The Literary Salon

I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore and host a literary salon at night for all my witty and talented friends.    A literary salon is different from a book club, as people can just drop in, like a cocktail party.   In Paris in the Roaring Twenties salons were frequented by intellectuals, writers, artists and the celebrities du jour (Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald & Co), with the sole purpose of providing stimulating conversation, amusing repartee and a lively exchanges of ideas…..plus free booze.   With a book club, you can have all of those too, but you are there to focus on the book…..hopefully.  

My experience with book clubs has been poor.  Attempting to infiltrate a library book club proved a disaster as the tightly-knit group had been together for over a decade and there always seemed to one or two members who squashed any opinion which didn’t agree with theirs, or worse monopolized the discussion.  The group was so large (18-25), as to be unwieldy, with some (myself included), being too intimidated to speak up, despite the best efforts of the moderator to make sure everyone had a say.  The structure was rigid, with a list of questions to cover in a set period of time.   Also, there was no food, or even coffee and it was late afternoon, which tended to interfere with my nap time.   I then thought of hosting my own more informal book club evenings with a smaller group of literary friends, perhaps once a season with food, like Southern cooking for The Help….pass the pecan pie please.   A group of local women self-published a book about their book club theme nights, complete with menus and lots of bevies, but they were rich and prone to extravagant weekend getaways, plus the hostess had to buy everyone a copy of the next book.      

What is the difference between a book club and a famous literary salon like the ones Hemingway attended, other than better food and more chic clothing?

Paris salon

Hard to imagine Hemingway at a book club.   Do men do book clubs – possibly in big cities, but not in my neck of the woods.   Only in the movies, like The Jane Austen Book Club, where they may have an ulterior motive ie. a crush on one of the members.   But they might be tempted to drop in on a literary salon if alcohol was provided.   Most afternoon book clubs tend to be female affairs  with tea in china cups and fancy sandwiches and cookies, or evening wine and cheese and gossip….but first we must discuss the book with a list of questions to cover.    Literary salons tend to be more free ranging affairs with small groups of individuals, male and female, congregating and discussions covering any number of topics…..and of course gossip!   It would be nice to combine the best of both worlds, good conversation, good food and drink and a relaxed atmosphere (one where you can hang out in your PJ’s).   Of course, if you are hosting a literary salon, having a Paris address helps, but since WordPress is our blogging home, that will have to suffice.     

So starting in January, I would like to present my new virtual Literary Salon.  We will open with the murder mystery, An Unwanted Guest, by Shari Lapena  (see link).   It’s the perfect book for a blizzard, so button up your overcoat, you don’t want to get chilled.     Please feel free to drop by anytime…..   

Postscript –  Bring Your Own Beverage – a Bloody Mary might be suitable for our first selection. 

Cue some jazzy twenties cocktail music:

 

 

 

 

A Chestnut Wreath

fall tree

Autumn is very late this year – the trees are just starting their annual decorating.   I remember gazing out at this tree when I was in grade eight, as my desk was close to the window.   While the teacher would be droning on about some uninteresting subject, I would be rejoicing in the glorious fall colors.   We used to play soccer in the field after school, kicking the ball around under a canopy of orange and gold.   It is still standing, although the other trees are gone, made way for a parking lot.    I still get the pleasure of looking at it when I walk, I think of it as my tree, even though we are both a bit the worse for wear after forty plus years.   

Chestnut trees are also a fall favorite of mine.   My grandmother’s farm had chestnut trees in one of the fields and every Thanksgiving (Canadian, so mid-October), my little brother and I, brave but ready to run at the first sign of a big dumb cow, would gather them up and then use them to build fields for his barn set  – what fun we had lining them up as fences for his toy animals.  As a young girl who was horse-crazy, their glossy finish always reminded me of a chestnut mare or the sleek racehorses we would see at the fall fair.    We have two giant chestnut trees in front of our library so when you go inside to pick up your books, you’d better beware lest you be boinked on the head by a falling chestnut.    Last year one of the librarians displayed a chestnut wreath she had made on the checkout desk.  She emailed me the instructions, but I was too late, so this year I was prepared and gathered up several baskets after the first windstorm. 

