Lemon-Berry Flan, Lime Tea Cake, and Homemade Chorizo

Dear Reader:

Boy, are we enjoying summer!  My red, black, yellow, and purple raspberries have been producing like crazy…so much so, that I’ve begged friends and their kids to come over and pick and have had others over for berries, cake, and ice cream in the garden.  We’ve had lots of dog parties with friends, hiking along Swedetown creek, and nipping off to pick lowbush blueberries and juneberries (sugar plums to long-term locals).

Nuts and Berries and Grains and Veggies, Oh My!

About a month ago, I went vegan for my cooking at home.  That means no cooking with or eating animals products (meat, dairy, fish, eggs).  I was vegetarian for many years, but never vegan.

I’m flexible though – for instance, I’m using up various eggs and dairy products I already had.  I don’t plan to stick to vegan when I go out or visit someone’s home.  If I’m having people over, I may cook something I usually wouldn’t.

Why did I do this?  I usually don’t cook a lot in the summer – being vegetarian or occasionally eating meat, it was easy to slap some cheese on something and call it dinner.  I wasn’t eating all the veggies I wanted to (for optimal nutrition, dieticians recommend 10 fruits and veggies a day – most Americans don’t get the minimum of five a day…).

I love cooking, especially South Asian and Latin American food, and wanted to do something to get myself back in the kitchen.  I’d like to lose weight – I’ve got some early arthritis and the number one thing you can do to prevent it is to lose weight.  A friend found it easier to maintain a healthy weight as a vegan than not.  For environmental reasons, I like to eat lower on the food chain.  I don’t think meat and fish and dairy are inherently unhealthy, but I do think that replacing high fat cheese with nuts and butter with olive oil is healthier.  Finally, I was curious about what it would take to cook vegan.

So, for the last few weeks I’ve been on a cookbook reading and cooking binge and it has been so fun.  Yesterday I made nut pate, guacamole, mushroom-broccoli soup, and lime chile spicy nuts.  Right now I’m baking lemon-berry flan (with my remaining eggs):

And I’ve lost some pounds quickly, even while I had birthday cake, lime tea cake, and other delicious stuff hanging around the house.  At least initially, eating vegan has changed my relationship with food.  I’ve become more of a grazer, having a bit of this, a bit of that.  I can eat thin slices of cake, one a day…  I find the food that I am eating more satisfying.

I didn’t used to enjoy a mild tasting food without lots of cheese, such as a stew.  But I do now.  I have a ton of cookbooks and, while I do substitute stuff, I’m mostly following directions carefully.  I’m finding the herb and spice mixtures in the recipes so delicious.  But one challenge is that I enjoy them the first couple times, but then lose interest.  One solution is to give some to my dogs (in lieu of the spoonful of canned food they usually get with their mostly dry food while watching out for dog-toxic foods).  I’ve always composted leftovers I don’t eat.  But I think I may have to learn to halve recipes…

Meanwhile, I’m mostly reading cookbooks:

Cajun Country Cookin’: Basic Arcadian Cooking from the true Acadian Country of Louisiana

My dear friend Christy brought me back a generous “New Orleans package” of Dis n Dat spice mix, Bat’s Brew hot sauce, and this cookbook.

What’s so wonderful about it is that it isn’t just a cookbook, it is also a chronicle of rural Cajun life.  The book weaves explanations of the area, its history and culture, with key recipes.  It has fantastic pictures of farms and buildings from the region, including cabins and dogtrot houses (which I’d heard of but never seen).  This book makes me want to travel around rural Louisiana.  Cajun food is spicy and designed for parties and sharing.  Sounds perfect for my next dinner party!

The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy

This is one I’m reading right now.  Kennedy has written a bunch of cookbooks about Mexican cooking, including ones about regional cooking.  Her recipes are authentic and delicious.  She has clear, helpful explanations of techniques and ingredients.  I’d love to cook right through every recipe in this book.

The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen by Peter Berley

This is the book that I’ve focused on the most, reading the whole thing and cooking a bunch of recipes out of it.  Some include eggs and dairy, but most are vegan or have vegan options (for instance, using olive oil or butter).

It won the James Beard and IACP Cookbook Awards.  And I can see why.  It is a great cookbook with one recipe per page or two pages.  It is well laid-out and illustrated.  And the recipes are delicious.  Some of the ingredients were new to me, such as mirin and kombu seaweed.  But I’ve enjoyed seeking out items like this and others used specifically for vegan food (such as agar flakes to substitute for gelatin).  This is another book I’d like to cook everything out of.

The Joy of Vegan Baking by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

How do you make cookies when you don’t eat eggs?  Puddings when you don’t eat dairy?  This is the most comprehensive vegan baking book that I’ve seen.  It is the winner of the VegNews Cookbook of the Year Award.  It reads like a standard dessert or baking cookbook, except that you substitute other things for eggs and dairy.

After reading it, you should be able to convert most of your fave baking recipes to vegan.  I got it from the library, but I liked it so much, I bought it for my kindle (I use my ipad’s kindle app to view and cook from recipes).

Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts by the Moosewood Collective

I have almost every Molly Katzen/Moosewood Collective cookbook out there.  I love them for their delicious, fun recipes and gorgeous illustrations.  I have really cooked much out of this one since I wasn’t making a lot of desserts, but I made my coconut lemon layer cake birthday cake out of it (and it was sublime).  Tonight I made my lemon berry flan out of it.  I’ll let you know how it is (but I’m pretty sure I already know if will be delicious).

Alternative Vegan: International Vegan Fare Straight from the Produce Aisle by Dino Sarma Weierman

1,000 Vegan Recipes  by Robin Robertson

I got these two on my kindle and have been reading them on my ipad.  Both are terrific intros to vegan cooking.  Robertson is one of the main queens of vegan cooking – she has a number of good cookbooks out there.  I’ve made a number of tasty dishes out of both.

Viva Vegan!: 200 Authentic and Fabulous Recipes for Latin Food Lovers by Terry Hope Romero

Yes, a modern, Latin American food, vegan cookbook.  I’ve been enjoying reading this.  Last night I made her seitan chorizo recipe – never having made seitan before, I was apprehensive.  But it was pretty easy and the chorizo is delicious.  I felt so accomplished when I got done.

Veggie Burgers Every Which Way: Fresh, Flavorful and Healthy Vegan and Vegetarian Burgers-Plus Toppings, Sides, Buns and More by Lukas Volger

This was on sale at Amazon – I haven’t gotten too far in, but so far I’m enjoying it.  A week or two ago I made curried veggie burgers from one of Madhur Jaffrey’s recipes – fantastic!  So, I’m looking forward to making more and ceasing to buy the bland fake veggie meats and burgers I’ve relied on in the past.

Congratulations on One Year of Year of Reading My Own Books!

It has been a year since I started this blog…  What a year!  I’ll write something more comprehensive soon.  But I just wanted to note the anniversary.

