The Heart of a Book

For reasons I’m not entirely clear on, I decided I had to have a copy of Howard’s End is On the Landing, by Susan Hill, a book about the year she spent reading only the books she already had in her home.  There’s a challenge, I thought.  I can’t seem to go a week without buying or borrowing a new book.  My TBR pile will eventually fall and kill me.

I think I must’ve seen something about this book on one of my book emails.  Fortunately, had a copy at a reasonable price, so I was able to get hold of it fairly easily.

IMG_20170721_150906It’s the sort of book I love, well used, but in good shape, pages softened and yellowed by handling and age, edge wear, a few dog-ears, some scribbles, and a number of underlines.  This is a page from Hill’s thoughts on  Roald Dahl. Apparently a previous reader loved Dahl and agreed vigorously with what Hill had to say about him.  It made me laugh when I saw the emphatic underlining, and to add even more weight, the kinetic circle that practically screams “YES! THIS!!”

The spine is cracked, speaking volumes (forgive the pun, it was intentional, I promise) about one-handed reading. (Not that sort!  Stop it right now.) the other propped under a head, in bed or out out under a tree on a fine day, or holding a cup of coffee or a sandwich.  A few of the pages are foodishly smudged.  Yeah, I like a book with some mileage.

I’m adding my own markings, and a virtual bouquet of little cat-faced post-it tags to mark the pages where reside things that I want to go back to.  Like this:


This is a quote from the diaries of Roy Strong, former director of the National Portrait Gallery.  He’s talking about a London society hostess named Pamela Hartwell.

What I found striking in this paragraph was the sense that I know people like this.  Hell, I see one in the mirror every day.  I know too many people who, though smart, have never learned to think either critically or deeply about anything with predictable results ranging from dissatisfaction with their lives to some of the most utterly bone-headed opinions ever uttered.  Not that I would say as much to anyone because, yeah, the person in the mirror?  She has the same issues. I was startled to see myself and so many friends mirrored in a quote from a book within a book about books — a theme for this year’s reading — but I suppose I ought not to be.  The best books speak to us directly, don’t they?

Right after the Roald Dahl chapter came “Decline and Rise” about the novels of Iris Murdoch, and on a deeper level, about how an author’s stock often falls in the years after their deaths, but may rise again, depending on the universality of their work.  Do they speak to subsequent generations?  Hill believes Murdoch’s work does.

What caught my eye, and my imagination was this comment about how time will not change Murdoch’s novels, and yet with each subsequent generation that discovers them, they do change; every reader changes them.  Hill says: “…because until it is read, a book is a dead thing.”  That’s true.  Books depend on us as much as we depend on them.  They must be read to live.  I underlined that in neon pink, in keeping with the color scheme established by the Roald Dahl fan who owned this book before I did.

One of my favorite chapters is on the things that fall out of books.  I know I’m always delighted to have a pressed leaf or flower fall out of the book I’ve opened.  They remind me of my past.  Hill’s books disgorge things like a postcard from Dirk Bogarde:

Dear Susan, I have just spent a happy afternoon at Penguin Books with my editor, drinking peppermint tea and trying to think of alternative words for “penis.”

Nope, can’t match that.  The weightiest thing in my books might be forgotten bills.

This is a book with heart, not just because of its contents but because the physical copy I own has been well read, loved, perhaps shouted at, as I did when Hill went on a rant against e-readers.  And I will concede this one point to her: No ebook could ever be so beautifully aged.  People who insist on pristine copies miss a lot of the deeper beauty of a physical book.

I haven’t finished it yet, I probably will tonight, but I’m not sure that this won’t stand as my review of it in any event.  I love it.  I can’t imagine why it ended up in a used bookstore.  Thank goodness for small miracles, eh?  Unless Susan Hill insults me personally in an upcoming chapter (and even then, bragging rights) it’s not going anywhere else while I’m alive.


Review: Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle, by Thor Hanson


Hanson is what I think of as a great science writer.  He engages our imaginations while imparting facts, and I suspect that is at least in part because he has such a lively sense of wonder that he can’t help but infuse even the most prosaic of information with a feel of awe as if the evolution of feathers or seeds, or whatever else he’s writing about is pure magic. And in a sense, the things he writes about are magic, or as close to as we get in our world.

