Swabbing the Decks…


It’s time for a general swabbing the decks sort of post today, so thought I would just round up what I’ve been doing and what I’ve been reading. I was at the library the other weekend, and happened to stumble upon a part of the non-fiction section that I haven’t seen before – the Dewey 900s.

book391I tend to focus deeply on a subject, but am trying now to spread the book love a little more widely which has meant me wandering the NF shelves and seeing fabulous titles that I didn’t even know existed. I’m not sure why I haven’t wandered in this direction before, but there you go.

The 900s are the Geography and History part of the library, and seems to have a great selection of titles that are right up (down?) my alley. Having to use great restraint, I picked up two titles the other day, both of which were interesting in their different ways and both of which were fairly satisfying to read. Let me give you a mini-review of the first book, in the interest of time and other limited resources.

HebridesmapWanting to read something very different from current life, I picked up John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird, which is a collection of columns covering life in the Hebrides. I have not been up that way yet, so this was pretty interesting to read as McPhee uproots his family (wife and four young daughters) to go and live in a crofter’s cottage on Orunsay for a few months.

Oransay is a tiny island in the Hebrides and seems to have resisted modernization for the most part (at least during the time that McPhee was writing). McPhee writes for the New Yorker magazine, and so as this was a collection of his columns, each chapter is not really connected to previous or following chapters. (And that’s ok.)

In my busiest and most crowded days, I tend to think how nice it would be to go and stay in the Hebrides far away from iphone service and civilization in general so I was curious how this American family would fare in such an environment. It’s not all roses though as the people who live on the small island tend to view “incomers” with reserve when compared with the “islanders” (i.e. the people who live there FT and have been there for generations).

This had the potential to be such a great read, but it wasn’t and I’m not sure quite why. McPhee is a good writer, the subject was interesting, but it seemed really superficial and unfocused overall. It’s as though the writer couldn’t make up his mind as to whether to be a travel narrative, a history of the islands and its people, or life on the island and thus ended up being none of those things. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t jive with this read, but it wasn’t riveting for me. However, it might for someone else so have at it.

I also came upon another read about a Polish family were exiled to Siberia during WWII with only the clothes on their backs. It’s an amazing non-fiction read and deserves its own blog post so expect that this week.

Onward ever onward.

Traveling: Ruidoso, New Mexico


We happen to have some great friends who invited us to share their cabin in Ruidoso, New Mexico, over Memorial Day. It was great fun and I also happened to spot some curious signs as we drove our way and around town. There was also a large meeting of the Bandidos, although we weren’t invited to their hang-out…. 🙂

So thought I’d share some of these finds with you:


Seen in store window downtown.

(Above) – Appropriate for the area, methinks…


(Above) – Groaning of my writing soul….


Above – Using apostrophes comes with responsibility… 🙂




I certify that all the above signs are truth… 🙂

And the local bookshop was great. Props to Books Etcetera for implementing their Book Blind Date idea…


So, of course I had to buy a book (Support a local independent bookstore today!) I ended by buying New Yorker editor’s “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” by Mary Norris. Joy in my heart!

Going Home to Nicodemus – Daniel Chu and Bill Shaw (1994)



Subtitle: The Story of an African-American Frontier Town and the Pioneers who Settled It.

“All colored people that want [sic] to go to Kansas on September 5th, 1877, can do so for $5.” (Taken from handbill issued by the Nicodemus Town Company.)

This was a fascinating read about a part of the Wild West which I’ve not seen receive much mention before: how the pioneer world also included African-Americans in its spread westward during the nineteenth century. What was so interesting for me was learning that Kansas was a hub for these African-American pioneers. Kansas, I hear you say? Really? Well, yes.

In 1865, the U.S. cemented the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. In 1868, the 14th Amendment secured citizenship for African-Americans, and the 15th Amendment in 1870 secured voting rights for African-Americans (at least on paper).

kansas mapSo in the later nineteenth century, former slaves were now free-ish (depending on lots of factors and not just the law), but although they had their freedom, it was not without its own set of problems. Former slaves were often just released without any resources to support them; many had no land, no money (and little chance of getting any), no home, no job, and limited access to employment due to a lack of skills and to rampant job discrimination. How was a former and newly released slave supposed to support him/herself and the family?

