Friday, April 29, 2011

In Praise of Quince

My husband has made me a convert to quince. Thanks to him we have 7 quince plants in our garden. His gardening passion is quince; mine is the common lilac aka syringe vulgaris. We planted as many lilacs as quince, but we have only 2 syringa vulgaris left. The quince are all still standing.

The lilacs must have full sun and alkaline soil to flourish; no matter how much lime I add, when I dig down a few inches, the soil remains stubbornly acidic. Only one of my two remaining lilacs has flower buds and maybe I will just have to face reality and take it out.

I’ll put up with a lot for that lilac fragrance. When it’s not in bloom, it’s a scraggly plant susceptible to hideous powdery mildew. The quince may not have fragrance to die for but it flowers everywhere even in fairly deep shade. It’s not fussy about soil ph and the foliage remains glossy and disease free throughout the season. Unlike the common lilac, quince can be pruned into an attractive shape.The lilacs always looks weedy, no matter what I do.

Most quince plants are upright and quince contorta has fantastic curling branches which are magnificent in flower arrangements:

But if you want something low, there's incredibly tough texas scarlet:

My favorite is Toyo Nishiki which has white, pale pink, and bright red flowers on the same plant.
Quince generally blooms for a full 3 weeks, about a week longer than the average flowering shrub. This may be because it starts to flower in late March/early April so its delicate blossoms are less likely to be fried by unseasonably warm weather. It’s on its way out now, but put on a great show.

Quince may not have a fragrance to die for (which is why I put up with the common lilac), but it does produce an attractive lime green fruit in early Fall. The quince fruits can be boiled and turned into a tart (or not so tart depending on the amount of sugar added) quince jelly. We have yet to harvest our quince fruits and turn it them into quince jelly, but maybe we will get it together this year!

Friday, April 22, 2011

From Fran Waksler: What Should I Read Next?

From my friend Fran Waksler:

Retirement has brought me an abundance of time to read, certainly a welcome luxury, but one consequence is my now more frequent search for what I will read next. I try very hard to choose a next book before I’ve finished the one I’m reading so I won’t have that uncomfortable bookless gap during which I wander the house looking for just the right one.

As I wrote previously, I’ve been in the process of rearranging my bookshelves. Now I finally have space on the shelves of carefully alphabetized books I have read. I also have a place for unread books but, unfortunately, also have little outposts of them on various other shelves, interfering with my organizational plans. The solution I have come up with is to choose to read books that have been languishing on my unread shelves, neglected for no apparent reason except that the time to read them never seemed quite right. What pleasant surprises I’ve had, as well as some disappointments.

As part of this new approach, I first read Sarah Grand’s The Beth Book, (Virago) that I think I was avoiding just because it was very long and I’d never heard of it before. I can’t even remember why I bought it. I chose it now because I wanted space on the shelf where it was resting. I found the first half very good, showing a knowledgeable and detailed grasp of a child’s perspective; the second half got rather preachy but still, overall it was a worthwhile read. I found it reminiscent of Wilkie Collins.

The next book, chosen to make more room on my unread gardening bookshelf, was Elizabeth Lawrence’s The Gardener’s Essential Gertrude Jekyll, selections for Jekyll’s writings. Much to my surprise, I didn’t enjoy it and found it discouraging. Her goals for gardening are so lofty that she makes ordinary gardeners look stupid. I didn’t learn much of practical value. She raved about Funkia so I looked up their common name: Hostas—which I dislike intensely.

David G. Bromley and Anson D. Shupe, Jr.’s Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare (photo above), has been on my shelf for years and was close to being discarded a number of times. The bright orange cover and the artwork made it look like a sensationalist polemic. It turned out to be sociology at its best, with good description and sensible analysis of the way that the danger presented by cults has been exaggerated, primarily by distraught parents and deprogrammers with help from the media. It describes the dangers to religious freedom of dismissing and even persecuting cults and recognizes that many traditional religions began as cults.

I wanted something short and chose Florida Scott-Maxwell’s The Measure of My Days, which I expected to be interesting musings on growing old. I can’t say that it captured me at all and didn’t make much room in the bookcase.

