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Below Stairs: Margaret Powell

29 Jun

BelowStairsMargaretPowellThe full title of this book is actually “Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey“.  Didn’t want you to miss out on anything but that’s a bit much for a blog title, even for me.

Margaret Powell writes up a detailed account of life in service.  And though it sounds like miserable, back-breaking work there is still so much charm in this book.  Isn’t it true that we often envy the lives of others just because they are so very different from our own?  As my job requires my sitting in front of a computer for ten hours or more a day, the vigorous efforts that are required of Margaret sound like a welcome change.  It’s as if I expect to feel that welcome sense of fulfillment we all have after accomplishing a day chock full of chores.  After pulling weeds, scrubbing the tub, taking out the garbage, washing the dishes and folding the laundry I feel like Champion of the World.  So naturally, through this lens, Powell’s time in service seems a bit more tantalizing than it should.

However, it’s hard to fully appreciate the long hours of tasks that filled her days starting at 5:30 every morning unless you were actually the one holding the dustpan, the mop, the blacking brush, etc.  And no matter how romantic a time seems there always the things that we forget.  To be a woman in service is to be seen as a separate grade of people.  There are servants and then there are those who serve.

As someone who grew up thinking that I could do anything that a man could do it would be hard to suffer popular opinions about what is or isn’t proper for a woman to do.  It would also gall me to no end to allow others to think that they are better than me because they employ me.  I also think that there has been a cultural shift over the years in how we view work.  There was a time when it was “beneath” people to get their hands dirty.  Now we are surrounded by DIY-ers and kickstarters.  Not only do we believe that we can do anything, we’re overwhelmed with options.  I feel, as a woman, the pressure to bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, constantly remind the Mister that he’s a man and also be able to create a seasonally-appropriate table scape and garnish our meal with fresh rosemary that I personally grew in our window garden.

Perhaps I can look at Margaret Powell’s story with envy because she was limited to certain roles and certain tasks.  That today it’s easy to feel that we’re not doing enough simply because we can do so much more.  Somehow the Kelly Ripas and Martha Stewarts of the world have ruined our perception of just how wonderful it is to be a woman right now.  We still have so much further to go and the last few years have been steps backwards in many ways.  However, viewed through the lens of a woman born in 1907, we’ve come a long way, baby.

I have yet to watch Downton Abbey but it’s on my list.  I plan on making myself stupid amounts of tea and buying scones to have with marmalade and clotted cream.  I will binge on the series, don’t you worry.  In the meantime, this book was a welcome tale from a woman I would have loved to share my scones with.  Not my tea though.  You know for certain that I couldn’t make an Englishwoman tea.  Let’s not be silly.



Medieval Travellers: The Rich and the Restless – Margaret Wade Labarge

4 Sep

I really want to tell you about this book but there are two things getting in my way: the writer’s name and the keywords people are using to find my blog. 

First, Labarge.  Every single time I picked up this book I kept thinking of the 80s pop song “Rhythm of the Night” which you can see lyp synced here.  The urge to dance until the morning light kept coming over me.  Sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do and other times you have to lay in bed and read about rich people in the 1400s, know what I mean?  Two chapters in and I just stuck a Post-It™ over the cover to make. it. stop.

Secondly, you keyword searchers.  I know that you’re trying to get out of writing a book report by reading my take.  You know how I know?  Because you type in things like “summary” and “synopsis” after the book title.  Listen, if desperation has brought you to the point of counting on me for helpful advice then keep on being desperate, kids.  Oh, and thanks for stopping by.  I seriously do appreciate it.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the book.  Basically during the medieval period leaders had to get out and show everybody that they were still the boss.  They didn’t do this by diamonds on their grills or firing people on national TV.  What they did was gather a bunch of their staff, friends and the dark ages version of Kato Kaelin and stomped all over their kingdom.  Doing this took a bunch of money and a bunch of time.  First off, the size and splendor of your particular wagon train had to be equal to how much of a rock star you were.  Kings are traveling with 40-60 people as a general rule.  Lords, priests, bishops, queens and other celebs didn’t have as large of a posse but they also didn’t gather their frequent flier miles alone.

