Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Charles Dickens' last novel.  He died before he finished writing it.  I included it in my list for the Fifty Classics project because it was suggested that I read it before I attempt to read Drood by Dan Simmons.



I have to say, I really struggled with this novel.  It's not a jolly romp full of interesting characters, like Pickwick Papers or David Copperfield.  The opening scene is in an opium den full of strung-out people.  Is this Dickens or Sid and Nancy?

The novel takes place in the fictional cathedral town of Cloisterham.  Edwin Drood is a young man who is betrothed to a local heiress-orphan unfortunately named Rosa Bud, and even more unfortunately nicknamed "Pussy." Edwin's uncle, John Jaspar, also a young man, is a regular visitor to the opium den and is creepily obsessed with Rosa, who hates him.  The engagement of Rosa and Edwin was arranged for them, and neither one of them particularly wants to marry the other.

Enter Neville Landless and his sister Helena, orphans who were raised on Ceylon.  They arrive in Cloisterham to finish their education and Neville and Edwin take an instant dislike to each other.  There's a drunken fight and a bottle is thrown, which scandalizes the town. Edwin and Rosa amicably break up, and then Edwin disappears late one night after a party.  He was last seen with Neville Landless, and the recovery of two of his prized possessions leads the town to suppose he was murdered.  Meanwhile, creeper Jasper moves in on Rosa, who flees to her guardian in London.  And there the story ends.  All clues point to Jaspar as the murderer (if Edwin was actually murdered).  Although he professed great affection for his nephew, he may have wanted to get him out of the way so he could marry Rosa himself.  He's also the loudest accuser of Neville. 

Thus ended Dickens' writing career. I've now learned (from a google image search) that Edwin Drood was adapted for the stage, and also appears to have been made into a BBC movie.  I will have to look for the movie.  It is not on netflix.

As for the fifty classics project, in which I am supposed to read fifty classics within five years, I am lagging behind.  I am nearly halfway through the five-year period, and I have read only eighteen classics. I have just started The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Playing Hooky

I scheduled a day off yesterday so I could take Seamus to get his braces off and accomplish other things and OH MY GOD it was the most exhausting day ever.  On the weekend, I'm very protective of my time and am willing to spend only a minimum amount of time doing things I don't want to, but on Mondays all bets are off.

I started the day with an athletic conditioning class at the city gym.  I had never taken athletic conditioning before and I was a little apprehensive.  Turns out it's just like going back to gym class.  We started with two laps of the basketball gym, and other cardio activities like jump roping, and holy shit, that was just the warm up.  Then we rotated between different stations; lifting weights or lunging or jumping onto things or running up and down the stairs.  Another torture cardio stint in the gym and then another circuit of the stations.  I was DYING.  I guess my thrice-weekly death march on the stairmaster hasn't been as beneficial as I thought.

I dropped Seamus at the orthodontist and ran a load of wet clothes up to the laundromat (our dryer is still broken) and picked up a replacement electrical plug at Meadowbook Hardware.  The braces were off by this time and I showed Seamus how to replace a an appliance plug.  This was for this fantastic vintage box fan I bought at The Gilded Flea in Harper's Ferry, where we spent the weekend with our dear friends. It is intended for Seamus' bedroom, and the new plug is perfect.

The logo says "Frosti-aire" Check the boss on/off toggle.
Someone named "Elaine Knight" labeled the top of the fan with her label maker.


We were expecting Jon's brother and his wife and kids for dinner.  The last time they came to our house was the disastrous dinner party at which we ruined every single dish.  I was determined that this dinner be a success, so Seamus and I settled on homemade pizzas for dinner, which I can make in my sleep.  (Actually, Seamus made the pizzas for this party.)  I went into CLEAN ALL THE THINGS mode and moved the stove so as to clean behind and under it, and scrubbed toilets and washed the kitchen floor and changed the sheets on my bed and vacuumed and scrubbed sinks and paid the bills and performed the financial gymnastics necessary to pay the college tuition and did all the other things I wouldn't want to waste time on over a weekend.