Another shelf where I wanted a bit of room held Rebecca Stott’s Darwin and the Barnacle, a gift from my husband who knows of my interest in Darwin and in arguments over evolution. I can always trust the books he chooses; they are guaranteed to be well written. This book was a particular pleasure, showing Darwin as an exceedingly careful and hard-working researcher. He spent years at his microscope tracing the evolution of barnacles, knowledge that was fundamental to his theories later published in The Origin of Species.

I realize that in some ways I have been a lazy book-chooser, relying on familiar authors and topics and not taking chances. But I acquired the unread books on my shelves for some reason; perhaps I should trust what I chose even if I don’t remember why.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

I haven’t lost my taste for fiction: reading Caleb’s Crossing

Despite being a voracious reader of novels in my early and middle years, I’ve been moving away from fiction and had started to worry that I was losing my taste for novels. But when I got the invitation to participate in BlogHer’s book club I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for free books. Geraldine Brooks has been on that long list of authors I thought I might get around to reading someday, but probably would not have done so if Caleb’s Crossing had not arrived in my mailbox.

Caleb’s Crossing is a historical novel about the emotionally charged friendship of a young English girl, Bethia Mayfield, and a young Native American, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, in 17th c. New England. Although the relationship between Bethia and Caleb is completely fictional, the character of Caleb is based on a Native American who graduated from Harvard in 1665. For me, the fact that there is an historical basis for the novel really added to the enjoyment. Brooks, through her extensive research into the history and culture of native Americans and English settlers, recreates the world of 17c Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge.

With Caleb’s Crossing, I’ve rediscovered the joy of getting lost in a novel and the pleasure of what only fiction can give-- a feel for what it’s like to live in a different culture, a different time. I don’t want to read novels about people like me—I want that sense of entry into another world.

I much preferred the early part of the novel with its poetic evocation of the beauty of an unspoiled Martha’s Vineyard and the very moving, slowly developing relationship between Bethia and Caleb. Their love for each other is so totally forbidden by their society that they cannot even acknowledge their feelings to themselves, but it is all so painfully obvious to the 21st century reader. In the second half of the novel evocative poetry takes a back seat to a powerful, page-turning narrative of the characters’ fate in 17th c. Cambridge.

I was surprised that, although retired, the old English and Women’s Studies teacher in me can’t help but think about how she might use this novel in the classroom. Old habits die hard. There’s the theme of exploring a different world and a different culture, as Bethia and Caleb try to understand each other’s worlds. A particularly moving example: Bethia is inconsolable after the accidental death of her young sister, Solace. Caleb is living with Bethia’s family at that time in order to receive instruction from Bethia’s father in preparation for his matriculation at Harvard. Caleb, too, is deeply distraught at the accidental death of Solace. The night before the burial Bethia sees him place some thing in Solace’s hand:

In the morning, I went privily to Caleb and asked what he had done, fearing that he had put into her hand what might be an un-Christian thing. He told me that it was a scrap of parchment on which he ahd made a fair copy of the scripture of our Lord, Suffer the little children...He ahd tied it up with his wampum beaded thong of deer hide, around the peg doll...that had been her chief plaything in her last month among the living.

“A medicine bundle such as pawaaws use," I said troubled.
“ No,” he replied calmly, “Not quite...Why send her into thee earth without some token of the love we all of us bear for her? Your father preaches that not all the old beliefs are evil. If, as he fashions it, Kiehtan our creator God is Jehovah by another name, then why shun the customs we have that come from him, to give the departing a small gift of comfort from this world as they pass into the next?”

Then the theme of race and gender oppression: Caleb’s Crossing is in a long tradition of feminist works--Virginia Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s Sister” is perhaps the most famous example-- which explore the longing of a highly intelligent young woman for access to the world of learning, a world denied to her by virtue of her sex. Also Bethia’s story is in a tradition of feminist writing in which awareness of gender oppression can lead to awareness of racial oppression--the Grimke sisters are perhaps the most famous example of this.

And finally, a theme that I would try (with probably only very limited success) to use as a motivational device: the incredible effort, the sacrifices Bethia and Caleb were both willing to make to have access to the wisdom contained within the covers of a book. Both Bethia and Caleb valued both sources of knowledge found in, and not found in, Harvard library. Both were looking for ways to reconcile two very different cultural/religious traditions. And both were acutely aware of how knowledge of other worlds created distance between them and their families—an experience familiar to many first generation college students. I would strongly recommend this to teachers of introductory college courses as well as to anyone looking for a beautifully written, totally absorbing historical novel.

