Monday, March 30, 2015

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

This book is winning the "Best Book So Far in 2015" award.  My little library, always just about one step behind the rest of the big book world just got this book, which the rest of the world was talking about back in the early fall.  So forgive me for being just a little bit behind.

Lila is one of those books that leaves you blinking, as though emerging from a trance.  Set in Iowa during the 1930s, Lila is the story of a young woman, abandoned as a baby and then, later, stolen by a woman who was working with a band of migrant workers.  She spends all of her growing up years enduring hard working conditions, a frightening case of being abandoned by her caretaker and the group of migrant workers, then being rescued again.  After the caretaker dies, Lila is left to take care of herself.

One day, caught in a rainstorm in the little town of Gilead, Iowa, Lila steps into a church, little noticing that a church service in in motion.  Lila and the old preacher's eyes meet and, though Lila doesn't say it, they are immediately attracted.  For the next 60 pages or so, Lila plays a will she stay-won't she stay game with the preacher.  She slowly falls in love with him, beginning with planting and tending his garden.  But Lila, damaged as she is, is convinced that nobody could ever love her, that everybody is going to up and leave any minute.  Finally, Lila becomes Lila Ames and goes to live with "that old preacher", as she refers to him throughout the entire book.

This book is a prequel to Gilead, written maybe 10 years ago.  I started it and never finished it, so now I am determined to go read it.  While Gilead is the preacher telling his life story to his son, Lila is set much, much earlier.  I think I might have gotten more out of Lila, had I finished Gilead.

I'll admit that it took me a while to get into the book.  It's written in a fashion quite unlike anything I've read.  There is a present and many pasts, all told in Lila's voice.  So, for example, the book starts with Lila being rescued, then jumps to her, pregnant, sitting on the porch and waiting for her husband to get home from church, then jumps to an experience with the migrant workers when she was about eight.  This makes for very confusing reading at first, but, just like an accent in a movie, after a time you stop noticing it.  The other unconventional thing about this book was that there were no chapters.  This made an already wonderful book even harder to stop reading.  Where was I supposed to stop?  I couldn't end right at that exciting part!  And so I devoured this book very quickly.

The other thing about this book is that it is written solely and completely through Lila's point of view.  There is no telling what the Reverend is thinking, if the neighbors are really looking down their noses, and if Lila really is the terrible person she thinks she is.  All we see is Lila's shame and self-deprecation, only Lila's narrow view of herself and the world.  This makes for a fascinating reading experience and a new, fresh way to approach characters.

The themes throughout the book are very interesting.  One is the intense loneliness that both Lila and John Ames feel.  John Ames, from losing his first wife and baby in childbirth and Lila from her isolated life and the way that she feels that nobody respects her.  The other emotion that seems to dominate Lila's inner thoughts is shame-complete shame at having lived such a rackety life, full of bad experiences and bad decisions; shame that she, as she sees it, will never be as smart as the Reverend.  The other theme that appears over and over is Christianity and the conflict between traditional Christian views and Lila's life experience.

Robinson, herself, is a devout Calvinist who has written quite a few books on topics of Christianity and, in particular, John Calvin's teachings.  She definitely provides a unique view of how Christianity is good at-and falls very short of-addressing deep poverty.  John Ames is not just a preacher; he also is a philosopher.  That's really what brings Lila and John together.  After she steals a Bible from church and begins reading starting, of all places, with Lamentations, they start to discuss her questions about being a Christian, life after death, and more philosophical questions.

Lila and John Ames have a very interesting relationship.  He is 65 and she, though we never know her exact age, must be somewhere in her 30s.  And yet, they appear to have a marriage of equals.  I honestly still can't figure out why.  John is very educated, respected in the town, financially secure, and much, much older.  But there wasn't this creepy element of robbing the cradle that is so often in books about relationships like this.  I think that Lila's complete, blunt honesty is part of the reason that their marriage works.  Lila is so frank, so willing to point out John's own flaws that I think they can be viewed as equal.

Lila has a hard time learning to trust-both other people and herself.  She constantly tells herself that she is getting on the next train, even after she becomes pregnant.  She worries that John will decide that she is an embarrassment to him and send her off.  And she can't even begin to trust God.  But it is through some of the strangest parts of her Bible reading (Job, for instance) that she begins to have clarity, to realize that people love her and that she can begin to rest.

There were so many times where my heart just about broke, reading Lila's story.  First, when she is sitting on the steps of her family's house, crying because she has been locked outside again.  Then when she is left behind a second time.  But the worst?  Lila is sitting listening to a conversation between John Ames and his friend, a fellow minster.  The friend begins to talk about "lost souls in China" and, with a start, Lila realizes that all of her friends, her makeshift family, are "lost souls", the people who will never get into heaven, according to traditional Christianity.  She realizes with a start that she will never get to see her makeshift mother.  She tells John Ames this and, in his explanation, you can read Robinson's own conflict.  He tells her that, though the view of saving lost souls and hell are the traditional teachings of the church, he cannot reconcile this concept of hell with that of his understanding of the vast love and forgiveness of God.

It's interesting-I tend not to read either deeply spiritual books or books involving as much heartache and drama as Lila contained. And yet, this book has to be one of my favorites now.  Robinson's genius writing, combined with some truly believable and lovable characters has created a masterpiece that I hope will make it onto lists of must-read classics 100 years from now.

