Here, Larry responds to the Writers Guild prompt, “Just Desserts,” in his own wry way.
by Larry Schwirian
Alfredo and Ambrosia Bacon were a fiftyish couple who fancied themselves food and wine aficionados. They lived in a high-rise condo in an upscale neighborhood in the heart of the city and frequently partied with friends and acquaintances. These gatherings were often an opportunity for all those gathered to share their recent happenings and boast a little about their latest exploits and discoveries. Exaggeration was typically the name of the game, but the Bacons were particularly noted for their hyperbole.
At one such get together, Alfredo was bragging about a dinner that he and Ambrosia had recently enjoyed in a new Japanese restaurant, Shogun, in another part of the city. He described in great detail just how delightfully the food was presented and how the aroma of the Kobe beef delicately tantalized his sense of smell and caused him to drool with intense anticipation. He swore that, after the meal, his taste buds were in such a state of existential bliss that he couldn’t conceive of having dessert even though it was included in the cost of this repast. Likewise, Ambrosia went into excruciating detail about her choice: Secret Garden Maki with salmon tempura and a cream cheese center with avocado…and so on, and so on, and so on… she, too, rejected the idea of having dessert. They both waxed longingly about how well the Sake went with the meal and then bored everyone to tears about what a great bargain it was; less than four-hundred-fifty dollars for a complete meal with wine, not including tax and tip. Alfredo raved that a meal of Kobe beef alone typically costs in excess of three-hundred fifty.
Needless to say, the rest of those gathered were somewhat skeptical of the Bacons’ accounting of this bodacious dinner but particularly about its being such a great deal. Trying to be polite, one of the women asked Alfredo about what other delicacies had been included. The men seemed to be quite interested in the list of desserts and asked Ambrosia how she could possibly have skipped hers. As the guests headed home, there was considerable banter about the tale, particularly about its cost.
Shortly after the gathering, the Sunday newspaper featured a review in the Arts and Leisure Section about the recently opened Shogun Restaurant. The food critic was fairly complimentary about the quality of the food but very skeptical about whether the Kobe steak was really what it was purported to be; very few Japanese restaurants in the United States actually import Kobe beef as it is exceedingly expensive. As, at this particular restaurant, the Kobe beef was priced at less than three hundred dollars, he doubted the claim that this item was genuine. The writer was also of the opinion that although the food was decent, it was terribly over-priced. To those who attended the gathering and read the article, it seemed to them that Alfredo and Ambrosia may well have skipped their after meal sweets but did in fact finally get their…Just Desserts.
Architect Larry and his fellow architect wife Caroline live in an historic preservation home in Newton and, together, lead BOLLI courses on architecture. Larry has been an active participant in and leader of the Writers Guild special interest group as well as serving on the BOLLI Journal staff.
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Known in some circles as “Wurster, the Wily Word Woman,” I have happily worked on all things word related–public speaking, acting, writing, working on newsletters and newspapers, editing literary/visual art journals–since creating “The Maple Street Gazette” at age 8…
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter: Serious Literature or Adolescent “Slop”
By Dennis Greene
“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at age fifty.” –C. S. Lewis
Unless you have been living under a stone for the past twenty years, you have certainly heard of British author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Ms. Rowling has sold over 500 million copies of this seven-volume “young adult” series published from 1997 through 2007. The series has spawned ten extremely successful films and is frequently credited with encouraging the millennial generation to enjoy reading thick, complex books. This literary phenomenon has made the author a billionaire, and the Harry Potter franchise is now valued at over $25 billion dollars.
The Potter fan base is not limited to young adults. Millions of mature readers have come to know and love the Potter books by sharing them with their children or grandchildren. Others have sampled The Sorcerer’s Stone to see what the fuss was about and discovered, in one reviewer’s words, “the liveliest, funniest, scariest, and most moving children’s stories ever written. The praise from many well-respected reviewers has been effusive. A. N. Wilson in The (London) Times referred to Rowling’s narrative skills as Dickensian while Stephen King predicted that Harry Potter deserved his place on the shelf with Alice, Huck, Frodo and Dorothy. The Mail on Sunday rated The Philosopher’s Stone as “the most imaginative debut since Roald Dahl,” and the Guardian called it “a richly textured novel given lift-off by an inventive wit.”
