Friday 15 December 2017

Quick Lit December 2017

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for short reviews of our current reading.

It must be the stress of Thanksgiving and Christmas creeping up on me (and other little things, like mice falling from my ceiling) that drove me to comfort reading this month.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
I dip in and out of this book frequently. Those who describe Kondo as some sort of decluttering nazi probably haven't read her book. Yes, I like it for the reassuring message that I can get my life into some sort of order, but I'm also enthralled by the peek into Japanese culture, and by the memoir of an introvert woven into its pages, lit by little sparks of understated humour. I would have re-read her other book, Spark Joy, but, after searching for a while, I remembered I'd let my husband send it off to Decluttr [sic] in a tidying fit. Queue irony.

Miss Marple: The Complete  Short Stories by Agatha Christie
Christie is in the limelight again, with a lavish remake of the Murder on the Orient Express moviewhich reminded me that I've only read one Christie novel in my life, and it was so long ago, I can't even remember what it was. A short story collection worked well for Thanksgiving travels. These are mostly literal armchair mysteries, where guests share crime stories that are solved by - well, you know who.

Mr Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker
After the emotional trauma of reading The Buried Giant, I needed a story with a guaranteed happy ending, and the ebook price overcame my resolve to avoid buying new books. Modelled on the structure of Charlotte Bronte's novel, this tells the life story of Edward Fairfax Rochester. And yes, you get that famous four-word sentence at the end! I've had a literary crush on Mr. Rochester since I was fourteen, and this novel did not disappoint.

Mr. Putter and Tabby Pour the Tea by Cynthia Rylant
Even my toddler got the comfort treatment this month. The Mr. Putter books, if you don't already know, are sweet stories about an old man and his pet cat. They are intended as beginning chapter books, but the simple sentences and repetition make them lovely read-alouds for toddlers as well.

And since we're part way through Advent:

Advent and Christmas Wisdom from G.K. Chesterton
I've used this book for many years and am still not tired of it. Ligouri Press publishes several books in this series, for both Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter. Each focuses on a well-known Christian writer, and the daily readings consist of a quote, related Scripture, prayer and suggested action. Everything you need for observance and reflection on the season(s) in one little book. I'm on board with the call to canonize Chesterton - Battersea needs its own saint.

We Were There by Eve Bunting
It's the eve of the Nativity, and nature's unloved creatures - the scorpion, toad, spider, cockroach, snake and rat, obey the pull to traverse the desert to that stable. Brings a lump to my throat almost every time.

Merry Christmas, Yule, Saturnalia, Hanukkah, or whatever you celebrate this time of year, and may 2018 be full of good books.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

Quick Lit November 2017

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for quick reviews of books we've read over the past month.

Untangled by Lisa Damour
You know an author is on your side when she jokes about your teenage daughter straining her eye-rolling muscles. Untangled is a mix of psychotherapy, scientific findings and practical advice to help you help your daughter negotiate the often choppy, sometimes stormy, seas of the teen years. I appreciated that the gist of the book was that yes, your daughter is being normal when she acts like a little witch, but yes, she still needs you to insist on models of decent behaviour. A recommendation from Modern Mrs Darcy.

Everything that Remains by Joshua Fields Milburn, with interruptions by Ryan Nicodemus
I was out of luck trying to get this via interlibrary loan (or I was away for the summer when it came in), so when I saw that The Minimalists were offering this and one of their other books as a free PDF download via Gumroad, I took the chance. If prose can be purple and spare at the same time, this book is it. The writing is a little offbeat (after all, they did co-found Asymmetrical Press), but if you are already familiar with The Minimalists, you might enjoy this more in-depth memoir, or narrative non-fiction as Josh calls it. For a how-to on minimalism, try the other free download, Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life.