Dear readers, if you made it to the end of this (long winded) post, then please, please, please go read this book and tell me what you think.  Even if this book doesn't sound like your genre of choice, the beauty and pure genius of this book is enough to make you love it.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Rose Garden

This story begins when we bought our farm.  While the majority of the place was a bit dilapidated and run-down, there was one little bright spot-and that was the rose garden.  The previous owner had filled the little plot chock-full with all kinds of beautiful, highly scented roses.  Now, I am not a rose person by any means and I find them kind of fussy, but I did appreciate that beautiful little corner.  Well, several winters later, the roses were sulky and a couple had died.  The cause?  Ash from the wood stove being dumped in the garden (by certain parties who are going to remain nameless *ahem*).
The embarrassingly rackety, early spring condition of the flowerbed, pre-pruning.

See, the problem with ashes is that they're very alkaline on the pH scale.  And roses like very acidic soil.  So the poor dears were in very alkaline soil and they obviously were objecting.
After some tidying up and pruning the roses

While walking past the poor dejected dears a couple of weeks ago, I suddenly had a wild hair to fix that sad little garden.  It started with pH tests, phosphorus tests, potash tests, nitrate tests, and about a thousand more.  After realizing that that patch of soil was devoid of absolutely everything except for potash which, surprise, surprise, is derived from wood ashes, I got to work.  I dumped and dumped all kinds of manure-mainly sheep and horse because they're very acidic.  I got Miracid and about 10 other products.  Then, I heavily pruned all the rose bushes that were still alive.  And, ta da!  the bed looks much better.  Now, of course, this is a work in progress and it's going to take awhile to get the soil back to the way it was.  I still have a couple of tricks up my sleeve-dumping cheap, steeped coffee, fish heads for a nutrient blast, chicken manure (which is supposed to be the most acidic).

My last step was to order some new, old fashioned roses for the garden.  I picked four, all highly scented in a variety of colors, plus climbers that I'm going to plant to climb up the side of the little summer kitchen attached to the house.  The plants came yesterday and, oh, it looks so refreshing seeing that little bit of ground coming back.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Slices of Life: A Food Writer Cooks Through Many a Conundrum by Leah Eskin

I've mentioned a time or two how much I love reading about cooking and food.  I read cookbooks for fun, devour cooking memoirs, articles in magazines by chefs...I love pretty much any food writing I can get my hands on.  I spied this book on the new book shelf at the library and eagerly snagged it because, hey, it was a nice, thick, fun-looking book all about food.  I started it last night and sped through the rest of it this morning.  Overall, I really enjoyed the book.

Leah Eskin is a food writer for a variety of pretty big papers (Chicago Tribune, to name one).  She's also appeared in Saveur (one of the world's loveliest food magazines, I am convinced), Elle, Salon, and handful of other big-name magazines and newspapers.  She writes about food, but, particularly, cooking for her family.  Each article is an essay accompanied by a delicious-looking recipe.

I admit to being just a little underwhelmed by the writing.  The writing was, for the most part, good, but Eskin's writing tone and style wasn't my favorite.  She repeatedly used a present simple tense in the second person (yes, I did have to look that up), which I didn't love.  I think some of that is just my own stylistic taste, but I do think that the writing ended up coming out just a little bit awkward.  The tense and style changed with each article, but the majority were written as described above.

But, sometimes Eskin's writing would suddenly blossom, painting a perfect word image, or elegantly describing a scene.  For instance, when talking about decluttering for moving, she writes, "Gamely, you straighten up.  You square heaps of mail into stacks.  You crack apart the forty-eight pieces of Our Solar System and cram the universe into the black hole of the puzzle cupboard."  See?  Comparing the puzzle cupboard to a black hole?  Smart.  And funny.

Now, let's talk about the amazing food in this book.  I finished this book up this morning and I am convinced that I left several drool marks.  Delicious pasta dishes and salted caramel, brisket and pot roast, greens and beans and pistachio ice cream sandwiches, mushroom broth and walnut pesto crostini.  Oh dear, now I am so hungry.  Leah Eskin is obviously a very good cook, capable of dreaming up some delicious food.  In fact, this book made me want to go hunt down her kitchen and follow her around for a day.  But it also made me want to work in my own kitchen.  Try some of her recipes and maybe even dream up one of my own.  And isn't that the ultimate goal of all good food writers?  To inspire people to get into their own kitchens and create beautiful, delicious food.

So I would definitely pick up this book if you are a food reader like me.  Eskin's recipes all look delicious and her stories about her family are fun to read.  I don't think I would ever buy the book, but as a library read?  It was definitely worth it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Thatched Roof by Beverley Nichols

Beverley Nichols is an author much beloved by both my grandmother and my mother.  Many times over the years, I have been discussing books with them and they stop to gush a little over how witty and sharp and generally great Beverley Nichols is.  I would always smile and nod, but, for whatever reason, never followed through and read something.  The other day, I finally borrowed a Thatched Roof and commenced reading.

I wasn't surprised that I enjoyed the book.  I love to read about people's decorating and gardening adventures and so Nichols's books really are right up my alley.  The gist of this gardening/home improvement autobiography is this: In the 1920s, Nichols buys a completely run-down little cottage with great potential and makes it over, with plenty of advice and opinions from the quirky locals.  In addition to this, it has a lovely garden, which he also fixes up, written about in another book.

There is, of course, much drama involving the whole house being turned into a "ye olde" cottage, filled with fake Tudor pillows and fake Tudor walls, and, well, fake Tudor everything.  I laughed out loud so many times at Nichols's wrath.  There are adventures and problems galore and the descriptions of the house make it sound perfectly lovely once Nichols finishes it.

Another thing that completely impressed me in reading this book was how Nichols made the house really come alive.  I could imagine every room of the house, every color scheme, every bookshelf, every open window.  Often home decorating writers have a hard time trying to describe their project.  In an era before beautiful home improvement books full of more shiny, artistic photographs than text, a book had to rely on the writer's skill as opposed to the crutch of photographs, a refreshing change.

