Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Of cabbages and kings

I've been pretty quiet lately, despite the three posts I need to write.  I've been in one of those slumps we all have every so often, both in reading and in blogging.  I'm surrounded by wonderful books and all I do is re-read fluffy mysteries and P. G. Wodehouse!  I guess I've just been focusing on other things lately, but I'll be back soon.  Meanwhile, I'll burble a bit about my life and its new shape.

With the start of school, my life changed a lot.  I now have two kids in public high school, which makes me a retired homeschooling mom.  I did it for 12 years, and it was great, and now I'm really, really tired.  Being alone during the day is a new (and fairly wonderful) experience, though I'm not getting as much of it as I'd like; after all, I have a part-time job, and everybody else has great ideas for things I should do.  I picked up a volunteer job one morning a week -- sorting donated books for the library booksale, which will convince any book addict that there are far too many books in the world* -- and a weekly tutoring gig.
 
Book sorting job: what it looks like when we start.

Sorted, priced, and ready for sale.
I suppose at some point I will use this alone time to read and/or blog, but so far what I've mostly done is work on the house.  Any homeschooler can tell you that great housekeeping and homeschooling do not go together at all (anyone who says otherwise is selling something -- probably a system for homeschooling and keeping house at the same time), and I wasn't a great housekeeper in the first place.  I've been pretty thrilled with my decluttering progress so far!  There's plenty left to do (in the yard as well), but I'm very happy with it.

I haven't done much sewing either, but I am binding a pretty great quilt!
And I have other goals too!  I used to be a perfectly good cook, though meal planning has always been my weakness.  Between homeschooling and working, and three other people whose diets got ever-more individualized, my meal-prep skills got worn down to almost nothing.  Most of my go-to recipes were axed by a wide array of dietary needs, and I need a whole new set of planning and cooking skills.  Not to mention that I now need to keep two teenagers supplied with portable, nutritious foods to take to school and work!

I don't know how long this period of relative leisure will last.  I'm hoping to expand my hours at work, but it's a tricky prospect.  I don't want to go full-time for a few years yet; these kids may be gone for most of the day but they still need me around for a lot of things, including emotional support.  Anyway, I'm enjoying the leisure while I've got it.  I've got a massive deficit of alone time built up. 

We also have some stressful stuff going on, just like everybody else.  My husband's work has decided to shut the local office and move everything to Florida in the spring, so he's looking for a new job.  In a small city like ours, tech jobs are not as plentiful as they might be, but there are several possibilities, so he is optimistic.  This is probably why I'm mainlining comfort reads instead of tackling the pile of world literature and history on my bookshelf.

We accidentally joined the marching band. With a violin.



*Though today I got a Riverside Chaucer just like I've been wanting!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Voices From Chernobyl

Voices From Chernobyl: the Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana Alexievich is a major presence on my mental TBR shelf, and I was really sorry I didn't think to put this on my 20 Books of Summer list.  I wanted to start here and then move on to Secondhand Time and her newly published (in English) Unwomanly Face of War.  This is not her entire output; there is also Zinky Boys, about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, so there's plenty to read.

Alexievich is a Belarussian journalist who has made it her life's work to collect testimonies and oral histories of the USSR.  She arranges them in a collage sort of form to communicate the emotional history and impact of the events described.  She's been doing this kind of thing since the early 1980s, but much of it was repressed under the Soviet government, and then Lukashenko's Belarussian government persecuted her as well, so that she had to leave from 2000 - 2011. In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time."  Alexievich says:
"If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath. An eternal dialogue of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions - Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man."
On the 26th of April, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear energy plant had an uncontrolled reaction, leading to a steam explosion and graphite fire.  It was a combination of corner-cutting, incompetence, bad design, and all sorts of things (including deliberately turning off some safety features, because they were running a drill) that led up to the accident.  The response was not properly done either; ordinary firemen responded to the fire, and hardly anyone had the right gear.  Political leaders were ignorant of the real dangers and mainly interested in...well, covering it up.  They didn't want outsiders to know what had happened, and they didn't want other Soviet republics to think they couldn't take care of their own problems. 

