Tuesday, December 30, 2014

And The Winner Is...

Whoosh.  Did you feel that?  Another year zooms on down the road leaving some of us wondering what the heck just happened.  Am I richer?  Thinner?  Fitter?  Or perhaps a combination of thinner and fitter which I will call "thitter."  Do I see a more peaceful world?  A cleaner one?  Have I been kinder, or have I at least tried?  I suppose it's inevitable that at the close of each year one can't resist the urge to take inventory and tally up the balance sheets of life.  I don't particularly like the exercise and generally avoid it...with one exception!  The books I've read.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, is not only the best book of fiction I read in 2014, it is the best book I've read this year.  No, that's too limited.  It is the best book I've read in many years. I would not be surprised if I learn someone plans to make a "major motion picture" based on it.  Just, please, whoever you are...please do it justice.

Last October I had a bunch of coupons for Barnes and Noble for 20% off that were set to expire.  Since I also have a membership, I get an additional discount plus free shipping when I order books on-line.  The rationale I use is thus:  with a coupon and extra discounts, one is not spending money one is saving money.  Using this rationale, I had a great time saving tons of money by clicking, and entering coupon codes, and applying discounts.  When the books began arriving it was actually better than Christmas surprises.  You might know that feeling:  "Oh, I forgot I ordered that.  How wonderful."

One of those books turned out to be the best book of non-fiction I read in 2014.  In The Heart Of The Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick is based on the 1820 voyage of the whaling ship Essex out of Nantucket, which was rammed by a sperm whale (apparently in a deliberate attack...an event unheard of at the time) and sunk near the Equator in the South Pacific Ocean.  Twenty survivors packed into three small boats with little food, water or navigational equipment.  Only a handful made it home.  I was half-way through the book when I noticed for the first time that it was not only a New York Times Bestseller (something I don't follow) but the cover also announced that it is "soon to be a Major Motion Picture."  After a little checking, I see it is due to be released in a few months.   As a side-bar, if you didn't already know that the whaling industry had terrible consequences for the survival of the species, that and other acts of environmental malfeasance will probably make you sad and angry. Nevertheless, this is a whopping good story.

I read several excellent mysteries this year.  I especially loved The Tiger In The Smoke, an oldie by Margery Allingham, which had me turning pages like crazy.  It was all you hope a murder mystery will be. But, I'll have to give the award to The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley.  Not gripping, not spine-tingling, but well-written and my sentimental favorite since I find Flavia de Luce to be the most refreshing and precocious chemist/sleuth of all time.  Besides, this is the volume in which her long-lost mother, Harriet, comes home.  I had heard it was supposedly the last, but I'm delighted that number 7 will be out next week.  Have I pre-ordered As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust?  You bet.

Although it was not published in 2014, I only got around to reading Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel this year and it gets the award for best historical fiction.  My only criticism of it was I wish it had been longer.  I wasn't prepared to reach the end.  It was that good.

Things That Matter by Charles Krauthammer is a collection of essays and articles written in his brilliant, witty, and insightful style.  Known mainly for his political commentary, Krauthammer is also a psychiatrist which I think gives him a special gravitas in his analysis of people and why they do the things they do.  There is some politics, but he writes so well on a number of subjects:  baseball, dogs, speed chess.  Even if you do not agree with him ideologically, I will bet you will like the guy after reading this book.

I can't remember how I learned about I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. The cover art is awful, so I know it isn't what grabbed me.  I'm happy something did.  The story line, the tight writing, the contemporary subject matter all worked together to create a real edge-of-your-seat thriller.  I was going to loan it to a friend, but am too afraid it won't come back to me.  I don't want to part with it.  I can see a movie on the horizon for this one and would bet money someone has already bought the rights.

The most delightfully fun read was Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple.  I wanted fearlessly quirky, highly intelligent, but somewhat blundering Bernadette Fox to be my friend.  This was an audio book for me and the narrator's voice was perfect.  The wrong voice will ruin it every time.

I read one YA book this year (something I rarely do) but had heard so much about The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier that I figured, "Why not?"  Now that I've read it, if I was twelve or thirteen again, I would check under the bed every night and sleep with the light on, and dead leaves blowing about the house would make me run in a panic.

There were so many good books this year, I hate to pick favorites.  But these really did stand out and I can recommend each and every one of them.

So bring on 2015.  I can hardly wait.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Go Ahead: Challenge Me

The end of the year is breathing down my neck and I find myself glancing over my shoulder at the wreckage of broken resolutions, failed goals and challenges that remain unchallenged.  But I remain hopeful and ready to begin afresh.  Yes, Scarlett O'Hara, you are correct.  There's always tomorrow - or next year (at least one hopes). In six weeks I'll start again to think about painting the hallway, scraping the ceilings, planting a vegetable garden, and getting up an hour before dawn to exercise.  What I will not do is burden myself with a reading challenge on Goodreads.  Or rather, I will not make a blood oath with myself to read a book or two a week.  I will admit the Goodreads challenge is fulfilling in the same sort of way my 401k statement is fulfilling.  As I finish a book and hang a few stars on it, it gets saved in my little "Books Read" bank account.  And as the year wanes, a bibliophile takes pleasure in looking back over the year via the book covers that get lined up.  Or realizing that book was read last year, not this year.  Last year? I could have sworn I read it this year.  Or even more stunning when it happens to me..."I read that book?  I wonder what it was about?"

