Category Archives: Books

Love of England: The Road to Little Dribbling

The roadAbout thirty years ago, my mother and I went to England to visit friends from Maine who had moved to North Yorkshire. Their cottage was just outside Whitby, tucked among rolling hills and a vista so broad that it seemed you could see halfway across the country. For me, it was love at first sight, and as our friends very kindly drove us from beautiful spot to beautiful spot, I knew I had found my heart’s home. This was only emphasized by the flowers—even the smallest yard had pots of spilling color—the wonderful tea, and the large number of dogs who were out and about with their people. Finally, England is the home of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and J.R.R. Tolkien, three very different but nonetheless brilliant writers. How could I not fall in love?

For a variety of reasons, it is highly unlikely that I will ever return to England. But I can visit via books (and blogs!), and it was with great pleasure that I read Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling. Bryson is perhaps best known for A Walk in the Woods, which was recently made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. In the movie, the terrific Emma Thompson played Bryson’s wife, and in real life, Bryson’s wife is indeed English. Because of this, the lucky fellow is actually allowed to live in England—yes, I am envious—and The Road to Little Dribbling is an account of his traveling from one end of Britain to the other, from Bognor Regis in the south to Cape Wrath in the north. He dubs this route the Bryson Line.

But as to be expected from this lively, discursive writer, Bryson does not exactly follow this straight line. Instead, he zigs and zags his way through Britain, going to Wales, Cornwall, the Lake Distract, North Yorkshire,  Hampshire, and many other places, touching bases with the Bryson Line from time to time. Along the way, he visits museums, walks in the countryside, and drinks a fair amount of beer. Ever curious, Bryson writes about the history of the many places he visits. Then, of course, there is his famous snarkiness—his acerbic observations and crotchets—amusing but fortunately kept in check. For this reader, a little snarkiness goes a long way.

While not without its criticisms—no place, of course, is perfect—The Road to Little Dribbling is in essence a love letter to England, and for Bryson, as for me, the countryside is his greatest love. At the end of the book he writes that he loves England for many reasons, but chiefly because of “the beauty of the countryside. Goodness me, what an achievement….there isn’t a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in than the countryside of Great Britain. It is the world’s largest park, its most perfect accidental garden. I think it may be the British nation’s most glorious achievement.”

So well put and so true. I have decided that The Road to Little Dribbling is a book for the home library—I borrowed it from our town’s library—and I will be putting it on my wish list.

Comfort Me with Reading

In Maine, winter is the perfect time for reading. The days are short, and aside from shoveling, outside chores are few. There are always inside chores, of course, but even so there are plenty of quiet opportunities for reading.

This winter, I have been thinking about the various reasons we read. On a pragmatic level, we read for basic information—manuals, how-to books, tutorials on the Internet. These can be a big help with projects as diverse as cooking to the most cost-effective way to fence in your yard for the dog.

We also read for intellectual ideas, and right now I’m slowly and with great difficulty working my way through Michael Lewis’s The Big Short. At times, I am absolutely stupefied by so much technical information about the workings of Wall Street, but still I read on, figuring that even if I only absorb a fraction of the book, I will know more than I did before I started.

We read for enlightenment and enlargement. For this we usually turn to the great novels—Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick. Often these books require effort on our part, but when we are finished, we feel as though we have gained a glimpse of something essential about life and human nature.

Last but certainly not least, we read for pleasure and comfort. The value of this kind of reading cannot (and should not) be underestimated. Life can be joyous, but it can also be hard, and the older a person becomes, the more loss she or he has endured. Loved ones die, illness comes. That is the way of things, and somehow we must cope.

When life becomes hard, I turn to books for comfort, often Miss Read.  Somehow, reading about life in an English village in the 1950s has a calming effect on me.  I am always absorbed by the descriptions of nature, the sympathetic yet shrewd take on human nature, and the humor.

