Family Photos

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Today my dad came home from a trip to his hometown. He brought something back – a few dozen photographs, some loose and some in an album. Going by the clothing of the subjects and the style of the prints, I feel comfortable saying that none of the photographs are less than a century old.

At first I felt nothing but excitement as I examined each image, admiring the details of clothing and landscape. In a lot of ways I think these older photographs in their shades of black and white and sepia were more consistently flattering to their subjects than our color, high-resolution images. I laughed over the image of two teenage girls sitting on a lawn, noticing how one had her hand splayed over her face so the photographer wouldn’t see it – some things don’t change! I chuckled and smiled at the one of a solid little fellow not more than three or four, wearing a big hat, tiny feet poking out from under baggy denim overalls, and carrying a book under his arm. IMG_2725

Then I started to lay the loose images out on the table one by one. I started to hunt for physical resemblances to the family members I know on my dad’s side. I found myself looking each image in the eyes and studying their faces one by one.

I will be the first to admit that I have an active imagination. I know I romanticize.

As I sat and looked at the photographs laid out on the table, I suddenly felt like some of them were looking at me. Not in a creepy the-eyes-of-the-portrait-follow-me kind of way. I felt a combined sense of anticipation and resigned patience coming from those faces of unknown, long-gone relatives.

You see, most of the photographs are unlabeled.

A few have first names and what might be a partial date, but that’s it, and figuring that out depends on deciphering generations-old handwriting in German.

There is a spirited-looking young woman with dark hair named Luisa. There is a slightly sullen-looking young man named Willy in an army uniform with close-cropped hair. There is a teenage boy named Franz with severely parted and combed-down hair giving the distinct impression of a youth in between boy and man, wearing a proper grown-up suit for the first time. There is a middle-aged man in a mid-19th-century military uniform that is definitely European, and on the back is written in clear, beautiful script, “Karl Spangenberg.”

But most are unlaIMG_2724beled. There are older couples, young families, children, infants, teenagers, and a picture of a young couple in which the wife looks so young that I want to ease the ring off her finger, put her hair back in plaits, and send her back to high school.

When I look at them there is a feeling like someone holding their breath. I desperately want to give them back their names and place them on the right branches of the family tree, but I don’t know if I can. I don’t know of anyone old enough and present enough to be able to identify them, and I was never good at tracing subtle family resemblances.

So they are there, waiting and watching, half-resigned to an eternity of silent anonymity. And I look back at them, wishing I could at least call them by name.

On Interest

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In the process of pursuing the online dating thing, I keep finding myself confronted by the questions of why I’m interested in history and why I’m interested in English history in particular.

It’s hard to answer that. It’s even harder to answer it without going off onto massive, rambling tangents.

I suspect that most of us don’t have clear explanations of why we’re interested in what we’re interested in. Some lucky people may have good stories of a moment in which they discovered the interest, but is that the same thing as an explanation of WHY it interests you? Probably not.

When asked, I start by saying I’m not really sure why I’m interested in English history more than, say, Argentinian or Nigerian or Vietnamese history. It’s just what draws me.

Then I tell about my first trip to England, when I was ten. That was the first time I remember encountering museum audio guides, which proved invaluable in navigating (and maintaining a ten-year-old’s interest in) London’s National Portrait Gallery. I loved learning the tidbits of information and context surrounding each piece of artwork.

This trip isn’t when I discovered an interest in history. I really couldn’t say when that started. But I think it may be the moment when I started turning to English history more often than any other nation’s history.

It’s been nearly twenty years, but I still remember that first trip to Hampton Court Palace. I initially wanted to go there because they have a hedge maze. The maze proved anticlimactic, but I found the strange hodgepodge of three architectural and landscaping styles fascinating.

I can’t explain WHY English history draws me, just as I can’t explain why I’m interested in the time periods that draw me. Luckily I can distract people from their original question with my Hampton Court Palace anecdote. It’s a more appropriate response in a social situation than a twenty-minute philosophical ramble through the nature of intellectual interest, anyway.

As for a general interest in history… I find something reassuring about the past. I can joke that I find it comforting because I know how it turns out, which is partly true (quiet, you philosopher types). I think it’s also that having a familiarity with the past makes me feel like I’m more firmly rooted.