So, let's say you've set yourself a goal of 52 books in the year.  That's a book a week.  That's doable - especially if you listen to an audio book while driving or during that pre-dawn jogging you mean to accomplish.  Ah...But are we talking about reading The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson or Natchez Burning by Greg Iles?  One could read the Jackson book four times before finishing the Iles.  Or perhaps three Penelope Fitzgerald novels and The Stranger by Albert Camus.  Do I really want to pick up George Eliot's Middlemarch when, at 900 pages, Goodreads will gently remind me that I'm "6 books behind schedule," which may therefore compel me to reach for a graphic novel - just to catch up rather than because I want to read it - all because being behind schedule is anathema to me?  Being behind?  Not making the grade? What - shall I lose the challenge just because I choose to cart around a tome?  It isn't that I don't want to read Camus.  I love Camus; Camus is brief and he is brilliant.  But I also love Victor Hugo and might want to re-read Les Miserables.  

Challenges are fine; they can be invigorating and self-affirming.  And they have their place.  I'm just not sold that a book challenge based solely on numbers is the right place for me to be.  I suppose you can argue that such a challenge encourages people to read more.  But let's face it.  A person who signs up for a reading challenge is probably already someone who reads without any prompting.  Goodreads is, after all, a place for readers.

I will still sign up for the 2015 Challenge when the time comes, but I'll challenge myself to something stress free - 12 books for the year perhaps.  I can still look at my "books read" bank and feel a smug satisfaction with myself as the covers start to add up.

Before the end of the year I would like to finish my little TBR pile which consists of The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, and Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester.  I will most certainly finish the very delightful audio book Where'd You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple but gave up on Among Others by Jo Walton narrated by...I can't remember.  The story was just fine but I could not take that voice for 8 more hours.  Just...could...not.

And, if I do not finish any of them, that will be okay too.  Because there's always tomorrow.  And as we all know, tomorrow is another day.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon

Well, I am already into my stack which includes audio books so I can also run some errands.  This is the third time I have participated in the read-a-thon, which is a very good excuse to let dust settle, drink a great deal of coffee, and not answer the phone.  Hundreds of readers from all parts of the world are taking part in this unique event and I look forward to checking in with many of them and also to cheer them on.

Happy reading!

Sunday, September 21, 2014


I was shopping for a dress.  A dress for my daughter's wedding.  In order to get there I had to pass the book store...honestly I did.  Really.  I decided I could not buy one...more...book.  I made a pact with myself.  Not one.  But...I mean, what's a person to do?  (Oh hush up.)  So, there I was...suddenly finding myself in the book store...and there was Dearie, a biography of Julia Child by Bob Spitz.  And on sale!  Yes, yes, I know.  I need to find the right shoes.  I need to find the right dress.  Sometimes, however, serendipity leads you to just the right book as well.  It's all good.

In the long ago past I was a young bride eager to use her Lenox wedding china.  I was married to a military man, and we lived very simply and frugally.  We made friends with an older couple.  They owned a Lincoln car dealership, had a beautiful home with an in-ground pool and sauna, and ate at very fine restaurants.  Intrepid as I was in my youth, I invited them to what was to be my second "important" dinner party.  (The first was Thanksgiving.  I made a turkey, invited my boss and his wife and the local parish priest.  The bird was lovely and golden brown.  I carried it sizzling to the table with great pride to the hoped for "ahhhs".  My (then) husband proceeded with the ceremonious carving and as he attempted to get through the neck stuffing, he asked, "Did you stuff this with cheese?"  I looked on horrified as he attempted to pull out a melted white strand that looked a lot like mozzerella and which eventually shot out of the bird, catapulted across the room and hit the wall with a loud splat.  It was, of course, the plastic bag containing the giblets.  "Um...gravy anyone?"  Never let them see you sweat.)

And so, for that second dinner party, I turned to Julia Child and my copy of Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, which I received as a wedding gift.  I made Homard Thermidor.  The two lobsters required for four people took up an entire week's food budget.   I mixed and dribbled and sieved.  I worried and fretted.  It was delicious, although I did overcook the lobster.  We ended the meal with Soufffle au Chocolat.  I was dead exhausted by the time my guests left the house, but fell into bed that night with the comforting knowledge that Julia was to be my kitchen salvation.  If I followed her instructions, I could do it.  I did and I have.  Today, without even thinking about it, I brought home chicken breasts and made two exactly as she suggested I should...the way I have been doing them for decades without giving it much thought:  Supremes de Volaille a Blanc (only made without the blanc).  To her, eating was the art as much as the cooking.

My original copy of Mastering has long ago lost both its front and back covers.  Several pages have fallen out and have been lost, a few more are stuck haphazardly into the falling apart book.  Pages are splattered with DNA evidence of balsamic vinegar, clarified butter, and wine.  A few years ago, at a library big book sale, I found another copy for $1.  What a lovely bargain.  It belonged at one time to Darris Plumb, so says her bookplate.  And in the margins dwell her wonderful notations:  "Very good," and at Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons she notes "Betty says this is good."    I didn't trust Betty until I made it myself.  Betty was spot on.

