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.
March 3, 2014 @ 7:47 pm | Filed under: Books
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?
March 2, 2014 @ 4:09 am | Filed under: Fun Learning Stuff
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.
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.
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 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.
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 Britons 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)
February 28, 2014 @ 3:50 pm | Filed under: Books
So this morning the littles and I stayed in and read. Mice, more mice, is what Rilla wants these days. Kittens and hedgehogs are an acceptable substitute. Any small creature that wears clothing, really.
So first it was The Story of Miss Moppet—four times! I ask you. They kept begging and begging.
Then The Tale of Tom Kitten, which is crammed with delicious language. All Beatrix Potter is, but this one especially tickles me.
“While they were in difficulties, there was a pit pat, paddle pat! and the three Puddle-ducks came along the hard high road…”
“‘My friends will arrive in a minute, and you are not fit to be seen; I am affronted,’ said Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit.”
That petulant “I am affronted” cracks me up every time. Mrs. Tabitha is the Mrs. Bennet of B. Potter characters.
And then finally we got to the necessary mice. Well, mouse, singular. We read about half of The Mouse of Amherst (speaking of delicious language). She didn’t remember it from three years ago, which made it all the more fun. Seven is the perfect age for this loveliest of little books.
I slept too late to get any Howards End in, but did grab a few minutes for …on the Landing. Now that I’ve determined I’m going to buy a copy, I may save the rest for later and turn to one of the other interlibrary loans I have piled up, as time is ticking and they can’t always be renewed. I have The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop and a couple of Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow books, which were recommended to me in the memoir thread the other week. I also got hold of Helene Hanff’s Elizabeth I biography for children—she admired Elizabeth so, and it seemed a fun choice for a sampling of her children’s nonfiction.
February 27, 2014 @ 4:42 pm | Filed under: Books
Paperwhites by Rilla
Something Sherry mentioned in the comments reminded me of this post I’d left sitting in drafts all month. Instead of a booknote today (since all I’ve read is a chapter of Howards End), I’ll toss the draft up. I was saving it until I had time to say something intelligent about the three 1963 books, but now I can shove it into these quickie notes I’m doing and be excused from coming up with something insightful.
I read about the Century of Books project at Alex in Leeds—a reading project in which you endeavor to read a book written in every year of a particular century. Ideally you would assign yourself a time frame for completing the mission, but I’ve learned that deadlines are deadly to my recreational pursuits—too many deadlines swirling around my working life. I love, however, the idea of tracking the publication dates of my reading: another layer of interest to add to my favorite activity.
And so I borrowed Alex’s template and created a 20th-century list for myself, and plugged in last year’s titles. Right off the bat I discovered that my reading is skewed far more toward 21st-century titles than I might have guessed. (Over a third of my 2013 total.) I do read a lot of new books, I suppose, via NetGalley and other advance review copies. I just hadn’t thought about how that means new publications dominate my reading pile, elbowing older books to the lower, dustier shelves.
I logged fourteen 20th-century books in 2013 (well, counting this month*). Several were rereads—the children’s books especially, my read-alouds with Rilla. (I’m counting middle-grade and above, but not picture books. I can’t keep count of picture books. A dozen a week, at least.) Most surprising to me was the discovery that of those fourteen titles, three were published in the same year—1963.**
1) Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which caught my attention when Betty Draper read it in her bathtub. It was republished an as ebook by Open Road last year, and I snapped it up. (Set in the 30s.)
2) The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. (Set in 1945, with a 1963 framing story.)
3) The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge. (Contemporary with its writing.)
All so striking, and so very different! All books that stick with you and affect how you think of other books, and the outside world. I will try to come back to this when I have more time and muster some actual analysis. There’s an essay in these three books rubbing shoulders, to be sure. I haven’t the brain for it now.
*”This month” was early January. Total in late February is twenty 20th-century books.
**And now there’s 1962′s Underfoot in Show Business right alongside these, capturing yet another vivid and totally distinctive world. (The striving of Broadway hopefuls in the 30s and 40s, mostly.)
***I made a 19th-Century page as well, but there’s nothing there yet. Not a single 19th-century book for 2013-present? Actually I do have a number of late 1800s titles I’ve used as reference for my current novel, but for some reason I never seem to include research books in my annual booklogs. That makes no sense at all. I’ve read them, haven’t I?
Oh, and I did read three picture books with the littles this morning. The Ultimate Book of Vehicles and two other interactive books from Chronicle, who have been spoiling me with review copies lately. Vehicles became Huck’s instant Favorite Thing Ever (it’s a giant pop-up with excavators scooping and crane operators climbing to the top, and he fell instantly in love, as Scott’s tweet attests.
February 26, 2014 @ 8:25 pm | Filed under: Books
My Winter Bookletter is live! If you’re a subscriber, watch your inbox. To subscribe to future issues, click here.
This time around, I share a new picture book the littles and I have fallen in love with and a surprisingly entertaining app for sentence diagramming. Plus news about my next Inch & Roly book!
