Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Friday, March 23, 2012

Two Bulgarian Ladies and One Blonde Boy

Serendipity comes full circle as it spans the globe and 3 generations.  When my son Tim was born in ’64, his baby-sitter was often my Bulgarian mother. Being the first grandchild he was, of course, adored. You may say worshipped.  He was often called zlaten ,meaning golden, a reference both to his status and his blonde hair.

When Tim’s son Kevin was born in October, 2001, I was sorry that my mother was no longer alive to enjoy this precious great- grandson who was the image of the Tim she knew as a baby.

Fate intervenes.  In the same year, 2001, halfway across the world...Bulgaria to be exact...a lady named Dima wins the lottery.  The prize:  A green card to America.  She comes to Chicago and becomes a family caretaker for a friend who works with my son Tim.  Although well educated as a construction consultant in Bulgaria, she now works at any menial job in America as her family struggles to support themselves while learning a new language.

With no immediate family in the Chicago area at that time, Tim and Bette Anne hire Dima to baby sit occasionally.  Although Dima does not carry a carpet bag nor fly above Chicago with her umbrella, it doesn’t take the Duffy’s long to realize she is the Bulgarian Mary Poppins. Truly, she casts a magical spell on children of all ages, plays with them joyfully, and can quiet a crying baby simply by holding them. 

So begins her 10- year love affair with this little blonde boy named Kevin. The first time I heard her singing him a Bulgarian lullaby I realized he would get the benefit of his ancestral culture – what were the odds of that?

Since then Dima has become an American citizen and bought a home in the Chicago area and educated her children while continuing to be a vital part of Kevin’s life on a daily basis.

But there’s more to the story.  In May of 2013 all of our family are planning a trip to Bulgaria to attend Dima’s daughter’s (Rosita) wedding at a beautiful resort on the Black Sea. It will be my first trip to my mother’s homeland and it will be wonderful to have a native escort.

After the wedding, Dima will also take me to neighboring Macedonia to see my father’s birthplace and family home. 

Although Dima won the lottery, I think all of us came out winners in this serendipitous event.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


This review of Wonderstruck is dedicated to young readers... and to adults who love to put wonderful books into the hands of children. With summer vacation starting soon, this might be just the book to keep your children reading, not because they have to, but because they want to.  I can almost guarantee you they won’t be disappointed nor will you if you read Wonderstruck along with your child.

As way of background, you have by now (unless you live under a rock) probably heard of the movie, Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese which captured five Academy Awards this year.

The movie Hugo was based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. Because it has already received so much publicity, I choose instead to review Selznick’s second book, Wonder Struck (2011). It’s a wonderful gift for any young adult reader who wants to be transported to a magical time and place.

Although at first glance it appears pricey (still in hardcover at $20.00+) it is however worth the price with 637 pages (over 450 illustrations) and weighing in at 2.8 pounds (really).  And how can one put a price tag on creating a love for reading or witnessing a child’s eagerness to turn the page to see what happens next? 

What they will also see are beautiful and detailed pencil illustrations.  Over half the story is told through these sketches, with Rose, beginning in 1927. The second story is Ben’s, told in words, beginning in 1977.  How these two stories and characters, fifty years apart, come together make for a fascinating adventure.

What they have in common is they both wish their lives were different.  They are both searching for certain people and as the author says, “...they are two kids trying to find the place where they belong in the world.” And aren’t we all?  It is this universal theme that make this book not only a delight for children but any adult who appreciates a timeless story.

Children, parents and teachers might enjoy visiting the website at  It contains a video interview with author Brian Selznick who tells us about his research process which is a great incentive for children. This book was a joy, a challenge, and a puzzle to put together. I hope you enjoy meeting Ben and Rose, and joining them on their thrilling, dangerous and unexpected adventures in New York City.”

 Other resources on the website include twelve essays about Wonderstruck, including one from E Konigsburg who wrote From the Crazy Mixed up Files of Mrs.Basil E. Frankweiler, the 1968 Newberry Award winner.

 In his acknowledgements, Selznick says he owes a great debt of gratitude to Konigsburg. To pay that debt he fills Wonderstruck with references to  her book and a New York museum is also critical to his story.  If your child has read the Crazy Files it might be fun to see how many of these references they can spot--a little treasure hunt to add to the enjoyment of this book.

