Friday, March 29, 2013

Thinking About Mum

I cannot begin to articulate how difficult I still find it to go to Mum’s house, almost a year after her death, and  still feel surrounded by reminders of her life, even though the house is almost completely empty.  About 90% of her possessions have been shared with other family members, friends, charities etc. 

Yet each time I go there, I seem to find more and more hidden surprises tucked away in nooks and crannies, a constant reminder of her life and death, and the gaping great hole in my life where my mother should be.

The last kitchen cupboard needing to be emptied contained mugs and cups. A few items were coming back to our house, some were in good enough condition to be taken to a thrift shop, some would be kept and a small number needed to be binned, but everything needed to be washed clean first, after a year of sitting unused in the kitchen.

 I stood by the sink, carefully washing each piece of my mother’s treasured china with a dishcloth and soapy water, wiping, rinsing and wiping again and again until it was sparklingly clean, and realised that I was washing it as tenderly as though it were my mother’s fragile body.  I cared for it because she had cared for it, and this was the last thing I could do for her, to dispose of her possessions with the same sort of  care which she had expended on choosing and purchasing it in the first place……

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sabbath In The Suburbs

Sabbath in the Suburbs:
A Family's Experiment with Holy Time

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Published by Chalice Press, 2012

This is not just a book for "religious" families (of any denomination), it is a book for anyone who feels overwhelmed, stressed or exhausted by the pressures and time constraints that modern life can place on families in the modern world, and for families who want to re-connect with what is really important to them.

For most of us that would be finding time to devote to our family, friends, and also time for ourselves.

 MaryAnn and her husband made a conscious decision to find time which they could specifically devote to their growing family, even though they were already struggling to find time to cram in all their committments as it was. Things seemed to be spiralling out of control into a non-stop, frantic whirl of busy-ness, which they felt was impossible and unhealthy to sustain over a long period of time. They wanted to find time to enjoy parenting as a vocation and not just as an obligation.

They tried a number of different strategies to "make" the Sabbath work as a day devoted to the principles of family time and honouring God, with varying degrees of success, though there were always elements of great value in every approach they tried. The traditional Jewish observances of abstaining from anything which could even remotely be described as work, including turning on lights, cooking or tearing sheets of toilet paper - are very clear-cut and may seem overly restrictive to Christian families and she debates how much work would be allowable  from a Christian perspective as she pores over books about the Jewish Sabbath observances.

Even their attempts to find an appropriate day are fraught; Sundays prove difficult due to Mary Ann's regular commitments as a Presbyterian Church pastor, so they choose to make Saturday their special day. But what happens when planning conflicts occur  or when emergencies supervene? It does not happen often, but does require a rethink of the purpose and meaning of their Sabbath.

Month by month we follow their activities as a family, seeing what works and what does not. Carving out special time for Sabbath does mean some tasks round the house simply get put on the back-burner  for extended periods of time, which can cause its own stress.

  This is a book about finding time to be busy "being", not just busy "doing". It is not so much what you do, as how you perceive what you are doing - sabbath observance is also  a state of mind, not just a day or a set of activities.

 This is a thoroughly enjoyable and long overdue book  which I can see myself re-reading regularly, and as MaryAnn wisely observes, it's never too late to start finding time to "be".
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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Great Lent

For us Orthodoxen, Great Lent commences today with the start of Forgiveness Vespers.

Easter/Pascha is very late this year, falling on  May  5th on the New Calendar

As is customary, I ask the forgiveness of anyone whom I have offended, hurt or upset. May this be a time of reflection, study, prayer and spiritual profit for those of us who observe the Fast...........
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Friday, March 15, 2013

Beyond The Pasta

Beyond the Pasta

Recipes, Language and Life with an Italian Family

By Mark Leslie

Published by Gemelli Press, 2010

 The tragedy of 9/11 was experienced by the author, his partner and their mothers, whilst they were all in Florence on holiday. Italy had - and continued to exert-  a fascination for him, and he made the brave decision to return in 2005 for a combined cooking and Italian language course in the Stefani family home in Viterbo for a month.