February 26, 2014 @ 7:59 pm | Filed under: Books
These posts are going to get very short all of a sudden because Rose and Beanie have departed for a week with my parents. I’ll miss our daily Poetry 180 readings. To make up for it, I made sure to catch today’s Writer’s Almanac entry. “Yard Sale” by George Bilgere. And it seems it’s Christopher Marlowe’s birthday! He was only 29 when he died, can you believe it?
Early morning: Howards End.
After lunch: Howards End Is on the Landing. Standout bits: This quote from Sir Walter Scott:
Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.
Oh how I love to hear writers talking about what other writers can pull off that they themselves can’t.
And just a note to myself to look up Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower. Hill’s description certainly sells it. Also loved this line Hill quotes from a letter Fitzgerald wrote her, on the delights of being a grandmother:
It is such a joy to have someone who wishes to sit with you on a sofa and listen to a watch tick.
February 25, 2014 @ 7:35 pm | Filed under: Books
I’m enjoying these daily booknotes even more than I expected to—it’s the least taxing writing I’ve done in a long time. I’ve said before I like talking about books more while I’m reading them than after I’ve finished, and doing it in these slapdash daily notes is less pressure than a monthly or weekly roundup. Also it makes me realize how much I actually read. Because sometimes weeks will pass without my finished a whole book, I’ve had a sense lately that my reading has dropped way off from where it used to be. But it hasn’t really, not when I’m counting (and why wouldn’t I? why haven’t I?) all the things I read to and with my kids in the course of a given day.
Early morning. Instead of turning to Middlemarch, I found myself sinking contentedly into Howards End instead. Gee, I wonder what put that particular book in my head? I love Forster—his prose at once crisp and dreamy, which is an impossible feat. I don’t know how he manages it. He’s a cipher. And a realist. Anyway, I got as far as the Beethoven concert, the goblins walking quietly over the universe from end to end. Bit wrenching to lay that aside and rise to the imperatives of contact lenses and lost Lego men.
Mid-morning, with the girls. Another small chunk of Wormwood Forest. The buried villages. Where are the poems? There must be reams of poetry about them. Probably in languages I can’t read.
This poem (it’ll be obvious by now that we’re reading through the Poetry 180 selections in order): Ron Koertge’s “Do You Have Any Advice For Those of Us Just Starting Out?” I’m trying not to talk about these too much, not unpack them, just let the girls sit with them. We’re doing so much heavy-duty analysis in our other poetry studies (Shakespeare’s sonnets at the moment), talking technique and all the rest of it. I don’t want to overwork poetry for them, to “tie the poem to a chair with rope /and torture a confession out of it” as Billy Collins describes in the very first poem of the 180 series.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
I hope we haven’t beaten Shakespeare and Marlowe with a hose, but certainly we’ve poked and prodded them, ruffled their hair, measured the size of our hands against theirs. And so to balance it, we read these other poems, one a day, and I try very hard to sit there with my mouth shut.
After lunch: More Howards End Is on the Landing. I wonder if any of you laughed at me yesterday when I said I wasn’t going to make lists of the books she rhapsodizes about. Of course I’m going to make lists. Or else I’m just going buy this book, which I got through interlibrary loan. Of course I’m going to buy this book. I could blog my way through it, reading all the books she’s reading, like Julie and Julia only even more meta. And with less aspic.
I’m having an ongoing conversation with Susan Hill in my head. She shocks me sometimes. She mentions in passing a book “about Australian aborigines, in whom I had then, as now, little interest.” I gave her such a look! How can you not be interested in a group of people? How can you say such a thing, and mean it, and in print!
Early afternoon. Spent a long time poring over our Beatrix Potter treasury with Rilla. I much prefer the small single editions, the original miniature size that is so just right for stories about mice and rabbits. But this big battered old collection is wonderful too, and she wanted to page through it and talk over all the stories, the ones she remembered and the ones she didn’t—it’s been at least a year since it came off the shelf. Halfway through is Roly-Poly Pudding and, well, there’s no paging through that one, you have to stop and read it. The “unruly family” line I quoted above made her laugh so hard. Potter’s genius shines here—who else would enfold a naughty, sooty kitten in dough and have a couple of rats roll him with a rolling pin? I love how full of antiheroes her tales are, too. Practically no one behaves himself.
Will close with another quote from the Susan Hill book. (I found an excellent OCR app that can take a picture of print and turn it into editable text! You can paste it into Evernote or an email, straight from your phone.) Here Hill herself is quoting a 1904 Atlantic Monthly essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson called “Books Unread”:
The only knowledge that involves no burden lies…in the books that are left unread. I mean, those which remain undisturbed, long and perhaps forever, on a student’s bookshelves; books for which he possibly economized and for which he went without his dinner; books on whose back his eyes have rested a thousand times, tenderly and almost lovingly, until he has perhaps forgotten the very language in which they are written. He has never read them, yet during these years there has never been a day when he would have sold them; they are a part of his youth, in dreams he turns to them…He awakens, and whole shelves of his library are, as it were, like fair maidens who smiled on him in their youth and then passed away. Under different circumstances, who knows but one of them might have been his? As it is, they have grown old apart from him; yet for him they retain their charms.