Friday, November 29, 2013

Only 33 Reading Days Left


It’s the end of November and you know what that means…only one more month to finish all the books I’ve started in 2013, and plan for next year’s reading! Danielle at A Work in Progress recently put up a post about finishing the books she’s started so she can start fresh in 2014—admirable plan. I told her I planned to steal her idea, so I rounded up all the books I’m currently reading and I have more in progress than I thought: 

  1. No Name, Wilkie Collins. My copy has just over 600 pages and I’m a little more than halfway through. This is challenging but doable if I read about 60 pages a week. I’m enjoying the story and the writing immensely, but it’s not a book you can whiz through or you’ll miss too much.
  2. Against Wind and Tide, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The final collection of AML’s letters and journals, spanning the years 1947-1986. Another book I prefer to savor rather than gallop through.
  3. Some Buried Caesar, Rex Stout. Light reading at bedtime, featuring Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin and a prize bull (the Caesar in question).
  4. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Martin Seligman. Happiness research that deserves and hopefully will get its own blog post.
  5. Personal Pleasures, Rose Macaulay. Essays. I just started this book, and it deserves to be savored also, so if any book makes the cross over into 2014, it will be this one.
  6. The Daily Mirror, David Lehman. A journal in poetry. A few times a week, I read a couple of poems before bed. I’m in December already, so should have not trouble finishing.
  7. Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn. I read a few pages of this book (on meditation) every morning. As long as I continue that, I’ll finish by Dec. 31st.
Looks like I have a lot of reading to do between now and the end of December!

Then what? There’s that unending TBR stack that I’ve barely made a dent in. There are new reading challenges on the horizon. I’m sure there will be reading at whim, detours and bookish wanderings…and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Reading is one of my favorite simple pleasures and contributes greatly to my happiness.

Do you have any end-of-the-year reading plans? Have you already started thinking of what you want to read in 2014?

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Things to Be Thankful For


Here’s a poem for this season by Tim Nolan, of Minnesota. Once we begin to be thankful for things, there are more and more things to be thankful for. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Thanksgiving

Thanks for the Italian chestnuts—with their
tough shells—the smooth chocolaty
skin of them—thanks for the boiling water—

itself a miracle and a mystery—
thanks for the seasoned sauce pan
and the old wooden spoon—and all

the neglected instruments in the drawer—
the garlic crusher—the bent paring knife—
the apple slicer that creates six

perfect wedges out of the crisp Haralson—
thanks for the humming radio—thanks
for the program on the radio

about the guy who was a cross-dresser—
but his wife forgave him—and he
ended up almost dying from leukemia—

(and you could tell his wife loved him
entirely—it was in her deliberate voice)—
thanks for the brined turkey—

the size of a big baby—thanks—
for the departed head of the turkey—
the present neck—the giblets

(whatever they are)—wrapped up as
small gifts inside the cavern of the ribs—
thanks—thanks—thanks—for the candles

lit on the table—the dried twigs—
the autumn leaves in the blue Chinese vase—
thanks—for the faces—our faces—in this low light.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Tim Nolan, from his most recent book of poems, And Then, New Rivers Press, 2012. Poem reprinted by permission of Tim Nolan and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

Have a very happy Thanksgiving!

Share/Bookmark

Monday, November 25, 2013

On the Naming of Cats

Photo courtesy Laure Ferlita

I’ve been adopted.

After quite a few years of missing having a cat, I brought the subject up with my husband a few months ago. He said he didn’t particularly want a cat himself, but did not mind if I wanted to have one again. That was good enough for me. I waited until after our 25th anniversary trip, before heading to the animal shelter to adopt a kitten, thinking a kitten would be easier for Scout to cope with than an adult cat. (Since my husband couldn’t come that day, Laure Ferlita came with me for moral support, and ended up adopting my kitten’s sister! You can read about that here.) 

The adoption went smoothly, the new kitty settled in well, and Scout accepted her with no fuss. Maybe that had something to do with getting a treat every time she had a calm interaction with the kitten? Now it was time to name kitty, but as T.S. Eliot wrote, “The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter.” (Read the whole poem, “The Naming of Cats,” here.) 

I can always make a simple matter more complicated, and so I did with naming the kitten. Her shelter name was Lucy, which I like as a name but didn’t seem quite right. A whole week went by with us trying out various names to see if they’d stick. I wanted a name that would be easy to say, and would suit an adult cat as well as a kitten.  A name I would feel comfortable hearing announced at the vet, and a name with some sort of back story or connection to another aspect of my life. I looked up literary cat names and popular cat names until I was cross-eyed. We tried Isabelle and Tiger Lily, Zoey and Buttercup, Luna and Lyra. Annabelle came close, but we finally settled on Prudy, after a favorite character from the movie Support Your Local Sheriff.

