Fridays are more fun with puns…

toucanpun

 

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Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch – Sally Bedell Smith (2012)

book412Since we’d just finished watching the latest season of The Crown TV series, I decided that I was interested in learning more about HRH QE2, and having had an enjoyable read of a biography about Prince Charles (same author), followed it up with this bio of his famous mother.

Sally Bedell Smith is an American author who has a penchant for writing biographies of royalty, whether that is monarchy-related royalty (such as the Queen) or Camelot-related royalty (such as JFK et al.) This author can write very readable books and does so in a breezy rather People-magazine-like manner, so I think if you know that this is fairly superficial coverage of a very private and elite world, then you’ll be squared away. It’s not, however, a very heavy fact-based book, but Smith doesn’t claim otherwise really.

So this title covers the life of Queen Elizabeth II (or Lillibet, as the Queen Mother would call her) up until 2012, and the one word that jumps out at me after having read this now would be “dutiful”. Smith does a thorough job covering how QE2 has grown up, inherited the throne when she was a young 21-year old, and she seems to do a pretty decent writing job with the limited public information that the Palace office releases. (Obvs, no F2F interviews with the royal family.) (All the info seems to come from secondary sources, and thus the People magazine comparison.)

The Queen is portrayed as playing a huge role in continuity and consistency, whether complications arise from within her family or outside in the world at large. My own take on the Royal Family is that they are a link over the centuries in the history of the UK, and although they may be expensive to keep and house, they are also interesting in their right, acting as a strong lure for tourists from around the world. From this read, it was interesting to see how hard (some of) the family actually work in the Firm (the nickname for themselves), and although I can see the attraction of being a princess, it’s also a gilded cage in a lot of respects.

This read is obviously pro-monarchy, and does seem to be rather full of speculation rather than fact in places, but if you remember that the book is just a biographical take on a very private but public figure through an American author’s worshipful lens, you’ll get on ok with this. It’s not academic; it doesn’t break any new ground; there are no surprises in this, but it’s also quite a good read (despite all those caveats).

What I liked most about this biography was that it was also a useful primer for some of the history of England during the twentieth century. Despite growing up in England, I still had some huge gaps in my historical knowledge wrt prime ministers, Princess Margaret, politics, and other topics, and I found that this was a pretty useful history book (albeit in a sycophantic and superficial manner).

As I think about this, this title was (and is) tailored to the American market (myself included since I live here), and through that lens, it does what it says on the tin, simplistic though it may be. It’s a good birds-eye view of the world of QE2 and the people who surround her, and it was helpful to me to be able to put more context on some of the larger monarchical events that have happened during my lifetime.

However, I think it’s important to remember that this is more of a celebrity biography than anything, and perhaps is more of a taster of the life of HRH than anything else. Despite the shallow depth, this was still an enjoyable read, and I think that it’s scratched that “The Crown” itch for a while, and opened several rabbit holes down which to chase.

Now I’m going to peruse the shelves to see what else I can find to read from the TBR pile.

(Re-)Learning, Learning, Learning….

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So with this leg of mine in a plaster cast, I’ve been having a huge weeks-long lesson in patience, a skill that, frankly, wasn’t very honed before now. However, being cast-bound has definitely not been as bad as I had thought it was going to be, mainly because the Superhero has really come through and been fantastic in putting up with supporting me. He really has been great in helping me get around, and I honestly do not how people who don’t have a Superhero handle this situation without one. I’m very grateful.

Reading – I’m ploughing my way through Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of QE2, which has been enlightening. I do wonder if it’s a little sycophantic in places, and I am not sure how reliable some of the material is in ref to her sources, but hey now. It’s a good read all the same, and surprisingly difficult to put down at times.

With this free time before the semester starts, I’ve been going to the office in the afternoons to keep an eye on work email and projects, and also renewing/updating my writing skills. (You can never do too much learning, I think.)

I’ve been reading my writing bible, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, an older book but with some absolute writing rules that I use in my professional life. Incidentally, the White in the author list is actually my loveliest essay guy, E. B. White, whose work I adore most of the time. (See reviews for both Charlotte’s Web and a book of White’s essays here.)

