Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Ankle Deep

I stumbled on Angela Thirkell by accident while looking for something else at the Alderman Library.  I could tell just by how they looked on the shelf that these were books I was likely to enjoy.  I selected a book at random and saw something in the blurb about how Thirkell's books are a continuation of the Barsetshire chronicles and that she is the new Anthony Trollope and I realized I had stumbled onto something wonderful.  I selected Wild Strawberries, which you can read about here, and added all of Thirkell's novels to my book list.



I read August Folly while I was in Cape Town, but didn't feel inspired to write a post about it.  Ankle Deep is Thirkell's first novel (published in 1933) and it's probably fair to say it's an immature example of her work.

Fanny Turner is one of those annoying people who thinks her misbehavior is cute.  Impulsive, exacting, childish, demanding; one of her favorite activities is finding girlfriends for an old friend, Valentine Esnor.  Fanny herself is comfortably married with several sons, conveniently away at boarding school. Fanny hosts a weekend house party and among the guests is Aurea, an old flame of Fanny's husband.  Aurea is married and lives in Canada but is visiting her parents in England.  Fanny, whose motive is her own amusement and to cause as much irritation as possible, encourages Valentine to spend time with Aurea, while simultaneously throwing Aurea in front of her husband.

Aurea's marriage is unhappy; she is, as  her father states, one of those unfortunate women who has outgrown her husband.  Her husband is described as a basically inoffensive though unimpressive guy, but Aurea clearly loathes him, and so is ripe to fall in love with Valentine, which she does.  Valentine obligingly returns her feelings and what follows is a tortured description of a relationship between two people who love eachother but won't touch eachother.  To be honest, it got a bit tedious.

I didn't really like any of the characters in this book.  Fanny needs a good smackdown.  Her husband Arthur doesn't come into the story much except to roll his eyes at Fanny and pointlessly fall in love with Aurea too. Aurea is a wishy-washy damp washcloth,  has no sense of humor, and is obviously no fun to be around.  I don't know what Valentine sees in her.  Valentine himself is pretty one-dimensional.  Some of the writing is really irritating.  There's one excruciating scene that goes on for pages and pages in which they won't stop talking about how they're going to be late for dinner, and must still dress for dinner.  THEN GO UPSTAIRS AND DRESS FOR DINNER.  That said, Thirkell does a good job of describing (through dark hints) the murky waters of long standing marriages gone wrong.  It was also nice to read a romance about people my own age.  I'm committed to reading all of Thirkell's works, and as I progress, it will be interesting to see how her writing matured.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Another weekend

I feel like every week has four days rather than seven.  Monday/Tuesday is really one massive day, Wednesday kind of hangs out by itself, Thursday through Friday afternoon is another day, and then Friday afternoon through Sunday evening is the fourth.  In case anyone is interested, here's what I did on the fourth day of last week.  Friday, Jon and I went to Brookville for dinner.  I really wanted to try it, but I was also a bit anxious, assuming it would be snooty. It turned out to be friendly, with an interesting menu.  We shared some small plates: collards cooked in bacon with a lovely soft-cooked egg swimming in the pot liquor, a plate of small sausages with maple syrup and a creamy mustard sauce, fried oysters, and an enormous biscuit filled with goat cheese and red pepper jelly.  Our table was by the window, overlooking the skating rink, so it was like sitting next to a giant music box, with all the skaters perpetually circling.  Overall an enjoyable evening, though we went to Harris-Teeter after and did the week's grocery shopping.

Saturday morning, to mix things up, I skipped Barre class and walked to the gym for TRX instead.  Are you familiar with this?  You hang from long straps attached to the wall and use your own body weight as resistance through various moves.  It was definitely a good core workout, and more upper body than I usually get. "Hang" makes it sound scary, but you always have either both feet or both hands on the ground.

