Friday, June 27, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: After Julius

I am reading through all of Elizabeth Jane Howard's books, and you will just have to bear with me.  From this exercise I'm learning that I really, really love Elizabeth Jane Howard's writing.  She has joined Barbara Pym, Jane Austen, and Anthony Trollope as one of my favorite authors, whose books I will turn to again and again.

After Julius is about a small family of women: Esme, the mother, and Cressida and Emma, the daughters.  Julius, Esme's husband and the father of Cressy and Emma died twenty years earlier while assisting the evacuation of Dunkirk.  The whole story takes place over the course of one country house weekend, to which Emma invites a penniless poet she just met, Esme's former lover comes to stay, and Esme unwittingly invites Cressida's lover and his wife for dinner.  Which sets the scene for more than enough drama for a novel.

I'm pretty sure that After Julius was the novel that EJH wrote while on vacation in Spain with Kingsley Amis, and that she and he occasionally traded typewriters and wrote a few passages in each other's books.  There are a few passages in After Julius that have Amis' tone.

Speaking of Kingsley Amis, Jen recently lent me the Town & Country's issue  with Martin Amis' reminiscences of growing up with Elizabeth Jane Howard as his stepmother.  Very interesting reading.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Dog Food Corner: Unfucked

I discovered a blog last week, Unfuck Your Habitat, and immediately added it to my reader.  The raison d'etre of this blog is to help people deal with the messes in their houses, and also encourages you not to beat yourself up because of your mess. People share before and after photos, and it's encouraging to see that I'm not the only one who has challenges where cleanliness and order are concerned, and that not everybody lives in a Pinterest house.  Decorating blogs can make you feel really inadequate.  How do they achieve those gleaming, dust-free surfaces in their own homes?  If there is a dust-erasing tool in photoshop, I haven't discovered it yet.

Last week, UFYH gave her readers a challenge: identify a problem area and unfuck it over the course of the week, in EZ twenty-minute sessions.  My house has many problem areas, but after about fifteen seconds of pondering, I realized that a particular spot in my kitchen has been causing me anxiety for months.  

Dog Food Corner

If you have pets, you can probably relate to the challenges of storing their food.  Our "system" is to keep the bags in a large basket, which is also where we toss all paper recycling until it is time to take it to the curb.  Since wet paper can't be recycled, we have to keep it in the house.*

The shelves to the left and the bench to the right both have become repositories for random stuff.  And since the shelves are right next to our unvented stove, they are grimy, as are the canisters.

More "before" shots.

It took four twenty minute sessions, plus one final one that was somewhat longer, but Dog Food Corner is much improved.

Those drawers in the bench?  FULL of tools.

Not obvious, but I significantly reduced
the pile of  tiny zip lock bags full of spices.

*The paper recycling problem will soon no longer be an issue because this weekend, the city delivered our new, enormous recycling bin, with a lid.  It is bigger than Seamus' bedroom, but now the city will collect only every other week.

What's your (metaphorical) Dog Food Corner?  Which blog did you add most recently to your reader?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment has been hanging over my head since I was seventeen, and our AP English teacher added it to the syllabus. We spent so much time dissecting every shred of symbolism in Anna Karenina, there was no time at the end of the year for C&P.  A bullet dodged, but only temporarily, because I knew I would read it eventually.  Which I did for the Fifty Classics project.

I wish I could read Russian, because I suspect Crime & Punishment would be a much more elegant novel if read in the language in which it was written.  Maybe I had a particularly bad translation.  There were many clumsy attempts to replace Russian colloquialisms with English ones which made this novel feel like the literary equivalent of one of those kung-fu movies in which the characters' lip movements don't even come close to the sounds they're making.

But let's overlook the language barrier and focus on the plot: Rodion Roskolnikov is a young ex-student who murders an unpleasant old lady and then undergoes enough intense mental anguish to drive himself mad.  Side plots involve Dunya, Roskolnikov's sister who is pursued by a married man and engaged to a despicable one, and the Marmaladov family, who live in poverty and squalor. Dostoevsky is a genius for depicting misery.   Speaking of torment, his characters engage in intense, bewildering dialogue that goes on for pages and pages.  And yet, I'm glad I read this, and despite my complaining, it wasn't as painful as I was expecting it to be. Dostoevsky's treatment of Raskolnikov is almost like that of a scientist: let us place someone into an appalling situation and see what happens.  I think we can all relate to Roskolnikov.  If you have ever obsessed about something to the point at which you are barely rational, or known someone who has, then this book will touch a nerve.

