Monday, June 27, 2016

Books in Brief

There are a few books I need to get off my chest.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene - One of Modern Library's top 100 books of the twentieth century. I wasn't sure I'd like it, but in the end, I liked it so much I flagged it as a book I'd like to reread someday. Henry Scobie is the deputy police commissioner in a British-controlled west African city during World War II. He's scrupulously aboveboard at work, despite the plentiful opportunities for accepting bribes or using his position for material gain. The joy has long since left his marriage, but he stays with his wife because of complicated feelings of guilt and love. But then his wife insists on being packed off to South Africa, and he meets Helen, rescued after forty days at sea in an open boat after her ship was torpedoed. Also about the terrible burden it is to be Catholic, and an excellent character portrait of Yusef, a corrupt Syrian who becomes a sort of confessor to Scobie.

Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton - Recommended to me by my friend "Not Beehive" who comments here sometimes. This novel concerns the rapid social and sexual career of one Undine Sprague, a midwestern girl whose father suddenly makes a lot of money and moves his family to New York. Of course they are hopeless as new entrants to New York society, but Undine is a ruthless social climber and learns quickly how to imitate the ways of the people she hopes will accept her. I assumed Undine's name was inspired by the romantic fairy tale, Undine and Sintram (the book Jo March is reading at the beginning of Little Women) and that this was chosen so that the reader would see that the parents have middlebrow taste, at best. But then Mrs. Sprague candidly tells one of Undine's suitors that she's named for a type of hair curler that they marketed.  Wharton probably expected that most of her readers would have been familiar with Undine and Sintram, so I'm thinking this was her  idea of a practical joke. Good one! Custom of the Country is fast-paced and must have been considered shocking when it was published in 1913. One caveat: just read it, don't go looking for plot summaries online. I made that mistake, and a delicious little plot surprise was spoiled for me. Apparently, Custom of the Country was to be made into a TV adaptation starring Scarlett Johanson, but I can't find any evidence that it ever aired. Does anyone know about it?

Galore by Michael Crummey - Also recommended by Not Beehive, it follows more than a century in the chronicle of two small fishing communities in Newfoundland, starting in the early 1800's, when Irish was the primary language spoken in the region. In the opening scene, a living man is cut from the stomach of a dead whale on the beach. Christened Jude, he becomes simultaneously reviled (he smells terrible) and a lucky touchstone (his presence in the boats leads to bountiful fishing). At first, you think the whole novel is going to be about Jude, but as time passes, he fades into a mythical family legend that the younger generations can hardly believe existed. Galore has been compared to 100 Years of Solitude because of its magical realism, or seamless intertwining of the real and the supernatural.  I enjoyed the depiction of the incredibly harsh life in Newfoundland as well as the long unfolding this community's mythology.

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad - One of Modern Library's top books of the twentieth century. Not going to lie, I might not finish this one. I've never found Conrad easy to read and I can't fathom why I added it to my list in the first place. It's about a South American country involved in a revolution. I've read several reviews that insist once you get through the first fifty pages or so, but book becomes magically readable and wonderful. I'm well past page fifty, (OK, page 60) but still finding it a struggle. Anyone read this one?

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor - If you haven't read Elizabeth Taylor, you simply must. I insist. I have read and loved At Mrs. Lippincott's and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, so I picked this one off the library shelf as it seemed to be the earliest of her novels that they had. Cassandra Dashwood, orphan, accepts a job as a governess to Sophy VanBrugh, daughter of the rich, eccentric widower Marion VanBrugh. (Marion is a man's name.) And if this reminds you of Jane Eyre, it's supposed to. Cassandra herself fully expects to fall in love with her employer. Published in 1946, this is a modern Jane Eyre with a twist. There's an alcoholic cousin, a cranky, binge-eating, pregnant doctor, and the character who's supposed to be Mrs. Fairfax's counterpart, ("Tinty") sneaks pills, hoping for a pick-me-up. Indeed, the Tinty character became a fascination for me once her anxiety disorder is described. "Tinty suffered increasingly from the disease which had killed her mother, the disease of anxiety, with all its haunting persistency, its continual seeking for new forms in which to manifest itself."  I didn't realize that anxiety was recognized as a disease in 1946. But as I have said before, Elizabeth Taylor understands. I haven't quite finished this one, although I have reached the sad plot surprise that happens about forty pages before the end. I can't imagine now, how it will be wrapped up.

We'll Always Have Paris by Emma Beddington - Emma Beddington is the author of one of my very favorite blogs, Belgian Waffling in which she writes humorously about life in Belgium. Always Paris is her memoir, starting with her life as a teenager in Britain and her obsession with France, which leads to, a student teaching position in Normandy, and a serious relationship with a French man and a move to Paris shortly after the tragic death of her mother. Paris turns out to be a place of hostility and disapproval. I had a rather personal reaction to this book, as I also moved to a hostile, foreign place soon after my mother's untimely death and then had a baby. Dark times indeed. So I was quite engrossed in this story and I also loved it when she describes blogging itself. The only thing about Always Paris is that it is not available in the US, so if you want to read it, you can buy it from Amazon UK.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Soap Nuts Primer

Back in the 1960's, phosphates in commercial laundry detergent were turning our lakes scummy and green and were ruining the fragile Great Lakes ecosystem. Phosphates were banned in New York state in the early seventies and my mother frequently commented on that fact as I watched her doing the laundry. Thus, before I had started kindergarten, I understood that human activity can damage the beautiful world around us and that we must be stewards of our environment.

