Posts Tagged ‘Oxford’

My teatime ritual

queens lane

Strong black Yorkshire Gold with milk and a spoonful of sugar. Bergamot-tinged Earl Grey with a swirl of milk. Sachets of black tea flavored with orange peel, stone fruits or cinnamon, brewed strong and drunk unadorned. Paper bags of peppermint or lemon-ginger tea drunk plain, with a squeeze of honey added if I have a sore throat.

Teatime. It’s my morning-daytime-evening ritual.

I grew up in hot, dry West Texas, the land of endless summers and pitchers of dark, strong Lipton iced tea. I am still one of the only Texans I know who will turn down a glass of iced tea for a sweating glass of ice water. I like my tea hot, in a ceramic mug, and it had better not be Lipton.

I’m over at TRIAD magazine today, talking about my several-times-a-day tea habit. Click over there to read the rest of my essay.

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longfellow garden radcliffe yard

I have worked in Harvard Square for almost a year now, and in that time I have traversed what feels like every inch of it, most of those inches more than once. I spend most of my lunch breaks and other scattered pockets of time tramping down streets whose historic names are now familiar: Brattle, Dunster, Holyoke, Plympton. Oxford, JFK, Mount Auburn, Bow (which runs into Arrow, a tiny detail of a joke that always makes me smile). I am constantly filling in my mental map of the area with new detail. I had visited Harvard Square often before I took a job here, but now this is my neighborhood.

Sometimes I walk purposefully, like the local I am now, a denizen of this bustling metropolis filled with students and university employees and tourists. I go to the bank and the post office, head to the farmers’ market in warm weather, shop at the Harvard Book Store or the Curious George Store for birthday gifts or books. Sometimes I have errands to run, and I head out into the bitter cold on a mission, often rewarding myself with half an hour in a cafe and a cup of tea.

tealuxe interior cambridge ma

But sometimes I pull my camera out and gawk like any tourist. I snap photo after photo of the hidden and public angles of Harvard Square, such as snow-topped roofs on red brick buildings, some of them older than the state I call home.

snow harvard yard gate

The white spire of Memorial Church, tipped with a flying gold banner, beautiful against a sky of blue or gray or sunset pink.

memorial church harvard yard blue sky

Fresh tulips outside a florist’s shop, a musician busking in Brattle Square.

tulips harvard square

The sunken garden on Appian Way, adjacent to my building, and the larger expanse of Harvard Yard, the beating green heart of Harvard College.

harvard yard cambridge ma

I am learning to name the spires of Harvard as I learned to name the spires of Oxford: instead of Christ Church, Magdalen, Corpus Christi and St Aldates, there are Eliot, Adams, Dunster, Memorial Church.

The tallest one is also my favorite: Lowell House, bright blue and gold reaching into the endless sky. I love it because of the story of the Russian bells that fill its tower, and because I have actually been up inside it: my professor friend Ryan took me on a tour long ago.

lowell house tower

I walk around Cambridge the way I used to walk around Oxford: sometimes on an errand, but chiefly for the sheer pleasure of ambling, watching, enjoying, tasting, being.  It’s not always a postcard scene or a calendar photo. But it is bustling and vibrant, endlessly changing, endlessly fascinating. It’s beautiful and maddening and wonderfully interesting. And it’s mine.

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We put up our big, beautiful Christmas tree this past weekend, listening to Elvis, George Strait and Charlie Brown while we did so (it’s tradition).

christmas tree

My husband picked up takeout from our favorite Indian restaurant, while I unraveled and strung the lights.

lights christmas tree decorating

I am my mother’s daughter – I love small white lights, lots of them – and also my father’s daughter, because I love the mismatched, heirloom, handmade, funky ornaments on my tree.

