Monday, July 31, 2006

Books read in July

Dark Tort by Diane Mott Davidson--I said last month that she was one of my favorite "fluff" authors, but I am going to have to revise my opinion. I did not enjoy this book. Why? Because it pushed my credulity right over the edge, that's why. All the books in this series supposedly take place across a 4-5 year time span (as evidenced by the age of the son). Now, how many dead bodies does the average person discover in any four year period? And of that number, how many are murder victims? Right, that's what I thought, too.

Anielka by Bolesław Prus--finished!!!! The first complete book I ever read in Polish, but not the last...

W Pustyni i w Puszczy by Henryk Sienkiewicz--only the first few chapters, just because I've been busy with other things and not spending as much time reading Polish. I plan to be more diligent with it in August.

Ramona's World by Beverly Cleary--nothing like kiddie lit for vegging out.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee--a reread, but it's been a long, long time. This time, I felt myself identifying most with Atticus. How very, very difficult to raise your children without prejudice and rancor when those attitudes are entrenched in society.

The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder--I already wrote about this one. Now I have read all of Gaarder's books that have been translated into English so far. There is at least one that I have seen in Polish but not in English...I may have to read it in Polish if I can find it again...

Tomorrow Will Be Better by Betty Smith--I already wrote about this one, too, but not liking this book doesn't change the fact that I think Betty Smith is a fabulous author (with an incredibly boring name). (I can say that because my maiden name was Smith, too.)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark--This book deserves a post of its own, so perhaps I'll say more about it later.

A Daughter's a Daughter and Unfinished Portrait by Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott--when I was sick and needed light reading, I made it through both of these in just a couple of days. Another future blog post: "Agatha Christie on education." These are nothing like her mystery novels.

Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfield--more kiddie lit! I bought this for my daughter's upcoming birthday, and since I hadn't read it before, I had to read it first, right?

And of course...

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy--I'm halfway through now, and thoroughly engaged by the story. I'll have more to say about this in August.

I had thought that I didn't get much reading done in July. I didn't feel as if I'd had much time to read. But clearly, I read quite a lot. I didn't do much during the first part of July, but then the second half of the month I was sort of sick and we went away for a few days to the country, so I guess I made up for it then!

Reading plans for August: finish War and Peace, spend more time on my Polish book, and, um...get busy with school planning. One thing that is obvious from this month's reading is that I devoted most of my reading time to fiction. It's time to get busy with the non-fiction books now.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Orange Girl

This is the newest book (translated into English) by Jostein Gaarder. Some years ago I read Sophie's World and became intrigued by Gaarder. Every one of his books is an intellectual fun house. Things keep jumping out at you, or are distorted by wavy mirrors, or move in slow motion under strobe lights.

I have since read all of his books that have been translated into English. Some I like very much, and others I don't care for at all, but I am never bored reading a Jostein Gaarder title. Few modern authors are as blatantly didactic as Gaarder. He has a message to share and his stories are crafted to lead us through the intellectual maze so that we will turn a corner and there! There is just the surprise he wanted to see!

He's very, very good at stories within stories (The Christmas Mystery is one of the best), and The Orange Girl is one of those types. There are two different but connected stories in the book, as a teenage boy reads a letter written to him by his father who died many years before. There are a few typical Gaarder themes--the oranges, the cosmos, death, and just a tiny glimpse of Norwegian life. Gaarder has written this book, like many of his others, to be accessible to young people. I think he suspects adults of being too dull to open their minds and share the wonder and fascination Gaarder has for life.

As much as I like Gaarder, a little goes a long way. I couldn't read one of his books after the other, and in fact, I don't think I have reread any of his books except for The Christmas Mystery. I'll have to do that sometime, but not all at once! Gaarder is not a Christian, and his answers to questions are not the same as the answers I would give. But I love his questions. I don't know anyone who asks questions the way he does, and frankly, I continue to be amazed that anyone could ask the kinds of questions he asks and yet remain an unbeliever. (He knows the Bible very well.)

For me this has always been a magical world, I've thought so ever since I was quite young....I still have the feeling I've seen something that no one else has seen. It's hard to describe this sensation in simple words, but imagine the world before all this modern fuss about natural laws, evolutionary theory, atoms, DNA molecules, biochemistry and nerve cells--before it began to spin in fact, before it was reduced to being a 'planet' in space, and before the proud human body was divided up into heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, brain, blood system, muscles, stomach and intestines. I'm talking about the time when a human being was a human being, a complete and proud human being, no more and no less. Then the world was just one sparkling fairy tale.

That's the premise of this book--that life is a wonderful fairy tale and it is thrilling to be a part of it. And yet it must end in death. Gaarder wants his readers to realize how magical and wonderful the fairy tale is so that they will appreciate it while it lasts.

I appreciate his message, but can't help following up with a Biblical response: The best is yet to be.


I hate to admit this, but I really overuse the word "really." And I do mean that I really, really use it more often than I should when I'm writing. I don't really mean to, but if it were possible to do word counts, I suspect "really" would make the top ten words in my writing, along with words such as "the" and "and." Really. What can I do about this?

I hereby resolve to strike this word from my written vocabulary.

It's a meaningless word to use in writing--just a filler word, trying to add a little emphasis without doing the work of writing better in the first place so as not to need to fall back on drivel like this. I'm going to stop using it. I am. (And I almost said, "I really am!") It's bad. Really bad.

Stop. I must stop. This word has got to go.

I really don't know what to do about this! (Argh, there I go again.) I mean, I am having difficulty not interjecting this word into every other sentence that I write. Maybe some computer geek could write me a program that would automatically delete the word as I type it? That would be really cool! Oh happened again!

