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November 2017

Rocky Rates It: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

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I read Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible several years ago and decided a re-visit was in order.  I was impressed when I approached it from a reader’s perspective, but from a writer’s perspective, the sheer magnitude of Kingsolver’s craft left me–for lack of a better term–fangirling my way through the novel.

Kingsolver lays bare five souls, six if you count the Congo itself, as the baggage of a renegade Baptist missionary determined to save souls at any cost.  That price, which happens to be the surname of the transplanted family, becomes steeper and steeper as the novel progresses.

The book shifts points of view amongst Orleanna Price and her four daughters as they  chronicle their African experience and the indelible mark it leaves on each.  The reader sees each character with her triumphs and failures, both real and perceived.  They each struggle with religion, culture, and the inflexibility of the self-righteous and overbearing patriarch of the family.

On my first read so many years ago, I recall being a bit frustrated that Kingsolver didn’t put readers into the head of “Our Father”.  This time, however, with a lot more experience and presumably a more discerning eye for narrative technique, I see the wisdom in her decision.  He is close-minded, egotistical, and emotionally unapproachable.  Kingsolver reveals he has his own demons, but deals no absolution for the stiff-backed preacher just as his favorite punishment for his daughters–The Verse–offers neither forgiveness nor comfort.  Brilliant.

This is a novel that will grip you with its poignancy and mystify you with its eddying depths of family dynamics, faith, politics, and oppression.  It is the kind of story that you’ll find hard to swallow, until you realize it’s the kind of story that swallows you.

Rocky Rates It:  5/5 Stars  This one is awesome!

In Defense of Thanksgiving

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Turkey Day Aftermath

Before it’s even time to thaw the turkey, I find myself  bombarded with images of Christmas.  My daughter wants to skip Thanksgiving altogether and get on to the eggnog days.  She is a fool for eggnog.  I have to disguise it in the fridge so I can get a cup in edgewise.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love the Christmas season…just not yet.

We’ve got important business to attend to first.  The Thanksgiving Feast is a sight to behold.  Tables groaning with sumptuous foods made from treasured recipes that we pretend our grandmas didn’t just crib off the back of the semisweet chocolate chip package.  It’s the only time of the year Jello comes into play, cleverly disguised as salad.  It’s a celebration of gluttony in which we thank the Lord for four kinds of pie, three kinds of roasted meat, two kinds of dressing, and the one thing the kids will eat:  rolls.

Thanksgiving brings the family together around the table and the TV, preferably in the same room. It’s hard to digest all that turkey without the comforting smack of football helmets and the lulling roar of a crowd who “got to go to the game instead of being stuck at home with (insert name of elderly relative) snoring in the BarcaLounger”.

Thanksgiving, of course, changes according to what stage of life you’re in.  That’s what makes it so interesting and worth a looksee before rushing headlong to the Christmas tree farm.  Before I entered into the blessed state of matrimony, Thanksgiving was a sort of progressive eating event that started around 10:30 AM and ended four houses and a passel of relatives later at suppertime.  We feasted, watched football, played football, and shot every kind of gun you could think of.  The traditions took a decidedly different tack once I left home.  The dinners involved cloth napkins and round robin statements of thankfulness before the menfolk could slink away to watch the game.

What remained the same, however, was the crying. Someone always squalls at Thanksgiving.  Some years it’s out of frustration–like the year my grandma forgot the rolls and about smoked us out of the house.  Some years it’s out of the sadness of an empty place at the table, but most years somebody will get weepy over the sheer weight of family.  We’re thankful for all of it:  the good, the bad, and the just plain belongingness.

Nope, you won’t find me hauling out the holly until after the Iron Bowl.  I won’t want to deck the halls for another whole week…it won’t even be December yet, for goodness sake, but the girls will be impossible to hold back.  How can they wait with the radio station looping that gravelly “Santa Claus is comin’ to town (on a bender)” song and every TV commercial hawking some overpriced holiday wonder, or the endless lineup of crappy, sappy all’s well that ends well movies flanking yet another Harry Potter marathon?

