Friday, December 30, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment 12/30/11

Remember the nineties?  That glorious time of a shit economy and nothing to do but hang out with your friends and bitterly criticize the baby boomers who were hogging all the jobs and why couldn't they just die already?  The nineties live on in today's assignment, The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn.  I chose it because it's the time of year when people contemplate making a fresh start, and the Christmas credit card bills are arriving and we are just becoming dimly aware that soon we will have to pay taxes again.

The general vibe in the early nineties was one of tightening belts, of making do, of going without.  People were concerned about the environment, but the emphasis then was on using less, not on consuming more as it is now.   (If your cruelty-free sunscreen comes in a plastic bottle, it's not exactly eco-friendly. Sorry.)

One cold winter day in 1993 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Jon was in grad school for comparative religion(!) I was watching Phil Donohue.  The guest was Amy Dacyczyn, sharing her tips for frugal living.  Phil's mouth-breathing audience was giving her a hard time.  They could scarcely believe the deprived environment she had created for her children in which they were never taken to McDonald's and wore clothes she bought at yard sales.  When she described how she used a cheese grater to scrape the burned layer off of cookies the audience all but stoned her.  I admired how Amy handled their horror with aplomb.  A cookie is a cookie, motherfuckers.  This was a woman I could learn from and I immediately bought her book which is really a compliation of issues of the frugal newsletter she published from her house in Maine.

My pressing concern at that time was how on earth we would afford two babies in diapers.  I had a diaper service for Ian, but diaper service for two was beyond our budget.  Amy Dacyczyn has six children, so there is a LOT of information about diapers in The Tightwad Gazette.  When I read that the Tightwad solution to diapers was to wash them yourself, I realized my diaper problem was solved. It had never occurred to me that I could wash diapers myself.  We didn't own a washing machine, but if Amy could take her kids' diapers to the laundromat, (which she did) then so could I.   (This was, by the way, long before the advent of trendy super-expensive cloth diapers.)

Diapers aside, the driving force behind The Tightwad Gazette was Dacyczyn's refusal to conform to the notion that it is impossible to raise a family on one income.  Not only did the Dacyczyn family want to raise their family on one income, they wanted a large family and they wanted to buy a farmhouse with attached barn in Maine.  They were successful because they made such a stellar effort to spend less and save more. Furthermore, their lifestyle seemed fun, not deprived.

I'm no stranger to thrift--my parents were thrifty and drilled their habits into my head, but there's always more to learn. From The Tightwad Gazette I  picked up a  mindset that allows me to creatively come up with my own money-saving ideas.  For example, I wondered if I could set my dishwasher to do a "top rack" wash with dishes in the bottom rack.  I discovered that dishes on the bottom rack WILL get clean during a top-rack only wash, as long as you load it lightly.  The top rack wash cycle runs for 38 minutes and uses less water than the regular cycle, which runs for over 70 minutes.

But you're saying, "Patience, I have money to BURN.  I don't need to read about washing and reusing zip lock bags."  That's fine, but what sets The Tightwad Gazette apart from other frugal lifestyle books is that it's so entertaining, particularly the letters from readers.  Nothing beats  a New England yankee for parsimony and most of the letters come from New Englanders.  There's also the environmental factor, since a frugal lifestyle is kind to the environment and here you will find a wealth of information on reducing your footprint and none of it involves buying expensive organic products.

When our economy turned sour in 2008, I hoped that there'd be a silver lining:  that people would return to thrift and decreased consumption, but that doesn't seem to be the case.  Or maybe I've become so affluent I've lost touch. I no longer need to make homemade baby wipes out of paper towels and baby shampoo, but I reread The Tightwad Gazette every so often to give myself a reality check. I think it's time.