What do you do when you hit the end of a year of “a year of” blog?  Well, it sure could be a good excuse to stop.  I don’t think I’m ready to do that, but I might slow down.  I’ve written more than one post every three days over the past year – I’m pleased with that, but I’m not sure I’m going to try to continue, maybe more like once a week…  Stay tuned!

Happy reading, ruby

Tea, Cotton, Lemon Coconut Cake, and Flying Dogs

Dear Reader:

It has been hot up here – but pretty much seasonably so, mid-80s and such.  How’s the weather where you are?

553) Village Affairs by Miss Read (hard copy, library) 

I’ve blogged about Miss Read’s Thrush Green books, but she also wrote the Fairacre series about a school teacher named Miss Read (which was also her writing pseudonym).  This teacher taught at the tiny Fairacre School – one of just two teachers.  It is never completely clear when her stories are set, but I think this one would be 1950s or 60s.

The story’s tension mostly revolves around school board decisions about whether or not to retain the school.  England is in a budgetary crunch and finding it hard to justify keeping a school of just 30 students and 2 teachers going.  But the school is the center of the village and its inhabits are crushed by the prospect.

Meanwhile, Miss Read tries to help a local, Minnie, keep body and soul together in the face of a violent, worthless husband and the Coggs’ patriarch is thieving again.  As always, Miss Read (the author) entertains and charms with her village vignettes. And people drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of nice cakes together.

I grew up in a village of 500 with a K-12 village school in my back yard (our grades typically had one class each of about 30 students).  Of course, the village school I went to was itself the result of an earlier consolidation (it was “Gilbertsville Central School”) of even tinier schools.  In the 1980s, my school was combined with another neighboring school.  The new school is probably better for the kids – I read the newsletter sometimes, and it is clear that the children have more resources, more specialized classes, and so on.  But our tiny school was in the dead middle of the village and life very much revolved around it – soccer and basketball games, Christmas and spring concerts, and school plays were the major events in the town.  Since the school left (it is only two miles away, but in a small village, this makes a big difference) the village has lost its heart.  So, I felt for the Fairacre residents battling for their school and explicitly asking if policymakers understand the implications for village life of losing the school.

528) The Path to Power (Volume 1 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson) by Robert Caro (hard copy, library)

If you live in the US, you’ve likely been hearing a lot about Robert Caro’s latest volume in this series – The Passage of Power – which is fourth in a planned five volume series.  This latest book covers the time of Lyndon’s serving as President Kennedy’s vice president and runs until just shortly after his ascent to the presidency, in 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated.  My library has this highly rated book, but it also has the earliest two volumes, so I thought it made more sense to start at the beginning.

Mind you, these are commitments -The Path to Power is 800 pages long!  And Johnson is a somewhat obscure president – he’s not a Lincoln or Washington, FDR or Kennedy.  But I wanted to read these books to understand Johnson (who was the first president I remember since he was in office 1963-1968 and I was born in 1961).  I also wanted to understand American 21st Century history and, since Johnson was born in 1908 and died in the 1970s, I thought this would be a great entree into it – and it turns out this is one of Caro’s goals – using Johnson to tell US history of the time.

Johnson was a very controversial president, he accelerated the Vietnam War and lied about what was going on, but he also passed our greatest Civil Rights Acts finally protecting the rights of African Americans and he was famous for his “Great Society” policies that aimed to eliminate poverty.

As we learn in The Path to Power, Johnson grew up, initially, as a privileged child in the very poor, cotton-growing, Texas Hill Country whose family dove, overnight, into very visible poverty when his father’s bad decisions ruined the family.  His father was a Texas state legislator while Johnson was a child and Johnson took after him, having the height (6’4″), dark eyes and hair, pale skin, and deep ambition of this side of the family.

The very public humiliation of his family’s fall from grace burned deep within him a desire to be somebody and a bottomless drive to achieve.  But he was also a loudmouthed charmer who had to hold the floor in the midst of his equals or those “below” him while obsequiously soliciting the support and patronage of those more wealthy and/or powerful.  But he was also a political genius with the ability to think brilliantly about strategy over, not just days and months, but years and decades, and he changed the face of American politics.

Caro show us how he developed – how he was affected by those around him, what he did about it, how he created his life and career.  This first book was published in 1982, not quite ten years after Johnson died.  And he based the book on EXTENSIVE interviews with residents of the town in which Johnson grew up, those who taught him in school and university, his friends, his colleagues, his employees.  Since the publication of this first book, Caro has published one book every 10 years (he says the last book should be published in 4-5 years – Caro is 76 so we’re waiting with bated breath, I hope he looks both ways before crossing New York City streets!).  No one will ever equal or surpass this biography.

And the thing is, it is brilliantly written!  And fascinating.  Again, Johnson is not a prominent president, in many ways, but he was such a political phenom, and, Caro argues, a pivotal president who changed American culture for decades after.  As I read the hundreds and hundreds of pages, I tried to figure out what made the book so good.  Mostly, I don’t know, but one cause is that Caro sets up a puzzle that he then solves later in the book.  For instance, Johnson came into the United States House of Representatives in the late 1930s a lowly junior congressman.  He had committee membership on a committee of which he was never going to be a leader.  How was he going to gain power in such a situation?  It seemed impossible.  But then he shows how, in just three weeks, Johnson stepped in to avert the changing over of the House to the Republican party and helped Franklin Roosevelt get re-elected.  This passage alone is riveting and powerful.  Another aspect that makes it compelling is that Johnson was such a complicated man – obnoxious and yet, one of the most, in many ways, humanitarian presidents we’ve had.  And he wielded enormous power wherever he went.  Amazing book!  I’m on to the next in the series.

556) Dog is my Co-pilot: Rescue Tales of Flying Dogs, Second Chances, and the Hero who Might Live Next Door by Patrick Regan (kindle) #65

This book was on sale at Amazon and I had to have it.  And I read it in a few hours with tears in my eyes.  It is a series of stories about the animals (mostly dogs) that Pilots ‘n Paws, a volunteer group of small plane pilots, rescued by moving them to where they needed to go – their next rescue organization or their new adoptive family.  While the US has done a lot, through encouragement of spay-neuter practices, to reduce our population of unwanted dogs, we still have millions of dogs given up every year.  They tend to get given up in the poorer, more rural American South and tend to be more adoptable in more northern states and/or urban areas. And somehow they have to travel the hundreds of miles between the regions to find a new home.

Over time, with the advent of the internet, an “underground highway” network of rescuers has sprung up, often chaining dogs who need to get somewhere from driver to driver, sometimes multiple volunteer drivers in one day.  A few years ago, a small plane owner passionate about flying and dogs, learned of this network and their challenges getting animals driven long distance, sometimes thousands of miles.  And he realized that there were lots of “general aviation” (non-airline) pilots out there looking for excuses to fly who would surely love to help out and have a reason to get their planes out.

