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Melissa Wiley is the author of The Martha Years books about Laura Ingalls Wilder's great-grandmother, Martha Morse Tucker, and The Charlotte Years books, about Laura's grandmother, Charlotte Tucker Quiner.
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1. It was a wild, wild wood…

furfamily

Here’s a little moment in time. Right after I read The Little Fur Family to Huck (for the first time!) the other day, he wanted to read it himself. This is one of my favorite picture books to read with very young kids, and I can’t imagine how it slipped past Huck until now—I found this copy of the book at the bottom of a box of toys earlier in the week. Of course the very best edition is the tiny one with the faux-fur cover. It’s around here somewhere, but I don’t recall seeing it in ages. It’s probably under a bed.

Anyway, when I grabbed my boy for the read-aloud, he was reluctant to listen, as he very often is right at the beginning. And then, as nearly always happens, before I finish the first page, he’s hooked. It went double this time around. He fell hard for the little fur child in the wild, wild wood, like so many before him.

I caught a good chunk of his reading on video. There’s background noise from his big sisters and brother, but you can hear him pretty well. I love watching the leaps kids make at this age—the substitutions where they think they see where the word is going and plug in one they know, like his “fun children” for “fur child” and “mom” for “mother.”

I don’t know if I caught this stage on video with any of the other kids. I have a pretty young Rilla reading an Ariel speech from The Tempest—you can’t hear much in the recording but it melts me to see the confidence with which she attacks some quite challenging text—but nothing, as far as I can recall, of the others at Huck’s stage. I’m glad I captured this much. Those sneezes!

(Vimeo link)

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2. How it feels…

…to get the latest Eric Shanower/Skottie Young Oz graphic novel for your birthday.

Emerald City

She’s been waiting for this one for a long time, in girl-years.

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3. Magical Eight

eight  flowersinthehair

Eight. I’m not alone in feeling like this year passed in five minutes, right? This child was practically born on this blog, and I just. can’t. believe. she’s eight years old.

Read today:

The Little Fur Family (Huck’s first time)
The Secret Garden

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4. Mid-April

IMG_3741

Golly, more than a week since I posted. I think that’s only happened three or four times in the nine years I’ve been writing this blog. And no big reason; I got sick midweek, a virus that had already made the rounds of the rest of the family, and it walloped me a bit; but not so much I couldn’t have gotten a post or two up, if I’d been inclined. I suppose I was just thrown off rhythm.

Wasn’t reading a whole lot, either, so I had very little to report in my daily reading notes! When I’m sick I always crave Agatha Christie, and  I spent the week revisiting a comfortable volume of Miss Marple stories. I first fell under Jane Marple’s gentle spell at age eleven, in a collection found on my aunt shelves. Every year or two when we stayed at her apartment, I hunted that book back out—along with a Lewis Carroll collected works and a volume of Poe stories. I still remember lying in one of the two twin beds in my Aunt Genia’s guest room, flat on my back, the heavy hardbound Poe tome propped on my chest, trying to make sense of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I found it baffling yet captivating, and I remember being haunted by its terrible choice, falling asleep with the images so sharp in my mind that they carried over into my dreams. I remember rolling into the Pit and awakening with a start.

There’s nothing at all baffling about Miss Marple, and I’m sure that’s why I seek her out when my head is fuzzy.

Beyond that, all last week’s reading was things with the kids. Lots of poetry with the girls—more Donne, a bit of Herbert, and our continuing journey through the Poetry 180 selections, which offer much food for thought. The King’s Fifth, which I read with Jane ages ago but none of the rest remember. The Secret Garden with Rilla. Stellaluna with the three littles. Other picture books I’m forgetting.

A Huck funny I want to remember (I feel a little embarrassed to share it, but I have to remind myself I keep this blog for me, for my own record, and this is most certainly a moment I want to hold on to): he was only three when Fox and Crow Are Not Friends came out, and if it registered with him then that I had written it, the knowledge left no impression. (Like many writers’ children, my younger set are decidedly unimpressed by my profession. Obviously parents shut themselves away for a while every day and write books. That’s ordinary and boring. What’s really interesting are people who drive garbage trucks.) But Huck is reading quite well now, and when he asked me to read Fox and Crow to him yesterday, he recognized the name on the title page. “That’s your name!” he said.

“Yes,” explained, “this is one of my books.”

He slowly craned his neck and peered up at me. “That you wrote?” he asked. “You made this story?”

“Yep. And Sebastian Braun drew the pictures.”

And suddenly he threw his arms around my neck and squeezed me tight. “I love this story,” he said. “Thank you, Mommy!”

And that, my friends, just may be the best review I have ever gotten. :)

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5. The week’s reading

lilies at balboa

Before it gets away from me…

The King’s Fifth, two chapters with Rose and Bean

Story of Science, chapter on Newton and light/optics (of course we had to get down our prism and paint rainbows all over the walls)

Sonnet 49, Shakespeare, “Against that time…” with Rose

“Neglect” by R. T. Smith (Poetry 180) with all kids

A number of spring-themed poems from The Random House Book of Poetry for Children

Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” with Rose, and background reading on Swift on my own for prep

The beginning of Gulliver’s Travels, also with Rose

Where the Sidewalk Ends, about half the book, with Rilla and Huck

Now We Are Six, selected poems, with Rilla

The Secret Garden, continued with Rilla (Colin!)