I jogged/walked home and emptied out the pantry and found the source of the moths that have been plaguing us; a forgotten bag of rye flour at the far back of a shelf.  I made an inventory of everything before I put the items back--a tip I learned from The Frugal Queen.  I feel like a dolt for not figuring this out on my own, but I definitely waste money buying things we already have because the pantry is such a mess and I never know what's in it.  Now I can plan meals around all the random bags of black eyed peas and other stray items AND find a use for the two cans of sweetened, condensed milk that have been lurking back there for who knows how long.  And that was quite enough activity for one day.  I spent the rest of Saturday knitting and reading Ankle Deep by Angela Thirkell.

Sunday, fearful I'd have another confrontation with the self-appointed squeaky machine monitor, I skipped the gym and went for a run instead.  I rarely run these days.  I had become such a slave to my running schedule that it wasn't fun anymore.  This time, I took a camera and stopped to take pictures along the way, and didn't berate myself for walking breaks. I got to the railroad crossing just as a train was approaching. I love it when that happens, as long as I can get to the other side in time.



I ran into Riverview Cemetary and back, and took a lot of not-very good pictures.  At home, I made Kimchee.  It won't be ready to eat for a few days.  I've been reading about the benefits of fermented foods and I attended the Kimchee-making demonstration at the Charlottesville Vegetarian Festival a few weeks ago.  It's a pretty simple process and I needed a use for the big bag of hot pepper powder leftover from Seamus' Korean cooking kick. More knitting and reading, and now here we are on the backside of Monday/Tuesday with another weekend to look forward to.
How was your weekend?


Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Milking the Moon

I had never heard of Eugene Walter, but Becky recommended that I read his memoir, Milking the Moon, and I added it to my list and now here we are.  It turns out that Eugene Walter was an absolutely fascinating person, and his memoir, "as told to" Katherine Clark, reads as if you are having a conversation with one of the most fabulous and entertaining people ever.



Who was Eugene Walter?  As far as the arts are concerned, he seemed to have done a little of everything: he wrote poetry and fiction, did theater set design, was an actor, and designer, literary journal editor, a fantastic cook and supreme party-thrower.  He was born in Mobile, Alabama in the 1920s, and his descriptions of that city make me want to get on a plane and visit, immediately.  He refers to the gulf coast south as "North Haiti." After a stint as a code breaker during WW II (he was stationed in Alaska) he got a job in a bookstore in Manhattan, developed quite a knack for meeting the right people, and his literary career inched forward from there.  (He also may have invented performance art after an elaborate tableau he and his friends put on in the cafe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which enraged the staff but was talked about for decades.)



Walter never really warmed to New York and impulsively moved to Paris in the early fifties, around the time he turned thirty.  Once again, he seems to have fallen bass-ackwards into friendships with rising stars of the literary and arts world.  He helped found The Paris Review and after several years in Paris, moved to Rome to edit Bottegh Oscure, a literary magazine run by Princess di Bassiano Caetani--and it is just like Eugene Walter to work for a princess.  It was in Rome where his film career began.  He acted in two of Fellini's films, and many other films besides, and wrote the song "What is a Youth" for Franco Zeffrelli's Romeo and Juliet.  I was stunned to learn that because it's one of my favorite songs from a film.  (If you have never seen Zeffrelli's Romeo and Juliet, you must call in sick to work and watch it right now.)

Eugene Walter is hilarious and it must have been a lot of fun to have been his friend or attend his parties, which seem to have been legendary.  Milking the Moon reads like a conversation and Walter is really good at depicting scenes and images.  I particularly liked the chapters set in Rome, especially when he described his first apartment there, in Trastevere (of course he lived in Trastevere).  This apartment was located at the top of an endless staircase--the same staircase located around the corner from our apartment in Rome which we climed the day we went looking for views from the top of Janiculum. It was kind of thrilling to relive Rome through Eugene Walter's eyes.  Milking the Moon is truly amusing from start to finish.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Squeaky Wheel

There's a squeaky elliptical at my gym.  It happens to be my favorite elliptical because it's at the end of the row and next to a window.  The faster you go, the more it squeaks, and I go pretty fast.  It has been squeaking for months.  It squeaks for me and it squeaks for everyone else who uses it.  I kind of assumed we were all used to it.  It's a gym, not a courtroom and pretty much everyone is wearing headphones anyway.

