Friday, 30 May 2008

The Blind Assassin: Striving for a "Balanced" View

Warning: A few "plot spoilers" may lie ahead . . .

What do we look for in a "classic" book? What criteria should be used to judge a novel as Booker prize worthy?

As I was reading The Blind Assassin, I held it to a high standard. If my comments on this book seem harsh and unfair, please allow that I was expecting rather a lot from it. It wasn't just light entertainment -- it was a contender for the "Best of the Bookers!" Implicit in this judgment, I think, is that such a book is not only well-written . . . but that it has qualities which make it timeless and universal. I really do believe that the very best books can be read over and over again, with just as much pleasure, and even more understanding -- or rather a "different" understanding as the reader matures.

Perhaps I do need to read The Blind Assassin again, because I think that the effort of trying to work out how it all fitted together perhaps detracted from my ability to immerse myself in the story. But do I want to read it again? (Not really.)
Here are a few more things that I think about the book:

  • The science-fiction narrative was a bit gimmicky. I don't think it added to the book; it felt more like Atwood trying to be "clever."
  • It annoyed me that Iris and Alex's relationship was so opaque.
  • I didn't believe in the character of Laura. She didn't seem like a real person, and I didn't feel there was much bond between the two sisters.
  • I realize that Iris felt that Laura had been entrusted to her care. I see that the "blind assassin" from the internal science fiction narrative was both victim and tool -- as Iris perceived herself to be -- but I think that the word "assassin" is entirely too melodramatic for what actually took place. In the final scene between the sisters, Laura seems much stronger than the sleep-walking, rather colorless Iris. Also, why would Laura have killed herself at that point? I feel like the book blanked out, or muffled, all of the emotion.
  • For all of the "revelations" made by the elderly Iris, I felt like we had been given some of the pieces of a puzzle -- but that it still didn't really form a coherent picture.
  • The book seemed more like an exercise in the construction of narrative than anything else. It lacked emotional impact, even though there were highly emotive incidents in it.

Feel free to disagree with me!

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

A General Forum on The Blind Assassin

Yesterday the weather was gray and the mood around here was melancholy. Big daughter was in Spain, playing in the sunshine. Sigmund was in Rotterdam, for the usual "meetings." Little daughter and I were stuck at home.

Little daughter was in a funk as she had lots of "revision" for her upcoming exams. (Brief aside: "revision" is the English word for homework. The word bugs me, as it is not very accurate. Really, it should be called "memorization.")

When you are depressed, and the weather is off-putting, and you have way too much homework, there is an obvious solution: Procrastinate by making a big bowl of popcorn and watching a well-loved movie! Little Women was the movie of choice, and it was so good that we watched our favorite bits at least twice!

Even though I've read the book at least a dozen times, and watched the movie almost as many, the story can still work its magic on me. I'm on the verge of blubbing at least four or five times, and I enjoy watching the story unfold -- even though I know what's going to happen. In this particular version, there is the added bonus of Gabriel Byrne as Friedrich Bhaer -- even though I know that he is really too good-looking for the role. (Another aside: Although it doesn't exist in the book, I cannot help swooning at the scene in the movie when Jo and Mr. Bhaer visit the opera together. He translates the following words for her, making it obvious from his intense gaze that they have personal meaning: Your heart understood mine. In the depth of the fragrant night, I listened with ravished soul to your beloved voice. Your heart understood mine. I put it to you: Can you think of any words more beautiful or romantic?)

So you may be thinking . . . I thought that this was going to be about The Blind Assassin? And what the heck do these two works of fiction have in common? Well, I can think of two things at least: they are both about sisters, and they both have a war lurking in the background. Of course there are lots of differences, too -- but here's the big one for me: the characters in Little Women are like real people to me, and I care about them. Laura and Iris from The Blind Assassin? Well, I never really could believe in them.

A characterological reading of a story -- or, understanding a story through identification with the characters -- is a pretty unsophisticated way to read a book. And yet, when I think about the books that I really, truly love I have to admit that the characters do play a huge role in making the story seem alive, seem real, seem relevant.

So many dead people at the beginning of The Blind Assassin -- and yet, the process of "solving" the mystery of their deaths did not make them seem one jot more real or alive to me. I kept waiting for the story to "start;" but now I see that I waiting for the moment when I felt truly engaged. My final analysis: I enjoyed it in parts; I admired the writing; but I always retained a feeling of distance, of detachment -- at times, even of disinterest.

I would really like to know what the rest of the "Assassin" readers think.

I also want to examine these questions:
Did the science fiction narrative serve any true purpose in the story?
Is the title a good one?
Did everyone guess that the different narrative voices were actually all the same person?

And whatever else you want to talk about, of course.

Monday, 26 May 2008

On the thorns of a dilemma

I'm always interested in what people choose to comment on. In a recent post, where I ranged far and wide over topics as diverse as what I ate for lunch and the Yemeni population explosion, several of you picked up on my stymied efforts to order roses from the David Austin website.

For weeks I had pored over my David Austin catalogue, finally settling on a short list: Penelope for the hedge, Malvern Hills to arch above it as a climber, The Generous Gardener as a climber for either side of the porch, Jubilee Celebration for the small bed that I can see from the laundry room, and William Shakespeare for the large "cottage-style" bed at the foot of the garden. As I needed a fairly large quantity of roses, it only made sense to order them off the website; and I will admit to feeling rather pleased with myself as I (more or less) quickly dispatched this task.

But then, to my dismay . . . I received the dreaded email receipt, informing me that my roses would arrive in November. NOVEMBER?? Apparently, I've missed this year's bare root season -- otherwise known as the most economical way to buy roses. A phone call to the David Austin premises in Shropshire yielded even more distressing information. I could buy POTTED roses at twice the price (and packaging), but many of my requests weren't even available.

Sinking heart . . . thwarted gardening ambitions . . . what to do?
Philosophical Question: Is it better to wait for what you really want? Or to compromise, and learn to like something else that you can get immediately?

Sadly, patience is a virtue in short supply around here. Once I had made up my mind, I wanted there to be a very short time gap between ordering these roses and seeing them bloom in my garden. So I decided to shop around. I visited three garden centres and one proper nursery, but didn't manage to procure much. I picked up three Penelopes, but I needed six more. I saw a few less than stellar specimens of William Shakespeare, and a few others of Falstaff -- who closely resembles his maker -- but still felt hesitant. I thought about mixing in some of The Dark Lady, but was put off by her liking for a more mediteranean-type climate. I didn't want my dark lady to languish in this clammy land of the hit-and-miss sun.