The Buried Giant by Kazuro Ishiguro
My first spontaneous reading choice in a looong time! The first two books on my list were missing from the library shelves, so I thought, OK, I need to finally tackle The Remains of the Day - but Ishiguro has just won the Nobel prize for literature, so all his books were on display and that was gone. With a toddler rapidly losing patience, I grabbed this. The story is set in post-Arthurian Britain, where people seem to have lost the capacity to hang onto memories. An old couple, Axl and Beatrice, feel the pull to leave their settlement in search of the son they can't fully remember and haven't seen for years for reasons they can't recall - and whose whereabouts they are not certain of. Along the way, they gather unlikely companions and a wider quest emerges, with themes of memory, justice and mercy. I haven't read Ishiguro before, so I wasn't ready for the slap in the face that is characteristic of his work. I found the novel intellectually satisfying but morally unsettling.

Frog went A-Courtin', retold by John Langstaff
This is the Caldecott Medal version of the ancient folk song, where the author weaves together various versions of the song to form a story with a happy ending. My toddler's summary of the story of Frog's courtship of Miss Mouse? "The frog had a sword and horse and went to fight." Ahem...

Happy Thanksgiving to those stateside. Hope you get some time to escape the crowds and read!

Friday 27 October 2017

7 Quick Takes 59: Vintage Mother 2.5

1. Wow, two and a half years already. Being geriatric parents, we have a variation on, "Where did I put my car keys?": we glance at our toddler and think, "Hey, there's a small child in our house. Where'd he come from?"

2. Trying to be responsible and teaching your child the proper word for everything leads to interesting conversations at the breakfast table. As in, when he looks across at our (neutered) cat and asks, "Where's Odie's scrotum?" Son, I think Odie's been wondering that, too.

3. I'm fond of remarking that, with a toddler and teen in the house, I daily feel caught between Scylla and Charybdis - and sharing that thought certainly got my teen exercising her eye-rolling muscles. And now I've learned that toddler and teen brains are indeed developing in the same way, with the emotional part growing way faster than the logical part. I feel totally vindicated in my suffering.

Looking vintage in his sister's 18 year-old pyjamas

4. Talking of facts, I've also confirmed that yes, running around after a toddler was what was knackering me. He's in nursery school three mornings a week now, and I spend the time sitting on my backside freelance editing, and I no longer have days when I'm exhausted for hours.

5. Sometimes, when I'm clearing out the bathroom cupboard, I look at those two boxes of hair dye I bought when pregnant, nigh on three years ago. Part of me wants to throw them out and admit I'm just going to be grey. Part says, go on, try it, you might look younger. The other part is afraid I'll just be an old mother with a bad dye job.

6. Being the oldest mother in my toddler's nursery class, I have to take my joy where I can. Last week, I was talking with another mother about upcoming class pictures. "I can't decide what she should wear," she said.
"I have a photo of his sister in that same class, " I quipped. "Eighteen years ago." Moment of silence.
"Oh my," was all she could manage, presumably while wondering if her doctor's number was on speed dial so she could book her sterilization NOW.

7. I've also got enough experience under my belt to realise that children do not freak out over things we think are traumatizing. Seasonal case in point: we were in the local costume shop with my daughter and her friend, when Alcuin came across a rooster costume with a photo like this:

He stared at it for a short while, and announced, "I fink de rooster has eaten de man."

On that note, enjoy whatever you call the end of October, and totter on over to This Ain't the Lyceum for more Quick Takes.

Thursday 19 October 2017

Quick Lit: October 2017

Modern Mrs Darcy seems to have skipped October's Quick Lit, but I'd already written the linkup post, so here it is:

This year, having given up my job teaching literature, and thus not having to spend all my reading time on what I was teaching, I decided to put more serious effort into rebooting my personal reading life. I was really chuffed when I reviewed my list about mid year and realised I'm averaging two books a month. Some Modern Mrs Darcy Readers may get through 200 books a year, but I'll be celebrating if I make it to a dozen!