Monday, December 26, 2011

On fait le Christmas Pyramid

And so it came to pass that another Christmas happened in which we did our annual Christmas pyramid, a tradition that dates all the way back to 2004 or thereabouts. Here is this year's movie, which you should watch if only to hear my sister's famous laugh.  It's so infectious that two companies have actually tried to buy it from her.  Once, she was yukking it up in a bar in Buffalo, NY when she heard, "That laugh!  Take me to that laugh," and so found herself being introduced to Frank Gorshin who played the Riddler in the Batman television show.  If the Riddler thinks you have a great laugh, you really have something going on.  But that is my sister's adventure, not mine.

We edited out a LOT of arguement and discussion, unlike last year when I posted a full three minutes of drivel.  You would think that after six years, we'd have mastered this thing, but you would be wrong.

My sister and her husband are still here, and since we have exhausted everything Charlottesville has to offer the girls are going to take a little trip to Richmond while the boys go for a hike in the Blue Ridge.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In which: Jonukkah

Tis the season to do a blog post about your Christmas decorations.  Friend Jen on the Edge puts together a holiday homes tour every year which I didn't participate in because I judge my house to be not worthy.  However, it is fun to see what other people have done.  My own style can best be described as slapdash.

But what the hell?  Why not post a few pictures? I also can't resist linking back to the story of one of my favorite absurd predicaments.  Here's how we got a free Christmas tree and erroneously believed we had committed a crime on the property of James Monroe, the fifth US president.

Our tree.  

This year, I bought the tree at Whole Foods, after buying groceries.  Being too inept to tie it to the roof of the car, I stuffed the whole thing into the back of my little scion, along with the groceries (and Seamus).  The back door wouldn't close, and as we drove away, some of my groceries fell out of the back of the car into the middle of Hydraulic Rd. where I couldn't retrieve them without getting killed.  Another Christmas tree fail. 

 We gave up on the family trip to get a tree years ago.  After the fiasco linked above, we returned to Ashlawn the following year.  No crimes were committed but just when we were in the middle of the pasture carrying a heavy tree, a herd of cows appeared. All the cows I've ever seen have been behaving placidly, but these cows were actually galloping, as if they were pursued by the hounds of satan and we were the corn of salvation.  It was disconcerting, to say the least, but then the farmer appeared with a cart full of feed and they thundered past us to tear at the feed.  Those cows were hungry, and I swear--herbivores or not--if that feed cart hadn't appeared, they would have eaten us.  The next year, we drove out to a farm in Nelson county and the effing tree fell off the roof of the car when we were still a good twenty miles from home.  We had to retie it with bits of whatever--mostly shoelaces.  After that, our trees came from catalogs and grocery stores.

The mantle.

I like shiny glass ornaments, like this  friendly duck.

I made this treetop angel, back when I was an at-home mother and actually had free time.

Our house doesn't look quite so trashy after dark. 

But Bubbles feels right at home. 

You don't know Bubbles?  Watch Trailer Park Boys

What is this Jonukkah referenced in the title?  It's a special holiday, invented by Jon (get it--Jon/JONukkah) for those of us who have no self control can't wait until Christmas.  Such people are allowed to open presents that have been sent by out of town relatives.  By the time Jonukkah is over (Christmas Eve) Ian, Jon, and Grace have no presents left.  Brigid has ALL of hers and Seamus and I are somewhere in the middle.

Jon's present to me:  he hired a piano tuner to come to the house and fix and tune my piano. It was all done secretly while I was at work.  One of the hammers in the piano broke off, so I have had no F sharp, in the first octave for the right hand for TEN years!   The piano used to be my grandparents, then my mom's, and she left it to me when she died.  The tuner who came the other day showed Jon the 20 watt bulb inside the piano's innards and the electric cord that had been hidden--for over fifty years!--with which to plug it in and keep the piano warm and dry.  The whole concept that my piano is supposed to be plugged in, and the fact that the fifty year old lightbulb still works,  is more surprising than the gift of the tuning and repair, lovely as it was.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Literary Meme

