Category Archives: books

Queens of Heart

On Thanksgiving morning, while enjoying my coffee and watching the parades, I discovered that there is a popular musical comedy on Broadway right now called Six – The Musical.  It’s about the six wives of Henry VIII.  Really?  Of his six wives, only one truly survived (Anne of Cleves) and came out of her marriage debacle in relatively good shape.  So now we have a musical about a wife cast aside, two wives beheaded, one wife dead from childbirth complications and his last wife, while surviving, also dead in childbirth after marrying again to a man whom history suggests only wanted her because she was the Queen Dowager.  Somehow all this death and destruction doesn’t seem like the stuff of comedic song and dance.  (Of course who would have thought the plight of five women accused of murder in Chicago would make for a compelling musical?)

If you look up “historical fiction” you’ll find definitions that all seem to include any story that takes place in the past but that’s just silly – unless it’s sci fi, set in the future, wouldn’t every book written be historical fiction after about a week in print?  I’ve always thought of “HF” was any re-working of a historical subject/figure.  Like Hillary Mantel’s book on Robespierre and Danton during the French Revolution (and all her Wolf Hall books as well).  Or King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips.  Or The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillippa Gregory. And I haven’t read Nefertiti by Michelle Moran yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s mostly fiction and very little historical, since even Egyptologists admit to knowing extremely little about the ancient queen.

As these books sell well, I worry that future generations will think of the plots and characters as more historical than they really are.  Of course in looking up Six online, it looks like the plot doesn’t even attempt to portray history, so hopefully no one will come away thinking that wearing a choker to represent that you got beheaded is a meaningful fashion statement.

When was the War of 1812?

Bob’s Your Uncle

You all know that I am a little obsessed with Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie.  Just recently I finally splurged and purchased the David Suchet as Poirot version of Death on the Nile. I’ve watched it repeatedly since it arrived and despite having seen it previously, I was surprised to find the Simon Doyle character saying “Bob’s your uncle” in the market scene.  From context it clearly meant “there you have it” or “easy peasy”.  I was fascinated so headed to the internet to figure out exactly what it meant and where it got started.

The more prevalent explanation is that it came about when Robert Cecil, the Conservative British prime minister appointed his unqualified nephew Arthur Balfour as Chief Secretary to Ireland back in 1887.  Since Arthur was clearly not fit for the job “Bob’s your uncle” became the explanation about his selection.  Of course, this account is controversial as the phrase can’t be found in any print reference until almost 40 years later. But this is the etymology that I like.

So imagine my surprise when just two weeks later, in a restaurant in Chattanooga (during my trip to Nashville), I stumbled upon Bob’s Your Uncle Hard Cider on the menu.  I almost never do alcohol at lunch but I had to make an exception this time.  I even managed to remember the source of the name.

And as if “Bob’s your uncle” hasn’t fallen into my path enough, last week one of the YouTube channels that I follow did a list of popular idioms and it was titled “Bob’s Your Uncle”.  Apparently the phrase is fairly common in Britain, but crossing my path three times in a month seems remarkable. I keep telling myself it’s just a coincidence but….

What could the universe be trying to tell me?

Getting Ready

In about a week, carpenters will arrive at our home and start demolishing two of our three bathrooms. One slated for renovation is just off our bedroom. The other is in the basement.

In order to prepare for the carpenters, we had to move three large bookcases in the basement that were full of vinyl record albums, sheet music, and all our cookbooks and various other books. The carpenters need access to the basement ceiling which is under the upstairs bathroom and right above the bookcases. As long as we were moving them, Husband decided to cull what he didn’t want or need anymore. His pickup is now full of what we threw out. We are exhausted but feeling accomplished. We were able to eliminate the contents of one bookcase entirely.

Next, Husband has to move all the things from the bathroom off our bedroom (the one which he uses) into the one I use that isn’t being renovated. For a couple of weeks, we will have to share a bathroom. This means I have to go through the cupboards in my bathroom to make room for Husband’s stuff from his bathroom.

We will be “at all sixes and sevens” most of November until the renovations are done. We are spending Thanksgiving with our son and family in Brookings, so no pressure to have the house all up to snuff. I am glad we don’t do this on a regular basis. I like having a bathroom to myself.

How many bathrooms do you have? What are your experiences with remodeling. How are you at sharing?


My first afternoon in Nashville, my friend and I went to Ann Patchett’s bookstore – Parnassus Books.  It’s everything a bookstore should be.  Tall ceilings, lots of wood, big windows, amazing children’s section, attentive staff and some wonderfully curated displays.  There are two local authors tables, one of fiction on the fiction side of the store and one of non-fiction on the non-fiction side.  Both displays had a wide variety of authors (not just a huge pile of one or two) and many of the books were signed.

