SJ Escape 2018

Every year, I flee the duties and obligations of life for three or four days. It may not look like a very exciting adventure (links to previous Escapes: 2014, 2015, and 2017), but in reality it’s pretty dramatic stuff. A fifty-year-old tragedy? An artistic soul setting off to seek his fortune? Just read on and you’ll see.

This year I went about an hour away to a fairly unremarkable college town. As usual, the kids made sure I had a traveling companion. This year I was accompanied by Tomago (which according to Google is Japanese for “egg” and I just took Google’s word for it).

Here we are in our hotel room:


Don’t hog the photo, Tomago. You’re an egg. Stop being a ham.


He approved of the retro aesthetic of the hotel furniture.


“Hey. I was told there would be Milanos!”


My escape was in the middle of what turned out to be a monsoon season on the East Coast (we got almost nonstop rain for weeks), so I spent a lot of time watching the rain out my window. I felt like a real writer, holed up in a hotel room, hunched over a keyboard, trying to make my art. Like all good writers, I was sure to drink while writing. In my case it was milk to go with my cookies, but I’m sure that counts in some universe.

My last day, however, the sky cleared. I took the opportunity to enjoy coffee and then a long walk to get to a quilt museum. The long walk was totally just for the pleasure of seeing what life in this town looks like. It wasn’t because I have no sense of direction and turned the wrong way and walked three blocks to get to a place I could have reached by heading straight down the street the other way.

Architect: “I love roofs. Don’t you love roofs? Sometimes I think to myself, A house just can’t have too many roofs, am I right?”


Architect: “So about your church. I’d thought we could go for a soaring Cathedral style, or a bold modern approach with clean lines, or… What? Oh. Yes, A Mighty Fortress is definitely a churchy theme, but do you really think… Okay. Fine.”


Tomago even met some new friends over lunch.


The quilt museum was a wonderful experience. I don’t quilt, but I’ve researched a lot about the art for my novel-in-progress. It went like this: “Hey, I think I’ll add a quilting element to my story. That would be interesting. I’ll just look up a few quilting terms to pretend I know what I’m talking about.” *HOURS OF INTERNET SEARCHES, ENTIRE TUTORIAL VIDEOS, MULTIPLE EMAILS AND MESSAGES, TWO QUILT SHOWS, SIX BOOKS, A QUILT MUSEUM, AND ONE YEAR OF RESEARCH LATER, I KIND OF KNOW A LITTLE BIT ABOUT QUILTING.* I was so interested in the displays in the museum that I forgot to take pictures.

I also dropped by a graveyard, because I really like graveyards. I contemplate the names, the life dates, and wonder about these people who are all done living on earth. You often can piece together stories in graveyards. They’re usually sad stories, but still fascinating.

For instance, this family seems to have a smidge of an obsession with posthumous legacies. Not to mention a lot of money. These grave suites flank the driving path. They come complete with statues, busts of each person buried there, and photographs above each name. Even people not yet dead are memorialized. As are people who have married in. It’s like Hotel California, Family version: You can check in any time you want, but you can never leave.

2018-07-14 09.11.36


2018-07-14 09.13.22

Beyond The Suite was another, sadder, family story. I didn’t think to get a picture of it because I was so startled. It was a collection of four graves. A wife, husband, and two small children ages 3 and 1 — all of whom died on the same day fifty years ago. I looked up the local newspaper for around that date, and discovered a front-page story about a head-on collision that killed the whole family. (The other driver was hospitalized, and I didn’t find out anything more about him.) It was a Sunday afternoon, so I assume they were taking a drive. The little girl’s body was found underneath her mother’s, suggesting that she was riding in her mother’s lap at the time — no car seats in those bygone days. The grief surrounding this quiet cluster of graves must have been intense.


Less of a tragedy, but puzzling, was that at some point during my trip, Tomago went missing. As I wrote in an email home to the kids:

Tomago the Egg disappeared sometime after lunch on Sunday. By the time I missed him, it was too late. I even went back to the restaurant and inquired, but no one had seen him. Naturally I was devastated, but then found this note on my pillow. 

Dear SJ,

I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to say goodbye. I mean, I’m an egg. I hate break-ups.

I’m not sure eggxactly how it happened. One minute I was with you, and everything was sunny side up. The next thing I knew, my whole life was scrambled. Remember how I met Salt and Pepper at that restaurant? Well, they really knew how to draw me out of my shell, and it turns out we all share the same dream.

