Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Measuring 2014

How does one measure a year? (In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee...) I sometimes feel as if my life is measured in cups of tea, concerts and services sung, and books read. This year was marked by all these things - sometimes in a big way - and by some pretty spectacular additional landmarks.

Seeing the world? Yep, I'm still amazed to say, I did a bit of that. We spent three months in England this summer, and I frequently get homesick for London. We have plans to spend not this summer but the next one back again, and since husband applied for doctoral work at Cambridge, we both might be seeing a lot more of England than we ever dreamed.

Academic development? I've finished all of my doctoral coursework and am now working on my dissertation in earnest - which is why, I confess, this blog has gone neglected. I also wrote an article for a forthcoming Oxford encyclopedia, had my first article ever published, and will be a part of a panel at a conference in February.

Restoring creativity? I've been depressed lately that my creative impulses seem to have disappeared as I delve deeper and deeper into the academic life, where one deals with fact and analysis more than imagination and impulsivity. I've spent much of this year lamenting that my ability to write fiction is gone, but it's not. While it's a struggle, every so often I do take a few moments to write creatively. I also sat around cutting paper snowflakes a few weeks ago (and then it snowed the next morning!)

Cups of tea? Countless. Great tea, awful tea, and about a bajillion cups of Twinings Earl Grey tea. And I've begun hosting themed tea parties on a regular basis, which are tremendous fun to put together and have become rather a hit:

Christmas tea
A Redwall tea party

Singing? I still sing with the Duke Vespers Ensemble, and we're headed to perform at the Boston Early Music Festival again this summer. Our recording of Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri came out this year - the second time I've appeared on a real, live, published CD! I've become a sub at Christ Church in Raleigh, and have really enjoyed my occasional mornings with their more formal liturgy. In the most exciting news, a friend and I started our own early music ensemble, Concentus Carolina. He's a choral conductor and I'm a musicologist with a real interest in early music performance practice, and it seems a perfect match. Our first concert last Eastertide, music on death and resurrection, was a success, and in February we present music celebrating music, dedications, and coronations.

Books? To date, 150 fiction books this year. A lot of that due to daily rides on the London Tube this summer - 45 minutes each way gives you a lot of reading time. I've noticed some trends in my reading this year, ones I'm still thinking through and will then share here. I'll also do a post on how successfully I achieved my reading goals laid out last January (not as well as I'd have liked, unfortunately, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the many books I did read).

This tallying doesn't mention the innumerable great conversations, amazing meals, raucous board games, or thoughtful moments. It doesn't include the delight of dragging your husband out into the first snowfall of the winter, splashing in a puddle with abandon, or finding that book you were looking for on the shelves of a secondhand bookstore. It doesn't capture the bittersweetness of your great-grandfather's funeral, a chance to catch up with far-flung family members you haven't seen in years. It doesn't note the utter joy of your one and a half-year-old godson learning to recognize you and asking for your company. All of these things happened too, and helped make 2014 the incredible year it was.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Legend of Luke - a disappointing tale of revenge

With The Legend of Luke, I'm approaching the limits of my childhood reading of the Redwall series. It was either with this book or partway through the next that I finally gave up on the new ones and returned to endlessly rereading my favorites of the early books. By this point in the series, Jacques seems to have fallen into a comfortable pattern: a group of three or four creatures of various species head off on an adventure - find the thing or kill the villain - and return in the end to Redwall Abbey for a feast. This quest narrative got predictable and unexciting, and I missed the wider variety of plots found in the early books (a siege, a rebellion against tyrannical government, a kidnap, and only then one of what would become Jacques' standard quests...).

The Legend of Luke failed me for a few reasons. It is poorly paced and poorly characterized. Jacques relies too heavily on previous books to establish the main characters' personalities, and even relies on enemies from earlier books as well, so this novel feels significantly less creative than his others. My biggest issue, however, is that it is a revenge story rather than one of self-defense. Previously, Jacques largely held to the idea of peaceful abbey mice who would nonetheless take up arms to defend themselves. In this book, however, Martin's father leaves his son behind and leads most of his tribe to inevitable death in an attempt to kill the pirate who murdered his wife. Luke succeeds, but at what cost? Jacques really disappointed me because so much pain and death in this book was unnecessary and due only to a lust for revenge, and Luke's actions were glamorized without any questioning of their repercussions or his motives.

On a happier note, I'd forgotten that I'd once met Jacques until I saw that my copy of Luke is autographed! I don't much remember the event, but I'm pretty sure we bought this hardcover new for him to sign at the bookstore, and that I also got to show him my beloved and battered paperback copy of Mariel of Redwall, still my absolute favorite of the whole series. It's a pity that Luke was so disappointing, especially because of the special autograph, but this time, I'm not going to give up on the series. I own the next two - Lord Brocktree and Taggerung - and plan to check out library copies of the rest. The Redwall books were such a huge part of my childhood that I'm determined now to see how the rest of the series plays out. Maybe the quests get less interchangeable - I'm hopeful!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Faeries and nuns (but not at the same time - what a book that would be!)

Hooray, it's fall break! I get Monday and Tuesday off, and considering I don't have classes on Thursdays and Fridays, I have almost the entirety of next week to get loads of work done, with one lonely day of classes in the middle. In addition to schoolwork, I hope to do some clothes shopping at local thrift stores and learn to make almond biscotti.