I am beginning to think that the only way to avoid using this word in my writing is to stop writing. But I don't think I can do that. So, I will break myself of this bad habit right now. No more.

And I really mean it this time!

Saturday, July 29, 2006

For those who love words...

I just love words. English words and Polish words. I love knowing what they mean and where they come from.

In Poland, the ground floor is referred to as the parter, and what we Americans call the second floor is the "first floor" or "first level" (above the parter). This is a fairly common European practice.

In the course of reading War and Peace, I ran across the same word, except that it was spelled parterre. The alternative spelling revealed the meaning and origin of the word! "Par" means level or equal and "terra" means earth or ground. Both words are of Latin origin, and thus parter means "level with the ground."

I thought it was cool, anyway. I never would have thought about it if I hadn't run across that alternative spelling. Who would have thought reading War and Peace would help me figure out the origins of a Polish word?

Friday, July 28, 2006

Another Event

We had our second Ladies' Tea this evening, held this time at my colleague's home instead of mine. This was a Good Thing, considering our recent kitchen project (which left the dining room a mess, though I haven't mentioned it) and the fact that we spent several days this week away from home.

I'm happy to report that this Event was just as successful as the last one. We had seven Polish ladies instead of six with us, except that there were actually three new ladies and two who could not be there because they are out of the country. (Lots of folks on vacation this time of year.)

Our theme this time was "Fruit of the Spirit," and our invitations had a pretty fruit still-life on the front. We served fruit salad in a melon basket, strawberry tarts, lemon squares, and banana bread, and decorated with fruity napkins and lemon-shaped candles. It was very lovely and elegant, and the Polish ladies continue to be impressed that my colleague and I make and prepare all this ourselves.

We served cold drinks as well as hot tea, but with the weather we've been having (above 90 degrees nearly every day for the past month), no one chose hot tea. (We figured we could make iced tea out of the neglected tea.) I even saw one lady putting ice cubes into her drink, and that is practically unheard of. If you order drinks at a restaurant, they come without ice unless you ask, and then they only put one little cube in your glass. Most people consider room-temperature beverages to be "cold" because they are not "hot." (I remain unconvinced.)

But I digress--my point is that no one is going to have to wash tea cups, because everyone drank mineral water or juice.

All of the ladies had not met each other before, and we were so pleased that everyone chatted and visited like old friends. I had a short devotional based on Galatians 5:22-23 and Psalm 1, and two people actually told me they found it helpful. I'm pleased if anyone finds it understandable. My colleague had made everyone a little jar of apple jelly to take home, impressing them even further with our talents.

We are so pleased that these Events are something the Polish ladies enjoy and look forward to. We plan to continue hosting them every other month for now, and we already have ideas in the works for the next two "Teas." They are a lot of work, but so, so worth it.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Tomorrow will be better?

Betty Smith is one of my favorite authors. She is on my short "life list" of favorite female authors, about whom I have this not-very-vague idea that if I can't write a book as well as one of these women, I will not write a book at all. (So far, I haven't written any books.)

Betty Smith's most well-known book, is, of course, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is a very good book and one that I think every girl should read sooner or later. I think, however, that Joy Comes in the Morning is my personal favorite, and that one would definitely appear on a "must read" list from me, except that I'd save that one for maturer young ladies. Maggie-Now is also an excellent story, and one that I have read many times.

In fact, I've read all three of those over and over again. They are wonderful, poignant stories about real people living real lives and making the most of small, daily joys. Francie loves the brown bowl full of flowers or berries at the library. Maggie-Now serves warm rye bread and fresh sweet butter for dessert because it's so good. Annie loves the cheap clock she buys for her room, because its loud ticking feels so friendly. I don't know any writer who is better than Betty Smith at making the little things seem special.

But Betty Smith wrote a fourth book, Tomorrow Will Be Better. I only read that book once, a very long time ago. I remember that I did not like it. The ending, to me, was tragic. In short, the marriage fails. It was never a great love-match in the first place--only an escape from an unhappy home life for both partners--but I still hated the ending. I think I must have read it even before I married myself (18 years ago), and so I thought perhaps it was time to reread this book, which is, after all, still written by one of the finest authors I've read. After all these years, the only thing I could remember was what I shared so far--I didn't like the book because the marriage failed.

So I took this book with me on my vacation, and read it again. I thought I might have a different perspective after so much time, though I'm just as far from approving divorce as I ever was. Every single character in the book has a hopeful side--the side that can't help feeling "tomorrow will be better," even though it never seems to be. As the parents get older, their hopes are shifted to their children, hoping that for them, perhaps, "tomorrow will be better." I do appreciate the resilience of the human spirit that Betty Smith has written about--that optimism that puts mistakes behind and looks forward with new hopes and new plans.

I'm still sad that the marriage failed. I could imagine a happier ending. But I can't help knowing that what Betty Smith has written here is reality for so many people. When tragedy strikes a home, sometimes even a strong marriage is broken in the aftermath. The fragile marriage in the book hardly stood a chance. And even in the midst of the mourning, the young husband and the young wife begin to plan a future for themselves, but a future in which the other person is not there. There is no real animosity between them, either, and one can imagine that if the tragedy (the stillbirth of their baby) had not taken place, they might have stayed together indefinitely, raising their daughter in an unhappy home, as they were raised themselves.

