As to the pretence of trying her native air, I look upon that as a mere excuse.--In the summer it might have passed; but what can any body's native air do for them in the months of January, February, and March? — Jane Austen, Emma

March 4, 2015

For Boston, next winter, please?

Now, this is a weather report.... :)

{from the Anne Arundel County Public Library, via Twitter}

March 2, 2015

Flirting with French

I don't have the strongest track record with contemporary memoirs. Every once in a while, I absolutely love them {My Life in Middlemarch, or The View from Downshire Hill} but then I'll read one, or two, or three {they shall remain nameless} that convinced me that it's too hard to like a memoir if it's too hard to warm up to its author.

Happily, I really like William Alexander. :)  He's a couple of years older than me, works in IT, is married to a doctor, has a daughter in college, lives somewhere along the Hudson River, and wants, very very much, to learn to speak French.  He writes about his horrible pronunciation, and his learning experiences, and about being able to make himself understood only to waiters used to tourists, and about theories on how we acquire language and the medical and scientific thinking that explains what he is experiencing first hand:  that it becomes overwhelmingly difficult, if not impossible, the older we get, to learn a second language. There's a side story as well about the serious heart problem he is beginning to suffer from.

Suppose I don't make it to Friday — I almost certainly will, or Chinitz would've found a way to get me into surgery sooner. But suppose I don't: Is a single-minded devotion to learning French how I would've wanted to spend the last year of my life? Two o'clock in the morning, while awaiting a lifesaving heart procedure, is a good time to start being honest with yourself, to parler a coeur ouvert. The truth is, not only have I failed to become fluent, or even conversant, in French, but I've failed spectacularly — more so than I ever though possible. You can't say I haven't tried. Over thirteen months, I've completed all five levels of Rosetta Stone, Fluenz French, a hundred podcasts of Coffee Break French, two Pimsleur audio courses, a fifty-two episode season of the 1987 PBS series French in Action, and a dual-language book, topped off by two weeks at one of the top language schools in France.
But this is about a serious and soul-baring as he gets. Of course, there are moments when he's clearly telling a story for effect (and this is his genre:  he has written before, about learning to bake bread and trying to grow vegetables, in what sounds like the same vein}. But mostly, he's funny, and self-deprecating, and happy with small victories. {I digress, but there's French in it:  my second favorite moment in The Great British Baking Show, second only to what Luis said at the very end,  was when Richard told the male judge that he was pain au lait for his signature bake, because he had fond memories of eating them during childhood holidays in France, even if they were a little simple and plain.}

French:  Beautiful, Maddening Tenacious. It won't let me win, but it won't let me go. I have no potatoes in my Hudson Valley kitchen, only the more poetic pommes de terre  — apples from the earth.  Instead of a slice of lime  — bah, ouais!  —   I top off Anne's cote voiture with citron vert — smiling to myself that the French call it simply a 'green lemon.' I text Katie often in easy French  — ca va? —  and she responds likewise, a game we can't stop playing as if we share a secret code.
      I may not have learned all the French  I wanted to, but what I did learn has enriched my life immeasurably. Yet perhaps the most important French lesson learned over the past year is this:  you can love a thing without possessing it. Even as French has eluded me, my ardor for the language has only grown.  I love, and will always love, French. Whether it loves me back, I have no control over.
      Je ne regrette rien.

February 26, 2015

#6barsets: The Warden

As I've mentioned, I've made a plan {and found lovely friends to read with!} to read all six of Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novels, one every two months, in this bicentennial year. I'll be re-reading the first two -- The Warden (1855) and Barchester Towers (1857) -- mostly to remember the characters and what happens to them, and I'm not sure how much more I'll have to say about them. So far, I'm just adding to my deep and great enjoyment. :) 

I've reminded myself who we meet in this first Barsetshire novel (Reverend Harding, his daughters, the Bishop, the Archdeacon, the reform-minded John Bold) and what changes are wrought for some of them.  And in re-reading Victoria Glendinning's wonderful biography of Trollope {set aside the last few weeks, but not forgotten ... it's just that another, unexpectedly and equally wonderful biography in the form of a non-renewable library book has temporarily stolen my heart} I've been learning about how much he put himself and his experiences into his books; it's been a little bit like a treasure hunt to see those things emerge in this novel. I did read that The Warden was Trollope's fourth published novel, and the first to show him  a glimmer of success.

But, alas, lots of snow and lots going on work has meant that February was a little overwhelming, and I'm finding myself quite unable to string two thoughts together to share at the moment. A quiet, peaceful, surprisingly moving, surprisingly funny book like this one was lovely to spend time with, and I can't wait to start Barchester Towers (another re-read) for March and April.  