I couldn’t resist.  Although I didn’t recognize any of the titles, I managed to narrow it down to three; I asked the two staff at the desk for recommendations.  Between them, they had only read one of the titles but they were familiar with the plots for all three.  Based on their input I chose a historical fiction/fantasy (should that be called historical fantasy?)  It’s set in Florence in 1473 and it intrigues me since I have actually been to Florence.  I don’t know much at all about the history of Florence, so I’m looking forward to it. 

 I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Do you have any favorite local authors?  (Yes, you should absolutely count our Chris!)

Conrad and Dostoevsky

I have to admit that my interest in philosophy has been limited to being in love with two philosophy majors, Husband, and a youthful indiscretion whilst an undergraduate.

Their interests in literature, their curiosity about ideas, was entrancing. I must admit, however, that I almost never understood what they were, and are, talking about when they were talking shop.

The other day Husband was excited to tell me about an article he had read in the Journal of Conradian Studies, about Conrad ‘s dislike of Dostoevsky. I have never read anything by Conrad. I read “Notes From Underground” for an Existential Philosophy class. It was depressing, as I recall.

Husband has read a few things by both writers. I could be happy for the rest of my life if I never read anything by either of them. I have become more practical as I get older. I am just happy Husband is still excited to keep reading and learning.

Did you ever study philosophy? Ever read Conrad or Dostoevsky? Tell about an author or idea you want to read or learn more about?

Scary FlappyThings

Last week was really windy here, with gusts up to 61 mph all day Wednesday. It looked like we were back in the Dustbowl, with the sky obscured by blowing dirt.

Kyrill, our Cesky Terrier puppy is a pretty intrepid boy with the usual terrier bravado, especially when the fiends (neighbors and pedestrians and the Postie) are outside and he is looking through the bay window. He even tolerates the vacuum and electric floor sweeper. He gets afraid, however, whenever he hears flapping noises, like those made when garbage can liners are shook out preparatory to going into the empty garbage can, or when the neighbor’s flags are flapping loudly in strong winds like we had last week. He wanted to get past the neighbor’s flag pole as fast as he could as we were buffeted by the Wednesday winds.

Our children didn’t have many fears, aside from our daughter when she was about 4 not wanting to go to a new doctor named Dr. Wolf because she was afraid he was a real wolf. My mother said I was afraid of the vacuum cleaner when I was little, and she had to wait until my father got home to hold me so she could clean the house.

There are several “Haunted” venues in our community to get good and scared at before Halloween. The mall and the old hospital building have been turned into such places. I don’t like things like that at all, but most of my coworkers have been to them and enjoyed getting terrified. I fly into Bismarck late in the afternoon from Washington DC. on October 31. That is scary enough for me!

What scared you when you were little? What is the scariest book you ever read? What are your experiences with “haunted” venues?

Kitty Lit

Photo Credit:  Alice Feigel

Nimue is not a super-cuddly kitty.  She comes around for treats and most mornings and evenings, she’ll curl up next to me on the bed if I’m watching tv or listening to a book on tape.  Very occasionally she’ll actually climb into my lap for cuddles. 

But if I want to guarantee her attention, all I need to do is read a book.  Every single time.  Doesn’t matter if I’m upstairs or downstairs, sitting on the sofa or laying on my bed.  I’ve seen her sitting in the back window watching me when I read in the yard.  She needs to be touching the book and preferably laying right on the book.  She doesn’t like to be nudged off when I have to turn the page.

I know this isn’t unusual but nobody seems to know why they do this?  Do kitties actually know how to read but can’t get the books off the bookshelf themselves?

What do you think?

Soak It In

I am a Neil deGrasse Tyson buff.  I’ve read several of his books, follow his current podcast (Star Talk) and own a t-shirt with a NdGT quote and a bracelet that I saw on his website of the planets in order.  (I actually made my own bracelet based on his design and I added Pluto – he may be smart, but Pluto will always be one of my planets!)

One of the things that I admire most is his ability to take difficult concepts and to distill them down so that most of us can understand them.  I was re-listening to his description of how the tides actually work/exist and wondered what it would be like to take a class from him (an entry-level class of course – I’ve encountered some of his work that is NOT distilled down and it is way over my head).

My favorite classes in college were always lectures.  I don’t need any small discussion groups or multi-student projects – just let me sit in the presence of great professors while I soak up their knowledge.  Between Carleton and Metro State I took five Shakespeare courses from two different professors – fabulous.  There was a spellbinding Chinese Middle Kingdom class and the professor who taught my King Arthur in English and American Literature (yes, a real class for which I got credit) held my attention like no other.

But based on YA’s master’s program experience, the current trend in education is all about self-teaching, small group projects and collaboration (I detest this word).  Her description of every single class she took for her MBA made my skin crawl, so I guess I probably won’t be going back to school in my retirement.  I’ll have to remain self-taught in the areas that appeal to me.  I’m still doing my online Italian class; I’m almost at 900 days straight.  I’m still working my way through biographies of the English monarchs as well as the American presidents.  Banned books are high on my list of interests as well as reading on Black Lives Matter.  Science is also a love of mine although I would say I have a broad science curiosity  as opposed to a deep curiosity. 

