All posts for the month August, 2009

The greenhouse

Published August 28, 2009 by Kat

In the last year I have begun to have many dreams that take place in large, beautiful greenhouses. Always in the dream I’m a stranger entering it. It is always tall, with a two-story roof. It is always attached to a lovely house owned by a person I like. It is always planted up as an indoor garden, with paths made of stone, still wet from the daily watering. Decorative trees hang overhead, large potting benches are weighed down with the kind of hand-thrown pots that Tasha Tudor and Martha Stewart brag about. I get the feeling that should I stay till evening, there would be fairy lights strung around. The light in it is green-gray and suggestive of the house it’s connected to; dark polished wood, thick carpets, lovely dark and deep.

In college when I was a biology major, the very best lab days took place in the university greenhouses, and the very best experience I had while volunteering in a laboratory was the day that another student took me with her to do her daily pollen collection from a whole greenhouse full of Easter lilies. What a lovely life it would be, I thought, if I could spend a part of each day pulling the stamens out of these lovely flowers, in the warmth and sunshine and blissful solitude.

The greenhouse is a place where things grow, blossom, fruit, and yes–die and decay. It’s a place where one grows things but without the backbreaking labor of agriculture. It is protected from rain and wind and snow, and also from pests, both to plant and to human. It is place to nourish rare and beautiful things, a place to protect things over the harsh winter, and a place from which to reap colorful, flavorful, deliciously scented rewards. A greenhouse is a private place. A greenhouse is the secret world of its owner, just as much as a walled garden.

The greenhouse is beautiful, elegant, earthy, serene, intimate, exhilarating. I don’t know why I keep dreaming about it or what it means, but I wish I could write exactly the right story to happen in it.


Fall 1999

Published August 26, 2009 by Kat

Ten years ago, in fall of 1999, everything was coming up roses for me. I was starting my second year of college, and so was used to being away from home and living in the dormitories and all of that scary stuff that puts a damper on the first year. I had a fun new roommate to replace the light- and oxygen-sucking one of the year before. I was smart enough to not put my bed on a loft, so the dorm room seemed huge and spacious–and with the roommate’s cheerful red rug and my cheerful flowered bedspread, even pretty. I had changed majors to biology, which was not only a friendlier department but a far more interesting and learnable area for me. I had finally ended a depressing long-term (three years is long-term when you’re nineteen!) and long-distance relationship, and was so young that the prospect of being single was liberating and fun.

In addition to the chemistry and biology and physics I had to take for my major, I took an ancient history class. I had learned to drink coffee the year before, and spent the breaks in between classes happily curled up in cafeterias with bronze age literature, books about mummies, and hot cafe mochas. I had finally broken free from the 90s grunge that defined my style in high school, and started to wear indigo bootcut jeans and rhinestone jewelry and the oh-so-flattering elbow-length shirts that were a New Thing that fall. Every day I wore my oxblood pennyloafers… and I walked and walked and walked. I walked the soles of those loafers in half that year, and bought another pair just like them, which I still have and which I plan to wear extensively this fall.

I was allowed to have a car on campus that year, but parking was so sparse that the only time I dared take it out was early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I would take my Chinese roommate to the oriental grocery, and peruse the aisles with a solemn expression on my face. I discovered mehendi, and got quite good at it. Sometimes I would go to the aquarium store and get oh, so happy watching the fish.

For Christmas that year I got two stellar gadgets: a digital camera, that could hold a grand total of 25 640×480 pictures on its memory card, and a Roxio MP3 player that held about twelve songs. I walked and walked and walked around campus, taking pictures of the trees and leaves and flowers and architecture. Walking around taking pictures is still one of my greatest pleasure in life… I’m so looking forward to moving to a place where that will be worth doing again. That summer I had bought myself an eMachines computer with an omgosh 500 megabyte hard drive. My personal website–hosted for free on university webspace–was a sight to behold, with drifting maple leaves in autumn, falling snow in winter, and dancing coffee beans on the menu.

