Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Jane Austen Mania

I wasn't crazy about Among the Janeites:  A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom but I'm writing about it anyway because the Jane Austen craze is an interesting phenomenon.  I didn't read the whole introduction, but apparently a tarot card told Deborah Yaffe that she needed to write a book about Jane Austen fans.

OK, whatever, I was already starting to regret checking this book out of the library.   In order to immerse herself in the Jane Austen fan experience, Yaffe plans to attend the annual Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) conference, for which she will need a regency-style gown for the ball.  She makes a to-do about not being the sort of person who would ever dress in a historic costume. There's further whining about the corset, which is necessary for the chin-height breast silhouette of the era.  A corset will be uncomfortable!  Can't she just wear a balconet bra?

Playing a tiny violin, just for you.

No, you cannot wear a balconet bra, unless you want to look like a low-budget BBC movie.  Why not just go to J.C. Penny and buy a nightgown and wear it to the Jane Austen ball with your balconet bra?  She decides to suck it up and orders a proper corset and hires a seamstress to make her an appropriate gown.

While that's in progress, she joins a guided travel tour of Jane Austen sites in England.  Yaffe sniffs a bit at how touristy and commercial these sites have become and seems to consider herself above it all. Can't she have the Austen sites all to herself without all the yucky tourists?

Again, I felt an urge to hit her with something.   Seriously, would she like to sit in my cube for ten days while I take the tour for her?

After the tour, come interviews with several people who have turned their love for Jane Austen into some sort of life's work or all-absorbing hobby.  They write Jane Austen spin off novels, fan fiction or blogs. They amass enormous collections of Jane Austen-era costumes, start Jane Austen "bibliotherapy" groups or become obsessed with eccentric interpretations of Austen's novels.  The most interesting of these is Sandy Lerner who made a fortune with a start up company and then bought and restored Chawton House, which belonged to Jane Austen's rich relatives.  The building had been truly derelict and is now a Jane Austen library.

The other interviews fall flat, mainly because Yaffe includes way too many biographical details about her subjects.  I found myself skimming over a litany of who these people married, their careers, their kids, their upbringing, what their relatives died of, where they went to school, etc.

At last it's time to attend the conference.  Once again, Yaffe is a bit above it all, although this time I agree with her disdain for Victoria's Secret's sponsorship and the neon mini stuffed animals from their "pink" line as swag.  She attends the ball, although not without more moaning about her hand-sewn blue gown and corset.  It's all a bit boring and more than a little depressing.  As much as I enjoy Jane Austen's novels and the movies made from them, I'm not sure I'd want to get caught in that hamster wheel.  (Except for the costume part, because my love for historic costume started long before I was old enough to read Jane Austen.  If I could have any job in the world, it would be to design historic costumes for movies.)

Ultimately, Among the Janeites does exactly what Yaffe disparages:  exploits Jane Austen's popularity for financial gain.  The least she could do is refrain from padding her book with unnecessary details and useless whining.  A tighter portrayal of the world of Janedom would have made a better book.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Introducing Phoebe

This is going to be a very doggie post.  It's funny how so many things that are worthwhile in the long run, involve a lot of pain and suffering--childbirth, stripping paint, raising a puppy. It has been a long time since we've had a real puppy around here.  Sancho is eight, and we adopted him when he was three months old, and already housebroken.  We adopted Luna when she was only five weeks old, but that was so long ago (1999) that I'd forgotten just how much work a puppy is.  There is a world of difference between a three month old puppy and one who is just a few weeks old.   Of course, all this is a preamble to tell you that we've got a new puppy--Phoebe, a seven-week old coonhound.

It took 1,000 tries to capture the head-tilt of intelligence.

And she's delightful.  I love her wrinkled houndy face and her huge flapping ears and her little puppy squeaks, but oh my goodness, I'd forgotten how much work a puppy is, although Grace and Seamus have been enormously helpful.   The advent of Phoebe brought a rush of suppressed memories.  When we adopted Luna, Seamus was an infant and not yet sleeping through the night.  The other kids were really little and Jon was working night shift.  So guess who was getting up in the night to nurse the baby AND getting up in the night to let the puppy out?  I seriously do not know how I survived that.

