Monthly Archives: August 2007

From Dahl to Dahl

Alison Morris - August 8, 2007

My audiobook listening time is currently being consumed by Tracy Kidder’s wholly absorbing Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. If you haven’t yet had your eyes and mind opened widely by a reading of this book, I urge you to rush out and get your hands on a copy immediately. In his September 14, 2003 review for the New York Times Book Review, Abraham Verghese wrote the following, which pretty well sums up the feeling many of us have had while reading this book:

”Mountains Beyond Mountains” is inspiring, disturbing, daring and completely absorbing. It will rattle our complacency; it will prick our conscience. One senses that Farmer’s life and work has affected Kidder, and it is a measure of Kidder’s honesty that he is willing to reveal this to the reader. In 1987, a book called ”And the Band Played On” changed the direction of my career and that of many physicians of my era who decided to devote themselves to the care of persons with AIDS; I had the same feeling after reading ”Mountains Beyond Mountains”: that after I’d read the book something had changed in me and it was impossible not to become involved.

Read this book and see if it doesn’t change you. Then sit down and read a few books by Roald Dahl.

Ophelia Magdalena Dahl, one of Roald’s daughters, features prominently in Mountains Beyond Mountains because Ophelia herself features prominently in the success of Paul Farmer’s award-winning non-profit health care organization, Partners in Health. Ophelia is, in fact, a co-founder of PIH and its current director. She has worked tirelessly to provide quality health care to the world’s poor since her first trip to Haiti at the age of 18.

What are the common threads, I wondered, between the motivations of a man who writes books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the motivations of a woman who delivers comprehensive health care to Third World countries plagued by malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS? It turns out I missed what would have been a very convenient chance to hear Ophelia answer my question herself, when she delivered the 2006 commencement address at Wellesley College (a stone’s throw from our bookstore!) barely a year ago. In her address Ophelia explained:

I grew up with a courageous and talented mother, a stepmother who flew from England to be here today, and a father who wrote stories for a living—mostly for children, which is good if you were his child.

He pushed up against limits to a delicious degree. For the first 10 years of my life, I had been fed nightly stories of “fleshlumpeating giants” and “snozwangers” and “vermicious knids.” I was convinced that a “fire-breathing bloodsuckling stonecheckling Spitler” lived in the woods outside my bedroom window….

My father led me to believe for years that passing a mathematics test had more to do with which dream powder a giant blows into your bedroom window that night than actually studying for an exam. He was convinced that imagination would be the most vital ingredient for a fulfilling life and told me that if, at times, all you have is your imagination, you will rarely feel alone…. Through his gentle urging I have relied on my imagination enough to make it less of a jump to connect my life with the lives of those I can’t see. I urge you to do the same because a great deal of what you do will be influenced by your ability to imagine an improved outcome, or a better device, or a more efficient system, a new vaccination, or a vastly different Supreme Court.

Imagination will allow you to make the link between the near of your lives with the distant others and will lead us to realize the plethora of connections between us and the rest of the world, between our lives and that of a Haitian peasant, between us and that of a homeless drug addict, between us and those living without access to clean water or vaccinations or education and this will surely lead to ways in which you can influence others and perhaps improve the world along the way. 

If Ophelia’s introductions to her father’s flights of fancy sowed the seeds of her success, then she has arguably validated the defense Roald wrote in the February 1973 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, in response to some rather scathing remarks by Eleanor Cameron:

We have had five children. And for the last fifteen years, almost without a break, I have told a bedtime story to them as they grew old enough to listen. That is 365 made-up stories a year, some 5,000 stories altogether. Our children are marvelous and gay and happy, and I like to think that all my storytelling has contributed a little bit to their happiness…

An Absolutely Great Novel by Sherman Alexie

Alison Morris - August 6, 2007

From the number of reviews I’ve written lately you wouldn’t know that I’ve been reading much in the way of current or forthcoming middle grade and YA novels, but of course I have been. This week I’ll post a few reviews by way of playing "catch up."

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown; September 2007)

With his new young adult novel Sherman Alexie joins the swelling ranks of adult authors now attempting to write for a younger audience. I say "attempting" because many of these authors miss the mark — they construct characters who feel like clichéd approximations of children or teenagers, or (more frequently) write in voices that read either too old or too young. Fortunately Sherman Alexie has managed to avoid these pitfalls in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a YA novel that is fresh, funny, seemingly authentic, and 100% winning.

Reportedly based on Alexie’s own life story, The Absolutely True Diary… introduces readers to Arnold Spirit, Jr. (a.k.a. "Junior"), an awkward social outcast whose life initially grows even worse when he makes the unheard-of decision to transfer from his impoverished Spokane Indian Reservation school to an affluent, all-white high school some distance from the rez. As you’d expect, the white students at his new school don’t exactly embrace Arnold and make him part of the in-crowd. Their seeming indifference to his existence, though, isn’t half so damaging to Arnold’s morale as the Indian students’ attitudes toward their friend-turned-traitor. Thinking Arnold must believe he’s somehow better than them, his Indian peers turn their backs on him altogether — when they aren’t trying to beat the life out of him, that is.

It’s this complicated, emotionally fraught dynamic that makes Alexie’s novel so much more complex than most "outsider on the road to insider" stories. Arnold makes a knowing choice to leave the rez because he’s confident that staying there will mean a life with no future — a life almost certain to be characterized by alchoholism, depression, poverty and a death as senseless as the many that punctuate this story. To Arnold, the prospect of a life free from these trials is worth being shunned by his tribal community, worth the loss of his friends, worth hitch-hiking or (if need be) walking the 22 miles to and from school each day, worth trying to forgive himself for choosing one part-time life over another.