The skyrocketing commercial success of the Potter books, along with the literary awards and critical acclaim they have received, eventually attracted the attention of the elite literary establishment. Leading the attack on the popular books was Yale Professor and well-known ;iterary critic Harold Bloom. In a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Can 35 Million Book Buyers be Wrong? Yes.” Professor Bloom observed that Rowling’s writing was “dreadful” and the book was “terrible” (note Professor Bloom’s magnificent use of richly descriptive adjectives) and then went on to disparage her readers.
“Why read it?” Bloom said. ” Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do. At least her fans are momentarily emancipated from their screens and so may not forget wholly the sensation of turning the pages of a book, any book. And yet, I feel discontent with the Harry Potter mania, and I hope my discontent is not merely a highbrow snobbery or nostalgia for a more literate fantasy to beguile (shall we say) intelligent children of all ages.”
The disparaging comments of this prominent critic, cloaked in the prestige of both Yale University and the Wall Street Journal, was an unwarranted attack on a young novelist whose first published work had achieved startling commercial success. In Rowling’s wizarding world, Professor Bloom would be easily recognized for what he is—a highbrow snob and a bully. If Professor Bloom were rewriting his article today, it would have to be titled “Can 500 Million Buyers Be Wrong? Maybe not.” I have no idea if it was a conscious decision, but in a later Harry Potter book, Ms. Rowling introduces Professor Slughorn, a mercurial, pompous, social-climbing Hogwart’s teacher who hosts dinner parties for “pureblood” students from famous wizarding families while excluding Hermione, the smartest student at Hogwart’s, because she is a “mudblood.” Professor Slughorn might easily have been patterned after a certain Yale literary critic.
Once Professor Bloom opened the floodgates, the deluge from other critics began. One of the first to pile on was Dame A.S. Byatt, an English author with an honorary title and an aristocratic aura, who opined that the Potter books were “written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, reality TV, and celebrity gossip.” Another British newspaper critic predicted that “in years to come, people will make a link between our plump, comfortable, infantilizing society and the popularity of Potter.” Other more measured critics did fairly identify a number of flaws in the Potter books, including tired writing, overuse of clichés, and being too complex for children and young adults to sort out. I don’t know exactly where Harry Potter should rate on the spectrum of young adult books of “literary merit,” but I believe it would be much closer to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Grahame’s Wind in the Willows than to Twilight or The Hunger Games.
After 20 years, the commercial success of the Potter series has assured Rowling and Harry Potter an honored place in popular culture. Whether the Harry Potter books are to stand as one of the great classics of English literature or are ultimately judged to be unremarkable adolescent “slop” as Professor Bloom contends, only time will tell.
I enjoyed spending time in Ms. Rowling’s imaginary wizarding world and coming to know all her unique and definitively drawn characters. But what made these books special tp me was Ms. Rowling’s extraordinary ability to make me care about each character and emotionally participate in their interactions. The seven-year transformation of each of these characters about whom I cared deeply was a poignant coming of age story. Ms. Rowling really “gets” the adolescent experience and makes the reader see it. I still have an emotional reaction when I think of Dobby’s death or Dolorous Umbridge’s tyranny. Along the way there are also trolls to kill, mysteries to solve, backstories to discover, unspeakable evil to oppose, and a series of wonderful friendships to admire. In addition, the books incorporate many of the traditional elements of classical English literature.
The most comprehensive discourse on the literary merits of the Potter books is John Granger’s Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader. He describes the way the author meticulously planned and structured the entire narrative before completing the first book. Ms. Rowling was familiar with many of the fundamental patterns of great English literary tradition and seamlessly wove them into her tale. Among the patterns evident in the narrative are:
The traditional Hero’s Journey.
The patterns of Literary Alchemy, a tradition dating back to the middle ages and evident in works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonson, Blake, and Joyce. The mythical philosopher’s stone, which is the title of the first Potter book published in England, was the key to medieval alchemy.
Well devised narrative misdirection drives the reader to keep active and on edge through the 4100+ page journey and allows numerous plot twists and surprises.
All the trappings of the English schoolboy novel as established by Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays published in 1857.
Incorporation of numerous postmodern issues and concerns, including class prejudice, slavery, friendship, race, xenophobia, intermarriage, loyalty, family, bureaucratic ineptitude, credibility of the press, gender, individual transformation, tyranny, and, of course, love and death.
If you are a sophisticated reader who enjoys exploring the text to discover literary antecedents and subtext, as some scholars do with Tolkien’s works, there is much in Rowling’s Harry Potter books to examine.
