17 Books Behind Schedule, But Who’s Counting?

I just got a rather sad look at my Goodreads 2020 Reading Challenge:

I didn’t do so well in 2019 either, as I mentioned earlier this year.

In the past I’ve said I didn’t care, that a book challenge shouldn’t be about the number of books I read. I should be trying out new genres, have a go at my TBR shelf, re-read old faves – something of more substance and intellectual curiosity than achieving high numbers. And yet here I am getting all mopey because my number is low.

I suppose there is something to be said for a number, perhaps an indicator that things are moving along for you – or not, if the numbers start to fall. For instance, I used to read roughly 60 books a year, which I am quite content to admit isn’t really all that impressive, but it was me. It was me moving into other worlds, learning about history, being told a story the way humans are always wanting to be told a story.

And I will also admit, it was kind of cool to be greeted with phrases such as, “5 books ahead of schedule.”

And now ~

17 books behind schedule.

OK, I’ll be honest. I’m not losing sleep over this. It does give me pause to know I’m not engaging in something I typically adore and have all my life. But I love sleep. I often fall asleep reading. I can’t blame it all on Covid, because this downturn was occurring before Novel Corona was a thing (it didn’t help, though, I agree).

Normally I’m not adversely affected by the cold and dark of our winters, but I will admit I do feel something wonderful with the onset of nicer weather, and my deck is definitely calling my name. Also, I picked up a research book I’d been reading, one I’d finished at least half of before I had to return it to the library, which then closed and stayed that way for months. I did finally find a decently-priced copy online; when I reached for it recently, I realized I should just start over, and that didn’t feel burdensome or unhappy in any way.

That must mean something sunny, mustn’t it?

Just for fun…

I leave you with a cover image of my favorite book in the whole wide world.

 

Book Review: The Ghost Midwife: Murder at Rotten Row and The Midnight Midwife

The Ghost Midwife: Murder at Rotten Row and The Midnight Midwife
Books II and III in the Seventeenth Century Midwives series
by Annelisa Christensen

Straight out of the gate: Having read and loved Annelisa Christensen’s earlier novel, The Popish Midwife, I reviewed it, and was rather excited when I received word about two newer books in the Seventeenth Century Midwives series: The Ghost Midwife and The Midnight Midwife. When at last viewing the slim volumes in my hands, I was a little disappointed, because I am a greedy reader, and when I love something, I want lots of it! Fear not, dear reader, as there is much to admire packed into the pages of these two smaller books. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the warm beauty of Christensen’s covers, with images framed by what could be a window, from which the reader gazes out upon scenes bathed in the yellowish light of the evening lanterns, all contrasted against the bright red, green and blue of a dress or cloak. The pictures are signature Midwives, and the moods they create absolutely match those of the stories within.

While writing and researching The Popish Midwife, the author happened upon “A New Ballad of the Midwives Ghost” and writes in her afterward: “Many ballads of the time were the equivalent of news stories made more enjoyable and memorable by putting them to music. The songs might have been sung in taverns or coffee houses, or learned and sung in the home or elsewhere.” This may strike modern audiences as a macabre practice, but then again, maybe not: Our own children still play “Ring Around the Rosy” and jump rope to a song about Lizzie Borden, while teens and adults alike engage in memery with topics lifted directly from the headlines. Christensen was no less moved, and her intellectual pursuit of the ballad’s origins resulted in The Midwife Ghost, a mix of history and imagination stemming from her knowledge of and admiration for the real midwives of the seventeenth century.

In 1679 London, young Mary enters service in a well-to-do house on Rotten Row, where she soon encounters the ghost of a midwife with some very specific instructions. Following a series of ghastly and frightening events that send alarm throughout the servant staff, all eyes fall on Mary, who discovers a dark and terrible secret that had been hiding in the home for fifteen years. It is up to her to work through the problem of her knowledge and what to do, while simultaneously the others begin to view her with suspicion.

One thing I love best about Christensen’s writing is its aura, the words she chooses that fit her stories, characters and the time so well. Moreover, the individual nuance makes itself known: Mary’s pleas to hear her story out before any judgment is passed, while wise with the understanding that hers is indeed a fantastic tale, could not be the words of Catholic Elizabeth Cellier, or even midwife Abigale, who in The Midnight Midwife also finds herself trapped within circumstance. Each woman has her own distinct voice, while simultaneously revealing themselves as persons of their time. Thus is the author’s skillful balance between depicting members of a society and people operating within the infancy of individualism.

As a ghost story, Mary’s yarn is probably best at the length it is, despite my own ravenous appetite for more. With this, Christensen’s judgement on length is validated, and the divisions between segments of the tale sit in perfect points. Through events as well as the way the characters speak, readers also get a solid idea of how seventeenth-century folk perceived their world, what frightened them, what was important. But these are not merely a gaggle of grownups on a more childlike level, or simple people in “a simpler time.” We may fancy ourselves more shrewd today, but Mary knows the world she inhabits: she knows, for example, to press the stubs of candles together to earn a few pennies, and doesn’t cringe when pulling an unseen cobweb from a dark recess.

I fortified myself with another deep breath. I could not leave it this way. A man never did find a misplaced thing, even if it was waved before his face. If I had imagined it all, it did seem as if it were real, and I would not believe it was nothing until I had searched in that hole myself.