That took care of what Eliot calls her “everyday name.” But she must also have a “peculiar and more dignified name” to allow her to “keep up her tail perpendicular.” We figure Prudy is short for Prudence, which I hope is dignified enough to suit. (Of course, there’s also that third name “that no human research can discover”—that name is Prudy’s little secret, and she’s not telling.) 

As I type this, Prudy is asleep on my rocking chair. She’s the sweetest, purriest little thing, and has all three of us wrapped around her fuzzy paw. (When my college freshman son comes home for the weekend, he sleeps with her in his room!) Having pets is a source of deep happiness and contentment for me, and I suspect there will be Prudy stories, just as there are Scout and Tank stories here on the blog. Stay tuned.

What’s making you happy right now?

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Following the Impulse


“Gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. Thankfulness is the natural impulse to express that feeling. Thanksgiving is the following of that impulse.”
—Henry Van Dyke

Share/Bookmark

Friday, November 15, 2013

New Acquaintances

I’ve been a mystery fan practically since I could read,  especially enjoying “cozy” mysteries by Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth. I will always love Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot (Christie) and Miss Silver (Wentworth), but recently, I’ve been introduced to more modern (and younger) detectives who have become new favorites, most notably Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs and Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher. I find both heroines appealing.


The two share a few similarities: they operate during the same general time period, between the first and second world wars. Both served in World War I, Maisie as a nurse, Phryne as an ambulance driver. Both came from humble beginnings, though Phryne has had the good fortune to inherit wealth. Both women decide to become detectives.


Phryne (pronounced “fry-nee”), a resident of 1920s Melbourne, is smart, sophisticated, confident, brave, kind and generous. Despite tragedy in her past, she lives to the fullest and in the moment. Maisie lives in London in the late 1920s/early 30s. She’s much less well off, but just as clever and resourceful. The scars from her past haunt her just as much as Phryne’s do, and I imagine I’ll learn more about them as I continue through the series. Maisie studies psychology (and is referred to, in fact, as a “psychologist and investigator”) in solving her cases. 

Though I’ve read the first few Maisie Dobbs books (there are 10 so far), I’ve only met Phryne on DVD. I plan to read Greenwood’s first Phryne Fisher book (there are 20!) as soon as I can—in fact, I just requested it from my library. I’m completely charmed by the characters as brought to life in the TV series, and I imagine the books will be even better. I love what Greenwood had to say about her creation: “…Phryne is a hero, just like James Bond or the Saint, but with fewer product endorsements and a better class of lovers. I decided to try a female hero and made her as free as a male hero, to see what she would do.”  Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Have you made any new literary acquaintances lately?

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

True North

Copyright Miro Schaap
Linda Pastan, who lives in Maryland, is a master of the kind of water-clear writing that enables us to see into the depths. This is a poem about migrating birds, but also about how it feels to witness the passing of another year. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

The Birds 

are heading south, pulled
by a compass in the genes.
They are not fooled
by this odd November summer,
though we stand in our doorways
wearing cotton dresses.
We are watching them

as they swoop and gather—
the shadow of wings
falls over the heart.
When they rustle among
the empty branches, the trees
must think their lost leaves
have come back.

The birds are heading south,
instinct is the oldest story.
They fly over their doubles,
the mute weathervanes,
teaching all of us
with their tailfeathers
the true north.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Reprinted from The Imperfect Paradise, by Linda Pastan. Copyright © 1988 by Linda Pastan. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Ms. Pastan’s most recent book is “Queen of a Rainy Country,” W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

Share/Bookmark

Monday, November 11, 2013

Five Things I Learned in Boston

Boston Public Gardens
Nothing will make you feel more like a tourist than an “Old Town Trolley” sticker on your shirt.

Paul Revere had 16 children (by two wives).

George Washington was a Red Sox fan.

That's a Red Sox jersey Mr. Washington is wearing.
The Boston Public Library is the oldest lending library in the U.S. (At least that’s what they say. I think there may be some controversy over this?) It’s certainly one of the most beautiful libraries I’ve seen.



The U.S.S. Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat. She was built in Boston, and launched in October of 1797. Most of the ship has been restored, but her keel is original. She is occasionally towed out into Boston Harbor for ceremonial events. (Tours are free, given by active duty sailors, and are well worth the time.)


Thank you for patiently reading about “where I went on my vacation.” I’ve wanted to visit New England during leaf peeping season for a long time, and would happily return if given the chance.

Where have you gone that has left a lasting impression on you? Where would you like to go?

