we can do to help? Yes! While we're holiday shopping and baking and spreading the love among our families and friends, we can take just a moment to spread the love a little farther.

Cynthia gave a link to Feeding America, and on their website you can find all kinds of ways to help alleviate hunger on the local and the national level. On their Take Action page, you can:

  • Look up your local food bank by zip code so you can donate food or supplies
  • Donate cash (right now, every dollar you donate will be matched by Kraft Foods)
  • Host a food drive
  • Search for volunteer opportunities in your community (this search will work great if you live in or near a might have to do a little more local research if you're in a rural area)
  • Spread the word! Send a letter, tell a friend, tell 10 friends! The more awareness we raise, the more action people will take.
Please take some time to check out other ways you can help out on The Local Level during the holidays. Then, think about taking some time to volunteer, donate, and spread the word throughout the year!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Robert Frost: Birches

Photos by looseends and var resa.

This is what it looked like outside our house this weekend. Even each individual blade of grass on our lawn was coated in ice. Yesterday, there was the constant clink of ice falling from branches.

Ice storms are so musical and gorgeous that it's hard to reconcile how devastating they can be. Thankfully, we only lost power for about 12 hours and had no real storm damage other than a few downed branches, but there are still plenty of people around who *still* don't have power.

Ice storms like these always remind me of Robert Frost, who described them perfectly:

By Robert Frost

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Alternative Gifts: Water for Christmas

My friend Kate is a fabulous dancer/choreographer who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She recently sent me Dancing for Water, a site where people are posting dances to promote the Charity: Water program, Water 4 Christmas. I hope you will consider joining the Water 4 Christmas cause:

We are people. Moms, Dads, Sons, Daughters. United by the desire to keep our eyes and hearts open. To increasingly live for things bigger than ourselves. So this Christmas season, we’re going to give up something. Big somethings. Little somethings. Going without so the people in Liberian villages can have access to clean water. The Moms, Dads, Sons, Daughters.

Statistics show that Americans spend 450 billion dollars on Christmas every year. Experts estimate it would cost 10 billion dollars to give the whole world clean water. This has become a national campaign to see if we can change these statistics. To swing the pendulum from consumerism to compassion.

To see what happens when we come together and buy Water for Christmas.
I'll admit that I spent a good hour on Dancing for Water. There's a fun performance of "Mama Gooneybird" by an Iowa family that I dare you not to smile at. There's a tearjerker by Frank & Terre in Davenport, Iowa who dance to "Do You Love Me?" from Fiddler on the Roof. There's a goofy St. Paul couple and their golden retriever dancing in their Halloween costumes to "Tequila!" (the "other" water?)

I *loved* this one, though:
Dan the Man Bettendorf, IA

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Odetta dies at 77

Last week, my friend John sent me an email to let me know that we lost one of the greatest Civil Rights activists and folk singers of all time.

Odetta's first album, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, came out in 1956, and for the last 52 years she has used folk music to inspire, motivate, and move people all over the globe for the cause of justice.

I love this quote from the interview below. Odetta is asked what role folk music played in the Civil Rights Movement, and for me, her answer perfectly sums up the power of her music:

"It was music from those who went before. The music gave them strength, and the music gave us strength to carry it on."
Here is a link to the New York Times obituary.

Here is a link to a 2005 interview with Odetta on NPR.

This is a brief clip of Odetta at the Newport Folk Festival in the 1960s.

And this is Odetta singing Keep On Moving It On in her 70s, looking frail, but her voice is just as strong as ever!

Here is Odetta talking about her life as an activist:

Monday, December 8, 2008

Jeanne Birdsall: The Penderwicks

I grew up reading my mother's favorite series': The Bobbsey Twins, The Boxcar Children, and Eleanor Estes' lovable Moffats. There was something endlessly enjoyable about these simple, episodic stories that always involved a gaggle of siblings getting in and out of scrapes. Since I had a gaggle of five siblings myself, I could relate. I fancied myself the Middle Moffat and dreamed of having a boxcar in my backyard.

In recent years, there have been some fantastic tips-of-the-hat to this old format. Lois Lowry's hilarious parody The Willoughby's skewers more than one of my old favorites ("Shouldn't we be orphans?" says Timothy), and Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events gives the convention a wry, dark twist.

But Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy is a true throw-back. Nostalgic, witty, and a joy to read, it has none of the wry satire of Lowry or Snicket, but it's just as lovable in its own purist way. In the first book of the series, the four Penderwick siblings and their loyal dog Hound go on a three week summer holiday with their father (they are not orphans, but have lost their mother). They get in and out of hilarious and breath-taking scrapes involving an angry bull, a lost rabbit, and the terribly mean and snobbish Mrs. Tifton.

Of course there is a love interest for oldest daughter Rosalind, and of course Skye is a tomboy, Jane is a dreamer, and Batty is the most lovable little girl you ever saw in a pair of wings. But the story is so charming that the conventions work and draw you along, and you find yourself gripping the book and think-shouting "Run, Batty, run!" when that angry bull comes along.

If you are looking for a book for the 8-12 year old set, or a nighttime read-aloud for a gaggle of siblings, you simply cannot go wrong with The Penderwicks.

The Penderwicks deservingly won the 2005 National Book Award.

You can see all of Jeanne Birdsall's pets (including Stanley the snail) here.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Alternative Gifts: My New Favorite Gift Card

There are some people who are impossible to buy for. The ones who already have everything under the sun, or who are so picky that even a basic black sweater makes them go "Ohhh, nice," and immediately look for the gift receipt (I admit to having this particular tendency now and again).

For these people, God created gift cards. And every year, zillions of those plastic gift cards from stores like Borders, Amazon, Best Buy, and iTunes fly off the shelves (or the net) and into stockings.

But don't you ever get tired of these gift cards? Don't you wish you could give a gift card that made a real difference in the world? A gift card for water in Africa, or a gift card for child immunizations? Sure, you can always give a donation to a worthy organization in the recipient's name, but what if your Aunt Martha isn't a Heifer Project kind of gal? What if she's always secretly dreamed of giving a micro-loan to a single woman starting her own business in Central America?

I recently came across the GlobalGiving gift cards, and they are now my favorite gift card around. You buy the card, and the recipient can go online and allocate the money to the charity or charities of their choice. I like that you can send the gift cards via email *or* choose a pretty (and biodegradable!) physical card with a nice sleeve (free shipping on cards until Dec. 31).

For kids, there's a card called MarkMakers (still my favorite kids' gift around) that's essentially the same concept, but the website is more fun.

Click here to view more Alternative Gifts posts.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Emmylou Harris & Dave Matthews: My Antonia

A friend of mine lent me My Antonia by Willa Cather to read over the Thanksgiving holiday. As always, my vacation reading list was overly ambitious (I usually bring 5-6 books and end up reading two), and the book is sitting patiently on my dresser waiting its post-vacation turn.

But the result of having Willa Cather in my possession for the last 10 days is that every single day I have found myself inadvertently humming, whistling, or singing the gorgeous Emmylou Harris song of the same name.

So I simply had to post this video of Emmylou Harris and Dave Matthews singing My Antonia:

Monday, December 1, 2008

Marilynne Robinson: Home

I had the pleasure of reading Marilynne Robinson's new book, Home, over the Thanksgiving holiday. We were visiting Kevin's family, and I appreciated being able to read this book in his childhood home with smells of turkey and gingerbread hovering in the air. Because this is a book about family and prodigal sons, and that concept we can't help but gloss over and fret about, blow out of proportion and take for granted: home.

"I just never knew another child who didn’t feel at home in the house where he was born," says Rev. Boughton about his troubled son, who has returned home shrouded in mystery after a 20 year absense.

For those who have read Robinson's previous Pulitzer-prize winning book, Gilead (a stunningly beautiful meditation on fathers, sons, friendship, and faith), these are familiar characters. In Gilead, the narrator is John Ames, an elderly Presbyterian preacher who is writing a final letter to his seven year old son. In Home, the narrator is Glory Boughton, the grown daughter of Rev. Boughton, John Ames' closest friend and confidant. Glory has come home to take care of her ailing father, and we are able to see many of the events that took place in Gilead through her eyes. The result is like looking through a prism. As events unfold, we are shown another angle, a new way to light the facts.

I'm a huge fan of Marilynne Robinson's slow, deliberate, and painstaking style. Like the lives of the Midwest families she writes about, there is a stillness to her prose that allows turmoil to churn slowly underneath. There are undercurrents of racism, bitterness, and ugliness that manage to run just below themes of love, faith, and healing.

I highly recommend Home. Now I have to go read Gilead again to re-absorb all the lovely details I've forgotten.

Here is the New York Times review of Home.
Here is an interview with Marilynne Robinson from The Paris Review.