Curriculum Vitae, Muriel Spark, first forty pages or so

Plus all sorts of interesting longform articles for my editorial gig

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6. Day in the Life

IMG_4123

The weekend: Jane headed back to college, the rest of the kids succumbed one by one to a fairly-short-lived-but-obnoxious-in-the-short-term cold, and I cleaned house all day Saturday to avoid finishing my taxes. And then gardened all day Sunday to avoid same. Did not read much, in part because sitting still and doing something besides taxes was harder to justify than, say, scrubbing floors or mowing the lawn. I mean, I can’t possibly be faulted for procrastinating going through expense receipts when I’m washing walls, can I? You guys, I was even washing walls. My ability to be intensely industrious at all the wrong tasks is unparalleled.

Monday: all but one of the kids have kicked their cold. We’re still in high tide, have got a very groovy groove going, in fact. Rose, Beanie, and I are all enjoying the books we’re reading together, and Latin has been really fun lately. Also, it happened that the episode of Cosmos everyone watched the night before Jane left was all about Sir Isaac Newton, about whom we’ve been reading in The Story of Science. Extremely considerate of the show to time things so conveniently.

I’ve been getting some questions about scheduling lately, both from real-life friends and blog readers, and since I’ve completely dropped the ball on my separate homeschooling blog (if you’ve asked for the login info and I haven’t replied, it isn’t that you’re not welcome; it’s simply that I’ve dropped that ball too, and I haven’t posted there in weeks anyway so you aren’t missing a thing…but feel free to ping me again for the info!) maybe I can give a quick sketch here of a “typical day”—of course we all know there isn’t any such thing, really; they’re all a little different. But we do keep the same rough structure four days a week. The fifth day, which falls in the middle, is for piano lessons and errands and (for Beanie) volunteering at Wonderboy’s school.

6:30ish—the boys wake up, Scott turns on a show for them to watch.

7am—Scott and I get up (sometimes he’s up already). He fixes breakfast for the boys and cocoa for me, and I take my laptop to the couch where the lads are watching their show. Email, etc while I come alive.

7:35—supposed to be 7:30 but I always push it as long as possible. I get up to get dressed, put my contacts in, pack Wonderboy’s lunch. By now he has already gotten dressed and getting ready for school.

8am—I’m in my bathroom brushing my hair and I hear the first bell ring on the other side of our back fence. I jump into my shoes and walk WB around the corner just in time for school.

8:15 (is this too granular? LOL)—I’m back home and now Scott and I leave for our walk. Beanie and Rilla are by now up and dressed (well, Beanie’s dressed), finished with breakfast most likely, and the TV is off. Rose waits for us to leave before dragging herself out of bed. Usually someone is playing piano when we leave and someone else is playing when we get back.

8:45ish—the teens have done their morning chores, Scott and I are back home after our walk (we call it our daily staff meeting), and I grab a yogurt and Scott makes a cup of coffee and we drift to our separate computers to eat/drink/read.

9am sharp—Scott starts work, back in the boys’ bedroom, which doubles as his office during the day. Rilla will likely spend the next hour puttering through her morning chores, which are few and simple but easily interruptible, it seems. Huck is dressed and running around. Mostly he’s counting down the minutes until 9:30, when (after two rounds of breakfast) he gets a snack. Rose and Bean join me in the living room for our lesson time. Now, the sequence of the next 3 hours varies day by day, but here was today’s. 9:00, we started with Poetry. First Poetry 180, two poems today because after we’d read Roethke’s “The Bat” they saw what came next and remembered especially liking that one when we did a chunk of this series with Jane, a couple of years ago: Tom Wayman’s “Did I Miss Anything.” Then John Donne, Meditation XVII (No man is an island…), in our continuing exploration of the metaphysical poets.

9:30? more or less?—Story of Science, the Newton chapters continued. I read aloud, we discuss. 1666, “The Year of Wonders” (Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis designation for the year of the Great Fire, which later came to be applied by scientists to that same year when Newton developed his theory of gravitation, oh and invented calculus, oh and figured out about color and light—that little old year), is a perfect choice for one of our history cards. Have I talked about this here, or only on Facebook? It’s pretty much the most successful idea I’ve ever had, history-wise. We used to keep a giant timeline on one wall, but in this house there’s no perfect spot for it; it was up too high; we never added anything new. A couple of months (?) ago, on a whim, I grabbed index cards and started writing down events or people we’d been reading about, in all our various books. Science stuff, history, literature, music, art, anything I could think of that we’d recently discussed. Person or event on the front, the year on the back. We have had such fun with these cards! Once or twice a week we play a game with them—Rose likes the competition—where I hold up a card and the girls take turns calling out the date and arranging them in sequence. We’ve all nailed down a great many dates that were quite fuzzy even for me before. My original goal was simply to have them be able to identify events in rough sequence, and there were only a few major dates I said they had to absolutely memorize. But the game has hammered  nearly all the dates into our heads, mine included. And the cards themselves provide an excellent record of what we’ve studied, and how the different eras we’ve read about this year (19th century American history, Renaissance science, Elizabethan literature) fit together. We’ll be able to keep on adding to the stack: a game without end. Rose was pretty lukewarm on history before, and now she says she wants to minor in it at college.

Anyway, no cards today, I just got onto the subject because we remarked upon 1666 as an important year to make a card for.