As the manager of my own household, I worried more about water usage, or the impact of laundry detergent containers than I did about the detergents themselves. We bought an HE washer and I dabbled in buying environmentally-friendly laundry brands, but they are so expensive and then somewhere along the way I became addicted to Tide. Tide of all things, the detergent my mother never would have bought, since it is expensive, overly-scented, and made by the evil Proctor & Gamble, but man, did I love a big load of freshly washed, Tide-smelling clothes. Unfortunately, modern laundry detergents are also bad for the environment.

When I heard about soap nuts I decided to give them a try. Soap nuts are the fruit of the Sapindus tree. The berries (or "nuts") contain a chemical called saponin, which acts as a soap. I ordered a bag from Amazon.

How does it work? The soap nuts come with a comprehensive instruction booklet. They're not difficult to use, but they do require some minor shifts in your laundry workflow. The way it works is that you put five or six soap nuts into a little muslin drawstring bag, and toss it in with your laundry. You can wash four to seven loads from the same set of nuts.

What about cold water wash or high efficiency machines? Soap nuts need to be thoroughly wet in order to release their saponin. If you wash with cold water, or if you have a high efficiency machine, you get better results if you pre-wet your nuts. To do that, you put your bag of nuts into a container and pour hot water over them, as if making tea. Let sit for a few minutes, then dump the "tea" and the nuts into the washer and start the load. I know, if you are used to expending absolutely no effort when adding detergent to your machine, this seems like a lot of work. I was a little annoyed myself at first, but I'm used to it now and it's fine. First of all, if you are doing multiple loads back-to-back, you only need to do the wetting process before the first load. I'm a tea-drinker so it has now become my habit to wet the soap nuts if I already happen to be making tea.

What's this muslin bag you keep mentioning? You can buy the muslin bags (sold separately), or you can make one yourself. I happened to have linen scraps, so I sewed one up. I was too lazy to construct a proper drawstring casing, so I just close it with an elastic hair tie. Easy!

But do they really clean your laundry? I was skeptical at first, but our clothes are just as clean after washing in soap nuts as they were using conventional detergent. At first, I did cautious loads of clothes that weren't particularly dirty. I thought I'd keep some conventional detergent on hand for things like workout clothes. Then I decided to put the soap nuts to a test. We have two washable area rugs in our house. There's a runner in the front hall and with  two dogs and all the rain we've had lately, it was easily the filthiest textile in my house. There's also a rug in the computer room that gets heavy wear. I took them both to the laundromat and washed the computer room rug with Tide and the runner with soap nuts. The soap nuts effectively cleaned the filthy runner. (Not to say it looked brand new, but it looked just as clean as it would look after I had washed it with conventional soap.) After that experiment, I started using soap nuts for all our laundry, even sweaty workout clothes. You will still need to pre-treat stains and you can use soap nuts with bleach. The instructions recommend a water softener such as borax if you have very hard water. The instructions discourage you from washing huge loads. I do keep a little Tide on hand, just in case, but I rarely use it. I never use fabric softener, but the instructions say that using soap nuts eliminates the need for it.

What do clothes smell like if you use soap nuts? They smell like clean cotton. Soap nuts do not impart a scent to your clothes, so if you require that they smell like a mountain meadow or an arctic breeze in order to believe that they're really clean, you might want to invest in a linen spray. Soap nuts themselves smell a bit like vinegar. Soap nuts do remove odors from clothes. In the early weeks, I sniffed our laundry before and after a wash, like some kind of laundry perv, so I have confirmed that they will remove odors, even from workout clothes. (Hint: you will catch a little shade at the laundromat if you stick your head into the machine where you just inserted a dirty rug and take a big whiff.)

Why not just buy one of the environmentally-friendly brands? Ah, but here is the huge advantage that soap nuts have over other detergents: they're cheap. I paid $18.95 for my soap nuts. After counting all the berries and assuming an average of five loads for each group of five berries, I calculated that I'd get 185 loads out of this bag, which works out to 10¢ per load. At Kroger, I compared the per-load price of various brands of liquid, powder, and pod detergents. I came up with an average of 24¢ per load. I used Amazon to compare the per-load price of environmentally-friendly brands like Method, 7th Generation, and Ecos, and came up with an average price of 40¢ per load.

How do you know when your nuts need to be replaced? I just wet the bag and squeeze it. If I see suds, I know the nuts are still good. They never make a lot of suds though. When they're spent, you can compost them. I sometimes toss mine out the window. Also, no plastic bottle to recycle. They come packaged in a cotton bag. There's also the cardboard box they were shipped in, but if you can find them locally, you don't even have to worry about the box.

Do you have to remove the soap nuts from the washer before the rinse cycle starts? No. I leave mine in for the entire wash cycle and there is no residue on our clothes.