Happily, obstinance is a quality that I can summon at will and I refused to be defeated by the slim pickings in West Berkshire. I decided that I wouldn't give up my rose quest without first making the pilgrimage to Burford Garden Company -- garden centre nonpareil.

The fact that Burford is a favorite little village of mine was neither here nor there, of course. About 20 miles west of Oxford, Burford is just on the outer edge of the Cotswolds -- and about an hour's drive from where we live. My family has been going there for more than 10 years, and we have established a ritual something along these lines: feed the ducks on the Windrush river, eat lunch at Huffkins, visit the old-fashioned sweet shop, and perhaps a bit of shopping if the children are willing. Burford is good for country-style clothing, antiques, and the sort of decorative item that no one really needs. (Frankly, it is probably only the tourists who shop there.) We go to Burford to soak up the atmosphere -- the steep streets, the ancient leaning stone buildings, the glimpses of beautiful private gardens. Burford looks the way that England is supposed to look, and I suppose that I'm still susceptible to that kind of charm.

Here is a glimpse into my modus operandi: Not wanting to plant-shop on an empty stomach, I decided to visit Huffkins for some fortification. Not having brought something to read, I decided to make a quick detour to the Red Lion Bookshop. (I don't mind eating alone, but only if I have reading material!) Not having enough cash to buy a book and lunch, I decided to get three books -- you know, in order to justify putting it on the credit card. Also, I always like to support an independent bookshop. By the by, isn't it lovely when self-interest and altruism have a common goal?

Since I was in a quintessential English town, I decided to match subject to environment: and thus departed with The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson, Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes, and The Bolter by Frances Osborne. I dipped into The Bolter during lunch, and it is delicious, gossipy stuff. Licentious English aristocrats running amok. Thank goodness I am nearly finished with my long liason with Atwood, because I'm ready for a quick fling.

My justification is this: Even if I didn't find my roses, at least I didn't waste my day, right?

But as luck and Ethel Merman would have it, "Everything's coming up roses . . ."
I actually managed to find ALL of the roses I wanted at the Burford Garden Company. I suppose that's why, if you believe your Wikipedia, all of the *stars* shop there.

Once again, that vital combination of impatience and persistence has been rewarded. Nor was I put off by the bad weather . . . so determined was I to get my roses into the ground where they could really start flourishing.

Now does anyone have any tips for getting roses to grow faster?

On Top of the World

As requested, a "piccie!"
(But sadly, not a very impressive one.)
Here are the Walking Partner and I on top of Uffington Castle on the Ridgeway.

Am I missing something? I thought that the "castle" bit was the stone remnant that we are almost completely blocking . . . despite the fact that neither of us is taller than 5"6. Please tell me if I'm being dim-witted.

One funny thing about this picture is the difference in our walking garb.
Check out the English person with her shorts and sleeveless top.
Note how the native Texan has not yet found it necessary (despite having covered more than 12 miles at this point) to remove her red fleece!!

Sunday, 25 May 2008


After spending many messy, muddy hours in my garden this morning, I realized that it was nearly 3 pm . . . and that I would have to motor in order to get to the grocery store before the end of Sunday trading hours. Although I did change out of my extremely muddy clothes and wellies, I was wearing no make-up and had my semi-dirty hair scraped back into a skimpy ponytail.

Just a mere two years ago, it would have been inconceivable for me to appear in public looking so au natural (ie, scruffy). It suddenly struck me that there are various signs indicating that I am beginning to go native . . . and blend into my new habitat.

  • I have dirty wellies in the boot of my car.
  • It doesn't seem like a Sunday if we don't have roast dinner.
  • I cannot get going in the morning without two cups of tea.
  • I would rather have some antique garden urns than new clothes.
  • I was discovered clipping out information on the opening times of local gardens who are participating in the National Gardens Scheme.
  • I am becoming *somewhat* impervious to the vagaries and extremities of English weather . . . for example:
  • I stayed outside until after 9 pm last night, even though it was cold and extremely windy -- all because I was determined to finish planting my new rose hedge.
  • Even more shocking: I was gardening all morning, even though it was raining off and on, and even though I have at least three good books which I am hot to read.
  • Finally, I actually have dirt under my fingernails!

Will this gardening craze prove permanent, or it just a passing fancy? Who will predict? But stay tuned for the next installment in my rose dilemma.

I need to go plant some bay trees now.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Walk the Walk

(Frankly, I think that I'd rather talk the talk.)

Some of you are aware that I've been training for the Moonwalk for a couple of months now. Back in the fall, my walking partner suggested that we commit ourselves to this physical challenge -- and, oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Several friends of mine have had breast cancer, and one dear friend recently died from it. So despite the fact that I tend to think of 4 or 5 miles as plenty of exercise, I had a blithe belief that I was going to be able to walk 26.2 miles for Breast Cancer Research. I didn't really stop to add up how many hours of walking that actually is . . . or how many hours I would have to walk before I was ready to take on the big event.

Well, friends, today I walked for FIVE HOURS . . . and I was reminded, once again, why I have a moderate disposition when it comes to pretty much anything.

One hour of exercise per day is a good thing: it gives you a shot of endorphins, it tones your body and mind, and it enables some excesses when it comes to baked goods. Two hours of walking is fine; three is okay; at four, I start getting weary; but after five hours I am sore in all kinds of places, I need to go to the bathroom, my bottle of water is only a distant memory, and I am very, very bored of walking. Even if the scenery is beautiful -- and believe me, we had some beautiful scenery -- I grow immune to its charms. Five hours of anything is just too much. If you can do anything for five hours, and not get a little fretful, please let me know.

Luckily, I have a good walking partner -- and not only does this person understand that she has to be firm with me, and listen to a fair amount of whining from my corner, but as an extra bit of cajolery, she also plans interesting routes for us to walk. Today, we walked along the Ridgeway -- more than 80 miles of "ancient chalk ridge," which is thought to be the oldest "road" in Great Britain. By "road," think chalky, rocky path -- most of which seems to be going uphill, although I know that's an impossibility. There is an "upside" to walking uphill, though, and in this case it is a stunning view of great yellow and green swathes of Oxfordshire countryside. The whole country looks like a living, blooming quilt. At the highest point, we visited the ancient ruins of Uffington Castle -- not much to look at now, but rather awe-inspiring to think how long it has stood in that place. As with many ancient places, a strong, chilling breeze seemed to blow there . . . but perhaps it was just that high plateau, catching the winds.

