Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Lark Rise to Candleford

Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson is actually a trilogy, bound in one volume.  The three memoirs within are: Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, and Candleford Green.  Although this is nonfiction, it reads like a novel.

Lark Rise is about life in a tiny rural hamlet in Oxfordshire in the 1880s.  Thompson describes a way of life that was starting to decline and had completely disappeared by the 1930s, when she wrote the books.  Although the focus is on the hamlet itself and all its residents, there is particular attention paid to a girl named Laura, and her family.  Over to Candleford and Candleford  Green focus more on Laura, as she visits the nearby town of Candleford, and later, as a teen, takes a job in the post office in Candleford Green.  Of course, "Laura" is Flora Thompson herself.

Lark Rise to Candleford is not a romantic or sentimental look at cottage life.  Thompson gives us the good, the bad, and the ugly.  It was a time when wages didn't increase for decades, when the poor elderly went off to the workhouse, and children were expected to leave school and earn their own way by age eleven.  It's interesting how the hamlet parents planned their own children's careers with the same intensity that today's parents sign their kids up for SAT prep and fret about college admissions.  An excellent career track for a girl of that class and that time was to work as a servant in one of the more modest households in the area.  This was called her "petty place."  A girl stayed at her petty place for a year, learning how to be a servant, and then found employment as a scullery maid or other low-level servant in a grand establishment.  If all went well, she would work her way up to be cook, head housemaid or housekeeper, an excellent career at the time.  Laura's mother has her heart set on Laura becoming a nursemaid, and eventually nanny and is sadly disappointed when she realizes that Laura isn't particularly interested in children.

The three books together are utterly charming and good to come home to after a long day.  They were made into a BBC TV series, of which I've seen only the first episode of season one.  I recall that I thought the show was just OK, but I have added the rest of the disks to my netflix queue.

A good choice for anglophiles and those who enjoy quiet, rural things.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Domestic Matters

I've said before: you can have kids and dogs or you can have nice things, but you can't have both.  Case in point, our couches: within hours of their delivery from the furniture store, someone spilled chocolate pudding on one of the arms.

That was years ago and we still own the chocolate pudding couches and three dogs + four kids have caused them to deteriorate to the point that I don't want to have people over.  I was starting to think about buying new ones, when I was inspired by an article in the February, 2014 issue of Country Living, in which someone slipcovered a thrift store couch with painters' drop cloths.  What really arrested my attention was that the owner replaced her couch's back cushions with euro squares.  My couchs' back cushions were a real problem because after repeated washings, they had gotten out of shape and were bulbous, unwieldy and uncomfortable.  They were the reason I hadn't slipcovered the couch years before, so realizing I could just throw them away and get a new back was really liberating.

Decorator fabric is expensive, especially the amount you need to cover a full size couch and matching love seat.  The largest drop cloth at Lowe's cost $31 and provided enough fabric to cover the loveseat and a portion of the couch.

Here's the couch before, and this picture doesn't really do justice to how dirty it is.  I have washed the cushion covers many times, and once, rented an upholstery cleaning machine, which turned out to be a futile operation.

I have slipcovered furniture before. It's a pain in the ass, but it's not rocket science.  We've all seen Project Runway, right?  You just use your couch as a dress form. I did the love seat first and it took weeks and I still have to cover the seat cushions.  The couch came together in a single weekend.

I basted the trickier seams with the pieces still pinned to the couch.  To pipe or not to pipe was something I debated with myself at length and I went so far as to buy cording and cut several miles of bias strips, but ultimately decided it wasn't worth it to go to all that effort to class up what is essentially a couch-shaped dog blanket.

I bought 24" square pillows for the back, and originally intended to cover them with the drop cloth fabric, but changed my mind and used black and white ticking from some old curtains I had in my scrap basket.  The yellow throw pillows are from Target.

Is this perfect?  Does this look professional?  Is this the couch for the rest of my life? No, but it means I can delay buying new couches for several years and my guests won't be afraid to sit on my furniture. (More importantly, I won't be afraid to sit on my furniture.)

