Browsing Archives for November 2009

 This summer, after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society written by Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, I was reminded of a few other ‘epistolary’ books or books of letters that I have read. The first one was a much beloved book from my childhood called Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster. Webster also wrote the book, Dear Enemy as a series of letters. Another great epistolary book that I love is 84 Charring Cross Road written by Helene Hanff.

If you have yet to discover the writing of Helene Hanff, I am sorry to tell you this, but your life is a sore, empty, scabby little pit and you should remedy it immediately by reading one of her books. Her writing is like a half starved fox terrier, barely managing to hang on by her pinky toenail, sucking all the marrow out of life as she hangs there, brazenly telling the truth, very aware of her limitations, deeply in love with great literature , and fiercely determined to keep herself going no matter how hard, how stony, how slippery the path. Oh! And she makes you laugh the entire way. Her warmth, her humor, her hardscrabble determination are unlike any writer I have ever found.

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A History of Helene Hanff…

Helene grew up in Philadelphia, the daughter of a shirt salesman. Her parents were theater nuts and her dad traded new shirts for tickets in order to take his entire family to a show every week. Like her family, Helene loved the theater and hoped to become a playwrite, but the 1930′s were hard times for the Levy-Hanff family. Helene was only able to attend college for one year on a scholarship that was cancelled due to monetary restrictions. She came home and took a summer job at a bookstore, but business was so slow, she had plenty of time to educate herself with books from the public library. Her principle guide through her self-education was the book On The Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. With Quiller or “Q” as she came to call him, as her teacher, she slowly worked her way through all the classic tomes from Paradise Lost to Shakespeare. “Q” was an Oxford Professor who wrote in a manner that was easy to understand and even though Helene did not at first agree with his insistence on speaking plainly rather than using flowery phrasing to communicate, it is clear in her own writing that she eventually embraced “Q’s” idea of writing simply and concisely rather than writing to demonstrate how many big words one can use in a sentence.

Helene’s paycheck was needed to help her family. She worked a succession of jobs, but her heart was not in any of them. In her spare time she wrote plays in her bedroom and in 1938 Helene entered one of her plays into a national competition. She was chosen as one of fifteen winners and was awarded a $1500 scholarship which allowed her to move to New York and begin to work toward her dream of writing a Broadway play. The year’s previous winners of the same contest were Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Given this illustrious start, it would seem that Helene was a shoe-in to become a success. Over the next ten years she wrote twenty plays and though her plays were often highly regarded by various leaders in the industry, not one of them was ever produced. In the mean time, Helene was living a bare bones existence in New York City, residing in sketchy hotels in edgy neighborhoods and scraping together just enough to keep herself fed. She always managed to find jobs that allowed her to hone her skills as a writer and also kept her in the world of theater. She read scripts and typed up synopsis’s for publishers. She eventually wrote for television and when that venue picked up and moved to Hollywood, she wrote children’s history books and magazine articles. She rarely had any money to spare, but when she did, she often spent it on great books and that is how her correspondence with the London book shop ‘Marks and Co’ located at 84 Charring Cross Road in London came to be.

Searching for many of the books that her ‘teacher’ Sir Arthur’ or ‘Q’ directed her to read was not always easy. These were often rare collectons of English poets, or books that were long unpublished. The antique book stores in New York where she could have probably found many of these books intimidated her with their rarefied atmospheres and she was sure she could not afford their prices. She saw an ad for a bookshop in London that seemed as if it would have many of the books for which she was looking. She was sure that this store would also be out of her price range, but where stepping into an elegant bookshop was intimidating to a poor, struggling, playwrite – writing a letter to a store in London was her strong suit. She quickly found that Marks and Co. not only had the books she was looking for, but that they were downright cheap! Thus began a twenty year letter exchange with a London bookshop and primarily with Mr. Frank Doel,the store’s buyer, that would eventually become the exquisite little book – 84 Charring Cross Road. Sadly, ‘Charring Cross’ was not written until after Frank Doel’s death and Helene was never able to meet him in person nor visit the bookstore that had provided her with so many wonderful books as the shop closed not long after Frank died.

Still, 84 Charring Cross Road became a cult hit. It may not have sold huge numbers, but it created a devoted fan base for Helene and filled her life with fan mail for the rest of her days. The small success of the book allowed her to finally visit England and that visit resulted in a second book called The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street which chronicled her first trip to London during which she instructs her hotel bartender how to properly make a martini, is overjoyed to visit many of the literary sites that have meant so much to her and is the toast of the town and invited to dine with the rich and famous of London for entire an month of her life. For a woman who has spent her adulthood barely getting by, the entire episode is a shock to her system and yet she narrartes it with the same down to earth, humorous, wry commentary that one comes to love and to expect with Helene.

