Friday, February 20, 2015

The Gardens I Left Behind / Let's Think Summer!

When we moved to Philadelphia, I left behind gardens.  And thirty-five years worth of good friends.

We lived in our 300-year-old house in Massachusetts for fifteen years.  The town was growing too quickly and the atmosphere was changing.  I was tired of having to drive everywhere and felt isolated.  I was craving city life again, but we chose to move to Philadelphia rather than back to Boston.  I felt that I was missing too many family events, big and little, because family was four to eight hours away by car.  So we moved.

These are the gardens I left behind.  I miss them now.  I was so spoiled.  Now, I have a few potted plants on a tiny patio, no room to experiment or for the big clumps of flowers I like.  We've been in the city for almost ten years and I'm craving the country.  This has been our pattern:  ten years in the city, ten in the country.  But if I mention moving, Jack cringes and edges away.

By the way, if anyone recognizes the plant / flower in the first photograph, please let me know.  I was very good about labeling and taking notes, but I just can't place this one.  It's one of my favorite blues.  Anchusa?  Salvia?

Elsie & Mairi Go to War - Diane Atkinson


What a fascinating book!  What amazing women!

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm were two British women who signed up to help in the war effort.  Elsie was about thirty and Mairi was eighteen when the war began.  They met at a motorcycle club, both being good motorcyclists and mechanics.  Elsie was interested in flying, too, and went up with a noted flier.  Elsie had been married to a horrid man but had divorced him.  This was not commonly done by women in those days.  Mairi was from a proud Scottish family living in England.  They were brave and adventurous women.

In the fall of 1914, they joined Munro's Flying Ambulance Corps and found themselves on the Belgian front line, often within a few hundred yards of the front.  They would treat the wounded,  sometimes retrieving wounded soldiers from the front line, and run them off to a treatment facility in the ambulance.  They were shot at, they were bombed, they were gassed.  But they refused to stop.  They were eventually the only two women allowed to remain in danger at the Belgian front line.  This was mostly because Elsie was very good at refusing to do anything she didn't want to do.  And because the soldiers needed them.

After hassles with red tape and politics, they set up their own independent treatment post.  Elsie had seen many men die of shock on their way to hospitals.  She felt strongly that they would have a better chance if they weren't moved far immediately.  They needed to be stabilized and given a chance to get warm and rest before enduring a longer trip for further treatment.  

Elsie and Mairi saw and treated the most frightful wounds, as well as more common complaints like colds, constipation, and boils.  They sat by young men and watched them die.  They were often wet and covered with dirt and blood and gore.  In addition to medical attention, they provided hot soup and cocoa, tobacco, and amusements such as cards and sing songs.  They strove to lift moral, provide  comfort, and give the men (mostly boys) a break from the stress of war.

The women lived in brutal conditions, happy if they could have a bath every three weeks and wearing the same clothes until they had to be cut off their bodies.  Food was meagre and water was contaminated by rotting bodies on the high water table.  Fresh water had to be brought from England in barrels.  Elsie and Mairi had to be available 24-hours, although they occasionally got breaks to go to the nearest towns.  These were very different conditions from those they'd been brought up in, but they adapted and thrived.

They sometimes needed to return to England to raise funds to keep the post going.  They begged from friends and they gave talks to growing crowds, who were fascinated by these two women and what they were doing.  They were well-known and in the public eye.  People were eager to help, eager just to see them.

Elsie fell in love with and married a dashing Belgian count.  Their marriage deteriorated almost from the start.  Elsie had a difficult time after the war.  The First World War was her time of glory.  She could never reach those heights again and was bitter about that.  Mairi never married and didn't talk about her war experiences unless asked.  She spent the rest of her life looking forward, not backward, raising poultry with a group of women friends in Jersey and England.  Oddly, after the war, Elsie and Mairi did not stay in touch.  They never saw each other again.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Man in the Brown Suit - Agatha Christie

     I read this on my Kindle and can't figure out how to copy and paste an image of the cover from another source.  Sometimes I can do this, sometimes I can't.  This time, I can't.  There are a couple of great covers, if you want to look for them.  I like the one with the ship on it.  And the first edition cover.

     I was feeling nostalgic for an Agatha Christie.  I don't know why I picked this one, but it was a  disappointment.  It's been quite a while since I've read a Christie.  Miss Marple is my favorite.  Poirot has always left me cold.  To me, he's sort of like the character in the TV series Monk  -  brilliant, but his constrained oddness annoys me.  I'm fond of flamboyant freaks.