In the spring I discovered that deep beneath the undergraduate library was a small lounge filled with armchairs and choice literature. I walked all around the periphery of that room, looking at book titles, and the first book I pulled off the shelf was Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Marquez. I read it. I read Love in the Time of Cholera. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Then I found Rushdie, and read Midnight’s Children and Shame and East, West and The Moor’s Last Sigh. I had already discovered Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, but now I found Illywhacker and Jack Maggs. I had already read The English Patient in high school, and now I read In the Skin of a Lion and Anil’s Ghost. I read The Remains of the Day and Tree of Heaven. I read Borges. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon I would buy myself a piece of coffee cake and retreat to that subterranean lounge, always the only inhabitant, always blissfully happy.

So much has changed in those ten years. I am all done with school now. I live in a beautiful house instead of a stuffy dorm room. I can’t tolerate most of those books and authors anymore, sorry. My days are manifestly not my own, my afternoons not free to read or buy mochas and coffee cake or walk and take pictures. I am married. This year, though, I find myself digging out those old oxblood loafers and rhinestone earrings, and wishing that I hadn’t got rid of the indigo jeans and elbow shirts. I find myself wanting to have small adventures… wanting to ramble… wanting to read and learn and feel happy about words. I want to feel that good about myself and life again.

A Lady of Quality

Published August 19, 2009 by Kat

A Lady of Quality

I am going to work my way through my favorites of Frances Hodgson Burnett, and today’s book is her 1896 novel A Lady of Quality. Now: in order to talk about this book I have to spoil it, and really, most of what’s so exciting about this book is the experience of reading it cold, without expectations. So… when you have some time look up the free etext on, linked above, and have a read-through.

I’ll wait.


Stop reading if you don’t want it spoiled.

Okay: I read this book last week and have, since, become more and more excited about it. This isn’t a very famous book of FHB’s, and as an English major who specializes in Victorian literature, I know precisely why. It doesn’t follow the rules of Victorian literature. For a couple of days after I read it, I thought that it was just a badly structured novel. Then I began recalling what I know about novels.

1. They should have a story arc. It does. It follows Clorinda Wildairs from her birth to the securing of her happiness. In this way it is extremely conventional.

2. A good 18th/19th century British novel should follow a sympathetic protagonist from birth to the securing of his or her happiness. Ditto… though the “sympathetic” part may have applied not at all to Victorian ladies, who would have been turned off by… well… everything about Clorinda.

So technically, this is a very good, classic novel. Why does it seem disjointed and badly structured? Because so many things that we expect are going to happen simply don’t–specifically, Clorinda does any number of un-heroine-like things, such as

1. Swearing
2. Cross-dressing
3. Having extramarital sex
4. Marrying for money instead of love
5. Sneering at “good” people
6. Committing manslaughter

After each one of these transgressions we expect her to be punished. For any one of these she is, of course, A BAD PERSON and the Victorian furies ought to be all over her. But they simply never descend. Clorinda is such a lady of quality that she is her own tutor, her own servant, and her own best friend. When the time comes to put away childish things, she does. When she promises to marry someone, she does, even though it immediately becomes inconvenient. When she ought to behave discreetly, respectfully, and demurely, she does. She’s simply so smart that she can handle not only everyone around her, but herself. Unlike every other Victorian heroine, who has an adventure due to her own lack of self-control and forethought (Lizzy Bennett: do hold your tongue dear. Jane Eyre: keep your head on straight you silly nincompoop. Tess: douche), Clorinda handles every difficulty and necessity that comes her way with perfect aplomb. As a result, she is rewarded with perfect bliss.

There is another book by FHB, His Grace of Osmonde, in which FHB re-tells Clorinda’s story from the POV of her eventual husband. FHB loved this character so much that she managed to get two novels from her life story, and with the second, a chance to make up even more fun stories about wild Clo. I am in the middle of it right now, and it is indeed a re-telling of Clo’s story rather than an exciting novel of its own, so I won’t give it its own report… but I do know that it’s there, in case you, like me, are thrilled to death with what should be a gem of a novel for the student of Victoriana. Enjoy!

Emily Fox-Seton

Published August 18, 2009 by Kat

Emily Fox-Seton

Are you a fan of Francis Hodgson Burnett? Did you compulsively re-read A Little Princess and The Secret Garden as a child? Did you come back to them as an adult and find them ten times as enchanting as you remembered? Then you need expand. Burnett wrote even more books that are well worth reading, though they’re not often published today.

Case in point: Emily Fox-Seton. This is a compilation of the long story The Making of a Marchioness and its novel-length sequel The Methods of Lady Walderhurst. These books follow Burnett’s dependable formula in which a sympathetic character is kind to everyone around her and, as a reward, is given a secure, comfortable life. We all like that. The second part of Emily Fox-Seton’s story, though, is an apotheosis of domestic fiction, in which Emily undergoes various heart-tugging problems (made worse by her preposterous modesty) and is made the toy of dastardly villains. It’s a little embarassing to read, but a delightful must for lovers of the genre. Like a car crash, you want to look away, but can’t.

So try this, have some fun with it, and forgive it for being as bad, and delightful, as it is. Hey–all of the links in this post are to FREE texts! W00t!

Finding Tasha Tudor

Published August 14, 2009 by Kat

With all of the Tasha Tudor books that have been coming into the house recently, I have been doing a lot of thinking and wondering about this extraordinary person. I’m afraid that this little blog essay, though respectful, isn’t going to be laudatory, so if you’re a passionately devoted fan you may as well look away…

I have always had the idea that she wasn’t exactly a “nice person”. At her death she had divorced two husbands and, much more tellingly, “estranged” three children. No one can explain exactly what “estranged” means, but it sounds like Bethany may be a bit of a nutcase, Tom wrote letters to her and didn’t hear that they were estranged until her will was read, and Efner saw her and talked to her just weeks before her death. Seth, the one who inherited everything, sounds like a bit of a momma’s boy and every bit the entrepreneur his mother was.

Because she was an entrepreneur. When asked about her painting and the joy that her talent must have given her, she brushed it aside, saying that she painted to pay the bills and wasn’t an artiste. She agreed to have Life Magazine articles and books published about her life for, I am sure and you should be sure, at least 75% financial reasons. Of course an artist who survives on commissions and accepted works wants all of the exposure and notoriety possible.

Tasha Tudor’s world was so extraordinary because it was so nearly complete. It was as close to complete as it could be, in the late twentieth century. And it was so entirely because Tasha, we must assume, was a strong-willed cuss of a woman who didn’t tolerate deviation from the world’s rules. When the “Stillwater movement” gathered–by which I mean the group of artisans who would regularly volunteer their time to help Tasha do her projects–costumes had to be designed for them to wear while they visited her. When her children were growing up she refused to let them wear modern clothes and for the girls to cut their long hair. She was severely critical of her grandchildren when they didn’t adhere to her vision and, of course, of the outside world–whether to add spice to her narratives for the reporters or because the outside world really bothered her, is not for us to know.

An article written after her death, when her children were beginning to squabble over her inheritance, quotes Tom as saying that their childhood was completely unstructured. Tasha would become absorbed in whatever projects she was getting absorbed in and the children were left to run wild; Tom claims that he learned to cook for himself at a very young age. This, too, isn’t surprising to anyone who has read The Private World of Tasha Tudor. At the beginning of this book, which is composed of narrative written by Tasha herself, she explains that when she was nine years old her parents were divorced and she was sent to live with relatives who had absolutely no structure in their house at all–they all stayed up late every night singing, drawing, performing plays, and dreaming dreams. She says that it was the best thing that ever happened to her; that it changed her life. All Tasha was doing was raising her children the same way. Or, one can see that she was a self-absorbed artist, with the kind of selfish immaturity that makes it possible for great artists to become great. Her children, since the interviews I have read were taken when they were all over 60 years old, may very well have loved their unstructured childhood and come to resent it only in their adult years when, like all of us, they imagine and make up what could have been. In any case, their unstructured world was starkly in contrast with 19th century ideals, in which all meals would have been regular, as well as school hours, outdoors time, and bedtime. It’s also in contrast with the claims, in some of the books, that Tasha served tea regularly every afternoon, was found in her rocker by the stove every morning, sat by the fire doing handwork every evening. On the other hand, she did successfully keep goats, which means she milked them regularly. Or maybe her grandsons milked them regularly. We’ll never know.

