From My Sickbed

books and tea

There should be a rule that if the mom gets sick then no one else is allowed to get sick as well.  Just once I want to get sick all by myself.  I want my family to soothe my fevered brow, bring me countless cups of tea, and insist I not get off the couch.

I'm living in a dream world, aren't I?

Instead what happens is that the cold (yes, we are only talking about a cold but, in my defense, it is a particularly nasty one) starts with my daughter, moves on to my son, and then hits my husband and me at the same time thus leaving no adult to care for the everyday concerns.  We both feel miserable, we both want to sit on the couch, we both get grumpy.  Don't you wish you knew me in real life now?  We sound so appealing.

My daughter went off to school today saying that she thought she might be getting another sore throat.  Do you think she might be starting a whole different cold?  The mind boggles at the misery.

But right now I am sitting on the couch, I have a stack of books next to me, and I know my husband will make me tea if I ask him to.  I am just going to ignore the five loads of clean laundry that need to be folded, the five million stuffed animals on my living room floor, and the dust bunnies under the coffee table. I am also going to ignore the slightly panicky feeling because my schedule is messed up for the week.  I am going to read my books and relax until the kids get home and I have to return to real life.

 What do you read when your head is so stuffed up you can't focus?  If you are me, you do a lot of rereading.  Right now I am reading The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer.  I always read Heyer when I am sick.  There is nothing like Regency England, witty comebacks, and fraught love affairs to make you forget your misery.  I have The Toll-Gate on the pile as well.  I haven't read that for a long time.  I also have Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers.  Peter Wimsey will brighten any day.  I can pretend I am punting down the river in Oxford with him, looking frail and interesting instead of red-nosed and puffy-faced.  Of course, the witty comebacks would be mine in this case.  I would enthrall him with my intelligence and Latin tags.  (I think I might be feverish)  Lastly, I have All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott.  I read these books so many times when I was younger that I practically have them memorized and I had to stop reading them for a while.  I just recommended them to my animal-loving daughter so I thought it might be time to pick them up again. His books always make me want to travel to Yorkshire.  I can plan an imaginary vacation when I need a break from reading.

I think I need another cup of tea.  And I'm out of Kleenex.  I maybe could be persuaded to eat a little something...

What do you read when you are ill?

Book Review--Photographs From the Edge by Art Wolfe

I like pretty pictures.  I would like to take pretty pictures.  I mentioned in my recent post about being artistic that this a relatively new interest of mine.  I developed this interest partly because I started this blog and I obviously need photos for it and partly because I was not completely satisfied with some vacation photos I had taken.  I knew what I wanted but I didn't know how to achieve it.  I still don't really but I am doing a lot of reading and a lot of practicing and one of these days I might end up with some photos I am reasonably pleased with.

Photographs From the Edge by Art Wolfe is one of the books I have been reading lately.  Because I have only recently started paying attention to photography I was not familiar with who Art Wolfe is.  I have a feeling I should have been. Apparently, he is a celebrated nature/wildlife photographer and his work has appeared in such publications as Smithsonian and National Geographic.  This is just one of the many books he has written.  I see why he is so well-known.  His photos are gorgeous.  He takes you on a journey around the world with everything from a yak train in Tibet to penguins in Antarctica to the alps in France.  The photographs span many years of his career.

One thing I appreciate about the book is that is so accessible to someone like me who does not really know much about photography but would like to learn.  Each photo has a segment by Wolfe about the photo itself, describing what was happening around the taking of the photograph.  Under the photo title it also lists the equipment he uses.  Then there are two other little headings.  One is called "The nature of the photo" which is exactly what it says, a small blurb about the animal, location, etc. that you are looking at.  The other is called "Photo tip"  and provides easily understood pointers for the reader.  I enjoyed that not only is this a book full of gorgeous photos but it is also a way to learn a bit more about the photography process.

My one quibble with the book is that frequently the photos are smaller than I would like.  The text takes up quite a bit of space and then there is a surprising amount of blank space on the pages.  I think the impact would have been more impressive if the photos were larger.  After all, they are the star of the show.

This is a book that I am sure I will pick up and browse through with fair regularity.  It is not a book to be read cover to cover in one sitting but it is one to be flipped through and enjoyed.  It will bring a bit of beauty and a bit of the natural world into your everyday life.

I received this book from Blogging For Books for this review.

Books As Our Identity

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you want to be my friend you have to like Jane Austen.

Tell me that you don't like one of her novels and I will judge you.

Ask me, as someone recently did, who Jane Austen is and I will pass out from shock, recover and judge you, and then I will pass out again.

