Sunday, September 28, 2008

All-of-a-Kind Family

All-of-a-Kind Family (Sydney Taylor, 1951) is one of many children's books I didn't discover till adulthood. I read it and its sequels five or six years ago, and I checked it out from the library again last week thinking I would read it to my 4-year-old daughter. I quickly realized I'd misremembered the reading level. It's too advanced and complex for my little girl, who's more at that Bread and Jam for Frances stage. This book, and the Little House series, and Narnia, will have to wait a little while longer.

That said, I enjoyed revisiting it myself. The series has much the same appeal as the Little House books--it's also the story of a close-knit family struggling to get ahead in a tough environment, only in the city instead of the frontier. The titular family is a set of five sisters, Jewish girls growing up on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 20th century. It's based closely on the author's own childhood. As in the Little House books, children reading it would see the girls' lives as a sort of exotic adventure, while an adult can't help but see the poverty and hardship throughout.

Changes in my book diary entries

I had a bit of an epiphany on Thursday while taking a time management class through work. I went in expecting to learn some new system for organizing one's time and tasks, but instead spent the day analyzing my approach to time to try to figure out why I often waste it.

Among other things, I realized that I'm often task-oriented to a fault. I get so caught up in crossing items off my to-do list at work or meeting my daily word count quota in my manuscript that I lose sight of the big picture--e.g. that focus on word count can distract me from thinking about why I'm writing a scene and how it fits into the story as a whole.

One small manifestation of this tendency is that lately I've allowed reading, which has been a joy and a way to relax for me for as long as I can remember, to become a source of stress. It all started a few years ago when I began tracking the number of books I read a year--innocuously enough, to allow myself to participate in end-of-year discussions on one of the reader boards I used to follow. But it quickly turned into a competition with myself. Can I beat last year's total? Can I read over 100 books per year, EVERY year? Lately practically every book I've opened has felt like homework. And not just any homework, high school lit class assigned reading. Over half of which I either loathed or was bored silly by. And I finally, finally realized just how silly and neurotic I've been, to turn my favorite activity into work.

So I'm still going to diary my books, but I'm no longer going to number them. If on 12/31 I really want to know how many books I read in '08, I can always go back and count them. And I'm going to lose my obsession with new-to-me books. There's nothing wrong with re-reading, and nothing wrong with talking about what I re-read.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The King's Favorite (Book #86)

Normally I don't enjoy the biographical novels of royalty (and women who shared beds with royalty) that have been so popular the last several years. But Susan Holloway Scott is one of the bloggers on Word Wenches, a group blog I enjoy, so I decided to at least give The King's Favorite (2008) a try. It tells the story of Nell Gwyn, the daughter of a prostitute who became a comic actress on the London stage and then a favorite mistress of Charles II in the late 17th century.

I think I liked it better than I normally like books of this type because so much of it follows Nell's rise to celebrity, and as such is set in the London world of theaters and bawdy houses rather than at court. I didn't know much about it, so it felt fresh and lively. Also, Nell is an appealing character--she doesn't spend a lot of time angsting or feeling guilty about her life, her choices, and her limitations. She's smart and witty, but she's also simple and straightforward.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Enemy of God (Book #85)

Enemy of God (1997) is the second in Bernard Cornwell's Arthurian trilogy. It's longer and more episodic than the Sharpe books, and I confess in my current uber-busy state I like those tight timelines and compact page counts. But this book held my attention nonetheless. Derfel is an engaging narrator, and probably the nicest, sweetest protagonist Cornwell has ever created--maybe just to have a contrast with all the non-stop war and gloom and occasional human sacrifice!

I wouldn't quite say I have a problem with how Christianity is treated in this book. It's not like pagans come out looking wonderful, either, what with the human sacrifice and so on. But, still...I hope Celtic Christianity wasn't really much like it's portrayed here. Frankly, I haven't researched it much, but I love the Celtic prayers I've read, the wild poetry of them, and I'd like to think there was at least some real beauty of spirit and good wildness driving their authors.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Great Mortality (Book #84)

The population of England and France was about the same in 1800 as it was in 1300--and not because they'd attained an equilibrium state for the pre-industrial carrying capacity of their lands that they maintained for all that time. No, the 14th century was so very lethal that it took took them nearly 500 years to recover. (The same is probably true for the rest of Europe, too--we just have more data for England and France than anywhere else.)

