Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: At Mrs. Lippincote's

On the one hand, I agree with those who decry the need for literature to be relatable.  The argument--usually applied when discussing literature that is assigned to school children--is that selecting literature that you can relate to your own experience leads to laziness and narcissism.  Why should everything relate to YOU?  I understand that, I really do.  On the other hand, it can be so lovely to start a novel and realize that the author, or at least, the characters she creates, are your soul mates.

So it is with Elizabeth Taylor.  She understands, for example, the unbearably depressing nature of organized sports for children, and that sometimes you might as well just BE Jane Eyre for the day.  She's a master of describing the fanciful thoughts that invade your head as you navigate through everyday relationships.

Julia Davenant, her husband Roddy, their son Oliver, and Roddy's cousin Eleanor rent a house recently vacated by elderly Mrs. Lippincote, who moved to a residential hotel.  Roddy is an officer in the army and it is the middle of World War II.  The house is furnished with Mrs. Lippincote's old-fashioned things, and every drawer, cupboard and cranny is stuffed with Mrs. Lippincote's old photos, letters, and other personal items.  Her family photos observe the Davenants from the mantle and the dining room wall.  Julia is a whimsical person, and Roddy's treatment of her is based on what he read in advice books about marriage.  He doesn't understand his wife at all.  Eleanor, "unmarried and forty" is in love with Roddy.

This isn't the sort of book that you read to see what happens.  You read it to catch the delicate nuances in relationships.  Still, some things happen.  Eleanor, improbably, considering her stiff and conventional nature, becomes involved with a hive of communists.  Roddy's boss, the Wing Commander, becomes mildly infatuated with Julia, and Mrs. Lippincote's daughter comes and goes without warning and lets herself into the locked room at the top of the tower. Oliver, who achieves constant mild illness in order to stay out of school, has his own fantasy life guided by whatever he is reading at the moment.  I'm not finished with this book yet, but in paging ahead, I can see that some sort of marital crisis is coming.

If you like intelligent British fiction (think Barbara Pym) you will love Mrs. Lippincote.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Front Hall II

The best place for painting advice is the paint counter at Meadowbrook Hardware on Preston Ave.   When we painted the outside of our house (2007) the man at the paint counter was so helpful he all but painted the house for me.  (Jon broke a rib playing extreme frisbee when less than a quarter of the house was painted, so I had to take over.)

To review,  we're dealing with a peeling paint situation in the front hall and upstairs landing.  The Meadowbrook Hardware paint counter man told me that I need to remove ALL the latex paint and then prime the woodwork with an oil based primer.  Oil based primer?  That means mason jars of paint thinner all over the house until I can take them to hazardous waste day at the dump.  Which is usually in October, so all the trim must be primed by then.

Old House Enthusiast, I see you at the back of the class, waving your hand.  "What about preserving the natural wood?"  Sorry, but no.  Someone in the pre-mustard era varnished the woodwork with the ugliest dark brown imaginable.  The mustard paint is actually an improvement over the wood finish.  Do I want woodwork the color of Rick Perry's black heart?  No I do not.  The dark brown varnish is from the age of coal furnaces, which made houses filthy to a degree that would be shocking to us now.  Indeed, as late as 1990, the walls in our house were so thickly coated with coal dust, the previous owners chose to demolish the worst of them, rather than attempt to clean them.  I imagine that if you transported a Victorian housewife to our times, she would be more astonished at our clean, white interiors than at our cell phones, computers, or airplanes.

"Natural" woodwork

So, removing all of the white paint is turning out to be difficult.  In many places, it peels away with ease, and in others, it is firmly adhered to the mustard paint.  I may have to indulge in a little light chemical stripping, although I really don't want to, as I had a bad experience with stripper, and then didn't learn my lesson.  But now I know: DIY stripping is a disaster.

Most of the white gone from doorway

Underneath the mustard is a layer of green paint, in the shade that was popular in the 1930s, and that Martha Stewart made popular again a few years ago.  Underneath the green is a pale pink, and underneath the pink is the horrible brown varnish.  I only really need to remove the white, but in some spots more layers are coming off.  This is turning out to be a very big, somewhat discouraging project.