This also reminds me that I have a NF in the TBR pile on how the Elements of Style actually came to be written… Might have to move that up the pile in a moment or two once I’ve remembered the title. (Here it is: Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style by Mark Garvey.) Be still my heart.

Along with the Strunk and White, I’ve also been reading a reference book from the Associated Press, Guide to News Writing (Rene J. Cappon). Written in 1999 (wot? no updates?), this is a nuts-and-bolts guide on how to approach writing from a journalism angle. I’ve written for most of my career, but mostly from a PR angle. JOUR writing is very different, so I’ve been swotting up on that a bit since I also do a bit of that type of writing now and then. (I also need to edit this style of writing a lot, so I have to know of what I speak, yes?)

This reference guide is pretty good, but the pages are printed on crappy quality paper and the actual type is tiny. (I mean, 8 or 9 point tiny.) WWWHHHYYY?

The Making of Home – Judith Flanders (2014)

book455I’m always really curious about the social history of places and times: how did people live then? Under what conditions? What did they do each day, and what did their houses look like?

With that said, it’s little wonder that I really enjoyed a recent read of historian Judith Flanders’ work called The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How our Houses Became our Homes which covers exactly that topic, huge as it is.

Flanders is a social historian with several titles to her credit, including Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (see review here), The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (see review here), and one or two in the TBR pile (The Invention of Murder and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London). Obviously, I enjoy her writing and what she has to say…

The idea that “home” is a special place, a separate place, a place where we can be our true selves, is too obvious to us today that we barely pause to think about it. But… “home” is a relatively new concept.

As usual, this book is so chock-full of interesting (to me) points, I ended up with a bullet list of curious facts, so hopefully, that will work for you.

  • The concept of having a “chairman/woman” on a committee or in a company stems from the fact that early in history, furniture was really expensive and out of reach for many families. If they did have enough disposable income to buy something, they might only have the cash to buy one chair (instead of a set).* Thus, if you review early paintings of domestic settings (such as in the seventeenth century), you may notice that a family may only have one chair in the room. As this was typically the father’s or husband’s place (since he was considered the most important person in the group), he got to sit in the chair. Thus, the chairman. 🙂
  • Bedding was a huge chunk of a family’s budget when starting out. For a family in the 18th century, there are records that show they paid more than a quarter of their total household income for bedding and furniture, so it was a huge investment for the average family.
  • Beds usually only had flour sacks of hay (or straw) as the mattress, and families sometimes put up to five flour sacks of hay on top of each other to give more padding. (I’m wondering if this is where the origin of the Princess and the Pea fairy tale came from…)
  • Families were all up on the latest household fashions. For example, pendulum clocks were invented in 1657. Two decades after that, almost no Dutch families owned a similar clock. Four decades after its invention, nine out of ten families owned one. And thus the world turns…
  • In 1727 in Bath, it was quite common for a middle class family to own a table, cooking pots, and a mirror, but curiously, the great majority of these same households didn’t own a cup or even knives and forks.
  • For middle class pioneer families in the US during this same time, they lagged behind their British counterparts in terms of household goods: it was very common for pioneer families out west to live in a similar fashion to the lifestyle of English families one century earlier. (Couldn’t exactly go shopping very often and didn’t have much disposable income.)
  • The history of cups and saucers: When tea was first imported to UK, the Chinese style of tea-cup with no handle was fine for how the tea was served (lukewarm). However, when the Brits started to like their tea really hot (as now), the previously handle-free cups were unsuitable and thus, handles were added to the cup. When Brits started adding milk to the tea, there was a need for a bigger cup, and when sugar came into the pic, tea drinkers needed a small spoon to put the sugar into the drink, so thus teaspoons. Teaspoons led to saucers, as a place to rest your spoon whilst you drank your tea. Huh.
  • In the Middle Ages, guests were expected to bring their own knives and forks (instead of the hosting family providing them). They were considered as personal items. Knives were originally round-ended, and thus one could not spear your food to eat it. Instead, forks were developed to spear your food once you’d cut it with your knife. Most middle class people just ate with a knife and a spoon which they would bring with them when they traveled.
  • The British Navy refused to accept use of forks until 1897.
  • Seventeenth century England houses commonly only had one fireplace in one room, and heat was seen as a luxury more than a necessity. (What were they thinking? Have you been to England in December and January? Brrrr.)

