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the agony and ecstasy of a reading life
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As readers we like to think we are really awesome and special people simply because we like to read a lot. At least I like to think that. Kinder, gentler, smarter, introverted perhaps and maybe even shy but still people savvy, high emotional IQ, and the list goes on and on. Just Google “benefits of reading” for yourself sometime for lists and lists.
But does literature really make us better people? MobyLives reported the other day on a Stanford Center for Ethics panel on the moral merits of reading and the findings? Reading literature does not make us more moral but it apparently can make us better bullies!
Reading literature does make us better as assessing someone’s emotional state and as a result we tend to have a well-developed Theory of Mind. Bullies also generally have a well-developed Theory of Mind. Of course we like to think we use our powers for good but I’ve watched enough superhero movies to know that even the good guys are a hairsbreadth away from turning bad, Superman even had a go at it. And remember, Hitler was a great reader and I don’t think anyone would argue he was a good person. Then there were the days long, long ago when novels were considered corrupting. Seems like they may have been on to something after all.
I mean, think of all the trouble we could cause if we decided to be bad. We’ve got so much knowledge stored up in our heads. If I had a wine cellar I could totally pull a “Cask of Amontillado” on somebody! And I know some of you would be able to effectively execute a locked door murder and know how to not get caught.
Dangerous we are. Good thing we are too busy reading and can’t be bothered to be bad unless being bad means staying up too late with a book or calling out sick in order to spend the day reading.
Filed under: Books
We interrupt the regular bookish nonsense for a brief post on MS Awareness Week.
As you may know, my beloved Bookman was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2005. I’ve been posting about MS Awareness week since 2006. This year I have been hemming and hawing and almost hawed myself out of posting about it not because things have been bad, far from it, but because of fatigue.
Nine years with MS and Bookman is doing really well. He has no new symptoms and things go on in a not-getting-worse kind of way. There are good days and bad days, but having settled into a sort of normalcy of living with a chronic illness one gets used to it but also tired of it. Tired of thinking about it, tired of talking about it, tired of hearing about it, tired of cheerleading and fundraisers and awareness weeks. And certainly one gets tired of living with it.
And that’s why I finally decided to post for Awareness Week. Because while Bookman isn’t getting worse, he also is not getting better. There is still no cure. Scientists still don’t know what causes MS. There have been some interesting discoveries over the past year that might eventually lead to treatment therapies that could, if not cure the disease, at least repair some of the neurological damage and keep it from getting worse. The time it takes for these things to develop means it could be years or a decade or more and for people who have an unpredictable chronic disease that is a really long time. My being tired of all of it is nothing compared to how Bookman and millions of others who actually have MS feel.
Bookman has benefited from one development over the past year. Prior to spring of 2013 there were no oral MS medications and Bookman had to give himself a daily injection. Now there are not one, but two oral medications. Bookman started taking one of them in May and so far so good. No major side effects and since he hasn’t had any relapses we assume the medication is working as well as his injectable medication did but it will be awhile before we know for sure. It was a bit disconcerting when he first started the oral medication to hear is neurologist say, “well we’ll know in a few years whether or not it works.” We’ll know it is working if he doesn’t have a relapse and he has a couple MRIs that come back showing no new myelin damage. In the meantime my skinny husband is grateful he no longer needs my help to squeeze up some imaginary fat on the back of his arms for an injection. And we both happily watch the years of injection site scars slowly fade from his arms, hips, legs and stomach.
We remain grateful for health insurance and his good general health. But not a day goes by that we don’t both look at our framed broadside of Jane Kenyon’s poem and know that one day it might be otherwise.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Multiple Sclerosis
Rutger Kopland, Memories of the Unknown. Read it.
But you will want to know why.
Read it because the poems are so sharp and beautiful that they hurt. Read it because the pain feels good, even when it makes you cry. Read it because the sadness and longing takes you through to something new and different and wonderful.
An Empty Spot to Stay
Go now into the garden, dear, and lie
in an empty spot where the grass grows tall.
That’s what I have always wanted to be,
an empty spot for someone, to stay.
And you don’t want to miss lines like this:
My topography is too enigmatic
to describe, too evident
for words, I am because I am.
Or like this from a poem inspired by a painting by Mondriaan:
he died and saw everything, saw everything and he died.
I have never read any other poet who begins a serious poem:
When I was still a horse in a meadow
Nor have I read anyone who has made tears spring to my eyes so easily no matter how many times I read the poem:
this is happening here: a garden in the evening
and what you don’t hear and don’t see — the places
where we dug holes
and filled them up again, weeping
I tell this because I do not want to be alone
before I am.
It is a shame that only a fraction of Kopland’s poetry has been translated into English from Dutch. My friend Cath told me about this collection and I am ever so grateful to her for it. Many poems will be going into my personal poetry anthology. You can read more about Kopland at Poetry International. The article describes his poetry as evoking “a wistful, almost nostalgic atmosphere of a lost paradise,” but I didn’t find his poetry to be wistful or nostalgic nor did I get a sense of lost paradise. Loss, yes, loss of love, pets, people, but not paradise. I get the sense that paradise was never known to begin with and the longing and desire in so many of the poems is for something never experienced and perhaps impossible to experience.
Poetry International has a number of Kopland’s poems online that you can read. Be sure you don’t miss In the Morning, Time, Under the Apple Tree and What is Happiness.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Rutger Kopland
Happy March! Was February a really long month for you? It was for me. And March continues on just like February. It was -4F (-20C) while I waited for the bus this morning. We have now managed to gain the rank of ninth coldest winter on record in the Twin Cities. We have more snow than average and we have had 50 days so far where temperatures have fallen below zero (-18C). So in celebration of this lovely weather, here is some Minnesota poetry for you:
It’s winter in Minnesota
And gentle breezes blow
Seventy miles an hour
At thirty-five below.
Oh, how I love Minnesota
When the snow’s up to your butt
You take a breath of winter
And your nose gets frozen shut.
Yes, the weather here is wonderful
So I guess I’ll hang around
I could never leave Minnesota
I’m frozen to the ground.
At least with the weather so cold February was a good month for reading. I am almost done with David Copperfield. Will be done by the end of the week I suspect. Then my next fat book is A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin, the third book in the Game of Thrones series.
I am still reading Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to Ecological Crisis. I am close to being done though, just four more essays. It’s a really good and thought provoking book.
Old Goriot by Balzac is still on the go too. The book does not allow one to read it very quickly, which is fine especially since I am enjoying it. I am up to the part where Rastignac has just found out that Goriot is not spending all his money on keeping mistresses but from paying his daughters’ debts. The cruelty of everyone in the boardinghouse toward Goriot is astonishing, I feel so sorry for the poor man.
I did finish reading Memories of the Unknown by Rutger Kopland. It is a wonderful poetry collection I will write about tomorrow.
What’s ahead for March then aside from finishing those books I have already mentioned? I began reading Landscape with Rowers, a small poetry anthology/selection of Dutch poets put together by J.M. Coetzee.
Because of Grad I started reading The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. It’s a beautiful nature journal and artist’s notebook that helps me mentally escape winter for just a little while.
I also have from the library Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine, a multi-genre work I am excited about reading. And sometime during the month my turn will come up at the library for Wendy Lesser’s new book Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books. Really looking forward to it!
That should keep me busy in March. And with luck, the month will end much warmer than it has begun and perhaps actually start to feel like spring.
Filed under: Books
, In Progress
Andromache by Euripides is a jam-packed play that goes from Andromache under threat of murder to a fight between Peleus, Achilles’ father, and Menelaus, to Orestes stealing away Hermione, Neoptolemus’ wife, to Neoptolemus being murdered, to his son with Andromache being sent to Molossia where he will then continue the line of Troy and Achilles by producing a long and prosperous reign of kings. It’s really crazy just how much Euripides does in this play without it completely falling to pieces.
It’s been a number of years since the fall of Troy and Andromache, Hector’s wife, was awarded to Achilles’ son Neoptolemus. They have a young son together. The play opens with Andromache as a suppliant in the temple of Thetis. Hermione, the legitimate wife of Neoptolemus, is barren and insisting that Andromache has cast a spell on her so she cannot bear children. Hermione is the daughter of Menelaus and Helen. Neoptolemus is away at Delphi, though expected back at any moment. In his absence, Menelaus has shown up and nominally taken charge of the household. He plots with Hermione to kill Andromache and her son who Andromache had hidden but Menelaus has found him. Andromache doesn’t know this at first and she thinks she just has to hold out until Neoptolemus gets back. Just in case though, she has sent for Peleus, Achilles’ father and Neoptolemus’ grandfather.
