Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Quick Lit 1: August 2017

I'm trying something new, and linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for Quick Lit, short reviews of your and your family's current reading. Here are the two I managed while on vacation (with lots of extra reading time, hurrah!) and a couple of highlights from my toddler's pile of books.

                                Dorothy L. Sayers: Whose Body? (A Lord Peter Wimsey mystery)




A close friend and author has been telling me to read the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries for years, so when this one turned up free on a Kindle deal, I downloaded it for holiday reading. An unidentified corpse turns up in someone's bath; a Jewish financier goes missing - could the incidents possibly be related? Slow beginning, hooked me in the middle, then a long criminal-confesses-all chapter at the end. I'll definitely be reading more in the series, though.







Edward Rutherford: Sarum




Another book I'd been meaning to read for ages, and now that I visit Salisbury practically every year, I finally got around to it. A historical novel of England, 1350 pages spanning 7500 BC to the 1980s, telling the intertwined stories of several families of Salisbury whose fortunes rise and fall across the centuries. There are several centuries between the chapters, which are really long short stories or short novellas, so it's not as daunting a read as it sounds. Being a history buff, and knowing the area, I loved it.







Julia Donaldson: The Highway Rat


"Give me your pastries and puddings!
Give me your chocolate and cake!
For I am the rat of the highway...
And whatever I want I take!"

From the author of The Gruffalo, a rollicking ballad inspired by Alfred Noyes's poem "The Highwayman", which was a classic school poem waaay back when yours truly was a schoolgirl. In this version, the highway rat terrorizes the other animals on the road until a plucky, quick-thinking duck saves the day. Even though he can't understand the finer points, my two year-old loves it and can quote big chunks.


Shirley Hughes: Alfie's Feet




Shirley Hughes is in her nineties now and still writing and illustrating. This book is from the 1980s and endures well. Hughes tells her everyday stories in the simple, rambling way a young child does. I love her illustrations of Alfie, little sister Annie Rose, and family - so busy, ordinary, and comforting.



Put the kettle on, join Modern Mrs Darcy this month and share your own quick reviews.






Friday, July 28, 2017

7 Quick Takes 57: There and Back Again

1. This summer, I resolved there wouldn't be the usual hiatus on blogging in the lead up through to the aftermath of our annual migration to England. I even spent time diligently mapping out possible posts based on our plans. All I had to do was borrow someone's computer while on vacation, and...

But as always, there was just never the time. More so this year, since we took a friend of our daughter with us. Our days were filled with touristy activities, and the evenings with managing an AirBnb vacation for six. Oh, and then I got a copy of Sarum to read. A mere 1350 pages. Ahem. So, once again, five weeks in short takes:

2. Highlights of our trip:  Dove Cottage (Wordsworth's home), Hill Top Farm (Beatrix Potter's home), Kew Gardens, Stonehenge, long hikes, our toddler being old enough to have a blast at the beach, introducing our guest to fish and chips and London transport.

The girls at Dove Cottage ca. 2011


Same bench, with little brother 2017


3. Highest light: The hub cap diamond star halo award goes to a chance encounter with pop history: On our way to Barnes station one day, we passed a strange little shrine - which turned out to be to Marc Bolan of T Rex, who was killed in a car crash on that very spot. No really, that was my highlight - I am a big Marc Bolan fan. Plus, graves and glam rock - a winning combination of two of my favourite things.





 4. Lowlights: finding out that we and our luggage didn't fit into the car we had booked, and having to move up (and pay up) to a van. Driving said van along tiny one-lane English roads (terrifying - and I wasn't the driver), squashing in a bunk bed with a toddler, not getting to see many friends and family for scheduling reasons, having to come back :(

5. Lowest light: Jet lag coming back to the US. Everyone says it's worse the other way, but I beg to disagree. I swear it gets worse the older I get. Plus, I have to deal with a toddler's jet lag as well. One week later, and I'm still pretty tired.

6. Random things you have to explain (or attempt to explain) to someone who's in the UK for the first time: when a bus is actually a coach, lemonade isn't lemonade, Ascot Ladies Day (or, why are so many women at Waterloo station wearing stupid hats?), why we swim in the sea when it's freezing cold, what a summer fete is, why there's someone called Nelson at the top of that column.