So large groups of people traveling together, what does this sound like?  Oh, a tour.  And on a tour, you are with a bunch of your countrymen so this kind of prevents you from having to talk to outsiders which is exactly what happened.  They had one or two guys who were responsible for translating and guiding.  No guidebooks and no phrasebooks for these guys.  They didn’t even have to worry about changing money which was a huge concern back then as going from Paris to Rome could cause you to change through over a dozen different currencies.

Though you didn’t need a passport during these times (or a horridly unfortunate passport photo) you would need a letter of introduction or a go sign from the leader of the country that you would be passing through.  This was back in the day when a lot of the land was city states.  Meaning, if I left Minneapolis today and headed to Eau Claire, I’d have to get someone to sign off on me in St Paul, too. 

And I’d have to bring the guy sweet presents.  In the book Lab… let’s just call her Maggie, describes all these crazy presents that people were giving each other.  Poor servants are tasked with moving leopards, falcons, giraffes and all other wackadoo gifts across the Alps and the sea and plenty of other places.  The leaders of the known world at that time became super hard to shop for because everyone was trying to outdo each other.  You laugh but I better not see you in a stretch Hummer.

Anyway, this book was a fun read and I learned a lot, more than I’m sharing here.  The main point is that people always travelled.  I’m not the first white person to head over to Europe.  In fact, us crackers like to get over there quite a bit, according to Stuff White People Like.  I’m happy to continue the tradition.  While I’m at, remind me I need a falcon.

Maria von Trapp: Beyond the Sound of Music – Candice F. Ransom

24 Jul

Some days the library makes me feel like a grumpy curmudgeon.  I find myself thinking “kids, today!  They don’t know that the library is a place to be quiet.”  But then I look around and half the people who’ve got my dander up are my age or older.  Apparently it is hard to use a computer without repeatedly laughing out loud or talking on a cell phone.  I find myself eyeing the guy at the reference desk and silently willing him to stop asking loud questions about checking out maps.

And then when there actually are kids that are loud I feel so very old.  Was I ever that loud in a library?  I seriously doubt it.  I remember being careful not to turn pages too quickly in fear that I’d be heard.  There was a small fish tank in the children’s section and you could hear it bubbling from anywhere in that room.  It’s totally possible though that I’m kidding myself and that adults were glaring at me as I bobbed along the shelves.

Anyway, when there were loud kids at the library the other day I gave up the book I was reading to go peruse the shelfs.  And that’s when I found this book that I should probably start blogging about now.  It was a really quick read with big print but I would have happily have read a longer book because Maria is as interesting as Rodgers and Hammerstein thought she was.

She had a crap home life, living in fear of her foster parents.  Most of her time was spent inside and her one true joy was music.  Though she became a nun, her first introduction to the church was only after the music she’d been hoping to hear at a church was preempted by a sermon.  She also didn’t wish to be a governess.  She was actually cajoled into serving as one of the young girl’s tutors while she was ill with scarlet fever.  The children’s names and sexes were changed for the musical, by the way.  Anyway, she slowly started caring for the other children.

She did teach them music and Captain von Trapp did become close with his kids through this but this singing also saved their lives.  When Georg refused to bow to the Nazis they escaped and made a living with their singing.  Their visa would eventually expire and they would have to return to Austria but they would again be able to leave thanks to their singing and this time, WWII would prevent their return for some time.

They toured the United States and would give thousands of concerts.  They built a farm, then a camp for music, where they did all the labor themselves.  They enjoyed being together and they worked to share song.  It’s really interesting to read about such a large family and such a spirit as Maria.  I may even read some of the books she read about her family’s experience.  There’s a chance reading about her might make me into a more patient person with kids.  Or at least keep me busy at the library.


Your New BFF: Tintin

18 Jul

Europe seems to be in love with Tintin.  In fact, they have a hard time understanding that the vast majority of Americans have no idea who this guy is.  So let’s learn a bit about him today and when that Spielberg movie comes out you can say you knew him when.