The discovery of feathered dinosaurs, the evolution of feathers as tools for flight, insulation, and even courtship, are all topics which Hanson covers here, framing them with his own experiences of his backyard chickens, his travels to museums and to meet with bird researchers, his field experiences (one of which made him smell like rotting zebra guts for days.)  He writes cleanly and engagingly on all these topics making the information wholly accessible.

The only flaw I found in this audiobook was the narrator.  In general his narration is workmanlike, no more, sometimes a bit flat and expressionless, but it serves the purpose.  However, when he tries to render voices, it’s at best distracting, as when he lightens his voice for quotes from women, and at worst almost embarrassing as when he renders the speech of a Chinese researcher.  It’s not so much that he does a terrible job at either, but that he does it at all.  It feels out of place.  I don’t know if these were his choices, or if he was asked to do the voices.  Either way, I think it was a mistake.

But don’t let that put you off listening if that’s the way you’d prefer to read this particular book.  It’s worth it no matter how you approach it.  So far, everything Hanson has written is worth your time, in my opinion.

Review: A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle


I had to channel my seven year old self this week because I had been away from this book for too long.  After having read it a few times a year for many years in my youth, I fell out of the habit over the last decade or two.  Nevertheless this book was, as a friend so aptly put it, my gateway drug into the world of science fiction and I retained a love for it that now seems somewhat out of proportion.

The first thing that jarred me was the ham-handed characterization, particularly of Meg, who spends so much of the book either complaining, or screaming, or obsessing about one thing to the exclusion of every other, often obvious, necessity.  Meg is not a likeable creature, though not because she’s both stubborn and angry, but because of how she chooses to use what Mrs. Whatsis calls her “gifts.”  Rather, it’s her unwillingness to understand or even listen to what her brother and her friend, and her father are telling her because she’s certain she knows what’s going on and they don’t.

And the screaming.  Meg screams a lot, and it’s wearing.

I understand what L’Engle was going for with Charles Wallace, but now that I’m older and have done a lot more writing, I recognize that at least some of his speech pattern is in aid of not having to write a small child’s dialogue.  Yes, he should be more adult in his speech than a normal child his age, but to make him sound like a professor puts the reader at such a distance from his reality that it become difficult to read him as anything but a miniature adult, and it blunts the sense of danger we might get from his predicament.

Calvin?  Too slangy by half, and all that slang seems quaint and even prissy.

But the story does hold up.  Three children travel across universes to rescue the father of two of them.  He’s being held by an evil entity which takes over worlds and turns the inhabitants into near zombies.  There’s a 1984-ish vibe to it.  It reflects the fears about the rise of totalitarian powers, Nazi Germany, certainly, but even more so, the spread of Communism after WWII.  L’Engle, a profoundly Christian writer, believes that the power of love can defeat that sort of evil, and that the love of God is the greatest expression of that power.

While I don’t share L’Engle’s sentiments about Christianity, I do think that the scene where Meg is called upon to save her brother is a powerful one because it’s the moment when she focuses all her negative energies into something positive: her expression of love for Charles Wallace, and not only accomplishes her task, but turns a corner in her own development.  She begins to understand how even negative energies can be made positive if they’re properly applied.  It’s also our pay-off for having stuck with Meg, and cared about her even when she was at her most unlikeable.

After that it’s wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and done.  There are two or three other books in this series, though, so the story continues, though somewhat less successfully than in Wrinkle.  I’ve read two more in the past, and have no real desire to reread them now or seek out the fourth if it exists (can’t recall, sorry.)

Part of me wishes I hadn’t reread this because after such a long absence I found it a bit of a chore, and I hate thinking of it that way.  I want to remember the magic, not the flaws. But I still have high hopes for the upcoming film, so it’s not a story I’ll ever let go of.