Yes. That’s right. We’re forming a band—the Egg Beatles. It’s everything I ever wanted! I’m so eggcited.

I’ll always cherish the time you and I had together. I just couldn’t live a lie, walking on eggshells all the time. I didn’t want you to be unequally yolked to someone like me. The eggxpectations were too much—I guess I just cracked under pressure. Salt and Pepper feel guilty, like they poached me from you. But I really think this is for the best.

Farewell. Don’t worry, I won’t forget you when I’m a celeggbrity. I’ll always be your very own,


At least now we have answers.

After three days away, I got back in my car and headed home via my old friend Rt. 11. DJ and the kids were finishing up their annual standardized testing, and we were all ready for summer to begin.

It was a great escape for me. And somewhere, a small yellow egg is following his dreams.


Bookgirl is 17!

Addi age 17

Bookgirl is a dragon.

It’s an odd thing to say about your firstborn child. Well, maybe your firstborn child, but not mine. In the very first birthday post I wrote for her, four-year-old Bookgirl mentioned dragon stories and a dragon cake. Her not-so-secret desire is to be a dragon, but unfortunately it doesn’t run in our bloodline. Still, it suits her.

Like a dragon, she doesn’t mind living outside the mainstream.

Her shoes, for instance. They’re four years old, held intact by the colored duct tape she uses to refresh their look. She won’t let me buy her new ones. You can’t argue with a dragon about these things.

Her taste in entertainment, for another. It runs to adventure stories and snarky yet affectionate characters. She’s DJ’s movie buddy, eager to see every Marvel movie that comes out. She follows several web comics, reads astonishingly fast, and is always building her own fictional world with her own snarky yet affectionate characters. Dragons don’t need a vibrant and exciting world; they create their own.

Her ambitions are to make the world better… and also to make lots of quiet space for herself. Dragons often find themselves conflicted in this way.

She’s a good friend to Sparkler, longtime buddies with Gamerboy, and lets Ranger talk to her about what excites him. She takes good care of Cosmic, who rightfully considers her his mama bunny. She likes hanging out around her parents, even when we kiss, and puts up with our generational quirks and quaint opinions. Her family is part of her treasure, and she guards us carefully.

DJ and I put in a lot of years raising her. Sometimes it was pretty bumpy. But now she’s a young woman, the same person we got to know as a child, but even more fun.

Happy 17th birthday to Bookgirl, who will make the world a better place in ways that most people don’t expect. That’s what dragons do, after all.

Big Stone Gap, a Novel of a Certain Age

Big Stone Gap: A NovelDJ wanted me to read Big Stone Gap. He had just finished it, but it’s more my type of story than his. He was interested in my opinion. Well, mostly, he wanted validation that it really is a terrible book and he wasn’t just reacting as a Man Reading Women’s Literature.

I read it. I validated him.

Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani was written in 2000, which is longer ago than I think it is. I tried to keep in mind that it’s basically a late-90s story. DJ and I both read the Mitford series in the late 90s and we liked it then; I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it now. I extended as much charity as I could, but I ran out by about page 7.

The protagonist is Ave Maria (because her mom was Italian, see), who has grown up in the little Virginia mining town of Big Stone Gap. There’s not much of a plot, except that Ave finds out that the father she grew up with was really her stepfather; her real father is Italian and doesn’t know she exists. Mostly the story is Ave Maria’s self-discovery, set against A Year in the Life of Big Stone Gap, 1978. I really like these stories if they’re well done. This one doesn’t qualify.

The main problem is that this book suffers from Lisa Byrd Syndrome. You don’t know what that is, but I bet you’ll recognize it when I explain. When I was a young mom, I occasionally had playdates with Lisa Byrd, who had children the same age as mine. I hated these playdates. Lisa loved a captive audience, and she would talk and talk about whatever interested her. Which, by the way, wasn’t anything very interesting. If I spoke, she’d be quiet long enough for me to stop; then she’d get back to talking. I honestly was relieved for years afterward that we no longer moved in the same circles. So imagine my delight when I was at an event recently, and who sat next to me but Lisa Byrd! It had been ten years since we’d really talked, but that was no problem. She droned for an hour before I managed to escape.

Reading this book was like sitting next to Lisa Byrd for the entire story.

