Thursday, September 14, 2017

Quick Lit: September 2017

Joining up with Modern Mrs Darcy once more for quick reviews of what we've been reading around here.

Like most bibliophiles, I've got a stack of unread books on my shelf (let's not even mention e-readers), you know, the books you really, truly are going to read some day, or for some reason have only half read (like that page turner the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People). In the past couple of years, I've been challenging myself to read these books, and only keeping them if they are really worth it. Which is my introduction to the two odd choices for this month:

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun
This is a posthumously published work, and consists of two poems in Norse style which bring together the surviving fragments of poems and prose on the legend of Sigurd and his wife Gudrun, fleshed out with notes and commentary from Tolkein's own writings, plus the editing of his son Christopher, his father's literary executor. If you're a Middle Earth fan, a lover of myth and legend or all things Norse, and/ or have a degree in literature, you may love this. Otherwise, it may well seem dry. It took me a while to warm up to the English rendering of Norse style, but I was really into the second poem. This one stays. I would have gone back to re-read the first, but wanted to get through my next choice...


The Complete Kama Sutra trans. Alain Danielou
I bought this years ago because it was on sale and it seemed like an essential part of a book snob's world literature collection. SPOILER ALERT: most of it isn't a sex manual :)  It's actually a treatise on Indian sexuality within the wider context of Hindu culture ( manners, employment, eating betel - lots about eating betel). This version has all the classic commentary and is over 500 pages - and it gets the rare accolade of being one of the few books I gave up on (around page 330). Honestly, it was just... boring. Out the door it goes. I should have given up earlier and re-read Sigurd and Gudrun.

Beatrix Potter: The Tale of Peter Rabbit
This is the first longer book all my children have learned to sit through. Those who think Beatrix Potter twee have probably just looked at her pictures and not actually read her Tales. What is cute about "Don't go into Mr McGregor's garden. Your father had an accident there: he was put in a pie by Mrs MacGregor"? What is cute, though, is hearing my two year old quote large chunks of Victorian English, and hiding his face every time Peter walks round the end of the cucumber frame and comes face to face with Mr McGregor.

Friday, September 1, 2017

7 Quick Takes 58: Where's the Gallows?

1. Gallows humour (n): Humour that makes light of serious, unpleasant, or painful circumstances;
Why I haven't been posting Seven Quick Takes.

At least, that's one reason for my lack of blogging fervour after the summer break. I've remarked before that poking fun at myself and my life is my antidepressant - but the fact is that life has been going pretty well lately, making blogging fodder pretty thin.

2. Our middle child has been thrown into the MMA cage that is public high school - the best of several less-than-perfect options for 9th grade. It's brought back all my husband's not-so-fond memories of being a wimpy geek in a small town southern school. Especially coaches as teachers. The coach who is her science teacher docked her grade for missing school to go Tennessee to witness the total eclipse. Ninety-Eight percent of the emails and voice mails I receive concern football. On a positive note, she sussed out the way high school works in a couple of days, she's taking honors classes, and she even talks to people (this is a big deal for someone who wears her weird introvert badge with pride).

3. Talking of tough cookies, our toddler started nursery school three mornings a week. Nervous does not describe my feelings at leaving a child who screams if I dare walk out of the room. But he loves it. The first day, he barely whimpered. The second day, I carried him into the classroom, and he began to struggle. I thought he was trying to flee - but he wanted down so he could go wash his hands and get on with snacks and playing. These people are miracle workers.

4. And what am I doing with my child-free time? Working out, getting manicures, reading the complete works of Saint Augustine? Actually, I'm working as a freelance editor. I got offered a job just as I was gearing up to conquer my own introvertedness and tout for business. So I get to spend time alone in the house, exercising my brain. Heaven.

5. Even the weather hasn't been cooperating. After last year's brutal, never-ending summer that dragged on into September, we've had surprisingly cool(er) days, where the thermometer doesn't even hit 90. Some early mornings have almost felt like autumn was in the air.

6. The cats, on the other hand, continue their catch-and-release programme to plague us. The rodent migration problem got pretty bad while we were away and not available to patrol our border (aka the cat door). A peculiar smell that arose when we baked led to pulling out the oven drawer and finding that some creature had dragged a large quantity of bedding under the stove and set up house. I swear I could hear squeaking as I vacuumed and sprayed air freshener liberally under the counters. Maybe it was saying thank you.

But that wasn't the worst for me. I pulled a box of photos from the shelf in my daughter's closet and opened it to discover a partly nibbled chocolate. Not just any chocolate: a handmade arbequina and sea salt chocolate from Chococo, our favourite chocolatier in the world (and I don't say that lightly).

Me to daughter: Didn't you notice a chocolate went missing?
Daughter: Yes, but the box was still closed, so I thought I was imagining it.

Yes, the mouse moved the chocolate from one closed box to another.

Husband to me: You thought about eating it, didn't you?
Yes. Yes, I did.

7. And there's always the mosquitoes to save the day. After two mild winters, they're like herds of winged bison on the old American plains. We can't step out of the door without drenching ourselves in deet. I'm surprised a gang of them hasn't tried to fly off with the toddler.

For more quick takes (which I can't promise will be full of black humour), climb the scaffold to Kelly's This Ain't the Lyceum.

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