Thus the Freedman Bureau  was established to address this need, but it fell wanting in numerous areas. Most slaves were minimally agriculturally skilled which only allowed them to earn a living through share-cropping (where they don’t own the land, but work on it and then share a portion of what is produced on that land). With no means to buy land and thus no opportunity to own land, what was a former slave to do?


Along around now also came the Homestead Act (1862) which opened up land ownership for many people in the newly established western states (including Kansas). So with the numerous land companies popping up and with their exaggerated exhortations with regard to the amount and quality of resources that were available in these states, newly freed men and women were targeted for populating these wide open states. Slaves with few other opportunities jumped at the chance for a better life and thus a door was opened for the African-American pioneers of the time.

Kansas was, at that time, a mix of pro-slavery and anti-slavery with the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas” due to its liberal values. With the abundance of flowery literature portraying it as a land of plenty and with the fact that famous abolitionist John Brown lived there, the state looked really attractive to the freed slaves and so thousands of African-Americas moved there. The influx of new settlers were called “Exodusters” and estimates go as high as 40,000 people who moved there.

Alongside this was an African-American Kansas resident called Pap Singleton who is credited with being one of the earlier visionaries with regard to establishing all-black communities for these new incomers. His ideas, along with the huge influx of settlers, led to the formation of the town Nicodemus and other communities run for and by black residents. It was quite a revolutionary idea for the times.


However, with the now-free slaves with few resources and not many skills, many preferred to live close to the already established communities and so although the incomers were many, few had the skills to homestead. Such an increase in community population led to an increase in crime, of poverty and other social ills, and in 1880, the Kansas Governor finally had to say no more to the newcomers and to the town companies who were promoting this state.

Roughly two-thirds of the incomers left the state after that, either going home or on to different states, but even so, it still left a pretty large population of African-Americans struggling to make Kansas their home.

And so the story goes on. It’s an amazing tale and one that I had never heard of, despite having lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years. I knew that there were African-American cowboys – in fact, I happen to know two guys who do that now – but I had no idea of the sheer numbers of freed slaves who came west. Just imagine how brave these newly freed pioneers were – and what a risk they took to create new and better lives for themselves and for their families. Amazing.

I’m really interested in learning more about this more unknown side of pioneer life, so I’m looking out for other books now. This was fascinating.

Aya: Love in Yop City – Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (2013)


This was another good read from Abouet and Oubrerie. (See my review of the first volume here.) Still set on the Ivory Coast in Western Africa, the story continues to follow Aya (now a young woman at university) and her small circle of friends. This Aya is a more mature character, although still young in situations, and she works her way through various issues: boyfriend problems, love and friendship issues, loyalty and other weighty subjects, all of which are handled in a realistic fashion. (Another reason that I enjoy the Aya series: she’s a female role model with problems that a lot of people worldwide can recognize regardless of where they live.)

Aya now has more grown-up challenges to deal with: sexual harassment from an authority figure, rumor and speculation, LBQT issues – and so the story is gradually woven together with several threads. Along side these, the narrative also jumps from city to village in Cote D’Ivoire but also to Paris at times. So not only does the reader have to contend with a large number of fairly random characters, the story also jumps very suddenly from an African village to the arrôndisements of Paris without much explanation.

It’s a lot to keep up with, dear reader, and I must confess that when I had finished my initial reading, I was mightily confused as to who was who and why they were doing what they were doing with whom they were doing it and where they were doing it.

(To prevent this experience, I would recommend that (a) you read Aya Volume I fairly close to reading this volume, and (b) you study the friends/family diagrams at the front of the book.)