We've had Phoebe for a week and she has settled in well, and seems to love us, although I think she is a little afraid of me, probably (I hope) because she knows I am the alpha female. She isn't housebroken yet, but I can tell she understands the concept of outdoors = toilet.

Her tummy was bloated the day we got her,
but it has gone down and our vet has declared her worm-free.

I have had a hard time getting good photos because Phoebe is more or less the exact same color as our floors.  I tried to take some pictures outside, and she's also the exact color of the fallen leaves.

blending into the floor.

Sancho:  Thanks.  Thanks a lot.

Sancho's initial reaction was pointed indifference, followed by mild curiosity and faint annoyance. Ian wasn't with us when we brought Phoebe home, but came over to do laundry a few days later, and Sancho cried and cried at him, as if to say, "Look what they've done!" Now, after a week, he has progressed to tolerance--as long as she doesn't cross certain boundaries.  I think they will be good friends once she stops trying to use his face as a chew toy.  Our sweet Luna would have loved Phoebe and wanted to mother her, but she died last winter at age thirteen.

How did we arrive at the name Phoebe?  I campaigned hard for "Edwina" but Jon was not having it.  (Jon wanted to name her Kali or Aoife but the kids and I rejected these with vigor.)  My second choice was Violet, which Jon hated as much as Edwina.  There was a lively argument while we tossed names around: Harriet, Norah, Matilda, Oonagh, Nellie, Maude.  For a while, we all agreed on Maude, with the understanding that Jon could call her Mo, but my great-grandmother's name was Maude which troubled my conscience.  At last we settled on Phoebe, which has the Victorian old lady sound I was hoping for and also won't embarrass Jon when he calls to her in public. It turns out Phoebe is a trendy name for girls and suddenly we know several people who know people who have girls named Phoebe.  What would you name a puppy?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: What would Jonathan Franzen say?

The New Yorker recently published the list of nominations for the National Book Award.  Reading the article actually made me anxious because I have not read a single book on the list.  I also haven't read any recent winners of the Man Booker Prize,  or any recent Pulitzer Prize winners (scratch that, I did read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, the 2009 winner).  Years ago, I started a book list for myself, and I doggedly stick to it.  Of course, I add books to it, such as Hilary Mantel's Bringing up the Bodies which won the Booker Prize for 2012, but most of the books on my list are either serious literature that was published so long ago that nobody cares anymore or self-indulgent escape reads, like vintage YA novels or Mary Stewart's romantic suspense novels.  I feel like I have become out of touch with the world of modern literature.

I know--if my biggest problem today is that I don't have time to read the wealth of books at my disposal, then I really don't have any problems.  Sometimes I like to imagine what Jonathan Franzen would say to my literary moanings, and in this case, I think he would say, "You think a book needs to win a PRIZE to be considered worthy of your notice?  Why aren't you at the library, checking out every new book that comes in, rather than relying on the prize-makers to tell you what to read?  Fair enough, and now that Jonathan Franzen has made it clear to me, I wonder how much the prize makers steer the course of literature.  Is good literature ignored by everyone because it isn't nominated for a prize?  Or do the prizes exist to bring the good literature to the attention of the average reader?

Do you try and keep up with prize-winning literature?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Dinner in the suburbs

The restaurant Pasture opened recently in the Shops at Stonefield, a suburban conglomerate of shops, that's designed (not-so successfully, in my opinion) to resemble a town center.  Pasture already has a location in Richmond and has now expanded into Charlottesville.  The Pasture in Charlottesville has gotten a lot of buzz, so Jon and I decided to check it out.

Stonefield has been open for about a year and Jon has never been there.  I've nipped into the Trader Joe's a few times, and took the kids to its theater to see The Hobbit, but it's not really part of my stomping grounds either.  Of course we had to be insufferably OMG I CAN'T BELIEVE WE'RE EATING IN THE SUBURBS and Jon insisted to a guy we met at the bar that he hasn't been outside of Belmont in two years, which is patently untrue.

I ordered the Deltaville cocktail, which is a mixture of vodka and jam.  The variety of jam depends on what they have available, and what was available on Friday was pineapple.  That probably sounds disgusting to you, but I loved this drink.  I think it is cut with plain soda water.  It was sweet, but not overly so and pineapple and vodka make a stunning combination.  I would definitely order this again.

