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bunny glasses window display

We are waiting (watching, hoping, longing) for spring over here, and though the crocuses are (finally!) blooming, the bitter winds and chilly temps remain. Spring in New England is such a tease.

I love a good seasonal list, and there are a few things I’m seriously looking forward to this spring. Here’s what I’m dreaming and planning as we inch toward warmer weather:

  • Bake my favorite strawberry-rhubarb crisp. I made it without rhubarb this weekend, but it’s so much better with both fruits.
  • Read some poetry. (Spring makes me long for Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson.)
  • Watch the Masters this weekend. (It’s a sure sign of spring for my golf-loving family.)
  • Reread Jane of Lantern Hill, the perfect spring book (in progress).
  • Knit something pink for my friend Abigail’s baby girl, who will arrive in May. (In progress.)
  • Savor the new season of Call the Midwife. (Already begun.)
  • Go on a getaway with the hubs.
  • Keep buying flowers from my local florist – tulips and daffodils, delivered with a smile.
  • Participate in Susannah Conway’s April Love photo challenge (also in progress).

tulips

What’s on your list for this spring?

 

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grantchester tv series

During my trip to Oxford last fall, I picked up a mystery novel at Blackwells: Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. (It was on the 3-for-2 table, and I love a good British mystery.)

Sidney is a young, jazz-loving priest living in Grantchester, a village just outside Cambridge, England, in the 1950s. As the book opens, he agrees to take the funeral of a man who ostensibly killed himself, but the dead man’s lover suspects foul play and begs Sidney to investigate. The local police inspector, Geordie Keating, isn’t too happy about this, but the two men solve the mystery together.

The book includes three more cases, which Sidney solves while dealing with his trenchant housekeeper, a new puppy, and his complicated love life. Every week, he and Inspector Keating meet at the pub for a pint and a game of backgammon, during which they solve the world’s problems and often reach new breakthroughs in the current case.

These books are leisurely, erudite, full of Sidney’s thoughtful musings on faith, crime and the nature of love (and Keating’s blunt but insightful responses). Some of the mysteries are much more intriguing than others, and Sidney can be frustratingly indecisive, but I like him and the supporting cast so well that I’ve read all three books in the series.

This winter, there’s a brand-new BBC adaptation of the series, called Grantchester, airing Sunday nights on PBS. I stayed up to watch the first episode (after Downton Abbey) a few weeks ago, and immediately fell in love. The hubs is usually skeptical of my BBC obsessions, but we watched the second episode together and now he’s hooked too.

The casting – particularly of Sidney, Geordie, and Sidney’s childhood friend Amanda – is fantastic. The jazz soundtrack is utterly bewitching, and the golden stone towers of Cambridge make a perfect backdrop for Sidney’s adventures. I love watching him dart around town on his bike, and the chemistry between Sidney and Geordie reminds me of Sergeant Hathaway and Inspector Lewis. And Dickens the lab pup has stolen my heart all over again.

This series is right in my wheelhouse: England, mysteries, philosophy, faith, witty banter and love stories are a few of my favorite things. If you’re a fan of any of the above, you might love it too.

(Image from pbs.org)

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stripes tea bare feet red scarf

I love a good list, as you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while. I’m also battling the winter blues over here (already), so here’s a list of fun ideas to help me get through my least favorite season.

  • Fill up the journal I started earlier this month. (Related: keep writing by hand.)
  • Spend some time at the Harvard Art Museums. They’re finally open again after a multi-year renovation, and my Harvard staff ID means I get in for free.
  • Start hunting for a new pair of red ballet flats. Mine are falling apart, and I know I’ll want some new ones come spring.
  • Invite some friends over for dinner.
  • Spend a long weekend in Nashville with my sweet college roommate and our husbands.
  • Knit myself something cozy. (I’m working on a cabled wrap.)
  • Watch some good stories. (Currently watching new episodes of Downton Abbey and Castle, and season 3 of Veronica Mars.)
  • Read a couple of books for the Modern Mrs Darcy Reading Challenge. (Join us?)
  • Drink lots and lots of tea. (Obviously.)

What’s on your list for this winter?

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Veronica Mars

veronica mars

Trust me to get excited about a TV show because of a book.

When Anne did a giveaway on her blog last month for Veronica Mars fans, I didn’t enter, because I hadn’t yet seen the show. But I’d already heard about the Kickstarter-funded VM movie, made possible by the show’s legions of fans. And when Anne said she’d enjoyed the first brand-new Veronica Mars mystery novel, I was definitely intrigued.

(Also, after finishing Call the Midwife, I needed a new show. And Valerie, my college friend who is a whiz at finding the good stuff on TV, is a longtime VM fan.)