In the first part of the play we have Hermione in her rich queenly robes verbally sparing with Andromache, former princess of Troy, now dressed in slave’s clothes. There is a back and forth over who has the right to speak and who doesn’t. Hermione, being the wife, establishes as quickly as she can her right to speak freely and then launches into accusations against Andromache. Besides causing Hermione to be barren, Andromache is, according to Hermione, an opportunistic whore for having shared a bed with the son of the man who killed Andromache’s husband and bearing him a son.
Andromache, though a slave, refuses to keep her mouth shut. She did not willingly go to bed with Neoptolemus, as a slave she had no choice. She goes on to tell Hermione that it is not drugs and spells that keep Hermione from bearing children, but a husband who hates her — it is Helen’s fault Achilles is dead so by association, the son of Achilles hates the daughter of Helen. By the end of the long argument, Andromache clearly has the upper hand. At this time Menelaus arrives with Andromache’s son and joins the argument, telling her that he will spare her son if she leaves the altar of Thetis and allows him to kill her, Andromache.
Andromache puts up a good argument for her life and her son’s, so good that Menelaus, clearly at a loss, has to be saved by the chorus:
You are a woman talking to a man, and so you have said too much. You have lost sight of womanly modesty.
This allows Menelaus to spit out
Woman, this is petty business and unworthy of my regal power.
Which becomes a really interesting thing in light of Mary Beard’s recent lecture in the the public voice of women.
Menelaus tricks Andromache into leaving the altar with his promise to spare her son which he immediately takes back, saying he will not kill her son but Hermione will. At which point Andromache tosses out a nasty curse on Sparta.
There is an interesting political and racial dynamic in the play. Andromache is from Troy and therefore from the east. Hermione and Menelaus are Spartan. Neoptolemus is Greek. The play was produced sometime near the start of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens. Andromache’s curse on Sparta would have been quite a rousing moment for the Athenians watching the play.
Peleus finally shows up and he and Menelaus have a good argument in which Peleus bests Menelaus and sends him packing back to Sparta with a really lame excuse in order to save face. Then the play gets weird. Hermione unprotected by her father is frantic because she is sure that when Neoptolemus arrives he will kill her for having plotted to kill Andromache and his only son. So Orestes shows up. Yup, that Orestes, son of Agamemnon, chased by the Furies for killing his mother in revenge for her killing his father. He is currently having trouble with the Furies but his troubles aren’t so bad that he can’t run off with Hermione. Apparently Hermione had originally been promised in marriage to Orestes. But because of Troy and Achilles’ great deeds Hermione was given to Neoptolemus instead.
Now in a reenactment of Paris stealing Helen while Menelaus is away, Orestes steals Hermione while Neoptolemus is away. But Orestes is going to get away with it because he also went to the trouble of getting Neoptolemus killed at Delphi by the people there who thought he was planning on sacking the temple thanks to slanders by Orestes. Off they go and finally, after almost an entire play of everyone waiting for Neoptolemus to get home, he arrives, only he is dead and shows up being carried on a bier. Peleus is bereft now that his son and grandson are both dead. Thetis, who was once married to Peleus and is mother of Achilles, swoops in and makes it all right.
What is this play of domestic dispute about? The repercussions of war played out on a smaller scale to be sure. But also household rights, who can speak and how, who has power and who doesn’t. And there is warning for the men of Athens watching the play: don’t keep your wife and your mistress under the same roof. There are several references to this in the play as well as many more comments about how women like to plot against each other. Sigh.
Hecuba and Trojan Women were such powerful plays with strong women that Andromache, in spite of some really good speeches, is a bit of a let down. Though I admit Orestes stealing Hermione is a nice Days of Our Lives touch. Even though Euripides manages to keep the plot more or less in line, the play just doesn’t come together with a unified emotional force..
I think I’ll take a break from Euripides for a month or two. Then maybe I’ll come back with Medea. Or perhaps I should save that one for last?
Filed under: Ancient Greece
I’m a little over 80% of the way through David Copperfield. I give you a percentage because I am reading it on my Kindle and I have no idea what this looks like in terms of the print book. I am enjoying the book very much but I have come to a place where I feel guilty.
You see earlier in the book David met and fell in love with Dora. Dora is an affectionate airhead and so completely the wrong woman for David. But youth and love and youth in love don’t always make the best choices. And so David marries her in spite me repeatedly telling him not to. It is so frustrating when characters do not obey one’s wishes! And of course the marriage is a disaster, though David doesn’t realize it at first while in the clutches of newlywed bliss. But as time goes on and Dora refuses to act anything other than a child, he regrets his choice. He loves her still, but he wishes he had someone with sense with whom he could actually talk about things.
While David continues to love Dora in spite of all, she is nails on a chalkboard to me and I just want to slap her. Hard. I, of course, know exactly who David should marry. And so I have been reading and hoping that maybe something will happen to Dora. I thought she could die in childbirth and that would be just fine.
Then we are told she has a baby, but the baby was sickly and dies very soon after birth. Dora, however, never quite recovers and she begins a slow decline. I almost cheered. Dora’s going to die and David can marry the right person, hooray! And then I felt really, really guilty. As Dora goes downhill she makes me feel worse and worse for wishing her dead. For in her decline she remains cheerful, sunny, and affectionate which shows she has some strength of character in there after all. In my wish for her demise I am no better than the wicked Uriah Heep!
If Dora’s death turns out to be an affecting scene that brings tears to my eyes I am not sure if that will mean I can be forgiven for wishing her ill or that I am being punished for it by being made to cry in public (this being my commute book I am always in public while reading it). Perhaps I should start carrying a handkerchief I can throw over my face like they do in the book. No one will know what I am doing under that handkerchief! I might even frighten enough people that the transit police will show up to talk to me. Wouldn’t that be exciting? They’d haul me off for a psych eval if I tell them I am upset over my book. Would serve me right I guess for wishing Dora dead.
Filed under: Books
, Charles Dickens
, In Progress
Rule number fourteen in Mikics’ book Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is “find another book.” This is really easy when you are reading a good nonfiction book because there is usually a bibliography or notes to mine for further pursuit. Sadly, Mikics provided neither in his book. He does, however, mention a few books and articles in the text and a few more in his acknowledgements.
Here are the books I added to my TBR lists:
- Buried in Books by Julie Rugg. A “reader’s anthology,” it gathers together quotes and excerpts and what not about reading, book buying, borrowing, recommending, and all the other crazy and not so so crazy things bookish folk do.
- In Defense of Reading: A Reader’s Approach to Literary Criticism by Reuben A. Brower. Published in 1962, my understanding about this book is that it is more about close reading than about how we tend to think of literary criticism these days. But really, when you think about it, literary critics, the good ones at any rate, demonstrate close reading for us. To be a good literary critic, one must also be a good reader.
- Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology by Helen Vendler. Vendler has a reputation as a top notch poetry critic. I’ve only ever read an essay or two by her but one of these days I am determined to read one or more of her many books. Perhaps this one might be the first?
There are plenty of other books Mikics mentions, of course, there are the poets and novelists and essayists and dramatists and short story writers he discusses as well. Not a gold mine, but definitely potentially fruitful if you are looking for paths to go down.
A couple essays he mentions are available on the internet and I wanted to bring them up here. The first is by Charles Lamb, Readers Against the Grain.
Lamb is such a hoot; the satire and the snark flow fluently from his pen. In this case, the readers against the grain are not who you would expect. Lamb complains of all the books and magazines being published and how, in order to be hip you have to read the latest and greatest that everyone is talking about. And that’s the problem. Everyone is talking about the same books and the people who are reading them really shouldn’t be because they aren’t really readers at all, thus “readers against the grain.” The only reason they are reading is to be able to say that they have read. And when these readers have read, they turn to the magazines to find out what they should think about the book instead of coming to their own opinion of it. Lamb laments:
Must we magazine it and review at this sickening rate for ever? Shall we never again read to be amused? but to judge to criticize to talk about it and about it? Farewell, old honest delight taken in books not quite contemporary, before this plague-token of modern endless novelties broke out upon us — farewell to reading for its own sake!
Even today, who is completely immune from book buzz? Who among us has never taken up a new book because everyone was talking about it? Lamb almost makes me feel a little guilty!
The other essay is from 2007. Time for Reading by Lindsay Waters is addressed mainly to academics but is still worth a read for anyone interested in the subject of slow reading.
Waters wants to start a movement and here she is attempting to engage teachers of reading and literature to join her. In order to rescue reading we must begin with the way reading is taught. It’s been a long time since grade school and I already knew how to read when I began kindergarten, but I do recall the teacher always telling us to “sound it out” when we ran up against words we didn’t know. Which means phonics was the likely method used back then. But from what Waters says, phonics is no more:
What happens when we have children speed up learning to read, skipping phonics and diagramming sentences? I believe it’s hard to read Milton if you have not learned to take pleasure in baroque sentence structures.
