Crookjaw by Caron Lee Cohen and Linda Bronson

Cover of "Crookjaw" by Caron Lee CohenCohen, Caron Lee. Crookjaw. Illustrated by Linda Bronson. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997.

Plot:  Ichabod Paddock is one of the finest sailors and whalers in all of New England, but he meets his match in the enormous whale, Crookjaw. Lured into the whale’s belly by enchanting singing, Ichabod’s encounter with a mysterious lady leads to some odd adventures. Meanwhile, his wife, Smilinda, sets out to find her lost husband.

Setting: Historic Nantucket Island

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: Folklore, New England, whales, fishing, whaling, sailing, sailors, witches, adventure, Nantucket

Literary Quality: Vibrant narration and illustrations bring this quirky folktale to life. The story begins, “The day Ichabod Paddock was born, he took his pappy’s harpoon for a teething ring. That afternoon he dove into Nantucket Sound. He swam, slick as an eel in a barrel of jellyfish. He swung his teething ring and caught his first killer whale.” Cohen brings humor to light with her awareness of sounds and her characters’ bubbling dialect. Lines like, “Day in and day out Crookjaw ranted and raved, crashed and splashed,” Ichabod’s assertion that “Sure as eggs is eggs, that whale is spellbound,” and the witch’s song “Ichabod, Ichabod, awooooomi, wooooooo, Awooooooo, awooooooo, shshshshshshsh, awooooooo,” make this book a perfect read-aloud.  Linda Bronson’s rich oil paintings on wood boards maintain the whimsy, colors, and nautical nature of the text. Together, words and pictures highlight the joy and adventure in what is traditionally a rather dark tale, but the themes of dangers at sea, a sailor’s loyalty, and the gendered dimensions of power still lurk just beneath surface. A fine adaptation, this picture book is a welcome addition to collections of better known tall tales.

Cultural authenticity: An author’s note from Cohen gives a brief history of whaling, superstitions surrounding the dangers at sea, and traditions of witches in New England. She also includes a discussion of the more recent history, developments, and laws regulating and banning the whaling industry. The story itself includes most of the main elements that can be found in older versions of the tale: Captain Paddock, Crookjaw, the witch in the whale belly, a card game, the wife’s gift of a silver harpoon and the reason behind the silver. Some differences (for example: a man or devil who is also in the whale’s belly, the role of a father-in-law, and the inclusion of the red shoes in this version) are perfectly excusable in the tradition of folklore and adaptations, and as Cohen notes, the red shoes are consistent with other New England folktales.

Audience: Ages 4-9. A good book for a fun read-aloud or as part of a folklore unit in classrooms.

Personal reaction: I discovered the tale of Crookjaw during a storytelling class I took in 2011. After choosing and adapting the story to tell to my classmates, I tracked down as many versions of the folktale as I could find, and was thrilled to come across this picture book. Having spent many summers on Nantucket, the story’s setting and history are near and dear to my heart, but truly this is a book for anyone who enjoys stories of adventure, sea life, monsters, or witches. In my opinion, Captain Paddock and Crookjaw deserve more attention than they’ve received since at least the second half of the twentieth century, and a better recognized spot in the treasury of American tall tale figures!

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Madison Eats & Treats: Brunch Edition

One of the joys of living in Madison has been eating. Eating well is easy here, even on a grad student budget (with the occasional splurge of course). Whenever we have visitors in town, we take pride in escorting them from one great meal to another. I’ve decided to start a “Madison Eats & Treats” series in order to share some of my favorite dining experiences with you all. Let’s begin with brunch:

