Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best Reads of 2012

Please note that I will be taking two weeks off.  My next posting will be on January 19th.

Having listed my Best Reads of 2011, I want to carry on the tradition and list 2012's.  Of the 39 fiction and 23 non-fiction books I read this past year, here is my list of favorites in alphabetical order by author.


1.  Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending  (Looking at feelings and events forty years later and finding different interpretations and memories by different people.)

2.  Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader  (Charming, funny, witty novella about Queen Elizabeth discovering books and gradually putting aside her royal duties--and her corgis--for a good read.  A gem.)

3.  Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey  (How did I miss reading this before now!  The trials of being a governess in Yorkshire as reflected by the author's own experience from 1839-1845.  Beautifully written.)

4.  Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (A bit reminiscent of Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, this is a "rendering" of deTocqueville's visit to the U.S.  It contrasts a French nobleman and an English servant, both meeting democracy.  It's raw, rough and ready with wonderfully descriptive language.)

5.  Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White  (Written in 1860, this is a 627-page page-turner.  A first detective novel with a great cast of villains.  So gripping, it kept England's P.M. from going to the theater one night so he could stay home and read.)

6.  Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger's Child  (This work centers on what one remembers from the past and how that becomes its own tale, possibly fabricated, possibly not.  This speaks of the confusion that results when seeking to remember the life of an early 20th century gay poet.  Set in England over the course of a century.)

7.  Penelope Lively, How It All Began  (The ripple effect--how something that happens to one person can greatly alter the lives of others.)

8.  Wright Morris, Plains Song, For Female Voices  (This is both spare and lyrical about three generations of women in a Cather-like Nebraska.)

9.  Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand  (Set in Sussex, a widowed pair, an English major and a Pakistani shop-keeper, fall in love.  Light, intelligent, charming.)


1.  Fiona Carnarvon, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey:  The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle  (The story of the 5th Countess of Carnarvon who went to live at Highclere when she married in 1895 and who then pursued an active and expensive social life paid for with her Rothschild money.  Of particular interest was the account of her husband's discovery of the Tut tomb.  As told by the current Countess.)

2.  Edmund de Waal, The Hare With Amber Eyes:  A Hidden Inheritance  (The inherited netsuke collection of the Ephrussi family as it went from Paris to Vienna--where a family servant saved it from the Nazis--and on to Tokyo and England.)

3.  Karen Le Billon, French Kids Eat Everything:  How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters  (The French have us beat on this one.  Regular sit-down meals, delicious fresh food, no snacks, and the continued introduction of different tastes as a child gets older.  Bravo.)

4.  Oscar Lewis, Sutter's Fort:  Gateway to the Gold Fields.  The Story of Captain John A. Sutter's California Empire  (Fabulous telling of Sutter's life and pre-/post-Gold Rush California.  Written in 1966.)

5.  Mary S. Lovell, The Sisters:  The Saga of the Mitford Family  (The story of the English peer, his wife, six daughters, one son, and their Fascist and Communist leanings.)

6.  Alan Moorehead, The Blue Nile  (The history of exploration and battles that encompassed the region from the river's source in Ethiopia to Sudan to Egypt.  Bruce's visit at its source in 1770, Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, and Napier's rescue of prisoners at Magdala in 1868.  Written in 1962.)

7.  Alan Moorehead, The White Nile  (A splendid history of the explorers who sought the source of the Nile--from 1856 when Burton and Speke set out until 1900 when all the land from the Nile delta to its source at Lake Victoria came under British "protection."   Written in 1960.)

8.  Bob Spitz, Dearie:  The Remarkable Life of Julia Child  (Here are 530 pages recounting it all!  He calls her a "supernova.")

9.  Irving Stone, Men to Match My Mountains:  The Opening of the Far West 1840 - 1900  (Another fabulous history of the West:  California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado.  The overlanders.  The mines.  The Mormons.  The railway.  Written in 1956.)

Saturday, December 22, 2012


A hotel in the heart of Santa Fe

Deciding to leave New England for a bit and take in the high bright days and festive nights of northern New Mexico, I have returned to Santa Fe where holiday farolitos decorate roof-tops around town.  Hotels, galleries, shops, homes.

