Monday, March 29, 2010

Fiction Corner

It's been a busy week. I had a bad head cold (almost gone, but not quite), a tight copyediting deadline (over, thank goodness), and an exciting bead show on Friday (article on Spark coming next week or so), and ... I turn 65 years old tomorrow!

I did manage to squeeze in some reading lately, however, as always, so here are a few recommendations. (No cover pics today; sorry, upload doesn't seem to be working.)

Small Wars by Sadie Jones is the second novel (debut, The Outcast) by this young British novelist. I was so impressed with her first that I was eager to read this second one, and it didn't disappoint. The book is set in Cyprus in the middle 1950s and focuses on a young British couple with two children. The kinds of traumatic effects of war on the British officer's mental state, his ideas of honesty and honor, his ideals of military and patriotic duty, and on his marriage are explored vividly and insightfully. Despite the distance in time and location of the setting, many of the issues raised --  in terms of interrogation methods, dealing with terrorists among civilian populations, and cultural misunderstandings with foreign armed forces -- are extremely contemporary and could only have been addressed the way they were by someone alive since 9/11.

William Boyd, author of many excellent award-winning novels, including Any Human Heart and, last year, Restless, has a new one, Ordinary Thunderstorms. It's a fascinating tale of identity, intrigue, and societal dysfunction in contemporary London. The protagonist is trapped by random circumstances into leaving behind his old life and living underground, on the lam as it were, and inventing a new life amid the tangles of a deadly pharmaceutical cover-up and murder case ... and he falls in love to boot. It's an interesting mix of genres -- thriller, crime tale, social criticism, love story, psychological study, and adventure story -- that is coherent and well written.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Early Spring Bulbs

So far this is turning out to be a good year for early spring bulbs. My theory (based on intuition alone) is that the unusually long period of solid snow cover was a happy change for bulbs, compared to getting pushed around underground by the freezing and thawing we usually get here in winter in east central Illinois.

One of the best displays so far has been from Iris reticulata. Most people are more familiar with the bigger irises, especially the tall bearded German irises, with their fuzzy beards and myriad colors; the tall but smaller-flowered Siberians; or the elegant, water-loving Japanese iris. I've grown all three types over the years and they are all beautiful. The Japanese are hard to keep going if you don't have a pond area. The German iris need a sunnier, grittier area than I have in my present garden, but I do have dwarf bearded in scree beds that will no doubt be featured in a later post. The Siberians are very reliable and lovely and photos of them will be forthcoming later in the season as well.
But those three types are tall, summer-blooming  irises that grow from rhizomes--tuberous clumps that look a little like the ginger roots in the produce department. Whereas the little charmer I'm showing off in these photos today is grown from a tiny bulb no bigger than your thumb, planted deep into a well-drained soil. The flowering plant is short and early.
I planted most of these clusters more than ten years ago, so it's taken a while for them to get nice and full. There are a number of varieties, of which I have two--the deep purple and the royal blue. They all have that amazing pattern on the brilliant yellow on the inside of the petals.

The purple ones began to bloom slightly before the blue ones this year. Some years, the purple ones are almost finished before the blue ones appear. The mixture makes for an especially nice show.

Once the blooms are finished, the tall stiff foliage spikes keep growing and get quite tall before they disappear completely for the year. They don't last very long once the weather gets quite warm, but they are certainly colorful and charming in the early spring!
Clusters of the reticulatas are spread out in our four scree beds, but they have done the best in the sunniest one. The raised beds were built about fifteen years ago, and now they are all disintegrating at once! Hopefully, this spring Bryan, our "garden rehabilitation" helper will work toward renewing some of them.
For right now, the irises are the only source of color in scree beds except for the majestic adonis (see my earlier posts).
The crocus have been less robust this year, and I'm not sure why. The very early "tommies" in the north were lovely but didn't seem to last as long as some other years. The snow crocus in the south haven't made much of a show (that area has been getting quite shady as the maple has grown huge), and the slightly larger hybrids haven't shown up yet. Maybe they will emerge later.

But I love the crocus for their bravery in the face of early spring weather, their delicate charm, their striped grass-like foliage, and their cheerful orange centers. As long as we wait to mow, they will return.
In the south lawn not far from the crocus plantings are the Chionodoxa luciliae 'Pink Giant', sometimes called "The Glory of the Snow."
These little cuties are a pale creamy pink, but the most common ones are blue. In the north, we have some of the Chionodoxa sardensis, which are smaller but a lovely gentian blue with a white eye. (Photos to come later when it stops raining!)
The pink giants have been especially reliable and seem to have spread quite a bit as well. Like the crocus, if we wait on mowing, the bulbs can renew their energy and then disappear above ground, ready to return next spring.

The Corydalis solida (I think this is the variety called George Baker) is another very early and brief spring visitor, but always an impressive one with its wonderful rose color. The corydalis are sometimes called "fumeworts."

The color is really strong on a sunny day, but it's not easy to photograph. This next shot was taken by my husband David.

