Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: The Moonstone

Another book completed for the Fifty Classics project!  You may recall that I recently read The Woman in White, a Gothic tale of murder and madness by Wilkie Collins.  The Moonstone is more of a detective novel than a Gothic horror story.

A valuable diamond is stolen from a shrine in India by a blackguard British soldier, who, many years later, leaves it to his niece in his will.  The niece, one Rachel Verinder, receives The Moonstone at her 18th birthday party.  It's stolen in the night and the rest of the novel is devoted to unraveling the mystery, with a few melodramatic plot twists to keep things interesting.  Collins skillfully aims the blame at different characters, which keeps you guessing well into the story.  That said, I had trouble engaging with this novel and finally had to put aside all my other books and just power through it.  Some of the characters had really irritating quirks: the butler who is obsessed with Robinson Crusoe, or the crack detective who hums a few bars of "The Last Rose of Summer" every time he finds a clue.  On the other hand, there is the evangelical spinster, Miss Clack, who narrates a good portion of the story and who Collins is clearly mocking.  Perhaps he was also mocking the butler and the detective?  Or mocking other detective novels of the time?  It is hard to tell.

If you were to rank The Woman in White and The Moonstone on their literary value alone, The Moonstone would win.  Collins' writing is more mature and restrained in the later novel, and yet there is still some melodramatic silliness, and if the person who witnessed the crime had behaved the way any sensible person would have, there wouldn't have been any mystery at all.

It was made into a BBC movie starring Keely Hawes, which I haven't seen and which I suspect is pretty terrible.  Has anyone seen it?  In searching for a good cover image, I came across a whole blog post devoted to bad Moonstone covers, of which the one pictured above is my favorite.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Ten Books

I was tagged on facebook by two friends to share ten books that have "stayed with" me.  I can't resist a book-related meme, so here is my list.  Naturally, many of the books that have stayed with me are ones I read as a child, but for this list, I included only adult books. So, in no particular order:

  1. Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym.  Because maybe having disappointed dreams isn't so bad after all.
  2. The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt.  This novel about a single mother raising her profoundly gifted son has seeped into my consciousness.  The main character's habit of saying to herself, "Let's think about this rationally..." at the start of every crisis has become my own habit.
  3. My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunkett.  Hilarious story of a young man's quest to seize valuable papers once belonging to Warren Harding.
  4. English Passengers by Matthew Kneale.  The story of how the aborigines of Tazmania were made extinct because of how they were treated by colonists.  Parallel story of a group of religious fanatics who think the Garden of Eden was located on Tazmania.
  5. The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay.  On a superficial level, this is a funny novel about eccentric Brits, traveling in Turkey.  Also contains one of the most compelling arguments for religion that I've ever encountered.
  6. Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  Because Aragorn is such a hottie.
  7. Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell.  Actually, this academic satire has stuck with me because I hated it when I was expecting to love it, so it was a massive disappointment.  It also made me feel stupid because I'd understood it was a funny book and I didn't see what was so funny.  Allegedly, one of the main characters is meant to represent Mary McCarthy.
  8. The Seige of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell.  Fictionalized account of the sepoy mutiny in India in the 1850s.  I'm convinced that J.G. Farrell was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.
  9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I was expecting to be underwhelmed and was blown away by this beautiful novel.  Also, my first exposure to magical realism. 
  10. The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning.  Fantastic series about a young British couple living in Bucharest near the start of World War II.  Has stuck with me because one of the recurring themes is what it's like to be a mousy woman, married to a charismatic man, which I can relate to.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Money Matters

I used to keep track of our spending on tediously hand-lettered sheets of graph paper, which accumulated into a dusty pile, stored under my dresser.  It was a lot of work, but I derived great satisfaction in plotting each month's income and expenditures on a master graph.

Then I entered the workforce full time, and tracking our spending became less of a priority.  I had a general idea of what we could "afford" and our expenses always seemed to fall into that range, so I didn't worry about it, and the stack of graph papers became increasingly dusty and were eventually thrown away.

Over the past several months, I've become dissatisfied with the direction in which my life is headed.  Am I really going to slave away in a cube, in exchange for financial stability, but have nothing to show for it at the end of my life except a giant pile of wine corks and a "Thanks for all your years of service" certificate?  I realized that I didn't even know what our monthly living expenses really were, so couldn't effectively set a savings goal.