The narrator, Ave Maria, does not shut up, ever. She tells you about herself, about her childhood, about the people in her town, about what’s happening in front of her. “I asked an intelligent question about the mine explosion,” she says, but doesn’t let you actually hear the question. She’s too busy telling you things.

Or another fun feature is that one detail will distract her from the main point, and we have to sit through two paragraphs of sidetracked discussion. But there’s no real organization involved in what she mentions when, and certainly no pause to decide what’s really of interest and what’s just filler. It’s honestly like a playdate with Lisa all over again.

As if that weren’t bad enough (which it was) (by the way, the author loves parenthetical remarks, as she believes they heighten the sassiness), the story is sloppy.

One of DJ’s complaints was that Ave Maria spends too much time questioning her own reactions. He’s right. After nearly every line of dialogue or reaction, the author scatters a string of rhetorical questions. “Why was I talking to him like this?” or “Why did I even say that?” or “Did I really just reach out and touch his tie?” Lisa Byrd likes to do that, and she doesn’t stop to hear any answers either.

Plus, Ave Maria suffers from a serious personality disorder. I don’t think Trigiani meant to write her this way. I think she’s supposed to be a plucky heroine who wins the hearts of all with her good heart and sparkle. But the story is so carelessly written that the author constantly has to adjust for inconsistencies. You want examples? Why, I happen to have a good mess of ’em right here!

On page 9, Ave Maria says, I think most folks in Big Stone Gap know their secrets are safe with me.

On page 14, though, we are told, … I stop myself. I am telling this man confidential things. I never tell confidential things!

On page 51, she announces in the pharmacy that an unpleasant character’s birth control pills are ready for pickup, knowing that the town’s “three biggest gossips” will overhear.

On page 54, she’s surprised to find out that the town is talking about her. I never spread stories, so I figure none are spread about me.

On 117, Love Interest #1 proposes to her….

Hang on, pulling an Ave Maria here… a word about LI#1. He’s supposed to come across as quiet, strong, and polite. He’s mostly just awkward and creepy. He strikes me as the kind of man who would get a woman alone, and then want her to lick his toes and make cat noises.

… He opens by saying he broke an engagement because he had feelings for somebody else. Her reaction:

“Dear God!” I shriek. I’m a judgmental shrew, but usually I keep it under wraps. 

But the thing is, she doesn’t judge anyone else for this kind of thing. Not the town sexpot who takes up with the man who has sick wife at home. Not her friend who “did the right thing” and married the girl he got pregnant, but is seeing his old flame on the side. Not her lawyer who ALSO “did the right thing” and is now unhappy with a fat wife. (Trigiani is clearly of a certain opinion about certain decisions.)

Moving on. Love Interest #2 is her best friend. Really, for nine years they’ve spent all their spare time together. They know everything about each other! Then they share a kiss which each thinks the other initiated. Ave Maria is pretty stirred up by the whole thing, and point-blank tells him, “I want to have sex with you.” LI#2 calmly eats his pasta and explains that they can’t have sex because it will ruin their friendship. “Also, my boyfriend in the next town over won’t like it.” He doesn’t actually say that part. But how else is one to interpret a man who turns down a willing woman without even a little makeout session on the couch?

Oh. Maybe he’s a robot. That would explain a lot.

(For the record, after this little misunderstanding, they’re even better friends. Within a couple of weeks, they can joke about how Ave Maria wanted to have sex with him, and they laugh and laugh until they cry.)

Another annoying thing is that almost everyone has a cute name. Characters are named Fleeta, Portly, Iva Lou, Jack Mac, Spec, Otto, Worley, and “Apple Butter Nan” (because hers is the BEST apple butter. I mean, I totally refer to my friend as “Pottery Deige” because she makes the BEST bowls and mugs).

It just doesn’t sound like this author really lived in a small town. Heck, I’m not even sure she’s ever met real people. It’s a cartoon version of life, featuring all the elements that women of a certain age in 1999 loved. Why can’t I just put the book down? What is it about me that’s compelled to read terrible books? Am I the only one like this? See how I’m making fun of the book? Can you believe she can go a whole paragraph with nothing but rhetorical questions like this? Doesn’t it kind of feel like she just transcribed her story notes and called it a novel?

Yes, Lisa. Yes it does.

Gallery of Infamy

Some of my favorite terriblenesses from this book.

It’s written in present tense. I know, I know, that’s a thing now. It’s still annoying.