When the show opens, Veronica is a high school junior in Neptune, California, “a town without a middle class.” As the daughter of sheriff Keith Mars and girlfriend of Duncan Kane, one of the coolest, richest guys in school, she used to enjoy a certain cachet. But when Veronica’s best friend Lilly Kane (Duncan’s sister) was brutally murdered, some of the evidence pointed to Lilly and Duncan’s father, a powerful software billionaire. Keith followed his conscience and accused Lilly’s father of being involved in his daughter’s death – thus losing both his job and his reputation. Keith’s alcoholic wife, Lianne, skipped town soon after that, and Veronica and her dad were left on their own.

Hardened by Lilly’s death and her subsequent shunning by nearly everyone at Neptune High, Veronica takes a job working for Keith in his new private investigation business. She helps with his cases, sometimes does her own sleuthing on the side – and is determined to find out who killed Lilly, and why.

With its film-noir overtones and deep, dark secrets (Neptune is full of people pretending everything is just fine when it’s not), Veronica Mars is grittier than some of the more lighthearted shows I love. But the mystery plots are compelling, the ensemble cast is fantastic, the snark is abundant, and the heroine is tough, smart, resourceful and determined to bring Lilly’s killer (and other criminals) to justice. Veronica is more pragmatic than high-minded – she’s not above playing dirty to get what she wants or exact revenge – but she’s ultimately on the side of the victim and the underdog.

Veronica likes to pretend she doesn’t need anyone else, but I love her friendship with basketball star Wallace Fennel (whom she rescues from public humiliation on his first day at Neptune High) and her occasional tender father-daughter exchanges with Keith. And Veronica’s uneasy friendship with Eli “Weevil” Navarro, the leader of a local biker gang, provides insight into the constant tensions of race and class in Neptune. I don’t think much of Veronica’s taste in boyfriends so far, but I’m curious to see whether that will change.

After binge-watching half a dozen episodes during my hibernation weekend, I blazed through the rest of season 1 and have now gotten the hubs hooked too. We’re midway through season 2, which is darker and more sordid than season 1, but Veronica is quickly becoming one of those heroines I’d follow to the ends of the earth.

Have you watched Veronica Mars – the show or the movie? What do you think?

(Image from Zap2it)

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call the midwife cast

(Image from pbs.org)

I heard rave reviews of Call the Midwife this winter, mostly from the same friends who introduced me to Downton Abbey and Lark Rise to Candleford. But I was busy following Downton‘s fourth season and untangling the plots, murder-related and otherwise, on Castle. Besides, I’ve never been much for watching birth scenes, and I figured (rightly) that a show about midwives would involve a lot of them.

However, after hearing yet another friend rave about this show, I picked up the first season at my library. And I’m utterly beguiled by Jenny Lee, her fellow midwives, the nuns at Nonnatus House, and the tough but fascinating East End of London, where they live and work.

Jenny comes from a sheltered middle-class background, and she is continually shocked by the living conditions in the East End. This is the 1950s – an era still in living memory – but many homes lack basic amenities. When a woman goes into labor, someone has to run to the public phone box down the street to summon a midwife – the doctor is only called in serious cases. Most births happen at home; some women have a baby every year (though the Spanish woman in episode 1.1, with her 24 children, is a rarity). Jenny’s colleagues are a kind but no-nonsense crowd: they’ve seen it all, and they expect her to take the difficulties of the job in her stride.

The nuns at Nonnatus House are no cloistered idealists: they are tough, resourceful and pragmatic, even when faced with horrifying or deeply uncomfortable situations. I loved wise Sister Julienne and kind Sister Bernadette at first sight, and I’ve warmed to the brusque but goodhearted Sister Evangeline. And Sister Monica Joan, with her hilarious non sequiturs and penchant for stealing cake, is so much fun. Fred the handyman, with his wacky moneymaking schemes, is a comforting presence, and Constable Noakes, who falls in love with tall, gawky midwife Chummy, is so sweet.

I also love the period details of the show, from the vintage cars to the midwives’ bicycles to the modish dresses they wear on their days off. The music of the era winds through the show (though it sometimes seems jarringly cheerful during sad scenes). The midwives’ occasional nights out (or nights in with sherry and board games) provide a lift after the often difficult labor scenes. And I’m waiting for Jenny to move on from a past love affair and fall in love with a good man.

Have you watched Call the Midwife? (Do you get squeamish at birth scenes, like me?)

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I’m not a big TV-watcher…except in the middle of winter.

Two favorite antidotes to stress: twinkle lights and a holiday movie.