I would not be surprised if, like Hugo, Wonderstruck will be coming to a theatre near you someday.  In the mean time, you might want to capture this special wonder in a book.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Berlin 1939 and Paris 1940. This is the setting for a story of music and friendship and how both can fill men’s souls, especially the black “swingers” who form a bond that lasts a lifetime. Amidst this pre war-time setting, The Half-Time Swingers, a German-American Jazz band forms.

It is also the story of a secret that lies hidden with Sid Griffiths for fifty years until he has to face his past at an unexpected reunion. The relationship between Sid and his childhood Baltimore friend Chip is the basis of the story and their dialogue (banter), in what one review calls German- American slang, is delightful to read, filled with witticisms and wisdom. For example, “Ain’t no man can outrun his fate,” or “when the past comes to collect what you owe.”

Author Edugyan also makes great use of figurative language that is fresh and vivid, such as, “...gents with faces as worn as old dish rags,”and “...his booming voice, when he talked, it overwhelmed the air, shoved it aside like oil in a cup of water.”

Jazz lovers will like the touch of Louis Armstrong in the story and history buffs will appreciate yet another perspective of Nazi Germany where jazz has been banned as degenerate music and blacks face their own brand of discrimination.  Half-blood Blues. A good title for a good read.

Apples and Daughters

I like recipes that are easy to make but look difficult, taste good and for a  finishing touch, tell a story.

When my daughter Berta was here in January she made this apple cake.  It fit all the criteria above. There are actually two stories. One is from the website where she found the cake (a great website or maybe it’s a—clever?).  In the recipe story the creator tells how she got the recipe from her Russian mother-in-law and her family calls it the “Apple Thing” although the proper name is Apple Sharlotka.  It seems every country has a version of this Apple Thing.   I copied her recipe exactly below.  I hope she won’t consider it plagiarism since I am giving her full credit and promoting her website.  

The other story is that my mother used to make an apple cake that was similar and I had forgotten about it till Berta made this one, so it was nice to make the generational loop. (And wonder if my mother wasn’t hovering in our kitchen) It was also fun to search for a flat serving platter of sorts which seemed to be essential to the process. Just about the time we were going to give up, I found a silver platter and
Voila...a beautiful apple cake.  The platter search represents to me the times Berta and I haven’t always had what we needed but somehow  managed to improvise... usually with a lot of laughs.  Apples: The perfect fruit. Berta: The perfect daughter.

Apple Sharlotka
Nonstick spray, for greasing pan
 large, tart apples, such as Granny Smiths 

3 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour, 

Ground cinnamon,
Powdered sugar,
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan (we used a plain round baking pan and it worked fine) with parchment paper. Butter the paper and the sides of the pan. Peel, halve and core your apples, then chop them into medium-sized chunks. (I cut each half into four “strips” then sliced them fairly thinly — about 1/4-inch — in the other direction.) Pile the cut apples directly in the prepared pan. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, using an electric mixer or whisk, beat eggs with sugar until thick and ribbons form on the surface of the beaten eggs. Beat in vanilla, then stir in flour with a spoon until just combined. The batter will be very thick.
Pour over apples in pan, using a spoon or spatula to spread the batter so that it covers all exposed apples. Spread the batter and press it down into the apple pile. The top of the batter should end up level with the top of the apples. Bake in preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, or until a tester comes out free of batter. Cool in pan for 10 minutes on rack, then flip out onto another rack, peel off the parchment paper, and flip it back onto a serving platter. Dust lightly with ground cinnamon and powdered sugar.
Serve warm or cooled. Also good with a dollop of yogurt for breakfast.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


If you can judge or describe a book with one word or the feeling you have when you read the last page and put the book down, this review would have to be summed up in a “WOW!”

Defending Jacob is the story of the Barber family.  The father Andy is a respected First Assistant District Attorney in a small  New England town. His  career and family are both  shattered when his son, 14-year old son, Jacob, is implicated in the stabbing murder of one his schoolmates as he walks to school one morning.

In every review I have read,  this book is compared to Scott Turow’s 1987 “Presumed Innocent”, not only for its tense courtroom drama but for it’s shocking finale.  With TV courtroom scenes saturating the networks, Law and Order episodes running nightly, we might think, “Ho-hum, another courtroom scene.”  Not so. It’s obvious that author Landay, due to his prior experience as an Assistant DA in Boston for most of the 90’s, knows his way around a courtroom. Combine this knowledge with his skillful and descriptive writing and you experience something fine, with much more  depth, than any 48-minute show can do. 