The author decided early on that Ave Maria is enamored with a book on Chinese face-reading, which claims to be able to tell a person’s character according to physical features. For the first fifty pages, she describes everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY) according to these face-reading principles. By page 80, she’s completely forgotten about it and it never resurfaces again.

The author writes, The crowd woos. She meant The crowd SWOONS.

LI#1 is so polite that he reflexively calls Ave Maria “ma’am,” even though they’re the same age, both grew up in this town, and he’s in love with her. Real Southerners do not make that mistake more than once; it’s actually embarrassing to call your peer “ma’am” or “sir” by accident. The guy is creepy.

I mean, really. Here’s a quote about him: He smiles and moves closer, and I must say, everything this guy says sounds like a come-on. There’s something in that slow delivery and gluttonous pauses that makes you feel buck naked. I pull my cardigan closed and button it. This is supposed to be ratcheting up the chemistry between them. I’m more hoping she decides to sleep over with a friend that night.

At one point, someone’s eyes “fill with mist.” She must be another robot. With glass eyes. In the Southern humidity.

The author didn’t want to fool with a Christmas celebration. I sympathize. I hate having to account for holidays in my stories. Also, Ave Maria has to undergo some serious changes of heart before she can settle down with the Chosen Love Interest. So, Trigiani’s solution? A nervous breakdown, during which she sleeps, coma-like, for a week including over Christmas! And wakes up with a new perspective on life! Man. Surprising that more authors don’t think of this.

There are no black people in this book. A couple of people refer to a dark-skinned community, kind of a mix of various ethnicities, but they live “way up in a holler” and don’t associate with the valley very much. One shopkeeper is of Lebanese descent, although he grew up in town. Everyone else is white.

Remember the character who got birth control pills? She ends up pregnant later in the book. But don’t worry, the author takes care of it by saying, “And she was on birth control pills, too! Oh well…” Also, didn’t birth control pills have pretty significant side effects in the 70s? Heck, they did in the 2000s when my newly-married friends were using them! But the girl on these pills doesn’t have any problem with weight gain or acne. So really, all the evidence points to this girl not taking the Pill, but maybe selling them to friends at a jacked-up price.

The book ends with a wedding, a month-long tour of Italy, pregnancy, and a baby in the space of about sixteen pages. It’s like the author needed to hurry up and cram in that perfect married-with-baby Women’s Fiction ending.

Ranger is 9!


Although three other kids in the household turned 9, it’s kind of special that Ranger is. This is our last year of single digits in our family.

Ranger is generally happy, can entertain himself with or without electronics, and quietly gets involved in disasters that he’s always sure he can solve himself, no help needed!

The one trait that everybody remarks on, to the point that Ranger now knows it’s remarkable, is his size. At his eight-and-a-half year checkup, the doctor looked at his measurements: 60.5 inches tall. “So,” she asked casually, “how tall is your dad?” (Answer: not very tall. We don’t know where this blond-haired, good-humored tank came from.)

In honor of today, here’s a list of Nines About Ranger:


8 books you like…

  1. A Story a Day
  2. Richard Scarry 365 Stories
  3. Sideways Stories from Wayside School
  4. Garfield comics
  5. Plants vs Zombies
  6. Diary of a Minecraft Zombie
  7. Skylanders books
  8. Mad Libs

… and 1 you don’t:

  1. Cub Scout Manual. It has a lot of instructions, not stories.


7 animals you like…

  1. Snakes
  2. Parrots
  3. Cardinals
  4. Blue Jays
  5. Wolves
  6. Foxes
  7. Rabbits

… and 2 you don’t:

  1. Moths
  2. Spiders


6 games you like…

  1. Mag  Blast
  2. Mad Libs
  3. Settlers of Catan
  4. Settlers of Catan Jr.
  5. Skylanders
  6. Sonic

… and 3 you don’t:

  1. Pirate 101
  2. Wizard 101. In both games, everything costs in-game money to progress.
  3. Monopoly


5 You Tubers you like…

  1. Parker
  2. LogDotZip
  3. Shelby
  4. Stampy
  5. Cory X Kenshin

… and 4 you don’t (or aren’t allowed to watch):

  1. Diamond Minecart
  2. Popular MMOs
  3. Gaming with Jen


4 foods you like…

  1. Broccoli
  2. Pizza
  3. Pasta
  4. Cracker Barrel and Dad’s Biscuits

… and 5 you don’t:

  1. Hot dogs
  2. Mac & Cheese
  3. Cauliflower
  4. Mom’s biscuits
  5. Sausage


3 siblings you like, 6 you don’t

  1. Haha.

2 parents you like, 7 you don’t

  1. Haha again.


1 chore you like (or don’t mind)…

  1. Washing dishes by hand (which he’s done like twice)

.. and 8 you don’t like:

1-8. All of them.


