Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Domestic Bliss

I added The House that is our Own by O. Douglas to my reading list after reading a review at Leaves and Pages.  This is one of those obscure, long-out-of-print books by an author most people haven't heard of.  I certainly hadn't heard of O. Douglas until I read the above-mentioned review.

Written in 1940, and set in England and Scotland in 1937, this is one of those supremely uneventful comfort reads that I can't get enough of.  Kitty and Isobel are friends and live in a residential hotel in London.  Kitty decides she needs a place of her own and rents a flat on Sloane St., which she proceeds to paint and decorate and set up bookshelves, all of which is most interesting.  Then Isobel decides she needs a place of her own too, and boards in a Scottish country farmhouse and soon buys a two hundred year old house with a romantic history, and conveniently furnished with antiques and fine china and linens.

So apparently, in 1937 England, to buy a house, you tell the caretakers that you want to buy it and then you write to your lawyer, and ten seconds later you are hiring servants and airing out the linen cupboards.  And Kitty, in London, had to hire a live-in servant, the dour Mrs. Auchinvole, before moving into her flat, because it is unthinkable that a woman of the middle class should do any cooking or cleaning for herself.

Perhaps you sense that I did not love this book unreservedly.

I did like this book, but it's no literary masterpiece.  In the opening chapter, O. Douglas indulges in the sloppy technique of using dialogue to inform her readers about her characters: "How sad I am since my husband died!"

Later they write letters to each other, which further the "plot" such as it is.  Nothing much really happens in this book, which is fine, but you do need a little conflict in order not to bore your readers.  In the last few pages, a minor character does something truly malicious with no discernible motive, a sort of wicked-witch-ex-machina, and for an entire two or three paragraphs there is conflict, but no confrontation.  There's also some snobbery and silly commentary on the working classes.  How sad for them that they need to work all the time!  But perhaps they enjoy drudgery!  They probably do enjoy it, the dear, simple souls.  Let's ring for tea.

But I am too harsh.  Despite its flaws, The House that is our Own is an excellent book to turn to after a hard day.  You have to appreciate it for what it is: a grown-up game of house.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A non-update on the front hall

Months ago, I audaciously announced that I was going to redo my stairway and front hall, and even posted several "before" pictures because I really did think that I would soon be able to demonstrate progress.  Six months later, I had managed to apply primer to a small portion of the woodwork, and almost immediately after that we got Phoebe and I put the whole project on hold because I didn't want to expose an infant puppy to oil-based primer fumes.

Now I think I'm ready to start working on this again.  One problem is the fact that previous owners (they of the mustard paint?) covered the original plaster with drywall and did a very clumsy job of it.  I believe the correct procedure is to remove the trim, put up the drywall and replace the trim, but whoever did our drywall simply slapped it up in such a way that it looks like the walls are eating the trim.

We've lived with this for so long, I'm not even sure what proper stairway woodwork is supposed to look like, but, I imagine, not like this:
Trim is totally flush with the wall

I actually had to go to pinterest and look at pictures of normal, un-fucked up stairs and my suspicions are confirmed: the woodwork is NOT supposed to disappear into the wall.

So, we are faced with the question we return to again and again with this house: Fix it for now, or fix it for good?  As much as this drywall disaster twirls my OCD meter, I think we are going to have to fix it for now.  Someday, when all the kids are through with college, at which point I imagine Jon and I will have nothing to do but sit around and count our money, we'll hire someone to fix this properly.  Until then, just freshening up the paint and getting rid of that ghastly orange colorwashing will do wonders.  She said optimistically.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Life after Life

Did you ever wondered what would have happened?  What course would your life had taken if you'd rented a different apartment or walked home a different way one day?  Did you ever have deja vu, where for a second or two, it's like you are watching a film that you've already seen and you know exactly what is about to happen?  Kate Atkinson's Life after Life lets us see the varied ways that a life can change after seemingly insignificant actions.