My husband and I do watch Castle together on Monday nights, and our collection of Friends DVDs is well-loved. But in the summer and fall, you’re more likely to find us eating dinner on the balcony, sprawled out in the living room reading, doing the New York Times crossword together, or squeezing in a walk before it gets dark. We don’t have cable, so my sports-nut husband only watches big games on TV (he does catch other games online sometimes).

But in the dead of winter, when it seems the world is perpetually dark and frozen, all I want to do is curl up on the sofa and lose myself in a good TV series. (Though we do keep up with the crossword year-round.)

I’ve been enjoying season 4 of Downton Abbey, though the plotlines have gotten a bit soapy for my taste this year (and oh, I miss Matthew). J and I are newly into Sherlock, and we are watching as much of the Winter Olympics as we can.

This TV-binging does have its downsides: too much screen time can make me punchy and distracted, and I have not watched so many commercials since the last Olympics, in 2012. (NBC needs to expand its lineup of Olympic ads.) I also, obviously, get less reading done in the evenings, though I’m knitting up a storm while we watch the figure skating and the skiing and the mystery-solving.

I usually try to avoid excessive TV-watching, but this time of year I give myself a break. Because there’s no better cure for the winter blues than a good story – whether it’s set in an English manor house, amid the busy streets of London, or on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. When I’m following the dramas of the Crawley family, solving crimes along with Sherlock and Watson, or cheering for my favorite figure skaters, I can forget – for a while, anyway – how cold and dark it is outside. And every evening of immersion in these stories brings me a little closer to spring.

What stories are you watching (or reading) this winter?

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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.

mast-lewis-s5-hires_crop_319x180
(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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Back in November, I fell deeply in love with Lark Rise to Candleford, a BBC miniseries set in the Oxfordshire countryside, in the 1890s or thereabouts. I watched the first two seasons, relishing the daily round of life in the Candleford post office, where postmistress Dorcas Lane and her apprentice Laura sell stamps, send telegrams and dispense advice and comfort.

dorcas lane snow lark rise to candleford bbc

I watched as strait-laced postman Thomas Brown began courting sweet Margaret, the vicar’s daughter, and as Minnie, the hapless scullery maid, found her place in the post office family. (Thomas, who is devoutly religious, made the following declaration to Minnie at one point: “You have the Lord, and you have the post office. And neither will fail you!”)

laura timmins lark rise to Candleford

During the cold, snowy days of February, I’ve spent many more hours in Lark Rise and Candleford, listening to the hamlet folk sing as they bring in the grain harvest, and grieving with them as a measles epidemic attacks their children. I’ve watched Laura’s parents, Emma and Robert Timmins, navigate the daily strains and larger crises of building a life and raising children together. Their marriage is strong and loving, but refreshingly complex and real.

This show is everything I love: warm honest friendship with lots of tea and cake, lovely clothes and a charmingly old-fashioned way of life, witty dialogue and lovable characters—ordinary people made extraordinary by their deep love for the land and their work and one another.

Dorcas Lane often says the post office is more than a job for her; it is a vocation, a life. Robert Timmins takes pride in his craft as a stonemason. All the adult characters, from the Pratt sisters (seamstresses) to Queenie (who keeps bees), draw strength from doing work they love, living in a community where they are respected and known. Their joy and contentment are utterly charming, and inspiring as I navigate my modern-day, faster-paced, big-city life.

At the end of my days, I want the same things they do: pride and purpose in my work, good food and a warm home, loved ones to share it with. That last is the most important of all: the people of Lark Rise and Candleford cherish their work and their independence, but most of all, they cherish each other.

I’ve got one more (shortened) season to go. Which is a good thing, because I’m not ready to leave Lark Rise just yet.

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I love small towns. And the English countryside. And quiet, witty, heartwarming dramas filled with characters whose lives twine about each other in amusing and interesting ways. So when my friend Allison recommended a BBC miniseries that fit all these criteria, I paid attention.

Sarah had gushed over this series last winter, but for some reason I didn’t pick it up then; perhaps it wasn’t the right time. But she alluded to it again recently, just before Allison rhapsodized about it. So I took myself to the library and picked up the first season. And oh, I am in love.

laura timmins lark rise to Candleford

Image from the Guardian

Based on a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels, the story follows Laura Timmins as she moves from the Oxfordshire hamlet of Lark Rise to the nearby town of Candleford, to work in the post office under the guidance of Dorcas Lane, her mother’s cousin. What Laura (and viewers) quickly discover is that the post office is the hub of Candleford. In addition to letters and parcels, the secrets, worries, hopes and problems of the town all seem to pass through Miss Lane’s domain and, eventually, through her capable hands.