And now, on an unrelated but sad note, French actor Louis Jourdan has died at age 93. His role in GIGI as the wealthy, bored Gaston is still one of my favorites. He’s obviously not going to win any singing competitions, but I like his voice. It sounds like a normal person putting their thoughts into music. And boy, is he nice to look at. Classic mid-century Hollywood male beauty.

#alamw15: ARCs Galore!

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I have nothing particularly insightful to say today, so I’m here to provide you with a thrilling list instead.

One of the fun things about ALA conferences are the ARCs – Advance Reader Copies. You get a lot of normal conference swag like tote bags, stress balls, and ballpoint pens, but the publishing houses are different, especially the big ones. They hand out piles of free books, most of which are due for release within the next few months.

Attendees who are in the YA or children’s lit fields often bring extra suitcases, and the conference always includes a post office booth, where laden librarians can send home boxes of free or greatly-discounted books.

I tend to limit myself to books I want to read for myself, which means fiction geared towards adults. Sidebar: Have you noticed that saying “adult fiction” always sounds like you’re talking about bodice-rippers? I haven’t figured out a way to describe it without getting snickers from at least one of the people listening to me.

Anyway, in my case, limiting myself to books I’d want to read for fun means that I have yet to have to ship books home ahead of time or bring an extra suitcase, but it was a close call this time. This winter was the widest pickings yet.

Here is a list of the ARCs I brought home with me this time:

1. The Green Road: A Novel, Anne Enright, May 2015

2. The Love She Left Behind: A Novel, Amanda Coe, July 2015

3. The Nightingale: A Novel, Kristin Hannah, unabridged audiobook edition narrated by Polly Stone, 2015

4. The Language of Paradise: A Novel, Barbara Klein Moss, April 2015

5. The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe: A Novel, Romain Puertolas, trans. Sam Taylor, January 2015

6. Hammerhead: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin, March 2015

7. The Gracekeepers: A Novel, Kirsty Logan, May 2015

8. Girl in the Dark: A Memoir, Anna Lyndsey, March 2015

9. Paris Red: A Novel, Maureen Gibbon, April 2015

10. Words Without Music: A Memoir, Philip Glass, April 2015

11. Bennington Girls Are Easy: A Novel, Charlotte Silver, July 2015

12. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy: A Novel, Rachel Joyce, February 2015

13. Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum, March 2015

14. I Saw A Man: A Novel, Owen Sheers, June 2015

15. A Touch of Stardust: A Novel, Kate Alcott, February 2015

16. The Daughters: A Novel, Adrienne Celt, August 2015

17. The World Before Us: A Novel, Aislinn Hunter, March 2015

18. Viper Wine: A Novel, Hermione Eyre, April 2015

#alamw15 and the Regularly Scheduled Travel Flip-Out

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I’m heading to the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Chicago. I’m going for a number of grown-up-sounding reasons, like networking and professional development, but I’m mainly going because it’s fun and it’s invigorating and it reminds me why I’m still fighting for a surprisingly elusive place in this profession.

But that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this post because I have to get up in six hours and I can’t make my brain shut up enough to let me sleep. I’m hoping that writing will calm it down for a bit.

Being the somewhat literal person I am, I’m always a little puzzled by people who claim to love traveling. I tend to like being in the place I’ve traveled TO, but the process of getting there isn’t one I find fun. There are too many details and things to organize and double check and choose and arrange and double-check again. For instance, in a moment of somewhat irrational insomnia-inducing panic a few days ago, I may have called my Chicago hotel at 1am my time (3am in Chicago) to make sure they had my reservation still.

So yes. I have to be up soon, and the problem right now is that I feel totally prepared. I feel like I’ve got everything organized and packed and planned out.

And that’s worrying. Because it must mean I’ve forgotten something – and the more confident I feel about my preparations, the more I worry that the thing I’ve forgotten is something major.

Here is roughly how the twenty-four hours before traveling goes, when you’re me.