7. Still tired, so I'm totally cheating with a few photos from the trip.

At Old Harry rocks, Studland

With Grandad at Kimmeridge

Guess where?

Pull on those glitter platform shoes and stomp over to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum for more quick takes.


Friday, May 19, 2017

7 Quick Takes 56: Vintage Mother 2.0

Well, almost. Random reflections on surviving two years.

1. I don't know whether this is a gender difference, but Alcuin takes everything I say much more literally, even the way I say it. I've been making an effort to talk slowly and clearly about everything he does, and the result is that he gives us a running commentary on his life in the third person, pronouncing each word as if it were its own sentence, as in, "Alc. Put. On. 'Oots. Go. Outside." But I feel I've done something worthwhile when he says, "It. Reading. Time. Mummy."

2. He doesn't quite consume my every waking hour any more. There was that magic moment when I noticed he was preoccupied with his own game, so I took my cup of coffee and sat on the sofa watching him... and actually got to finish it in peace. I'm looking forward to the happy moments when I can zone out while he quietly writes on the walls.

3. On the other hand, he consumes more of my sleeping hours, or at least sleeping space. After being the only one of our children who preferred not to co sleep, he moved into our bed, simultaneous with weaning himself practically overnight. Bed-sharing etiquette is another matter. At first, he wanted to sleep on my head, and when I told him to sleep on the pillow, he put that on my head and then lay down on me...

4. Because, as I joke, he was born two. Except sometimes it doesn't feel like a joke. We have about 0.02 seconds to meet his demands before all hell breaks loose. Thus he also gets the dubious prize of being our only child who had (has) serious tantrums, as in screaming for an hour. In between, he's the cherub he appears.


"I'm not coming out til I get my way."

5. And I'm getting thinner. My boobs and stomach no longer exist in the same plane; my hips may not be what they were in 2014, but at least with all that planking from cheesy yoga videos, my arms are like logs. Small logs, but logs.

6. I'm totally confused as to what age I am. Sometimes I know what a teenage mother must feel like. I drive past a wine bar in the afternoon and think that could be me, sitting out with my friends, if I didn't have a baby. (Not that it actually could, as there isn't a bar within walking distance of my house.) And I admit to a little jealousy as I see women forging ahead with empty nest plans while I'm making potty training plans. But they won't have anyone at home to teach them how to use the iPhone 20.
Then again, I've learned the hard way not to use my age as an excuse after hearing a little voice chant, "Too. Old. Mummy. Too. Old." (My older, and wiser, husband, taught him to say, "Dada. Young. And. Fit.")

7.  Lastly if you're aiming for a sophisticated minimalist lifestyle, a toddler boy really helps. He'll destroy half your stuff, and you'll be so sick of continually tidying up the other half, you'll throw that away too. It's a wonder our furnishings aren't down to two balls and a pile of sticks.

And I'm calling this one: St. Elizabeth with St. John the Baptist 2017 because St John is one of his middle names (you need more than one if you're going to marry Princess Charlotte) and because Elizabeth was old when she had him.



For more takes with better parenting, hop on over to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum.




Friday, May 5, 2017

7 Quick Takes 55: My Family and Other Animals

Yes, I totally stole the title from Gerald Durrell - apologetic book review below. A bestiary of takes from our beast-ful house.

1. Look at this picture. A flying squirrel. Small, cute, cuddly, right?



Not when you're lying in bed at 5:30 am and IT JUMPS ON YOUR HEAD.

Because, yes, that is the sort of life I lead with cats who have a catch and release hunting program. (The jury is out on whether this is better than their "Partially eat it and leave guts on the rug" program.) FYI, flying squirrels are experts at scaling almost any surface to try to escape. And that includes you. The above-mentioned culprit ran up and over me about three times while I was chasing it around the bedroom.

