Tweets of another kind

I’ve become more and more of a bird person since we moved into our house in 2010. The past week or so has been a bit of a bonanza for me. Without making an effort I have had some delightful bird experiences. I would say it was childlike wonder, but I never had that kind of childlike wonder about birds when I was actually a child.

First up: Owls

We’ve been sleeping with our windows open and the other day we were awakened by the sound of two owls hooting away at 4:00 am. I am fascinated by owls and recently saw a great documentary about them on PBS. I know we have other birds of prey in our neighborhood, but I didn’t think we had owls. So fun to know they are out there killing rodents and being awesome.

The backyard melange

We have the typical assortment of eastern U.S. suburban birds with quite a good population of cardinals which are always so bright and cheery to see. And it looks like our robin pair has decided to make a nest again this year on one of our light fixtures on the back of the house. Looking forward to the goldfinches to get to work on the our verbena seed heads later in the season. We also have more than usual blue jay activity this spring. I hear they can be bullies. Hopefully they don’t scare anything away.

Last year’s robin’s nest. They’ve started building this year’s.
My favorite bird sound

The other day I visited St. Elizabeths, the mental hospital that is being turned into the headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security. I’ve been working on that project on and off since 2005 and have seen it go from an idyllic, if overgrown and abandoned campus to a bustling construction site. Happily, about three years since the Coast Guard moved into their new 1.3 million square foot building, the landscape around the building is starting to heal. Thankfully the landscape designers have opted for a more naturalistic design than the old fashioned Victorian plantings that were typical on the site 100 years ago. When am I going to get to the part about the bird? Soon–I still have more set-up. Anyway, there is a large storm water retention pond that flanks the bottom of the Coast Guard building (that also functions as a security feature). That pond has proven to be a draw for red-winged blackbirds who I don’t remember ever seeing on campus prior to this project. The sound of those birds is so magical to me. It is so evocative of summer and peace and nature. I know that last bit sounds stupid, but it’s just not an urban sound even though I’ve heard it around the pond in Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis. Listen for yourself here.

An absolute first for me

I was on the St. E’s campus to do some field research at the Civil War-era graveyard that is on the slope overlooking the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac and the monumental core beyond that. As I was squatting down to adjust the cemetery survey on my clipboard I looked up and saw an eastern bluebird about 15 feet away from me. I have seen many a picture of this beautiful bird, but I have never seen one in real life. I was convinced they didn’t really exist. Now if I could finally see a Baltimore oriole. I’ve been waiting about 40 years to see one of those.

A look from the cemetery toward the Coast Guard building. You can see the storm water pond/security moat at the base of the building.
In the cemetery, not far from where I saw the eastern bluebird.
My daily dose of Blue Herons and Double-Crested Cormorants

Each day I cross the Potomac at a very picturesque spot that is lined with rocks and teeming with rapids and I see majestic blue herons most days and lots and lots of double-crested cormorants. Sometimes a heron will fly in front of me over the bridge and the cormorants are always flying low overhead to and fro. One day last June I got up early on a Saturday morning and went down to the river to see the birds up close.

double-crested cormorant
I managed to snap this picture last June. You can see the bridge I commute on in the background.
And to cap it off, the big guy

Almost immediately after being charmed by the cormorants flying right in front of my car, I turned right and drove along the canal next to the river, looked over to my right and saw a bald eagle soaring not too high overhead. Kind of a fitting way to end my week of serendipitous bird watching. I can’t resist sharing this video of the nesting bald eagles at the National Arboretum hunkering down over their eggs during our March snowstorm this year.


Today is National Grilled Cheese Day

Slightly more cheese than I would use, but this is a version I would like.

I don’t know who creates these days, but I’m on board for this one. Here are my thoughts on this beloved national treasure.