The collected voices from Chernobyl -- taken ten years later -- bear witness to the terrible ignorance of most of the populace, and to the awful suffering that resulted.  Ordinary people didn't know about the dangers of radiation leakage; they were conversant with the idea of nuclear bombs, but they didn't know that a meltdown would poison everything around them.  And how do you believe that the landscape is poisoned when it's so obviously a beautiful spring, and there's planting to be done?  The leaders weren't a lot better off; when a physicist tried to warn them, the reaction was a blank "But the fire is out." 

One of the most striking things about many of the stories, besides their horror, is the great strength of the connection people felt to their land.  Many of the people who were forced out lament their beloved homes and feel so uprooted that they can't get used to the new places. Hundreds of villages were emptied and buried, but some people remain in the worst areas.  In fact, it seems that some political refugees moved in over the years, seeing radiation as less of a threat than the war they had fled.  Although it has been 20 years, today, about a fifth of the population of Belarus lives on poisoned land.  Illnesses and deaths from radiation-caused problems have increased, since everyone is constantly taking in low doses.

This is another in my collection of crucial books to read, but not because they are fun.



What do you remember about Chernobyl, if you are old enough to remember it?  I was in 8th grade, and I remember it well, because a girl in my school was scheduled to go to Russia with a choir, on one of those goodwill trips, and it was canceled.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Faerie Queene Book VI, Part II

It only took me over a year, but I have done it!  I finished the Faerie Queene!  Woohoo!  I do wish Spenser had been able to finish his great work, but I don't know if I could have read all of it.


When we stopped last time, it was right after a fight in a castle between Arthur and Turpine (the bad guy).  Turpine now wants revenge, and he meets two knights, who he talks into pursuing Arthur.  They attack, and Arthur kills one before the other cries mercy and informs on Turpine.  Arthur kills Turpine and hangs him from a tree.  Arthur is really getting pretty violent!  Meanwhile, Serena and Timias (remember them?) meet Mirabella, who is the messy maiden from a couple of cantos back.  She is beautiful, but of low birth.  Her pride has led her to be cruel to many men, so Cupid has decided to seize control and teach her a lesson (normally, remember, Cupid shoots his arrows at random, so the natural order is being overturned here).  Her penance is to save 22 loves, but in two years she has only managed to save two.  Then a giant, Disdaine, follows and attacks her, so Timias fights him, but is overcome.  Serena thinks he is dead, and flees.

Arthur and his new companion, Enias (! Is this a reference to Eneas?) meet a knight and lady berating a Squire.  There is some rather confusing fighting where Arthur defeats Disdaine and Mirabella explains herself.  Serena, meanwhile, is riding her horse, complaining, and when she goes to sleep, a band of cannibals find her!  They plan to sacrifice and eat her.  (Some would also like to ravish her first, but their priest says no.)  Luckily, Calepine has been searching for her and he finds and rescues here, though he does not recognize her until the next day, whether because it was dark or because she was naked...maybe both?

Back to Calidore -- whose book this supposedly is, though we haven't seen him for ages -- he is pursuing the Blatant Beast.  He meets some kindly pastoral shepherds, who are gracious and feed him.  Pastorella is the prettiest maiden there and all love her, especially Coridon, but she is ambitious and looks higher.  Calidore falls for her.  Her adoptive father, Meliboe, comes to fetch her home and invites Calidore to stay.  The knight is enchanted by Melidoe's description of shepherd life, and wishes to become a shepherd and marry Pastorella.  Meliboe warns that his job is to guard the shepherds' safety and do knightly deeds, but Calidore is oblivious and begs to stay.  He even (dishonorably) tries to bribe Meliboe with gold, which is refused.  He tries to woo Pastorella with courtly courtesy, but she doesn't understand it, so he becomes a shepherd.  A very polite shepherd.