So although I was so confused about everything and everyone in the story when I had finished, I still went back and read it through again. Why? Because my initial experience of enjoying the read of Volume I had me convinced that I was missing a lot and should read it again, hoping that the narrative would make more sense this time around. It did. In fact, it was a completely different reading experience this second time around, and I was glad I had taken the time to do that. Learning who the characters were and how they related to one another was like unlocking a code to the narrative so I highly suggest that you take the time. LFMF.

As with Aya Volume I, this was an enjoyable read about a smaller country in Africa during a time when it was fairly stable both economically and politically speaking, and where its residents enjoyed fairly normal lives with fairly average concerns and not the huge staggering problems (a la LiveAid) that one usually associates with the continent such as HIV/AIDS, hunger and drought.

I am so glad that I stayed the course and read it through that second time. Hopefully, you won’t have to do a second read, but if you do, just know that it’s worth it. Great art work as well.


French Milk – Lucy Knisley (2007)


Another good graphic novel title from Lucy Knisley written with the same trademark sense of humor and feel as her other autobiographical books. This particular title covered Lucy’s trip to France with her mom when they both rented an apartment close to the center of Paris. (Who are these people who do such things? Do they not have to work? Are they independently wealthy?)

Anyway, it was a pretty fun light-weight read one evening (although there were times when I wanted to bonk Lucy on the head for complaining about things every now and then. Appreciate what you have, my friend.) I do adore her artwork and am looking forward to whatever she publishes next. (That’s the sign of a good author!)

If you like Knisley, try her other reads here:

Displacement: A Travelogue – Lucy Knisley (2015)


This was a good graphic novel read of the fairly typical mode of bildungsroman (coming of age) structure, but this was notably different from most GNs with that structure in that it was a positive take on learning some lessons. (I find that more than a few GNs which are autobiographical in some way tend to be slightly morose and a touch whiny, but Knisley is very different in that manner: one of the many reasons why I enjoy her GNs so much is her optimism.)

So to the narrative: the author goes on a week-long cruise to accompany her elderly grandparents, both of whom are more than 90 years old, as a grand-daughter and as a caretaker. Clearly the trip wasn’t going to be that easy – both the Grands (as Knisley calls her grandparents) have difficulty with mobility, the grandma has pretty bad dementia, and the grandpa accidentally wets his pants quite frequently (and is unwilling to change his clothing). Aaah. Fun Times.

Knisley is a graphic artist who is really skillful at using her art to give a really strong sense of place to her readers. When I read the story in one go the first time, I could almost see the grandparents’ water-front room and balcony on the ship, and rather unfortunately, smell grandpa.

Being responsible for every aspect of the eldercare can be a large load to lift, especially when you’re by yourself. I imagine it was tough for Knisley, and hats off to her for being willing to support her grandparents in this way. She doesn’t flinch from the rough side of love, and shows both the flip sides of her annoyance with Grandma’s lack of memory and Grandpa’s damp pants with the guilt and love that she feels for them.

And interestingly at the same time, the structure is also built around Knisley reading her grandfather’s actual journal entries from when he was a fighter pilot in WWII, and the contrast between the very able and physically capable young man that her grandfather was in his younger days, and the rather frail very old man that Knisley sees in front of her is incredibly well handled.  As the narrative moves back and forth between the past and the present, I could really empathize with her dueling set of feelings, and yet at the same time, I was also sympathetic with her grandparents as it’s clear that they weren’t doing things just to be difficult. The two perspectives were well done.

I really enjoy Knisley’s work (see my review of Relish and The Age of License), and I’m sad that there is only one more title in her current oeuvre for me to read. Hopefully, more on the way!

The Queen’s Houses – Alan Titchmarsh (2014)

book367It seems that every time autumn rolls around, I end up thinking about growing up in England as their autumns can be spectacularly good (and/or spectacularly bad) depending on the year. On the good years, it’s all about Keats’ “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” and as this is my favoritest season, I love the whole thing.