Now, there were some lovely, lovely illustrations done by Rex Whistler did bring the personality of both the house and the book to life.  I appreciated how the illustrations were an aid to the writing, yet did not take the place of the writing.  I've included a sample illustration below:
Credit: Found off of Pinterest.  Not very credible, I know, I know...
The book is also laugh-out-loud hilarious at many parts.  All of the adventures were just plain hilarious, from the trials Nichols underwent, getting a housekeeper, to the descriptions of the nosy neighbors, judging him on the previous owner's choice of lawn statuary.

That said, Nichols got on my nerves by the end of the book.  He strikes me as a waspish little man, never pleased with anything and constantly critical of everybody around him, as well as being a completely priss about his house.  This is funny for awhile, but I couldn't read that indefinitely.  Oh and his blatant dislike for every. single. female who crosses his path?  Also quite annoying.

So those are my thoughts on A Thatched Roof.  Would I read something else by Nichols?  Maybe.  I loved, loved, loved this book, but I think, at least for me, his writing can only be taken in very small doses.  Maybe in a year, when I'm feeling inspired about gardening next March, I'll pull out another of his books about his beautiful garden and have another go.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Little Women Read Along Chapters 9 and 10

(This read along is being hosted by the wonderful blog The Edge of the Precipice and I decided to join in with my own posts.  To find out more about this read along, you can go to her blog.)

Chapter 9-Meg Goes to Vanity Fair

Poor, poor Meg.  This is the chapter where all her vanity comes crashing down.  Meg is invited to spend a fortnight devoted to shopping and parties and dances and dressing with a wealthy friend of a friend.  What fun the Marches have, packing up dresses and ribbons and what little elegant clothes they have.  But when Meg gets there, she realizes that all is not as perfect as it seems.  All the girls (and their mother) are intent on pairing Meg with Laurie.  And when Laurie sends flowers, the following conversation occurs, "Mrs. M. has laid her plans, I dare say, and will play her cards well, early as it is.  The girl evidently doesn't think of it yet," said Mrs. Moffat.  "She told that fib about her mamma, as if she did know, and colored up when the flowers came, quite prettily..."  The fortnight ends with a party in which Meg agrees to wear an immodest dress and then proceeds to drink and flounce about and generally create a spectacle, quite shocking Laurie, who has attended the party.  Like many of the previous chapters, this one ends with a lovely sermon from Marmee.
Meg, 'fessing to Marmee-Credit: Project Gutenberg

Thoughts:

  • Here we see a very firm lesson on the dangers of vanity, as seen by L.M. Alcott, and Meg learns some very hard lessons.  She desperately wants to fit in with the elegant crowd, but can't for the life of her, seem to get rid of that little niggling conscience in the back of everything.  And, when she finally gives in to being "rigged up" and tries to enjoy herself, she sees that such pastimes can be very unpleasant.  Again, poor Meg.
  • I actually appreciated Mrs. March's lecture in this chapter.  Preachy?  Oh, yes.  But I still think that some of the things that she said in that little lecture are applicable to young women today.  The message of "better to be a happy old maid than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands," may sound archaic, but I still think that it's a message that might be valuable for many.
Questions:
Did you enjoy (enjoy is the wrong word...find interesting/valuable?) Marmee's lecture?  Do you agree?
Do you think you have some of Meg's fault?

Chapter 10-The P.C. and the P.O.

After many chapters of learning lessons and preaching, we finally come to an enjoyable chapter, full of fun and entertaining pursuits.  The Marches have a newsletter called the Pickwick Papers, based off of Dickens's book (which, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is in my reading stack).  I always laugh and laugh reading the copy of the paper included in the chapter.  And then, much to Meg and Amy's shock, it is revealed that Laurie wants to join their society.  Of course, he is admitted and more fun begins, starting with the installation of a mail box, set between the two houses.
Jo, leading the Pickwick Club-Credit: Project Gutenberg

Thoughts:
  • I had a similar paper when I was young and, in retrospect, I think it was inspired by the Marches, though I never really thought of it.  I love the work and joy they put into that paper and I think that this chapter paints such a lovely, clear picture of the March family and their happy, cozy little world.
  • I love this quote at the end of the chapter about the post office box.  "The P.O. was a capital little institution, and flourished wonderfully, for nearly as many queer things passed through it as through the real office.  Tragedies and cravats, poetry and pickles, garden seeds and long letters, music and gingerbread, rubbers, invitations, scoldings, and puppies.  The old gentleman liked the fun, and amused himself by sending odd bundles, mysterious messages, and funny telegrams; and his gardener, who was smitten with Hannah's charms, actually sent a love-letter to Jo's care.  How they laughed when the secret came out, never dreaming how many love-letters that little post-office would hold in the years to come!"  (Hint. Hint. Foreshadowing left and right.)
  • Reading this chapter has bumped The Pickwick Papers right up to the top of the list, so once I finish my latest book-a very funny book by Beverley Nichols that will get a review on Monday, Pickwick Papers will definitely be my next endeavor, thanks to the Marches.
Questions:
Have you read the Pickwick Papers?  If so, did you like it?  I think it looks much more promising than the other oft-mentioned book in Little Women-Pilgrim's Progress.
Did you ever have a paper you wrote?  What about a secret post office?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Little Women Read Along Chapters 7 and 8

(This read along is being hosted by the wonderful blog The Edge of the Precipice and I decided to join in with my own posts.  To find out more about this read along, you can go to her blog.)