And some reading, of course! I pulled out Elizabeth Gaskell's (first?) novel, Mary Barton, to read next, though for some odd reason I've been reluctant to start it and turned instead to the next Redwall book in the series, The Legend of Luke. I may be quickly approaching that point in the semester where I mostly just want to read children's and YA fiction.

Having purchased three Elizabeth Taylor Viragos at the very first public library book sale I attended here, two years ago, I figured it was long past time to try them out. Palladian was the earliest novel she wrote of the three I owned. I really enjoyed it. Not enough that it'll make it onto my list of favorites for the year, though I suspect I would have loved it even more had I read all of Jane Austen's novels first. For Palladian is a parody of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, with countless Austen references thrown in. When orphaned Cassandra Dashwood leaves home to become a governess to young Sophy Vanbrugh, she expects to fall in love with her employer, and indeed, their relationship progresses awkwardly but relatively smoothly. Where Palladian differs from Jane Eyre is the spotlight placed on the other residents of the house, the servants and family members who all have their own pains and desires. Their stories are not so easily resolved as Cassandra and Marion's romance, and are ultimately far more compelling.

One of the back-cover blurbs said that if you crossed Mary Norton's The Borrowers with Holly Black's Tithe, you'd get R.J. Anderson's Spell Hunter (titled Knife in the UK). I only dimly remember Tithe from many, many years ago, but I remember it being dark and somewhat violent, an apt description for some aspects of Spell Hunter. The Borrowers allusion I recognized even before reading the blurb; Anderson's rich and multifaceted faery world involved a good deal of Norton-esque creativity with found objects. When young Bryony becomes the Hunter for her faery community, a trained warrior whose role is to protect the Gatherers and hunt small game, she changes her name to Knife and relishes the freedom to explore the world outside their oak tree. But curiosity in the nearby human home leads to all kinds of trouble when Knife disobeys faery laws and becomes friends with the McCormicks' paralyzed son Paul. The faery world was beautifully realized, but ultimately I wanted a lot more knife fights with ravens and a lot less romance. Despite the imperfections, I sped through this book and already have the sequel checked out from the library.

Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede was something entirely different from knife-wielding faeries, a slow and sensitive story of about ten years in the life of an English Benedictine monastery that follows middle-aged, widowed Philippa Talbot as she leaves her high-powered corporate job to become a nun. The pacing of the book seemed a little ungainly, as there were large portions of the book that forgot about Philippa and focused on other nuns, rendering her an inconsistent protagonist, and this particular edition had some really heinous and distracting typos. But it was such a richly-layered story that these problems were easily ignored. Exquisite descriptions of the church year, its feasts, liturgical objects, plainchant, and nature provided the setting for the abbess's very real difficulties in leading her monastery.

With the sixth in Margaret Peterson Haddix's Shadow Children series, Among the Enemy, I'm nearing the end and I can see the finish line. This book more than any of the others asked hard questions of morality - is it right to join the enemy, even undercover, and be complicit to some atrocities (or even commit them yourself) if it means preventing even larger ones and working for justice and freedom? It would be really hard to jump into the series in this late book - it references a lot of earlier events, some of which I'd forgotten - but it's a solid addition to the set and provides the perspective of yet another brave youth in Haddix's large cast of characters. Just one more book and then I've finished the whole series!

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman was a bust. Do I just not like magical realism? Or was my frustration with the present tense and Hoffman's incessant tendency to tell rather than show, plus my inability to care about any of the deeply flawed characters enough explanation for putting this book aside as a did-not-finish? It wasn't an awful book, but I just lost interest.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Turtles and treachery, volcanos and violence against books

I've really been enjoying the alternation of children's or YA novels with more adult literary fiction. I get fun and fantasy, but then I also get depth, themes, and better prose. These two adult novels came from my school's library, the result of a day when I forgot to bring a free reading book and stopped in the library to fix that.

I expected Russell Hoban's Turtle Diary to be more about turtles, though I'm not sure why, because I found what I think was the original review that led me to this book and it very clearly discussed the fact that the book is about the two people who rescue them. The book is framed as an alternating series of diary entries from two lonely, middle-aged people, one a divorcee who doesn't even get to see his kids anymore and works in a book shop, and one a children's author who, though she hasn't turned into a spinster cat lady, is almost as isolated, having purchased a pet water beetle at the start of the novel. Independently, they decide that the sea turtles at the London Zoo need to be stolen and set free in the ocean to fill their natural role of "finding," for both are quite taken with the idea that sea turtles swim hundreds of miles to find a particular beach on which to lay their eggs. Though William and Neara don't know it, the process of launching the turtles may help them launch themselves. On the plus side, Hoban avoids the cliche of romance between his protagonists; but the book suffers from an extreme need to say deep things about life.

TheFalsePrince_largeThe False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen was a fun example of an unreliable narrator. Sage, a fiercely selfish orphan boy who cares about the people around him more than he's willing to admit, and three other orphan boys are kidnapped by the nobleman Conner, who intends to train them to impersonate the dead heir to the throne. He will choose only one of the boys, and kill the others so they cannot reveal the treachery, so Sage has to both figure out how to be selected but also how to keep the others alive. And he's a liar. The whole book is a series of lies to the reader, which makes unraveling Sage's agenda great fun. According to reviews, The False Prince is a less-skilled reproduction of Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief, which reminds me that I really do need to read that series.

