Midweek Miscellany: On the Road Again! (Books! Museums! Springtime!)

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Most of the books I read during my road trip last week are in this pile, securely anchored by my little hedgehog friend (there are several pottery studios located near my new home & I find it difficult to resist the wares).

While I’m working up the energy for my next book posting, I thought I’d do a Miscellany just to keep the creative juices flowing.  As this Midweek Miscellany is even more miscellaneous than usual, you’ll miss nothing by skipping over whatever you find boring.

First Miscellany:  Travel and Books

I’m positively giddy with excitement, dear readers, after returning from a (very) limited little road trip, my first real outing since the start of the horrible pandemic last spring.  Nothing fancy or extreme, you understand, and undertaken for serious reasons as it was prompted by unfinished business in my former home in the Washington, D.C. area.  Back in the day when Mr. Janakay and I were birding in exotic locales, this little outing would have been a total nothing-burger, but after a year of being confined pretty much to one area it was (almost) a treat, despite the fact that I spent much of my time running errands and attending to boring old medical things.

Aside from the novelty of being in a different area (although I love palm trees it is nice to see a little variety in the flora), my little trip was quite a morale boaster in another way as well.  When I moved last April, and again during a short business-related return trip last summer, the D.C. area was very different from its usual bustling, busy, self-absorbed self.  Restaurants and movie theaters were closed; very few people were about on the street; the performing arts had disappeared; there were absolutely no tourists that I could see (you’ve never experienced a real tourist town, dear readers, until you’ve fought your way through a gaggle of tour buses all headed towards the tidal basin and the April cherry blossoms); museums were shuttered and — gasp! most telling of all — the beltway and commuting routes were a snap to navigate.  The whole experience was uncanny and depressing; I found my mind wandering to all those college history readings about plague cities and so on.  Sad! (to quote a former unnamed U.S. president.  Don’t worry, dear readers; such a quote won’t happen again on this blog).  On this trip, however, there were signs of life and recovery, albeit somewhat guarded ones.  An increased number of restaurants, with patios draped in plastic to create “outdoor” dining spaces, were open; limited numbers of people were sitting about outside in socially distanced groups and enjoying the weather; a few museums were doing timed-entry admissions and there was, generally, a feeling of life returning, even if not to the same level as BC19 (before Covid-19).  It was so heartening I didn’t even mind the increased volume of traffic.  “Bring it on” I exclaimed to Mr. Janakay, as he dodged an oblivious lane-shifter who was simultaneously running a red light!

In addition to being a morale booster, my little trip was very handy for knocking off a few more titles from Mount TBR, which is increasing at an exponential rate (not my fault! Y’all shouldn’t be writing such great book reviews!)  Since I’m far from ready to entrust myself to air travel, I had quite a lot of car time, physically tiring but great for getting through that satchel of books I always travel with (you would have blushed, dear reader, to have heard Mr. Janakay some years ago when we were packing to go to New Guinea!  Although it’s blindingly obvious to any book blogger, Mr. J simply could not grasp why I needed so many books for a birding trip).  From my early childhood, when I was yanked from my comfortable bed, plunked down in the back seat of a car and exposed to the dawn’s frightful light (my family took many, many long road trips and dad was a fervent believer in an early start.  I still shudder at the memory of those dreadful sunrises), I perfected the art of reading during a car trip.  Between travel and hotel down time during my actual stay in D.C. last week, I not only finished a Challenge book or two but also indulged in some spontaneous selections chosen as “light” relief (I’m using quotes because I don’t altogether buy into the typical categorization between literary and popular fiction).  It’s ironic, however, that my three spontaneous choices were, with the exception of the Margery Sharp novel, so disappointing that I didn’t bother to include them in my pile.

In no particular order of preference, my week of wonderful reading included:

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Any Valerie Martin readers out there? This tale of a declining family of Italian aristocrats, property theft and sibling rivalry set in Mussolini’s Italy deserved its glowing review in The Guardian.   Although I don’t think it’s quite at the level of Martin’s Property (winner of 2003’s Orange Prize) it’s pretty darn good.
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My second Szabo novel (the first was her wonderful The Door), this story of the intertwined lives of four Hungarian families torn apart by WWII was a wonderful read from beginning to end.  An added attraction is the fact that I’ve finally read it, after twice failing to do so as part of the Back to the Classics Challenge!
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The Girls of Slender Means is another perennial entry in my Classics Challenge; it’s so satisfying to finally get around to it.  Another fabulous read and a timely reminder to me to always remember that Muriel Spark is not quite like any other writer!
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I’ve long been curious about Paula Fox’s work and had resolved this year to read Desperate Characters, her best known novel.  For some reason, however, I packed her debut novel instead.  Its New Orleans setting was very appealing (many years ago I lived in the city for a brief period) and . . . what’s that thing about the best laid plans?  The novel has some flaws (what debut novel doesn’t?) but I’m now convinced that Paula Fox should be much more widely read than she is.  Luckily for me, she was reasonably prolific, so I have five more novels to look forward to (including Desperate Characters!)
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Fun, fun, fun!  My first Margery Sharp but it certainly won’t be my last.  A delicious coming of age/finding one’s voice story, combined with an oh-so-wicked sendup of the (pretentious) intellectual life.   Who cares if the message at times may be a bit retro by current standards — after all, shouldn’t a period piece reflect its period?