I am sure there are plenty of kids who learned how to read just fine without phonics and I don’t know how most are taught these days. As for sentence diagramming leading to pleasure in Milton, she is totally wrong on that front. I never learned to diagram a sentence until my junior year of college when I had to take a required semester of grammar. I can attest that I enjoyed Milton before that class and learning how to diagram a sentence contributed zero pleasure to my reading. I hated sentence diagramming so much I forgot it as soon as I could when the class was done and to this day, if you ask me to do it, I cannot. I am confident that sentence diagramming is not a requirement for being a good reader.
So, anyway, the way reading is taught these days is bad according to Waters.
Next she takes a few punches at university professors, especially Franco Moretti. Moretti has been doing what you might call quantitative analysis of texts, something that only became possible when a large number of books had been digitized. He is doing some interesting work, I think, but Waters willfully misunderstands what he is about. She accuses Moretti of promoting the study of literature that doesn’t require one to actually read a book.
Next she turns on professors who think students, in order to be good readers, need to practice “fluency,” which translates to reading fast. I’ve never heard of this before, but then college was a long time ago. Still, I know all about having to read fast. As an English major who always took a full course load every semester, I typically had three to four English classes and two or three general education classes to juggle. I was always speeding my way through something whether it was my biology textbook or a Shakespeare play, there was never time enough to read slowly. It is the unfortunate outcome of needing to complete one’s education in a timely fashion so one can get a proper, decent paying job and stop having to ask her parents for money.
I would have loved to read the assigned texts for all my classes slowly and carefully, I would have learned so much more. But that’s one of the benefits of enjoying reading to begin with because all those books I rushed through at university, I can go back to them and reread them with care any time I want.
Towards the end of her essay Waters does make some good points:
slowing down can produce a deeply profound quiet that can overwhelm your soul, and in that quiet you can lose yourself in thought for an immeasurable moment of time.
Isn’t that a lovely description?
Waters mentions cognitive science studies that reveal that while your eyes are sliding across he page and you are seeing the words there is a slight delay before your brain becomes aware of what it means. The brain needs time and slow reading provides that time. She asks,
What time does discovery take?
Ultimately, Waters says,
The role of literature is to mess with time, to establish its own time, its own rhythm. A new agenda for literary studies should open up the time of reading, just as it opens up how the writer establishes his or her rhythm. Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words.
Slow down. Take time to smell the roses. Wallow. Bask. Enjoy.
Filed under: Books
Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics was like a sandwich, the kind that you want to throw out the bread and just eat the filling. The top piece of bread in this sandwich consists of two chapters; one on the horrors of the digital age and the other on the glories of slow reading and why one would want to do it.
You will already be familiar with the horrors — short attention span, blah blah blah. To Mikics’ credit though (unlike anything I have come across from Nicholas Carr) he recognizes that
Each of us has the choice to read as he or she wants to; the new technology may stand in the way, but we still have the ability to take control of our reading experience.
In the companion chapter Mikics provides us with a history of slow reading, determining that the idea has been around since at least 200 CE when rabbis and commentators argued over the Bible and its stories. Its current incarnation, however, came about sixty years ago in a Harvard class taught by Reuben Brower on close reading.
Mikics then moves to the sandwich filling. His rules that are not rules but guidelines, techniques. He says it might seem weird to think that reading well requires any kind of technique but if you want to get the most out of a book, technique is required, just like writers need technique to produce good writing. So here are Mikics’ fourteen “rules.”
- Be Patient. To be a good reader, one must cultivate patience. This means not allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by the book’s difficulties, allowing yourself time to be confused and time to overcome that confusion. It also means patiently looking at the details of a book and rereading.
- Ask the Right Questions. Think of yourself as a detective looking for clues, Mikics suggests. A good detective will figure out which questions will move the investigation forward and which will go nowhere. A good question might be, how does the title comment on the work it introduces?
- Identify the Voice. Who is speaking and what does that voice sound like? Is it the narrator or a character or the author in disguise? There might be more than one voice in a work, figuring out who they are and how they play off each other is important.
- Get a Sense of Style. Style is related to voice but style is the author’s unique signature, his way of thinking and being, and where he might confess important secrets.
- Notice Beginnings and Endings. When looked at together one can learn much about the book and might even find the book’s whole argument there, but you won’t know it until you have read both the beginning and the ending.
- Identify Signposts. These are key words, images, sentences, passages. Mikics encourages us think of reading as a kind of travel and signposts help us map out the territory.
- Use the Dictionary. Preferably the OED or the American Heritage. Don’t use the dictionary just for words you don’t know the meaning of, use it to discover etymology and word nuances that throw new light onto what is going on in your reading.
- Track Key Words. Key words in addition to sometimes being signposts, will help you trace the argument of the book.
- Find the Author’s Basic Thought. This is the fundamental question guiding the author in the text, what the book is really “about” deep down.
- Be Suspicious. Be suspicious of characters in the book. Don’t jump to conclusions about who you like and who you don’t, who is good and who is bad, you could be cheating yourself out of discovering something important because you already decided Mr. Dick was a weak minded crazy man.
- Find the Parts. In other words, figure out the structure of what you are reading and how it works and why.
- Write it Down. Take notes! You can do it in the margins of the book or in a notebook. Jot down your impressions, questions, signposts, key words, etc.
- Explore Different Paths. Use this to consider why the author went one direction instead of another. What if the book had ended differently? What if this character and that character never met?
- Find Another Book. Books talk to one another and you might find that a history of Europe is answered by a Kafka novel.
There are the “rules.” Pretty good aren’t they? I should note that Mikics discusses each one in detail, their enumeration takes up the entire middle of the book. And even more helpfully he shows us how to use each rule to analyze a text. It is really well done.
Once we have eaten up the delicious sandwich filling, we are left with another sad piece of bread. This bread is meant to be sturdy and show us how to bring together all the rules in reading different genres: short stories, novels, poetry, drama, essays. The chapter on short stories is excellent. Mikics regularly points out what rules to use and why and how it all works. But then as the chapters progress he forgets himself and goes into lecture mode and manages to mention a rule and how to apply it only now and then. In the chapter on poetry he totally blows it and spends several pages talking about scansion without bothering to explain why anyone should know anything about feet and metre. Very disappointing. I got so frustrated with Mikics losing his way after that I must admit I went from slow and careful reading to skimming.
Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is a good book though. I very much enjoyed it. For all of the work slow reading entails, Mikics forever insists that first and foremost reading should be fun. But he also insists that slow reading is part of what can make reading so very pleasurable.
Curiously, he addresses the book to people who don’t read much; the person who reads a book or two a year but perhaps wants to improve her reading abilities as well as read more. This is fine, but I can’t imagine someone who only reads a book a year being the one to pick up Slow Reading. The people most likely to pick up this book are already avid readers like you and me. But that’s fine because I think even avid readers enjoy being reminded about how to read well.
Filed under: Books
While meteorological spring is just a week away (March 1st), actual, real honest to goodness spring remains a distant dream. Minneapolis put parking restrictions in place today allowing parking only on the odd sides of streets. We have so much snow and the streets have gotten so narrow because of it (plowing to the curb doesn’t actually make it to the curb), that buses and fire trucks and ambulances can’t get down the streets with two-way traffic. And there is no thaw in sight. The long term forecast is colder than normal for the next two weeks with every night this week dipping back below zero (-18C) and highs during the day breaking 10F (-12C) only once or twice if we are lucky.
At least I have work to go to during the week and books at night and weekends. My poor retired next door neighbor who loves to spend his time grooming his perfect lawn or sitting on his patio in the sun or spending time at his lake cabin is clearly going stir crazy. He spent several hours outside yesterday going up and down the street shoveling out snow for sidewalk to street access in front of everyone’s houses and then walking down to the corner and clearing all the snow away from the fire hydrant. Bless his heart, this saved all of us the definitely not fun task of chipping the ice and snow out of the street access paths that was packed up from the plow after our latest snowstorm. I am glad his cabin fever translates to acts of kindness. Bookman gave him some homemade chocolate chip cookies earlier last week after we had snow. Now we are planning on gifting him with some hand pies come pi(e) day March 14th.
All in my head?