In the early morning of Christmas Eve I make Julia's boeuf a la bourguignonne.  I make it in my Le Cruset rip-off and put in the oven to warm for Christmas dinner.  I make it exactly as she instructs.  I read the recipe and listen to her as she guides me step by step.  No fudging, no winging it.  Elegant enough for that important occasion, and yet easy for the end of a season that has been filled with stress and excitement.  Thank you, Julia.

Naturally, Julia Child is known mostly for her TV shows.  She kept me company when my children were small.  When I was pregnant with my second child, I put my first child down for his nap at 12:00 noon.  It was also the same time The French Chef was aired on PBS.  When I was expecting my third child, I put my two children down for their naps at noon, and there was Julia again.  Like a "big sprig" companion.

Russell Morash, the original producer of her show on WGBH-TV, recalled her voice as being "a cross between Tallulah Bankhead and a slide whistle."  I think a statue should be erected to Mr. Morash.

Since I just brought the book home today I can't tell you much about it or whether I will enjoy it, but I can't imagine not doing so.  And, as another bit of serendipity the movie "Julie And Julia" is playing on television tonight.  My only criticism of which is that they spent time making the "Julie" part of the movie.  How cool would that movie have been if it had concentrated on Julia's life only.  She's the real story, after all.  Well, in reality it will be a love story.  As Paul Child wrote to her before their marriage, "I want to see you, touch you, kiss you, talk with you, eat with you...eat you maybe.  I have a Julie-need."  Whew!  Is it just me or does anyone else think it's getting hot in there?  When I finish Dearie I will tell you all about it.  


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Summer Wine

Sometimes I amaze myself with my inventive genius.  It (my inventive genius) first manifested itself when I was about 8 years old.  I was on my way to ballet class – walking (we were not “driven” places back in those days since families usually had only one of everything:  one car, one television, one telephone) and kids were expected to either walk or ride a bike to get where they were going.  Apparently, my parents did not spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about my being kidnapped.  Considering I never was I guess they were justified.  However, getting back to my story, I was wearing my pink tights and carrying my black ballet shoes slung over my shoulder as I passed by the window of Neisner’s Five and Dime on Cermak Road.  That is when and where my first inventive genius hit.  I stopped and stared at the legs on display.  If you’re old enough you remember those legs.  They stopped at mid-thigh, were bent at the knee with the arch of the foot raised and on the legs were “nylons.”  They were in a chorus line, each encased in a different shade of stocking:  the kind of stocking that had to be held up with a garter belt.  The revelation hit me like a bolt and was so clear that I remember it vividly still.   “Why,” I wondered, “can’t they make stockings like they make my pink ballet tights.”  I should have run home and called the first patent and trademark attorney in the phone book.   Instead, I went to class where I learned the pas de chat, and jete, and grand battement.  And as I blissfully glaced my way across the wooden floor I lost my fortune, my moment, my idea.  Because here is the sad fact:  I invented panty hose at the age of 8.  I was a prodigy; I could have been a contender.  Fast forward many decades later and I am now living in an era when women hate wearing panty hose.   We wear long dresses or slacks or get a spray tan.   Still, panty hose had a good run (no pun intended) and I could be drinking Dom...if only.

I eventually got over it, of course.  Dwelling on missed opportunities sours summer wine, so I didn't.  That is until last month when, as I was watching a PBS program, I leaped out of my easy chair and was very nearly apoplectic.   Part of my distress was the programming.  I don’t watch much television, but there are certain programs on PBS on Saturday afternoon that are “mine.”  Jacques Pepin, for instance.  I was already grumpy because it was that time of year (again and again) when the station decided, in its infinite wisdom, that it was a whiz-bang idea to interrupt their normal scheduling of programs to bring the viewing public “special” ones, the purpose of which are to make you feel like a thief for watching PBS absent making a contribution “to keep these programs on the air”.  The logic of these “special” programs has always escaped me.  It would seem to me that, since people are tuning in to watch PBS with the expectation that they are going to experience – let’s say, Jacques -  it might actually be a good idea to give people Jacques.   Why, if I wanted to see Jacques, would I be more inclined to contribute to PBS if I am not allowed to see Jacques but instead am bestowed the unasked for opportunity to see Dr.  F?  He refers to himself a “nutritarian.”  Cute... very cute.  I have long thought that the FDA’s food pyramid was wobbly and so built my own.  I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian; I make a standing rib roast on Christmas Eve, boeuf bourguignon on Christmas Day, and Turkey on Thanksgiving.  But on an ordinary day I will use one small pork loin chop to make an entire wok of stir fry – enough for dinner and leftovers.  Or a single chicken breast in a large pot of soup filled with vegetables and beans and other good stuff.    I should have written a book about my pyramid – which is essentially the “nutritarian” pyramid.  I could have called it something like the "Gradian Pyramid."  Veggies on the bottom, making up the bulk of the diet, and meat used as more of a condiment than as the center of the plate.  It’s just common sense, people.   So once again I am haunted by panty hose; they chase me in my nightmares – disembodied legs in multiple shades of beige and smoke.  I’m not a nutritionist or a medical doctor but I have a lot of common sense and have lived like a nutritarian for ages.  I just never gave it a moniker.  Had I only known that writing about MY pyramid could have landed me a gig on PBS, not to mention book revenues, I would not have given a fig about pre-empting Jacques Pepin.  Although, he is a whole lot cuter than Dr. F... and he eats butter.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Five Days In London