Ursula Todd dies at the moment she is born and is immediately born again into the same life.  And so her life goes, and she dies multiple times and returns to the same (yet not the same) life, over and over.  She is born into the same family with the same siblings and the same general life circumstances, but each life is a little different, and with each life she becomes more aware of the fact that she has been there before, and eventually she purposely acts to change the course of history.

Ursula is born in 1910 and much of the story takes place during World War II.  I have read a lot of books that are set in England during World War II, and of all the books I've read, this is the one that gives the best (and most gruesome) account of what it must have been like to live in London during the blitz.

Atkinson hints that this is happening to Ursula for some higher purpose.  More than once, when Ursula apparently has not acted according to the purpose, she's aware of something being "cracked and broken."  Or maybe there is no higher purpose and the broken feeling just comes from Ursula's own sense of how things should have happened.

After I read Kate Atkinson's first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I flagged her as an author to read more of, but Life After Life is the only other Kate Atkinson novel I've read so far.  I wouldn't call this a cozy comfort read.  There are some idyllic domestic scenes, but parts of the novel are really grim. Still, I found it hard to put down.  Life After Life was named by The New York Times as one of the best books of 2013, and there will be a live discussion on March 30th at the Derfwad Manor Book Club.

Usually, I try not to read other reviews before writing one of these posts, but this time I couldn't resist reading a few of the Amazon customer reviews.  Most people loved it, but some of the three star reviews brought up valid criticisms.

Have you read this?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

In which we see the world

It was the summer of 1982; we were thirteen, and the beach had begun to pall.  We wanted a real adventure, and so, over the monopoly board one evening, my cousin and I hatched a plan: we would ride our bicycles to Niagara Falls.

We enjoyed a lot of freedom.  Once the breakfast dishes were washed, and the living room vacuumed, we were free to roam at will.  It was assumed that the furthest we were willing to travel on foot or on bicycles was automatically about as safe a distance as it was for us to travel: a natural tether.  Nobody had ever specifically forbidden us to ride our bikes to the Falls because nobody imagined we had that much stamina.  But I had been given a shiny silver ten-speed bicycle as an 8th grade graduation gift.

We had both, of course, been to Niagara Falls with our parents many times, but we had no idea of the distance, only that it took about half an hour in a car.  It's actually fifty-two miles, round trip and so about forty-nine miles further than we had ever travelled by ourselves before.  We couldn't ask my aunt and uncle about the distance because they would have become suspicious immediately, and fending off parental objections was not part of the plan.  What was part of the plan?  Breezing into the house at dinnertime, saying casually, "Guess where we went today."  We truly believed that the only sentiments expressed by the adults in our lives would be those of admiration.

In the morning, we did our chores and set off east on the Dominion Rd, past old Fort Erie and under the Peace Bridge and onto the Niagara Parkway, which follows the river.  Not the most direct route, but the only one we could take that wouldn't get us lost.  Because as long as we hugged the shore, we were sure to find the Falls eventually.

Knowing how we rolled, we probably packed a sleeve of saltine crackers. There was no such thing as a water bottle in 1982.  The idea of carrying your own water supply was unknown; one drank from public fountains or not at all.  We stopped for a break near the southern tip of Grand Island.  We were very thirsty and the saltines made us more so, so we clambered down the bank and each took a cautious sip of river water.  It tasted so terrible, it seemed better to go thirsty, and believe me, we were very thirsty to have even entertained the idea of drinking from the Niagara River, let alone actually do it.  For years afterward, (decades, even) I felt like I wore an an invisible stamp of shame: I DRANK OUT OF THE NIAGARA RIVER.  Even today, I am not sure I can publish those dreadful words.

We pushed on.  The route was mostly uphill, which doesn't make sense, but that is how I remember it. The only other detail that I remember is a car passing us, blasting one of the iconic songs of 1982.  It was either "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by The Clash, or "I Ran" by Flock of Seagulls.  For a brief moment, the sound of my favorite song spurred me on; then cruelly faded away.  After what seemed like forever, and was certainly far longer than we imagined it would take, we felt the first refreshing drops of mist, which hangs in a cloud over the falls.  We paused to admire the Falls, pushing our bikes through dense crowds of tourists, but we hadn't come to see the Falls, but to see more lurid attractions which our parents never took us to.