And he was right.  Over a few years, an extensive network of volunteer pilots evolved, working with rescue groups, sometimes on little notice, to get animals from here to there.  The book describes this history, but it is mostly made up of about forty short tales of these animals’ travels.  We read the story of the abandoned dobermans who started it all, a near-death boxer, Chance, starved by a husband in retaliation at his ex-wife, and Angel, a sick Labrador retriever, rescued minutes from euthanasia.  I loved these stories of volunteers willing to put out their time and the animals lucky enough to get a second chance.  If you are looking for an enjoyable read of this type, this book is highly recommended.

Lemon Coconut Cake

I don’t often make desserts, much less fancy ones – I live solo and don’t want to eat a pan of brownies.  But I recently had a birthday and I like to get a cake for that – usually, I buy one but that means I have to settle for whatever the bakery is selling – just plain vanilla or chocolate, but this time I decided to make one that I would really like.

So, this is it – a Lemon Coconut cake from the Moosewood dessert cookbook.  It is made up of mildly coconut-flavored layers, lemon curd in between, a frosting of whipped cream and lemon curd, and toasted coconut on top.  And it is delicious!

I learned that it is really important to let the curd and the whipped cream get really cold before adding them to the layers.  I didn’t wait quite long enough and it didn’t stick as well as it could.  But a night in the fridge for the cake and the leftover frosting and it firmed up nicely and I was able to pretty the cake up a bit from this initial photo taken right after my first frosting (the coverage in imperfect).  What a cake!  I’ve never made lemon curd before, it was so tasty!

My youngest dog got a few licks in when my back was turned, but no matter, she just got some frosting and I had extra, so I replaced it.  (and miss counter surfer got a raw ear of corn tonight, for not very long, it was just missing a few kernels – need to train “off” this behavior)

Happy reading, Ruby!

Wow! Murder, Technology, and Ray Bradbury’s Prescience

Dear Reader:

Lovely, breezy summer’s day up here in the Keweenaw.  What’s it like in your neck of the woods?  Hope you are looking forward to a relaxing weekend full of books.

The Murderer (1953) by Ray Bradbury

I’ve been working my way through the short stories in 520) Twice 22 by Ray Bradbury, 1959 (hard copy, library).  What gems!

I’ll repeat that, although Bradbury is mostly discussed as a science fiction writer, his writing was actually much broader.  And these stories, mostly written in the 1940’s and 50’s read more like scripts for The Twilight Zone tv show than science fiction.

And I guess he had a 1980s tv show – I hadn’t realized this – called the Ray Bradbury Theater that ran this story.

Anyway, in this story Mr. Albert Brook aka “The Murderer” is meeting with a prison psychiatrist.  As they move back and forth through the building, they walk through zones where they can hear different classical music pieces playing.

As their discussion evolves, we learn of Brook’s wrist radio (a wrist cell phone), his talking office, ads projected on cumulus clouds (aren’t there ads projected on some urban buildings?), automated houses that talk to you and turn things on and off (Bill Gates’ home! see this youtube video of it), buses playing constant music at you, cars that tell you where to drive, people riding the bus all talking loudly, not to each other, but into their wrist radios…

In short, he told a story of today’s world where you can move from space to space and never be free from a flow of images and sounds and connections to remote people at the cost of connections to the people actually in the room with you.

One day, Albert gets fed up and starts destroying the technology, piece by piece, in fun and innovative ways (like dumping ice cream in it).  In his world, this is clearly demonstrated mental illness – how can anyone wish to be free from this constant, “soothing” buzz?

As I read this story, I was blown away by Bradbury’s prescience – writing in the 1950s, he envisioned the world we live in today, in remarkably dead-on ways.  One of the things that is fascinating about the story is that it wouldn’t have resonated nearly as much even five or ten years ago when we weren’t nearly as surrounded by iphones, facebook, and airport CNN (my personal favorite scourge).

As I sit here in a my rural community home on the corner of two quiet streets, feeling the curtains touch me from the breeze, listening to my keyboard clicks, the dogs snoring, wind blowing, a neighbor’s dog barking, and a low noise of construction rumbling, I also realize that he had it somewhat wrong.  The feel of the story fits beautifully for urban spaces where it seems like everyone is talking on a phone or listening to their ear buds, where electronic sounds and moving images can be all-surrounding, sometimes impossible to avoid and omnipresent.  Where people frequently use GPS systems in their cars as they drive to unfamiliar spaces.  Not so well for rural spaces.

Happily, it remains fairly easy for most of us to slip away from all this and enjoy a quiet morning in the park, a weekend away from technology in the mountains, or an email-free Sunday.  By and large, we aren’t forced to listen to things (airports in the US remain a key exception).  But where are we heading?

When I was growing up, people often played radios as background music throughout the day.  I don’t remember finding this too annoying.  I definitely cannot bear televisions going all the time with no one watching them (one of my neighbors, whose living room is very visible from my house, seems to have his television on, literally, 24 hours a day – I would definitely have to pull an Albert Brooks on it if I lived there).  In today’s world, so many people’s tolerance for omnipresent noise and video seems far higher than mine.  What about ten or twenty years from now?

If you really want to scare yourself, find a copy of Bradbury’s The Murderer, read it, and then watch that video about Bill Gates’ house – you will be stunned by the parallels between the story and the Orwellian environment created by one of our world’s great technology leaders and humanitarians.

On another note…

You want this octopus? Just try and get it!

Happy reading, ruby

Summer in a Bottle: Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine

Dear Reader:

For those of us up here in the northern hemisphere, summer has just begun, although many of us having been having unusually summery days since March.  This is a great time to talk about Dandelion Wine.

“I don’t want to die!” Douglas screamed without a sound. “You’ll have to anyway, said the voice, you’ll have to anyway…” (p. 226).

521) Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, 1957

Douglas Spaulding calls forth the first day of summer in the cupola of his grandparent’s house at daybreak – pointing to house by house, saying “Everybody up” and “Miss Helen Loomis…Cough, get up, take pills, move around!” as, in perfect synchrony, house lights blink on one by one.

Douglas is 12 and lives with his parents and brother Tom in Green Town, Illinois.  His grandparents and great-grandma live nearby. Douglas rushes through his days pell mell, savoring late night ice cream in the heat, and thrilling himself with his friends in the ravine where “The Lonely One” – the town serial killer – is thought to live.

From the Celtic Lady blog.

Our Douglas is a writer, staying up late writing on notepads by the light of a dozen fireflies designed to keep his parents from knowing that he is awake.  He moves through the town, passing time with its residents, young and old, and learning their stories.

Miss Helen Loomis, 92, was a beautiful girl who refused all beaus and remained unmarried.  Young Bill Anderson saw her picture as a 20 year old and fell in love.  Now, as a 30 year old man, he spends two weeks of afternoons with her as she takes him all over the world with stories of her travels.  Finally, meeting the one meant for her, she can let go.

Lavinia Nebbs is on her way to the picture show with a friend when they find pretty young Elizabeth Ramsell strangled by The Lonely One.  Yet Lavinia insists on going to the movies and heading home, through the ravine, alone.  The Lonely One is in for a surprise.

Mr. Leo Kaufmann, the town jeweler, builds a happiness machine from spare parts.