2. My husband happened to make a joke about a recipe calling for lizard tongues. I pointed out that we have lizard tongues - we just have to catch the two enormous lizards living under our fridge, courtesy of Odie, our male cat. And I'd like to take the opportunity to point out again that throwing out a wriggling lizard tail is still gross. I did eventually catch one of the pair, but it took a little courage to grab it because it was really big. I mean, not komodo dragon big, but big enough that I thought it could bite me pretty badly - and it tried. That thing felt like a living muscle.

3. And what says Easter like a bunny - or two? Maundy Thursday, Hecate brought in a baby bunny that we eventually cornered in a closet. And another one a week later. At least bunnies don't jump on my head or want to eat me. I'm not sure how she gets them through the cat door.

4. To get away from cats (which is what half the fauna in our yard wish they could do), let's turn to this:



My teenage daughter found this baby mouse in the yard. And yes, I know she should have left it there to see if the mother came for it, but it was too late once she'd brought it in - and I expect it was dropped there by a cat anyway. We spent several days feeding it formula with a dropper; my daughter even set her alarm for 3am every night for a feeding. But, just as it seemed like the little mouse was going to make it, it passed away. A mix of sadness and relief there.

5. I've had Ameraucana hens for eight years, and I thought they were all blue/green egg layers, until I caught one in the act last week - laying a pink egg. I'd thought those belonged to one of my Buff Orpingtons. It's never too late to learn something about your chickens.

6. Talking of poultry, I was out in the yard with the toddler this week, watching a duck bounce comically across the grass after a butterfly. "Look at that silly duck!" I said. Then she caught it.
From the look on Alcuin's face, that's one more item he'll be discussing with his therapist in twenty years' time.

7. But if you REALLY want hilarious insanity that features all creatures great and small, I recommend My Family and Other Animals by British naturalist Gerald Durrell (published 1956). It's a memoir of the years his widowed mother took the family to live in Corfu in the 1930s (apparently cheaper than staying in England). I first read it in school - and have read it more than once since. It's one of a handful of books that make me laugh out loud. You will especially like it if you're an Anglophile and fan of eccentric British folk.


Fun fact: my brother auditioned for the part of the young Gerald Durrell in the BBC TV series when he was about 10. My parents said it was because he loved animals, but I think it was because my mother wanted a holiday in Corfu. Maybe if he'd got the part, my middle-aged friends would now be posting photos of him on FB instead of that Poldark guy.

For other links, hop or fly on over to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Book Review: Thomas Becket by Frank Barlow



What do you know of Thomas Becket? Maybe you've heard that some king or other said, "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" and a bunch of knights immediately set off and offed the poor archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral.

If you've got a little more history under your belt, perhaps you recall that Thomas and the King (probably a Henry - there were so many of them) were close friends until Henry made Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury in order to have a yes man in the top church post. Unfortunately, Thomas got an attack of conscience and started acting like a churchman, until [see above].

The latter was pretty much my recall, so when I resolved to follow the trend of picking a patron saint
for the year, I decided that 1) it should be an English saint and 2) there should be a decent book about him/her. Frank Barlow's biography is a new edition of the 1986 original, published especially for the Folio society. It's a traditional history book rather than the journalistic or novelistic biography that we expect nowadays. He tries to present a fair summary of the available evidence, and to make the context clear for readers who don't have a lot of medieval history. This means that in parts, the book lags. I felt pretty confused by all the tangents he went off on at the beginning, until I decided that I could read for the big story with a clear conscience. The couple of chapters on Thomas's exile are also a little tedious, but probably not as much for us as they were for Thomas's clerk Herbert of Boshom, who complained of their time in an isolated monastery that he was stuck between monks and a pile of stones.



And to be fair, it's a hard story to tell. Imagine a game of human chess where the principal pieces can both make moves and be played by other pieces. That about sums up the situation in medieval Europe. In England, we have a church still establishing its authority, not only in relation to the crown, but internally, as various bishoprics still dispute primacy (significantly, whether the archbishop of Canterbury has authority over all other bishops). The crown itself is in the shaky hands of the new ruling Angevin family under Henry II. Across the Channel, Henry has also to manage his lands on the Continent, which he rules in various capacities, and negotiate his relationship with Louis VII of France, alternately his ally and enemy, who also happens to be his wife's first husband, his overlord, and father of his son Henry's wife. Throw in a split papacy with a pope and anti pope, vying for supremacy and alternately courted and shunned by secular powers according to their political needs, and you get a taste of the times. It's complicated.