Do you ever run across difficult people?  That's a rhetorical question because the answer is, of course you do.  Hopefully not too many. I recently took a continuing education course that included exercises in conflict resolution...exercises which, quite frankly, worked in theory but in the real world, forgedaboudit.  Rather than making me frustrated, the real world experience made me ponder the "why" of conflict.  There is always a why; and, if we don't answer that question resolution never happens, the conflict festers, and people hold onto resentment.  The "why" is also the nexus to leadership.

In the most extreme cases, as we can unhappily see every day in the news, "why" can lead to violence, subjugation, and hatred that can last for decades, generations, eons, forever... last so long that the participants can no longer remember the why.  Sometimes the why is a misreading of religious beliefs.  Sometimes the why is a grab for land, power and the wealth that power brings.  But in a more prosaic setting, the why can simply represent a person who feels powerless and unappreciated, or is unhappy with life and envious of someone else.  People are such complicated creatures.  Perhaps that is why dogs are universally loved.

The course also attempted to teach management and leadership skills.  It was this part of the course with which I took greatest issue.  I do not believe leadership can be easily taught, unless perhaps from a very early age.  One may desire the trappings of leadership, including having a loud voice and big presence, and whatever percs come with the job, but still be clueless when it comes to successfully getting people to follow.  Others can lead effortlessly.  I think they are pretty much born to it, although there are certainly exceptions.

Along this vein (yes, I am going to segue into a book) I have been reading Five Days In London:  May 1940 by historian John Lukacs.  May 24 to May 28, 1940 were perhaps the darkest and most crucial days of World War II. They were undoubtedly the most decisive days of the war upon which not only the fate and future of Britain, Europe and the world teetered, but the course of the 20th century itself.

Hitler was winning the war; Churchill was new to the job, having risen to the office of Prime Minister on May 10 following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain.  Out of the gate he did not exactly inspire confidence.  Many people in his own party thought Churchill to be impetuous and hot-headed; those in the opposing party reviled him.  And although a child of the aristocracy, born to wealth and privilege, he could act in a way which made him appear coarse to his peers.

During those urgent five days in May 1940, Churchill's War Cabinet debated whether to negotiate with Hitler or continue to fight on, despite the gloomy outlook.  Hitler was never closer to achieving his goals than during the hours of those days.  And his goals were nothing less than mastery over all of Europe and the annihilation of any group he considered unworthy of existence.  Luckily, he was up against Churchill who never vacillated in his determination that Britain would never give up, regardless of a defeat at Dunkirk, regardless of the fall of Calais.

There are always debates over who should be given the distinction of "Most Important Personage" of an age.  At the end of the year in 1999, Charles Krauthammer wrote:  "It is just a parlor game, but since it only plays once every hundred years, it is hard to resist. Person of the Century? Time magazine offered Albert Einstein, an interesting and solid choice. Unfortunately, it is wrong. The only possible answer is Winston Churchill."  Krauthammer makes the argument that without Churchill being in the right place at the right time, Britain would have capitulated.  It is hard to argue with his reasoning. And equally hard to dispute that we would be looking at the world through a much different prism today without him.

On June 4, 1940 Churchill spoke to the House of Commons:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender....
Yeah.  I'd follow that leader.  He knew and understood his "why."  He was passionate about his why and the why was the source of his strength.

Difficult people?  I would say that Churchill went toe to toe with the worst.   Leadership?  He didn't need a "how to" manual.  And as for conflict resolution, it was a long, hard road but he helped make it happen.  I don't know if we grow that type of leader anymore.  Perhaps he or she is out there waiting to be tested.  Waiting for the right place and right time.  Perhaps there is another giant in the wings, ready for the exact moment when the world needs one.  Perhaps the time is now.  We can only hope.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

All The Light We Cannot See

I read a lot of books.  It has always been a passion in my life.  Many of those books are very good; some are great.  But every once in a while a book will come my way and nothing less than the adjective "magnificent" will do it justice.

How I came to hear about All The Light We Cannot See I really can't remember.  I wasn't familiar with its author, Anthony Doerr.  I knew nothing of the impressive number of prizes he has won for his writing.  Someone must have made a suggestion, given a hint, that settled in my subconscious.  I don't know who to thank; but, if it was you I owe you big time.  It was somewhere around page 80 when I knew, really knew, I held something very special in my hands.

I bought the book in May the day after its publication date and from what I had heard from my now forgotten source, I had every expectation that it would be "good."  It certainly started out that way:


At dusk they pour from the sky.  They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses.  Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles.  Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say.  Depart immediately into open country.
The tide climbs.  The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous.  On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars. 
And with that beginning Doerr slowly peels back his beautifully conceived story petal by petal.  It is written in what an English major would call "non-linear narrative" in that the story unfolds not in chronological order but is deconstructed and then put back together.  In the hands of an artist with the heart of a poet and the technical skill of an rocket scientist, it works.  It works brilliantly.

