Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Old Man Goriot

I am just tearing into my list of fifty classics lately.  Old Man Goriot, by Honore de Balzac, was written in 1835 and set in the year 1819.  It's a look at the excruciatingly competitive Paris society of the era.  Think Mean Girls to the 20th power.

Of the inhabitants of Madame Vaquer's Paris boarding house are Monsieur Goriot and Eugene de Rastignac, a young law student.  Goriot is a once-prosperous pasta dealer and Rastignac's family is of modest means, but they have high-society connections in Paris.  Rastignac becomes infatuated with Goriot's younger daughter, who is married to a rich banker, and already has a lover.  She sees Rastignac's social connections as her chance to get into the highest circle of society.  Which is really what this book is about: the machinations people perform, the debt they accumulate, and the private hell they experience simply to be accepted by the cool crowd.  Also an interesting look at the vastly different attitude about marriage in France at that time.  It was pretty much expected that all married people had extra-marital affairs.  One's husband was more like a business partner, so it was necessary to have a lover as well.

I found this to be a pretty depressing novel.  Goriot loves his daughters more than anything, but they reject him because of his humble background as a pasta dealer.  Even so, he funnels all of his money to them, which they waste on gambling and fripperies, while he lives in ever greater poverty.  Even when he is on his deathbed, neither daughter will come to see him; the older because she is negotiating her future financial arrangements with her husband, and the younger because she is hungover and needs to sleep in.  Read it if you want to wallow in your misery.

There will probably be no post next Friday because I am reading The Brothers Karamazov and there is no chance I'll be finished in time to write something.  When I first started writing these book suggestions, I would choose favorite books I'd read in the past, but I'm finding it difficult to remember enough details about these books to write a decent post about them.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Patience is so freakin' excited

So, getting the new circuit breaker box turned out to be less about maintaining the status quo and more about majorly unfucking our electricity, which was so, so fucked and we didn't even know it.  I really had no idea what replacing a breaker box entailed, but at one point I surreptitiously peeked out the kitchen window and saw the electrician grappling with a cable the size of a python.

But at the end, when the electrician proudly showed me our new breaker box, I was quite pleased.  And then he showed me all the ways that our electricity had been fucked.  The connection between the big cable from outside and the box itself was so corroded they had difficulty getting them apart.  The breakers themselves were totally rusted.  Apparently, it's a miracle we had any power at all.  He showed me how someone had stuffed a rag into gaps in the brick foundation behind the connection to keep the water out.  A RAG.  Now I'm pretty sure our breaker box's problems weren't caused by the brief drenching it got when the kitchen pipe burst, but from water seeping in from outside through the rag for the past thirty or so years. I'm not sure how old the box was or if our house even had electricity when it was built originally and who knows when it was wired and then rewired?  We didn't have a ground wire either, but the electricians added one.  The power company still needs to come and inspect it, but we don't need to be at home for that.

I worked from  home, which was lovely, only I had to clock out while the power was out, which was even lovelier.  So I did some general unfucking around the house (i.e. cleaning) and read The Brothers Karamazov until my eyes were bugging out of my head.  And then, to crown what was already a stellar day, our NEW DOORMATS arrived. 

When Phoebe was still a little puppy, she had quite a few accidents on the doormat.  Is that disgusting?  What were we supposed to do, buy a new doormat every time Phoebe peed on it?  So the old doormat was pretty gross and Phoebe is now fully housebroken, so I ordered new doormats, for both inside and outside the front door.  These are no ordinary doormats, these are LL Bean's famed "waterhog" doormats, which allegedly suck every drop of mud and wet from the paws and feet of all who enter.  They were expensive but I think they are going to be LIFE CHANGING DOORMATS. 

Monday, October 06, 2014

Inconvenient Truths

  • It is impossible to reason with someone who doesn't understand computers.
  • The most delectable-looking dessert recipes on Pinterest always turn out to be written in Polish.
  • You can go to Trader Joe's on a Sunday or you can keep your sanity. 
  • The people who design those impossibly detailed Jack-o-lantern patterns are sadists.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch is never going to fall in love with me.

Tomorrow we are having our circuit-breaker box replaced, which doesn't seem to fit in neatly with the list above, except that it is true and it IS inconvenient.  There's nothing like spending a metric ton of money and getting a permit from the city and a fire department inspection just to maintain the status quo.  It's not like our electricity is malfunctioning.  It works fine, except for the one outlet that trips the breaker if we try to plug the vaccuum cleaner into it.

The electricity project, by the way, has nothing to do with my facebook page drama from yesterday, in which I called 911 on the men who showed up at our house, claiming they were there to work on the gutters.  I was at work, but Grace called me to tell me that she was home alone and there were three strange men on the roof so I called Jon and he hadn't hired anyone to work on the gutters, so I freaked out and called 911.  And then the police came and the gutter men had an actual work order and it turned out that our painting contractor from LAST YEAR sent them, which he neglected to tell us.  So that was lovely and everybody was mad at me for not intuiting the situation.

I regret the misunderstanding, but it really was not my fault.  I assumed the gutter guys were running some sort of scam--claiming we'd hired them and then forcing us to pay or something like that, like those guys who won't take no for an answer when they want to shovel your driveway or rake your leaves.  I once had a terrifying encounter with a deranged man who tried to kill my sister and me with a shovel because we refused to hire him, so I think I had a legitimate reason to call for assistance.

    Friday, October 03, 2014

    Friday Reading Assignment: Servants

    Here's some non fiction for a change!  Servants by Lucy Lethbridge is one of those not-too-scholarly social history books intended for the general public.  Downton Abbey fans especially will appreciate it. It covers the history of domestic service in Great Britain, from the late Victorian period to today, with the bulk of the material focused on the Edwardian era.

    And there's so much fascinating material!  I think most of us have seen either Downton Abbey or Gosford Park or similar movies that portray the upstairs/downstairs life.  Downton Abbey definitely glosses over the more unpleasant realities of service, such as the expectation that servants turn their faces to the wall whenver their employers were in the room. Lethbridge includes extracts from the memoires of servants of the day, which show that servant/employer relations varied greatly from family to family.  Also, there was a big difference between serving in the country estate of an aristocratic family and serving for a middle class family.  According to Lethbridge, the middle classes, who had less money and more insecurity, were more likely to treat their servants shabbily.

    The period right before World War I seems to have been they heyday of households with legions of servants: scullery maids, housemaids, parlourmaids, ladies' maids, footmen.  The closer you worked to the family areas of the house, the more presentable you had to be.  Footmen and parlourmaids were often hired for their appearance.  One duke insisted that all his housemaids be at least 5' 10".

    The war threw a wrench into the system as those who had worked in service found opportunities elsewhere, and after the war were reluctant to return to it. This brought about the great handwringing over the "servant problem."  If you read British novels that are set any time after World War I, there are usually references to the servant problem, or else a touchy servant character who does her work poorly and with ill grace but whose employers are comically terrified that she will leave.  The 1930's saw a resurgence of the traditional domestic service system, but World War II, and the advent of labor-saving technology pretty much killed it forever.

    Non-fiction can be tough going sometimes, but Servants is engaging enough to read in bed at the end of a long day.  I now intend to read some of the memoires that Lethbridge refers to.

    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.