"" Writer's Wanderings: December 2010

Friday, December 31, 2010

Books for the Road - Santa Cruise

I was looking for a quick read with a Christmas theme and happened upon Santa Cruise by Carol Higgins Clark. It’s the tale of a rather eccentric wealthy old man who decides to buy an old cruise ship and to launch his new cruise line, he offers a free cruise to a benevolent group of people including ten Santas who have given their time to make kids happy.

The cruise goes awry though when his nephew looks to make a quick buck by hiding two escaped felons and giving them a ride to freedom in the Caribbean. One other character makes for a more complicated plot that involves an antique jewel case holding the Commodore’s mother’s ashes.

The mystery unfolds and the chaos keeps you reading on although there are several spots that a good editor’s eye might have caught. (How could someone talk with a gag in the mouth?) Still, a fun read if you are looking for light entertainment.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cartagena, Columbia

It is amazing how things can change over the course of 12 years. Sometimes it’s in a good way and other times for the bad. In Cartagena’s case, the change has been good. Unimpressed with our first visit years ago, we were not enthusiastic about stopping at the port on this cruise through the Panama Canal. Memories of looking out from our balcony at a depressed housing area and then being shepherded around on our excursion huddled together to keep us from getting lost in the throng of vendors, beggars, and those of even less reputable interests did not make us excited about a second visit.

This port call could not have been more different. At the last minute, we joined a group from our ship that we had met online through the Cruise Critic forum. The tour guide, Dora (yes she actually add “the explorer” to her name) had come highly recommended and several previous cruisers had used her tour company.

Our ship, Celebrity’s Constellation, docked in a shipping port in the city. Shuttles were available to the shopping and old town area of the city. We met our guide on the dock and she led us to a very nice mini-bus with an amiable driver. As we drove on, we saw lots of new buildings, new construction projects, new roads and repairs in progress—lots to indicate this was not the depressed city it used to be.

We thoroughly enjoyed our tour to the highest point, La Popa, where there is an old monastery. I remembered the last time we were there. Someone thrust a three-toed sloth into my arms without asking me and wanted to charge a dollar for a picture. The sloth was still there but now the vendors are kept outside the courtyard and were much more polite.

Our walk through Old Town Cartagena was comfortable and interesting with a couple of stops at some churches and a museum. Vendors were still a bit aggressive but we never felt threatened as we had before. Perhaps that was due to the obvious security in the area. Several levels of guards, security patrols, police, and military (the more important the rank, the bigger the gun) were visible everywhere we went.

I loved watching the colorful ladies with huge bowls of fruit on top of their heads sashay up to tourists and ask if they wanted a picture with them—for a price, of course. They would work the crowd for a bit then find a shady place to sit down, pull out a big knife and cut slices from their watermelon to eat.

It was a great day and we were so glad to see the progress this city has made as it emphasizes the importance of change, growth, development, and attitude in order to preserve and increase its tourism industry. We will enjoy returning again.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Books for the Road - Room

Perseverance pays off in reading the novel Room by Emma Donoghue. Had it not been recommended by several people and on many other reading lists, I would have closed the book and deleted it from my Sony reader after the first dozen pages.

The story is told from a five year old’s viewpoint but this is not an ordinary child. Jack was born to a young woman who was held captive by her abductor for seven years. The boy has never seen the outside world except for his television set.

The reading is a bit rough going at the start but once you get into the cadence of his language and the realization that things in his world are viewed from a unique perspective, you begin to get into the story and become involved with the characters to the point that you cannot let go of the story.

The action in the story takes place midway which makes the rest of the book seem to be a long anti-climax but in the telling of the great escape and the aftermath, you begin to see how our world is skewed and perhaps a bit off-kilter when seen through the fresh eyes of Jack. And most of all you applaud Jack for his amazing resilience and his mother for her tenacity in raising him under the circumstances to be quite an intelligent and brave young man.

Unique and well-written, Room is a thought provoking but pleasant read.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Zoo Miami

Every kid loves a zoo and I’m no different. When we had the opportunity to visit Miami’s zoo in perfect winter weather (70 degrees, sunny, and a nice gentle breeze), we grabbed our grandkids and took them along. Seems their dad (my son) enjoys the zoo as well so we let him come too.

The zoo is much larger than I realized. Two days would have been needed to see it all if you were on foot as we were. There are several modes of transportation available—all for a price: Safari Cycles which are two, four or six passenger self-pedal buggies (they rented from $40-70/day), tram tours, or a monorail that was about $3/ride as far as we could tell. Some of the monorail stops were closed the day we visited.

The animals were enjoying the warm weather after a short cold spell had kept them in heated areas. I never saw the big turtles move so much and monkeys of all sorts of varieties were swinging from branch to branch and letting their joy be heard by all.

