Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Books books books

I am reading as much as I can during the semester break. It seems like such a luxury not to have to study or complete writing assignments for school. Here's a quick run-down of what I've read lately.

The Edge of Time by Loula Grace Erdman. I had a hard time getting my hands on this book and finally had to resort to intralibrary loan. Why was I so determined to get it? Because it is on my list and so I must read it. I suppose comparisons with Little House on the Prairie are inevitable, only this little house is on the prairie of the Texas Panhandle. Bethany and Wade Cameron begin their marriage as homesteaders in the 1880s, moving to Texas from Missouri in a covered wagon. The usual things happen: drought, fire, death. I liked this book, but reading it was an uncomfortable reminder of my former delusions about character. Bethany is the typical model pioneer housewife. She is the plain cousin, and Wade's second choice for wife after the beautiful cousin, Rosemary, rejects him and marries a banker instead. Bethany keeps the dugout clean and comfortable, she gives the Bible pride of place on the center table, she makes herself pretty for her husband, she is spunky when she needs to be, and won't truck with any ungentlemanly behavior: "Why, Wade Cameron! I ought to wash your mouth out with soap!" She defers to her husband's wishes in all things. Sometimes I felt impatient with Bethany, but sometimes Erdman's writing makes the pioneer experience seem very real and Bethany-as-caricature becomes someone truly admirable. Particularly when she faces the loneliness.

The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. What struck me most about this book was the condescending blub on the jacket. "Most readers" the blurb informs, will read this and think they've read an exciting Western novel. "A more thoughtful type" will realize they've read something really special. "One in fifty" will recognize that this novel is about the psychology of the mob and how mankind caves to mob rule. Finally, "one in ten thousand" will see the Ox-Bow incident as a parable for the entire nation and the crack up of civilization. Oh really? Of course I had to know if I would be the "one in ten thousand" and didn't look at the blurb again, hoping to forget what I'd need to recognize in order to be included in that exalted group. The mob psychology bit is easy to see. This book is about a lynching. A group of men, in a town in Nevada some time in the 1800s, hear about a murder and cattle rustling and go off to take care of justice on their own. Certainly a thoughtful, well-written piece of literature, although not something with which to read yourself to sleep. Looking back at the blurb after finishing the novel, I can't honestly say that I saw it as a parable about our entire country. I can see how a case could be made for that arguement, but I didn't see it myself and I still don't regard The Ox-Bow Incident as a novel about the crack up of civilization as we know it. I guess I belong to the "one-in-fifty" crowd. Oh well.

Roughing It by Mark Twain. Mark Twain is funny. He really is. There are a few lines in this book which made me laugh out loud. It's a memoir of the time he spent in Nevada, California, and later, Hawaii, as a young man in the 1860s. The best bits are when he is describing things that actually happened to him. He does insert anecdotes heard about other people, and these fall flat. Some of the incidents have a disappointing "guess you had to be there" quality, and others are truly fascinating.

In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden by Kathleen Cambor. This is a novel about the Johnstown Flood, something I've been interested in ever since my parents watched a PBS documentary about it when I was a child. Later, I read The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough--a book I can not recommend highly enough. Cambor used McCullough's book as a basis for her novel. The Johnstown Flood is one of the worst natural disasters in US History. 2,200 people were killed, and the only disaster in the United States that has a higher confirmed death toll is the Galveston Hurricane in 1900 (8,000 people). McCullough's book describes how the flood happened--a mountain lake, created for Pittsburg's industrial rich, was held back with a faulty earth dam. This was a large lake--large enough for sailing. The dam broke and the entire lake washed out into the valley, destroying the city of Johnstown.

Cambor's novel is about the people--both the people of Johnstown and the people of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. I enjoyed it, particularly her depictions of industrial Johnstown and its iron works and the danger of working in steel. The people of Johnstown lived with danger every day. Diptheria killed their children, the steel mill killed their fathers, and far above them, the faulty dam threatened them all. Also fascinating is the Johnstown people's consciousness of the danger of the dam. They felt it as a menace. It had become a sort of boogy man: "Ooh, watch out! The dam might break!"

Friday, December 26, 2008

Boxing Day

Happy Boxing Day. We had a great Christmas, but I am relieved that it is over. It's an enormous job for one woman to create Christmas for a family. And it was Jon's turn to work Christmas, which sucked. Now he is off for three days, so it feels like the real holiday is just beginning.

I went running on Christmas morning. How's that for hard-core? There were no cars, no people, just one other runner I met on my way back. He wished me a merry Christmas and our eyes met in solidarity. One endorphin junkie to another.