All right, so now it’s around 10am, I think?—or a little before? I think next we did math. Beanie watched a MUS video and since Rose didn’t remember that bit, she watched too. By now Rilla and Huck are outside playing, having consumed their snack. Rose likes me to go over the new lessons with her, so we did that. She’s only got two more in this book (geometry), hurrah! (We made cards for geometry last week, too, since she has found them so useful for history. Wrote out all the postulates and properties, with matching cards containing examples. And one very cool thing was that after she’d spread them all out and matched them up, we realized she’d just done all of geometry right there. I mean, all of it that’s covered in this book. The last few lessons are a preview of trig. It was gratifying for her to see the scope of her accomplishment.)

Beanie didn’t need help with her math, so once Rose got on to working her problems, I went out to mow the front lawn. Beanie finished and practiced piano.

10:30—Rilla and Huck went in to get their half-hour on the iPad. I usually reserve this for when I’m reading with the older girls, but today I was still finishing the yard. Rose finished math and did some Memrise.

11am—littles are off iPad, back to playing. Rose downloaded a metronome she needs for a song she’s learning in 5/4 time, but I don’t think she had much time to practice before I called her for the next thing. (She plays for a good bit most afternoons while I’m working, though.) Beanie did 15 minutes of freewriting while I read through a lesson with Rose in an essay-writing book we’re going through. Then Rose went to do the exercise for that chapter while I looked over Beanie’s freewrite.

11:30.—Latin with all three girls. We’ve been using a different book for new vocab but right now we’re using the rather old Latin Book One for some real reading and translation practice. We’re all really enjoying this.

12pm.—Lunch. Huck begged to watch Ponyo. Generally we don’t do any TV or videos at this time of day, but he’s been on a real Ponyo kick lately and was still getting over that cold, so I said yes. He ate his lunch and then fell asleep on the couch, watching the movie. I sat on the front stoop with Rilla, doing a subtraction lesson. Then she went in to eat, and Rose was eating, and Beanie had already finished. Bean and I went into the backyard and dug out a dead plant, and talked about Romeo and Juliet, which she was about to begin reading.

12:30ish?—Somewhere in there, I ate my own lunch. Then Rose and I started Gulliver’s Travels. I gave a bit of background and we read the first chunk together. She’ll continue on her own, but she really likes doing things in tandem. Beanie was reading R&J by this time, and Rilla was doing magical Rilla things.

1:15pm—Rilla’s turn. She was itching to garden, because Mary Lennox. We weeded the front-yard flowerbed and found a snail. After about a half hour, we were both hot and thirsty. Went in for a drink and then read two chapters. Met Dickon! The roses are wick!

2:30—time to pick up Wonderboy. Rilla walked with me, Huck was just waking up. Got home, unpacked, Beanie was doing her afternoon tidy and Rose had the dishes ready. I wash, she rinses. Wonderboy and I chatted, and then he turned on Word Girl.

3pm—Scott came out, and it was time for me to go to work.

Things unusual about this day:

• the Ponyo viewing and Huck’s nap, which meant I didn’t read to him at all!

• gardening with Rilla and reading an extra chapter of Secret Garden meant I didn’t do any of my own reading, which I usually try to squeeze in during the last half hour before Wonderboy gets home. But then I never read as much in spring, do I?

• Most mornings, Rilla sets up camp at the kitchen table with all her drawing supplies while I’m reading to her sisters. She absorbs quite a lot of history and lit that way. :) But today she was very busy with Huck all morning.

• No German for Beanie, and barely any piano time for Rose. Usually Rose is pounding away every time I turn around. She likes short bursts of practice throughout the day, whereas Beanie will sit down for one long concentrated session.

I imagine any day I picked for this exercise would have about the same number of (totally different) “things that are different about this day.” An orthodontist appointment, a Journey North meeting, a muddy little boy in need of a bath.

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7. Friday reading

rilla's owls
Owls by Rilla. I’m in love.

This morning’s reading:

Passer-by, these are words…” by Yves Bonnefoy. Such a great discussion we had about this. Rose really loves this poem.

Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star” by John Donne. Their introduction to the metaphysical poets. We’ll spend the next week or so on Donne, with a little Herbert and Marvell. Read some biographical info on Donne. I always enjoy him so much and it’s been quite a long time since I’ve read him. This meant I put a bit of time in this week reading up, refreshing my memory on these poets. Consequently I haven’t begun a new book yet—but I’ve got the Muriel Spark autobiography burning a hole on my desk.

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8. Roots

entroots

When we go to Balboa Park I always park in the lot that lets me walk past this tree. This Ent, is more like it.

Jane’s been home all week for Spring Break, and a springy springy spring it is. Got the tomatoes in on Sunday, and the flowers are going crazy. I discovered an amaryllis stalk in the patio flowerbed! I had a bulb indoors some years back, and afterward I guess I planted it? And forgot about it. And now here it is. I hope it blooms.

When Rilla and I planted the sweet alyssum and nasturtium seeds that are now bedecking the front yard with abundant bloom, we planted cosmos as well. Only one came up. I have the weirdest luck with cosmos. Usually I plant them and they’re never heard from again. One year I didn’t plant them, and a pink-and-white army arose along the side fence, in a place where nothing ever grows but pepper tree seedlings. But once, and once only. This one is in a new spot, near a cinderblock wall. Maybe it’ll like the location and decide to raise a family.

The week’s reading:

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro. Finished it early in the week and it ruined me for reading. :) Needed some time to sit quietly with it and let the ache subside. (The good kind of ache.) Still haven’t quite committed to anything new.

The usual history things with my girls, and delicious delicious chapters of Secret Garden with Rilla. Mary found the door, she’s just gone inside. Rilla’s reactions make me feel like I’m living it for the first time myself. This spring is one I’ll remember for the rest of my life. 