On the bright side, the outside looks decidedly not awful.  We still haven't made final arrangements with the painters--finding a gutters man seems to be a problem--and at this rate, I doubt much will be accomplished by the end of autumn.  I love my new brick patio, but I worry that with the rest of the house being somewhat shabby, it's a silk purse/sow's ear situation.  I spent some time scrubbing the front porch woodwork, which made things look much better.   At least the weeds, spider webs and disreputable fire pit are gone forever.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: On the Nightstand

My nightstand has some very exciting things on it right now.

Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.  This was my grandfather's favorite book--because of the descriptions of the food, he used to say--and I have his old copy of it.  I have difficulty with Dickens, particularly his earlier works, but I do love to read good food descriptions.

Grandfather's signature in Pickwick Papers

Music of the Swamp by Lewis Nordan.  If you aren't familiar with Lewis Nordan, I suggest you look him up.  I've read his memoir and a few of his other novels--which are mostly about boyhood in Mississippi.  His novel Wolf Whistle is about the lynching of Emmett Till. I'm afraid to read that one.  Music of the Swamp is another coming of age in the Delta book with some really good writing.

At Mrs. Lippincote's by Elizabeth Taylor.  I am so excited to read this one.  I loved Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont and have always wanted to read more of Elizabeth Taylor.  Then I saw Mrs. Lippincote mentioned over at Leaves and Pages , so I had to get it.

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell.  The Angela Thirkell shelves at the Alderman library caught my eye one day.  One of the books had a little blurb describing Thirkell as the "new Anthony Trollope," so of course I must read her.  I chose Wild Strawberries after pawing through the whole collection and finding the one with the earliest publication date.  One likes to start near the beginning.  No idea what it's about, but the book opens with, "The Vicar of St. Mary's, Rushwater, looked anxiously through the vestry window..."

The Town by William Faulkner.  For the Fifty Classics project.  As I've said before, I find Faulkner incredibly difficult, so I may be gritting my teeth through this one.

Miss Mole by E. H. Young.  Written in 1930.  I read a compelling review at the Bamboo Bookcase, so now it's on my bookshelf.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome.  Classic Victorian humor, and the author's name is awesome.

Wait for Marcy by Rosamund Du Jardin.  I love vintage young adult books.  This one was published in 1950.  I think I may have read it when I was young, as our public library had a fantastic collection of old fashioned books for girls.

Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O'Brian.  Another in the most excellent Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series.  I am nearing the end of the series, and would be bereft except that I'm already looking forward to re-reading it.  Seriously.  If you have never read Patrick O'Brian, I suggest you get Master and Commander as soon as you can.  And see the movie too, in which Russell Crowe performs admirably as Captain Jack Aubrey.

Also hanging out on the nightstand, Nancy Pearl's More Book Lust, which I haven't had a chance to read yet, Nina Garcia's Little Black Book of Style, which I suppose I ought to read, and I (heart) Your Style by some chick whose privileged background is more disheartening than inspiring.  I've looked at the pictures in that one, which are pretty, but it mostly functions as a bookend.

What's on your nightstand?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Beautiful Buffalo

Seamus, Grace, Grace's friend Sophie and I took a little trip home to Buffalo, to visit family and experience the delights of a northern summer.
This sign never fails to make me happy.

We arrived on the 4th of July and went straight to a lovely party at Jon's sister's house, complete with traditional baby parade through the neighborhood.  There are twelve children under ten right now, and the littlest babies ride in the ancient Courier-Express paper wagon, that my own kids and their cousins rode in for the parade when they were babies.  Between visits with our enormous family, we found time to be out an about.  Having a guest from Virginia was a lot of fun, and we loved introducing Sophie to our beautiful home town.

Friday night, my mother-in-law took us to the Black Rock Kitchen for dinner.

I had to order something from the cocktail menu.

Black Rock Fizz
Sophie and Grace
Filled with pulled pork.

Saturday, we did a little shopping in Allentown and on Elmwood Ave.
Virginia St.
There was a flea market at Elmwood & Ferry.  Here's some of what we saw.
My parents had this album. It's probably still in my dad's family room.

Fantastic yellow Schwinn. I love the seat.

I almost expect them to burst into song

One stall had the mother lode of vintage cooking pamphlets.  I bought a 1939 guide to canning for $3.  The advice is outdated (five hour processing times!) but the pictures are priceless.
Elmwood Ave.

At an antique shop on Elmwood, I bought a vintage classroom map of the United States. The reverse side shows important battles of the Revolutionary War.
Alaska and Hawaii weren't states yet.