I tried to work on my skirt--it was my goal to get the zipper sewed in, but the instructions are incomprehensible.  This isn't my first time at the rodeo, people, and I might just sew in the zipper the way that I know, because Amy Butler's method is needlessly complicated.  I also read over sixty pages of The Mystery of Edwin Drood because the only way to deal with this book is to power through it. And then it was back to the orthodontist to get Seamus' retainer.

The dinner was delicious and not a catastrophe like last time and Phoebe only disgraced herself once. It's almost a relief to go back to work today so I can rest.



Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Something in Disguise

More Elizabeth Jane Howard!  (She of the fantastic Cazalet Chronicles.)  I think Something in Disguise is my favorite, so far, of all of her non-Cazalet novels.  It's set in the mid-sixties, in London.  Elizabeth an Oliver are siblings, and their mother, May, married Herbert after the death of Elizabeth and Oliver's father.  Herbert has a daughter, Alice, from his first marriage.

I don't usually think of Elizabeth Jane Howard as a funny writer, but this book is funny, in a muted way.  The novel opens with Oliver telling Elizabeth that she looks like an "elongated Shirley Temple" in her bridesmaid dress.  Their step-sister Alice is about to marry a crashing bore with an appalling family.  After the wedding Oliver and Elizabeth scamper off to London and live like hipsters, while May becomes involved with "the League" which is suspiciously akin to a cult.  Alice is miserable and Herbert is a stereotypical xenophobic boor.  There's also Claude, Alice's cat.  I love it when animals in novels are developed characters, and Claude makes only a few appearances, but he steals the scene every time.

There is some pleasing plot tightness.  Why is May so ill?  Is the League slowly poisoning her while bullying her to leave them her house in their will?  Will Oliver ever find a source of income?  Will Alice and Claude ever be reunited? If you have read the Cazalet Chronicles and want more of EJH, Something in Disguise is the perfect choice.  It's lighter  than The Sea Change and funnier than After Julius.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Large and in Charge

I'm trying to be more mindful about my clothing, part of which involves starting to sew my own clothes.  At last count, I owned seventeen skirts, (some of which need to die in a fire) and yet, now I am sewing myself another one.  I used to sew most of my children's clothes, but it is much more difficult to make a decent-looking garment for an adult than for a child, so I've been a bit apprehensive.

I chose Amy Butler's Barcelona skirt pattern for my first attempt because it is so versatile.  There's a basic A-line pattern, and a second version made up of tiered fabric. This weekend, I sewed the muslin of the tiered version, and I'm really glad I took that step to work out some fit and other issues.  Sewing pattern sizes have not kept up with vanity sizing.  After applying the paper pattern to my hips, I realized that I would need to make the size large.  Large!



For some reason, my sewing machine made unspeakable puckerings in the fabric, and I realized that attempting to turn under the fabric on the underside of the tiers completely ruined the look of the skirt, and also the large size did turn out to be too large, although probably not enough to justify downsizing to the medium.


View from the side.  There is a giant piece missing out of the back because I didn't have enough muslin, and all I really needed to see is the fit around the hips.  It's a bit longer than the real skirt will be.  A lot of people make it up with only three tiers, for a shorter length, and I might try that for a winter version of this skirt that I can wear with tights.

Not sure what's going on with the ass wrinkles

This is the fabric I chose for the real skirt.  Giant green polka dots?  I know.  I spent about an hour in Les Fabriques, getting more and more overwhelmed.  I went with this because this skirt works best as a print, and I didn't want florals or stripes or plaid.  


Eventually, I hope to use my Barcelona pattern to make this skirt, which I first saw on Pinterest.  (Photo came from here.)



What else happened this weekend?  I was on call night and day, which limits one's ability to have any fun at all.  During the week, this is my life, every day.

  1. Walk to work
  2. Sit in dolorous cubicle of despair
  3. Walk home
  4. Cook dinner
  5. Go to gym
  6. Watch Frazier reruns on netflix
  7. Read
  8. Sleep
On a really ambitious day, I might stock up on dog food or fold the laundry or clean something.  As you can see, I have nothing to blog about but the weekends.