So in one way, the story is never just about Henry and Thomas but about the pan-European power struggles of Church and state. And yet in another it is: two extremely proud men, close companions as King and High Chancellor, who become fatal frenemies, neither willing to concede to the other. I came out of the book thinking that for Thomas, death was not too high a price to pay to be the victor in their quarrel. And essentially, he was. He became the celebrity saint England craved to rival those on the Continent; Henry is barely remembered unless it is in the context of his redoubtable wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, or the famous and infamous sons who rebelled against him, Richard the Lionheart and John. (Until, of course, an even prouder Henry crushed both his tomb and the power of the Catholic church in England.)

So does he live up to his hagiographies? No: during his exile, the English church became denuded of the leaders it desperately needed as bishoprics sat empty, and he quarrelled with the important men remaining. True, he 'reformed' his life somewhat, but mostly in the sense of conforming to a monastic rule of life, and an attempt to improve his sadly lacking formal education. He went to his death still disputing with the king he had once mentored. Thomas is the saint who should never have been one.

On the other hand, there are plenty of us who need a saint like that ;)

Thomas's shrine at Canterbury

Friday, April 21, 2017

7 Quick Takes 54: Vintage Mother: bodywork

OK, now Lent is over, I can talk about vain and fleshly (not to mention fleshy) things. Please forgive the ragged editing - it's been a long week with a restless toddler and orphaned mouse...

1. I've mentioned before that, after (very) late baby number three, I've been left with a mummy tummy for the first time in my life. For months, I was halfhearted about it. I had plenty of excuses: I needed to eat enough to keep up my energy mothering and breastfeeding a toddler; my body was going to hang onto those extra pounds for safety until he weaned.  And I was getting a little slimmer. I no longer felt like Nurse Gladys from Open All Hours (I'm not sure if US readers ever got that series - it's an early David Jason classic).

Just grin and suck it all in...

2. Back to the story. My best excuse was that I was pretty sure I had split abs because why else would my stomach stick out so much? Fed up with hearing this for the umpteenth time, my teenage daughter ordered: "Suck in your stomach." She gave me a poke. "Your abs aren't split. Do sit ups."

Out of the mouths of babes and teens with no filter, as they say...

3.The basic plan was obvious. Less food and more exercise. Except I love to eat and dislike exercising. I'd been walking the toddler about five mornings a week, and doing yoga stretches several evenings, but it was time to take it up a notch.

I began by digging out an old DVD for a "body resistance workout" which doesn't use any equipment. The instructor's style is part friend, part sergeant major. He says helpful things like, "If you're already exercising, you could do three sets of fifteen repetitions." I can get up to about five repetitions total of some of the exercises. Stamina is over rated.

4. 'Relief' came in the form of a subscription to Amazon Prime and their free exercise videos. Granted, most seem to be cheesy and cheap, and actually shot in someone's living room, but since I'm exercising in mine, I can't complain. But stamina is still over rated. As is a washboard stomach.

5. Part of the overhaul included admitting my eyesight was getting fuzzier and heading off to the optician, whom I hadn't seen for years, and apparently wasn't seeing any better. Plus, we had spare money in our Mediflex account to be used up before the tax year was out. I overspent it by about double, but came out with a very nice pair of new glasses. Out of curiosity, I put them on for the drive home, and my first thought was, "How am I still alive?". I mean, who knew that cars weren't blurry round the edges 100 yards ahead?

6. To help things along, I ignored the "Don't give up chocolate" argument floating around the Catholic blogosphere and gave it up for Lent anyway. And when it for to Easter Sunday, I suprisingly wasn't chomping at the bit - or the chocolate bar. But just because, I ate my way through an Aldi's bar of dark hazelnut chocolate over two days, supplemented with Cadbury's mini eggs. The first day, I had a raging headache, the second dizziness and a little nausea. I had to admit the blindingly obvious: I had broken my addiction to chocolate. That's depressing.

