06 January 2013

As the Lights Dim and Flicker

We are ending up the Christmas season where we started, watching "Merry Gentlemen" and "Silly, But It's Fun..."

Christmas at Historic Houses, Patricia Hart McMillan & Katharine Kaye McMillan
I saw this at the Colonial Williamsburg gift shop, but the price of this, a Schiffer book, with those beautiful sleek, thick pages and glorious color photographs, gave me pause. I waited until I could buy it with credit points.

If  you love historical places and love Christmas, and equally love both together, this is a tremendous, lovely book addressing historic homes and the way the curators go about decorating them at Christmastime. Twenty-seven specific homes are addressed, from the simple greens at Monticello and Colonial Williamsburg to the high-Victorian artistry Blithewold and Biltmore House. The decorations, especially in the Victorian homes, are so complicated that I could really wish for larger photos to see the details, but that would make the book heavy and cumbersome.

I was a little irritated by the text—not that it wasn't informative; far from it. But in a book of this scholarship, the typos were startling: apostrophes included when they weren't needed and not included when they were, plus misspellings.

Still, the stunning photos and the contents of the text will please most. Opening chapters address the styles of decorating based on the era, decorating colors and materials, the changing style of the decorations at Williamsburg, Christmas wreaths, and lighting methods. Every page a gem.

A Surrey Christmas, compiled by John Hudson
Britain's Budding Books did a collection of these volumes for what looks like almost every shire in England, not to mention for historical eras (A Victorian Christmas, An Elizabethan Christmas, A Regency Christmas, etc.). I picked up A Worcestershire Christmas several years back and picked up this one last year at the library book sale. The selections are a bit weaker in this one, as there are a couple of entries that only briefly relate to Christmas, but once again it's a mixed bag of excerpts from diaries, newspapers, and novels, with 1989 next to first World War memoirs and 1960 cozying up to the 1930s, children's memories of Father Christmas cheek by jowl with critiques of the workhouse, accounts of blizzards, reports from the trenches, liberally sprinkled here and there with the traditional Christmas ghost story. There's even a fillip of poetry and a recipe or two from Mrs. Beeton. Plus there's a lovely cover showing "the waits." These books are worth picking up when found for a reasonable price.

* * * * *

I must comment about the other Christmas reading this year: the usual Christmas magazines! I left "Early American Life Christmas" for last, a jolly read, and also "Victorian Home," which wasn't as magical this year, although I can't tell why. One of my nicest finds I only picked up after Christmas: a British magazine called "LandScape," which is a nature/countryside magazine. I had picked up the November/December issue along with a nice December-y companion magazine, "LandLove," but didn't realize there was a Christmas issue until I wandered into Barnes & Noble last week. This was just oozing with holiday nature: robins (in England robins are Christmas symbols rather than the American robin which is a spring symbol), reindeer, mistletoe, holly, mince pies, Christmas markets and tree farms, even recipes for windowpane cookies, how to build a sled and make a brussels sprouts wreath, and stories about a woman who makes driftwood into Christmas trees and a man who knits nativity figures. Lots of lovely photographs. Glad I wandered in B&N that day.

Sigh. And now I think it's time for me to pull the lights. :-(

Epiphany Surprises

First up—sleeping for eight whole hours! Won't get to do this again until next Sunday.

And a final Christmas treat, toast with clotted cream.

Now it was time to get back to the routine, so we were off to Kroger to buy supplies for work lunches and ordinary supplies. On the way out we spotted what was left of the Christmas things: bags of bows and rolls of wrapping paper. I hadn't intended to buy any more of either, but these bows were different: there weren't any golds and silvers, and more other colors than red and green: blues, purples, magentas, plus white. I grabbed three bags at $1.20 each.

There's a type of chocolate milk James is able to drink at Walmart, so we stopped there to get it and came out with all sorts of other things: handheld breakfasts for him, meat ravioli (you don't usually see meat ravioli), an extension cord I needed, etc., and in a big bin of marked-down Blu-Rays we found Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. So that's what I watched this afternoon after getting my bag ready for work and putting up the groceries while James retreated to the "man cave" for a bit. Looks scrumdiddlyumptious in Blu-Ray, and, I found, even slightly appropriate for Epiphany, because Veruca sings about wanting "a bean feast," which, it is believed, derives from the bean that is put into the Twelfth Night cake!