Betty Smith is not being ironic about the title--"Tomorrow Will Be Better." She really means it. All her other books are about survival in the midst of difficulty, and not just survival, either, but even thriving in spite of adversity. However, this book just doesn't satisfy me. I can't see any particular reason that "tomorrow will be better" for Margy or Frankie. They are simply possessed of human optimism and do not admit defeat in spite of failure. They choose to live. They look at the future. But there is nothing concrete in which they place their faith, and so their optimism seems ill-placed to me. Tomorrow will not be better just because we hope it will be.

And so, this book remains my least favorite of Betty Smith's titles. These are the only four I know. I will probably reread my favorite three many times again in the coming years, but I may let another 18 years elapse before I read Tomorrow Will Be Better again.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Before I say goodbye for a few days...

We're going away for a few days to the country, to breathe fresh air and cook over a campfire. Lest I leave everyone wondering if we ever finished up the kitchen, let me say that it is, indeed, complete, thanks to Kśysiek and Krakovian, both of whom put in many, many hours and did a fantastic job.

My kitchen is just as small as it ever was, but now every inch is maximized and we've squeezed in all the goodies that can be squeezed, from pull-out baskets instead of shelves in the lower cabinets and (oh thank you, dear generous friends in the states) a dishwasher to open corner shelves and a hood for the stove. It looks wonderful, and in spite of the reduced floor space with this arrangment, it's actually "roomier" because we can work on the both sides of the kitchen.

I don't plan to do much on this vacation except read (my recent doctor's visit gives me every excuse to sit quietly and do nothing else), so I'll let everyone know what I've been reading when I get back!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Oh be careful little reader

I had a recent discussion with a group of homeschoolers about reading original versions of classics vs. reading abridged, sometimes egregiously abridged versions of those classics. Someone inquired about buying and reading severely dumbed-down versions that are very popular right now, and amidst the chorus of "Yes, those are great!" and "My kids love them!" responses, I felt compelled to offer an alternative opinion.

I knew I was stepping out on thin ice to do so, because our culture is preprogrammed to reject any hint that this choice or that lifestyle or this practice is genuinely superior to another. Everything is supposed to be equal. Bologna. We all know that there are differences of quality in, say, food. High-quality cuts of prime beef are better than hamburger. Lean, center-cut pork-chops are better than fat-back. Real, brewed sweet tea is better than tea from a powdered mix. Home-cooked meals are tastier and more nutritious than TV-dinners. With a few exceptions where preference is a matter of taste rather than quality, we all accept these differences. Sometimes we eat the cheaper or easier options, but we don't pretend that they taste just as good as the good stuff. And we all know that if you want the best food, you have to be prepared to pay for it--either by paying for the higher-quality expensive ingredients or by the time it takes to prepare the good food. We recognize quality rather than equality in other areas, too. Granite or marble counter-tops are nicer than formica. Teak furniture is superior to particle-board. Leather shoes are nicer than plastic.

This innate understanding about good things (at least, I think most people would agree with the general idea) does not carry over into other areas of our lives. I will avoid the larger questions of lifestyle choices and just talk about books for now. Obviously, even though we may recognize the superior quality of some things, like marble counter tops, it doesn't mean we can afford them. We often deliberately accept an inferior alternative because it is the best choice we can make, and if we have any sense at all, we do not waste our time fretting about not being able to afford that high-quality/high-ticket item, because the substitute really does work just as well, for the most part. You can sustain life on frozen dinners. You can chop veggies on formica. You can store your books on particle-board shelves (I do!), and you can walk in plastic shoes.

But books are different. There is a price to be paid for the higher-quality reading material--oh yes!--but the price is not paid in money. It is paid in time and effort to read and comprehend the unabridged books as the authors meant them to be read. If we plead lack of funds as an excuse for lest-than-first-quality merchandise, what can we plead as an excuse for choosing second-rate books? Lack of mind? And it's a sad excuse to make when it comes to our children, especially.

Abridged or unabridged books for children? I compare the choice to breast or bottle for babies. They will grow and sometimes even thrive on formula, but no one (even formula companies) disputes the fact that breastmilk is the very best food for babies. The benefits and advantages have yet to be calculated. Formula is a choice--sometimes it is the only choice--but in most cases, breastmilk is the best start that a baby can have.

In the same way, reading meaty, unabridged books that contain the strong nourishment of complex sentence structure and seemingly advanced vocabulary is the best mental nourishment for growing minds. Books like The Wind in the Willows or Charlotte's Web can be read to very young children to the extreme delight of both child and parent. There is little reason to read a meager abridgment of Moby Dick or The Three Musketeers to children of this age. (One of the mothers in the discussion was doing something like this.) They can save those classics--the genuine classics--for when they are older. There are plenty of well-written children's books to enjoy in the meantime.

When I advanced this opinion to the homeschoolers in question, I met with exactly what I expected--defensive answers that abridged books were still a good choice, and in some cases the best choice for some families. I realize that there may be some children who genuinely cannot comprehend stories such as the Just So Stories by Kipling, but surely those children with language-processing disorders are rare, just as the mothers who are genuinely unable to breastfeed their babies are rare. They exist, of course, and in both cases, we can be thankful that there are alternatives to meet the special needs of those families.

But is it possible that in many cases, we are simply not willing to pay the price of effort required to read those unabridged books?

No matter how much we wish it to be so, formica is not marble. Formula is not breast-milk. Hamburger is not filet mignon. Sliced up and dumbed-down books are not...literature.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Now this is one of those things that makes Poland really different from the US!

I had to visit a doctor today, something I manage to avoid most of the time. I spoke to a real live, doctor, had an EKG, and purchased two medications. The total cost for everything was less than $30.