Let's let each other know about Trollope reading this year!  (I'll share links,}

{A lovely cathedral close, found here}

February 15, 2015


... George and Charlotte's children all kept up a lively correspondence of their own with the Harcourts. The boys sent letters from Germany to pass on news about their progress, and the princesses, with less to occupy their time, wrote letters even more prolifically. Elizabeth, the third sister, surprised even Lady Harcourt, herself no slouch with a pen, by the sheer volume of what she wrote. 'Once, when I was ill and confined to my house for six weeks,' Lady Harcourt recalled, 'I received from her at that time 143 letters, for she often wrote twice and sometimes thrice in a day if the opportunity of sending a letter occurred.
      For Elizabeth and her contemporaries, letter-writing came almost as easily as conversation. For those who could afford the time, paper and postage, keeping up one's correspondence was a crucial part of the daily round. This was especially true for women,who frequently took on the role of keeping their family's social network of friends and relations fully informed about domestic events. There was no state-sponsored postal service, but, nevertheless, letters circulated briskly from place to place with surprising speed and efficiency. In London, they were dropped off at named collection points, and carried by foot to the appropriate addresses, sometimes arriving only hours after they were sent. Even cross-country mail was delivered regularly, with only the very remotest destinations waiting for week after uncertain week for letters to turn up. The likelihood that their correspondence would arrive safely encouraged letter-writers to ever greater levels of epistolary output. It also changed the content of what they wrote. The ability to write a graceful, formal letter was considered the mark of an educated person, and collections of sample templates could be purchased for those uncertain of their compositional skills. But most letter-writing was far less practised and artificial than these coolly elegant pieces. Everyday letters were often written almost as a form of extended conversation, a link to a great chain of correspondence that went on for years. Others were dashed off in haste, in response to an event, a meeting, the inspiration of a casual thought. Eighteenth-century correspondents wrote with a freshness and immediacy that still leaps off the page, consigning their hopes, fears and joys to paper with a candour that buttonholes the reader after so many years. In a world with fewer diversions, the arrival of a letter was an event to be shared and celebrated or enjoyed as a private pleasure.  In most households, there simply could not be too many of them.
from A Royal Experiment:  the private life of King George III,
by Janice Hadlow

Whenever I read a book like this, with pages and pages of footnotes, all pointing to letters and diaries, I'm so grateful that this was true, at least once upon a time.  I wonder sometimes what biographers could work from, in a hundred years, or even twenty years, if there are still biographies, or how much less inspiring their sources will be.  

I also think about how much my reading life has been enriched by reading other people's letters and diaries ... Virginia Woolf's, Henry James', Edith Wharton's, Henry's to Edith, Edith's to Henry, Eudora Welty's and William Maxwell's breathtakingly lovely ones, some of Jane Austen's, and I'm sure many others if I looked.  I'm even old enough to remember writing and receiving them myself, though I can't remember the last time that happened {business letters a lot later than personal ones}.  I'm happy that we still have them, at least, in books. 

{The painting is 'The Love Letter' by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1770, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's not exactly the right kind of letter, but the painting was everywhere yesterday and it made me happy. :)}.

February 14, 2015

Falling in Love

'I'm not sure that's an answer, Mamma,' Chiara said.
'You'll understand some day when you're married and have kids, stella,' Brunetti told her.
Her attention swivelled to him.
'You get to be home alone, Chiara,' Brunetti said.
'What's so great about that?' Chiara asked,
Paola, who was facing her at the table, gave her a level, adult look. She tasted a thin wheel of zucchini, approved her own cooking, and took another bite. She set her elbow on the table and cupped her chin in her palm. 'It means I do not have to prepare dinner, or serve it, or wash the dishes after it, Chiara. It means I can have bread and cheese and a salad, or no salad, or no bread and cheese, and make myself whatever I want to eat. But more importantly, it means I can eat when I want to, and I can read while I'm eating, and then I can go back to my study and lie on the sofa and read all evening.' When she saw Chiara get ready to speak, Paola held up her hand and continued. 'And it means I can come in here and get myself a glass of wine or a glass of grappa or make myself a coffee or a cup of tea or just have a glass of water, and I don't have to talk to anyone or do anything for anyone. And then I can go back to my book, and when I'm tired, I'll go to bed and read there.'
'And that's what you want to do?' Chiara asked in a voice so small she could have been an ant standing under a leaf.
In a much warmer voice, Paola said, 'Yes, Chiara. Once in a while, that's what I want to do.'
With the back of her fork, Chiara mashed at a piece of carrot until it was an indistinguishable blob on her plate. Finally, in a voice that grown a bit stronger, she asked, 'But not always?'
'No, not always.'
On the way back, Brunetti marvelled at the way Paola managed so successfully to teach her children the ways of the world with a grace and charity that often left him at a loss for words, ,,, Chiara had just been forced into a new understanding of cosmology, where planets followed their own orbits and did not circle round at her convenience. Brunetti had read, just that week, an article reporting that 25 per cent of Americans did not know that the Earth circled the Sun; he wondered how many people ever realized that the world did not circle around them. 'Better that she learn it now,' he muttered to himself, then looked nervously around, hoping that no one had heard him.
Wasn't it brilliant of me to finish Donna Leon's new Guido Brunetti novel just in time? :)