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke
It's the early nineteenth century, and no practical magic has been performed in England for several centuries. A pair of enthusiastic theoretical magicians uncover a practical magician, Mr Norrell, living in seclusion and persuade him into the public eye. Eventually, he takes on a pupil, Jonathan Strange, whose talents quickly match his own. But while Norrell's mission is to re-envision magic for the Age of Reason, devoid of dangerous faery influences, Strange becomes obsessed with England's magical past and the father of English magic, the Raven King, whose realm once included the north of England. If you like fantasy, magic, historical fiction, alternative history, Jane Austen, and/or regency novels - all wrapped up in a long read (this is over 750 pages), then this may be for you. I finished it in two weeks - my husband said he felt like a widower.

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
What? By whom? That was my reaction too. My husband bought this Edwardian tragicomic novel for our collection of Folio Society books as the heroine has his family name. But he's never read it, so I thought I should give it a go, for my "off my shelf" reads. Zuleika Dobson has risen from penury to riches by dint of a mediocre conjuring talent and an bewitching beauty that literally has men swooning three deep at her feet. When she arrives at that bastion of male bastions, Oxford University, to visit her grandfather, Warden of Judas College, the doom is set for all the young men who live under the shadow of the dreaming spires. I pretty much smiled all through the novel. This novel is in the vein of the better-known Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, so if you liked that, or enjoy Victorian/Edwardian novels, or were a Downton Abbey fan, you might appreciate this send-up of the British upper class. But keep a dictionary at hand - this is a vocabulary workout too :)

A bonus book this month - I found a copy of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rys on the freebie table at our library. It's been on my mental to-read list for decades. I only wish I'd got to it sooner. Set in Rys's native Carribbean,Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester's mad wife, mainly from her point of view. It's a fast, intense read, having the emotional force of Jane Eyre without aping it. Definitely recommended for fans of Charlotte Bronte's novel.

A Flower Fairy Treasury by Cecily Mary Barker
We pulled my daughters' Flower Fairy books off the shelf for my toddler son. Cecily Mary Barker  lived in Croydon, where I went to school (it had an, ahem, more genteel reputation in her day). You could pretend you're teaching your toddler fine art, botany, folk lore, poetry, and vocabulary building all in one. Or you could just admit you read them 'to your child' so you can look at the pretty fairy pictures.

How do Dinosaurs Say I Love You by Jane Yolen
Dinosaurs and fairies - why not? Most "I love you" books are a little too cutesy for me, but this is truly funny - dinosaurs who act just like toddlers, and have human parents. You and your little velociraptor will appreciate it!

Still almost hitting 90 degrees here, but I hope it's actually autumnal where you are - happy October reading!

Thursday 14 September 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 1 September 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 15 August 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 28 July 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 19 May 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 5 May 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 25 April 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 21 April 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 7 April 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.

Wednesday 5 April 2017

Off My Shelf: John Donne's Religious Imagination

John Donne's Religious Imagination: Essays in Honor of John T. Shawcross. Edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain. UCA Press, 1995.

This book has been sitting on my shelf for over a decade. I selected it as a gift from my in-laws because John Donne is one of my favourite poets, but somehow I never got around to reading it. Every time I had a clear out of my collection, I'd think, "I should throw this out, I've never read it", but it stayed put. Finally, this year, I rolled up my reading sleeves, decided I'd tackle it and then pass it on.  (Plus, with Lent coming up, it could double as spiritual study.)

As is obvious from the title, this is an academic book. It was published in the mid nineties, when interest in seventeenth century religious history and literature was gaining new momentum, in particular after Neil Keeble's groundbreaking work on English nonconformity. This was also the time when I went through college accumulating too many degrees in English, so it was a trip down academic memory lane for me.

Some of the essays are hard to approach if you aren't familiar with the style and genre of certain types of literary criticism. An example: "That the originary decree should escape the optics of presentation is consistent with orthodox neoplatonic convention" (p. 187). I had to read that whole paragraph several times before I understood it (and realized I disagreed!). Other essays, however, are accessible to the average educated person. Despite the fact that the book is out of print and academic trends have moved on, it isn't outdated as the central questions remain unanswered. Was Donne's conversion from Catholicism to the Church of England wholly sincere? Was he at least in part always a recusant (a Catholic who remained loyal to his faith after England broke from Rome)? How much did his views change over the years as he settled into a life as an Anglican preacher? Is the line people draw between the erotic poems of his youth and the religious poems of his older years really indelible? This gathering of opinions makes for a lively debate from the comfort of your armchair.

