Friday, June 29, 2007

Balkan Trilogy

You know you've read a good book when you practically go into mourning when you finish it. In this case, it wasn't a book but a trilogy—The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. Not only that, there's a second trilogy about the same people called the Levant Trilogy. Whee! As if that weren't enough, I discovered that BBC did a miniseries of all six books called Fortunes of War, starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.
The three books of the Balkan Trilogy were written in the 1960s and are titled The Great Fortune, The Spoiled City, and Friends and Heroes. Autobiographical, they tell the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle who live in Bucharest at the beginning of WWII. Guy teaches English and he and Harriet are newlyweds.
It's interesting to read about pre-communist Romania. I've not given the country much thought beyond its gymnastics team, Count Dracula and Ceaucescu's severed head. Who knew Bucharest once styled itself the “Paris of the East?” Manning does a superb job of setting a sense of place. There are the cafes and restaurants, the remains of Biedermeier buildings in the midst of being destroyed by the corrupt King Carol II, the poorly built modern apartment blocks, the beggars, the peasants who live in misery, the buttoned-up Romanian middle class, the plethora of princes and princesses, the abundant food. At the beginning of the war, Romania had the best food in Europe, something the Nazis were quick to appropriate for themselves.
The political situation is tricky. At the beginning of the war—and all my knowledge comes from the novels—Romania was neutral yet loosely allied with Great Britain, which was to protect the Romanians from the Germans. Later, feelings shift as Romanians decide it might be far worse to be invaded by Russia than by Germany, depose their own king and practically put down a welcome mat for the Nazis. The end of the second novel has Guy in danger of kidnap by the Gestapo and Harriet fleeing to Athens. The third novel has them together in Athens, where once again they have to flee to North Africa, one step ahead of the Nazis. At the beginning of the first novel, they are comfortable, employed, middle class. By the end of the third they are refugees, and even toilet paper is something to be treasured. On the ship out of Athens, a friend raids a cabin and gives three squares to each lady: “One up, one down, and one polisher.”
This is also the story of Guy's and Harriet's marriage, particularly Harriet's experience being married to a man of enormous charisma. Guy's magnetism puts a strain on their marriage.
There are many interesting characters, particularly Prince Yakimov: half Russian, half Irish, known for his funny bon mots and his mooching. The books are funny too, in a way, although many of the funny lines have a “you had to be there” quality.
Some reviewers found the books boring and complain of a lack of plot. It's true, there's not much plot, but I did not find these books boring.
I've seen a bit of the BBC miniseries and all I can say at this point is that the guy who plays Yakimov all wrong.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Live Town Meeting

Right this very minute, I am on the phone LIVE with Virgil Goode. How did this happen? My phone rang, and when I answered, I got recording of Virgil Goode's Vuginiuh Genlemun's voice inviting me to stay on the line and be connected to a live conference call "town meeting" with Goode. Various people around the fifth district are connected too, and are asking questions, mainly about the Immigration Bill. To queue up to ask a question, you press pound.

Oh jeez. Everybody hates the immigration bill. I don't like it either, but not for the same reasons these callers don't. Can this be for real? My mind is a blank and I can't think of anything to say to Goode.

The guy talking now sounds drunk. Still, he's complaining about the war in Iraq, so that's good. Let's see what Goode says: "Radical Islam, Radical Islam...blah blah..."

People are concerned about Social Security too. Any time a caller expresses a view that opposes Goode's views, he says, "Ah thank you for your call," and then they disappear.

7:15 Now there's a lady complaining about how her neighborhood is "overrun with immigrants" and how they're all in gangs and she "sees the drug deals". What a crock of shit.

I don't support the Immigration Bill because I see it as legalized exploitation of an uneducated workforce, not because I fear the immigrants themselves.

7:19 A teacher is complaining about NCLB--a refreshing change from the immigrant-bashing. Goode doesn't like it either and wants to "make it optional" and sees himself in a fight against an unholy "Bush-Kennedy Alliance."

7:31 Now there's a guy complaining about the xenophobic attitude of the anti-immigration commenters. He's asking how Goode plans to pay for his plan to "march all the illegal immigrants across the border."

7:38 Now the vast majority of callers are from Charlottesville and Albemarle. Earlier it seemed like people from other areas.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Responsible homeowners

Who knew gutters could be so exciting? We finally got our entire house outfitted with new gutters, and they are fabulous. Today I had to go to Lowe's and buy those horrid black plastic tubes that you attach to your downspouts. My eight year old son pushed while I wrestled with what appeared to be a giant black octopus trying to climb out of the shopping cart. At one point, we barely missed hitting another customer in the head. Equally difficult, getting the damn things in the car. No one had these tubes when I was growing up but now they are ubiquitous. I think they're an abomination. And yet, also the universal symbol of Responsible Homeownership.