Doerr opens his narrative on August 7, 1944, when the Germans launch their last big offensive in Normandy, but he weaves in and out of the past.  At the center of the story is Marie-Laure, who lives with her father in Paris near the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, where he works.  She has been blind since the age of six.  When the Nazis occupy Paris, they flee to Saint-Malo to live with Marie-Laure's reclusive uncle Etienne:
Water surrounds the city on four sides.  Its link to the rest of France is tenuous:  a causeway, a bridge, a spit of sand.  We are Malouins first, say the people of Saint-Malo.  Bretons next.  French if there's anything left over.
Three hundred miles northeast of Paris, Werner Pfenning is growing up in Essen, Germany.  He is small for his age and the milky-whiteness of his hair "stops people in their tracks."  Werner is also a genius when it comes to radios...magnetism, electricity, circuits, induction, conduction.  These are his special gifts and they are very valuable to The Third Reich.  Just the sort of boy they can use.  Or is he?

Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel was a gemologist before the war; his particular gift was for diamonds.  There are rumors that the fuhrer has begun to prepare a wish list of precious objects to be gathered from all over Europe and Russia.

The capitulation of France is only weeks past, and already he has seen things he did not dream he would see in six lifetimes.  A seventeenth-century globe as big around as a small car, with rubies to mark volcanoes, sapphires clustered around the poles, and diamonds for world capitals....Where the police confiscated these treasures and from whom, he does not ask.
But von Rumpel has only one true obsession:  The Sea of Flames.

The earth shifts, shrugs, stretches.  One year, one day, one hour, a great upflow of magma gathers a seam of crystals and drives it toward the surface, mile after burning mile; it cools inside a huge, smoking xenolith of kimberlite, and there it waits.  Century after century.  Rain, wind, cubic miles of ice.  Bedrock becomes boulders, boulders become stones; the ice retreats, a lake forms, and galaxies of freshwater clams flap their million shells at the sun and close and die and the lake seeps away....Until another year, another day, another hour, when a storm claws one particular stone out of a canyon and sends it into a clattering flow of alluvium, where eventually it finds, one evening, the attention of a prince who knows what he is looking for.

Marie-Laure, Werner, von Rumpel, the Sea of Flames:  slowly and steadily Doerr weaves them together in an expertly crafted and stunningly beautiful, seamless cloth.  Like a literary version of Ravel's symphony Bolero, it is gently relentless in its tempo.

I predict this for you:  it is a novel that you will find impossible to forget;  it will not leave you.  As one review said, "[I]t makes you think forever differently about the big things - love, fear, cruelty, kindness, the countless facets of the human heart."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Filing Down Rough Edges

"The rough edges of society are often in need of filing down."  That is often-used dictum in many appellate rulings involving cases of intentional infliction of emotional distress.  It is more or less the grown-up version of the dictum heard on the playground, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me."  So, okay.  But even if they don't hurt, at the very least they have the power to make us grumpy.

Two incidents occurred yesterday that caused me to think about those rough edges. I will begin by stating that I don't see (or rather feel) those scratchy bits too often.   I live in a very small city in the American South and, believe it or not, people are generally pretty polite here.  There is an abundance of Yes, Sir-ing and Yes, Ma'am-ing and pardon me, please and thank you going on.  When my children were very small a friend from "up North" called me on the telephone.  One of the kids answered and when asked if I was in said, "Yes, ma'am.  I'll get her.  Please hold."  She asked me, "HOW do you get them to do that."  The answer was simple.  I didn't.  It was just part of the culture and all their friends talked the same way they did.  They heard it in school, they heard it at play.  I imagine it is different in the big cities of the South, like Atlanta for instance, but where I live we're still pretty quaint.  People may caution an errant youngster to "Be still or I'm going to wear you out."  And a teacher might "fuss" at you for forgetting your homework yet again.  But generally speaking it's all fairly benign.

And so, you see, blatant acts of rudeness - which may go unnoticed elsewhere - stick out like a boil on Jimmy Durante's nose here.

It was time for lunch.  I generally don't go out at lunch but yesterday was a beautiful day and I wanted to be out in it.   I figured I would drive over to the new biggest-ever-in-these-parts-grocery-store and check out their deli.  Along a busy stretch of a 4 lane city street I had to stop for traffic.  There was a red light and about 5 cars ahead of me and then another intersecting street.  Stopping before the intersecting street (so as not to block the traffic coming to the right and left) was not only the polite thing to do, it is also the law.  It is a fairly long light but I was listening to an Agatha Christie audio book so the wait didn't bother me.

There was one car stopped behind me and as I glanced in the rear-view mirror I could see him shouting - I presumed to himself - which seemed strange enough. But then he suddenly threw his car into reverse in a screech of his wheels and whipped into the left hand lane, swung around me, made a right turn into the intersecting street and then into a gas-food-mart parking lot.  When he got out, he turned to my direction and glared hard.  He didn't pull up to the gas pumps, but stomped into the mart instead.  He was probably a young man badly in need of cigarettes and I stood in his way for an agonizing 2 or 3 minutes...which I guess can SEEM like hours when one needs a smoke.  What disappointed me most was that he was a soldier.  A part of me - the careless part - the part that doesn't think about consequences before bamboozling my way into something - said, "Go into that market this minute and tell that boy to behave himself.  Especially when he is a representation of so many people who give so much."  The Mom in me wanted to "wear him out."  But when the light turned green my sensible alter ego stepped on the gas pedal and drove on.  It was a small encounter - well, near encounter - and I don't know why it made such an impression on me, but it did and I thought about it several times that day.   And I'm obviously thinking about it again.