The England thoughts led to this book title, The Queen’s Houses by Alan Titchmarsh, which is a well produced and glossy invitation to look inside six of the grand locations that the Queen (and/or her family past or present) call home:

  • Windsor Castle
  • Buckingham Palace
  • Balmoral
  • Sandringham
  • The Palace of Holyroodhouse
  • The Royal Mews

You’d think that since I’ve grown up in England that I would know a lot more about these places than I do, but no, not really so this was a fun romp through the Queen’s private quarters with a knowledgeable and rather witty guide. (You know – I do think the photos could have been better, but the content was good.)

As it covered so many vastly different places, I took random notes and so here they are in bullet points for you:

Random snippets:

One of the

One of the “strewer of herbs” people in action…

  • Charles II (mid 1660’s) was very extravagant as King and had lots of servants with titles such as “Royal Comb-Maker for Life,” “Marker of Swans” (swans were sign of royalty), a Periwig Maker, and one lady called Mary Dowle whose job was “Strewer of Herbs” and who always walked before the King to strew herbs (literal name) as they were believed to ward off the plague.
  • In the 1780’s, there was a position in the Royal Court titled “Keeper of the Buckets”…
  • An awful lot of rebuilding of palaces etc. all took place during the nineteenth century with both Victoria and her earlier relatives. (Before that time, a lot of these royal houses were in various states of disrepair.)
  • George IV (another extravagant young chappie) took over the country estate of his parents (which included Buckingham then-House) just outside London (then much smaller in size), and added wings and other pieces (such as the railings in front etc.) to make it fit his idea of a metropolitan palace. Before this, Buckingham House was a fairly small country house (country home speaking).
  • VE Day (8 May 1945) marked the end of WWII and is so-called because the full title is “Victory in Europe” Day. I  knew what the day stood for, but not the acronym. Huh. This seems so obvious now, but honestly, I didn’t know that.

Victoria snippets: queen-victoria

  • * Victoria had five attempted assassinations on her during her reign.
  • * When Victoria moved into Windsor Castle in 1837, it was a huge event with a big celebration including “the only English female aeronaut” Mrs. Margaret Graham. She went up in a balloon named “Victoria”. Apparently Mrs. Graham had several falls (presumably from high places), and one was described as “although the ground was very hard, there was an evident of her form upon it.” Despite this tendency, she lives to a grand old age for the times.
  • Victoria (oh, Victoria, how I love thee – you’re so weird!): After Albert had died and after her friend John Brown had died, she took an interest in two Indian servants. One of the two was called Mohammed Abdul Karim (or the Munshi for short) and Victoria developed a very close relationship with him. She even spent the night with him in a cottage on the Balmoral estates (much to everyone’s horror). He was not generally well liked – one person described him thus: “his one idea in life seems to be to do nothing and to eat as much as he can”… However, despite such widespread disapproval amongst the Court, Edward VII allowed Munshi to be the very last person to view Victoria’s body and then to take part in her funeral procession. He was subsequently dismissed and returned to India. (I wonder what he did then?…)

QEII snippets:

Local Input~ ROYAL QUIZ- Q30 - Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation crown, 1953. Known as St Edward's Crown, it was made in 1661 for the coronation of King Charles II, and is reputed to contain gold from the crown of Edward the Confessor. It is set with 444 precious stones. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation crown, 1953. Known as St Edward’s Crown, it was made in 1661 for the coronation of King Charles II, and is reputed to contain gold from the crown of Edward the Confessor. It is set with 444 precious stones. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • The Queen (QEII) has two birthdays, one of which (the “official” birthday) lands in the middle of June. This tradition was started in 1908 by Edward VII who had a November birthday, and whose outdoor birthday celebrations were invariably squelched by bad weather. (For for some reason, I had thought that this was a centuries old tradition.)
  • Re: Other country’s State Visit to England: no more than two countries accorded a state visit each year, and the cost is met by the Royal Treasury.
  • Re: 21 gun salutes: This is a standard gun salute for heads of state but the number can be increased to 41 if the salute is given in a royal park. President Obama and First Wife Michelle were given a 41-gun salute during their May 2011 trip to England. (They were in Green Park, a royal park.) That seems a really long time to stay interested in the event (at least to me). Still, lovely idea.
  • Speaking of processions, it wasn’t until 1953 that the Mall was resurfaced with an application of iron oxide pigment to give the idea of the royal processions walking on a red carpet. (Another thing that I had thought was really really old.)
  • Re: state banquets: The Butlers’ Guild (real thing) says it takes about 15 minutes to set each place setting, and soup has been abolished from state banquets as soup takes at least 20 minutes to serve, eat and then clear away which makes the occasions far too long.