  1. A grilled cheese sandwich makes an amazingly good breakfast.
  2. KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. I don’t want your four cheese, truffle oil, on brioche BS. That’s apostasy.
  3. The bread should be plain white sandwich bread. Sourdough (which I love) can do in a pinch, but other “better” breads do not make a good grilled cheese.
  4. I’ve used all sorts of cheese of various quality and none can beat be processed, American cheese. It melts like a dream and tastes yummy. My particular favorite these days is Kraft Deluxe. Better than the individually wrapped version, and without the hassle of the cellophane. They were fun to unwrap as a kid, but I don’t need that as an adult.
  5. Don’t be fooled by the name, a grilled cheese sandwich should not be grilled. It should be made in a skillet or on a griddle.
  6. A trick I learned by watching the short-order cook at a lunch counter is to butter both sides of the bread before grilling. Let me explain: After you butter both sides of the bread, put it on the griddle/skillet and let one side toast up–but don’t put any cheese on yet. When the first side is a nice golden brown, flip the bread and then put your cheese on the side that has been grilled already. This makes for an a delightfully toasty sandwich. It’s even better if you brush the bread with melted, clarified butter, rather than just spread on soft butter. [Clarification: Each slice of bread gets buttered and grilled on both sides so that a finished sandwich has four toasty sides, it’s just that two of them are on the inside next to the cheese.]
  7. If your butter isn’t soft enough to spread–or you don’t have any butter–use mayonnaise. Say what? Yes. John’s brother taught me this trick, which I think he said he learned from Martha Stewart. Instead of spreading butter you just spread mayo. It grills up very much like butter does and I think it is hard to tell the difference, it doesn’t taste like mayo at all.
  8. For dunking I really enjoy a canned tomato soup. I’ve had high-end soup with a high-end grilled cheese and it didn’t hold a candle to the original.
  9. Cut the sandwich on the diagonal. This is especially important if you are going to dunk.
  10. Make yourself two. You know one isn’t going to be enough.
At first glance this looks good, but the shininess of the cheese lets me know they used real cheese, probably cheddar. It just doesn’t melt as well. And the bread would make delicious toast, but but quite right for the GCS.

The angst of finite space

This is kind of misleading. By this point in the process I had already removed quite a few books to make room. But this does show you the general chaos that existed before and during.

I’ve run out of room in my library and I’ve run out of ways to weed my books. You might suggest, as John did, that we could get some shelves in another room. That could be a perfect solution if it weren’t for two things: 1) John’s idea of another room is a basement bedroom. It’s a perfectly pleasant room with no moisture issues, but I’m not going to spend time in it. But, even if I could convince him to put shelves in some other room–and I’m pretty sure I could–there’s this: 2) The thing taking space away from fitting all the fiction I’ve been buying is a collection of non-fiction books that I don’t really read, but I like to see them on the shelves, I like to occasionally dip into them, and I like to think of them as part of a little mini-reference library.

I don’t have to tell any of you how important a reference library is. My particular collection is not very broad and it is by no means deep enough on any topic to be of serious use. But it does give me delight. I mainly have books on books, collections of letters, bios and memoirs of novelists, oldish books on UK topics and a very small amount of history. When my shelf by shelf feature gets there (soon) you can see the range of things that I have. Some of these things are esoteric like an illustrated guide to military aircraft from WWII. I’m not a military aircraft buff by any means, but the illustrations are nice and I read tons of fiction from that era and I like having a visual frame of reference. I also have a 1950s atlas of London that is like an A to Z but nicer and, once again, a lot of my characters lived in 1950s London. So, how can I take these kinds of books, and put them in some other room? They need to be visible on a regular basis. And don’t even think of telling me to put some of my fiction in another room.

Speaking of fiction, I have done a ton of weeding. I’m starting to get to the point that I only keep stuff I know I want to re-read. Having done a fair amount of re-reading in recent years, I’ve discovered I quite like it, so this is not a meaningless criterion. Of course the TBR pile seems to grow exponentially and has been starting to pile up on the floor and my nightstand. I wish I had counted or taken a picture of all the newish (to me) unread books that weren’t on the shelves. It was pretty daunting, and fun. I realized I couldn’t get rid of any more books but I needed to do something. So I made a pile of all the non-fiction that I was less likely to consult as a reference book, and I took the work of two fiction authors off my shelves and put them in a holding place on some shelves in the basement. I don’t think I will get rid of them, but maybe if they sit down there long enough I will realize I really don’t want them. The result was that I was able to make enough room to fit everything on the shelves in the library.

Some of the books in their temporary stacks in the basement. Not sure what their ultimate fate will be. And yes, there are three shelves that were already full of books. Mainly John’s books, my old urban planning books, and travel books.


I kept most of the novelist memoirs and collections of letters in the library but most bios ended up down here. Yes, I have two biographies of Fanny Trollope. Don’t you? How am I to know which one is going to be better? It doesn’t matter that I’ve only read one novel by Fanny.  And despite the three volumes on Anthony Trollope here, I still have an illustrated one in the library. Not to mention a copy of his autobiography.

For now, I am happy with the result. It is nice to have everything off the floor. The books also shifted enough that new book vignettes were created on the shelves as new books were added and everything was given a bit of breathing room. I might need to stop buying books for a while. Like none of us have said that before.