One of my goals for the year was to read another novel by Shusaku Endo. In the past two years, I've adored Silence and Deep River, and I'm still left struggling with the complex questions he asks about the nature of Christianity and the relationships between religions. I think (for absolutely no good reason, other than I knew the title) that his shorter novel Volcano is his next most famous, so I picked that for this year. As it turns out, my school library has an entire shelf of novels by Endo in translation, so I'm not going to run out anytime soon. Volcano is a puzzling book that cries out for some deeper analysis than I'm willing to spend my time on at the moment (considering the dissertation prospectus I'm beginning to draft!).  It is full of Endo's characteristic hospital scenes and conversations questioning whether Christianity can succeed in Japan. The book centers on an island volcano, Akadaké, and its symbolism to three men who live in its shadow, one a retired weatherman who spent his life making observations of the volcano, one a self-satisfied Catholic priest, and one a French former priest who lost his faith and spends his days contemplating evil and sin. The mental and emotional state of each man revolves around the volcano, according to what Akadaké represents to them. Will it or won't it explode again, and what does that mean for each of these men?

Troll Fell by Katherine Langrish came highly recommended (including a promise of selkies in the second book!), but I have to chalk this one down as a did-not-finish. My usual policy is to read 10% of a book before abandoning it, but twelve pages into this one, the author had already presented unapologetic scenarios of both domestic violence and animal abuse. I just couldn't do it. With over a hundred fantasy books on my public library wish list, I'm not willing to struggle through one that's just going to upset me. Such a shame, since I was really looking forward to the Scandinavian folklore - Husband is Scandinavian, so ever since we began to date, I've tried to pay more attention to his cultural heritage. I'll just have to find it somewhere else.

Django Wexler's The Forbidden Library starts with a fascinating premise: "Books are magic, and a Reader can call upon creatures from books to aid him or her in adventures." What real-life lover of books doesn't agree with the idea that books stay with you? But I'm troubled by the violence in Wexler's concept of the relationships between readers and their books. His Readers must go into a prison-book and literally kill the creature(s) within in order to bind those creatures to his or her will. I don't know about you, but my encounters with plots and characters are much more peaceful! Toss in an early twentieth-century setting that feels more Victorian than Wexler probably intended, an orphan girl being trained as a Reader's apprentice, and a few talking cats, and you have The Forbidden Library. I don't think I'll bother with the sequels, but it was nice to contemplate my own relationships with the books of my past while reading this one.

Now I'm back to working through my to-read Viragos, still trying to tackle the oldest ones on my shelf first rather than the exciting new purchases. I'm a chapter into Elizabeth Taylor's Palladian and adoring the Jane Eyre and Jane Austen allusions. Next up after that, R.J. Anderson's Spell Hunter (killer fairies?), Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede (Benedictine nuns, so definitely jumping from one extreme to another!).

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fairies, witches, Native American magic, and a violin-player

I ended my last post by noting that the next book up would be Physik, third in Angie Sage's Septimus Heap series. Well, as fun as they are, it looks like I'll have to set the whole series aside for now, because ten pages into Physik, I realized that I didn't remember a thing from book two. Half my problem, since I read Flyte back in the spring semester, and half the author's problem, I think, because it's not good when a book in a series is so unmemorable that you have to read the whole set in rapid succession for the overall narrative to hang together.

So instead, I turned to the next of my stack of children's/YA library books, Among the Brave. It's fifth in Margaret Peterson Haddix's Shadow Children series, which I'm happy to say is a lot more memorable than poor Flyte. I read the first few of this series when I was a kid, and either the sequels didn't exist yet or my public library didn't have them, so it's been fun catching up now as an adult. I have enjoyed the multiple perspectives across this series; this one is from the point of view of one of the more bookish and shy characters, and it was nice to see him come into his own, discovering his bravery (though the plots get more fantastical and unbelievable with every book). I'm nearing the end of this dystopian series and looking forward to whatever's to come!

A trip to the gym is never complete without a mindless and fun book to take your mind off your aching, sweaty body, and last week, I read yet another Animorphs book - only two left! - and then even had time to start a childhood favorite, Ella Enchanted. (I may have accidentally spent a good portion of last Thursday finishing said childhood favorite instead of reading homework, but oh well, it all got done in the end!) If you're not familiar with this wonderful retelling of the Cinderella story (have you lived under a rock? by now it's a classic!), go forth and find one of the lovely new editions! Cursed at birth by a fairy with the "gift" of obedience, Ella battles finishing school teachers, ogres, her wicked stepfamily, and her growing love for the prince in order to win her freedom and independence. It's absolutely splendid. And isn't the new cover nice? I tend to prefer the cover I first encountered, but I might make an exception for this lovely one.

Less splendid was Rachel Hawkins's Hex Hall, which didn't quite have enough self-conscious metacritical humor to save this story of a paranormal boarding school from being an annoying knockoff of Harry Potter (or as one Goodreads reviewer accurately pegged it, Harry Potter meets Twilight meets Mean Girls. Yes, really.)

I spent most of my last two weeks reading Rebecca West's sublime The Fountain Overflows, one of the first Viragos I ever purchased (its back cover blurb mentioned both music and the Edwardian period; there was no way it wasn't going home with me). It's supposed to be a heartwarming family drama, yet so much of the book seemed to me to be so sad, and I didn't trust the narrator as much as I think I was supposed to, especially when it came to her sister Cordelia, a violin-player whom her family believes cannot actually understand music. There's so much in this book to analyze - its treatments of politics, the English legal system, family relationships, and the supernatural, to name only a few - that I imagine I'd have to read it several times to even begin to get a handle on what this novel is trying to do, but I'm not actually sure I liked it enough to do those re-readings. Yet, I've continued thinking about it every day since I finished it, so clearly something has captured my ongoing interest. I'm definitely keeping it, and will definitely re-read it someday, if only to compare its philosophy of music with that of Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph. And who knows, maybe I can team up with an English lit professor and teach both of them together.