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9. Lecture Log

slobooks

As long as I’m keeping a record of daily reading, I figured I ought to keep track of the academic lectures I’m taking in as well.

Recently:

George Eliot: Intellect and Consciousness. Catherine Brown, Oxford.
Darwin and Design, Lecture 1. James Paradis, MIT.
American Novel Since 1945, Lectures 1-13. Amy Hungerford, Yale.
Introduction to Theory of Literature, Lectures 1-3, 5-6. Paul Fry, Yale.
Modern Poetry, assorted lectures (I’m skipping around). Langdon Hammer, Yale.

MOOCs in progress with kids:

Moons, The Open University FutureLearn.
Shakespeare and His World (selected videos), University of Warwick, FutureLearn.
Live!: A History of Art for Artists, Animators and Gamers, California Institute of the Arts.

Coursera courses on my own, in progress or recently:

Scandinavian Film and Television. Multiple instructors, University of Copenhagen. Course in progress. Have watched vids for weeks 1-3 so far.

Human Evolution: Past and Future. John Hawks, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Course just ended. Watched about half the videos. Loved how the professor traveled to various digs and fossil sites.

Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction. Bruce Holsinger, University of Virginia. Watched all videos, read several of the books. Great course!

Climate Literacy: Navigating Climate Change Conversations. Sarah Burch & Sara Harris, University of British Columbia. Did about 75% of the course—videos and readings. Showed several of the video lectures to my teens. I wish everyone I know would take this class. Hope it will be offered again.

Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. Al Filreis, University of Pennsylvania. Watched about half the videos, did corresponding readings. I adore this course and look forward to taking it again—in full this time—in the fall.

A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Lectures 1-4.

The Modern and the Postmodern. Michael Roth, Wesleyan University. Weeks 1-5. The reading load got to be more than I could juggle at that point in time but I very much enjoyed the lectures I watched.

 ***

There are so many appealing courses in literature alone (see this big list at Open Culture), not to mention all the classes I’d like to take in anthropology, history, art history, and various sciences. The Tolkien Professor’s Faerie and Fantasy class sounds especially fun! We were discussing these courses on Twitter this evening and a friend mentioned that she’d love to take one of these, but would be unlikely to finish. I seldom complete an entire course, as my Coursera record above demonstrates. But that doesn’t concern me; I consider each lecture I listen to a gain. I ran out of time to listen to all the Human Evolution lectures, but I learned a vast amount from the ones I did manage to watch. Ditto all the above. I’m exactly halfway through Amy Hungerford’s series on the modern American novel, and while I certainly hope to listen to the rest of the lectures, even if I don’t get back to them I’ve already gained a tremendous amount in terms of new knowledge and food for thought. This is unschooling for adults, and it’s exhilarating—learning as process, not product (that same philosophy that informs our homeschooling life). 

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10. Greater San Diego Reading Association Authors Fair, part 2

Greater San Diego Reading Association Authors Fair

From left to right: Suzanne Santillan, me, Edith Hope Fine, Joy Raab, Virginia Loh Hagen, and Lori Mitchell at last week’s Greater San Diego Reading Association Authors’ Fair, held at Pacific Beach Elementary School. Photo shared by Lori Mitchell on Facebook. (Thanks, Lori!)

It was a pretty incredible day. I had sessions with two classes and then a booksigning. Both classes have been reading The Prairie Thief aloud, and it just so happened that the 5th-grade class was up to the Big Reveal chapter near the end of the book. I’ve never gotten to read this to a group of kids before! I usually read a section near the beginning, so as not to give away any of the book’s surprises, and when the class told me where they were in the book and asked me to read the next chapter, I was over the moon. Their reactions at the moment of the reveal were delightful and immensely gratifying. They jumped and and cried out in surprise. It was exactly the sort of reaction I hoped for when I wrote the book. What a treat for me to get to experience that moment with them! And then we had a nice long Q&A and they asked fantastic questions, really thoughtful stuff. Love love love.

The second class, a 4/5, blew me away with the papers they had written about Prairie Thief! And what timing, coming right after our conversation last week about how authors feel about critical approaches to their work. These kids did some serious analysis and I was very impressed by the quality of their writing. They, too, had a million questions for me about craft (seriously—they are studying it) and reading and lots of things.

Huge thanks to all the folks who helped put the fair together. A splendid day all around.

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11. Reading notes: Monday and Tuesday

Illustration by Walter Crane

How quickly the days pass, and the reading lists pile up!

Read with the older girls:
Landmark History of the American People, the chapter on wagon trains
Story of Science Vol. 2, the chapter on Rene Descartes
• Poem: “The Cord” by Leanne O’Sullivan (Poetry 180)
The Faerie Queene Book 1, Spenser, continued

We enjoyed this lovely video of screenshots from the 1894 George Allen edition with illustrations by Walter Crane.

Read to the littles:
Caps for Sale
Captain Invincible and the Space Shapes

On my own:
The Giver by Lois Lowry
• revisited Lolita (sections) and listened to these three lectures on it at Open Yale Courses

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12. The weekend’s reading

restaurantflowers

The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald (because Susan Hill piqued my interest, and Selvi’s enthusiasm tipped me over the edge). I’m fairly stunned by the lush economy of the prose—a paradox, I know, which is what is so stunning. That she can convey so rich and vivid a picture—and of so unfamiliar a time and place!—with so few words.

