Thursday, September 03, 2015

The Minnow on the Say

Sometimes I like to read children's books.  I'm currently plowing through The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell, and I read The Minnow on the Say by Philippa Pearce as something to fall back on when I wanted to rest my brain.

This is a British children's book, written in the 1950s.  David Moss lives with his family by the river Say, and one day he discovers an escaped canoe, bumping against his landing stage.  Once he finds Adam, the canoe's owner, the adventure begins.  Adam has the clue to a treasure, hidden by an ancestor four hundred years ago.  Adam's parents are dead.  He lives with his aunt and his demented grandfather.  They are poor and unless he finds the treasure by the end of the summer holidays, he will be sent to live with cousins in Birmingham because his aunt can no longer afford to care for him. There is another reason to hurry and find the treasure, because someone else is looking for it too.

The clue is a cryptic riddle and as David and Adam get closer to deciphering it, they find themselves further from the treasure than ever.  Meanwhile, their rival gets an unexpected advantage that makes the situation even more desperate for Adam.  Philippa Pearce is a masterful storyteller and I was rigid with suspense toward the end of the novel.

This book would be a great choice for read-aloud, if you have a child you're currently reading to, or just read it yourself for the entertainment.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Birthday of Sorts

I'm just coming off night call, i.e. working twenty-four hours a day for an entire week. It's pretty tedious, although you get paid around the clock for doing little more than jumping higher than the ceiling every time your phone rings.  In a typical night call week, you might get paged three times and spend less than two hours doing actual work, but the strain of never knowing when you'll get a page (In the grocery store check out line?  While working out at the gym? While stuck in traffic? and the fear that the issue will be something you won't know how to handle) is exhausting.

I'm on night call roughly once every three months and during the week before it starts, the dread and anticipation turn me into something like the women in the old SNL sketch about "annuale," the pill that allows you to get your period only once a year but turns you into a monster the week beforehand.

Anyway, the last day of call was also my birthday, which turned out OK.  The extra pay is a nice birthday present, and Brigid came home from Switzerland, which was the best present of all.  As I write this, she is safely in Boston, waiting for her flight to Richmond.  She somehow accidentally got to the gate without going through customs, which is a classic Brigid-type thing to happen.  ("Didn't someone look at your passport?" I asked.  Well, yes, someone did, but they wanted to see her ticket and she didn't have it because her flight switched to a different carrier for the last leg of the flight, so they sent her somewhere to get the ticket printed and from there she went straight to her gate.  "But what about your bag?" I said.  She thought it was checked through to Richmond?  I wasn't so sure about that, but my only experience with switching from international flights to domestic was in South Africa, where you definitely have to collect your bag and then re-check it.  Which makes sense if you are going through customs.**)

For the birthday, we had homemade pizza for dinner.  Somehow, copious amounts of olive oil spilled in the oven and the house filled with smoke and the smoke detector went off, terrifying Sancho, who fled the house and wouldn't come back in, so Phoebe stole his dinner AND ate her own.  She's an opportunistic bitch. And during all of that, Grace called to say that Brigid's cat had fleas and what should they do about it.  I baked a walnut jam cake from Smitten Kitchen for dessert. I wasn't in the mood for a frosted layer cake and I also didn't want pie or a cheesecake. This cake was perfect.  Earlier in the day, while walking Phoebe in the alley, I discovered chestnuts!  Last winter, the city cleared away a huge amount of weed trees and brush from the alley, which not only created a pleasant grove between our house and our neighbors', but also gave us access to a chestnut tree that had formerly been inaccessible.

I gathered what I could and then noticed that the tree is absolutely loaded with nuts that haven't fallen yet.  I think Becky might want to come over and share the bounty.  I am now researching ways to preserve chestnuts.  I might make some chestnut butter.  I'm also thinking chestnut stuffing and sweetened chestnut puree stirred into cakes and whipped cream.  We loved buying roasted chestnuts from little carts on the streets of Lisbon.  If you have a favorite way to prepare chestnuts, let me know.

**Brigid and her bag both arrived safely in Richmond late last night.  So I was wrong about the bag, but I half expected her to be met at the airport by customs officials. Grace, who now lives in Richmond very kindly picked her up from the airport.  I wish I could have done it myself, but again, because of night call, driving an hour to Richmond would have been difficult, plus having to drive all the way back so late at night and then go to work in the morning.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Odd Girl Out

Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard was my fun book to fall back on while reading John Evelyn's diary.  I can't adequately describe EJH's writing style.  There's an economy of words, an elegance and simplicity that makes every sentence a joy to read.  EJH was also particularly talented at describing the comical inner dilemmas that we all deal with every day.

Odd Girl Out is about Arabella Dawick, a poor little rich girl, who arrives as a guest at the house of her step-brother Edmund Cornhill, and his wife Anne.  The Cornhills appear to have a blissful marriage.  They have a lovely house, plenty of money; they treat each other with consideration and love.  And of course Arabella's entrance into their lives disrupts everything--in the predicable way but also in an unexpected way.  The conclusion of this novel is uncomfortable, as it touches on aspects of human nature that we'd prefer to pretend don't exist.

I'm not sure what to make of Arabella.  She's unwanted by her mother, seen as an inconvenience or else abused by her various step fathers; all she wants is to be loved and to belong somewhere. So she's a sympathetic character and yet she leaves chaos in her wake, albeit unintentionally.  A side-plot in the novel illustrates just how much chaos.  Clara, Arabella's mother, tells Edmund before the visit, "Don't let her exploit you."

One of the things that EJH excels at, and which makes her novels so much fun to read, is her talent for portraying the super rich: their expressions, mannerisms, habits, and fashions.  In Odd Girl Out, Arabella's mother Clara is technically a princess, as her latest husband happens to be a prince.  She flits from Switzerland to Paris to Cannes, leading the life that some of us (myself included) see as glamorous and fun.  It is certainly entertaining to read about Clara, but Howard skillfully portrays how boring and empty such a life can be.

I know that a lot of the books that I write about are not ones that will appeal to many people, but Odd Girl Out is one that I think most of you would enjoy.  It's the thinking person's chick lit.  Definitely pick it up if you're looking for something to read.