As with many book mad people, the books I love have become part of my identity.  Tell me you don't like Jane Austen and you are telling me you don't like part of who I am because I can trace Jane Austen and her novels back through my life from the first reading to the five millionth.  The characters are almost like people I know, friends I wish I had.  When you say Fanny Price is boring I wince in sympathy as if she can hear you and be hurt.  Because she isn't boring, she is just misunderstood.  Emma has her flaws, of course she does, but we love her in spite of them.  We, like Mr. Knightley, see her potential.

When you say you don't like Jane Austen, or Angela Thirkell or Georgette Heyer or any of my other beloved authors, I can't help but wonder what we can possibly have in common.  I may be slightly exaggerating here but there is an element of truth.  When we meet people we automatically look for common ground.  Do we come from the same part of the country?  Do we both have kids?  Do we work in the same field?  You like to bake? Oh, so do I.  When we find that bit in common, that meeting point, we also find the potential for friendship.

I ideally like to find that meeting point with books.  Now, obviously, I can't reject as a friend everyone who doesn't read Jane Austen.  I would be a very lonely person if I did.  I can't even reject everyone who does not like to read, as horrifying as that is.  But when I do find someone who likes to read or when I discover a new book blog the first thing I do is find out what books they like, which are their favorites.  And if Jane Austen is one of them, well then, we have that bit more in common.  They are my kind of person. And if they do not like Jane Austen or another of my favorite authors it makes me wonder about other ways in which our thoughts would not mesh.

This sounds a bit as if I am not open to differences and as if I think everyone should think the same way I do.  That isn't what I mean. I like a good book discussion as much as the next person. I am happy to debate whether that book I read yesterday is really worth reading. However, there are some books that are so much part of our identity, books we have read over and over and absorbed into our psyche to such an extent that they are part of us.  Some of these are books from our childhood, It is impossible to imagine not loving Little Women or the Little House books.  Some are more recent finds. I think Mollie Panter-Downes' novel, One Fine Day, is an exceptional book.  But whether they are long loved and often read favorites or something we fell in love with last week, they do something to us.  They become part of who we are.

Because all dedicated readers are made up of the books they have read and loved.  It is through those books that we have learned about different countries and different cultures and different times in history.  We have learned about love and loss and how to deal with both.  We read about the mistakes characters made in books and hopefully we don't repeat them.  Books have educated us and comforted us and helped us to become who we are today.  We are defensive of those books and those authors because we identify with them.  They are us and we are them.

So tell me, do you like Jane Austen?

On Being Artistic

camera, book, and notebook

I am not artistic.  That is what I have always said, usually with a self-deprecating smile.  Then I would murmur something about being unable to draw a straight line and mention that my stick figures are unrecognizable.

It is true, I can't draw and my crafting skills are abysmal.  My children were outdoing me by the time they were three.  You haven't learned humility until your toddler has kindly and tactfully praised your play-doh creation and you have resisted the urge to agree that yes, it is a doggy, when really you meant it to be a lion.

I am not artistic.  That is what I have always said, until last week when I was showing my son the new photography book that had come in the mail.  He looked at the book and at my laptop, open to the blog post I was writing and he said "You know, you are artistic, you just aren't crafty.  Writing and photography are both artistic things."  It sounds so basic. They are both artistic but I never thought of it that way.

I looked up the definition of artistic.  It is "having or revealing natural creative skill."  Some synonyms are creative, imaginative, inventive, expressive.  Nowhere in that definition does it say you have to be able to make a recognizable lion out of play-doh in order to be artistic.  I can be creative and expressive.  I just can't draw.  There are so many ways to be artistic and so many things we can use to create.  The carpenter creates out of wood, the baker out of flour and butter, the storyteller uses words, the list goes on and on.

When you broaden the definition of artistic it becomes clear how many things fit that definition.  The problem is, like so many things, we frequently yearn after the forms of art that don't come naturally to us.  Because I can't draw or sing I discounted the fact that I like to work with words and that I am discovering an interest in photography.  However, both of those are creative outlets, they are artistic.  And nowhere in the definition of artistic does it say that you have to excel in order to be artistic.  Of course there are artistic geniuses but most of us are just creative.  Just creative.  That is a contradiction, isn't it?  There is nothing simple or negligible about any form or degree of creativity.  We need to appreciate it for what it is.  It is art, big or small.

I am not crafty.  A table filled with glue sticks, drawing pencils, construction paper, and glitter brings me out in hives.

I am artistic.  I am imaginative, expressive, and creative.

What a revelation.