  1. Ponder writing down a fifth to-do list.
  2. Do something else instead, like watch a DVD or do something crafty.
  3. Check in to flight.
  4. Print necessary documents, like boarding pass, hotel and conference registration, etc.
  5. Ponder getting suitcase up from basement.
  6. Do something else instead, like watch a DVD or do something crafty.
  7. Write to-do list.
  8. Feeling virtuous. Do something to reward myself, like watch a DVD or do something crafty.
  9. Surge of productive energy. Do a few things on to-do list.
  10. Go in search of food, as it’s 1.30 and I’ve forgotten about lunch so far.
  11. Get sidetracked (in this case, by a jigsaw puzzle).
  12. Get lunch.
  13. Run last-minute errands to library, bank, post office, etc.
  14. Come home.
  15. Do other productive small things on to-do list, like necessary emails.
  16. Work on jigsaw puzzle.
  17. Finish jigsaw puzzle.
  18. Have dinner.
  19. Get suitcase up from basement.
  20. Pack suitcase.
  21. Go to bed at reasonable hour, considering ridiculous wake-up time.
  22. Lie awake, eyes closed, ALMOST relaxing enough to go to sleep.
  23. Brain wakes back up. What have I forgotten?
  24. Have I set my alarm?
  25. What did I forget to pack?
  26. What did I forget to put on my packing list?
  27. Maybe my boarding pass has vanished. Perhaps I should check.
  28. Start doing math on how much time I have left to sleep until I wake up.
  29. Boarding pass probably hasn’t vanished. But maybe I should check anyway. Just in case. You never know.
  30. Write ridiculous stressed-out late-night blog post.
  31. Sleep? Hopefully?
  32. What have I forgotten?

I’ll be a much more reasonable human being when I’m done with the actual traveling part.

Rambling Oscar Thoughts

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With the Academy Award nominations for the 2015 ceremony announced, I’ve begun my usual routine of diligently writing lists of the ones I want/feel I ought to see, the ones that are still in theaters, etc.

Going by my past track record, I’m unlikely to get to most of them. But it always makes me feel involved, somehow, to make the lists and actually get a hold of two or three of the nominated films.

I’ve actually got enough experience paying attention to how these big awards ceremonies tend to go that I could probably predict a reasonable number of the big-ticket nominations ahead of time and go to see the movies when they come out, but I don’t. It’s a seasonal thing, I guess.

I like to joke that the Oscars are my Superbowl, and while I’m not as partisan as many football enthusiasts, the comparison isn’t entirely inappropriate. A lot of my friends and acquaintances like to watch the Oscars for the fashion, or for the red carpet interviews. I enjoy the fashion, and I enjoy the red carpet, but I’m actually interested in where the awards go and what that says, culturally speaking. That’s one of the reasons I did my Best Picture Project – I want to understand why a certain film won in the year it did, in spite of some other films being now more famous, like CITIZEN KANE or any of Alfred Hitchcock’s films.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not the ultimate cultural indicator, but it’s one I find interesting. In my lifetime particularly the votes have seemed to lag a few years behind what I see as the current trends. I still think BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN should have won for Best Picture, for instance. But it’s important to take the context of the Academy itself into account – it’s easy to dismiss them as a lot of old rich white men, but I think that’s an oversimplification. I don’t know the demographics of the Academy voters.

There’s a lot of yelling this year about how overwhelmingly white the nominees are, but I read an editorial on the subject that pointed something out – these are, for the most part, the same voters who went gaga over TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE last year. It’s easy to shout racism, and as a white person I am perhaps overstepping my bounds here, but I like to think that most actors and filmmakers would prefer to be nominated for their work, not as some kind of Affirmative Action intentional diversity thing. I imagine it must be a source of insecurity at times for those involved.

There are eight films nominated for Best Picture. There are five nominations for Best Director. Ava DuVernay should probably have been among them (I have not yet seen SELMA, so I can’t speak from personal experience, but from what I’m reading and hearing in reviews). I’m not as convinced about David Oyelowo, based on the reviews. He sounds like he gives a strong, complex performance, but so do all the men nominated for Best Picture. So yes, it’s a very white lineup this year, which feels odd and uncomfortable, but maybe it’s a casting issue rather than a nomination issue? Anyway, next year may be different.