The most amazing sight was the lion who perched himself on top of a crest of rocks and posed for all of us. He’d turn his head one way and then the other, yawn on occasion which just made him look as if he were roaring, and then cross one paw over the other or vice versa as though he were posing for publicity shots.

The tigers were given an early Christmas present, box full of meat. The one neatly stuck his head in and pulled out what he wanted.

There are several species of camel, elephants, and other animals scattered throughout the zoo. Some of them we didn’t get to see. All are in wonderfully designed natural areas.

Zoo Miami also has quite a variety of unusual birds. Their climate allows for some of the more exotic to be displayed outdoors.

And then there was my least favorite—the snakes. But since my grandson said they were “just beautiful, Grandma,” I had to look. Hmm. For me, a snake is a snake. I’ll let everyone else do the admiring.

Admission prices are about $17/adult but you can pay an extra $5 and get in a second day. The grounds are beautifully kept and it’s a great place to visit if you have some time while visiting the area when the weather is cooler in winter. I imagine it’s quite a steamy place in the summer.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Blessed Christmas

No matter where you are in the world or how you celebrate Christmas, may you find promise in the Savior whose birthday we remember.

"And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Isaiah 9:6

Have a blessed Christmas!!


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Meri Kurisumasu

This is a good time to be the owner of a KFC franchise in Japan although its a very busy time. You see the biggest tradtion at this time of year in Japan is to eat fried chicken. As our daughter-in-law reports, the lines go around the block on Christmas Eve as people line up to take home their evening meal.

There are not a lot of Christians in Japan. The main religions are Buddhism and Shinto. But the Japanese have incorporated a lot of the Western culture into their lives and the Christmas season is celebrated but in a different way. It is known as more of a time to celebrate happiness rather than a religious significance.

Christmas Eve is celebrated more than Christmas Day and resembles more our Valentine's Day, a romantic holiday where couples spend time together and exchange gifts.

Cakes are also a popular item this time of year. They are usually a sponge cake, not terribly sweet, and decorated with strawberries and whipped cream but oh, so good!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree

Just as the tree in Rockefeller Center in New York City has become a symbol of the beginning of the Christmas holidays in the States, the lighting of the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square in London signals the beginning of the season there and happens about the same time.

The Trafalgar Square Christmas tree tradition dates back to 1947 when Norway gifted the city with a tree as a way to thank England for their help in World War II. The tradition has continued each year since with a Norwegian spruce chosen from a place near Oslo. It is usually about 20 meters high and 50-60 years old and is often chosen years in advance.

In November during a ceremony in which the Lord Mayor of Westminster, the British ambassador to Norway and the Mayor of Oslo participate the tree is cut. It is brought to the UK by sea, then completes its journey by lorry. A hydraulic crane is used to lift the tree into its place and it is decorated in traditional Norwegian fashion, with vertical strings of lights.

Caroling and other festivities take place throughout the season around the tree.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Under the Mistletoe

When I first saw mistletoe growing in the branches of a tree I mistook it for a big squirrel's nest like we see in our trees at home. I learned that it is a parasitic plant that feeds off of its host tree. It does produce a popular Christmas decoration with quite a tradition.

Mistletoe can be found in several areas of America, Europe, and Australia. Not all species produce the same kind of white berries and leaves that are commonly used in the traditional Christmas decorations though.

Mistletoe was traditionally hung in doorways where a young man could claim a kiss if he caught a girl there. He then removed one of the berries from the plant. When the fruit was gone no more kisses could be claimed.

The original tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is said to have come from a Norse legend
whereby a Norse goddess declared mistletoe as a sacred plant to symbolize love rather than death which, as the myth goes, it previously stood for.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Christmas Creche

St. Francis of Assisi (Italy) is credited with popularizing the Christmas creche, or crib as it's called in some countries, around 1223 after he visited Bethlehem and the place where it was thought that Christ was born. Originally, he created a play--like today's living nativities that are performed in many places.

The city of Naples became well-known for its production of cribs or creches and their crib making dates back to 1025. In the 16th century creches became more common in homes rather than just in churches and monasteries. A whole street in Naples, Via San Gregorio Armeno, is lined with shops that make and sell nativity scenes.
The mention of Christmas in Italy would not be complete without La Befana, the Italian children's version of Santa. Read my earlier post from a few years ago when I discovered the story of Le Befana.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Joyeux Noël

In France, much like the children in Holland, shoes are set out at Christmas time for the French version of Santa, Pere Noel, to fill with sweets and little gifts.