There are many adult readers who haven’t read a Harry Potter book, either because they instinctively dismiss books designated “young adult” or because Professor Bloom and his ilk have driven them away. William Safire, in a New York Times article, argued that “children’s books like Harry Potter are responsible for the infantilization of adult culture,” and Ruth Graham in Slate argued that “adults should be embarrassed to read literature aimed at teenagers.” Faced with such highbrow snobbery, some potential readers may give in to the shaming. But those who do succumb will be doomed to reading only books like Portrait of a Lady,Anna Karenina, and “The Sun Also Rises” and existing in a continual state of depression. Instead, I suggest you look to the wisdom of C. S. Lewis who observed that “on becoming a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
If you are willing to risk being thought childish by literary highbrows, try reading Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone. You may enjoy it and discover for yourself the literary merit encased in Ms. Rowling’s magnum opus.
While Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer, he’s been a pop culture geek and junkiey for sixt. He saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.
Donna offers something different this month –to which we can all, unfortunately, relate all too well!
AFFIRMATIONS FOR LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA
by Donna Johns
My current theater crush, Lin-Manuel Miranda, wrote a book of affirmations called G’Morning, G’Night. These were based on his twice daily tweets. I decided to have some fun with his work by writing my versions of his tweets, adding a dose of reality.
The wind blows cold today
So grab your hat and mittens, then
Go outside and PLAY.
It’s so cold my nose started to run and I didn’t have a tissue so I had to use my mitten and now it’s gross and tossed in dirty laundry so I have one cold hand for the next dog walk. Oh, and the dogs love this weather and stop every three steps to sniff the frozen plants and my toes are going numb waiting for them to produce something so I don’t need to mop the floor again. Does this constitute PLAY?
Perhaps PLAY was hauling all my accumulated trash bags down to the dumpster and how the heck does one person accumulate this much trash in two days although one bag contains most of the icky rotten stuff I found in the back of the refrigerator so that’s my bad. I should stop buying the healthy food. I never have to throw out English muffins, cake, cookies or candy. Just brussel sprouts. And kale.
The Weight Watcher lady told me to take a brisk walk every day so I decided to walk to the convenience store to buy milk and I stuck my one mitten-less hand in my pocket and I remembered to bring tissues and I walked as briskly as my bionic knees would allow.
I met a cheerful man with no hat or mittens driving an ancient Lincoln town car, and his co-pilot was a handsome grey pit bull who appeared friendly, but I’ve read those stories in the Enquirer so I merely waved and did not approach. Milk procured, I discovered that the wind was blowing against me so the tissues were used up, and, yep, I had to use my one good mitten.
Still, Lin, I will call that excursion PLAY because there is no way I’m venturing out of the house again.
How lucky are you?
A fireplace, a blanket,
Fluffy socks. Dream warm.
I don’t have a fireplace and the wind is whistling through my un-weatherproofed windows so I turned on the electric heater which looks like a fireplace but the dogs discovered a heat source and laid down in front of it so now they’re toasty and I’m freezing.
I grabbed a blanket but it smelled funky and I’m not sure whether the dogs did something or I spilled milk on it or whatever so I put it in the washer with my dirty mittens and I’m too lazy to go upstairs to look for another blanket so I guess I’ll just be chilly. My socks are not fluffy and they’re upstairs too so I think I’ll pass on that.
I will try to dream warm (whatever that means) and I can’t wait to see tomorrow’s affirmation.
Donna is a teacher/librarian, writer of unpublished romance novels, sometime director of community theater and BOLLI member. She has two fantastic faux knees which set off the metal detectors at Fenway Park.
At five years old, Howard Barnstone was given a toy lathe which he used to make turnings out of balsa wood. After that, his toys of choice extended to Lincoln Logs, Lego, and “girds and panels” sets. And so began his lifelong interest in woodworking. In his high school wood shop course, he made a chess board out of oak and cherry squares and then moved on to creating wooden skateboards—totally ahead of his time. At U. Mass. Amherst, he enrolled in a woodworking art course in order to finish the wooden clock he had been working on at the end of high school—even the gears were cut out of mahogany.
When he was about 27, Howard took an open night class in woodworking at Brookline High where he was making a cherry coffee table. He was planning to finish it up during the last class, but he was invited to another event being held on the same evening. “I was torn about which way to go,” he says. “I finally decided to go to the event and leave early. I figured, that way, I could also make the class.” That ended up being a good decision. At the event, he met Gayle Ehrlich, his wife (and fellow BOLLI member)—but was also able to finish his project.