This book is based on  his diaries of that eventful month, during which he learns to come to terms with the Italian way of shopping, cooking, communicating - and navigating the shopping trolleys. The absurdities and quirks of Italian life are lovingly depicted and in the space of a chapter, he can fit in a remarkable variety of experiences, including history, ice-creams, football, old churches, and during a weekend trip to Rome, he manages to visit a gay bar as well as see some unusual tourist sites.

A large part of the book is naturally devoted to the food he learns to cook with the elderly Nonna, who not only runs a Scout troupe but has also mastered the art of texting and has two mobile phones! He learns to prepare a wide variety of  food for family birthdays, everyday meals, learns to make home-made pasta and encounters a traditional Wood burning pizza oven. He often eats out with his Italian host family, and meets their extended family, neighbours and friends, which gives him ample practice in perfecting the Italian he is learning from Alessandra, who is  Nonna's daughter and his teacher. A surprising amount of Italian is incorporated in the book, which I found fascinating, especially when he shares the embarrassing mix-ups he makes with easily confused words.

By Day 20 he is even dreaming in Italian and learning to translate song lyrics, among many other things, and he falls in love both with Viterbo and the Stefani family, keeping in touch with them by phone and email, and taking his partner Richard to visit them every year.

It is hard to pigeonhole this book in any single category as it is neither a pure travelogue, cookbook nor language book, but a delightful melange of all three; reading it was an extremely pleasant way to spend a few hours.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Shakespeare On Toast

Shakespeare On Toast:

Getting A Taste For The Bard

By Ben Crystal

Published by Icon Books UK in 2009, elsewhere in 2012.

Ben Crystal is an accomplished actor and writer, and son of the acclaimed linguist, Professor David Crystal, with whom he has co-authored other books about Shakespeare, and this book is equally as riveting.

This is one of the comparatively rare books which overcomes the difficult "jump" between producing overly-simplified books for young people and  producing excellent introductory books for adults with no prior knowledge of a specific topic.

Many people find the thought of Shakespeare off-putting and disheartening, particularly if they have had  less than happy experiences studying the plays at school, and the very language and historical context of the plays can seem very alien indeed to the uninitiated. This is an ideal introduction to the Bard, amusingly and thoughtfully written in easily digestible chapters, or Acts.

 Right at the start, we are introduced to Hamlet by way of  Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film "Last Action Hero" and the fact that Shakespeare invented the word assassination. The influence of the Bard throughout the English speaking world is assessed, and the uncertain reader reassured that 95% of the words Shakespeare uses are still in common usage to this day, which makes reading or watching the plays much less intimidating. I loved all the historical details about how much it cost to attend a play in Elizabethan times, and what the experience would have been like, as well as description of the controversies about the Bard's true identity.

Writing a manuscript, the difficulties of getting it approved by the authorities and then published, let alone finding a wealthy patron to help underwrite the costs of a troupe of players and provide a suitable venue for the productions to take place - these are all vividly described. Ben Crystal compares Elizabethan plays with modern popular culture such as TV soaps, emphasising the fact that the way Shakespeare is often taught and analysed minutely in modern times is the complete antithesis to the way Elizabethan audiences would have experienced the plays, a fact which is overlooked far too often. What authors may have lacked in scenery, sets and lavish props, they had to make up for in their drama, verse and stage directions.  There is no substititute for seeing a live play in order to really "get" Shakespeare, and having read this book, the reader will be far less hesitant about taking the plunge and experiencing a play.

Thorough, witty and utterly absorbing, any Shakespeare fan would enjoy this book and it would be an ideal introduction for anyone standing hesitantly  on the brink of the wonderful world of Shakespeare.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013



By Thomas Brown

To be published by Sparkling Books Ltd in June 2013

E-book ISBN: 9781907230424

I have never regarded myself as a delicate reader, and I will happily read just about any genre. When I saw the publisher's synopsis on Net Galley, I decided this is a book which I would find enjoyable.
After all, who could resist this?

"Who wouldn’t want to live in an idyllic village in the English countryside like Lynnwood? With its charming pub, old dairy, friendly vicar, gurgling brooks, and  its old paths with memories of simpler times.