Back in the dark ages when I was growing up, my mother never decorated squat until December.  She mellowed a bit in her later years, getting totally into themed Christmas trees and breakable ornaments.  I used to race my brother to hog the chocolate in the advent calendar. Poor Baby Jesus would be robbed blind by December 14th, and then the blame game began.  Talk about some knockdown drag-outs!  It was SO HARD to be good for three whole weeks.  It wasn’t Christmas without a complete meltdown and the threat of not only no toys from Santa, but the disappearance of the ones we had already but didn’t appreciate.  Nothing straightened me up faster than the idea of an all-clothes Christmas, which I actually got once.

That’s why I don’t really want to roast any chestnuts quite yet.  Are you kidding?  Five weeks of you better watch out, or even worse, that creepy elf on a shelf?  That’s too much pressure for even the best of kids. Instead, I’ll give them a heaping helping of family along with enough rolls to keep them from starving when they sneak their servings of casserole to the dogs.  I’ll give them lazy afternoons, football games, and by golly…some target practice.  We’ll hold off on the tinsel, glitter, and twinkling lights just long enough for them to get a good, long look at what family really is.

Christmas will keep another couple of weeks and be quite merry in the making.

Thanksgiving, that literal and metaphorical smorgasbord of love,  will not be overshadowed on my watch.

May you and yours have a very happy Thanksgiving!

 

*This post expresses the author’s opinions (it being a blog and all) on celebrating the holiday season and in no way looks down its nose at those of you who are already rocking your jingle bells.

Nut Job: Mysticism and Morality

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Shelling  Pecans

The principal’s voice reverbrated over the intercom to inform us we were about to have a fire drill–yeah, I don’t think they’re supposed to work quite that way, either, but that’s a blog post for another day– and I calmly named the pecan tree out front as our muster station.  “Wait…pecans come from a tree?” asked a particularly bright student.  No kidding, this kid will probably top a 30 on the ACT and be excising your overwrought gallbladder someday.  The student’s earnest question made me think of the relationship between education and knowledge, and whither the two shall meet.

I’d like to share (put it in a nutshell, if you will) what I’ve learned from the act of shelling pecans.  What do knowledge, a little know-how, luck, and perhaps even some wisdom have in common? That’s a hard nut to crack, and I’ll leave it up to you, Gentle Reader, to get at those sweetmeats inside.  Okay, okay.  I’ll stop with the nutty puns already.

  1.  Pecans are a microcosm of the human condition.  They look pretty much the same on the outside, but once you break through the hard exterior, results vary.  Some come already cracked; some are sleek and perfectly formed.  All are fallen-how’s that for a theological twist?  The trick is to crack the nut without damaging the meat.  Sometimes you get two intact halves; sometimes part of the interior is rotten, waterlogged, or dried up;  sometimes you crush the whole thing in your pliers.
  2. Pecans are a model of the mind.  This becomes evident on the ones you crack without damaging the interior.  The nuts consist of two grooved halves, connected on one end, with a woody hemispheric separator.  The grooves sometimes have woody bitters tracing their paths.  Those are the nuts with regrets.  That woody partition is inedible and leads one to wonder just why the two sides must be kept apart.  Is is a left-brain/right-brain thing?  A Mars/Venus thing?  An East Coast/West Coast thing?
  3. Pecans are an object lesson in work ethic, Puritanism, and yes…the American Dream.  It takes labor, patience, and a bit of panache to harvest enough pecans even for a homemade pie.   Picking up pecans is time-consuming, achy-breaky work, even with a pecan picker-upper tool.  Once you get them gathered, you have to crack them and then pick the meat out of them.  A quick Google search (my students swear that Google knows everything so they can just concentrate on their Instagram stories) reveals any number of pecan harvesting products designed to make the task less, well, task-y.  But, perhaps, the task is the point.  And perhaps, in that point, we can find a little something a freezer case confection just can’t give us.

Maybe I’m just kidding myself, but there’s something soul-satisfying about sitting on a swing cracking pecans.  You see the results of your labor piling up in the bowl in your lap and in the crunch of discarded shells underfoot. The work, both mindful and mindless simultaneously, gives you the opportunity to think, to be grateful, to find your center.  It gives you the gift of time, something fewer and fewer of us seem to value. If you’re lucky, you recognize the whispers of grandmothers long passed in the fall breeze, kissing the treetops as they sweep down from Heaven for that shared moment where the past, present, and future all congregate over a labor of love.