And as long as you're gasping in disbelief, I will add a couple of other things. Are you ready for this? Doctors make housecalls the same day you call and ask them to come. Ours charges around $35 for this, about $10 more than an office visit would cost.

And are you ready for this one?

Doctors give you their cell phone numbers AND answer them and talk to you when you call. No receptionist. No answering machine giving you more options than there are buttons on the phone. Just call and get the doctor.

Now, don't everyone rush to move to Poland all at once. You do NOT want to be incarcerated in a Polish hospital. I once spent 11 days in one of those places, and I figure I've done my time!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

I have a two-year-old.

Be forewarned from the start that this is a whiny post and I just want to get this down in writing for posterity, because I forgot about my recent plan to take pictures (to be used in future for purposes of bribery) of the messes C. makes.

:::whining mode on:::

Not long ago, I decided just to grab the camera and snap digital pictures every time C. wreaked havoc in the house. During our recent kitchen renovations, we were fairly distracted, she was more unsupervised than usual, and in spite of the fact that there are FIVE PEOPLE in this house who can keep an eye on her, she managed, within the span of a few days, to...

...Get hold of a sharpie marker and scribble all over my very light desk and the light cloth cover of my desk chair. (Hairspray dissolves sharpie marker ink, if you ever need to know.) Two people, who shall remain nameless, were in the same room with her when this happened.

...Climb up to a cupboard, find the liquid food coloring, pry the lid off the bottle of green coloring, and re-do the nicely varnished parquet floor in the dining room. Okay, it is nice, but there are some scratches where the varnish is missing, and when green food coloring sinks into those scratches, it doesn't come off!

...Dip both her hands into an open can of wall paint that was sitting on the floor (thanks, Daddy!) and spatter paint all over the floor, the refrigerator, and a nice denim jumper I figured she'd be able to wear all through next winter!

...Get hold of yet another marker--brown, this time, and washable--and scribble all over the doorway to the dining room. (Why does she hate the dining room? She likes to eat!)

And these would be in addition to the usual, but manageable messes like toothpicks all over the floor and trashbags unrolled across the hallway.

I had so urgently to clean up these problems--especially the food coloring and the paint--that I forgot my recent plan to take pictures of her escapades. A few weeks ago, I was feeling a bit more laid back when she got into the fridge and fed herself a bowl of jello with her fingers, though. (Notice the OLD kitchen floor--ugly, dirty, sticky linoleum that is now gone forever!)

I doubt if this is obvious from this short note, but C. does not like toys! She wants to play with real things around the house. I would welcome suggestions for activities for a child like that! Donations of chocolate, coffee, and reciprocal toddler tales also gratefully accepted.

:::whining mode off:::

This is uncanny

This July marks the completion of nine years since we first came to Poland. That means we are beginning our tenth year here, and I thought it would be interesting to journal the events of this tenth year, with the events of the first year as a sort of backdrop. During our first year in Poland, I sent weekly updates to a group of friends and family, detailing many of our first impressions, our language difficulties, the children's activities, and our early ministry efforts. I always tried to share the things about Poland that made living in Poland "different" from living in the states.

I thought I had saved them, but they got lost. I was heartbroken about it, because I really wanted those first-hand accounts of our first year here, written as I wrote them at the time, with a "voice" that I cannot recover nine years later. I was using AOL version 3 (I think), with a dial-up connection at the time. Would you believed one of my dear, long-time internet friend has saved those emails all these years, on an old computer? And would you believe, she is a Mac-user, as I am? Can you imagine how thrilled I was when she managed to send me two files containing all those old emails from her ancient version of AOL. Really, it's amazing, and I was so, so excited to recover those emails.

Now this is the uncanny part, and I'm still trying to figure out cause and effect. As I read through the old emails, I discovered that all of the things I remember about those early days are in the emails. So far, I have encountered nothing "new" that I had forgotten. Many of the stories I related in those early months via email are the same stories I have told in person, again and again, to anyone interested in hearing about life in Poland. Even one of my earliest blog entries, about having our apartment rewired in such an odd way, was chronicled in those emails.

So, are these the memories that I have, because I wrote about them at the time? I mean, do I remember what I remember, because I wrote it down? Or would I have remembered these events anyway, and I wrote about them at the time because they were what impressed me at the time, thus creating permanent memories whether I had written about them or not? How will I ever be able to figure that out? Mostly, I'm wondering if I should be writing more about what happens week by week, so I will be capturing or retaining memories for the future?

It's hard to say for sure, but here is part of one of those emails, written as I wrote it then, when the impression of all that I saw and encountered in Poland was still strange and new, and I could not communicate with many people.

Would you like to hear about eggs? The only kinds of eggs (jaja) available here are brown eggs. No problem. People sell them everywhere, but they are not in cartons. When you buy eggs, they put them into a little brown paper bag, and yes, they break easily. Some of the larger stores do have them in cartons, and if you get a carton, you *keep* it. Then you can take it to the little shops in the neighborhood, and they will put your eggs in that. In a store recently, I saw a little plastic "egg suitcase"--had a handle just a suitcase, and was made for storing eggs. So funny. Bet they don't have them at Walmart!

If we had a car, I think I would shop at larger stores. It's so much easier, because you can walk around and pick up your own things. In the neighborhood stores, most everything is behind the counter, and you have to ask for it. Much like the old "general stores", only they *look* more modern. I have to say "Prosze to", and point. That sort of means "It, please." I know the words for bread, juice, bananas, apple, kielbasa, sugar, and flour.