Hello, dear readers!  I'm back with another long, Little Women-filled post.  I am having so much fun in this read along!  

Chapter 7-Amy's Valley of Humiliation

The chapter starts out with Amy asking Meg to lend her a little money to pay for the latest school fad-pickled limes.  Meg, being the doting big sister, agrees, little knowing all the trouble this simple gesture is about to start.  The foreshadowing of what is to come begins as Amy's friends start to cluster around her, knowing that she has a big package of limes.  We also know that Mr. Davis is in a heinous mood and has firmly outlawed all sharing of limes in school.  You can guess what happens next-Amy gets tattled on and is humiliated in front of her whole class.  The chapter ends with Mrs. March writing a firm letter to Mr. Davis and pulling Amy out of school for good.
Image Credit: Project Gutenberg's free online edition of Little Women

Thoughts:
  • I admit to having a very hard time sympathizing with Amy in this chapter.  While I had several unjust teachers whom I very strongly disliked, for some reason, Amy's plight with Mr. Davis does not stir me at all.  I have never sympathized with Amy's whiney, youngest-child, princess-like behavior and I especially don't in this chapter.  
  • This quote always makes me smile a little, "Just before school closed, Jo appeared, wearing a grim expression, as she stalked up to the desk, and delivered a letter from her mother; then collected Amy's property, and departed, carefully scraping the mud off her boots on the door-mat, as if she shook the dust of the place off her feet."  Dear Jo.  Even thought she and Amy have had their tiffs, she has true sisterly loyalty in Amy's time of need
Questions:
Do you sympathize with Amy in this chapter?
Have you ever had a Mr. Davis-esque teacher?

Chapter 8-Jo Meets Apollyon

Ooooh, this chapter.  The one that makes me ache and cringe and wish I didn't have to read it.  Meg and Jo are leaving for a play which Laurie invited them to, when Amy comes up and demands that they take her with them.  Jo is rather rude and says that Laurie wouldn't want Amy tagging along.  Enraged, Amy calls, "You'll be sorry for this, Jo March!"  And Jo is sorry, for when she returns home, she discovers that the little book that she had written just for father, and only had one nice copy of, was burnt by Amy.  She is, justifiably, horrified and angry and "shakes Amy until her teeth chattered."  Poor, poor Jo.  But then it gets worse.  Jo and Laurie go ice skating and Amy tags along.  She begs Jo to wait for her, but Jo, who is still very angry, ignores her and doesn't bother to let her know that the ice is rotten in the middle.  Amy falls in, Laurie and Jo rescue her, and the chapter closes with a sisterly kiss and a sermon from Marmee.  
Image Credit: Same as above

Thoughts:
  • Can you tell that I definitely side with Jo in this chapter?  What on earth possessed Amy to do such a thing?  And I think that Amy's temper is a lot worse than Jo's.  It just so happened that the time that Jo displayed her fault, it was nearly fatal and the time Amy displayed hers, she got lucky.  Had Amy's temper appeared in other circumstances,  I think the results would have been much worse.  So then why does Jo get the motherly, 2-page lecture with nothing for Amy?  Now, I understand that everybody was terrified and didn't have the heart to scold Amy after she nearly drowned, but she was just asking for a long lecture before the events surrounding the skating event happened.
  • Now, this is not to say that I don't think Jo has a fault in need of correcting!  No, indeed!  I just think that Amy would have benefitted from having a little more of a scolding and Jo would had benefitted from a little more sympathy.  In fact, I wonder if Jo would have been a little quicker to forgive and forget, had she felt that Amy had been called out for her temper and Jo's loss acknowledged.  I think some if it is the time period.  Jo's writing was seen as a cute project rather than something bigger. 
  • All that said, people are more important than the greatest piece of writing and Jo did deserve that sermon at the end.  
Questions:
Do you sympathize with Amy or Jo more in this chapter?
Have you ever lost something that you worked on for a long time and forgot to have a back up of?

And thus closes two of my least favorite chapters in Little Women.  I'll be back tomorrow with some thoughts on chapters 9 and 10 and then I'll be caught up!


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Little Women Read Along-Chapters 4, 5, and 6

(This read along is being hosted by the wonderful blog The Edge of the Precipice and I decided to join in with my own posts.  To find out more about this read along, you can go to her blog.)

Chapter 4-Burdens

Oh, this chapter!  You can just feel the whole mood of the book dropping from the high of Christmas excitement to the low of everyday work.  Meg has to work with some very spoiled children who make her wish for pretty things more than ever.  Jo has to go to her grumpy Aunt March's to be her assistant.  Beth must return to her daily housework and her shabby piano.  And Amy must go back to her school filled with richer girls and a mean teacher.  After a very trying day, they are refreshed as they all gather around Marmee as she comforts and inspires them with stories and just a wee bit of preaching.

Thoughts:
  • Alcott's preaching thinly veiled in the form of Marmee really doesn't bother me.  I know that it gets on some people's nerves (and I'm not very far into the book…perhaps I will dislike it later on).  In fact, there are plenty of times where I think that Alcott has very valuable things to say, even for today's readers.
  • "Meg was Amy's confidant and monitor, and by some strange attraction of opposites, Jo was gentle Beth's.  To Jo alone did the shy children tell her thoughts; and over her big, harum-scarum sister, Beth unconsciously exercised more influence than any one in the family."  I love this quote.  Especially because I have seen this phenomenon so many times in real life.  
  • And the quote that made me laugh the most in this post?  "'My only comfort', she said to Meg, with tears in her eyes, 'is that Mother doesn't take tucks in my dresses whenever I'm naughty, as Maria Parks' mother does.  My dear, it's really dreadful; for sometimes she is so bad, her frock is up to her knees, and she can't come to school.  When I think of this degerredation, I feel that I can bear even my flat nose and purple gown, with yellow sky-rockets on it.'"
Questions:
Whose burden do you think is the greatest to bear of the four sisters?  I must say that I really do pity Meg, but what do you think?

