Thursday, December 20, 2007

Twelve Delightful Things

In the '80s, my great-aunt Carol used to put on tatty furs and a fake British accent and parody the Queen's annual speech at Christmas dinners.

I think of her now, as the twilight of 2007 has brought with it the inevitable list-making of critics, pundits and amateurs alike compiling their best-ofs, worst-ofs, and what-ofs, and I, being the scattershot dilettante I am, compile a list is neither a best-films or best-reads list, nor even a best-of-tv list, but rather all three, linked only, inevitably, by their tenuous connections to my vague philosophy of spinsterism, which some have interpreted as "things designed to make you stay at home" (an interpretation I choose to accept mainly because any literal claim I may have had to being an actual Spinster Aunt fell by the wayside, like so much virtue, on July 24th, 2007). I imagine now that the Queen might make such lists as these, with no regard whatsoever for genre, theme, era, author or anything else, other than what amuses her.

So here is my thematically fuzzy, media-unspecific bit of rambling, based upon absolutely no criteria at all other than each item on it provoked my unmitigated delight, as though the intellectual and artistic detritus of this world was designed solely for my whims and pleasure.

Thus do we amuse ourselves in the colonies.

* * *
The Printed Word:

This year I made a wonderful new discovery when I picked up George Simenon's Maigret Mystified by happenstance in a used bookstore. Maigret's a marvelous protagonist, and I can't wait to read more of Simenon's shockingly prolific output. I also read The Blue Hammer, the final book in Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer series. Macdonald was really underrated for years but I think there'll be a resurgence of interest in his work now, following a recent reprinting of several titles by Black Lizard Press. I'm glad, because his prose should earn him a place among the best. Another series I was delighted to sink my teeth into for the first time was Joan Hess's Maggody series, which satisfied my hillbilly leanings and my cravings for a good story. Mortal Remains in Maggody introduced me to an astonishingly rich pantheon of rubes and their embittered foil, citified home-girl Arly Hanks.

I managed to get a little touch of the classics, too. Dracula , though published over a century ago, was a thoroughly modern tale of suspense and the supernatural, featuring one hell of a kickass heroine. And I continue to enjoy the work of Ruth Rendell, whose solid one-off One Across, Two Down demonstrates her great ability to craft apparently simple narratives of disarming subtlety. I'd have to say I liked it as much as Lake of Darkness, my favorite stand-alone so far, and Murder Being Once Done, my preferred Inspector Wexford mystery to date.

The Moving Pictures:

Two films I saw recently, Docks of NY and Letter from an Unknown Woman reaffirmed my faith in the medium of cinema, one for the beauty of its lighting and compositions, the other for its camera movement. As a viewer, I tend to get too caught up in theme and story to appreciate other elements of the art form, but these films jolted me right back into the movies' sheer capacity for visual gorgeousness. The Band Wagon had a similar effect, in that it reminded me that the movies are about spectacle, dammit! And Sam Fuller's Forty Guns made me remember how much I love that singular star, Barbara Stanwyck, and so many other strong, brilliant women who hold their on on screen. Finally, the new Nancy Drew was a great example of a clever and effective adaptation, updating the source material while staying faithful to its spirit, and to the spirit of its heroine.

Yay, movies!

Pleasant surprises in the world of television:

I watched my first episode of The Women’s Murder Club with some misgiving. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I've been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the show so far. Angie Harmon is great, and the whole cast really brings it -- I've even started to like the spunky blonde D.A., who's character totally improved after episode 1. The show veers off into indulgent moments of pure soap and isn't afraid of cop-cliche melodrama, which can be a lot of fun. Yet the writing is taut and handles "womens" issues with insight and humor, and the mid-season finale was completely satisfying.

Another pleasant surprise: House is good again! After a mediocre season 3, the show is fun to watch once more. Laurie is in top form as always, and the "Survivor" element to the show (eliminating potential fellows) was silly and great. It's as if the writers decided they couldn't push the formula any further, were on the brink of cancellation and decided to go for broke. Now I just want the writer's strike to end! Here's hoping the scribes get all the money they've got coming to them.

Well, here's wishing you and yours a Happy Christmas.

Affectionately yours,

Spinster Aunt

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Blue Hammer

In The Blue Hammer, Ross Macdonald layers plot elements like a painter applying oils. Macdonald displays typical authorial flourishes (rich Californian heiresses with evil daddies) and adds some new elements ('70s counter-culture finds Arhcer eating something called a "natureburger") all enmeshed in one of the richest, most intricately entangled plots he ever wrote.

It was to be his last book, and in it one can already feel that maybe Lew Archer is about ready for retirement. He's settling old scores, and finding new, quite possibly true, love -- something he's never done on any of his cases before -- and reflecting more deeply than usual on the nature of life, work, and the whole dirty business.

The case revolves around a missing painting stolen from a rich woman's home, supposedly the work of an artist who disappeared twenty-five years ago. The twists and turns come fast and loose and almost immediately: the painting was borrowed for analysis by an art student, a friend of the woman's daughter, who is sure it's a fake. The portrait then disappears from the young man's house, which turns out to be a foreboding gray fortress manned by his creepy mother, a nurse who keeps her alcoholic husband under lock and key. More twists ensue: the very shady art dealer who sold the painting in the first place is found bleeding and bludgeoned in the street. With his last breath, he names his killer: the missing artist.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. What follows is a twisting highway of stolen identities, love, murder and revenge that leads Archer from California to Arizona and back again, all revolving somehow around this missing artist. It's such a spellbinding read -- it really is one of those books you can't wait to get back to when you're away from it.

There's something profoundly affecting about the characters in this novel, the way they're all saddled with the unfortunate results of lifetimes of bad choices. Many of them live in situations they hate merely because they've made mistakes in the past that there's no way to fix, leading to a lifelong compromise. Some of them are tragic, like the art student who steals/borrows the painting. The "boy," Fred, is really a thirty-one year old man, emotionally stunted by poverty and a lifetime with crazy parents. He isn't even finished slogging his way through college, scrimping and saving to get by. Archer initially dislikes him but eventually takes pity on him. The man-child is a complex and tragic figure, while his mother is a loathsome creature but one who's suffered almost enough to justify her twisted actions -- almost. Perhaps Archer wonders what might have happened if he'd ever had a son? There seems to be a subtext of maternal betrayal and paternal longing running throughout this unusually tender and poignant novel.

As with other Lew Archer novels I've read, this one is indeed a very tightly circumscribed universe. Coincidence appears to abound because everyone seems to know each other, everyone seems to be part of the same social circle. It imparts an incestuous vibe that just increases the spine-shuddering disgust these characters inspire. Then there are a number of other characters who are just plain selfish, grasping, and opportunistic, and they're the ones who end up saddled with lifelong burdens in this self-contained universe that seems to take care, and punish, of its own.

Incidentally: wait till you find out what the blue hammer is.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Docks of New York

The Docks of New York (1928) represents the zenith of silent film-making and von Sternberg at his best, I'd often been told. So I was pleased to discover upon my first viewing that, yes, it's freakin' awesome. The directing, performances, photography, lighting and mis-en-scene: awesome.

Betty Compson and George Bancroft play a hooker and sailor (respectively) who meet when he jumps into the river to rescue her after a suicide attempt. A night of drunken flirtation ensues, which culminates in a quickie marriage, followed by a heartbreaking morning ...