Christensen brings us face to face with the awareness that our ability to be unafraid was preceded by those who first faced those ghosts. So too does she show us that our ancestors tackled the mysteries and vagaries of humanity, on levels corporeal and spiritual. Such is the challenge of the above-mentioned midwife, Abigale, who adopts a baby, also called Mary, an act that ushers in with it the holding of a secret that later threatens to destroy their lives utterly.

By the time this threat makes itself known, Mary is a 21-year-old sister to two other adopted girls and talented helper to her mother in the various birthing rooms Abigale serves in. However, Mary’s grown-up self is not the same as the baby she once was, and Abigale comes to understand that she has a choice to make, one that may serve to destroy her family or keep it whole.

Once more Christensen brings us into the mindset of seventeenth-century people faced with a fearful circumstance, again maintaining a balance, here between the depiction of their social and individual selves. The circumstances are both familiar and not to our modern world, as are the demands, sympathies and cruelties of human nature. Perhaps less familiar today, at least to some, is the comfort and guidance found in spiritual works, such as Saint Augustine’s City of God, from which comes the understanding that an omniscient God sees the whole that explains the diversity and similarity of parts, which individually contribute to providing an overall balance.

As a philosophy, it is often neglected in our modern world, particularly on a secular level and within varying contexts, and Christensen’s story takes her characters, and us, through a labyrinth of experience wherein they, often like us, seek the balance to which they belong and, therefore, the beauty of the whole. If this sounds a bit like dense reading , here is where you exhale, because the author does not need to engage deep and difficult texts in order to convey all this. Her character interaction is smooth and realistic, authentic in the differences they face as well as create, and the dialogue is superb in so many ways: there is a true seventeenth-century feel to it, even while we recognize much of what people say and how they behave.

Also based on a seventeenth-century ballad, The Midnight Midwife brings us into the joys and sorrows of one family headed by a single-parent midwife – the neglect of which, as a subject of study, Christensen here contributes to eliminating. In examining the fierce love of a mother and how far she will go – or stand back – to protect her child, she explores varied facets of seventeenth-century society and private life, the history of which are the beginnings of our own understanding.

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Author Annalisa Christensen provided the blogger with copies of The Ghost Midwife and The Midnight Midwife in order to facilitate an honest review.

Annelisa Christensen is also the author of A-Z Monsters (Not) for Bed.

She can be found at Twitter and Facebook.

Sometimes it’s the Little Things

I’m sure I’m not alone in looking back on this past month with mixed feelings: glad to be moving away from it, but harboring misgivings about not having been as productive as I’d hoped. I do, after all, have a book to finish writing and had begun to do art journaling, though haven’t really completed much. Really, I ask myself on occasion, what in the world have you been doing?

But accomplishments aren’t always tangible, and the most important one these few weeks has been spending time with my teenage son, who has been engaging his film passion, most lately with watching the Harry Potter series. Having grown up reading and watching the tales, he stumbled into a long session of film-clip clowning, imitating the scenes and playing pretend. Eventually, our separate existences—mine being the one allowed to leave for work each day, but strangely exhausted at night—these existences merged and we went from “I want to see that clip real quick” to watching the entire series from start to finish. We’ve both also decided to re-read all the books. You could say we are on the same page.

U.S. edition cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Early this morning: I’d gone to sleep at about midnight but restlessness drove me to the kitchen by around 05:00. On the way I was gifted with a picture of the sun rising over the mountains. My Turtle had been watching it from the window and, struck by the orange beginning to peek over the mountains, wanted me to be able to see it as well. As it happened I came up behind him as he watched, so we both got to see the real thing.

Not as orange and glorious as reality, but perhaps you can imagine the edge between day and night.

Last week at work our section chief passed me a little packet that at first I took to be some sort of booklet I needed to do something with, but that actually turned out to be a present with a book inside. Surprising, to say the least, but that was nothing compared to my astonishment at the card, signed by everyone not telecommuting. How did they get this around to each other without me noticing? As I looked through The Bucket List: 1000 Adventures Big and Small, I sort of got stuck on one image of Norway’s Kjerag Mountain, more specifically a boulder wedged into the seemingly bottomless crevice. There is a lot more to see in the beautifully heavy book, with its snippets of information about 999 other places across the globe, a true starting point for armchair or other adventure.

Personal photo from one of the world’s most recognizable spots, included, of course, in The Bucket List.

At some point this week I was able to get everything up off the floor in my dining room and the carpet cleaned properly. It looked so beautiful and clear, which means a lot to me, given that when my surroundings are cluttered and chaotic, my mind tends to have difficulty escaping that. If the area is clear and organized, my focus is much improved. The clarity inspired me to take up my son’s offer to help  me move a bookshelf out of a spot I disliked any bookshelf in because it was a smaller area and the space used up simply shrunk everything too much. For better or worse, this meant I had to choose a fair amount of books to pack away, but he offered space in his closet, which meant I could get to the boxes fairly easily at any time, unlike other situations in which it would have been a big production and they would be, for all intents and purposes, off limits.