One of the advantages of having teenage children is that they like to sleep in on Christmas too. By the time I got back from my run, everybody was up and waiting to open presents. Jon, who'd had to leave for work at 06:30 missed the unwrapping. In the past, we've awakened the kids at ungodly hours so they can open presents before Jon leaves, but that is never much fun, and the smaller children would be so cranky from lack of sleep, I'd have to feed them chocolate in measured doses, throughout the day, in order to keep them reasonably happy.

My sister and her husband were here from Florida. I cooked a crown roast of pork and a spectacularly disastrous cake:

Here's a movie of the Christmas Crackers:

Monday, December 15, 2008

Rental in Rome

My last exam was today, but enough of that, I am already moving on to new things, namely finding a flat for us in Rome. If one can believe the internet, Rome is teeming with unoccupied, furnished flats for the use of travelers. Indeed, the choice is so wide, I am becoming confused. On the other hand, eliminating all the flats that don't sleep six people narrows the field somewhat. Each flat looks so beautiful in the photos, I am succumbing to delusions of living like a family of sultans while we take our little two-week vacay. I found one flat that I absolutely love, but have since learned that it is already taken. The rental agent sent me a link to an alternate apartment, which, prior to my exposure to the first flat, would have been perfectly adequate, is now decidedly second rate. I didn't like the slipcovers on the sofas, and there is no charming built-in desk in the master bedroom, and the kitchen is somewhat less charming and there is no washing machine! Boo.

Clearly, it is time for a reality check. I am rejecting this apartment because I don't like the slipcovers? It's a FLAT in farking ROME!

Then there is the issue of the rental agencies. How do I know they are honest? What if I fork over the Euros, expecting a fab apartment in the Trastevere, and we are taken to a hovel next to a McDonalds in an industrial suburb? Of course I know that no rental ever looks just like it does in the photos. I was amused by the pictures of one flat in which every room was cluttered with empty wine bottles.

Also amusing, the text at one of the rental websites, cautioning renters that living in a flat is like living like a regular Roman family. There will be no maid service, no room service, no porters, and you will be cooking your own meals. That's exactly why I prefer an apartment to a hotel. I want myself and my children to experience something of what it is like to live in Italy, not just visit it. I wonder what sort of spoiled customers that particular business got.

If anyone has ever rented an apartment in a foreign city, over the internet, and has some tips for me, I would not be averse to hearing them.

Friday, December 12, 2008


It's high time I did a George post. Because isn't the entire world panting to know the doings of George-the-bunny?

We gave him a birthday party back in July, when he turned two. Drama Queen baked him unsweetened carrot and banana cupcakes.

He did not like them and being in an unfamiliar area of the house stressed him out, and he tried to escape back to his own room, just as quickly as he could.

Birthday crown for the birthday bunny.

He is such a funny bunny. He will sometimes fall in love with the children's stuffed animals. But here's the thing: the only animals that are the recipients of his vigorous attentions are the stuffed bunnies! He never goes after the stuffed dogs or bears or ducks. How does he know the stuffed bunnies are the correct species? Is it the ears? We usually keep the stuffed bunnies out of his reach, so as not to distress them.

Bunnies really do like carrots. Note the paw resting on Drama Queen's nose.

One day, Drama Queen took a bite of George's carrot, to see what he would do. He reacted immediately and vociferously. First he took small bites of the carrot and emphatically spit them out over the carpet. Then he angrily rubbed his chin all up and down the carrot. This is how bunny's claim ownership of things.

He likes to look out the window.

Being a child's pet means putting up with some indignities.

Here he is scrubbing his face of the indignity of the bow.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Studyless in Charlottesville

My children created their very own WW III right in my house, and instead of being a responsible parent and giving each child a heart-to-heart talk, after which we all held hands and sang Kumbaya, enjoyed celery sticks filled with natural peanut butter and raisins, and handcrafted an Advent wreathe out of pine cones, I yelled at the sadistic little monsters that it appears they want me to fail my exams and that I was going out to find someplace quiet to study.

So saying, I stormed out of the house and headed for Cville Coffee, which, alas, did not have a single vacant table. That did nothing to improve my mood, but I headed to a smaller coffee shop in my neighborhood, which, being somewhat off the beaten path, might have a seat. This was about 12:30 on a Sunday afternoon and at this second coffee shop, there was exactly one open seat, at the bar. Next to that, was a girl, half comatose, with two men hovering near her. I asked them if they were using the empty seat, and they said no, that I could have it, so I dumped my nursing textbooks and my coat, to save the space, and went to order my coffee.