Royal horses snippets: royal-mews

  • The Royal Mews – all this time and I haven’t gone to the Mews so this has been added to the list for next time we’re over there. Called the Mews because the earliest records mentioning that location, back in 1377, said it was the place where royal hawks (usually falcons) were kept during their moulting (or mewing) time from late April to early October. (Mew is from French muer – to change, apparently.)
  • The Royal Mews were originally where Trafalgar Square is now, and were demolished in 1835.

And so it goes on with all sorts of intriguing little nuggets of information about royalty. If you’re curious about the domestic lives of royalty, you will love this book. A potential Christmas pressie, perhaps?

Bookish Vermont…

The Middlebury Inn in VT: Highly recommend this historical inn if you're in the area.

The Middlebury Inn in VT: Highly recommend this historical inn if you’re in the area.

Our recent trip to Vermont also yielded some fab booky-related places and things as well (naturellement), so here’s a brief sampling of some of what we found:

This bumper sticker really sums it up nicely. (Plus the dog sticker made me laugh.) (Plus the Vermont Book Shop featured is really really good and had nice people as well.) :

read bumper sticker

Followed by this sign (which cracked me up as it can be read in several different ways)…

reading fun mental sign

And then with my newish craze and adoration of the fountain pen, I loved this sign:

writing sign

And then this person (below) is obviously a big fan of Dame Agatha…


Hooray for booky people!


So – my trip to Vermont…


…Was a lot of fun, so thought I’d put some photos up to show some of the sites that we passed.

As none of us had been to Vermont before and as we were all arriving from different far-flung places across the globe, we started the trip landing at Burlington Airport in one of the state’s larger cities. Didn’t see a great deal of Burlington, but I had a rather late arrival so after chatting a bit (and finding our first set of rocking chairs*, we went to the hotel and bed. (I had no idea that Vermont was so close to Canada! Hmm. Learn something new everyday, right?)

We tootled around Burlington the next morning, with a must-see (for me in particular) being the huge Lake Champlain. In Texas, it’s rare for me to see any large bodies of water, freshwater or sea, and so it’s always very high on my to-do list when I travel to places that do have one of those. So we took a ferry tourist ride around the lake, which was interesting and refreshing and a really fun way to spend the day (especially as all three of us had traveled across multiple east/west time zones to get there).





The next day, we went to the Shelburne Museum which is a huge ranging historical place with authentic buildings that have been moved (in some cases) from elsewhere and then filled with artifacts anywhere on the spectrum from modern fiber art (e.g. art quilts) to sixteenth century kitchen tools and a covered bridge. (The covered bridge was outside, of course, and was interesting in and of its own right. We’d never seen one before, so found it to be an interesting experience. Are the bridges covered due to the frequency of severe cold weather events in Vermont?

One of the buildings at the Shelburne Museum...

One of the buildings at the Shelburne Museum…

Inside one of the old covered bridges that are scattered through Vermont (and other states?)

Inside one of the old covered bridges that are scattered through Vermont (and other states?)

Credit of artist: ?

Credit of artist: ?

My (rather small) mum sitting in a (rather big) chair at the Shelburne Museum.

My (rather small) mum sitting in a (rather big) chair at the Shelburne Museum.