Taking heed of calls this summer to introduce more diversity into one's reading, I had marked down Erin Bow's Sorrow's Knot to be one of my first YA choices once I'd returned to my local public library. Husband and I have had a lot of discussions about appropriation - how does one give existence and a voice to cultures not your own without appropriating them and contributing to ongoing oppression and stereotyping? This interview with Erin Bow about the Native American basis for Sorrow's Knot was really influential for me, and got me really excited to read the book, but I'm afraid it fell somewhat short of my expectations. The world-building was fantastic, and I love Bow's commitment to basing fantasy novels on non-Western European traditions, but the actual execution of Sorrow's Knot was disappointing. It kept the characters at an objective distance, so it was hard to fall in love with them, and the last fourth of the book had some serious flaws (that last few chapters are deeply confusing, not just for me but for many other readers, is not even the extent of the problems).

What's next? I'm halfway through Russell Hoban's Turtle Diary, which I thought would be more about sea turtles and less about lonely individuals explaining deep truths about life, but it's still interesting and hasn't quite crossed the line over to trite (yet?). I have a new set of fantasy stuff from the public library, and I also have Shusaku Endo's Volcano, since I made it one of my reading goals for the year to read another book of his.

I also have a cupful of chocolate mint from the farmer's market this morning, so I think I'm off now for some tea!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Since I returned home from England...

...I've read some wonderful books.

I've been delighted to be back in the land of libraries that let you check things out and my own overflowing to-read shelf, which is supposed to be a single shelf, but is currently two and a bit (taking up valuable space for academic books for dissertation work!) The very first thing I did was pull out what are, for me, quintessential summer reads:

Tove Jansson's Finn Family Moomintroll and The Summer Book - these books span the course of a single (or several) summers, but I originally read both out of season. There was something magical about reading them in the heat and humidity of a North Carolina August, the rocks, rivers, and breezes of island life in the North Atlantic calling me to adventures... Upon re-read, Jansson's prose remains equally fanciful, but the more somber undertones regarding introversion, loneliness, and death came more to the forefront.

I exercised heroic restraint at my first trip back to the public library, coming home with only five books, and I have so far kept to my intention to switch between library sci-fi/fantasy/YA with Viragos off my to-read shelf. It has turned out to be a very refreshing alternation of genres, themes, and reading expectations.

Helen Dunmore's The Tide Knot - I still think Dunmore's idea of mermaids as half-seal instead of half-fish is clever (and the source of husband's and my many arguments about whether mermaids are fish or mammals), as is her conceit that Ingo (Sea) is a neighboring world to Earth and Air, the transition possible only for a few. It's hard for a second book in a series to sustain the fascination of the first, where the magical worlds were first introduced, but this one substituted plot and a terrific action sequence (and some very satisfying, if sad answers to some of the mysteries left open at the end of Ingo) and was reasonably successful in keeping the series interesting. I do plan to read the other three, but my public library doesn't have them (off to ILL!).

Radclyffe Hall's The Unlit Lamp - Possibly the first lesbian fiction I've read, which is a glaring omission considering my desire to read about as many aspects as possible of the woman's experience. I was amazed that though nothing happens in this novel - literally nothing; it's all about how a driven, intelligent young woman ultimately fails in her bid to escape from her stifling home to make a career for herself - I couldn't put it down. It asks hard questions about our responsibilities to other people, especially when those responsibilities prevent us from living our own lives.

Margo Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island - My thoughts on this book are one enormous ball of wonder and awe. Like Franny Billingsley's The Folk Keeper and Chime, Lanagan uses unbelievably beautiful, poetic prose in service of a story based on folklore. This book uses the selkie myth (seals turned into women, forced to marry the man who steals her coat, and who will forsake her husband and children to return to the sea should she ever find that coat) to grapple with questions of sexuality and desire, shame, power dynamics within relationships and within communities, differing responses to the oppression born of systemic patriarchy, agency, and tradition. And more. From multiple perspectives (we hear the narrative through the voices of six very different characters - but, tellingly, never the voice of a seal-maiden herself). Because no one I know has read this book (which will hopefully change as I push it on people), I had to search out other reviews to satisfy my need to hear others converse about this incredible novel; I wanted to share with you my favorites: Ana at Things Mean a Lot and Karyn Silverman at Someday My Printz Will Come.

Katharine Thurston's The Fly on the Wheel - Meh. It's basically The Age of Innocence set in Catholic Ireland, but I didn't care about any of the characters, and her writing was increasingly frustrating, since Thurston felt the need to immediately spell out any symbolism or subtext. I finished it, but have no interest in keeping it.

Next up, Physik (third in the Septimus Heap series).

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Some miscellaneous observations about our life in London

It's hard to find a regular bag of chips (crisps). Most of the time, the bag of chips is filled with six or so smaller, individual-size bags. It's really useful when you're researchers taking bag lunches to the British Library every day, like us! We had to wonder why, though, considering it's really wasteful of the plastic. We think it's for portion control. Those sensible Brits! And I have to laugh, because it really does work. The one normal bag of chips we did buy here in London got eaten almost in its entirety (yes, by me) one night where we weren't really hungry and didn't end up making a real dinner. Oops!