And there’s so much more, that if this type of social history whets your whistle, I think that you’ll like Flanders and her work. Plus – the bibliography is lengthy and I added quite a few new titles to my ever-expanding TBR list.

Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed this read, and now I’m very grateful for central heating. 🙂

* When Superhero and I were young marrieds, we only had enough money to buy a dining room table. (We didn’t have enough to buy the matching chairs, so for quite a few months, we only had two non-matching dining table director’s chairs.) The next Christmas, we saved up and got the matching set. Baby steps, amirite?

Added for reference:

If you like this sort of book, here are some other domestic/social history books that I’ve read in case you’re looking to add to the ol’ TBR pile. (Obvs, I like Flanders!):

Incoming Books….

New_books_dec2017

So, Christmas has come and gone. New Year’s has come and gone. Time off almost come and gone. What has been quite steady is the reading habit and, along with that, the buying-of-books habit (although curtailed a bit last year).

Here are some of the new titles which have slipped by the goalie in the last month or so. Top to bottom are as follows:

  • We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation – Jeff Chang (NF)
  • Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (NF)
  • Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic – Sam Quinones (NF)
  • Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity – David Allen (NF)
  • Fashion: The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute (NF)

The majority of these were bought on our recent trip to Santa Fe because (a) they are interesting titles, and (b) I wanted to support the indie bookshop there. (Check out Collected Works in Santa Fe if you’re there. Great place.)

And so: what am I reading? None of these titles. :-}

A biography of Queen Elizabeth II (a curiosity piqued by watching Season Two of The Crown, naturellement.)

The Best of… 2017 Edition

end-of-the-year-reflection

As December comes to a close, it’s a nice end-of-year tradition for me to review my reading for the past year, and just see how it panned out. There’s no number goals or similar, but I do likes to see how I’ve spent my reading time over the last twelve months, just out of curiosity.

(Note: like a lot of other bloggers have noted, these titles weren’t necessarily published in 2017; they were just read by me in the last twelve months.)

First, a huge thank you to everyone who drops and reads my blog, whether you are a one-off reader or a regular. I appreciate your time and comments!

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To the numbers:

  • Total # books read: 58 (about right for the average year the past few years)
  • Total DNF’s: 2
  • Total fiction: 31 (51.2%)
  • Total non-fiction: 21 (44.2%).
  • Total Pages: 15,542
  • Format of books (e-books vs. tree books): 3 e-books, 55 tree books.

Years Published:

  • Oldest title: 1897
  • Nineteenth century: 1
  • Twentieth century: 28
  • Twenty-first century: 27

TBR Progress:

  • Off the TBR: 28 (48.2%)

New books in:

  • Bought new/new-to-me:  16 books bought (compared with 27 TBR read (i.e. out of house)

Demographics:

  • Male vs. female/other identified authors: 26 male authors, 32 female/other
  • POC author or POC-related topic: 13 (23%)

Fiction: 29

  • Novels: 26
  • Plays/Drama: 1
  • Graphic Novel: 1
  • Short stories: 2

Top Five Fiction:

  • Lantana Lane – Eleanor Dark (1986)
    • Australian novel set in small community in outback.
  • Beloved – Toni Morrison (1987)
    • Second in trilogy, but also works as stand-alone. New York city life of troubled African-American couple set in mid-century.
  • Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
    • Rollocking good dystopian read about (American) life after an explained/ unexpected epidemic
  • Ceremony – Leslie Silko Marmon (1977)
    • Series of interlinked stories set in First Nations community during modern times.
  • The Lizard Cage – Karen Connelly (2005)
    • Fictional retelling of political prisoner living hard existence in world of corrections in Burma/Myanmar.