Happy birthday, Ranger! We love you!

First Day of School, Last Day of School

Lots of my friends take snapshots of their kids on the first day of school. Then they remember to take another picture on the last day of school. The two photos, side by side, highlight just how much kids grow up over the course of a school year.

I never remember to take pictures. But recently DJ and I were discussing the kids’ work, and I realized we’ve got our own kind of “snapshot” to compare how much the kids have grown.

Below are two of Gamerboy’s  answers to some literature discussion questions. You don’t even have to read his answers; you can skim the two sets and see the marked difference in how he engaged with the stories and expressed his thoughts.

(Note: in the first set, he’d read two or three stories written with dialect, of which he was not a fan.)

Date: Wed, Oct 11, 2017
Subject: schoool

  1. Definitely mysterious, because I had no idea what was going to happen
  2. They stop the expedition after Nace’s death, therefore ending the conflict of man versus nature
  3. Likely whether or not to keep going, and later whether or not to save Osborn
  4. Painful in an almost humorous way
  5. That duels aren’t a very good way to settle things
  6. A tired and tense atmosphere
  7. Ivan’s is more mental, and Jerry’s is more physical. Both end up in them retreating away from the problem.
  8. Chimley takes place in a time and area where racial tensions were very high, and the atmosphere emphasizes how hopeless they feel sometimes.
  9. I can’t discern anything about them because I have no idea what anybody is saying half the time


Thu, May 17, 2018
Subject: Sherlock Holmes

  1. When he first sees Mr. Holden, Watson assumes by his mannerisms that he is a madman, while Holmes correctly deduces that he’s merely panicked and fatigued.
  2. Mr Holden is panicking because someone had stolen part of the Beryl coronet while it was under his guard, which will cause a scandal and ruin his reputation if it’s found out.
  3. Mr. Holden believes that his son Arthur is guilty, because he saw him with the coronet and he acted incredibly defensive about it. Holmes believes Arthur is innocent, due to the noise of a closing door Holden heard, which he says a man bent on felony wouldn’t have let happen, and that his defensiveness pointed to him being innocent of it as much of his guiltiness.
  4. Doyle uses flashback in two parts of the story, first when Holden is talking about how he came into possession of the coronet and the subsequent events surrounding it, and then later when Holmes is telling everybody what really happened that night. The first flashback is used to provide context as to why he has it and clues as to what actually happened, and the second one is used to stitch the clues together and show what really happened that night.
  5. Mary leaving the note likely is what brings the story to the crisis, or possibly it is the crisis. That is the point when everything has gone wrong, but the resolution is close by.
  6. The resolution was somewhat satisfying to me. The extent that Holmes went to solve the case and return the coronet was very interesting, and it’s good that Arthur was cleared of his charges, but I am somewhat disappointed that Mary was the one who stole the coronet, and then ran away afterwards.


My, how our boy has grown up!

A Scifi Wifi World

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

It’s 2018, and nobody has a flying car. No teleporter, either. Not even one single portal to let someone beam in holographically!

As a kid who read a lot of mid-century (twentieth century) science fiction, I have to confess that “the 2000s” are, so far, rather disappointing.

I mean, take yesterday. Bookgirl and Gamerboy invited their Dungeons & Dragons group over here for an afternoon session. Like, real physical people. Not robots. Everyone arrived in vehicles attached firmly to earth.

Well, except one friend who lives out of state. She participates online, via a speaker hooked up to one of the laptops.

(Dear 1988 SJ: a “laptop” is a computer you can carry around with you. You will want one desperately ten years later, but they’re very heavy and expensive then.)

The online participation is kind of cool, I guess, but you have to admit it’s no hologram. Also, those old stories never stopped to think about what would happen if there was a power blip. Yesterday’s blip knocked the modem offline for about fifteen minutes, and it was kind of a crisis because “we lost her!”

I didn’t have too much to do with the D&D gathering, though. I was back in my bedroom, using the same wifi for my monthly writers’ meeting.