In all of those hours of walking, we saw only three other humans -- but lots and lots of wildlife. We skirted the edges of Lambourn, serious horse country, and from our perch we could see several pairs of horses at a full gallop. We crossed through Sheepdrove Organic Farm (check out the interactive farm map) -- and saw hundreds of what must be the most contented sheep on the planet. These sheep were the very definition of fat and happy; all of them either lounging or lazily munching on the soft, emerald-green grass. We walked down woodland paths, and byways for horses and cattle, and grassy tracks that the wild flowers and cow parsley were doing their best to reclaim. We walked and walked, for once not having to dodge cars and transit vans which are our usual companions of the road. (It was a little hard on the ankles, though.)

As far as the eye can see, for miles and miles, there is nothing but carefully tended farmland and the protected downland. It is truly stirring to think how little the land has altered in the centuries, and that the ancient Saxons had trod the same paths -- although not with the same purpose!

It was, indeed, a beautiful walk . . . and I would be happy to do it again. However, on the next occasion I will limit the walk to 5 or so miles -- and make sure that my route deadends at that nice pub in East Hendred.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Some of Various Things

Janey, over at Whittering On, invited me to play along with the Various Things Meme which has been doing the rounds in the blogosphere. It didn't take much to persuade me . . . as it is easy enough to relate what I did today (not much), and who doesn't enjoy the opportunity to improve the world with a billion dollars of hypothetical money?

However, since I can't prepare any recipe without making alterations, I am allowing myself the liberty of editing this meme to suit myself. (If you want to see the original format, plus read some good stuff, you will have to visit Janey.)

First, the prosaic part-- also known as "my life:"
(and since the day is almost over, I've included some commentary on if and how I accomplished these mighty tasks.)

What are six things on your to-do list for today (not in any particular order):

  1. Walk. I did walk 6 miles today -- a rather minor walk for me now that I'm "training." I walked with someone new, and that was fun because I could quiz her on her life story -- which was part "Hideous Kinky" (without the illustrious father), and part "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," only set in an economically depressed part of Wales.

  2. Order roses. I spent about an hour on the David Austin website, only to discover upon email receipt that my roses aren't going to be delivered until NOVEMBER! Being the impatient sort, I was pretty much expecting them on Thursday -- so this is quite a blow. I am now in a quandary -- and wondering if I should run around finding bits and pieces of what I want, drive to the David Austin nursery in Wolverhampton (also the ancestral home of the great Nigel Slater, and not exactly close to us), or just settle in and wait until the next growing season.

  3. Have lunch with a friend. I enjoyed a delightful lunch (goat cheese, tomato and rocket baguette) at this pub. Topics included 40th birthday parties, ex-husbands and new husbands, educational dilemmas, the trials of living with adolescent girls, and our daughters' upcoming trip to Spain -- the ostensible purpose for the lunch.

  4. Tutor JC. The mother left JC's spelling homework for "us" to complete -- the accomplishment of which led me to conclude that my assistance is well-worth every pound she pays me. We finished up with two stories and a little bit of digging in the garden -- activities much better suited to JC's interests and talents.

  5. Design invitation for upcoming charity fundraiser. This has been put off -- again -- for tomorrow.

  6. Make quiche lorraine and a pavlova. As our shelves are beginning to runneth over with the bounty from our chickens, my youngest daughter proposed an egg-rich dinner menu. Both recipes came from Tamasin Day-Lewis's Kitchen Bible -- a cookbook I heartily recommend to anyone who wants dependable recipes for the English classics.

And now for the unlikely scenario called: What would you do if you were a billionaire?

Janey mentioned that this particular fantasy is something of a mental preoccupation with her, but I've given little to no thought to it. If I'm honest, I think that I don't fantasize about having more money because I've already reached my level of comfort with tolerable ratio of guilt -- which means not having to worry about paying my bills. My husband would groan if he read this, as he is the person who worries about the bills . . . but without being totally obnoxious, what I mean is that I really don't aspire to anything (bigger house, fancier car, designer handbags) that would require a bigger infusion of money. I feel very lucky and blessed to have a nice house AND a savings account. I'm good.

I actually think that having too much money tends to ruin people, so I suppose that I would tend to aim for "security," rather than luxury, when it came to bequests for family and friends. I would like to give my children enough money to pay for college, buy a first (modest) car, and put a down-payment on a home . . . but not enough to live an idle, dissipated lifestyle!

Have you noticed how a billion dollars can go awfully far when you think of spending it on your family, particularly if you have no taste for private planes or yachts, but doesn't seem like much when applied to huge international needs?

Not long ago, I read an article about the culture of giving in the UK. Apparently, charities which help animals or raise funds for cancer research/support do really well, but other sorts of charities really struggle for a piece of the public's interest. I remember, in particular, that shelters for domestic abuse have a difficult time raising funds. It just stuck in my mind, as sometimes things do, that retired donkeys are a more popular cause than battered women.

Therefore, if I fall into a billion dollar honeypot I would like to set up some shelters for women . . . and include a scholarship component to train and/or educate women to be able to take care of themselves. I know that there are many reasons why women don't/can't break away from abusive relationships, but those financial fetters (not to mention illiteracy) are still such a major barrier to independence.

Speaking of female empowerment issues, I just read a horrifying account of life in Yemen titled Is this the worst place on earth to be a woman? (Observer Woman, May 2008). Apparently, female illiteracy rates are around 71 per cent in Yemen -- and women are denied almost all citizenship rights. Crippling poverty and a lack of access to healthcare complete the ugly picture. In one of those interesting coincidences, Lionel Shriver also cited Yemen in her recent article on the population explosion in the third world. Despite the fact that it is "one of the least developed countries in the world," (Cooke, OW, p. 48) Yemen's population is booming. Hmmmm . . . see the connection? So despite the fact that there are very high maternal mortality rates, complicated by the fact that very young girls are made to wed, the babies just keep coming.