Non-Fiction: 26

  • Most read about topic: history (especially social history), social justice, travel

Top Five Non-Fiction:

  • Dreams from my Father – Barack Obama (1995)
    • Autobiography from our former U.S. President. Reads like fiction when compared with our reality with the Orange Goblin. 😦
  • Medical Apartheid – Harriet A. Washington (2007)
    • Hard-hitting investigative/historical journalism closely reviewing the troubled past of how the U.S. medical establishment has treated African-Americans over the past century or so. Fascinating and disturbing.
  • Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life – Sally Bedell Smith (2017)
    • No blog post, but trust me, this is a good read, however you may feel about the possible future King of England.
  • A Kim Jong Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, his Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power – Paul Fischer (2015)
    • A very weird and very true tale about how a young North Korean dictator kidnapping a foreign filmmaker and his movie star wife to force him to improve the quality of the North Korean film industry. Fascinating and keeps you reading.
  • At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans-Son – Mary Collins and Donald Collins (2017)
    • A dual POV from a mother and her trans-son’s gender transition. Fascinating because the mother is so unsupportive and doesn’t seem to understand why the adult child should choose to do this “to her”. Really, people?

Movie of the Year:

  • Chicken People (2016)
    • Absolutely charming documentary about the world of competitive chicken showing in the U.S. It’s a real thing, and this was just lovely (even if you’re not into chickens that much). Over the course of one year, follows a small group of amateur (?) chicken breeders and how they progress in the competitive season.

Goals for next year? I am keeping it very open and laid back as I enter my first semester teaching college for the Spring, and with my new job responsibilities. Whatever numbers I read, they are less important than the quality of reading.

Here’s to a happy new year for all!

 

Christmas Greetings!

Image result for cosy socks fireplace

One of the major benefits of working for a large state-run university happens between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and consists of one solid week when the university shuts down for the holidays. I imagine the Police et al. are still there, but for us worker bees, we have a whole week plus two weekends off. It’s glorious, and one of the best presents that the university can give to us. And that time is now, my friends.

So – have I been using my free time wisely and crossing pesky things off my To-Do list? HA.

Shall we see just what I’ve been doing the last few days?

  • Had quite a few naps. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….
  • Read half of a novel, couldn’t get to caring about the characters or the plot, and so it was a DNF. (One off the TBR pile though, so that’s good.)
  • Finished up a British Library Crime Series book called “Crimson Snow” with lots of snowy murder mystery short stories. Another off the TBR…
  • Superhero deserves a big raise for putting together my new large desk. It had so many pieces, and something like 67 cam-bolts, but he did it, and I can’t wait to get situated in the room now. Next step: chair for desk and chair/ottoman for reading. Plus lights.

My ankle is still encased in a plaster cast and so I’m cruising around on this knee-scooter thing. On a nice smooth surface (such as in the university library), it’s really fun to see how fast you can go. It’s fun until you hit the edge of a carpet which then catapults you over the handle bars and gives you bruised knees, a black eye, and breaks your glasses. Not only that, undignified as it was, but it also took three kind people to help me off the floor as I can’t put any weight on that surgery ankle. Needless to say, I have kept to a more sensible speed since then, but it was fun while it lasted. 🙂

It’s been freakishly cold here since Christmas, and so of course, the (mostly outside) cats have been sneaking inside for a nice warm snooze in the evenings. The temps got down to 24 degrees the other night (when 32 is freezing), and who can say no to three small furry faces looking up at you on the door step? Plus there was a dusting of snow the other day…

I caught some of the great Christmas sales for the community stockings that I put together each year. (Total fun to do, and if you time your shopping just right for the sales, you can get some good stuff without breaking the bank.)

Saw the new Star Wars movie, caught up with some friends, and am generally not doing much which is just what we need to get ready for the new year.

I’m working on a Best of… book post, catching up with the book stats and showing off my new acquisitions, so expect those soon, and in the meantime, I’m just diving into Emily Eden’s books, The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House (Virago imprint, 1859/60). It’s very forward thinking for being written more than a hundred years ago, and Eden has been compared with Austen et al., so looking forward to the read.

Hope your holidays and Christmas/Kwanzaa/Solstice/Hanukah et al. have been fun for you and yours. I’m off to catch up on some of my blog reading….