All tidy. Kind of clears my mind and puts me into the mood to read. I could imagine taking all of those pretty grey Persephones and putting them in a guest bedroom. That would free up more than a shelf.

Cather Quarterly

I’m one quarter/three months into my year long re-read of all of Willa Cather’s novels. Since she wrote 12 of them, I am reading one each month in chronological order of publication date. With the exception of The Professor’s House which I have read three or four times, I don’t really remember anything that happens in any of her other novels. Many of them because I read them 20 years ago and the others because I have a hard time remembering anything I have read.

January : Alexander’s Bridge

Published in 1912, Alexander’s Bridge is a short work about a successful bridge engineer who is struggling to decide what to do about his wife in Boston and his mistress in London. The moment at which Cather decides to tell Bartleby Alexander’s story is one fraught with mild regret, inertia, complacency, and a desire for something to change. He’s in a spot where his life is less about potential and more about trying to figure out how to live the rest of his life. In the end, events overtake the possibility of him making his own decision about his future.

I’ve been doing a lot of research on recently (one of the reasons I haven’t read or blogged much lately, it’s addictive) and am often struck by how little the historical record can tell us about our ancestors. It’s been fascinating to find the names and vital statistics about the hundreds of people whose amorous endeavors led to my existence, but there is so much more I want to know–and can never know. Records–pieces of paper–get lost, destroyed, mislabeled, and go undiscovered, and major details or entire people disappear. This doesn’t have much to do with Alexander’s Bridge, except that at the end there is a piece of paper, a critical piece of paper, that has the potential to change everything or nothing.

February : O Pioneers!

Willa Cather wrote about may things, but it is her novels of the the great plains for which she is best known. Published in 1913, O Pioneers! is a seminal telling of the northern European immigrant experience on the American plains. But! Before I lose you, it is also highly readable and highly enjoyable. It’s one of those “important” books that just happens to be a damn good read. What makes O Pioneers! particularly brilliant is that it is just a given that the prime force of the book is a woman. Cather doesn’t need to hit us over the head with the fact that women settled the plains as much as men did, she simply presents us with a character that many of us who grew up in, or near, rural life would recognize immediately.

If you are wondering where to begin with Cather, O Pioneers! would not be a bad choice. Of course I still have 9 more novels to re-read, but I still feel comfortable making that assertion.

March : The Song of the Lark

The second of Cather’s so-called Great Plains novels (sandwiched between O Pioneers! and  My Ántonia) The Song of the Lark is grounded in the great plains but it takes Thea Kronberg off to Chicago, Germany, and New York where she becomes a celebrated opera singer. There is much that is enjoyable about this novel, but it would have benefited from some judicious editorial pruning. It also leaves me wondering if Cather meant to leave the impression that Thea was, after all, still a creature of the plains, or if she had become so changed by her life in the east that she had become not just a shell of her former self, but also a shell of human being. I think Cather may have been trying to do more of the former, but I can’t help but feel like she had become more of the latter.

In some ways, I feel like Cather may have lost her way with the narrative, or perhaps she changed her mind. Halfway through the novel Thea takes a break from her hectic life in Chicago to rest and recharge on a ranch in Arizona. There she comes to the conclusion that there is nothing about her life in Chicago that fills her subconscious in the way her childhood on the prairie does, or even her time she spends visiting the southwest. She goes on to account how the shards of ancient Native American pottery she finds–utilitarian vessels for food and water, are nonetheless decorated–represent an attempt to capture the joy and sorrow in life as much as they are for storing physical sustenance. It seemed this was to be Thea’s leitmotif as well, but in the end it seemed to me that her art, while providing great joy for her fans and for those close to her, provided her with no spiritual sustenance. Cather presents Thea as a bit too close to the stereotype of the operatic diva that it is hard to make any connection between Thea’s past and current life. This could be an interesting theme to explore, but Cather’s portrayal of Thea becomes as one-dimensional as the character herself. In earlier sections of the book I understood who Thea was, or at least had a more rounded sense of her as a person. Once she left Arizona and started her career ascent, Cather has so much happening off stage (if you will) it is hard to believe in who she has become.

This is the first novel in which Cather takes us to the southwest. I will have much more to say about her treatment of it after re-reading some of her other novels, but suffice it to say I find Cather’s writing about the southwest evocative, beautiful, and deeply spiritual.

The playwright has no clothes

Sometimes I feel like I am just a curmudgeon with a sharp contrarian streak. And then there are times when I can’t believe that the rest of the world seems to have been taken in by a piece of crap. (See also Downton Abbey and A Little Life)  In the case of Mike Barlett’s play King Charles III, it might be a bit of the former and a lot of the latter.

