Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Books to Re-read

I have been working my way through a massive book list for years.  It is now sixteen pages, and I am continuously adding new books to it.  As I read, I rate the books by highlighting the text with different colors.  Purple means "loved it; definitely reread."  I'm thinking of taking a break from reading anything new and spending some time re-reading all the books designated as such.

Here's a selection of books I considered to be re-readable (linked with Amazon affiliate links).  Let me know if you've read any of them!

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor  Another novel about aging.  Elizabeth Taylor is one of my favorite writers.

The Cardboard Crown; A Difficult Young Man; Outbreak of Love by Martin Boyd.  An excellent series about an Australian family.

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson. Another great novel from Australia.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman.  Funny and thoughtful essays about books and reading.

About a Boy by Nick Hornby.  I can't help it.  I loved the movie too.

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay.  Eccentric Brits travel in Turkey.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson.  Story of a British family in the WWII era.

The Falling Boy by David Long.  Beautiful, spare prose about a small town on the high plains.

The Singapore Grip, The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell--one of the best writers of the 20th century.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys by Elizabeth Savage.  Honestly, I can't remember what I loved about this one.  Has anyone read it?

The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott.  Fantastic series about the break up of the British control of India.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.  This book was such a surprise!  A lovely German novel.

Captain Horatio Hornblower by C. S. Forester.  The first three (in order of publication) and best of the Horatio Hornblower books in one volume.

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood.  Life in Berlin in the 1930s.

The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning.  These books are the BEST!  A young married couple lives in Bucharest at the start of WWII.  Through the trilogy, they flee various countries, one step ahead of the Nazis.  Also a movie, starring Emma Thompson.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton.  More strong literature out of Australia.

Cordelia Underwood: Or, The Marvelous Beginnings of the Moosepath League by Van Reid.  Very silly, but there's something about it.

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake.  Something special for fantasy fans.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset  Chronicles the life of a Norwegian woman of the middle ages.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell.  A condemnation of the middle class.

Adam Bede by George Eliot.  A shocking scandal in a small country town.

All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz.  Sorry, I can't remember much about this one either.

Do the Windows Open? by Julie Hecht.  I loved these short stories because the characters share my neuroses.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The miracle of flight

Air travel is similar to childbirth, in that everybody loves to share their war stories: delays, shitty customer service, draconian policies, rude seat mates--all of these things will have your audience nodding in sympathy while bursting to tell their own stories.

Myself, I've never had a truly terrible airline experience (except for the TSA agent in Philly who screamed at one of my daughters and called her a "retard") but overall, I would rate my time in airports somewhere on the mildly inconvenient-to-mostly satisfactory continuum.

One irritating thing about airlines is their imposed petty social pecking order, unknown anywhere else in the commercial world.  This is partly evidenced by the special boarding lanes.  Not only are first class passengers allowed to board first, they get to use a SPECIAL BOARDING LANE.  Most airlines have the priority lane and the regular lane, but United Airlines actually has four distinct lanes.  Then, also on United, once you've achieved altitude, they make a point of welcoming aboard all their first class-star alliance-muckety muck passengers, while ignoring the rest of us.  Then there's the obnoxious curtain that separates first class from coach.  It's not enough to get more comfortable seating and better food, you also get a polyester shield from coach cooties. Airlines: you're running a business, not a caste system.

Once, waiting for a flight from Madison to Atlanta, a couple was standing at the opening to the priority lane because apparently it was very important that they publicly assert their first class status.  It wasn't even close to boarding time, but they spent the whole time standing there, with facial expressions that showed their outrage at being exposed to the gaze of the loathsome creatures who fly economy.  But guess what happened?  The gate agent announced that the first class bathrooms on the plane were out of order and first class passengers would have to use the coach bathrooms.

Biggest eye roll on an airplane?  A Delta airlines flight in which we were told we would be getting a "complimentary" safety demonstration.

Philadelphia, Chicago, and Newark seem to be the top contenders for the worst airport in the US, at least among my narrow east coast acquaintance.  To me, Chicago seems the most chaotic, Newark the dirtiest, and Philly has the most incompetent staff.  A couple of weekends ago, we had a layover in Philly on our way to Buffalo.  After landing, when we arrived at our gate, I noticed a lonely black duffle bag, sitting on the tarmac, presumably from whatever flight had occupied the gate before us.  The baggage handler unceremoniously tossed it onto the cart intended for our flight's luggage.  Poor, sad duffle bag!  It probably got a free flight to Buffalo.

