Saturday, December 31, 2011

Taking Stock

I haven't blogged enough to look back at posts over the past years, so I am doing a little family stock taking  instead. Littlest first.

Cherub - has had a good year. She is still loving school, maybe even more so now she is in Year 1. She likes learning and likes rules, so school is a good fit for her. She is much more confident than a year ago, though still extremely cautious about anything new and reluctant to confront anything that might be even the slightest bit scary. Reading and writing are coming along nicely. She isn't ready to read on her own yet, but I can see the skills slotting into place. Her spelling is pretty much entirely phonetic - mostly legible but entertainingly wrong.

Star - loves her new school. Long may it last! Star and school are in some ways not a natural fit (rules? what rules?) so feeling positive makes it easier for her to deal with the constraints. She has made two new close friends, as well as keeping up most of her old friendships. It's hard to believe she will be starting her GCSE courses next summer. She has to choose her options next term and is thinking of French, Art, Child Development and possibly Business Studies (in addition to compulsory English language and literature, maths and science).

Angel - this has been the year when she has become a young adult. She passed her GCSEs with creditable grades, is tackling A levels with her usual competence, loves being a sixth former and being at her new school, has proved herself working in an adult's job, and has managed to juggle school, work and a social life. Oh, and has acquired a boyfriend! She is stretching her wings and getting ready to fly, and though it is a little bittersweet to see her moving away from us into the adult world I am very proud of the capable, independent young woman she is becoming.

Tevye - mostly more of the same. Overall he has a good work-life balance which makes up for the frustrations that sometimes go along with his work, and the recession hasn't had any noticeable impact on his company. His eyes have been up and down - he has a condition affecting the cornea which is not degenerative but fluctuates in severity and gives him some vision problems. A separate pair of occupational glasses for computer work and reading has helped, and glasses with a new prescription he collected this month seem to have improved his vision significantly.

Bookworm - lots of changes for me! This time last year I was about to start my archive course and now I am already half way through. Getting a job has been a big change, but I am absolutely loving it. I find it hard to imagine anything I would enjoy more. The content of the documents I am working with is fascinating, the working conditions are good and I like the people. It has been quite hard fitting in an extra day of work each week over the last couple of months while still trying to fit in my study time, but I have enjoyed the variety of doing something different and getting to learn more about how the archive ticks. I will probably be doing it for another month or so, after which I will be back to working my usual mornings only routine - which is now going to seem beautifully easy! The other big positive from this year has been that I have managed to get into much better eating habits, which have had the nice side effect of causing me to effortlessly lose weight. I have no idea how much as I have no scales, but I am a size smaller and have had to throw out clothes that got too big. I have been eating lots of fruit and veggies, sticking to wholemeal and wholegrain as much as possible and mostly avoiding sugar and junk, which I compensate for with a couple of squares of dark chocolate and a small glass of wine most days.

Friday, December 30, 2011

My New Toy!

Look what Father Christmas - or maybe it would be more accurate to say the Hannukah Elf - brought me.

I have been coveting a Kindle for a while but couldn't quite justify it at the price. Once Amazon brought out this smaller, cheaper keyboard-less model it went to the top of my Christmas list. I have to say, I am loving it! After a conversation with my Apple loving neighbour about why I would want a Kindle when I already have an iPad I did some thinking about the reasons, wondering whether there was really a justification other than gadget mania. And yes, there are reasons. The Kindle is significantly smaller and lighter, particularly good for throwing into my bag to read on the train, but the main reason - which I think I sub-consciously expected, but only pinned down in the light of experience - is that the Kindle gets out of the way. Reading on the iPad I am always at least a little aware of the machine, thanks to the brighter, backlit screen (great for video, but not quite the right contrast for a book), and its built in distractions (too easy to flip over to Facebook, or Google something unconnected that has flashed across my brain). With the Kindle, it is easier to get lost in the book. The liquid ink screen is easy on the eyes, and the neat page turning buttons on the sides flip onto the next page at a touch. For someone like me who usually knits while reading it is a big improvement on printed books, which are not always amenable to hands-off reading and once propped in the right position are liable to dislodge themselves during page turns.

I already had about 30 Kindle books downloaded but had already read most of them on the iPad, so I have been having fun stocking the Kindle. Amazon UK has a 12 Days of Kindle promotion on throughout the 12 Days of Christmas (duh!) with a whole new batch of books added each day, mostly reduced to 99 pence. I have been taking advantage of this and now have the following stacked in my reading queue:
  •  The Eagle of the Ninth (Rosemary Sutcliff)
  • Ghosts of Spain (Giles Tremlett) - a combination of travelogue and history
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (modern translation by Simon Armitage)
  • Map of a Nation (Rachel Hewitt) - about the making of the original Ordnance Survey maps of the British Isles
  • Salt: a World History (Mark Kurlansky)
  • The Little White Horse (Elizabeth Goudge)
  • Yesterday Morning: a Very English Childhood (Diana Athill)
  • A Darkly Hidden Truth (Donna Fletcher) - the description "a gripping modern mystery enriched by liturgy, iconography, and medieval history" sounded intriguing
  • The Magical Maze: Seeing the World Through Mathematical Eyes (Ian Stewart)
  • The Help (Kathryn Stockett)
  • The Tale of Oat Cake Crag (Susan Albert) - one of her Beatrix Potter mysteries 
So far I have finished Austenland (Shannon Hale) and I am three-quarters of the way through The Secret Life of France (Lucy Wadham). Reviews to follow. 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas. Hannukah. New Year.

All tumbling over each other this year, which is why I have not posted for a while. Hannukah started on the Tuesday evening before Christmas and ended yesterday, neatly running through Christmas, and now it is December 29th and New Year is looming before I am ready to think about it!  I apologise for not wishing eveyone a Happy Christmas beforehand, but as we are still only on the fifth of the twelve days of Christmas I wish you one now. I hope you had a lovely Christmas day and are still enjoying the season!

We have had a good time here with friends and family. My mother and brother were with us for Christmas Day, then on Boxing Day we all went out for a meal. This was a change of tradition for us. For nearly twenty years our family routine has been to be all together here on Christmas Day, then to go to Mum's on Boxing Day. She used to cook a lavish lunch and provide a buffet tea, until the cooking got too much and we started just going for the afternoon and tea. For the last couple of years even this has been getting steadily harder for her and she has been relying heavily on my brother to help. This year we noticed that the local Harvester restaurant (one of the larger chains over here) was offering a two course meal plus salad buffet on Boxing Day for £10.99. We suggested this might be a good idea as everyone from the five year old to the eighty four year old likes their food and it would save Mum and my brother feeling they ought to be catering for everyone. They jumped at the idea and we all enjoyed ourselves, so I think it may become a new family tradition.

On Tuesday we switched back from Christmas to Hannukah and held our usual Hannakah party for ourselves and our neighbours. This year we also added in Cherub's Little Friend N (whose poor mother was also supposed to come, but couldn't as she wasn't well). I cooked a mountain of latkes (fried potato cakes) which disappeared rapidly) and bought a matching mountain of doughnuts from Tesco. Hannukah recalls lights of theTemple in Jerusalem continuing to burn miraculously for eight days despite being on the last dregs of oil, so is celebrated with food fried in oil. Jewish food does not do low calorie! After Hannukah food for twelve on Tuesday, Tevye's sister and family and a couple of family friends came for the day yesterday which meant providing lunch and tea for thirteen. I cooked a mountain of baked potatoes, chicken and mushroom casserole, cauliflower cheese for those who don't eat meat (or in the case of Tevye's nephew's fiancee, non-kosher meat), various veggies, and a couple of apple pies using the pastry recipe from Linds' mince pies (delicious!).

If I had any sense today would be a restful, chilling out sort of day, but no - I am heading off to London on the train with four teenagers to hit the post-Christmas sales at the Westfield Centre in Shepherd's Bush. Eek! Tomorrow, I chill!

Advent Books: Week 4

Late, but posting this anyway for the record, our final batch of books for Advent. There were a couple of others I wanted that I ordered from the library, but they didn't arrive on time - if I could have got them I would have added in The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett and Bethlehem by Fiona French.

Sunday: The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski

Monday: The Nutcracker (Usborne Picture Book)

Tuesday: My First Hannukah board book (enough content for this not to be a baby book)

Wednesday: Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson

Thursday: Light the Lights: A Story about Celebrating Hannukah and Christmas by Margaret Moorman

Friday: The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie de Paola (more of an Epiphany book, but the library let me down and I had to fill a gap!)