What's amazing in this film is the level of ambiguity in the directing and performances. It's an unromantic romance. A girl with a what-the-hell attitude who allows herself to fall into a thoroughly bizarre situation because she just doesn't give a damn, she's completely at the end of her rope anyway. Why not? And yet, she's strangely devoted to him, perhaps out of this same fatalistic sense that there's no real reason not to be. One man is as good as the next, and yet she likes him. So there's Betty.

And then you've got George, who's this odd mix of roughness and tenderness. He stops to save her. motivated by basic human decency, and yet he does it with an air of detachment. Then he sticks around to get drunk and flirt with her, motivated by the fact that he has one night of shore leave and she's kind of cute. The next day he leaves because he's "never missed a boat in all his life."

So what prompts him to jump off the boat and swim back to her? This same sense of "Why the hell not?" It's all sort of bizarre and intangible and unmotivated in this really beautiful way maybe illustrating how all our actions are kind of unfathomable, really. I don't know, at least they are in this world. I can't explain the strangeness, but I think I have an image that could illustrate what I mean. After Betty jumps in the water, George steals her some clothes to wear since her only dress is wet. And what does he get her to clothe and warm her shivering, traumatized body? This:
This. This sexy, slinky, clingy, paper-thin dress. This flesh-colored dress! It's devastating and surreal. In a normal universe, a hero would get his damsel something solid and modest and warm. In this world, he gets her a shimmering, substanceless slip of gossamer.

Hardly a conventional love story. And yet, as a vintage Photoplay review describes, "if you are one of those blessed with an appreciation of the beauty of realism, then this will be more beautiful to you than a story of young love in a garden. It has power and tenderness."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Malevolent Doubles and Murderous Parents

I was really excited when I read these ruminations on fondly-remembered Young Adult fiction over at Jezebel.

Lizzie Skurnick's rambling remembrances are fun to read even if you aren't acquainted with the books she covers -- I'm not yet, but I absolutely want to be as of right this second. She writes about The Grounding of Group 6, in which a group of teens are sent off to an elite boarding school ... to die! I just love this concept so much, I really need to spend a rainy afternoon reading this book right now. Skurnick has another piece on the works of Lois Duncan, who sort of sounds like a Patricia Highsmith for pre-teen girls (you know, killing someone and stealing their identity? kind of Ripley-esque, no?). I just wish I could hide books under my desk and sneak-read them at work, the way I used to in math class.

Anyway, I look forward to more posts in this series. There's kind of an '80s theme going on right now, which makes me wonder what "modern" kids are reading ...

Monday, December 10, 2007

I Am Cordially Invited to Meet Nero Wolfe


I read one-and-a-half Nero Wolfe novellas this weekend; all of Black Orchids and most of Cordially Invited to Meet Death. I actually prefer the second one so far (maybe because it involves death by tetanus?) but they're both pretty fantastic. I picked up Black Orchids because of the book store, but of course it sat on my shelf for ages.

I was immediately delighted by Archie Goodwin's breezy narration and his witty one-liners, and I love, love, love the 1930s slang ("I wanted to kick him right in the fundamentals!" "Cut the glitter, sweetheart!") plus I adore the New York setting circa so very long ago. According to the books, Nero Wolfe would have lived right around the corner from where I toil all day long, and I like to imagine him puttering around with his orchids as I type away right now.

Some people speculate that Rex Stout was trying to bridge the gap between the hardboiled Sam Spades and the amateur gentleman detectives like Holmes, Wimsey, Poirot, etc. with Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. What's really fun about having these two types in the same books is that they can butt heads in hilarious ways and insult each other good naturedly, laughing at their respective extremes.

I also like that Goodwin tools around town in a roadster. Did everyone have a roadster in the '30s, or just detectives?

Can't wait to get back to my book and see what happens. I'm just at the part where Archie trails Bess Huddleston's brother to Wolfe's front door. My lunch break is coming up, maybe I'll go finish it off ... or maybe I'll meander down to 35th Street, near the river ...

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Black Plague and the Secret of Thieves


I just found the most interesting story about four grave robbers who miraculously survived the Bubonic plague despite close contact with the victims. It intrigues me because it feeds into my hypochondria and general interest in horrible diseases of all sorts -- any story about airborne pathogens thrills me:

"As the bubonic plague decimated Europe in the year 1413, four thieves were captured and charged with robbing the dead and dying victims. When the thieves were tried, the magistrate offered leniency if they would reveal how they resisted contracting the infection as they performed their gruesome acts. They explained that they were perfumers and spice traders and told of a special concoction of aromatic herbs, including cloves and rosemary, that they rubbed on their hands, ears, and temples."

I also love that there is an aromatherapist out there who actually named her product "Thieves" and sells it online. It's kind of charming, and I'm so ready to give it a try because I've become obsessed with de-bugging my apartment while also making it smell nice (because bug spray smells awful, obviously, and commercial air fresheners only make it worse by creating some sort of scented fug). This sounds like the closest I can get to complete cleanliness without creating some sort of clean-room/antechamber, and forcing everyone within to wear scrubs and those little footie slippers.

And, frankly, who hasn't had images of the bubonic plague dancing in their head while riding the NYC subway in winter ... ???

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Literary Guacamole

I like this quote:

"Shallow persons talk of staying young, but they miss the terrible beauty and awful splendour of being old at heart."

This clever Stephen Fry quote comes to me via an Anonymous Canadian Spinster who also happens to be the authoress of this scathing review.

Thanks, Anonymous Canadian Spinster! Thanks, Stephen Fry!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

My daemon

I saw The Golden Compass last night and I spent most of the movie wondering what my daemon would be. Meerkat? Lemur? Narwhal? Alpaca? Budgie? Hermit crab? Bedbug? Silkworm? Donkey?

So I took the online test and it was revealed: Nithreus is my daemon, and he is a chimp.

I had a feeling I would be some kind of monkey.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Letter From An Unknown Woman

I saw Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) this weekend. What can I say about it? Shall I throw the word "sublime" around a lot in this post? I think I shall.

Plotwise, the film is pure melodrama. The story revolves around lovelorn schoolgirl Lisa (Joan Fontaine) and the object of her desire, self-obsessed concert pianist Stefan (Louis Jourdan). But this is a perfect melodrama, perhaps the perfect melodrama, certainly among the very best of the genre. In a cheap melodrama, we may laugh at the characters on screen, we are certainly detached. But in a successful tragedy, we are right there with them, forgetting for a moment the supreme artifice, even overlooking what is often infuriating stupidity on the part of the characters (no, Juliet, don't drink it! it's poison!). Tragic heroines are by nature impractical.

There's a scene in the film where Fontaine's character attends the opera (I'm pretty sure it's the Magic Flute) and it occurred to me while watching it that this film is like an opera: the story is melodramatic, characters are frustratingly blinded to reality, and sometimes individual moments may seem (at first glance) over the top but in the end, the result is sublime.

The scene where Fontaine finds out Jourdan is just feeding her platitudes, for example, is one of the most devastating things I've ever seen. With a single phrase, he makes her realize she's wasted an entire lifetime on false hopes. Sublime indeed.

Ophuls' abilities as a director are obvious throughout: tropes of framing and artifice make us aware of Jourdan's theatrical world and his inability to see or feel anything real; the repetition of certain themes leads the story around in graceful patterns, like dancers tracing circles on the floor (trains, travel, train travel); the mise-en-scene is perfect -- I loved the economical use of studio sets to set up a circumscribed world that comments on the heroine's single-minded focus on her man -- and the performances are astonishing; I'm not familiar with the actors, but I was blown away by Joan Fontaine (particularly after she stopped playing a teenager and let a little bitterness and discontent mingle with her longing). Plus the writing is great: the dialogue, by turns witty and heartbreaking, is marvelous.