Review: Ash and Quill, by Rachel Caine


Glinda pre-ordered Ash and Quill since we are both reading the series, and were anxious to  read the next installment.  When it arrived, I cheerfully abandoned Captain Blood, and I am happy I did.  Ash and Quill is a terrific third installment in the Great Library series.  This is a good thing since I felt the second book was a bit slow save for a few high points like discovering more about Wolfe’s family, and of course more of the evolving dynamic between the characters.

This book takes us into the New World which is controlled by burners — anti-library fanatics who burn books, but who also seem to love them, which means they have some major issues.  They’re easily as horrible as the people who control the Great Library.  Honestly it’s difficult to make the book-lickers — people whose book fetish leads them to consume printed books (literally, they eat them) look benign,  but the burners and the controlling archivists take a good shot at it.  Between the two competing factions, and the criminal class from which Jess comes, Caine manages to leave our heroes with very little to choose from in terms of allies.  With odds like that it’s hard to imagine that there are any good options for them to come out of this alive, much less with a measure of freedom.

This is the situation Jess and his little group of rogue librarians find themselves in.  They know they can’t trust anyone but each other, and they’re not always certain of each other.  Still, they push, and probe, and plot their way out of a number of bad situations to the cliffhanger at the end which made me shout “WHAT???” at one o’clock in the morning, further annoying my sleeping cats, because I had no idea this wasn’t the last book in this series.  Or rather, I knew there was another in the series, but because it had a different sort of name, not (thing) and (thing) but Prince of Shadows, I had assumed it would be a different story arc in the GL universe.

It’s not.  So when the book ended with maybe 20 pages to go, I was shocked and a little perturbed.  It’s a hella good cliffhanger, I just wasn’t expecting it.  Moral: Writers are tricksy beasts.

N.B., while I was trying to look up the title for book #4, I stumbled across Caine’s Wattpad account.  If you go there and create an account of your own, you can read and save two short stories in this universe, Stormcrow and Tigers in the Cage, as well as missing scenes from Ink and Bone, and Paper and Fire.

Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t

So, I’ve said before that I’m a terrible housekeeper.  This is definitely partly laziness, but only part.  The rest is depression-related, and being in pain a lot of the time.  Most of the time when it’s hot and humid, so summer?  Not my season.  However something got jarred loose recently.  It wasn’t the Prozac because it wasn’t providing the motivation go-juice I was hoping for.  Rather it was some kind of weird shift in the way I was thinking that also accounts for my uptick in reading.

My point, and I do have one, is that I’ve been slowly making progress in this midden I call an apartment.  And on Tuesday, after our house guests left, I spent three solid hours cleaning out the pantry area of my kitchen.  Okay, to be honest, I don’t have an actual pantry.  I wouldn’t even have what I have if I hadn’t insisted on rebuilding my closet before I moved in to give myself a walk-in.  And frankly I don’t really need it, but there you are.  I could have had a proper pantry plus a bigger closet, but I lacked the foresight.  Anyway, this is what I’ve got: IMG_20170712_093844

The shelves are about a foot deep.  I’ve kept cookbooks on them, dishes, and food, and by far the most useful of those three is the pantry function.  Everything is to hand.  Or was, until I began to expand to a huge metal shelving unit that ended up on my porch where I have my kitchen table.  By the time I knew I had to get this cleaned up, both areas were jammed with food, much of it out of date.

This was not good. Alas, I am impulsive, and while at the store I am certain that, yes, I’ll be making that boeuf en daube for dinner at the end of the week, along with a salade Lyonnaise, and fresh bread.  And then I get the groceries home and end up freezing the meat so it doesn’t spoil, and tossing out the green sludge that was the salad greens.  Dinner ends up being a hunk of bread — not homemade — and some cheese.

So I began to sort things on Saturday.  Open things that weren’t fairly new went out.  Cans and packages that were out of date, but looked okay, went in bags which are going to be put out for scavengers.  No, I’m not trying to kill anyone.  If I wasn’t certain the things were safe I would have tossed them.  But if I haven’t used them in all this time, the chances are good I never will.  Someone else should get a chance to use them.  I filled six bags and emptied 24 jars.  What I ended up with you see above.  This is now all the non-perishable food I have.  Everything is in the kitchen.  I’m pretty proud of that.