Book Musings

statue of boy with book

How has your week been?  Full of books and a bit of relaxation, I hope.  Mine has been busy.  The kids are back in school and life is back to chaos and alarms going off at 5:15 a.m.  Why on earth do schools think it is a good idea to start at 7:15 in the morning?  I can't think straight at that hour and we expect our kids to be awake and learning then.  I don't think days should start before 9:00.

Can you tell I am not a morning person?

I am, as you know, a book person and I have been reading a couple of good books lately.  Right now I am reading a Persephone book.  It is A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes.  I am about halfway done with it and am enjoying it thoroughly.  It provides such an evocative picture of life during that time period. Hughes went on to write two other books about her life.  I knew this was a family I would enjoy when I read this passage at the very beginning of the book.

We were rich too in another way, richer, so far as I can observe, than the average children of to-day.  Our parents had accumulated a large number of books, which we were allowed to browse in as much as we liked.  Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Lamb, George Eliot, Tennyson, Bryon, Coleridge, Disraeli, these were not 'taught' at school, or set as holiday tasks, but became part of our lives.  The elder ones discussed them at table, and quoted from them, till the Micawbers and Becky Sharp and Lamb appeared to my childish mind as some former friends of my mother's, whom I recognized with delight later on when I read the books for myself. 

The Persephone books are so beautiful with their dove-grey covers, gorgeous endpapers, and matching bookmarks.  They are a pleasure to read.  I do find it interesting though.  I never used to really care about what my books looked like.  I didn't want them to be falling apart but other than that I just was interested in the words, the story.  Most of my shelves are filled with a hodge-podge of books that I have collected over the years.  I have different editions within one series and it never occurred to me to be bothered by it.  Then I came across Persephone books and book blogs and suddenly there was this whole world where books looked pretty as well as contained fascinating stories.  And don't even get me started on  Instagram which is filled with carefully curated shelves of beautiful books. They are gorgeous but I think I still don't really care what my books look like.  In fact, sometimes I prefer my ratty old editions.  I know with the Persephone books I end up being so careful with them because I don't want to damage them.  I grabbed a different book while I ate my lunch because I didn't want to get food on it.  The old hodge-podge of books can all be thrown in my bag, taken to the beach, read with a bar of chocolate by my side.  They are lived with, not protected.  I still think my Persephone books are gorgeous and I will still buy them but I am afraid they are not quite "me" as much as all my other books are.  I am not sure what that says about me but there you have it.  Do you love gorgeous editions or will any decent copy do?

After that little digression let's return to the other book I just finished.  I read The Six--The Lives of the Mitford Sisters* by Laura Thompson.  I always feel as if I know a lot about the Mitford Sisters and as if I have read all their books.  That isn't true, I just have heard a lot about them and have been slowly collecting their books.  I saw this book and thought it was time for me to actually learn a bit about their lives.  I am not sure this book was the best place to start even though I found it very interesting.  Thompson assumes you are familiar with the sisters and their various books.  I had some very basic knowledge but frequently found myself a little confused about who was being discussed and I would have appreciated a bit more of an overview of their lives.  Thompson also tended to jump back and forth through time.  You would be reading along and it would be 1938 and the next thing you knew she would be discussing an event in 1952.  She did her best to weave in the lives of all six sisters.  That must have been quite a challenge.  In the process, I felt like I got a little about all of them but that a lot was glossed over.

That being said, I found the book fascinating.  The sisters were talented, charming, baffling, beautiful, idiosyncratic, and frequently enigmas.  I finished the book and set it aside with the conviction that I am not sure I would have liked them but that, at the same time, I now wanted to read more about them.  Maybe that is part of their unending fascination.  I have Mary S. Lovell's biography of them on my shelves and I have been thinking about buying the collection of their letters since it has been recommended by several people.

*I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for review consideration.  This in no way affected my opinion of the book or the way in which my review was written.  If I hate it I will tell you.

That's Life

Dusk is the time to live in a dream world.  That one brief time of day feels as if it is caught between reality and potential.  Blink and you miss it.  Blink and you are caught in the same endless cycle of stresses and schedules, homework and dishes, alarm clocks, and bedtimes.

If you stop, if you stop and look at the sunset, you notice how the world changes.  It slows down for a moment.  All you see is the softened edges of the graying world, the swift flight of the swallows across the yard, and the haze of pink and indigo across the sky.  The world is full of potential.  Maybe you will write that book or paint that picture, or take that trip.  No more for you the everyday routine of life.  You, you are going to do something.