My newly rearranged smaller bookshelf, with a variety of categories: some previous review titles, a few classics, history and, at bottom, the paper lovers’ magazines I’ve spoken of before, most of which focus on a mindfulness theme. A deliberate choice I made, despite its consequence of less space for books, was to place items, such as the basket and Russian bowl, in its own space. This was to avoid clutter and a feeling of being bloated and overpacked. For me, this promotes a sense of relaxation and ease.

As we move into the newly developing world we are to inhabit, I do it with a sense of clean lines in life, having shed some extra weight, albeit not, as has happened in the past, a ruthless purge. My son had “consoled” me with the the reminder that at any time I want to switch books out or retrieve any, I can. Ah, yes, I do still hang on to some of the material: I am getting rid of a beautiful bookshelf, but continue to find it difficult to release books. Still, it suits, especially as I am laying out ideas to prepare my long-unused deck for summertime, and I try to retain a balance within my home, that is, keeping with a bring-it-in, send-it-out equilibrium.

While I haven’t finished much on anything that might qualify as a quarantine masterpiece, I did pave my way toward something I dream of accomplishing, and the pathway was a bit more delightful than had I traveled a hard road of focused determination. Memories and the creation thereof have been woven into each moment, even the really difficult ones, and sharing them is the best way I could have done this.

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Pictures ©2020 Lisl Zlitni. Not to be used without permission.

Journaling Life: Quarantine Caption Edition

So, the quarantine is full upon us and my table is a wreck. Looking back at the end of March, I recall the last weekend before we all had to stay inside: I’d gone thrifting and emerged with an amazing haul of stuff, which is lucky for me because in Alaska our craft stores don’t have curbside pickup; they’re now completely closed. And, of course, thrift stores – also shuttered. The jokes circulate about how when all this is over, craft-y types will be going thrifting (Starbucks who?) because at the present time everyone is cleaning out their houses while we’re stuck inside them.

My reason for doing this is partly to clear up (it is spring time after all), but also to go looking for some stuff I could use for crafting and that might inspire and propel me into new projects. I’ve loaded a few pics to show off a bit of my haul and also some items of my own I pulled to one side that just might have some potential. 🙂

Every household has these sorts of items, from the empty cereal boxes to old letters or postcard collections, plastic detritus to be saved from the landfill, or half-used ribbon someone just didn’t want anymore. Check out the Tube of You for some videos and/or tutorials: what people do with this stuff is truly astounding. My table is still a disaster, but it helps keep me busy and my mind off the long haul till we meet again.

This box and its matching bottles of beautifully-scented soaps seduced me, and I have plans for even the clear protective cover ~Threads, golden string and boa ribbon! ~ A gift bag with great potential: stripes or floral pattern, twisted-rope and eyelets can all adorn many a design page with endless possibilities.

 

 

An electronic play-around with the master board below…can you spot the differences?

Journaling Life: Anatomy of a Journal Entry

Last week I presented an entry on a mixed media journal page I created, wrote a bit about how relaxing it was and inserted a few images. I went on mainly to talk about the process and how it appears, but today I wanted to touch briefly upon the internal workings of such projects. As I’ve mentioned before, a friend had persuaded me to give it a go, and it turned out to suit me very well. I’ve noticed that it’s not uncommon I start doing something journal-y, thinking I’ll just be at it for a few—because this feeling of having to move along quickly is what we as a society have been trained to do, and I loathe it, but it’s a really difficult lifetime habit to break free from. With this activity, though, there is something about it that beckons us deeper into the process, and time passes before you know it.

I was privileged to witness the creation of Girl on Canvas by Stephanie Hopkins, and it remains one of my favorite of her pieces. It reminds me so much of a brick wall whose chipped away surface reveals hints of life in earlier times. Perhaps old poster advertisements, lost and found notices, sales specials or even health warnings, such as now, in our own era. Click images for more details. (Photo courtesy Stephanie Hopkins)

One might get a lot or very little done in, say, a two-hour period, and it generally doesn’t matter either way, because the process is what I’m looking at here. This isn’t to say the results aren’t important, and I do in fact appreciate greatly the beautiful work I see from so many talented people. But I have found that when I do finish a project, its beauty alone isn’t what makes me love it so much, but also my experience in its creation.

When I completed this project, I was elated. Sure it had some elements I might change were I to do it again, but overall I was quite happy with it, despite its imperfections. I remembered wanting to get back to it, which is something I hadn’t been experiencing in the past couple of years, even within activities I have loved my entire life. That alone was so significant, and I started to feel as being cut off from my passions maybe won’t be so forever after all. The new wings of the project were lifting me up a bit, even if only just a little, which really helped so much.

My next project didn’t take quite so long to create, even though it was also spaced out in time a bit, and it matched my mood: subdued, but not so much negative. I didn’t really choose the colors; it was as if some unseen hand drew me to the ones I wanted (needed?) and, despite having sorted through my ephemera dozens of times before and not finding anything suitable, this time particular items jumped out at me. They really did speak to my internal activity: a richly rosed-up metallic shade of bronze hinted at a boldness I may have felt, but acted upon quietly; matching material with shades of the same that reflected my craving for complementary, sort of an emotionally symmetric sensation; while simultaneously adding in a strike of contrast for balance. The butterfly perched upon that brought in and gazed over a sense of continuity in my new joy, which was more of a very peaceful undertone that lasted long after project’s end. It is the sort of contentment that functioning within a world of intense rush erases and eliminates, and being within it once more added to how wonderful it felt.