Sunday, we went to a beach on the American side.
Seamus, Grace, Sophie

This seagull was determined to have a share of our picnic
A walk on the beach with Seamus

Beautiful Lake Erie

Our last day, we went to Sweetness 7, my favorite Buffalo coffee shop, for breakfast.  The girls were delighted with this "Barbie house" nearby.
Go pink or go home

We went to Buffalo's famous art deco City Hall to catch the view from the top of the tower.

While we were waiting for the elevator, a man in the lobby told us to get off on the thirteenth floor, turn left, and proceed through the wooden doors.  We took his advice and found ourselves in the city council chambers with this:
Art Deco stained glass ceiling
It seems like a miracle that it hasn't been shattered by hail or collapsed under the weight of the snow.
Too cloudy to see much. 

Seamus and me on the observation deck

It's about as much fun as you can have for free and without having to wait in line, with the added attraction of the ancient elevator that shuddered and clanged its way to the 25th floor in such a terrifying manner that I seriously considered taking the stairs all the way down.

Elevator of Doom

Then we went to the Buffalo Zoo, which currently has two polar bear cubs.  We didn't get any decent photos, as the bear display was crowded, and almost as soon as we arrived, a bell rang in the distance and they both bounded away to have their lunch.

I liked the giraffes the best.  They have this endearing way of looking at you as if they've been waiting all this time just for you.  They come striding toward you, with expressions of love on their faces, and just when you think they're going to actually lick you or something, they veer off in another direction, as if all along, they were going for that tree over there.  It's very charming and endlessly distracting.

Giraffe with traffic light and city house

Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Getting the Message

I was expecting Christopher Browne's Getting the Message: The Story of the British Post Office  to be dull, so it was a pleasant surprise that it turned out to be funny.  It's British humor: so dry it is nearly undetectable, but it's there.  The illustrations, droll in themselves, are each captioned with a play on words, similar to the title.  You're not going to laugh out loud, but there's something mildly hilarious about the whole thing.  He took what could have been a boring subject and made it charming.

This book was not easy to find.  Mine is a withdrawn copy from the Dyfed "Llyfrgell" in Wales.  I'm glad I made the effort--the chapter on Anthony Trollope alone was worth the price of the book.  I knew that Trollope worked for the Post Office while he wrote novels.  I didn't know that it was his idea to introduce pillar mail boxes to Great Britain.

Who knew the post office had such a rich history?  People have been sending messages since prehistoric times, but the Romans were the first to organize it.  In Great Britain, the postal service grew gradually over time, but it was Victorian reformer Rowland Hill who introduced the postage stamp and other features of the modern mail.  In the GPO's heyday, a London household could expect twelve deliveries a day, and last call for mail pick up was midnight.

Browne details a few of the more famous postal-related crimes, the "Birmingham Phone Bug" the "Lambeth Walk" the "Butcher and the Betting Slip" and "The Trojan Horse" all solved by the post office's internal investigation department.

Getting the Message is truly informative non-fiction that's also light enough for the beach or a plane. If you're sick of novels, but don't want to commit to anything too serious, this would be a good choice.

Monday, July 08, 2013

One Girl, Forty Martinis VI

I'm currently on a visit to family in Buffalo, but here's a round up of the latest martinis from Bang.

Pink Squeeze: Grapefruit vodka + grapefruit juice with a sugar rim. Very straightforward and uncomplicated.  I love grapefruit juice, so what's not to love about this one?
Couldn't resist a sip before taking the picture.

Bang mojito:  I've been progressing alphabetically through the menu, but once again, I missed one.  I'm not a big mojito drinker, but this one was yummy.  The straw is a thoughtful touch and prevents mint leaves from sticking to your teeth.

Poison Apple:  sometimes you're in the mood for something sour, and this is it.  Vodka + a sour apple liqueur.
Pucker Up

Friday, July 05, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Taffy's Tips to Teens

In grammar school, we had a "library" period once a week. One day, while trying to stay out of the line of sight of the notoriously cranky librarian, I spotted this book.

Even then I was attracted to vintage things and this book clearly belonged to an earlier era of bouffant hairdos, party lines and hats and gloves for shopping.  (It was published in 1964.)

A few sample pages: (Click to read the text.)