Share/Bookmark

Friday, November 8, 2013

Riding the Rails and the River in Connecticut

Our train
When last we left our intrepid travelers, they were luxuriating at the Bee and Thistle Inn…

After my husband pried my fingers off the door to the inn (I would gladly have stayed in our cozy room at least one more night), we boarded the Essex Steam Train for a short ride through the woods along the Connecticut River, followed by a riverboat trip up the river itself. The day was cold and windy, but we braved the top deck to watch the river banks slide by, a few houses tucked in here and there, and the scarlet and yellow trees that seemed to grow right out of the rock in places.


As we floated by, what looked like a ruined castle loomed up on the hill above us. Our trip narrator identified it as Gillette Castle.


Gillette Castle, which is part of Gillette Castle State Park, was the property of actor William Gillette, whose adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work and on-stage portrayal of Sherlock Holmes helped define the role. (He played Holmes more than 1,300 times over 30 years, and coined the phrase, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow” which was later changed to Holmes’ most famous line, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” according to Wikipedia.) Gillette, who by all accounts was a clever and eccentric man, personally designed the 24-room house and its contents, including 47 intricate and unique door latches, no two of which are alike. The structurally sound home, build of fieldstone with a  steel framework, was designed to look like the ruins of castle you might see along the Rhine in Germany. It’s open to the public from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day weekend, but we were told that even without being able to enter the house, it would be worthwhile to walk around it, and take in the grounds and river views  After lunch, we drove up there and explored a small portion of the park, which was free to enter. It would be a marvelous place to sketch on a less windy and cold day.


The view from Gillette Castle

See the dragon's head?


When Gillette died, he had no one to leave his estate to and was concerned with what would happen to this property, putting specific instructions in his will to guarantee the property would not fall into the hands “of some blithering saphead who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” In 1943, the Connecticut government purchased the property, renamed the home Gillette’s Castle and the 184-acre estate became Gillette Castle State Park. In 1986, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Next and final stop: Boston, where we were forced to hide our resentment of the Boston Red Sox from rabid fans (Boston beat our home team, the Tampa Bay Rays, in the playoffs) and we were lucky to find a hotel room we could afford—the last game of the World Series was played the day we flew home.

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

In the Words of Mark Twain


One of the stops on our recent trip was Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, CT. Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, moved to this house with his wife Olivia (“Livy”) in 1874. He and his family enjoyed some of their happiest years here, before financial problems forced them to move to Europe in 1891.

I’ve only read one or two of Mark Twain’s books, but after seeing Ken Burns’ excellent documentary, I want to read more (I still haven’t gotten around to reading Twain’s autobiography). He fascinates me. Here are some of my favorite Mark Twain quotes:

A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read.

Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. (I think of this when I’m tempted to use the word “very”!)

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.

What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.

In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.

Life is short, break the rules, forgive quickly, kiss slowly, love truly, laugh uncontrollably, and never regret anything that made you smile. Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.

(Friday we’ll resume our travels in the Connecticut River Valley.)



Share/Bookmark

Monday, November 4, 2013

In Which We Hit the Road with Angela and Great White*



Day one of our New England tour had us flying into Boston Logan Airport and renting a car to drive to our first night’s lodging in Newport, RI. (A word of advice about driving a rental car in or around Boston: don’t.) The most stressful part of the entire trip was the drive from the airport out of town. We had a GPS we had never used before, so as I was trying to figure out how to read it and orient myself on Boston’s roads, we found ourselves in tunnels and guess what?! You lose satellite service for a GPS in a tunnel. (We’re lucky we’re not still circling Boston underground.) I have no idea where we actually were, but we did eventually get out of there and on the road to Newport.

Admiral Fitzroy Inn 
After escaping from Boston, we drove to our first night’s hotel, the Admiral Fitzroy Inn, a former convent that is now a bed and breakfast. It was overcast and drizzling and we were tired and frazzled, so we dropped our bags in our room and went in search of dinner. We walked to The Mooring, recommended by the desk clerk (who also lent us an umbrella). We loved the food, and one dish, the “bag of doughnuts” (lobster, crab & shrimp fritters with chipotle-maple aioli), was possibly the best single thing I tasted the entire trip.

The Breakers
We made an early night of it (possibly because we were stuffed with good food), and got up the next morning to begin exploring. Newport has an interesting history, and was at one point the summer playground of some of America’s wealthiest families. We went to see The Breakers, the grandest and most famous of the Newport “cottages” (if you can call a 70-room mansion a cottage). I have never seen a more ornate home in my life. Sadly, we were not allowed to take photos of the interior of this house (or any house on the entire trip, actually) but I assure you, it was stunning and worth a visit. 