Howard chose to follow a path in the business world but says that he can see a connection between business and furniture building and design. “I used to put together merger and acquisition deals for a financial information company. Building furniture is similar to complex business deals in that both involve many interlocking pieces that need to not only stand alone but also function within a complicated over-arching concept.”
All along the way, Howard managed to find time for open shop courses at the local high schools. He built a variety of tables for his family in the process. Now that his children are grown and he has retired from the business world, Howard says that he is pursuing woodworking and furniture building and design in an even more in-depth way. “My goal is to refine my abilities and make great furniture for my own pleasure,” he says, “enjoying it for its craft and mastery.”
Howard says he mostly designs and builds tables and cabinets, particularly in the Shaker style which “I like for its clean lines, efficiencies, and practicality.” He says he also admires the work of both Thomas Moser and Stickley.
Shaker night tables (in progress) and boot benchh
During the spring of 2017, Howard took the three-month full-time intensive furniture course at the North Bennett Street School which he enjoyed immensely. “We completed two full projects—a Shaker night stand and a cupboard on a stand,” he says. “We spent extensive time with both hand and machine tools. We also focused on dove-tail, mortise and tenon, and other aspects of joinery as well as wood choice and properties.” Since then, he has also completed Peter Thibeault’s course on The Fine Art of Furniture.
At this point, Howard is focused on the next steps in his journey with furniture. “I look forward to better applying design concepts and principles,” he says, “learning about the evolution of historical furniture design and modern approaches to the manipulation of wood products to achieve certain furniture design aesthetics.”
In terms of future work, Howard says that “Like authors feel they have a certain number of books in them, I have a certain number of furniture pieces in me–and it is up to me, like the author, to produce, them by putting in the hard work. Time will tell.”
Finally, Howard says that it doesn’t really matter what he is making as long as it is engaging him. “I think of myself as being the furniture version of a gentleman farmer. I just get extreme joy from the process of working with wood.”
Howard says about his BOLLI experience, “I have been taking classes at BOLLI or the past four years and have enjoyed the quality of the teachers, courses, and the camaraderie of learning together.”
Is there a BOLLI member you’d like to see profiled in BOLLI Matters? Contact Sue Wurster via email: email@example.com
CAST Takes a Well-Deserved Bow for “More Carrying On” by our own local playwright and director
The last thing I expected, when coming to BOLLI in the spring of 2015 after 40 years of teaching drama, was that I would end up doing more drama–this time, with a group of BOLLI players. And yet, CAST (Creativity in Acting, Storytelling, and Theatre) has been, for me, the most satisfying drama experience of all! And why?
Because these players engage in this activity for the pure and simple joy of the experience. Unlike adolescents, these actors (most of whom took up this interest after arriving at BOLLI) are willing to go “all out” in their playing, without worrying about looking “silly” on stage. As a result, they are constantly experimenting, exercising their creativity–and as a result, not only do they end up looking terrific on stage, but they have enormous fun in the process as well. And, as we have all seen over the past nearly four years, this group’s work (and play) just gets better with every performance.
This year’s production of More Carrying On took the BOLLI audience on a return visit to Carey Village, the upscale senior living facility located on the campus of Carey College in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where these scenes all take place.
All seven members of this years CAST cast (Sandy Clifford, Donna Johns, Eileen Mitchell, Becki Norman, Mark Seliber, Rachel Seliber, and Bette Winer) played multiple roles in this production, all of which they took on with aplomb, creating distinctly individual characters.
On this year’s visit to Carey Village, we met a new resident (Becki Norman) who is thrilled with her freezer and the Village’s bulletin boards; an avid hostess (Elaine Mitchell) bemoaning the failure of her latest event; a father (Mark Seliber) and daughter (Sandy Clifford) share very different feelings about the new piece of “art” he has just hung on his wall; a pair of retired Princeton political science professors (Bette Winer and Mark Seliber) who have become obsessed with creating truly unique culinary creations; friends (Rachel Seliber and Eileen Mitchell) engaged in their human version of “bird watching;” and, finally, the Village’s own “crazy plant lady” (Donna Johns) talking to her plants.
Thanks to Photo Group members Dennis Greene and Sandy Miller-Jacobs for taking these great shots! (Let your cursor hover over each image for details.)
In case you missed these CAST productions and would like to read the pieces, both sets of Carey Village scenes have been compiled in a single volume and are now available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback versions.
Living proof that our continued learning and activity at BOLLI can lead us to all sorts of new and exciting ventures!