All hairstyles require rollers

Taffy and tips on door etiquette

The popular girls at my school were the opposite of this
All this was interesting, but what made me love this book, and check it out of the school library over and over and over was "Taffy's Tune-Up Test," a "self-improvement chart" with a list of tasks for each day of the week.  So, for example on "Welcome Wednesdays:"

  • Opened my eyes early, but didn't hop out of bed until I knew exactly what to wear and how to accessorize
  • Saw some dust under the bed and didn't leave my room until I chased it away.
  • Then for five minutes did push-ups, sit-ups, squat-thrust.
  • After my shower checked my weight.  Too heavy: passed up that extra piece of buttered toast.  Too thin: ate an extra piece of buttered toast.
  • Packed my lunch. Too heavy: left out that extra sandwich.  Too thin: added a banana in addition to an extra sandwich.
  • This afternoon I took part in an extra-curricular activity--or went to my music, dance, or dramatic lesson.  Learned something, helped others learn.
  • Washed my hair...pinned it up.
  • Scrubbed my nails, shaped them a bit and pushed back the cuticle.
  • Felt like watching I got ready for bed first, covered my curlers with a scarf and joined the family in a clean, neat robe.
  • Read a good book before putting out the light...had only pleasant thoughts about everything as I fell asleep.
Sounds silly, but to an impressionable pre-teen, it was like the words of Confucius.

After grammar school, I forgot about Taffy's Tips for a while, but later, motivated by nostalgia, I searched for it fruitlessly, and recently a couple of copies appeared on Amazon.  With the exception of  paragraphs on party line etiquette and how to wear a panty girdle, and frequent references to consulting with "mother," the book isn't even all that dated, in fundamentals, anyway.  Re-reading it now, after thirty years, I'm astonished to see how many of Taffy's tips have stayed with me for life. 

Then, just the other day, my eyes just about fell out of my head when I read that a fifteen year old girl just got herself a book deal for living by the precepts of a different teen manual: Betty Cornell's Teenage Popularity Guide.  I've been living the Taffy creed since 1982 so where's my book deal?  Of course, I wouldn't have dreamed of going public with my obsession, which would have drawn ridicule from my peers and had already earned me some sharp looks from the librarian.

Did you have a favorite self-help book as a teen?

Monday, July 01, 2013

Front Hall I

It's been a long time since I took on a DIY home improvement project, but my front hall and stairway's desperate, desperate need for an overhaul has been kicking around in my head for a while.  What's the first thing you see when you walk into someone's house?  Right, and ours looks awful for these reasons:

  1. Color:  This is the first house we've ever owned and after years of living in rentals with all-white walls, we went a little crazy with the color.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  In fact, I always feel a little depressed when I see real estate listings that advertise a house with "neutral decor" like it's a selling point.  We were scolded when we painted our house with lots of color, but I am not interested in decorating my space with the approval of whoever will buy it next in mind. That said, at age thirty, our tastes were different than they are now.  Back then, for reasons I have forgotten, we chose an intense terracotta color for the walls.  It's a bit overwhelming, and it clashes with the stained glass in the front door.
  2. Damage: fourteen years of four sets of sticky little hands touching the wall have left their mark, literally and figuratively.  When I was homeschooling, I taped a timeline of world history in the stairwell because it is the longest unbroken stretch of wall in the house.  I tried to draw it to scale, so the period from the Sumerians to the Egyptians took up much of the space and then I had to cram the rest of world history into the area around the landing.  The timeline was there for years and when we finally took it down some of the drywall came away with it.
  3. Trim:  At some point, old owners of our house painted the trim mustard.  We think they must have been trying for a colonial look. Technically, our house is a "colonial," although that word seems to be arbitrarily applied to any house that is more or less rectangular and doesn't have obvious features of any other architectural style.  Then the owners who had the house before us painted it white, only they used latex paint and the mustard paint is oil based.  Latex will not adhere to oil, so it is peeling off like a bad sunburn.  It's stable as long as you don't pick at it and for years, I exercised exemplary self-control.  Then, due to some situation related to Seamus' bedtime story, I found myself spending a lot of time standing around in the upstairs hall.
So this happened.

I think this must be the look the old owners were aiming for.

Here are a few before pictures.  We will probably be referring to these a lot as the project progresses.

The color is splotchy and uneven because we were enamored with colorwashing, a technique I discovered in an unfortunate British decorating book from the early '90s.