As a long time and repeated reader of Donne, the essays gave me new insights into poems that are old friends, and encouraged me to tackle others. For example, I've always thought that the end rhymes of "The Flea" (such as "this" and "is") were merely convention, but a contributor suggests that they refer to the Eucharist ("This is my body"). I've now finally put Donne's sermons on my to-read list. Making me want to read further is a mark of a good book, but unfortunately it keeps my list never-ending.

And, of course, reading it gave my husband several opportunities to ask, "Are you done with Donne?" Ha ha, thank you dear, John Donne made that joke four hundred years ago.

Wilt thou forgive that sinne where I begunne,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sinne, through which I runne,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For, I have more.

(from "A Hymne to God the Father")

Friday 24 March 2017

7 Quick Takes 52: Travels: Lone Star Leg

1. After eight months when I barely left Starkville MS, we're on the road twice in March. We spent last week in Texas, visiting family and friends - and managed to take no photos. I am the world's worst photo taker in both senses of the phrase, which is ironic given the time I spent working as an archivist. So here's a quick word picture -  Texas: it's like where you live, but bigger. Unless you live in Texas.

2. My mother-in-law was eager to tell us about the new Aldi open in Lake Dallas. I wasn't really interested in shopping there, since I've been going to Aldi in England for several years, and I was trying not to come back with a stuffed car. Then, I happened to read a recommendation for their moisturizer on the UK blog Shoestring Cottage blog. It didn't seem likely they'd have it in the US, but it was worth a look. So off we went... and the moment I stepped in the door, I was facing all the European foods I get in the UK. For some reason, I didn't think Aldi in the US would have German food. So I danced around the store, buying up chocolate (which went to the back of the cupboard for after Lent), cookies (which didn't), and German muesli (no added sugar - hurrah). Oh, and the face cream was there too - at $3.60 a pot, a fraction of the cost of other Q10/ retinol creams.

3. I could waltz round because there were only two other shoppers there. A phenomenon we noted this trip was that there's no one in the supermarkets. We decided - and a friend confirmed - that people in the Dallas area must just eat out all the time.

4. In addition to Aldi, I got a thrift store score. Friends took us to Thrift Giant, which was. And it happened to be 50 percent off everything day, so the place was heaving (unlike the supermarkets). I snapped up a skirt that looked to be good quality for $1.50. When I checked the label (Dahlia Collection), I found it was a British company, and skirts on their website sell for up to 60 pounds ( $75). That and the German muesli made the trip worthwhile.

5. We took two days to make the eight and a half hour drive there and back because we thought we wouldn't survive with a toddler who hates journeys longer than about twenty minutes. Plus, we're old and tire easily. On the way back, we finally spent a night in Vicksburg and visited the battlefield, which is a national park.
How to make your husband choke on his hotel breakfast: Ask, "So which side won, apart from the Americans?"
It turned out to be a trick question, because technically the Confederates won all the battles since every attempt to take Vicksburg by force failed. The Union won the siege when the Confederates surrendered.
Talking of tricks, the park weirdly turned out to be a Union memorial, funded by donations from the north, with huge monuments to the northern troops and a few markers signalling the Confederate battle lines.

Whoa. I want this toy.

6. The other fruit of our trip: Well, we had to keep the toddler occupied somehow, so he got many more hours of Youtube than he ever gets at home. As a result, he still can't pronounce his own name, but he can utter "Maisy Mouse" with perfect enunciation.

7. Now I'm trying to catch up before we leave for Boston/Cambridge next week to visit our eldest. Temperatures there are currently still dipping into the 30s, which sounds a heck of a lot better to me than the almost 90-degree day we had here this week.

For more Quick Takes around the US, and maybe across the world, visit Kelly at This Ain't the Lyceum.