The second incident occurred - again - at a traffic light.  This time I was the third car in a line of about 6.  When the light turned green, the first car went through the intersection but the car in front of me was obviously not paying attention.  You won't hear people honking their horns very much around here.  Folks who are stopped behind you will sit for a few minutes hoping you'll wake up.  After they figured you've fallen asleep or died they will give the horn a little "tap" to shake you out of your lethargy.  Then everyone waves..."Thanks"  or "Sorry"  or "Yeah, well, okay"...and goes about their business.  However yesterday one of the cars behind me laid on the horn, which was more irritating than the slacker stopped in front of me, and was so unusual I wondered if the driver might be from someplace like New York or Massachusetts or New Jersey where such things are common practice.  Naturally, the fellow ahead figured it was me and not only flipped me the bird he rolled down his window to do it and flew his finger-flag thusly for a good half-block.  "It wasn't me," I mouthed.  But he sped off in a fit of pique.

These incidents reminded me of something that happened in London a few years ago.  I took one of those big black cabs to the Chunnel station where one catches the channel train to France.  I wanted to tip the cabbie 20% and was trying to make the dollars to pound/Euro conversion quickly in my head.  I handed him some bills and asked, "I'm sorry, what would 20% of the total be?"  I meant well but I must have offended him because he retorted angrily, "I'm a cab driver not a bleedin' mathematician," and took off...zoom...zoom.  I stood in the street watching him go, stunned silent, wondering what I had said that made him so upset.  It stuck with me and I can see it as clearly as if it happened last week.

So, what is my point?  We move about in society minding our own business, usually with the best of intentions - or at the very least no intentions whatsoever - and every once in a while we get snagged by one of those sharp edges.  Like any sharp edge it feels rough, or scratchy, or it can hurt.  It usually takes us by surprise because if we could predict where they lie in wait we could avoid those prickly parts.  Perhaps that is why we remember them.  They come as a surprise - they shock - they bewilder.  We are left without the chance to explain or defend or question or resolve.

I have no idea what the moral of the story is.  Perhaps it's that no matter where you live or where you go, they are out there.  Hopefully not in abundance.  When confronted with them we must remember the words of the inimitable Teddy Roosevelt:  "Speak softly,but carry a big fat file."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

She's B-a-a-a-c-k

It’s Spring! The birds are singing, the jasmine is perfuming the air, the days are warm and sunny and I am ignoring the vegetable plants at the garden store. Oh, sure. They sit there shoulder to shoulder on their newly hosed shelves promising a bounty of luscious ripe beefsteak tomatoes, baskets of plump glossy eggplant, and vines heavily laden with beans…long and deeply green. No.  Fool me once. After last year’s harvest of two eggplant and a yellow cherry tomato I refuse to be conned by the leafy devils. They can just go ahead and break someone else’s heart this season.  I'll rely on the Farmer's Market.

 But flowers! I can do flowers.  Flowers have always seemed fairly independent – just a little watering and a little deadheading and voila.  I had no intention of trotting over to the garden center this Saturday but the thought came to me as I was doing errands that, on such a beautiful day, it was the place that made the most sense.

Years and years ago - what seems now like a lifetime ago because it was - I gardened.  I grew flowers.  I spent every weekend outside planting and pulling and watering and coaxing.   On my birthday I would receive gifts like garden gloves, spades, clippers, sun dials, garden figures.  One day while I was in the garden tending to a mound of Lantana, my next door neighbor ran over to tell me he had seen a hummingbird!  "A humming bird!" he exclaimed.  With my pruners I pointed to the feeder I set up between our yards.  "Yes, they've been invited."  It was a simple encounter, but seeing him so excited made me happy and I've remembered it ever since.  Sadly, I think that was the last year I had hummers come to visit.

Life is fluid and things change.  Sometimes (perhaps often) one gets thrown a curve ball and one's focus has to change as well.  And in all that changing and figuring out and thinking hard and working even harder, little bits of yourself can get chipped away.  It is almost imperceptible because the process is a slow one; but, it is a steady one.  The truth is I had larger problems to solve than leaf mold. As a result the beds got buried under seasons of autumn leaves and eventually gardening gifts seemed impractical.   Oh, every now and then I'd plant something in a pot or two but I never really returned to what I would call gardening gardening.  That full-throttled, hearty digging, compost enriching, all-morning pruning, water soaked dirt fest.  I stopped spending winter days looking through seed catalogs.

The happy news is that caught in time that fragmented and tangential change of course can once again be set right.  It's like waking from a long nap and finding that the light has adjusted.  It is brighter or darker, more golden or more fiery.  Different...yes.  But it is still all around and helping things to grow.