The books about her are meant to be pat and admiring. Those of us who do some of these “dying arts” ourselves can, in our bad hours, get a little irked by them. Oooooh, Tasha Tudor knits socks on five needles. And? Ooooh, Tasha Tudor is hand-stitching a patchwork quilt, it took her ten years to get to the sewing-together phase! Well let me tell you, she must be working on it about one day a year. Oooooh, Tasha Tudor dips candles! Why on earth isn’t she using a candle mold? Ooooh, Tasha Tudor cards and spins and weaves wool. Come on. We all read blogs written by people who do all of that. Like I said, these are thoughts we have in our bad hours. We’d be better off ignoring the treacly text and just admiring the beautiful pictures (but what’s that, a toe sticking through a hole in a sock? A torn apron? Unfinished hems? Tasha! Really!)

In the end there is no point in criticizing her except to vent spite about our own lives, though. As she said herself, “sometimes I think that people see me through rose-colored lenses… they don’t understand that I am a human being”. Indeed, Tasha, you were human. You were a flawed and sometimes objectionable human. One feels the wheels of a mighty PR machine turning, when one reads books about you. One can see, or imagine, exactly where your flaws lay. And though one may not worship you in your oh-so-human humanity, we still rather like you. You made possible all of those wonderful books–all of those wonderful pictures–the very images of our own childhoods and the dreams of our adulthood. You created a work of art on the largest scale possible: you turned your whole life into a work of art. To do it you had to be selfish and stubborn, but if you hadn’t been, the artistry might very well have gone out of it. As it is, in our best hours and in our needy ones, you’ve given us something we can come to, and dream about, and love, and find comfort in.

Cheers and bottoms up to old Tasha Tudor, everybody. She must have been a grand old dame.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Published August 10, 2009 by Kat

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

This is the second Anne Fadiman book I have finished, and like the first, it is a collection of columns originally written for peridiocals. Unlike At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, these are very short columns indeed, and they are all about words, books, and reading.

Once again, Fadiman is absolutely delightful. As I have said before, I wish that she could have been one of my “ideal friends” in high school or college, and after reading Ex Libris I feel even more so… while At Large and At Small was a collection of didactic, rather pedagogical essays, the chapters in Ex Libris are short and darling. One longs for the literary atmosphere she grew up in and the mental abilities she has as an adult, but admires her for it rather than otherwise. One also, for the first time, begins to appreciate her husband George.

Pick up either this or At Large and At Small or both, and carry them around, and read them in snippets–or all at one go–and enjoy them enormously. I know that I still will; these are the kind of dainties that bear re-reading, and probably re-reading many times.

The BBC 100

Published August 7, 2009 by Kat

BBC believes most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here. How do your reading habits stack up? Instructions: Copy this into your NOTES. Look at the list and put an ‘x’ after those you have read. Tag other “Book Nerds”…

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen X
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte BronteX
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling X
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible-
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily BronteX
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell X
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens X

Total: 6

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy X
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller X
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier X
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien X
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot

Total: 3

21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald X
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy X
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams X
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh X
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky X
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck X
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll X
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame X

Total: 8

31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens X
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis X
34 Emma-Jane Austen X
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen X
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis X
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hossein
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden X
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

Total: 6

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell X
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez X
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery X
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy X
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding X
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

Total: 5

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen X
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafo
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley X
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez X

Total: 3

61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov X
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy X
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie X
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville X

Total: 4

71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens X
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker- X
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett X
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson X
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Inferno – Dante X
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray X

Total: 6

80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker X
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro X
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert X
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White X
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle X
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

Total: 5

91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad X
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery X
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams X
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare X
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Total: 4

Grand Total: 50