Known, in some circles, as Wurster the Wily Word Woman…
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This recipe (with slight modifications) is from page 188 of the Good Housekeeping Illustrated Book of Desserts, a marvelous book with easy-to-understand instructions and wonderful pictures. This recipe is for a 10” pie pan. For a 12” pan, increase everything by 50%. I feel that the crust is a bit thick, so that can be decreased some, which, of course, makes room for more of the filling. The 10” pie serves 8. It is really easy–and fast–to make.
1 tsp Cinnamon
½ cup plus 3 Tbs Sugar
1 cup Whipping or Heavy Cream
2 large Egg yolks
1¼ cups All purpose Flour (not sifted)
¼ tsp Salt
¾ stick Butter (softened)
2 29oz cans Sliced pears (or peaches). It really needs a can plus about 2-3 more halves. With peaches, I use 2½ of the small cans.
10” pie pan
Pre-heat the oven to 400°.
In medium bowl, with fork, mix the flour, salt, 3 Tbs sugar and then cut in the butter (I use two knives) until it resembles course crumbs.
Optionally spray the pan with some Pam
By hand, press the flour mixture into the glass pie plate, on the bottom and up the sides. Bring it to at least ¼” of the top as the pie will get that high. Take care that the bottom of the sides is not too thick as you won’t have enough flour mixture for the bottom of the pan.
Mix the cinnamon and ½ cup of the sugar (not the last 3 Tbs)
Separately, beat the cream with the egg yolks
If you have pear halves take the drained AND DRIED slices and cover the bottom of the pan. Sometimes the slices have to be cut to fit properly. Do it in concentric circles. Evenly cover them with the cinnamon-sugar combination. If it is not even, a portion of the sugar will glaze but the rest will need more time! With sliced peaches it will take two circles. NOTE: Don’t fill in all the spaces with fruit or the custard will not all fit in.
Bake for 7+ minutes (it might take a few minutes more) until the cinnamon-sugar mixture is caramelized.
Pour the cream mixture over the pears and bake for an additional 20-30 minutes until the top is browned and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean (or mostly so). A 9” pan takes about 22 mins; a 10” pan about 27 mins. NOTE: do not overcook
Cool the tart over a wire rack ~2 hours and then refrigerate if not using immediately. Don’t cover with wrap until it is totally cooled (another 2 hours).
John says that it was his mother who inspired his love of cooking and baking at an early age. (She cooked vegetables in boil-able packages.)
The prompt–in 50 words or less, share a Thanksgiving thought. As always, our thoughts tend to cover quite a range…
Why I Don’t Cook Thanksgiving Dinner Anymore
by Donna Johns
Family was coming in three hours.
Turkey was going in to roast.
Oven door fell off.
Duct tape didn’t work.
Gave thanks for Ken’s Steak House
And prime rib for Thanksgiving.
IN THE SOUP
by Betsey Ansin
Several friends know to save the turkey carcasses for me. Bedded atop marrow bones, stock, veggies, and herbs to suit any culture, a soup is born. Thanksgiving is frozen in time. And, like memories, can be recalled as needed.
Turkey carcass proud
The family feast simmers
If a cook stirs.
from Marjorie Roemer
This mandated time of giving thanks. Massachusetts vying with Virginia for its origin. Presidents changing the date, claiming each for a different cause. Still, it’s turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin pie that linger in the mind, the bounty of this American feast. It’s families and plenty, having enough and sharing it.
Two-Part Haiku by Dennis Greene
The walk to football,
With my neighbors and my friends,
Felt warm…I belonged.
I hope that our young
Can experience that warmth
On this Thanksgiving.
from Steve Goldfinger
In a memoir, Teddy White describes his older brother, a recent immigrant, at a school play reenacting Thanksgiving. Dressed as an Indian, the brother is handed food. His hilarious response: “Vos is dos traif?”
I wonder if recent immigrants like White’s brother are “traif” to some in America today.
Every Year, They Make Me More Nervous
Thanksgiving Haiku by Sue Wurster
The wild turkeys in my yard
Are toting pitchforks…
by Lydia Bogar
Bride’s First Thanksgiving
Her turkey roasts as snow falls–
The power stays on!
and from Larry Schwirian
I’m thankful to live in a country that is still perceived by many to be a beacon of hope in a state that values truth, justice, and the rule of law–and in a community that embraces racial, social, and religious diversity.
Chocolate (dark chocolate, of course!!), as many of you know, is one of the four basic food groups, along with pizza, bacon, and beer. Some have argued that lobster belongs on this list. I disagree. What makes the lobster so good is the large amount of butter. I could be talked into adding maple syrup.