Turbulence.  I know it's a normal part of flight, but I hate it.  On that same recent trip to Buffalo, when we were en route from Richmond to Philly, it was a bit bumpy and we were flying through clouds (another thing I hate) and a woman across the aisle from us said, "I see flames!"  Of course she was mistaking the flashing red lights on the wings, reflecting off the clouds for flames, but even so, what an idiotic thing to say on a plane.

On that same trip, as we left Philly, heading for Buffalo, the flight attendant announced there would be no drink service because of turbulence.  It was actually a very smooth flight until we began our descent into Buffalo, where the winds were gusting to 50 mph.  Suddenly, it was as if the plane were attached by a string to a stick being batted about by a demented three year old.  I dug my nails into my palm and cranked out Hail Mary's.  The turbulence didn't stop until we were on the ground.  Stepping out of the plane (it was after midnight and there was no jet bridge) the wind wrapped my hair around my face and I had to blindly grope my way down the stairs.  Once safely on the ground, I couldn't stop laughing--partly from hysteria, partly from gratitude at being alive, and partly because it was so hilarious to have left Richmond at a balmy 68 degrees and arrive a few hours later in a howling blizzard.

Sometimes, though, the view from the sky is lovely.  On that same trip to Buffalo (which spawned this post--we spent an entire weekend doing little but sitting around in airports) as we took off for home, I was keen to see Lake Erie from the air, because this winter it had the thickest ice since 1977.  As always, when taking off from Buffalo, you fly west across the city and turn once you get to the lake, and there it was.  The picture below was taken in January, 2014, but when we saw it in early April, it was still frozen, as were most of the finger lakes, which we saw as we flew toward Newark.

Lake Erie

Image: NASA

Your air travel horror stories?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: The Sea Change

Elizabeth Jane Howard again!  The Sea Change is her third novel, and it's very different from the cozy, gossipy Cazalet Chronicles. (By the way, Amazon US customer reviewers, whose only previous exposure to EJH was the Cazalet Chronicles, HATED this book.  Amazon UK readers, on the other hand, give it good reviews.)

Emmanuel Joyce is a successful playwright, married to Lillian who is frail of health, manipulative, and tortured by the memory of the death of their baby daughter, sixteen years before.  They live with Jimmy, their general assistant.  The story opens as Gloria, Emmanuel's secretary, has attempted suicide.  It probably goes without saying that Gloria and Emmanuel had been having an affair, and that after this performance, she can't be Emmanuel's secretary anymore, although that's moot because he had just fired her.

ANYWAY, in addition to now needing a new secretary, Emmanuel is also searching for someone to play Clemency in the New York run of one of his plays.  He hires Sarah, a clergyman's daughter, and they all go to New York to search for Clemency.  Incidentally, since "Sarah" was also the name of the baby who died, they change the new secretary's name to the wildly inappropriate "Alberta" so as not to upset Lillian.  After New York, they all go to Greece, so that Emmanuel and Jimmy can train "Clemency" away from the eye of the media.

Each chapter is divided into four sections, narrated by each of the four main characters.  Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote in her autobiography how difficult she found writing to be, and I can understand that after reading The Sea Change. It must have been a lot of work to get the thoughts of these complicated characters onto paper.You should read The Sea Change if you are a devoted fan of EJH.  I loved The Cazalet Chronicles, but The Sea Change shows more of EJH's depth as a writer.  You would also like The Sea Change if you're in the mood for a highly introspective novel about glamorous people in the 1950s. 

Edited because apparently, if I publish from the blogger app on my tablet, my posts don't appear in feedly.  I have been challenged in sharing my posts lately because for some reason, this site has been flagged for sexual content by my employer's censors.  I was in the habit of publishing my posts after I got to work (I write them at home, just take a few seconds to publish at work) but now I can't even access the link to paste into facebook.  I thought I could get around it by publishing from my tablet, but apparently not. Sorry about the off-topic rant, but when do I ever write about sex?  I seriously would feel comfortable reading any of my posts out loud to my grandmother.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

In which Phoebe goes to school

Phoebe is six months old now and has become very unruly, so we enrolled her in a basic obedience class.  She is pretty challenged when it comes to obedience.  She's very bright, but like most hounds, she's more interested in going her own way than pleasing people.