Pineapple Deltaville

The menu has a lot of snacks and small plates, and we chose to order from among these selections.  I prefer tapas-style because it gives you the opportunity to taste a greater variety of things, and it's easier not to get overwhelmed with tons of food.  Our neighbor recommended the fried okra, so we started with that and it was spectacular.

I ordered a salad because I was being tiresome about eating something healthy.  It was a bit boring.  We also had the pumpkin hummus.  It comes with sticks of jicama for dipping, which went well with the pumpkin and made me feel less guilty than pita bread would have.  Our last dish was a small plate of meatballs, which our server chose for us because they were out of the chicken sausage we wanted.  These too were good. I could have sworn our server told us he was bringing us chorizo balls, but these were definitely not chorizo.  They were chicken, mildly spicy and served on top of a root vegetable puree that I can't identify.  Potato + parsnip, maybe?  Since I didn't read the description on the menu, I'm clueless.

Because of the virtuous jicama and salad, we shared a dessert: Boston cream pie, which comes in a mini mason jar.  The trendiness of mason jars is causing many eye rolls on my part, but I loved this dessert.

Stonefield seems to still have a lot of vacant storefronts and the parking lot is a disaster.  It's hard to find your way around, it's hard to find the exits, there are a lot of confusing intersections where it's unclear who has the stop sign. We had difficulty finding Pasture, and only managed after I caught a glimpse of a cow on top of one of the buildings and took it for a clue.  I'd love to know how many fender benders there have been in that lot since the shops opened.

What do you think of "town center" shopping developments?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Slow as Molasses in January

Did you ever really consider molasses?  As you add it to your pumpkin pie and gingerbread this year, imagine two million gallons of it washing through your neighborhood, destroying everything in its path.  Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo is the story of how a molasses storage tank burst and inundated the North End of Boston in 1919.

Molasses was used to make "industrial alcohol" which was in great demand during World War I. In 1915 the US Industrial Alcohol company rushed to build a massive tank on the Boston waterfront. Almost immediately, there were questions about the integrity of the tank's construction, and molasses leaked from its seams from the first moment it was filled.

In January, 1919, an enormous load of molasses was pumped into the tank.  The molasses from the ship was warmer than the molasses in the tank.  Overnight, the weather warmed dramatically and the molasses was heard making ominous sounds inside the tank.  Molasses isn't an inert substance.  It will ferment and create gasses. Around noon, the tank burst, and the molasses wave destroyed everything in its path.  Buildings were knocked off their foundations, the elevated railway crumpled, and people and animals in the path of the flood were killed.  Some of them drowned in molasses.  Others were rescued, but died later, of traumatic injuries. The survivors suffered PTSD and never fully recovered from their physical injuries.

The nature of molasses made this disaster particularly horrible.  It filled basements, it filled the mouths and noses of those caught in the flood,  it drained continuously from the hair and clothes of the victims, so that the floor of the hospital emergency room because so clogged with molasses, they couldn't push the stretchers.  It got into wounds and caused devastating infections.  Victims complained of terrible thirst--probably because molasses's density interfered with their electrolyte balance.  When I was a nurse, we used to mix enemas out of milk and molasses (the "brown cow") and it worked like a charm for our most constipated patients, but to be completely coated in it for hours must have had a strange affect on the body chemistry.

The book is divided into three parts. First is a history of the construction of the tank, and the long history of molasses as an important part of the New England economy.  It was one corner of the "triangle trade," the other two being slaves and rum.  Puleo also introduces some of the people who suspected that the tank was unsafe, and some of the people who were killed by it.  The second part of the book describes the disaster itself.  The third is about the resulting lawsuit, which is important, as it had implications for big business being held responsible for their negligence.  The book is a fast and fascinating read, and also very informative about the history and political climate of the time. Read it if you want to be outraged by big business' disregard for the safety of the communities they affect.

It's a bit bizarre that there are two children's books about the flood, (The Great Molasses Flood by Beth Brust and  Molasses Flood by Blair Lent) both of which seem to retell the story as a jolly adventure.  In the real disaster, two children, who had been in the habit of collecting the dripping molasses from the tank and bringing it home to their families, were crushed and suffocated to death.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Hall project update

You may remember that several months ago, I announced that I was going to paint my front hall, stairway and upstairs landings.  You may also recall that some past owner of the house painted all the woodwork with hideous mustard colored oil based paint and then the owners previous to us hastily slapped white latex over the oil based, with unfortunate results.