And thus awakened from my nap I spent the morning at the garden center considering the way the violet petunia looked with the chartreuse creeping jenny and debating if the dusty miller could get along with the orange Gerbera.  I felt the pieces falling into place and I was once again on vaguely familiar ground. True, I had forgotten all the Latin names for the plants - something at which I was fairly proficient in the long-ago.  But I recognized their faces and eventually we will become familiar friends once again.  Admittedly it's just a small beginning, but I hope to stick with it.  Outside is such a nice place to be and when I look over the terrain I envision all sorts of possibilities.  Real gardeners are always looking for places to turn new earth.  I just might be signing up for those seed catalogs after all.

I'm also sending out fauna invitations.  I bought a bag of small bird seed (millet and the like) and one bag of Black Oil Sunflower seeds.  Although my feeder is supposed to be squirrel-proof, I saw one very clever fellow hanging upside down by his hind legs and scooping out a pawful this morning.   I am on the hunt for a baffle that will slip over the stand.  I try to discourage squirrels since they are apt to rent out my attic during the winter and are very undesirable tenants.  The cardinals honed in right away.  Who else might come?  In hopeful anticipation I brewed up a batch of nectar.

Coming back to gardening feels good.  Coming back feels right.  And, with enough enticement perhaps the hummingbirds will come back as well.  Perhaps I should hang out a sign, "All Organic and Home Brewed."  It might work.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Marcie And Life

I don't hang around Facebook very much...mostly just to spy on my offspring...but I recently read the post of a dear friend, whose name is not Marcie but that's what I'll call her.  It said, "I love my life.  I hope you love yours..."  I was just about to post a glib response, like "Yeah, I'd love your life too" or maybe "Wanna' switch?"  But I did not.  I did not because I paused and thought about what she said.  I thought about it slowly..."I love my life."  Marcie did not say, "I love life."  We all - well most of us - love life itself, especially considering the alternative.  No.  Marcie wrote that she loves her life.  As I thought about it - and continued to think about it for days - the profoundness of that brief comment settled somewhere very deep.

It lingered.  The thought hovered over my head like one of those dialog balloons and intrigued me so much that I began to ask members of my "team" at work whether he or she loved their life.  Not life, but their life.  "Why...are you dying?" was the first response of a Mr. Smarty-Pants who is in the midst of a divorce, and who then responded, "No, I hate my life right now because I either have to sleep on a friend's couch or live in my car."  Another said he loved his life on the weekends but only if there was beer in the fridge.  Obviously, I was not going to get anything close to meaningful responses from this crowd so I dropped the query and they all seemed very much relieved.  The subject of the conversation changed to something a little more comfortable - I think it was basketball.  Nevertheless, the obvious question - the one I avoided asking was:  Do I love mine?  It's something to think about, isn't it.

I'm not trying to sound all Existentialisty, which, of course I couldn't do if I tried since I remember very little about it from my college philosophy class other than that it made my head hurt.  I do recall something about first existence and then experience...or was it the other way around?  Or was it essence and not experience?  Or none of the above?  In any event, "I love my life" demonstrates a philosophical attitude that is easy to understand if you know the person who holds it.

If you asked her, I do not believe Marcie would ever say her life has been perfect but it is different from the lives many of us live in one important respect:  Marcie really concentrates on doing good.   That is how she lives her life but I'm not sure she goes about it with that intent upper most in her mind.  I think "doing good" might just come naturally to her - like some people can play the piano without taking lessons.  So does looking at the glass half-full.  She reminds me of the phrase, "Getting what you want is not the same as wanting what you have."  And looking back over the years I've known her, I can honestly say that even when things in her life were less than sunny, Marcie has been able to maintain an aura of happiness about her - I guess you could say she possesses that rarest of qualities:  "a touch of grace."  It is fun to be around her and when you part you really do feel better about life - in general and your own.

So, yes, I can see how she is able to say "I love my life."  It's a mighty fine one..mighty fine.

Monday, February 17, 2014

To Everything There Is A Season; And A Time For Every Purpose

A few years ago my sister found a lovely full-color facsimile edition of The Country Diary Of An Edwardian Lady, a nature diary kept in 1906 by illustrator/naturalist Edith Holden who lived in the village of Olton, Warwickshire, England.

Holden began her journal on January 1, 1906 and continued to capture the change of seasons through the use of her keen eye, careful hand, and beautiful artwork.   Not exclusively a diary, as the year progressed she also included a few of her favorite poems (Byron, Burns, Wordsworth, E. B. Browning) and her personal observations of the world around her.  Edith Holden worked as an illustrator following art school and her work has been published in several books, but rumor has it that she never allowed anyone to look at this diary.  And apparently no one did until nearly 70 years after her death when it was discovered on a bookshelf in a country house. I can imagine what a spectacular find that would have been for any book lover!

In 1911 Edith married a sculptor, Ernest Smith and moved to Chelsea.  They had no children.

On March 16, 1920, while she was attempting to gather the buds from chestnut trees, she drowned in the Thames.  She was only 49 years old.

After my sister gave me this lovely diary, I learned that it was a popular coffee table book when first published.  But it is also an inspiration for would-be diarists, journal keepers, bird watchers, naturalists, and just plain folks who like to get outside and observe nature - perhaps even an encouragement to make a record of one's own.

