Monday, September 20, 2010

Book Review - Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Over the last couple of weeks, I have made my leisurely way through Helen Simonson's debut novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. It is a love story about an English country gentleman and a Pakistani shopkeeper. Both are of advancing years, and both have lost a spouse. It deals with issues of race relations, small town life, and more basic things like love and friendship.

It is not a complicated book, nor does it break any new ground. What it does is create a vivid and believable portrait of small town life in the English countryside, complete with a cast of memorable characters. Having completed the book, I went back to Amazon and read some reviews to see what others thought of it, and the only critical reviews seem to characterize the book as trite and predictable. I think trite overstates it, and predictable is not always a bad thing if done well. And to my mind this was done well. More often than usual I found myself marking pages with passages that I liked.

4.5 stars out of 5. Excellent.

"It's funny," she said, "to be suddenly presented with the possibility of making new friends. One begins to accept, at a certain age, that one has already made all the friends to which one is entitled. One becomes used to them as a static set - with some attrition, of course." [p. 111]

On the major's relationship with his son: "The truth was that now, without his wife to negotiate the space that they occupied as a family, he and Roger seemed to have little common ground. If there had been no bond of blood, the Major felt now, he and Roger would have little reason to continue to know each other at all. He sat at the table and felt the heavy weight of this admission hang about his shoulders like a heavy, wet coat. In the shrunken world, without Nancy, without Bertie, it seemed very sad to be indifferent to one's own son." [p. 190]

"I'm only joking," said Abdul Wahid. "You are a wise man, Major, and I will consider your advice with great care - and humility." He finished his tea and rose from the table to go to his room. "But I must ask you, do you really understand what it means to be in love with an unsuitable woman?"
"My dear boy," said the Major. "Is there really any other kind?" [p. 203]

"Unlike you, who must do a cost-benefit analysis of every human interaction," he said, "I have no idea what I hope to accomplish. I only know that I must try to see her. That's what love is about, Roger. It's when a woman drives all lucid thought from your head; when you are unable to contrive romantic stratagems, and the usual manipulations fail you; when all your carefully laid plans have no meaning and all you can do is stand mute in her presence. You hope that she takes pity on you and drops a few words of kindness into the vacuum of your mind." [p. 298]

On a failing elderly friend who has a tenuous grasp on the present:
"On some days, days that his wife thinks are bad but which perhaps are good, my friend the Colonel is quite convinced that he is back here," said the Major.
"So he dreams himself the life he cannot have?"
"Exactly. But we, who can do anything, we refuse to live our dreams on the basis that they are not practical. So tell me, who is to be pitied more?" [p. 317]

"He might have preferred to stay in this room forever and gaze at this face which wore love like a smile about the eyes, but it was not possible. He straightened his own shoulders and offered her his arm with a formal bow of the head....'Shall we go forth and get married?'" [p. 355]

Books read: 19 [totalling 4,293 pages]
Books by new authors: 13 [including this]
Published in 2010: 11 [including this]
Classics: still 3

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ren Faire - Part 4, To the Death!!!

Showing up at 6pm to a packed house, we were treated to quite a show. The good guys and the bad guys, seeing as how this was a battle "TO THE DEATH!", came prepared in full gear. Armor, shields, helmets and caparisoned horses. This is what made me want to paint these guys for my medieval armies - when I paint knights, this is the kind of look I am going for.

The good guys in full battle attire. To be picky, this was supposed to be the renaissance but the armor and especially the helmets were more late 13th through 14th century types, but I would have to be an awful geek to point that out. Right? So I won't point it out.

...and the bad guys. Frankly, the bad guys looked better, but we were still sitting on the "root for the good guys" side. The elder of the two good guys even tried to pick Grace out of the front row to bestow a favor on him during the preliminaries, but Grace got shy. [Bummer, because the "favor" she would have been given was almost identical to the real flower wreath on her head in a prior post. (Why accept something for free when you can make dad buy one for $20 an hour later).]

After a bunch of verbal jousting and hurling of insults, the knights got down to business. It was unbelievably cool to watch these horses charge back and forth at each other at a near-gallop. They had stage prop lances which shattered in a million pieces when the struck an opponent's shield. For the big battle "TO THE DEATH!" we actually had the Queen of England in attendance, which would be important later...

