Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Road to Little Dribbling

I don't usually write about popular books.  I don't see much point when you could easily find dozens of blogger-written reviews of the same book.  And I'm also kind of a snob about best sellers. However, whenever a new Bill Bryson book comes out, I'll drop everything to read it, which is what I did when I finally got to the top of the library hold list for The Road to Little Dribbling. I had been reading the bleak (though edifying) Studs Lonigan trilogy, and I was only too happy to put it aside and dive into Bryson's latest.

And what a delightful book it is. I was helpless with laughter by page two, which is a record for me, even for a Bill Bryson book.  I'm not suggesting you'll be screaming with laughter throughout the whole thing, but I will say that it would be prudent to exercise caution if you are drinking hot liquids while reading The Road to Little Dribbling.

In 1995, Bill Bryson wrote Notes from a Small Island, in which he traveled around the UK, mostly by public transportation, and wrote hilariously about his mishaps.  The book is partly a love letter to his adopted country and its beauties and also a massive rant about the stupid urban planning that is destroying Great Britain's architectural and natural treasures.  The Road to Little Dribbling is much in the same vein.  Bryson travels around this UK, although this time, instead of traveling the circumference, he sticks (loosely) to the environs of the "Bryson Line" - the furthest distance you can drive in a straight line from one end of Great Britain to the other.

On this trip, Bryson revisits a few of the places he went to in Notes from a Small Island, but mostly he goes to new places, so the material is new, although the rants - terrible traffic engineering, bad urban planning, stupidity in general - are the same.  One of the things that Bryson does well is to associate places with the obscure notables who once lived there.  He is often keen to see a particular town because some person you've never heard of, but who made an important, yet under-appreciated or uncredited contribution to civilization once lived (or died) there.  Thus, you find yourself collecting enormous amounts of trivial knowledge as you read.

I think you will enjoy The Road to Little Dribbling, but I should mention that a friend of mine also just read it and she felt that Bryson is unnecessarily rude and nasty in his rants.  She also didn't like his schtick that he's just a bumbling fool who needs the constant supervision of his saintly wife. I agree that men who infantilize themselves are annoying and it also did occur to me a few times that Bryson might at times be unpleasant to service people he encounters.  He also made the somewhat hurtful comment that all IT people are heartless spawn of Satan, or similar. As an IT person, I took exception to that. Perhaps he is exaggerating for effect?  If you've read this book, let me know what you think.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Plumbing Pipe Pantry

When last we met, I had finished painting chalkboard paint on the wall of my new pantry.  Now it was time to make the shelves.  For years, I've been saving magazine articles that detail how to make things like a drafting table, shelves, or even a four poster bed, out of plumbing pipes.  I really liked the idea of plumbing pipe shelf brackets attached to the chalkboard wall.  For guidance, I used this tutorial, although I ended up constructing my shelves somewhat differently.

First, I had to figure out what pipe lengths that I needed and how to find them.  I didn't want to waste a lot of time blundering through the hardware store, so I searched for pipes online, to get an idea of cost and available lengths.  At first, I couldn't find any pipes that were remotely the appropriate size. Finally, I figured out that shorter lengths of threaded plumbing pipe (twelve inches or less) are known as "nipples."  Then I burned up google searching for "8 inch threaded nipple" and found what I needed.

I wanted my shelves to be eight inches deep, and I wanted the first two shelves to be ten inches high, and then eight inches between the second and third shelf.  A ten-inch shelf will accommodate large canisters, as you will see.  This was the shopping list:

8" threaded pipe, 1/2" diameter- ten
10" threaded pipe, 1/2 " diameter - four
1/2 " tee fittings - four
1/2 " elbow fittings - four
1/2 " flanges - eight

Each piece is inexpensive, but since you need so many pieces, plumbing pipe projects can be costly. The tutorial I read said to buy the black pipes, but the black pipes leave black residue all over your hands, so I am going to recommend that you buy the galvanized ones.  You can always spray paint them.  There would be a total of four shelves, one on each of the eight-inch horizontal supports.