With all the snow outside there is no gardening happening yet other than in my head and I can tell you it is a veritable jungle in there at the moment. Lush green, moderately warm, moderately humid, bees, birds, flowers, flowers, flowers, huge veggies, and me sitting in a chair in the midst of it all with a big ol’ grin on my face. Ahh. It’s really nice in there and such a shame I can’t invite you in a for a visit or snap a photo so I can at least show you. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
But for those of you in warmer areas where you might be able to plant veggies now or very soon, I’ve got something for you! How many of you think you can only grow vegetables in full sun? How many have shady yards and think you are just out of luck and can never grow your own veggies? Think again my friends! I discovered last fall that you can grow lettuce in dappled sun which keeps it from bolting so fast when the heat of summer comes. Now, I have found two different articles that discuss just how much sunlight various vegetables and herbs need to grow. Definitely if you want tomatoes and peppers full sun 6-8 hours is required. But lettuce, kale, spinach, cabbage, only need two hours of direct sun or a day of dappled sun. Beets, carrots, turnips, onions, etc can tolerate light shade with only 4-6 hours of sunlight. Pretty exciting, isn’t it? At least I think it is!
I’ve been hearing in the news lately about how monarch butterflies are in trouble. Common milkweed, a major food source, is not so common anymore. It used to be found everywhere in meadows, on the edges of farm fields and roadsides. But human development is destroying the “empty” fields and farming practices and the use of pesticides are killing the plants near farms and roadsides. Homeowners are being encouraged to plant milkweed in their gardens. If you do this though, do not buy your plants from big box stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s. A recent study revealed that plants from these stores, including ones sold as “bee friendly” contain pesticides that poison bees. My guess is the pesticides on these plants would kill butterflies too.
The news about milkweed only brings closer to home the importance of backyard biodiversity. Plants matter and what you plant matters even more. Think about wear the species of plant you are going to plant comes from and if it is not native to your country, consider planting something else. “Alien” ornamentals support 29 times fewer animals than native ornamentals do.
Earlier this year I had a bit of despair over my little garden not being enough to make a difference. All by itself it doesn’t do enough but it does make a difference. I have a feeling I am not the only one in the Twin Cities metro area who will be making sure she has a nice patch of milkweed in her garden. All of us together will make a difference. We all have it in our power to be part of the solution to species extinction and climate change.
Goodness, where did that soap box come from? I’ll get down now and wind up with an update on my red wiggler worms. What happy worms they are! They got their last weekly feeding yesterday and I disturbed quite a few of them when I was burying the last bit of food in the bin for them. The bin still smells great and I even had tiny little mushrooms growing on the newspaper for about two weeks, surely a good sign since mushrooms help make good compost too. The wigglers will get no new food for fours weeks so they concentrate on what’s already in the bin. Then will come the challenge of convincing them to move to new bedding. We’ll see how I am at worm wrangling.
Oh, and probably next weekend Bookman and I are going to try and ferment our own sauerkraut. Anyone out there ever done this before and have any tips? The cabbage this time will come from the grocery store, but if we have success, come fall, the cabbage will come from our own garden.
Filed under: gardening
I am so weary of this winter and you are probably weary of me complaining about it. Sorry. We are in the midst of a major winter storm and will have 12-15 inches (30-38 cm) of fresh snow by noon tomorrow. This on top of the snow that has been piling up all winter. It is getting really hard to shovel the sidewalk when the piles of snow I have to shovel the sidewalk snow onto are nearly chest high. Granted, I am short, but I am not that short! At least I don’t have to fling the snow over my head, yet.
Yesterday I got home and sat down to blog and realized I hadn’t thought of anything to blog about. I stared at my computer screen for about ten minutes and no ideas came to mind so I gave up. I would have given up today too if I hadn’t come across an interesting article.
Booklist has a wonderful article with short short essays by writers who write their novels longhand and why. You all have probably figured out by now I have a fondness for writing by hand so you won’t be surprised over how much I loved this article.
It is interesting that author after author remarks how they like writing by hand because it forces them to slow down, to consider their words more carefully. Several also comment how writing longhand in a notebook removes all the distractions of writing on a computer. There is no temptation to check email, Twitter, news headlines. One writer mentions the “quietness of paper” and how intimate it is to write a novel in a notebook.
A number of writers note how sensual writing by hand is. Most of them mention their favorite kind of notebook and pens and pencils. A few talk a little about their methods like draft on verso, revisions and corrections on recto.
I find writers writing longhand and talking about it a fascinating topic. Thirty years ago most writers wrote by hand or on a typewriter and the few who wrote on a computer were unusual. These days it is assumed everyone writes on a computer and those who don’t are the odd ones. How times change. At least one writer (Joe Hill) thinks that when he writes by hand he produces a different piece of fiction than when he writes on a computer — shorter stories that move faster and with not as much ornament. I wonder if any of the other writers feel that way? I’d be really interested to hear more about that.
Filed under: Books
Oh, how I loved MaddAddam, the conclusion to Margaret Atwood’s series of books that began with Oryx and Crake. It had been awhile since I read the other two and I was a little worried my memory would be fuzzy. It was fuzzy on the details, which is a shame because the details are so very good. But for the big picture, I did okay especially since there is a lovely synopsis of the first two books helpfully provided at the start of MaddAddam
If you have read the first two books you will know that they both end at the same place. The story in Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood take place during the same time period but are just told from two different points of view, the insider view of Jimmy and the outsider view of Toby and God’s Gardeners. MaddAddam starts right where the first two end. Our narrator, once again is Toby, a member of the God’s Gardener group, late thirties to early forties, and one resilient woman. I love Toby. I often like characters in books, though it is never a requirement, however, I rarely love them or identify with them. But Toby, sometimes I thought, if things were different, I could totally be her. I’d want to be her. Or her best friend. We could pull weeds in the garden together and talk to the bees. We’d get on really well.
Here is an easy, non-spoiler way to tell you what the book is about:
There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.
All of these things are woven seamlessly throughout the book and you can see it all unfolding, and it is a wonderful and amazing thing. I didn’t notice them right away, but when it started to dawn on me what was going on it greatly increased my pleasure.
And then there is Atwood’s humor. I laughed out loud so many times, especially once the helpful Fuck was introduced. When you call out “Oh Fuck!” he rushes immediately to your aid. Toby had to make up a story about Fuck for the Crakers, the bioengineered and completely innocent humans created to populate the earth after a plague designed to kill the rest of the humans was unleashed on the world. Believe me, it’s a hoot. In fact, many of the interactions between the human humans and the Crakers are funny.
Given the end of the world as we know it scenario the book plays out you’d think it might be depressing. While there are deadly serious parts of the story, the book ends on a hopeful note. No, humans and the world will never be the same again, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
One of the scary things about the series of books though is that Atwood based everything in them on real technology and real-world events. She may have taken some of it beyond what is currently possible, but she does it in a logical way so the reader isn’t left thinking, “No way! That’s impossible!” You can see the seeds of much of it in her Flipboard MaddAddam’s World.
I am sad the series is done, I enjoyed it so much. I plan to read it all again sometime, one after the other, instead of having to wait a few years in between. Meanwhile, I look forward to finding out what’s up her sleeve for her next book.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Margaret Atwood
The Wigglers have been in their new home for a little over a week and I can report that they have settled in nicely. Bookman puts food scraps in an old margarine container — coffee grounds, potato peels, banana peels, apple bits, carrot bits, broccoli bits, you get the picture — puts a lid on the container and every three or so days I open the wiggler bin and bury the scraps. When I move the bedding aside to put the scraps under it I generally disturb a few wigglers which is the only way I know they are alive. Even Houdini must be happy since he has not tried to make a second escape.
I got a couple more seed catalogs in the mail during the week. One of them was page after page of tomatoes. I had no idea there were so many varieties. It was rather overwhelming. I finally couldn’t take it anymore and tossed it in the recycling bin. We buy tomato plants in the spring, usually heirloom varieties, because it is so much easier. In Minnesota the growing season is not long enough and if I were to start my own tomato plants from seed I would have to do it in the middle of March. I have done it before, many years ago when heirloom varieties were hard to come by, but that has changed, thank goodness. It was during one of those years that I discovered I am very allergic to tomato plant sap. After handling several plants without gloves, potting them up, my hands and arms broke out in hives so badly I had to take steroids for a week and was out sick from work for a couple of days. So now I only handle tomato plants with gloves on, or better yet, let Bookman take care of it.
The other catalog was marvelous. It had all kinds of the usual garden veggies in it but it also had four or five pages of dried beans. I got so excited, I can grow my own garbanzo beans! But really, we use so many of them it isn’t practical. Nor would it be practical to do pinto beans or kidney or white or navy beans or any bean that is easily bought at the market. It’s all those other beans I’ve never heard of before that I was drooling over — painted pony, appaloosa, calypso, Jacob’s cattle, ying and yang — don’t those sound fantastic? I figure I’ll try two, maybe three varieties. I have a few months to mull over which ones those will be.