The next day I began another project, this time with an idea toward something a little different, moving away from strips and taking on something with more substance, something that also might be meaningful for an observer rather than just myself. Still, I also was yearning to reach back to my roots and explore poetry—actual words, but also a sort of poetry of thought or feeling. One of our local grocery store’s floral section is topped by words in script that read, “Poetry in Bloom,” which I think is so apt a way in which to describe flowers, which can so often touch someone in the same manner as poetry.

Left and above: Hints of what is yet to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hoped to do this as well with my piece and, remembering the appreciation I felt seeing others’ projects, started out with angles I know I enjoy. It may be silly to some, but there is indeed a brand of happiness to be gotten from certain combinations, effects, images, presentations. Sometimes the viewer observes one item at the outset, such as a key tied to a ribbon, attached to a button, surrounded by matching shapes, affixed to the fold of an envelope or pocket. My key, as seen in the image below, is a heart held in the hand of someone turning it, and that abstract sort of beauty is included in the prettiness of the key itself, combined with the loveliness of the ribbon and button—well, it’s pleasing to the eye (at least I think so) and I have wondered of the workings of the brain and all its attendant chemicals. I don’t really know much about that at all, but there does seem to be some sense of delight at opening the envelope to pull out the little card secreted inside, bearing lines from various works, including some poems, that speak of love.

Perhaps it is no accident that the card’s final poetic message reads, “One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life; that word is love.”

Closing the flap back up doesn’t put an end to all this, for there remains what was there before we checked inside: a happy little golden flower surrounded by a few other, smaller ones resting on a very soft material whose threads reach out, beckoning us to the best of human emotions that so often aids in dealing with what is not so lovely.

It probably would be accurate to say that not everything in mixed media journals needs to have any sort of deeper meaning, and I suppose I’ll also create lots of those too. Or perhaps they do have deeper meaning but, not unlike the formation of these therapeutic labors, the process is the principle. We don’t always have to talk about it, but do enjoy.

 

Journaling Life: New Wings and Ephemera Edition

I’ve written more than once about my need to move away from doing only (or mainly) book reviews and pick up other topics, food and photography being two persistent interests. Another hobby has recently developed, probably borne from working on altered books with my son when he was little. It was great fun and the capacity for creativity is truly endless.

Daphne’s Diary, I admit, has little to do with this entry, but I do look to it often for pleasure and inspiration. It is a paper lover’s paradise! Nearly the entire magazine could be used for ephemera, but I can’t bring myself to cut it up.

More recently a friend had been encouraging me to try out art/junk journaling, and it wasn’t difficult to get me on board. I love the beautiful designs and creations, and it definitely doesn’t hurt that so many of the materials used in projects come from items we all have in our homes, accumulating without us even realizing. Thrifting, which I did last weekend, bringing home a lovely haul, is also another option, much less costly than buying new and with the added benefit of a wider variety to choose from because stock isn’t dependent upon the latest craze.

However, I was also to discover something else that made me quickly love this process even more, namely the feelings stirred within. Partly it was an ability to just keep going, even when my creation didn’t have the same lovely look as, say, one I saw online. Also, there was an almost mysterious feeling of peacefulness accompanying the work, one that gently sweeps you into it, allowing you to let go of the worries you had before you sat down.

I began to experience this last week when I attempted my first project: a mixed media page in a journal I wanted to continue to write in, but also fancy up a bit. I followed along with a friend’s video, gluing pages to make them more sturdy, Modge Podging a magazine page to it, adding and spreading the acrylic paint with an old credit card, mixing it up a bit with another color. I had to stop a few times to do chauffeur duty, run errands and the like, go to work and so on. Indeed, it took a couple of days to get this far, and periodically I would stop to gaze at the lovely colors, mixtures of green and blue that I have always loved. Here, though, something seemed off, and it began to dawn on me that the bold colors stood out perhaps a bit too much. They were so…intense.


ephemera noun | \ i-ˈfe-mər-ə , ˈfem-rə \
1: something of no lasting significance —usually used in plural
2: ephemera plural : paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles
Example of ephemera in a sentence
He has a large collection of old menus and other ephemera.


There was also the sensation of much missing—though I thought this was because I’d not added anything yet—along with the undulating manner in which the paper had dried. Once I was able to sit back down with it, I realized I’d painted. The. Wrong. Page. I quickly glued my painted page to a couple of others and then out of nowhere decided to throw on some mustard-colored paint. I’m not really sure why. It was a bit impulsive, but I didn’t hate the way it looked, and I suppose I was willing to try, then dislike it, because I could always do something about it. This is such a wonderful reality of art journaling, because so much in life isn’t like that, and any perfectionist tendencies honed in other endeavors can inhibit creativity in this one. That was something I knew I’d have to get used to, but it really did help me feel more confident to move ahead and go with the flow.

The pages propped up are the ones I glued; the side touching the tube was the one meant to be painted.