Miss Lane is a wonderful leading lady – spunky, sweet and slyly mischievous, as well as witty, sharp-eyed and fiercely independent. She understands, and relishes, the uniqueness of her position as a single woman who owns a business vital to Candleford’s day-to-day life. Though she holds herself and her employees to high standards, she does occasionally use the power of her office to do a bit of well-intentioned meddling in her neighbors’ lives. The results are occasionally disastrous, but always entertaining. And Laura – prim and shy at times, but headstrong and feisty at others – proves a willing and capable apprentice. It is so gratifying to watch her grow into herself.

dorcas lane lark rise to candleford

Image from Life on the Cutoff

This series features the sort of ensemble cast I adore, with characters ranging from plain, simple country folk (Laura’s family and neighbors in Lark Rise) to up-and-coming townspeople (such as the nosy but lovable Pratt sisters, who run a clothing and alterations shop). The inner circle of the post office, including Thomas Brown the devout postman and Minnie the hapless scullery maid, forms a tight little family of its own. They love and scold and take care of one another, no matter what small squabbles or larger troubles they face. Back in Lark Rise, Laura’s parents have a wonderfully realistic marriage. They love one another and their children fiercely, but they do argue from time to time. And their sweet, elderly neighbors, industrious Queenie and her lazy husband Twister, are such fun.

I’m deep into the second of the show’s four seasons (and have developed a crush on Fisher Bloom, the dark-eyed, plain-speaking traveling clockmaker). Some things have changed: there’s a new maid in the post office, a new hotel owner in town with eyes for Miss Lane, new challenges for the residents of both places. But the warm, witty dialogue, the bucolic charm and the spunky, winning characters (all of whom I’d like to meet) remain.

Have you watched Lark Rise to Candleford? If so, what do you think? (No spoilers, please!)

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About a year ago, I got several hints from the universe about The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Suddenly, she was everywhere – in friends’ blogs and casual conversation. I’d been briefly acquainted with Mary as a child, but we hadn’t hung out in years.

mary tyler moore hat

I’ve been borrowing the seasons from our library, and I watched the series finale a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t sniffle my way through it as I did when we finished Friends, but I did get a little misty as Mary looked around the WJM newsroom before turning the lights off for the last time.

Mary’s story bears several parallels to my own over the past few years. True, she’s a single girl and I’m married, so I’m already done with the dating travails that sometimes bedevil her (though her love life is never the true focus of the show). But we both have struggled, and sometimes triumphed, as we’ve adjusted to new cities and navigated the rocky path of being career women in what is (still) often a man’s world. (And we each have a few stalwart friends in our corner, though unfortunately mine don’t live in my building.)

mary tyler moore rhoda

(Image from Hooked on Houses)

Mary is (nearly) the only woman in the WJM-TV newsroom in the early 1970s. The sexism she deals with is more overt than any I’ve ever encountered. But we both are pursuing that tricky thing called “work-life balance” or “having it all” – holding down a financially and emotionally satisfying job, while enjoying an active life outside of work and nurturing deep friendships. (And for heaven’s sake, both she and I would like a little time to ourselves once in a while.)

Mary’s pursuit of a successful life and career is not effortless. (Despite her hospitable spirit and impeccable fashion sense, her lousy dinner parties are a standing joke.) She loves her friends at the newsroom, but often gets caught up in their crises, and Rhoda and Phyllis (her upstairs and downstairs neighbors, respectively) do their part to keep things lively (and complicated). She never does get married, that we know of. She is bright and beautiful and capable, but she’s also just another girl trying to make a living, find love, sustain friendships, “make it after all.”

Therein, of course, lies Mary’s charm: who among us hasn’t dealt with cranky coworkers, awkward dates, deadlines at work and a stretched-to-the-breaking-point budget? Who hasn’t headed home to a hot bath after a stressful day or a frantic week, only to be interrupted by a friend’s crisis or a family member’s emergency? And who among us (especially women) hasn’t struggled to balance our people-pleasing instinct and cultural conditioning as “nice girls” with our drive for success?

I loved watching Mary find her feet, eventually summoning the moxie to talk back to her gruff boss, Lou Grant, and the self-absorbed anchorman, Ted Baxter. By the seventh season, she has grown into a feisty, independent but still compassionate woman who knows what she wants out of life (even if she can’t throw a perfect dinner party). She may not have all the answers (though she does have a hip little apartment and a fabulous wardrobe), but by the end of the series we know: she, and we, are gonna make it after all.

Thanks, Mary, for the laughs and the inspiration. I’ll be coming back to visit you in Minneapolis once in a while.

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