• “The Injustice Collector,” The New Yorker, June 19 2006. Long and fascinating article on the tight grip of the James Joyce estate (namely his heir Stephen Joyce). This was of course before 2012 when Joyce’s works came into the public domain. Wandered here via some reading about literary theory sparked by the Quiller-Couch lectures.

The Secret Garden, continuing, to Rilla. Bliss.

New arrivals:

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro, which I’ve never yet read. Did I put this, too, on hold because of the Susan Hill book? I’ve already forgotten. (Part of why I’m keeping these notes: to chronicle what nudges me toward a particular book.)

Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Peter Barry. Recommended by my smart homeschooling-mom-slash-lit-professor pal “Fanny Harville.”

Curriculum Vitae, the autobiography of my beloved Muriel Spark. Goodbye, I have to read forever and ever.

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13. Authors Fair at Pacific Beach Elementary

I’m so looking forward to participating in this event tomorrow, March 14! I’ll be visiting with 4th and 5th graders at Pacific Beach Elementary in the Greater San Diego Reading Association’s 41st Annual Authors Fair, along with Patty Hall, Edith Hope Fine, Virginia Loh-Hagan, Lori Mitchell, Joy Raab, Suzanne Santillan and storyteller Marilyn McPhee. Can’t wait!

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14. Stuff I read today (and last night)

lupine

Stayed awake last night long enough to read the first chapter of the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a book I’ve had on my TBR list (and my Kindle) ever since Ta-Nehisi Coates blogged his way through it in an excellent and moving series of posts in 2010. This passage about Grant’s mother made me laugh out loud:

“She still lives in Clermont County at this writing, October 5th, 1884, and is over ninety ears of age. Until her memory failed her, a few years ago, she thought the country ruined beyond recovery when the Democratic party lost control in 1860.”

Until her memory failed her a few years ago. Meaning up through and including her son’s two terms as President. Gee, Ma, thanks for the support.

***

This morning, during Rilla’s piano lesson, I returned to and finished Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s first lecture from On the Art of Writing, which I began on the heels of last month’s Helene Hanff kick. This is the book Helene took eleven years to rabbit-trail her way through, stopping to read up on the many books and thinkers “Q” references, and after Wikipediaing my own way through this one lecture, I can see (a month later) why it took her over a decade. I’m also enthralled by the snapshot of a pregnant moment in time: there’s Q in 1912, recently appointed to the brand-new Professorship of English Literature at Cambridge—let that sink in for a moment; there wasn’t one before 1911—addressing his students to explain his purpose and point of view in the position. He begins with a somewhat lofty exploration (in company with Plato) of the question of “What to do with the poets?” and then lays out his aims and principles. He won’t go so far as to say you can teach literature; he approves of the wording of his job description, which specifies “to promote the study of Literature.”

But that the study of English Literature can be promoted in young minds by an elder one, that their zeal may be encouraged, their tastes directed, their vision cleared, quickened, enlarged—this, I take it, no man of experience will deny.

And then, in a move that fills me with gratitude, he spells out exactly where he stands as a reader and a critic:

For the first principle of all I put to you that in studying any work of genius we should begin by taking it absolutely; that is to say, with minds intent on discovering just what the author’s mind intended…

Authorial intent. Got it. It’s refreshingly uncomplicated (and maybe somewhat quixotic), that school of thought, especially for someone like me whose undergraduate experience in the late 80s was a muddle of competing theories, most of which I didn’t know were theories, nor in competition. There was the Freudian professor, but we were too green to know he was a Freudian; I only figured it out (and that it was a thing at all, an approach to literary analysis and not just a unit in Psych 101) after I got a work-study in the English department and was assigned the mind-numbing task of entering his copious footnotes into the MS-DOS file of his very, very, very lengthy Freudian interpretation of Ulysses. Suddenly I had context for his insistence that every single story written by every single student in his Creative Writing class contained hidden Oedipal longings, no matter how earnestly we proclaimed that no, that wasn’t what we’d meant at all. The context didn’t really help; he went on doing Freudian readings of our work no matter how much we protested—actually, the protests made him all the more gleeful—but at least I knew on what grounds to ignore him. I felt conned, actually, resenting that the course description had not been more forthright about professorial hobby-horses. I mean, if you took Linguistics at that college, you knew you were getting a fervently feminist take on the subject, and I really appreciated that transparency (and enjoyed the course). Only later did I begin to wonder what critical theory informed my other professors’ pedagogy. The more I learned about theory, the greater my retrospective indignation. If we’re looking through a particular lens, I’d like to know I’m what glasses I’m wearing. If I’m signing up for your cooking class, I’d like to know up front whether you’re a vegan or a molecular gastronomist.

And so I find Q’s transparency terribly endearing. And it’s fascinating, too, to see him poised there in 1912, at the advent of Modernism, just before all these new ideas about interpreting literature (and writing it) were to sweep across the field. This article by a Cambridge professor captures it quite poignantly:

“He was also acutely aware that he was teaching at a moment when the direction of Literature was taking a radical turn, the turn to modernism. He believed profoundly that the literature of the present day should be taught and that students should be taught (as I believe, too) how to read modern literature. Yet he knew that, temperamentally, his own love of literature and his own ear for language were steeped in the literature of the past, and that he had great difficulty in appreciating the TS Eliots and the Ezra Pounds who were beginning to steal his thunder…”

Two decades later, Q’s student, F. R. Leavis, was to usher in the New Criticism that focused on close readings of the text alone, rather than authorial intent and biographical background—which would, in turn, be swept past by Structuralism, and Post-Structuralism, and all sorts of other schools of literary theory about which I’m much fuzzier than I should be. I really don’t know where things stand at present. The lit profs whose blogs I read (and the ModPo crew I’m so fond of) seem to take the kind of historical, biographical approach that I myself most enjoy, looking closely at the cultural/historical context of a work of literature and the author’s life circumstances in addition to unpacking the text —and then I’d say, as well, there’s a lot of looking at various works through specific, clearly defined lenses. Of course it’s possible I read the blogs I do because they take an approach that appeals to me. For all I know, my old professor is out there happily blogging away about the Freudian underpinnings of Mad Men.