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A Prescription for Literary Bliss

Helene went on to write several more books after the success of 84 Charring Cross Road. I have read all of them except for the New York travel books (and they are next in line on my nightstand). In order to fully appreciate the writing of Helene Hanff, I am going to give you a prescription for literary bliss – or a road map to reading Hanff – because I think it will make your experience with this particular author even more rewarding.

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1 – Watch 84 Charring Cross Road the movie starring Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel and Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff. This movie is beautifully done and extremely faithful to the book. After viewing it, you will be able to picture Anthony Hopkins’ ever so understated and charmingly clipped interpretation of Frank Doel and even more importantly you will hear Anne Bancroft’s wrenching New York accent in your head when you read Helene’s letters. I really think that having Anne Bancroft’s voice in your head is critical. If you are reading Helene and have a Midwestern voice in your head, or a southern voice in your head, or a fragile feminine voice in your head, or a breezy romantic voice in your head, or your own voice in your head (unless your own voice is a wrenching New York accent) you are not going to understand her nearly as well as you will if Anne Bancroft’s voice is in your head. Trust me on this. It is very important.

2. Read 84 Charring Cross Road. It won’t take long as there are only 97 pages.

3. Take some time to recover from the sheer delight of reading this wonderful little book.

4. Read The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

5. Plan a trip to London based on Helene’s trip in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. Who cares if you actually take the trip ? The point is just to plan the trip… so you are ready… just in case a plane ticket to London falls out of the sky and lands in your purse or something.

6. Read Underfoot in Show Business - a book that takes you through the years that poverty stricken Helene struggled to write a successful play. As strange as it may seem, this is a highly entertaining book. You will meet Helen’s best friend, Maxine – a struggling New York actress. You will move with Helene from one run-down studio apartment to another, including one where five people share a communal kitchen that no one wants to clean, but everyone wants to control. You will spend a summer at a writer’s colony where there are a whole bunch of rules that everyone breaks. But mostly – you will live the life of a New York artist who refuses to give up on her dream no matter how hard it gets.

7. Reluctantly pick up Q’s Legacy - a book that Helene wrote about the man who inspired her to spend a lifetime reading the great books of all time. Figure that this book will be a long, tiresome ode to some dead Oxford professor who is staid, boorish, and dry as toast. Assume that you won’t connect to the story at all, but vow to grit your teeth and get through it.

8. Kick self hard for being so stupid about Q’s Legacy as it is written by Helene Hanff, an author whom you love and who can not seem to write a bad book. Through Q’s Legacy you will once again visit London with Helene as she goes back to see the sites she missed on her first visit and watches her first book, 84 Charring Cross Road be produced as the play she always dreamed of writing for the London stage.

9. Long to find another writer with the concise wit, bulldog tenacity, and upbeat charm of Helen Hanff.

10. Start over at number one again.

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The Giveaway

I have two copies of 84 Charring Cross Road to give away. Leave a comment to enter. Winners will be chosen at random on Monday evening November 9th, 2009. Good luck and Happy Reading!

Early this Spring, I visited Pioneer Woman’s Ranch.  For those of you that don’t know who I am speaking of when I say ‘Pioneer Woman’ let me just give you a quick run down.  Pioneer Woman is a very famous blog written by Oklahoma ranch wife Ree Drummond.  Her blog covers four major areas: confessions, homeschooling, photography and cooking.  I don’t read the cooking section of her blog because cooking blogs make me feel hungry, tired and extremely inadequate.  I also don’t read the photography section of her blog because photography blogs… bleh.  Pioneer Woman also has a section on her blog called ‘Home and Garden’ where she talks about her home and never talks about her garden.  I’m not even sure she has a garden, but I do know she has a home.  In fact she has at least two homes and they are very close to each other.  Because she has two homes and seemingly no garden, I think she should re-name the ‘Home and Garden’ section of her blog to ‘Home and Home’.  Wait!  I just remembered that she has another home somewhere in Texas!  Maybe she should call the ‘Home and Garden’ section of her blog ‘Home and Home and Home‘.

Or maybe…

Home and Home and No Garden and Also Another Home.

Homes Yes Ma’am – Gardens No Sir!

