Mystery Serials

Mary Poppins Returns Will Please Fans of the First Movie

As a cautious fan of the first Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Returns has completely exceeded my expectations.

I had the privilege of seeing Mary Poppins Returns in the theater twice this Christmas season, once with two good friends and once with my parents, brothers and sisters-in-law.

I should explain that the first Mary Poppins movie is highly nostalgic for my family. My older brothers saw it in the theater when it was first released. All this happened years before I was born, but my parents bought the movie soundtrack in the theater and that soundtrack became part of my childhood. I played the soundtrack over and over again until I had it practically memorized, although I had to wait years to finally see it as an ABC Disney movie special. The youngest of my older brothers was still practically a baby when Mary Poppins was released, so he remembers nothing of that experience, although he remembers practicing the “Chim Chim Cheree” dance with broomsticks along with my other two brothers.

So, with all of this nostalgic association with the original movie, I was cautious about seeing the new one. I thought perhaps it would seem too different and modern or that the main actors wouldn’t seem to suit the roles made famous by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. (There is no Bert in Mary Poppins Returns, but there is a Bert-like character.) Of course, at the same time, I wanted it to be a little bit new and different. Otherwise, it really wouldn’t be a sequel.

The movie does an excellent job of capturing the nostalgic feel while still being a new and different story. I was not at all disappointed in the performances of Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins or Lin Manuel-Miranda as Jack.

Emily Blunt was fantastic in capturing the character and quirks of Mary Poppins, the “practically perfect” nanny who has a bit of an ego and yet is still likeable. (The only other characters in fiction I can think of who can manage that are Hercule Poirot and Inspector Clouseau.) On the surface, she’s a persnickety and no-nonsense nanny — “Spit spot!” — and when she lets out her fun and magical side, always denies it afterwards. Blunt has all the eye rolls and perfectly turned out toes down just right.

The character of Jack is a lamplighter (or leerie) who supposedly worked with Bert as a chimney sweep when he was a boy. Manuel-Miranda is charming in the role and shows off his talents for singing, dancing and even a little rap. The sequel movie shows that the secret lives of leeries are just as magical as those of chimney sweeps.

The effects in Mary Poppins Returns, of course, are wonderful. Dick Van Dyke’s penguin dance with cartoon penguins was revolutionary at the time. Movie techniques and effects have improved a lot since 1964, so the sequel has more movie magic where real-life characters interact with cartoons in an animated world, jump into a magical underwater adventure and multiple characters float up into the sky.

There are many parallels between this movie and the original Mary Poppins, while still creating all new magical adventures, striking a good balance between nostalgia and new innovation. Of course, when Mary Poppins returns, Jane and Michael Banks are grown, with Michael a widower, now the father of three children: Anabel, John and Georgie. England is in the “Great Slump” in the 1930s, and Michael is in danger of losing the house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. He is a teller at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where his father George had a more important position, and keeping the house due for foreclosure, seems dependent on finding a certificate proving he has shares in the bank. Without telling too much, Jane and Michael’s kite from the first movie has an important role in the second in a multitude of ways.

You will find Winifred Banks’ Suffragette banner still attached to the kite. Jane Banks has also become an activist … for laborers, in this new period of the “Great Slump,” something that gives her a opportunity to befriend the charming Jack. I always thought there was a bit of a flirtation between Bert and Mary Poppins, but it makes more sense for Jack to have a flirtation with Jane, rather than with Mary Poppins. For one thing, she’s a magical person and, presumably, old enough to be his mother (at least,) though without seeming to have aged at all.

Here are some of the various parallels I observed. There is no cleaning up song like “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Instead, the next generation of Banks children have an underwater (and boating) adventure while cleaning up themselves in the tub, with the song, “Can You Imagine That?” They do not jump into a chalk pavement picture but jump into a Royal Doulton bowl instead, where there are adventures and two musical numbers.

