Saturday, January 31, 2015

Winter Scenes

On his way down the street

So winter storm Juno just passed--historic for some parts of New England but not this particular part though we were originally in that bright pink "blizzard warning" area anticipating 12" to 24" of snow.  But then it turned out that we were just northwest enough to miss the big stuff including heavy snowfall, high winds, and power outages.  It's a pure guess, but I'd say we didn't get more than 6".  Regardless, in preparation, everything was shut down except the excellent work of the snow plows.  I stayed in, ate soup, and read a good book.   The town cleared my street twice ... and also salted it.  And my plow man cleared my driveway, then shoveled my front walk so the accumulation wouldn't turn to ice.  At least winter is just about half over, hurrah!

Beech trees keep their leaves until spring.

Comfort food on a cold morning

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Orchids ... at Home and on Winter Trips Away

I've never thought of myself as having a green thumb.  So when I decided to try out orchids, I made sure I got proper instructions.  When to water.  When not to water.  When to re-pot.  When to fertilize.  Where to place in terms of sun and shade.  I started out with a lovely all-white Phalaenopsis.  Then, after many months, when that didn't seem to want to re-bloom, I got a white-with-pink.  When that didn't seem to want to re-bloom (was this confirming my non-green-thumb status?), I got one that was deep pink.  When that didn't seem to want to re-bloom, I got a white tinged with greenish yellow.  That hasn't re-bloomed either. 

So my tally to date is four orchids, none of which has re-bloomed, two of which have died, another of which is looking like it might go any day.  Obviously, something isn't working.

But, to carry on, right now (January/February) is the best time of year to be gone from this particular climate if one isn't a skier, skater, or cross-country-ite.  And I'm none of those.  When I first came to this region, I was asked, "Do you ski?"  (Implying, "Rather necessary if you're going to enjoy winters around here.")  Ha, I thought!  Hardly.  But I replied, "No, I live alone."  Which obviously meant, "There's no one to buy the groceries or help me up the stairs if I break a leg."

So if my own orchids won't be forthcoming, I'll gather my orchid photos from winter trips* and share them with you.


As for this next photo, it's an entire row of orchids set out in the airport in Seoul, South Korea.  Now that's what I call an impressive airport!

Finally, here's one of mine--my #2 orchid. The white-with-pink in its first and only blooming.

*Bali and Hawaii

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Best Re-Reads of 2014

This is the third and last of my reports about the best books I read in 2014--these being books I'd read once before.  I re-read them because, for one thing, I realized I'd mostly forgotten them.  For another, I realized that since I'd enjoyed them once, I'd surely enjoy them again.  Too:  I thought it would be interesting with some, especially, to see if a more mature perspective changed my opinion of them.  In alphabetical order, here are the best.

1.  Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop.  (This, of course, harks to my love of New Mexico with Cather's fictionalizing the life of the first Catholic Archbishop to the region, the French Father Lamy, here called Father Latour.  His old chapel still exists, now part of a ranch resort called The Bishop's Lodge, out in that rural part of Santa Fe called Tesuque.)

2-5.  Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet.  Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea.  (Four separate books tallying a thousand-plus pages.  Splendid and irritating at the same time.  He's a poet and can't go wrong with his descriptive language--his lemon seas and lavender skies.  But I longed for a good editor to trim some of the stories within stories within stories.  Everything about Alexandria and the characters, major and minor, reveals the exotic, the bizarre, the smoldering.  The first three books tell and counter-tell the same story during pre-war days.  The final book carries on chronologically from war to post-war days.  Durrell dives deep, loving repetition, loving pulling things apart farther and farther.  Psychoanalyzing.  Adding intriguing snippets.  Yes, it was worth re-reading.)

6.  W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence.  (I always liked Maugham though today he's considered out of fashion.  This is his re-creation of an Englishman who leaves all behind to go off to the South Seas to paint.  Maugham is, of course, fictionalizing the life of Frenchman, Paul Gauguin.  A good yarn.)

7.  Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, An Inquiry into Values.  (Here's one I especially wanted to re-read, remembering that I had found it quite oblique when I read it back in the '70s when it was published.  Parts of it were still oblique, but I was able to concentrate better this time.  It's what I might now call a comparison of the romantic and the classic.  Intuition and imagination vs. logic and reason.  Art vs. technology.  As with Durrell, I longed for a good editor to take out parts that seemed to carry on and on and on.  The book juggles between the description of the author and his son's motorcycle trip west ... and the harking back to the author's philosophical explorations when this inquiry into values gave him a nervous breakdown. In the end, he seeks Quality with a capital Q or what might be called The Middle Way.  Whew.) 