The sunset fades and the quiet is supplanted by the everyday sounds of life, a child complaining about chores, the murmur of the radio upstairs, the clatter of dishes in the kitchen.  You turn and leave that pink and indigo dream world and enter back into the world of noise and commotion.  You realize that once the world you dreamed about is the world you have now.  You just didn't know it came with so much whining and nagging and so many dirty dishes.  That's the thing with dream worlds, the work is left out but so is the love.  Dream worlds are softened and grey and hazy.  Real life is noisy and chaotic and brightly colored.  Dream worlds fulfill all your wishes.  Real life fulfills wishes you didn't know you had.

 It is messy and wonderful. It is boring and unexpected.  It is full of laughter and tears.  It may not always live up to your dreams but sometimes it exceeds them.

That's life. That's real life.

But sometimes we need to gaze at a pink and indigo sky and dream.

Reading Lately

I have decided what I want to do with my life.  Yes, I know I should have figured that out by now but I hadn't read Country Editor by Henry Beetle Hough before.  Now I know.  I want to be the editor of a small New England newspaper, preferably a weekly paper.  If it could be located on an island that would be even better.

Country Editor recounts Hough's experiences at the Vineyard Gazette on Martha's Vineyard.  I was lost as soon as I read the description of the newspaper office.

The whole shop was shabby with age and use, and dignified as few establishments are dignified.  Its sheafs of proofs, its worn and battered fixtures, its printing specimens pasted on the walls--all were part of a disorder which went to make up, if not some kind of orderly sum total, at least the visual evidence of a Purpose.  More pronounced than anything else was, I think, the smell of the place, a blend of ink and dust and time, not strong but unescapable, mysterious, elusive.  I found out later that the general fragrance depended upon the weather--dampness brought it out, winter chill hardened it, summer langour softened and blurred it.  

Hough does a wonderful job of describing the trials and tribulations of a small town journalist.  This is a calm and peaceful book, frequently as much about the town and the people as about the newspaper.  The trials and vicissitudes of newspaper life are written with humor and nostalgia.

I had never known before how hard it is to write an item.  A good serviceable item of ten lines is likely to represent a great deal of knowledge and skill.  One must be acquainted with the kindred of the Jones family, and know which cousins live in Watertown, and that Mrs. Jones always stops on the way to see her sister, but that Mr. Jones does not.  Perhaps it seems trivial, but I hardly think it is more trivial than most human concerns.  Even with all the information at hand, it takes more than a pedestrian journalist to put the facts together so that they will tell the story clearly, politely and without putting any member of the Jones family in a wrong light. 

I am probably never going to work for a weekly paper in a small New England town.  The blurb on the back of Provincial Daughter by R. M. Dashwood, however, sounds scarily like my real life.  She is described as "an intelligent woman juggling too little money and too many kids in rural obscurity."  Hmmm, if you are willing to believe the intelligent bit I will admit to the kids, rural obscurity, and lack of money.

I love the Provincial Lady books and reread them regularly.  They never fail to make me laugh.  I went into this book, written by her real-life daughter, with a large amount of trepidation.  Could it live up to her mother's books?  At the beginning I read this passage.

Conversation interrupted by enormous seething mass of children who now descend on us, hitting each other freely, and all are taken away by their respective parents.  Impossible not to reflect that there was something to be said for Nannies: have never, since attaining what is said to be Woman's Highest Sphere, succeeded in holding uninterrupted conversation with any other adult for more than five minutes, but try to console myself with reflection that at least it will be worse when they are older and can't be pushed off to bed; which I proceed to do.

Mine are older.  They can't easily be pushed off to bed.  This woman gets me.  I settled in happily and chuckled my way through the whole book.

Lastly, I read Across the Common* by Elizabeth Berridge.  This is the story of Louise who leaves her husband, for reasons that are not completely clear, and returns temporarily to the aunts who raised her.  Louise has some growing up to do and has to deal with some issues from her past.  When she returns she finds that her aunts have been concealing some secrets from that past.

While Louise could be annoying and immature I did like her in many ways.  I could relate to her.  This is what she said about her first evening home.

After supper the aunts' extreme tactfulness drove me to bed early.  Three people sitting in a large drawing-room drinking small cups of coffee in unaccustomed formality, tossing small talk from one to the other, each determined to avoid the unfortunate leading question, was a strain.  We had known each other too intimately for too long, and yet not at all.  All we had in common was the past.  I could meet them as a child, but not as a woman, and they were strange to me.  Surely the prodigal son had had doubts that first night at home?