I found this remark in the BAM program notes, and I think it sums up how I feel about this melodrama:

"Some critics dismissed his inimitable style as superficial, like many of the characters he portrays. Yet, as a character from The Earrings of Madame de… says, it is 'only superficially superficial.'"

Friday, November 30, 2007

Things That Happen When You Miss Your Train


I always like the idea of being where you shouldn't be, for reasons that are completely haphazard, and having it result in an unexpected turnaround of events.

For example, in "Madame Maigret's Own Case," which I am reading right now, Mme. Maigret is waiting on a bench outside her dentist (because she as a morbid fear of being late for any appointment, so she's waiting there a half hour before she needs to) and she becomes accidentally embroiled in a mysterious event which ends up being connected to her husband's current case and generally opens up a whole can of worms ... I love that idea, that your fate hinges on a brief moment that might-have-been, and I love the idea that bizarre and unexpected things can happen when you, say, miss your train in the morning (the premise behind "Blind Chance").

Today my train was late and I ended up having a random conversation with someone who noticed my Maigret novel. I got to spend a lot of time this morning talking about Simenon, which I don't usually get to do on my morning commute. I tell you, there's nothing like random coincidence to get your morning started off right. The fellow Maigret-lover told me to read "The Yellow Dog." Yay! Something new for my Amazon Wish List!

I walked to work with a spring in my step and now I have the "Reading Rainbow" theme song in my head for some reason.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A runner-up, and an excellent diagram

Rocketlass pointed me to this very concise diagram from The Rocketship. She gets a prize!*

I've really learned a lot today. Whiskey is whiskey, but not bourbon. Bourbon is both bourbon and whiskey. Contests are fun. There are a lot of smart people out there who know a lot about bourbon. I can't wait to learn more about my favorite distilled spirit.

Suddenly I am feeling very festive. Now I'm going somewhere fancy and drink.

* P.S. I'm not kidding, you get a prize. I need a mailing address. Send it to bourbonandtea@gmail.com.

Update: We Have A Contest Winner!

The first person to tell me the difference between whiskey and bourbon is Jenny Jediny of New York, NY.

She will receive the Grand Prize of one (airline-sized) bottle of bourbon to be sent to her via special courier (I will walk it over to her desk).

Read the comments for the clever response that allowed Jenny to clinch this contest, and for a scintillating debate about various whiskeys!

Contests are fun. I think I'll have more of them. They're like a tea party you can have without actually inviting people into your home. I like being a Contest Hostess. Yes I do.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Brownest of the Brown Liquors


The NYT has an article today about why bourbon is awesome:

"A well-made, well-aged bourbon offers a gorgeous spectrum of flavors, beginning with a distinctive sweetness that can, depending on the distiller’s aim, turn spicy and peppery with clear fruitiness, or mellow into a creamy caramel toffee with highlights of citrus."

Right on. There's a nice little BBQ joint in Sunset Park that serves about a hundred different kinds of bourbons, which is where I tried Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20-Year-Old, No. 1, the very best according to these NYT guys. I'm inspired to go back and have some more as soon as possible.

Maker's Mark didn't make their list of good bourbons, which is fine by me since now I can blend it without guilt into my signature cocktail. (Strangely enough, I've been thinking lately that I don't like those Maker's Mark ads, since I'm afraid they'll make more people start drinking the stuff and supply is already outstripping demand among some of the small-batch bourbons.)

I'll leave you with this pop quiz for now: what's the difference between whiskey and bourbon? The first person to answer correctly will be rewarded accordingly.

God, I could really go for a bourbon and branch right now.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Murder On The Orient Express


So a little while ago I confessed that I had never read any Agatha Christie. Yes, yes, it's shocking. But there are only so many hours in a day, my friend, and soon most of those will be spent writing my own season finales to various television shows affected by the writers' strike, which I will then act out alone in my apartment with assorted puppets.

But somehow I managed to find the time to read "Murder on the Orient Express" this weekend, which is *kind of* impressive considering I was drinking one alcoholic beverage every two hours for three days ... (note to self: write to publisher and let them know that some of the paragraphs are kind of blurry). In between sips of Crown Royal I was swept away by the intriguing entanglements of Poirot and Co., thoroughly charmed by the casual old-world racism ("Italians stab! British people do not stab ..."), and the conspiratorial ending.

Since you can read Christie's books, drunk, in about a day, I'll probably read them all. They're extremely fun, and I've wanted to read "A Pocket Full of Rye" ever since I was a kid and my sister left an old paperback edition of it lying around that had a lurid purple cover.

Cheers!

Monday, November 26, 2007

200 Noirs

A tall, dark stranger recently sent me this list by Allan Guthrie of 200 noirs. Guthrie stipulates this is a highly personal and idiosyncratic list, noting that his personal definition of noir excludes most detective fiction (fair enough -- it seems like people argue over the definition of noir all the time anyway): "Bear in mind that this is an entirely idiosyncratic (some might even say perverse) personal selection based on
a) what I’ve read to date (no prizes for spotting the gaps) and
b) what I consider noir (which rules out most detective fiction -- unless the detectives are victims, crooks, lunatics or are generally shafted in some major way -- and yet permits the occasional western and horror. Yikes!)"

Which leaves us a list of 200 titles that span works from James M Cain and Georges Simenon to titles I've barely even heard of, let alone read.

Which is highly tantalizing.

Of particular interest are the volumes with the most bizarre titles, such as "The Shark Infested Custard and a lot of the older ones I've only heard of in movie form, like "Build My Gallows High" (which became "Out of the Past"). This list is daunting and intriguing, and should give you plenty to do should you ever find yourself immobilized after a terrible accident.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A vast, isolated swath of land ...

There is some amazingly wonderful news in the NYT today -- Canada is planning to convert acres upon acres of land in the Northwest Territories into parkland!

This headline caught my eye: Canada to Announce Vast New Park! (Well, I added the exclamation point!)

"The Canadian government plans to announce today that it will convert 25.5 million acres of northern woodland into a new national park and wildlife protection areas," writes Ian Austen.

"The result will be one of North America’s largest conservation areas, about 11.5 times the size of Yellowstone Park, and ease pressure from the mining and energy industries on an area that is important for wildlife, if sparsely populated by humans.

'This is the largest land withdrawal for protection ever in Canada,' said Monte Hummel, president of the World Wildlife Fund Canada. 'This is real conservation history being made.'"

This is marvelous news for the True North, Strong and Free, and for the planet. In an era when Bush wants to strip-mine American parks, it's so refreshing to have someone use land for non-commercial purposes.

And The Globe & Mail's coverage contains more about what this means for Native Rights.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Fresh Kills

I think I'm going to add this book by Reggie Nadelson to my Amazon Wish List. It sounds like a pretty good mystery novel from the reviews it's getting, and I like the fact that it's set on Staten Island.

I lived on Staten Island for five months (next to a graveyard) and I always thought there was something interesting about the borough. It's sort of empty and desolate in a lot of spots (like St. George near the ferry terminal) but also unexpectedly beautiful in others -- plus you can see the Godfather house up on Todt Hill and riding the ferry is always fun, even if you're not a Working Girl fan (which I am, which made the boat even more fun). It's an undiscovered borough with an undeservedly bad reputation (for the most part), and to top it off I love regional mysteries, especially ones set in New York (I still have to read those Akashic books set in Brooklyn & Queens).