Niagara Falls, Ontario

First on the list was the wax museum, which I recall was either closed or too expensive, or probably both.  We stopped into a McDonald's to ask for cups of water and I remember exploring a subterranean punk rock shop in which I couldn't afford to buy anything.  Eventually, dispirited and hungry, we turned our bikes towards home.

The sun was still shining when we left, but it must have been well on into the evening because it was dusk by the time we arrived in the environs of the Peace Bridge.  We stopped at a Chinese restaurant in a seedy neighborhood in Fort Erie and conferred about whether we should try to find a pay phone.  In the end, it seemed unwise to stick around in that neighborhood and we wearily climbed onto our bikes for the final leg of the trip. It is nearly eight miles from the Chinese restaurant to my cousin's house and it was pitch dark by the time we got home.

Any idea of a triumphant arrival and general astonishment and admiration was long gone.  We knew we would be in trouble, and we were, although I think my presence as visiting cousin helped temper the anger, which quickly degenerated to, "It certainly was plucky of you two, but next time, tell us where you are going."  Still, my aunt and uncle must have considered the incident serious enough to inform my parents, because my parents were duly informed and they were not happy.

I probably stayed at my cousin's for at least a week before I had to go home and face my parents' wrath, which the passage of time had done nothing to diminish.  I was grounded forever.  I would never be allowed to leave their sight for as long as I lived, except to work a dull job or possibly join a convent.  I was absolutely forbidden from ever taking my bike to Canada again.  This edict forced my cousin and me to use an ancient tandem bicycle in future summers, which led to another disgraceful incident two years later, which forever eclipsed the unsupervised ride to the falls.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Spinsters

In (dis)honor of Valentine's day, let's talk about spinsters in literature.  Spinster lit is definitely my favorite genre for comfort reading and most of the spinsters you encounter in literature are funny and smart and have interesting inner lives.

This list is very Pym heavy, but here are  my favorites (with Amazon affiliate links):

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym:  Mildred Lathbury, church lady, finds love (or maybe just a position as secretary with benefits) through anthropology.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym: Prudence is a somewhat glamorous spinster with a career in London and a crush on her utterly unappealing boss.

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym:  Dulcie Mainwaring tries to fend off her cleaning lady's hints about "daintiness."

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym:   Belinda and Harriet Bede are spinster sisters.  Harriet flirts with curates, while Belinda has a long-standing, unrequited crush on the vicar.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson:  Miss Pettigrew, unemployed spinster, takes a job as a maid to a flighty young woman.  Also made into a movie, which was pretty mediocre, in my opinion.

Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding:  Bridget may be the first modern character in literature to refer to herself as a spinster.

Miss Mole by E. H. Young: Miss Mole has a racy secret in her past.

Miss Buncle's Book by D. E. Stephenson.  Miss Buncle's novel sets off chaos in her quiet village.

Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene: Girl has spinster written all over her.  You know she's never going to marry Ned Nickerson and give up sleuthing.

Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins:  I haven't read this one, but it's included because of the title.  Here's a review at Leaves and Pages.

Did I miss any? Who are your favorite spinsters in literature?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Your Street Name and You

They're building a new neighborhood down the hill from us.  It's called Rialto Beach and is located beside a creek, hence the "beach" and in the general vicinity of a Rialto St.  This has to be the dumbest neighborhood name ever, but they can't market it as Flood Plain Farms or Watermark Woods, so Rialto Beach it is.

The street name theme in my neighborhood is famous sites of Europe with a bit of Greek mythology thrown in for good measure.  Besides Rialto St., there's Blenheim Avenue, Stonehenge Avenue, Meridian Avenue, Druid Avenue and Castalia St.  Meridian only barely qualifies as a site and Druid doesn't qualify at all, so the whole neighborhood has the slightly pathetic quality of a wrong answer on an SAT analogies question.

