Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: books that suck

I'm not happy with what I'm reading right now, and while I never intended my "reading assignments" to be about the book I'm reading at the moment, I thought we could talk about books that irritate us and why we keep reading them.

I'm reading Penmarric by Susan Howatch, which is one of those "sweeping family sagas" set in Cornwall.  Sex, money, property, bastards, etc.  The blurb compares it to Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca.  Um, no.

Why am I reading this drivel?  Because Michael Korda told me to.  Not exactly, but in his book about his career at Simon & Schuster (Another Life) he mentions Penmarric as a book that came across his desk that seemed really different and special.  So I added it to my book list and now I am saying, "WHY, MICHAEL WHY?"

Who knows, maybe in the 1970s it was different and special to use 500 words when twenty-five would suffice.  Here, a bridegroom approaches his wife on their wedding night:

I lit a cigarette, walked over to the railings of the esplanade and watched the moonlight glittering on the dark waters.  The sea was calm; I felt at peace...Faint strains of music reached my ears from the dining room; the murmur of conversation floated to meet me from the drawing room...I mounted the stairs, my feet sinking into the thick carpet, and moved without hesitation down the cooridor to the door of our suite.
She was ready for bed.  She wore some pale floating garment and as I entered the room I could see her reflection in the dressing table mirror.  Her hair, thick and luxuriant, cascaded over her shoulders...

Then she wipes some lipstick off her mouth and he freaks out and is suddenly remembering every tragic thing that ever happened to him.

I was back among the worst memories of my life, back amidst all the blood and violence and suffering I'd tried so hard to forget.  I'd thought I'd never have to live through those memories again, but I was wrong.  Time had been displaced, the clock put back.
And I was there.

It's supposed to be dramatic, but it's really just boring and infuriating.  I hope I don't come across as a snob. Good and bad writing cut across all levels of literature and I enjoy all kinds of books.  Indeed, if there's anything more irritating than a poorly-written best seller, it's a badly written novel with pretensions to being great literature.

So why am I reading it?  I don't always continue with awful books.  Recently, a book's "thrilling" language irritated me so much I quit reading after twenty pages.  I was so exceptionally annoyed I returned it to the library immediately as if it was too much to even have it in the house with me.  The one thing worthwhile thing about Penmarric is that Susan Howatch parallels the Penmar family's story with that of the Plantagenets:  Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their children.  It's an interesting idea and the book could have been really good if someone had forced her to remove the manufactured drama.

What sorts of books irritate you?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


The results of the appraisal were disappointing.  Doubly so because we found inaccuracies in the report:  it says our house has two bedrooms, when it very obviously has three.  The report also says our house has vinyl windows, which it does not.  Some of the windows are the original, 100-year old wooden windows with wavy glass panes, and we saved up for top quality wood architect series windows for those that we needed to replace.  So now I have to email them and correct the errors.  Who knows, maybe we'll see an increase of $10 or so.  Or maybe they'll deduct value as a whining penalty.

Have our lives changed in any significant way because someone assigned a number to our house?  No, but trust me, it really sticks in your craw when some stranger walks through the house you've loved for over ten years and pronounces it ("the subject") a pile of shite.  The urban courtyard of excellence doesn't seem like such a worthy project anymore, although it may still be possible for the refinance to go through.  I have no idea what the loan-to-value ratio is supposed to be.  No doubt someone will tell us.  In the meantime, we'll consider moving a herd of goats into the living room and squatting here until the house falls down around us.

On the bright side, our house looked really cute in all the pictures taken by the appraiser.  Also, I got home from work Monday and found that Jon had strategically place a bathmat to hide a damaged spot on the bathroom floor.

That doesn't look suspicious AT ALL.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sitting in the lap of the gods

It has been a veritable beehive of activity here at Casa Crabstick as we prepare for the real estate appraisers who will determine the market value of our house, which will determine if our refinance will happen.  If all goes well, we will pay off our mortgage nine years early, at a much lower interest rate, and the front yard of ill repute will become the urban courtyard of excellence.

This is the third time we've refinanced, and I don't remember ever worrying about the appraisal.  Back then, real estate was booming and we could have torched the house and it would still have had a market value in the neighborhood of $15 million. (Hyperbole here, in case it isn't obvious.)  But these are sterner times.