Assembling the brackets turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated because in order to get the horizontal pipes to all face in the same way, it was necessary to either tighten the joints beyond the point at which I had the strength to tighten them, or leave them really loose.  It helps to have a plumbing wrench, although the wrench itself is so heavy I could hardly wield it.  All in all, an awkward business.

The width of my shelving is only about thirty-two inches, so I needed only two brackets.  A wider shelf would need a third bracket in the middle. Once both of my brackets were assembled, I spray-painted them black.  

The really hard part of this project was attaching the brackets to the wall.  The studs, at least, were located right where I wanted them, but it was incredibly difficult to drill the holes for some reason. Jon did the drilling, and there was some shouting and possibly a few tears.  Hanging the first bracket was so traumatic that we abandoned the project for a couple of weeks.  Anyway, I needed time to figure out how to hang the second bracket in such a way that the shelves were level.  (The tutorial was no help here.) The method I hit on was to balance one end of a board on the already attached bracket, while balancing the other end on the second bracket, with a spirit level balanced on top of the board.  Once the shelf was level, I marked the spot on the wall where each flange sat with green tape.  This seems awfully imprecise, but it worked.  Since markings don't show on the black wall, and a piece of chalk is too chunky to fit through the holes in the flanges, I couldn't mark where each screw should go. There was a bit less shouting when we installed the second bracket, although the drill bit broke off inside the wall.  Luckily, not until we were on the last hole. 

Precision, defined

Monday, March 21, 2016

Aspirational Chalkboard Wall of Doom

As you may recall, I decided to take an under-utilized wall in my kitchen and turn it into a pantry of sorts, with bonus chalkboard. Pottery Barn features several chalkboards and "daily systems" in their catalogs.  The photo stylists decorate the chalkboards with jaunty (though sometimes nonsensical) notes:  "Plan business trip to NYC!" "Drop off computer at apple store" "Family vacation, Paris" "Picnic in park, 1:00 pm" making it seem as if real people inhabit the Pottery Barn spaces.  Indeed, a never-written blog post idea of mine was to imagine the lives of these people who spend so much time going to parties, owning Apple products, and buying camembert.

I knew I had to have a kitchen chalkboard wall. We could write cheerful little notes to each other: Went for run! Stefan's birthday tomorrow! or use it as a shopping list:

Creme Fraiche

or else use it to list the week's menus:
Monday -  Kale/quinoa bake.
Tuesday - Tacos!
Wednesday - Salmon burgers with spinach souffle
Thursday - Foraged sorrel pesto bucatini
Friday - Quiche, deconstructed

We would be chalkboard people. People with kitchen chalkboard walls don't put things like cake mix or Franzia on their shopping lists. They don't eat ramen noodles coated in peanut butter and siracha for dinner either. I was half-convinced that if I had a kitchen chalkboard wall, I would be thinner and prettier and would stop wearing tragic outfits out of the house.  I would learn to write in artistic fonts and put some sort of clever saying on the wall; perhaps a quote from Shakespeare: Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers. (Romeo and Juliet)

So the plan was to paint the wall with chalkboard paint and then install the pantry shelves on top of it. Here's what Pinterest and the Pottery Barn catalog don't tell you about making a chalkboard wall in your house:

Once again, I failed to think of the unexpected, negative consequences of said piece of aspiration. (Note: it is a major responsibility of my full-time job to think of the unexpected, negative consequences of doing things.)

Anyway, I did all the boring wall prep and applied two coats of black chalkboard paint to the wall. Then we waited for three days for the wall to cure.  Once the wall has cured, you must take a piece of white chalk, hold it sideways against the wall and rub it all over the wall, completely covering it with chalk.  If you don't do this, the first things you write on it will never entirely erase.

Seamus and I debated extensively on whether or not you must use white chalk for this or not.  The internet was unclear, but I didn't want ghosts of blue or pink chalk on my wall, so we used white. This meant waiting an extra day because the local store was out of white chalk, so I had to order it from amazon.