  • Madison Sourdough: My morning meal here on Saturday inspired me to finally write this post. Buttermilk sourdough French toast with fruit compote and maple sweet cream. This may have been the best French toast I’ve ever had because of the perfect balance in textures and flavors. From their scrumptious bread to the rhubarb compote…and the maple sweet cream?? The answer to my prayers! I love fruit on French toast and whipped cream, but sometimes I need a little something that the bread will absorb better and I find that maple syrup tends to be too sweet and overpowering in these cases. So their maple sweet cream was a dream come true, not as fluffy as whipped cream, and with just the perfect hint of maple sweetness to it! Also, their new patio looks great and offers even more seating.
  • Sophia's Bakery & CafeSophia’s Bakery & Cafe: Only open on Saturdays and Sundays, Sophia’s was one of our first loves in Madison, found by chance because the apartment we lived in our first year was right around the corner. The menu changes by season, and the line out the door is TOTALLY worth it for their delicious omelets and perfect pastries. Order at the counter, then pick your coffee mug and fill ‘er up while waiting for a seat in this cozy space (or grab one of the folding tables outside). A couple of the tables are large enough for community seating. Enjoy the quirky and charming decor: a spoon curtain of sorts above the counter, assorted china and cake stands, sometimes available for purchase. At the end of your meal, return to the counter to pay. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it. A true gem and unforgettable brunch.
  • Manna Cafe: Tucked into an inconspicuous shopping complex on Sherman Ave., this warm and inviting cafe has my favorite muffin in town (the sunrise muffin).  Their quiche is outstanding. I’m always a fan of their lox and shmear. Their morning buns and Collins House oatmeal pancakes are among my husband’s favorite breakfast items in Madison. Plenty of a seating and a fireplace to warm yourself/read by during the colder months!
  • 4 & 20: A new and welcome addition to the Madison brunch scene, this little bakery is on East Johnson across from East High School and tucked behind Milio’s. Wonderful baked goods of the morning and dessert varieties (scones, muffins, homemade pop-tarts, homemade oreo-type cookie/cakes, pies, etc.), and a great little breakfast menu. I’ve been on a strawberry and orange scone streak, myself. A random tidbit worth noting, they have the question & answer cards to the game TriBond out for patrons to play with — I hadn’t thought about Tribond since middle school when I was obsessed with it, and they definitely score points for the game’s inclusion!
  • Lazy Jane’s Cafe: A true Madison experience, you haven’t been initiated into the Madison brunch world until you’ve heard name bellowed over a 10 or 15-second time span — try that, it’s long, and that’s for 2 syllable names — while sitting on the second floor of Lazy’s. Their scones belong in their own class: beware of addiction! The SCC (eggs with scallions and cream cheese) and BLTP (BLT with red bell Pepper) are two of our favorite dishes. Upstairs they have a kid and family-friendly space  in addition to more tables.
  • Crema Cafe:  Located on Monona Drive, Crema also makes the cut to rank among my favorite brunch spots. Their ham & jam sandwich (fried egg, berkshire ham, tomato jam, red onion, and goat cheese on whole wheat bread) is perhaps my favorite egg sandwich around town. They’re also noteworthy for serving smoothies. In my pregnant state, I drink fruit and yogurt smoothies almost every day (made at home most of the time by my loving husband). But for whatever reason, few brunch spots seem to offer these delectable beverages! Plus, I fell in love with their lemon ricotta pancakes, a special one day that I hope they’ll offer more frequently.

What’s amazing is that there are so many fabulous brunches beyond this list to be had in Madison. What are some of your favorite brunch spots and memorable meals? Do share as we can all benefit!

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork

Cover of "The Last Summer of the Death Warriors"Stork, Francisco X. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010.

Plot: Pancho cannot seem to escape death. First his mother, then his father, then his sister Rosa died. And now he is stuck at St. Anthony’s, an orphanage, babysitting for D.Q., a blond, white kid who is fighting cancer and writing the Death Warrior Manifesto, an ethos for how to live. D.Q. might be a good friend, but he’s a good friend at the wrong time. Right now, Pancho just needs to find the man that he is certain killed his developmentally disabled sister and avenge her. But as the summer progresses, Pancho decides that revenge can wait as he stays by D.Q.’s side, pondering the meaning of life, death, faith, and friendship.