Mr. Jonas, once rich, has become a junk man, circling the town with his wagon – residents may choose one item from his goods, the one that they can’t live without, and then must, in turn, give up something for another person.  Mr. Jonas saves Douglas with his bottle of “GREEN DUSK FOR DREAMING BRAND PURE AIR” full of camphor, wintergreen, and the rising air from the Des Moines River.

Douglas’ grandpa has him gather each summer month’s dandelions for bottling as wine and filling the cellar with: “Second harvest of summer.  June’s on the shelf. Here’s July. Now, just August up ahead” (p. 169).  The book ends on the last day of summer.

This semi-autobiographical coming of age story tells of Douglas’ realization that a) he is alive and b) he is going to die.  He must come to terms with both and the fact that so many of those he loves will also die.  I suspect that Bradbury’s childhood inspired the book, and that he may even have used vignettes from Waukegan, Illinois, but I don’t think it is literally autobiographical – too much wonderful magic.

I encountered this book as a teenager living in a tiny village in upstate New York and loved it immediately.  This is my first re-read in over 30 years. Because the world lost Ray Bradbury just a couple weeks ago, I decided to re-encounter this beautiful book that I loved so many years ago.  If anything, I found the book that much more stunning, gorgeous, and evocative this time around.

Somehow, with his layers and layers of images, Bradbury captures the beauty and ugliness, light and dark, nostalgic and realistic, of young life in a small town in 20th Century America.  If you are eager to understand American culture, you would do well to read this book.  If you want a lovely, poignant book to read this summer, try Dandelion Wine. If you’ve never read it before, for goodness sake, lay your hands on it – you won’t be sorry!

Happy reading, Ruby



Bookmarks Magazine: For Everybody Who Hasn’t Read Everything

Dear Reader:

Hope you are all enjoying the season – summer, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, winter, for you southerners.  Hey, if the winter rains get to be too much, come on up for a visit! We’re in a drought up here in the upper Midwestern USA.

Bookmarks Magazine

I’ve been meaning to write a post about Bookmarks for awhile.  I’ve subscribed to this bimonthly magazine for years (did you know that bimonthly can mean either twice a month or every two months?  No wonder I always struggle to decide what word to use. In this case, I mean every other month).

May/June 2012 Issue

Bookmarks is devoted to books, especially literary books – let’s say, middlebrow to highbrow.  It gathers up, synthesizes, and summarizes book reviews from newspapers and magazines and presents an overview of current books in each issue.

The above photo is of their New Books Guide section which has fiction: literary, science fiction, young adult and nonfiction: general, biography, and history subsections.  I think they also usually have crime and/or mystery subsections – but not in the current issue.  This part of the magazine features “Bookmark Selections” that are books averaging ratings of four (excellent) or five (classic) across reviews.

They typically include an article about a type of literature – in this case, Caribbean.

Usually, they also run an article focused on a superlative author: Faulkner, Roth, Atwood, etc.  But in this issue, they instead included this article about “novels of ancient Rome.”

One of my favorite regular features is their column on a particular book group.  I’ve never been in one, but I’m fascinated by how these groups come together, choose books, and organize themselves.

They provide a page showing all of that issue’s “selections” – the top-reviewed books.

And show you which books were reviewed the most.

They tell us what books are coming soon and include a “now in paperback” page for books they reviewed as hard covers.

Additional columns cover major book awards, “have you read?” where readers write up their favorite books along a theme, and “the year in books” – a column of notable and best sellers for a particular year (in this issue, 1987).

I don’t know of any other magazine or periodical quite like it.  There are the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement and other book supplements – but I don’t enjoy any of them nearly as much as Bookmarks.  These other book-related periodicals cover a lot of books that don’t interest me and are frequently a bit too highbrow to keep my attention.

Bookmarks hits my sweet spot between middle and high perfectly.  I often read the magazine cover to cover and it helps inform my book buys.  However, I mostly just enjoy reading about authors and their books, whether or not I eventually choose to read the actual books.

They have a great Bookmarks website.  Check it out and consider subscribing for yourself or your local library.  I think you’ll enjoy it.

My Neighborhood Watch Dog

Happy Reading! Ruby

Parrots and Catholicism: Irish Short Story Writers Bowen and O’Brien

Dear Reader:

Longer ago than I care to think, I promised Mel U at The Reading Life that I would join in the Irish Quarter: A Celebration of Irish Short Story event focused on bringing bloggers and readers together to discuss Irish literature.  Today, I finally got down to it, reading an Elizabeth Bowen short story and one by Edna O’Brien.

The Parrot by Elizabeth Bowen in The Collected Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen

Knowing that I loved Elizabeth Bowen, Mel smartly suggested that I write about one of her short stories.  Although she lived much of her adult life in London, Bowen was Anglo-Irish, born in Ireland to an upper middle class, Protestant, landed family with an estate.  Thus, she counts.

This story focuses on Miss Eleanor Fitch, the unhappy companion to the oppressive, elderly Mrs. Willedon, who seems the sort of overbearing, bossy, upper middle class tyrant so common in Agatha Christie novels.  One day, Eleanor and the parlormaid, Maud, accidentally release Mrs. Willedon’s parrot.

The bird is apparently shocked but thrilled at his freedom, momentarily sticking close by in the garden, but then flying away through the neighborhood.  Unfortunately, he lands in the back garden of the Lennicotts, of whom Mrs. Willedon has a firmly negative opinion, as they are very much not the right sort of people.  Mr. Lennicott is the author of very slightly disreputable novels and she, well, is she his wife?  No one really knows.

Fearing the loss of her job and home, Eleanor scales several garden walls to get to this far garden hoping that the Lennicotts, being louche, will still be abed so early in the morning.  But no, Mrs.? Lennicott is very awake, happily ensconced in the garden reading poetry.  She leaps at the chance of a new acquaintance, assisting in Eleanor in catching the bird and then offering up her husband to help when the parrot flies to their roof.

Ultimately, Miss Fitch, like the parrot, must choose: the insecure freedom of the Lennicotts and their garden, or the prison-like security of Mrs. Willedon’s.  I won’t reveal what she chooses.  But I will say that this powerful little story is classic Bowen: women oppressing other women, ne’er do well artists, and challenges to middle class norms.

The Connor Girls, 1981 from A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories by Edna O’Brien

The narrator is an unnamed young Catholic girl in rural Ireland.  Her family lives near Major Connor and his remaining two teenage girls, Amy and Lucy.  Anglo-Irish (?) they are Protestants and all too loose and arrogant in their ways, allowing young men to stay the weekend and refusing offers of elaborate teas from the narrator’s family as they range over this family’s land with their beagles and horses.

The story describes the narrator’s and the villagers’ mixed feelings about the Connors – their wealth and power make them attractive, their Protestantism and freedom, repulsive.  Ultimately, one Connor girl attempts to leave the village with a Catholic boy, only to receive her comeuppance when she is thrown over.  The narrator moves away and is disinherited when she marries a Protestant.  Ultimately, she comes to realize the irony of her personal choice to become “other” while the Connor girls, seemingly so “other” for so long, end up instead so solidly of the village.