Generally in London, you keep to the left side of the hallway, which makes sense because one also drives on the left side of the road. Except for that one Underground station (Green Park) which asks you to keep to the right for no discernible reason. But at the British Library, stairs are a free-for-all, no doubt because the library is full of scholars of different nationalities. This means that no one knows what side of the stairs to use, and it's kind of a mess especially because the stairs have really sharp corners.

I got through lots of books on the tube, 45 to be exact. I ended up loving the commute for that very reason - it was so relaxing to set aside thoughts of research and read fiction instead. I even quickly picked up the skill of reading my kindle one-handed while standing and holding onto a pole with the other hand. And the bizarre fact that the trains are silent - nobody talks to each other! - meant I could read in peace and quiet.

Washcloths. Why don't they use them? When I asked our hostess if she had one, she looked at me strangely, eventually figured out that I was asking for a "flannel," and looked at me strangely again after I bought a pair at the grocery store because I was using one to wash my face at night and apparently that's a weird thing to do. She came home with what was basically a linen handkerchief for me, which made my nightly face-wash feel very posh.

Radiator in the bathroom? Brilliant idea! The one in our flat doubled as a handy towel rack, and when the flat got cold and the radiator turned on, we had wonderfully warm towels. On the other hand, fewer bathtubs, and there were days when I dearly missed having a bubble bath.

Despite my mother's long-ago warning that Brits don't drink milk and therefore A) don't sell it in large containers and B) don't have refrigerators large enough to hold large containers even if they existed, in fact they do. Whew. I drink a lot of milk out of habit more than anything else these days. It's just a little bit of a hassle to have to carry their large containers (six pints or 3.4 litres, not exactly a gallon, but close, I think) home from the grocery store via the tube.

Peanut butter in England is depressing. It's more like peanut paste: neither sweet nor creamy. One of the first things both of us want to do upon arriving home is eat a spoonful of peanut butter straight from the jar.

Twinings tea, of which I drink a LOT, is very sensibly packaged. Without each tea bag being individually packaged, I contributed far less to landfills. The box of tea bags also made my cupboard smell nice, since the tea was more open to the air. I imagine this makes the tea lose its flavor faster, but since I drink a lot of tea and it's stronger in England anyway, this didn't turn out to be a problem.

Brits call craft beer "real ale," which we quite appreciate because it implies that anything else is "false ale."

Traditional English cider is still, room temperature, and ridiculously alcoholic, which I learned to my detriment one afternoon at the Queen's Head when I eagerly drank a pint without having eaten anything in a while. I ended up with a splitting headache and was no doubt rather silly while we enjoyed a game of cribbage with our drinks. There are so many varieties of cider available at any British pub - I didn't end up having Strongbow once, because there were so many others to try!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

England favorites

We're on the train home from Washington DC - which has internet, how cool is that? - and reminiscing about some of our best-beloved moments this summer. I miss England already, but I'm also really excited to get back home, where we have a weekly farmer's market, many favorite coffee shops, local friends, a writing group, our own bookshelves, and a library that lets you take things home. I'm well behind on posts on our England adventures, but those will come soon and in the meantime we wanted to reflect on some favorites:

Favorite pub: We tried a lot of British beer this summer in a lot of different places, but our favorite by far was the Greenwich Union, which served Meantime beer (all of which was excellent) and the most amazing fish and chips I've ever eaten, bought daily from the local fish market and breaded on-site. Honorable mention goes to The Old Red Cow, just around the corner from our church, which served rarebit on toast and had a fairly impressive and ever-changing beer selection.

Favorite thing we stumbled upon accidentally: For husband, it was the Watts memorial to those who have died saving other peoples' lives, in the same park as the Wesley plaque. For me, it was the Rose theatre. Even though the play we saw there was dreadfully campy, the site itself is so full of history and significance, and it was amazing to see it in this intermediary stage between archaeological dig and public exhibit.

Favorite thing we paid admission for: The Globe, absolutely! We played groundlings with standing tickets for Julius Caesar (just five pounds!). The acting was delightful, the setting was phenomenal, even the costumes were Elizabethan. So much fun. Honorable mention goes to Richard III starring Martin Freeman. We don't really want to compare the two shows, because they were very different in style. Suffice it to say that London is a fantastic place to see Shakespeare.

Favorite place outside London: We had such a wonderful time visiting friends in Nottingham. The company was lovely, and we also saw some historic stuff including the oldest pub in England, and got to share an evening with their church group. We spent an afternoon walking the lake on the campus of University of Nottingham, and thought his lunch spot at a particular bench was absolutely perfect. Honorable mention, for me at least, goes to Coventry Cathedral.

Favorite new English food: Dark chocolate hobnobs, hands-down. We bought probably too many of them this summer, prompting me to start running up and down stairs as extra exercise in the evenings. Husband wishes to give an honorable mention to Haribo's Supermix (gummy candies), while I want to point out that Twinings tea is different in England than anywhere else - they save all the good stuff for themselves.

Favorite church: This is such a hard one - what criteria? Husband's favorite building was St Mary's Bourne Street, because it was a gorgeous brick building (I thought it looked rather like a train station). But our favorite place to attend was, of course, the church at which we quickly settled. St Bartholomew the Great is an old twelfth-century Augustinian monastery. The music, preaching, and liturgy were all beautiful, I got to sing Evensong with the volunteer choir, and we met some wonderful people.