I read somewhere that John Keats didn't want to live on a street with a name he didn't like and one of my theories is that the name of the street you live on can shape your life in subtle ways.  When we were shopping for our first house, it was definitely something I considered. When we put an offer on a house on Market St., I was pleased with its solid, unpretentious name.  Our offer hadn't even been accepted and I was imagining myself addressing future envelopes.  The Market St. house fell through, and our realtor was pressuring us to buy a house on Azalea Dr.  I wasn't so sure I wanted to live on an Azalea Dr.  Luckily, we found a house we liked in the agreeably quirky Rialto/Stonehenge/Druid nexus.

Other streets I've lived on:

  • Pilgrim Road--where I was born.  Aptly named street of prim little cape cod houses.
  • Clara Road--suburban Boston.  A neighborhood straight out of The Brady Bunch.
  • University Court--Tiny dead-end street of elderly steep-gabled brick houses, so close to the University of Buffalo we could hear the panty raids.  The entrance was marked with a dingy white sign that said "BLIND STREET" which confused everybody.
  • Seabrook Drive-- in the oh-so retro "Dana Heights" subdivision in Williamsville, NY.  (We were the lone drive. The other streets were all "Terraces" and named for woods: Sagewood Terrace, Fruitwood, Teakwood, Sprucewood, etc.)
  • Richmond Ave.--my first and second apartments. A long avenue of grand old Victorian houses on the west side of Buffalo.
  • Kenmore Ave.--our first apartment after getting married, on a bleak non-residential street, upstairs from an ob/gyn practice. (Terrible water pressure from women flushing the toilets downstairs all day.)
  • Elm St. --Kalamazoo, Michigan when the Nightmare on Elm St. movies were popular.  A sweet little gentrifying street of Victorian houses. 
  • Claremont Ave--back to the west side of Buffalo.  A lovely street Victorian-era street behind the aforementioned Richmond Ave. 
  • Locust Ave (Charlottesville)-- We rented a big, square red brick house here until we bought a house of our own.

Our house on Elm St

What do you think?  Do you like or hate your street name, or are you indifferent? Would your desire to buy (or reject) a house be influenced by the name of the street it is on?  Do you roll your eyes at ludicrous subdivision names?  What's the silliest/most pretentious street or neighborhood name you've encountered?

Friday, February 07, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: What was Lost

The last thing I want to read is books about little girls who disappear, so I was surprised, when I started What was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn, to learn that its main subject is a little girl who vanishes.  I can't remember what prompted me to add this book to my list, but I'm glad that I did.  First of all, the disappearance; I can't say too much without spoiling the book, but I will say it's not what you think.  Not that it's happy.  Kate Meaney doesn't fly over the rainbow to live with the munchkins, which is really all I can say.

The first part of the book is told from Kate's perspective.  It's 1984 in Birmingham, England and Kate is ten years old and obsessed with surveillance.  She's especially interested watching potentially nefarious activity at the new Green Oaks Shopping center.  When Kate vanishes,  after not turning up to take a private school entrance exam, the last man she was seen with, her friend Adrian, is suspect.  Why is a twenty-two year old man friends with a ten-year old girl?

The story then skips ahead twenty years and focuses on Lisa, Adrian's younger sister, and Kurt, a security guard at the Green Oaks Shopping Center.  Kurt sees a mysterious little girl in the security cameras at the mall and sets out to find her.  Lisa works as an assistant manager in a corporate music vendor at the mall and she and Kurt search together for the girl.

What was Lost is not just about the loss of one little girl, but about the losses of those who are connected to her: Adrian's loss of life as he knew it, Lisa's loss of her brother, Kurt's loss of his father and his wife, Birmingham itself whose bleak industrial past is being sanitized and buried under further expansions of Green Oaks, and the loss of a way of life as the shopping center replaces the local businesses and former middle class neighborhoods decay.