Instead of visiting Mary Poppins’ uncle and having tea parties on the ceiling, they visit the store of Mary Poppins’ cousin Topsy, played by Meryl Streep, where things “Turn Turtle” on second Wednesdays. For my mother and one of my sisters-in-law, this was their least favorite scene and song. I don’t agree. Topsy is a colorful character, and the song has a gypsy/klezmer feel to it. There is a lullaby scene too as in the first movie, where Emily Blunt sings, “The Place Where Lost Things Go.”

Of course, instead of a “Chim Chim Cheree” dance, the lamplighters dance a lively acrobatic dance to “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” Instead of hopping over broomsticks, they hang on light poles and do stunts with ladders and poles for lighting. For one of the brothers who practiced the broomstick dance as a boy, seeing this scene was “pure joy.” There are even some extreme sport sort of bicycle stunts for this number. Where that may seem anachronistic, (the extreme stunts, not the bicycles,) it all fits with the acrobatics of the scene. A section of the song has a little fun with Cockney rhyming-slang.

Dick Van Dyke returns as the banker Mr. Dawes and does a little dance in one scene, singing appropriate lyrics about his dancing days not being over. How delightful! (By the way, Dick Van Dyke has a book about aging called, “Keep Moving.”)

The ending number, “Nowhere to Go But Up,” sung by Balloon Lady, played by Angela Lansbury, is also reminiscent of the playful, joyful, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”

I noticed in the credits that one of the Sherman brothers who wrote music for the first movie was a musical consultant for Mary Poppins Returns. The sequel’s soundtrack is excellent too and highly recommended.

My Family and Other Animals

My Family and Other Animals is the first title in The Corfu Trilogy, memoirs of British naturalist, Gerald Durrell, who is captivated by nature and animals and the study of them from a young age. It is the inspiration behind the Masterpiece Theatre series, The Durrells in Corfu

I haven’t seen the PBS series. I have seen trailers for it and was intrigued by them, partly because I was attracted to the period feel and partly because I have enjoyed other Masterpiece Theatre series. After reading the first book in this trilogy and after reading more about the PBS series, I’m intrigued but cautious. I can’t imagine I would like the show more than the book … which I enjoyed very much. I’m not saying I would not give the series a chance, but I know words would be pared down to dialogue — which may or may not be true to the book — and it would be missing all of the beautiful narrative language from the books.

I knew I was in for something good when even the book dedications in the opening pages were full of humor. The title, of course, is also light and funny, suggesting that his family was just another species of interesting animals to be studied. After reading a chapter or two, I persuaded both my mother and father to read it and helped them download the trilogy for Kindle. Amazon prime members can read the Kindle version of the trilogy for free. The trilogy  includes Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods. 

I am an Amazon affiliate, and, if you purchase through links on this site, I may get a little commission. 

I thought Dad would like the book, because the main character, the writer himself, Gerald or Gerry, is a boy with scientific curiosities, much like Dad, and I felt Dad would appreciate the humor. The story also involves a few boating adventures I thought my father would like. I thought Mom would like it, because she often prefers biographies to fiction, and she enjoyed James Herriot’s books. While Durrell’s and Herriot’s style and subject are a bit different, they do have a few things in common … animals and funny anecdotes, which mostly involve animals. Neither parent has yet finished the first book, but it seems, so far, that my recommendation to them is a good one.

Gerald Durrell and his dog, Roger Source: Pinterest

I mentioned earlier that the book is set in a past time period. It was tricky for me to exactly place the period for the setting at first. I don’t remember reading mention of any years, but there were a few clues. One of Gerry’s mentors, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, fought in World War I. The book mentions “an ancient Dodge” and a gramophone and other references to the technology of the time.  At first, I placed the period somewhere in the twenties. Then, I read on to a scene where the mother of the family was described as wearing a frilly and old-fashioned bathing costume which the daughter describes as looking like it were from 1920. I was able to place the period more precisely when I learned from durrell.org, that Gerald was born in 1925. The first book describes happenings while he was ten years old which must then be 1935.