What did you think of Marmee/Alcott's preaching in this chapter?  Do you think it detracted from the story, or was it a useful addition?


Chapter 5-Being Neighborly

I dearly love this chapter.  We finally get a good look at Laurie and there is a nice little adventure in the middle of the chapter.  The story starts with Jo setting off on an adventure to try to talk to "The Laurence boy".  She succeeds and even gains entrance to the elegant house.  After a long, cozy chat with Laurie, who is recovering from a cold, she retires to the a lovely library, while Laurie has a doctor's appointment.  There, to her shock, she meets the stern, foreboding Mr. Laurence, Laurie's grandfather who Jo is just a little afraid of.  However, she makes a good impression on Laurie's grandfather, who likes her at once, and she stays to tea.  All in all, this has to be one of the happiest chapters in the book.

Thoughts:

  • There is quite a bit of girl-boy friendships discussions throughout the chapter.  I think it's quite obvious that Alcott knows that she is going to shock and ruffle feathers.  Laurie pays Jo a very nice compliment, which Jo does not even know is a compliment.  Afterwards, when Jo is telling about it, Meg says, "'I never saw such a girl!  You don't know a compliment when you get it, said Meg with an air of a young lady who knew all about the matter.  'I think they are great nonsense, and I'll thank you not to be silly and spoil my fun.  Laurie's a nice boy, and I like, him, and I won't have any sentimental stuff about compliments and such rubbish.  We'll all be good to him, because he hasn't got any mother, and he may come over and see us, mayn't he, Marmee?'"
  • "And, having pulled the boy's hair by way of a caress, Mr. Laurence walked on…"  I think it is very interesting that Alcott took note of this.  I'm quite sure that paternal interaction like this was the norm and I think it's very interesting that Alcott notices, and disapproves, of this.  
  • After reading about blanc mange in this chapter (and then reading the discussion in the comments on this blog), I decided to do some blanc mange research.  I didn't find a good blanc mange recipe, but I did make panna cotta, which is basically the same thing-cream, sugar, gelatin, and then other add-ins.  Basically a custard with gelatin.  And it was very delicious!  I made a grapefruit and vanilla bean panna cotta.
Questions:
Have you ever had blanc mange/something similar?  If so, did you like it?

Chapter 6-Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful
This is the chapter that alternately makes me melancholic knowing that this won't last and happily cooing over Beth and Mr. Laurence's relationship.  Beth discovers that there is a beautiful piano at the Laurence's, but she is far too timid to play it.  Mr. Laurence gets wind of this and comes over to quietly encourage her to come and play the piano, assuring her, through Marmee, who he is ostensibly talking to, that she will not have to cross paths with any people.  So Beth ventures over.  But then it gets sweeter.  Mr. Laurence actually gives Beth his dead little daughter's piano for her very own, a little bit of heartbreaking foreshadowing that only those of us who have read the book 8 million times will notice.  I almost wish I didn't know what was coming.  And the chapter closes with Beth and Mr. Laurence walking home hand in hand after Beth gives him her personal thanks.  *Sniff*  Excuse me while I leave to blow my nose.

Image from: Pinterest

Thoughts:
  • I often fall into the camp of people that think that Beth is terribly one-dimensional and too good for words.  And then I get to this chapter and I can't help but completely understand Beth in this chapter, though my personality has never been like hers.  I think this is the chapter that redeems Beth.  She has a problem, overcomes it, and makes a new friend, all in about ten pages.  What could be better?
  • I am really wishing I had the time to read through Pilgrim's Progress (or that I had the attention span to read through what I remember as being a very, very dry book).  The constant references are just a little bit confusing.  I mean, the references aren't bad enough that this book makes no sense without prior knowledge of PP, but I think it would be helpful.  Maybe some day…
Questions:
Do you think that this chapter makes Beth more understandable and easier to identify with?
Have any of you read Pilgrim's Progress and, if so, what did you think of it?

Whew!  And that closes one of my longest posts!  I'll be back tomorrow with more thoughts about Little Women.  I am enjoying this book so much!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

How I'm Writing These Days

Recently, I've undergone a bit of a blogging shift.  It all started when I read this article.  I instantly went back to the hours spent on handwriting books, my crooked 3rd grader cursive, the blister on my third finger from writing too much.
The handwriting method I learned.  I can't
believe how many memories it brings up looking at that book!

My handwriting through the years has become a pretty illegible scrawl.  It's kinda cursive-kinda print and to the point where it's almost a code that only I can read.  But somewhere in the back of my brain is the memory of how to write that neat, swirly cursive, mixed with some calligraphy that I learned years ago.  And so I've been writing in cursive like crazy.  All of my blog posts are written out by hand on a nice notepad now and I take satisfaction in the pages of posts and post ideas which are on paper.

The other reason that I really wanted to get back into remembering those early cursive days is that I've been reading that people have lost their ability to read the letters and other primary documents of generations earlier.  It makes me sad to think that we might lose that ability and so I'm more eager than ever to spend time honing that skill.  Because the best way to learn to read cursive, or so I've read, is to keep writing it.
Unrelated, but pretty.  A picture from a misty morning this week.

