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Hemet is an interesting town. It feels caught in a time-warp, a slice of Americana vintage late 70s/early 80s. The signs, the people, all contribute to this impression. Let me put it this way: In Hemet, you can wear an ugly Christmas sweater without irony. In fact, a lot of people are, and they all want to hug you. Their earrings match their sweaters.

It’s a small town tucked into the hills and mountains that make up California’s eastern desert. It’s very hot and dry there–my skin is in recovery mode now that I’m back in Oregon. The days are very bright; the nights frigid, often below freezing. This results in you shivering in your cardigan because it was too silly to bring your big coat out earlier, when it was 70 degrees and hot in the sun.

People have decorated though. In yards filled with cacti and decorative white gravel, there are plastic trees and inflatable snowman. There was a deflated Santa nailed to a palm tree wound with bright lights; presumably he looked a bit less disturbing at night. The lights shine brightly in the desert night.

We spent Christmas Eve out and about. We went to a small Saturday market, where we sampled a local avocado/lime oil that was divine, and bought last-minute stocking stuffers for Donn’s mum and sister. (Cheap but cute earrings! Some for me too…it was cheaper to buy 3 pairs!) I took lots of pictures. Come with me, on a magical mystery tour…

We walked through the “Harvard district,” which is about a block long…

and is guarded by six skinny palms…

the only snow is painted on

but there are lots of decorations

Those are silk poinsettias. This does not make sense to me, since poinsettias grow out here.

one wonders how stiff the competition is…

We stopped by the theatre, which, sadly, is going out of business

and selling all their posters and old reels.

 

What have I been reading? Well it’s been a productive month. I don’t know about you, but when my husband travels I revert to my college-age self and pretty much stay up till 1 or 2 a.m. every night. So here’s a summation of some of what I enjoyed this month:

The Distant Hours:I read Jennifer’s review and thought this sounded good. It’s a great book, well worth being grumpy and sleepy for the next day if you find yourself staying up to finish it. She calls it “a book-lover’s book” and the description is apt. This is a novel of secrets kept hidden for a generation; of searching to find out origins of local stories that have become mythic; of unearthing a family’s past pain. I don’t know if I’m making it sound good but it really, really is. It starts with a letter posted in 1941 that is delivered in 1992. Intrigued? Yes?

The Flight of Gemma Hardy This one publishes next month, and I didn’t realize it and read it early in December (I sometimes get advance copies for 5MFB). I couldn’t put it down. It’s an homage to Jane Eyre; in other words, the same basic story, with all the main elements, set in Scotland and Iceland in the early 1960s. It’s very well-done and I really liked it. I don’t like fan fic usually–I don’t care what Darcy and Elizabeth did next. This is because I am secretly a terrible snob, and new authors rarely get the “voices” or characterization quite right, in my oh-so-humble opinion. But this one works, because it is different enough that it’s a new story, but you have fun identifying the familiar elements. My review comes out on Jan. 11th at Five Minutes for Books, and there will be a giveaway so you definitely want to enter! (My other exception is Wide Sargasso Sea, which is a telling of the story of Jane Eyre from the point of view of Bertha, the “mad-woman in the attic” and is excellent.)

Dark of the Moon I thoroughly enjoyed this new look at the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, told as historic fiction with a fresh look at how stories fade and change to become legend. It’s YA. Ilsa and I both really enjoyed it. Really well done.

Winter Town a YA novel about a boy and girl who’ve been friends since they were little but who are now facing a real challenge to their relationship, which is now conducted entirely during Winter breaks. He’s a straight-A student, highly motivated, highly-pressured by his dad to get into an Ivy League school and do well. She’s from a broken home, spends most of the year with her mother down south, and has suddenly appeared wearing only black, with extreme eye makeup and chopped hair. They still try to connect, and the story of them finding themselves and each other is rather heartwarming. Told partly in graphic form. (That is, graphic novel form; i.e. drawings)

The Time in Between: I ended up loving this one, but I will say that it could easily have lost about 100 pages without missing much. It’s worth a bit of extra verbiage though. A glimpse into a time and place mostly lost to history–Spanish Morocco during the Spanish Civil War and the first years of WW2.

Baking with the Cake Boss: a gorgeous book that’s basically like taking a course in patisserie. Yum!

No Graves As Yet I hadn’t read Anne Perry before but I enjoyed this suspense novel set during the build-up to WW1.