Home and Hoof

Homes and Hooves

Home, Home, Home And A Garden Gnome

Speaking of homes, she also has a homeschooling section on her blog.  Sometimes I read this section of her blog to self-infuriate.  I am sure that homeschoolers do the same thing on the section of my blog called ‘public-schooling’.  This is where I write about my journey as the tireless, heroic, selfless, long suffering mother of four, who every day yanks her four kids out of bed, shoves them on the school bus and then does a delirious happy dance as the bus disappears around the bend.

“Bye!”

“Bye boys!”

“Mommy loves you!”

“Don’t hurry home!”

I also post all my favorite Bible verses in this section.

Now…

What was this blog about?

Oh yes!

Head Lice.

I wrote about our head lice infestation shortly after we got back from our visit to Pioneer Woman’s home (which is beside her other home) in Oklahoma.  This was a very difficult period in my life.  (And yes… they all are).  I was trying to launch a new blog with a stupid title that made no sense because this was supposed to be a blog where my sister, April and I blogged together but somewhere along the way, I realized that I didn’t want to blog with anyone.  I didn’t want to share this one little corner of the universe that I had hacked out for myself with anyone.  This is my corner of the universe!  Get out!  GET OUT! OUT!!!!!

After April packed her virtual bags, I was left with a stupid domain name and a blog that was really meant for two people and not one.  I didn’t feel like I could just throw away all the money I had invested in the project and start over, so I sort of cobbled it all together and came up with the mess that you see in front of you.  It isn’t perfect, but it’ll do little donkey… it’ll do.  (name that movie).

And that brings us back to head lice.

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Before we left to visit Pioneer Woman’s home (which is right beside her other home), we had treated everyone in our house for head lice. You see, our kids attend Satan’s public schools and as a result, they frequently come home with demons inside of them.  It is especially horrifying when their heads spin around and they start writing messages for help by poking up the skin from inside of their bellies. I have grown accustomed to the nightly levitation, the violently shaking beds and the projectile vomiting all over the local priests, but I am still deeply disturbed every single time one of my kids uses the dark powers they have been mastering since kindergarten to pin me to the wall in the manner of a crucifix by hurling the kitchen knives at me with their minds.  But HEY! I am a public school mom!  The Devil’s horde just doesn’t bother me that much anymore.

So this Spring, when Lucifer sent a plague of head lice to torment my family, I went out and got some Nix and slathered it all over my house, my children, the cats, the furniture, etc., etc..  I bagged up everything that could be bagged up in big garbage bags and sealed them shut for two weeks.  I combed through everyone’s heads and tried as best as I could to comb through my own.  I washed and dried and washed and dried and washed and dried all the bed linens.  I bought some anti-lice aerosol spray and coated every item in my house that couldn’t be bagged or washed.  I went through this process at least twice before we left for Ree’s house as head lice, four boys and seven beds that everyone in our house likes to rotate through based on the phases of the moon, makes for insidious, stealth, ninja-like head lice and just when you think you have it conquered, they show up again. Neither the Country Doctor nor I showed any signs of head-lice, but we treated ourselves every time we treated out kids just to be safe.

We arrived at Ree’s late Friday night.  I was very nervous and in order to insure that everyone knew I was a total freakball, the first thing I did after I got through the front door was to loudly proclaim that my children had head lice.

HEY EVERYONE!  GUESS WHAT!  MY KIDS HAVE HEAD LICE!  MY HOUSE, MY KIDS, EVERYTHING HAS HEAD LICE!

Then I tore off my clothing, ran down to the cow pasture and set the prairie on fire.  As soon as the fire had burned down to an ember, I grabbed some sooty dirt, rubbed it all over my body, came back into the lodge and demanded some food!  ”Give me some grub!” I hollered, “And I don’t mean the maggoty stuff that I have been diggin’ out of my kid’s heads!”

Ree sat a plate of lasagna down in front of me and I dug into it with GUSTO!  Because I was officially a cowgirl now!  My entire backside was raw with half burned embers, my front side was coated in fresh cow dung and I didn’t know it yet, but my head was also crawling with little white maggots!  I ate with abandon, downed four brewskis as fast as four rifle shots, crawled down the hall to my bedroom, and slept like the dead.

The next morning we arose before the crack of dawn.  I hobbled out to the living room, tried every cowboy hat on in the house, went outside, wrangled me some cows, came back to the lodge and fried up a mess o’ bacon.