While the 14th century included several waves of famine and disease in Europe, obviously the worst was the Black Death, which killed somewhere between a third and half the population between 1347 and 1351. The Great Mortality (John Kelly, 2006) is a narrative history of the outbreak, and it was good enough to keep me turning pages on a topic I was already quite familiar with. What I took away from this account was how remarkable it was that society still managed to function, even in cities that lost half or more of their population, in the midst of all the horror. (Not that society didn't change, nor that there wasn't violence and darkness in response to the epidemic, but when you consider the scale of the catastrophe, it's remarkable that the survivors were as resilient as they were.)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Thoughts on my first two fencing lessons

My brother Jim, who's 13 years older than me, started West Point the same year I started kindergarten. He was a member of the Class of 1980, the first to include women, which fired my baby-feminist imagination. For several years there, I wanted to go to West Point, too.

At some point the Academy gave him a sword engraved with his name. As 20-somethings who move around a lot are wont to do, he left it with Mom and Dad. I used to get it down from the top shelf of the master bedroom closet, draw it, and carefully brandish it. I never played with it--I knew better than to treat it as a toy--but I loved it. I've yearned over swords ever since and toyed with the idea of taking a fencing class, someday when I have the time, after I've lost the extra weight I need to shed, etc.

This summer several friends convinced me that I shouldn't wait around for that perfect time. Salle Auriol is 15 minutes from my house, and beginner lessons are affordable and fit my schedule as long as I take a break from writers group and choir. So I signed up for the September class and had my first two lessons last week.

Tuesday was bliss. We had such a large group that they didn't even get to equipment and swords. It was all footwork and body position...and to my great surprise, I was almost good at it! I think of myself as a clumsy person, and I tend to struggle in dance or sport classes because I'm not a visual learner. In other words, I have trouble learning by watching a demonstration. Instead, I'm verbal and kinesthetic--tell me what to do, or, even better, tell me how it feels when I'm doing it right. But apparently my few years of skating and my bits and pieces of dance from high school musicals and the like stood me in good stead, because the footwork wasn't hard for me.

It was, however, challenging. I had to concentrate, and it was the toughest workout I'd had in a long time. But I loved it, and I even had a few of those moments that delight my history geek's soul. The instructor was explaining some of the history of the sport, how the similarities to ballet weren't a coincidence, because a few centuries ago young gentlemen would study at academies where fencing, dance, equitation, etc. were taught together as gentlemanly and soldierly arts. That was enough to fire my imagination. There I was, learning exactly what my more aristocratic characters would've learned as a normal part of their education. That 200-year gulf between the world I live in and the world I write suddenly seemed thin, insubstantial, something I could almost step through.

I drove home Tuesday loving fencing and trying to calculate how soon I could take up saber.

Thursday wasn't quite so delightful. We got our epees, and I discovered I wasn't half so natural at holding a sword as I am at advances, retreats, crossovers, and lunges. The instructor's assistants had to correct my grip and straighten my elbow not once, but twice. And that correct grip? Hurts. Makes me feel all weak and out of shape. Which, in point of fact, I am.

Next we put on our gear. Cue body image demons, because the slim, flat-chested gym bunny types had an easier time finding suitable equipment than buxom, overweight me. Geared up, we started work on the most basic attack--just stepping toward your sparring partner and poking him/her in the chest. Simple, right? Only I'm not sure I ever got it right, especially given the added challenge of being paired with a southpaw. (There are only two lefties in the class, one man and one woman, and since we went in gender-segregated groups to get set up with gear, we ended up with women paired with women, men with men.) To top it off, I don't think I've ever sweated so much in my life. My clothes were downright sodden in spots.

At the end of the lesson, I approached the instructors and asked if it was normal to be confused at this stage, and would we be going over what we'd learned that night again? They assured me that it was and we would, and I made a comment about feeling like the most clumsy one out there. They glanced among themselves, shook their heads, and the youngest one said, "Not even." Which made me feel a lot better. The senior instructor said there's always a few naturals, and they're the ones everyone notices and feels awkward beside, but that, basically, determination wins out. If you want to learn, you will. Funny, I hear that advice about succeeding as a writer all the time. Talent doesn't matter half as much as being stubborn enough not to give up...

With that in mind, I'm going to at least stick it out for the rest of the month. I invested in better shoes and more workout clothes. I'm going to take an outfit to change into so I won't have to drive home drenched. I don't know if I can work through my current clumsiness and my dislike of the gear to get back to that point of joy in movement and communion with history, but I'm going to give it a fair shot. Because Tuesday was wonderful, and if ever there was a sport made for my personality and passions, fencing is it.