Currently Reading:

The Starlite Drive-in Callie Ann is only 10 and lives with a mother who won’t step outside (agoraphobia) and a father who runs a drive-in theatre and is verbally abusive to her mother. The novel opens when Callie Ann is 49 and they’re digging up the old location of the drive-in to put in a housing development, and they’ve found human remains. Hmmmm…. So far, very good.

The Invisible Ones Okay I’ve actually just finished this one and dang, it’s good. It looks at class system in Britain and the Romany in modern day and is a murder mystery to boot. I’ll be reviewing it at 5MFB soon.

The Night Sky: A Journey From Dachau to Denver and Back A Ukrainian immigrant searching for her real father, lost in Dachau, but not as a prisoner. Or was he? I’m not too far in but I have a feeling her father isn’t going to be admirable. Fascinating.

To Read:

The Street Sweeper

Hope: A Tragedy

The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd Edition Got this one for Christmas! I lost my old copy in one of our many moves, and lately I’ve been in the mood to re-read some of the plays; in particular King Lear and The Tempest. Oh, and Hamlet of course. Always. And it’s years since I’ve read The Merchant of Venice.

Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal Doesn’t this one look good? What a heart-breaking situation, and one I hadn’t heard of before. Can’t wait to read it, and I’ll let you know how it is.

And you? Did you get books for Christmas? Did you read anything you’d recommend this month? Do tell!

Long-term readers with good memories may recall that last time we tried to visit Donn’s family in Southern California, in June, our car broke down. Since then, we have been experiencing the joy of one car with 2 adults who are often headed in different directions, and 3 teens to boot. And before you pull out your cracks about “would you like cheese with that whine?” and mutter about first-world problems, I will state that I agree—this is a first-world problem. However, the first world does not offer the transportation solutions that developing countries have. In a word, taxis.

I miss taxis, living in the suburbs like I do now. Oh how I miss them. As a rich American in Mauritania and Morocco, I had no problem affording first-class transportation. In Nouakchott, it costs me 80 cents to ride in solitary grandeur all the way across town. In Rabat, I would walk from my apartment door about a block down, where I would wait and flag a small blue taxi. I could get downtown for $1, across town for $2.50. Now, I have to walk a mile to the nearest bus, which is fine, except that the bus in question doesn’t actually go anywhere I need to go.

We needed a second car, and Donn found one on eBay that he really liked. I was skeptical. I mean, who buys a car on eBay? Apparently we do. He researched it and read all the seller’s reviews and bid and waited till the last minute and won. And so we became the proud owners of a brand spanking-new ’83 volvo. Er, not a typo. But this is not any ’83 Volvo—this one was owned by a little old lady in Pasadena who kept it in her garage and only drove in on Sundays. I’m not making this up. It only has 77,000 miles on it, and the inside is cleaner than most cars that are over a month old. Donn is in love. That first coffee spill is going to break his heart.

Since the LOL (little old lady. What did you think it meant?) was in, well not exactly Pasadena but near it, Donn used some miles we had from our globe-trotting days and flew down to pick it up. He broke the journey home by visiting a friend in Santa Cruz. And it was on a frigid morning in California when he flicked on the rear defroster, not knowing about the weird little electrical glitch that would cause it to not cycle off. Suddenly, the rear window exploded! It broke into thousands of tiny shards all of which were still attached. As Donn drove back to the friend’s house, every time he went over a little bump, a small section of the window would fall out. I know it is wrong to laugh, but the mental image this conveys cracks me up.

The complication was that, apparently they no longer make parts for ’83 Volvos. Who knew? I would have thought that would be a hot commodity, but no. He was able to get an after-market window that fit, but it meant he stayed in Santa Cruz an extra 5 days, thanks to this happening on a Friday. And by the way, our mechanic said that was a fluke and it’s an excellent car.

He got home late on Wednesday night after driving 14 hours that day, ready to relax and try to see all our Iraqi friends and do Christmas activities with them before we left again for California on Monday, so that we could spend Christmas with his parents.

Donn’s dad had already arranged to rent us a car, figuring our ’87 Volvo (keep track here—this is not the new one, but the old black one) might not be super-reliable on a journey of 1000 miles that would begin with a single breakdown (this is called foreshadowing and is the mark of a real writer. Hemingway did it all the time). So on Sunday night, we drove out to the airport rent-a-car location to pick it up. As we pulled into the parking lot, the black Volvo sputtered and died.