(Dear 1998 SJ: “wifi” stands for “wireless fidelity,” I think. Kind of a play off of “high fidelity” = “hi-fi.” This explanation–which might not even be right–isn’t much help to you. Hi-fi is too old for you, wifi is too new. Anyway, with wifi, we can connect to the internet without tying up the phone line, and it’s fast. Because we’ve got good service here, we’re always connected to the internet. Except during the odd power blip.)

I was on a video call with my writer friends who live in California, Colorado, and Wisconsin. One friend was calling in from two miles away from me. The other Virginian and the New Yorker weren’t present this month. We spent two hours discussing writing with real-time video, despite spanning four time zones and the entire dang continent.

(Dear Younger SJs: Amid all this digital socialization, Sparkler and Ranger played outside on the trampoline with their neighbor. The world hasn’t changed entirely. That should restore your equilibrium a bit.)

I hear that flying cars have excellent equilibrium. But we wouldn’t know. All we can do, here in the real-world 2018, is host five people who never actually came to our home.

And come to think of it… holograms or not… well, that does kind of knock your modem offline for a second, doesn’t it?


Clever Conversations

A Helpful Tip about Cows…

Screenshot Diary Cow


Whatever Floats Your Boat…

A recent conversation with a friend.

Friend: I was reading the other day about a Titanic-themed graduation dinner.

Me: Oh wow. That’s just asking for snark.

Me: Like, was everyone split up into first, second, and third class?

Me: Third class has to share a plate and all use one bathroom, and halfway through the night the fire alarm goes off but they can’t get out because the doors are locked.

Me: Second-class kids get Little Debbie cakes for dessert and aren’t allowed to sit with the first-class kids.

Me: At the end of the night, all the first-class girls go home, leaving their dates behind.

Me: “Aren’t you glad you’re part of our school? It’s basically a shipwreck!”

Me: People just don’t think through these things.

Friend: Wow. You really have some strong thoughts about this. I was just going to make a pun like, “I’ve got a sinking feeling about this party.”

Swype Says…

Well, it’s been a while, but I’m sorry to say that my autocorrect, Swype, has not improved its behavior at all. Apparently it thinks I’m incredibly boring, and continually tweaks my messages for me.

I was away with Bookgirl for a few nights last month. DJ sent me a catch-up text at the end of the day. I replied to tell him I was writing him an email.

No, no, hang on! says Swype. We can do better than that!

Swype snail_LI

Another time, I wanted to laugh with my  mother about my niece’s pictures. “Lilly makes up for her lack of hair by her wild expressions,” I wanted to say. Swype not only decided her name should be “Jimmy,” but wanted to get all surreal with it.

Swype Jimmy hair (2)_LI

I needed to tell DJ that an event had been cancelled due to a local festival; the organizer had posted notices in the group messages. But no, Swype has to get all devout Catholic on me all of a sudden. And if I didn’t like that, it was ready to throw other words with bad connotations at me.

Swype grotto masses_LI

In fact, Swype shows marked signs of religious extremism if I’m not careful. I was telling my friend that when her text came in, I was talking to my husband.

Swype talking Satan_LI

So yeah. I don’t need your help, Swype. Seriously, you masher me so mad sometimes.

My Old Friend Jan… Oh, and Courtney Van Allen

A pet jaguar, pink cigars, and a world-famous girl who has worn the same outfit for forty-six days, advising certain people to “drop dead” — and that’s just the first two chapters of The Kidnapping of Courtney Van Allen and What’s-Her-Name by Joyce Cool.

I got this book as a Christmas present from my fifth-grade homeroom teacher, Mrs. Rouse. She was a smart and experienced teacher; I imagine she ordered books in bulk from Weekly Reader, wrapped them up, and went down her class list writing names on each tag. But to me, it was a personally curated choice, and I was always hungry for books. I must have read this one dozens of times over the years.

I’ve given it to each of my children in turn, most recently my 11-year-old, Sparkler. The book was lying in the living room, so I picked it up to reminisce.

The premise is that Jan Travis is spending two weeks with her fabulously rich Great-Aunt Harry, who lives in the Fifth Avenue Central Park Towers. It turns out that one of the richest girls in the country, Courtney Van Allen, is staying above them in her grandmother’s penthouse. Jan befriends Courtney, although is somewhat bemused by this rich, impulsive kid who wears ratty clothes as a protest against her actress mother and senator father, who are too busy and important to take much interest in her.