8.  Conrad Richter, The Sea of Grass.  (A classic, spare tale of the Old West--cattlemen vs. ranchers--beautifully written.  Unfortunately, out of print. Richter is a superb writer, not only in this but in his trilogy, The Trees, The Fields, The Town about the coming of civilization to the wilderness.)

9 - 10.  Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped.  And its sequel:  David Balfour.  (It's too bad these are considered "boys' adventures" since they are splendid, lively tales many would enjoy.  And, alas, though Kidnapped is still in print, its sequel--that is, HALF the story--David Balfour, is not.  I found some difficulty in translating some of the Scottish dialect but otherwise loved both books.  I'd read both as a girl and wanted to see if I would still enjoy them.  I did.  Setting:  Scotland in 1751-1752 after the Jacobite uprising. )

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Best Reads of 2014: Non-fiction

And, continuing from last week, I read 20 new (for me) non-fiction books this past year.  Here are the best, in alphabetical order:

1. Luke Barr, Provence, 1970--M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste.  (These three plus Judith Jones, Simone Beck, and Richard Olney gathered spontaneously in the South of France in late 1970 as they cooked for each other and contemplated new directions for themselves and their cuisine.  Which seemed to boil down to keeping the French insistence on fresh, quality ingredients and proper cooking time plus introducing an American emphasis on a more casual but still elegant, delicious, and even easy cuisine.  A wonderful book for those who love Provence and want to learn more about these "six iconic culinary figures.")

2.  Donald Hall, Unpacking the Boxes, A Memoir of a Life in Poetry.  (How he turned himself into a full-time poet--something he wanted to be since childhood.  His years at Harvard and Oxford, his youthful ego, friends, lovers ... his grief over his wife's death and tenure as United States Poet Laureate.  A straight-forward account.)

3.  Joanna Hodgkin, Amateurs in Eden, the Story of a Bohemian Marriage--Nancy and Lawrence Durrell.  (Wonderful description of Durrell--who wrote the Alexandria Quartet--and his first wife, Nancy, their friendships with Henry Miller and Anais Nin among others, their flight from war when living in Greece, and the author's description of these two completely different people, both of them flawed and unique.  Durrell comes across as a pretty odd duck.  For instance, at 5'4", he wanted to keep beautiful, leggy Nancy in the background, especially if she spoke to men taller than he.)

4.  David Howarth, 1066, The Year of the Conquest.  (Highly readable, splendid account written for the general reader and filled with wonderful tidbits as well as the author's opinions and assessments.  With such weapons as battle-axes, swords, and spears, javelins plus stones tied to sticks, the Battle of Hastings, when William defeated Harold, was one with little sound.  No gunpowder.  Afterwards, the English suffered greatly as 200,000 Normans arrived and at least 300,000 English--one in five--were killed or starved out by the seizure of their stock and land or thrown into prisons and castles that William built not as protection against foreigners but against the English themselves.)

5.  Azar Nafisi, Things I've Been Silent About.  (She who wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran.  This is her personal story as an Iranian living in Tehran before, during, and after the Revolution.  Lots here about family problems including lies told each other to try and soften life's troubles  Her father's four years in jail on false charges--he who had been mayor of Tehran.  Also, her time going to school in England and to university in Oklahoma.)

6.  Walter Sullivan, The War the Women Lived, Female Voices from the Confederate South.  (Excellent and engaging.  Diary excerpts from 1859-1865 of nurses, spies, society woman, and the educated living in small towns.  Everyone helped everyone.  That way, they knew that if their loved ones needed attention, someone was tending them.  They hid silver in their hoop-skirts.  They loaded carts with any stores or valuables that remained and hid them in the woods.  They found letters on "dead Federals" from northern wives asking their husbands to send them silk dresses, watches.  One wanted a piano since she said she could not afford one herself.  At the end of the war, when the Southern currency was worthless, the people were provided with "a card of buttons with which they count on buying a meal or two .. or a paper of pins."  Reading all this makes your head reel.) 

7.  Rupert Wilkinson, Surviving a Japanese Internment Camp, Life and Liberation at Santo Tomas, Manila, in World War II. (The Manila university-turned-prison-camp where the Japanese incarcerated more American civilians than anywhere else.  Very thorough.  Written by one of the British internees who was a child at the time--there with his mother.) 