Lately, I have discovered Gervase Phinn, another English writer. (Do you think there is a trend here?) Phinn writes memoirs of his time as a school inspector in North Yorkshire, beginning in the 1980s. He is not a great stylist, but his books have a wonderful narrative flow, with vivid descriptions of teachers, students, parents, and colleagues. And, he makes me laugh out loud, to the point where my husband looks at me with raised eyebrows as I chortle over a passage in Phinn’s books. How often do books make us laugh? In my experience, not very often, and a book that does is a little gem.

I have been thinking that I should start collecting “comfort” books for my home library. (I already have several Miss Read books.) That way, the books will be right there when I need them, and I can also let friends borrow them when they are going through their own hard times.

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Movie Night: Black Narcissus (Based on the Novel by Rumer Godden)

About a year ago, Clif and I decided we would host a movie night at the little house in the big woods. We have three friends—Diane, Joel, and Alice—who love movies as much as we do, and Clif and I thought it would be fun to get together to watch a movie and then discuss it afterwards.

Over the course of the year we have fine-tuned the event. We start at about 5:30, we provide pizza and soft drinks, and our guests bring salad and dessert. Clif has a very good hand with pizza dough—he knows just how to stretch it—and we are able to buy a good frozen dough from a Maine company, Portland Pie Co. (The dough is available in our local supermarket.) I make a quick sauce using Muir Glen’s crushed tomatoes with basil, garlic, and a little dried oregano. Clif likes to use a mixture of cheeses—mozzarella, cheddar, and Monetary Jack.

We have two large pizza pans, one of which is cast iron, a present from my brother and his wife. And miracle of miracles, our blast-furnace oven does a great job with pizza. We bake the two pizzas for twenty minutes or so and voilà! Pizza for five or six, at a fraction of the cost of take-out.

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We take turns choosing the movie, and last night was Joel’s turn. From his own film collection, Joel brought several to pick from, and we quickly settled on Black Narcissus, a 1947 film, staring Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons and based on the book by the late great English writer, Rumer Godden.

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Black Narcissus is the story of a small group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who travel to a remote former palace in the Himalayas to open a convent. At the new convent, the nuns plan to teach the local girls, open a health clinic, and grow much of their own food. But high on the mountain, the air is thin and the wind always blows. The local British agent, the charismatic Mr. Dean, warns them not to stay, feeling that the mountain will be too much for them.

Naturally the nuns stay, and naturally Mr. Dean is right. It isn’t long before the mountain and the people who live there exert an unhinging force on the various nuns, in particular Sister Ruth, played with an over-the-top relish by Kathleen Byron. A chaste love triangle forms between Sister Clodagh, Mr. Dean, and Sister Ruth, resulting in tragedy.

First, the good. Black Narcissus is extremely strong on the visuals—on the cinematography and on the sets where most of the movie was filmed. The colors, the framing, the vividness of place—even though it was mostly a set—is nothing short of astonishing. The cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and he certainly deserved it. Visually, the movie is a work of art.

Unfortunately, the move was weak with character development, relying too much on bug-eyed melodrama and crashing music. Apparently, this sort of melodrama was big in England in 1947, but it marred the story written by an author who excelled at character development.

Nevertheless, Black Narcissus is a movie worth seeing, if only for the beauty of the filming. Diane was right in suggesting this was really a group film, best seen with others so that we could all react to the various over-the-top scenes.

Next month is Alice’s turn to pick, and we will be heading back to India with Monsoon Wedding. I’m looking forward to it.

Book Group: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

The storied lifeLast night, I went to book group, which is hosted by our town’s library and run by the inimitable Shane Billings, the Adult Services Librarian. He started the book group over five years ago, and I’ve been with it since the beginning, with a few breaks here and there.