Gerald Durrell with owl, Source: Daily Mail

The book is divided into three sections themed by three villas where the family lived in Corfu: the strawberry-pink villa, the daffodil-yellow villa and the snow-white villa. Their reasons for moving each time, at least the way they are described in the book, are all humorous. The family moves from England to Corfu, because they are all ill and the eldest son, Larry, suggests it, seemingly on a whim. The climate would be better for their health. The second time, they move to a larger villa, because Larry, who is an aspiring writer, has invited seven or eight of his artistic friends to stay with them. Later, they move to a smaller villa, because an annoying relative from England wants to stay with them and they need an excuse not to take her in. 

My father, after beginning his reading, got curious about the island and did some armchair exploring via Google maps. He found a location on the island labeled as the Durrell Family White House. I can only suppose this is the snow-white villa. If you go to the link, you can explore it yourself, get a good view of the villa and the sea and a sign that says, “White House Restaurant.”

Here is a view of the sea from Corfu, looking towards the Albanian coast. 

Corfu, looking towards Albanian coast. Source: Google maps.

Many of the stories in the book involve Gerry’s family, not just the animals that interested him … thus, the title. He describes his eldest brother Larry as someone absorbed with books, taking two cases of books with him to Corfu, and writing, always typing away at his typewriter. It did make me wonder if Larry became a successful writer or if Gerald became the writer of the family. I did find out that Lawrence Durrell published several books as well, both fiction and travel writings, including the Alexandria Quartet

His brother Leslie is described as someone obsessed with outdoorsy sports like hunting and boating. He does build Gerry a boat as a birthday gift, which Gerry names the Bootle-Bumtrinket. I really wondered at the meaning of “bumtrinket,” since the boys’ mother seems a bit shocked and embarrassed at the name, and because I know “bum” is Brit-talk for butt. The only definition I could find is that a bumtrinket is “an annoying person.” 

Sister Margo is described as someone very concerned with her appearance and worried about her weight and acne. Gerry himself becomes fascinated with wild life and spends a lot of time, being outdoors and studying insect life, bird life and other animals. He is frequently bringing home insects in jars or other small animals he finds and keeps as pets. In this first book, you will meet his dog, Roger, a tortoise named Achilles, a pigeon named Quasimodo, a scops owl named Ulysses, a gecko named Geronimo, a mantis named Cicely, some magpies, simply called Magenpies based on their Greek friend’s pronunciation of the bird, a gull — Larry calls it an albatross — named Alecko and a baby donkey called Sally.

More dogs join the family, including two messy puppies named Widdle and Puke, and their mother’s dog, a Dandie Dinmont terrier named Dodo. There are also some un-named animals, and animals that Gerry simply observes but doesn’t capture. You’ll learn about Quasimodo’s eccentricities and love of music, doing his own version of waltzes and marches to music on the gramophone, Achilles choosing body parts on which to practice mountaineering and the trouble it caused when Dodo becomes popular with all of the male dogs in the neighborhood.

Gerald Durrell with tortoise and pigeons, Source: Daily Mail


The writer does a wonderful job of interspersing stories of his family drama, often goofy incidents, with descriptions of his natural history discoveries. I sometimes wondered at his powerful memory of detail in these early events of his life. I think I found the explanation, as Gerry had a series of tutors, and one of them encouraged him to note down his observations of nature and also to keep a diary. 