When I returned with my coffee, the two men were regarding my books with interest. We established that I was a nursing student, that I have an exam tomorrow, and that we all lived in the neighborhood. The men were very pleased to learn this and we all congratulated eachother, but the girl jerked awake and gave me a baleful look. It became apparent that they were all very drunk.

I've added this helpful diagram.

They also had a dog with them, that they called Sinjin, which, I believe is spelled St. John. St. John wandered into the kitchen, while I was ordering my coffee alarming the barrista, who shooed him out. I noticed the two men surreptitiously cleaning a puddle on the floor beneath their chair and I wondered if St. John had had a wee. But there appeared to be ice cubes and broken glass on the floor too, so I may have wondered wrong. At any rate, no one at the shop complained or asked to have the dog removed, and St. John himself spent the rest of the time sitting near the door, away from his owners, as if he were ashamed to be seen with them.

I sat down with my coffee and one of the men, who looked disconcertingly familiar, pointed to my textbook. "Light reading," he said hopefully, and when I didn't laugh he repeated himself. The other man spoke to me at length about his work. Now, I'm no Carrie Nation. If people want to get drunk or use drugs on a Sunday morning, that's their business, I really don't care, but I couldn't help thinking that it was too unfair, the way the gods were conspiring to prevent me from getting any studying done today. Still, I had taken the last available coffee shop seat in all of Charlottesville and it would take a lot more than three impaired people and some possible dog wee to drive me out of it. I wasn't going anywhere. Besides, my three new friends were far less disruptive than my children had been.

I began to study, as diligently as I could. The girl next to me made incoherent moaning sounds, and her two escorts were most solicitous. They wondered if her kidneys were OK. Did she want to go home and have a backrub? ("Please, please," I thought.) But no, she wanted another coffee.

Meanwhile, I became aware that the familiar-looking man was reading over my shoulder. I had my textbook open on my lap, and my notebook open on the bar so that I could take notes as I read. I ignored him, although I had to fight an urge to burst out laughing. It was all so ridiculous, and little like one of those nightmares where you try ceaselessly to accomplish something and are forever blocked by different silly things. Finally, when his head was almost in my lap, I looked at him as if to say, "May I help you?" He straightened his spine and pointed his index finger skyward, as if he were about to make an important oration and slurred, "Ketoacidosis for $200, Alex."

They left eventually, but not before the other man repeated his entire tale about his work, which is tangentially connected with nursing. They also admired my studying, and told me I was a "badass" but I think they meant it in a nice way. As I said, I'd rather deal with friendly drunks than fighting children.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


We watched In Bruges the other night. It's a good movie, but the description on the DVD case is highly misleading. It promotes this film as a hilarious comedy--a laugh a minute from oafish criminals who fall bassackwards into adventure while resting in Bruges after completing a job. So I wasn't prepared for how sad and disturbing it turned out to be. OK, I am not an idiot. I knew that In Bruges wouldn't be funny the way that Elf is funny, but I was expecting something along the lines of that film where Hugh Grant plays an art thief. Is there a movie in which Hugh Grant plays an art thief? Ah yes, here it is: Small Time Crooks. He may have been a bank robber instead. Now that is a funny film. In Bruges has funny moments, definitely, but there's an overwhelming sadness to it. Still, it's a gorgeous film with superb acting.

Watching In Bruges prompted me to take a second look at Ralph Fiennes, who is gorgeous too. Sorry for sounding like a silly school girl, but Ralph Fiennes is hot. How did I not notice this before? Maybe because the only other character I'd seem him play is Voldemort. Yesterday I rented The End of the Affair, a movie I've always steered clear of because the picture on the cover of the DVD looks a lot like the picture on the cover of The Notebook, and The Notebook, you may or may not be surprised to hear, is the worst movie of all time. Now I realize I was being grossly unfair in avoiding The End of the Affair based on its poor cover art. I know the platitude, of course, but sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, but not in the case of The End of the Affair DVD case.

But why am I watching all these movies when final exams are approaching? Procrastinating, of course. I devote far to much time to my own relaxation, and far too little to the things I have to do. It's a game I play with myself in which I see what results the bare minimum of effort can get me. So far, I haven't lost the game, in that I've gotten As on all my exams so far this semester, and all the previous semesters too. Sometimes I lose the game in other areas of my life, such as when I discovered I'd neglected to order new checks, and now I have run out completely and my new checks won't arrive until December 9th and the bills are piling up and I'm not sure I trust online bill paying. I had time to read You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe, but I didn't have time to order checks. And I had time to attend two concerts (Southern Culture on the Skids and a Corey Harris acoustic show) but I did not have time to get my car inspected. If I get a ticket, I'll definitely have lost that game.