Friday 3 March 2017

7 quick takes 51: Minimalish

1. The other week, we watched Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things, produced by The Minimalists, a couple of endearing best buddies in their thirties - mainly because it featured Courtney Carver of Be More with Less, whose blog I follow. The film began with a series of very short takes which seemed designed to attract the Twitter generation, and I thought I was going to be disappointed. Yet, suddenly, I found myself hooked, even though that format continued, and I knew about most of the trends and arguments discussed.

Even so, it didn't leave me wanting to leap up, throw out all our possessions, and move into a house the size of our chicken coop. As I pondered why, I realised it wasn't because the documentary isn't inspiring, but because we've been editing our lives for months, and we're actually at a plateau that suits our family right now. (Or I'm over that obsession and about to embark on a new one. But let's not go there.)

But we don't all have perfectly organised closets, own only fifty-one items, or live in a 200-square foot house. So here, in all honesty, no styling for photos, is our selectively minimalist life. And when I say "no styling" this excuses my non-existent photographic skills, and the fact that our house was built before most people had cameras or House Beautiful existed, and just doesn't present great angles. Plus the low, blinding Mississippi winter sun photobombed everything.

2. Middle daughter:  This is her Marie Kondo-inspired chest of drawers. Note the hip, one-handle-missing look.

And this is her bathroom before cleaning day. Actually, this wasn't a bad week - I was sort of disappointed.

3. These are all the toys our toddler owns.

OK, there is his "cave". I said I'd throw it out for Advent, but it's still here. Maybe Easter???

Of course, he turns anything in the house, especially kitchen items, into toys. And raids his sisters' old toys, so he's not deprived.

But this is his changing area in a corner of our bedroom. We do cloth and disposable diapers, and he can get through three outfits a day by drooling/ running through puddles/ falling face down in the chicken coop, so I'm resigned to an overflowing area until he's older (not much older, please God).

4. Eldest daughter has basically moved out so her dorm room is her affair. I keep hinting at her clearing her stuff out when she comes back for short stays, but she never gets around to it. One day, I might break down and 'edit' her room for her. My mother-in-law eventually boxed up each of her three sons' things and sent them on. 'Our' box is unopened in the attic. Sometimes we debate about what's in there. Maybe one day we'll look.

5. This is our closet. I've Konmarie'd it twice, but I still haven't got it down to only ten items made of organic, naturally dyed, sustainably produced cotton. Those are mostly my clothes on the bottom rails (with some of my husband's at the back) except for four pairs of leggings in my underwear drawer. Since it's a tiny space carved out of a 1907 house, and impossible to photograph with a cell phone, I counted my clothes out of curiosity: it came to about 65 items. I've no idea where that comes on the minimalism scale. I have ten pairs of shoes/boots. Two are summer and evening dress shoes, which I guess is frivolous (but they're children's shoes, so I didn't spend a bomb). And, of course, there's the extra pair of converse I found in a ditch. My husband threw out three pairs of shoes last time I cleaned out the closet. A fourth, a pair of dress shoes, threw themselves out by coming apart while we were at a posh gala the other weekend.
(Aside. Saying "my husband" is starting to look repetitive. Maybe I'll have to come up with a blog alias. "The mathematician"?)

6. These are our bookshelves. I think this is pretty spartan for two academics, one of whom is an English teacher. (OK, disclaimer: all of my husband's maths books are in his office). I always thought I couldn't give up books, until I read about a retiring clergyman who gave away a third of his collection and explained how spiritually lightening it was. The comment planted a slow-growing seed. A couple of other things helped: when we finally got these built-in bookshelves and put our collections together, we realised we had at least thirty duplicates. And the Mississippi climate took care of a huge number of our older paperbacks - maybe the only thing I can thank the MS weather for.

7. This one you can't see, because I finished digitizing all our photos last month. I was so proud, I allowed myself the treat of throwing out my two pairs of garden shoes with holes and buying one new pair of wellies. I think that counts as being minimalist.

But you know what, working on this post got me itching to get rid of more stuff. While I go to look for something to throw away, why don't you save paper and visit some of the other blogs via Kelly's link up at This Ain't the Lyceum?