As we begin year 10 in Poland, I can say that things are much different now. I nearly always shop at the big Western-style stores; I always buy eggs in cartons (but 10 or 15 in a box, not a dozen!), and I haven't seen one of those "egg suitcases" in years...

What will I remember ten years from now, if I don't write it down today?

Monday, July 17, 2006

And just how is the kitchen coming along?

The Kitchen Project is still under way. It's been a tough week. I've been fixing meals using both the indoor (electric) and outdoor (charcoal) grills, and the crockpot. We've been eating lots of raw veggies and salads, as I don't really care for veggies cooked in the microwave, and that's pretty much my only choice. The eggs I hard-boiled ahead of time so I could continue eating low-carb are running low, and the special low-carb muffins I had in the freezer are all gone.

But progress is being made! By the end of day three, the walls were smoothed and ready for tiling.

By the end of day four, the tiling had begin. It's a small room, but we did lots and lots of tile.

By the end of day five, the tiling was very nearly complete. There were so many little nooks and crannies and corners and outlets to cut around, it was a slow process.

On day six (Saturday) our worker started the day at 9:00 am or so. He grouted the floor, then washed that. He laid the tile edging around the base of the walls, which took a good while. And at 10;00 PM, he began grouted the wall. I went to bed, and got up around 2:00 am. He was still working! He told us later he made it home by 6:00 am Sunday morning, and he still showed up for the 11:00 church service!

How do you even pay somebody who works like that for you? He originally told us he'd do this work for about $130. Since he worked six days last week (and even came back on Sunday afternoon to finish all the electrical outlets), and never left before nine or ten at night, he probably put in an 80 hour week for us. We plan to pay him according to what we think is fair for that kind of effort, not according to his modest estimate.

Here's a close-up of the tile, although I don't know how well the color will show. Trust me--it's lovely!

And now comes the nitty-gritty of installing the cabinets, counters, sink, and what-not. I suspect that each step will present its own little difficulties, but sooner or later it will be done.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Well-read? I haven't a clue!

I stumbled across someone's list of "Books you should read to consider yourself well-read." It's not authoritative, just one person's list and it is 426 books long. I took the time to count how many of them I've read, and I have read 117 from this list, and that includes giving myself credit for War and Peace, which I haven't finished.

So, according to this list, I have only read approximately 1/4 of the books I need to read before I can consider myself well-read. However, there are books on this particular list that I have no intention of ever reading. And surely it isn't necessary to read all those obscure Jules Verne titles before you qualify as well-read? This list doesn't even include every novel by Jane Austen, who is a more significant writer than Verne (in my humble opinion, of course). In other words, according to this list, I definitely don't make the cut and cannot be considered "well-read."

But a suspicion keeps looming larger in my mind that there probably aren't ten people in the United States who've read every single book on this particular list, or any other list of some 400-plus books. And therefore...what exactly would be the criteria by which to judge anyone "well-read?"

I'm mulling this over. I have read some hundreds of books that are considered classics, and yet...there are some glaring omissions in my "books I have read list." I've never read anything by Victor Hugo. I've never finished a book by Solzhenitsyn (after starting more than once). I've only read one book each by John Steinbeck and Sir Walter Scott. I've neglected most Russian and French literature in favor of English authors, and I've still missed a few of them--notably Samuel Johnson and D.H. Lawrence.

So what does it mean to be well-read? I've read a lot of second-rate books, fluff authors, and even a pretty impressive amount of genre fiction (back in the day). Stack the classics next to this stuff, and I'm reasonably certain the second-rate pile would reach higher than the classics. So, even if I make the suggestion that quality as well as quantity is a factor, and that "well-read" means not only reading many books, but reading excellent books, I'm not going to measure up, I don't think. And yet I read all the time. Every single day, with very rare exceptions. Because my reading time is limited, I try to read only worthwhile books most of the time, with just the occasional brain-splurge into "fluff."

I guess what I'm thinking is this: I know that I read more than the general population, and yet I still don't measure up to a very high standard. There is only so much time in the day. No one can read everything. When you put it all together...I still don't know exactly how one might define "well-read," but I suspect it's a pretty subjective description, and therefore doesn't mean all that much.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

If I only could have kept a straight face...

9yo K: Mommy, did you have to put avocado in the salad?

Me: Sometimes I don't do things because I have to; I do them because I want to.

K: Mommy, did you want to put avocado in the salad?

Me: Yes.


K: Mommy, did you have to want to put avocado in the salad?

...I wonder how far it might have gone?


I think the first Polish word my kids ever learned was lody. That's the word for ice cream.

We came to Poland almost exactly nine years ago this month, so it was July and it was hot. My oldest two were almost 4 and 7 years old, and they weren't used to living in a neighborhood with lots of kids. They wanted so badly to play with all the kids running around the courtyard in the hot sun. There was just the one little obstacle--they couldn't understand a word anyone was saying, and neither could I.

But the neighborhood kids would run to the nearby shops and come back with ice-cream bars, and it wasn't many days before my kids were asking for lody. I had to learn to ask for it, too, at the little stores where everything is served to you from behind a counter. Some things don't change.

It's July again, and it's hot. My 9yo old K., (who was only a few months old when we came to Poland), was begging for lody all morning, so after lunch we walked to the store, taking 2yo C. with us. ( I need to teach C. to walk in the street with me, neither running ahead or cowering in fear when a truck drives by.) We bought our ice cream bars, including treats for the stay-at-home older kids, and walked home.