Lots of other bulbs are on the way now. Yellow trumpet daffodils have started on the east fence and miniature tete-a-tete daffodils in the north. I see foliage for species tulips and the later darwins alike.

In the fern bed, shade-loving perennials are gearing up as well. There is bloodroot beginning, and the white hellebore. This is an older plant, and it's probably Helleborus niger, sometimes called "The Christmas Rose." They are slow glowing and a little tricky to establish at first, but then they are very reliable shade plants.

This one has white flowers that point downward on short stems, but there are new hybrids with upward facing flowers on taller stems in shades of pink and red with spots that I'd like to try some time.

I hope you enjoyed this spring display. There will be more to come!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

New Article

Another new article on Handmade Spark -- all about our Big Transition from outdoor craft shows to easy, lightweight displays for indoor shows and online sales. Enjoy!

Spring Has Sprung!

Slowly but surely, things have been changing around here. That cold white stuff has melted away (except for a few small, sad-looking mountain shapes in parking lots). The rains have made the grass green again! And it is no longer silent in the early morning -- bird song is starting up again. These are all sure signs that spring has begun in earnest. So it was time to check the garden.

Sure enough, there they were: the early, humble, and sweet snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis. Small numbers of these were planted one fall, maybe twelve years or so ago at the sidewalk edge of a shady bed under the ash tree on the west side of the property. Each year, the cheerful little clusters have gotten a bit larger. Now the eight groups here (as well as one in the north oak bed and one in the south fern bed) are flourishing.

Occasionally, the snowdrops have started blooming in February, even amid a bit of remaining snow. But this year they waited for the warmer temps (fifties) and the rains. As you can see, they have pushed up among the fallen leaves. We don't really remove leaves from flower beds because of their protection and their nutrition for the soil.

There are actually several different species of this genus, and I think the ones in the fern bed may be doubles, but, for the most part, they all look pretty much alike. Once they've finished up, there's no sign of them above ground.

In the interior of the bed with the snowdrops is another very early blooming bulb called winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis). These are not as easy to establish and the clumps are small even though they were planted a long time ago along with the snowdrops. They are a very bright, welcome yellow at a time when the sky is still quite often overcast and a bit gloomy.

On the north side of our house, all along the wired enclosure of our "cat patio,"  we have planted clumps of "tommies" (Crocus tommasinianus), a very early species crocus that is much-loved by English gardeners, who gave it this charming nickname. This photo was taken too late in the day and on too overcast a day to show up the lovely lavender and purple tones of this sweet little bulb to its best effect. If the crocus bees have already visited and the sun is low and the air is cool, the small cup-shaped flowers with the orange stamens will close up modestly.

Another nice thing about these tommies, besides their earliness and their charm, is the fact that they tend to "naturalize" fairly easily. That means that, given some decent soil and a bit of sun and freedom from the mower for a while after flowering so their foliage can "ripen," they will not only return to bloom again for many years, but spread into more and larger clusters, or what the Brits call "drifts." Of course, every time I've put a little bulb into the ground in the fall, I've dreamed of enormous drifts of spring bloom, looking just like the photos of the English countryside.

And here, in a "scree" bed (loose, gritty soil, compost, and gravel dressing) is the adonis (Adonis vernalis), which is quite an old plant by now, having been moved from a prior garden when we bought this place fifteen years ago. A few posts back, I displayed a photo of Frank the Supergardener's adonis. We may well have the only two gardens in our area to grow this adonis. It is difficult to propagate and spreads quite slowly, so this plant is not only a jewel of beauty and early cheer, it's something of a rarity.

The blooms aren't fully open yet in this photo. Although it is not a bulb, but a perennial plant, it disappears completely each spring, but the large stone on the left side and a lip fern that hasn't started to show green yet on the right side serve to mark the spot from year to year.

This is only the beginning, of course. I've already spotted a delightful purple Iris reticulata, a tiny iris that grows in the scree bed, that came into bloom just after these photos were taken. It's been raining since, but I will venture out with the camera once the skies clear and see what else the spring has brought. There is plenty of foliage for other early bulb irises, as well as for the dwarf bearded irises (rhizome rather than bulb) that come a bit later. I'm seeing species tulip foliage in those beds too and daffodil foliage all along the fence. The hellebores are getting ready for a show soon. So ... to be continued!

Monday, March 8, 2010

New Article about Bone Beads

I just published another article on Handmade Spark. This one is all about the wide variety of lovely beads made of bone. I find that I really enjoying writing these articles and taking photos to illustrate my points. My enthusiasm for beads of all kinds abounds, and this is a way to share that with others who might be interested. This time there are photos of beads in boxes, beads of particular colors with markings and patterns and carvings, finished jewelry designs using bone beads, and even a cat photo!
I hope that, this time, none of my readers will have a "bone to pick" with me! Let me know if you liked the article and want more ... please!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Saturday Afternoon Fun

We don't always do the same thing every Saturday afternoon, but a few activities repeat pretty often, so here's a glimpse at a typical Saturday afternoon.