It wasn’t until late Saturday evening that my head began to itch.  At first I thought it was just ‘sympathetic itching’ or ‘paranoid itching’ or ‘phantom itching’ but the itching would not stop.  Since everyone knew about my kids having head lice, I was very self-conscious about itching my head.  I tried to be discreet.  As we sat around and talked, I pretended to be innocently twisting my hair in a charming backwoods, public-educated, demon-possessed way.  After twisting it for a while, I would surreptitiously let the twisting turn into a seven second itch-fest, then back to twisting, then itching, then twisting, then itching etc, etc.  When everyone started to look at me funny, I got up and grabbed the silverware basket from the dishwasher as if I were being a helpful guest, but before I placed each fork and knife in the utensil drawer, I furiously raked it through the part of my hair several times.  After I got all the silverware put away, my head was still itching like mad so I nonchalantly leaned against a bank of upper cabinets and began rubbing the crown of my head against the sharp corner edge until blood began to flow freely down my face.

“Does anyone want to play Cowboys and Indians?” I asked, blinking the dripping blood from my eyes.  I looked at Marlboro Man in particular, “C’mon Ladd!” I screamed, “You be the cowboy and I will be the Indian!”  I dipped my finger in some of my blood and used it as war paint on my cheeks.  Then I handed Ladd a huge butcher knife and knelt on the ground in front of him.  ”Scalp me Marlboro Man!” I begged.  ”Scalp me until you can see my brains!” I begged.  ”Please!  Oh Please, Please, Please! Just Rip It Off!  Go ahead!  Just slice off the top of my head!  HAVE SOME MERCY MARLBORO MAN!   Just do it!”

Ree asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee.

“Yes… please… Holy GodPlease…” I gasped as I tried to dab up my gushing blood from the pine floor with the hem of my shirt.

She handed me a steaming cup and I promptly poured it over my burning head and then began smashing the mug against the back of my skull, desperate for just a few seconds of relief from the non-stop itching. Then I picked up the broken shards from the busted mug and used them to scrape against what little remained of my torn, raggedy scalp.  This went on all night long, but I don’t think anyone really noticed me  How does one notice anyone else when Pioneer Woman and Marlboro Man are in the room?  It’s like being in the presence of Brad and Angelina… Katie and Tom… Jack and Jackie Kennedy.

When I got back home on Sunday, I re-treated myself and combed through my hair for an hour.  Evidence of an infestation was indisputable.  I knew the right thing to do was to contact Ree with this horrifying bit of news.  But how? How? How does one tell Jacqueline Kennedy that you just infested the white house with head lice?  But I did try to write an email to her…

Dear Ree,

I had head lice while I was at your house.  Sorry.

Dear Ree,

You are going to need to wash everything in the lodge with boiling water and tie plastic bags around all your guest’s heads for the next two weeks.

Dear Ree,

We really enjoyed ourselves at your house.  Thanks for having us.  Oh… by the way… I had head lice while I was there so you are going to have to disinfect everything I touched… which is everything in the lodge…

Dear Ree,

Wow!  What a great weekend!  I will never forget it!  And guess what!  You will never forget it either because I had head lice while I was there!  Hey!  It could be worse!  I could have had bed bugs!

Dear Ree,

Burn down the lodge and start over.  I gave you stealth ninja head lice and it won’t ever go away. Ever!  Never ever ever ever.

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I am sorry to tell you this, but I never did write that letter.

I went with Plan B. instead.

I prayed.

I prayed and I prayed and I prayed.

I begged God to please not give Pioneer Woman head lice.

Please God!  Please Please Please Please God.  Please place a hedge of protection around Pioneer Woman and the Lodge and do not let the head lice establish dominion over the lodge or Pioneer Woman’s head. Heavenly Lord – If you grant me this one prayer,  I will never make fun of your chosen people, the homeschoolers again.  I will become a homeschooling advocate!  I will homeschool my own kids!  I will found a recovery center for homeschooled adults. I will start a new blog dedicated to homeschooling and all of it’s holy goodness and light.  Just please, please, please do not let Pioneer Woman get head lice.  And dear God, I will also stop using the word ‘ass’ on my blog.  And I will place a bible verse in the upper left hand corner above the page fold and just under the header… no wait… above the header!  ABOVE THE HEADER GOD!    Just please God PLEASE do not let Pioneer Woman get head lice from me.  Thank you God.  You are the best God ever.  Love ya, Rechelle.