Calidore the shepherd finds a lovely place; this is Acidale, another favorite spot of Venus'.  He spies on over 100 naked maidens dancing to piping music, with the Three Graces in the center accompanying a lovely maiden, who is the partner of the musician.  (This is "Colin Clout," Spenser himself!)  When Calidore comes out of hiding, the nymphs vanish, leaving only Colin to explain that these are Venus' graces.  (And the knight of courtesy has just driven them off -- uh oh.)  Calidore apologizes and goes home to Pastorella.  On another day, everyone goes out strawberrying, and a Tiger attacks Pastorella!  Coridon runs away in fear, but Calidore kills it with his staff.  Now Pastorella begins to favor Calidore, to Coridon's fury.  But then (as Calidore is absent) Brigants appear and pillage the whole place, taking them all into slavery.  The poor shepherds are taken through an underground passage to the Brigants' island, thus foiling pursuit.

Poor Pastorella, in prison, catches the head brigand's eye, and he courts her with gifts and threats.  He never stops bothering her; she can't even sleep!  So she eventually allows him to hope, in order to gain time, and then she pretends to get sick.  Slave traders show up and the brigands decide to sell most of the captives, but now both parties want the maiden, so there's a big fight.  Many of the helpless captives are killed, including Meliboe, but Coridon takes the opportunity to escape.  Pastorella is the sole survivor.  He finds Calidore, who is nearly mad with grief, having come back to a burned-out village, and together they go and save Pastorella.

They take the maiden to the castle of Sir Bellamoure and his wife Claribell, so there's a digression into their story; they wed secretly and were imprisoned by Claribell's angry father, but bribes to the guards and the maid resulted in a baby girl, who was then smuggled out to foster care.  The baby had a little purple birthmark like a rose on her breast,* and she was adopted by shepherds.  Calidore finally remembers that his actual job is to pursue the Blatant Beast (if he'd kept to it, the shepherds might have been safe), so he departs.  You will not be at all surprised that Claribell's maid, Melissa, sees the rose birthmark on Pastorella.  Everyone is joyful!  But Spenser has only a small space to finish this story in, so we have to hurry on to Calidore, who finds the Blatant Beast despoiling a monastery (possibly an allusion to Puritan iconoclasts, though Cromwell is as yet only a small child).  The Beast has a mouth with a thousand tongues!  It never stops talking or emitting its poison.  After a grand battle, Calidore ties the Beast up and leads it to Fairyland, where it is kept captive.  But long afterwards it breaks out again, and has never been caught since.


I'm sort of stunned by how fast Spenser winds this up.  He spends forever meandering around Book VI, bringing in a cast of thousands, and then crams the Blatant Beast and Calidore's victory into the very last bit.  On the whole, it's a confusing book; I had to look up synopses a couple of times to find out what was going on, and I kind of suspect that even Spenser mixed up his two similarly-named knights at one point.  Also, I really like the Blatant Beast and wish it had appeared a little more.

I was going to talk about the Mutabilitie cantos too, but this is already too long, so....wrap-up will be next time!





_____________________________________
*This episode reminded me irresistibly of the purple pimpernel in The Court Jester, and I have to believe that they're connected.  I mean, special birthmarks to identify lost heirs are common, but purple flower-shaped birthmarks?  Some scriptwriter knew his Spenser, I'm sure of it.  I was going to post a clip for you, but I can find virtually everything in the movie except the purple pimpernel scenes, so you'll just have to watch the movie yourself; since it's one of the great comedy movies of all time, you won't suffer!











Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Deadly Wandering

A Deadly Wandering, by Matt Richtel

The start of a new school year means a new Book In Common in our city.  The university and the community college cooperate to choose a book, get people interested, and have the author come and speak.  I don't always read the BIC pick, but this year's title piqued my interest.  And I was pretty entertained when my older daughter came home and said it was on her English syllabus, so could we get a copy?  And I flipped over the book, which was right on the table.  Heh.