Lest I paint this picture too darkly, though, let me say that The Absolutely True Diary… is ultimately neither depressing nor disturbing. It’s honest. And funny. And wonderfully memorable. Much as Jack Gantos did with his autobiographical Hole in My Life, Alexie tells Arnold’s (and parts of his own) story with enough humility and humor to save it from the weight of its own themes and make of it something meaningful, sincere, and greatly entertaining. Put this into the hands of a high school boy and odds are you’ll find him actually reading it, and no doubt enjoying it too.

From Totebag to Skirt in (Not Quite) No Time!

Alison Morris - August 1, 2007


Supplies: scissors, self-adhesive Velcro, black duct tape, a totebag or two made from plasticized paper or _____ (insert actual name of this material here)

1.) Cut the straps off one totebag.

2.) Remove the seams that connect the bottom panel to the rest of the bag and remove one of the bag’s side seams, so you’re left with a long rectangle consisting of 4 panels (2 wide, 2 short). To remove the seams, I recommend carefully snipping the seam threads, rather than removing a couple of threads then tugging at the seam tape. The latter will cause you to shred the sides of the panels. (Yes, I learned this so that you wouldn’t have to.) Throw away the cloth seam tape, unless you can find some clever use for recycling it. If you’re working with tall rectangular totebags like the HP7, the bottom panel of your bag will be shorter than the side panels, so you can throw this out as well. (Again, unless you can think up a clever use for it.)

3.) Plant yourself in front of a mirror and wrap the 4-panelled rectangle around your hips. If it easily encircles around your derriere and overlaps by maybe five or more inches, congratulations! You’re skinny enough to require only one totebag for this project. If, like me, you’re better-equipped for birthing, take another totebag and repeat steps one and two, as you’re going to need to steal an extra panel (or more) to be sure you can breathe in your little totebag number.

4.) Once you’ve got a sense of how many panels you should add to your skirt, you’ll probably want to go back to your original 4-panelled rectangle and remove all the seams so you won’t have ridges sticking out of the skirt wherever the panels meet. You could theoretically leave the original seams in (as I originally thought I would), but those ridges are likely to make your life difficult when you get to step #6 (adding darts).

5.) If you removed the side seams from your 4-panelled rectangle, you’ll now need to replace them and return them to their long rectangle shape, using (drum roll please…) duct tape. Lay the panels out side-by-side in the order you want their patterns to progress around your skirt (here’s a place where you can be creative!) and center a long piece of duct tape (a bit longer than the height of your panels) over the seam where they meet. (It doesn’t matter if your panels are face-up or face-down when you do this.) Wrap the ends of the tape over the top and bottom of the panels. If you’re adding an extra panel (or panels) to your skirt, add it/them to those from your original 4-panelled rectangle in the same fashion.

After you’ve done this for all the seams and you’re back to having one big rectangle again (consisting of 4 panels + however many you added), flip the big rectangle over and do the same thing to the other side. This will anchor your seams AND give your skirt a nice streamlined appearance. (Vertical lines = good.)

6.) Stand in front of the mirror and wrap your bigger, now flatter rectangle around your hips again, then take a deep breath, as this is the point where things get a bit tricker. If you’re a woman whose hips are larger in circumference than your waist (as is usually the case), you’re likely to have a sizeable gap between the very stiff waistband of your soon-to-be-skirt and your actual waist. (Just like what would happen if you wrapped a rectangle around a sphere.) To eliminate that gap in material this stiff, you’ll have to make darts (angled seams) at the top of your skirt, so that it’ll curve with you.

While holding your soon-to-be-skirt around your hips with your left hand, take your right hand and pinch the fabric along the back of your right hip, so that the soon-to-be-skirt’s waistband now lays against your actual waist on your right side. Note how much you’ve pinched and see how the fabric pinched between your fingers forms a triangle that’s wider at the top of your skirt and then narrows away to nothing as the skirt rounds its way over your derriere. Hold onto that triangle as you let go of the skirt with your left hand, then take your scissors and cut the triangle off along its longest side. Take another strip of duct tape and tape your skirt back together, so that the top edges of the skirt are touching again. The panels of your skirt will curve toward one another when you do this step, so it helps if you picture yourself taping it together inside a bowl — the bottom edge of your sliced dart will meet at a wider point than the top edge (your waistband).

Go back to your mirror.  How’s the skirt fitting now? Better on one side, probably, so do the same thing to the other side. Still have a funny gap in another place? Add another dart. And maybe another one if you were timid that first time. Eventually you’ll have solved the problem and your skirt will fit like a plasticized paper dream.

7.) When you think your darts have done the trick, wrap a long, long piece of duct tape (cut into shorter pieces if that makes it easier) over the top edge of the waistband so you won’t get scratched by the bag material.

8.) Wrap your on-the-verge-of-being-a-skirt around your waist again and notice how much it overlaps. Be sure to leave a bit of extra "give" so that you’ll be able to SIT in the darn thing, then stick that self-adhesive Velcro in between your overlapping pieces, so that you can rrrrrrrrrrip! take that skirt off and put it back on again in no time flat.

9.) If you want to be sure you can walk comfortably in your skirt, consider cutting slits partway up the seams between your skirt panels, like I did. Cover over the each sides of the split seam with more duct tape and place a short piece of duct tape across the top of the slit in letter "T" fashion, to keep it from ripping any further as you raise your knees.

10.) Put on your new totebag skirt and pat yourself on the back. CONGRATULATIONS!

Below you’ll see how my skirt looked from the back, after I added a duct tape pocket when I realized I’d need a place to put my office key. Some of my seams below had to be reinforced at the end of the night, as they were showing signs of wear (a.k.a. pulling apart a bit in the middle). Of course all I did to remedy this was reinforce them with more duct tape. If only all tailoring jobs were this cheap!