It's scary because it's so subjective.  If we get someone who thinks quirky old houses are charming, we're golden.  If we get someone who's enamored with brand-new suburban "homes" we're screwed.

Last week, I asked twitter what would be the best way to spend four hours preparing for an appraiser and got answers ranging from "arson" to "aim for perfection." In reality, we had more than four hours to prepare, but still, we had to make efficient use of what time we had.  I scheduled a large trash pickup and Seamus and I cleared the basement of junk.  I pruned a haystack of grape vines off the pergola in back, chopped down some weed trees and put everything out at the curb for collection.

Inside, I identified the stair risers as the flaw with the biggest visual impact.  When we bought the house, I thought the scratched risers were appalling and resolved to paint them immediately.  Thirteen years passed and they never got painted.  Which is just as well, because that was thirteen years that I didn't have to stress about the state of my stairs.

Here's an old picture with a glimpse of how they used to look.

Here they are since getting painted:

Of course now the stair stress begins.  I will have to fussily monitor the staircase with my little can of white semi gloss.

Pretend you don't see the hideous orange paint in the hallway.

But back to the appraisers.  Jon is to be at home to greet them today, and was given strict instructions on how to behave:  Don't talk with a fake Irish accent.  Don't talk with a fake Italian accent. Don't talk with a fake southern accent.  Do not, under any circumstances, mention the earthquake or the derecho. Try to prevent them from opening the door to the closet under the stairs.  NO JOKES OF ANY KIND.

In addition to extra cleaning,  I gathered up all the random crap and threw it in my car.  We at least have the appearance of a miraculous family that has no superfluous shoes, no stacks of papers or cans of wasp spray in the bathroom, no phone chargers coupled with every freaking electrical outlet, no umbrellas, backpacks, dust pans, weights, water bottles, step ladders, jars of rosin, magazine clippings, catalogs,  burned-out mercury light bulbs, globes with holes in them, river rocks used as mantle decorations, shredded bathroom curtains, or walking sticks.  And for this one day, we have exactly as many books as will fit in our bookcases and no more.

When I get home from work this evening, I will have to put all that stuff back in the house, which may prove fatal.  If I never update this blog again, know that I died of despair.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A toxicologist walks into a bar.

Yesterday a contractor--"Contractor Kyle"-- came over to discuss a project, and in order to expose a mystery pipe in the front yard I thoughtlessly thrust my bare hand into a little mound of firewood and rocks.  I tossed a few sticks and rocks aside and suddenly Contractor Kyle said, "Whoa, look at the size of that black widow!" I snatched my hand away--it had come within millimeters of a large black widow that had been sitting undisturbed in our front yard for the entire summer.  And no,  we didn't kill it.  I don't believe in killing spiders. The cute part of this story is that when I told Jon about it, he was actually upset about how close I came to being bitten.  You don't die of black widow bites, but you do suffer agonizing pain that can last up to fourteen hours. Or so I was told once by a toxicologist in a bar.

Now might be a good time to introduce the other, less lethal, fauna that has taken up residence on our property this summer.  First are the tree frogs.  Something was making an awful racket in one of our trees every night.  Jon said it was tree frogs and I didn't believe him, because I thought tree frogs were some sort of made up thing.  (Forgive me.  I grew up in a city in the northeast.  We didn't have frogs, or black widows, or copperheads or any of the other wild life with which Virginia teems. Or specialty light bulbs.)  But what do you know, they are tree frogs, and one night one of them clung to the glass pane of our back door as if he had been planning all summer to take a peek at us.

Then there's a family of lovely plump bunnies that have a burrow somewhere near the tree frogs' tree.  They don't seem to be very afraid of us.  I have been able to get quite close to them, as long as I don't make any sudden movements.  I wonder if the spirit of George told them that we are people who are kind to bunnies.  The dogs haven't made any effort to eat them.  Maybe living with a bunny in the house has taught them that this is one species they shouldn't kill?