In 2006, people were just starting to use texting on cell phones to communicate when Reggie Shaw, a very ordinary nice kid from Utah, drifted a bit across the center line and caused a car accident that killed two men -- both scientists with families.  It wasn't immediately clear how it had happened, but Reggie was a habitual texter.  The investigation and findings turned into a landmark case, showing that texting while driving is much more dangerous than anyone had (at that time) realized.

Richtel intertwines three (sometimes more) plotlines, following Reggie, victim advocate Terryl, and the development of the science of attention.  It's interesting, often riveting, and thought-provoking.  How many of us look at our phones while driving?  Texting turns out to be especially dangerous, grabbing our attention away from the road, but there are plenty of other screen-based distractions as well.  Newer cars are even putting screens on the dashboard; our culture tells us that multi-tasking is good.  Well, maybe it isn't always.

An informative read.  But if you want the TL;DR version: don't text while you drive.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Great Oregon Eclipse Escapade

I thought it would be fun to tell you about our trip to Oregon for the eclipse.  If you don't think that would be fun, feel free to skip this post, though I will tell you that it does also have its literary moments!

We stuffed five people -- our two kids, plus my dad -- into my little CRV, as well as equipment to survive anything up to an apocalypse.  We kept hearing about the terrible congestion that was going to happen, so we planned to be able to live out of the car if we needed to.  Our original plan was to drive to a small town on the southern side of the band of totality where my sister-in-law spent some years of her childhood.  She still knew a few folks and we figured on having reasonable access to plumbing there.  But first, we planned to spend a couple of days in Portland at my brother's place.

So we drove allll day, and it was quite a good drive except for about half of it involving a lot of smoke from wildfires.  We couldn't really see Mt. Shasta, and Oregon's forests were more gray than green.  We got to Portland just fine and said goodbye to my brother, who was leaving for New York State early in the morning to visit his fiancee's family.

We spent Saturday looking around Portland a bit, enjoying the fantastic weather and the pretty great public transportation; we took a light rail, a tram, and a sky tram thing.  Said brother works at the university hospital, which is on top of a steep hill dedicated entirely to medical complexes and not parking, so there is this little sky pod thing to take everyone up and down.  It was a really fun ride, with a fabulous view.




And this statue was familiar; we saw a lot of these at Salisbury Cathedral last year!


















We then took a tram to the Portland Public Library, which is in a lovely old building that was recently refurbished.  It's wonderful.  Go to the Portland Library!  Of course, I especially liked the Beverly Cleary Children's Room, but everything else was great too.  And they've made a work of art out of the stairs.

Portland Library
Art stairs!

After that we got gyros from one of the zillion food trucks around.  Portland is famous for food trucks.  And we had to stop in at Powell's Books, but unfortunately so did everyone else that day.  I'm sure it's a nice bookstore, but it was so crowded it was impossible to tell.  You couldn't look at a bookshelf without a stream of people walking through.  It was more like Disneyland than a bookstore, though I will say that it had a wonderful section of Tintin and Asterix comics.

Sunday, we drove out to Multnomah Falls.  My brother and his fiancee had warned us to get there early, and boy were they right!  We got one of the last parking spots.  Multnomah is not a large waterfall in volume, but it is very tall and very beautiful.  It falls in two stages, a long first drop and then a shorter second one.  It's an easy walk up to a bridge that crosses over the second, shorter fall, and after that there is a much steeper hike up to the top, which we were not really prepared for.  We just enjoyed the view.





This spot was very crowded too, and by the time we left, there was a line of cars a good half-mile long, waiting to get in.  We were sure glad we'd come early!

After that I insisted on a pilgrimage to Klickitat Street, which is a real place.  In Beverly Cleary's books, it's where the Quimbys (and the Hugginses, and the Kemps) live.  So we went to a nearby park, which has a "Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden."  This turned out to be statues of Ramona, stuck in the mud, with an exasperated Henry Huggins and Ribsy nearby.  It looks to be a fountain, but the water was not turned on.  Then we drove to Klickitat Street, which is of course a perfectly ordinary street of houses.