Wellington at War (Book #83)

Wellington at War: 1794-1815 (Antony Brett-James, ed., 1961) is a selection of letters and general orders from throughout Wellington's military career. They're mostly on military topics, but not entirely--there's plenty of politics, occasional forays into finance, some gossip and scandal, mostly within Wellington's own family. It's great primary source material for those who are familiar with his biography, but Brett-James' commentary isn't enough grounding to make sense of the letters for anyone who isn't.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

No-Man's Lands (Book #82)

No-Man's Lands (Scott Huler, 2008) is a memoir of travel and coming to terms with middle age and mortality. After rediscovering the Odyssey, the 44-year-old Huler decides to spend the bulk of his wife's pregnancy (!) tracing the path of Odysseus, as best as we can determine it, around the Mediterranean. Along the way he muses about the lessons Odysseus learns about leadership and life (sometimes you have to run away, don't sneer at good advice whatever the source, etc.) and how they apply to him.

I haven't read the Odyssey since I was 23 or 24, and Huler's contention that it's a midlife book makes me want to attempt it again now that I'm into my late 30's, staring in wary disbelief at my 40th birthday, not too far away at all in January 2011.

He's also got me pondering the trip I'm already planning for when I'm 44 in 2015. Not long after I got interested in military history, it occurred to me that barring anything tragic I should be alive and healthy for the Waterloo bicentennial, and wouldn't it be cool to be there? I don't know if I'll be able to pull it off, but I dream of spending 6-8 weeks in Europe, visiting not just Waterloo but the Peninsular War battlefields of Portugal, Spain, and Southern France (and, you know, some of the other interesting sites that happen to be in that part of the world). Sort of a Wellington pilgrimage. Which doesn't have the inherent universal interest of an Odysseus pilgrimage, but is a lot more me. And, who knows, maybe there's a travelogue/memoir in figuring out and explaining just why it is that I, a politically liberal 21st-century American woman who takes pride in her blue-collar Appalachian Scots-Irish roots, am so fascinated by an Anglo-Irish Tory aristocrat born almost exactly 200 years before I was.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fusiliers (Book #81)

It's easy to forget how interconnected the past is. All too often we study it as a set of discrete episodes rather than as a flowing river of time.

I knew that the American Revolution was among the causes of the French Revolution, both as an inspiration and because France's war expenditures led to a financial crisis. But until I read Fusiliers (Mark Urban, 2007) I hadn't fully considered that the army of Wellington was only about 30 years removed from the army of Cornwallis.

By focusing on a single regiment that served all the way from Lexington and Concord to Yorktown, Urban explores the reality of the British army--as opposed to the caricature of redcoated automatons we learned about in school--and how it changed in response to the challenges of the Revolution. If anything, the army improved considerably. It just didn't do them any good, because it's pretty much impossible to hold a large, hostile territory far from your home base with a small force, no matter its quality. The British effort was probably doomed from Saratoga onward, and certainly was once France entered the war. But the tactics they adopted to go on winning battles even as they lost the war ultimately bore fruit in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo.

Incidentally, I'm also reading a collection of Wellington's wartime correspondence. In one letter, he attributes just about everything that went wrong (from his perspective!) from 1776 on to party politics in England--the loss of the American colonies, the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, etc. His thesis seems to be that if the British powers-that-be had put country first instead of party, everything would've turned out differently. Who knows, maybe he's right. He did live through it all, though he was only six when the American Revolution started. Still, if I'm right about Saratoga, that wasn't a political blunder. Howe didn't march to reinforce Burgoyne, and so the Americans had a three-to-one advantage. But, if the British had been willing to come to a quick accommodation at that point instead of stretching the war out, the French would've stayed out of it, and then who knows how the next few decades would've turned out? Somehow I doubt that's what Wellington had in mind, though, because that's a Whiggish approach--it was the Tories, and especially the king, who wanted to continue the war. And even if Wellington didn't admit it, I'm pretty sure his non-partisan world would've involved everyone agreeing with the Tories. I love the man, but he had some obnoxious political views. (Stupid space-time continuum, because I'd dearly love to actually argue this one with the real Wellington instead of just shaking my head at the letters he left behind and quoting Barack Obama at him about how ALL of us love our country.)