I took a walk out to Owl's Head park in Bay Ridge yesterday, which is a strange, suburban part of Brooklyn with the most unexpected little houses, and marveled at the pier and the pebble-colored gray-blue water and enjoyed the twinkling lights of the bridge and generally felt that very happy far-away feeling I get whenever New York harbor is involved. I love that sort of in-between body of water -- not the rivers, not the sea. The bay. Why that desolate, industrial, polluted bay makes me so happy I'll never know.

(This truly amazing photo I found on Flickr.)

With that in mind, I suppose I should read Nadelson's other Artie Cohen book, Red Hook, too ... but why do I inherently dislike any place that's suddenly become trendy? Doesn't that make me the worst kind of snob? I don't know. I guess I just like all the horrible places where there's no one else around.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Note on the Illustrations

In a follow up to yesterday's stroll down memory lane, I looked up a bunch of the Value Books on Amazon, and was so delighted by this illustration of Beethoven that I just had to share it. I think Steve Pileggi was the illustrator for this series. This may be the cutest illustration of a classical composer in existence.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"A Proposal to Girdle the Earth"


You all know how much I love Nellie Bly, so it should come as no surprise that I was verrrry excited when I read that today is the 118th anniversary of her 72-day journey around the world, which began on November 14th, 1889.

When she first presented the idea to her editor, he said:

"It is impossible for you to do it ... In the first place you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes ... [T]here is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this."

Ha! Sucka!

For those unaware of my obsession with the Original Girl Reporter, it all started when I was a kid and I had this series of books called "Value Books" which gave real-life famous people imaginary friends, and told illustrated, highly-sanitized versions of their life stories. My favorites, besides Nellie, were:

Albert Schweitzer
Hans Christen Andersen
Charles Dickens
Louis Pasteur
Jane Addams
Marie Curie
and Cochese, whose values were "Truth and Trust," which is kind of ironic ...

Their friends were pens or ducks, or test tubes or puffs of smoke, and I think Ben Franklin's was a penny.

Anyway, the books completely rocked my world as an eight-year-old and twenty years later Nellie Bly still rocks my world, and today you can follow her footsteps on this neat map from PBS.

And, as the Value Books would say, to learn more about Nellie Bly, visit your local library.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Poppies

Yesterday was Remembrance Day, a holiday in my native Canada, which is similar to Veteran's Day except that we tend to honor the heroes of past wars as opposed to, say, shopping for discount mattresses (hey America, don't blame me, you're the ones who decided to celebrate every major holiday with a sale at Macy's).

November 11, 1918 marked the end of the First World War; in Canada the day is marked with a moment of silence at 11:00 a.m. It's generally a somber (or sombre) holiday, though occasionally marred by lapses of judgment that can make the ceremonies seem incredibly tacky (such as the time my sixth grade teacher made us all listen to "Remembrance Day" by Bryan Adams). I often find myself thinking of Blackadder (the fourth series, "Blackadder Goes Forth") at this time of year, which is my preferred onscreen representation of WWI. (If that sounds a bit glib, remember that humor is a way of coping with grief, and watch the final episode of the show to see a truly moving tribute.) Moments of levity mix with sorrow and wry humor in these half-dozen episodes, and Hugh Laurie is particularly good as Lt. George.

Occasionally, on this day, one finds moments of pure awe, such as when you come across sites like these, which I found on the Blogger main page. WWI: Experiences of an English Soldier painstakingly transcribes the correspondence of William Henry Bonser Lamin day by day (so you know exactly what he was doing ninety years ago today:

"Today, 11th November 1917 the Division arrived in Italy and started on the long march to the front line..."

Chilling.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Potato Leek Stew

I went to the farmer's market today, a.k.a the Greenmarket, and it cheered me up after a long wait at the doctor's office had made me grumpy. I love the Greenmarket, especially in the fall, and I bought lots of yummy things (though I restrained myself from certain items when I noticed the Union Square Greenmarket, where I was today, seems pricier compared to the one at Grand Army Plaza -- I wonder if that's quantifably true or if it's my imagination).

In any case, I came home and made two batches of potato leek stew. The first one I ruined because I chopped the potatoes too chunky and had to add too much chicken stock and cook it for too long, and it got all mushy and starchy. The second one turned out fine, and I'm feeling slightly more prepared to cook dinner for fifteen, which I am attempting to do tomorrow. I tried to throw together a batch of rice while I did the stew, and it came out too sticky.

I'm not good at making rice. I always burn the bottom of the pot, and then I have to add more water, then it gets all heavy instead of fluffy -- if anyone out there has tips for how to not burn the bottom of your pot, please do tell me. I sort of salvaged it by adding chopped toasted pecans, which kind of distract from the mushiness. The true test will come tomorrow night when I see how much of it people actually eat. I'll make another batch tomorrow, which hopefully will turn out better. I might try to make more stew, too, since I now have half of what I thought I'd have.

The stuffing turned out great though, which is good news for the chickens. They're all trussed up and ready to go.

As for the pies, well, I won't have time to make them myself. That's another reason I love the Greenmarket.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Spillane the Beans

Certain admissions can surprise you, such as when someone with a master's degree in cinema studies admits he's never watched The African Queen or Gone With The Wind, or when someone who likes mystery novels admits she's never read any Agatha Christie (I'm going to, I swear -- Murder on the Orient Express is on my shelf right now). Essentially, I think the reason for this is because certain things just seem so canonical that we've absorbed enough of the text by osmosis and thus obviated the need to actually see it, read it, or otherwise experience it firsthand. That being said, classics are classics, and generally we all mean to get around to them eventually, but the aformentioned osmosing makes it easier to put off.

Given that, my Netflix queue sometimes has the appearance of an introductory course in film studies, because of all those films I meant to watch (Night of the Iguana, The Shop Around the Corner, Band of Outsiders, Le Samourai) but put off in favor of:

- numerous AbFab episodes
- innumerable Simpsons episodes
- repeated viewings of the Golden Girls
- prodigious amounts of Seinfeld
- watching The Big Lebowski* and Rushmore over and over again

There are only so many hours in a day, and I prefer to waste most of mine. Which is why the other half of the time my queue has the appearance of belonging to an idiot woman-child of the 80s whose questionable taste and judgment has unfortunately carried over into her adult years (The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Less Than Zero, After-School Specials 1976-1977, Disc 1).

But I have finally put "Kiss Me Deadly" in my Netflix queue, in part because of this neat review in the superbly named Thrilling Detective Magazine:

"Kiss Me Deadly shows Mikey at his brutal, unstoppable best. Although set in sun-drenched Los Angeles instead of the shadowy streets and dark alleys of New York, this all seems to take the back-seat once the action gets started. From relentlessly sadistic fist-fights to smacking people when they don't give the "right" answer, Ralph Meeker portrayal is dead on, pulling no punches, showing the raw fury and violence that fills the character."

Reviewer Bryan Schingle describes the film with such enthusiasm that I bumped the movie to #3 on my queue right after I finished reading this vigorous description:

"Along the twisting trail of murder, violence and the Mafia, Hammer punches, kicks and shoves his way into and back out of trouble. He bucks the odds, bucks the system, and discovers that a hidden container of weapons-grade uranium is what everyone has been dying to get their hands on ... This is how Spillane's great private dick-as-avenger was meant to be; the embodiment of unrefined, never-ending fury combined with just enough brains and balls to crack the case."

Thrilling indeed. I may have to take my lace gloves off for this one.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* A film both under- and over-rated for all the wrong reasons. Though it's gotten a bad rep as a stoner staple, it's actually a really good and funny movie and a fun mystery.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Ghost Map

This book by Steven Johnson came to my attention recently (I think it just came out in paperback) and I immediately added it to my Amazon Wish List!