chestnuts

 First I shellacked them with a coat of  acrylic varnish to maintain the shine, as they will dry out quickly.    I raided my mothers art cupboard and used a spray can, which was quick and easy but you might get a more even application by painting it on.   I did this a few days ahead of time to let it dry.  

acrylic finish

straw wreath

Next I took a ten inch straw wreath, (but any size would do, I started small to experiment, but hers was quite large and impressive), and wrapped it tightly with some nice decorating tape.   Make sure any loose ends are secured with straight pins, as you don’t want it unraveling after the glue is on. 

wreath supplies

Then using the trusty old glue gun, attach the chestnuts in any pattern you wish.  I must admit my first attempt was not perfect, as I have too much spacing between some of them.   When collecting it is better to find chestnuts of different sizes and some with flat bottoms for odd spaces.   The librarian had filled in the holes in between with Spanish moss, but after googling I found others have used small acorns to fill up the spaces.    I prefer mine having the pretty decorating tape showing through.   

chestnut wreath

It could be hung up with wire, but is fairly heavy so a table wreath with a candle in the middle is a nice option.   I decided to place mine on a wicker tray and added some bows in the corner and some fairy lights.  

chestnut wreath

You could use this for a centerpiece for American Thanksgiving, and then swap out the bows for something Christmasy.    These are not the kinds of chestnuts you roast on an open fire however, as these are horse chestnuts, which are toxic to humans and animals.   (The difference is in the shells, smoother vs spikier and the point). 

horse chestnuts

horse chestnuts

Total cost – around $10 – $4 for the straw wreath, $4 for the ribbon (with Michael’s coupon), glue sticks, chestnuts free for the taking.   All told it took me less than two hours to make, so this would be a nice idea for hosting a tea/craft afternoon.  

Since the weather is cooler now and more conductive to baking, I made Date Nut Loaf, using the recipe from my farm cooking bible. 

date nut loaf

This is a quick and nutritious tea bread – buy the bite sized dates to save time.

If you are interested in more fall decorating on the cheap, check out last years (unpublished) blog, Autumn Decor, for some dollar store finds. 

Book of the Day:

For more decorating ideas and recipes, see the Susan Branch book – Autumn from the Heart of the Home (published in 2004), for typical New England (Martha’s Vineyard) fare, or check out her website and sign up for her free monthly newsletters….they are always a cheerful read.  

Autumn from the Heart of the HomeAutumn from the Heart of the Home by Susan Branch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a big fan of anything Susan Branch, this book one of my favorites. I re-read it every year to get in the mood for the season, for the inspiration, the decorating tips and the yummy recipes.   Let the leaves fall….it’s time to get cozy.

 

The French Touch

Paris Victoria and Journal

We cannot always have Paris, but we can all have a touch of Paris in our homes.   I was surprised when I looked around my humble maison, (which more resembles a B&B), how much of a French influence I have in my surroundings, but they are small touches, understated, like the French themselves, where less is more.    The French way of life is one of order, elegance, proper routine and a good dose of perfectionism – of course this might just be a myth perpetuated by smug French women!    (The Victoria magazine cover Oct 2000 is just so French – I collect the back issues and the annual French edition is always inspiring.  This years French edition is in May/June).

Victoria Magazine French Edition

Victoria – May/June 2018 French Edition

A favorite flea market sign from Winners, in my front hallway.  (Note B&B wallpaper as I have not finished renovating the house yet, although the outside is done, but I don’t mind the wallpaper so it may have to stay).Paris Flea Market

My first and only attempt at stenciling hangs in the dining room, (don’t look too close, you really have to glue those stencils on well). Paris Sign

Who doesn’t love lavender.   I have lavender everywhere, in bowls, sachets, vases, soap….

 

Paris hatboxes and journals….

 

A special Renoir journal for jotting down blog ideas.

 

A silk scarf a friend brought me back from Paris many years ago, in my favorite color blue. Paris

And of course no aspiring Parisian would be complete without a navy striped boat neck sweater, (and some red lipstick).Paris striped shirt

HappyHauteHome, (check out her elegant blog on the modern French country home) posted about a French provincial home for sale, which looks like my dream house, but until I win the lottery, I will just have to be content with my petite accents.    To be French is an attitude, a state of mind, oui?

What blog would be complete without une recommandation de livre.