In thinking about next year’s vegetable garden and what we want the garden to be as a whole, Bookman and I decided that we will make two or three large raised beds for the annual veggies and the rest of the garden will be turned over to mostly perennial edibles and other plants. The reason we decided on this is because the annual veggie beds get dug in so often, disturbing the soil ecosystem, that it is best to keep them contained in a more controlled area instead of spread out all over the garden. In many of the permaculture books I’ve been looking at all the home garden plans have a designated annual vegetable area. So we are going to do it too. The beds will be in a completely different area of the garden than where we have been growing veggies. The raised beds will be closer to the compost pile and the rain barrel, making less work in their upkeep in the long run. We are going to do two, possibly three big beds. Maybe not all next year when we will do at least one, but that is the eventual goal. I am very excited about this as well as the polyculture planting scheme we will be using. But more on that in the spring!
I forgot to mention last week we had an animal visitor to our house. One evening when Bookman was working the closing shift I was curled up reading. I heard a noise in the kitchen and thought the cats were batting around a toy and had run into the dinner table leg or something. But then the noise came again and it sounded like a bucket being tipped over. I got up expecting to see that the cats had gotten into something only to find them both glued to the sliding glass door onto the deck. I looked out the window with them and there, right on the other side of the glass, was a possum! Bookman had left the recycling bucket out on the deck with paper and empty cat food cans in it. The possum must have been out scavenging and, even though the cat food cans are rinsed out, must have smelled them in the bucket. It had knocked the bucket over against the window so it couldn’t get into it and was trying to figure out how to turn it around. I turned on the outdoor light thinking it would scare the possum away but it didn’t even flinch. So the cats and I stood there watching the critter who finally gave up and ambled off into the darkness.
I returned to my book and a few minutes later Bookman arrived home. I heard him in the front yard yelling, “get out of here cat!” And then a sound of surprise. When Bookman came through the door a few seconds later I asked him if he met our possum visitor. Yup. He had seen it in the shadows and thought it was a cat but realized when it didn’t scamper off that it was no cat but a possum. We’ve seen raccoons but not possums around the neighborhood. I don’t know where our possum visitor lives or how far they range in search of dinner, but it has not returned as far as we know. Still, it was an exciting visit!
Filed under: gardening
It is just too cold to pull off a decent post this evening. It’s only 5F (-15C) with a brisk wind blowing making it feel even colder. My bus was late on my way home and I had to wait for close to half an hour. Brrr!
I thought I’d tell you about a fun book I just picked up at the library, Knitting for Nerds by Toni Carr. I don’t know if I have ever mentioned before that I knit. I don’t knit a lot, not as much as I used to because of the tendonitis in my wrist, but it is something I still very much enjoy when I can.
Knitting for Nerds is a hoot. It has thirty projects in it inspired by science fiction, fantasy and comics. There is a Doctor Who scarf, hobbit feet slippers, Star Trek Next Generation pullover, a Firefly inspired scarf, socks, and sweater coat, and space princess hats including Princess Leia’s iconic buns. I won’t be making the bun hat, but I do like the Firefly inspired coat and I am nerdy enough to make the Star Trek sweater too. However, given the rate at which I knit these days, it will be a very long time before either of these will be completed. But when they are I will be the coolest seventy-something old lady around!
Filed under: Books
Where did December come from? What happened to May? July? September? Did I do a Rip Van Winkle? The year can’t be almost done already!
So far setting monthly reading priorities has gone pretty well. I thought when I sat down to write this that November had gone terribly but looking back there is only one book I didn’t read, The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart. My excuse? A library book I had on hold came my way. That’s valid, right?
I am usually up to date with writing about books I have finished but there are two books from November I haven’t written about yet: Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse and MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood. The Atwood was fantastic. The Hesse, I am still trying to puzzle it out. I think I should have read it while under the influence of mind-altering drugs and it would have made more sense. Write ups about each of the books are forthcoming.
Books for December. I am having trouble putting together my priorities. I have the week of Christmas and the week of New Year’s off from work, that’s two full weeks, and I am inclined to cram it full with books. But I know I have a tendency to cram it too full so I back off and then worry that I haven’t planned enough. What the heck. Let’s cram!
So while others binge on food this month, I’ll binge on books. Here’s the meal plan:
- Bicycles: Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni. She will be giving a reading at the public library on December 12th and I am planning to go. While I know who she is a search through my reading history revealed I have never read her. I began the book the other day and what a delight! I look forward to hearing her speak.
- Burning the Midnight Oil edited by Phil Cousineau. The publisher offered this to me and I couldn’t refuse. It’s a little anthology of prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction about the night. The book is being published on the winter solstice. It is one of those perfect dipping books that has so far been very enjoyable.
- Vital Signs, this is a book of essays on psychological responses to ecological crisis. I am not planning on rushing my way through this and finishing by the end of the month. I am taking my time and plan on finishing in January so this one is a more long-term book.
- Singing School by Robert Pinsky. This is a book about poetry. I am next up in the hold queue at the library and it looks like my turn will come around the 17th.
- To the Letter by Simon Garfield is another book I am waiting for at the library. The library just purchased it and as soon as they have it cataloged a copy will be mine.
- The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke. This is the book that came in from the library that kept me from reading The Bridge of Beyond last month. It is a chunkster but so far so good. It is a science fiction novel that involves time travel and climate change. Bookman decided to read it too. One book, two readers. Watch us juggle and negotiate!
- Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett. I started this on my Kindle a week or so ago and am enjoying it very much. A nice antidote to the Hesse.
- The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore. Another book of comedy, this time Christmas comedy. Bookman read it last year and laughed all the way through and then foisted it on me. Seems like a good time to read it.
And if I manage all of that, there will also be The Bridge of Beyond and Trojan Women to dive into. Also on the back burner is Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot and a biography about him by Peter Ackroyd.
It’s a good thing reading binges are calorie-free!
Filed under: Books
, In Progress
After reading a slim book of essays by Edward Thomas earlier this year I decided to try his poetry. Thomas, born in London in 1878, was, by the time he began writing poetry, an established writer of prose. It was only after Robert Frost became his neighbor that Thomas tried his hand at poetry in 1914.
Thomas was a great walker of the countryside and his prose about his rambles is beautiful and lyrical so it doesn’t seem like it would have taken a great leap for him to write poetry. And while his poems have a Frosty (Frostian?) feel to them, Thomas is also distinctly his own man. Sadly WWI broke out, Thomas joined up and was killed on the first day of the battle of Arras in 1917. Nonetheless, during his short time as a poet, he managed to produce 140 poems. Pretty amazing when you think about how productive that is. Makes me wonder what he would have been like should he have survived the war. Would he have continued as prolific? Or maybe he had a premonition that his time was short and he needed to write as many poems as he could. Whatever the case might be, I am glad for Frost’s encouragement of him and I am delighted by his 140 poems.
They tend to be on nature or humans in relation to nature, and while his voice is generally light and the verse sparkles along, an underlying feeling of darkness or death creeps in to remind us the birds might be singing and the woods bright and green but it is not always so. Take, for example, the last stanza of the poem “Old Man.” Old Man, also called Lad’s Love is a green herb. In the preceding stanzas he talks about his love of the plant and he imagines his child loving it too, and then:
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember:
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s Love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
Along with whole poems that are wonderful, he has many standout lines too that just grabbed me and made me pause to think about them and read them again and again. Lines like, “When Gods were young/ This wind was old.” And:
And she has slept, trying to translate
The word the cuckoo cries to his mate
Over and over.
And yet I am still half in love with pain,
With what is imperfect, with both tears and mirth,
With things that have an end, with life and earth,
And this moon that leaves me dark within the door.
Once the war starts Thomas begins to shift his focus away from nature a little bit. I take that back, shifting away is not accurate, broadening his view is more like it. He writes a few love poems, missing his wife and family perhaps. And of course the war enters in to some of the poems too. Even though he only wrote a handful of poems about war he is still better known as a war poet than a nature poet. There are some fine ones that made my heart sink with their utter sadness. But I don’t want to leave this on a sad note because Thomas is not a sad poet. So here is one of his love poems, “Some Eyes Condemn”
Some eyes condemn the earth they gaze upon:
Some wait patiently until they know far more
Than earth can tell them: some laugh at the whole
As folly of another’s making: one
I knew that laughed because he saw, from core
To rind, not one thing worth the laugh his soul
Had ready at waking: some eyes have begun
With laughing; some stand startled at the door.
Others too, I have seen rest, question, roll,
Dance, shoot. And many I have loved watching. Some
I could not take my eyes from till they turned
And loving died. I had not found my goal.