 I liked this book in many ways.  I sympathized with Louise in her sorrow about her miscarriages and her insecurities in her relationship with her husband.  I found the aunts extremely entertaining.  Somehow though, I felt as if I was reading three different books.  There was the one about Louise and her issues, the funny one about the aunts, and the drama about the family secret.  In the process of putting all three of those into one book I didn't feel like there was a coherent whole.  All three of the story lines got glossed over a bit too much and some of the characters did not get developed as much as I would have liked.

The book is written in a reflective, almost stream-of-consciousness, style.  It pulls the reader in to an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty that pervades the entire book.  Interspersed were moments were Louise clearly knew herself or others around her.  I enjoyed those moments of insight.

It was the shock of meeting someone who spoke their language, thought their thoughts and was willing to listen, then tossed back their ideas in more coherent form.

Isn't that what we all look for?  I felt this book had its flaws but I enjoyed it and find myself thinking about it even after I have finished it.  I will probably look for more books by this author.

I just looked Elizabeth Berridge up.  She won the 1964 Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year award for this book.

*I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for review consideration.  This in no way affected my opinion of the book or the way in which my review was written.  If I hate it I will tell you.

Book Review--Victoria: A Life by A .N. Wilson

"We are not amused."

That, probably apocryphal, quote from Queen Victoria is  pretty much all I remember about her.  Well, that and the fact that she authorized the building of a huge monument to her beloved husband and that she had a entire time period in history named after her.

That is not a huge amount of information when we are talking about a woman who reigned over a world power for 63 years, 7 months, and 2 days.

Then I watched The Young Victoria, a movie which I found intensely irritating.  It was full of yearning glances, gorgeous clothes, and little substance.  It was so focused on the love story between Victoria and Albert that it glossed over almost everything else and in the process left me with more questions than I had started with.  I wanted to know what she was really like, how involved she was with the politics of the day, what went on in her life after her husband died and how a woman who was so in love with her husband went on to be associated with a prudish and straight-laced time period.

There is a book for that.  There is always a book for that.  And there you have my life's motto.  The book is Victoria:  A Life by A. N. Wilson.  It is a huge (600 pages) and detailed account of Queen Victoria's life and reign.  It quotes extensively from her letters and was obviously thoroughly researched.

The book covers such a huge time period and such an outsize character that it is hard to know where to start when talking about it.  The list of things I had never known before I read this book is equal parts fascinating and horrifying.  I thought I was reasonably well-educated but, for example,  I had no idea that her descendants fill or have filled so many royal positions around the world.  She was very astute in marrying her children off.

Victoria sounds like a difficult woman who needed to be handled carefully.  Here is a quote from a letter Prince Albert wrote to her.

You have again lost your self-control quite unnecessarily, I did not say a word which could wound you, and I did not begin the conversation, but you have followed me about and continued it from room to room.  There is no need for me to promise to trust you, for it was not a question of trust, but of your fidgety nature, which makes you insist on entering, with feverish eagerness, into details about orders and wishes which, in the case of a Queen, are commands, to whomsoever they may be given.

At the same time, she is described as a woman of great charm and friendliness.  She basically seems to have been a mass of contradictions.  Prince Albert was a very intelligent man who, it is generally agreed, was not properly valued by the people during his lifetime.

The prince wanted to buy a permanent site for educational, scientific, and cultural institutions, the land now occupied by the Royal Albert Hall, Imperial College, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Royal College of Music  and the Royal College of Art: the so-called Albertropolis.  It is not a bad legacy for a foreign prince of whom the British majority were so suspicious when he first arrived on their shores, nor for the Exhibition which he championed, and which pessimists had predicted would be a failure.

Victoria went through a time during her middle life, after Prince Albert's death, when she retired from public life, behaved somewhat erratically and her ministers, according to Wilson, occasionally feared for her reason.  It is during this time period that her servant, John Brown, became such a fixture in her life.  Her children deeply resented him and he did not show people the respect they thought they deserved.  There is much debate about their exact relationship but Wilson feels there is no way to know for sure what went on between the Queen and Brown.  Many letters were destroyed after her death, some of them being described as incriminating. She was a woman of sudden and intense relationships.  Brown was not the only one of her servants with whom she developed a close and generally disapproved of friendship.

Victoria reigned over a decisive time period in Britain's and the world's history.  I was amazed when I read about the different Prime Ministers who served during her rule.  There were so many famous names, Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone.  Victoria saw the expansion of the British empire and the industrial revolution.  The book does a good job of weaving together Victoria's personal life with the politics, social history, and world events of her day.

It is impossible to sum up the life of such a complex woman in just a few paragraphs.  Read the book.  It is fascinating and makes the history of the time period and the woman who reigned over it fascinating.