And now I'm watching The House Without A Christmas Tree again, just because (and because the music has been going through my head for ages).

Oh, look, here's an article from 2011 that talks about the film and interviews Lisa Lucas.

Twelfth Night

So I did a little bit of cleaning each day, and in the end that worked out fine. Downstairs was easiest, of course, even though I washed the floors. Finally there was a place for everything, even in the refrigerator, and that led us to Friday night. We had supper at Ken's Grill, then went to Costco for party food: barbecue chicken wings, meatballs, mini egg rolls, and meat-and-cheese spirals. Glad we went Friday night, as I think I spent all day today vacuuming. :-) (And I'd already started the vacuuming earlier in the week.)

At one point James went out to get some sodas. I kept cleaning. But I was done by 2:30, having finally "done the frog" (vacuuming the stairs), and took a shower. Then it was time to put stuff out! We finished just as Anne and Clay arrived.

Had a great night, even if the Costco meatballs were a big disappointment (very highly spiced). Anne and Clay brought a delicious ham and John and Betty brought fruit and there were cupcakes. We had chatter and chow, and the Georgia football game for a while. Charles had not been here before, so he got the nickel tour. Willow finally quit barking and started schmoozing, only to disgrace herself on the carpet and get locked in her crate for a while. Schuyler didn't seem to be happy about having a "flock" tonight, so I took her to the spare room and put on the television, but she started with the calling chirp, which meant she wanted to go back to her place. So I took her back.

We were able to get everything cleared up, vacuumed (again...LOL), and tidied in time to relax and watch some HGTV. (Really, there was nothing else good on. 500 stations and still nothing to watch.)

And so another Twelfth Night party is over.

04 January 2013

Other Christmas Books Read This Year

One was a "repeat," A Christmas Secret by Anne Perry, previously borrowed from the library, but I found an inexpensive copy at the library book sale. Domenic Corde and his new wife, Clarice, are assigned to a country parish during the Christmas holidays, to substitute for the vacationing cleric. Of course, a murder occurs. I have reviewed this previously.

Another was one of my annual Christmas reads, the Tuckers series book The Cottage Holiday. The Tuckers were a boisterous quintet of children, sixth grader Tina, fifth graders Terry and Merry (twins), second grader Penny, and kindergartener Tom, who lived in a big house in a town called Yorkville, with a stay-at-home mom and a dad who ran a variety store with his father. The kids play, quarrel, invent projects, and occasionally solve minor mysteries, as other juveniles from 1960s children's series in most of the books, but this one has a different slant: little Penny, the frail one of the family, is basically looking for her place in the scheme of things. She knows she's not as strong as the others, but she doesn't want to be forever sitting still and being careful. She comes up with the idea of the family spending Christmas at their lake cottage, where the kids prepare for the festivities, help some farm friends, and even participate in the adventure of an abandoned baby. But all through the story Penny also searches for her own strengths. It's warm, happy, and familiar, all perfect as a Christmas read.

• Decked With Folly, Kate Kingsbury
This is part of the Pennyfoot Hotel mysteries featuring hotel owner Cecily Baxter. Mysteries seem to find her, and this one hits particularly close to home: a man is found drowned in their duck pond. Except not only has the man in actuality been murdered, but he's known to the hotel staff as a rogue who married their head housemaid some time before without bothering to tell her he was already married. Gertie the maid thus becomes the police's prime suspect.

This book series seems to be well beloved for its British Edwardian setting and its Christmas and New Year's-themed special editions. Perhaps if I'd read them from the beginning I would have enjoyed the story more, although enough was explained about the characters that I was never mystified by their pasts. But no one ever quite came to life for me and Cecily and her husband seemed to be almost too good to be true as employers. The mystery was fine; I just would have preferred more depth to the characters.