The French way of life is a call to pay attention, an appreciation of all matters large and small, including food, which is to be savored without guilt or worry.   I can smell those fresh baguettes already.    French Women Don’t Get Fat.

French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for PleasureFrench Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure by Mireille Guiliano

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable read, this book certainly provided a different way of looking at eating, for pleasure and without guilt about calories or cholesterol. I think I’ll go for a long walk to the boulangerie….like the French do!

After reading so much about their chocolat chaud, I decided to try making my own.   I added four squares of Baker’s semi-sweet chocolate (but any good dark chocolate would do), to a bit of water and microwaved it well until it melted into a nice chocolatey gooey mess, then a few teaspoons of sugar and the milk, and microwaved it again until hot.  Um….like drinking a chocolate bar.   Maybe best to add  only add two squares……  

My only venture into French cooking was a failed attempt at beef bourguignon which I ruined by using a cheap red burgundy, despite the advice of the LCBO clerk that I should trade up to a better vintage.  She was adamant, I did not listen.   I hadn’t shopped at the liquor store for years (other than an annual trek at Christmas to buy rum for the pudding), and was horrified by the wine prices, when I only needed a cup and a half?    The best that could be said for it was that it was edible….if you were very hungry and very poor like Hemingway in his early days.

One day while shopping at a very expensive bakery ($55 for a birthday cake – let them eat Betty Crocker!), I spied a lovely tray of pastel macarons, and even though they were $2.50 per cookie I decided to splurge – totally tasteless.    If this is what Proust was going on about with his French madeleines, I think I’ll pass. The best part of the cookie by far was the turquoise color.   It’s good to try new things sometimes, if only to find out what you don’t like.   I do like crepes though, my favorite tea shop used to offer an excellent chicken and mushroom crepe until they closed due to a rent increase.   On my farewell visit I asked the owner for the recipe, and she said just make a basic roux, so I did, but my roux was thick and pasty from too much floor.   Julia Child I am not, so I will need to try again as I do miss the tea shop.  We have no need to fear the cream filled calories of France however, as gardening season will soon be here and now that spring has sprung, we can walk it off.     Next week we will be in Italy, along the coast, bring sunscreen.   Until then enjoy the spring flowers.

Muguet du bois,

Lily of the Valley
Lily of the Valley

 

 

 

 

Counting Sheep

Tick tock, it’s three o’clock…..do you know where your mind is?  It’s not asleep, and you’re tired of sheep…..

The Sheep Dog - AMc - 2017

The Sheep Dog – 2017

Anyone who has ever encountered the insomnia monster at some point in their stress-filled lives please raise their weary heads.    You know those dark nights of the soul where all the angst in your little corner of the world converges on your poor befuddled brain in an agony of what-ifs, and you even start to worry about worrying.

Okay Book

Worry Journal

After a few nights of this nonsense, you’re waaaaay overtired, much too tired to sleep and then you start to worry about never ever sleeping again, and how are you going to function the next day on two hours sleep when it’s already three o’clock and all you’ve done is toss and turn for hours, and it’s already starting to get light just as you nod off and the alarm clock shrieks from across the room, and you rise feeling like something the cat dragged in.    Whoever invented daylight savings time should be fired.    It’s bad enough that it’s getting light earlier in the morning, and the returning birds are twittering up a storm because they’re all excited about spring, and I’m excited too but I just don’t want to spring forward.   As a former shift-worker, I’m not the best sleeper anyway.  My circadian rhythm has been irreversibly damaged by years of flipping between days and evenings, but that lost extra hour seems to throw my delicate system all out of balance.   Like many people I sleep better in the winter, when we can all hibernate like the bears in their caves which are warm and dark, no black out curtains needed.   Now that I’m retired sleep isn’t as crucial as it used to be, as I don’t have to get up in the morning, or if I do I don’t have to be as alert as when I was working, but the world does not function on a 2-10 am sleep schedule.   The world is full of morning people.   I used to be one of them.  So it was with great interest that I read The Sleep Solution by W.Chris Winter.    What would a blog be without a good book, so here’s some bibliotherapy for insomniacs.