I would recommend the book for those who love animals, enjoy travel writing, enjoy funny stories involving family life and animals and for those who enjoy beautiful, descriptive narrative. Here is an example …

“This doll’s house garden was a magic land, a forest of flowers through which roamed creatures I had never seen before.  Among the thick, silky petals of each rose bloom lived tiny crab-like spiders that scuttled sideways when disturbed. Their small translucent bodies were colored to match the flowers they inhabited: pink, ivory, wine red or buttery yellow. On the rose stems, encrusted with green flies, ladybirds moved like newly painted toys; ladybirds pale red with large black spots, ladybirds apple red with brown spots, ladybirds orange with gray-and-black freckles. Rotund and amiable, they prowled and fed among the anaemic flocks of greenfly. Carpenter bees, like furry, electric-blue bears, zigzagged among the flowers, growling fatly and busily…”

Christmas Wreath Fruit Party Tray with Spiced Honey Yogurt Dip

On My Plate (1)

ChristmasFruitWreath

Just the other night, I performed in a Christmas cantata for my church. After the concert, we had refreshments. I had signed up to bring a fruit tray and decided to be creative with it.

Here’s a tip if you are trying to eat healthy and lighter around the holidays. It can be a tricky business during a time with lots of parties and food temptations. If you are asked to bring a tray to a party and you’re given some options, bring a fruit or veggie tray, and you will know that there will at least be some lighter fare available. I’m not saying you can’t indulge a little bit, but you can have some fruits and veggies and a few of the more indulgent choices.

Christmas Wreath Fruit Tray with Dip

I thought I could form my wreath on a round platter around a central dip bowl. I used a white ramekin for the dip and put it in the center before filling it, just to help me form the wreath shape with the fruit. Green grapes — I found giant ones! — made the basic green wreath, and then I added some red fruits for accents. I made somewhat flower-like clusters with strawberries and red grapes and then scattered a few more red grapes along with some blueberries to break up the green. You could certainly come up with your own variations of this, with different fruits for accents and other types of shapes.

TraywithFruits

I then added a bow made with Fruit by the Foot fruit leather. I was considering another option before I found the Fruit by the Foot. There were some Marlowe brand sour candy belts that looked like ribbons. One variety even had green and red stripes. These ribbons were much shorter than the Fruit by the Foot, but I thought I could make a different style bow, like the sort you stick on Christmas packages, with multiple loops of candy. That may be another option. In the end, I was very happy to find the fruit leather.

WreathFruitbytheFoot

I took these photos before I took my tray to the church. I made the mistake of tucking up my ribbons and leaving my nice little bow on the tray while it refrigerated overnight and most of the next day and then stayed in the church fridge during our one hour concert. I gave instructions to the ladies on kitchen duty to adjust the bow before putting it out, but by then, my ribbon was sticky, had stuck itself to the fruit and couldn’t move without tearing. So, if you do this, don’t put on the fruit leather bow until the last minute. Bring your fruit leather wrapped and separate.

I created a yogurt dip to go with the fruit. It’s sweet enough that the yogurt is no longer tart and just has a little punch of cinnamon and ginger.

Spiced Honey Yogurt Dip Recipe

2 cups nonfat Greek yogurt

1 Tbsp. honey

1 Tbsp. brown sugar

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. ginger

You can print my Spiced Honey Yogurt Dip recipe card here.

When You Don’t Have Those Little Taco Seasoning Envelopes …

On My Plate (1)

tacos
Photo by bari abakar on Unsplash

The other day, I did find myself in a position where I had every ingredient for tacos but none of those little packets of store-bought taco seasoning. I decided to mix up my own with good results. You may notice that the photo above is not my own. I did not think about taking food photos at the time.

My mix is about the same heat level as those that you can buy, and gives a little spice but is still fairly mild. Some of the others in my family do not have the same tolerance for heat that I do, so I have to keep that in mind.

Susan’s Taco Seasoning

1 Tbsp. chili powder

2 tsp. cumin

2 tsp. onion powder

1 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. garlic powder

1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper

Print my Susan’s Taco Seasoning┬árecipe card here.

Here are some additional healthy tips if you want to enjoy tacos and cut back on calories.