Tintin is a much beloved comic by a man named Georges Remi.  Although he took his initials, turned them around and used that for his pen name – Hergé.  He worked for a newspaper in the 1920s and began drawing Tintin for the children’s section.  His strips would form a story if you read them every day.  Soon he was on to his third tale when books were being made to collect Tintin’s adventures.  This is typical of how Belgians read comics.  Though they see them in newspapers they will typically buy the well-made books for their collections.  Over 60% of the books produced in Belgium are comics.

Tintin's loyal sidekick, Snowy, finds a leak in a whiskey car. Canine drinking is serious business.

Though Tintin first appeared in 1929, it was in 1934 that his character really began to change.  Hergé met a young Chinese student by the name of Chang.  This man helped to understand that his work needed accurate detail.  That Hergé could not make generalizations about foreign lands and people as he did.  To this day Tintin is still criticized for racial stereotypes, sexism and cruelty to animals.  Though Hergé’s work largely reflected the time, it was his meeting with Chang that helped him to see there was another route.  As time went on the research involved in one Tintin book could take as long as four years.

Walt Disney was contacted by Hergé in regards to a possible film deal but he never responded.  Perhaps Tintin was too much competition for Mickey Mouse?  He’s just as popular overseas.  Now Stephen Spielberg is making a movie of the Belgian comic hero.  Although he bought the rights in the 1980s, no project had come to life until now.  And it’s likely to be a trilogy involving Peter Jackson, from what I read.  Not too shabby.  Jackson’s connection might explain why Andy Serkis (better known as Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies) is involved.  Jamie Bell of Billy Elliott will play Tintin.  The movie is expected to be out this fall and has some fantastic-looking previews.

The Hitler Salute: On the Meaning of a Gesture – Tilman Allert

16 Jul

I’ve been putting this post off for a bit, honestly.  Why?  It has to do with something that happened in college.  No, I didn’t get beat up by a skin head or anything.  What happened was that I bought an itty bitty journal, the kind that seem a great idea at the time but that are beyond pointless in execution.  Anyway, in this tiny little thing I was going to write quotes that I thought were interesting, inspiring or whatever kind of quotes you’d write in a journal the size of a pack of gum.

Anyway, when I got around to putting quotes in it the process wasn’t as much fun as I’d planned.  Or any at all.  So I made myself write one down and then I called it a day.  Unfortunately, the one quote I wrote in there had to do with religion controlling people’s minds and it was said by Adolf Hitler.  So… my college roommate saw it and my copy of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and she kind of put two and two together and made a giant negative assumption.  Yeah, she thought I was a Nazi.  Or at least someone who wanted to hang with them.

When I went digging for this image I was reminded again that there is still a lot of scary websites attached to this topic.

Ever since then I’ve been a little worried that others would think the same thing.  Now in the course of learning about European history I’ve been renting documentaries on him, writing about him and reading about him.  I wanted to do as little of that as possible but this is really a good book.  And it’s written by a German, which adds a special perspective to the phenomenon.  And basically I just need to get over myself anyway.

The Hitler Salute is that of saying “heil Hitler!” and raising the right arm out straight at should height.  In July of 1933, an interministerial decree made using this salute mandatory.  Then a few months later it became necessary in public life as well.  It was referred to as the German greeting and it was required to use it every time the new German anthem was played or sung.  They also were required to make the German greeting when they saw police officers, swastika flags or consecrated sights of the Nazi movement.  The amount to which it was done quickly became ludicrous and would have been laughable had it not been so deadly serious.  Germans were saluting sand sculptures of Hitler at the beach, teens were saying “swing heil!” at the dance halls.  “Heil Hitler” was included on bank statements, business letters, order forms and delivery receipts.  Children were given dolls with posable right arms.  And should you forget your duty as a German there were small metal signs posted in public places reminding you.  You could see them on telephone poles, public squares and street lanterns. 

What really stuck with me after reading this book was a point that Allert makes early on.  He explains that the German greeting, as Germans still call it today, did away with the choice of greeting.  We have that choice when we see people every day.  We can smile, say “hi”, make a joke or ignore each other.  It’s a moment between you and that other person.  You decide to open up or not.  You choose to respond or pull your shirt over your head.  It’s optional.