Since the end of June, I've been tracking our spending (on spreadsheets this time, not graph paper) and I finally have a grasp of what we spend for variable expenses like food, clothes, household supplies, the dogs, etc.  (A lot.)  Now that I know what we spend, I can get a better handle on where we can cut back--food for sure, and how to save more.

We are always poor in September because of tuition bills and other school-related expenses, and we have some major maintenence expenses looming over us right now.  Remember when my kitchen sink pipe burst on Easter Sunday and leaked water all over the breaker box?  Yeah, me neither, until our A/C kept tripping the breaker and we called an electrician who discovered that the breakers have been quietly corroding ever since.  We need to replace the entire breaker box. We also need an arborist to come over and assess the walnut tree that looms so menacingly over the house and which dropped a massive limb on our roof during the derecho two years ago.  If it's healthy, it will need some serious pruning, and if it's not, the whole tree will need to come down.

Then there's the problem of identifying a goal.  It's much easier to stick to a savings plan if you have a concrete goal.  I would like to do some serious traveling, but that is a bit vague.  Stay tuned, as there will probably be more frugal lifestyle-related posts coming as I try to sort through this.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Made: Amy Butler Barcelona Skirt

I finished my new skirt!  I'm pleased with the fit and construction, (considering it is my first attempt at an adult garment in many years) but I think I made a poor fabric choice.  I was going for the whimsical look of a skirt from Boden, but this reminds me of a hospital gown or a baby blanket or a duvet cover.  It's lined, so the skirt has some heft, even though the fabric is a lightweight cotton.

Phoebe would NOT get out of the way

I'm not sure what I was thinking when I decided that I needed to make the large size, but it turned out to be enormous.  I hate tight clothing and tend to buy things a little oversized, but there is relaxed, and there is ridiculous, and the large skirt made me look like a dustbowl farmwife.  I had to rip out the zipper and remake the whole skirt as a medium.  It was a pain at the time, but when I look back at the things I've sewed and crafted over the years, there has never been an instance in which I regretted ripping out and re-doing my work.  As my dear great aunt, Sister Ellen used to say, "All good knitters rip."  The same applies to seamstresses.

I've already started a muslin for a bias-cut plaid version of this skirt.  I've been wanting a bias-cut plaid skirt for ages.  I used plaid scraps from my fabric basket for my practice version of this skirt.  Wool is expensive and matching plaid just right is intimidating.

I used Amy Butler's Barcelona Skirt pattern, which you can see here.  Or search for the hashtag #barcelonaskirt on instagram to see what other people have done with this pattern.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Charles Dickens' last novel.  He died before he finished writing it.  I included it in my list for the Fifty Classics project because it was suggested that I read it before I attempt to read Drood by Dan Simmons.

I have to say, I really struggled with this novel.  It's not a jolly romp full of interesting characters, like Pickwick Papers or David Copperfield.  The opening scene is in an opium den full of strung-out people.  Is this Dickens or Sid and Nancy?

The novel takes place in the fictional cathedral town of Cloisterham.  Edwin Drood is a young man who is betrothed to a local heiress-orphan unfortunately named Rosa Bud, and even more unfortunately nicknamed "Pussy." Edwin's uncle, John Jaspar, also a young man, is a regular visitor to the opium den and is creepily obsessed with Rosa, who hates him.  The engagement of Rosa and Edwin was arranged for them, and neither one of them particularly wants to marry the other.

Enter Neville Landless and his sister Helena, orphans who were raised on Ceylon.  They arrive in Cloisterham to finish their education and Neville and Edwin take an instant dislike to each other.  There's a drunken fight and a bottle is thrown, which scandalizes the town. Edwin and Rosa amicably break up, and then Edwin disappears late one night after a party.  He was last seen with Neville Landless, and the recovery of two of his prized possessions leads the town to suppose he was murdered.  Meanwhile, creeper Jasper moves in on Rosa, who flees to her guardian in London.  And there the story ends.  All clues point to Jaspar as the murderer (if Edwin was actually murdered).  Although he professed great affection for his nephew, he may have wanted to get him out of the way so he could marry Rosa himself.  He's also the loudest accuser of Neville. 