In a recent interview, Landay says, “...some of these shows are so obsessed with technicalities and procedure and little concerned with human nature.  We’ve been concerned with crime stories for hundreds of years. They resonate, even with us non-criminals, because they tell us something about ourselves.” 

And the dilemma this book raises to ourselves is, What if your 14-year old son was accused of murder?  How far would you go to defend him?  Would you continue to believe him innocent in spite of mounting evidence against him?  Would you still defend him even if you suspected he might be guilty?  The family dynamics between father Andy, his wife Laurie and son Jacob pull us in many directions as they struggle with unconditional love, soul-searching fear and abiding by the law.  It also raises the question, How well do we really know the people we live with, be it our spouse or our child?

In spite of the horrific circumstances, there is often wry humor in Andy’s observations (story is told from his point of view) both in his dialogue with colleagues and his perceptive descriptions:  “In the grand jury room that morning the jurors were in a sullen, defeated mood. They sat, thirty-odd men and women who had not been clever enough to find a way out of serving...”

Why a grand jury you might wonder? I can’t discuss that without being a plot spoiler, but as Landay says, “I knew from the start that a simple traditional courtroom drama was not going to work.”  Hence many twists and turns for the reader.

Adding a contemporary twist to the novel, how can any teen be involved without addressing Facebook?  It becomes a critical factor when Andy goes to Jacob’s profile and reads from Jacob’s best friend,  “Jake, everyone knows you did it. You have a knife. I’ve seen it.”   Also very 21st century is the creative role DNA plays in the plot— a very different scientific use of it surfaces here.

In closing, I might add that it is refreshing to read William Landay’s blog. In spite of his novel climbing rapidly on the best-seller lists  (#14 on USAToday 2/23) since it’s release just a few weeks ago, he seems modest and surprised by his success.  Previous novels of Landay’s are  Mission Flats (2004) and The Strangler (2007).   Based on this novel, I will surely take a peek at these and look forward eagerly to his next novel, which he says it is about another ordinary family, this time the survivors of a child’s murder. How do they go on? How do they heal?  Can there ever be justice?  Sounds like once again he will combine his legal expertise with his sensitivity to families to create another good read.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Academy Awards

Let me just say up front that I love Academy Award night and all that it involves...the clothes, the stars and of course the movies!  I love talking about the movies...before and after the Oscars...cheering for favorites and putting the award winners I’ve missed on the Netflicks list.

But driving home today from the body shop where my car had a little face lift (that’s a blog for another day as to how it got its wrinkles), I thought wouldn’t it be great to give out awards for the people in our lives who do their jobs SO well.  Most are not very glamorous  jobs but many are so very deserving of an award they probably never get...and sometimes not even a thank you.

Here’s a few crisp white envelopes I’d like to open on network TV.  “And the winner is”:  Every pilot who lands that plane safely—in fair weather, in turbulent storms and in air traffic jams.  I’m so glad their performance is stellar.  And as mentioned above, the guy at the body shop who takes his job so seriously, he called me almost every day to give me a progress report....”we’re ordering a fender, the fender is in, we’re painting the fender”...and I don’t know if they teach them empathy talk at body shop school but the nice things he said to me when we brought the car in to make me feel better.  He cared as much about my damaged confidence as my dangling bumper  “Accidents happen...that’s why they call them accidents.”  Kinda like funeral director language—they must teach that.

How about one of those little gold statues for the doctor who puts that stint in or takes the tumor out....the nurse who administers the chemo...the teacher who spends extra time with the child who needs help...not to mention the hours at home or the personal money she spends on classroom supplies.  A guy named Cliff at the little Newburg, New York airport who did a physical search of the airport and called me back three times when I lost my camera battery en route.  Roll out the red carpet for all the Cliffs in the world.

Oh, I could go on...and I’m sure you have your list. Everyday people just doing their job...but some of them do it SO well, you want to give them an award.  It’s a pleasure to watch someone love what they’re doing, especially those we count on to make our lives easier, safer and just better.  If you agree, tell the next someone who gives you outstanding service that they are deserve an Oscar.  At the very least a compliment.