Next up came the gesso phase, which wasn’t a smashing success, but with a little blotting its appearance really changed a lot, and I was soon ready to start adding some ephemera. Here was where I knew better what I was doing—mostly. Stephanie had sent me some beautiful butterflies and I felt they were a great metaphor for the direction I was heading, or at least hoped to be. Looking at doing many things quite a bit differently to how I’d done in the past, perhaps even becoming a bit of a new person in the process. Though I don’t always feel it in a grand, soaring manner, I still saw the possibilities for change, as if I had new wings after having undergone a transformation to get this far. So those were the only two words I wanted on this page, along with my butterflies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From gesso to impulse addition to playing with different looks for the finale. 

In these sessions I learned from practical experience how to bond with the materials, and I’m excited to do a lot more. In the end I recognize that it’s not a masterpiece, but it came from the heart and was a labor of love. It means all the more that the butterflies were gifted to me, recalling that so much we aim for soars higher with the support and encouragement of people who care about us.

Precise definition for ephemera, a semi-new word for me (that is,
I’d heard it before but had to look it up recently) found here

More to come about another project I recently did and loved!

There is also much, much more at Stephanie’s website, Layered Pages, where she has loads of fun and lovely projects. 

The Book of Answers

I was planning to do a blog this weekend with my completed mixed media project – my first ever! Well, at least as an adult and after I went a bit wild with a cool couple of awesome hauls at the thrift stores. (Definitely more about that to come!)

Preview of my take. Those big green books were ten cents each!

For better or worse, my weekend was a bit filled with research reading and paying attention to  my son, who was preparing for two more weeks of Spring Break, extended owing to school closures and COVID-19. Believe it or not, prepping someone bracing himself for a fortnight of nothing scheduled is rather time consuming and even exhausting.

Anyway, so I didn’t get much done (read: I got nothing), though I did organize my pictures this evening. Once I saw how long that took me I knew I wouldn’t have a blog finished and gave it up until tomorrow.

But!

As is so often the case, my friend Vita came to the rescue, with a fantastic gift that I simply had to share with you! She’d texted to let me know she’d dropped something at my door – practicing “social distancing” as we are – including a book for me and one for my son. “I think you will know which book is for each of you!”

When I opened the door I was delighted to find, amongst other items, two books from the Book of Answers series, which I’d become acquainted with when I was gifted The Big Book of Answers at my farewell party from my previous job.

Like the above-mentioned book, each of the two we received today is a fat little bundle of goodness you hold in your hands and focus as you ask it a closed-end question, such as, “Is the job I’m applying for the right one?” or “Should I travel this weekend?” Even better, however, these two are tailor made just for us! OK, well, people like us. 🤭

As a serious film aficionado, Turtle is now the proud owner of The Movie Book of Answers and I, well, what else but The Literary Book of Answers? Yes, indeed, Vita knows us very well!!

And of course, the questions began to fly…

Will I be able to finish my blog tomorrow evening?

“It’s what [you] bring that really counts.” — L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Will I enjoy the book I’m currently reading? (American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins)

“It is worth more than you offer.” – James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers

 Then I became a bit more ambitious…

 Will I complete my current WIP within twelve months?

“Control yourself.” – Gustav Flaubert, Madame Bovary

 It’s like magic! Not only do the answers almost always seem to suit the questions asked, but they also can frequently be interpreted in more ways than one. My WIP question’s answer, for example, could be telling me to get over myself or that with the right measure, it could happen!

Turtle got in in the action too:

Will COVID-19 end soon?

“[You] have nothing to lose.” – Lester Burnham, American Beauty

 Will they put Roman Holiday on Blu Ray?

“[What] you do could have repercussions on future events.” – Doc Brown, Back to the Future

 Will A Quiet Place II be a good movie?

“The force will  be with you, always.” – Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, Star Wars

See what I mean? I suspect a conversation could even get a bit philosophical if anybody were so inclined. For now, though, I’ll just keep it easy and possibly spend a portion of the rest of the evening asking questions and entertaining myself. And until next time, indeed, may “the force be with you, always.”

Stay safe and healthy, peeps, keep busy, remember the Italians who are singing to one another, and be of good cheer!

Grazi, Vita!!!

Cinema 2019: Top Three

So now that I’ve talked a tad about books, allow me to turn our attention to some movies from 2019 I’ve seen and feel worthy to discuss. I’m not an aficionado like my teenaged son, who has been studying film and film history for years but, as I’ve long maintained, liking, even needing, to be told stories is coded into human DNA. I like most genres, but especially love a good mystery, drama, even comedy. My favorite for years has been Casablanca, and no amount of persuasion has ever been able to budge that. There are loads of movies I love—more on that in an upcoming blog—but nothing beats Bogart & Bergman and “We’ll always have Paris.” It was even my go-to sickbed film.

Most of the time I go to the cinema with himself, and it’s not unusual for me to be talked into checking out certain flicks because they are ones I might not have chosen to see on my own. I’m happy to report that I like most of them; occasionally, I’m more enthusiastic about one than either of us expected. Every so often I’m less than impressed. This time there were, however, a few I felt worthy of special mention because they touched me in a meaningful, more long-lasting manner, and maybe they will you too.