Not to be a goody-goody or anything, but it would make me feel guilty to be wishing for more, more, more. Everything about my day provides ironic contrast to all of the women who have so little, and I realize that. I know that it doesn't do much good to wear a hair shirt, but we needn't be so greedy, either.

Saturday, 17 May 2008


Way back in 1993, I realized that Americans and the English don't use the word "jaded" in the same way.

"I feel so jaded," said an English friend of mine, and since we were feeling exceptionally fragile from a late night (you may infer that excessive amounts of rich food and alcohol were involved), I realized that she was using "jaded" to refer to her physical state of being. Worn-out; weary; fatigued. At the time, I didn't realize that jaded could mean physical weariness -- so I assumed that she had used the word incorrectly. However, after many years of consorting with hung-over English persons, I began to realize that this is standard usage.

Americans, however, tend to use "jaded" as a way of referring to their mental or emotional state. We feel "jaded" when we are world-weary. It can take two forms, really -- one being cynicism, and the other being a sort of dullness or insensitivity brought on by a surfeit of indulgent experience. They are slightly different meanings, actually, but they tend go together -- or at least they both reside on the same side of the emotional spectrum, directly opposite of optimism and innocence. F. Scott Fitzgerald's fictional world always comes to mind when I think of the word "jaded." He was the master when it came to describing the brittle world of "been there, done that, yawn."

Today I am feeling like both kinds of jaded.

Last night was a late one, as I had driven up north of London to attend the annual awards dinner for Sigmund's company. I find these occasions incredibly wearing: all of the polite small talk with total strangers, exacerbated by the need to be charming lest my husband be judged by his work colleagues (not to mention his boss) as having a boring wife. It is a personal sickness of mine to feel that I singlehandedly have to keep the conversation going and draw out the wallflowers. (When I "overheard" a series of sickly silences at a neighboring table, it was all I could do to restrain myself from immediately going over to them and trying to kickstart the conversation.) Perhaps because of my inability to just "chill" in social situations, I get quite worn out if we've been out too much. Throw in the drinks, the lack of sleep, and the early morning dash across four counties to collect my daughter from Saturday school, and it all adds up to me feeling much the worse for wear.

When I am feeling listless and headachy, as I was this afternoon, I like to do a bit of reading. Cookbooks, rose catalogs or magazines are usually the best thing for me when I am under the weather; unfortunately, rather than choosing any of these lighter options, I decided to catch up with some "hard" news. In retrospect, I would say that reading the Saturday newspaper when you are physically jaded is bound to make you feel mentally jaded as well. There are a lot of sad, depressing, anxiety-making things going on in the world, and I think that it is probably better to confront these challenges when one is in robust health.

Last night I was sitting by a Nigerian man, and he felt moved to defend his country to me -- although I certainly wouldn't have dreamed of criticizing it to him! He spoke passionately about the intelligence, determination, and resilience of his people -- and also of their many accomplishments. He claimed that Nigeria's only real problem was that it was governed by bad, corrupt people. The thought of his country's leaders, with their personal greed and their callous disregard of the needs of their people, caused him to shake his head morosely. What could he say to that? And what could I say to him? Why can't human beings seem to make any moral advancements? We couldn't answer this question.

There are so many examples of truly vile leadership in the world that it is difficult to not feel jaded about any equation that includes people, money and power.

I don't often talk of the wider world in this blog, but I am feeling really down about the tragic chaos going on in Burma and China. The sheer numbers involved in the horror almost make it more difficult to conceive. Of course, what is so depressing about both tragedies is that they are being made so much worse by various forms of cupidity and stupidity. Burma's rulers, in particular, are acting so inhumanely to their people that it beggars belief.

As I read the newspaper, it was impossible to ignore the pleas of various aid agencies to donate money toward the relief effort. Should I send money? I am in two minds about it. Because although I feel compassion for the people afflicted, I can't help but feel cynical about pouring my money into that endlessly needy maw. How little of our money ever gets to the people who need it, and how much of it is either wasted in bureaucracy or used to line the pockets of various profiteers?

It is so difficult to figure out how to be a decent citizen of this world. It isn't surprising, I suppose, that most people just opt for self-interest -- or the concerns and needs of their own little patch. Hopefully it won't last long, but I'm feeling awfully jaded right now.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Gardener's Hour

I was walking through someone’s beautiful garden yesterday and I suddenly had an epiphany: I am becoming a gardening enthusiast.

Where I used to be a person who would vaguely register “purple flower,” I am now a person who knows the difference between an “allium” and an “agapanthus,” and even realizes that they are plants suitable to a herbaceous border. Slowly, gradually, I have learned to recognize dozens of English plants and flowers. If I knew them before, it was only in a storybook way: “hollyhocks,” “lamb’s ears,” “dahlias,” “catmint,” “delphiniums,” “lupins,” “sweet peas.” Somehow I have crossed over from a person who loved reading The Secret Garden, to a person who wants a secret garden. I was thrilled when my peonies recently started blooming, and visiting the garden center for a plant shopping binge has been the highlight of my week. Believe me, it hasn’t always been this way.

I don’t remember a lot of flowers in Central Texas, where I grew up – only the rather boring, hardy varieties like pansies and marigolds. One suited to the mild winters; one suited to the arid summers. Bland, ubiquitous flowers. We had “lawns” of thick, coarse St. Augustine grass instead. Maybe some trees and a few shrubs.

A lawn is serviceable; it is frontage for your house; it is something that has to be mown and edged frequently. If you do take pride in it, it is because of the rigorous neatness, the vigorous greenness, the vanquished weeds.

A “garden” is something entirely different.

A garden is a creative enterprise; an aesthetic statement; a revealing form of self-expression. It is a constantly evolving project – full of delight, surprise and heartbreak. It may take years, even decades, of plotting and shaping; yet it can change overnight. A garden resists the control of even the most masterful hand, as it is constantly subject to weather vagaries and the self-seeding propensity of so many plants. It is never “done,” but always a work in progress. A garden is cyclical – and therefore, a source of ever-renewable small pleasures. I will be sad to see the wisteria, clematis and peonies fade with the end of May, but by June the roses will start blooming.

Many keen gardeners have a flower that they are particularly passionate about – and for me, that flower is the rose. The David Austin Handbook of Roses is like horticultural porn: seductive and highly thrilling. I drool over the descriptions, lingering lovingly over: “exquisite little buds,” “good, bushy growth,” “light musk rose perfume with a hint of myrrh,” “luxuriant healthy foliage,” and “richest velvety crimson.” Each rose is almost more beautiful than the last – and there are hundreds of them. I know that I can’t have them all, but I can still have lots. I fantasize over them, making wish lists. I like the old roses the best; the peony-like ones, with proper rose fragrance.