  1. Watch your portion. You can enjoy two or three, but don’t go totally loco.

2. Use lean ground beef. You can find 90% lean beef, but I usually use 85%.

3. Limit or cut back on the fatty toppings like cheese, sour cream and guacamole/avocado. You can have as many veggie toppings like onion, lettuce and tomato as you like. Avocados are a good source of healthy fats, but they still need to be somewhat limited.

goodfat
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4. Replace regular sour cream with reduced-fat sour cream or …

5. Replace sour cream with nonfat Greek yogurt. You’ll still get that tart taste. Possibly, you could add a little lemon or lime juice to thin it out.

6. Salsa can give a lot of flavor to tacos without adding many calories. I prefer fresh salsa much more than the jarred kind. Some grocery stores sell freshly made salsa or pico de gallo in the produce department or you could make your own at home with chopped tomatoes, onions, sweet and hot peppers.

7. One idea is to limit your toppings to guacamole and fresh salsa. The flavors will balance each other out, a little cool and a little heat, and you’ll get nutritional benefits from the fruit and veggies. If you’re an avocado lover like I am, I don’t think you will even miss the other fats.

 

Aesop’s Tortoise Continues to Teach Lessons

For the Kiddos (2)

I reviewed four books in the Tortoise’s New Adventure series, written by J.D. Parsons and illustrated by Tere. These are the continued adventures of the tortoise who beat the hare in a race. Although not too fable-like, they do teach lessons about friendship and getting along.

AEsoP's Tortoise is still teaching Lessons

tortoisemeetsseaturtles

This story is not too similar to an Aesop’s fable, but the author makes it clear that the titular tortoise is the famous tortoise who won the race against the hare. He doesn’t race in this story, but he does play soccer on the beach with some sea turtles. Children will learn the difference between tortoises and turtles — something some adults may not remember — and also learn a more important lesson about friendship and acceptance. It’s obvious that some children have a lot of difficulty with feeling different from others or others being different from them. One sea turtle is nervous with the tortoise at first, but the tortoise and sea turtles then accept each other’s differences and realize they can still have fun together. Illustrations are very charming and will please animal-loving children.

tortoisemeetstheelephant

Teddy T. Tortoise meets Eddy the Elephant. Eddy recognizes Teddy as the tortoise who beat the hare in a race. Teddy recognizes Eddy as a circus elephant who is now in the wild. Illustrations show other African animals. Teddy is slightly anxious about the elephant’s large size, but Eddy is able to reassure him that “elephants are steady on their feet.” Teddy the Tortoise plays a game with each animal he meets in the series, and, in this book, he plays cards with the elephant, which the elephant claims to always carry with him. It’s a sweet children’s book, promoting friendship and kindness.

tortoisemeetsthecat

This time, Teddy T. Tortoise makes a new friend when he helps a cat down out of a tree. What kind of a cat is it? It is a tortoiseshell cat, of course. The cat then introduces the tortoise to what seems an unlikely friend for a cat … a dog. The cat states to the turtle that it’s not that remarkable for a cat and dog to be friends and that the dog was friendly all the time. “He’s just that type,” says the cat. They wander around near a koi pond, and, since this is a book about friendship, the cat is only interested in seeing and not in eating any of the pretty fish. The cat teaches Teddy a new game, cat’s cradle. What else would a cat play? The story promotes friendship and helping others.

thetortoisemeetsthechameleon

This time, Teddy T. Tortoise is in the rainforest and meets a chameleon. The chameleon must be a little like a mood ring, changing colors with his mood. I enjoyed the pretty illustrations of the chameleon, because he was often in my favorite purple hues. The chameleon introduces the tortoise to various animal friends in the rainforest. Children can learn about different types of animals and where they live from this book, but, hopefully, they will also learn about getting along with others and good sportsmanship. The chameleon, tortoise, and other animals eventually play hide and seek, and, of course, the chameleon is very good at this game.

At the end of the book, children are challenged to find all of the heart shapes in the illustrations. Teddy has a couple of hearts on his shell, and, even as an adult, I had to look through the book again to find all of the semi-hidden hearts.

You can buy The Tortoise’s New Adventure series on Amazon. See the links below.