SECOND MISCELLANY:  Museums

To my great disappointment, most of  Washington’s major museums remained closed last week, including my very own personal favorite, the National Gallery, with the only Leonardo in North America and its four Vermeers (well, maybe three!  One’s an “attributed to”).  I was nevertheless able to get my fix by a short drive up Interstate 95-North to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and the home of the Barnes Foundation, which is allowing timed entry visits under very strict restrictions (capacity, for example, is severely curtailed).  I’m very fond of the Barnes, although I’m far less familiar with it than my old home town museums.  It has a fabulous collection, noted for its Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modernist art.  Sixty-nine Cezannes!  Fifty-Nine Matisses!  One hundred and eighty-one Renoirs! (my apologies to Renoir lovers but IMO that’s one hundred eighty too many).  In addition to all this, there are also numerous works by de Chirico; Gauguin; Picasso; van Gogh; Degas; Rousseau; and Seurat, with a scattering of old masters (Hals, Rubens and Titian) as well.  Dr. Albert Barnes, who founded the museum in the 1920s, was also far ahead of his time in collecting African and Native American art.  The Barnes is a fascinating place and one of the few museums that continue to reflect the vision and eccentricities of its founder.  If you like art and you happen to be in Philadelphia, this is not a place you want to miss.

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The visitor approach, lined with gorgeous Japanese Maples (I think! My knowledge of plants is limited).  In addition to the fabulous art, the building and its setting are lovely.
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Another exterior view.  The building is surrounded by a shallow, pebble lined pond, which is a great favorite with the local birds.
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Inside of the museum, looking out; this gives you a sense of scale.
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An example of a Barnes “wall ensemble”, which combines paintings of different styles & time periods with objects such as furniture, jewelry, iron work and sculpture.  The observant among you will note the absence of any helpful wall text; Dr. Barnes believed viewers should examine, reflect and form their own opinions about the art in his collection.

In addition to all the great art, the Barnes Foundation has a strong online presence.  Its numerous lectures and course offerings have kept me going throughout the pandemic.

THIRD MISCELLANY:  Nature

For a major metropolitan area, Washington and its adjacent suburbs have quite a bit of green space.  It was a real joy to spend a couple of afternoons re-visiting one or two favorite spots, particularly as spring was well underway.  I love my new climate — for one thing, it’s warm and Washington was quite chilly for most of my stay — but I must admit it’s difficult to tell that the season has changed by looking at a palm tree or a hibiscus plant, which pretty much blooms year round.

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This is actually a very small urban park.  A green space located in a dense residential area,  the park makes a great “migrant trap” during the spring, when traveling birds use it to rest and refuel. In pre-pandemic Mays it was quite common to see folks wearing business suits & binoculars (I once saw a semi-famous retired cabinet secretary who was quite excited about a Blackburnian warbler — and well he might be) using their lunch hour to spot interesting migrants coming down to the stream to bath and drink.
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Can you find the chipmunk? He’s on the left of the flat concrete slab. This one needs to exercise more caution, or he’s liable to be something’s lunch!
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One of my very favorite spots, only 25 miles (40 km) or so from downtown Washington.  Because this series of impoundments is close to the Potomac River, the paths can be a little swampy at times . . . 
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Where there’s a swamp, well, there are swamp critters!  Luckily these were well off the path.
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A much nicer image than those snakes, n’est-ce pas?  In a few weeks, these will be in full bloom.

Enough for tonight!  Time now to do a real book review, only — what should I choose from my recent reads?

20 thoughts on “Midweek Miscellany: On the Road Again! (Books! Museums! Springtime!)

    1. De nada (for the tour) — I’m glad you liked it. I’m afraid my little chipmunk can’t compete with your orchids and seacoast but just being out and about lifted my spirits enormously! I also seem to be concentrating more on the reading these days; now if I only get myself organized enough to write up some reviews!

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the photos; this time of year the mid-Atlantic really does look at its best (although autumn can also be nice). You’re absolutely right about nature and its power to soothe and console; I’m not sure I could have survived the last year without access to green space!