Many of the traditions at Christmas vary with the area of France. In some areas the tradition of burning a yule log all night is still carried on. On source said that the yule log was sprinkled with wine to make it smell nicer as it burned. In some homes, the burning yule log has been replaced with a tasty edible chocolate version called buche de Noel.

A grand feast of the season called le reveillon takes place usually on Christmas Eve after the midnight mass. The menu varies depending upon the area of the country but can include goose or turkey with chestnuts. Of course in Paris they eat oysters and pat de foie gras. But all meals include the delicious pastries the French are noted for including the buche de Noel. If a chocolate yule log sounds good, here's one version of it:

2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup white sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 egg whites
1/4 cup white sugar
confectioners' sugar for dusting
1.Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Line a 10x15 inch jellyroll pan with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whip cream, 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar, 1/2 cup cocoa, and 1 teaspoon vanilla until thick and stiff. Refrigerate.
2.In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat egg yolks with 1/2 cup sugar until thick and pale. Blend in 1/3 cup cocoa, 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla, and salt. In large glass bowl, using clean beaters, whip egg whites to soft peaks. Gradually add 1/4 cup sugar, and beat until whites form stiff peaks. Immediately fold the yolk mixture into the whites. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan.
3.Bake for 12 to 15 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the cake springs back when lightly touched. Dust a clean dishtowel with confectioners' sugar. Run a knife around the edge of the pan, and turn the warm cake out onto the towel. Remove and discard parchment paper. Starting at the short edge of the cake, roll the cake up with the towel. Cool for 30 minutes.
4.Unroll the cake, and spread the filling to within 1 inch of the edge. Roll the cake up with the filling inside. Place seam side down onto a serving plate, and refrigerate until serving. Dust with confectioners' sugar before serving.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Dickens of a Practical Joker

One of the things I enjoy most about traveling around the world is encountering places and things that reinforce the things I have learned about in the past. For example, the first time we visited Westminster Abbey in London, we happened upon the grave of Charles Dickens, author of many classic novels including A Christmas Carol. I stood for a moment and stared at the inscription in the stone on the floor of the Abbey. It was a validation that such a person actually lived. I know. I'm a little strange. But before that moment it was almost as if he were as fictional as the characters he created.

And now I learn that he was quite a practical joker. I came across a story about him that said he had a secret door designed to look like a bookshelf. On the shelves were fake books with titles like Noah's Arkitecture, Cat's Lives in nine volumes, a set of books called The Wisdom of Our Ancestors with subtitles that involved ignorance, superstition, disease, and instruments of torture. The last set of books also had a companion book titled The Virtues of Our Ancestors which was so narrow the title was printed vertically.

I am relatively certain that the grave marker in Westminster Abbey was not fake. . .but then he was one of the great fiction writers and a practical joker as well. . .

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Clogs

While many of us are scurrying around thinking of gift ideas and readying those stockings to hang "from the chimney with care," the Dutch children have already received their gifts. December 6 in the Netherlands is St. Nicholas Day and the evening before (December 5) the children put out their wooden shoes in hope of receiving sweets and presents from Sinter Klaas.

Instead of cookies, the Dutch children put hay and carrots in their shoes as a treat for Sinter Klaas' white horse that he rides through town. The children's treats are replaced with presents to be enjoyed on St. Nicholas Day.

There are often parties on St. Nicholas Eve and anonymous presents are exchanged with poems or sayings that give a clue to the giver.

For the most part, Christmas Day is a quieter holiday with church services and a family meal. Some children believe that Santa Claus (not to be confused with Sinter Klaas) who lives in Lapland in Finland comes on Christmas Eve to bring a small gift of a book or orange or biscuits.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Visions of Sugarplums

Ever get something stuck in your head that just keeps bouncing off the gray matter and won't go away? The line "While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads," wouldn't quit scurrying around in my head a while ago. Just what is a sugarplum and can it dance? The sugarplum fairies dance in The Nutcracker. Is that the same thing?

Thank goodness for the internet and a snowy day with nothing (ha!) to do but discover as much as possible about the sugarplum. Turns out it is really a candy and one of the earliest made. One source said it originated in the Middle East in medieval days and was actually first used as something to calm the stomach. From there it was introduced to Europe by sugar traders.

Sugarplums are described as a comfit--a small sugar-coated seed often caraway or anise. The seeds are coated in layers to make them a sweet sugary treat. Some evolved into a confection that was roughly the size of a plum and had a wire hanger which allowed them to be hung on a tree.

Here is a recipe for a modern day version of the sugarplum. I don't think these will dance--except perhaps in your dreams.