***

On an entirely different note, today is the day Rilla met Mary Lennox. She wasn’t ready, last year when I suggested reading the book. Today, after a sunny (in all respects) hour in the garden, the time felt right. It was. Very very happy sigh from this lifelong Secret Garden devotee. And—we saw our first wild lupines of the year on the roadside today! Which means, of course, it’s time for Miss Rumphius.

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15. What have you in bloom?

aprilgarden

As soon as spring is in the air Mr. Krippendorf and I begin an antiphonal chorus, like two frogs in neighboring ponds: What have you in bloom, I ask, and he answers from Ohio that there are hellebores in the woods, and crocuses and snowdrops and winter aconite. Then I tell him that in North Carolina the early daffodils are out but that the aconites are gone and the crocuses past their best..”

—Elizabeth Lawrence, The Little Bulbs

The photo is not of my garden; this lovely sight of a neighbor’s front yard left me breathless last April. I haven’t been down that street lately to see what may be in bloom, but the daisies and poppies are coming up in other yards around town. My own poppies are all leaf, not quite ready to set buds yet. But soon. And some of these small daisies have popped up quite unexpectedly in a large planter by my front steps, along with some adorable johnny-jumpups. Either they jumped up indeed, right into the pot, or it’s possible Rilla planted some seeds…she’s always finding an old half-full packet in a drawer somewhere (why do I only ever plant half the seeds in a packet?) and taking it upon herself to do a bit of Mary Lennoxing. Today it was freesia seeds, inherited from a friend, and some sweet peas and sweet william. I grow freesia from bulbs, not seed, so I’m eager to see if these come up. It’s turning wonderland out there, already…the lavender has gone supersized this year, the bees are quite drunk.

It’s the season when I have no choice, I must read gardening books. The Little Bulbs is mandatory at this time of year, when the freesia are tumbling everywhere. I could live on the scent of freesia. This bit to Miss Lawrence from her horticultural pen-pal, Mr. Krippendorf, one February day, made me laugh:

“I was surprised to hear of the paucity of bloom in your garden, as I once read a book by an Elizabeth Lawrence who listed quantities of plants that bloomed in February or even January in her garden (which she alleged was in Raleigh, North Carolina). We have quite a few snowdrops now, and some eranthis, in spite of the fact that the pool on the terrace freezes every night.” And later: “I have your letter dated Fourth Sunday in Lent but not mailed until Tuesday. You say you might as well have lived in Ohio this winter—that sounds almost scornful. Yesterday was a wonderful day, not too warm, and sunshine off and on. I have tens of thousands of winter aconites in the woods—bold groups repeating themselves into the distance, also the spring snowflakes, and Adonis amurensis.”

All this sudden color is the result of the few days of rain we had the other week, after a crispy, crackling, waterless winter. And I know so many of you in other parts of the U.S. have had a really dreadful time of it these past few months. I wouldn’t dare to ask Miss Lawrence’s question, above, but I’m starting to see hints on Facebook and Twitter of a crocus here, a narcissus there, and Mr. Krippendorf’s tens of thousands of winter aconites gave me courage.

***

Read today:

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (ahhh, deep delight)
Grace for President
Here Comes Destructosaurus (coming out soon, quite funny, wonderful Jeremy Tankard art)

Finished Where Angels Fear to Tread. Forster is tearing me up, lately. I had to read Howards End because of the Susan Hill book, and it wrung me inside out, and Angels hung me out to dry. In a good way, you understand.

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16. Monday reading notes: only all the poems

freesia

Overslept this morning, thanks to Daylight Savings Time (which I nonetheless adore) and to having stayed up past midnight, too wired from sending off a manuscript (yippee!) to sleep—or to read, for that matter. Fumbled at a crossword puzzle on my phone instead. Well, after talking at my poor exhausted husband for an hour.

So no early-morning reading for me today. And a whirl of a morning, catching up on the housework and garden work I’ve neglected these past weeks. It’s spring out there! Who knew! Loads and loads of freesia sweetening the air—almost knocked me over, the scent was so lovely and so unexpected. And the pink jasmine is blooming, and the lime tree and grapefruit (not as exciting as it sounds, those two—they don’t seem inclined to produce fruit, ever). Nasturtiums and sweet alyssum and loads and loads of lavender. I might have to live outside for a while. “I think your garden needs you, Mom,” said Rose only a little reproachfully. She’s right; the clover is overrunning everything, and let’s not even speak of the bermuda grass.

But inside, there was Spenser. We’re reading it in excerpts, with plot summary between the passages—Marshall’s English Literature for Boys and Girls is wonderful for this—if you, a 21st-century teenager, can forgive the condescending name. Today was great fun, as the girls kept spotting parallels to Narnia (Una happening upon the dancing fauns and satyrs, not to mention her devoted lion)—Rose or Beanie, which?, said “I think Lucy is supposed to be an Una, Mom.” And the description of St. George going forth unto the dragon’s darksome hole:

“And lookéd in: his glistering armour made
A little glooming light, much like a shade,
By which he saw the ugly monster plain…
Most loathsome, filthy, foul, and full of vile disdain.”