Once you have coated the entire wall with an even covering of white chalk, you wipe it off again with a damp cloth and your chalkboard wall is ready to go.  Seamus did this part and when he was finished, for reasons that are unclear to me, he vigorously shook the cloth.  A mushroom cloud of chalk dust rose over his head and gently descended on the kitchen.  "But it's dustless,"  he said, surprised at my remonstrance. I pointed out that his hair and eyebrows were white.  Note: "low dust" in relation to chalk is a worthless claim.  Another thing pinterest doesn't tell you.  I really like my chalkboard wall, but now, there is never not a drift of chalkboard dust decorating the adjacent cookbook shelf, the baseboard, or the floor.

Here it is with our original experimental etchings.  Those eyes, which reminded me of the Great Gatsby paperback cover, and SUPER FINE supervised kitchen proceedings for quite a while as I worked on the shelf-building part of the project.

Part two of the painting phase of this project was to paint the bead board white.  I was really tired of the apple green, and the white looks better against the black chalkboard paint.

For reference,  here's how the wall looked before:

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

M.F.K. Fisher: Map of Another Town and A Considerable Town

My biggest regret about reading Map of Another Town and A Considerable Town by M. F. K. Fisher is that I didn't discover her earlier.  She's one of those writers who feels like a friend.

M. F. K. Fisher

Born in 1908, she was one of the great food writers.  Compared with the other food writers I enjoy, she is more approachable than Elizabeth David, and more serious than Julia Child. She writes about her own foibles and struggles in an endearing way that makes you wish you could talk to her in person.

Map of Another Town is a memoir of her years living in Aix, Provence, as a single mother, during the fifties and sixties.  This book is no hilarious tale about buying a farmhouse like A Year in Provence.  Fisher simultaneously felt like an outsider, while also forging deep relationships with the Aix natives.  The people of the region were still reeling from the Nazi occupation and there are some heartbreaking incidents involving people who were so traumatized by the Germans that they can no longer function.

A Considerable Town is Fisher's memoir about Marseille, which she first visited as a young woman, and where she lived for a while after the time of Map of Another Town.  Of the two books, I prefer the first one, but A Considerable Town is still an interesting portrait of Marseille.  And now, of course, I really want to visit both Aix and Marseille.  Either of these books would be a good choice if you're into travel or memoirs.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Kitchen Rescue: Planning

We were invited to a fancy wine-pairing dinner, held in a 200-year old inn downtown.  And here is the thing.  The kitchen?  From which the chef somehow produced six courses for thirty-odd people?  Was about half the size of my own kitchen, which isn't large by any means.  Not only that, it had no dishwasher.  We could see the two servers hand washing dishes between courses.  Despite the limitations of space and equipment, the food was top-notch.

This experience made me feel simultaneously better and worse about my own kitchen.  If a chef could produce such a dinner out of the kitchen I saw that night, I ought not to feel so ashamed about my own kitchen.  On the other hand, my kitchen is seriously dysfunctional and I felt that I ought to do something about it.  "Dysfunctional" isn't even the right word.  Tragic is more like it, but when you have four young children and your landlord sells your house out from under you, and you swear you will never, ever rent again, but also insist on living in a pre-World War II house in the city, within biking distance of the University of Virginia, and the housing boom is just getting started, a house like this is your only option.  Indeed, we were incredibly lucky to get it.

Anyway, Lack of storage and workspace mean that I am never able to find what I need and I waste a lot of time digging through shelves and into the ice bucket that holds all our silverware.  The previous owners gutted the kitchen and installed formica laundry room-grade cabinets, which were already ten years old when we moved in and which immediately started to disintegrate.  I currently have no drawers, only a blank, white formica hole where the drawers used to be.  (Hence the ice bucket.)  Most of our pantry goods, I store around the corner in the dining room, in a huge shelving unit, which although it has a lot of space, tends to devour things because the shelves are so deep.  Items that I use more often are in an antique cupboard that we bolted to the wall, and built-in shelves next to the stove, but I find myself constantly trotting between the kitchen and the dining room to get what I need.