So here's how it works. I sit down most mornings, coffee cup in one hand, and a note pad and a nice ball point pen in the other, and think of post ideas and then write them out.  It might be something that flashed through my head and I thought would make a nice post, or it might be a review of the latest book I've been reading.  Then I outline general thoughts and ideas.  What is amazing me is the sheer number of ideas and observations I'm having that I really didn't notice before when I was just looking at the computer musing on what to say next.  I started doing it with the Little Women posts and I haven't looked back since.

It's also appeared to make my blog writing frequency better.  It's a lovely little early-morning ritual before work starts to sit down and just write and write.  I have such a pile of posts now, written so neatly that anybody who wants can easily read them.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Anniversary Post

Readers, it has been a year.  A whole year since I started blogging.  I kind of can't believe it.  I thought I would tell you the story of why I started blogging.
Just some chicken pictures.

I have been a voracious reader my whole life.  Books stick in my mind years after I read them and I have lived the majority of my life with many of them.  Funny books, sad books (but only occasionally), scary books, exciting books, how-to books, they all have a special place in my heart.  When a friend started blogging and told me how much fun it was, I was eager to start, but didn't really think that I had much to write about.  I have a pretty normal, quiet life.  Still, I had always noticed the minutiae around me and I thought it might be kind of fun to see if I could make an interesting blog out of it.  And then I thought about books.  I can still clearly remember-I was sitting on the couch, having just finished The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery, with my head in a whirl of thoughts and things to discuss about the book.  And I had a sudden revelation-I could write about books!  I certainly spent enough time reading and thinking about books to write a blog.

And so I started-with a basic blogger template and a bunch of ideas.  I wrote my first post and clicked "Publish" for the first time.  For the first couple of weeks, I carefully watched the statistics as people read the blog.  I found other book bloggers, far more experienced than I, who had been in the blogging business for years.

It turns out that blogging doesn't just involve words (although it does involve a lot of those), but also numbers.  So here are just a few of the numbers I've collected:
Number of posts written: 208
Number of comments made: 390
Number of times this blog was viewed: 12,645
Number of times I have said, "Wow, I love blogging!":1,000,000+


Finally, I want to thank all of my readers, the commenters and the non-commenters.  This blogging journey would not have been nearly as fun if all of you had not read my blog.  I especially want to thank all the family and friend readers, who gave me advice and opinions and shared the blog among each other (Grammy, chiefly, among them).  But also, my fellow bloggers who have participated with me in so many things, from book clubs to book tags to everything in between.

I'm looking forward to another year of blogging!  I'm sure there will be more of the same and maybe some new things, too.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Library Loot 3/11/15

I haven't done a Library Loot post in ages!  This past weekend, however, I went to the library and picked up a substantial stack and now I'm ready to write about my haul.

About Library Loot:

"Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries."


The Plot that Thickened by P.G. Wodehouse-I already reviewed this here and really enjoyed it.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green-I feel I must explain.  This was part of a very long-winded bet with my brother.  I, making amazed noises that people would read The Fault in Our Stars for fun, said that I would never voluntarily read TFIOS because who wants to read a book being wracked by sobs the majority of the time.  My brother got a gleam in his eye and said that if I would read TFIOS, he would, too.  I stretched the bet a little and said that we would each read a John Green book (many of which are heartbreaking).  I haven't heard anything about his book choice, so I don't know how that's going.  I chose Will Grayson, Will Grayson because it's supposed to be actually funny.  John Green is a very skilled and funny writer, so I'm not going to have to brave bad writing, but the genre is not my favorite, so we'll see...


Cotillion by Georgette Heyer- Just a little Regency romance.  Georgette Heyer wrote surprisingly good, historically accurate works of fiction in the 1920s about the 1700s.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens-This is partly inspired by my Little Women read along (the March sisters are big fans of Pickwick) and partly because I've heard it is a fantastic book.

The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas-Some nice fiction that looked good...about a group of ladies in Kansas who brave the Depression together.

The Chili Queen by Sandra Dallas-More good-looking fiction.

The Train to Estelline by Jane Roberts Wood-A novel about a young woman traveling to Arkansas in the early 1900s to teach.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Plot That Thickens by P.G. Wodehouse

As I was experiencing The Cold That Will Not Quit, I turned to my new stack of library books and knew in an instant what I wanted to read-P.G. Wodehouse.  P.G. Wodehouse can cure any ills, I am convinced, and I'm not quite sure why he has not made it onto my blog.  He is also extremely prolific, so you don't have the problem of feeling like weeping when you find a good author that wrote one book.  According to a page in the front of my book, he had written 80 books by 1973 (he started writing in the 19-teens). Wodehouse wrote the Jeeves and Wooster books, which are probably his greatest claim to fame, but in addition to that, he's written about all sorts of hilariously eccentric characters.

This book centers around a whole host of characters.  There is a secretary, Sandy Miller, in love with her boss-turned-fellow secretary, Monty Bodkin.  Unfortunately, Monty is in love with a beefy hockey player, Gertrude Butterwick, who is putty in the hands of her father who hates Monty and has forced the lazy aristocrat to earn his living for a year.  Added to this confusing puzzle is Monty's employer, the employer's controlling wife, and the employer's even more controlling step-daughter.  There is also a band of thieves disguised as friends and valets trying to steal the employer's wife's necklace.  Whew.

This book is classic Wodehouse.  It has lots of humor and sly pokes at the English upper-class, a cast of very eccentric characters that grow more complicated in their relationships by the minute, just a touch of bad guys (but only the bumbling kind), a little romance, and a problem that will be neatly solved by the end of the book.