Anyway, highly recommend a visit to this great museum if you’re in the neighborhood. It was really a fantastic place and we ended up spending most of the day there. (Of course, we found some rocking chairs to sit in for some of the day. 🙂 )


We also visited the really well curated Robert Frost Interpretive Trail run by the National Forest Service and set in the middle of the Green Mountain Forest. There was a beautiful winding drive to and from the trail, and then, during the walking trail at spectacular scenic overviews, there were signs with relevant Frost poems written on them, and this was a really interesting touch. Frost had spent some time living as a forest ranger in this particular forest, so it was interesting to see similar views to the ones he had seen. I also had no idea that Frost is quite a recent poet. (I had thought that he was very Olden Times, but he’s not really.) (The views were really great in and of itself, but with the addition of poems, the trail breaks became a cultural tour as well. Well played, National Forest Service, Well played.)

Frost Trail 1


More booky photos next time. Suffice to say, that this was one of our family’s favorite trips. Thank you, Vermont!

IMG_8315 * One of the ongoing themes of the trip was searching for three or more Adirondack rocking chairs. I don’t know what came over us, except that it was really fun to spot them and go and commandeer them for a while. 🙂

Time for a General Catch-Up…


Life has been busy and a little bit crazy work-wise, but appears to be evening out over all (which is a big relief for me). After a summer of working very long hours, I now don’t have to do that anymore quite so much and this frees me up for doing other things – like reading!

Despite this recent freeing up of my time, I don’t have a long list of finished titles to display with abandon before you yet. My recent trip to Vermont was super fun, but didn’t allow for that much reading time and I mostly slept on the plane ride. (See Work Schedule in above paragraph.) My mum is in town from England, and so we have been having lots of chatting and a big focus on finishing what could really be considered a Top Ten finisher in “Hardest Jigsaw Puzzle in the World.” Fun but wow – pretty challenging.

My mum working diligently on the jigsaw puzzle...

My mum working diligently on the jigsaw puzzle…

We did manage to fit in a couple of bookshops (of course) such as the Vermont Book Shop (great indie store) and we completed the Robert Frost Interpretive Trail in Middlebury (which is a really pretty town, btw.) Although I enjoy some poetry, I wasn’t that familiar with Frost (apart from the “road less traveled” one), and so we really enjoyed this particular trail which featured some of his works posted by beautiful vistas. It was a super idea to combine written word with amazing natural scenery and this was the first time that I’d seen this done in a national park. (Kudos to them for doing this.) I hadn’t realized that (a) Frost was quite a modern poet, (b) he worked for the National Parks system, and (c) some of his work is really good, so this was an unexpected surprise.

I am a bit stuck at the moment in trying to finish up a fairly longish book called “Wish You were Here” by Stewart O’Nan (2002). It’s not that it’s a bad book by any means, but more that it would benefit from a good long bout of concentrated reading time when I’ve only seemed to have small pieces available. By golly though – I’m going to finish this novel this week if it kills me. (Not really about the “killing me” bit. Definitely about the “finishing” bit.)

By the way, enormous kudos should go to Charlotte-Douglas Airport for being my favorite airport ever. It’s clean, it’s environmentally friendly and best of all, it’s super-quiet. There are TV screens, but they don’t have sound (only captions) and unbelievably enough, there are no blaring overhead speakers announcing boarding groups and gate changes (and yet people still made their flights without any problems despite such quiet communication).

It was truly a lovely experience traveling through Charlotte, and was so much appreciated. (BTW, the airport is well designed and has a huge atrium with a glass roof (loads of natural light), indoor trees, recycling everywhere, and white Adirondack rocking chairs to sit in around the perimeter under the trees. I am now a big fan of these pieces of furniture and I, my mum and my sister spent quite some time rocking around Vermont when we went up there. 🙂 )

Some of the ubiquitous Adirondack rocking chairs that we had lots of fun sitting in during our stay in Vermont.

Some of the ubiquitous Adirondack rocking chairs that we had lots of fun sitting in during our stay in Vermont.

More about Vermont later, but suffice to say that we all loved our time there. It’s beautiful, it’s historical, and the people were really friendly without being weird about it. I’d love to move there, but everyone keeps telling me to visit in February when it’s snowy. 🙂

Pics to come.