Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Quick Lit November 2015

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, October 27, 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, October 19, 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, September 14, 2017

Quick Lit: September 2017

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

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

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


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

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

Friday, September 1, 2017

7 Quick Takes 58: Where's the Gallows?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Quick Lit 1: August 2017

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

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

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

Edward Rutherford: Sarum

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

Julia Donaldson: The Highway Rat

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

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

Shirley Hughes: Alfie's Feet

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

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

Friday, July 28, 2017

7 Quick Takes 57: There and Back Again

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

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

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

The girls at Dove Cottage ca. 2011

Same bench, with little brother 2017

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

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

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

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

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

At Old Harry rocks, Studland

With Grandad at Kimmeridge

Guess where?

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