Favorite coffee shop: We found The Coffee Lounge in Woolwich, just across the Thames from our flat and easily accessible via ferry or underground tunnel. It had a great atmosphere, busy enough that it had the proper amount of background noise. Free wi-fi plus great coffee (and the best chai lattes I've perhaps ever had) made it our favorite place to work outside of the British Library. We just wish we'd found it sooner in the summer.

Favorite aspect of English television: English reality shows are much nicer than American ones, in that they don't feature a lot of screaming at the contestants and don't create a lot of artificial tension. This makes them so much more relaxed. English reality cooking shows are quirky and fun and focus more on the food than on the fighting. And because they work with a historical British cuisine to work with, we got to learn about the different cooking styles in different parts of Britain, and we've come home with a number of new regional recipes to try (like Yorkshire parkin).

Favorite English habit: Londoners treat escalators in a very sensible fashion: you stand on the right and walk on the left. It seems like such a small thing, but this shared and recognized standard makes the morning commute really easy and orderly.

Favorite English words: "Proper." And "dodgy."

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


On one of the four days of the conference, Med-Ren took us all to Coventry, where we had the morning to see the city before the paper sessions and a concert in the afternoon. Coventry was deeply moving, and I wished husband had been there to share the experience. Someday we'll go back.

The official reason for our trek to Coventry was to allow all of us scholars of early music to view new-found manuscripts of the anonymous Missa Caput. We not only got to see these up close, but even touch them! (Though I didn't - too nervous of damaging them.) There's a big difference between facsimiles, even really high-quality ones in color, and the real thing.

(Note: I snagged all these photos from the friend I roomed with, with her permission. I'd left my camera with husband, because he planned several adventures in London while I was away. More on those trips of his soon!)

After seeing the manuscript - in carefully-regulated small groups we'd had to sign up for - we had a few hours before the conference resumed after lunch. For me, that meant a cup of tea and a scone with jam and clotted cream at the museum housing the manuscript, and then a visit to three neighboring churches. Coventry isn't very big, but it has so much history packed into a small space.

First we saw Coventry Cathedral, and to be honest, it was by far the most moving experience I've had on this entire trip to England. In this first photo, you can see the old cathedral on the left, and the edge of the new one on the right. Coventry Cathedral was bombed in the Blitz, and almost completely destroyed. But England and its Church are resilient, and a new cathedral was constructed just next to the old one.

The stunning tower survived, with a gift shop now in what was once the narthex:

I don't actually have the words to describe the intense emotions inspired by these empty stained-glass windows.

Here's a closer shot of the altar. Engraved on the wall behind it are the words "Father forgive." Not "Father forgive them" - for England too participated in a war of destruction. Every Friday, this bombed church celebrates a liturgy of peace and reconciliation, and even when it was first destroyed, this cathedral stood as a monument for peace. Iron nails pulled from the wreckage were shaped into crosses and sent to churches all across the globe, including churches in Berlin that had been bombed by England. I was deeply disappointed that despite being there on a Friday, our conference commitments prevented me from attending the liturgy that day.

Practically next door stands Holy Trinity, a church that was left almost unharmed in the Blitz despite its proximity to the cathedral. One of the church staff told us that the vicar had stood on the roof during the bombing in order to knock off any bombs that landed on Holy Trinity, and thus saved the church. I've no idea if this story is true! But I'm glad the church survived. Holy Trinity is really gorgeous.

Holy Trinity is most famous for this "Doom" - a fifteenth-century mural of the Last Judgment. It's well worth seeing in person, especially in conjunction with their leaflet that explains who everyone in the painting is. The church has posted a bit more about their Doom here.

And then next to Holy Trinity is the remains of the twelfth-century priory, which was closed as part of the English Reformation. It was turned into a boy's school in the 1700s, and later the school building was rebuilt in the nineteenth century. That's why part of the wall you can see in this photo has three different layers of stone. The bit we walked through is called the Priory Gardens, the part of the remains open to the public after the archaeological excavations ten and twenty years ago.

After so many beautiful buildings, returning to the conference wasn't a hardship, because the afternoon was held in the beautiful St. Mary's Guildhall, home of the Coventry Tapestry (c. 1500):

Photo credit: found here

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Every other summer, the annual Medieval/Renaissance Music Conference takes place somewhere in England. It was fantastically convenient that this summer was one of them, so I took a week off from my work at the BL in London and headed up to Birmingham, the second-largest city in England. As with the Cambridge trip, husband came along just for the first day, which was really convenient as he helped carry my suitcase from the train station to the very small and hard-to-find hotel.

A word about British hotels: they're nothing like American hotels. Many of them are former houses that have been turned into bed-and-breakfast-style hotels. This unfortunately means the rooms are more like dormitories, with terrible mattresses and bathrooms shared by the whole floor. This one was neat in that it had a sink right in the room - useful for brushing one's teeth! - but I shouldn't have expected it to provide a hair dryer or bar of soap like an American hotel. So after checking in, husband and I set off to buy these items. It was harder than we thought; we stopped at four shops (two pharmacies, an electronics store, and a home-improvement store) before finally finding a small folding travel hairdryer at a grocery store.

Husband has long had a fellow youth minister friend who has been working all over Europe. Since she's currently working just outside Birmingham, we couldn't lose the opportunity to share dinner with her. Husband was delighted to catch up with an old friend, and I was happy to meet a woman about whom I'd heard so much. We saw just a bit of downtown Birmingham on the way to the pub, called the Old Joint Stock, which has a theater inside it and serves great burgers. We very nearly got to tour Birmingham Cathedral, but arrived just as Evening Prayer was ending and the cathedral was closing.