Like Bowen, O’Brien’s themes hint at debauchery and sexuality against a backdrop of religious and class oppressiveness.  Similarly, this story features women against women – seemingly powerless females choosing men and changing their lives as they are judged by those around them.  O’Brien was a favorite of mine in the 1990’s when I was also reading lots of Alice Munro.  Her work is solidly Irish – unlike Bowen, I don’t remember any of O’Brien’s work being written about any place outside Ireland.  But all three (Munro, O’Brien, Bowen) are superlative short story writers with particular foci on women’s lives.  They sketch the details, deftly and quickly, with practiced eyes for the essential and strong understandings of women’s interior lives and struggles.

Happy Reading! Ruby

Milk Bottles and Mango Trees

Dear Reader:

507) Affairs at Thrush Green by Miss Read, 1983 (hard copy, library)

Miss Read, the pseudonym for Dorra Jessie Saint (nee Shafe), died at at nearly 99 (!) this year in April.  Her New York Times obituary is here.

She was the author of scores of books about English post-World War II village life.  I’d encountered her in some of my reading about middlebrow inter-war year books although her earliest book was not published until after World War II.  Nonetheless, at least from reading Affairs at Thrush Green, I believe her work has a great deal in common with many of those authors, including its middlebrow basis.

She is said to have been greatly influenced by Jane Austen and has been cited as parallel to Barbara Pym.  I’ve been exposed to Austen primarily through film, but have read a fair amount of Pym.  To me, Pym and Austen are much more acerbic and arguably more comfortable with sex than Miss Read, although adultery does rear its head in this book.  In addition, I’ve yet to read a Pym that focuses on village life – her books, that I’ve read, have been more urban/suburban.  Similarly, my sense of Austen is that she focuses more within the household and between households, not at the village level per se.  Miss Read really does focus us at the village level – hence, the many, many characters.

I’ve talked before about how much, as a product of village life, I love books set in villages – Christie’s Miss Marples and Ray Bradbury’s books set in Green Town are favorites.  However, as I wrote earlier, I was initially less than enthralled with Miss Read’s fictional Thrush Green, about which she wrote many books.  The book seemed too innocent, too tame.

Affairs at Thrush Green appears to be the seventh novel in her 14-book Thrush Green series.  In hind sight, I wish I’d done enough research to start with an earlier book.  I was initially overwhelmed with the thirty or so characters who are briefly introduced – clearly inhabitants of earlier novels.  It helped to write them all down.  And then, of course, I quickly learned their names and sorted them out, no longer conscious of a struggle to keep them straight.

The book concerns itself primarily with two themes: 1) the coupling and uncoupling of a number of marriages and 2) the adjustment of the low church vicar, Charles Henstock, to his parish and them to him.  Miss Read is unafraid to present complex characters – some, like Henstock, are primarily good but have very human flaws, others, like Albert Piggott, have few redeeming features, but are occasionally capable of good.  And she shows how people can change, evolve, adapt, and become happier and more likeable.

This is a gentle book that nonetheless captures the richness of village life and humanity when milk men still delivered and curates struggled to balance high and low church rituals.  I’m reminded of Miss Marple’s frequent remarks about how she see parallel motivations behind heinous crimes, like murder, and tiny ones, like pie stealing.  Miss Read shows us jealousy, rage, despair, exaltation, misery, and contentment, all playing out on a small scale as people live around each other.  By the middle of the book, I’d fallen in love with her characters and setting.  And I look forward to reading more of her work since, happily, my library has plenty.

506)  Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of Childhood in India by Madhur Jaffrey, 2007 (library, hard copy)

I talked earlier about my love of Jaffrey – her acting and her cookbooks.  Her vegetarian Indian and “world” cookbooks are among my favorites out of my very large collection.  I could happily eat only food cooked from them for the rest of my life.

Jaffrey grew up in 1940s and 50s Delhi, India.  She is part of an enormous, upper middle class family, led, during her childhood, but her overbearing grandfather.  He insisted that nearly all of his eight children live in houses in his compound, thus Madhur grew up eating with and living around, her scores of cousins and many aunts and uncles.

If you’ve ever seen her interviewed, you come away with a sense of Jaffrey as irrepressible – she is one of those rare individuals who is visibly full of joie de vivre.  Her spiritedness made it challenging to submit to the oppressiveness of close extended family life, but also brought her great joy at experiencing the many adventures and mishaps of her family.

And throughout, she talks about the food – oh! the food (the book includes recipes at the end).  The servants and mothers would all gather in the main house each day to cook joint, massive meals together.  School children brought tiffins with different types of food, depending upon their religion and home region, to school every day and shared them – Madhur delights in describing all.  She also provides great detail regarding their clothing – saris, shalwar kameezes, etc. are described in every colorful, extravagant, silken aspect (the women in her well-to-do family had many expensive clothes and they were handed down through the generations).

Every year, the huge family made its way to hill country to wait out the sweltering, humid Delhi summers amid retired British colonels and upper class Indians.  They were perched, sometimes precariously, as when the country fell apart during post-colonial Partition, between British and Indian culture.  Their English was better than their Hindi, their tennis and cricket playing exemplary, but their food and dress generally Indian, although Jaffrey remembers receiving her first pedal pushers (seen in the cover photo) with great joy and wore them everywhere she could for a long time.

This autobiography ends as her childhood does, leaving lots of room for future books that she does not appear to have yet written (perhaps writing her 29 cookbooks has gotten in the way).  I hope she is working on them, although it is hard to imagine that her adult life could have been nearly as exotic or enchanting as her childhood.  If you are curious about her cookbooks, I can recommend World Vegetarian and World of the East Vegetarian Cooking.

Happy reading, Ruby

Something Lovely This Way Comes: RIP Ray Bradbury and Jane Austen

Dear Reader:

You may have heard that Ray Bradbury died this week at 91 years old.  The New York Times gave him a great sendoff with the honor of a very informative, complimentary obituary.

Ray Bradbury

Bradbury was one of my favorite writers in my youth.  I first found his stories at the Gilbertsville Free Library and then even more of his work as an undergraduate at my university library.  By about 1980, I’d read all his work to that date.

Growing up in a tiny upstate New York village, I related to Bradbury’s tales of fictional “Green Town” (a stand-in for his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois). Bradbury had a way of conveying the spirit of a small town that I’ve not seen replicated in any other writer’s work.  At once idyllic and oppressive, gorgeous and depressing, village life is a mix and he shows it.  Not only was Bradbury a genius of the rural, he also included the moralistic elements for which sci fi is famous and, as an idealistic young woman, I very much related to his beautifully written stories.