Thus ended Dickens' writing career. I've now learned (from a google image search) that Edwin Drood was adapted for the stage, and also appears to have been made into a BBC movie.  I will have to look for the movie.  It is not on netflix.

As for the fifty classics project, in which I am supposed to read fifty classics within five years, I am lagging behind.  I am nearly halfway through the five-year period, and I have read only eighteen classics. I have just started The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Playing Hooky

I scheduled a day off yesterday so I could take Seamus to get his braces off and accomplish other things and OH MY GOD it was the most exhausting day ever.  On the weekend, I'm very protective of my time and am willing to spend only a minimum amount of time doing things I don't want to, but on Mondays all bets are off.

I started the day with an athletic conditioning class at the city gym.  I had never taken athletic conditioning before and I was a little apprehensive.  Turns out it's just like going back to gym class.  We started with two laps of the basketball gym, and other cardio activities like jump roping, and holy shit, that was just the warm up.  Then we rotated between different stations; lifting weights or lunging or jumping onto things or running up and down the stairs.  Another torture cardio stint in the gym and then another circuit of the stations.  I was DYING.  I guess my thrice-weekly death march on the stairmaster hasn't been as beneficial as I thought.

I dropped Seamus at the orthodontist and ran a load of wet clothes up to the laundromat (our dryer is still broken) and picked up a replacement electrical plug at Meadowbook Hardware.  The braces were off by this time and I showed Seamus how to replace a an appliance plug.  This was for this fantastic vintage box fan I bought at The Gilded Flea in Harper's Ferry, where we spent the weekend with our dear friends. It is intended for Seamus' bedroom, and the new plug is perfect.

The logo says "Frosti-aire" Check the boss on/off toggle.
Someone named "Elaine Knight" labeled the top of the fan with her label maker.

We were expecting Jon's brother and his wife and kids for dinner.  The last time they came to our house was the disastrous dinner party at which we ruined every single dish.  I was determined that this dinner be a success, so Seamus and I settled on homemade pizzas for dinner, which I can make in my sleep.  (Actually, Seamus made the pizzas for this party.)  I went into CLEAN ALL THE THINGS mode and moved the stove so as to clean behind and under it, and scrubbed toilets and washed the kitchen floor and changed the sheets on my bed and vacuumed and scrubbed sinks and paid the bills and performed the financial gymnastics necessary to pay the college tuition and did all the other things I wouldn't want to waste time on over a weekend.

I tried to work on my skirt--it was my goal to get the zipper sewed in, but the instructions are incomprehensible.  This isn't my first time at the rodeo, people, and I might just sew in the zipper the way that I know, because Amy Butler's method is needlessly complicated.  I also read over sixty pages of The Mystery of Edwin Drood because the only way to deal with this book is to power through it. And then it was back to the orthodontist to get Seamus' retainer.

The dinner was delicious and not a catastrophe like last time and Phoebe only disgraced herself once. It's almost a relief to go back to work today so I can rest.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Something in Disguise

More Elizabeth Jane Howard!  (She of the fantastic Cazalet Chronicles.)  I think Something in Disguise is my favorite, so far, of all of her non-Cazalet novels.  It's set in the mid-sixties, in London.  Elizabeth an Oliver are siblings, and their mother, May, married Herbert after the death of Elizabeth and Oliver's father.  Herbert has a daughter, Alice, from his first marriage.

I don't usually think of Elizabeth Jane Howard as a funny writer, but this book is funny, in a muted way.  The novel opens with Oliver telling Elizabeth that she looks like an "elongated Shirley Temple" in her bridesmaid dress.  Their step-sister Alice is about to marry a crashing bore with an appalling family.  After the wedding Oliver and Elizabeth scamper off to London and live like hipsters, while May becomes involved with "the League" which is suspiciously akin to a cult.  Alice is miserable and Herbert is a stereotypical xenophobic boor.  There's also Claude, Alice's cat.  I love it when animals in novels are developed characters, and Claude makes only a few appearances, but he steals the scene every time.

There is some pleasing plot tightness.  Why is May so ill?  Is the League slowly poisoning her while bullying her to leave them her house in their will?  Will Oliver ever find a source of income?  Will Alice and Claude ever be reunited? If you have read the Cazalet Chronicles and want more of EJH, Something in Disguise is the perfect choice.  It's lighter  than The Sea Change and funnier than After Julius.