Four Centuries of Virginia Christmas, Mary Miley Theobald and Libbey Hodges Oliver
This was a book I picked up at the Colonial Williamsburg gift shop, a simple but enjoyable read about the history of Christmas celebrations in Virginia, beginning with the stark holiday at the starving colony in Jamestown to the more festive celebrations as the colony found its footing. Theobald and Oliver chronicle the Christmas customs, food, and decorations over the years as they change or are amended to fit new eras or times of want like the Civil War. (A running theme is how the decorations at Colonial Williamsburg have changed, from greens to the "Della Robbia" period—the authors are quite pointed when they mention that in colonial times no citrus or tropical fruit would have been used as a door decoration; they were too expensive!—to the simpler modern wreaths and garlands featuring apples and greens only.) There are color and black-and-white illustrations, and many diary excerpts used, and the authors do not shy away from addressing "Christmas in the Quarters" (among the enslaved), although IMHO it was a bit glossed over.

The Dreaded Feast, edited by Michael Clarke and Taylor Plimpton
Another buy from the Colonial Williamsburg gift shop, a collection of writers "on enduring the holidays." Again, some of these essays appear to have been written because people feel they have to conform to holiday "standards": buy the best gifts, set the best table, etc. (George Plimpton's essay was particularly tied to this syndrome, buying useless gifts for rich people who don't need them.) That isn't what Christmas is all about; it's what society has made us think Christmas is all about. Sadly, there are certain people who force others (their children especially) to conform to these standards, and for them Christmas is miserable, overspending, forced to spend time with people they dislike, with selfishness welling all around them. No one should be forced into Christmas. So I didn't mind the wry commentaries about Christmas, like Calvin Trillin talking about fruitcake, or Corey Ford's essay about the office party (do these drunken Bacchanalia still exist with today's DUI laws?), others were just sad and painful, like Augusten Burroughs and Charles Buckowski and Hunter Thompson. One question: what on earth was Mark Twain's "Susie's Letter from Santa Claus" doing in here? Anyway, glad this one was half price.

A Kosher Christmas: Tis the Season to Be Jewish, Joshua Eli Plaut
Not only was this the most interesting book I read this Christmas, but it was one of my favorite books of the year, a discussion of the Jewish experience with the Christmas season in the United States. I was quite intrigued by the opening chapter about Jewish immigrants' experience with the pervasive holiday in the late 19th and early 20th century. Apparently German Jews celebrated the secular trappings of Christmas (trees, parties, gifts) as it was part of the society they came from; the more persecuted Eastern European Jews wanted nothing to do with the holiday, as any member of their congregation who stepped out on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day in Europe was likely to be beaten up and possibly even killed by revengeful revelers who still blamed them for the death of Christ. Once here, many Jews picked up those secular customs to fit in, while others eschewed them. Another chapter addressed the "Chinese food on Christmas" trope. The most involving chapter is about how the minor festival of Hanukkah was remade to cope with Christmas: I knew that earlier it had been a minor festival only, but I didn't realize how extensively it had been "made over." Apparently the original gift-giving time at Purim was transferred to Hanukkah so that Jewish children would not feel left out when their Christian friends talked about Christmas gifts. The final chapters talk about Jewish people doing mitzvahs (good deeds) by helping out their Christian counterparts during the holiday season, and how "mixed holidays" like "Christmukkah" and secular holidays such as "Festivus" are appealing to modern interfaith and non-Christian families. Well-written with a lot of food for thought.

03 January 2013

Left-Over Christmas

I did get some party prep done today by cleaning out the hall bathroom, tidying up more things, and giving Willow a bath. I really need to apply myself to this, but it's a bunch of tiny little bits that need cleaning up rather than just one big thing (well, except for the kitchen, and that's James' job). I was also slightly handicapped by waking up with terrible pain in my middle and ring finger of my right hand. I have no idea why, as when I went to bed the hand was fine; I woke up with it this way. I can barely bend the middle finger past a 90 degree angle. I can type relatively painlessly, but the finger feels odd and swollen. James says I was talking loudly in my sleep last night, but as far as he knew I wasn't thrashing around in a manner in which I would have hit it. I took three ibuprofin and went back to bed for a half hour, and that didn't help.

After breakfast and some tidying, I decided to go out for a little while. I wanted to check out the clearance at the Barnes & Noble at the Avenue at West Cobb. This store usually has the best clearance items, but the pickin's were slim today. I did find the Christmas issue of a British magazine called "LandScape," which I probably won't buy in spring because gardening bores me silly, but I did want this issue because it was all about Christmas plants and animals: reindeer, mistletoe, robins...and it also had articles about sledding and change ringing (as in Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mystery The Nine Tailors). It will be my last Christmas magazine unless I can find the December issue of "The Oldie," which is a British commentary/nostalgia magazine.