The man at Meadowbrook Hardware said I had to get ALL of the white paint off the wood.  The man at Lowe's said I had to get "most" of it off.  My goal was all, but I settled for most.

When you get to the top of our stairs, you are on a very small landing and confronted with three doors.  To the left is the bathroom, to the right is Seamus' room, and straight ahead is Grace's room.  Each doorway is heavily encased in wood trim.  My tiny landing has more molding per square inch than King Gustav's hunting lodge, if he had a hunting lodge, which I'm assuming he did and that it was ornate.

So I scraped and scrubbed and applied stripper in a few stubborn areas, and then scraped some more. No matter how much white paint I removed, there was always more.  There comes a point when you are just done, and I was done on Sunday morning at 08:55.

So I applied the oil-based primer, which is what I have been told is the necessary buffer between the mustard oil-base and the new white latex that I will be applying.  And was I still finding loose flakes of white paint as I primed, even though I'd sanded and washed with TSP and sanded again?  Yes.  Also, the previous owners painted right over the grime on the mustard paint.  I can't say I blame them.  If I bought a house with mustard woodwork, I'd probably slap something over it pretty damn quick.  Primed wood isn't pretty, but it is WORLDS better than this:

I KNOW about the visible brush strokes.
Oil-based paint is hard to work with.
I'm pretty sure the top coat will hide my brush strokes.

I haven't done the doors, just the trim around them.  I think I will send the doors away to be dipped and re-painted.  Fun fact:  do you see the ceiling?  It was painted mustard too.  There's a half-moon slice of mustard paint still visible around half of our smoke detector.

This project is so not even close to being done.  There is still all the woodwork on the stairs and around the front door and the downstairs hall, and once all of that is primed and painted, there are the walls. Now that the upstairs landing is primed, I'm going to do the molding under the staircase. This should go much faster because it is flat.  I hate that curlicue trim, but I'm not into replacing it right now.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: The Book and the Brotherhood

It took me a little while to get into The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch, but I'm glad I persevered.  There's a certain sensuality to Murdoch's novels.  Her characters are usually rich, educated people who have beautiful things, live in enviable houses, and wear lovely clothes. Murdoch describes all these things with exquisite attention to detail, without ever lapsing into flowery or effusive language.  Of all the characters in literature, Iris Murdoch's are the ones I'm most inclined to envy, even though terrible things happen to them.

In The Book and the Brotherhood, there are large country houses and flats in London and a stone farmhouse in the south of France.  There's a midsummer ball at Oxford and sports cars and Rolls Royces and ball gowns and day dresses.  Gerard, Jenkin, Duncan, Crimond, Rose, and Jean were friends at Oxford.  Now they are middle aged and entangled in their complicated relationships.  Gerard has slept with almost everyone in the group.  Jean and Duncan are married, but Jean had an affair with Crimond, years ago.  Rose is in love with Gerard and Gerard was in love with her brother Sinclair, who was killed in a tragic accident. Jenkin is the monastic in the group who hasn't slept with anyone. The crisis is that Crimond, who the rest of the group has been financing for twenty years so he can finish his life's work, a book on political philosophy, is now nearly finished with the book and has also stolen Jean from Duncan for the second time.

At first, I couldn't keep track of all the characters and I couldn't see where Murdoch was going with the story.  Eventually, her whole brilliant plan becomes clear and you find yourself a little stunned at the intricate interweaving of the plot lines.  Some of the Amazon customer reviewers call this her strongest work.  All of Murdoch's work is strong, but I'm inclined to agree that The Book and the Brotherhood is one of her best.

Monday, November 04, 2013


I was on call this weekend, which meant staying close to home and attending to domestic matters.  I am mildly obsessed with laundry, probably because of our time in Kalamazoo, Michigan with two infants and no washing machine.  Twice a week, I lugged all our household wash, plus diapers to the laundromat and back.  Did I mention that I also had to bring the babies?  And the diaper pail? And that we lived in a second-floor apartment? And no, this wasn't 1915, but 1993.