     The Man in the Brown Suit has neither Marple nor Poirot.  It's listed on Fantastic Fiction as being one of Christie's Colonel Race mysteries, of which they list only three.  He doesn't dominate the book, in fact,  I'd even relegate him to a minor character.

     Anne Beddingfeld is orphaned early in the book.  Her father was a leading authority on primitive man.  He left her a small inheritance, which Anne blows on a trip to South Africa in search of the killer of a mysterious woman.  She wants excitement and adventure  -  and she finds it.

     Anne gets involved when she sees a man killed as he steps backward onto a train track third rail, frightened by the sight of another man.  She finds a piece of paper dropped by the 'doctor' who examines the dead man at the train station, a man posing as a doctor in order to go through the dead man's pockets.  The dead man also has in his pocket a house agent's letter to view a house.  The police don't think there's anything to investigate.

     But the next day, Anne sees in the newspaper that a woman has been found murdered in the same house that the dead man had an appointment to see.  She starts to investigate and finds herself off on a transcontinental adventure  -  just what she'd been hoping for.  The mysterious message leads her to a ship sailing from London to South Africa.

     On board the ship to South Africa, she meets and befriends a wealthy woman, a wealthy man, and some interesting characters.  She also discovers that the mystery and the murders are about stolen diamonds, the men who were implicated in the theft, and a ring of spies run by The Colonel'.  She and the wealthy woman, Suzanne Blair, become chummy.  She's not sure what to make of the rather goofy and vague Sir Eustace Pedler, or Colonel Race, who may or may not be Secret Service.  One of Sir Eustace's secretaries turns out to be Harry Rayburn, one of the men incriminated in the diamond theft.  And Anne falls in love with the mysterious Rayburn.

     Twice Anne is summoned to meetings that turn out to be traps.  How bright is this woman?!  She's kidnapped, she falls over a waterfall on her way to one of the mysterious meetings and is presumed dead.  Her goal is to find out who The Colonel is and to clear Harry Rayburn.

     I couldn't get into this book.  The romance portions were so sophomoric and / or dated that I couldn't read them without rolling my eyes.  Anne was annoyed me, too, not one of my favorite Christie characters.  Be forewarned, almost no one is who they purport to be and several turn out to have more than one persona.  This is one of Christie's earliest books, so I guess she hadn't yet hit her stride.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Red Earth and Pouring Rain


My friend Edgar told me about Red Earth and Pouring Rain.  I respect and appreciate his opinions.  I'm glad I followed  his recommendation.  

This is a large book (542 pages) that is layered and convoluted and rich.  I made the mistake of starting it around the holidays.  I kept picking it up when I had a few minutes and putting it aside,  until I finally had time to give it my full attention.  I think it would be best read straight through instead of in pieces.  It's stories within stories within stories.  I admit that by the time I got to the end, I wasn't sure who had told which story.  But it's a terrific book.  Just make sure you have enough time to devote to it.

I think the book is about the power of storytelling.  Like Sanjay and Scheherazade, stories keep us alive, whether we're telling them or listening to them.  We readers experience storytelling through books.  But there's a special power to oral storytelling.  Jay O'Callahan, a friend of mine, is a professional storyteller.  Sitting in his office listening to him rehearse his stories, we were transported, transfixed by his voice and his stories.  It's magic.

The story starts with a young Indian man, Abhay, returning to his parents' house in India.  He has been at college in California.  We later learn that he's brought his girlfriend with him, but before they get to his home, India defeats her and she returns to the United States.

So Abhay gets home in a bad mood.  A monkey that his parents have been feeding for years and years appears and steals Abhay's jeans off the clothesline.  He's had enough and he shoots the monkey.  His parents are horrified and he's sorry, too.  They nurse the monkey back to health  -  and the monkey starts typing on the father's typewriter.

The monkey is Sanjay, a poet who has been reincarnated.  Hindu gods appear:  Yama, Hanuman, and Ganesha.  Yama, the god of death, agrees to allow Sanjay to live on as a monkey as long as he and Abhay's family give them two hours of stories a day.  As Sanjay types, one of the family reads what he's written.  People from the village, and then from farther away, start coming to hear the stories.  Soon, huge groups crowd the square to listen.