 

Ode to Preservatives: The Mostly True Story of a Sausage and Its Quest for Immortality

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It all began back on September 11th when I decided to try out the microwavable mini sausage biscuits I’d been pumping down my kids ever since that really good BOGO at the Winn Dixie.  They were portable, kinda cute, and smelled pretty good coming out of the plastic steam bag.  The kids were acting appropriately grateful for a mom who went to all the trouble of “cooking” a hot breakfast before school each morning, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

One bite and I about ran my Jeep into the ditch with all the gagging going on. It was hot;  I’ll give it that.  But beyond temperature, that micro mini biscuit was unrecognizable to the palate. I wasn’t yearning for gourmet, wasn’t even hoping for it to touch a Hardee’s biscuit; so my expectations were, well, less than refined.   With something like a pizza roll or a hot pocket, you know what to expect and you count on enough pasteurized processed cheese product to give the thing a little flavor.  Not so with these convenient little breakfast bites.  The biscuit had the texture of a worn out bandage and the sausage did not taste like it came from any animal ever even resembling a pig.  I spat and sputtered, whipped into my parking spot at school, and tossed that nastiness on the grassy median with a “Get behind me, Satan!” thinking it was biodegradable and some dog or bird would take care of it.  I thought wrong.

Buzzards gotta eat, same as worms.  The buzzards, the worms, and even the ants all gave that sausage biscuit two thumbs down…way down.  My mama once said that if flies won’t light on it, it ain’t food.  That’s how she broke me from my habit of spooning Parkay out of the tub like it was ice cream.  That sausage biscuit just lay there…for weeks…completely intact.

It lay in the Alabama heat of September, sweating out unpronounceable ingredients.  It lay through downpours, humidity, and the dead of night.  It lay through a hurricane, for goodness’ sake, before the flour in the biscuit (if flour was an actual ingredient) finally gave up the ghost and exposed its meaty innards.   It lay unmolested by critters, insects, or microscopic organisms.  It lay unperturbed by the elements of nature.  It lay on the ground, a “living” testament to resilience and the glory of preservatives.  It lay there until Friday, November 3rd.

I buried the remains of that microwavable sausage biscuit right there in the grassy area it had clung to in its post-nuclear afterlife.  I took my garden spade and uprooted it from the ground where it fused itself with the ooze of exposure.  I stabbed it through its webby heart with a stick, spat in the hole, and buried it facedown in the grave like you would a vampire.  I tamped down the earth, asked Nature not to upchuck it from Her maw, and marked the spot with a leftover Halloween headstone graciously provided by one of my teacher friends.  Several cars filed by in slow procession, but no one cared enough to stop and pay their respects as I did my grisly work.

Requiesce in pace, o farciminis.

 

Rocky Rates It: Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

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I didn’t even buy a pumpkin this Halloween.  Didn’t decorate.  Didn’t wear a costume.  Didn’t have any trick-or-treaters come knocking at my desolate door.  But do you know what I did have this Halloween?  Vampires!  Loads and loads of vampires!

I had frights aplenty with King’s Salem’s Lot.  This tale made it to the big screen back when I was a kid and I can remember my mama calling it one of the scariest movies she’d ever seen.  That was even before Poltergeist and Amityville, I think. My mother adored horror and had no qualms whatsoever about scaring the bejeezus out of us kids.  Reading Salem’s Lot was a bit of a family reunion for me as I could almost feel her spirit  lingering over my shoulder as the suspense built.

One thing I admire about King is that he isn’t afraid to kill off characters, even main characters.  He also isn’t afraid to kill off characters who happen to be children.  All the more horrific, and that’s the point!    Another thing I admire about King is his ability to craft a wrenching funeral scene.  Now, those of you who read me know very well I have more than a passing appreciation for funeral scenes.  King is a master of minute detail, and the funeral scene in Salem’s Lot could easily become the text for a graduate course in how to combine grief and horror.

Salem’s Lot gained most of its steam through the chain-reaction infestation of the town.  The undead fed off  loved ones with alarming ease, an idea more terrifying to me than the vivid descriptions of the actual vampire who moved into the creepy old house, his  finger on the pulse of the town.

I don’t know if it’s really accurate to say I enjoyed the book;  I pretty much cringed my way through it, which was precisely what I was looking for in a Halloween read.

Rocky Rates It:  4/5 Stars (the repeated descriptions of the town itself got a bit tedious)

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