He'd be fun to sketch...


We walked around the corner from The Breakers to an entrance onto the Cliff Walk, a 3 ½ mile trail along the eastern shore of the island. We wandered only a small section of the path, enjoying the ocean views and a peek into the back yards of some enormous houses. (Part of Cliff Walk is still closed because of damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.)

Cliff Walk
From Cliff Walk, we headed to The Elms, another of the Newport mansions. Modeled after a mid-18th century French chateau, it was completed in 1901 for coal magnate Edward J. Berwind. Much less ornate than The Breakers, it was still a grand mansion.

The Elms
After our mansion tours, we hit the road again. We stopped at Stonington’s (CT) Old Lighthouse Museum (thanks, Cheryl, for the suggestion) and stopped briefly at Mystic for a late lunch—and no, we didn’t eat pizza.  We were too tired and it was too late in the day for us to hit Mystic Seaport, so we’ll just have to go there another time. 

Stonington's Old Lighthouse Museum

Climb the ladder to the top

Part of the view from the lighthouse

More views from the top

Climb back down
We wanted to be in position to ride the Essex Steam Train the following day, so we pushed on to the town of Old Lyme, where I’d heard about a bed and breakfast I hoped to stay at, The Bee and Thistle. Built in 1756, The Bee and Thistle was my favorite lodging, and why not? We had a gas fireplace in our room and an extra-long bathtub I could stretch out in. On top of that, they served the best breakfast and coffee we had on the trip. I would have liked to explore Old Lyme a bit more, but we had to move on.

The Bee and Thistle

Our room


Next up: Riding the rails and the river in the Connecticut River Valley, and the “ruined” castle on the hill…

*We named the GPS Angela, because its voice reminded me of Angela on The Office. “Great White” was our nickname for our car, which had a sort of shark fin-like thingy on the roof.

Share/Bookmark

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Travel Effect

Perhaps this happens to you? You go on a trip someplace, and come home filled with the desire to make changes, to simplify and purge, to get things done, to live fully and embrace life.

Or is it just me?

I came home from our trip to New England filled with plans to:

Redo my schedule, setting aside much more time for reading and writing.
Learn about early American history.
Read and reread Louisa May Alcott’s works, and Walden. (FYI: note that Walden and Little Women are both free through Amazon’s Kindle. Links are below.)
Clean out all my closets.

And much more. Will I do those things? I don’t know—it depends on how long my recharging lasts. (I am so missing the cool, crisp weather, for it is repulsively warm and humid here right now, but We Will Not Speak of This. Cooler days are coming, I just need to hang on!)

I’ll write more about the trip next week, and share more photos, but today I’ll give you a little taste of two of my favorite experiences. (Click to enlarge the photos.)

Walden Pond


I read and enjoyed Walden several years ago, though I’m embarrassed to say it didn’t make much of a lasting impression on me. Still, when I found that we could visit Walden Pond, and see the site of Thoreau’s cabin while we were in Concord, I jumped at the chance. And I’m so glad I did. Walden Pond is a “kettle hole,” formed by a retreating glacier, in some places over 100 feet deep. We were able to walk all the way around it, soaking up the fresh air, the bright leaves, and watching people enjoying the park in their own ways—we saw men fishing, several families with children walking in the woods, a paddle boarder and two wetsuit-clad people swimming! Even though there were quite a few others there (and I’m sure it’s mobbed in the warmer months), it didn’t feel crowded and you could sense the peace and beauty that must have drawn Thoreau here.

Thoreau's Cove
Cabin site



Cabin replica
Orchard House


Just down the road from Walden sits Orchard House, the Alcott (as in Louisa May) family home for 20 years. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women while living here, at a small half-circle of a desk her father built into a wall of her room. (No photos were allowed inside, so I can’t show you what it looked like.) The house was already old when the Alcotts lived there, with the settling you’d expect of an old house. Orchard House was named for the apple orchard that once surrounded it, but Louisa called it “Apple Slump” because she felt like it was “slumping” into the ground, according to our tour guide. The Alcotts were an interesting and talented family—one of Louisa’s sisters was an actress, the other an artist—we saw much of her art work in the home, including sketches drawn directly on window casings and woodwork of her room. Alcott’s father, Bronson, was a philosopher and educator (though his revolutionary ideas about education kept him from being successful in his day) and her mother was essentially what we’d now call a social worker, according to our guide. The home was simple and warm, and filled with many items that belonged to the family, since Orchard House had only one owner after the Alcotts, and became a museum in 1911.

Now back to laundry and sorting through travel ephemera and photos. Stay tuned next week for autumn leaves, historic houses and more!

Share/Bookmark