Sanjay and his brothers, by different mothers, were conceived in an inconceivable fashion:  their mothers were impregnated by eating sweets specially made for one of the women who wanted sons instead of daughters.  One son, Sikander, grows up to be a great warrior.  One, Chotta, follows his brother Sikander.  And Sanjay aspires to be a great poet.

This is mostly Sanjay's story, and that of his brothers.  But when Sanjay is tired, Abhay tells several stories of his life in California.  It's also the story of India, her subjugation by the British and her freedom.  The story takes place mostly in India, but Sanjay travels to England for revenge and to stop a Jack-the-Ripper style killer.

There is beautiful, magical writing, there are magical, mystical people, there are battles, there are murders, there are love stories, there are unbelievable events that you, somehow, find yourself believing.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Cranberry Scones

I love to bake.  Unfortunately, I love to eat what I bake, so I don't bake that often.  My mother was a terrific baker.  She understood how comforting food could be.  If someone had a birthday or was recovering from an illness, she'd bake them their favorite pie or cake or cookies.  She spoiled me for delicious home-baked goodies.

I had some non-dairy cream left over from a dinner recipe and I didn't want to waste it.  I remembered that this recipe used cream, so I dug out some frozen cranberries and about an hour later, I had warm cranberry scones.

I don't remember where I found this recipe.  I thought the copy was large enough to read, but it looks sort of small here.  If you can't read it, let me know and I'll send you a larger copy via e-mail.  You can use the recipe as written, but I'm a vegan, so I use non-dairy coconut creamer and Earth Balance instead of butter.  Earth Balance even comes in sticks, which are easier for baking.  Both are delicious  substitutes for cream and butter.  I defy anyone to taste the difference.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Murder in Pigalle - Cara Black

I've been reading this series for several years now.  I started reading it because it takes place in Paris,  the main characters are Aimee Leduc and Rene Friant, a dwarf, and because the scattered French words give me a chance to pretend I'm still fairly fluent in French.  I spent a week in Paris many years ago and I remember enough about it to occasionally picture where the action takes place.  From book to book, the crimes move from one arrondissement to another.  There's always a map in the front.

Aimee and Rene run a computer security business together, but Aimee is always finding her way into real life crime.  Rene often bails her out, often with the help of Saj, another computer expert.  I like both Rene and Saj better than I like Aimee.

In this episode, Aimee is pregnant.  The father is her on-again-off-again boyfriend whose priorities are his ex-wife and daughter.  The daughter is in a coma and the ex-wife is needy.  Aimee hasn't told him that she's pregnant.  She knows that she needs more than he will give her.

In the midst of all this (and a broiling hot summer, too), Zazie, her friend's daughter and Aimee's protege, disappears.  (Please note that she didn't 'go missing' in this review.  We used to say 'disappear', which is a perfectly good word, but it seems to have 'gone missing' from our vocabulary.) Because there have been several rapes of young girls in the area, Aimee is concerned that Zazie is a victim of the rapist.  Zazie doesn't fit the profile of 12 years old, blonde, and violin-playing, but Aimee is convinced Zazie has been taken by the rapist.  And she's wrong.

I like the details of everyday life in Paris.  I wish there were bakeries on every corner in my city.  I love good fresh bread.  But I'm glad I don't live in a gorgeous freezing-in-the-winter and melting-in-the-summer apartment where the elevator is often broken.

Aimee gets a little tiresome sometimes.  Her Chanel red lipstick, her designer clothes, even if they're from thrift stores, her constantly feeding her little dog horse meat from the butcher.  She's always scaling buildings or jumping from roofs.  She puts herself and others in danger because she's impulsive and jumps to conclusions.  I'll give her one more book and then I think I've had enough.  Then again, I wonder how she's going to fit a baby into her life.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Unspeakable - Meghan Daum


This was a hot book at my library.  The hold list was longer than for most books I request.  I don't remember where I read about it, but it was touted as a no holds barred collection of essays.  I'm not sure it lived up to being outrageous.  I agreed with a lot of what Daum had to say, but maybe that's the point:  she admits to feelings that many of us have and are afraid to voice.

Grieving is one of those feelings.  In the first essay, the author writes about her relationship with her mother and her mother's death.  Many people feel that grieving should take certain forms and adhere to an accepted time table.  Oddly, I'm taking an on-line free course on Hamlet, and part of that discussion is about whether or not Hamlet was crazy, suffering from melancholy, or if he just grieved longer and louder than was the norm in those days.  He was expected to buck up and get on with it, but he didn't.