Most of our ornaments have stories, and every year, I snap a few photos to share with you. Here are this year’s gems:

fenway ornament apple

I bought this ornament for J the first year we lived in Boston, from a handmade craft market downtown. It makes me smile, especially in light of this year’s World Series win. (Hanging above it is an apple that I think came from my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Drake.)

angel christmas tree ornament

This angel also came from a teacher – Mrs. Hicks, who directed a pull-out program called Project Challenge at the school I went to in first grade. My name and the year are on the back.

suitcase travel christmas ornament

My mom gave me this suitcase last year. Three of the four cities (Rome, Paris and New York) are places I’ve visited and love.

moose christmas ornament

During my year in Oxford as a graduate student, I had an American friend whose nickname was Moose. I found these silver moose ornaments at Northlight, a Scandinavian housewares shop on the High Street, and bought one for him and one for myself. (They’re difficult to photograph, because they reflect everything.)

telephone booth christmas ornament

This ornament came from a Christmas shop in my West Texas hometown, but it represents my love for the UK (and its red phone boxes).

Do your ornaments have stories? I’d love to hear them.

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all souls college oxford towers

There, eastward, within a stone’s throw, stood the twin towers of All Souls’, fantastic, unreal as a house of cards, clear-cut in the sunshine, the drenched oval in the quad beneath brilliant as an emerald in the bezel of a ring.

Behind them, black and grey, New College frowning like a fortress, with dark wings wheeling about her belfry louvres; and Queen’s with her dome of green copper; and, as the eye turned southward, Magdalen, yellow and slender, the tall lily of towers; the Schools and the battlemented front of University; Merton, square-pinnacled, half hidden behind the shadowed North side and mounting spire of St. Mary’s.

Westward again, Christ Church, vast between Cathedral spire and Tom Tower; Brasenose close at hand; St. Aldate’s and Carfax beyond; spire and tower and quadrangle, all Oxford springing underfoot in living leaf and enduring stone, ringed far off by her bulwark of blue hills.

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

oxford towers wisteria queens lane

I harbor a deep love for Oxford, this city of towers and walled gardens, of books and cafes and quiet afternoons and long, winding, often cobblestoned streets. It is a city of dreams and realities, often mixed together so thoroughly that it becomes difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

I read and loved Gaudy Night during my first semester in Oxford, as part of a class in which we discussed the architecture, history and literature of Oxford through the centuries. It proved just as brilliant and captivating on my recent reread. Nine years has only increased my love for Oxford and its denizens. I adore Sayers’ feisty writer-sleuth, Harriet Vane, and her love interest, the gentleman detective Peter Wimsey, but my favorite character in the novel remains Oxford itself.

Sayers was born in Oxford and later earned a degree from Somerville College; a wall on Brewer Street bears a round blue plaque with her name and dates. She knew Oxford’s streets, towers and libraries intimately, and wrote about them with deep respect and love.

Gaudy Night is set in a fictional Oxford college, but its surroundings are entirely real, and the scene quoted above, set atop the Radcliffe Camera, provides a panoramic view of the city’s heart. I know every one of the colleges Sayers names; I have walked in their gardens and snapped pictures of their towers, drinking in the interplay of green and gold, shadow and light, sky and stone.

I haven’t been back to Oxford in several years, but tramping through it again with Harriet Vane — through the Bodleian and down the Isis and across Magdalen Bridge — felt, as it always does, like going home.

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book culture shop interior nyc

(Photo of Book Culture in NYC)

The Last Word, Lisa Lutz
The Spellmans, a wacky family of PIs who love to spy on one another, are back for a sixth adventure. Isabel Spellman is struggling with her employees (read: parents) after her hostile takeover of the family business, while trying to solve a few cases and avoid her three-year-old tyrant of a niece. Fun to see the crew of familiar characters, but I didn’t love this book. Most of the characters were drifting, and I want Izzy to do some real growing up already.

Attachments, Rainbow Rowell
Beth and Jennifer email each other constantly at work – even though they know their company’s security officer is reading their email. Lincoln, the security officer, reads their flagged messages and then finds himself falling in love with Beth, who doesn’t know he exists. How can he ever hope to meet her for real? A sweet, funny love story and a fun twist on You’ve Got Mail, with plenty of late ’90s/Y2K cultural references.