Last year, my washing machine died and puzzled three repairmen.  Now my dryer is on the fritz.  It works sometimes, but quits after a few minutes if I put anything heavy into it, and needs at least twenty minutes to rest before it will start again.  This is the second time this dryer has broken, and I'm not interested in paying to have it repaired, and even if I were, it would have to get in line behind the refrigerator and the dishwasher.

Lots of people live perfectly well without clothes driers and I am no stranger to the clothesline myself, but carrying heavy clothes up and down two flights of stairs is a pain in the ass, which is why I'd love to copy the Portuguese method and hang a clothes drying system outside a window.

The materials are simple:  two brackets, wire cable, pulleys, and a turnbuckle for connecting the two ends of your cable.  I have searched google in vain for instructions because I don't feel confident enough to design one myself and the correct bracket does not seem to be available in the United States.  With this arrangement we would definitely get the Charlottesville Side-eye, although I'm used to that after fifteen years in this city. Then again, I could just install an indoor rack.  This ceiling-mounted one is tempting, or this simpler one.  I also like this wall mounted accordion style drier.  I could also erect a small drying rack on the back roof.  Pros: arguably easier to climb out the window than to descend two flights of stairs (and yet infinitely more ridiculous).  No worries about dog shit in the back yard.  Cons:  Would blow into the neighbor's yard on first really windy day.

Nowadays, clotheslines are frowned on, or even banned in some neighborhoods.  It takes a special kind of asshole to make a rule against fresh air laundry drying.  Clean clothes, swinging in the breeze on a sunny day are a lovely sight, although I concede that sad, neglected laundry that has been left out in the rain does look pretty awful.

Yesterday afternoon, while inflated with espresso, I began to see exciting possibilities in allowing our dryer to die its slow death and getting rid of it altogether.  We could use the space it occupies for something else, like storage, or an air-drying system, or just space to put laundry supplies.

Our laundry area
PS After extensive searching, I found a website devoted to urban clotheslines, that carries a product similar to, although  not exactly what I want, but their prices are outrageous.  Over $200 for two brackets and some cable?  I don't think so.

What do you think?  Would you give up your drier?  Would you attach a European-style laundry drying system to the outside of your house?  Would your neighbors shun you if you did so?

Friday, November 01, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Ghost Stories

I am a day late and a dollar short for Halloween, but tomorrow is All Soul's Day, so let's talk ghost stories. (Who else remembers spending All Soul's Day obsessively saying Hail Mary's in order to release souls from purgatory?)  Anyway,  horror is not my genre.  I would rather read science fiction than horror, and I think I am the only person in America who has never read a Stephen King novel.

Our jack- o'- lanterns.
We're devotees of the old skool butcher-knife
carving method

The scariest story I have ever read is "The Entrance" by Gerald Durrell, which is the last story in the collection The Picnic and Other Pandemonium. (Excellent review here.)  I read this story years ago, and to this day, I can't look at a mirror when I am alone in the dark.  The fact that Durrell is known for his humor makes the story doubly frightening.  It's like biting into something that you assume will taste like an apple and that turns out to be a ghost pepper.  If you want to scare the pants off yourself,  look no further.  (But you might want to consider draping sheets over all your mirrors for a while.)

Speaking of scary, in the early years of our marriage, Jon and I spent a week house sitting for his parents.  I was hugely pregnant with Ian and got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.  As I walked toward the bathroom, I saw a figure approaching me.  I had enough time to see long hair and a curvy shape and identify the figure as female, but not enough time to feel frightened until I walked smack into whatever it was that was walking toward me.  Scream?  I raised the roof.  Then in all the fuss and pandemonium and turning on of lights it was discovered that the bathroom door had somehow become closed and there was a full-length mirror hanging on the back of it that I had never noticed, and I had been walking toward my own reflection.  Mirrors:  scary as fuck.

Gratuitous Halloween costume pic.  They were handing out the hats at a "Happy Birthday Canada" party that my sister attended in Washington, which inspired me to be a Canadian for Halloween.  The shirt is an old rowing shirt from the Friendship Regatta in Buffalo. During the War of 1812, there were some fierce battles between Buffalo and Fort Erie, the town on the Canadian side, so now, every July, there's a festival to celebrate the fact that we've given up that sort of thing.  Did you know it's the 150th birthday of Canada this year?

Happy Birthday, Canada

What's your favorite ghost story?