7. And did I mention that either I've got tinnitus or my hearing's getting less sharp too? Sorry? Didn't hear that...

For more altruistic takes, jog on over to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum.


Friday, April 7, 2017

7 Quick Takes 53: Travels: Cambridge Capers

1. We barely had time to unpack and reclean the house after a week in Texas, when it was time to hop on an aeroplane and visit our eldest daughter at MIT. We had our first stay in an AirBnb, a quirky little nineteenth century cottage tucked back from the street, a couple of blocks from Massachusetts Avenue. By we, I mean the toddler, husband and I; our teenage daughter got a little taste of the college experience by staying with her sister at WILG: an MIT Independent Living Group (the W is for Women's). They manage the house, cook communally, prepare to change the world - and apparently paint well, too: here's my favourite mural from their house:



2. I'm no expert on American cities, but I grew up just outside London, and Cambridge has a distinctly different atmosphere. The lack of middle-aged people was immediately noticeable. Plenty of young people - students, of course - and many young families. Strollers everywhere - more than I even see in an average British town. And then there were the older people who hadn't fled to the suburbs. Mostly a little crazy. And I say that in a non-perjorative way, since I've spent most of my adult life around eccentrics. But really, the place was teaming with people who seemed to be a little unhinged, generally in a harmless way.

3. I didn't see one obese person, a total contrast to Mississippi. I suppose that's in part because the city is so walkable. On the other hand, the squirrels in Boston Public Garden had derrieres that wouldn't look out of place in Walmart. They were slow, too. This created lots of squirrel-catching excitement for the toddler. Where we live, out in the country, the squirrels are lean, mean and fast because that makes the difference between being alive and being chilli.

The ducks are pretty slow as well.

4. We went shopping down Newbury Street, just off the Public Garden, in the cause of what I'm copyrighting as "Upscale Frugality". Which is to say, my husband wanted to buy a pair of "For Life" Doctor Marten's shoes. Yes, a lifetime guarantee. Of course, if you grew up in London in the eighties, Doc Martens mean one thing only. This has given me endless opportunities for skinhead jokes, which about makes up for having to listen to John Donne jokes.

Alcuin had a lot of fun choosing from the toddler styles  - he just couldn't decide which shade of pink he preferred.

"Do my feet look big in these?"

And I haven't been able to get the Alexi Sayle Dr Martens song out of my head ever since...



5. There are so many things on our Boston/MA to-do list. Visiting the Fine Arts Museum, hopping around the harbor islands, whale spotting, a side trip to Salem... but we have a toddler in tow, so discretion etc. etc. Instead, we took him along to the New England Aquarium, a good place to huddle from the freezing rain that was trying to turn into a squall. Predictably, he was fixated by the penguin enclosure. At the beginning of the visit, he could manage to say "pen" - by the end it was "peng-neng". On our way out through the gift shop, he grabbed two plush penguin chicks (one blue, one bright pink) off the shelves and ordered, "Pay." We managed to distract him from that venture into capitalism... and then his sister went and bought him a penguin anyway. Grrr. Some call them soft toys, I call them dirt and dust gatherers.

6. Yes - snow! A whole weekend of snow!! We haven't had snow in Mississippi for two years, so I was pretty excited. Not so Alcuin. We took him out to play, but after ten minutes, he waddled over to the door (which is all he could manage in that snow suit) and declared, "Cold. Inside."

"Someone needs to turn the air conditioning down."

7. On the flight home, we were making a somewhat turbulent descent into Atlanta, when the flight attendant announced, "Prepare for landing.. please take a moment to locate the exit nearest you, bearing in mind it may be behind you." I think my heart and stomach switched places. Every plane I get on, I know I'm going to die, and this time I was going to be proved right. I spent a couple of minutes starting at the sleeping baby in my arms contemplating eternity... but then noticed no one else was panicking. I suppose she'd just gone into auto pilot on the announcements (excuse the pun).

So now I'm back in MS, where it's 50 degrees hotter, but at least I'm alive. For more quick takes around the US, and sometimes the globe, travel on over to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum.