Book Club: The Signature of All Things

Let’s get one thing straight here: this book is a dangerous thing to read in the wrong bar. I was hanging out on my lunch, enjoying The Signature of All Things, and not one but two women approached me to tell me that Eat, Pray, Love had helped them gather the strength to “follow their passions.” I’m here to tell you that this is a risk you ought to undertake, though I recommend you digest this volume in the privacy of your home. As I mentioned the other day, girlfriend wrote Coyote Ugly, and for the record, Eat, Pray, Love is whitegirlproblems but it is well-written, thoughtful whitegirlproblems.

The cover doesn't show you this, but there are really pretty botanical illustrations inside!
The cover doesn’t show you this, but there are really pretty botanical illustrations inside! Isn’t this cover kinda boring? It is. It totally is.

The Signature of All Things is sprawling, but briefly, it’s an 80-year tour of the life and times of Alma Whittaker, a autodidact botanist from Philadelphia. Her father, Henry, is something of an American success story. A poor boy, he makes himself useful to Joseph Banks and James Cook, explores the globe, and makes a name for himself in the new world in the realm of medicinal plants and decorative flowers. I can’t even begin introduce everyone who wanders in and out, but that’s the basic premise.

Alma isn’t very pretty, nor is she very well-socialized. She isn’t close to her (very beautiful) adopted sister Prudence, nor does she have any other friends save a dotty neighbor girl named Retta who seems like a character from a fairy tale. Her mother is forbidding, her father is something of a loon, and men don’t take much notice of her unless it’s to talk about smart people stuff. Even though she’s rich and bright, Alma is really, really lonely. Time marches on, and her crushes go unrequited and the world moves on and Alma’s just out in her mansion, reading books in Greek by herself.

Enter a man named Ambrose Pike, a genius botanical illustrator. He’s almost like the answer to Alma’s prayers. He’s handsome and loves the natural world, like her, and he loves her. When he sort of asks her to marry him, she jumps at the chance. Things don’t really go according to plan on that front, and I don’t really feel like I’m giving anything away on that one. If you’re reading this book and thinking this wedding is a good idea, you and I have different ideas of how dating should work. She sends Ambrose away to Tahiti when things fall apart, and he dies there. Though she’s getting on in years by 1800s standards, she goes to the island and then on to the Netherlands to pick up the pieces of her life. I think this is an adequate summary of events.

The Signature of All Things is a work of fiction, but I kept forgetting that. Alma’s research, the world of her estate, her father’s discoveries– they all felt so real. There’s a staggering amount of research that undergirds every left turn, and I’m sure there’s much that’s invisible to me, the casual reader. I found myself googling “alma+whitaker” and “vandevender+botany+amsterdam” and “bryology”  to attempt to ascertain where fact ended and invention began. I’m still not sure, so tight is the tiny, erudite world Gilbert has created. I was in awe for much of the 500 pages on account of the scope of knowledge contained within.

That said, The Signature of All Things is too long in some parts, and too  short in others. I loved Gilbert’s storytelling and sprawling prose, but there were so many things going on at once that I kind of got twisted up sometimes. I was so immersed in my hope that Alma was finally going to lose her virginity that I almost missed the big plot point that is the uh….great discovery of her career (this is actually a pretty smart commentary about the status of women in the sciences at the time). I loved the exploration of female longing and sexuality, as well as the erotic lives of plants, but wanted more in the way of descriptions of Alma and her father’s actual work. I learned a lot of the purple novels of early America, but didn’t get any concrete details of Alma working, just that she did. Some of the characters of the early parts of The Signature of All Things are distracting, even though they’re fully realized and smartly detailed. I was so mired in the morass that was the Tahiti portion of the novel that I never worked out if her erstwhile husband was gay and deeply attracted to Asian men or a bizarre, possibly mentally ill mystic. The Amsterdam story line featured so many unexpected and maybe irrelevant characters that the end felt rushed and a little bit like a cop out. I never figured out why Alma’s sister didn’t develop a personality, or why her only friend got so crazy. I would have liked to have known that, or at least had some hints.

I’m glad I read The Signature of All Things, and that I gave Elizabeth Gilbert a chance. It was an easy, interesting read, and for all its frustrations, it has much to recommend it. I learned much about mosses, a few words of Dutch, and a couple things about Ben Franklin. My appreciation for botanical drawings is much greater than it was this time last week. I am now much more likely to defend liking the cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory in fashionable circles. You can’t say that about most novels.

Have you read this or Pilgrims? I read that and really liked it. Thoughts?