Then Courtney is kidnapped… and since Jan happens to be with her at the time, Jan is too. They’re stuck in a Victorian home somewhere off Long Island, ruled by the ninety-five-year-old Fannie Violet who was once a gorgeous silent screen star. Meanwhile, the networks are going crazy with the news that Courtney Van Allen has been kidnapped! And also… that girl who was with her… Nobody seems to remember her name.

It came out in 1981, and I read it in 1988. The story really reads like a mid-70s story, so I as an 80s kid caught a few mildly dated ideas; but overall it all sounded pretty normal to me. Reading it now, I realized how odd parts of it must sound to Sparkler in 2018. After all, Jan’s grand birthday present from her parents was a combination radio, cassette player, and a little bitty portable TV! That worked out great, because Courtney gave her cassette tapes. Oh, and Courtney has her own “video recorder” and a whole library of tapes to watch. While riding in the Van Allen limo, Jan uses the telephone in the car. She dials the operator just to see if it would really work. Can you even dial an operator now?

Another thing I noticed was that this book was one of many that taught me how to create a parallel universe for my characters to live in. The settings are very real — New York City, subways, Long Island. But all of the pop culture references are fictional. Courtney is the daughter of Sylvia Sutton, the  most famous TV actress in the world. And her dad is such an important senator that he’ll probably be president one day.  Everybody wants to buy the cereal named after Courtney (Courtney Crummies) or buy the car named after her (the Courtney). Fannie Violet was also very famous in her day. It’s a world that looks like ours, but whose popular references will never grow dated or violate copyright.

A little rant here. I grew up in southern Mississippi. None of the books I ever read were set anyplace I’d ever been. This book is a good example of my experience. Jan explains that she’d never trade living in northern California, but she loved visiting New York City. As far as fiction was concerned, California and New York were pretty much the only extant points of civilization in the country. (Chicago would make an occasional cameo.) For this reason, you’ll probably never read anything by me that’s set in California, New York, or any major urban center.

So anyway. The Kidnapping of Courtney Van Allen and What’s-Her-Name is not great literature. But I loved it. Thirty years later, so does my daughter. Thanks, Joyce Cool, for writing a story that spanned a generation. Even if the technology didn’t quite make the trip.

Delectable Canned Biscuit Donuts


Hm. When I put it like that, it sounds like something right out of 1952. “Serve with a side of celery gelatin salad!” But no, really. They are delectable. Honest.

Last summer, I had plans. We were going to cook and eat supper in our backyard, courtesy of our fire pit. (Which, as a reminder, actually is just a hole in the ground with some gravel in it.)

An hour before I was going to take everything out into the yard and start the fire, it came a deluge as only summer in the South can do. So instead we ate around the table, me somewhat glumly.

However, I still cooked the planned dessert, albeit on the stove instead of over the open fire. It quickly became a favorite. I’m serious, this is one of the only foods that all six people in the family will eat. So I’m sharing a rare and wonderful gem here.

Note: I really don’t like transcribing recipes, so this is the best we get here.

Canned Biscuit Donuts

You’ll need:

  • Small can of biscuit dough — you know, the kind that you peel off the wrapper and it just sits there, waiting waiting waiting and then POPS OPEN and laughs at you.
  • A large pan with about an inch of corn oil in it.
  • About a cup of confectioner’s sugar, flavored with as much cinnamon as you like.

This is a two-person job, by the way. One person cooks, and the other one sugars.

Using the cap of a plastic water bottle, cut holes out of the middle of the dough circles. Note: don’t use large biscuits; they don’t cook all the way through.

Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a shallow, flat pan. Set a plate with a paper towel between the cooker and the sugarer.

Heat the oil until it’s hot enough that when you drop in a bit of bread, it sizzles immediately. Drop in a ring and cook until it’s golden brown. Flip it over and cook the other side. It takes only about a minute in all.

Lift the rings out with a slotted spoon and place on the plate. The sugarer picks it up carefully and uses a spoon to push it around in the sugar until it’s covered. You could use your fingers, but you’ll regret it. These things just came out of hot oil.

Do the same with the donut holes. These are fun because they puff up into little spheres. They also cook a lot faster than the rings.

Then be sure to claim at least two donuts before you announce they’re ready. One can of biscuits doesn’t go very far in our household of six.

And there you have it. A Jones family favorite. You’re welcome.