Setting: New Mexico, present day

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: Death, life, revenge, friendship, cancer, mental disabilities, coming-of-age

Literary Quality: The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is a powerful story about the coming-of-age and growing friendship of two young men. As Pancho and D.Q. seek the meaning of life and death, author Stork looks honestly at teen male relationships and asks tough questions about perceptions of individuals who are differently-abled. Much of Pancho’s journey to self-discovery involves recognizing his own guilt, misperceptions, and misunderstandings surrounding his sister, who he considered childish, stunted, and incapable of making mature decisions about her own life and sexuality. D.Q. simultaneously struggles over his relationship with his mother who abandoned him years before. Between the two boys, readers get a profound glimpse at the meaning of family, both biological and constructed. In the end, Stork asks grand, sweeping questions, which he answers with nuance, subtlety, and humor. Readers familiar with Don Quixote will also appreciate echoes of that tale here.

Cultural Authenticity: Francisco X. Stork clearly has a stake in the issues his novel explores. Like Pancho, Stork is Mexican American. His mother was forced to give birth to him in secrecy because of the pregnancy’s illegitimacy and his step- and adopted father died when he was thirteen years old. He also studied Latin American literature during the course of his higher education.

Audience: I would recommend this book to readers ages 13 and up due to the mature themes and possible implication of sexual violence and murder. Given the almost entirely male cast of characters I expect it will have special appeal to male readers, but the story will certainly be enjoyed by young women, as well.

Personal reaction: I was very impressed with Stork’s novel. I appreciated Pancho’s imperfections and his struggle to allow himself to be a good friend. Stork incorporates details about socioeconomic, racial, and physical values in our society and their implications with subtlety without underplaying their importance. Instead he suggests that a possible mix of all three sets of values and circumstances have caused the police to dismiss Rosa’s death, and have led Pancho to his current mission of revenge. The story has a lovely thoughtfulness to it. I think Stork asks questions that teens especially tend to ask themselves about the meaning of life and death, and he does not condescend in his method of asking or in his answers.

Adventures in May and June

This past month has been a busy one! My sister-in-law and her significant other visited over Memorial Day weekend. In addition to eating our way around Madison, a favorite pastime whenever we have visitors, we made it out to Blue Mounds to explore Little Norway. The grounds of this national historic landmark are stunning, and the tour much more informative than I’d expected to be honest. Lots of great details. My only regret is that we were in such a large group (that’s what we get for going on the last tour of the day on a holiday weekend shortly after a Groupon had come for it!), it was a bit cramped in each of the small houses and buildings, and our poor guide had to balance explaining each place and artifact with preventing over-zealous observers (and a particularly roudy youngster) from picking up and bumping into some unique and fragile antiques. The flip-side of that, though, is that you’re really able to see everything up close unlike in museums where spaces and rooms are roped off. I’d definitely go again and recommend the site to others. Make sure you bring your camera, iPhone, or other picture-taking device.

Clockwise from top left: 1) one of many gnomes hiding on the property 2) our trusty tour guide leading the way 3) lantern 4) only complete set of this particular wash basin, pitcher, etc. known to exist in the world 5) spoons, including unity spoons (attached by wood chain in center) created from a single piece of wood. A newly married couple were expected to manage these at their wedding! 6) tools
Center: The stave-like building constructed in Norway and shipped on Viking ship to U.S. for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

That Sunday the temperatures rose into the 90s (an oddity we thought was a fluke but turns out to be a pattern so far this summer!) and we headed to the only public pool opened in the area; most others didn’t open until June! Here’s what happens when you mix such high heat with a holiday weekend and one available public pool:

Monona Public Pool Memorial Day weekend 2012But let me tell you, it was worth the crowds to get into the water.

The following weekend we headed to central New York for our 5-year college reunion at photos from Colgate University reunion 2012Colgate University. We were happy to see a new brewery in town: Good Nature Brewing Company. While my tasting was quite limited due to the baby belly, everyone else tells me the beer was outstanding. At $2 a tasting, it was an inexpensive and fun way to spend the afternoon! Other highlights of the weekend included partaking in Colgate’s traditional torchlight procession, and dinner at one of our favorite spots: Dinosaur Bbq in Syracuse. YUM. We have managed to eat there for all the major landmarks in our relationship: first date, the night we got engaged, and now with baby #1 on the way!

The following weeks were filled with housework (of the repaving and patio-adding variety), house cleaning, working weekends, and a lovely baby shower that our parents made it out for! Now that the craziness of that month is over, I plan to be back and at it here on the blog. Stay tuned!