Now that my sewing machine is officially out of hibernation, expect to see more sewing projects!

Also on the domestic front, I started the process of repairing the walls in the hall and picking out paint colors.  All the dings in the wall below show that this is the spot where we always struggle to get large items of furniture up the stairs.

Pinterest is full of pictures of rooms with elegant gray walls and white trim.  I really thought gray might be a good choice, but I am not responding to that gray swatch.  To me, it says, "interrogation room."

Actually, I think I hate all of these colors.
We will definitely be buying new switch plates.

Of the colors above, I'm gravitating toward the top right (Kittery Point Green, Benjamin Moore).  The middle color on the right is definitely out, as are the top two on the left. Also on the left, Sherwin Williams' Gardenia, Narcissus, Morning Sun.

Left to right: Kittery Point Green, Nantucket Gray, Prescott Green, all Benjamin Moore. I'm not committed to a green hall, but it seems like a warmer alternative to gray.  On the other hand, I could walk blindfolded into any paint store, grab a random paint chip and whatever I picked would be better than the orange that's on the walls now.

Oh, and the orange walls?  They were inspired by Jacosta Innes' Decorating with Paint and The Thrifty Decorator, so we don't deserve all of the blame. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Dead Souls

I have always loved browsing through bookcases--I can even become mesmerized staring at my own bookcase.  Growing up, I spent a lot of time gazing into my grandfather's bookcases and one book in particular impressed me as being the most gloomy book ever written.  Dead Souls isn't exactly a cheerful title, and the author's name, Gogol, reminded me of Golgotha and the Stations of the Cross, and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary and All Souls' Day and purgatory and other dismal things.  But then someone told me that Dead Souls is hilarious, which was a relief, for some reason. 

So I added it to my list for the fifty classics project, and it's not as hilarious as everybody says, but neither is it gloomy.  It's set in Russia, in the early part of the 19th century. Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov arrives in a small town, accompanied by his valet and coachman.  Serfs were counted at infrequent intervals by a census taker, and their owners were taxed for them.  Imagine how vexing to have your serfs die on you before the next census and to have to pay taxes on so-called dead souls!  And here's Chichikov to the rescue, kindly offering to buy up the dead souls and relieve their former owners of the tax burden.

The landowners, although they can't resist unburdening themselves of their dead souls, are suspicious, and Chichikov has some sticky times, not helped by the intemperate habits of his servants. Of course, he is running a scam and plans to use his acquired dead souls to procure a large loan for himself.

I believe Gogol intended this book to be a general denouncement of Russians, and there are plenty of greedy, stupid, and corrupt characters, and digs at the incredibly top-heavy Russian civil service institution.  What I found the most interesting was the glimpses into Russian middle class domestic life, and manners although this is a very man-centered book, with few female characters.  I think this is the sort of book you need to read twice in order to pick up everything you missed on your first go-round. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but Dead Souls is probably a good choice if you've decided to enhance your exposure to Russian literature and don't know where to start.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Front hall progress at last

Painting is like going to confession: old sins are erased and everything is clean and new.  Progress on the front hall accelerated from snail's pace to cheetah pace last week after I saw a tweet from City Hall alerting us that hazardous waste day at the dump would take place in four days.  Nothing is a better motivator than the prospect of being stuck for another six months with mason jars full of old paint thinner.  Last week, I spent every evening after work scraping and sanding and scrubbing and finally, applying the primer, and Friday after work I drove to the dump triumphant with the paint thinner and the empty can of oil based primer.

Saturday I did the top coat and now the woodwork is done!

By "done" I mean only the baseboards and trim around the doors--not the front door because that is its own project--and not the door to the old dining room because, frankly, I forgot about it, and not the bannisters and not the trim around the window because it isn't original and the paint there is OK.  Originally, the whole POINT of this project was to paint the walls, so "woodwork" is anything directly adjacent to a wall.  Anyway, I'm still cherishing a hope that we can send the doors and bannisters to a workshop somewhere and have them dipped and repainted.  Our painting contractors from last year were going to fix the front door, but that project got a little expensive, so we decided to save the door until later.