Where can I collect my certificate?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bicycle built for two

The summer of 1984: I used to spend weeks at my Aunt Mimi and Uncle Tom's cottage on Lake Erie. When were younger, we'd spent all our time at the beach, but now that we were teens we wanted to go to town every day. Town was the two tiny Canadian villages of Ridgeway and Crystal Beach.  Below is Crystal Beach, although it has apparently undergone a renaissance, because back in the '80s, these buildings were all much shabbier.

In Ridgeway, we'd stop at the Ridge Dairy, aka “Our Lady of the Ridge Dairy”  because of my older cousins' habit of hanging out there when they were supposed to be at mass) and buy a black and white sundae. Then we'd go to the Crystal Beach, an old-fashioned amusement park which first opened in 1888. Our grandmother had been a regular visitor, and ridden the terrible Cyclone, a roller coaster so scary a full-time nurse was kept on staff to revive riders who had passed out.
The Cyclone was dismantled, but salvaged material from it was used to build the Comet, another excellent coaster, which Katie and I rode many, many times, along with the "Yellow Roller Coaster" which was the oldest running coaster in North America. Made entirely of wood, and very rickety, you never knew if it would collapse just as you were at the top of the big hill. 

When Crystal Beach went out of business in 1989, my family went to the park on its last day and rode the Comet over and over again. You can still ride the Comet, since it was purchased and moved to a park somewhere near Lake George in upstate New York. The Yellow Roller Coaster was burned in a mysterious fire.

Anyway, the only way to get to Crystal Beach was by bike, and that summer, the only bicycle available to us was an ancient tandem. It was at least 50 years old and the seats were covered with a Black Watch plaid. We rode it, not caring how ridiculous we looked, which must have been very ridiculous. When you ride on the back seat of a tandem, it is hard to resist the urge to steer, even though your handlebars are attached to the front rider's seat and nothing more. And so our progress through the streets was punctuated with Katie shrieking, “Stop steering my seat!”

One summer day we headed to Crystal Beach, as usual. The entire teenage population of the town staffed the park, and it was our habit to hang around with the other kids there. We left the tandem in a little security enclosure, with  two 18 year old “security guards” who agreed to keep an eye on it.
A little while later, more aunts Aunt Pat, and Aunt Liz, who had loaned us the tandem, went out to run some errands. And what did they see parked in front of the BEER STORE? Their very own, black watch plaid-upholstered bicycle built for two, last seen in the possession of two fifteen year old girls! And who should come out the door with a case of beer, which they apparently planned to balance on the tandem while they rode away? Two unknown youths! Can you imagine the mortifying confrontation? “Young man, where did you get that bicycle and what have you done with our nieces?”

Meanwhile, Katie and I had tired of flirting with the Crystal Beach staff and went to collect the tandem. Gone! What happened next was a mass of panic, ending with Katie and me being collected in a car and driven home in disgrace. As the guest, I didn't get in much trouble, but Katie didn't hear the end of it until she was well into her thirties.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Better living with chemistry

The house painting continues apace. The first day scraping, I used an old five-in-one, with less than spectacular results. Having the proper tools always makes a job easier, so I went off to the hardware store--where they have come to know me, since I've been gracing them with daily visits lately--and bought a proper paint scraper, plus a neat little razor scraper. I set to work once again on Mad Scientist's window. This is more like it, I thought, and firmly dragged the proper paint scraper across the window frame. Instantly, my ears were assaulted with a nails-on-a-chalkboard screech so appalling I almost fell off the roof. Luckily, the razor scraper works very well indeed, and Jon, who is partially deaf, doesn't mind using the other one.

I made good progress on Mad Scientist's window, and then made an unpleasant discovery: We have rot.

Not to worry, there are, I discovered, all manner of epoxies and chemicals for your rotting wood needs. If you believe what you read on the internet, you can transform your house from this,

to this,

in three EZ steps.

Off I went to the hardware store, again, and purchased some chemicals. There are a lot of scary warnings on the label:

Failure to follow these instructions will result the total destruction of the ozone layer, a rise in the temperature of the earth's atmosphere by seven degrees centigrade and your grandchildren being born as hermaphrodites. If you ingest this product, you will die. If you inhale this product, you will die. If you get this product in your eyes, you will lose your sight. And then you will die.