This month’s book was The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Here are the basics of the story: A young but cranky man, A. J. Fikry, runs a bookstore on Alice, a fictitious island off the coast of Massachusetts.  When the story opens, A. J.’s wife has recently died in a car accident, and the grieving A. J. plans to drink himself to death. His suicidal plans are interrupted by Maya, an abandoned two year old who is left in his bookstore.  A.J.’s love for Maya—and hers for him—gives his life meaning. (And, yes, there is more than a little similarity between this story and Silas Marner.) From there the story sweeps out to include Lambiase, a kindly police officer;  A.j.’s dodgy sister-in-law, Ismay—how can she help being dodgy with a name like that?; and Amy, a dedicated bookseller from the mainland. There isn’t much of a plot—more a sweep of years, handled beautifully—spiced with the theft of a rare manuscript and another car crash that might or might not be murder. Finally, and perhaps best of all, there is the love of books that thrums through the story and connects the characters.

As was noted at book group, this is a sentimental story, but it is redeemed, to a large extent, by Zevin’s fine writing. In short, it is a sentimental tale told well.

There was a lively discussion about Ismay, the dodgy sister-in-law. Most of the members of the book group—composed mainly of older women—felt sympathy for Ismay, but the one young man who comes loathed her character. He didn’t see that Ismay had any redeeming qualities. Certainly, this point of view, while a little harsh, could be defended, and indeed in the book, young Maya doesn’t much like Ismay either.

One of the great things about our book group—Title Waves, it’s called—is that by and large, for over an hour, we discuss the book and nothing else. There is little chit-chat about personal matters, and we take the books and the discussions very seriously. After all, we are people who love books. At the same time, we are able to laugh and joke about our disagreements. There are some, like me, who have been there since the beginning, and there are many newcomers, too. All are welcome.

As Mona, one of the members, put it, “We all feel safe to express our opinions. It’s all right to disagree, and we do it respectfully.”

Yes, we do, and it is this attitude, along with the books, that has kept me coming to book group for over five years.

Apple Crisp and Stories

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On Sunday, our friends Cheryl and Denny and Judy and Paul came over for homemade apple crisp and talk. As I’ve noted in a previous post, I really love hosting afternoon get-togethers with friends. We have a good-size dining room with an old Victorian table—the original chairs, long gone, were filled with straw—that can easily be expanded to accommodate eight to ten people. However, for me, six is the perfect number for good conversation.

Apple crisp must surely be one of the best desserts to serve at a gathering. It can be made ahead of time, tucked in the refrigerator, and baked forty-five minutes or so before guests arrive. Old apples, a little wrinkled, taste perfectly good, and my blast-furnace oven does a fine bubbling job of baking the crisp. The recipe I use comes from a Craig Claiborne New York Times Cookbook, and I just follow his instructions. If I had made enough  modifications to call the recipe mine, then I would happily share it. But I haven’t.

Then there is the smell of apples, cinnamon, and cloves as they blend and bake. It wafts from the kitchen and drifts to the dining room, and I expect this smell stimulates the appetite. (Let’s just say that it’s a good thing I made plenty for seconds.) So you have warm spiced apples and a crunchy, buttery topping. Perfect, right? Almost. It needs a scoop of vanilla ice cream to slowly melt into the warm mixture. Whipped cream is all right, but to my way of thinking, ice cream is the jewel in the crown, so to speak.

As we sat around the dining room table, we talked about many things, but one topic in particular stuck with me because I’ve been thinking about it lately—the importance of stories and how we all have them.

Judy told of how one day, when her mother was young—this would have been in the 1930s—she came home to find her mother (Judy’s grandmother) sobbing as she did the ironing.

“What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” Judy’s mother asked.

As Judy’s grandmother ironed, she listened to the radio, to an afternoon soap opera, and something sad had happened to one of the characters. Hence the tears.

After hearing this story, I replied, “I think the story gene runs strong in humans. Whatever the medium, we will always have stories. I’m sure of it.”

Everyone nodded, and Cheryl recounted how one Christmas her book group listened to a recording of A Child’s Christmas in Wales read by the great man himself, Dylan Thomas. All the lights were turned off except for the ones on the Christmas tree, and by the sparkling lights they listened to this fine writer read his own words.