I’ve cut way down on things like beans, grains, pasta and the like because grains get rancid after a while, and beans toughen  I kept only what I’m hoping I’ll use within the next months.  I cut way down on condiments, keeping the few I really love.  I tossed a lot of soup.  I don’t know why I haven’t eaten my soup.  I love soup!  But I buy it and don’t eat it.

Along the way I found things I never thought I had, like Beluga lentils (I was certain I’d have to pick up a bag of them at Fresh Farms or Tony’s.) and balsamic vinegar (now I actually have too much.)  And I discovered that I did not, in fact, have much powdered sugar or any red lentils even though I was sure I had mountains of them hidden somewhere.  Also?  No millet.  WTH?

So today I did an inventory and put the results in Keep, and I have to tell you it did my heart good to make a list of everything in that pantry to set beside my shopping list, so I know what it is I really do need, and what I absolutely can’t be buying more of.  I did that while running a load of empty jars in the dishwasher.  Could I be more efficient?

Yes, I could.  I can inventory my spice cabinet, clean out my refrigerator and freezer, and rearrange my storage space.  To celebrate I got a much-needed kitchen accoutrement, a bread box!  I’m tired of filling my fridge with loaves of bread all summer so they don’t go moldy immediately.  I’m getting some silica packets to store with the bread to help with the humidity, and I’m looking forward to long-lived loaves that haven’t been virtually dessicated by my fridge.

Work, reward, work, reward.  Now if I could just stop dragging my feet over my ghostwriting…


It’s the people from Crazy House, sir. They’ve brought a flag…

We have a flagpole hanging from the front of Crazy House.  It’s our third.  The wind destroyed the first, sending it flying off to god-knows-where along with our St. Patrick’s Day flag.  The second also got torn out by the wind, which also ripped the holder out of the brick. (Not for nothing do they call Chicago “The Windy City.”)  We figured it was gone forever with our Valentine’s Day flag, maybe skewering some hapless Chicagoan who was just trying to get home, out of the wind.  We made a pact to never say a word if the news reported “Local man impaled by Valentine flagpole.”

But nothing came of the disappearance so we figured it had just found its way down the block.  Then when the snow melted we found it lying in our gangway which was weird in itself because the wind had been blowing from the west, not the east, so would have blown the flag and pole toward the street.  We replaced the holder, changed the flag, and life went on.

So a few weeks ago we wanted to switch from spring (daffodils) to summer (poppies), and while we were going through our bag o’ flags, Glinda remarked that we should think 61rlQKYTNiL._SS500_about putting up one of the Mary Engelbreit ones.  I said, “Sure, that’d be good too.”  So she took all the flags out and we looked through them.  We found our No Matter Where You Go, There You Are flag, which is cute.  But we both remembered having one with a hammock on it.  A girl in a hammock.  Very summery.

We looked through all the flags.  No hammock.  We were starting to wonder if we’d imagined having one.    In any event, poppies were chosen, and duly affixed to the pole.

Then we changed the flag for the 4th, putting out the stars and stripes because we consider ourselves patriotic even if conservatives would disagree. (And I’ll match my knowledge of and adherence to flag etiquette against theirs any day, so they can just quit wearing American flag shorts, or stop telling me what’s wrong with me.  I’m serious about the flag, do not ever doubt it.)

6d76e6bec11cc1722f8dc074e41b04f4--mary-engelbreit-hammocksSo today we took the American flag down, and decided to put up the No Matter Where… flag because we were in an Engelbreitish mood.  We both mentioned again that we’d been so sure about the hammock flag, and as we were discussing it, what does Glinda pull out of the bag but the Mary Engelbreit hammock flag!  The exact flag we were looking for weeks ago, but which did not seem to exist.

Crazy House had returned it to us.

That’s a generous assessment.  The truth is that Crazy House stole it from us and returned it when we started to get annoyed that we couldn’t find something we knew we owned.  It does that to us.  It’s particularly bad with batteries for some reason.