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World is a historical scientific narrative telling how Dr. John Snow traced an outbreak of cholera in working class London in 1854 to a single water pump that served all the neighborhood's residents. Previously, doctors had attributed cholera to an infectious mist (miasma theory) but Dr. Snow proves them wrong when he traces the origins of the disease to contaminated water instead (waterborne theory). Interestingly enough, though, it was another doctor, Fillipo Paccini, who connected the dots and isolated the illness-inducing bacterium in the water itself -- but his paper on the subject was ignored for thirty years.

I find this scientific/historical stuff thoroughly fascinating, and I like the way it's framed as a narrative. It's like a medical mystery, and appeals to that side of me that compulsively watches House M.D. and practices my own branch of amateur hypochondria. Particularly House-esque is this character: "An assistant curate named Henry Whitehead, who ministered to residents of Golden Square and knew the details of their lives well enough to identify the epidemic’s starting point (a sick baby, whose diapers contaminated the Broad Street well)." Doesn't that sound like House breaking and entering for a little more information?

Speaking of House, that show is getting out of control these days. It's like the writers realized its inherent campiness and just decided to run with it. Last night's episode was hilarious and more filled with improbable science than ever, and House was even more of a smartass than usual (my favorite line: "But carnival is only eight days in Bolivia!" Oh House, is there anything you don't know? I mean, you know the Portuguese word for "Brazil nut!") PLUS one of the wannabe fellows turned out to be a total psycho who faked symptoms of Polio in a patient in order to test his own theory that high doses of vitamin C will cure the disease. I love the wild abandon the show is demonstrating these days! But even I think the science is getting a little off base (wouldn't a food-related poisoning disappear after the patient stopped eating said substance?) but this guy is the source we go to for critiques of the show's sloppiest science. Crazy as it is, I still have to watch anything that deals with rare diseases.

And read: I'll definitely be getting The Ghost Map as soon as possible.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"I'm Tired Of Being Bullied By Modern Things"

My friend Greg Levey over at The Contrary Son wrote something nice about the Spinster, and included the only known photograph of me in his post. "When a friend of mine starts a blog," he wrote, "and I discover that their writing is atrocious, it’s horribly embarrassing. (Especially if they keep writing it, totally unaware.) But when someone like Spinster Aunt starts one, and you discover that they are actually amazingly good, it’s a very nice surprise."

You hear that? NOT ATROCIOUS. That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said about me.

In other news, my dear friend the Dog Lady of Toronto is feeling vexed at Blogger's apparent insistence that she have a Google account or some such nonsense in order to post a comment. "I'm tired," she sighs, "Of being bullied by modern things."

A phrase that struck me as so pretty I had to share it. She is highly gifted in the turn-of-phrase department.

OK, enough self-reflexive stuff ...

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Very Merry Unbirthday to Me!

Spinster Aunt is one year old today!

I've really learned a lot this past year: I've learned what certain buttons on my keyboard do, and what other buttons do not -- or should not -- do. I've learned the importance of paragraphs, unrestricted comments, and big photos. I've learned how to link to stuff, and that too many links are annoying. I've learned the value of friendship, the meaning of Christmas, how to love again, and that Spinsterism is a state of mind and not a legally binding state of being (for tax purposes).

I've kept a few promises (to review mystery novels and old movies, to share recipes) and broken others (round-ups, complaint lists, a tribute to Old Men I Particularly Like) and thought up new stuff like the Spinster Travelogue (though I think that was actually created at the suggestion of a fellow Spinster). I've paid tribute to lovely people who've passed away, and to lovely bookstores who are also no more. I've discovered other kindred web-spirits and learned that Technorati doesn't think very much of me. I've been disappointed by my page and profile views, but also liberated by the fact that I can write whatever I want 'cause no one's really reading me anyway.

Ultimately, Spinster Aunt is about engaging more completely in the world around me, especially the texts I inundate myself with in order to stay sane (I do, in fact, medicate with fiction). I can't think of anything worse than reading a bunch of books and forgetting about them entirely in a matter of weeks. The things you love should be put down on record so as not to lose them, and really, this whole thing is about collecting and surrounding yourself with beautiful objects, curios, and things you love, things that delight and surprise you and carry you through the day, such as the pleasures of bourbon and a good cup of tea.

Also, it's Guy Fawkes Day.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Truthing & Sleuthing

Damn daylight savings time! I woke up a whole hour earlier than necessary this morning. Not that I'd been doing anything raucous last night that would necessitate any sleeping in -- in fact, I've been more mousy and housebound than usual this weekend. Which is why I now have two films to write about.

Nancy Drew - Detective is one of four adaptations of the novels made in 1938 and '39, and is heavy on nostalgia appeal. Much like the novels, the mysteries in the film are soft enough to for pre-adolescent girls to follow and solve themselves, but that's not really the point here. The smokescreen mystery is a mere excuse to watch Nancy in action, bugging her dad, outsmarting the cops, and torturing the life out poor Ned Nickerson (improbably re-named Ted) all the while exuding her particular brand of smarts and pluck.

Though the movie Nancy is clever enough, she's definitely not as level-headed as I imagined the book Nancy to be, and she comes off as extremely excitable, almost spastic. I always imagined Nancy to be calmer, serious, more willowy and sophisticated. Bonita grows on you though, and the film's funny and lighthearted tone could soften the heart of any cynic. Ted's also quite amusing and I love the kids' thirties slang ("Aw, don't disturb the molecules") and wisecracks ("No bacon? Is the recession still on?") though for the most part it's all fairly silly stuff. Still, the films are guaranteed to delight to any Nancy fan, especially those with old-timey tendencies.

Also, the credits look really fabulous:


























Moving on ...

The Awful Truth is a classic screwball comedy directed by Leo McCarey, who I'm sort of getting obsessed with ever since I saw Ruggles At Red Gap. Starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, it reminds me a little of His Girl Friday (the divorce/reconciliation theme, and poor Ralph Bellamy playing the rebound sucker) but of course it's a standout film in its own right. There are some marvelous bits (the two men in the bedroom scene is ridiculous, as is the scene where Irene Dunne pretends to be Grant's sister) and I love watching portrayals of Depression-era affluence and New York City dance halls.

But best of all, possibly, is Aunt Patsy, one of the all-time greatest Spinster Aunts ever portrayed on screen. Patsy, who I'm sure I heard Dunne call "Patty" once or twice, is suave, sophisticated, bored, jaded, hilarious, and ultimately well-meaning (she doesn't want her niece to marry a bore like Bellamy!). Oddly enough, Patsy is played by a very mannish-looking person named Cecil Cunningham ... who is supposedly a woman ... I guess. Anyway, (s)he's a fabulous Spinster Aunt, and has a great line when Bellamy says he's learned about women from Irene Dunn: she slaps Dunne's Dear John letter into his hands and says, "Here's your diploma."

Besides showcasing spinsters with clever lines, the movie also scores points for featuring clever terriers named Mr. Smith, and funny hats.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Porter Wagoner

Country singer Porter Wagoner passed away this week.

I was lucky enough to see him twice this year, once in Nashville in June, and then later on July 24th opening for the White Stripes at Madison Square Gardens. I saw him with the great love of my life both times, the second time on our wedding night, so I have a fondness for the man that goes beyond who he was as an artist and a singer -- I feel he's part of my own life -- my loves and my personal history -- and part of the enduring power that country music holds sway over my heart.

I came to him through Dolly Parton, but again, he went beyond that. He was far more than the man who discovered her; he was an artist in his own right, and great, both before and after her (though their duets will forever be remembered, and I don't mean to diminish them, and I love her dearly).