“Sounds wonderful,” I said, thinking that I might like to do this next year, but with just Clif and me. (My book group meets at the library, and somehow, it just wouldn’t be the same to do it there.)

“It was,” Cheryl said, smiling as she remembered.

Warm apple crisp, friends around the table, shared stories. Another finest kind of way to spend a winter’s afternoon.

 

Christmas with Miss Read

During this busy time of year, especially when I have a cold—as I do now—I inevitably turn to Miss Read (aka Dora Saint) for some peace, common sense, and just plain fun. I am lucky enough to own Miss Read’s Christmas: Village Christmas and The Christmas Mouse, and how nice it is to just take it from the bookshelf.

What do I like so much about Miss Read? First, there are her depictions of nature. This description of rain is from the first two paragraphs in The Christmas Mouse: “The rain began at noon. At first it fell lightly, making little noise. Only the darkening of the thatched roofs, and the sheen on the damp flagstones made people aware of the rain. It was dismissed as ‘only a mizzle’….But by two o’clock…[t]he wind had swung round to the northwest, and the drizzle had turned to a downpour. It hissed among the dripping trees, pattered upon the cabbages in cottage gardens and drummed the bare soil with pock marks.”

When I read that description, I could feel, hear, and see the rain. Such lovely, evocative writing.

Then, there is what the The New Yorker called Miss Read’s “beery sense of humor.” In The Christmas Mouse, the story revolves around three generations—Mrs. Berry, the grandmother; Mary, her widowed daughter; and Frances and Jane, Mary’s two young daughters. It is Christmas Eve, and the children are beside themselves with excitement. (Thank goodness that never changes!) Frances and Jane have just bounded from their bath into their mother’s bedroom.

“‘The water’s all gone. Frances pushed out the plug—‘

‘I never then!’

‘Yes, you did! You know you did! Mum, she wriggled it out with her bottom—”

They began to giggle, eying each other.

‘Let’s go down and frighten [Gran], all bare,” cried Jane.

‘Don’t you dare now!’ said their mother, her voice sharpened by the thought of the [girls’] slippers being wrapped below.”

Finally, there is Miss Read’s great respect for work and home. Here she describes Mrs. Berry and her husband: “Amelia and Stanley were true homemakers….She could make frocks for the children, curtains, and rag rugs as competently as she could make a cottage pie or a round of shortbread….Stanley saw to it that any stonework or woodwork was in good repair. They shared the gardening, and it was Mrs. Berry’s pride that they never needed to buy a vegetable.”

In Maine, I’ve known many a Franco-American and many a Yankee who would fit the description of Amelia and Stanley.  And I still do.

Perhaps that’s why Miss Read never grows stale for me. Her observations about human nature, work and home, and the natural world continue to ring as true now, in 2015, as they did when she wrote in the 1960s and 1970s,

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Bright Colors for a Gray Day

Yesterday was all golden light in central Maine. Today, just the opposite—gray, chilly, and rainy. Clif has started the first fire of the season in the wood furnace in our basement. (In the winter, we mostly heat our house with wood. In the fall and spring, we use either electric or propane.)

Today would have been a perfect day to make the first apple pie of autumn. Indeed, that is what I had planned to do, and I had invited our friends Judy and Paul to come share pie with us. However, along with the gray weather, we have an uninvited guest—a cold. Right now it is visiting me, and I have no doubt that it won’t be long before it visits Clif. Couples are good at sharing such things.

Therefore, this morning I called Judy to cancel our pie get-together, and I promised to reschedule when the coast was clear, so to speak. A cold is a minor illness, but why spread germs when you don’t have to?

To make up for the gray day and the cold, both inside and out, here is a picture of red dwarf snap dragons—such a plucky flower!—and a red leaf.