Finally, there's Toady, who has moved into the front garden.  He is homely, but his personality is so charming, we are able to overlook his ugliness.  He first appeared early in the summer, when he hopped onto the front porch one evening.  We shooed him away because we didn't want the dogs to eat him, but after a few minutes he crept cautiously into the circle of light cast by the porch lamp and looked at us hopefully, as if he wanted to take part in the conversation.  No matter how many times we shooed him away, he came back, determined to spend time with us. Now, every night he is Jon's companion on the front porch for beer and cigarettes.  He enjoys sitting on the end of our push broom.  We were worried he would be killed during the derecho and some of the torrential rains we've had this summer.  We did find a dead toad in the driveway--Mrs. Toady, presumably, as Jon pronounced her too small to be our Toady.  And our Toady is definitely alive and well as of last night, and also considerably larger than he was earlier in the summer.  Our dogs appear to have no interest in eating a toad.

"Toady" is not a very imaginative name.  What do you think is an appropriate name for a thoughtful toad who enjoys porch lights, brooms, conversation, and cigarette smoke?

Monday, September 17, 2012

One Girl, Forty Martinis III

Friday night found us a Bang again, where I ordered the Bang Lemon Drop, which is like an alcoholic lemonade.

Soon I needed another.  The next drink on the menu is the bangarita.  I'm not a big fan of tequila or margaritas, but this one was pretty good.  They add sour mix to their margaritas, so they're a little different from the traditional.

I never dreamed I would be consuming four martinis in a single week. An activity at which I excel!

I was, of course, in no condition to drive, but we stayed out to see Southern Culture on the Skids who were playing at the Jefferson.  This is the third time I've seen them and they're tons of fun.  How can you resist songs titled "Pig Pickin'" and "Doublewide?"

The opening band was playing when we got there and claimed spots fairly close to the stage.  Jon wandered away--he was gone for about a month--leaving me in the care of the two firemen friends of his.

Here's the part of the show where audience members are invited on stage and pelt the rest of us with fried chicken. Then the audience throws it back at the stage. Rick Miller provided the crowd on stage with a calculation:  The velocity of fried chicken thrown back at the stage=the velocity of the fried chicken thrown at the audience, times ten.  If SCOTs ever comes to your town, you should definitely go.

For your viewing pleasure. (Some questionable scenes, so don't watch at work.)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: The Home-Maker

Dorothy Canfield Fisher is not so well known now, but she was a best selling author in the early 20th century.  One of her children's books, Understood Betsey, was one of my favorites.  This week I read The Home-Maker, which I assumed has been long out of print, but actually was reprinted in 1999 by Persephone Books, which has published a very interesting list of books by obscure women writers. They also use reprints of antique fabrics for their endpapers.

So, it's the 1920s and Eva Knapp is a respectable housewife with three children and a husband who has a low-paying white collar job at the local mercantile.  Eva is talented.  She has a natural sense of style, design ability, energy, superior organization and leadership skills and all of this talent has one avenue of expression: housekeeping. She is miserable. Her children and husband are terrified of her.  All of them suffer stress-related physical ailments except for the youngest child, who is a baby juvenile delinquent.  Then an accident happens and Eva is forced to get a job, while her husband, Lester, finds himself in the position of home maker.

It was the first part of this book, when Eva is still a home maker, that really grabbed me.  She can't rest until her house is immaculate. Cleaning and cooking are her only means of self-expression, and in this context a small domestic mishap (grease spilled on a freshly scrubbed floor) takes on tragic proportions.  How many of us have felt that way?  I know I did when I was at home full time with four children under six.  One wonders if it is frustrated talent and energy that has led to the almost unattainable standards of motherhood we face today.  Polyurethane has eliminated the need to scrub grease spots out of wood floors, but who in the 1920's was teaching Chinese to toddlers or throwing Goodnight Moon-themed birthday parties for infants?

The Home-Maker must have been a radical book in 1924, the way it acknowledges that full-time care of a house and children is not fulfilling for everyone and is not necessarily the exclusive province of women.  Still, the fact that it was made into a movie soon after it was published suggests that women responded to this concept even if it made them uncomfortable. The novel considers and rejects the idea that both parents can work, but Lester, conveniently, loves to stay at home with his children.  The point is not that homemaking is bad for everybody, just for some people.  But in the 1920s, the only acceptable reason for a man to stay home with his children was a disability.  It must also have shocked the readers of the 1920s that Eva ends up earning more than her husband ever would have.