Next week, I’m reading this. I’d love to talk with you about it!

Getting Out: Birmingham, Alabama

An alarming number of people think that I moved to Charleston from Alabama. Like New Hampshire and Vermont, Mississippi and Alabama are both variations on a theme in terms of shape, and are exactly next to each other. As it turns out, most Americans are terrible at geography, and there’s no mnemonic device that helps you remember which one is which.

A view from the bar of the Redmont Hotel.
A view from the bar of the Redmont Hotel. I recommend skipping it, but the views cannot be beat.

Additional confusion comes into play when it turns out that I know Birmingham pretty well. I went there often as a kid, it was a midway point between Oxford and Atlanta, and I spent almost a week there this autumn for a business trip. I love that town, so I get excited any time there’s a chance to stop in. No one ever believes me when I say this; Birmingham gets no respect.

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Tea Party Tuesday: Blueberry Black

I’m fond of hating on Savannah. Not to say I don’t like Savannah, I do. It’s a fun town with gorgeous architecture and great restaurants and friendly folks and beautiful art. It’s just that Charleston is so. much. better.  I like to tell people who are deciding between the two for vacation spots (not sure why these two are always paired, but there you have it): Anything you can do there, you can do better here.

I would like to amend that statement in two regards: one, they have way better thrift stores. Two, they have much, much better tea offerings. Today’s tea, the Blueberry Black, is from the Tea Room, a little shop on Broughton that specializes in tea and its myriad accouterments.* It’s slightly precious inside, but the tea ladies are knowledgeable and their offerings are many.

Not a filter-- this sucker is actually slightly blue in real life as well as fake life.
Not a filter– this sucker is actually slightly blue in real life as well as fake life.

As you might have expected, today’s tea is a black, and it’s from China. It’s mild and smooth, and I don’t know much about it. It’s mild like an assam, though and was pretty caffeinated. The bright blue flecks you see in the photo are cornflowers and I think they’re just for color. I liked how pretty it was to look at. I know that’s a stupid thing to like about something you’re going to soak in water and then drink, but the cerulean was a nice surprise when I opened the bag.

The nose on this thing is very fruity, and it’s pleasant– somewhere between a real blueberry smell and a Bath and Body Works blueberry body spray (I know you know what I mean). A teaspoon steeps for roughly three minutes on the first infusion, and more like five or six on the second.

The taste is nice, pleasant, not overbearing in the slightest. The black tea was smooth and light; very drinkable. Blueberries were not super-strong, but there was a nice bit of fruitiness. If you aren’t usually a tea drinker, this might be one to change your heart. It was a great breakfast tea, but this would be a great iced tea– toss in a sprig of mint and you’re in business. I’ll be putting this away in volume come summer.

Blackberry Blue runs 3.75/ounce and can be purchased online or at the Tea Room.

Book Club: Fobbit

Are there 16-year-olds who don’t think Catch-22 is awesome? What about The Things They Carried? Or Slaughterhouse Five? To a certain type of pre-intellectual kid, these tongue-in-cheek, what-does-it-all-mean, to-hell-with-authority, don’t-trust-anyone-over-35 novels are a rite of passage. I was no exception, and I bet you weren’t either.

Truth be told, I haven’t really read a novel in which a war was the centerpiece of the narrative in about ten years. It makes me nervous, it makes me sad. I avoid it. I have no stomach for violence. I vomited while reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and thus have avoided this particular genre for the most part. I wouldn’t have picked this up at all if it weren’t at the urging of one of my friends, and I’m glad I took her advice. Fobbit  was another quick-but-significant read, and it’s in the same vein of the aforementioned novels. If you like that, you’re in the right place.  Be forewarned, if you aren’t already, that this isn’t a shoot-em-up, glory days memoir, but something that feels at once worse and better than that. Stories like No Easy Day, while less fun to read, feel better because they can make you believe in the moral rectitude of war. There’s room for that, for sure, but there’s a place at the table for Fobbit, too.

I love a good flag motif.
I love a good flag motif.

Fobbit tells the story of the trials and tribulations of several soldiers at Forward Operating Base Triumph in the middle of the war in Iraq. In the alphabet soup that is the military jargon, FOB is the abbreviation for Forward Operating Base, and “fobbit” is the name for the soldiers who work “inside the wire”, which is to say they stay on the FOB rather than going out to the very front. In years past (say Korea or Vietnam), the rear was pretty safe (think M.A.S.H.), but now, they occupy a weird liminal space where they’re not really safe at all, but they’re not likely to actively engage in firefight or eat M.R.E.s. That’s what this book is about. The folks Abrams covers range from the fobbitiest of fobbits to bona fide tough guys, and it follows in the tradition of Heller, O’Brien, and Vonnegut: no one’s a hero, no one’s a winner, there are only plots on a continuum of gray. David Abrams is an insider’s insider, and he brings humor, wit, and intellect to a war narrative.