I can't resist a good literary meme.  I got this one from Mad Housewife.
1. What author do you own the most books by?
Barbara Pym, if I discount books that belong to the same series.
2. What book do you own the most copies of?
None right now, but I used to own multiple copies of Anne of Green Gables and Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright.
3. Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?
4. What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
I have to pick just one?  My top literary hotties are Lord Peter Wimsey, Lucius Malfoy, Frank Greystoke from The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope, Almanzo Wilder, Aragorn, Captain James Aubrey from Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, and Harry Flashman.
5. What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children, i.e. Goodnight Moon does not count)?
Little House on the Prairie
6. What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?
Ten was a tough year for me.  We moved to a new town just before Christmas and I was miserable at my new school and our new house was ice cold all the time (we discovered 10 years later that the heating ducts had never been connected to my bedroom) and I couldn't master long division.  I was drawn to books about lonely girls who hated their schools.  The one that stands out is The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom.  Also The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnet.  
7. What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?
The Mists of Avalon by Zimmer Bradley.  Another huge best-seller that is total crap.  It's the story of King Arthur told from the women's perspective--Morgaine and her crowd.  A heavier, more humorless book you will not find anywhere.  
8. If you could force everyone to read one book, what would it be?
The Evolution Man or: How I Ate my Father by Roy Lewis.  This is one of the funniest books I've ever read.  When I finished it, I felt a strong urge to go out on the streets and press copies of it into people's hands.
9. Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?
I have no idea.  
10. What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope.
11. What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
The Flashman novels would be disastrous as films.  Once you edit out everything that's offensive, there's nothing fun left.
12. Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
I read The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner all in one day, cramming for an exam in college.  I had weird dreams that night.
13. What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?
Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
14. What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
15. What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve seen?
Alas, I've only seen well-known Shakespeare.

16. Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
The Russians.  In high school, our AP English teacher was a Russian.  This was at an all-girls' school that had just two other men on the staff: the American history teacher and the janitor.  So along comes Mr. Roman the Russian with his mournful, vodka-soaked Russian accent, and we were all in love within the first five minutes of our first class.  The entire curriculum that year was Russian literature, except for a brief, brain-killing detour through the works of James Joyce.
17. Roth or Updike?
I am embarrassed to admit I've never read any Roth.  He's on my list, I swear it!  So I will have to go with Updike.
18. David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?
I must be the only person in the US who has never read David Sedaris.  I know that some serious literary people sneer at A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but I liked it.  His descriptions of his mother's illness and death are very similar to what I experienced when my own mother died.  And I could relate to his encounters with the pretentious parents of Berkley--he calls them the "Berkley parentiscenti" and they sound an awful lot like a some Charlottesville parents I know (and wish I didn't).  I'm giving this one to Eggers. 

19. Shakespeare, Milton or Chaucer?
20. Austen or Eliot?
Austen but I also like Eliot.
21. What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
I don't think I've read even one book that was published in the last two years.
22. What is your favorite novel?
Who could ever have one favorite novel?  If I want something delicious and cozy: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.   If I want to laugh:  My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.  If I'm gently melancholy:  Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor.  If I'm in a pre-war state of mind:  Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood.  If I want to be miserable:  Dubliners by James Joyce. If I want to feel better about getting older:  The Diaries of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing.  If I am feeling wicked: anything by Iris Murdoch or Flannery O'Connor.  If I want romance: The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning.

23. Play?
Reading plays is unnatural.  If I HAVE to pick one, then let it be The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.
24. Poem?
Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
25. Essay?
"The Crackup" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
26. Short story?
"Revelation" by Flannery O'Connor.

27. Work of nonfiction?
Again, it's hard to pick just one, but since I just finished reading it and it was excellent, I'll go with London: the Biography by Peter Ackroyd.

28. Who is your favorite writer?
This is just like asking me to name a favorite novel.
29. Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
John Grisham.  
30. What is your desert island book?
Buddenbrooks, maybe?  Or The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor.
31. And…what are you reading right now?
Flashman and the Dragon by George MacDonald Fraser

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment 12/16/11: Christmas

I don't read much holiday themed literature, but here is a list of my favorites, such as it is.  Most of these are children's books.

The Doll's Christmas by Tasha Tudor.  I have always been in love with Tasha Tudor's illustrations and I love this sweet little book in which two girls and their dolls enjoy a Christmas party.