On the way back I stopped at Lowes, looking for an organizer I want to buy for the closet. Unfortunately it was too heavy for me to lift. I did get a new triple-tap for the plug behind James' recliner.

When I got home I should have been cleaning more, and, later, I did scrub the bath and then the dog, and got her bedding and towels washed. But I was scanning the DVR contents and came upon The March Sisters at Christmas, which I had recorded a month ago. This television movie, a modern-day take on Little Women, had garnered some virulent criticism, and I was almost afraid to watch it, but a Louisa May Alcott blog I read said it was not bad, so I turned it on.

Surprisingly, it was pretty good. This was a Lifetime movie, so the male casting was weak: Laurie, here known as Teddy, was a good-natured but sort of nondescript jock instead of the sensitive musician of the book, and John Brooke was a nebbish (but no worse than the Eric Stoltz version in the 1994 film). The actor playing Bhaer (here named Marcus and a book editor rather than a teacher) fared better and John Shea was an entertaining Mr. Lawrence (here Teddy's custodial uncle, not his grandfather).

The sisters were updated in the spirit of the 21st century: Meg, a law student, and John (her college classmate) were not chaste; Jo ghostwrites celebrity twitter feeds rather than penning blood-and-thunder tales; Beth is a superlative pianist who is shy of the goals her family wants her to achieve; and Amy is an updated version of the brat she is in the book, a girl who is familiar with partying and using a fake ID.

The pivot around which the story revolves is that their parents plan to sell the family home (called Orchard House like the real Alcott homestead, which is seen briefly at the beginning of the film) after Mr. March, a war correspondent, is hurt, and they cannot afford to have the decrepit home remodeled. The sisters decide to do the work themselves while their mother is off helping with the father's recovery, and Teddy and John endeavor to help them. Basic Little Women plot points are touched on: Amy does something stupid in revenge for Jo's criticism and she and Jo quarrel, Jo tells Teddy they are best friends and nothing more, Marcus tells Jo her real writing (she accidentally e-mails him her generational novel instead of a prospectus to ghostwrite a young singer's "autobiography") is better than the crap that is earning her money, etc. The only thing that doesn't happen is that Beth does not meet the same fate as in the book. So the prospect of Laurie being a hunk or Meg and John having sex might horrify you, but it is pretty well translated to 2012. I enjoyed it.

An Old-Fashioned Christmas, Rochelle and Nicholas Pennington
This is the "nostalgic book" I bought at Bronner's last year, a picture and text remembrance of Christmases past, from 1930 through 1960. Black-and-while photographs and color and black-and-white ads and other illustrations (including the inevitable Norman Rockwell) illustrate the warm memories of home-cooked meals, home-baked cookies, hard times softened by love, gatherings, and Christmas celebrations, going to church, assemblies at school, playing in the snow, listening to radio programs. A whole bunch of cozy wrapped up in hardcover. Comes with a CD of the "Billie the Brownie" radio program from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

01 January 2013

And A Phone-y New Year...

"Fast away the old year passes....hail the new year lads and lasses..."

James did it all Sunday night: prepared his lunch for work, made his tea, got his clothes out. (I whiled away the end of the night watching the beginning of Jurassic Park: The Lost World, which was just as stupid as I remember. Yes, take the bleeding baby T-Rex back to base camp, so the parents can track you down and destroy everything. Then continue wearing a shirt with the baby T-Rex's blood spattered on it so the parents can continue to track you. And these are supposedly the smart people!)

The one thing he forgot was to turn the alarm clock back on.

So he woke with a start at 7:15 a.m. (his day starts at 7:30, but he needs fifteen minutes just to log on the computer), gave an almighty shout, and grabbed his phone to call in to tell his supervisor he'd be late. Well, they've been sending people home early because there's barely any work at Christmas, so his boss said he could come in, or he was free to take the day off.

So we went back to sleep.

Serendipity anyway, since we had some errands to run: he had prescriptions waiting at both Kaiser and Kroger.