Farolitos are made by putting enough sand in a brown paper bag to secure a candle which is then lit at twilight to shine quite gloriously as evening and night come on.  With its soft glow, the effect is enchanting.  Of course, nowadays (especially when decorating hotel roof-tops), the "paper bags" are plastic and the "candles" are electric.  Easy on, easy off, no accidental fires.  And no stand-by crew to relight flames that go out.

Two of many Canyon Road art galleries adorned with farolitos.
Another Canyon Road gallery--no farolitos but plenty of lights

For a reason I never learned, this part of  New Mexico calls these decorations farolitos (little lanterns) but just south of here, including the city of Albuquerque, they are called luminarias.  Santa Fe has luminarias, too, but they are small pinon-wood bonfires lit on Christmas Eve--said to light the way for the Christ child.  People congregate by them  to warm themselves since the altitude here is 7,500 feet and winter evenings are decidedly cold.  On Christmas Eve, during the annual Canyon Road Farolito Walk, one finds this street of art galleries lined with the softly glowing farolito lights as well as luminaria bonfires as people parade up and down, and the art galleries pass out hot cider.  (I've been known to take a thermos with a hot toddy, as well.)

I found this charming gingerbread rendering in the La Fonda Hotel.  Its farolitos, trimming upper and lower roofs, were blinking on and off.

Another thousand lights decorate the heart of town, the Plaza, once the end of the Santa Fe Trail. 

The Plaza

To all, then, I send warm and glowing holiday wishes!

With special thanks to my friend, Christi, who drove me around town one night so I could photograph the lights.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

More About Getting Older

The beauty of maturity

It's a truism to say that the years whiz by--they do--but, as well, I feel as if various times in my life (my college years, my married years) were lifetimes away.  So much time has elapsed that I barely feel connected to The Younger Me.  Sometimes, reminiscing, I think, Did I Do That? Was I There Then?  Did I See That?   So what is this Getting Older business about?  Well, of course, it's whatever we want to make of it.

I recently read an amusing novel, No, I Don't Want to Join a Book Club:  Diary of a 60th Year by Virginia Ironside.  As she wrote, "The thing is:  I don't want to join a book club to keep young and stimulated.  I don't want to be young and stimulated anymore.  There seems to be a common line that runs, 'If you're old, you've got to stay mentally active, physically alive, ever fascinated by life.'  But I say, Why?  I've done fascinated, I've done curious.  I want to wind down.  I want to have the blissful relief of not being interested."  Or, how about this:  not being interested in the things one knows one isn't interested in.  One needn't go bicycling across Mongolia at 80 or paragliding at 90.  She went on to conclude:  "Is there actually something wrong these days with the word 'old'?  I wonder."  And:  "...not using the word 'old' seems as coy and ludicrous as Victorians putting skirts on their piano legs because they felt so uncomfortable at the sight of them." (Of course, the heroine didn't actually wind down all that much and did continue doing interesting things.)

We do hear the euphemisms.  The autumn of one's life.  The golden years. The twilight years.  I don't mind calling myself old, older.  I don't like the term "senior."  I was a senior in high school, in college, but now I'm an oldster, not a youngster.  And I give fair warning:  if anyone so much as dares to call me so-many-years-young, I'll whop 'em with my handbag.

We aren't supposed to call ourselves old because that implies we're giving in and letting age take over.  Well, golly gee whiz,  isn't age taking over?  I'm not superwoman.  I'm not now 74 without my blemishes, my wrinkles.  I don't dishonor my body so much as to denigrate my old-person beauty marks.  I remember once in Santa Fe going to a gallery filled with photos of nude women between the ages of 50 and 70.  There were the appendectomy and Caesarian scars, the flabby thighs, cellulite, and droopy upper arms.  The men who came were totally turned off.  We women were enthralled:  someone dared to show what we really looked like ... in all our glory! 

Speaking to a beautiful older women, a TV type once asked, "What is the best and worst of becoming older?"  I didn't stick around for the answer.  But I should think becoming invisible or being tired or no longer wanting to do some things or losing resiliency might be among the worst.  Certainly, losing one's life's companion.  Being wiser would be among the best as would having a lot of memories.  Looking back at the wealth of people one has loved would be top-notch.  Having life experience.  Having had a chance to test one's thoughts, wishes.  Being a participant in history.  Knowing that people are more important than things.  Understanding one's ability to create one's life.  Recognizing and letting go of what no longer serves.