I'm glad I had a chance to discover this artist and gentleman when I did.

Here's a post by my man honoring him; it's full of links to obits, tributes and kind words, like these, from Marty Stuart :

"I grew up watching his television show in Mississippi and it was as if he were a member of our family. After I got to know him, he was. He was a masterful showman, who understood the art of the final act. He left the world on top."

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Caught creeping by daylight

A preface: I've eaten nothing but leftover Halloween candy all day.

Moving on: Last night I read Charlotte Perkins Gillman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" on the recommendation of a work-mate who noticed my penchant for literary creepiness. The final image of it stayed with her, she said. It was a perfect one-gulp read (I think I'm getting addicted to short stories) with marvelous momentum and a neat characterization of a woman driven to madness by confinement and lassitude and wretched decor. And, yes, the final image is creepy.

In the story, a woman is confined to her room following post-partum depression (aka nervous hysteria) by her well-meaning physician husband. She's got strict instructions to rest at all costs and above all avoid work of any kind, especially writing. Inevitably, she is driven mad with boredom, and begins to obsess unhealthily over the oppressively yellow, hideously patterned wallpaper in her room. She soon becomes convinced she seems something, someone, hidden in that wallpaper, waiting to get out.

Written in the 1890s, it's a clear comment on the current treatment of women, medical and otherwise, that advocated confining the delicate dears to their rooms (with invariably disastrous results; see Dracula). In 1913, Gilman wrote this about her motivation for writing the story:

"For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia--and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to "live as domestic a life as far as possible," to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again" as long as I lived. This was in 1887.

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over."

It's a great story, with a paranoid, Gaslight feel to it (" The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John. He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look...") and I thoroughly its wonderful atmosphere of maddening confinement. Its imagery recalled the Harry Burdick Mysteries I was enthralled with as a child ....


.... and its medical patriarchy/establishment themes fit right in with my love of such books as "For Her Own Good," and my love of Victorian quack medicine, and the idea of "hysteria" in general. Which may possibly also be brought on by excessive candy consumption ...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

I read this on my own last night in lieu of going to Babbo's, mainly because I was too tired and lazy after cooking and baking most of the evening. Who would leave an apartment that smells like freshly baked brownies, I ask you.

Anyway, I love how this short story almost parodies the idea of the ghost story itself: Ichabod Crane is fooled into thinking he's being chased by the Headless Horseman because he's so susceptible to the idea of it. Sleepy Hollow itself seems to render its inhabitants susceptible to imaginative wanderings in the first place, no matter how rational they may be when they arrive. Woe, then, unto Ichabod, for "His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spellbound region."

The story's quite subtle, actually, and the fear comes from many places: not only the ghostly chase, but the weird insularity of the characters in the town, the strange, grasping nature of Ichabod Crane himself, the idea of a haunted vale that takes people under its spell ... the thrills of it creep up on you.

I also love the descriptions in this thing (Katrina is "a blooming lass of fresh eighteen; plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy cheeked as one of her father’s peaches," and Brom Bones is a "a burly, roaring, roystering blade"), especially the way Irving goes into rapturous, detailed descriptions of food, baked goods in particular ("the doughty dough-nut, the tenderer oly koek, and the crisp and crumbling cruller; sweet cakes and short cakes, ginger cakes and honey cakes, and the whole family of cakes ..."), plus I get a big kick out of the setting, since I'm such a big fan of the Hudson Valley.

It's a marvelous short story and I remember loving the Disney cartoon version of it when I was a kid (Bing Crosby sings!), and I even like the Tim Burton version well enough, though I remember being a little disappointed by it after I left the theatre.

Also, I learned what a Hessian was.

"Fortunately I am not of a fainting disposition."

You know what's really important? Momentum.

You can lose it if you wait too long, which is why I'm only writing about this book now, even though I finished it a goodly while ago.

The thing is, I wrote a big long blog entry and then didn't save it for reasons that I won't go into here and so now it's gone forever. But here it is, as best as I can recall it: Dracula or, the book I read two weeks ago.

The book's opening segments, heavy on Jonathan Harker's diary, are marvelous and enthralling, and enticed me into the book instantly. I love the way it reads like a portentous, sinister travelogue. I also enjoyed the way the book cuts back and forth across narratives, employing shifting points of view (epistolary narratives usually get on my nerves, but it works really well here).

The novel's form and structure felt very modern to me, as modern as its subject is ancient. There were overt references to this idea in the book as well, the strangeness of having this relic of the dark ages wandering about in London in the age of rationality, which provides a thrilling tension throughout -- the irrational often trumps what would appear to be common sense under normal circumstances, yet the characters employ modern technological developments to get their man:

"The characters of Dracula use modern technology and rationalism to defeat the Count. For example, during their pursuit of the vampire, they use railroads and steamships, not to mention the telegraph, to keep a step ahead of him (in contrast, Dracula escapes in a sail boat). Van Helsing uses hypnotism to pinpoint Dracula's location. Mina even employs criminology to anticipate Dracula's actions and cites both Cesare Lombroso and Max Nordau, who at that time were considered experts in this field." (From Wikipedia, so you know it must be true.)

I really liked to think of a lot of the plot points in terms of scientific developments of the time, wondering, for instance, if it wasn't all the blood transfusions that killed Lucy (though successful blood transfusions had been performed in the 1840s, blood types weren't classified until after 1901, four years after the publication of the novel).


I also liked the character of Mina quite a bit, especially the way she was integral to figuring out where Count Dracula was at the end of the book (she used her psychic connection with him to figure out he was on water, then she whipped out her maps and deduced exactly where he was in a neat bit of sleuthing that led the men right to him) although the constant Victorian speechifying she endured at the hands of Van Helsing et al. started to get on my nerves (constant speeches about how virtuous she is and how much they loved her, quite dull stuff clogging up the third act). I interpreted the fact that she got bitten by Dracula while they locked her away for her own protection as a sort of "serves you right for treating her like an invalid" thing, because it backfired so horribly. Is Bram Stoker telling us it's just a dangerous to treat women like fragile flowers as it is to expose them to the dangers of the world? I like to think so.


Overall, vastly enjoyable, and surprisingly and impressively layered. I only wish images of the Francis Ford Coppola movie wouldn't pop up in my mind's eye quite so much while reading it (we all know this is the best movie version of the story!). I did enjoy watching The Simpsons Halloween parody of it, though, which came on TV, like, the day after I finished the novel, much to my delight.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Especially When An October Wind

I'm loving the weather today. It finally feels like fall, and it's rainy and gray and everyone has their cozy sweaters on.

I've actually been enjoying everything lately. I went to the Brooklyn Public Library last night, and for some reason going to the library on a dark, rainy, autumnal evening made me feel like a little kid. There was something disorienting about roaming around in a part of town that I'm not used to, and I got that strange fear of getting lost that I used to have as a child. One of my great fears as a child was getting lost on the bus -- I could think of nothing more terrifying than suddenly being somewhere where I didn't know where I was.

Then today, oddly, in the way that everything seems to be subject to a great convergence lately, I found this post in I'veBeenReadingLately, another late discovery of mine. (I'm enjoying this blog immensely, probably due in large part to the vast amounts of space it's devoting to ghost stories. There are also lots of references to M.R. James, who I can't seem to get away from lately. First, in Babbo's, next in my new anthology, now on this blog, and, well, he's just generally everywhere all of a sudden. See? A vast convergence! A nexus ... or something ....)