Anyway, the city Parks & Rec department is sponsoring Shakespeare in the Park, and this weekend there was a performance every night in Belmont Park of Much Ado About Nothing.  I went to the Saturday performance.

Of course an event like this calls for cocktails, and I made Thug Kitchen's blueberry-basil gin & tonics. I splurged on Hendrick's gin which mildly scandalized Ian, who explained it is too good to mix with other things.  It feels odd to be educated about spirits by someone you gave birth to and used to dress in John John suits.  Also splurged on high class tonic (or "quinine water" as my father calls it) and these G&T's were dope ass drinks, as Thug Kitchen would say.

It isn't really kosher to carry a glass of alcholic beverage into a public park, but I settled myself unobtrusively near the back, on a blanket, but then one of the organizer ladies noticed me and insisted that I move to the front.  I demurred, but it was hopeless, and then my drink caused a flurry in the audience.  "THAT LOOKS DELICIOUS. WHAT ARE YOU DRINKING?"  So much for trying to be inconspicuous.  But then I saw the woman next to me spike her drink from a whiskey bottle, concealed in her Whole Foods shopping bag.  I remembered with dismay that I was on call, which is why I sat in the back in the first place, and I had to spend the play checking my phone every few minutes like one of those phone-obsessed philistines that everybody deplores.  But the play was funny and I never did get paged.


Thursday, August 07, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Home

How unlike me to be reading something that was published within the last ten years.  Home, by Marilyn Robinson (2005) is about a family coming to grips with the return of a problem child.  Robert Boughton was the Presbyterian minister of Gilead, Iowa.  He raised a family of eight children, all of whom but one became successful, upstanding citizens.  The black sheep, Jack, left town twenty years earlier after a youthful descent into alcoholism, petty crime, and a scandal with a local girl.  No one has seen him since.




Now (the "now" of this novel is the 1960s) Robert Boughton is nearing the end of his life and the youngest child of the family, Glory, comes home to look after him.  Glory was a respectable English teacher, but she has a secret she'd rather not share with her father.  Then Jack, who hasn't been seen for twenty years, writes to say that he will be coming home as well.

What follows is Jack's oh-so tentative return to his home.  The relationship between Glory, Jack, and Boughton is fragile.  They are carefully polite and engage in a figurative dance in which everybody avoids expressing their feelings.  Eventually, the pain that all three characters have felt comes to the surface.

Also, we are led to wonder why Jack turned out the way he did.  He was raised in a loving family, but chose to isolate himself from them.  He's sensitive and intelligent, and he's not a bad person, but he was a criminal.  Why do some children turn wayward?

I enjoyed this novel because the writing is so sensitive.  Marilyn Robinson is a master of depicting the subtlties of human relationships.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Fat of the Land

I've had two lovely gifts of free fruit lately.  My friend who comments here so wittily as Not Beehive, gave me some local cherries.  Most of these I made into cherry butter.  Last summer, my first attempt at cherry butter,  I was in a rush to cook them down and process the jars before I left for the gym, so I turned up the heat higher than recommended and the result was more like cherry leather than cherry butter.  This time, I was STILL in a rush to get to the gym, but I decided to cook the cherries slowly and save time by not processing the jar.  This was far more successful, and since the yield was one pint, it went straight into the fridge, and we gobbled it up.  It was intensely cherry-flavored, and delicious on buttered toast, although the texture still wasn't quite right.  Either my stick blender is no good, or cherries really resist being purreed. (I used the recipe from Food in Jars by Marisa McClellan.)

The rest of the cherries, we made into tarts. After reading Becky's post about them, I got a hankering to make cherry hand pies.  The recipe (from Bon Appetit) calls for puff pastry and I didn't want to deal with that, so we (mostly Seamus) used Alice Water's recipe for pate sucrée, and the Bon Appetit recipe for the cherry hand pie filling.  These tarts were a real treat!

We gobbled two tarts before I had a chance to take a picture.