Once all the lances had been turned into kindling, the knights conveniently knocked each other off their horses and continued the battle on foot with swords and flails. The bad guys continued to cheat, throwing sand in the eyes of the good guys and using other such dastardly tricks. Good guy on left, bad guy on right.

When the bad guys (who had been pretending to be Scottish in honor of Scottish weekend) had the good guys seemingly on the ropes, they revealed that they were actually working for the King of Spain and charged the Queen's grandstand along with a bunch of yellow and red clad foot soldiers who had snuck up through the audience. There were explosions and smoke at this point, which freaked out Julia and had her bolting for the exit. So I saw, or half-saw, the final bit while chasing a 12-year old up the aisle.

The good guys rallied, just about everyone died, and the battle came to its gory conclusion when the elder good guy cut the throat of the main bad guy, shooting spurts of blood all over the place. Grace wasn't crazy about the big finale, and I have to admit the violent little scene and overly huge gout of blood was more than I was expecting. I thought it was fine but wish I knew what the kids were about to see.
By the time the battle was over it was near 7pm, and the kids were tired. We had about and hour and a half ride to get home, so we packed up and headed out.
It was a really nice day. We saw several good little shows, a fantastic joust production, loads of nice costumes, and had some good food and drink. The weather was perfect; the temperature was great for wandering around without being too hot or too cool. The costume part isn't really my thing, but I understand and appreciate it. I am positive that there are people that have the Season Pass and come here a lot, dressed in various costumes and hanging out with their like-minded friends. More power to them, as they collectively create the flavor of the whole spectacle. I would imagine that only a fraction of the people in costume are actually employed by the Ren Faire, and without all the others it certainly would not be the same experience for people like me and my family who just want to go and gawk at the sights. There was more to do than we were able to in a 6 or 7 hour period, so I would not be averse to going again at some point and trying to do some of the other things we missed. And I positively wouldn't mind seeing the joust again.

Ren Faire - Part 3, The Joust

The centerpiece event of the whole place was the Joust. At several times throughout the day, a pair of "good guys" and a pair of "bad guys" would have a preliminary joust where they would take turns charging at rings hanging on hooks, rings being tossed into the air, and other feats of skill.

Here we have the good guys. We sat on the "good guys" side and were a part of their designated rooting section. The good guys behaved honorably (not shocking).

I have to admit really getting a kick out of these guys in their period outfits, riding beautiful horses. I think I am going to paint a knight in each of these four color schemes just for fun. I also think I am developing a bit of a horse thing... horses are cool!
On the other side, we had the bad guys. Sir Thomas and Sir Malcolm if I remember correctly (although I am actually writing this in I probably don't). The bad guys, predictably enough, cheated every time the good guys weren't looking, much to the enjoyment of their rooting section.

The pageantry of the jousting ring was quite impressive, with a "queen's grandstand" in the back serving as a wonderful backdrop to the whole thing.
At one point towards the end of the prelimaries, one of the bad guys insults the honor of one of the good guys, challenges are issued, and the crowd is told to come back at 6pm for a joust "TO THE DEATH!" They really liked screaming that part over and over again.

Ren Faire - Part 2

Of the many little shows that we saw throughout the afternoon, Paolo Garbanzo, world renowned (?!) juggler, was probably my favorite. The show only lasted about 20 minutes, which seemed to be typical of many of the shows, and was a nice mix of fire juggling with audience participation (which the kids loved) and ribald humor (which went way over the heads but I thought was funny). He was a very talented juggler, and was very funny as well.
Isaac Fawlkes, magician, as another nice act. He did the usual assortment of making things appear and disappear, but some of his tricks were pretty slick, and once again the kids loved it.
Here are me and the girls having successfully made our way through the maze, and watching from the balcony as others stumble around lost. Being six feet tall helped in places or we might have gotten stuck more than we did.

As it was Scottish weekend, they were taking volunteers from the crowd for caber tossing, the wikipedia entry for which can be found here. This was fun to watch (for a short period of time), and consisted of men flipping pieces of telephone pole around the jousting ring. It looked intriguing trying to get it to flip just right, but as I watched all I could think was "bulging disc"and "hernia." No guts, no glory (or...since I didn't want to see my own guts, I wasn't going for the glory).
There was also of course lots of music...
...and fancy things for Grace, my fancy girl.
Up next...the Joust!

Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire - Part 1

We had a Saturday free to do something together as a family, and while Amp was looking around for somewhere to go or something to do, she stumbled upon the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. The Ren Faire is located on the grounds of Mount Hope Winery (or vice versa, I'm not quite sure which). It is open weekends for much of the year, and is located out between Lancaster and Hershey, just off the Turnpike. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, and honestly had visions of a total freak show dancing in my head. But I figured it would be worth a visit, and I thought the kids would like the pageantry of it, so off we went.

My first impression on arriving in the parking lot and walking into the place (after a fairly steep admission) was... "wow, this is big." I didn't really have a strong preconceived notion in mind, but was surprised at the size and sophistication of it. It was the size of a little town, with buildings, outdoor stages, pavilions and a full sized jousting stadium. Much more on the jousting later...
There was undoubtedly a touch of Freak Show to the proceedings, but I realize that is being very narrow minded and unkind. I am sure that most people would consider my hobbies odd as well. To an outsider, my two primary hobbies at this point are using an expensive GPS to track down tupperware in the woods, and painting and fighting battles with little metal toy soldiers. So I suppose in that sense, the Ren Faire is perfectly normal.

It is certainly not every day that you get to living statues and mermaids side by side with people dressed as medieval peasants, wizards and fairies. And vikings and crusaders. Knights and damsels. Rogues and serving wenches. And pirates, of course. A lot of people spend a lot of money on costumes and period paraphenalia, but once again, what I spend my money on would seem odd to most others.
It was a beautiful late summer day, and the place was packed. In addition to lots and lots of ways to spend money on every imaginable kind of food, beverage and souvenir, there were little street shows and larger productions going on all around us all the time. There really was a lot to do: details to follow in the next post.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Geocache Picnic on the Brandywine 3 - 9/12/2010

Our family participated in a first for us on Sunday September 12; we attended our first geocaching event. It turns out that the owner of the Brandywine Picnic Park is also an avid geocacher, and once a year he holds an event at the Park for geocachers and their families and guests. I have been to the Park a number of times over the years and knew what kinds of things there were to do, so I was pretty sure the kids would enjoy it.

It was scheduled to run from noon to five o'clock or so. Part of the lead-in to the event was a series of 5 new caches that would be emailed to the guests ahead of time before being published to the general public. Each of these 5 cache would have sealed envelopes containing playing cards. Cachers completing all 5 new caches would have a random poker hand built that could get them prizes. This was something that I had hoped to do, but the weather did not cooperate, and it rained overnight Saturday night and through into the morning.

Looking at the hour by hour weather forecast, it looked like we might get a window of overcast but dry weather in the early afternoon, so we planned to give it a try. The rain did let up shortly before we left the house, and it didn't rain again until we were safely back home. Arriving at the Park shortly after noon, there were already many people there, and it was fun signing in and wandering around. Everyone was wearing name tags with their geocaching names, and there was a mixer bingo event where you had to try to find people who had accomplished all of the many different things on a bingo-looking card. Any person could only sign one block on your card, so you had to talk to a lot of people, which was a really good way to get me to walk up to way more people than I would have otherwise. It was cool to meet some of the people who are active in this area whose names I only knew from seeing them in logs and on the website. Geeky but fun.

There was also lots of good food and drink, and lots to do for the kids. Miniature golf, a water balloon fight, a few animals to see, a rock climbing wall, and Grace's favorite - a gigantic slide. Best of all perhaps for the kids, uncle Dave showed up partway through, and stayed with us for the last hour and a half or so.

One other thing that always makes coming here a good memory for me is the knowledge that my father worked the boat dock at this very park as a summer job in high school in the early 1940's. The very same boat dock that I can stand on today. Amazing.
We had the chance to meet a lot of nice people, have a good time for the kids, and get to hear some fascinating stories about geocaching from people that have been doing it a lot longer and have a lot more experience at it than us. This was the third annual, and if they do a fourth, we'll be back.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Valley Garden Park, DE - Sept 6, 2010

Mom was going to be playing tennis on Labor Day, September 6, so the girls and I had a chance to get out to a park that we had never been to before. Strangely enough, it had a few geocaches in it... So for the cost of a pair of cheap hiking poles from Target (the girls have been demanding their own), we set off for Valley Garden Park. I'm not sure what town it is in officially, but for us it is on the other side of Greenville. Not more than maybe 20 minutes from home, but somewhere I did not even know existed or had any desire to visit prior to geocaching.