What do you MEAN by these so-called "commands"?

When we switch to a new skill in class, the trainer will use one of the dogs in a demonstration. Phoebe LOVES to be the demonstration dog and every time the trainer approaches the center of the room and raises her hand for attention, Phoebe will stare at her intently, her whole body quivering as if to say, "Pick me! Pick me!"  (Demonstration dogs get extra treats.) And she often is the chosen one, whether because the trainer likes her or because she is seen as needing extra help, I can't say.

Treat please

Meanwhile, Jon broke his arm so badly that he can't drive, which sucks all around, but also sucks in the dog training department because when working with a dog, it's kind of handy to have the use of both your arms.

We have a long way to go.  She has a deep, baying, "the bloodhounds are coming" bark, which she directs at every runner, bicyclist, or car that happens to cross our path when we're out on our walks, while she lunges at them like a tiger after a steak. It's not aggression, she just has a strong genetic predisposition to chase everything that moves.

Speaking of runners, we take her on runs as an outlet for her energy. I truly can't tell if she loves running or if it is too stressful for her.  She gets very excited if she sees me in my running clothes--evidenced by jumping higher than the ceiling and attacking the drawstring on my running jacket-- but once we get going, it's like she's running for her life, except every once in a while, she'll jump in front of you and stop, so you're constantly at risk of face plant on the concrete.  We do demented sprints through the neighborhood as if we're being pursued by something.

Still likes to sit on Jon's lap
Despite these difficulties, Phoebe is a delightful dog.  One evening we found her intently listening, and actually dancing to the them song to It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  Her wrinkled houndy face is irresistible.

Here she is the day we brought her home.

With her best buddy, Sancho:

Phoebe at the window, watching Grace and Seamus drive away.  She hates to be left behind.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Lark Rise to Candleford

Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson is actually a trilogy, bound in one volume.  The three memoirs within are: Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, and Candleford Green.  Although this is nonfiction, it reads like a novel.

Lark Rise is about life in a tiny rural hamlet in Oxfordshire in the 1880s.  Thompson describes a way of life that was starting to decline and had completely disappeared by the 1930s, when she wrote the books.  Although the focus is on the hamlet itself and all its residents, there is particular attention paid to a girl named Laura, and her family.  Over to Candleford and Candleford  Green focus more on Laura, as she visits the nearby town of Candleford, and later, as a teen, takes a job in the post office in Candleford Green.  Of course, "Laura" is Flora Thompson herself.

Lark Rise to Candleford is not a romantic or sentimental look at cottage life.  Thompson gives us the good, the bad, and the ugly.  It was a time when wages didn't increase for decades, when the poor elderly went off to the workhouse, and children were expected to leave school and earn their own way by age eleven.  It's interesting how the hamlet parents planned their own children's careers with the same intensity that today's parents sign their kids up for SAT prep and fret about college admissions.  An excellent career track for a girl of that class and that time was to work as a servant in one of the more modest households in the area.  This was called her "petty place."  A girl stayed at her petty place for a year, learning how to be a servant, and then found employment as a scullery maid or other low-level servant in a grand establishment.  If all went well, she would work her way up to be cook, head housemaid or housekeeper, an excellent career at the time.  Laura's mother has her heart set on Laura becoming a nursemaid, and eventually nanny and is sadly disappointed when she realizes that Laura isn't particularly interested in children.

The three books together are utterly charming and good to come home to after a long day.  They were made into a BBC TV series, of which I've seen only the first episode of season one.  I recall that I thought the show was just OK, but I have added the rest of the disks to my netflix queue.

A good choice for anglophiles and those who enjoy quiet, rural things.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Domestic Matters

I've said before: you can have kids and dogs or you can have nice things, but you can't have both.  Case in point, our couches: within hours of their delivery from the furniture store, someone spilled chocolate pudding on one of the arms.

That was years ago and we still own the chocolate pudding couches and three dogs + four kids have caused them to deteriorate to the point that I don't want to have people over.  I was starting to think about buying new ones, when I was inspired by an article in the February, 2014 issue of Country Living, in which someone slipcovered a thrift store couch with painters' drop cloths.  What really arrested my attention was that the owner replaced her couch's back cushions with euro squares.  My couchs' back cushions were a real problem because after repeated washings, they had gotten out of shape and were bulbous, unwieldy and uncomfortable.  They were the reason I hadn't slipcovered the couch years before, so realizing I could just throw them away and get a new back was really liberating.