I find the gender issue more upsetting. All but one of the actors nominated for Best Actor is in a film nominated for Best Picture. Only one of the lead actresses nominated is from a Best Picture nominee, Felicity Jones from THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING.

Do you know why?

Most of the films nominated for Best Picture don’t HAVE a lead actress role. They’re predominantly about loner males doing their loner male thing, from math geniuses to angry actors to military servicemen. Where’s the Best Picture nomination for WILD? Or STILL ALICE? Or GONE GIRL? And who’s even heard of the film Marion Cotillard is nominated for, TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT?

But again, that’s hopefully just a quirk of this year.

Dear OkCupid Guys…

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I’ve been single for an embarrassingly long time. I’m not going to say how long, but I count it in years and I need more than one hand’s worth of fingers.

So about a year and a half ago, I joined OkCupid. I’d join something like Match.com, but I figured it was a good idea to test out this online dating thing for free, and also I’m not desperate enough to make online dating a necessary-expenditure budget line. Yet.

I’ve gone on a handful of first dates, I’ve gone on more than one date with a few people, and ended up dating one person for a few months. To those who would say that this contradicts my opening statement that I’ve been single for years, I’d just like to clarify that I define not-single as having had The Talk with one’s significant other in order to Define The Relationship. Specifically, the words boyfriend and girlfriend (or something along those lines) should enter common usage.

Anyway. Online dating is weird. On the one hand, I like it, because everyone understands the aim of the interactions. I’m kind of dense when it comes to such things – until the last year or so, my instinctive response to “Do you want to get a cup of coffee” would be to tell the guy that I don’t drink coffee. Not the point of the question.

I have a hard time telling when someone is interested in me. Usually I can only tell when the person gets interested to the point of making me uncomfortable, and that sends me running for the hills. I have nobody to blame for my single status other than myself, really.

The thing about online dating that made me nervous, though, is that one hears such horrifying stories of the creeps and pervy comments and all that.

Which leads me to a strange aspect of my experience.

I’ve had interactions that were odd, and a lot that left me distinctly underwhelmed, but none that were actually gross or creepy or pervy. I’m really not sure how to take this. A lot of me is relieved, of course, but it also has me wondering why I’ve been so lucky as to not experience that part of it. I have three theories.

1. Continuation of aforementioned cluelessness. Maybe I’m just not noticing. Though I think I would, based on some of the stories I’ve heard. Sounds pretty difficult to miss.

2. A lot of my friends, and my male friends in particular, STILL feel a need to “protect” me from bad language or dirty jokes. And to some extend I appreciate this, as excessive swearing is unappealing to me, but I’m no nun. I enjoy racy humor as much as the next person. But I think somehow I radiate a level of innocence that brings out a protective urge, I guess – I don’t tend to swear, and I don’t tell dirty jokes, so people don’t think I can take it. Maybe I’m doing that online, too.

3. Maybe I’m just not physically attractive enough to attract such attention, which is probably a good thing.

That said, I’m having fun using Twitter to comment on the encounters I do have. I call my intermittent series “Dear #okcupid guys,” and it’s kind of like Jon Stewart’s “come with me to Camera 3″ thing.  I amuse myself, at least!

I leave you with a selection (a.k.a. most of) my tweets from that series.

Dear #okcupid guys, the greeting “hi there” is really starting to get on my nerves. Be more creative.

— Elspeth (@lunabrd) January 1, 2015

 

Im sick of #OKCupid… The Cupid that so many lonely people rely upon should at least be a #SlightlyBetterThanAverageCupid.

— bryan green (@GreeBry) December 26, 2014

 

Dear #okcupid guys, here’s something to ponder – until we actually meet, your profile and your messages are your only chance to impress.

— Elspeth (@lunabrd) December 27, 2014

 

dear @okcupid guys, here is an example of what NOT to write as your entire first message. “Hi. We have a good match percentage.”

— Elspeth (@lunabrd) November 7, 2014

 

Dear #okcupid guys, today my 3.5yo niece asked when I’m getting married. So get it together. I’ve got a stubborn toddler expecting results.