If I were to take any classes, my first choice would be anything taught by Tyson; it’s possible he could do wonders from my understanding of physics.  Add a course covering the history plays of Shakespeare.  I’d like an economics class that specializes in the real world and does not discuss guns or butter.  Literature courses of just about any kind.  No math (I got through trigonometry by the skin of my teeth) and no classes where anything has to be cut up!  

What were your favorite and least favorite classes in school?   

Page Turning Pariah

As a voracious reader, I depend a great deal on other folks’ recommendations.    Ten years ago I added a column to my reading spreadsheet – Inspiration.  When a finished title gets added to the spreadsheet I notate where I got the idea for reading the book.  If it’s a specific person, I list their name.  If it’s a bookclub selection, BBC, Illiterati or MIA.  If I actually remember where I first encountered the title, I enter that (Scientific American, Goodreads, CNN).  If it’s book off one of my various lists, that gets written in (Monarchs, Presidents, Banned, Newbery, Caldecott).  And, if by the time I finish a book (that’s a whole new blog topic – my over-curated library account), I don’t remember where I got the idea any longer, then O&A, Out & About, is the label.

All of this to say that I do take book recommendations seriously.  I’m pretty sure that I’ve read 75% of the books we’ve talked about on this blog, not because, as Steve used to say “VS has read everything” but because when somebody mentions a book on the Trail, I write it down or go to my library account immediately. 

I have a friend in Indianapolis who reads as much as I do and although we don’t always gravitate to the same thing, I’ve found most of his recommendations fascinatingly good reads.  (For example, I would never have picked up Countdown Bin Laden by Wallace & Weiss of my own accord, but since he spoke highly of it, I gave it a shot.  It was excellent and is likely to make my top ten this year.)  When he suggested a title that I had heard of from a few other folks, I picked it up from the library.  That’s when I found out that the title is also an Oprah Pick and has either won or been a finalist for just about every literary award out there.  93% of folks who have reviewed on Amazon have given it one or two stars.  Just 1% rated it with only one star.  This is unprecedented so I was really looking forward to getting into it – I even suggested it to my other book club.

I didn’t like it.  I didn’t like it to the point that if it hadn’t been a book club title, I might not have finished it.  It was WAY too long; it’s really two stories, related but distinct enough for two separate treatments.  Then there was the jumping around in the timeline, which I didn’t find to be well-handled. Too much repetitiveness; probably could have trimmed 50 pages by leaving out all references to “collard greens”.  But the biggest problem was that there wasn’t one likeable character in the entire book; 400+ years of story and 900+ pages of book, that’s a LOT of unlikeable characters. They ran the gamut from heinous to slightly sickening, but really not one really decent person among the lot of them. 

But it’s really hard to dump on a book that appears to be universally loved and admired.  REALLY hard.  And because I like to think I’m a discerning reader, it has made me wonder what’s wrong with me. What have I missed. In fact, I’ve been writing and re-writing this blog post in my head for two weeks trying to decide whether to name the book or just ruminate on feeling so out of step with what feels like the whole of humanity.  I do feel out of step a fair amount.  I’m not interested in fashion. I think reality TV is an abomination. Much of what is generally valued by current culture leaves me “meh”.

That’s why I am extremely grateful that I have found niches where I feel like I fit in, with good friends who think a bit more like I do.  This is one of those places, of course.  Thanks for all of you in my life and on the Trail who leave a place for my quirky self at the table! 

Tell me about the last book that you DIDN’T like.  (And if you’ve read the book I’m talking about and liked it, that’s OK… you’re in good company!!)


I have lumbar scoliosis, along with years of cruddy posture. I even slump when I drive. I had physical therapy several years ago, which really helped my lower back pain. Like many, I stopped doing my exercises after the pain went away.

A few months ago I started to have chronic sciatica in both legs, and got a referral for more physical therapy. My new therapist assessed the situation and told me that she was surprised I could even walk, since all the muscles in my lower back and hips that ought to hold me upright weren’t doing their job, and the hip flexor muscles in the front of my body were doing it instead. Sitting at a desk all day in a bad chair only made things worse. (The ergo guy at work ordered a really good office chair with great lumbar support for me last month, so that problem is solved.)

I am currently in a lot of pain all over my back and legs since, as my physical therapist told, all my muscles are mad at me as we are doing exercises to get the back muscles to do their job and the front muscles to do their job. I am also being very mindful of my posture, even when I drive, and that has also stirred up some muscle pushback. All of this has reminded me of the Pushmepullyou from Dr. Doolittle.

My mother constantly harrased me about my posture. Ok mom, you were right! I should have listened! I don’t remember ever liking the Dr. Doolittle books much. I found the writing kind of stuffy, but the plot was fun. I appreciate the tug of war concept with the Pushmepullyou. My hips can relate.

What animals would you like to talk to? Ever had physical therapy? What did you parents tell you that you should have listened to but didn’t.