The "dining room" isn't isn't even really the dining room.  It's a bedroom.  The real dining room was always uncomfortable to eat in because it felt like an extension of the front hall and the table was in full view of whoever came to the front door.  So now the real dining room is a wide, hall-like space where we keep the computer.

The hole where the drawers used to be.

Appalling, I know.

I found this old picture that shows the drawers mid-disintigration

What we really need to do is gut the whole thing, knock down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room so that we can reorient the table and get decent cabinets and countertops.  But with kids in college, we can't afford to do that, and back in the day, with a houseful of small children and only one income, we couldn't afford it either.  So we lived without proper kitchen cabinets.  For sixteen years.

Now, if Jon and I manage to get dream jobs in a place like Buffalo or Ireland and have to put the house on the market, I'd haul ass to Ikea and have this kitchen oufitted in cabinets before you could say BJØRKET. But that is not likely to happen.

Our house is roughly 110 years old and has seen a lot of half-assed, unprofessional renovations.  When the time comes to fix our kitchen, I want to do it properly, but I realized I was going to have to settle on a diy to bridge the gap between now and the time when we can really fix the kitchen. My top priorities were better storage for pantry items, and for my silverware to not be all dumped together in an ice bucket.  I decided to install pantry shelves on the wall pictured below.  There is nothing that I like more than starting a new project.

Just to explain the geography of the scene below:  Behind that chunk of wall and shelves is the house's HVAC system, whatever that entails.  I believe the shelves were added by the previous owners--a thoughtful touch.  The tiny green cupboard is a 1930's medicine cabinet that I picked up somewhere and use for spices, the problem being that it isn't large enough to hold all of them.  There used to be a breakfast bar attached to the wall where you see the green bead board.  When we moved into the house, we thought this was a nice feature, but in reality, no one wanted to eat at the breakfast bar, which overlooked the dining room table.  The bar became a dumping ground for clutter, so we removed it and put a bench with storage drawers in the space.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Feeling meh about Marrying Mozart

So far, 2016 has been the year to read all the fluff and fun.  Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell seemed like just the sort of book I like.  Historic fiction set in one of my favorite time periods and featuring one of my favorite musicians.  I have seen Amadeus many times.  It's one of my all-time favorite movies, and I always wanted to know more about Constanze.

Marrying Mozart covers the time period before that of the start of Amadeus, and up to Mozart's marriage to Constanze.  The four Weber sisters, Josefa, Aloysia, Constanze, and Sophie, live in Mannheim, Germany.  Their father, a musician and teacher, hosts a musical gathering every Thursday, which Mozart attends one evening, which is the beginning of his long relationship with the family.  Mozart falls in love with Aloysia, but she dumps him for another man, and he marries Constanze almost as an afterthought.  The book is more about the four sisters and their relationship with each other,  their difficult mother, and their father.  

Ultimately, Marrying Mozart was a disappointment.  Cowell does a good job of setting the scene and of evoking the lush atmosphere of 18th-century Vienna, with its sweets and baked goods and cinnamon-infused coffee. The characters, however, never come to life and the more entangled they get in their relationships, the more tedious it becomes to read about them.

Constanze Mozart

If you are absolutely dying to learn more about Constanze Weber Mozart and her life, you will probably want to read Marrying Mozart, but you will also want to find other books, because this one will leave you feeling unsatisfied.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

A new name for the blog

This blog has been "Fatuous Observations" for a long time.  Since 2006, to be exact, when I did write more about my thoughts about things.  The focus of this blog has changed since then and I write fewer general observation posts than I used to.  I have changed in the last ten years and I think I've outgrown "Fatuous Observations."

I don't anticipate a drastic change to my content, but I would like to focus more on the domestic side of life.  The things that I do at home--reading, knitting, sewing, cooking, organizing, and interior decorating are the things that I truly enjoy. I've decided to rename the blog The Homebody to reflect that.