— Elspeth (@lunabrd) December 21, 2014

 

Dear #okcupid guys, when you ask a question a) I already answered and b) my answer is the basis for our conversation, I delete your message.

— Elspeth (@lunabrd) December 21, 2014

 

Dear #okcupid guys, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PROOFREAD.

— Elspeth (@lunabrd) December 19, 2014

 

 

 

Dear #okcupid guys, ending a single question with eleven question marks is excessive. I will delete your message.

— Elspeth (@lunabrd) December 14, 2014

 

Dear #okcupid guys, when curiosity is piqued, you’re expressing interest. When you are piqued, you’re annoyed. Proper word usage matters.

— Elspeth (@lunabrd) December 6, 2014

 

Dear #okcupid guys, the crotch shot is bad. the picture of you GRABBING your crotch is worse.

–Elspeth (@lunabrd) November 27, 2014

 

Dear #okcupid guys, if you live in a different country from me and your opening message is “hey there,” I’m not going to answer. Ever.

— Elspeth (@lunabrd) November 15, 2014

 

 

 

 

Bloggy Book Club: Halfway to Hollywood, Part I

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Wednesday, October 17, 1981

…Give the manager one of my complimentary tickets to Mel Brooks’ History of the World, which is having a glossy preview at 11.30.

Find myself sitting next to Harold Evans, editor of the Times. He seems to be very anxious to please  asking me what I’m doing, as if he knows me. Make some jokes about the SDP, then he admits that he does think they are a very sensible lot. This, together with a propensity to do the right thing by clapping whenever Mel Brooks appears on the screen, makes me suspect him. Surely Times editors should be made of harder stuff?

The film is dreadful. Having dispensed early on with any claim to historical accuracy or authenticity and any exceptional attention to visual detail, the whole thing depends on the quality of the gags. And the quality is poor. It’s like a huge, expensive, grotesquely-inflated stand-up act. A night club act with elephantiasis.

I return from my book reporting hiatus to tell you a little about the first 200 pages of the book I’ve chosen to start 2015. Halfway to Hollywood: Michael Palin’s Diaries, 1980-1988 is exactly what it sounds like.

Comedian, writer, actor, and traveler extraordinaire Michael Palin has, over the last few years, started publishing (presumably edited) collections of his diaries from different parts of his life. I own the first section, which covers the bulk of the Monty Python years, but hadn’t realized more were available until a search for something else at my local library brought this up by accident.

The diaries aren’t scandalous, and the gossip is actually kept to a relatively low level. In the first volume of his diaries, Palin records that he took up a daily diary entry as one way of helping himself break a smoking habit not long before filming of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” began. And these really have a daily diary kind of feel – he often records when he got up, where he went on his daily running excursions, and how various meetings with colleagues, business managers, and medical professionals went. A lot of it is very everyday information, which reassures me that he hasn’t done much, or any, after-the-fact editing to hype up the excitement level.

When I was in middle school, “Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail” was the cool movie. Some kids had their favorite member of a band, or a favorite member of a sports team. I had a favorite Python.

I thought John Cleese was screamingly funny. I was fascinated by his seeming ability to flip a switch and go from calm, even supercilious, to apoplectic fury in an instant. I loved his look-down-one’s-nose biting sarcasm.

I still like Cleese’s style, and indeed I can’t really say I dislike any of the Pythons (though I also can’t say I’ve ever really “gotten” Terry Gilliam’s bizarre cartoons). The older I get, though, the more I find I prefer the gentler style of Michael Palin.

When I think over the “Flying Circus” show, most of the sketches I like best involve Palin, from the Argument Clinic to Blackmail. I like his subsequent work, too, especially the travel shows.

I think one of the reasons I enjoy Palin’s diaries so much is because I like getting a view into the process of entertainment, the gears and cogs that work behind the scenes to make what we enjoy. I’m up to the middle of 1982 in this volume, and Palin has just finished filming “The Missionary,” a quirky film for which he wrote the screenplay AND filled the lead role (Maggie Smith, of all people, plays the female lead). I think it’s interesting to get a peek at how a movie gets made, from initial idea to presentation in cinemas. Of course this is an extremely simplified view, but it’s still interesting.