A Brief History of Montmaray, Michelle Cooper
Sophia, princess of Montmaray (a fictional sovereign island in the Bay of Biscay), receives a diary for her 16th birthday in 1936. She chronicles daily life with her oddball family on their windswept island, which takes a dark turn when two Nazi officers land on their shores. Sophie is naive and sometimes wishy-washy, but I liked her and her family enough to be interested in the sequel.

How to Be Alone, Tanya Davis, illus. Andrea Dorfman
A lovely print evocation of Davis’ video poem – a paean to the pleasures of solitude and a call to pay attention not just to oneself, but to the world. Whimsical, colorful watercolor illustrations add to the charm. (I feel guilty calling it a real book since it’s one poem, but I am reviewing it for Shelf Awareness! Out Oct. 8.)

The View from Penthouse B, Elinor Lipman
Since her husband died, Gwen has lived with her divorced sister, Margot, in the titular NYC penthouse while both of them figure out how to move on. They take in a cupcake-baking roommate, Anthony, and things get wacky when Margot’s white-collar-criminal ex (on parole for good behavior) moves in downstairs. A warm, witty novel about sisterhood, unexpected joy, and opening oneself to love again. My first Lipman book, and now I want to read her others.

When We Were On Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over, Addie Zierman
Addie is a blog-friend, a voice of wisdom and grace in my Internet life. And her memoir – about her experience growing up in a particular evangelical subculture – is lovely. She acquires a lot of baggage (much of it related to boys and her own self-worth), rebels passionately against it, spirals downward and eventually begins to heal. So many of her experiences were also mine; I laughed and grimaced and welled up in recognition. Beautiful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 15).

Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers
A mystery set in Oxford, with a pair of detectives I love, equals perfection. When Harriet Vane, mystery writer and amateur sleuth, returns to her old Oxford college, a series of poison-pen letters and other pranks begin to disturb the community. She returns to track down the perpetrator, while working on a novel and trying to sort out her feelings for Lord Peter Wimsey, gentleman detective. Brilliantly plotted; full of erudite quotes, musings on love and the intellect, and descriptions of my favorite city. I read this nine years ago, during my first semester in Oxford, and returning to it (for my book club) was pure pleasure.

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It’s no secret that I love Oxford – city of dreaming spires, home to one of the world’s most ancient and beautiful universities, site of my starry-eyed study abroad semester in college and my blissful year in graduate school. I never tire of it, and I regularly read books set there. But I’ve recently been revisiting Oxford in cinematic form, via the Inspector Lewis TV series.

(Image from pbs.org)

Lewis is inspired by the Inspector Morse novels of Colin Dexter (whom I met long ago in Oxford), which follow Morse and his sergeant (Lewis) as they solve crimes in and around Oxford. I watched an episode or two of the Inspector Morse TV series during my first semester in Oxford, but I’d never watched Lewis until my friend Amy convinced me to give it a shot. She predicted I’d enjoy both the plotlines and the Oxford setting. She was right on both counts.

new college quad

When Lewis opens, Morse has died and Lewis has been promoted to inspector, and paired up with a new sergeant: James Hathaway (the tall blond bloke above), a former seminarian who left the ministry for a police career. Like every good pair of detectives, they are opposites in some ways. Lewis is an agnostic workingman who grows impatient with Oxford’s intellectual snobbery; Hathaway is brainy, Cambridge-educated, and harbors complicated feelings for the church he left. They make an excellent team, though, and their sly asides to one another are one of the show’s great pleasures. (Like Castle, which I also love, Lewis has a few other recurring characters: Dr. Laura Hobson, the sharp-tongued, kind medical inspector, and Jean Innocent, the keen-eyed superintendent and Lewis’ boss.)

My husband doesn’t always join me in my TV obsessions, particularly the British ones (see: Downton Abbey), though we do watch Castle together and we both adore Friends. But after listening in while I streamed my first episode of Lewis, he asked to watch the next episode with me. Two days later, we were checking out an earlier season on DVD from the library.