I'm struggling to get an image into the header that doesn't look like absolute crap.  How in the world do you get an image to nicely fill your header and not be ten miles high?  I finally found the magic pixel size that is more or less the right width and height, but now my image is distorted. I'm going to leave it for now.  The picture is an old dinosaur that I took myself from our trip to Rome on 2009.  Nothing satisfies my homebody like clean laundry drying in the breeze.

PS  The blog address is still the same, so if you have this blog added to a reader, you should still get updates.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Two Literary Mysteries

I don't usually read mysteries, but I recently enjoyed two literary mysteries by Lynn Shepherd: The Solitary House, and Murder at Mansfield Park.  Shepherd is a literary mimic, and in these two books she takes on the writing style of the period from which each mystery takes place.

The Solitary House is creepy and violent and concerns pedophilia and sexual perversion; hardly the cozy sort of book I like, but once I started, I just had to find out how it would end.   I couldn't read this book at bedtime, and even so, I had a nightmare about it one night.  Consider yourself warned.

It's London in 1850, and Charles Maddox is a young private detective who is hired by a prominent lawyer to identify the person who has been sending threatening letters to one of his clients.  It seems straightforward, but underneath this simple request is a deeper mystery of violence and horror, which Charles uncovers, at great risk to his own safety.  For advice, he turns to his elderly uncle, also named Charles Maddox, who was a celebrated detective in his day.  Unfortunately, he is succumbing to dementia and has few lucid moments.

Shepherd draws on both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins for certain elements of the story.  Dickens' Inspector Bucket, a character in Bleak House, is a central character.  Since I haven't read Bleak House, I probably didn't fully appreciate this addition, but speaking strictly about The Solitary House, Inspector Bucket is an interesting character.  As the story reaches its conclusion, Shepherd tosses in some characters and elements from Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, which I have read.  To me, the story could have stood its own without them.  Shepherd also adopts Collins' fulsome Victorian writing style for the novel, which is not entirely successful, in my opinion.  A lot of the Amazon customer reviewers had issues with the writing too.  That said, The Solitary House is certainly an engrossing and suspenseful book and if you are a literary sort of person who likes to be scared out of your wits, it's a good choice for you.

Murder at Manfield Park was a much cozier mystery.  No nightmares were generated from this book. I have never had a problem with Fanny Price, but apparently she's a literary character that people love to hate. Shepherd cleverly takes advantage of that by having her murdered in this looking glass version of Mansfield Park.  The first several chapters are simply a re-telling of Austen's novel, only with a few details changed, mainly that Fanny Price, while exhibiting a mild and humble demeanor whenever in the presence of her elders, is actually a poisonous bitch.  Another difference between Shepherd's novel and Austen's is that Fanny is a rich orphan and heiress.  Meanwhile, Mary Crawford, one of the villains of Mansfield Park, is the sympathetic character in Murder at Mansfield Park.  The remaining characters are more or less the same as they are in Mansfield Park although Maria and Julia are more sympathetic and Edmund is Mrs. Norris' step-son instead of brother to the Bertrams.

The fun thing about Murder at Mansfield Park is that it's really hard to guess who the murderer is.  Most of the characters have a motive, but after reading about them for over 100 pages before the murder occurs, none of them seems like a murderer.  Almost everyone is a suspect at one point or another.  The elder Charles Maddox--the senile uncle from The Solitary House--is hired to solve the crime, which he does eventually, but even the great "thief taker" is on the wrong track for a while. Also, while we know all along that Fanny will be murdered (it says so in the blurb) there are two more shocking crimes that will surprise the reader.

I don't usually like Jane Austen knock-offs, but Murder at Mansfield Park was enormously entertaining, or, excessively diverting, as an Austen character would put it. It has made me want to reread Mansfield Park, to see if I have overlooked something in Fanny's character.  The book gets mixed reviews on Amazon, however, with many people outraged at this treatment of the esteemed Jane Austen.  It's true that the book isn't perfect.  As she did in The Solitary House, Shepherd uses a few self-indulgent literary tricks, for example having Mary Crawford read Sense & Sensibility.  Still, this is entirely forgivable since the novel is so much fun.