I thought of Bilbo and Smaug, but Beanie thought of Eustace. They know a lot about Tolkien’s literary credentials and influences from our Beowulf studies, and now they know about Lewis’s too. You can’t help but see it, reading Spenser.

Oh, and we returned to our Poetry 180 journey, poem #8, “Numbers” by Mary Cornish.

Now, during all this poetry-reading, Rilla was perched in her usual spot at the kitchen table, drawing, and suddenly she flitted across to the shelves behind my rocking chair and started piling up books—mostly volumes from our Poetry for Young People collection, plus Child’s Garden of Verses. Later, I found this pile on my bed. She informed me gravely that she has decided to be a poet as well as an artist, “and I’m going to need to study everything about poetry. All the poems, and the poets’ lives, and everything.”

All the poems. Well, then. No time to lose. We began with Sandburg, at her request—his “Between Two Hills” is her favorite. And then a bit of Poe (we are incapable of saying his name without belting “Poe, Edgar Allen, American poet, born in eighteen hundred and nine…“). She liked the Raven but deemed it “too long” (I can’t disagree) and said she prefers poets like Emily Dickinson who “tell a whole story in a short little poem.” I can’t argue with that, either.

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17. Last week’s reading, and assorted other things

lavender

Things I read last week:

finished Howards End

—the “Keeps House” chapter of Milly-Molly-Mandy (a favorite because of Billy Blunt pretending to be a Mr. Snooks)

Queen of England: The Story of Elizabeth by Helene Hanff

—essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Alice Walker

—began Where Angels Fear to Tread

***

I spent the past week (month) (several months) in panic/crunch mode on a manuscript and missed commemorating a rather significant milestone here: Scott and I celebrated the 25th anniversary of our first date. Our 20th wedding anniversary is coming up in May, but in many ways this week’s date is the more significant, the more earthshaking, life-altering. We met at callbacks for a college play (Black Comedy) in February 1989. I was head over heels for him immediately. He seemed keen on me too. On March 3rd I invited him to my roommate’s birthday party. He took some coaxing—not a partygoer, is he—and somehow we wound up at a different party, either before or after my roomie’s (college, man), and we fell into a discussion of our mutual favorite books, The Lord of the Rings (remember, this was long before the films and you were part of a relatively small geeky subset if you were a Tolkien nut) and, well, we’ve been pretty much inseparable ever since. (Even my two years in grad school in North Carolina, when he was working in NYC, we talked every single night on the phone. And that brutal three-month stretch in 2006 just after Rilla was born when he came out here to San Diego to start the new job and I was back in Virginia trying to sell the house, we had an IM window open round the clock and often spent our evenings working together, each on our respective assignments. Ping, ping, ping.) I am still as ridiculously crazy about him as I was that very first day.

Anyway. I put some pictures on Facebook. Later in the week I was clicking around on the ‘related links’ below my posts, wandering back through funny kid stories I would have forgotten if I hadn’t blogged them, and I got swept with a tidal wave of gratitude for the chronicle this blog has become, this diary of our lives. His blog, too—even more so than mine, in so many ways—practically nothing is sweeter to me than glimpsing our children through his eyes, from his inimitable perspective. So, because I know I’ll be glad later that I did, I’m posting the photos here too.

Egg hunt 1989

Pretty sure this was the first picture ever taken of us. Would have been late March, 1989. Rehearsals for Black Comedy. In that show, if you haven’t seen it, there’s a blackout five minutes into the play, and the characters spend the entire rest of the show in the dark. When the show opens, the stage is pitch black, but for the characters there is light, and they are walking and talking as if all is normal. Then boom, blackout: the stage lights come up, and the actors stumble around as if plunged into utter darkness. We had to stick around campus during Spring Break and rehearse, and at one point there was a blindfolded egg hunt on the stage. You can tell our respective feelings about children’s Easter chocolate. I cannot say I have matured in that regard in the slightest.

1989

Some months later but still ’89. I can tell because of the lipstick. It wouldn’t have been long after that that I bumped into Scott on my way (late) to an 8am class and he was all, wow, you look great, and I was all, but I don’t even have any makeup on…Ohhh. I just may marry this boy.

still goofy

Recently. Still goofy. Still head over heels.

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18. Okay, yeah, I’ve been there.

Rilla on why she didn’t put away her playdough: “Well, I expected myself to go back and do it, but I didn’t.”

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19. Painted with woad, and howling

Searches for this phrase (minus the comma) keep popping up in my stats. It’s a Downton Abbey quote, Violet mocking Isobel: “I wonder you don’t just set fire to the Abbey and dance ’round it, painted with woad and howling.” She didn’t pause for a comma, which has some folks confused. ‘Howling’ here is a verb.

Here is a person who is painted with woad, and is also howling.

woadandhowling Maaaaaaaaatthew!

Woad is a blue dye extracted from a the plant Isatis tinctoria or “dyer’s woad.” Its flowers are yellow but you can get blue from its leaves. I learned a lot about it while researching my Martha books—woad would have been one of Auld Mary’s staples. Indeed, it was a staple in European textiles through the Middle Ages, until it was gradually replaced in commercial use by indigo.