But behind the conventional appearance of Lynnwood’s villagers, only two sorts of people crawl out of the woodwork: those who hunt and those who are prey. Visitors are watched by an entity between the trees where the Dark Ages have endured to the twenty-first century. Families who have lived behind stone walls and twitching curtains know that the gusts of wind blowing through the nearby alluring Forest bring with them a stench of delightful hunger only Lynnwood can appease."

 I was right.

This is indeed a wonderfully eerie, atmospheric book, which I have to own, managed to unsettle and spook me so much that I simply could not read past the first 100 pages, even though I was enjoying it and made several attempts. It was deliciously scary, and left me unable to sleep, which happens very rarely. 

I'm not sure whether to congratulate the author on his skill or castigate him for making it so haunting that I simply could not continue reading it :-)

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Lemons Into Limoncello

Lemons Into Limoncello

From Loss to Personal Renaissance with 

the Zest of Italy

By Raeleen D'Agostino Mautner

Published by HCI Books

May 2nd, 2013

When I read the author's previous book about Italy, Living La Dolce Vita, I was charmed and delighted with her descriptions of the traditional Italian lifestyle.  This is an equally good book, but rather different in as much as it deals with rebuilding one's life after grief, loss and bereavement. 

Dr D'Agostino Mautner's husband died suddenly at a comparatively young age and she chronicles the varying stages of grief, providing strategies appropriate for each grieving stage and outlining how an Italian way of life and perspective can help. It is a very positive and upbeat book considering its genesis was in such sadness.

This is a profoundly religious book, though the style is by no means preachy or proselytising by any means. She shares a prayer, ideas about journaling, choosing a religious artifact - picture/icon, cross, rosary etc to keep at home, finding a saint whose life or writings are inspirational to you, and considering getting involved in a church or church 's outreach group s means of dealing with the immediate aftermath of a tragedy or bereavement.

The use of both music and silence are also covered in some detail;  I have vivid memories of my mother dealing with my step-father's death by keeping the radio on when she was out of the house, so that when she came back in, she would not be greeted with absolute silence. Putting beautiful things in your home, learning to be mindful and live in the moment, creating meaningful treats/habits, taking care of one's self, enjoying food (including a luscious recipe for limoncello biscuits!) are just a few of the suggestions given.

The whole book is a thoughtful collection of excellent ideas which can be used as a self-help manual to deal with the aftermath of heartbreak, and I wish I had  had a copy of this book when I was struggling to deal with the loss of my brother a few years ago.  This one is definitely a keeper.

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Patrick: Patron Saint Of Ireland

Patrick: Patron Saint Of Ireland

By Tomie  dePaola

Published by Open Road

March 6th, 2013

This is a dear little book by Tomie DePaola, with his instantly recognisable illustrations.

 A book which is eminently suitable for reading to very young children or ideal for slightly older children to read themselves,  it gives an easily understood  introduction to the life of this great saint and enlightener of Ireland.

My only complaint is its length; at 39 pages, with only a small amount of text on each page, the story is sadly over far too soon.
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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Our Trip To London - Part Three

We kept seeing the most gorgeous old buildings!

And this plaque commemorating Sir Richard Westmacott in South Audley Street; he was a famous sculptor who did the reliefs on the Marble Arch and the first commemorative statue of Admiral Lord Nelson.

The Grosvenor Chapel again.

And inside....

A detail of the arch.

The Rood Screen and High Altar.

A very bad close-up of the Rood.

There were several icons dotted around the church......

And the plaque outside to say that American troops worshipped here. The Chapel maintains strong links with the USA to this day.

We sat down in Berkeley Square and enjoyed the sunshine, peace and birdsong....

The trees were lovely.

Can you see the face in the trunk, where the left branch joins the main trunk?

The end of the Changing of the Guard.

And lots of tourists taking photos of the Guards entering the Barracks!

                            This is a much more normal shot of tourists around Buckingham Palace!

Big Ben  - or rather, the Elizabeth Tower which houses Big Ben :-)

This pretty little shell-encrusted building was in a square
 we walked past, and caught our eye.....

And this was my calzone for lunch, at an Italian brasserie close to Victoria Station. It was delicious and kept me well filled on the long journey back home to Wales.

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Saturday, March 09, 2013

Our Trip To London - Part Two

Our second day started bright and early, and a quick walk to the American Embassy, where Mrs DoomHamster had an early appointment. I stayed with her until she was called to go in through the perimeter checkpoint.

As I watched her walk into the security  kiosk, I turned and shot this picture of the view from President Reagan's statue. The visible spire on the left is that of the Grosvenor Chapel, a closer shot is below.

A random street sign, high above eye level.

Walking back to Marble Arch to take some unhurried photos while Mrs DoomHamster was at the Embassy, I went past the memorial to Animals In War in Hyde Park. I was on the wrong side of the road and the traffic was roaring by, so it was impossible to get a shot without cars in it......

Marble Arch itself. Only members of the Royal Family and select members of the Army are allowed to drive or process through it.  It was originally built in 1825 as part of the ceremonial entrance to the newly rebuilt Buckingham Palace, but was moved to its present location in 1851, when the rooms inside were allotted as a police station until  1968.

And the fountains in Hyde Park.

Not far away is the site of Tyburn gallows, where so many Catholics were martyred for their Faith in Tudor times. The plaque which marks the site is on a busy traffic island and I did not feel brave enough to cross over and visit it; now, of course, I wish I had.......  close to the site of the original gallows is the Tyburn Convent Shrine. 
This is the crucifix outside.

I popped in to the convent chapel to sit quietly and  pray for Mrs DoomHamster and all my dear family and friends. There were half a dozen other people praying, and beyond the choir grille was one of the Sisters in silent adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament; the Sisters take it in turns to pray in the Chapel, 24 hours a day. 
The Chapel is open to the public from approximately 6.30 am to approximately 8 pm. Despite the enormous volume of traffic thundering just a few feet away, the Chapel was a  veritable haven of peace and holiness, and the loudest sound was birdsong from the Convent's cloister garden on the other side of the Chapel, and the  occasional rustle of the Sister's habit as she almost imperceptibly changed position kneeling on the prie-dieu.

The Sisters do guided tours three times a day, but although I would have liked to have seen the shrine and the relics of the 105 Catholic Martyrs beneath the Chapel, I could not stay until the first tour at 10.30. I did not wish to impose upon the privacy of the Sister and my companions who were all in prayer, so no photos inside the Chapel.

When I left the Convent, I walked past the Anglican Church of the Annunciation; sadly it was not due to open till 10.30 but I did take a photo of the War Memorial crucifix, which was decorated with a  spray of flowers and some candles. 

This is one of the crosses which adorned the wall of the church.


I made a very quick detour to the huge Marks & Spencer store in Oxford Street to search for a particular dress for DD2, but unfortunately they only had ridiculously tiny sizes and ridiculously huge sizes in stock. As I was looking at the dresses, my phone rang and it was Mrs DoomHamster telling me she was out of the Embassy in record time and had retrieved her mobile phone etc from the obliging pharmacy near the Embassy who will happily store items you cannot take through the Embassy's security checkpoints, for a very modest fee.

This very nice church is the Jesuit Church in Farm Street, though this is the east end as approached through the Mount Street Gardens, and a very ornate side door.

Inside is absolutely remarkable. It is a Pugin church, and really quite stunning.

Some of the marble statues  had typed labels stuck on to their bases with sellotape to identify them, but this one did not. It is possible St Thomas More, but I was not sure......

This is St Winifred.

    And the Seven Sorrows of the Mother of God.

The vaulting was lovely.

This is the main nave roof.

Looking west to the back of the church.

And looking east to the enshadowed  sanctuary and the shining High Altar.....

Just above the Sanctuary arch was a lovely mosaic.

Each phrase of the Ave Maria was in a decorated roundel between the nave arches.

In a side-chapel was  a replica of the venerated  ancient pilgrimage statue of Our Lady of Montserrat in Catalonia, Spain.

And a lovely crucifixion in marble.

To the right of the High Altar was the statue of Our Lady

And to the rear of the Church was St Edward.

Another view across the church.

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