Before leaving the house, I take a quick glance at the newly uncovered (but not yet refinished) floor revealed by Friday's exciting carpet removal project. Here's a nice photo of Yang with a little bit of carpet showing.

Now here's a pic with the carpeting gone and Sylvan showing!

About 1:30, we head out for brunch with our friend Frank, the Supergardener. During our very long friendship, Frank has owned a series of pickup trucks, usually filled with sand, gravel, mulch, lumber, bags of leaves, etc. This is a guy who once left the following brief (but vital) message on our answering machine: "mushroom compost."
Last fall, when his dad totalled his own car by doing an ill-advised U-turn, Frank took him around to car dealers. Both father and son wound up getting new cars (Frank still has the truck, of course, for all gardening uses). So he picked us up with the sun roof open for the first time since last fall.

On the way to the car, I noticed that most of the snow had melted from the yard (remember the earlier posts with everything covered with that cold white stuff?). It's muddy, of course, but it's quite a different looking scene already out there.
Of course, there are a few places where patches of snow remain. And some green as well, but that is a juniper shrub that stays green all winter.
Next stop is the breakfast (well, brunch by now) place, The Original Pancake House, in Champaign.

It's actually warm enough and sunny enough for husband David to sit on the bench outside the restaurant while Frank parks the car.
We get seated and start gabbing right away. We all know the menu by heart anyway, so ordering is easy.

It's a cozy place and today there is lots of sunshine coming in the windows. Frank is ready for food and so are we. Brunch gives us a chance to catch up with each other, discuss important world news, tips for removing stains from hardwood floors, and stories about Frank's three newly adopted cats.
It's fairly crowded still even though we've arrived only a short time before they close for the day.
This is a chain place, but it doesn't have much of a chain feel to it. The original "Original" is up in a Chicago
suburb, but this one has been here a long time.
There are some nice touches here and there, such as a fire in the fireplace in the winter. Decorative plates along the upper wall, and a charming stained glass apple in the front window.

Pretty soon our food arrives. I'm having Strawberry Pancakes and David and Frank chose the Scrambler.
Yeah, that's the wonder of twenty-first century technology. You can share your food with people on the Internet whom you haven't even met!
Next stop was the CVS pharmacy to pick up prescriptions, but I decided to skip the photo documentation of this brief event. It just wasn't "Hollywood" enough to include.

But wait, there's more! Next stop after that was the Urbana Free Library, a noble institution in the heart of downtown Urbana. It's a lovely old building that has had a tasteful new wing added in recent years.
We always bring a cloth bag for the books and CDs we're returning and those we're taking out at the Circulation Desk.

Fortunately for me, the library offers free use of four-wheel "rollators" with handy seats and a basket for books and purses. It makes for a nice comfy browse with a built-in chair.
There is a large section filled with music CDs and movies. I like to experiment each week with a few new albums as well as some favorite repeats. I often choose some smooth jazz, maybe some Spanish flamenco guitar, Brazilian sambas, Irish fiddle, and some classical with Joshua Bell on the violin. Of course, being an old sixties' person, I do like some rock and folk, but I have most of those CDs of my own already.
At one end of the older part of the building is a beautiful quiet reading room with elegant arched windows.
A very handy addition is the coffee bar, called Latte Da, that serves all sorts of hot coffee and tea drinks as well as smoothies and juices, pastries, candies, and chips.

From the library windows, I get a great view of the expertly restored clock tower of the Champaign County Courthouse. It's a real jewel in downtown Urbana of which we are all very proud. The restoration was completely funded by resident donations.
I can also see the Historic Lincoln Hotel, across the street from the Urbana Free Library. Built in 1924 in the Bavarian style, it is awaiting restoration at the moment.
From yet another window, a portion of the Urbana business district is visible on Race Street, which is perpendicular to Main Street. Despite an extremely diverse set of architectural styles on campus, skyscraper apartments in campus town, high rises in downtown Champaign, a shopping extravaganza on the northwest side of the two towns, and subdivisions like crazy at all edges of both Urbana and Champaign, the downtown area of Urbana hasn't changed a great deal since I came here in my junior year of undergraduate school in 1963! I will have to do a blog sometime with photos of campus and another with photos of Urbana's charming Main Street.
But I digress ... back to our Saturday at the library. One of my favorite sections is the grouping of shelves that contain new fiction books.

Of course, I always check out a few older titles from the stacks of fiction on the other side of the first floor and, once  in a while, take the elevator upstairs to the nonfiction domain as well.

Meanwhile, husband David enjoys the magazine section, sometimes including a short nap over Newsweek.

Finally, it's time to go. Closing is at six on Saturdays and we often stay until the end. I'm lucky today. Every other Saturday or so, I get checked out by my favorite librarian and friend Eleanore Brown, famous creator of fiber beads on her Ebrown2503 Etsy shop.

Well, it was a very pleasant afternoon. Glad you could join us!