Why should you read this book?  Because Kate Meaney is such an appealing character.  Somehow, despite knowing that there is no happy ending for her you don't feel too concerned. Kate is firmly in control of her own destiny and not a victim.  There are also the insightful and funny observations about retail culture in the modern world: the corporate monsters that own the shops and the mall itself, the mall staff and their antagonistic relationship with the customers, the bovine nature of the shoppers themselves, contrasted with achingly painful monologues from anonymous people who visit Green Oaks.  If you ever worked in retail, or felt oppressed by the palpable corruption in a modern shopping mall, then you will enjoy What was Lost.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014


We've been a hive of activity since October when Brigid learned she had been accepted for a semester study abroad at the University of Cape Town.  If this were someone else's kid, I'd be all over it.  When it's your own child, it's pretty scary to send her halfway around the world and know you will not see her for nearly five months.

But let's not focus on the scary part.  My brother reminded me that our mother was barely two years older than Brigid when she went off to Quito, Ecuador in 1965, for nine months on a Fulbright Fellowship. Even back then, my grandparents were able to communicate with her live via the miracle of HAM RADIO.  My mother traveled in Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela, and once fled a demonstration in Quito only a whisper ahead of the tear gas. And everybody survived.

We've spent the last couple of months plowing through red tape, and the journey wasn't assured until she was granted her student visa, which arrived two weeks before departure.  In order to get the visa, it was necessary to gather more paperwork than we have ever needed for any undertaking: notarized letters, bank statements, birth certificates, health certificates, proof of insurance, proof of enrollment at VCU, official acceptance letter from UCT, flight itinerary (plus $1500 "repatriation fee" if you were foolish enough to buy a one-way ticket, which luckily we were not) her actual physical passport, and an official background check all had to be sent off to the South African embassy.  The background check was the most difficult, and the state of Virginia might want to consider rewording their website, since the form they identify as the one you need for study abroad turned out to be wrong.  It was scary to purchase the plane tickets without knowing for sure that she'd be allowed into the country.

Meanwhile, I've been grappling with the world of international banking.  When we sent the housing deposit, via international wire, we were flummoxed by Cape Town addresses, which had too many words to fit neatly into the bank's computerized form.  I had to email the housing director.  What was meant by "Clareinch," "Rondebosch," and "Observatory?"  Were these neighborhoods?  Suburbs? Mountain ranges? Extraterrestrial satellites?  And the heavy sigh was audible all the way from Cape Town.  They are neighborhoods.  Then, because of my own abysmal handwriting, the bank officer entered the province as Western "Cake" rather than Western Cape. If you make even a tiny mistake, you have to delete the entire form and start from scratch.  Once the form is all filled in, it's submitted and you are not allowed to leave until a confirmation call comes.  So you wait and wait and wait, wondering if your money has gone off into the void, jumping out of your skin every time a phone rings, until finally it is your call and you are free to go.

The second wire, of the tuition, went smoothly, but the payment was flagged by Homeland Security and I got a stern phone call late the following afternoon:  "Your money will not be released from the United States until you tell us what 'SSA' means. " SSA is what I had been instructed to put in the reference and I had no idea what it meant.  "Maybe it means "student services accounts" the stern lady said helpfully, after I'd stammered out an explanation about Brigid and UCT and the internship she'll have taking little school children on tours of the art museum.  "Yes!  Can you use that?"  No, they needed the exact meaning.  So, another email to Cape Town and another heavy sigh.  It means Semester Study Abroad.  But of course.  They sign their emails, "kind regards" which is lovely.  I'd like to use it myself, but it might sound affected here.

Speaking of red tape, it was so lucky that Brigid renewed her passport over the summer, before we even knew she'd be going to Cape Town.  It expired in October, precisely at the time of the government shut down.  If she hadn't taken care of it early, she would probably not have been able to go.

UCT's program seems well organized and established but Cape Town is SO far away--a total of eighteen and a half hours of flight--very turbulent over Africa we now know-- not including layovers.  Communication will be sporadic until Brigid can buy and activate a sim card for her phone.  We have had some emails and facebook messages and I know she is settled into her house which she shares with six other international students.  On departure day, I gave Brigid a bracelet that had been my mother's--the only other person in our family to travel so far all by herself -- and I know my mother is watching out for her.