And so it goes.  By the way, speaking of book clubs, I love mine!

(Thank you, K, for your sunflower photo.)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Getting Older

I'm having another birthday this coming week.  Number 74.  Just for fun I made a list of various changes I've been experiencing over the last few years.  Et voilà:

  • Waking way earlier ... and, conversely, going to bed way earlier.
  • Getting and making fewer phone calls (which is fine).
  • Deciding I really no longer enjoy traveling -- or going places (and being there) -- alone.
  • Only seeing friends over (a usually Chinese) lunch out ... no more dinner parties.
  • Going to the library much more often than before.
  • Doing lots of de-cluttering as well as putting things in order like inventorying possessions (where they came from, sentimental value, etc.).
  • Perpetually thinking about down-sizing to a smaller house with less to care for and less expense.
  • No longer bothering to put on any makeup except lipstick.
  • Rarely having an occasion to dress up.
  • Actually being able to cross things off a long-term "to do" list.
  • Still (always) enjoying chocolate but being satisfied with very small pieces.
  • Eating simpler meals and eating them at my computer rather than at the dining room table.
  • Hiring others to deal with damage control rather than trying to figure it out myself.
  • Finding clichés more and more tedious -- stepping up to the plate, the smoking gun, thinking outside the box, oh my God.
  • Totally enjoying having a week ahead with nothing on my calendar.
  • No longer feeling that I should learn to speak French.
  • Feeling that a lot of people in this country (especially in the political, economic, business, and media arenas) are totally bonkers.
  • Feeling gratitude well up in me over assorted people/times.
  • Finding myself eating less.
  • Almost never going to a movie theater anymore.
  • Using my computer to look things up rather than my dictionary or encyclopedia.
  • Being more alert, more careful about such things as going down stairs, backing out of a parking lot.
  • Going around with single words in my mind which I speak out loud so I won't forget --"parka" (mend it), "soup" (make it), "weather" (look up the forecast), "dust" (where the sunlight revealed dust kittens).
  • Being glad that I learned to play the piano, that I once smoked (it was fun) but equally glad I gave it up when I did, that I never did drugs of any sort, and that I went off adventuring around the world when I did.
  • Being glad I grew up in the '50s when we wore pleated skirts, blouses with Peter Pan collars, and saddle oxfords ... our hair in pony tails or short and curled, having put it up in rollers at night.  Our education then was good, too, and things seemed  slower, simpler, more gracious.
  • Realizing I'd not now be able to attend the college I did because of the cost.
  • Spending every evening reading a book or watching a rented movie or something on PBS.
  • Feeling that my youth was a totally different life.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Handmade Japanese-Style Holiday Cards

After book stores, my next favorite are paper stores.  New York City, Toronto, and Portland, Oregon, have particularly good ones.  Of course, art stores, too, offer an excellent supply of Japanese rice paper, origami paper, and packets of blank cards.

Not all that long ago, I got out my paper cache and fiddled about, wondering just what to make.  I hit on Japanese-style holiday cards.  Using scissors, I cut small triangles.  And using the edge of a ruler, I ripped off strips.  (The rough edge adds more interest than a straight one and contributes to that handmade look.)  After I arranged and glued and came up with a nice supply of cards, I gathered some into little gift packets which I tied with ribbon.  I also made small gift tags, handily using some tiny (unmailable) envelopes I had on hand.  Come holiday time, I even sold a few packets and tags to a store in town.

A gift tag and tiny envelope

Using these left-overs proved to be jolly fun!

A Christmas tree

As a p.s., I believe my third favorite are old-fashioned hardware stores.  We have one in town.  It has squeaky wooden floors, maybe fifty-year-old drawers for different size knobs, plus lots of inventory all crammed together in a friendly fashion.  It also has a good number of employees who will lead you to whatever it is you're looking for, whether cedar chips to freshen a closet, a just-right paint match, or a tiny bulb for a Himalayan salt lamp that helps ionize the environment with negative ions.  (I keep mine next to my computer to get rid of electronic air pollution, as it is called.)