J has visited Oxford several times, though he doesn’t love it as I do. But we’re both enjoying the intricately plotted mysteries, though he does laugh at me when I squeal at the sight of a familiar Oxford spot (there are many) or point out a geographical error (there are very few).

radcliffe square radcliffe camera oxford england

The Radcliffe Camera

According to our usual TV-show pattern, we discovered Lewis just as it was ending, so we’re saving the series finale for some later date. (Since it usually takes me about a year to get through TV series – Friends, Gilmore Girls, Mary Tyler Moore – I’m assuming I’ll get around to the finale months from now, which means I’ll have to find it on DVD.)

For now, though, we’ve got a slew of episodes to work through, a few dozen cases to solve alongside our crack team of detectives, and many hours to spend in my favorite city.

Have you watched Lewis or Morse (or Endeavour, the new prequel to Morse)? Are you a fan?

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june books 2

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, Matthew Goodman
On Nov. 14, 1889, two young female journalists left New York City, headed in different directions. Nellie Bly (traveling east) and Elizabeth Bisland (traveling west) swung from train to ship to boat in their mad dash to circle the globe in under 80 days. Goodman captures the frenetic pace of their race, the dizzying array of countries they saw, the vagaries of shipboard life and the way the contest fired the public imagination. A fascinating glimpse of the Victorian era and a great real-life adventure tale. (Jaclyn read it at the same time and also loved it.)

I’ll Be Seeing You, Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan
In 1943, two soldiers’ wives strike up a pen-pal correspondence spanning the miles from Iowa to Massachusetts. Rita Vincenzo, middle-aged and sensible, and Glory Whitehall, young and impulsive, are unlikely friends – but their letters help them weather the storms raging both abroad and at home. Beautifully written, evocative and sometimes heartbreaking – with occasional flashes of joy. Lovely.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser, Lois Leveen
Born into slavery in Richmond, Va., Mary Bowser is freed by her owner and sent to Philadelphia to be educated. When war breaks out, she returns to her native city to pose as a slave and spy for the Union – even working as a maid for Jefferson Davis. An absorbing historical read, based on the real life of its brave heroine.

Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz
Alex Rider, age 14, is left alone in the world after his uncle Ian’s death – and he quickly discovers Ian’s life wasn’t what it seemed. Ian was a spy for MI6, and his bosses recruit Alex to help with a dangerous mission. Fast-paced, stuffed almost too full of shiny gadgets and death-defying moments, but fun. First in the nine-book Alex Rider series.

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, Edward Kelsey Moore
Odette, Clarice and Barbara Jean have been friends most of their lives, gathering every Sunday at the titular restaurant for gossip and good food. As they all face personal battles (illness, losing loved ones, a spouse’s infidelity) in middle age, they reflect on the long story of their friendship and how it has shaped their lives. A compelling story that swings from heartbreaking to hilarious, full of warm, wonderful characters (including the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt!). I loved it.

Spy School, Stuart Gibbs
Ben Ripley, age 12, is a math whiz – but he’s shocked when he’s recruited for the CIA’s top-secret spy training school. Once he arrives, though, Ben realizes there’s something fishy going on. He joins forces with Erica, the school’s top student, to try and figure it out. Fast-paced and funny, though not as richly developed as Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series.

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
Anne convinced me to pick up this classic, set partly in my beloved Oxford. It’s the story of Charles Ryder and his entanglement with the Flyte family: charming Sebastian, beautiful Julia, quirky Cordelia, stodgy Brideshead. It’s also a portrait of a disappearing England, and encompasses several love stories and musings on faith. Gorgeously written, though also deeply sad.

Start Here: Read Your Way Into 25 Amazing Authors, ed. Jeff O’Neal & Rebecca Joines Schinsky
I backed this book on Kickstarter last summer. The book nerds at Book Riot have collected lots of advice about “reading your way into” 25 authors (see subtitle), ranging across many genres. Fun to dip into (the sections are short), utterly practical and (in typical fashion) quite opinionated.

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