Being a word lover, I also love roses for their names. No doubt “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but I can’t help believe that there is something in a name. “Alan Titchmarsh” and “Eglantyne” are both beautiful pink roses – but which one would you rather have?

I have no problem confessing that I get a strange satisfaction from rose names – both the beautiful and the quirky. I know that proper gardeners learn the Latin names of their plants, but I would so much rather have a “Falstaff” rose or a “Shropshire Lass.” When I was choosing a pale apricot rose to mix in with some lavender and purple salvia I could have gone for “Abraham Darby” or “Evelyn” or “Pat Austin” – but when I spotted the “Ambridge” rose, I knew that I had to have that one for Sigmund. (English readers will recognize “Ambridge” as the village in which “The Archers” – a long-running radio drama that Sigmund is devoted to -- is set.) Although I picked “The Pilgrim” for its delicate yellow blooms and strong climbing prowess, I still delighted in its American overtones. (I hope that it will be a vigorous adventurer, swiftly conquering the ugly garage wall it has been trained against.) “The Generous Gardener,” a pale satin slipper pink, will hopefully bring good luck in the new border. “Celsiana” and “Penelope” will be massed against the side fence. Old English names, like “Glamis Castle” and “Winchester Cathedral,” are mixed in with my herbs. At some point, I just know that I will have to establish my Poet’s Corner for roses: with “Jane Austen,” “William Shakespeare, “The Dark Lady,” “Thomas Hardy,” “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and so many others to choose from.

Gardens really are about putting down roots. Because a garden can take years to properly establish, it is a long-term vision – an investment in the future. In July, we will have lived in this house for two years – nearly a record for our family. Even though we have spent nearly all of that two years renovating our house, I still think that I could happily “up sticks” if the right adventure presented itself. A house is a house. (And besides, I really need a bigger kitchen.) We have lived in lots of houses, but this is our first real garden. I can imagine that with a few more years of putting down roses, I may not ever want to leave.

After two weeks of glorious sunny weather, what I have come to think of as “default English weather” has returned: 50 degrees, damp, gray, soft, misty. I know that my newfound gardening outlook is starting to change me, because my first thought was thank goodness it’s raining, because the garden needs a good soak!

Monday, 12 May 2008

Best of the Bookers: The Short List

The "official" judges have spoken, and here is their short list:

Pat Barker's The Ghost Road (1995, Viking; paperback Penguin)

Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (1988, Faber & Faber; paperback Faber)

JM Coetzee's Disgrace (1999, Secker & Warburg; paperback Vintage)

JG Farrell's The Seige of Krishnapur (1973, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, paperback Phoenix)

Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist (1974, Cape; paperback Bloomsbury)

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981, Cape; paperback Vintage)

Read here if you want the official press release!

Just when I think Sigmund's not paying attention, he always pulls a fast one on me.

Tonight, as I was making chicken and leek pie (Jamie Oliver's recipe, highly recommended), Sigmund tuned in Radio 4 and bade me to listen up for the evening's commentary on the just-released Short List for the Best of the Booker awards. Radio 4 has a regular Arts/Entertainment program called Front Row, and if you go to their website you can utilize the Listen Again option -- and in most of our cases, listen to it for the first time. (I have helpfully provided the direct link -- just scroll down past the Boleyn girls and Doris Lessing.) If you want to skip the program, I will happily provide the following summary:

  • A.S. Byatt's Possession is a surprise no-show. Considered highly "influential," and shouldn't that be a characteristic of the "best?" (No final conclusion.)
  • Midnight's Children highly likely to win. Much cackling at Rushdie's recent bad reviews for his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence. Isn't it ironic? cackle, cackle
  • Maybe non-winners, like Atonement, should have been considered. After all, occasionally the winner is considered a duffer.
  • Coetzee should win, says the man with the muffled voice that I had turn the volume up in order to hear.
  • No new books! Disgrace is the most recent winner (1999).
  • A few unexpected choices!
  • Doris Lessing never won the Booker, and here she won the Nobel! (slightly off-topic comment, which nevertheless underlines the rather arbitrary nature of picking "best" books.)

And now for my commentary. My first thought, of course, is: Why the heck have I been wasting so much effort on The Blind Assassin? And my second thought, naturally, is: Even though it's a miserable book, I can see why the judges fancy Disgrace. After reading Atwood, for oh these many days, I am feeling like her details get in the way of her story. Does anyone else think she's a bit of a show-off? Yes, she's clever; and I've had enough already. Is this story a universal one? Does it have timeless themes? Does it seem to contain more than it actually tells us? (I would argue that it tells us more than it seems to contain.) While Atwood tap-dances around, reading Coetzee is rather like watching Gene Kelly dance. He is so graceful, strong, and economical; he just makes it look easy.

As for the rest of the short list: Well, Rushdie was expected -- and he's next up to bat for me.

Oscar and Lucinda I've read, and if I have time I might read it again. It's a cheat, but the movie -- with Cate Blanchett, Ralph Fiennes, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson -- is also an attractive option! Or, let's do both and then have the fun of comparing them!

I'm entirely ignorant of the others, but I will probably get to Gordimer first -- partly because she's the only female author on the list, and partly because I'd like to see how her South African themes compare to Coetzee's.

I'm feeling a little put off by the word "seige," and The Ghost Road is a wartime novel, too. I hope that Rushdie is funny -- because apparently the great novels are a little short on humor/humour. Has anyone read either of these? Heartease, we need you now!


Last word -- for now, at any rate:

We've got until July 8 to read these books and cast our votes!!

Friday, 9 May 2008

I'm So Jammy*

*Jammy: Brit slang lucky: jammy so-and-sos!
Collins Essential English Dictionary 2nd Edition 2006

I've always believed that good things come to people who frequent bookstores.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at my local Border's and I noticed a flyer for a "Meet the Author" series at a local hotel. The author in question happened to be Jay Rayner, the Observer's restaurant critic, and a writer who I read on a weekly basis. Rayner has a new book out -- The Man Who Ate The World -- and I had just read a really entertaining excerpt from this very book in a recent edition of the paper. I remembered his description of dining alone in a restaurant for the first time (at 11) and ordering escargots, and also some anecdotes about the important role of food in his family life. His writing has a lot of humour and mockery in it (self-deprecating and otherwise), and these are qualities that I always appreciate! A funny foodie: who could be better company?