Bartlett could have had an interesting idea–at his accession to the throne, the new King Charles provokes a constitutional crisis–but the playwright was not up to the job. At almost every level, the details of the plot and the development of the characters are facile and cliché.

1. The play is only three years old but seems wildly out of date. Not only because of Brexit and Trump, but tired tropes about each of the characters would have seemed out of date in 2014 as well. Barlett’s understanding of the royal family seems to be stuck somewhere between Diana’s death (1997) and Prince Harry’s Nazi costume (2005), or if I’m being generous, to his Vegas escapades (2012). None of this would be a problem if this was a history play, but it is a flash forward, and the lens through which the flash forward was written seems stuck in another era.

2. Not knowing anything about the play ahead of time, I was convinced very early in the proceedings that the playwright was American or had written it for an American audience. Not only does Bartlett explain a lot of things that shouldn’t need explaining but he isn’t always accurate or believable.  For instance would Kate really not know that the monarch becomes the monarch immediately upon the death of the previous monarch? In the play they have to explain to her that Charles is already the king despite not having had a coronation yet. Growing up in the UK and spending years prepping to be the wife of a future king and Kate doesn’t know that little tidbit? Even when the story of Elizabeth II becoming queen while in a tree house in Kenya has achieved mythic status over the decades. Could she also be completely unaware of “The King is dead, long live the King”.

There are also a few scenes where Harry is beguiled with real life outside the palace and waxes rhapsodic about things like Doritoes and Burger King and TGI Fridays as if he is experiencing them for the first time. A casual observer and certainly someone writing a play about the royal family would know that Diana exposed her children to the real world every chance she got, taking them to McDonalds and homeless shelters and everyplace in between. Plus, you can’t allude to Harry’s Las Vegas binge (as Bartlett does) and then act like Harry has never left the palace grounds.

These are superficial quibbles (and there are many more of them), but I also had major issues with the motivations and actions of many of the characters. I was rolling my eyes so much I felt like Liz Lemon.

3. The constitutional crisis Charles provokes is based on his refusal to sign off on a law that would curtail freedom of the press. The issue seems random and poorly chosen by Bartlett because of what happens next. Charles dissolves Parliament–a moment where I thought the play might actually be going somewhere–but then we are supposed to believe that the people are upset with him and rioting in the streets. I think anti-monarchy republicans would have been upset by the meddling of the king, but they would also likely have been very supportive of Charles for standing up for press freedom. Not to mention the opposition party in Parliament would have seized the opportunity, instead they fall in line behind the ruling party. I’m also not convinced that William, Kate, and Harry would have been so intent on maintaining the role, or existence, of the monarchy as staunchly as they do. Bartlett plays into the sympathies of those in Britain who think the line of succession should skip over Charles. A ridiculous notion for those who believe in the ridiculous notion that the line of succession is ordained by God.

4. Barlett can’t quite figure out if the literal specter of Diana in the play is serious or funny. It ends up being neither. I think that Diana mania has softened a great deal in the 20 years since her death. It’s still there, but it doesn’t necessarily automatically equate to a dislike of Charles or even Camilla as it once did. William and Harry have moved on with their lives and have accepted their father’s wife. The public might be less accepting, but the advent of Kate and her children have done much to refocus the Diana fervor. The residual reverence or respect William still has for his mother seems unlikely to manifest itself in the very pro-status quo of William’s actions in the play. And do I think Charles is still haunted by Diana? No. He didn’t kill her and he didn’t create the paparazzi posse that did. He may have guilt about how he handled his relationship with her, but with some good therapy, I hope he has moved on from whatever guilt he may have felt over her death.

5. There have been far better fictional depictions of the current royal family (both Helen Mirren vehicles, The  Uncommon Reader, The Crown, etc.) that provide too stark a contrast with this messed up jumble of ideas for it to have any credibility. How it has managed the success it has is beyond my comprehension.


shelf by shelf : from Shute to jumble o’small books

We are  now entering territory where my fiction alphabet-by-author order breaks down temporarily to accommodate a few stacks of mass market paperbacks and assorted small books. Things are going to get even funkier once we start running into my non-fiction, but I am trying not to think of that yet. There is perhaps a jumble analogy to be made since my reading for February and March has turned into a jumble of unfinished books. I have about five different titles that are close to being finished and 3 or 4 that I do not intend to finish. Such a disappointment after my rockstar January. I need to get things moving again.  It’s also been too darn long since I posted anything here. Things have been hectic to say the least.

Without further delay, I give you Shelf 24.