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  1. What an evocative post! I felt like I was with you on your visit to the park and the museum. The museum sounds fascinating! I can’t wait to resume my normal life and frequent shops, bookstores and museums again and of course meet my near and dear ones! Hopefully really soon…fingers crossed. I have taken refuge in nature like you and many others and I have enjoyed walks and hikes in the New England area where I live.
    I haven’t read any of the books you have mentioned but I am sure any of them would make a great review!

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. The Barnes really is a fascinating museum with respect to its history and holdings, both of which merit much more detail than I had time to get into with my brief post. Like you, I’m very impatient to resume something like “normal” life, which is why this trip was such a morale booster: things weren’t as they were, but there were definite signs that life was resuming something of its former aspect. I don’t think I had realized how much I needed this breath of fresh air.
      New England can be a wonderful place to enjoy nature. I think I remember from your blog that you’re in New Hampshire, correct? I’ve never been lucky enough to visit it (I’ve also missed Maine) although I did live in Rhode Island for a number of years. When I was there I totally loved my walks along the coast, which had incredible scenery: lots of rocky cliffs and light houses, very different from my current locale in Gulf Coast Florida!

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      1. I hope I get the opportunity to visit The Barnes some day. I have family close to that area and so it is a possibility.
        Yes, I live in New Hampshire. I enjoy the beauties of nature every day of every season. 😊

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  2. Hi Kaggsy! So glad you dropped by and that you enjoyed the post (even the snakes, I hope. They really are fascinating) I totally agree that books, travel, nature and art pretty much cover all one’s needs, particularly if chocolate and a glass of something bubbly and white are thrown into the mix! Going to an real art museum was like feeling a fresh breeze in a stuffy room. I’ve been doing a moderate amount of online viewing but it just doesn’t approach physically seeing a painting for yourself.
    It’s been such a long time since I’ve read anything by dear Muriel I had forgotten how she can throw in that gut punch when you’re least expecting it! I was buzzing through Slender Means, enjoying it but not overwhelmed, nodding at the humor and so on, when — wow! The pieces started coming together and the whole story went in a totally (at least for me) unexpected direction. I really must read more of her novels!

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  3. I’m emerging this week from exile, and it was delightful to follow your travels, especially out into nature. And your mention of Margery Sharp sent me down a rabbit hole, and what a lovely time I had doing that, now with several Sharp books on my wishlist.

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  4. Hi Deb — so glad you enjoyed the post. I don’t think I had quite realized how much the pandemic was getting me down until I actually did my little road trip, which was intended strictly for business but also ended up as being quite a morale booster. As for nature, as for so many others, my own brief forays into the green, as well as those shared by other bloggers online, really kept me going this last year.
    Regarding Margery Sharp — sorry (not really!) about detouring you down that rabbit hole as it’s such a very nice one, isn’t it? I became hooked myself on Dean Street Press’s Furrowed Middlebrow series last summer after I read several reviews of its offerings on various blogs (one of my favorites was Miss Plum and Miss Penny, on which heavenali wrote a great review. Sorry I can’t link it here, but the review was posted on July 20, 2020 if you want to read it). I throughly enjoyed Rhododendron Pie (I’m trying, admittedly not very hard right now, to fight off summer laziness & write a review), which came at just the right time. What did you put on your wishlist? I’ve added Sharp’s Harlequin House (hmm! It might be calling my name this weekend) and Rachel Ferguson’s Evenfield.

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  5. When I was a child, reading in a moving car would make me car sick. Though I think it might have been a combination of reading in a very hot car (we never had air conditioning) with fighting siblings and irate parents. When I used to live in a cities with good public transportation, I read on the train which was fantastic and something I still miss, even though it’s been now 20 years.

    I’ve long wanted to read The Door by Szabo and even checked it out from the library once. Alas, it still remains unread. I’ll take heart at your “third time’s the charm” experience with Katalin Street. I’ve not read that title by Margery Sharpe, but I have now also read a number of Dean Street Press’ Furrowed Middlebrow imprint and enjoyed them all. Of course, they are very much indicative of a certain time and place, but that is part of their charm. It’s sort of a way to time travel.

    Thanks for the pictorial tour of the Barnes museum. I’m afraid, however, that I would very much miss the wall text. I am really not very artistically inclined and mostly like “knowing” trivial things about paintings. This is pretty much how I appreciate art, by establishing it in its time period and history, knowing what school the painter subscribed too, etc.