I'm already in love with this series, and the characters in it, and all the food and the reading, and after one or two that maybe didn't quite fulfill all my hopes for them, this one did.  And it proves, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that I don't read mysteries for the mysteries or crime novels for the crimes, because if I did, I probably wouldn't read them.

As I discovered when it first came into my hands, in this latest book, Brunetti encounters Flavia Petrelli again, the opera singer he first met (and suspected) in the very first book, Death at La Fenice.  In the opening {which I thought was very well done}, she is back in Venice, singing Tosca, and after Guido and Paola visit her backstage after a performance, it's revealed that she is receiving gifts {dozens and dozens of yellow roses, and an unusual necklace} from an unknown and unwelcome admirer.  Things escalate when people connected to her are harmed, and the mystery of course involves identifying the person who is pursuing her.  That's all just a little unsatisfactory, except that the solving involves Signora Elettra, who has gone on strike with some of her employers {but not Brunetti} because of their  mistreatment of a dim-witted but beloved officer.

But the Brunettis are also at home, eating  together and watching Downton Abbey and being a family.  And reading. I love that Guido and Paola are both readers; there's this moment at the table, and another very good one when Paola remarks that Guido is a very deep reader and he is visibly touched by her saying so.

A nice bit of romance for a reader!  I hope your day is full of them.

{Falling in Love will be published in April.  Thank you to Grove Atlantic and Netgalley for this early treat.}

February 10, 2015

Snow days

Part of me wants to walk the mile or so down to the Public Garden and take my own photos of my lovely city in the snow, and part of me wants to hang on to every last minute of cabin fever. I have to remind myself that I've hardly even been inconvenienced by this incredible snowfall {over six feet in 17 days}, when it's meant so much work and worry for others. But it has been nice. I've been doing a lot of mindless puttering around, a little bit of cooking and baking, and a lot of reading, which has been perfect for me. :)

  • When I was out finishing all my errands early Saturday morning, I picked up a stack of library books that had all come in on reserve at the same time {does that happen to you?}  As a result, I've set my Trollopes aside, just for a little while, and become immersed in A Royal Experiment, an unexpectedly wonderful book about the marriage and family life of George III and Queen Charlotte.
  • But when I was reading The Warden last week {I'm about halfway through, and will be back to it soon} I picked up again on the simultaneous listening-and-reading thing you can do on a Kindle {something our friend JoAnn told me about and that I tried for the first time with Mansfield Park}... and I noticed something interesting. This wintry weather has made my commutes longer and colder than usual, making it a little harder to read when I get home. But I found that listening to the book and reading the words on the screen at the same time {the words are highlighted as the voice continues} seemed to help me focus and concentrate on what I was reading. Plus, it's just kind of cool.
  • When I got the alert last night that we wouldn't be working today either {can I confess that I like working in a place where no work means no work and not working from home?  I just checked my office email, and there's nothing there.} I thought I'd finally watch the first DVD of At Home with the Georgians, a BBC series that I was lucky enough to find at the library. Because I inherited a complicated TV and speaker set up in the living room when I moved in here. I can only watch DVDs from my bed, and last night wasn't the first time this has helped me fall asleep ... 15 minutes after the program starts.  But it seems wonderful, and funny -- I watched long enough to see a great scene where the host, Amanda Vickery, reads letters from a loving young husband, visits a Georgian house where there is a portrait of this man she admires, and then loses it when she sees that he is jowly and not very handsome {the expression on the householder's face -- a descendant? -- is priceless}.
  • Something else from the BBC popped up this morning that justified the time I was wasting on Facebook ...a BBC 15-Minute Drama series based on Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street books. I haven't listened yet, but apparently we have 29 days before this expires.  (And two more potential snowstorms before we expire...}

Oh, it's going to be hard to get back to normal tomorrow.  I hope you're having a great week.