He is thought of as one of the master science fiction writers, but much of his work has little to no futuristic elements.  As his obit says, he loved movies and spent his 1920s and 30s childhood immersed in film.  And he pulled in some of those film ghouls into his work.  One of the first stories of his that I read was The Homecoming (note that I suspect the link points to a website posting his short story without permission).  It tells the story of Timothy, a young “normal” boy growing up in a vast family of monsters, vampires, ghouls and his sister Cecy whose talent is magically traveling the world and inhabiting the bodies of others through her thoughts.  The family is holding an important All Hallow’s Eve reunion and prepping for the big event.  Timothy is deeply saddened by how his normalcy doesn’t allow him to fit in with his family.  Nonetheless, he is excited that everyone is coming.  The story shows the love and support of his “Adam’s family” along with their looking down on him for his lack of “talent” (read: magical or supernatural powers), his dislike of blood drinking, and inability to sleep during the day like everyone else.  Timothy’s life flips our own lives on their heads and shows us that the desire to belong is universal.

As a young person, I was a bit of an outsider, drawn to dark music and books, feeling like I hadn’t found my niche.  And yet I loved the tiny village within which I grew up – it offered me a lot, including, largely, acceptance.  Somehow, Bradbury captured my complicated feelings in his stories.

So, today I went to my current public library (little of Bradbury’s work is available for Kindle) and checked out some of his books – I’d forgotten how much of his work was in short story form.

520) Twice 22 by Ray Bradbury, 1959 (hard copy, library)  A short story collection.

521) Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, 1957 (hard copy, library) – I remember this autobiographical novel of his childhood as particularly lovely.

522) Summer Morning, Summer Night by Ray Bradbury, 2008 (hard copy, library)  A more recent update of his stories about Green Town.

Rest in Peace, Ray, you gave us a lot.

Jane Austen

I finished up this biography of Austen by Claire Tomalin.

508) Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin (kindle, library)

As Tomalin says, it is hard to write Austen’s biography.  She left no diaries from her youth and her sister destroyed most of her letters after her death.  So, this biography is pieced together from the writing of others, some not part of her life (in order to give a sense of what her like might have been like).

At first, I enjoyed this book a lot.  I was interested in how life was lived in this time and Tomalin provides a nice entry point.  But then, at a certain point, the book became really dull.  Much of it is almost a event by event chronicle, like something that could have been lifted from a scheduler.  “X had three children, A, B, and C.  Then spent May traveling through the British countryside.  B married D and they had five children.”  This is totally made up, obviously, but gives a sense of much of the writing.

Somehow, Tomalin never brought Austen alive.  And this is so different from some of the other autobiographies I’ve read and discussed in this blog.  For instance, Kathryn Hughes’ great biography of George Eliot or Victoria Glendenning’s marvelous Anthony Trollope biography.

Some of the problem may have been me – Tomalin discusses the novels in some detail and I haven’t yet read them.  I’m sure that I’d be more transfixed if I had.  Nonetheless, this makes me a bit less likely to read Tomalin’s many other writer biographies.  But more eager to get on with reading some Austen – I’ve started Emma.

Happy reading, Ruby

BDSM and Money, Monkeys and Doves, Feminism in the Islands, and Dying Too Young

Dear Reader:

Another trip to Mexico and another catch-up post…

510) Fifty Shades of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy by E.L. James (kindle) #45

Hmmmm. Should I lead with this?

OK. The book a lot of people are talking about. Including this VERY hilarious Saturday Night Live “Mothers Day ad.” (Warning: NSFW and may offend some – hints at female “self-pleasuring”)

Anastasia Steele is about to graduate from college when she meets “billionaire” Christian Grey. He is a gorgeous, very controlling man who flies his own helicopter and loves to soar (fly a glider). But, of course, the aspect that has gotten all the attention is the fact that he is into bondage, domination, and sado-masochism.

The book tells the story of their first month or so together. Their attraction is immediate and powerful. Anastasia is very innocent sexually, but also smart, determined, and self-possessed. They struggle to figure out where to take their relationship – Christian worries about hurting her and about getting too attached, Anastasia worries about being hurt and out of control.

I’ve been fascinated by this book (and actually, it is the first in the series of three books) as it has had its moment in the sun – rocketing to the top of the charts, being discussed in every media outlet high and low (see here and here), and warranting its own SNL skit. When I was in airport bookstores traveling to Mexico last week, I saw huge piles of copies in all bookstores.

I’m interested in it because, from the beginning, it has been discussed as a sex book – particularly, an S and M sex book for women. As a 50 year old, I’ve seen the cultural sense of women’s sexuality change over the course of my lifetime. To my mind, the cultural permission for women to be sexually open, even promiscuous, preceded the cultural permission for women to experience sexual pleasure.

The presence of the clitoris was not discussed in my many, very explicit, years of New York State-required biology and health education which discussed every aspect of birth control and reproduction. The idea of female masturbation, in particular, has been a huge taboo that I’ve been fascinated to see broken fairly regularly in recent years on network television. During the seventies, when I was a teenager, the only place to encounter these concepts was in Our Bodies, Ourselves – my mother had an early edition. I could read about male-centered sex lots of places – heterosexual female-centered sex? Nowhere.

So, while it has been implicitly acknowledged that a lot of women were reading “bodice rippers” for the “explicit romance” (read: sex) for many years, to my knowledge, Fifty Shades is the first media-splash book I can think of where it is clearly for women and about lots of detailed sex. It is being called “mommy porn.” I think this is a bit of a breakthrough. And so, I was particularly fascinated by the very funny SNL ad which merges the book with Amazon with the kindle (which is arguably a primary reason for its popularity – you can buy and read it without anyone knowing) with female masturbation – I think this is the most explicit that SNL has gotten about the topic.

Note that, with the increasing power of female SNL writers and actors, particularly female humor has been added. I remember Tina Fey talking about doing their very funny bit about the horror of huge, visibly obvious maxi pads – how she proposed it as a skit and the men on the show didn’t understand the humor. Obviously, none of them grew up as women in the sixties and seventies who had to walk around wearing those awful things and while sure that they announced to all the boys that we were on our periods. She talked about it in an interview and then again in Smarty Pants as an important example of how writing changed when women began to become powerful on the show. And thus, I see the Mother’s Day ad as another example of this.

OK, back to the book. So, everything I’d read suggested that this book was non-stop sex and that it was extraordinarily explicit and arcane (the BDSM) part. It doesn’t seem like anyone is really talking about the writing and the story. But the book surprised me. First, while there are definitely sex scenes (maybe around 10) I don’t think there are necessarily that many more than in an Erica Jong or Danielle Steel novel, much less Peyton Place from the sixties and seventies. Yes, several scenes involve bondage and spanking, including some arcane information about the practices that was new to me. But I’ve read lots of stuff that was more explicit and/or violent and/or deviant. After awhile, I started skimming the sexual scenes – they ceased to be all that interesting.

The thing that surprised me was how much I enjoyed the story of Ana’s and Christian’s relationship. They are both quite likeable. Yes, Christian is into BDSM, but the book explains why. Yes, Ana is foolish to trust this man – but you also understand why and appreciate her ability to stand up to him. The book really does treat them as equals. And I want to be very clear about one thing – Christian knows exactly how to participate in sex that is VERY pleasurable for a woman. This is discussed in great detail.