I was reading South Wind Through the Kitchen a few weeks ago, and there was a recipe for "apricot cheese" which I wanted to try, but store-bought apricots are awful.  So you can imagine my delight when one of my work friends offered to share part of a bushel of apricots she had gotten from a family farm in upstate New York.  That night I did an unprocessed test batch, because at the end of a long work day, I don't have the energy to sterilize and process the jars.

"Apricot Cheese" sounds unappetizing, but it's really just a very smooth jam.  Apricots are easy to prepare because you don't have to peel them and the pits pop right out.  Elizabeth David's recipe tells you to steam the apricots and then push them through a seive or a food mill.  Once that's done you cook them with sugar (one pound of sugar for every pint of milled apricots) until it "begins to candy around the edges."  I wasn't sure what that looked like, so I just cooked them at a good rolling boil until a spoonful of jam, dropped onto a cold saucer, had the consistency I wanted.  This batch went straight to the refrigerator, and Seamus reports it is delicious, stirred into oatmeal.  I like it paired with almond butter on toast.  (I can't see apricot jam with peanut butter.)  Elizabeth David recommends it as a filling for a jam omelet.  What does the jam taste like? If I wanted to be really corny, I'd tell you it tastes like sunshine, but mostly it tastes like apricots.



Over the weekend, I did the rest of the apricots, this time processing them properly so that they can live in the pantry.  Elizabeth David says that for an enhanced flavor, you should crush a few of the apricot pits and push the kernal through your food mill with the apricots.  I can't say I noticed any difference in taste between the batch with the apricot kernals and the one without, but smashing the pits is fun.  (I used a small sledgehammer.)

Making the puree with the apricot kernals




Friday, August 01, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: On the Nighstand

My nightstand is overflowing with good books!



Home by Marilyn Robinson.  A woman and her estranged brother return to their small rural town in Iowa to care for their dying father.  I am reading this now.  Lots of quiet, interpersonal drama.  Very sensitive writing.  Incidentally, I met Marilyn Robinson's brother at Jon's boss's Christmas party last year.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens.  For the fifty classics project and also because it is a prerequesite for reading Drood by Dan Simmons.  I'm reading this now as well, but it is not starting out very well.  Very different from the jolly Dickens of Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.  Like Edwin Drood, this is part of the fifty classics project and is a prerequisite for reading Drood.  (As were The Woman in White and David Copperfield.  I have never had to do so much preparation for reading a novel.  Drood had better be good.)

Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard  Another novel about family drama, from one of my favorite authors.

The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O'Brian.  Another installment in the nautical Jack Aubrey series.  The title refers to the sultan of somewhere-or-other on whose shores, at the conclusion of the previous book, their ship was wrecked.  One suspects that the sultan will not live up to his nickname.

Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain by Lucy Lethbridge.  The whole upstairs/downstairs thing is so fascinating.  I'm hoping this won't turn out to be too dry and scholarly.

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle.  For the fifty classics project.  Plus, I should read the originals before I start watching the Benedict Cumberbatch version.

The Sharpshooter Blues by Lewis Nordan.  I believe this is another coming-of-age-in-the-Delta novel.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  For the fifty classics project, and also because I can't allow Crime and Punishment to be the one book I've read by Dostoyevsky.

The Message to the Planet by Iris Murdoch.  Because I set out to read all of Murdoch's novels, and this is where I am in the lineup.

Also, on their way from awesome used book sellers on Amazon.

Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings by Constance Hill.  The Alderman Library has this in its collection, but it has been checked out for something like two years, and I am tired of waiting.  If you are faculty at UVA, I believe your books become due on the day your coffin is nailed down.  I know I can recall it, but I feel like that's a mean thing to do.  Anyway, I added this to my list after reading Virginia Woolf's commentary on it in The Common Reader.  Mary Russell Mitford was a writer in the early 18th century.

Ankle Deep by Angela Thirkell.  Her first novel, that I haven't been able to find at any library here.  I want to read all of her books, and whenever I set out to read an author's entire body of work, I try to start at the beginning.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell.  Her second novel.

What's on your nighstand these days?