This book was written near the end of Wodehouse's career (early 1970s) and, maybe it was just me, but I thought I could read the wistfulness in some of his references to gentlemen's clubs and "the old ways".  However, this book still has all of Wodehouse's charm and frivolity.  He lavishly sprinkles funny, well-rounded characters all through the book, makes word jokes left and right (my favorite kind of joke, by the way), and crafts a very funny, yet somehow also gripping, plot that left me hanging onto the book until the last page.

This book was the perfect thing to get me over the worst of the cold and I'm sure I made a funny sight sitting there wrapped in a quilt and alternately laughing and coughing my lungs up over a book.  I think of Wodehouse as being classic summer reading.  I'm not quite sure why, but I do know that, as soon as I had finished that book, the spring thaw began.  Hooray!

So if you are the kind of person that likes Wodehouse's humor (I would describe it as a combination of just-plain-silly, sarcastic and…well…there needs to be a term for Wodehouse's humor, because it is its own category) and would like a welcome-to-spring (or whatever season you happen to be in at the moment) read, then I really recommend this book.  I enjoyed it immensely.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bits and Bobs

I decided to write a rambling post today.  While I'm enjoying the Little Women read-along so much, I decided to take a day off and write about happenings.  Early March seems to make me ramble.

The kitchen has been filled with activity all week.  With chilly weather and blizzard-like conditions pretty much all the time, we've been keeping the kitchen going to keep the house warm, since the kitchen is the draftiest, coldest room of the house.  There is always something on the stove or in the oven these days-sourdough bread, lime and sea salt brownies, hot and sour soup, pots of stock, baguettes, and much more.  While the table was a mess, the sun came streaming in a window and I snapped a couple of pictures.  It's amazing how pretty a baking mess can look.
The baguettes.  Delicious, but not pretty.
Lime and Sea-Salt Brownies from Kitchn.  Delicious!
Just a pretty mess.  A tea towel, dusts of flour, and the lime zest for the brownies.

Homemade Hot and Sour Soup, also from Kitchn.

I started a book called To the Wild Sky by Ivan Southall who is, apparently a fairly well-known Australian children's author from the 50s and 60s who wrote about children having adventures.  To the Wild Sky is about six children who are on a plane to a birthday party in New South Wales.  Their plans are immediately thrown to the wind when the pilot dies, leaving them in a rapidly falling plane.  One of the boys steers the plane to safety on a deserted island, where the children have to learn to fend for themselves.  It's very exciting and I'm really enjoying having such a gripping book.


While spring is lovely and I absolutely can't wait to see ground again (even muddy ground!) I saw struck by the absolute gorgeousness of winter as I looked out the window at this.



Today is World Book Day!  What are you reading today?  I have To the Wild Sky, Little Women, a few inspiration cookbooks, and November Knits, a knitting book.


It's the Easter Dress time of year again!  I have my dress about half done and waiting by my sewing machine.  I found some fairly cheap organic cotton voile that looks like watercolors.  I'm making it up in a 50s party dress pattern, which I think is going to work perfectly as an Easter dress.

I'm doing the view with sleeves


I am so proud of those neat little pin tucks all down the front.  I still have buttons, a skirt,
and sleeves to put on, but it's starting to feel like a real dress now!




Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Little Women Read-Along Chapter 3-The Laurence Boy

(This read along is being hosted by the wonderful blog The Edge of the Precipice and I decided to join in with my own posts.  To find out more about this read along, you can go to her blog.)


I think that Chapter 3 might be one of the most iconic and remembered chapters of Little Women.  The chapter starts with an invitation from the rich Gardiners to Jo and Meg to attend a dance and supper.  Meg, of course, wants to go at once, but Jo is less enthusiastic.  There are extensive preparations, including a mishap in which Jo burns off Meg's front hair with a curling iron.  When they get to the party, Jo can't dance because of numerous problems with her clothes, so she disappears to a corner to observe while Meg dances.  She bumps into the neighbor boy, Laurie, and thus, we are introduced to one of the most beloved characters in this book.  They have a lovely time together gossiping and peeping until Meg sprains her ankle on too-small shoes.  Laurie offers them his carriage and they return home together, starting a long friendship.

Thoughts and Observations:


  • I always laugh at Jo's blunderbussey ways.  In middle school I had an unfortunate period of extreme blunderbuss and I remember doing so many of the things that Jo does.  Burning hair off?  It's a miracle that never happened.  Jo's dresses are always burnt (including her party dress) because she backs up to the fire-something I did repeatedly.  Actually, I still do that.  *Ahem.*  Anyway, I always laugh and laugh when Jo, who has one glove stained with lemonade, scrubs up spilled coffee with the other one.  Oh dear.
  • I really noticed the commentary on fashions this time around.  I'd noticed it before, but knowing that I was going to be writing about it made me think even more critically.  Jo and Meg's toilet is very detailed and everything from the number of hair pins in Jo's thick hair to Meg's nice gloves is covered.  However, Alcott is definitely critical of the attention and pain given to women's dress.  She writes at the end of the clothing description: 
"Meg's high-heeled slippers were dreadfully tight, and hurt her, though she would not own it, and Jo's nineteen hair-pins all seemed stuck straight into her head, which was not exactly comfortable; but, dear me, let us be elegant or die!"
  • This quote made me think about women's clothing today.  Have we progressed?  I know that I love clothes and enjoy spending time thinking about what I wear, but I like to think that, should a woman prefer to wear nothing but comfortable clothes, society should respect that.  Which leads me to my second question-do you think that we suffer less pain for beauty now?  However, I am not willing to say that we, as a society, shouldn't have rules about how people dress for different things.   Because wearing jeans to a formal occasion is just not okay.  But I'm also not going to say that women have to wear spandex or high, high heels to said formal occasion.  Anyway, I'd love your thoughts on this.
  • Jo and Laurie's friendship was obviously another place that Alcott was being extremely counter-cultural.  Boys and girls and Laurie and Jo's age would have been thinking of each other only in terms of romance and Alcott objected to that.  Again, I wonder if Alcott would be pleased that men and women can be friends now without raising eyebrows.  And, again, I also see that we have not come as far as we think we have.  Who admits to having even had it cross their minds that Laurie and Jo would make a good couple?  I know I have. Sorry, Louisa.  
  • The other thing that I noticed is that I can't remember what my Book Laurie looked like.  I can remember a time, back when I read the book in, oh, 6th grade, where Book Laurie had a face.  Then, I saw the movie in high school and have always picture Movie Laurie when I read the book.  I can't remember what that face looked like and it's something that makes me a little sad. That's something that I've noticed about seeing a movie after having read a book.  I almost always have clear images of the characters I read about, but once I see the movie, those characters are erased and replaced by the faces of the actors in the movie.  Luckily, I liked Laurie in the movie, so it's not like I have the face of an unbearable character etched in my mind, but it is slightly annoying.
Quote:
"'I don't believe fine young ladies enjoy themselves a bit more than we do, in spite of our burnt hair, old gowns, one glove apiece, and tight slippers, that sprain our ankles when we are silly enough to wear them.' And I think Jo was quite right."