I’m not a romance reader, but any stretch of the imagination – I don’t enjoy most rom-com movies (they are almost always dumb and trite). But I actually very much liked this book and not for the sex scenes. Obviously, the US movie industry is surely falling all over each other to option these books – shall we take a bet on how fast this book gets turned into a movie? How long did it take Hunger Games? I’m betting within a year we’ll see our first Fifty movie. It is ready-made for film. I’m actually going to be really interested to see who plays Christian.

So, I recommend the book for the relationship. Will I buy the next two? Certainly not right away, if ever, just because there is a lot of better stuff out there and in my existing library. But, if I really wanted a good, easy, compelling read and didn’t feel anything I already had fit the bill, yes, I would – but only on my kindle :-).

509) A Million Shades of Green: The Real Story behind Fifty Shades of Grey by Sean Black (kindle) #44
OK, so I thought it would be interesting to read something more about the book. The gist of this book is that the “Fifty” books started out as fan fiction take-offs of the Twilight books. Yawn. Not worth the couple of bucks I paid.

518) Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom by Jennifer S. Holland (hard copy) #51

When I was in one of those aforementioned bookstores, I saw this book which I’d encountered online.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m prepping a new Animals and Society course about human relationships to animals. But watching my 17 year old cat develop very social and physical relationships with my dogs has interested me in how animals befriend each other across species lines. I’ve read that this mostly happens with dogs and cats and other species – perhaps because we’ve selected dogs and cats for ability and desire to attach to humans.

But this book shows you photos of the relationships between not just different mammalian species, but between fish and mammals, birds and mammals, even a reptiles and mammals (no insects and anybody else, though). It also includes the stories of the friendship.

You can see the above picture and story of a golden retriever and a fish. I really enjoyed this quick read. I’m not one to love cutesy animal stuff – I don’t call my pets children or family – I’m not their “mommy.” I don’t like books that are narrated by animals. But this book was really cool – not cute, but poignant. Granted, most of these stories about about animals in captivity, behaving differently than they would in the wild, and depending upon other species often because we’ve removed them from interaction with their own species. But the portrayals of attachment are compelling.

You only have to watch my cat, Fred, spending a few moments sleeping with or grooming one of my dogs or my golden, Gus, begging Fred to groom him to realize that they are capable of more than we expect. And note that as I was writing that sentence, Fred went over to Gus and started to groom him and settled down to sleep next to him (at least partly because Gus is sleeping in the sun) – see the below picture. I enjoyed this book a lot – highly recommended.

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody in there?

519) Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (had copy) #52

This is the second in May’s Feminist Classics readings. It was paired with Jane Eyre which I discussed here. I talked about my sense that Jane Eyre was a surprisingly feminist text. Nymeth (the person who is moderating discussion of the books) asked us to also consider these questions: “Do you think Wide Sargasso Sea can be read as a feminist text independently from Jane Eyre? Is it even possible to read the two books separate from each other?”

So, if you have not read both or either – Wide Sargasso Sea asks – why was Rochester’s wife mad? And then tells her (ostensible) story. If I had not read Jane Eyre, I don’t think I would have seen Wide Sargasso Sea (hereafter, WSS) as feminist. It tells the story of a woman growing up with a mother who has been continually let down by men. Antoinette is beautiful and independent. As she and Rochester come to know each other, things veer in a bad direction.

Feminist? Hmmm, that doesn’t jump out at me. I see the book as more about class, race, and prejudice and fear related to mental illness than about men and women per se. For me, the books don’t mesh well. I loved Jane Eyre, but WSS didn’t involve any likeable characters. It involved nightmares, racism, colonialism, classism… It reminds me of Aracoeli by Elsa Morante that I discussed earlier and didn’t enjoy much. I put it in the category of books I’m glad I read, but didn’t like.

511) Black Seconds (An Inspector Sejer Mystery) by Karin Fossum Translated by Charlotte Barslund (kindle) #46

This is an early Inspector Sejer mystery. His Leonberger, Kollberg, is with him but slowing down (if you don’t know the breed they are a giant breed probably average 120-150 lbs). And beautiful little Ida Joner has gone missing. Her mother Helga awaits her return from the story – a few seconds after her expected return, she fears the worst – it is what she has feared all of Ida’s life.

We watch Sejer and his colleagues unpack Ida’s village, trying to learn what happen. Ida’s family, including her aunt and cousins, play a major role and also Emil, a near-mute, and his mother. Throughout, we guess who did it, perhaps figuring early what happened, but not knowing how, exactly.

Fossum remains one of my favorite mystery writers. Sejer is a good detective and we aren’t sidetracked with drinking, romance, or family problems. He is incisive, sympathetic, and smart. And Fossum expects us to be the same. I have one more Fossum -Bad Intentions – her most recent to be translated. I’m very much looking forward to it.

Happy Reading, Ruby

Nazis, Adultery, Curries, Curates, and Regency

Dear Reader:

A couple mysteries, two biographies, and a novel.

127) Until thy Wrath is Past by Asa Larsson (kindle) #15

Bettan and Simon are young people in love with adventure and each other.  And then they mysteriously die on a dive to see a crashed airplane in a remote lake.  We are led through another murder investigation in Sweden’s far north on the Finnish border with Rebecka Martinsson, now District Prosecutor.

This investigation brings her back into collaboration with the local police and unravels old, treacherous bonds dating to World War II when Sweden allowed all combatants to travel across the country to war with each other.  Bully brothers and elderly friends and family play key roles in determining exactly what happened and why.

I continue to enjoy Rebecka’s character and learning more about this tiny village where she grew up.  I grew up in a town probably about the same size and understand how intertwined and complex histories can become – although I didn’t know of any murders.  Accidental deaths aplenty (kids with a shotgun, drunk driving, kids on a motorcycle, kids swimming etc.).  These books bring together Rebecka’s struggle to find her way and define herself with her deep determination to figure out what happened to the voiceless murder victims.

505) Headhunters by Jo Nesbo (kindle, library) 

This, the latest Jo Nesbo a famous Norwegian mystery writer, is somewhat different from his other books (that I’ve read).  For one, Harry Hole never appears.  For another, we have a story told by a murder victim.

Roger is a top headhunter in the Oslo area working hard to match clients with employers or employees.  He is under massive financial stress as he has works to make up for his lack of height and beauty by providing his wife, Diana, with more than he can afford: gallery, million dollar house, everything but the baby she so desperately wants.  As he works over his clients, he undercovers their art collections for his sideline of art thief.

Diana brings Roger together with Clas Greve, executive extraordinaire, and the perfect addition to Roger’s stable of clients.  But Roger quickly learns that Clas isn’t his normal client intimidated by his use of interrogation techniques to manipulate and score.  And so begins a cat and mouse game involving an endless process of humiliation and injury, including a smash up with a tractor trailer, being buried in human waste in an outhouse, and a strange and unappealing mistress.