The diaries read a little like those travel shows’ narrations, actually. Palin is factual and interested in everything. He genuinely enjoys himself and is sorry to leave a place or a project, but he’s also eager to see what’s coming around the bend. And I like his sense of humor, which is quirky and rarely offends, but has an occasional bite to it. And I like that he seems to slip it in there and move quickly on to the next thing, before you’ve entirely realized the depth of the joke.

It’s no wonder that some people call him “Britain’s Nicest Man.” Of all the Pythons, he seems like someone who’d be genuinely fun and not at all stressful to know.

And as regards the above quotation, I have to say I feel totally vindicated. I didn’t much like “History of the World, Part One” either.

Who Do You Think You Are?

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When I was little, I went to an elementary school that was pretty diverse. It’s actually MORE diverse now – something like 20 languages represented – but it was pretty diverse when I went there.

Once a year, we had a special day called International Day. There were performances of music and dance from around the world, and parents representing different home cultures gave presentations to the classes on where they came from. I remember the Japanese and Indian parents always looked nicest in their outfits, but the Persian moms had the best treats. Students and staff were encouraged to wear outfits representing their heritage, from traditional ethnic costumes to the librarian’s dress made to look like she was wearing a giant Union Jack.

My brother and I didn’t have traditional outfits on hand, and it would have been hard to choose which of our ancestral branches to represent, so our mother made us t-shirts that looked roughly like this:
old t-shirt screenshot

It was a cute t-shirt, a creative idea, and it got the point across – we are Northern European mutts.

As it turns out, it’s a bit more complicated.

This year for my birthday, my parents gave me six months’ access to ancestry.com. From what I’ve found so far, the t-shirt should have been modified a little…

Mom’s side should include:

mom screenshot 1mom screenshot 2

Dad’s side should include:

dad screenshot
I think I need a bigger t-shirt.

Still Here, Still Reading

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I’m not doing so well with the post-once-a-week goal this month, am I? Between the holidays, technological difficulties (my laptop died and now I’m still trying to acclimate to Windows 8.1 and a new physical laptop layout), and literature-related struggles… well, you get the point.

So here’s the thing. I started to read Dan Jones’ book The Wars of the Roses, and it had the same issues as his previous book, The Plantagenets. It’s a solid enough survey, but his attention is, shall we say, uneven. He can pass over a decade in a paragraph, but then he’ll spend pages and pages going over a single battle in excruciating detail. After about 150 pages, I declared myself bored and returned it to the library.

The next book I checked out was one that I was excited about, the eminent cultural and literary historian Robert Darnton’s new work on censorship. It looks really interesting, and I do plan to go back to it, but I came up against a difficulty.

I love nonfiction. This isn’t a surprise to anyone who knows me or reads these posts (and if anyone out there reads this who doesn’t actually know me in person or online, please let me know – I’d like to hear from you!).

But sometimes I forget that I’m not in school anymore, and don’t have to finish the book if I don’t want to. Sometimes I forget that I don’t always have to challenge myself. Every so often, maybe three or four times a year on average, my brain revolts. It says it’s tired and refuses to engage with the challenging fare I set before it – and Robert Darnton, brilliant though he is, does not write easy reads. His work is always dense and challenging and incredibly insightful. So I’ll go back to the censorship book, and possibly also the one he wrote on slander, another time. For now I’m taking a break to read some things that are a little easier.

I’ve spent the last two weeks re-reading some of my favorites, from Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, to Heather Armstrong’s It Sucked and Then I Cried, to Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes. I’m working on that last one right now, though I’m debating putting it down in favor of the one I just checked out of the library, the second volume of Michael Palin’s published diaries. This one focuses on 1980-1988, which means it covers his main stint in films, including Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, The Missionary, Brazil, and Time Bandits. I enjoyed his first volume, which covered the 1970s and the rise of the Pythons, so I’m looking forward to it.

I’m thinking after that I might tackle one or two of the novels on my want-to-read list. I’ve been pondering Brideshead Revisited since seeing the 1980s miniseries starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews for the first time this year. I’m also always a fan of Dickens, and there are plenty of his novels I haven’t read yet.

Anyone have a suggestion?

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