Rayner's mother is Claire Rayner -- a well-known journalist and "agony aunt" who has been a kind of "Jewish mother" to the English reading public for many years. In the first chapter of his book, titled "I Want Proper Dinner," he orients the reader to the family table.

"I always said that culturally I was only a Jew by food, and it's true that there was no room at the Rayner house for ritual or faith. The Jewish God was far too picky an eater to be given space at our table. Forego sausages and bacon? Reject shellfish and cheeseburgers, all in the name of mumbo-jumbo? Don't be ridiculous.

Yet there was, I think, something fundamentally Jewish about our way with food: the noisiness of the dinner table, the stomach-aching generosity, the deep comfort we sought from it. Food was what we did." (Rayner, p. 8)

The flyer made the special "evening" sound irresistible: key words included "champagne," "delicious three-course dinner" and the real clincher -- "a copy of The Man Who Ate the World to take away with you." I figured that even if the dinner and entertainment were a bust, I would still have the BOOK! Plus, I had vowed only recently to avail myself of the local cultural scene -- when and where I could find it. For insurance purposes, we invited two close friends who we rarely get to see because of distance and scheduling difficulties. Sometimes strangers at the table make good company . . . but sometimes they don't.

So here comes the jammy bit: out of a crowd of say, 100, we somehow lucked into being sat at the equivalent of the "head table." On my right was the manager of the hotel -- a charming, kind man whose presence ensured that our wine glasses were constantly being topped up. On the other side of him was Jay Rayner -- the man of the evening. On Rayner's right was an older woman -- all grandma on the top half, but with noticeably sexy parrot-green shoes. She turned out to be a food writer and editor with much wisdom and experience -- and lots of interesting things to say. Her husband had a delightfully sharp tongue, and I particularly remember him tut-tutting Rayner when he named The Fat Duck as his favorite UK restaurant. (Don't you know that restaurant critics always get this question?) Thus ensued a lively table debate on the merits of the Heston Blumenthal style of cooking. On Sigmund's left was a youngish man with distinctive curly hair. He looked strangely familiar, and halfway through the dinner we discovered that he was James Nathan, the 2008 winner of the Masterchef competition. As this is a wildly popular program in the UK, this charming man had the rather ego-denting honour of sitting next to practically the only person in the country who had NO IDEA who he was. Interestingly enough, Nathan had started out his professional life as a barrister (the English word for lawyer) and Sigmund ended up quizzing him on this topic before the rest of the table fell upon him with curiousity and delight.

Well, as Sigmund said, I was "in my element." Never shy about coming forward, my tongue was further loosened by the really excellent wines: a really ambrosial Riesling and something rich and spicy and red (my favorite!). Question for the wine buffs amongst us: what sort of red, of my description, might have been served with lamb? I particularly remember the moment in which I held forth at the table and described, in great detail, my newfound infatuation with cashew cookies. I was mostly speaking to Nathan, and in my memory at least, he was enthralled by this recipe -- which I could remember perfectly, as I have made it twice in the same number of days.

Funnily enough, for a foodie evening, the food was nice enough -- but hardly five-star memorable. No "menu" was provided, as is usually de rigueur at these occasions, so I am just going to have to wing it on the description. We started with a foie gras, that everyone else raved over, but that I didn't even finish because I was too busy talking to Rayner about Texas food. (He has a scene in one of his novels, The Apologist, in which the character has to quickly assemble a feast in Texas -- with the aid of several Apache helicopters with which to procure the ingredients. Rayner could only remember that one went to the Central Market in Houston, and another was dispatched to New Orleans to pick up the wine.) The main course was lamb, on a bed of vegetables (I know there were carrots and broad beans) and some mashed potatoes that have not stuck in my mind at all. At this point, it should be noted that I was fairly well-lubricated and therefore my palate was a bit numb. Dessert was a creamy molded thing that was probably a panna cotta. It came with an impressive chocolate garnish, rather like a marbled sail. I can't remember if I ate this, or just toyed with it. There were also petit fours, including some toothsome tiny strawberries dipped in dark chocolate.

In between courses, Rayner would stand up and read bits of various of his books to us. He also talked about the job of the restaurant critic -- the point of which, he claims, is chiefly to sell newspapers. Whilst a good meal is obviously nicer to eat, it is the "bad" dining experience which makes for better copy. Not only does the bad meal provide more scope for creative writing, but apparently it is also appreciated more by the readers. A negative review, it seems, is enjoyed by everyone but the restaurant owner.

Although Rayner claims that being a restaurant critic has pretty much no downside, (and didn't we foodies always suspect this?), his latest book came about because he thought that maybe he needed a bigger goal: a foodie "Everest" to climb. As the Michelin system expanded its reaches to take in New York City and other top food towns, Rayner considered that he was the proper person to "search for the perfect dinner" . . . which is the subtitle to The Man Who Ate the World. As Ella Fitzgerald sang, "Nice work if you can get it." So far I have only been able to skim the book, what with my Booker Challenge nagging at me, but as a "taster" I can tell you that Rayner eventually visited Las Vegas, Moscow, Dubai, Tokyo, New York, London and Paris -- all in the letter and spirit of gruelling research. He read (and talked) about some bits of eating that took place in Tokyo -- and it sounded like just the sort of fascinating stuff that makes me realize just how little I've really experienced in the gustatory world.

When Rayner inscribed my copy of his book with the exhortation to "Eat Well," it felt like an honor, a goal, and a challenge.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Sunny Day Slacker

Someday soon, (maybe when it starts raining again), I will come in out of the sun to write a "proper" post. But in the meantime, I feel that it is a crime against nature to be inside the house.

The English character has been formed by constant complaint, much of it against the reliably miserable weather, but on a sunny May day I would favorably compare England's beauties to anywhere on this earth. The wisteria and clematis are blooming, our shaggy green lawn has been strewn overnight with yellow daisies, and the air is like champagne.