With the German greeting even this basic right was taken away.  The simplest of human expressions was politicized.  You could be sanctioned or punished for failing to partake in it.  That’s scary.  I hope it helps us all to remember the value of being able to be unique.  It’s important to make informed decisions and not coerced ones.  Inspire and don’t require.  And definitely don’t threaten.


Your Butt is Mine

9 Jul

Today’s post is about your “personal business” and travel. When you go abroad so does your digestive system. It’s not always thrilled with this proposition either. During my reading this past day I’ve run into a couple of things that made me pause and consider it.

I’ve been lucky enough to avoid the many biological time bombs that traveling can sometimes serve up. First off, I pretty much eat anything whether I’m at home or on a street in Tijuana  Perhaps it’s my continual willingness to roll the dice that helps me out here. Or maybe I haven’t gone anywhere foreign enough yet. If I just jinxed myself to a close personal friendship with a hotel latrine then so be it. I think I may just have it coming.

I started thinking about this as I was reading Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson. He is a cartoonist and I don’t have any of his other work but I saw this on one of my many recent trips to the library and I read it in one go. The book is compiled of his sketchbook during a trek through France, Morocco, Barcelona and the Alps. He makes sure that you know that this is just for fun but enjoy it anyway and I did. I took a picture of the section where he wrote about travel diarrhea because it made me laugh so loudly that our dog Henry thought I was barking.

Then today I started reading a book I not only checked out from the library but reserved called A Guidebook to the Bathrooms of the World by Lilín M. Rauchle. And even for a book about bathrooms it’s pretty darn bad. Lilín can’t seem to stop herself from putting exclamations at the end of every sentence. It’s as if we’ve had a bad date but she doesn’t get it and she’s hoping that we can do this again real soon! She had a fantastic time and it was really great to meet me!

Her book is chock full of opinions without information and photos that shouldn’t have even been processed let alone published in a book that I’m sure someone donated to the library (or left in the bathroom). Some are overexposed so that you cannot even see what it is that she’s describing. It’s less a guidebook than a sad walk down someone’s memory lane, one where the toilet seat is always up and the comments are always about squatting. I will admit to writing a letter to a friend on DeutscheBahn toilet paper. That stuff you got on the trains was not Charmin, that’s for sure. That’s what makes traveling exotic… maybe someone has written a guidebook of the different ways to wipe your bum?  Fascinating!  A really good read!  Let’s do this again real soon like!

In The Garden of Beasts – Erik Larson

5 Jul

Before I get much farther here I should give you the whole title of the book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. This book is from the same author who wrote Devil in the White City which I also loved. That one was about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and serial killer who preyed on its crowd. In the Garden of Beasts focuses on an evil much more widespread.

This book is a page turner. I read it on my Kindle at the gym and my workouts flew by as I devoured it. This non-fiction book centers on the Dodd family in 1933. The father, a former professor, would serve as a reluctant ambassador to Germany during this turbulent time in history. The daughter, Martha, would play coquette and Russian roulette. She would date high-ranking party members, enjoying her flirtation with danger.

Dodd starts his post with a wish not to stir the pot. He hopes to keep the peace with Hitler’s Germany at any cost. The longer he stays in Berlin, the more he sees that a black cloud is taking over. Few in the American State Department will listen and they focus instead on his limited budget and his absence at Nazi rallies.

Meanwhile Martha is courting Russian spies, Nazis and… (drum roll) trouble. She initially sympathizes with the Nazis and it takes long exposure to this new world for her to wakeup to the harsh reality. People are being killed, lives ruined and democracy is a thing of the past.

Seeing this point in the National Socialist party from the view of Americans is terribly interesting. Larson delivers history with drama just as he did in Devil in the White City. It’s not drama for drama’s sake though, nowhere is it added where it didn’t already exist. He is cautious with his details and shares the facts as a journalist would, allowing us to draw our own conclusions. A terrific read even without the elliptical.