The Park is pretty nice, with a number of paved multi-use paths, and a small stream flowing through the center of it that drew the kids to it like a magnet. It is very much a walk the dog or go for a jog park, more so than a hiking experience.

We did still manage to find a few nice bits of unpaved trail, and get into the woods and find two geocaches. We also came upon the neat old stone bench and staircase pictured here. At some point in the past, someone had put a lot of work into building this, and the quality of the workmanship was such that it had lasted what seemed like a good long time. Or I could be wrong and Disney built it last year. Either way, it was pretty and the girls liked playing on it.
We left after 2 caches and a relatively brief hike, but there are three more caches in the woods here, so we will be back.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Cheerleading Debut - Sept 5, 2010

I am often struck by the same feeling these days: my little ones are growing up way too fast. This Sunday, Grace's junior cheerleading squad went to their first game and cheered on the flag football team of the local Youth Club. The teams and the cheerleaders are all part of the same extremely large and active program.

Grace's squad of eight girls, which is one of many such squads in her age group, practice one night a week for about an hour, and then have games this fall on weekends that last for an hour or more. At this age, the kids are playing flag football, not tackle football in pads, but that will come soon enough.
In flag football the way it is run here, each team gets a certain number of plays to run on offense, regardless of what happens in terms of scoring, and then the ball goes to the other team and roles are reversed. It is intended to get the kids ready for organized sports rather than to be hard-core football (yet).
Love the uniform!
The squad gets its very first taste of game action! It was extremely cute, and the girls mean well, but there are attention span issues, wind and sun problems, and all the other things that tend to afflict kids this age.
All that notwithstanding, I couldn't have been more proud of my little girl.

The Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation - Sept 4, 2010

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the late summer, the family went over to Ridley Creek State Park to see the Colonial Plantation with the girls, and also to stop and do the obligatory pony rides.

The day couldn't have been nicer weather, and I am the only one in the family that had been to the Plantation, and that was at least 30 years ago (ack!). To quote one of the brochures we picked up: "The Plantation is a 112 acre living history site located in the heart of beautiful Ridley Creek State Park. The museum authentically represents family life on a southeastern Pennsylvania farm between 1760 and 1790 - spanning the years leading up to the Revolution and through the early years of the Republic." The property has been a working farm for over 300 years, and is kept as authentic as possible. The volunteers who run it dress in period outfits, and do as much as they can to show visitors what farm life would have been like. The plantation has a website here.

One of the demonstrations being held today was some woodworking. The man seated on the left was using a clever foot vice contraption to pin a piece of wood down while he scraped it into shape with a two handed knife. He was shaving small pieces of logs into sizes that would fit into the wooden harrow on the ground in front of the men on the right. We all got to try it, and the seemingly crude tools worked very well.

We also got to see how the Egyptian-style counterbalance well worked. A bucket on a long pole would be lowered into the well to retrieve water. A heavy couterweight on the back end of the pole made it such that the pole absorbed the weight of the water and all you had to do was maneuver the bucket. Very cool. Here, mom gets Grace ready to haul a pair of buckets.

The main house was built in a number of sections over the years. The original section was a small house on the lower right. It was epxanded up and over to the left over the years as the family prospered and the extended family that lived here grew. It may not be as evident in the picture, but up close it was easy to see the horizontal and vertical join lines where the additions were added on.

The family would have had their own horses, cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and all manner of livestock. The kids were particularly impressed with the pigpen, and the three baby piglets. It did smell...strong.

Here a volunteer showing the gang the horse and some sheep. The horse was a rescue animal that had apparently been a front for a meth lab down in the city, and was slowly but surely being brought back to health.

And speaking of horses, no visit to RCSP is complete without a pony ride for Grace.
This is a gem of a park, with lots to do for everyone. The hiking trails are terrific, Grace loves the ponies, and now we know how interesting the Plantation is.