A selection of book covers:

Monday, June 16, 2014

When in Doubt, Sew an Apron

I've been going through a sort of existential crisis--since before Christmas actually.  It's just the same question that plagues everybody at some point: what am I doing with my life?  There are basically two philosophies about finding fulfillment in life:
  1. Do whatever to earn your living and find fulfillment outside of the workplace
  2. Don't sell out; follow your dream. (For the record, I hate the term "follow your dream" but can't come up with a decent substitute.)
There's merit to both of these philosophies.  I don't think there's anything wrong with working in a job purely for the income and following your dream in your free time.  On the other hand, if you can create a career out of doing what you love, then you are truly blessed.  The problem starts either when your day job is so stressful and soul-destroying that you can't enjoy life at all, or when the activity you love simply can't generate a sufficient income. 

I've been thinking a lot about what I would like to be doing if there wasn't this annoying need for money, and this is what I came up with.
  • Travel writer.  Just send me around the world and I'll write a book about it, I promise.  All I need to get started is a patron, or a big win at the lottery. 
  • Return to Cape Town, research local recipes and write a cook book for Americans.
  • Urban farmer.  With some beehives, chickens, a couple of goats and and some very efficient vegetable beds, we could probably turn our property into an urban farm.  It would mean an enormous amount of work, which is fine, except that I hate hate hate gardening. 
  • Rural farmer.  Just chuck it all and move to Nebraska or Wisconsin and raise sheep and goats and be a sort of midwestern Tasha Tudor.
  • Baker.  I love to bake and I'm actually good at it.  Unfortunately the local market is saturated with bakers.
  • Potter.  I've never thrown so much as an ash tray, but I have a feeling this is something I would enjoy and possibly even have a talent for.  I'm contemplating taking a class to see if my feeling is correct.
I feel like I'm right at the point of discovering the answer.  If I could just sit quietly for a moment and, it might come to me.

Meanwhile, I made this apron.  I KNOW it's totally hokey and Holly Hobbie, and the pocket is not aesthetically pleasing, but it is my first attempt at sewing (other than the couch covers) in YEARS and it's made entirely from scraps I had on hand.  I got the basic construction from a book, (A is for Apron by Nathalie Mornu)  but the pattern mixing is totally mine.

If you could do anything, what would you do.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: The Innocents Abroad

I'm falling behind on the Fifty Classics project.  I've been doing it for over two years, so I should have read about twenty books by now, and I've only read fourteen. (You're supposed to read fifty classics in five years.) I'm going to be pushing myself through several in the upcoming weeks.  Right now I'm reading Crime & Punishment (I DID start it in Cape Town) and also on the short list are David Copperfield, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and The Woman in White.

Anyway, Innocents Abroad.  Can I just say that Mark Twain can be irritating?  Sometimes he can be really funny.  Sometimes, you find yourself laughing while also feeling ashamed.  And sometimes he's just offensive.  He takes his crowd of innocents from New York to the Azores, the south of France, Paris, back down into Italy, where they visit all the major cities.

In part two of this massive volume, they attempt to visit Athens, but are banned because of quarantine regulations. (A small group leave the ship in the middle of the night and sneak in to the Athens and visit the Acropolis by moonlight.)  They head to Constantinople, the Black Sea, Turkey, the Holy Land by way of Syria, and finally, Egypt.

Twain really did make this journey in the 1860s, and he intended to highlight the tawdriness of tourism--the shilling, the begging, the tackiness that destroys the beautiful places of history, but he often comes across as just plain mean and intolerant of the different societies he encountered, particularly in the Holy Land, where he derides the legends (I was raised on these stories as truths) around Christ's crucifixion, such as the story of Saint Veronica.  Perhaps he makes a point about gullibility,  but mocking people for their faith is a low blow.  (Except US politicians who believe in the rapture.)  Then again, he exposed the outrageous behavior of pilgrims who were constantly chipping bits of stone from every site they saw.  It's a wonder there are any old buildings left standing.

It would be fun to retrace Twain's journey and write a book about it.  That would be epic, although you'd have to skip Syria.  If I ever win the lottery, I'll consider it.