Could it be out of gas? It was low…could the gauge be off? The guy behind the counter offered to loan us his gas can and almost immediately, it seemed, regretted it. Honestly, we were dressed nicely and using correct grammar and he hadn’t seen our car, but he kept stressing that it was HIS PERSONAL can and if we didn’t come back with it, we’d be ripping him off and not the gigantic soulless rent-a-car corporation. Um? We already told you we’d bring it back? It was a little comic how worried he was about it. As soon as we pulled back into the parking lot, he ran from behind the counter to the parking lot and asked for the can back. We pointed out that we’d like to empty it first. He agreed reluctantly.

How many people does it take to figure out how to pour gas from a can? In my experience, 4. I filled the role of calling Heather on the phone and telling her what was going on, since we’d planned to leave the black Volvo at their place since they live much closer to the airport. Donn, the owner of the gas can, and another random man who drove the airport shuttle, spent a very very long time figuring out how to attach the little nozzle. We still leaked gas all down the side of the car.

Sadly, the car was not out of gas. We risked our nice coats leaning perilously near to the engine. Donn thought he’d figured out the problem. I suspect I’m getting into too much detail here, so I will cut to the moment, at 2 a.m., when Heather and I were sitting chatting in the lights of their Christmas tree when Donn and Paul walked in and announced they had managed to get the car to their house. Donn’s favorite part of the evening was when they got the car going, drove it a block, swerved to the side of the road just as it died again, and had a policeman stop to find out why they were hot-wiring a car (they weren’t really) in a sketchy neighbourhood at 1 a.m. Donn had fun explaining that it was his own car. Again, let me emphasize how nicely he was dressed; dress pants and shoes, wool coat. Apparently location is everything when it comes to being suspicious.

And yes, Heather and Paul are the best friends ever. And no, you can’t have them.

We went to bed at 2:45 a.m. We’d planned to get up at 6 and leave by 7, but when we got home we went into all the kids’ rooms, turned on the light, found their alarm clocks, turned them off, and hoped they’d think it was a weird dream.

We still left by 9. Drove uneventfully for 2 days in a brand new Kia Optima which is very fancy. It even has cupholders! Arrived at the in-laws a little earlier than they were expecting us, where we are now. Merry Christmas to all! I’m hoping for a downright boring 2012.

Donn and I certainly don’t agree on everything—he likes Bob Dylan and I think Dylan sounds like an animated rusty tire chain, I love to read and relax and not go anywhere before 10 a.m by which point he feels half the day is gone. But one argument we’ve never had is over what sort of Christmas tree is best. We both feel, 100%, that the best tree is a large, full Noble fir, preferably cut down ourselves on a snowy day. (it could happen!) (for my non-Oregonian readers, it rarely snows in the Portland area). We felt this way even before we spent 6 Christmases in the Sahara Desert, where we forked over ridiculous amounts of money for tiny, 18-inch Norfolk Pines, from which I would hang 3-4 ornaments while watching the branches bend alarmingly. (Which, another aside, is why I’m so snarky when people post pictures of 6-foot trees on FB and call them “Charlie Brown” trees just because they’re a little sparse. I have lived the Charlie Brown tree. They didn’t need a little love; they needed several years and some goat fertilizer. We planted them in our yard on New Year’s and left a legacy of tall green trees in that tan and dusty land.)

But this year, we are actually spending Christmas Day with the in-laws in California. Additionally, we have friends who recently bought some acreage, part of which comprised an old tree farm, and they wanted to get rid of the few remaining trees this year. They offered us a free tree—any size from 11 to 20 feet. “You can just cut what you need,” they told us, but I didn’t want to ruin a gorgeous 20 foot tree that, hopefully, some business or hotel could use. We took the 11-footer and brought it home, cut off the top 2 feet which were a sort of stalk, and laid it in the back yard, because it was too big for our tree stand.
The tree dominates the room. It is not pretty. It swallows our ornaments. My poor angel, who for years in Mauritania had to be relegated to being hung on the wall, looks somewhat uncomfortable, perched on top of a too-thick trunk. It doesn’t look like a nice Christmas tree bought on a farm or at a stand; it looks like we went into the woods and cut down a tree. It is a feral tree. I think of it as very masculine. It’s a Noble, but the kind with lots of space between the branches. We need to get more lights, more ornaments, and if ever a tree needed ribbon or tinsel or something, it is this tree.

But it’s got character.

This gives you an idea of the size. Donn is standing on a chair.

sigh…it’s a long story

We had to put the poor angel on the end of a broom to help her wing her way to the top

and the angel finally at rest, looking slightly alarmed

the final effect.

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