Becky's Christmas by Tasha Tudor.  Tudor's "Becky" books are charming and I used to love reading this one (and The Doll's Christmas) out loud to my children.  This is a nostalgic look at a traditional American country Christmas, greatly enhanced by Tudor's delicate illustrations.

The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden.  An orphan, an unwanted doll and a childless couple come together in this story that would be awfully sentimental if it weren't written by Rumer Godden, whose other doll books I loved as a child, especially The Doll's House and Impunity Jane.  Excellent illustrations by Barbara Cooney.

The Christmas books of Miss Read.  I believe all the titles are Christmas at Thrush Green, No Holly for Miss Quinn, Village Christmas, The Christmas Mouse.  I don't know if I've actually read all of these, but I started reading Miss Read during a dark period of my life in which our move to Virginia followed hard on the heels of my mother's death.  Miss Read, whose real name is Dora Saint, writes gentle stories of life in country villages in England.  When we first moved to Virginia, while I was still relying on Miss Read for comfort lit, I was indignant to find that Miss Read's books were shelved at the Charlottesville library under "R" for Read instead "M" for Miss as they were in Buffalo.  I took this as a sign of a backward society.  (That, and the appalling discovery that the public libraries here use the Dewey decimal system instead of Library of Congress.)  Yes, I am a nerd, but I worked in a library in high school and all through college and my grandmother was a librarian, so I take these things more seriously than most people.

What are your favorite holiday books?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pride & Prejudice movie showdown.

Get your Jane Austen geek on because here is a guide to the Pride & Prejudice movies.

1940: Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson.

How does this movie annoy me?  Let me count the ways.  The ditzy chickens in the hen house soundtrack is one clue that Jane Austen is turning in her grave.  I am not the first person to observe that the costumes are from the wrong time period but good Christ, the gaudy fabrics and appalling bonnets are caricatures of an uninformed mixture of styles from the 1830's through the 1860's.   It's like they hired Chris March and instructed him to design a "fantasy" Pride & Prejudice.

Jane Austen was hardly a feminist, and 1940's Hollywood certainly didn't make it a priority to portray women as anything but sex objects, but in this Pride and Prejudice, the irritating music the chatter, the giggling, the absurd costumes, the bows, ruffles and ringlets, the appalling behavior (such as the carriage race between Lady Lucas and Mrs Bennet, both in a rush to make their husbands call on Mr. Bingley first) all send the clear message that women are very, very silly creatures indeed with no object in life other than to catch a man.  Even Lizzie, who is supposed to be sensible, is only distinguished by being rather less ditzy than the other women.  Austen's works are known for lampooning the faults of human nature, but she always presents a dichotomy:  the sensible vs the idiots.  Here, all are idiots.

Laurence Olivier's D'arcy is the most genial, the least haughty of the D'arcys.  His appearance is close to how one imagines D'arcy should look.  As for Greer Garson in the role of Elizabeth, I can't get past her over-tweezed 1940's eyebrows and false freaking eyelashes.  She looks wrong and while she tries to exude the sparkling personality of the literary character, I think she mostly fails.  I just can't warm to her.   Edward Ashley as Wickham and Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins are both competent in their roles although both are too old, and it is a stretch to consider Wickham as handsome.  Lady Catherine De Burg is a horse-faced monster.  Charles Bingley gets about three seconds of screen time, and Frieda Inescort as Caroline Bingley is perhaps the strongest performance of the entire cast.

This movie does have its moments, such as the "ball" at Netherfield (a ghastly imitation of the big party at Twin Oaks in Gone with the Wind) where Elizabeth Bennet and Caroline Bingley insult each other so effectively.

1980:  Pride and Prejudice starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul

The typical low-budget BBC film.  You wonder why they bothered, until you remember that when this movie was made, it had been forty years since the last adaptation.  This film is not visually exciting.  The houses are not much to look at--the Bennet's house, with its Palladian windows looks like something you'd see in an American cul-de-sac.  The costumes are uninspired and cheap.  David Rintoul way overplays Mr. D'arcy's haughtiness and seems to be always cradling a little pile of pebbles on his tongue.  Elizabeth Garvie is a likeable Lizzie, but she can't save this film.  The rest of the cast left no impression on me so we will have to conclude that their performances were forgettable.