The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix ItThe Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It by W. Chris Winter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good read for anyone who struggles with insomnia or shift work. The author is a neurologist and sleep specialist physician. Not sure that I learned anything new, other than we sleep more than we think we do, even during the worst night of insomnia, because sleep is an inborn instinct, which is nice to know when you are trying to muddle through the next day. Nobody dies from lack of sleep, (unless I suppose you are in a car accident), and you always do manage to get through the day. It was an interesting perspective, and certainly lessens the worry associated with getting to sleep, which can be a vicious cycle. It’s a bit scientific but written in a humorous style which makes a dry subject entertaining ie it did not put me to sleep…..although I might have had a short nap on the swing…

The key advice I got out of this book is, a) your body craves sleep, it is a basic human drive, so we do sleep more than we think we do even on a night when we swear we didn’t sleep a wink, and b) we always function the next day.   This is a simple concept, but somehow reassuring, and helps to break the worry cycle which is the worst part of insomnia, the worrying about not sleeping.  Take the worry away, and you can sleep like a baby, well not quite, but it’s a refreshing idea.   Of course, the book delves into the usual sleep hygiene routines, exercise, limiting caffeine, nothing new there, as well as chapters on sleep apnea, shift work etc.  The author says no one ever died from insomnia, but that’s where I disagree.   Studies show that accident rates are always higher in the week after the daylight savings shift, as are heart attacks.   They have also shown a link between insomnia and obesity, diabetes, dementia, addiction and cancer.  The WHO has now labelled shift work as a probable human carcinogen.   Lack of sleep decreases natural killer cell levels by 75% according to some reports.  (It’s enough to make you get that worry journal out!)  Unfortunately, we have become a sleep-deprived society.

Meditation can be a useful tool to promote sleep.  I once took a six week meditation class and while I did not have any luck meditating (lack of practice), a more experienced classmate told me she could nod off after five minutes.   I was impressed, but she had been meditating for years.   What did work for me was a meditation tape.   The best part of the class was the melodious voice of the instructor, so I bought her CD, and listen to the insomnia meditation (13 minutes), if I’m having trouble winding down.   Or if I wake up too early (those pesky birds), I will put it on again with my ear buds, and get a couple more hours of deep restful sleep.  (Why is the most restful sleep always towards dawn?)   The tape is almost like a form of hypnosis, her soporific voice counting to ten and then back down again is so relaxing, and there is music in the background, so it’s like a lullaby for grownups.    One day in class she suggested we chose a special song so our bodies would learn to associate that song with relaxation.     She played, Shenandoah by James Galway, and I left feeling like a jellyfish.   I never listen to that song in the car however, driving while a jellyfish would not be a good idea.

Speaking of music, the song Count Your Blessings from White Christmas, is a lovely visual aid to falling asleep, when you’re tired of those stupid sheep…..seriously, has counting sheep ever worked for anyone?     (I apologize for the Bing Crosby again but I grew up on his music).   Old Bing just might have been the inspiration for those gratitude journals which were all the rage.   I tried a gratitude journal once but found it only made me worry about losing my blessings, but it may work for some (more optimistic) people.

If you struggle with insomnia it’s good to have a bedtime routine, so your body knows it’s time for sleep.    A cup of tea and a snack is a relaxing way to unwind.   Bedtime snack

TV and electronic devices can be overstimulating, so turn them off an hour before bed, especially those bright blue light cell phones, which I’m sure will some day be found to cause eye damage.   Low lighting is restful.   Reading is good, unless it’s a suspense novel you can’t put it down.   I jot down a few lines in my five year diary as a summary of the day.   Reading a few pages of an inspirational book can also be a reflective way to end the day.   

There’s something about the smell of lavender that is so calming.  Spraying the room with lavender pillow spray can become a sleep routine association and this can work well if you travel and are staying in hotels rooms with stale air.

Lavender Spray
Lavender Pillow Spray

A more portable option is putting a lavender sachet under the pillow for sweet dreams.

Lavender sachets

Lavender sachets

Lavender also reminds me of France, a country that has an appreciation for all things lovely, and that is known for taking long lunches mid-day, with plenty of expresso after you are fed and rested.   Try and get lots of sleep, because we’ll be spending April in Paris.   Unfortunately, jet lag is a whole other story….

Quote of the Day:

“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”
(William Shakespeare, Macbeth)

What are your secrets for getting to sleep on those dark nights of the soul?