Image from Wikimedia Image source: Wikimedia

You chop the leaves into a paste, let them dry, crumble them into powder, then sprinkle them with water and allow them to ferment, a process known as “couching.” Then you add a mordant, something to help fix the color into the cloth. In days of yore this was most commonly stale urine. (The ammonia in the urine serves as the fixative, as you probably learned from The Mammoth Hunters.) Fun fact: according to this dyeing site, the urine of male beer drinkers was most effective. The collection and sale of urine from certain cities was big business, at one time.

Urine from London was shipped up the coast to Yorkshire, where there was a big dyeing industry, and this is the origin of the phrase “taking the piss.”

Captains were unwilling to admit that they were carrying a cargo of urine and would say that the barrels contained wine.

“No – you’re taking the piss” was the usual rejoinder.

Who knew?

In ancient Scotland, so the story goes, the Picts liked to paint or tattoo themselves with woad, especially before going into battle. In fact, that’s how they came to be called Picts by the Romans, from the Latin word “pictus” or painted. Julius Caesar wrote in his The Conquest of Gaul, “All the British color themselves with glass, which produces a blue color.” Over time his word “vitro” (glass) came to be associated with woad, and the image of blue-painted Scottish warriors stuck. Some modern scholars dispute the association, saying Caesar meant something else entirely; it is widely accepted that the early Britons did engage in body art but the contemporary thinking, as far as I can tell, seems to be that the paint was probably not made from woad. However, other experts will point out that woad has antiseptic properties, which could well explain its use in painting the skin before or after armed conflicts. And so woad lives on in battles (of the scholarly sort) to this day.

Whatever the truth may be, the blue body paint is exactly what the Dowager Countess had in mind when she tossed her barb at Isobel. If I had any kind of Photoshop skills you would be looking at Maggie Smith’s face painted with woad (and howling) right now.

Here’s my recap of the Downton episode in question: Season 4, Episode 5 (UK/DVD 6)

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20. More MOOCs to explore

moons

I’ve written before about our great experiences with various MOOCs one or more of us has taken via Coursera. Here’s another list of offerings, this time from FutureLearn.com. Courses that have caught my eye include:

Moons— “Explore the many moons of our Solar System.” This has Beanie written all over it. Eight weeks, starts March 17. The Open University.

Kitchen Chemistry— “Along the way you will use fruit tea to identify acids and alkalis, investigate chemicals that speed up reactions and experiment with electron transfer reactions. This should give you a feel for the world of molecules and an idea of some reactions. It should also introduce some methods to separate chemicals, to find out what chemicals are present in a mixture and ways to change chemicals from one form to another.” Six weeks, starts in April. University of East Anglia. 

England in the Time of Richard III! Exclamation point mine. “Explore 15th century England through archaeology, history and literature against the backdrop of the excavation of Richard III.” Yes, please. Methinks it’s time to introduce Rose and Beanie to Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time—a compulsive reread for both Jane and me—as a backdrop to this course. Six weeks, starts mid-2014. University of Leicester.

Those plus the Courseras we’re already signed up for—including a History of Art for Artists, Animators, and Gamers via CalArts, which is just getting rolling—may tide us over until the next iteration of ModPo kicks off in September. Boy do I love sending my kids to college around the world in our own living room.

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21. “A minnow! A minnow! I’ve got him by the nose!”

mr-jeremy-fisher

Our favorite line from The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher. And Sir Isaac Newton (the newt) cracks Rilla up every time.

And in the you-had-me-at-hello department, how’s this for an opening?

When I walk into a bookstore, any bookstore, first thing in the morning, I’m flooded with a sense of hushed excitement. I shouldn’t feel this way. I’ve spent most of my adult life working in bookstores, either as a bookseller or a publisher’s sales rep, and even though I no longer work in the business, as an incurable reader I find myself in a bookstore at least five times a week. Shouldn’t I be blasé about it all by now? In the quiet of such a morning, however, the store’s displays stacked squarely and its shelves tidy and promising, I know that this is no mere shop. When a bookstore opens its doors, the rest of the world enters, too, the day’s weather and the day’s news, the streams of customers, and of course the boxes of books and the many other worlds they contain—books of facts and truths, books newly written and those first read centuries before, books of great relevance and of absolute banality. Standing in the middle of this confluence, I can’t help but feel the possibility of the universe unfolding a little, once upon a time.

—from The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee, one of your memoir suggestions from the other week, and also mentioned by jep in the comments here.

And a bit of Howards End this morning. I didn’t read much this weekend. How about you?

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22. Pressing Questions

Huck, apropos of nothing and in a voice of great urgency: “How old do I have to be?”

Me: “For what?”

Huck: “To get the remote and to cross the street by myself.”

Ah yes, the important stuff.

Also, how many roads must a man walk down?

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23. Which

There’s never any knowing—(how am I to put it?)—which of our actions, which of our idlenesses won’t have things hanging on it for ever.

—E.M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread

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24. High Style

Informed_Air_300_463

“I’ve never met a really good writer who lives in high style. I think a stylish life is unsuitable to the writer, and very often in the house where there’s a mild disorder one finds the writer with the best powers of organising his work. Order where order is due.”

Muriel Spark— “The Poet’s House”

Read this and many other wonderful essays by Muriel Spark in The Informed Air, which will be released by newdirectionspublishing on April 29th.

(Source: kevinelliottchi, via maudnewton)

(I’m counting the days until this book comes out!)

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25. Rhymes with ‘how’

Huck: “I know what ‘bow’ means. It means ‘hello’ in dog language.”

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