But when I opened the container, I had an immediate flashback memory to my early childhood. Putty! My father must have used it.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Supremely satisfying

What is more satisfying than getting paid for unloading your trash?

I am a purger. I have to be. I live in a 1600 sq. ft. house with four children, a husband, two dogs and a bunny. We have one closet (plus a tiny coat closet), no garage, and a basement that is not suitable for storage, and yet our house is not cluttered. This is because I ruthlessly and religiously rid our space of any superfluous possessions. I enjoy doing this. One of my favorite ways to vent my anger is to furiously pack up pretty much anything in my line of site and donate it to charity. My philosophy: If it pisses me off, I throw it out.

J and I are getting new gutters, and J, impatient, started tearing the old gutters off the house. Soon we had a sad pile of crushed, foul smelling aluminum in the yard. I called Coiner's and they said they'd take it. J jeered at me as we loaded the minivan. "You'll probably get $.50," he said. This was my first visit to Coiner's. We drove down the long dusty driveway along the side of the CSX tracks and faced a bewildering array of industrial sheds and piles of scrap. Large trucks rumbled past. I noticed a dirty sign labeled "DROP OFF CANS, BATTERIES....HERE." We parked and lugged our 18 pounds of gutter (all we'd removed today, but less than a quarter of the house's total gutterage) and tossed them onto a scale. A man gave us a receipt, told us where to go to get paid, and 30 seconds later we were handed $7.20.

Not only did we save ourselves the trouble and cost of arranging a large trash pick up, we recycled some aluminum, got rid of an unsightly pile of trash and got paid besides. I am basking in my awesomeness.

Book review: The Berlin Stories

Reading The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. Now I want to read a biography of Isherwood and everything else he's ever written. It's actually two short autobiographical novels about Berlin in the early 1930's. Berlin in the '30s is grim, but this book is not, or at least most of it isn't. In the first novel, The Last of Mr. Norris, Isherwood, thinly disguised as “William Bradshaw” is like a cartoon baby escaping falling anvils as he toddles along. His friendship with the charming but duplicitous Arthur Norris brings him unscathed through some dangerous escapades. In the second novel, Goodbye to Berlin, “William Bradshaw” has become “Christopher Isherwood.” This is really a collection of stories, the most notable being “Sally Bowles” on which the play and movie I am a Camera are based.
I could swear we read this book in college. I distinctly remember the professor lecturing about Isherwood being an openly gay writer. He must have dropped the book from the syllabus due to time constraints, because if I had read it, surely I wouldn't have forgotten this passage: agonized cry came from the lighted room ahead of me.
“Nein, nein. Mercy! Oh dear! Hilfe! Hilfe!
There was no mistaking the voice. They had got Arthur in there, and were robbing him and knocking him about. I might have known it. We were fools ever to have poked our noses into a place like this. We had only ourselves to thank. Drink made me brave. Struggling forward to the door, I pushed it open.
The first person I saw was Anni. She was standing in the middle of the room. Arthur cringed on the floor at her feet. He had removed several more of his garments, and was now dressed, lightly but with perfect decency, in a suit of mauve silk underwear, a rubber abdominal belt and a pair of socks. In one hand he held a brush and in the other a yellow shoe-rag. Olga towered behind him, brandishing a heavy leather whip.
“You call that clean, you swine!” she cried, in a terrible voice. “Do them again this minute! And if I find a speck of dirt on them I'll thrash you till you can't sit down for a week.”
As she spoke she gave Arthur a smart cut across the buttocks. He uttered a squeal of pain and pleasure, and began to brush and polish Anni's boots with feverish haste.
“Mercy! Mercy!” Arthur's voice was shrill and gleeful, like a child's when it is shamming. “Stop! You're killing me.”
“Killing's too good for you,” retorted Olga, administering another cut. “I'll skin you alive!”
“Oh! Oh! Stop! Mercy! Oh!”
They were making such a noise that they hadn't heard me bang open the door. Now they saw me, however. My presence did not seem to disconcert any of them in the least. Indeed, it appeared to add spice to Arthur's enjoyment.
“Oh dear! William, save me! You won't? You're as cruel as the rest of them. Anni, my love! Olga! Just look how she treats me. Goodness knows what they won't be making me do in a minute!”
“Come in, Baby,” cried Olga, with tigerish jocularity. "Just you wait! It's your turn next. I'll make you cry for mummy!"