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I am reading Gladys Taber’s The Book of Stillmeadow, and I’ll conclude with the opening passage of the October section: “The special gift of frosty gold days comes now; time to lay down the household tasks and shut the door on routine. For every October, when I see the trees over the meadow, I think, ‘I shall not look upon her like again.’ And every October is different, strange with new beauty.”

This was true nearly seventy years ago, when the book was published. And no matter the weather or where the cold is, inside or out, it is true today in New England.

At least in Maine.

Another Look at Squirrels: From An American Year by Hal Borland

The bird feeder, sans squirrels
The bird feeder, sans squirrels

If you feed birds, chances are that you consider squirrels to be nothing more than a nuisance.  Indeed squirrels eat so much seed that it is often difficult to keep a feeder filled, especially a small one.  While I have no particular grudge against this furry animal who, after all, is just trying to make a living, I am very mindful about the cost of sunflower seeds. Our budget simply does not allow for replacing the seeds that the squirrels whip through with such astonishing speed. I compromise by spreading seed on the ground—some for the squirrels as well as crows, mourning doves, and, yes, mice.

Recently I came across a writer—Hal Borland—who also had some sympathy, and even empathy, for squirrels. According to Wikipedia, Hal Borland “was a well-known American author and journalist. In addition to writing several novels and books about the outdoors, he wrote ‘outdoor editorials’ for The New York Times for more than 30 years, from 1941 to 1978.”

In An American Year Borland writes about baby squirrels by his home. “Our baby squirrels were down on the ground today, for the first time. After that initial venture from the nest, they came out each morning, gaining confidence by the minute….But even on the fourth day they still descended the tree tail downward, in the manner of a black bear cub.”

Borland then goes on to describe how gradually the babies learned to go down head first and how cautious and frightened they were when they were on the ground. But Borland concludes, “From now on they’ll be coming and going many times a day. The mystery is broken. They have found the ground. The world is theirs—for a time.”

Even though I have lived in the woods for over thirty years, I have never been lucky enough to see baby squirrels venture to the ground for the first time. How I would love to see this!

Borland, with his beautiful, precise prose, reminds me yet again what an observant layperson can bring to nature writing. But better still, he reinforces my belief that when you look closely at the natural world, you can gain not only knowledge but also sympathy for the creatures who are struggling to earn their keep.

To my way of thinking, this sympathy can only be a good thing, especially when you consider how quickly we humans are driving so many animals to extinction.

For now, anyway, the squirrels are thriving. Next spring I’ll be on the lookout for baby squirrels leaving the nest.

And I’ll definitely be reading more of Hal Borland, who was introduced to me by Gladys Taber, in one of her books.

It Hardly Needs to Be Said

IMG_9804First and foremost, a very happy fifth wedding anniversary to my daughter Shannon and to my son-in-law Mike.  It hardly needs to be said that they are my favorite couple, but sometimes it is good to state what is so obvious. They will be coming over on Sunday for a special meal, and we are even going to grill steak for them, a rare treat as we seldom eat beef. We’ll also have grilled bread, Farmer Kev’s red potatoes, Stevenson’s corn on the cob, and cake, of course. An August meal. And such a lovely month in which to be married.

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I am reading Glady’s Taber’s Stillmeadow Seasons, published in 1950. For years, Taber lived in Stillmeadow, a 1690 farmhouse in Connecticut.  Gladys Taber wrote many nonfiction books that followed the seasons at Stillmeadow, and her writing revolved around nature, home, food, dogs, and family. Sometimes she would add a dash of social commentary, mostly progressive: “There are many things we cannot do—we cannot make all people rich, or intelligent, or noble—but all people should be fed.” Is it any wonder that she is one of my favorite writers?

Here is a link to the Gladys Taber entry in Wikipedia, and it provides a bibliography of her work.

In the summer, I usually read on the patio when I have my afternoon tea, and that is where, appropriately enough, I am reading Stillmeadow Seasons. As always, my reading is interrupted by all that is going on. I watch mourning doves patrol the lawn until Liam chases them, and they fly away. I watch the trees, in summer deep green, move as the wind blows. Above them, is a bit of bright blue sky.