Reading the other BlogHer book club reviewers was also interesting. One reviewer did not like what she saw as the author imposing 21st century progressive views on her 17th century characters. I didn’t see it that way at all. We know so little of 17th century women’s interior lives. To find Bethia’s voice Geraldine Brooks states in her afterward that she relied on the captivity narratives of Mary Rowlandson, the court testimony of Anne Hutchinson, the poetry of Anne Bradstreet. Women like Randolph, Hutchinson, and Bradstreet had ideas that would resonate with many 21st century women. Throughout the (very scanty) historical record there have been women who have been way ahead of their time. Christine de Pizan writing in the 13th century, Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th century sound at times very much like contemporary feminists. It is certainly possible and consistent with the historical record that the daughter of an educated man would long for an education and would at least implicitly question gender roles and racial hierarchy.

If any English teachers, History teachers, Women’s Studies teachers out there would like to have my copy of Caleb’s Crossing I’m happy to pass it along.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I never expected to attend events at the Union League. The world has changed!

Here I am with good friends Rosa Woods and Cindy Bass at (of all places) the Union League.

I have lived in Philadelphia all my life but never set foot in the Union League—nor particularly wanted to. When I was a young woman I considered it enemy territory—a bastion of elite white male privilege.

I have been doing a bit of reading recently about the struggle to integrate the Union League as part of a research project about the feminist movement in Philly. The Union League did not admit its first African- American member until 1972 and its first female member until 1986(!!!)

But my sense of alienation was not just because of racial and gender exclusion. Despite some very mixed feelings about the union that represented me, I have always identified with labor rather than business interests. In the 70’s when local feminists were waging their battle to integrate the Union League, I was hanging out with folks who wanted to overthrow capitalism rather than fight to ensure women and minorities a seat at the table.

I see it differently now and think it's important that the business elite includes women and minorities. (I was really happy that the Union League elected its first female president, Joan Carter, in 2010.)

Capitalism is in little danger of being overthrown and in this country the vast majority of jobs are created by the private sector. Regulating and distributing the fruits of capitalism is still my goal but being reflexively anti-business doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. That said, my distrust of the business elite and my sense of the Union League as alien territory persists.

So when my good friend Arlene Bennett suggested having a fund-raiser for City Council candidate Cindy Bass at the Union league I was taken aback. The Union League??? Arlene is a member of the Union League and could easily arrange this. Despite all my reservations, it was a great event and it was wonderful to see all those women, especially all those African-American women, at the Union League event. My city has come a long way since the bad old days of my youth.

So yes, we have made progress (although there is still a ways to go) in the struggle for gender justice and racial justice. In the struggle for economic justice, not so much. The business elites that in the 70’s and 80’s resisted admitting women to clubs like the Union League were not as viscerally anti-labor as at least some segments of the business elites are today.

The battleground is shifting...

Friday, April 1, 2011

Nature Plays an April Fool’s Joke: Snow on April 1

This has felt like the longest winter ever. And waking up to snow on the first day of April was hard to take. My husband and a couple of good friends have been planning to go on regular Friday morning walks for the past few weeks and each Friday has been too cold, too rainy, and now too snowy.

We have had snow in April before. I remember my good friend Reni had tickets for a Handel opera in mid-April. She’s a real opera buff and lover of Handel, so she bought tickets for mid-April thinking she was safe and her plans would not be upended by bad weather. Well, we had a major snowstorm, the trains were not running, and Reni did not get to the opera.

So yes, it’s happened before, but I can't recall ever feeling this annoyed. When I was working I had another annoyances to deal with and less time to obsess about the weather.

Maybe April really is the cruelest month. On a grim April day, we English major types all have that refrain running through our heads, kind of like a pop song you just cannot get out of your mind:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with Spring rain

(I did not have to google this – the words are burned in my brain--although I did have to check for the line spacing.)

Oh well as Nance wrote on a comment on my last post complaining about the weather: "Spring has never entirely let us down, yet, so hang in there."

I promise: no more posts bemoaning the bad weather. As my husband said your blog is turning into a weather report.