2 cups whole almonds
1/4 cup honey
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup finely chopped dried apricots
1 cup finely chopped pitted dates
1 cup powdered sugar

1. Preheat oven to 400°F (205°C).
2. Arrange almonds on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast in oven for ten minutes. Set aside to cool and then finely chop.
3. Meanwhile, combine honey, orange zest, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg in a medium mixing bowl. Add almonds, apricots, and dates and mix well.
4. Pinch off rounded teaspoon sized pieces of the mixture and roll into balls. Roll balls in sugar and refrigerate in single layers between sheets of wax paper in airtight containers for up to one month.
Makes about 36 sugar plums.
Cooking Tip: Use of a food processor helps make preparation simple and much quicker.
Recipe source: Saveur Magazine.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Books For The Road - Danger In The Shadows

It's been a while since I've read a Dee Henderson book. I truly enjoyed her O'Malley series so when the opportunity to read another of her stories came along, I took advantage. While Danger In The Shadow was not as enjoyable for me as the series of books I read, it was a well-developed and unusual romance flavored with suspense.

Sara Walsh lives with a threat from the past. As the daughter of an ambassador,
the memory of the abduction of her and her twin sister haunts her. She blames herself for her sister's death. The threats of the kidnapper still on the loose have made her a prisoner of her security web for all of her life.

When she finds herself in an elevator with Adam Black, ex-football star, things change. Adam and Sara feel a connection and Adam insists on pursuing it. He feels God has placed her in his life and he is determined to share that life with Sara whatever the cost.
While the suspense element builds in the story, the action happens more "off stage." The romantic elements are center stage and draw the reader into the love story. Read it for the romance not the suspense.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town

The year was 1933. James Lamont Gillespie had just received word that his brother had passed away when a friend contacted him and strongly encouraged him to produce a song for Eddie Cantor who was looking for a new upbeat holiday song to record. Gillespie tried to convince him that he was in no mood for song writing but his friend persisted and as Gillespie rode the subway lost in thoughts of his childhood and times spent with his brother, a poem began to form in his head.

He remembered his mother's admonition to her children to be good because Santa was coming and that Santa could tell when they were bad or good. On an old envelope he began to jot down his thoughts. Later, he approached his friend John Coots to write the music.

"Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" was recognized by Cantor for its potential and he introduced it to the world on his nationwide broadcast from Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City. Afterward, records and sheet music sold at an incredible rate and the song has remained one of the most popular of the season.

One more reason to visit NYC at the holiday season. It's the birthplace of one of America's favorite holiday songs.

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Gift of Travel

Scratching your head for a gift idea? It gets more difficult as the years go by for some of us. This year Bob and I decided our gift to each other was a cruise. It's something we both love to do and will give us time in warmer weather to see us through some of the winter. Now if we were a little more clever, we might come up with some themed travel gifts.

For instance, I love writing. A trip that was themed to a certain author or favorite book would be fun. Or even traveling in a specific area where there are several authors' homes or haunts could be done. We've been to Hemingway's home in Key West, Florida, petted a descendent of his pet cats, and stopped in for lunch at his favorite haunt, Sloppy Joe's.

Closer to home, we have many authors who were born or lived in Ohio for a time, among them: Erma Bombeck, Zane Grey, John Jakes, Toni Morrison, O. Henry (actually William Sydney Porter who served time in the pen in Columbus), R.L. Stine, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and James Thurber. A road trip through some of their haunts would be educational, enriching, and just plain fun to do.

Know someone who loves Gone With The Wind? A trip to Atlanta or other southern U.S. destination (like Charleston, SC) would give you opportunity to explore old plantation homes or search out some of the places of historical signifigance mentioned in the book.

I loved reading the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The setting is of course is the Guernsey Channel islands off the coast of England. What fun to plan a trip there! That's going on my "bucket list."

I haven't even begun to touch on other themes like history or sports or movies or culinary arts. If the interest is there, the places to visit would be easy to find in this wonderful world of cyberspace. You may be surprised at how much is right in your own backyard.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Books For The Road - Tell No One

Harlan Coben is still a treat for me to read. Sometimes when you read too much of an author, the books begin to sound alike. While his are similar in thrills, action, supense and intrique, he still manages to come up with a good story line and great characters. Tell No One was mentioned in a recent article I read about him and was the writer's favorite out of all the Coben he had read.

The teaser: David Beck has rebuilt his life since his wife's murder eight years ago, finishing medical school and establishing himself as a pediatrician, but he's never forgotten the woman he fell in love with in second grade. And when a mysterious e-mail arrives on the anniversary of their first kiss, with a message and an image that leads him to wonder whether Elizabeth might still be alive, Beck will stop at nothing to find the truth that's eluded him for so many years. A powerful billionaire is equally determined to make sure his role in her disappearance never comes to light, even if it means destroying an innocent man.

A great read. I highly recommend it.
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