We gave C. her ice cream (a frozen confection in a paper cone that I thought would drip less than ice cream on a stick) right away, and she had a great time learning to manipulate her cool snack. C. doesn't talk much yet--mostly single words here and there. She doesn't always respond when we try to teach her new words, and she is still shy of the Polish language. There must be something about ice cream, though. I kept repeating the word, "lody, lody", for her, and she finally said it, thus making lody her first word in Polish--just like her brother and sister all those years ago!

Way to go, C.

And wouldn't you know it? K.'s ice cream bar had one of those sticks that said Wygrałeś!, which means "You won!" She can exchange the stick for a free lody, so I guess we'll have to get some more tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

War and Peace

I've always considered War and Peace to be one of those really Big Serious Novels that you only read because...well, can I be perfectly honest? If I have ever met anyone in real life who has actually read War and Peace, I don't know it. And since I've never met anyone who has read this book (that I know about), I don't know what motivated them to read it.

I certainly never really wanted to read it. Not really. I bought a copy at some point and had it on my shelves, but I don't know if I ever planned to actually read it. I wouldn't have minded being given credit for "having read" War and Peace, but actually opening up to page 1 and reading right straight through to page 1455 was another matter altogether. It's that kind of book. I've heard about War and Peace all my life, but I honestly didn't have much of an idea what it was all about. I must have been entertaining the vague notion that it was a worthy, classic novel just because it was so long.

After my recent wrestling match with A Tale of Two Cities, I wanted to read literature with someone else--with a small group, preferably. It's nice to have someone to throw around ideas with. I went looking for a good reading group at, but most of them are either defunct or reading books I don't want to read (and can't easily get). But this is the age of blogging, and all was not lost. I am reading War and Peace with these folks.

Although I'm only something like 1/7 of the way through the book, I already know why War and Peace has endured. It's a genuinely interesting story, full of interesting characters and plenty of action and interaction to pull you along from chapter to chapter. Ah! Leo Tolstoy was an excellent writer! Who knew?

I'm a little behind the reading schedule, but that's only because I'm the mother of four children, my kitchen is undergoing a complete renovation, and I'm preparing for my next Polish Ladies' Tea (which will be held, praise the Lord, at my co-worker's home). It doesn't have anything to do with the fact that I'm reading two other books at the same time and I waste a lot of time on the computer during these hot, hot, hot July days.

War and Peace is my big reading project for the summer, and I think I'm going to enjoy it!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Aren't you glad your kitchen doesn't look like this?

In the very earliest days of this blog, I shared a bit about the Polish style of running wires. At the moment, I have the opportunity to observe it all over again. Because...

I have a very, very tiny kitchen. It's a galley-style kitchen, barely six feet wide on the longest side, and less than six feet on the shorter side. I have seen closets bigger than this kitchen. The only thing that keeps it from feeling like a cave is the generous window on the wall opposite the door.

I'm glad the window is there, but it does completely preclude that wall from being used in any functional way. When we moved in here, there was an iron sink bolted to the wall at exactly the right height for my eight year old to wash dishes, but a back-breaking level for anyone else to use. About ten inches from the bare iron sink (no counter, no cabinet underneath) sat the stove, which reached all the way to the wall, nestled into a corner. On that side of the kitchen, there was not so much as a place to lay a spoon while cooking. Here's the sink:

The other side of the kitchen is the place for a refrigerator (half-size, to fit under the counter), some cabinets with counters, and a few cupboards up above. To say that this kitchen was inadequate for a family of six is only to state the painfully obvious.

Thanks to some generous gifts from friends in the states, we are re-doing the kitchen. Hallelujah!

This is what the inside of a Polish wall is like. There was some tile on the lower half that has been removed. Notice that one pipe was already buried in the wall. That's the cold water, and when the house was built, that's all there was. Cold. Water. At some point, hot water was added. The pipe comes up through the floor from the hot water heater below, but it ran along the outside of the wall.

The faucet was attached to the wall above the sink. Pretty, yes?

Now, new pipes have been installed, burying both the hot and cold in the wall, and coming out lower, so that the faucet can be fitted from the counter top.

And channels have been chiseled for the electrical wires for the nice new outlets we need.

And the whole thing has been now been covered up again, quite roughly, with cement/plaster.

We have one remarkable worker doing the construction, the plumbing, and the electrical work. This is two days' work so far. Meals and clean-up are not too fun right now. But it's only a matter of time until it's up and running, and I can't wait.

Further bulletins as events warrent...

Monday, July 10, 2006

My new Polish book

I finished Anielka by Bolesław Prus, and I am rejoicing in that accomplishment. It is the first complete book I have read in Polish, although I have read parts of others (particularly a translation of Anne of Green Gables).

I have already written about the transformation or mental shift that occurred in June, which gave me the "power" (for lack of a better word) to actually read in Polish in a similar manner to the way I read in English (albeit still much slower). I don't remember learning to read the first time around, that is to say, in English. I knew how to read before I went to kindergarten, but I don't remember learning, and so I don't remember a time when I could not read. That heady realization that print makes sense and that I could decipher it is simply not in my memory.

Until now. After our dinner out the other evening, we visited a multi-story bookstore downtown, because I wanted to get a new Polish book to read. I do not want to read books in translation, but rather books written in Polish by Polish authors, so I went directly to that section of the store. I opened book after book and read random paragraphs. And I could. I understood them. Since this has not always been the case, I had an uncanny sense of power--that I could read!--and that there were whole vistas on the horizon that I hadn't seen before. It's difficult to describe, but it occurred to me that a child must feel something like that when the words on the page cease to be phonetic letters to puzzle out and suddenly become words and sentences and stories.