The Home-Maker is not great literature by any means, and certain passages are almost unbearably corny and sentimental.  Still, it appears to be having a mini-revival and I can see why.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

One girl, forty martinis II

I didn't expect to be publishing a second installment so soon, but yesterday it was necessary to take my new haircut out on the town, so back to Bang we went.

The second martini on the menu is the B. Moss: vodka, mint simple syrup, and lime.  I'd never ordered it before because I'm not a big mint fan, but the B. Moss is not overpoweringly minty.  It's cool and sweet and delicious.  It slides down the throat so easily, soon I was talking volubly about a variety of subjects and not caring about my graceless handling of the chopsticks.

Meanwhile, a woman in one of those American-made cars from the 1970s, with a hood as big as a king-sized bed had managed to block both the entrance to the South St. parking lot and all of South St. with her car, while she had a shouted conversation with someone in the upper story of the building that houses Sunbow Trading Company.  She eventually drove away, and the woman in the building had the last word, shouting out the window, "She high as a kite."  Street theater.

Stay tuned for more martini adventures.

Monday, September 10, 2012

One girl, forty martinis

I pondered the martini menu at Bang, frustrated by the wealth of choices.  There was only one thing to do:  order every martini on the menu and describe them (here) so that I will never be flummoxed by the martini menu again.  Bang offers forty martinis.  Obviously, I can't order them all in one sitting, much as I would like to try.

First on the list is the "Afterglow"-- Knob Creek with a little lemongrass simple syrup and a lime wedge.  This is a big girl martini, and not a fruity little drink that you can suck down in ten seconds but I was already committed to EVERY MARTINI ON THE MENU so I ordered it.

To me, bourbon tastes like you are drinking out of a dusty old sock drawer, and perhaps that is the taste craved by bourbon connoisseurs.  What do I know?  I am not a fan, but that's not Bang's fault, and I managed to drink the whole thing, although it took forever.  It tasted much better after I'd had a bite-sized tuna tartare pizza and some shredded cucumber.  If you love bourbon, you would probably enjoy this drink.

Stay tuned, as I work my way through the rest of them.  Always working hard to keep the public informed. ;)

Bang!--Our go-to restaurant in Charlottesville.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Faulkner again.

I am sorry to do this to you, but this week it's Faulkner again.  As part of the Fifty Classics project, I just finished As I Lay Dying.  It's very bad to read books like they are medicine, which is what I was doing at first with this one, but suddenly I found I had gotten into it, and didn't want to put it down.

I'd also like to let Green Girl in Wisconsin know that when she commented on my last Faulkner post, saying that As I Lay Dying nearly killed her, and I agreed with her and said it nearly killed me too, I was confusing Light in August for As I Lay Dying.  It was Light in August that nearly killed me.

As I Lay Dying is a comedy, apparently, but it's the sort that makes you indecisive about whether you should laugh or cry or put a gun to your head.  If you look at all the awful things that happen to people and consider them God's little practical jokes, then yes, As I Lay Dying is a comedy.

So, Addie Bundren is dying, and as she's dying, her son Cash is outside sawing the boards for her coffin, which isn't very pleasant, but these are people who are forced to act out of necessity, and it is necessary to make a coffin.  It's also necessary to take the wagon somewhere to deliver something and earn $3, so when Addie actually does die, there's a delay of several days before the wagon returns so they can load her body into it and take it to Jefferson, where she wanted to be buried.  And so it goes, with one misadventure after another and Addie's body smelling worse every day until they have an ever-increasing flock of buzzards following them all the way to Jefferson.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that the youngest son, Vardaman, drilling air holes through the coffin lid for his dead mother, accidentally drills down into her face.  It's a real barrel of laughs. 

No doubt I am very simpleminded and overlooked something vitally important, but overall I was struck by the sheer misery of every member of this family.  They live at the point where tragedy becomes comedy, and that it what made this novel so compelling for me.  Sometimes, as Mrs. Doyle on Father Ted says, you want a "good, miserable time."  And it goes without saying that the writing is exquisite.