 We tried to go to bed really early Sunday night, and planned to get up at 3am so as to leave around 4.  We were very worried about getting stuck in traffic -- not just eclipse traffic, but also the ordinary Portland morning traffic.  We were therefore out of the suburbs before 5am.  Traffic was clear the whole way, except a little busy in Salem, where totality was going to last longest.  Clearly a lot of people wanted to be in Salem.  And we saw a rest stop near there that was jammed full of cars (you can't camp at a rest stop, but you can stay up to 8 hours.). We had food enough to last for a whole day, and everything else we could possibly need....and every bit of it turned out to be unnecessary!  Ha!

You see, we had planned to just spend the day in this small town, hanging out in a park or something, and our best hope was to have access to a bathroom.  But the guy my sister-in-law was talking with just wound up inviting us to his house!  He invited seven strangers, and one acquaintance from childhood, to come watch the eclipse at his home.  So when we left Portland, we were really headed to this guy's house, which was ideally situated on a ridge with a spectacular view over a valley:


 We got there at about 6am, and just stayed in the car for a while.  Sister-in-law and her family had not arrived yet from Eugene.  A teenager drove up to the garage, waved in a friendly manner, and disappeared.  Around 7am we knocked quietly and he let us in, and pretty soon we were having an eclipse party.  Our hosts started making pancakes with home-grown blackberry syrup, and scrambled eggs from chickens.  We discovered tons of things in common, what with the chickens and the bees and the timber growing, and it even turned out that he'd lived in Denmark right after I did!  We knew people in common! 

We got started setting things up.  Everybody had glasses; I'd also made full face shields out of cardboard with cutout spots for my favorite welding glass.  I really dislike sun on my face for any length of time and am much happier with a nice shield.  We also had binoculars with filters on, so that we had a great view of the sun complete with sunspots.  Everybody could take turns with those.



It took a while for things to get strange, but gradually everything got darker.  The cat got nervous and prowly, and it looked like twilight.  It really got quite chilly!  We could see lights come on all the way down the valley.  We were hoping to see the eclipse shadow come sweeping up, but the slight haze of smoke made that impossible.  At totality, it was like nothing we'd ever experienced before.  The sky was darkish, but it looked like dawn at the horizon, all the way around.  We could see a reddish, really kind of magenta area at one side of the corona.  The moon over the sun was actually darker than the rest of the sky, I think because of the smoke.  It was amazing.




We didn't really try to take great pictures.  We knew that lots of other people would have fancy equipment to do that with, so we mostly just wanted to enjoy the experience.


Afterwards, we knew we had to hit the road as soon as possible; it was a long way home, and there was school and work in the morning!  We actually missed the first day of school for the eclipse.  The traffic was heavy but not too bad for most of the way, except that there were a few accidents near Medford, so that was awful, and then Weed was having road construction.  That part was brutal.  It took us 11 hours to get home and we were beat!  But it was so worth it.  The chance of a lifetime.  Wow.


Friday, September 1, 2017

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XII

Now that summer is over,* it's time for fall reading, and that means the R. I. P. Challenge!  This is the 12th year, and just like last year, Andi of Estella's Revenge and Heather of My Capricious Life  are hosting.

I'm going to sign up for Peril the Second: Read two books of any length that you believe fit within the challenge categories. 


My main desire for this fall is to read one of the 'horrid novels' mentioned in Northanger Abbey.  Catherine and Isabella love their horrid novels, and they have a whole list.  Most of them were thought to be fictional titles made up by Miss Austen, but they turned out to be real, and now I have all of them in an ebook collection.  I'll just start at the beginning, with The Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons, written in 1793.  

I also have Jackaby (I am so behind the times) and a lovely Marvin Kaye collection, Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown.  Who knows if I'll manage them all? 



*In theory only; we are suffering an awful heat wave, the worst of the year.