Uncorked: The Science of Champagne – Gérard Liger-Belair

29 Jun

Yes, I read a book about the science of champagne.  I’m just as puzzled by that as you are.  Or worse… maybe you’re not puzzled at all and consider this just something that I would do.  After all, I’ve taken time to write up a list of uses for dental floss.  It’s less sinking to a new low and more rising to a new weird.

This book was really good though in its own merry way.  And for someone who doesn’t give a hoot about physics as they apply to her daily life, I was suprised at how readable it was.  Perhaps it helps that the author is a charming Frenchman.  He’s also an Associate Professor of Physical Sciences at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne.  So he’s a smarty pants, too.  He even closes the book by saluting the reader for taking the time to learn about this fair art and to increase one’s vocabulary in regards to beauty.  I was so flattered that I told the Mister of this and he smirked as he said “surfactants?  Yes, a whole new vocabulary of beauty, baby.”  He’s not as easily charmed (or amused) as I am.

Let me quickly sum up the points that I thought were the most interesting.  First off, there isn’t a single grape used for champagne.  A typical bottle has about 40 different wines in it.  And someone very talented blends them together and knows how it will taste after they have fermented.  It’s like fortune telling for booze.  There is a certain amount of turning that happens during the fermentation, too.  Otherwise the dead yeast cells would form a nice little souvenir at the bottom of the bottle.  Lovely.  The French even came up with a process for removing the yeast that involves freezing the neck and then removing the cork.  The ice shoots out and some wine comes out with it.  This is when they add a propietary blend of wine and sugar.  You see the sugar is what helps to create the fizzing and the slightly higher alcoholic content of champagne.

Then there’s the glass we’re drinking the stuff out of.  In the past the goblet was preferred and there are stories of the shape being inspired by legendary breasts, such as those of Madame Pompadour or Marie Antoinette.  Shapes asize, the goblet doesn’t allow for much bubbling.  There is more surface space for the bubbles to escape.  Nowadays most of us drink from a flute (or directly from the bottle, you lushes!).  The long stem and small mouth mean for more bubbles, wouldn’t Lawrence Welk be thrilled?

I also learned how the bubbles function differently in champagne and beer than in sparkling water.  In beer and champagne the bubbles have proteins to hold onto.  These bits are called surfactants and they weigh the bubble down.  So as it rises to the surface, a few surfactants stabilize but too many slow it down so much that the whole chain is disturbed.  It’s like a production line where Laverne and Shirley are drunk.  Lastly, I learned that there has to be something in your glass – some lint, a stray bit of dust, something – to allow for bubble formation.  If you tried pouring bubbly in a sterile glass it would look like flat wine.  Since those bubbles deliver aromas and a tickle to your nose we want them to stick around.  Or at least we do now, they weren’t always popular and it took a boost from the court of Louis XIV to get things moving.  Yet another thing that we have to thank the Sun King for.  Salut!

Brunelleschi’s Dome – Ross King

24 Jun

You have to hand it to the Italians.  They certainly have chutzpah.  Not only can they create miracles with carbohydrates, they know that their technology will match their imagination if only given enough time.  For example, Leonardo da Vinci had designs for the bicycle and flying machines.  Then there’s the story of Santa Maria del Fiore and Brunelleschi’s dome.  If you hadn’t guessed it, that’s what we’re talking about today.

See those black circles on the dome? That's Brunelleschi's design to channel wind force. Brilliant!

 In 1296 construction began on Santa Maria del Fiore.  The design called for a large dome.  So large a dome, in fact, that the techniques to build it had yet to be invented.  Work started anyway and would continue, more or less, until 1436.  When completed it would claim the world’s largest masonry dome and it holds this record today.  Now that we can build with steel frames, feats like the Astro Dome are possible.  But are they as beautiful as the Duomo in Florence?  Is the Pope Presbyterian?