1995:  Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle

This is the movie generally held up as the best adaptation.  It is certainly very well done and the entire cast is excellent, although I can't say I love Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth.  She's too heavy, somehow, and I don't mean fat, just a tad ponderous for someone who is supposed to be lively and playful.  Colin Firth plays Darcy as a smoldering hunk of repressed lust which is very effective, I must say.

This six-hour miniseries follows the book closely and with great accuracy.  Some of my all-time favorite scenes in movie history are here:  Sourpuss Caroline Bingley facing the horrors of Cheapside, Mr. Bennett saying, "And yet I am unmoved" in response to Mrs. Bennett's declaration that a little sea-bathing would set her up forever.  Mrs. Bennett shrieking about wedding clothes at the news of Lydia's elopement,  dimwitted Lydia asking “Where is everybody?” as she is marched up the steps of the church to her wedding, Mary informing her sisters that the loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable,  the piano scene at Pemberly, and Eliza and Darcy dancing at the ball.

Alison Steadman is the Mrs. Bennet and plays the part with comic brilliance.  No one else can touch her in this role, with her nerves, her flutterings, her scheming, her facial expressions, and a voice that drills itself into your eardrums.  Every time she opens her mouth, she says something hilarious and she manages to steal the scene even when she's just in the background..  Indeed, without her, this movie would be altogether too serious for what is supposed to be a comedy.  Benjamin Whitrow is the best Mr. Bennet of the bunch as well.  David Bamber as Mr. Collins is funny but also far creepier than I think Austen intended him to be.  Lucy Scott exerts a presence as Charlotte Lucas and Anthony Calf is charming in the small role of Colonel Fitzwilliam.  Adrian Lukis as Mr. Wickham is not handsome enough and appears shady from the beginning, which is all wrong

2005:  Pride and Prejudice, starring Kiera Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen

This is the most visually stunning of all the movies.  Everything:  the costumes, the sets, the landscapes, is gorgeous.  I love the Bennet's house in this film, which looks truly lived in.  The colors, the clutter, the laundry hanging in the back yard, the enormous pig, and the geese are all perfect.  The costumes are the best of all the P&P movies.  Some of you may say that Elizabeth's clothes are drab--and she does spend too much time bundled into a shabby old coat--but the details, the delicate prints, the simplicity are all lovely. There are no bountiful bosoms unlike the 1995 version, in which everyone displays a deep decolletage except for poor, pimpled Mary.  In this age of Victoria's Secret, birth control pills and breast implants, it's expected that all women have enormous breasts.  I'm glad no one was artificially enhanced for this movie.

A movie like this will always be judged according to how closely it follows the book, but as I watched this  P&P, I realized that if the producers had tried to create an exact retelling of Austen's novel, it would have come out as a bad imitation of the feted BBC version. This movie is a skillfully unique production. It doesn't try to live up to the BBC version, in which nearly every line comes verbatim from the book. Also, where authenticity is concerned, the Kiera Knightly version, I think, gives a more accurate picture of life in the early 1800s. The 18th century, with it's freer manners and moral standards, had barely ended when P&P takes place, and this is apparent in the new movie, both in the fashions—the young girls wear empire gowns, but the older ladies cling to the tight bodices and big hair of their own youths--and the behaviors. Yes, the manners are formal, but when Caroline Bingley wonders, at the ball, if they will all be forced to chase a piglet, you can see why she asks.  I loved the apr├ęs-ball scene, in which the Bennett family is clearly hung-over.