It is the kind of weather that is celebrated in Romantic poetry. Indeed, a long-haired poet to read me sonnets and peel me grapes would be just the thing. But as the next-best (and certainly more achievable) thing, I think that I will haul out a chair and spend an hour or two catching up with The Blind Assassin. I will make a cup of tea; I will add a cashew cookie or two; it will be pretty close to blissful.

What with the tennis and the walking and the other whatnots (children, domestic duties), I'm struggling to make it through my Booker list. I keep seeing pictures of Mariella Frostrup (one of the Booker judges this year) at glamourous parties and wondering how in the world she is managing all of HER required reading -- what with her two small children, assorted journalistic jobs, and the swanning around with George Clooney. She must read a lot faster than I do, or else have the sleeping requirements of Margaret Thatcher.

So how is everyone "gettin' trew?" (Trini expression, phonetically spelled)

I am nearly halfway through "Assassin" now, and although I am the first to bang on about how I don't care about the plot and just read for detail and characterization, I am starting to want the "plot" to coalesce and pick up some momentum. Yes, Atwood is technically proficient and full of cleverness, but I feel as if I'm at an emotional remove.

Is it just that glorious sun which is distracting me?

Friday, 2 May 2008

"Quite" Green

This post is dedicated to Michelle Conlin and Colin Beavan -- my "deep green" friends. Check out Colin's blog -- No Impact Man -- for an ongoing conversation about how to tread more lightly on the planet.

One of the many subtle differences between English-English and American-English is the word “quite.” In fact, the two linguistic cultures use the word in an entirely opposite way: for Americans, “quite” means “very,” while the English use it (with such deftness and occasional cruelty) to mean “not very.” (Believe me, with the right intonation, there is no more cutting indictment than a dry “Quite.”) In England – the “green and pleasant land” -- “green” has become an easy, catch-all term to describe someone who is ecologically concerned, aware, and hopefully, engaged. Therefore, when I describe myself as “quite green” I am admitting – albeit with chagrin – that I am not very green.

I want to be green; I strive to be green; but after reading Paul Waddington’s Shades of Green for the better part of the morning, I have to concede that I am just yellow-green. A cowardly green, really.

Waddington describes his book as “A (Mostly) Practical A-Z for the Reluctant Environmentalist.” So let’s just start with the word “reluctant.” As Waddington admits, the inherent problem to becoming greener is that “the very greenest options involve either maximum privation or maximum expense” (p. 137). He helpfully provides a color-coded sliding scale of greenness – from “deepest green” to “not even a little bit green.” Then in each category – ranging from big choices like Heating and Transportation, to smaller ones like Coffee and Beer – he gives you a range of choices and distinctions, with just enough scientific explanation to make you aware of the complexity of some of the trade-offs. For example, certain foodstuffs – like New Zealand lamb or seasonal apples – are produced in a way that offsets the ecological impact of shipping them. Just considering food miles doesn’t give you the entire picture. As he repeatedly says, the greener choice can sometimes be counterintuitive – or a tradeoff with other factors (e.g., animal welfare, the economical welfare of poorer countries).

Sadly, my “deepest green” choices were few and far between. Basically, I only scored well on organic dried pasta, eggs (from my own chickens), fair-trade bananas (always using the overripe ones for home-baking), and the fact that I breastfed my children. Unfortunately, I cannot even take pride in these good choices – because it would be far greener to avoid eggs (animal products aren’t very green in general), bananas (all imported), and children (huge consumers). I think that the pasta is okay, which is good, because we eat a lot of it. If you live in England, wheat and other grains are generally better than rice – because they are “locally” sourced. If you are going to eat rice, organic risotto is the best choice. I mention the rice because it was one of the few examples of greener eating practices that suited my tastes anyway. (Fair-trade dark chocolate is the other!)

Overall, I did pretty well when it comes to shopping – because I mostly buy organic, fair-trade, and local (if possible). I use very little convenience food – which cuts down on food of dubious provenance and packaging. Although I am simplifying, food choices can more or less be broken down to (1) organic and free trade – green; (2) local and seasonal – greener; and (3) growing your own – greenest.

When it came to transport, though, the rubber hit the road (literally) and I was revealed to be a typically upper-middle-class Western big-time energy waster, despite all of my efforts with recycling and organic food. Even the most energy-efficient cars are only pale green – and we have two. My efforts to “lift-share” (carpool to you Americans) on the school run don’t really make up for the fact that Sigmund has a long work-commute every day. Because transport is the biggest energy user after water- and space- heating (Waddington, p. 54), it actually makes it harder to be green in the countryside than in the city. (Again, that counterintuitive thing!) Public transport is extremely limited, the “amenities” are really spread out, and riding a bike on our narrow lanes is really taking a risk with your life.

The big, old country houses aren’t very green, either. Yes, we use energy-saving light bulbs and we’ve put extra insulation into the attic and we’ve upgraded the heating system, but that still doesn’t excuse the size of our house -- or the fact that it started out life as a barn. Keeping the thermostat lower helps a bit, as does turning off all of the lights and walking around in perpetual dusk, but our house can never be brought up to an energy-efficient standard. (We know, because we had the survey done.) Pale green: just one TV. No shade of green: three computers.

Airplanes, which are “no shade of green,” are one of my most notable violations. Waddington suggests that stopping your air travel altogether is the “single most environmentally positive thing you can do,” (p. 6). I will take three transatlantic flights this year, and probably two or three short-haul ones as well. I dread to think how many flights Sigmund takes in a typical business year. Although I could certainly cut back a bit, the truth is that we have family and friends on several different continents and it would entail considerable emotional hardship – and the twin expenses of time and money – to curtail flying altogether. Even green wannabes struggle with the economic facts of transportation as it is currently cheaper (not to mention faster) to fly than to take a car, train, or ship. Until the train service becomes significantly cheaper than the airlines, I don’t see that much collective progress will be made in this area.

Having a good shower makes you “not even a little green” . . . and this is one of most painful privations for me to contemplate. I could give up holidays with much less regret than it would cost me to give up daily ablutions in hot water. I just don’t have “two day” hair. Waddell suggests that we need to revert to “standards of personal hygiene from a bygone era” (p. 230) . . . and, well, that statement made me feel SO American. I eschew plastic bottled gel for bar soap; I use plant-based cleaning ingredients; but no daily bathing? The mere thought makes me cringe. About the only greenish thing we do when it comes to daily wash-downs is to share the bath water.