So Sunday, I finished my elliptical workout and I noticed a woman trying to get my attention.  I couldn't imagine what she wanted from me and I was trying to remember if I'd seen her somewhere before, when she said, "Could you please be more aware of the squeaking noise you're making."  I stood there gaping at her as the realization hit me that I was being publicly chastised for thoughtlessness.  I was perfectly aware that my elliptical was squeaky and I had chosen to ignore it.  To use the elliptical in such a way that it doesn't squeak would mean to barely use it at all and I'm not sure one gym goer has the right to ask another to reduce the intensity of her workout.  After stammering for a second, I told the woman that I would ask "them" to fix it, hoping that would convey to her the fact that  the squeaky elliptical is outside of my control and not my responsibility.

How I wish I'd responded


Usually, I stretch after a workout, but I was so upset I could hardly see straight, plus I sensed that others in the gym were embarrassed and were trying to avoid looking at me.  Were they sympathetizing with me or with her?  I couldn't tell.  Suddenly, I seemed to be in everyone's way.  So I left, but I stopped at the front desk and told them that someone had complained about the squeaky elliptical.  They said that a part deep inside the machine was squeaking, that there was nothing they could do about it now, and that a new part had been ordered.  I felt better, knowing that the gym people knew it was broken, but hadn't felt the squeaking warrented preventing people from using it.

It is deeply upsetting to be scolded in public, especially when you are totally unconscious that you have been doing anything wrong.  Not that I'm convinced that I was in the wrong.  I understand that it's rude to make a lot of noise in public, but since this noise was something outside of my control, and a gym is already a somewhat noisy place, it never occurred to me that it might be seen as rude by someone else.

Do you chastise strangers?  Has a complete stranger ever scolded you in public?

Friday, November 07, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Mary Russel Mitford and her Surroundings

I had never heard of Mary Russell Mitford until I read Virginia Woolf's thoughts about her in A Common Reader.  Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) led a sort of charmed life, and as I recall, the chapter of A Common Reader that mentions her is themed something like "people who lived unfairly idyllic lives."  (The fabulously leisured clergyman James Woodforde is also featured in this chapter.)

Woolf says,
Speaking truthfully, Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings is not a good book. It neither enlarges the mind nor purifies the heart. There is nothing in it about Prime Ministers and not very much about Miss Mitford. Yet, as one is setting out to speak the truth, one must own that there are certain books which can be read without the mind and without the heart, but still with considerable enjoyment.



Charmed life?  Maybe I am being obtuse.  It's not Mary Russell Mitford's fault that when she was ten years old, her father prompted her to buy a lottery ticket on a whim and she won 20,000 pounds (over three million dollars in modern US currency) and saved her father from financial ruin.  It's not her fault that she was intelligent and charming and a good conversationalist and correspondent and always lived in picturesque places and everybody loved her.  And it's certainly not her fault that Constance Hill may have chosen to gloss over the less pleasant aspects of her life when she wrote this book.  Virginia Woolf says,

It is in many ways a great convenience to have a subject who can be trusted to live a long life without once raising her voice.


But I haven't even told you who she was.  Mary Russell Mitford was a writer; probably best known for Our Village, a series of sketches about the quaint country village she lived in for many years.  She was also a successful playwrite and her books were beloved both in England and the United States.  Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings, by Constance Hill, is a charming sketch of her life.  I found this book to be a good comfort read. It's like biography lite, and now that I've discovered Mary Russell Mitford, I'll have to read her books.


Monday, November 03, 2014

Some Incidents of Late

At the gym yesterday, the most appalling movie was playing on the TV that faced my elliptical machine.  It was about this deranged teacher who HAD SEX WITH HER STUDENTS and had a baby with one of them, that was taken away, so she  STOLE A BABY and shot the baby's mother.  The remote was somewhere, but I was too much into a zone to get off the elliptical and find it, so I had no choice but to watch this deranged lady, who stole not just any baby but a SICK BABY THAT NEEDED HIS MEDICINE.  At one point, a woman came into the gym and stared hard at the deranged baby-stealing lady movie and I stared hard at the back of her head, willing her to find the remote and change the channel to one of the usual soothing Sunday morning shows like Househunters, but then she shrugged and got onto a treadmill and I noticed she selected a nature show for the tiny screen on her treadmill.  THANKS LADY.  But I had the satisfaction of watching the deranged baby-stealer get shot by the cops and do some fake-looking "oh-I've-been-shot" body spasms before crumpling to the ground.  Even with closed captioning, you could tell the acting was terrible.