After husband left that evening, I settled in for four days of intense musicology!

Monday, July 28, 2014

St. Bartholomew's Hospital

We've been attending church at St. Bartholomew the Great, which is near St. Paul's Cathedral but on the other side of St. Bartholomew's Hospital:

It's the oldest hospital in London, and was operated by a monastery. In the English Reformation, when monastic institutions were closed, it remained open by special dispensation from Henry VIII because it provided vital medical care for the area.

One day on the way to dinner at a pub we'd noticed and wanted to try (The Old Red Cow, which immediately became one of our favorites because they serve amazing Welsh rarebit), we walked around the hospital in the other direction than we usually do. We saw a couple of really interesting things on the way:

We particularly love the line "the Great Fire which beginning at Pudding Lane was ascribed to the sin of gluttony when not attributed to the Papists." Quite a memorial plaque! There's also an English Reformation-related memorial on the side wall of the hospital, but I didn't snap a photo so I don't remember what it was.

So I wonder how many of my readers are familiar with the more contemporary fame of St. Bartholomew's hospital?

The long-awaited third series takes place two years after Sherlock was seen hurling himself from the roof of St Bart's Hospital, London, in an apparent suicide
Photo credit: found here
 Sherlock jumped off this very building! Here's our photo to commemorate our geekery. We weren't quite clever enough to take the photo at the exact angle that Watson viewed Sherlock's fall.

The coolest bit is the phone booth just below the building (on the left in the above photo), where passers-by have left notes and mementos in support of Sherlock:

The sad ending to this little adventure is this: we happened to walk by this phone booth a few weeks later, and all the notes had been removed. :-(

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Off to Cambridge tomorrow

Now that I've collected about a month's worth of photos and stories, I figured it was time to resume posting! We've done a fair bit of traveling and touristing, but when we're just home, we've enjoyed not doing too much (which has unfortunately included posting on this blog, but I'll remedy that now!). Oh, and poor husband was dreadfully sick for a few days and home with a fever, so that wasn't fun.

Bright and early tomorrow morning, we'll catch a train to Cambridge, where I need to visit two different libraries in order to view a dissertation (Cambridge doesn't really share its dissertations, which I think is a real shame, as it doesn't really enable this scholarship to participate in larger conversations) and a sixteenth-century book (with annotations by the author!). I'll be there for two days, one day for each library just to allow for any delays or problems, or unexpectedly fascinating finds. Because the train tickets are crazy cheap - only 6 pounds each way - husband decided to come along just for the first day. He'll do the sight-seeing while I work in the library, and I very much look forward to his photos and stories. He hopes to see Ridley Hall (the theological school) and the King's College chapel, home of the choir that sings the Evensong broadcast worldwide on Christmas Eve.

So tonight, in between packing and other preparations - you wouldn't believe how many different documents I have to bring so they'll let me into the Cambridge libraries! - I'll write a few blog posts and schedule them over the next several days. Here's a sneak preview of our adventures:
  • Sherlock-related geekery
  • Birmingham
  • Coventry
  • the Royal Artillery Museum
  • a tour of the Bank of England
  • the Tour de France
  • Olympic Park
  • the Greenwich Observatory and the prime meridian
  • Nottingham
  • the V&A Museum
  • Hamley's
  • the Millennium Bridge
  • the Rose Theatre

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mum's visit: Manchester

For the last major adventure of my mum's visit, we headed up to Manchester to visit the family of the woman we're staying with in London. Absolutely wonderful people, amazing house, and a lovely city. Manchester is rather different than London or Oxford. It's full of universities, but it's not quite so much a university town as Oxford, and it's a lot more industrial than London. Our hostess knows all about Manchester's history, and she not only shared stories and took us on a driving tour of the downtown area, but knew just where to take us for some fascinating and fun touristing.

My favorite bit of the trip was a visit to The Lowry, an event center and gallery that showcases the work of English artist L.S. Lowry. Shocked that I'd never heard of him, our hostess was very excited to introduce us to this hugely important figure in English art. I adored him.
In the last few years, I've come to really love art galleries in general, but something about Lowry's work, in many different mediums and in several distinctly different styles, really spoke to me. I could have spent hours there, but unfortunately, there were things to do and places to see, so I had to leave well before I was ready. Lowry is famous for his industrial cityscapes like this one:

but he also did more conventional landscapes as well, like this one:

I brought home a few postcards of various paintings to add to my art collection displayed on my piano - I now have enough favorite pieces of art from museums all across the US (and now England!) that I'll have to rotate them through my five frames.

Most evocative for me, however, were Lowry's"grotesques," odd little distortions like these one below. They remind me strangely of Tove Janssons's Moomintrolls, perhaps Moomins meets Tim Burton.

The Funeral Party, 1953
Girl Seen from the Front, 1964
I spent a long time looking at these strange little people, thinking they could inspire some fiction-writing. Lately, I've been lamenting my lack of creative writing. I read so many novels, but all of my writing is academic, and I feel like I've lost a lot of the imagination I had as a child. I wish I could just start writing, but I feel intimidated and at a loss for ideas. But Lowry's grotesques cry out for backstories, don't they?

From the Lowry museum we headed to the Imperial War Museum, and went up to a little viewing deck where we had a fantastic view, including the river and two gorgeous bridges, the BBC buildings, and even the Manchester United stadium (where we stopped next, so my mum could look for souvenirs at the gift shop). It turns out that leaving the Lowry museum sooner than I'd wanted was a good thing, because the Imperial War Museum was closing soon, and we had far too little time in the exhibits, which focused largely on the experience of individuals and families in this part of the country.