A bit of bright blue sky above the patio
A bit of bright blue sky above the patio

The grasshoppers seem to know it’s August and have begun their buzzing song. I have come to associate this sound with August, and I look forward to hearing it every year.  At night, the crickets, with their high, sweet song, take over. I have heard some acorns drop—not many—just enough to remind me that fall is around the corner.

Along with the falling acorns, there are other reminders that fall is coming—the gardens are starting to look a little ragged, but along the edge of the woods, the jewelweed twinkles like tiny lanterns. Jewellweed can be fairly invasive, and I have to pull it back to give the other woodland plants some space. But what a welcome glow it is in August.

A little jewelweed lantern
A little jewelweed lantern

Then there was this: The other day, in Rite Aid, I was looking for Hershey bars to tuck away for s’mores for when Dee comes to visit in a couple of weeks. A woman, who was also eyeing the candy, said to me, “They’ve got Thanksgiving decorations out.”

“Get out of here,” I replied.

“Look up,” she said.

Sure enough, along the top shelf above the candy, was a row of ceramic pumpkins, scarecrows, and other fall decorations.

“I don’t know about you,” I said. “But I’m not thinking about Thanksgiving yet. No way.”

She laughed. “Me, neither.”

No, no, and no. We still have half a month of beautiful August to enjoy, and after that, September, which in recent years is nearly as nice as August.

Autumn and Thanksgiving will come soon enough. No need to rush them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting the Weekend with Shakespeare

IMG_0263On Friday night, Clif and I went to the annual Friends of Bailey Library book sale. This was a special preview night—tickets cost $10 per person—and the actual sale was on Saturday. Clif and I are what might be called “frugal weirdos”—to borrow a term from the blog Frugalwoods, but we considered the $20 money well spent.

First and foremost, the money went to a very good cause. The Friends do so much to help the library. Thanks to the Friends, the children’s section of our library is a magical place filled with soaring wooden planes and giant stuffed animals. And this is just one example of the many things this group does for the library.

Second, and nearly as important, it was much less hectic to look at books on the preview night. In Maine, book sales are usually mobbed, and as I am claustrophobic, these sales are not always a pleasant experience. It is hard for me to look for books when I am hemmed in by people.

The preview sale was pleasantly full. There were people, many of whom I knew (this was another plus), but not so many that it was impossible to look at books.

Because we are frugal weirdos, Clif and I view book sales as an ideal place to shop for Christmas and birthday presents. We do have strict guidelines. Unless the book is rare or special in some way, it must be in mint condition. This brings us to another advantage of going to the preview sale—the books had not yet been picked over, and there were lots of good finds. We bought presents for five people, and even with the price of the tickets, we spent only $28.

Naturally, along with looking for presents for those we love, I did a teensy bit of looking for myself, and I am happy to report I hit pay dirt. I found A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro.

Along with being a frugal weirdo, I am also a fool for Shakespeare and have been since seventh grade, when my English teacher had us read The Merchant of Venice. I can still remember how dazzled I was by the language. I couldn’t believe anyone could write so beautifully, and while there was much I didn’t understand, I understood enough to know I would be hooked on Shakespeare for life.

Accordingly, I have a collection of books about Shakespeare, and I am always glad to find another one to add to the shelf, especially when I get that book—a hard cover—for $1.  A Year in the Life is in very good condition, and the cover price is $27.95.

In the library’s new conference room, iced tea, lemonade, brownies, and cookies were served. As I drank iced tea and ate a brownie, I spread my books on one of the long conference tables so that I could decided which books to buy and which books to leave for someone else. People I knew came in to have refreshments, and naturally we chatted. Some people I didn’t know came in, and being a friendly introvert—yes, it is possible to be both—I chatted with some of them, too.

All in all, a terrific night. Next year, Clif and I will definitely be going to the book sale on preview night.