Honorable Mention:
Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

While I’m not a ginormous fan of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, I can see what a good director he is, with shots that work perfectly and tight sequences embedded in nostalgia and paying homage to people and the era in which they lived. Set in 1969 Hollywood, with Sharon Tate and a declining Tinseltown as major characters (even if you don’t see the fabulous Margot Robbie’s Tate very often), Once Upon a Time gives us a view of life backstage and is advantaged with fantastic scenery and costuming. Brad Pitt as a heartthrob was never that impressive to me, but now, older and with a different aura about him, one that conveys a flawed nature, seemingly without much effort, his performances comes off as more on point and authentic. Of course, it helps that his character has more dimension, but I still think he brings something to the role that makes it truly his.

My top three:

Ford v. Ferrari (James Mangold)

3. Don’t let anyone tell you this is a movie for boys only—my mistake ran along those lines. This is one of the shows I was persuaded to go watch and I’m glad I did. First of all, yeah, Christian Bale is sort of out there, but he’s a damn good actor and gives heart to Ken Miles, a sports car racing engineer I’d barely heard of but as a character came to care about. Playing a major role in Henry Ford II’s efforts to compete with Enzo Ferrari’s racing cars, Miles is a little on the edge and this very non-racing-enthusiast was absolutely thrilled with the speed and how the main players dance with each other in their battles of wits.

I found Catriona Balfe’s performance as Mollie Miles a little insipid, but also felt her character was robbed, especially with her dialogue during an argument between husband and wife. Here the exchange casts her grievance along the lines of the whinging, stereotypical woman who goes in for the attack without giving her husband a serious chance at presenting his perspective. Mollie always just kind of hangs back, which I found a bit annoying because though I am aware she is a supporting character, even the screws holding an engine together have to have some dimension—and in this movie they do. Mollie Miles, not so much.

Overall the film does an amazing job of widening its appeal to audiences: I understood what they were talking about and why their endeavors meant something, even though car engine chat makes my eyes glaze over. Even more than that, though, the magic of it all, the passion and the dream—I could practically feel the power of all that coursing through my veins, and not just because of the outstanding cinematography. Bale, whose performance I marvel over even in one of his movies I really dislike a lot, delivers yet again and Matt Damon—whom I used to confuse with DeCaprio—is a fantastic Carroll Shelby whose gum chewing and subtle but powerful facial movements tell so much about the real Shelby and what drove him.

JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
(Adapted screenplay, based upon the
book Caging Skies by Christine Leunen)

2. I hyper studied World War II in high school and at one time couldn’t get enough. Now, however, I’m a little burned out and can’t—or don’t want to—stomach the way some approach it today, with the current rise in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and attendant excuses for it. Waititi, however, presents a very different view of this time, not just by individualizing the experiences, which of course has been done before, but also by creating it as a comedy drama. I think we may have learned a bit from the brouhaha over Maus, one of the first graphic novels and one that tells the story of a Holocaust survivor—and royally cheesed a lot of people for telling such a somber story in “cartoon” form. Since then audiences have matured a little more and are able to recognize why the story of JoJo Beltzer and his mother, Rosie, might be told as it is.

I found this format to be the perfect vehicle for this particular era, even more so than it might have done for the Great War, which was novel in its far-reaching destruction and horrific outcomes and consequences. The Second World War, however, opened up to a bitter frustration that more often seemed to find humor as a way to alleviate the pain and fear, many times out of necessity and not just because it could. Rosie embraces this approach, knowing that her Nazi-loving young son won’t be easily separated from the indoctrination by seriousness. Besides, he is lonely for his father, who we (and he) are told is fighting for Germany on a foreign front. At the same time, JoJo’s mother engages a subtle sternness, for example when the pair see a group of executed souls hanging in a square near their house and JoJo turns away. Rosie does the mother thing with her hand—placed on top of her child’s head, which she swivels in the direction of what she insists he look at—and its ordinary mother power is elevated as we recognize that covering a child’s eyes from horror is not the only form of psychological protection.

This becomes more important as we learn Rosie’s dangerous secrets and JoJo becomes embroiled within them. Having failed at a Hitler Youth (“HJ”) weekend camp in which he becomes known as a coward, “JoJo rabbit,” for his refusal to wring the neck of the animal that becomes his namesake, he amps up his efforts to be a good Nazi, along with some help from his imaginary friend, Adolph. Yes, it’s the same Adolph we all know and hate, presented as a bumbling, awkward caricature who aims to appear as an authority figure and dispenses advice to the young boy. One could almost see the spittle flying as the real Hitler would scream at such a depiction: running through the woods, flailing and falling; pleading with a ten year old; gorging himself on unicorn.

Having watched the film in its entirety, a moviegoer might be tempted to point out a presentation flaw in that the sheer absurdity of at least one character—surely this one doesn’t take this garbage seriously?—makes for a predictable arc later on. However, Waititi turns events in a way one might not predict at all, and when we do learn what happens, it is because we didn’t see it that we know for sure. We do know that this can be dangerous territory for a filmmaker to traverse, but Waititi brings us across through the eyes of a child. There is no need to “cut to the heart” of Germany’s 1940s abyss: we already know about it, and JoJo’s ignorance of darker matters is part of the larger point. Apart from that, knowing what we do hasn’t exactly worked out as we wanted, has it? The director’s presentation may be a dangerous one, and it should be: a bitter frustration with what we are seeing, long after we have laughed at crazy Hitler and turned from our awareness even as our real world contains absurdities not unlike one scene in which a fanatical officer comments, “I wish more of our young boys had your blind fanaticism.”

Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
(Adapted screenplay, based upon the
novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)

1. Ah yes, the wee women everyone seems to know all about…except those of us who never read the book as a child. If I recall correctly, it was Saoirse Ronan’s attic scene in a film preview that drew me in, a passionate burst of emotion in which she, Jo March, comes to understand the reality of the choice she faces. Having grown up amongst a close family, she becomes the breadwinner when her father marches off with the Union army during the Civil War. Working as a teacher and freelance writer, she is delighted to discover the income she can attain with these abilities, though family law of the day dictates that everything previously hers, such as real property or finances, passes to her husband upon marriage. Determined not to allow this to happen, she by necessity erects a wall between herself and anyone she might become close with, not fully realizing, until the day in the attic, that this also blocks out many of life’s pleasures.

Greta Gerwig approaches these struggles with a balance that remains faithful to true feminism, one that demands what it does—legal existence—by refusing to forfeit it to marriage. When Jo’s sister Meg prepares for her wedding amidst Jo’s entreaties to run away because “we will be interesting forever,” she scolds her sibling: “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they are unimportant.” Jo’s reluctant acceptance of her sister’s impending departure juxtaposes with an acknowledgement that childhood is over, a strong indicator of the maturity required to recognize and respect the choices of others. Politics have probably always embedded themselves into film, but given the aggressive and bullying nature of today’s cinematic industry, one that steadily alienates those it seeks to attract, it was great relief to witness these scenes when Gerwig could easily have gone in the other direction. The director shows that film can be both romantic and inspiring; indeed, I found myself as sympathetic to nineteenth-century feminists as I always have been and with renewed determination to reach for my own stars.

Told along a split timeline, the March sisters (and others) make statements about life without lecturing the audience. Not all have as strong a character arc as one in particular, though this reflects reality, especially under the circumstances they all endure. They do live a life of genteel poverty, but it is one of struggle, perhaps reflected best in Emma Watson’s Meg, specifically when she goes away for a week to attend a ball. Save for youngest sister Beth, Meg is the kindest of the four, though with low self-esteem. Wearing a borrowed dress, she is browbeaten by her wealthy neighbor, Laurie, for participating in such a pretentious activity. They come to terms shortly after and Meg pleads with Laurie not to tell her sister Jo. One of the most poignant scenes in the film, with Watson’s eloquently subdued expressions magnificently reflecting her insecurity, movements and hesitations, it brings the story into sharp relief.

While I don’t dislike Watson as an actress, I never saw her as a brilliant performer, but here she greatly contributes in a lovely way to Gerwig’s vision for the film: to retain the traditional feel of it and the era in which it is set, while simultaneously making it accessible to modern viewers. Florence Pugh as Amy enables viewers to see that self-centered behavior was as ordinary an attitude in the often-romanticized nineteenth century as it is today. Amy also reflects heavily on how marriage would shape her life, and Pugh’s performance as she works her way through her internal struggles is poignant and masterful. She too presents a face of feminism very unlike today’s movement, reminding us—also without any grandstanding—of the range of hardship women faced, from casual discrimination to literal loss of autonomy.

Certainly not an exhaustive review, this one would definitely would be missing something without mention of costumes. The “traditional modern” is indeed realized in many of the outfits, fitting the period very nicely while also having the character of clothing many of us would quite like to wear today. The hoop skirts are rather another story, though the dresses themselves are quite attractive. Clothing matches characters’ moods or temperament, it seems, though nothing is ever overly or obviously utilized, such as Jo’s red, illustrating the streak of temper within her persona.

There are so many reasons to adore Little Women—the story itself, the many ways Greta Gerwig and others pulled it off, scenery, collaboration and more—and I am sure I will be exploring these in future blogs. As with so many others, this story has shifted something within me, and moving forward will be quite a different proposition than it would have been before I watched this film the first time. This is true with everything one experiences, of course, but we aren’t always privileged to feel that change, extraordinary indeed.

Reading 2019: Better Late Than Never, Right?

I know, I know – it’s nearly March 2020. Hey, it just about matches last year, since that month was when I started to read again. Though there is a bit of an uptick this year, since I did actually blog on January 1, whereas 2019 didn’t see any of that activity until the third month.

Yes, things are still not quite as fast as they once were, but improvement does come, slow as it may be. Happily, I did finish my first book of 2020 just a few days ago and our approach toward March indeed brings my mind back to this time last year, when illness preoccupied my days and ghosts visited at night. As mentioned here, I slept a lot, but by the month of Mars, I’d sat up a bit more and began to reach for the world again.

As has been customary for me, I write a tad about that world, found in such a large portion in the books I read, and my first from last year, I am super excited to say, is coming up for review here pretty soon:

A true story based on a 1680 ballad, The Ghost Midwife is book two in Annelisa Christensen’s Seventeenth Century Midwives series.

Not long after I began to look at books I’d been wanting to read (catch up on the Alexander McCall Smith series) or re-read (Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China), and there was also some familiarity in store with authors established in my repertoire (Joanne Larner, Lars Hedbor). I did some reading about ravens, given a group of them had a longtime habit of hanging out in my back yard, and one used to perch on my window to watch me as I typed. Another curious animal showed up in The Inquisitor’s Tale and I encountered a new portrayal of old favorites (The Retreat to Avalon).

