Friday, September 26, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Sharpshooter Blues

Lewis Nordan's novels aren't the type I usually choose, but when I do actually read something of his, I'm always impressed.  The Sharpshooter Blues is another novel about the little town of Arrow Catcher, Mississippi.  The same characters pop up in several of Nordan's novels and stories, and by now, I've read enough of his novels that they're like old friends.

The Sharpshooter Blues centers on a violent robbery in the William Tell grocery store, during which "two lovely children" are shot to death by "Hydro" Raney (so called because he was born with hydrocephalus) who works in the store.  I know I'd read about this incident in a different work of Nordan's, but can't pinpoint which one.  I think it was one of his short stories and in The Sharpshooter Blues, the incident is expanded into a novel.

Every time I read something by Lewis Nordan, I'm blown away by the quality of the writing.  He is a writer's writer.  The Sharpshooter Blues is tragic and heartbreaking and disturbing, but also hopeful.

Good choice for those who enjoy Southern gothic and dark comedy.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Week in Review

I have really hit a brick wall, as far as blog content is concerned.  In an attempt to keep this dying blog alive, I'll share the highlights of the past week.  What I can remember of them, anyway.

Sunday:  Horribly overcooked my supply of hard boiled eggs for the week.  I am that person who eats hard boiled eggs in her cube, but honestly, our building has such an overpowering fug of mold and damp, I doubt anyone notices the occasional egg.

Monday: "Enjoyed" breakfast egg that had the texture of a car tire, while sitting in cube of dispair and plowing through emails.  I have realized that email is the scourge of the modern workplace.  The amount of time we spend composing, deciphering, discussing,  fuming about, and waiting for replies that never come could be well spent doing something else.

Tuesday: Hostile stare down against driver who refused to reduce his spped when I was in the crosswalk.  One of these days, I am just going to stand still in the middle of the street and see what they do.  After years of commuting on foot, my suppressed rage at Charlottesville drivers has reached critical mass.

Wednesday:  Brilliant morning because I scheduled time off to take Seamus to the orthodontist, which meant I had time to walk to the early morning spin class at the gym and then I ran home from spin class and spent the rest of the day cloaked in virtue.

Thursday: Usual tedious Thursday meetings cancelled due to conference at Epic headquarters.  Also, payday.  Followed the Scottish referendum in a desultory way via twitter.  Saw horrifying "giraffe cake roll" on Pinterest.  If we were meant to eat disembodied giraffe haunch, we would be lions.

Who in their right mind would eat this?

Friday: Went out to dinner with Jon.  I know I'm trying to save money, but by Friday evening, we are both literally desperate for a treat.  We went to Mas Tapas and ate dates wrapped in bacon and filled with apple butter, a phallus-shaped piece of steak served on a flat bread with some rich, unidentifiable sauce, a pumpkin-filled empanada, a sort of Spanish mini Reuben sandwich, and pomegranate margaritas, which almost made up for indignities of the workplace.

Saturday: Several people attended barre class, thank fuck, because for the previous two weeks, it was just me and the teacher.  Washed the dog couch, which involved carrying staggeringly heavy basket full of pillows and slipcovers to the laundromat.  Are the dogs even grateful?  No they are not.

Aside from these things, I spent the whole week obsessing over the disappearance of Hannah Graham. I'm praying that there is another break in this case, and also for solace for Hannah's family.

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.