At the deli counter at Whole Foods, a woman was trying to select a cheese.  She had many, many questions about the cheese she was considering, which she related to the deli counter personnel, who answered them patiently. There was only one person working the deli counter.  Then there was the cheese-buying lady, a man whose turn was next, and me.  The cheese-buying lady was oblivious.  It was very, very important that she be as fully informed as possible about this cheese she was considering.  At one point, she and the deli person left the deli counter and walked to a different part of the store. To look at wine?  Crackers?  Who the fuck knows.  The man whose turn was next was visibly irritated.  This pleased me because sometimes I worry that I am just a sourpuss and that everybody else is perfectly content to let self-absorbed people like the cheese lady take full, full advantage of the services of the hapless people at the Whole Foods deli counter.  Everybody else in the world is thinking, "Take your time; I'm in no hurry," while I'm inwardly screaming, "It's CHEESE.  This is a SUPERMARKET. Get OVER yourself."  So the two ladies came back from wherever they had gone and the cheese was purchased and the irritated man got to place his order.  But then the self-absorbed cheese-buying lady returned and interrupted the irritated man's transaction.  (He groaned audibly. He actually groaned.  Thank you, irritated man, for restoring my faith in humanity.)  The self-absorbed lady wanted to thank the deli person because she was so very pleased and certain that she had made the right decision in choosing this cheese, of all cheeses.  CONGRATULATIONS.

I have been trying so hard not to spend money, and I really haven't bought much beyond basic necessities for the past few months.  But now it is time to start Christmas shopping and I am TERRIBLE at Christmas shopping, because I will go into shops and become bewitched by the clever displays that practically force you to buy things and I will buy lots of things, thinking they are awesome gifts and then I will get home and realize THESE PRESENTS SUCK and I will have to go out and buy MORE things.  So yesterday, I started Christmas shopping.  I went to one of those downtown shops that sell nothing but useless items.  I was browsing among the hideous jewelry and tchotchkes when I saw a SOLAR POWERED POPE.  And I could immediately think of twenty people who need a solar powered pope.  A solar-powered pope is a GODDAMNED NECESSITY.  You see?  Marketing.



Friday, October 31, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: The Dirty Life

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball is what I read to reward myself after finishing The Brothers Karamazov.  I was expecting a hilarious book about farming neophytes who don't know an udder from a testicle, but The Dirty Life is something different.  Kristin Kimball is a farming neophyte, who leaves Manhattan to farm in the North Country of New York.  Her husband, however, is an experienced farmer and knows what he's doing.  His vision is to go beyond the CSA concept and provide an entire diet, not just fruits and vegetables, for their subscribers.  The fact that within one year, the two of them took the neglected five hundred acre parcel and using only horse-powered tools, turned it into an organic farm, providing meat, dairy, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and maple syrup for their subscribers is downright miraculous.



Kimball is clear about just how difficult this was.  It took multiple tries to master milking their one cow and getting the milk to land in the bucket rather than soaking her own sleeves.  She had to learn to butcher and can and make maple syrup, butter, and cheese, and care for pigs and chickens and harness their enormous draft horses to the plow. They are in a constant race against the weather, especially in the spring, when everything must be planted on time to maximize the short growing season.  It also wasn't easy on their relationship--they're engaged when they first get to the farm and sometimes it seems like they won't make it to the altar.

I appreciated Kimball's honesty.  Sometimes I think this is what I would like to do--chuck it all and buy a farm-- above all a farm in the North Country, which is Almanzo Wilder territory, and one of my favorite places on earth.  Despite the hard work, there must be real contentment in such a life.  But then I remember how utterly hopeless I am with plants and gardening and manual labor in general.