Do we have a ghost, you ask.  Well… maybe.  I have seen the memory of one of the greyhounds that used to live here, just a glance of that distinctive shape moving through my dining room.  But only once.

But someone was killed here years ago, electrocuted in our basement.  By rights we should have a ghost, and who knows, maybe we do.  But if we do, he’s a fairly benign spirit, and it might not even be him swiping stuff and putting it back.  For all we know it’s just the house. After we moved here, we decided that it was a friendlier version of Hill House, not mean, not sad, just confused and a bit goofy.  We’re both good with that.  Keeps things interesting, right?

So we’ve got the hammock flag a-flyin’ now, and will leave it up until we get tired of it and switch to something else.  We still need one for St. Pat’s, but we’re pretty well covered for every other major holiday.

I sometimes wonder what our neighbors think.

Fairytales of Middle-Aged Women: The Princess and the Peas

Once upon a time there was a hungry princess.  She had a kitchen full of ingredients but no actual food that could be eaten without making an effort which she was not prepared to do. She thought about going out, but knew that wasn’t going to happen.  Nor could she decide what it was she wanted because nothing sounded good.  In fact it all sounded like the food had grudges against her.  She was miserably unhappy, had a headache, and was so hungry she felt like throwing up.  Also everyone was annoying her.

While she was thinking about eating a package of dry ramen because it was easy, filling, and tasted okay, there was a twinkling light in the middle of the room, and a sound like the flutter of wings, which made her wonder if something hadn’t gotten in through the screens.  And then, before she could grab the fly swatter, before her stood a cranky-looking woman of about her own age with a pronounced frown line.

“What the fuck, princess?” the woman asked.

“Who the hell are you?”

“I’m your fairy godmother.  My name is Glinda.  Why are you being such a bitch?”

“I am not!”

“Yes you are.  You started last night with all that bullshit about baking ingredients.”

“Humph,” said the princess.  “I’m hungry, I hurt, and people have been pissing me off all day.”

“So what else is new?” the woman muttered. “I’m here to make sure you eat because if you don’t you’ll just get worse and there’ll be no living with you.  What do you want?”

“I dunno,” the princess whined.  “Nothing sounds good.”

Glinda rolled her eyes.

“Okay, okay, I want something with a lot of flavor, I want it to be cheap, and I want some nice looking young man to bring it to me.”

“You don’t want much, do you?”  The fairy godmother spoke fluent Sarcasm, as did the princess.  “Very well, I shall give you your wish on one condition.  You must stop being such a monumental pain in the ass.”

“I’ll do my best,” the princess promised.

Fairy godmother Glinda waved her magic food delivery wand and the doorbell rang.


… said the princess.

The princess answered the door and there stood a most attractive, leanly muscled young man with a dazzling smile.

“Oh… hello” she said.

“I bring food fit for a princess.  That must be you.”

“It is indeed.”

“Well your highness,” he said, falling to one knee.  “It is my honor to present you with the most delicious Chicago-style hot dog ever made, and a most excellent chocolate malt.  And some other stuff for a fairy godmother.”

The princess cooed with delight as she accepted the greasy bag from his trembling hands.  “Thank you, kind sir, and arise, Sir Knight of Superfast Food Delivery.”

“I am your servant,” he murmured, rising gracefully and backing away from her, his head bowed in reverence.

“Don’t fall down the… oh!” she said as he tumbled backwards down her front steps.

“Tis nothing!” he called from the sidewalk.

She closed the door and brought the food inside to where her fairy godmother waited.  “What’s this costing me?”

“It’s free!” Glinda informed her.

Another wish come true.

“And can you fix it so no one will piss me off again tonight?” the princess asked as she chewed a handful of fries.  (You can always tell a princess; they can make themselves understood even through a mouthful of food.)

“I can’t work miracles!” the fairy godmother insisted.  “Are you going to eat all those fries?”

And so they shared the food, and laughed about nothing special, the princess’ headache went away, and even though people were rude and stupid that night, it didn’t bother her.  It remains to be seen if she lived happily ever after, but it was a pretty good night.

The End

p.s.  No, there are no peas.  It was just a good title.