But seriously, this whole post is all about childhood fears, and how they differ from adult fears, and also about the strange creepy vibe that kids have -- that supernatural connection which leads them to incite poltergeists to haunt their houses, and so on:

"That openness to fear lines up, too, with the position held by many who actually believe in the supernatural that children are more open to and aware of the otherworldly. They haven't yet, the argument goes, set limits on which of their perceptions they're willing to accept, which to dismiss before they even reach the level of consciousness."

Coincidence? I think not. Clearly I'm haunted. But seriously, it's the end of October, people! Spirit world colliding with our world, anyone? And don't say it doesn't happen.

I also found a great link to an auction of 19th century vampire-hunting kits (again, via I'veBeenReadingLately) that are completely insane, and also vastly amusing to me right now since I just finished reading Dracula (which I will write about shortly).


I've been feeling so overwhelmed and overstimulated these days, but in a good way. I love this time of year: finally everyone is as creepy as I am year-round. There are also creepy articles in the Times today, about nightmares and drug resistant staph infections (god I love life-threatening mystery ailments). I also love this idea:

"Ask people to recall spontaneously how many nightmares they had in the last year, and they might say one or two, said Mark Blagrove, a dream researcher at the University of Wales in Swansea. Ask them to keep a dream diary, and they will report nightmares once or twice a month."

See? We're all much scarier than we would think.

And, speaking of collusions, in the same article: "Nightmare rates climb through adolescence, peak in young adulthood, and then, like so much else in life, begin to drop."

Ha! Ha!

Finally, today's title is inspired by this poem by Dylan Thomas. I adore these first few lines:

"Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire ..."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

13 Nights of Horror

Babbo's Books proprietress Leonora is reading ghost stories at her bookstore every night for thirteen nights. Tonight's reading features the "Tell-Tale Heart" and other tales by Poe.

I stumbled on the place by accident on Sunday night, when she was reading "Oh, Whistle and I'll come to you. My Lad" by M.R. James. I'm definitely going to try to make it to the reading of Daphne DuMaurier's "Don't Look Now" on Thursday, and hopefully "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" on the 28th. I adore that story, and I always get a little thrill when I pass by it on the MetroNorth; I must make time to explore the village one day -- I mean, look at it:


I also bought this swell book at Babbo's, and shared my love for Alfred Hitchcock anthologies; I had them as a child and was recently overjoyed when I found two of them in my basement. The editions I had were published by Random House and aimed at young adult readers, and had names like "Witches Brew" and "Ghostly Gallery." I guess you can still find them around, and I want them all!

Anyway, readings are every night at 8 p.m., now through Halloween.

Babbo's Books is located at 242 Prospect Park West between Prospect Ave. and Windsor Place, in a very pretty part of Brooklyn that looks like a small town, with brick sidewalks and gas lamps, and which is lovely to meander in after dark.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Art & Ghosts

I was looking for a picture of a goblin the other day. Then I decided I wanted to find some illustrations that reminded me of the old Czech Fairy Tales my mother used to read to my sister and I, which I'm becoming increasingly obsessed with these days, and I started typing in random things to search for, like "fairy tales" and "Czech fairy tales" and "goblins" and "ghosts" into Google Image. Then I decided, for some reason, to type in "Angela Carter fairy tales" and I found this:and this:and went: "AAAAAHHH!!!"

Immediately, I went here and was so overwhelmed with goodness that it took me a week to post this. Why overwhelmed? Well, besides her blog and her shop, this blogger has got something called The Wonder Cabinet!

Which can keep me amused for hours, literally hours.

On top of all this, the blogger lists among her interests: Twilight Tea Parties, occasional ghostly theatricals, fairytales and mythology, writing, reading, crafts, film, illustration, music, black cats, toast with honey, mittens and snow, dreams and nightmares, [and] Alice in Wonderland.

And she enjoys tea!

What a neat person. What sublime illustrations. What a great blog.

And The Wonder Cabinet!

Every once in a while in life you have a sort of "down-the-rabbit-hole" experience, when you stumble onto wonderment and it's so exciting it feels like you've entered some sort of imaginary labyrinth. This happened to me once when I was walking through a cemetery near my dad's house and I found a path that led down to a ravine, and it was the most beautiful walk ever and I'd had no idea it existed and it just seemed to keep going for miles. It happened when my mom toted us around Southern Moravia and showed us mountains and dark pine forests and medieval walled cities where cobblestoned town squares were lined with petit-four houses, and castles dotted the hills in the distance and I couldn't believe there were places that actually looked like this. It happens with certain books, and certain painting, and certain movies, and sometimes, with certain blogs.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

There Is A Curse On These Lemons

Either that, or there is a goblin in my kitchen who is ruining everything.

The spaghetti with lemon sauce, usually light and refreshing, was a drippy, goopy, oily, sloppy, acidic mess.

The cake? It was simply otherworldly. In an awful, awful way. I have more respect than ever for the alchemy of baking, now that I have seen its evil side. The entire cake was chucked. Gone. Garbage. Poubelle. Basura.

Now my kitchen needs an exorcism. Tonight I make guacamole and lemonde and finally rid myself of these cursed lemons!

I banish you, foul gorgon!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Fruit, Murder

So I did bake banana muffins after all.

Also, I bought a whole lot of decorative lemons (you know, to put in a big ceramic bowl in the china hutch, something that strikes me as charming) and now they're old and I need to make a lot of:

- lemon cake
- lemon spaghetti
- lemonade

I'd get right on that, but I've been busy watching things, all manner of things, but notably the first episode of The Women's Murder Club, which has either the best name or the worst name on television.

I felt mixedly about it. I don't know what I think about their silly affairs (I'm looking at you, blonde DA lady) though I do like the idea of having to work with your ex-husband (very His Girl Friday). I like the lady reporter who's a strange blend of autodidact and Asperger's, and even though they've written Angie Harmon some horrid lines, she still seems like a pretty cool cop. The medical examiner seems like the voice of reason, but she lost major points for me with the "Jobs don't hug you back" line.

Incorporating themes of work v. love into the show was somewhat successful; they applied to both the protags and the villains/victims, creating a sense of cohesion. This is the kind of device that signals thematic depth and tautness in television writing, a la House (Seasons 1 and 2, of course) but can feel a little hammered home at times. It would be nice to leave the love v. work dichotomy out of a show about professional women but it's rather inescapable if you're going to delve deeply into the characters at all.

However, I'd like to see the girl-talk angle swiftly dispatched altogether. It seems intended to be humanizing/bantery/juicy but just ends up making the characters come off as a little immature (making girly chitchat at an autopsy seems lame, though I liked the way they determined the victim was seeing someone new by a glance at her Brazilian wax job!). It's a time-honored trope of the genre that detectives have hideous love lives, so it follows that these women might; it just doesn't seem to be handled very well at the moment.

Finally, what's up with the multi-character musical montages at the end of every single drama nowadays? Once I hear the wistful music and see each character reflecting on stuff, well ... it makes me wonder if it isn't the biggest cliche of our time, akin to the freeze frames of the late 70s/early 80s cop/crime shows (J.B. Fletcher!) .... enough with the montages! Other than minor quibbles with the girl talk, montage and some dialog, I don't have too many bones to pick with the writing. It's pretty tight in most places even if the mystery was a little thin.

I'll definitely give it a few more episodes and see what the future holds. There's a serial killer on the loose, so that should be entertaining enough ...

Monday, October 08, 2007

So Very Sleepy

Yesterday I cleaned for nine hours. I was scrubbing off shower-tile mold in my bathroom with a toothbrush at 10:30 p.m., wearing swim goggles and a bra. Afterward, I felt a brief sense of accomplishment, until I looked at the tiles on the floor, where each tiny sludge-filled crack called out for my attention. It filled me with a kind of madness.