8.  Caroline Zoob, Virginia Woolf's Garden, The Story of the Garden at Monk's House.  (House and garden are in the village of Rodmell just near the Channel coast.  This was really more Leonard Woolf's garden than Virginia's since he did most of the work and planning.  There's a veggie garden, an orchard, brick pathways, statuary, all under the view of a Norman church tower.  The author's watercolors plus needlework show the house/garden plan.  Good photos and text, too.  The author and her husband were National Trust tenants from 2000 to 2010.)

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Best Reads of 2014: Fiction

Ah, it's time for my Best Reads of the past year.  This time, there will be three separate postings:  fiction, non-fiction, and books that I re-read.  Of the 28 works in fiction that I hadn't read before, here, in alphabetical order, are the ones I liked best.

1.  Jo Baker, Longbourn.  (Longbourn is, of course, the house where the Bennets lived in Pride and Prejudice.  An entertaining tale about the below-stairs staff and how their lives fit with those upstairs whether it's doing their laundry, taking out the slops, or walking to town to mail one of their many messages.  Well researched about early 19th century life in England.  There's romance downstairs, too.)

2.  Harriet Doerr, Stones for Ibarra.  (Winner of the National Book Award, this was the author's debut novel published in 1984 when she was 74.  A memoir-based fictional tale of the years when the protagonist and her husband leave all behind and move to Mexico to take over an old family copper mine in a tiny village.  A wonderful study of the meeting of the two cultures.)

3. Naguib Mahfouz, The Beginning and the End.  (Cairo in the '30s when the father dies and the family members, thrust into poverty, have to construct a new life for themselves.  It's told in a straightforward manner with a good view of the cultural expectations, the loss of face, the social mores, the role of women, plus narcotic-trafficking and prostitution which are accepted but also hated for being a source of social condemnation.  Tough but well done.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.)

4.  Colum McCann, TransAtlantic.  (Following descriptions of three historical events in Irish history--the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight, the 19th century visit by Frederick Douglass, and Senator George Mitchell's peace process--this is a fictional four-generational tale of Irish women in both Ireland and the U.S.  No nonsense writing, powerful narrative, wonderful descriptions with precise language.)

5.  TaraShea Nesbit, The Wives of Los Alamos. (This calls itself a novel but is more a series of descriptive paragraphs arranged by subject about the lives these women led from 1943 to 1945 as they moved to a desert mesa where their houses were still being constructed and where they weren't in on the secret of what their husbands were doing.  When they did find out, after the atomic bombs were dropped, they joked:  here were their husbands--who couldn't fix a clogged drain or who wouldn't kill a moth--making something that could kill the human race and turn the land to glass.  Well done.)

6.  William Trevor, Two Lives.  (Actually, two novellas--"Reading Turgenev" and "My House in Umbria."  The protagonists in both are highly quirky--one, a woman in love with a dead cousin.  The other, a fanciful woman with a far-flung imagination that centers on suspicions, dreams, and pronouncements that make you wonder if some of them just might be true.  The author, still alive, is Irish.)

7.  Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April.  (This is the book, written in 1922, from which the movie was made.  The gentle tale about a spell of happiness one April at San Salvatore--a month during which hearts open to love, generosity, and the finer things of life.  Both movie and book are charming, loving, simple--in its best sense--and wise.)

8.  Jeannette Walls, Half Broke Horses.  (The "true-life novel" of the author's grandmother's hard scrabble life teaching in one-room schools and co-running a cattle ranch in Arizona.  Excellent view of the transition out of the Old West into modern day as well as the juxtaposition of the Real West as opposed to the stereotypical.  A woman of gumption and common sense, well portrayed.  At age 15, she rides her horse 500 miles from New Mexico to Arizona to her first job as a teacher even though she, herself, has had little education.  A survivor, she experiences flash floods, a tornado, droughts, and the Depression.)

9.  John Williams, Stoner.  (The last of the batch and the best of the batch much in the style of that superb writer, William Maxwell.  A beautiful rendering of the life--with its many obstacles--of a young farmer-turned-English-Lit professor from early-to-mid 20th century.  The writing is exquisite.  The final chapter may be one of the most moving I've ever read.  The New York Times Magazine's critic, Steve Almond, wrote, "I had never encountered a work so ruthless in its devotion to human truths and so tender in its execution.")