And finally we were fed up enough to take our new phones back to Verizon and tell them they had to do something. James' phone was still rebooting pretty much every time he plugged it into the charger and has been rebooting in the middle of phone calls and when he tries to answer the phone or hang up. Mine locked up most of the time when plugged into the car charger (like when I was using the GPS, but once I had it plugged in, just charging, and it kept rebooting). Plus my nap timer had quit "alarming" and I couldn't use the stock clock alarm because it would ring all right, but the pop up to dismiss/snooze wouldn't come up, so you'd have to reboot the phone to get it to shut up. A lot of times the phones would get so messed up we would have to pull the battery.

Well, Verizon was sympathetic, but did mention that if they sent us replacements they might be used. We suspected our phones had come from a batch with connector problems; what if we got "new" ones with the same problem? The salesman told us we might have better luck if we called Customer Care directly. So we came home and chatted online with one rep, and then called another. The second rep said that since we bought the phones on Black Friday, we had a different guarantee; through January 15 we could return them for new units, and she would annotate our file to state so.

So back we went to Verizon and they tried again to get us a complete return. They finally had to do something complicated with refunds to get it to go through. However, we finally got home with replacement new phones just in time to fix a little something for a small dinner. We didn't want to eat a lot because we knew we'd be grazing at the party. I should have just left the phone in its present state—that it actually made phone calls—but I messed with it so long that I barely had time to take a few Ibuprofin to combat the headache that the oncoming storm was pushing my way and lie down if only for few minutes.

So we packed up our goodies about 8:30 and headed off to the party. We had a great time! Had conversations about meeting celebrities, this year's crop of movies, etc. Finally met the youngest member of the Baskin clan, little John, who was clad in knit trousers with a TARDIS on one leg and a Dalek on his backside. Sampled a little of each of the dishes, which included shrimp potstickers, sandwich fixings, baked ziti, sweet potatoes, and lots of different desserts. Peeked into the media room, where they were showing "The Snowmen" (moved on because we haven't seen it yet). At about 11:50 I snagged two cups of cranapple juice and met James in a doorway and we kissed in the new year together.

Stayed for over another hour and finally wended our way home. The streets were dark and quiet save for a few bars still celebrating the new year. Lots of Christmas lights still up and still on, so we could enjoy those. Wasn't tired when we left Bill and Caran's house, but was getting heavy-eyed by the time we walked back into the house. Nevertheless, started talking with Schuyler and messing with the phone, with the result that we didn't go to bed until about 3:30. Neither of us can take this sort of thing anymore. We woke up this morning at ten feeling hung over—and neither of us had anything alcoholic! So we made our apologies to Juanita and David—we'd been invited over to watch the Georgia game—and went back to bed for an hour or more. Thankfully, I had programmed the Tournament of Roses Parade into the DVR and the light rain had not smothered the satellite signal. James and I both got up feeling headachy and shellshocked.

Lots of gimmicks in the parade this year, most of them sweet. A couple got married on a float. Some teenybopper named Coco finished off the parade with a song. The HGTV float not only had a model of the new "Dream House" on it, but contained two penguins.

The capper was the Pedigree-sponsored float, which had a model of the monument that is to be built in Washington, DC, dedicated to war dogs. A soldier on the float was supposedly still in Afghanistan, and his wife and four-year-old son had been told they won a contest to come to the parade. They didn't know he was on the float, so when the wife and son came forward to get the "award," they were really surprised! The little boy charged forward and was tossed up in Dad's arms. ::sniffle::

Oh, and Jane Goodall was the Grand Marshal!

Afterwards put on Rudolph's Shiny New Year, and then the first episode of the 1975 Ellery Queen series, which takes place on New Year's Eve 1946. This was a great show, with Jim Hutton as an adorable, tousel-haired, absent-minded but sharp Ellery, and David Wayne as an acerbic and often grumpy Inspector Queen, with a super period setting. And, yeah, messed around more with the phone. It seems to be working better than the previous one. We'll see. I'm loading podcasts back on it. Again.

[Later: James went down to the "man cave" for a bit and I rewatched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. For supper we had some of our homemade turkey soup with whole-wheat gnocchi. And then it was time for our yearly New Year's Day viewing of Galaxy Quest. We have pretty much watched it every year since we saw it at the movies on New Year's Day 2000.]

Best Wishes for 2013!