The cast is good too.  Brenda Blethyn is a more motherly, anxious Mrs. Bennet.  She's not as funny as Amanda Steadman, but she's more sympathetic.  Donald Sutherland is a grave and serious Mr. Bennet.  Rosamund Pike is my favorite Jane.  Jena Malone and Carey Mulligan as Lydia and Kitty look like the very young girls they're supposed to be---you can see why it is so shocking for Wickham to pick Lydia to run away with. In the BBC movie, Lydia looks more adult, and with her confident manner, it's more like she's the one taking advantage of Wickham, rather than the other way around. I'm glad Mary was allowed to be pretty in this movie--why should being bookish mean you must be ugly?  When I read the book for the first time, I was younger than any of the Bennet girls, Mary and Kitty were the characters who fascinated me, because they were peripheral to the story and thus an unknown quantity. Rupert Friend plays Wickham--a handsome Wickham at last!  Unfortunately, he's in barely three scenes.  Simon Woods is the most appealing Mr. Bingley. Tom Hollander was a good choice for Mr. Collins, who, in the book, is described as being twenty-five years old.  Why all the other movies had to make him middle aged is beyond me.  The young Mr. Collins here is perfectly ridiculous, but not creepy like David Bamber.  Kiera Knightly is not my favorite Elizabeth.  She reminds me of Winona Ryder trying to be Jo in Little Women.  (Knightly's not that bad, and she's good in the other historic roles she plays, but she just doesn't seem like a Lizzie to me.)  Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy never seems truly haughty, but instead just shy and sensitive. At the movie's opening, I thought he was all wrong, but his D'Arcy becomes more appealing as the movie progressed.  This movie has the best Elizabeth/Darcy sexual chemistry.

2008:  Lost in Austen starring Jemima Rooper and Elliott Cowan.

In this movie, Amanda Price lives in modern London, has a dull job, an oafish boyfriend and a cynical mother. Her idea of a good evening is one spent curled up on the couch with a glass of wine and a Jane Austen novel.  One day she finds Elizabeth Bennett in her bathroom, where the door behind the pipes turns out to be a conduit to the Bennett household, which Amanda enters just as Netherfield Park has been let at last.  Elizabeth stays in the 21st century, and Amanda is trapped with the Bennetts, where no one behaves quite like they do in the novel and the plot unravels in an alarming way.

I love this movie.  It's the funniest of all the P&P's and it's certainly the only Jane Austen movie you'll ever see with a reference to a pubic topiary.  Since the story goes all awry you are dying to see how it turns out--another novelty in a Jane Austen movie.  Jemima Rooper is hilarious as Amanda Price, although you can't help wondering how she maintains her artfully straightened hairstyle while living in the 19th century.  Gemma Arterton looks the most like how I imagined Elizabeth Bennet does in the novel, but since she spends most of the movie in Amanda's world, we hardly see her.  We have another superb Mrs. Bennett in Alex Kingston and Tom Riley is the best Mr. Wickham in Pride & Prejudice movie history.   The Bennet sisters are all delightful, especially Ruby Bentall as Mary. Guy Henry as Mr. Collins takes the role from creepy to straight up pervert. The only disappointment is Elliott Cowan as Mr. Darcy who is appears to be wearing wooden underwear and who has zero chemistry with the character who is supposed to be his love interest.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment 12/9/11: Gritty

This week's assignment, A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews, belongs to the Grit Lit genre, which means (as I understand it) painfully realistic, darkly comic literature, set in the American south.  A Feast of Snakes has it all:  sex, violence, crime, murder, and high school football.  It's set in the town of Mystic, Georgia, which is about to host its annual event, the Rattlesnake Roundup.  Readers may have difficulty with the misogyny and the violence--I found the abuse of pit bulls and their fights to be particularly upsetting.  Nevertheless, it was this sort of lit--Flannery O'Connor's writing is a precursor of the style--that made me think I might be able to tolerate living in the South.  In college, I was an ardent admirer of southern lit.  I actually felt that I needed to live in the south to become a better writer.  It's still my opinion that the south has a richer literary tradition than the north.   A Feast of Snakes is a tragicomic white trash opera.  I love it because of its unashamed declaration that people are bastards.