The primary characters we get to know over the course of Fobbit are Staff Sergeant Gooding, Captain Shrinkle, Lieutenant Colonel Duret, and Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad. I have the dubious privilege of knowing a lot of soldiers who have fought in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts over the last decade, and you can be damn sure I recognized them all. You’ve got CPT Shrinkle, a guy who has somehow been allowed outside the wire and given decision-making capacity. There’s LTC Duret, a steely-eyed, hard-bellied professional with nothing but contempt for the pasty dudes hanging out at Triumph.  LTC Harkleroad is the contemporary equivalent of your great uncle who claims to have Hitler’s piano key in his bureau but was secretly a translator who came in after the fact to clean up. Then there’s SSG Gooding, who is the closest thing we’ve got to a hero. He’s smarter than your average bear, and he manages outgoing messages to the American press. Gooding’s never going to see a moment on the honest-to-God front, and he’s smart enough to know that’s not necessarily the worst fate he could have, though he understands that those guys know something he doesn’t. Even the minor characters I met in passing were men and women I’d encountered before.Abrams tells their tales chapter by chapter; some of the best parts are when you get to look at the same event through the eyes of several different people, all of whom see things very differently indeed.  He does a spectacular job capturing their voices– the jargon, the off-color jokes, the slapstickishness. I’m sure his twenty years in the army helped him to fine tune this, though sometimes it goes a step further than I’d like, and it makes the dialogue sound a little stilted to the civilian ear.

Fobbit is the kind of book that can make you feel feels, as the kids say. I hated Eustace Harkleroad and Abe Shrinkle and the others who were like them in a way that I thought was almost undignified. The obsession with creating the Army Story (the former) and having one’s own war story to tell (the latter) made my vision narrow. Even the more throwaway details about them– that they were hoarders, or slovenly, or whatever– made me hate them. When clues came that some of them might not make it back to America, I can’t say I was upset. They were malingerers, the very worst of Uncle Sam’s Finest. But then I realized that that weird feeling of anger extended to Gooding and his buddies, too. Even though they saw what they were doing and they knew it was wrong, they carried out orders. They were part of the problem, and they extended the problem’s reach. About 200 pages in, I realized I was just angry at the whole concept of war and the army and was having the feelings I had when I read about the soldiers in The Things They Carried shooting the skin off the baby water buffalo. I wanted one of them to do something he couldn’t do: stand up, tell everyone that they were doing something wrong, and then tell the rest of the world what they knew. That’s not ever going to happen, regardless of what war we get into or out of. They weren’t horrible, they were just people responding to horror. Horror makes a fool of us all.

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Lazy Sunday: 23 March 2014

After proof that a full moon can take a wrecking ball to everything you think you know, it’ll be nice to just sit around and read today, right?

You Should Know How to Do This: Be Clean

Everyone who knows me, with the notable exception of my mother, agrees that I am a Clean Person. Staci’s house is kept at all times at hospital-grade sterility and Pottery Barn catalog levels of lovely, and she considers the Dairy Queen to be the absolute height of filth, so in recent years I decided her opinion is not one I can take into account. Sorry, Mommy! Everyone else, though– they all agree I keep a real clean house. There’s pretty much nothing worse in the whole world than staying the night with a friend, or being invited to your cousin’s for dinner and finding that everything is covered in a sticky film, or that there’s cat pee staining the rug. I’m not saying you’re that cousin, but if you are, I want to show you how to dig yourself out with a minimum of cussing and sweating.

It was not always this way. To paraphrase 1  Corinthians, when I was a college student, I swept as a college student, I laundered as a college student, I Windexed as a college student. When I became a grownup, I put the ways of college behind me. I first got my own space about four years ago. Initially, I was so pumped because any mess I made was my mess, and I was the only person I had to clean up for. I had a washer and dryer at my place for the first time ever and I had a dishwasher. After four years in dorms and keeping it as clean as I could in the wake of seven suitemates, I was in tall cotton, and I let it get filthy. I embraced dimmer switches and lived out of a series of piles.

No, of course this is not mine. That coverlet is ugly.