SHELF TWENTY-FOUR: 46 books, 21 unread, 25 read, 54% complete

Shute, Nevil – Mazaran
Shute, Nevil – Stephen Morris (completed)
Shute, Nevil – Beyond the Black Stump (completed)
Shute, Nevil – A Town Like Alice (completed)
Shute, Nevil – The Chequer Board (completed)
Shute, Nevil – Pastoral (completed)
Shute, Nevil – In the Wet (completed)
Shute, Nevil – Ordeal (completed)
Shute, Nevil – The Breaking Wave (completed)
Shute, Nevil – The Far Country (completed)
Shute, Nevil – An Old Captivity (completed)
Shute, Nevil – Round the Bend (completed)
Shute, Nevil – The Legacy
Shute, Nevil – Lonely Road
As promised in the last installment, here are a bunch more Nevil Shutes. I think In the Wet is one of my favorites. A flash forward look at the Queen and her consort being flown around the commonwealth to avoid anti-monarchy unrest in 1980s England. The story focuses on the Australian pilot who flies them. So many fascinating things in this book. I also really like Ordeal (or What Happened to the Corbetts  in the UK) which follows a young family as they try to avoid contagion in a pre-war look at WWII England. The only one I have come close to not enjoying is An Old Captivity.

Sinclair, May – Life and Death of Harriett Frean
Sinclair, May – The Three Sisters
Sinclair, May – Mary Olivier: A Life

Trollope, Anthony – Lady Anna
Trollope, Anthony – The Vicar of Bullhampton (completed)
Trollope, Anthony – Sir Henry Hotspur of Humblethwaite
Trollope, Anthony – The Belton Estate
Trollope, Anthony – An Autobiography
I love finding these Oxford World Library editions of Trollope. I’d love to own all of them but don’t want to look into how many there are for fear of doing just that.

Blackmore, R.D.  – Lorna Doone

Brown, George Douglas – The House with the Green Shutters

Disraeli, Benjamin – Sybil

Benson, S. Vere – The Observer’s Book of Birds
I bought this bird guide from 1972 because  it is little and because it has lovely illustrations in it.

MacInnes, Helen – While Still We Live

Trollope, Anthony – Can You Forgive Her? (completed)
I’m not going to pull out the front stack of books because that would be too much work to list everything in back, but this one is peeking through so I include it here.

Garbutt, P. E. – How the Underground Works
I love anything to do with the London Underground and couldn’t pass up this little guy from 1963.

White, E.B. – This is New York (completed)

Gide, Andre – Lafadio’s Adventure (completed)
Gide, Andre – Strait is the Gait (completed)
Gide, Andre – If It Die
Gide, Andre – The Immoralist (completed)
I read all of these long before I bought these copies. I couldn’t resist the vintage Vintage paperbacks.

Camus, Albert – The Stranger (completed)

Forster, E.M. – Howards End (completed)
Forster, E.M. – The Longest Journey (completed)
Forster, E.M. – A Room with a View (completed)
I’ve read and seen Howards End and A Room with a View countless times. I think I’ve read The Longest Journey twice and haven’t really thought too much of it. I might need to give it another go.

Stendhal – The Charterhouse of Parma

Stevenson, D.E. – The Blue Sapphire (completed)
Stevenson, D.E. – The Musgraves (completed)

Household, Geoffrey – Red Anger (completed)
Not as good as Rogue Male, but good, vintage, spy fiction.

Warner, Rex – The Professor

Bainbridge, Beryl – Injury Time

Plomer, William – At Home

Orwell, George – Coming Up for Air (completed)
Orwell writes really good novels and I really enjoyed this one.

Next time: random non-fiction about authors/books

I need a painting for my library

At some point I want to replace the painting that is currently hanging above the fireplace in my library. The work that’s up there now is kind of fun, but it gets a bit lost in the room. It is a bit too small. As I sit here looking at it now, I really do like it.  It’s called “Peach Trees” by Doris DeWitt Pogue. It appears to have been painted in Alabama in 1949. (If you’d like to see what I am talking about and to see the setting for the painting you click here. The painting appears in the “before” pictures of the library.)

I’m always on the look out for a replacement. I doubt I could afford this painting by Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler even if the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was willing to sell it.

The Disillusioned One, 1892 by Ferdinand Hodler. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

It just seems appropriate for a contemplative room like a library. If Trollope and Brookner had had a baby together he might have looked like this. For me the somber quality of the figure is offset by the lightness of the setting and the sprigs of green popping up at his feet. As if to point out that no matter the fate of man, life is eternal.