Monday, December 05, 2011


I have a pretty poor track record when it comes to crafts.  Whenever I attempt a project, even if I follow the instructions carefully, the result is usually a fail.  Take, for example some Christmas cookies I saw in a magazine a few years ago.

These are the cookies as presented in the magazine.

This is what happened when I tried to bake them.

The other day, I saw these cookies on Pinterest and I was tempted to leave a comment about my experience with it, but I decided against it.  There are some things people need to learn for themselves and anyway, the Pinterest crowd doesn't seem to be very interested in reality.

 Pinterest is where I saw this Advent calendar.

I liked its clean red and white pallet. How hard could it be to paint a bunch of clothespins and glue them to a board?

For years I have wanted to make an Advent calendar.  Upscale catalogs have nice ones but they're usually things you could make yourself with fabric or yarn scraps and it's ridiculous to pay $98 for twenty-four tiny mittens on a string at Garnet Hill.

I've tried to knit my own tiny mittens, and always got bored before finishing even the first one.  This time I was determined to succeed.  I found twenty-five clothespins and gave them to Seamus to paint while I went out to buy the rest of the materials.  I did some calculations:  twenty-five clothespins spaced three and a half inches apart meant I needed an eighty-seven inch board.  That's more than seven feet.  For some reason, the Pinterest photo had led me to believe that the Advent calendar would be small and manageable, you know, like the size of a photograph on pinterest.  Now it appeared I was making the world's largest Advent calendar.

No doubt I amused the Lowe's shoppers who saw me attempting to scan the end of an eight food board at the self scanner and nearly take a guy out by the ankles.  I also smacked it into the top of the doorway when leaving the store.  At home, Seamus had painted ALL the clothespins red even though I had told him that we needed to paint half of them white.  I will spare you all the painful details, but in the end, I didn't even have a wall long enough to hang it on and had to resort to the space over a doorway.

Jon was not happy with the hooks I bought to hang it with as he felt they would work themselves off of the nails and the calendar would fall on the unlucky head of someone walking through the doorway.  I like excitement, but not that much excitement, and allowed him to improvise a way to hang the thing with leather thongs.  Leather thongs don't exactly say Christmas, but neither does an Advent calendar that doubles as a guillotine.

The finished product.  Not only is it long, it is heavy.  See my left hand, straining to hold it up in this picture?

There aren't packages hanging from all the clothespins.  That's because wrapping twenty-five tiny presents is HARD.  Hanging them is hard too, when you've accidentally painted the clothespins shut. Don't worry, I got them all wrapped and hanging eventually.  Note that the gifts are out of reach of the children.

After all that work, I read about how to make a clever Advent calendar from rolled-up pages from the Anthropologie catalog.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment 12/2/11

I don't read many best sellers, but one popular author I love is Bill Bryson.  He never fails to make me laugh and if you haven't read any of his books yet, what are you waiting for?   This week's assignment is one of his earlier, less well-known books, The Lost Continent:  Travels in Small Town America.  Starting in his hometown in Iowa, Bryson makes a road trip through much of the United States, specifically looking for the ideal American small town.  Bryson hadn't quite reached his writing stride when he wrote this, but it is worth reading, nevertheless.

Bryson is mostly disappointed.  He envisions a small friendly place with a green courthouse square, useful shops along Main St., a centrally located post office, movie house, library, and residential neighborhoods within walking distance of downtown.  What he finds are mostly dreary towns whose businesses have succumbed to competition from big box stores on the outskirts of town.  It sounds grim, but Bryson has a talent for becoming embroiled in ridiculous situations, some of which are even to be found in the index.

Bryson City, North Carolina 87-91
            panty shields incident in A&P, 90-91

Before I owned a copy of this book I used to read the library's copy and someone wrote elegant little margin notes refuting some of Bryson's assertions.  I think I may have left my own elegant little margin note on the page where he declares Lake Erie "dead."  Since Bryson's writing is less mature than it is in his later books, he indulges in a few cringeworthy judgements, but mostly I join him in being appalled at the disintegration of the American small town.  And road trip books are awesome.