 You could say that Filippo Brunelleschi was awarded the job because he was a sore loser.  The wool guild who was in charge of building the Duomo (and Florence is all about the guilds, you may have heard of their guild of medical doctors.  Does the name Medici ring a bell?) initially had a contest for a different building.  The Baptistery, one of three buildings in the Piazza del Duomo besides, you know, the Duomo, needed doors.  Andrea Pisano had created bronze doors for the south entrance.  New doors were needed for the north.  Brunelleschi entered, as did his rival Ghiberti.  They both turned in elaborate designs.  Back in the 1300 and 1400s a small scale model for consideration meant months of work.  For example, Brunelleschi’s model for the dome was 12 feet high… but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

 The guild then awarded a tie to Brunelleschi and Ghiberti.  They were to work on the doors together and sing songs about cooperation.  Filippo was less than thrilled and so he took his ball and moved to Rome.  While there he licked his wounds and studied ancient Roman architecture.  He’d measure angles and arches and… domes.  He was there between 13-14 years, sources differ, and then he returned to Florence.  And as luck would have it, they were having another contest.  This time for who would build the dome and we all know this time our little pouter ended up on top, beating out his rival, Ghiberti.  Ahhhh, snap!

 During the dome’s construction, many different design and functional elements were created by Brunelleschi.  He created a hoist that was able to lift marble pieces weighing tons to the top of the structure.  The hoist was so large that the rope used was custom made in Pisa by shipbuilders.  It was 600 feet long and weighed 1,000 pounds.  Without it the work would have halted as conventional wisdom only included a kind of treadmill worked by as many as two workers.  It was limited by weight and by height.  Here again the Italian belief that technology would match creativity came into play and the hoist went off without a hitch.

So, in summary, Brunelleschi’s Dome: How A Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture was endlessly fascinating.  King is really deft at incorporating so many areas of history into Brunelleschi’s tale.  I was amazed at how much detail he was able to share about people who lived so long ago.  How they looked, how they were paid, what they ate and how they worked up a good prank.  Even if you don’t have any interest in architecture (that’s me, raising my hand!) you will enjoy this.  And if you’re lucky enough to visit Florence, walking up all those steps to stand atop the dome will seem even greater a thrill… once you stop wheezing.

The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde – Joseph Pearce

22 Jun

I read this book on my Kindle at the gym while surrounded by sweating people on ellipticals.  I think that Oscar Wilde would have been appalled to know that I could read about him while wearing mismatched socks and a shirt that reads “More Cowbell”. 

Wilde was a poet, an author and a personality.  He knew the value of publicity; good, bad and ugly.  He was born an Irish boy, schooled as a English lad and died as a Parisian.  His life was a work of art and he lived a life that still captivates us today over a hundred years after his death.

In his early adulthood he wore knee breeches and silk stockings with lace cuffs in an age when others wore sedate pants and staid collars.  And even with this flashy style of dress he didn’t realize he was gay yet.  Add to this that he was 6’3″ and able to hold his own in a fight and he’s quite a complex fellow.

He was married and had two children, Cyril and Vyvyan.  Yes, Vyvyan.  It’s pronounced Viv-yin.  Contemporaries insist that he married because he was in love with his wife.  He was a devoted father but during his wife’s pregnancy he was revolted by her body.

Then in 1889 Oscar was introduced love with men by a student he was tutoring.  It would only be two years until he met the love of his life and began a downward slant to his career and a quick end at 46.  Lord Alfred Douglas was much younger and beautiful and Wilde called him Bosie.  The two often sought the company of young boys.

This behavior and his relationship with Bosie put Wilde directly in hot water.  Douglas’s father would seek to ruin Wilde’s reputation.  When Wilde took some bad legal advice and sued him for libel all his questionable activities were aired in the open.  In the late 1800s being gay was considered a crime.  Oscar was sentenced to two years hard labor in Reading Gaol.  Once released he would spend some years in Paris, bankrupt and alone, before his eventual death.

Oscar Wilde was the century’s most talented wit.  Even from the grave his plays and quoted remarks are still pleasing us.  Someone said that Oscar’s talent was in making the listener, the reader, the audience member feel smart.  I think the necessity of having the open secret of his homosexuality drove him to treat his life as if it was two sides of coin.  That’s where the masks in the title comes in. 

Lastly, I don’t think that I’ve captured Wilde in this post at all.  I just shared a bunch of information about him.  The main to describe about him was that he defied description.  Or labels.  And this book was fantastic, sweatpants and all.