But thinking of your eyes, dear, I become
Dumb: for they flamed, and it was me they burned.
Isn’t that wonderful? I take that last line as a positive thing, burning with desire and love, but it could be read differently. It’s a glass half empty, glass half full line, isn’t it?
You can read more details about Thomas on his page at the Academy of American Poets where there are also four of his poems to enjoy as well.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Edward Thomas
There was a review recently on the Publisher’s Weekly blog on a couple of new collections of letters. I love reading collections of letters, there is something thrilling about snooping through other people’s mail. While I am not so very interested in the collections reviewed, the reviewer makes some interesting comments about letters as their very own genre:
Private letters as a literary genre are perhaps closest to essay, that which is literally ‘to try.’ They try to communicate; they’re a genre for pleasure and leisure; meandering is tolerated, even welcome. Even Amazon ranks the sales of letter collections under a category ‘Letters & Correspondence,’ a subset of ‘Essays & Correspondence.’ Unlike essays, most letters are not written for publication. This is especially true if we extend the definition of letter to those we ‘pen’ to friends and family via email. Yet the letter is a genre whose final public or private fate depends on the significance, judged by others, of the author and recipient.
I like the idea of letters as being a literary genre. Perhaps letter writing is the most democratic of all genres, something anyone can do and is guaranteed at least one reader. But while letters can certainly be essayistic, I wouldn’t call them a subset of the personal essay. A letter is its very own thing, encompassing many genres really if you want to get right down to it. Essay, memoir, fiction, creative nonfiction, diary even, they can all be there in letters.
I do love writing letters and reading them too. That might explain why I am excited about a new book by Simon Garfield, To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. I disagree that letter writing is a lost art, there are still a good many people who do it and do it regularly. Nonetheless, Garfield’s book sounds like great fun, filled with anecdotes, letters and historical interest. The review of the book indicates Garfield takes a bit of an alarmist stance on the demise of the letter but it doesn’t sound so very off-putting that it detracts from the pleasure of the book as a whole. Which I hope is really the case because I requested a copy from the library. They are on order, I am number eight in line and the library system is buying 13 copies so as soon as they are received and cataloged, one will be making its way to me. I think the book will make for pleasant reading in what is already shaping up to be a very cold and snowy month.
Filed under: Books
The item that I had to pre-order last weekend was ready for pick up by Wednesday. Bookman had the day off from work, and, what a trouper, went and picked it up for me from the farm store so I wouldn’t have to go out and get it on Friday or Saturday which would involve me having to drive him to work so I could have the car and deal with sale shopping traffic. What is the mystery item?
A red bin filled with peat moss and some other materials and…worms. Red wigglers to be exact, also known as eisenia fetida. The worms do not go into the garden, the worms live indoors, in the snazzy red bin in a corner of the kitchen.
Bookman did not want worms. He is a bit squeamish about them. When I was setting up the bin and stuck my hands in to mix
them up he was a bit, um, bothered by it and didn’t want me to do it. I am on happy terms with worms, I loved playing with them when I was a kid. Worms and “roly-poly” bugs (also know as sow bugs
). They are cool bugs. And moths and ladybugs. And snails. Oh and I loved tormenting the big black “stink” bugs when we went camping in the desert. And grasshoppers were pretty fun too. And once there was a praying mantis — super cool. So I guess I like to play with bugs. But worms aren’t bugs, not technically, though they fall into the whole small wiggly/slimy/crawly creature category easier to just call bugs.
Bookman was not keen on having worms living in a corner of his kitchen. I teased him and said did he think they were going to get out and invade the cupboards and get everywhere like ants or something? Other than the blurry photo he took of a few of them in my hand he would never see them again.
The next morning when we got up and Bookman went into the kitchen to get coffee and breakfast going he calls me in, “Look,” he says in an accusing tone while pointing to the wiggler bin. Stretched about four inches across the top inside of the bin lid was a worm. I started laughing. Bookman demanded I get it off the lid and put it back in the bedding. We dubbed the worm Houdini and have been making jokes about it ever since.
Bookman won’t feed the worms, calls them mine, and casts worried glances at the bin now and then, but I have caught him lifting up the lid to look inside and putting his ear down close to the bin to listen. Except for Houdini’s escape attempt, they are decidedly uninteresting. They don’t like light so live below the surface of the materials in the bin and they make no noise. Waldo and Dickens, however, are fascinated by the whole thing. They check out the bin now and then and every time I add something to it they are both there supervising the proceedings.
The bin I got is a starter kit and was supposed to come with step-by-step instructions on the care and feeding of the worms. Obviously someone does not know what step-by-step instructions look like because a few stapled sheets of paper listing the materials in the bin, ideal temperature, and what is allowable food does not equal instructions to me. I turned to the internet and found much better information there.
I learned that what I am doing is indoor composting just like in my bin outside but the red wigglers speed up the process. They do not eat the food scraps I put in the bin. The worms eat the things that breakdown the food scraps. Just like outdoor composting where you want to be conscious of the nitrogen/carbon ratio, the same holds true for indoors.
The worms came with peat moss bedding which I learned is great for moisture retention but has no nutrition for the worms. Worms like shredded cardboard and newsprint. So I shredded up the black and white pages from my neighborhood newspaper, got them wet, squeezed them out, then spread them across the top layer in the bin. The newspaper is good carbon and will offset all the nitrogen from the food scraps. There are about 500 wigglers in the bin and I can feed them up to a pound of food scraps a week. So far I’ve given them some potato peels and coffee grounds along with the unbleached paper coffee filter. Yum. In four to five months I will need to remove the compost and give the worms fresh bedding to start over in. With luck they will be happy and healthy and multiply enough that I can eventually start a second bin. My garden is going to love the worm compost.
Bookman is not too upset about the worms because while he was at the farm store he got me an outdoor garden present:
Aren’t they fun? Not sure if that is the location they will stay in come spring, but wherever they end up, I’ll be planting some low growing things around them, some thyme maybe, low bunching grass, small flowers. Now all I need is a caterpillar with a hookah!
Filed under: gardening
Tagged: red wigglers
, worm composting
When I got into bed last night, perched my glasses on my nose and opened my book I exclaimed, “I forgot to blog today!” This has never happened to me before, forgetting to blog. It has always been a conscious decision when I don’t. But between being distracted by the arrival of the thing I had to pre-order and it feeling like a Friday because today is Thanksgiving, well, my brain just got all confused.
Bookman and I will be celebrating Thanksgiving today with phone calls to family who are all far away and with our own “traditional” feast. Ever since Bookman and I went vegan back in 1993 we’ve had enchiladas with a side of brown rice and refried beans. It wasn’t even until a few years ago that I had tasted Tofurkey, and yuck, was it terrible, too salty and bland for my taste.
While we don’t have a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, we do have pumpkin pie. I love pumpkin pie. That humble orange squash baked into a graham cracker crust, sweetened with agave, and spiced with cloves, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon, definitely something to be thankful for. Even better is the pumpkin was grown in my own garden.
That I have a house with a garden where I can grow my own pumpkin is a blessing for which I am grateful. The older I get the more I realize that it is the small and simple things in life for which I am most thankful. It’s a roof over my head, food on the table, a garden, a husband who loves me, family, friends, a good book, a cat on my lap. This is what happiness is made of and it is right and good to dedicate a day to being thankful and celebrating these things.
My thanks and best wishes to all of you, whether you are celebrating Thanksgiving today or not.
“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” ~Meister Eckhart
Filed under: Personal
A few weeks ago I declared the end of gardening season and thus the end of my weekly gardening posts. Ha! What was I thinking? Just because I am not outdoors in the garden doesn’t mean I am not thinking about the garden. That’s how I ended up writing last Sunday about gardening and climate change. During the week I found a great blog called My Climate Change Garden. It’s by a UK blogger but still relevant. One of his recent posts is about how important it is to plant trees and another about how gardening can have a positive effect on climate change.
But wait, I am getting off track, burbling away.
Just because I am not in the garden doesn’t mean I am not gardening. Reading about gardening and making plans for next growing season are all a vital part of the process. In other words, I am making up excuses to keep writing about gardening stuff every week or so! Do you mind?
Remember how early this year I wanted a pond and Bookman said no way? And then I bought a solar frog fountain to sooth my no pond sadness. The fountain was a lovely addition and the sandy beach I made around it was a popular bird destination. They even held a beach volleyball tournament on it one week in July. And the gentle splashing of water from ceramic froggy’s mouth was a pleasant sound while outdoors. But darn it, it was no substitute for a pond.