This book kept me going, but often skimming through to get to the major plot points.  None of the characters are particularly likeable, but the action is good and Nesbo leaves questions and mysteries sprinkled throughout.  I have The Snowman and The Redbreast left to read – I’m hoping they involve Harry Hole again (actually, The Redbreast is the 3rd Harry Hole, and the first translated into English).

506)  Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of Childhood in India by Madhur Jaffrey (library, hard copy)

Oh, Madhur, how I love thee!  My absolute favorite food writer and cookbook author.  A wondrously gifted writer, actress, and restauranteur, Jaffrey has written a fascinating story of her privileged mid-20th Century upbringing.

Madhur grew up in a huge extended family with multiple adult siblings living together with their father, the patriarch, in a massive enclave.  Surrounded by cousins, she spent her childhood playing, studying, and eating.  Of course, the descriptions of food are to die for (real Indian food is my favorite to eat and to cook) and Jaffrey includes some recipes at the end.  But I have several of her great cookbooks already, so I doubt I’ll be trying to make these.  This is the marvelous story of a very different way of life, told by someone who has lived in the United States for decades at this point in her life.

507) Affairs at Thrush Green by Miss Read (hard copy, library)

Miss Read, or Doris Jessie Saint, died last month at 99.  So, this seemed a good time to read some of her work.

She is known for the lengthy Fairacre and Thrush Green novels of rural English life.  This 1983 book is about midway through the series.  And you can tell – I got out my notebook to try to keep track of all the characters and quickly filled a page with them.

These books were mostly written in the 70s-90s (!) and they idealize British village life that is likely largely gone.  So far, nothing too shocking – everyone is well-mannered, in an old-fashioned way, although eccentrics and resentments abound.  This book reminds me of the Miss Marple series (which I love) but is maybe a bit less knowing.  It is enjoyable, but I don’t envision gathering up all the other books in the series and charging through them – Pym’s funny and smart portrayal of village life is a bit more my style.

508) Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin (kindle, library)

I haven’t read Austen in a long, long time, but I’m enjoying this biography of her very much.  As Tomalin (who has also written biographies of a long list of Victorians: Dickens, Shelley, Wollstonecraft, Shelley) explains, writing an Austen biography is very challenging as her letters were largely destroyed by family and she left no childhood diary.  So, Tomalin pieces together her story from the writings of her family and contemporaries.  Austen grew up as a member of a large pastor’s family surrounded by her brothers and the boys of the small boarding school her family ran.

Jane would have been a lot of fun.  She was something of a tomboy and began writing very early, with stories and plays staged by her friends and family.  As so many middle class and upper middle class British families of the 19th Century (I’m thinking of Trollope here) had, the Austens were connected to royalty and wealth, although they themselves had to work hard to finance their large family.  Tomalin brings Austen and her family to life and I expect I’ll read more of her biographies at some point.  And soon I’ll have to dive into some Austen as I find if highly enriching to read an author’s work after learning something of their life.

Ticks and Black Flies

This is a shot from my recent camping trip at a national forest campground I like a lot.  Many of the campsites there are right on the lake, as you can see this one is.  The tradeoff is that this campground tends to be pretty buggy.  You can see my new Coleman “Eight Person” (why do tent makers always exaggerate how many people can comfortably sleep in their tents?) Instant Tent (with rain fly – extra).  As a single woman, I love a great tent but I need to be able to get it up solo.

Coleman brags that you can set this tent up in a minute (and they provide a video showing how it is done) so, of course, the WWW abounds with videos of people making attempts on a one minute setup.  I largely set it up in my backyard to test it out (bummer to get out in the woods and find you can’t set your tent up!) and to learn if I could get it back in the bag after (a common complaint in reviews).  I was able to do both, but was a bit chagrined to learn that I should have fully extended the upper poles before the lower poles – something I didn’t learn until I was in the campground trying (vainly) to outrun an incoming storm.  On one hand, the tent doesn’t need super-detailed directions, but on the other hand, some would be helpful – I didn’t find the heavily image-oriented directions provided to be as useful as I would have liked.

But, ultimately, I was able to get the tent and rain fly up completely solo and the next time around, it will be much easier. And yes, I got it back in the bag.

I LOVE this tent.  I got it mainly because, after last summer’s multitudes of bugs, I wanted a screen house, and, as you see, it has one in front.  This is a really big tent and there is no way I could erect it alone unless it was “instant.”  I’m satisfied with the ease of setup and the tent is perfect for me and the three dogs.

When I’m camping, the dogs spend a lot of time in the tent – dogs sleep most of the time, and they prefer, as we do, to be free of biting insects.  So, they quickly learn that the tent is a refuge and beg to be let back into it when the bugs get bad.  I’ve seen more black flies, no see ums, and mosquitos on other trips, but it was fairly bad this time around (they decline in the drier months of July and August) so the dogs made good use of this spacious tent.

I spread out copious blankets etc. to give the dogs some cushion – usually we’re all a bit crammed together, but not in this tent.  And I really liked having my front “porch” screen house.  Not only did it give me more space for stuff, but I could also set a chair up in front and read in the evening hours – allowing the dogs a better rest (as I was with them) and saving us all from our devourers.

This is a very tall tent (perhaps 6 feet inside).  The only thing I didn’t like about it is the front, main zipper.  As many other reviewers noted, it is tough to get this zipper up and down – forget one-handed (which is desirable), even two-handed is hard. Those brilliant tent engineers (who hold the 50% of US ingenuity not being used by dog costume designers) aimed to make an incredibly water-tight zipper, but in the course of doing so they made the cloth on either side of the zipper really wide and it gets caught nearly every time you use it (not to mention the clever velcro strips along the sides which don’t make things easier).  But you get used to it.

Another challenge was finding a suitable ground cloth (to protect the tent bottom and keep it dry) – I ordered a 10 x 14 foot one, but the company I ordered from didn’t fill the order, so I made due with a partial one. I’m going to try again with another company – the bottom on the tent is sturdy, water-proof and of a bath tub design (it extends up the side of the tent about six inches, providing extra protection).  But we were on top of gravel and I worried about the wear and tear on even such tough material and, because this tent is like an expandable umbrella, it is challenging to completely dry the external bottom after use.

The many windows and ceiling vents make this an airy tent – arguably, the rain fly is not necessary, but I like having that extra insurance against storms which, with climate change, seem to be getting more common and extreme up here (and we just had four thunder and lightning storms in just one week).

A highly recommended tent!  Would be great for a family with kids – it comes with a black partition, which I didn’t use, but it would provide a bit of privacy and allow parents to hang out in front at night when the kids are sleeping in the back.  Parents with a couple kids could be very comfortable sleeping together in the main part – but you could easily put more people in front – the screen room has the same ability to be buttoned up and closed in as the rest of the tent.  Eight adults would be pushing it – definitely would be cheek by jowl.  If you are looking for a very flexible tent, this is a great one.  It also comes in 6 and 10 person versions.

Happy reading, Ruby