That worked for me for about 3 months and by September or so, I hated everything. I had always dreaded cleaning as a kid– and to be honest, it’s not like I love it now– and I didn’t want to devote my whole Saturday to Windexing baseboards and polishing silverware. I was also living on $12,000 a year, and couldn’t afford stuff like Pledge wipes, which were suddenly a luxury item. So I decided to change.

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Tea Party Tuesday: Octavia Blood Orange White

photo (1)
They had sniffing samples, which freaks me out a little but not enough not to sniff.

Sometimes, you think it is Tuesday, so you get up and get dressed and go to work, but then you get a phone call, and two hours later you’re eating a week-old mango in the parking lot of South of the Border on the way to Fayetteville, North Carolina. While I don’t recommend that particular timeline for your stress levels or workplace productivity, these things happen.

Before we begin, I would like to say that if you ever find yourself in Fayetteville, I strongly recommend you wander over to Marquis Market. It’s on Person Street in the historic part of downtown, and it’s a hidden gem. Expansive and warm, it looks like something on Apartment Therapy, and has Boylan sodas in the machine and good coffee and sandwiches to boot. It’s also super cheap. They stock Octavia Teas, which I am not too familiar with. I grabbed a cup of the Blood Orange White and commenced to drinking and contemplating how I got to this place.

What do you know about white tea? You probably know it’s a little pricier and would guess it’s a bit delicate in flavor. It’s a lightly oxidized tea, and it is purported to have antibacterial properties. Cool, right? It also helps improve blood flow and can reduce stress. Blood oranges have a ton of vitamin C, so you can’t lose there, either.

I wanted to love this, because I love the gentle flavors that white teas have, and I am eager for citrus season every year. I was curious how the blood oranges, which are a vibrant taste, and the more nuanced tea would balance and they just…didn’t. It didn’t really have enough of either to be satisfying, and it mostly just tasted like a gently scented water. It tasted like the third steep on the first. If you like something very, very mild, this might be for you, but I wasn’t crazy about it.

I’m interested in trying out some of the other products Octavia’s got. If this sounds like it’s for you, it’s $13 for an ounce and a quarter and can be purchased here.

Anyone tried a tea I might should try? I’m all ears.

Book Club: Fun Home

If you haven’t heard, the South Carolina legislature is trying to slash the College of Charleston’s book budget because they’re assigning gay propaganda. Every year, the College, conveniently located a eight blocks from my house (hi Miles [my upstairs neighbor and C of C junior]!), gives every member of the freshman class a book to read together. It’s just a nice thing they do. I think UVA did this too, but I can’t remember, so impactful was their choice. The book this year was Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which I borrowed from a buddy and read in solidarity. Since I live and vote in this state, and thus pay these guys’ salaries, I wanted to see why they had their panties in a twist.

Ooo, a graphic novel! Fancy!
Ooo, a graphic novel! Fancy!

Fun Home tells the story of Alison Bechdel: a girl/woman from a small town in Pennsylvania who grows up, goes to college, and figures out she’s gay and her dad is, too. Her parents are eccentric, isolated, and artistic, and incidentally own the town funeral home. They live in a house filled with books and antiques and flowers and art, but very little warmth. Almost immediately upon her coming out to her family, her father sort of comes out to her, then kills himself (probably? hard to say). That premise alone was enough to get me to pick it up, plus I was vaguely aware of Alison Bechdel as the creator of her eponymous test. As you may know, I love both small town freaks and litmus tests, so this seemed great. Add the intrigue of Palmetto State legislative scandal and some truly outstanding illustrations and you have a recipe for success. 

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Lazy Sunday: 16 March 2014

I found this old list of articles I forgot to post, so what better time than now to share them?

After I compiled these, I realized I skewed kinda dark this week. Next week, it’ll be all puppies and rainbows, k?

Midweek Craft: DIY Mirror Glass

You know what’s super annoying? When every damned thing on a blog is something that would take your whole weekend/all your vacation days/the rest of your life and a degree in fiber arts to complete. Chronderlust is not about that. Chronderlust is about coming home from the gym and deciding to make something kinda pretty on Wednesday before you reheat curry and watch The Sopranos (actual description of today). Behold: Mercury glass, the ultimate stupidly easy craft that also looks awesome.

Oh, look, both of these are pretty, but only one is expensive.
Oh, look, both of these are pretty, but only one is expensive.

You have three of the four things you need for this in your house right now. After the jump, I’ll show you how to do this, and then you, too, will have a bunch of nice hostess gifts in your present closet that you can stuff full of Publix flowers if you get invited to a dinner party last second. Stop looking at me like that; that is a totally normal thing to stock for and I resent the accusation that it isn’t.

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