Well next spring I am going to get my pond and I can do it without Bookman’s help. I discovered a video on how to make a small pond using a plastic storage bin. See how easy it is?
I love you internet!
I have even already decided where to put it. It is going to go on the side of the garden that still has some grass (but not for much longer will the grass be there). We will be adding a rain barrel at the downspout on that side of the yard this spring and I am going to place the pond in a sunny spot not so very far away from the barrel and the barrel’s overflow will be directed into the pond and then if there is pond overflow, that will get directed into a small “wetland.” The wetland probably won’t happened next year, the pond will be enough and I will need to see if there is enough overflow that I even need a wetland. As much as I want to go all out, even I have to admit that patience and one-thing-at-a-time is a good idea especially when it comes to “big” things like a pond and a wetland.
Can you also say slippery slope? Because, don’t tell Bookman, but you know as soon as I get my little pond going it will be good for a year, maybe two, and then I will decide it needs to be bigger. Maybe by then I will have been able to convince Bookman what a great idea that would be. But for now, let’s just keep that bit of intel on the down low. I don’t want to scare Bookman.
Last week on Tuesday I got the first 2014 seed catalog in the mail. Bookman got the mail from the box and put the catalog on my book table next to my reading chaise. How exciting! I am not going to look at it until January though, I told myself. Yet I left it on the table. And every day I told myself I am not going to look at it until January. Friday I thought, well if I am not going to read the catalog until January, I had better put it away somewhere. Imagine my surprise on Saturday afternoon when I sat down to read and the catalog was still sitting on my book table on top of all the books!
I picked it up. I’m not going to read it until January but it won’t hurt to just flip through it. A little over an hour later I emerged from “flipping through it” with all kinds of ideas buzzing around in my head. New plants to try, different varieties of things we’ve already grown that might be good, and lots of “I wonder if we could…” and most of all, “where could I plant …?” And it quickly became clear that I am going to have to dig up part of the backyard belonging to my neighbor-of-the-perfect lawn in order to accommodate everything. Do you think he’ll mind? What if I promise to share? And he won’t even have to weed or water, I’ll take care of it all. Yup, I’m sure he won’t mind.
Filed under: gardening
You probably don’t know who Mary Mallon is but I bet you have at least heard of Typhoid Mary. Mary Beth Keane’s novel Fever aims to tell Mary Mallon’s story.
Mallon was an Irish immigrant. She came to the United States as a girl. She lived with her aunt and took work in service. She began doing laundry but, already having some skill at cooking, soon learned enough to become a very good and in demand cook for rich families. At seventeen she met Alfred Briehof, a German immigrant and they moved in together, living happily (more or less since Alfred was an alcoholic) for years unmarried. In March 1907 she was taken into custody by the Department of Health and held in a New York Hospital while doctors did tests. Mallon became identified as the first healthy carrier of typhoid and people who ate her cooking were in danger of coming down with it.
Not everyone became ill who ate Mallon’s cooking but there was enough of a trail that the DOH found her. She never had typhoid but she carried the bacilli in her body. The doctors had no idea how this was possible. They decided she was too much of a threat to allow her freedom so they moved her to North Brother Island, a quarantine hospital for tuberculosis and other diseases off the coast of Manhattan. She was not allowed visitors and she was forced to submit to frequent humiliating tests.
Mallon was not a retiring and compliant woman. She was angry and combative. Doctors thought she should willingly do whatever they wanted her to and not complain but Mallon had other ideas. When she finally found a lawyer who would help her and got a court hearing, her uncooperativeness would come back to haunt her. She was denied release.
Eventually she did attain her freedom when other healthy carriers were found. None of these people were forced into quarantine. One of them, a dairy farmer, was allowed to continue working on his farm he just couldn’t come into contact with the milk. At this news, Mallon’s lawyer once again pursued her release and this time obtained it under the condition that Mallon never cook for anyone again and check in with the DOH every three months when she was also required to provide bodily fluid samples for the doctors.
She was given a job at a Chinese laundry, a huge step down in status and wages from what she had obtained from her skill as a cook. Working in a laundry day after day is back breaking and exhausting work and Mary was desperate for something else but there was no other work for her besides the cooking she was not allowed to do.
She kept her promise not to cook for as long as she could but eventually broke it, taking work at a bakery. She got caught, escaped, went into hiding. Eventually she got work again as a cook in a maternity hospital by using a fake name. The pay was good, she loved the work and things seemed to be going pretty well. Until typhoid broke out at the hospital. This time she was not able to escape. She was taken back to North Brother Island where she lived out the rest of her life as a “guest” of New York City.
Mallon’s is a fascinating story and I will never joke about Typhoid Mary again. Unfortunately the book could have been so much better. There were good parts though. It is a question whether Mallon knew in the beginning that she made people ill. And then later, whether she understood about her condition. Mallon often questions whether what the doctors told her is true especially since most people who ate her food didn’t get sick.
Then there is the uppity female thread. It does seem likely that she was treated the way she was because she was a woman. It was also clear the city did not understand what it meant for Mallon to not be able to work as a cook anymore. She had to earn her living, she and Alfred spilt for some time and even when they were together Alfred couldn’t keep regular work because of his alcoholism. Working at a laundry she had barely enough to get by and she knew the work would eventually wear her down physically to the point she would no longer be able to work at all. She did not have a man to take care of her and it seems like the city assumed that she should in placing her in such a difficult position.
But in spite of all these interesting things, the book was far too long at only 304 pages. Less than halfway through the book it felt like the best part of the story was over and there was a very long and very saggy and dull middle in which I kept wondering why I was still reading. Part of the trouble is that the middle of the book turns into a love story. Or it tries to. Mallon and Alfred together and not together. They still love each other but can Alfred quite drinking? And it just went on and on. Finally, when Mallon gets caught at the maternity hospital it gets interesting again but by that point it is too late to recover and the book comes to a limping conclusion.
Fever is not a terrible book, but it is flawed. There are good bits and not so good bits and it balances out to be an ok read. I bet it would make a good vacation book when you want an interesting story but something that isn’t mentally taxing, a book you don’t have to pay close attention to. Take that as you will. I read this for my historical fiction MOOC and the author will be making an appearance in class. I suspect she might have some interesting things to say.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Historical fiction
, Mary Beth Keane
, Mary Mallon
, Typhoid Mary
First published in 1912, Alexander’s Bridge was Willa Cather’s first novel. She had been publishing short stories for years and even had a couple of collections, but this novel, novella actually, was her first long work.
Cather has such an easy, beautiful voice that carries a reader pleasantly along. And even though this is not even close to the wonderful complexities of her later stories, her voice made it so I really didn’t care.
The story is about Bartley Alexander. Alexander
stood six feet and more in the archway, glowing with strength and cordiality and rugged, blond good looks. There were other bridge-builders in the world, certainly, but it was always Alexander’s picture that the Sunday Supplement men wanted, because he looked as a tamer of rivers ought to look. Under his tumbled sandy hair his head seemed as hard and powerful as a catapult, and his shoulders looked strong enough in themselves to support a span of any one of his ten great bridges that cut the air above as many rivers.
Aged forty-three, married to a beautiful woman, at the height of his career, he seemingly has it all. But something is making him start to feel a little dissatisfied. A mid-life crisis awaits!
On a business trip in London a friend takes him to see the play that is currently all the rage. The rage is more about a beautiful actress than the play itself. It turns out Alexander knows the actress, Hilda Burgoyne, quite well. In fact he had a youthful fling with her while he was studying in Paris a very long time ago. Seeing her again reminds Alexander of his youth and all its freedoms and suddenly the vague dissatisfaction crystalizes and he feels overworked, trapped, bogged down by tiny details he has no interest in:
He found himself living exactly the kind of life he had determined to escape. What, he asked himself, did he want with these genial honors and substantial comforts? Hardships and difficulties he had carried lightly; overwork had not exhausted him; but this dead calm of middle life which confronted him,—of that he was afraid. He was not ready for it. It was like being buried alive.
He goes to Hilda’s flat and discovers that while she has plenty of admirers, she has never committed herself to any man. It doesn’t take long for Alexander to discover that Hilda still loves him, and, because she is the bridge to his past, his youth, all the things he no longer has and wishes he did, Alexander rekindles their long ago affair.
Of course the clock cannot be turned back. While Hilda returns Alexander to his youthfulness, he realizes he does not want to abandon his success or his wife whom he loves. The transatlantic affair goes on for a number of years. Each time Alexander makes the trip to London he determines to break off the affair. He is feeling like he is living two lives and the deception is getting in the way of everything, keeping him from being happy with either life. But even though he feels “as if a second man had been grafted into me,” he cannot break off with Hilda.