Decorator fabric is expensive, especially the amount you need to cover a full size couch and matching love seat.  The largest drop cloth at Lowe's cost $31 and provided enough fabric to cover the loveseat and a portion of the couch.

Here's the couch before, and this picture doesn't really do justice to how dirty it is.  I have washed the cushion covers many times, and once, rented an upholstery cleaning machine, which turned out to be a futile operation.

I have slipcovered furniture before. It's a pain in the ass, but it's not rocket science.  We've all seen Project Runway, right?  You just use your couch as a dress form. I did the love seat first and it took weeks and I still have to cover the seat cushions.  The couch came together in a single weekend.

I basted the trickier seams with the pieces still pinned to the couch.  To pipe or not to pipe was something I debated with myself at length and I went so far as to buy cording and cut several miles of bias strips, but ultimately decided it wasn't worth it to go to all that effort to class up what is essentially a couch-shaped dog blanket.

I bought 24" square pillows for the back, and originally intended to cover them with the drop cloth fabric, but changed my mind and used black and white ticking from some old curtains I had in my scrap basket.  The yellow throw pillows are from Target.

Is this perfect?  Does this look professional?  Is this the couch for the rest of my life? No, but it means I can delay buying new couches for several years and my guests won't be afraid to sit on my furniture. (More importantly, I won't be afraid to sit on my furniture.)

Now that my sewing machine is officially out of hibernation, expect to see more sewing projects!

Also on the domestic front, I started the process of repairing the walls in the hall and picking out paint colors.  All the dings in the wall below show that this is the spot where we always struggle to get large items of furniture up the stairs.

Pinterest is full of pictures of rooms with elegant gray walls and white trim.  I really thought gray might be a good choice, but I am not responding to that gray swatch.  To me, it says, "interrogation room."

Actually, I think I hate all of these colors.
We will definitely be buying new switch plates.

Of the colors above, I'm gravitating toward the top right (Kittery Point Green, Benjamin Moore).  The middle color on the right is definitely out, as are the top two on the left. Also on the left, Sherwin Williams' Gardenia, Narcissus, Morning Sun.

Left to right: Kittery Point Green, Nantucket Gray, Prescott Green, all Benjamin Moore. I'm not committed to a green hall, but it seems like a warmer alternative to gray.  On the other hand, I could walk blindfolded into any paint store, grab a random paint chip and whatever I picked would be better than the orange that's on the walls now.

Oh, and the orange walls?  They were inspired by Jacosta Innes' Decorating with Paint and The Thrifty Decorator, so we don't deserve all of the blame. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Dead Souls

I have always loved browsing through bookcases--I can even become mesmerized staring at my own bookcase.  Growing up, I spent a lot of time gazing into my grandfather's bookcases and one book in particular impressed me as being the most gloomy book ever written.  Dead Souls isn't exactly a cheerful title, and the author's name, Gogol, reminded me of Golgotha and the Stations of the Cross, and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary and All Souls' Day and purgatory and other dismal things.  But then someone told me that Dead Souls is hilarious, which was a relief, for some reason. 

So I added it to my list for the fifty classics project, and it's not as hilarious as everybody says, but neither is it gloomy.  It's set in Russia, in the early part of the 19th century. Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov arrives in a small town, accompanied by his valet and coachman.  Serfs were counted at infrequent intervals by a census taker, and their owners were taxed for them.  Imagine how vexing to have your serfs die on you before the next census and to have to pay taxes on so-called dead souls!  And here's Chichikov to the rescue, kindly offering to buy up the dead souls and relieve their former owners of the tax burden.

The landowners, although they can't resist unburdening themselves of their dead souls, are suspicious, and Chichikov has some sticky times, not helped by the intemperate habits of his servants. Of course, he is running a scam and plans to use his acquired dead souls to procure a large loan for himself.

I believe Gogol intended this book to be a general denouncement of Russians, and there are plenty of greedy, stupid, and corrupt characters, and digs at the incredibly top-heavy Russian civil service institution.  What I found the most interesting was the glimpses into Russian middle class domestic life, and manners although this is a very man-centered book, with few female characters.  I think this is the sort of book you need to read twice in order to pick up everything you missed on your first go-round. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but Dead Souls is probably a good choice if you've decided to enhance your exposure to Russian literature and don't know where to start.