Saturday: Who's That Knocking on Christmas Eve? by Jan Brett

Her favourite from week three was Tomie de Paola's The Clown of God, and from week four Light the Lights ... but really we fizzled out rather towards the end (or life got busier in the evenings) and a number of the books from the last two weeks didn't get read at all. We did read all of The Story of Holly and Ivy, which she loved. I am still trying to nail down the different editions of this. Amazon UK has three: a picture book illustrated by Barbara Cooney, which at 31 pages long must be either heavily abridged or a retelling; a version illustrated by Christian Birmingham with 64 pages - this is the one I have in the Kindle edition, with the town name changed, which I am sure is abridged; and an old Young Puffin editon with 80 pages, which I think is a reprint of the 1958 original, although I am sure the copy I borrowed from the library for Star several years ago had a different cover. I am slightly frustrated that I don't know what is missing from the Kindle book, but I am sure something is.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Advent Books: Week 3

I wrote this on the train during the week, but needed to tweak the pictures and only just remembered!

This week's books:

Christmas by Jan Piemkowski

A Flower Fairy Christmas

Saint Lucy by Silvia Vecchini

The Clown of God by Tomie de Paola

Tod and the Clock Angel by Andrew Matthews and Christian Birmingham

The Night the Stars Danced for Joy by Bob Hartman

The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie de Paola

Alongside those we are reading Chrissie the Wish Fairy (having made it to the end of Holly the Christmas Fairy. Oh joy!) and A Street Through Time by Anne Millard and Steve Noon, one of a series of gorgeous illustrated history books published some years ago by Dorling Kindersley, mostly out of print and getting hard to find at a reasonable price. Cherub adores this book. We look at one double page spread each night, and she tries to find the various small illustrations around the page in the main picture. Last night we added in The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden, which also seems to out of print except in a Kindle version which I downloaded last night. I am slightly irritated as I think this many be an abridged version, and the town name has been changed form the original Aylesbury (real, local and name familiar to Cherub) to Appleton (fictional). Why?

As for last week's books, Cherub's favourites were Brian Wildsmith's A Christmas Story, the pop-up version of the Nutcracker, and Jan Brett's Christmas Trolls (an all time family favourite, this one).

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Advent Books: Week 2

The books for advent have been a huge hit so far (with the exception of Saint Andrew which she took against). This weeks selection is:

Sunday: A Christmas Story by Brian Wildsmith

Monday: Nutcracker (very pretty pop-up / lift the flap version)


Tuesday: Saint Nicholas by Mary Joslin

Wednesday: Country Angel Christmas by Tomie de Paola

Thursday: Mary by Brian Wildsmith

Friday: Christmas Trolls by Jan Brett

Saturday: The New Star by Taffy Davis

Highlights for Cherub from last week were The Story of Christmas by Jane Ray, which Cherub has wanted read every day. Apparently it was also their storybook at school one day, which delighted her. I love Jane Ray's style of illustration, the text is traditional and flows well, and I noticed for the first time that in a couple of the pictures Mary is discreetly nursing baby Jesus (a nice touch, I thought). Mog's Christmas by Judith Kerr is an old favourite, but Cherub now gets the humorous touches that went over her head last year. Another one we are both loving is Jan Brett's The Twelve Days of Christmas, which I am expected to sing in its entirety. We both love the little vignettes at the side of each page showing a family finding, cutting and decorating their Christmas tree. Jan Brett's pictures within pictures are always a delight.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Stravinsky's Firebird Suite

... finally makes sense! It probably always made sense to listen to, but until last night too many bits were just a jumble of notes when I tried to play it. At last night's orchestra it finally came together, which is just as well as we are playing it in a concert on Saturday. Not that I can play every note, but at least I now have a handle on where they are meant to be! And it sounded wonderful with a full orchestra (lower brass and percussion usually come just for the last couple of rehearsals). Very dramatic!

After being slightly resentful that this concert and rehearsals were a time squeeze I could have done without at the moment I'm now glad I didn't decide to drop out as I realised last night how much I like the programme. As well as the Firebird Suite there is a Beethoven piano concerto, a pretty bit of Mozart for wind, and Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis for double string orchestra, which is just beautiful. If you like classical music but don't know it I highly recommend you download it, sit back and relax, and just let it flow over you.