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  6. Ruthiella: how your comments brought back the memories of my delightful childhood family outings! My family was big on station wagons and (very) early starts; our car (like yours) was lacked airconditioning. My parents had a ruthless but effective strategy; my brother and I were dumped in the “wagon” part of the vehicle (far from the front seat) and Darwinism was left to take its course. All this by the dawn’s early light (I hated the mornings BTW!) Under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have developed a “reading in the car habit” but when psychic survival is at stake — you do what you gotta do. I totally agree with you that reading on a train is much, much nicer.
    Although I don’t think it’s quite at the level of The Door, Katalin Street is definitely worth another try. It gets a bit surrealist/magic realism at times (one of the POV characters is a ghost) but I enjoyed this aspect. Not sure yet about the ending .. . I’ve got to ponder that a little more.
    I love your remark about time travel, as it so exactly describes my own feelings about the Furrowed Middlebrow series. Plus — some of the books are just so funny! Rhododendron Pie is the only thing I’ve read of Margery Sharp’s but I’ve already lined up a couple more of her novels for (I hope) later this year.
    I share your feelings about the Barnes’ lack of wall texts to accompany the paintings. The first time I visited there I was actually in a panic — what WAS all this stuff? Who painted it and when? Ironically, I think that Dr. Barnes intended the arrangements and lack of text to be anti-elitist, he had the idea that anyone, whether trained in art or not, could just look at the art without being distracted by stray facts and make his/her own value judgments. Unfortunately, I don’t think it worked out that way — we mere mortals need context!

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    1. Hi Liz — glad you stopped by! Rhododendron Pie was great, wasn’t it? It was my first novel by Margery Sharp but won’t be my last.
      I’m not sure how far you could go with it, but Mr. Laventie reminded me a bit of Sir Walter Eliot, from Persuasion. Different cause for the vanity, of course, but very similar personalty types and both wonderful comic characters. I am eagerly looking forward to my next Furrowed Middlebrow, which I am saving for a treat next month!

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  7. For someone who hasn’t read Muriel Spark or Margery Sharp, I find their names very easy to mix up. But the covers of their books give off very different feels, so I assume I should try them both!
    I have read Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Mary Celeste and quite enjoyed it. I do like stories of the sea, though.
    I enjoyed your nature tour! I’ve never been to that area – only once did I go right by on my way to Florida with a couple of friends on spring break back in 1995! I have found that the pandemic has made me appreciate nature even more than I already did. Not such a bad thing, is it?!

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  8. Hi Naomi — I’m glad you enjoyed the nature tour! It’s ironic that I only started appreciating such things after I moved to a big city. Luckily for me, Washington is relatively “green,” with lots of parks. Thankfully, there are also pretty strict height restrictions on the downtown buildings. The minus side — no dramatic skyline like New York; plus side — sunshine and a feeling of openness! If I recall correctly from your blog, aren’t you in Nova Scotia? I’m afraid our little green spaces around D.C. can’t hold a candle to your area! Many years back Mr. Janakay and I had a very nice trip to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, including a few days at Cape Breton. I still remember that incredible scenery.
    Although it isn’t my very favorite Valery Martin, I too enjoyed the Mary Celeste. If you like books with Italian settings, centered on female friendship and family sagas and spanning a number of years I think you’d also like “I Give It to You.” It was the first Martin novel I’ve read in ages and it reminded me of how much I enjoyed her work. Property is also great, although it’s very, very dark so don’t read it when you’re feeling down.
    I hadn’t thought of “Spark” and “Sharpe” together — LOL! I’d definitely recommend both but be careful that you match the right one to your mood! Spark always has that touch of strange, with a streak of dark, if you’ll pardon my melodrama, while Rhododendron Pie, the one Sharpe novel under my belt, was as light as a butterfly’s wing. Perfect for a summer mood!

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  9. Books, museums, nature! Hands down my ideal life.
    I am glad to hear about the positive changes in DC, and the Barnes, swoon! What a daring idea not to have explanatory labels. The three women painting looks familiar. I would love to visit the museum with you.
    Parks and birding sound relaxing.
    You read so prolifically and so well. I enjoy being back and reading about your life.

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  10. Silvia: so happy you’re back! I’ve just popped (clicked?) over to catch up on your 2020 reading — what a fabulous list! I hope one day to get to Ishiguro’s Unconsoled or Márquez’s One Hundred Years myself; if would be lovely to compare notes.
    The Barnes IS a truly unique museum; if you’re ever in Philadelphia make sure you don’t miss it. My own preference is largely for paintings from an earlier period but I am slowly bringing myself up to at least the mid-20th century! I have mixed feelings about the absence of wall text and/or labels. I understand and appauld the theory — one should just look and draw one’s own conclusions but . . . I find it very disorienting. Guess I’m used to being told what to think about what I’m looking at. I doubt if you have the time to check it out, but the Barnes has a wonderful online presence — lots of virtual tours, lectures, whatever!

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