Questions for Discussion:
1.) What do you think about the opposite-gender friendships discussion?  Have we progressed?
2.) What about fashions of today vs. then?
3.) Would you prefer to be like Jo-standing in the corner with a good friend making snide remarks about people-or Meg-out dancing?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Little Women Read-Along Chapter 2-Merry Christmas

(This read along is being hosted by the wonderful blog The Edge of the Precipice and I decided to join in with my own posts.  To find out more about this read along, you can go to her blog.)

It's Christmas day and the girls awake to covered books that are never explicitly titled (more on this later).  After reading the little books and being much inspired, they go down to breakfast, only to find Marmee asking them to give their food to the poor Hummels who are starving and freezing.  Afterwards, there are presents for Marmee from the girls-Hemmed handkerchiefs from Beth, A big bottle of cologne from Amy (who exchanges the cheaper bottle for a nice one), Army slippers from Jo, and new gloves from Meg.  And then comes my favorite part of Chapter 2-The play performance put on by the March sisters for some friends, followed by a very kind Christmas gift of a post-supper play, provided by the neighbors, the Lawrences.
I'm going to be including a new Little Women book cover
in my posts for as long as I can keep finding them...

Here are my observations/thoughts for this chapter:


  • The never-titled books are hotly debated over, apparently.  Some people say that the books are Pilgrims Progress, a book referred to repeatedly in this book, and some say that the books are the New Testament of the Bible.  However, it seems quite obvious to me that the books are New Testaments.  Alcott's family was devout Christians, just as the Marches were and it seems that only people unfamiliar with the devotion with which most Christians view the Bible would confused Pilgrim's Progress with the following excerpts from Chapter 2:  
"Then she remembered her mother's promise, and slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson-covered book.  She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guide-book for any pilgrim going on a long journey."

"'Girls' said Meg seriously, looking from the tumbled head beside her to the two little night-capped ones in the room beyond, 'mother wants us to read and love and mind these books, and we must begin at once.  We used to be faithful about it; but since father went away, and all this war unsettled us, we have neglected many things."
  • I am so impressed by how gladly the March sisters give up their food for the Hummels.  Even though they are obviously very hungry themselves, they know that there is always somebody else who will be hungrier. 
  • If the Marches are as poverty-stricken as the book portrays them, why do they have Hannah as their servant?  Surely you have to at least be slightly upper middle class to be keeping a servant on to do all the cooking and cleaning?  Or is Hannah just a dearly-beloved friend who also happens to cook all their food?  I feel like this gets explained later in the book, but this does make me curious.
  • I read a biography about Alcott at some time and I remember reading that she and her sisters used to put on many plays for their family and friends.  Reading Alcott's careful descriptions of the acting, the ingenious props, and the sibling interactions shows how close to memory these plays were for her in real life.  
  • My favorite quote from this chapter of the book is:
"A good deal of hammering went on before the curtain rose again; but when it became evident what a masterpiece of stage carpentering had been got up, no one murmured at the delay….A tower rose to the ceiling; halfway up appeared Zara [Amy] in a lovely blue and silver dress waiting for Roderigo [Jo].  He came in gorgeous array, with plumed cap, red cloak, chestnut love-locks, a guitar, and the boots, of course….Then came the grand effect of the play.  Roderigo produced a rope-ladder with five steps to it, threw up one end, and invited Zara to descend.  Timidly, she crept to her lattice, put her hand on Roderigo's shoulder, and was about to leap gracefully down, when, 'alas! alas for Zara!' she forgot her train-it caught in the window; the tower tottered, leaned forward, fell with a crash, and buried the unhappy lovers in the ruins.  
"A universal shriek arose as the russet boots waved wildly from the wreck, and a golden head emerged, exclaiming, 'I told you so!'  With wonderful presence of mind, Don Pedro, the cruel sire, rushed in and dragged his daughter with a hasty aside-'Don't laugh, act as if it was all right!'."  
And then I dissolved into laughter imagining this scene.

Questions for Discussion:
1.) What are army slippers?  Does anybody know about this?  I've been trying to get a mental image and am coming up short.
2.) What do you think about the Bible vs. Pilgrim's Progress debate?
3.) Does this play stick out in anybody else's mind when thinking of Little Women?  Because I think this has to be one of my top 5 favorite Little Women moments.