And here is where Cather’s youth shows through. Instead of making Alexander face up to his situation and forcing him to make a choice, he gets an out. I won’t tell you what the out is in case you haven’t read the story; I don’t want to spoil it for you. Then after Alexander escapes having to make a decision, we get a sort of moral:
No relation is so complete that it can hold absolutely all of a person.
While this may be true, it is done a bit clumsily. Two novels later Cather writes Song of the Lark where there is barely a slip, no easy outs, and no obvious moralizing.
But even here in Alexander’s Bridge, you can see Cather’s interest in a certain type of character, in music, in strong women. It is still an enjoyable read because even when the story falters, there is still that marvelous Cather voice carrying everything confidently along.
I read this along with Danielle, so be sure to hop over and read her take.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Willa Cather
Today seems like a good day for a poem. To my mind every day is a good day for a poem, but I thought I would share an Edward Thomas poem with you to whet your appetite for when I finish the collection. This one was written in 1915, a very prolific year for Thomas.
There’s nothing like the sun
There’s nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
The stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang. But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March’s sun,
Like April’s, or July’s, or June’s, or May’s,
Or January’s, or February’s, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said –
Or, if I could live long enough, should say –
‘There’s nothing like the sun that shines today.’
There’s nothing like the sun till we are dead.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Edward Thomas
After last week’s post, I think Bookman has resigned himself to me putting in a little pond in the spring. At least, he hasn’t said anything about it. Possibly he is instituting countermeasures. But if there is one thing Bookman is truly bad at, it is keeping a secret, so if he is planning pond-evasion maneuvers, I will winkle it out him eventually.
High on my triumph I went to the urban farm store yesterday to bring home something that Bookman had also said no to. Alas, they do not keep them in the store. I had to pre-order and I will be able to pick them up when they arrive at the store on Friday or Saturday. What am I getting? You’ll just have to wait and see! I am very excited about it, however, and Bookman, well, not so much. I think after this I need to leave the poor guy alone for a bit before springing anything else on him like how we might go about installing a gray-water system that diverts the dirty water from the washing machine and dishwasher out into the garden in the summer to water the trees and shrubs (planting the seeds my friends, planting the seeds!).
A few garden posts ago Cath left a quote in a comment from an essay in a book called Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to Ecological Crisis. The public library did not have this book but the university library did, so I borrowed it. The book is made up of essays by psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, specialists in education, ecologists, human geographers, and others. It is broken up into six sections each with a different focus moving from context to what to do in response to the crisis both as a layperson and as a clinical professional.
I’ve just finished reading part one today, “Context.” The essays here set the stage for ways of thinking about the environment/nature and humans. Viola Sampson in her essay “The darkening quarter” suggests one of the greatest difficulties with climate change is not knowing. We don’t know what to expect or when to expect it. We know things are changing but even with all the models and projections climate scientists offer, when it comes down to it, we still don’t know what the outcome will be. The uncertainty and unpredictability makes us feel powerless and vulnerable. She also talks about grieving for the things we are losing and will lose, honoring that grief, but then also using it to create a new relationship and understanding of our interconnectedness with the environment.
It is interconnectedness that is stressed in the other essays of the section, how we as humans are part of ecosystem even if we refuse to acknowledge it. We have always been part of it. Paul Maiteny in “Longing to be human” argues that our consumerist society and our constant search for meaningfulness by buying more things is because we have mentally set ourselves apart from the environment. In fact, he says, our desire to consume is a pre-human biological biological need; the more resources you have, the likelier you are to survive. Instead of getting back to nature by asking what we have in common with other species, Maiteny wants us to look at how we differ. The biggest difference, we have the ability to consciously choose what we are going to do with this planet. In order to feel interconnected with other humans and the environment and to get off the mindless cosumerism treadmill, he advocates a return to the basic ideas contained within all spiritual practices, the idea of the sacred, of divinity within and without, of contemplating the wonders of creation and our place in it.
Lots of interesting food for thought in these essays so far. Section two is called “Other-than-human and more-than-human” and looks to to be just as interesting and thought-provoking. I happen to also be reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, talk about an interesting reading conjunction!
Filed under: Books
There was a wonderful article and review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review about poetry and a new book by poet Robert Pinsky.
The book Singing School: learning to write (and read) poetry by studying with the masters sounds like an easy going guide to poetry intended for adult, nonacademic readers. The book is so anti-academic according to the reviewer, that one can’t help but wonder what the university where Pinsky works must think of it. I am so intrigued that I have requested the book from the library. I am fourth in line for it so I’ll probably get my turn sometime in the middle or end of December. If it turns out to be as good as the review of it makes it out to be, I will have to buy a copy of my own.
The article mentions something about poetry that irks me to no end. That is the idea that some poets and poetry critics hold that poetry should be difficult and belong only to the initiated. To call a poet “accessible” is an insult. Billy Collins is lumped into this category which means, easy and not serious. But for all the regular, common readers who love Billy Collins, myself included, we don’t care. We love him for his humor and “accessibility.” I have to wonder if poets and critics who look down their noses at Collins and others like him (I’ve heard Mary Oliver so accused too as though it is a crime to be readable by someone outside the clique) are not really jealous because Collins has a larger readership. They must justify their small audience by placing themselves in the starry aether where the air is so much more refined and selective. Gag.
And here is Pinsky with his new book saying you don’t need a Ph.D and reams of notes covering every allusion and metaphor in “The Waste Land” in order to enjoy the poem and the experience of reading it. In fact, the untutored reader just might find things in the poem that the “expert” has overlooked. I must say I agree with Pinsky and I look forward to reading his book when my turn comes up.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Robert Pinsky
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I’m a bit unnerved. My Kindle seems to be developing an opinion about how quickly I finish a book and move on to the next. About two weeks ago I finished reading Willa Cather’s Alexander’s Bridge at the end of my lunch break. Stilling have a few minutes of my break left I thought I’d start reading Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. Kindle freaked out. It froze, then unfroze, then kept trying to get me to turn on my wi-fi to go to the Kindle store. Did it not want me to read Hesse? Was it trying to get me to pick a different book?
I turned it off and then back on. I got my list of books and Kindle would let me page through the list but when I came to the page with Steppenwolf on it Kindle would not let me move my cursor down the page to select the book. I must have restarted the thing three or four times with not luck before I had to go back to work. I was feeling a bit panicky because what was I going to read on my train ride home? I don’t carry a paper book with me. I sought help from Google. Google told me about a secret restart command accessible in the menu while on the settings page. This was supposed to fix the problem. So I tried it during a quiet moment in the afternoon and it didn’t work.
Going home at the end of the day I sat down on the train and pulled out my Kindle and thought, well, I’ll just try it and see. And it was working just fine. Like nothing happened. Weird.
So yesterday I told Bookman I was almost done with Steppenwolf, would be finishing it today and could he put one of his Discworld books on my Kindle? So he did. And then he made the mistake of clicking out of Steppenwolf to make sure he’d put Reaper Man in the right place. And Kindle freaked out again. I tried restarting and Bookman tried restarting and Kindle refused to cooperate. The files are still accessible from a computer when the Kindle is plugged in so Bookman, what a guy, said I could take his Kindle to read on today and we moved Hesse to it so I could finish it.
This morning I checked my Kindle just in case and it was still in a snit. Bookman tried to comfort me by saying I could get a new one, but that didn’t help me at the moment. Off to work I went. Reading on Bookman’s Kindle was weird. It’s the first version, white and the buttons are all in the wrong places. But I could read, so that was something.
Now, when I got home from work this evening and saw my Kindle sitting on my desk I thought I’d try it and see if it would work and it did! Just like nothing happened.
Kindle must have decided that when I finish a book, or get near to the end, I need to spend some time thinking about what I just read, letting it sink in a bit before moving on to the next book. That after three years — or has it been four already? — Kindle should decide to start asserting itself is annoying. If it were a paper book I could throw it on the floor or slam it down on a table like I had the urge to do. But of course, if I do any throwing or slamming with Kindle that really would be the end of it.
Now I feel like Kindle is tyrannizing me. Do what I want, but not too fast, when I want you to, or else, Kindle seems to be telling me. Suddenly it is in charge and I am tip-toeing around trying to keep it from freaking out again. Curse you technology!
Oh, yes, I can hear you asking why I don’t just carry a print book. I have reached the age when, in order to read comfortably, reading glasses are required. To fiddle with putting on and taking off glasses on the train (it’s only a 20 minute ride) is a nuisance and cuts into my reading time. So on my Kindle I have the font just big enough that I can read without glasses.
I thought my Kindle and I had such a beautiful relationship, but apparently not. What could have gone wrong?
Filed under: ebooks