Travel use. I realized soap nuts would be great to take along when you travel. We always do our own laundry when we travel and some of the places we've rented have provided laundry detergent and others haven't. Also, buying laundry detergent in non-English speaking countries can be confusing, as I learned in Rome. Pack a handful of soap nuts and you'll never need to spend several Euros on something that turns out to be fabric softener.

Have any of you tried soap nuts? What has your experience been? I've only been using them for a month or so, but I'm happy enough with them that I plan to continue to use them.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Tortoise and the Hare

I am pretty sure it was one of you lovely readers who recommended The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins. Unfortunately, I can't remember who, but thank you for the recommendation.

At first glance, The Tortoise and the Hare checks off all the boxes: British, mid-century, domestic, upper-middle class. That said, it is too dark to be considered a cozy book, but I loved it all the same and have marked it for potential re-read and I'll definitely be looking up more books by Elizabeth Jenkins.

It is the period shortly after World War II, and Evelyn and Imogen Gresham have been married for eleven years. (For the first few chapters, I had to keep reminding myself, "Evelyn is a man's name.") Evelyn is in his early fifties, a successful and important barrister. He's one of those men who is always in command; unfailingly sure of himself and very handsome. Imogen, age 37, is gentle and beautiful, arty, romantic, and perhaps somewhat impractical. They have an 11 year old son, Gavin, and live in an idyllic riverside house in Berkshire, far enough away from London that Evelyn needs to sleep in a flat they keep there when he is working.

From the very beginning, you can see that Imogen is unable to assert herself in front of her husband. He knows best, and she is silly, vague, and impractical. It's also clear that Evelyn doesn't respect Imogen, and as a result, neither does their son.

Enter Blanche Silcox, a neighbor, fiftyish, stout, and frumpy. Blanche is also rich and eminently capable, the opposite of Imogen. Evelyn and Blanche talk on the phone every day and Blanche is always on hand to drive him back and forth to London. It's clear to the reader that something untoward is happening, but it doesn't occur to Imogen that an unattractive woman like Blanche could possibly threaten her marriage.

As much as I enjoyed this novel, I found it uncomfortable to read because Evelyn is an abusive husband. Politely abusive, but abusive nonetheless. There's nothing physical, no shouting, but a few well-chosen words here and there keep Imogen thoroughly cowed. For example, towards the end, when Imogen has realized that Evelyn and Blanche are actually lovers, she naturally becomes more withdrawn. Evelyn turns this against her, saying things like, "Since you obviously don't want my company, I'll have lunch with Blanche." It's a masterful portrayal of emotional manipulation, but it made me sad.

Imogen rehearses everything she says or does, so as not to irritate Evelyn and she goes out of her way to attend to his comfort, although to no avail, since he finds all his comfort from Blanche. She's so terrified of his reactions that she can't even bring herself to call him when their son gets into serious trouble at his boarding school.

Blanche, meanwhile, is just as horrid as you'd expect: bossy and heavy handed.  Naturally she takes a hard line against those less privileged than she, arguing vociferously that the new National Health Service is only going to encourage malingering among the lower orders.  She has no taste either.

In the end, Imogen seems to be heading for a very dark place, but help arrives from an unexpected source. It's possible that two broken people might be able to heal each other.

Monday, June 06, 2016

The Small House at Allington

Remember how much I loved Framley Parsonage? Well, I loved The Small House at Allington EVEN MORE. Anthony Trollope is currently my king of cozy literature.

The first chapter gives us a description of the Great House and Small House at Allington (because if there is a Small House, there must also be a Great House). These two houses enjoy all the charming irregularity of Tudor architecture. Once you have gotten over your sadness and rage that you do not own these houses for yourself, you get into the story.

Lily and Bell Dale are sisters who live with their widowed mother in the Small House. Their uncle, the squire, lives in the Great House. Relations between the two houses are somewhat strained, due to the fact that the squire doesn't entirely approve of his brother's widow. Still, the squire would really like it if Bell, the older sister, would marry his nephew and heir, Bernard. Bell, however, has ideas of her own and refuses to agree to this scheme, further damaging the relationship between the two houses. Lily, however, is the main object of this drama. She becomes engaged to a very fashionable young clerk named William Crosbie. Unfortunately, Crosbie is a bit of a dickhead. Another young man of the neighborhood, John Eames is also in love with Lily.

How it turns out is somewhat less than satisfactory. Trollope himself described Lily as a "prig," and I had the urge to smack her a few times. Still, Crosbie is well punished for being a dickhead, so that's something. I can only hope that the loose ends are tied up in the final book of the series, The Last Chronicle of Barset.

Trollope sticks to his familiar themes: the foolishness of young men, the acerbity of some highbred ladies, Victorian social mores. There is rather less about the church and politics in this novel than in his other Barchester books. It works well as a stand-alone, so don't be afraid to read it if you haven't read the earlier books in the series. While it features some of the characters from the earlier books, most notably Griselda Grantly and the de Courcy family from Doctor Thorne. (Dr. Harding also has a cameo, if only so that Trollope could demonstrate to his fans that the old man was alive and well.) You can certainly enjoy The Small House without knowing their full histories.