Recommendations seemed to dominate this last batch of reads, which started with Karen Maitland’s The Owl Killers, in follow up to this same author’s Company of Liars, read in 2017. In reading this second novel, I knew I was safe from dangerous events within, but Maitland’s narrative kept me on the edge of my seat and to this day I still use the word scary as one descriptor for this un-put-downable tale. Gone Girl and Little Fires Everywhere have both been made into movies, and The Midwife’s Tale came to me from someone who knew of my attachment to Annelisa Christensen’s midwives and fondness for mystery. I’m looking forward to more from both authors.

It wouldn’t be a real follow-up to my January blog entry if I didn’t mention 1066, gifted to me years ago by the same sweetie who sent this fabulous stash. It’s important because events discussed in this book are a significant reason for my current WIP, a story being partially dictated to me by someone who lived at the time of the last ubiquitous palindrome before 2020-02-02 – over 900 years ago. She’s called Adela and I bet you can easily spot the two books below that more than strongly hint at which former kingdom she called home – and that I’m perfectly smitten with.

So, I’ve only read one book so far this year, but I thoroughly enjoyed it – extra lovely given it was a Christmas present. I’ve got a few more going and, though I know it will stay slower owing to my research reading, I’m getting there, aiming to end up with another one for your shelf. In the meantime, Adela is looking forward to it.

Journaling Life: Little Women Edition

 

In all its glory: A packet full of goodness, spread out like a feast.
Our updated bookcase: Two special new editions of Little Women adorn a shelf of other classics we have collected.

A week ago today my son and I went to watch Little Women, a movie whose book I’d never read save for excerpts in elementary school primers. I’d never pursued it further, and as for the why, I’ll get more into that in a future post. For now, suffice to say there are so many reasons to love the movie, which I have now watched twice (the book I am still reading), and the craft within is one of them. Marmie, Jo, Beth, Amy and Meg create much, and these items are not only meaningful and discussed, but also utilized in activities that bring them together, as a family and within their community, something sadly absent in much of today’s world of mass- and commercially-manufactured goods.

With this re-appearance of Little Women, two paths came together in my world: the re-stirrings of creative instinct and Louisa May Alcott’s story of four sisters who have captured my  heart. An online friend and I had been discussing crafting over the last couple of months, and last week I received a packet of items from her to help me get my kit going at a bit of a fuller speed. On Thursday evening I was literally sorting through her wonderful items just minutes before my boy and I were about to dash out the door for my second round of the film (his third).

There may be a dye bath in this material’s future.

In the days since then I’ve developed a minor obsession with the tale—again, more for another post—and ideas related to the March girls passed through my head as the materials caressed my fingers. I recalled my mother sewing wee clothes for my dolls, and I contemplated a shawl from some gauzy fabric for a little Jo, or perhaps Meg. Might I start a small doll collection now? Would I be able to use some of this material for their 1860s clothing, which I love so much? (Except the hoop skirts, a dreadful fashion mistake.) I’m not exactly sure at this point where I’ll go with some items or ideas, but it’s fun to comb through the treasure trove as I brainstorm possibilities.

Have a look at some images from my haul and ideas as they begin to develop ~

From far end of table seen in the first image above

Some of these items appear to be or are pretty fancy, but many of these types of things can be created with your own hand, especially if you are decent at drawing. If you’re not, you can still make beautiful items that Amy March would adore, using stencils, stick- and sew-ons, water colors and more.

I adore the old-world feel of the products advertised on so many of the labels I’d seen on vintage brands, if only in pictures online. Sometimes I wonder that to antebellum or later Victorian eyes, these labels seemed quite modern,  especially with their arching fonts or, as with the letter C in the image below, a swooping, sweeping stroke.

I am certain today’s manufacturers are quite aware of our affinity for such reminders of the world our ancestors inhabited, and make good use of their knowledge.  I shan’t name any names, but there are those amongst us who purchase some items simply for the label appeal: the faraway-ness of the times in which these labels originated made way for their descendants, simultaneously bearing that same distant feel yet striking familiarity.

Beautiful flowers to adorn nearly any idea a journaling artist could come up with. These are manufactured but can also easily be made with tissue paper or even napkins, as in the absolutely gorgeous junk journal’s opening pages at the link (click image)
Wouldn’t this make a pretty tablecloth? Beth would surely love to feed her doll at such a lovely setup.
Steam punk! These itty bitty spools, clothes pins, what look like the innards of a clock and more give off an old feel, transporting our imaginations in time. One could probably even do spirograph-type imaging with these small, circular pieces, resulting in pictures that illustrate what we’ve learned about the historical eras on our minds.

Join us going forward with this new series exploring various types of journaling and the creativity one can bring to it, using items such as the above or with simple things one might ordinarily toss or recycle. Inspirations are endless and can come from literature, science, history, geography, film, travel, nature, industry, fashion, memoir, food, the animal world or any theme you can possibly come up with.

How could I forget!? A very special thanks to Stephanie for all the wonderful trinkets and treasures! Have a  look at her website for more, right here!

Additional Note: Oopsie! I’ve come back in and cleaned up a few editing errors I discovered upon subsequent reads.