Well, well, well. The Ghost of Blogging returns.

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(Above) – The main plaza at Santa Fe, NM, ready for Christmas.

With this being my first semester of teaching, I had absolutely no idea about how to plan time for the past few months, and so it’s been a 4-month learning process for me. But I’ve just wrapped up the final grades, and I’m winding up a few things at work before taking a Christmas break. I am very looking forward to the time off, let me tell you.

So – what’s been going on apart from teaching? I’ve been working on my home office, and Superhero and I have been valiantly completing a large new desk for this new space. The desk arrived flat-packed through the post, and oh. My. God. I had no idea that this desk was going to have so many pieces, bolts, and all the other things required to put a piece of furniture together, so we’re working on it a few hours a day. (The Superhero and I are somewhat challenged in DIY skills and patience, which makes it an interesting proposition.) Luckily, the desk has arrived with some pretty good instructions, all the pieces are labelled appropriately so far, and things seem to be lining up nicely, so it’s on schedule for completion in the next week or two.

(I’ll get a photo of the completed desk up when it’s done. Until then, it’s just a pile of deconstructed white wooden pieces on the floor waiting to be called into action…)

Quick trip to Santa Fe with some friends provided a lovely break, and an opportunity to visit a great local bookshop, Collected Works… (See image above.)

My ankle surgery was done last Wednesday, and so, as it’s no weight-bearing and my right foot, there’s no driving for me, but Superhero is being a super hero and chauffeur-ing me around when it’s unavoidable. I’m lucky to have such an understanding partner, or otherwise I would be under the equivalent of house arrest. :-}

I do have one of those scooter-things (called a knee-scooter) which helps me zip around, and once I got over the sheer awkwardness of having to lug this thing around, I am becoming more proficient at driving it and a routine is developing. Good Lord. I have another month or so of this, so we’ll see if we’re still married at the end of this medical situation. :-]

We’ve just finished watching the HBO show, The Deuce, with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco that details the early history of p*rn movies in 1970’s New York, and I enjoyed it once I had learned to decipher the really heavy NYC accents. Holy schnikeys. That’s a tough dialect for me to catch – even more so than the accents in Peaky Blinders (if you’ve seen that show). Don’t be put off by the word “p*rn”. Obviously, it’s not a children’s or family show, but more about the small group of characters (and there are some naked people), and along the lines (and the same writer as) The Wire.

Next up – a complete change of pace: Season Two of The Crown!

Reading has been happening but more at a glacial pace than anything. I’m halfway through one of Judith Flanders’ always interesting books, this one called The Making of a Home: The 500-Year Story of How our Houses Became our Home (2015). Flanders is a historian who studies social history, especially in England, and recounts the rise of how people lived in buildings that went on to become “homes”. Fascinating, I must say, but then I am a social history nerd.

For fiction, I’m sort of reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, a mystery about a missing wife and the whodunit behind it. It’s good, but I’ve not been completely sucked into it just yet. I’m finding the characters to be unlikable at the moment, but we’ll see how it progresses. If it doesn’t suck me in soon, it’s a DNF.

The end-of-the-semester-busy also meant that a couple of books have slipped by without a formal review on the blog, one of which was a biography about Prince Charles by Sally Bedell Smith (called Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life [2017]), and which was amazingly interesting to me (well written, fairly balanced, an interesting life, and dry humor). Definitely a more well-rounded picture of the Prince than I’ve learned before (and, of course, Lady Diana who sounds as though she had a mental illness – but again, who is to know these things?). Not me, but it was entertaining all the same.

And now I’m catching up on the blog writing in a coffee shop as I was desperate to get out of the house. I had no idea that coffee shops could be soooooo noisy, but it’s a happy noise of people coming into town for the holidays and catching up with friends.

Oh, and I mentioned that our wonderful cool cat, Futz, died the other day. He had such a wide fan club of people who walked by our house and who chatted with him every day that I ended up drafting a short letter to the neighborhood to explain his unexpected disappearance… (Too much? Not for our Futz!)

Futz_letter