Today I am exhausted. Moving sucks. Cleaning sucks. Breathing in bleach fumes ain't right.

I haven't posted in ages because scrubbing mold off the tiles in my bathroom is the most interesting thing I've done in thirty days. Well, that and I made this swell list of my likes and dislikes. (God, Working Girl is a great movie, isn't it?) Also, I am no longer a Spinster, but I won't bother to change the name of my blog.

Tomorrow I may bake banana-chocolate-chip muffins.

That is all.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

East Nashville in the New York Times

This is a particularly irritating article. It's an embarrassing little thing, which, neither a music or a travel piece, displays an incredible laziness and ignorance as it purports to be both.

Here's the gist of it: old country is better than new country. Unless you're talking about alt. country or Americana. In which case, it's OK to like it. Also, smoky bars are cool.

Got that?

Good. Now, in case you want to call bullshit on it, and would like another voice to add to your chorus of support, R. Emmet Sweeney is with you all the way.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle


When I came to New York four years ago, I brought only a handful of books with me. One was Pale Fire, one was Strunk and White's Elements of Style. And one was A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I still have that book, and I still consider it one of the most important in my library. So I had to stop and reflect when I heard that Madeleine L'Engle had passed away this week.

The love that Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle In Time series inspires in its readers is evident in the obituaries that surfaced for the 88-year-old writer. Her "childhood fables, religious meditations and fanciful science fiction transcended both genre and generation," writes Douglas Martin in the New York Times.

Slate's Meghan O'Rourke recalls how she was initially drawn into the Murrys' world, a world of "cocoa and fraternal telepathy, New England storms and Bunsen burners, a strange old lady paying a midnight call: This was an odd but intriguing world, entirely distinct. And it only got stranger and more distinct as the book went on." There is a magic to L'Engle's work that people never forget, so that the news of her passing wasn't something abstract -- it was more like the loss of a friend. You can sense a reverence in these obituaries, a real love for her books behind all the literary analysis and remarks (good versus evil, Einstein, the cosmos, religion, etc.) that are employed in an attempt to characterize her body of work. What I loved best about her books, besides her ability to create atmosphere, were the little phrases that stuck in your head long after a reading: "kything," "The Might-Have-Beens," "tesseract."

My personal favorite, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, was about the farandolae within the mitochondria, that is to say, about the small, seemingly inconsequential series of actions that can have a chain effect through the ages -- how a move in one direction or the other can change the course of history. The book examined a sort of biological butterfly effect, in which the future of the human race was dependent on the intermarriage and offspring of the two "right" tribes of people (just read it). Characters in the book stayed with me for a long time; a tragic and beautiful element of self-sacrifice in the heretofore written-off Mrs. O'Keefe, who knows far more than she appears to, resonated with me.

There was also something wonderful to me about reading the story of a grown-up Meg Murry, now married to her childhood friend Calvin O'Keefe. There's no reasonable explanation for why that element captivated me, since I was closer to Charles Wallace's age when I read it. I guess I just like the idea that maybe magic didn't disappear completely when you grew up.

But the loveliest thing of all was the connection Meg and Charles Wallace had -- a psychic connection that most siblings have to some degree or another. While we may not all be able literally to "kythe" with our siblings, most of us have created special universes with them, magical worlds created in basements and backyards, worlds only we knew, we named, and we understood. All children create universes of their own, and many, if not most, share them with siblings. I guess we all hope our childhood universes will continue to be magic, even now that we're grown up.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Guest Blogger Review: "The Other Boleyn Girl"


Here's a public service announcement from a fellow spinster, designed to save you from ever plucking this aberration from the book store shelves:

"The quote on the front cover is promising enough that it seems a fair buy for my upcoming book club [editor's note: never went] - a Liz Smith from Newsday claims she read the thing "in one delicious gulp." Seemed plausible and slightly tempting. Until 10 pages in, whereupon I decide Liz Smith is surely a pseudonym for a pre-adolescent girl from Yonkers and Newsday is possibly not as equivalent to the New Yorker as I had supposed.

Philippa Gregory's 'The Other Boleyn Girl: A Novel' (as opposed to what? A poem? An eggplant?) is a bodice-ripping gag-reflex dressed up in some clever graphic design as an eloquent exploration of an age of subtle political change, seismic geographical revelations, and a rift in theological thinking that would rip open the very fabric of western thought. Not to mention the beginning of shifts in consumerism, the arts, architecture, science and thinking on gender and sexuality. In short, a humanist cultural revolution that marked the change from medievalism to the early modern age is boiled down to such insightful passages as:
"He took me in his arms and said delightfully, promisingly: 'We have only a moment, my love: so this shall all be for you.' He would lie me on the bed, unlace my tight dress, caress my breasts, stroke my belly and pleasure me in every way he could think of until I cried out: 'Oh my love! You are the best, you are the best, you are the very, very best.'"

This from the age that brought us More's divinely satiric Utopia and Castiglione's floral dialogue in The Courtier, not to mention early English translations of The Bible and Erasmus' audacious wit. One starts to wonder if Gutenberg was in fact doing us all a service when he cooked up his idea of literacy for the masses. Fat lot of good that's done us, if we've gone from More to Gregory's much, much lesser body of work. (See what I did there? More to less. Get it?... Clearly, Erasmus would have hated my guts.)

Gregory's complete lack of characterization of the many people who needlessly clutter her book drains even the bodice-ripping scenes of any guilty pleasure. It's hard to suspend one's ever-diminishing disbelief when the main character voices-over make-out sessions with: "His tongue slid between my lips and stirred me. I wanted to eat him, I wanted to drink him, and then have him bear me down onto the holystoned boards of the deck and to have me, then and there, and never let me go." It makes one want to lace one's bodice right back up again and go join a nunnery. Shudder.

I won't even touch the larger issue of mistaken macro-history and revisionist feminism being lodged down the reader's throat. Tudor England was unfair to women! Men had the upper-hand! Daughters were subservient to their fathers! First wives get the shaft by upstart young tarts! Yawn. Tell me something we don't know - mainly, the complex social and economic currency of the female gender that still held a surprising amount of sway during this period.

Nonsense, says Gregory. Her main character (Anne Boleyn's sister Mary, natch) is a sassy girl ready to make her way in the unfair world: "For the first time ever I felt as if I had taken my life into my own hands and I could command my own destiny. For once I was obedient neither to uncle nor father nor king, but following my own desires. And I knew that my desire led me, inexorably, to the man I loved." You go, girl! Way to break free from paternalism.
And Gregory's claim in the subsequent 'Reading Group Guide' that she wrote the book so people could understand 'the deep poverty' of the sixteenth-century is truly bizarre, given the minimal number of characters not belonging to the royal inner circle. Those three or four 'poor people' that do poke their heads in for half a page are either mute or useless, adding nothing to either plot or theme.

I'm loathe to do this to you, dear reader, but I must also share Gregory's precious insight that "Margaret Atwood has written novels which have raised the standard of writing. Other writers, me among them, have raised the standards of research." Because she included a sort of bibliography at the back of the book, see? Pity the books date from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The comparison with Atwood seems....somehow unholy, no?

I guess the 'delicious gulp' quote on the front should of warned me this was a Harlequin romance rather than an actual novel with depth, characterization and, well, plot.
Not to put too fine a point on it, my friends, but I think this reader would rather spit than swallow."

Thanks, fellow spinster & mystery guest blogger!