Previously, I would read over a sentence five or six times before it was understandable. It took a long time for me to work through a paragraph, let alone a page. Making myself read a book consistently over the course of weeks finally pushed my brain through a door, and I feel like a little kid who can't wait to demonstrate a new-found skill.

So, I needed a new book, and this is the one I have chosen--W pustyni i w puszczy by Henryk Sienkiewicz. He is a well-known Polish author, best known in English, I think, for Quo Vadis. This book is (again) a book for children; however, it is also a fine example of literature. His longer books are SO long that they seem too daunting right now. As it is, this book is twice as long as Anielka. I believe this book has been translated into English, but I am disappointed in the title. If I were going to translate the title, I would make it In Wilderness and Wasteland instead of In Desert and Wilderness, to preserve the alliteration in the title. But they didn't ask me.

Ja umiem czytać po polsku i dlatego że, dziś się cieszy. (I know how to read in Polish, and that's why I'm happy today.)

Sunday, July 09, 2006


An indulgence is giving in to something you want when you don't really need it, I suppose. But then, "want" and "need" are such relative terms at times. And sometimes present "wants" will become future "needs," so is it still an indulgence if I buy something I only "want" right now but will "need" in the future. For example, if I buy a nice pair of shoes on sale that I don't really "need," only "want," then I will have the nice shoes when my current pair wears out and I do, indeed, need new shoes. Indulgence or good stewardship? You know which way I'm leaning...

My 12yo daughter E. "needed" new drawing pencils and a sketch pad. She "wants" high-quality materials and she draws everyday, so she goes through these supplies like shampoo and toothpaste. And she uses her allowance to pay for them, because I only buy those kinds of things for birthday and Christmas gifts, believing that ordinary pencils and printer paper suffice for most drawings. (I will revise this opinion as she grows older if she does pursue art very seriously.) Anyway, because she needed to go to town for art supplies, we took a bus into the city center.

After the art supplies were purchased, I suggested we look at a few bookstores, and since reading is her second passion, it was agreed. And this is where the indulgence comes in--mine, not hers. I don't really "need" any new books to read. I have quite a few unread books on my shelves; I'm in the middle of three or four books already, with as many more waiting in the wings calling my name. But the books were in the store, and that might not be the case six months from now, so I supplied my future need for books to read (and that is a need) by buying the following:

Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

A Daughter's a Daughter and other novels by Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Nesbit and Twain were actually E.'s picks, but the rest are for me to read...sometime. Perhaps I indulged. Perhaps it was only prudent to buy the books when they were available, because they might easily be sold before I "needed" them and went to buy them later. Like all book-lovers, I don't need much of an excuse to buy a new book...or three. These all have a new home on my shelves and speaking of "needs"...I may need to get some more shelves if I keep doing this.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Menu, please

Last night, Krakovian and I went out to dinner by ourselves. (And I must note, in passing, that he violently objects to the fact that I have misspelled "Krakovian" on purpose, so that my little handful of readers will be able to pronounce it properly. In Polish, it would be Krakowian, but the "w" sounds like "v.")

By ourselves, as I was saying. We went to the center of the old city and ate at a restaurant right on the square, sitting at an outdoor table where we could watch people and enjoy the lovely summer evening. When we sat at our table, there was already a menu lying there--an English-only menu. (Restaurants in this area cater to tourists.) We looked at the menu for a few minutes, chatting quietly about what we might choose, but hadn't made any decisions when a waiter walked over and asked if we wanted to order.

Krakovian said quietly, "Nie jesteśmy gotowe," or "We're not ready," and the waiter left us alone for a moment, but immediately returned and dropped a Polish menu on the table. He thought we weren't ready to order because we couldn't understand the English menu on our table. We were highly amused by this presumption, and gratified that we did not stand out as obviously non-Polish tourists.

So we ordered from the Polish menu and left a nice tip afterward.

I also want to add that althought it is possible to eat at restaurants that charge $20 or more per person for dinner, it is also possible to eat for $4-6 per person, which is what we did.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Gotta run to the grocery store

I've noticed that I've been blogging more about books than about Poland. I've been reading too many lit blogs, perhaps? I really like lit blogs and I really like books and reading, but I don't want my blog to be exclusively about those things. I want to write about living in Poland.

This is how it is. When I'm not living in Poland, I think about Poland a lot, and about what it's like, and I miss it.

When I'm living in Poland, I'm just living in Poland. I forget that the things I do and see are not typical, and that I wanted to use this blog to share a little bit of what it's like to live here.

So I went to the grocery store. When I first came to Poland, they didn't have large western-style stores anywhere, but now they do. They are so similar to the stores I shopped in while I was in the states that I really have to think about what would seem odd to a visitor. These things might catch your attention:

The products are priced in Polish złoty, of course. The meat is weighed by the kilogram, not the pound. The cereal is packaged in cellophane bags instead of boxes (and they are a real pain in the neck to store and use, too). Make sure you have your produce weighed and priced in that department before you check out, because the cashiers do not have scales. Turkey is cut up and sold the same way chicken is, so you can buy turkey legs, turkey thighs, turkey wings, and boneless, skinless turkey breast. There are more pork products than any other kind of meat. None of the beef is cut into a recognizable form except the hamburger. In the meat department, you can buy beef kidneys, hearts and liver, AND pork kidneys, hearts, and liver. And chicken feet. Jello comes in flavors like gooseberry and apricot. If you want plain apple juice or plain orange juice, you are really going to have to hunt on the shelves among the boxes (one- or two-liter sized, of course) of black current and carrot-raspberry juice. Eggs are brown. You can look high and low, but you will not be able to find brown sugar or chocolate chips. You will find little paper packets of baking powder and "vanilla sugar." Flour and sugar and rice are sold in one-kilogram bags (only 2.3 pounds). The large fish/sea-food section sells live carp.