I have no idea if Pioneer Woman got head lice or not. But I do know, that we eventually got rid of it around here, although it took longer than I would ever have thought possible.  In fact, it took so long, that I figured it was my penance for making fun of homeschoolers and I let myself off the hook with all the homeschooling advocate, recovery center, bible verse in the corner promises I made to God. My head feels a little itchy right now, but I am sure that is just ‘phantom memory itching’ from telling this sad story again.

Isn’t it?

Please?

Please God?

Please, Please, Please!

I Just Need a Little More Moor

November 2nd, 2009

And I don’t mean the moor as in Othello the Moor, or the moor as in to anchor a sailing vessel – and yes I did just choose to say ‘sailing vessel’ rather than the more succinct word – boat, because when one is in the mood to ramble upon a moor, one is not at all prepared to set sail in anything so common… so uninteresting… so base…  as a mere BOAT!  However!  If a moor is unavailable, I will RELUCTANTLY make do with a craggy cliff, but only if there is a formidable manor in the background that looms… yes… LOOMS… dark and foreboding like a blistering black cloud upon the distant horizon.  And yet… even with all this looming and glooming, you must take care to note that the moment one steps into the shadowy central hall of the formidable manor, one is quickly drawn into the cozy library replete with cheerful fire, heavy laden tray full of yellow oatcakes, strawberries, cream and hot beverage.

But WAIT!

We are not IN THE MANOR EATING OATCAKES!  We are ON THE MOORS RAMBLING like ELVEN FOOLS!   And we are sporting some woolen, tweedy concoction, perfectly tailored in London at a shop called Burlton and Ives… or Anderson and Shepherd… or Higgins and Brown…and the tweedy concoction manages to both minimize that which must be minimized and maximize anything worth maximizing which in my case would be my upper molars and my left earlobe.

But even with our physical deficiencies so expertly understated, we are still rambling across the moors and not shopping in London people!  Stay with me!   And whilst we ramble (and yes, I did just say whilst)  there is a stinging wind which has whipped our normal pasty pallor into rosy hues of um… er… uh… rosy hues.   And there is a perpetual tear stinging thy cheek.  And YES!  I just said THY cheek!  I can say THY CHEEK if I want to!  Might I remind you that this is my moor and this is my ramble!  If I want to refer to my pasty pallor as rosy and my cheek as thy cheek and my raiment as tweeden – I can!  And yes!  I just called my raiment TWEEDEN! Plus! I used the word raiment!  I can ramble in my tweeden raiment upon my craggy moor with a tear stinging thy rosy cheek whilst my formidable manor hovers like a menacing mongrel in the background if I wish it!

And guess what!

I wish it!

Which is to say that last night – on All Hallow’s Eve (as opposed to the more common and far less special sounding… Halloween) – after the obligatory neighborhood trick or treating with my peppy seven year old and three angst ridden elder sons who really need to spend a year or two in Sub-Sahara Africa to realize that their lives are disgustingly good – our family went for a walk… upon the moors… sort of…

You see, after prowling the neighborhoods for candy, we attended a party that climaxed with an amble through a pasture, down into a creek bed, through a patch of prickly pines and back across the field, ending in a cheery outdoor fire and chocolate cupcakes.  The walk was supposed to scare the tweeden pants off of us, but a gorgeous full moon was leading the way, back-lighting the trees in blue and sliver, while the creek water shimmered with starrily stars as a pack of wolves howled in the distance.  So even if friends and neighbors took turns popping out of the trees and chasing us all over the fields with chainsaws and hacksaws, and um… other kinds of saws…  and I was supposed to be terrified, instead, I found myself in the seventh level of heaven.

Moonlight walks are a must for mental health.  

Even if you find yourself involuntarily screaming bloody murder.

Today, we awoke to a glinting fall day and I immediately decided to skip church and haul my family out on another hike.  As usual, my children responded with at best, sullen indifference and at worst, the death throes of plague ridden, boil infested,medieval peasants. I came close to throwing the whole idea over, but in the end, the Country Doctor got us all out the door and to the park as he is immune to the death cries of plague victims.

We rambled across the moors at Oregon Trail park, climbing all the way to the top of the overlook.

‘Twas then we saw the foreboding manor…

And then we climbed back down…

To a picnic lunch.

The golden fields a fierce reminder….

That dread winter draws nigh…

When the moors will become as unbearable as tweedy woolens bought off a half price end-cap at the Dollar Store.

Tis best to ramble whilst one can!