Her essay about dogs was wonderful.  We were definitely on the same page with that one.  I start to cry every time I read The Rainbow Bridge or hear it referenced.  If you've ever lost a beloved pet, you probably know it.  I think one of the reasons I suffer from sustained depression / melancholy is that in the past eight years, I've held six beloved pets in my arms as I allowed them to leave me and their pain and suffering.

I couldn't relate to her essay about being an honorary, if inactive, member of the LGBT community.  Totally lost me there.  I have no problem with people of any sexual inclination (as long as they don't involve unwilling participants, human or animal), but I also have no desire to be part of any of those communities.  I don't want to be part of almost any communities, even those to which I'm legitimately entitled, and I don't like groups.  But hers is an interesting viewpoint.

We also agree about children, although I never even considered having one.  I think children should be wanted with all one's heart, not just conceived because 'it's time' or one's worried that one will regret not having one, or, horrors of horrors, that a child will save a marriage.  I like kids if they are  smart, communicative, imaginative, and don't jump on the furniture or color on the walls.  They had better not be mean to animals.  I cut animals more slack than I do children.  Animals are allowed to bite or scratch children, but not vice versa.

There's an essay on Joni Mitchell, one of the author's idols, and the dinner that the author had with her.  Not What It Used to Be is about how things have changed over the years.  The author's almost twenty years younger than I am, so I've got more stories than she does.  The Best Possible Experience is about the pressure to marry, to 'settle', and to hold out for the right one.  It's also a defense of unmarried people.  Even though Daum did marry in her mid-thirties, marriage wasn't anywhere near  the top of her 'to do' list.

Daum hates to cook and views food as something to get done.  She has no aptitude for cooking, usually screws up recipes by not using the correct pans or reading the recipe through before starting.  She's perfectly happy with almost anything that someone else cooks.  Her husband seems to be the one who keeps them alive.

Invisible City is about life in Los Angeles, where the author lives.  She rubs elbows with celebrities and has some funny stories about those encounters.  And some sad stories about them and the world they live in.  They are not like us.

I skipped the last essay, which was about her near death experience with a sudden and badly behaved bacterial infection.  Since my husband spent several days in the hospital last fall with sepsis, this one was a little too soon and too close to home.  I had no desire to relive days in the hospital spent waiting and hoping and trying to stay strong.  I don't watch shows about or read books about hospitals or doctors or anything involving sickness.  It's too much like real life.

I think I've given you an idea of the content.  It's varied and most of it's interesting.  Daum writes well and writes honestly.  The Unspeakable was a pleasure to read.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust - Alan Bradley


I finally finished a book!  I finished four in January, a paltry amount for me.  I've been struggling with a post holiday / mid winter slump.  I think things are looking up.  The amaryllis my cousin gave me for Christmas, eight orange-red blooms, is lifting my heart. 

Sometimes it's the little things:

                                                                        Dust of Snow
                                                                       by Robert Frost

                                                                      The way a crow 
                                                                     Shook down on me 
                                                                       The dust of snow 
                                                                     From a hemlock tree

                                                                      Has given my heart 
                                                                      A change of mood 
                                                                    And saved some part 
                                                                     Of a day I had rued. 

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust has also helped me climb out of the abyss.  It's not a short book, almost 400 pages, but it's a fast read.

Some reviewers haven't liked this Flavia de Luce book because it takes place at a boarding school in Canada and not in Flavia's crumbling home in England.  That didn't bother me at all.  I'm more interested in Flavia than I am in her home or her family.  I did miss Dogger, though.

Flavia has been shipped off to the boarding school her mother went to.  It's also a training ground for members of the ultra secret and (to me at least) mysterious organization headed by her Aunt Felicity.  It's so secret that no one knows who's in it and I'm not clear on what their mission is.  Maybe I missed something in a previous book.

That doesn't detract from the murder that Flavia finds herself solving.  Her first night at the school,  she's attacked in her room by a fellow student  -  and a body falls down the chimney.  It ain't Santa Claus.  It's been up the chimney for a while.  The head that rolls off the body is a mummy's head, but the body is thousands of years younger.

Flavia must find out whose body it is, how it got there, why the person was killed, and who the killer is.  Just when she thinks she knows all, she realizes she doesn't.  

I enjoyed As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust and will look forward to the next Flavia book.