Okay, when I really think about it, shopping here is a bit of a different experience than it is in America. I still fill my cart full of groceries, wait in line for the cashier to scan my purchases, and wince at the total.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Books read in June!

Miss Clare Remembers by Miss Read--I love every "Miss Read" book I have ever read. I was fortunate to pick up a couple of them at a flea market last year in the States.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok--My second of Potok's novels. I enjoyed this on so many levels. I am looking forward to reading it again. I love an author who can take ordinary people and make you see how extraordinary they are. (Betty Smith is a master at this.) I've already loaned the book away to a reading friend in another part of Poland.

Emma by Jane Austen--a reread, of course. I reread all of Jane Austen's novels every year. I've been doing it for years, and I don't know when I will stop. Not many books could bear this much rereading, so consider it a testimony of the greatness of Jane Austen. One of the results of this rereading is that when I read Jane Austen fan-fic, I recognize every single phrase that has been "borrowed" from the original books.

The Cereal Murders by Diane Mott Davidson--another reread, because I can only allow myself to read so many of my new books every month, and you can see at the beginning of the list that I indulged in two right away. When I need light reading, I like mysteries, and and these mysteries come with recipes. Diane Mott Davidson is not a "great" author in any sense of the word, but she is one of my favorite "fluff" authors.

"The Flying Stars," "The Invisible Man," and "The Honour of Israel Gow," by G.K. Chesterton--still more "Father Brown" stories from my Complete Father Brown book. (The Israel Gow story was odd--very odd.)

Climbing Parnassus by Tracy Lee Simmons--I don't want to say too much about this. I agree with so much of what he has to say, but I believe deeply that he is mistaken about the formative nature of merely learning Latin and Greek as languages. He gives an example of all that you have to know in order to understand a two-word Latin sentence, but...I can make the same sentence in two Polish words. My point being, Polish people (as well as Russians and others) study and speak highly inflected languages. It does not enlarge the soul. And Simmons knows that's what classical education is about: "He must cultivate within himself the habitual vision of greatness and the conscious ideal of human perfection." (emphasis his)

Anielka by Bolesław Prus--I already made an entry about this, but I repeat here--eight chapters (half the book). Being able to read this matches everything else on the list this month, and I don't even like the story. But I can read Polish!

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens--I finally finished this one--hurrah! I must have read 3/4 of the way through the book before I was finally caught up in the story and read straight through to the end. I have made it a practice for several years to read one new (to me) novel by Dickens each year. Next year will either be The Old Curiosity Shop or Pickwick Papers. I must add that this is not at all a favorite of mine. This was a first read for me, but I think it would be a shame to make this the first Dickens assigned to students anywhere. It's so depressing. Also, I anticipated the ending (not sure if Dickens meant that to happen or not) so the suspense was spoiled.

Confessions, Book One, by Augustine--This was a reread, but I was focusing largely on his opinions and attitudes towards his education.

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card--another reread. I don't love the science fiction genre any more than I love fantasy, but a well-written book with excellent characters is worth reading no matter where or when it is set. The Ender series is so full of philosophy and moral dilemmas that I find it intriguing.

Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey--another reread. I seem to have done a lot of rereading of light fiction this month. Chalk it up to the heat, which has finally arrived.

The Literary Discipline, by John Erskine--This is a book of essays on literature. Pardon me if I can't resist quoting something he says which refutes the premise of Climbing Parnassus."Much as we may dislike literature in translation, it is perhaps salutary to remember that literary masterpieces must survive in translation or not at all. In what language were the parables spoken? If Homer were not Homer still in English or French or German, how much of Homer would the world know?" I haven't read all the essays yet, of course, but I love the book because the previous owner left it full of penciled comments--just like me!

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie--I don't think I've read this one before! I found it in a bookstore at the mall, when I needed something to read at lunch and had forgotten to bring something with me...(The bookstore didn't have a large English selection, so it was pretty much a choice between Agatha Christie and Dan Brown. No contest...)

The Bible and the task of teaching by David I. Smith and John Shortt--I already wrote about this a few posts ago, too. I don't often do this, but as soon as I finish this book (I'm on the last chapter), I am immediately going to reread it, more slowly this time. I flew through it the first time because I just wanted to know everything it said. Now I want to read more slowly and think about it. (By the way, the odd capitalization in the title is really the way the book is titled. My dh says that's to emphasize the word "Bible." I find it disturbing, but there it is.)

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy--I put this last on the list, but I won't say too much because it deserves an entry of its own, to be forthcoming later this month. This is my summer reading project, and so far I've read part one of Book I--that's about 1/10 of the 1400+ page book--plus a few chapters of part two. So far, I've found this a very engaging book.

I probably read bits and pieces from some other things, but I can't remember--I've really been focusing on 2-3 books at time because I was having to "make" myself read them. When I look at this list, it looks like a lot of reading in June, but I read fast (too fast, except for the Polish reading).

Now that July has arrived, I can dip into my "new" books. Jostein Gaarder's latest is calling my name, I'm definitely going to delve further into the Erskine essays, Tolstoy requires constant attention, and I will complete Anielka and select a new book to read in Polish. I really want to read Barzun's Dawn to Decadence, but I can't see starting a book of that size while reading War and Peace at the same time, so that will have to wait. Decisions, decisions...