Certainly, few of us have the artistic talent of an Edith Holden, but even without the illustrations, it is delightful to know that on December 27, 1906, "in the paper today it reports that all Britain lies under snow from John O'Groats to Land's End for the first time for six years." Or that on the 30th "[t]he blackbirds and thrushes are usually rather shy, and fly away at the approach of any-one but now they only hop away to a little distance and sit watching with their bright eyes from beneath the friendly shelter of a bush, waiting to go back to their feast of crumbs."

But the promise of Spring is the promise of Spring.  It was so back then, and so it is now.  In 1906, on what would decades later be my birthday, Edith Holden went to Stratford on Avon and "walked to Shottery across the meadows.  On the way I gathered Hawthorn blossom from the hedges and saw fields yellow with Buttercups and banks of blue Speedwell.  The Dandelions were a wonderful sight along the railway cutting."

I would like to have known her and through her diary I almost feel I do.  As it is, I'm not much of a painter, but this might be the year I invest in some brushes and a box of watercolors.  It's never too late to learn, and if this diary proves anything it proves that to everything there is a season.  Edith would approve.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

She Doesn't Care Much For Literature

"She doesn't care much for literature, she just wants to read a good book."  Who said that or something like it?  I read it recently...I don't know...somewhere.  The where and the who escape me.  But when you think about it, unless one is an academic, don't we all just want to read a good book?  It is the reason I read book blogs, and a little of why I write one myself.  It is also how I get myself into a bit of trouble every now and then.

I was looking at my on-line library account this morning and began to realize exactly how out of hand things are getting.

The following Holds are waiting for me to pick up, which I have to do by tomorrow or they will be put back into circulation:

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
Tell The Wolves I'm Home, Carol Rifka Brunt (a copy each of the audio and the paper book)
Lucky Break, Esther Freud

However, after I do pick them up the traffic backup will get very dicey since I already have the following out on loan:

From Time To Time, Jack Finney
Time And Again, Jack Finney (which I am currently reading);
A Pale View Of The Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro
Started Early, Took My Dog, Kate Atkinson
Caleb's Crossing, Geraldine Brooks
The Time Traveler's Guide To Medieval England, Ian Mortimer;
The Summer Book, Tove Jansson
The English Girl, Daniel Silva
Murder is Easy, Agatha Christie (audio)
Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel (audio and my current commute read).

All are due at the end of the month, although I can renew them.  Nevertheless, I will probably return the Jansson and the Mortimer unread this weekend, along with Caleb's Crossing, which I was only going to read for a book club.   I wasn't crazy about Brooks' Year of Wonders and I probably would not read anything else by her at my own choosing.  I will probably return The English Girl, which pains me.  Well, let someone else read it and I'll get around to it this summer perhaps. Silva's books are good beach books.  And Agatha might have to go back since I am fully into Bring Up The Bodies, which is over 12 hours long, I only drive one hour per day, and I drive it 5 days per week.  Easy math tells me it will take weeks to finish it.

Since I'm talking about it, is not Hilary Mantel's writing just exquisite?  I mean really.  Today, as Cromwell was remembering the sounds at Austin Friars, he notes that one of those sounds was "the whisper of ink across a page..."  Can't you just hear it yourself?  Can't you see the quill, and the wooden desk, and the precious paper?  All of that in an economy of words that is nothing short of brilliant.  If my car didn't know the way to work without my telling it how to get there I would probably be in Macon at this very moment.  But it does and I'm here. The frustrating thing about an audio book is the inability to rewind to that precise thing one wants to hear again.  I will probably buy a copy of the book in any event, so I'll be able to find it again.

And, of course, there are the books I own.  I couldn't wait for River of Smoke, the second book in the Ibus trilogy by Amitov Ghosh to be published but held off reading it for so long that I may have to re-read Sea Of Poppies first because I can't remember many details other than the fact that I loved it.  But I didn't find it an easy book to read, so I am not looking forward to diving back in.

I have no idea what made me order The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson right before Christmas, but apparently it was a "must have" and when it came in the mail I had nearly forgotten all about it.  A friend and colleague gave me three thrillers last month which are still on the back seat of my car by authors I never read.  Scott Turow, Baldacci (whose first name I can't remember), and another one whose first and last name I can't remember.   He also gave me The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling that is currently sitting on the floor under my office desk and has been for several months which makes it one less space for the cleaning crew to vacuum. Although I'd like to read them, none are high priority.  I always worry about being asked about them.  Touchy situation when someone actually hands you a book and expects you to read it.

I am expecting the sixth Flavia de Luce book, The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley, to be shipped out to me next week from Barnes & Noble.  [Ah-ha!!  Steve Berry!  That's the one whose first and last name I could not remember. I suddenly did.  Frightening.]  When it arrives I know I'll drop everything else and will probably finish it in a weekend.

I know I need a solid reading plan; but, I would follow it only so long and then someone in a blog would mention something absolutely wonderful...such a good book...a book that you can read read.  You know the kind I mean.  And when they did, I would fly off the handle and track it down with single-mindedness only to find that when I eventually did get it into my hot hands I would be off on another tangent.  It is just so...so...well, I don't have to tell you.  You know.