After delicious fish and chips from the local chippy - I'm totally addicted to malt vinegar by now - we all settled in to watch the opening game of the World Cup, with hot cocoa for me, beer for most others, and fudge for all!

The next morning, we walked from the house into the local neighborhood of Didsbury, with shops and restaurants and things. The walk was completely picturesque, the ideal English countryside (complete with really narrow and often muddy lanes). I loved every second of that walk, and husband and I dreamed of a summer spent in just such a place, where we could walk in to a library or coffee shop to do our academic writing, and spend the rest of our time watching baby ducks and playing Pooh-sticks (both of which we did that day).

This excursion into Didsbury was all to humor me: I'd heard of a tea shop with a sizeable secondhand bookshop in the back. Heaven, right? And The Art of Tea was even better than I'd imagined, with a huge tea menu and a bookshop full of classics organized by edition (a book collector's dream). The adults were content to chat over drinks while I browsed, and I confess that they were very patient!

I had a charming conversation with the bookseller: "Name an author, any author," he said, "I promise we have a book by them." "Tove Jansson?" I asked, since I'm just dying to collect the rest of her Moomin books, and her other adult fiction besides my beloved Summer Book is supposed to be equally amazing. The poor man looked quite taken aback, and after I explained that she's a Finnish author, informed me that what he was certain to have was any book by a first-tier author. Hmph. But he was very nice and we went on to have a fun chat about Washington DC. And then he pointed me in the direction of this treasure-trove:

For those who don't know, these distinctive green-spined books are published by Virago. They are almost exclusively high-quality novels by women, and largely the early twentieth-century domestic fiction that I love. I collect Viragos (not indiscriminately, to my husband's relief) and am always on the lookout. They're not impossible to find in the US, but they're not common, and because Virago is an English press I was hoping for exactly this kind of opportunity while I'm here. I've never seen so many green beauties in one bookshop before! I delightedly picked out just five, several of which are war-stories, which felt appropriate considering the previous day's trip to the war museum. Since it's easier to carry around my Kindle on the tube, I plan to save these for the fall (and have a continuing taste of England even when back in North Carolina).

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mum's visit: Oxford

Our extra-London adventures took us throughout the England countryside - we all kept on the lookout for sheep - and the weather couldn't have been better. England's green and pleasant land indeed! I adored my views of those rolling green hills from the window of the rental car. Now I just need to take a train trip across England!

We started off with a trip to Swindon to visit one of mum's school friends. He lives in the most picturesque English neighborhood I could possibly imagine, and to make the experience even better, made me an impromptu steamed pudding when I confessed that I'd never had one and was dying to try it. We then headed up to Oxford, where we stayed for two nights in a quaint little bed and breakfast, giving us a day and a half to roam throughout these streets I'd only ever read about.

Oxford totally rocks. Case in point:

Walking into central Oxford, we happened to spot one of husband's professors across the street! So we ran over to say hello, and ended up parting ways with my mum for a bit. It was funny to see someone from Duke while on our trip here in England! Trying to catch back up with mum, we got distracted by the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and being us, we couldn't help wandering in. Neither of us were quite prepared for what we found inside.

This is the pulpit from which the likes of John Wesley, C.S. Lewis, and John Henry Newman preached, and below it, a memorial to the martyrs of the English Reformation, both Protestants and Catholics alike. I was quite overcome by this unusual recognition that believers of both traditions suffered and died for their faith, and I had to sit down quietly for a few minutes to silently say a prayer for all those who died whose names and stories we don't know.

And then, before we knew it, we had wandered into the courtyard of the Bodleian Library. Have I mentioned that Oxford is truly awesome? The courtyard featured doorways labeled with the subjects of the classical trivium and quadrivium, as well as a few philosophies. Husband proudly recalls that the unlabeled door leading to the divinity school is meant to indicate that theology is the queen of the sciences. 

Though their exhibition room was closed, there was a gorgeous mini exhibit on Wycliffite Bibles, which even had some useful descriptions that could lead to interesting avenues in my research on devotional materials from a century later. And of course, not knowing if we'll get back to Oxford to actually use the Bodleian for research this summer, we took a tour!

Providing me with a splendid opportunity to completely geek out, we found the Eagle and Child ("The Bird and Baby"), the pub where the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and crowd) used to meet on Tuesday mornings to drink and think great thoughts together. I couldn't help taking a bunch of photos:

 This last photo includes the signatures of all the Inklings, and my favorite bit is at the bottom, where J.R.R. Tolkien proudly points out that he is the father of the above Christopher Tolkien.

Finally, we spent a highly pleasant afternoon frequenting St. Philip's Bookstore - a specialist in theology books, though unfortunately, neither of us found any books we couldn't live without - and the Bate Collection of musical instruments. This last was really quirky and fun. They had theremins on display and let us try them out, and we even saw Handel's harpsichord (they think - it's the only one by that maker that survives today, and there's a portrait of Handel containing an instrument that looks very much like this one) and the harpsichord that Haydn played when he visited England. There was also a really interesting cabinet displaying bow-making tools, which will soon be augmented by a researcher with a grant coming to work on this set.

It only enhanced this trip that I'm currently in the middle of a Lord of the Rings re-read. It also made me really want to re-read Philip Pullman's Dark Materials now that I have an actual mental picture of Lyra's Oxford!