Of course, the spanking new trim makes the walls look EVEN WORSE.   There are a lot of holes to fix.  The one pictured below is from ripping out the previous owner's heavy duty shelf-hanging molly screws.  

Here are some before pictures.

Upstairs landing before. (If you're new to my front hall, some past owner painted all the trim with oil-based mustard paint and the owners before us painted over it with white latex, and oil and water don't mix, so the situation pictured below happened.)

And now:

I can't wait to start picking a paint color for the walls!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: A Book for Writers

Ordinarily, I find guides for writers to be depressing.  This is probably because reading about writing makes me uncomfortably conscious of the fact that I'm not actually writing.  They're a little like confronting an overstuffed closet or a long-neglected inbox. Nevertheless, I loved Forest for the Trees * by Betsy Lerner.  Lerner is an editor and this book is her advice for writers and she had me hooked from the first paragraph of the first chapter, in which she lists the characteristics of the "ambivalent writer."  Obsessive? Check.  Constantly writing sentences in your head? Check. Psychiatrically challenged? Check. Plagued with anxiety-related skin rashes? Check.

All this time, I've been defining a writer as someone who has published books or articles.  Betsy Lerner helped me realize that one is a writer if one writes.  It's that simple.

Like many unpublished writers, I imagine that finding a publisher for your book is the golden ticket, but Lerner says bluntly that this is the moment at which your troubles really begin: editing, marketing, dealing with book sellers--even if your book is published, it seems like it has a slim chance of being seen by readers.  That is a little discouraging, but the overarching message is that you need to write what YOU love, which is really liberating.

*Affiliate link

Monday, March 10, 2014

Step AWAY from the all caps key

The front hall progresses at a SNAIL'S PACE.

Phoebe is five months old now.  She was spayed on Thursday and the vet wrote  "PHOEBE IS VERY WILD" on her discharge papers.  (Does he think we don't know this?  It was my job to hold her in the car on the way to the vet and she just about dislocated my shoulder.) We're supposed to keep her quiet for ten days and the vet gave us a "sedative."  The sedative is actually an anti-psychotic.  WHAT IS HE TRYING TO SAY?

Who can resist this face?

Even "sedated" she will jump on the furniture.

On Friday, I couldn't face the entitled twits that congregate in Charlottesville's restaurants on the weekends, so we went to the Korean House, a weeknight sort of restaurant.  There's a refreshing absence of twits, Wheel of Fortune and then Jeopardy are playing on the communal TV and the food is amazing.  On the other hand, you eat under the intense scrutiny of the owners.  The first time we ate there, I was on a diet and didn't want to be eating out at all and thought I could pretend to eat and bring the food home for one of the kids, but the owner's wife was NOT having it.  She kept rearranging the dishes in front of me as if to tempt me and finally took my bowl of rice, which had been sitting between Jon and me and moved it to my other side where Jon couldn't get it.  I caved and ate.  This time it was Jon who erred.  His dish came in a huge cast iron bowl, a cauldron, really, and he was delicately picking at its contents with his chopsticks when the owner yelled "No!" and took the cauldron away and stirred it vigorously for about ten minutes and gave it back to him.

Remember at Christmas, I hung disco balls from my porch ceiling, hoping to get a dazzling sparkle effect like Victoria Elizabeth Barnes'? And remember that my porch faces north and the December sun couldn't reach the disco balls so I got no sparkles?  I left the balls up after Christmas, wondering on what date would the earth be tilted far enough on its axis for the sun to reach my disco balls and now I know: February 25th, exactly two months after Christmas.  Science!

I really like the sparkles.   You can see them from the street.  They light up the front hall and the living room.  I'm thinking the disco balls need to be a permanent installation.