On the other hand, it is positively green to wash your clothes, sheets and towels as little as possible. That really appeals to the side of me who prefers the minimum of housework! Again, I am “quite” green in this area – with my Ecover products and my new “A” rated appliances. To be greener I should give up my tumble dryer altogether; but at least I’ve started laundering Sigmund’s shirts myself – as dry cleaning falls into the dreaded “not even a little green” category. (Michelle admitted to me that washing clothes by hand, in a few measly inches of water, was the single worst aspect of the “no impact” year.)

At the renegade far end of greenness, life can be very inexpensive. People who grow their own food, bicycle or walk everywhere, forego electronics, don’t buy consumer goods, and are willing to “shiver and smell” (Waddington, p. 138) can really save a lot of money. But somewhere in the middle of greenness, when you are trying to have it both ways (pleasure and convenience without guilt), the greener choice can be pretty expensive territory. Organic food, although greener, costs more – sometimes significantly more. Carbon offsetting schemes are costly, possibly ineffective and frequently dubious. Green-tariff electricity is both expensive and inefficient. Sigmund, who works for an energy company, claims that the green-tariff electricity which we pay quite (American usage) a bit extra for is statistically irrelevant as a consumer choice . . . accounting for less than one-percent, in fact.

Greener practices also mean swimming against current cultural practices. We just can’t live the FAST, CONVENIENT life and make the greenest choices. Washing your clothes by hand takes time. Growing your own food, and cooking everything from scratch, takes more time. And time is something we almost pride ourselves on not having.

The Financial Times Magazine had a fascinating article this past weekend (April 27/28)on “Plastic: The elephant in the room.” Consumers have waged war on plastic (the water bottle; the plastic bag) as the symbol of our wasteful culture of convenience, but the article suggests that the “plastic” issue has all sorts of complexities which consumers really don’t appreciate. Marks & Spencer have put a lot of research into the issue, as they have worked to green up their credentials. One thing they discovered is that “consumer perceptions of packaging” bears no relation to the reality. Their study was almost laughably ironic in its conclusions: while “we” fret most about organic food, which uses the least packaging, we worry least about wine, which uses the most packaging. As with the energy issue in general, business and the government are flailing around – looking for solutions, and make some things worse along the way. Two examples: customers want “loose” produce, yet it results in more wastage in the store, and faster deterioration at home . . . not to mention that it actually requires MORE packaging to be transported. The other interesting example is biodegradable plastic – which is the new thing for the organic produce that I buy at M & S and Sainsbury’s. It is very “light” (plastic’s great virtue when it comes to transport) and it is supposed to be compostable. The problems? It doesn’t break down easily, unless it is exposed to high heat; and the fact that less than 5% of us have compost heaps; and the unforeseen complication that it actually contaminates the oil-based recyclate. Having been thrilled to toss this “compostable” plastic in with my grass clippings and tea bags, I am now starting to worry that it is more like the “biofuel” problem. We quick-fix one problem only to create another problem in its place.

Some of the most interesting, provocative comments in this article came from Dick Searle, who is one of the foremost packaging gurus in the UK industry. Apparently he regularly does a talk called “The Role of Packaging in Modern Society,” and amongst his many points is that packaging has played an “unacknowledged role” in the “emancipation of women” (p. 17). Here’s a personal example: Friday is “bin day” on our street. (Or garbage cans, for the American readers.) Through my diligent recycling efforts and the fact that we DO have a compost heap, I have been able to reduce our rubbish to one smallish bag a week. It sits, forlornly (but in the nicest possible way), at the bottom of our big gray bin. Our neighbors’ bins, on the other hand, are stuffed to the brim so that the tops don’t close properly. Like our family, our two closest neighbors are families of four with small-to-medium aged children. The big difference, though, is that the other women are both working mothers . . . while I am a stay-at-home obsessive recycler. Their bins are a direct reflection of their eating habits – and lack of recycling habits – and honestly, their overall lack of time. Lots of highly packaged food; lots of convenience food. It is such a clear example of the “modern lifestyle,” and I see it played out every week.

Here’s a worrying statistic: in 2008, the UK will produce TWICE as much waste as it did in the early 1990s (p. 16) – and only about 20% of it is currently being recycled (p. 19).

At the end of the article, Searle makes a direct correlation between the amount of packaging that we use and the life that we WANT to lead. He doesn’t see us making big changes any time soon – (and I infer here), because we are addicted to convenience and having the food we want when we want it.

My next environmental reading choice is going to be Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which describes a year of totally seasonal eating. I’ve read some reviews of this book – enough to know that her experiment is not without its challenges. As with Colin and Michelle’s No Impact Year, getting to a deep green place takes lot more than simple, painless changes. Despite all of my green efforts, reading Shades of Green really did clue me up as to how much more change it will take to move from “quite green” to a recognizably deep green.

Here's my plan: I’m going to tell Simon that I am very willing to move into London into a small flat – so that we can give up the cars. As for my showers? Well, I’m going to try to cut back on the time and the temperature – if not the actual frequency.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

May Day Magic

Although I am a self-proclaimed city girl, even I do succumb to the beauties of nature around this time of year.

We have had a miserably wet week so far, but today the clouds parted long enough to let my Walking Partner and I get in a 10 miler. You can see our route if you wish -- from Marlston to Bucklebury to Stanford Dingley to Yattendon to Frilsham and then back to Marlston -- but you will just have to imagine the hills, the forest, the dappled light, the looming dark clouds, and the narrow country roads. There was mud, yes, but at least it was confined to the road and not dripping down our necks!

The cherry and apple trees must be gorging on all of the cold spring rain, because the trees look full to bursting with pink and white blossoms. Blossom time is so ephemeral -- for some trees, only 10 days or so -- and I want to soak up the sight! If only it would last . . .

My WP is highly attuned to the natural world, and as we walk she points out cowslips, a swooping red kite, tiny violets, the petals of a wild strawberry plant, and all of the animal babies -- calves, lambs, and piglets -- who have just staggered into the world. Much of our route is heavily forested, and the bluebells seem to be in every shaded spot. They are enchanting -- just as the snowdrops were before them. If you want to really see some of the glories of an English spring, visit "A Walk in the Bluebells."

I have been fretting a lot about the environment, and trying to compose a post about issues which frighten and confuse me, but today I just want to acknowledge that pagan urge to celebrate fecundity . . . and beauty of the earth renewing itself.