Literary Apothecary

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (Penguin Random House, 2015)

My mother found this gem in her condominium’s lending library and gave it to me with glowing reviews. As I began to read it (the fourth of my 16+ goal for this year), I was immediately drawn in to this charming and sometimes heartrending world of lost love, regret and redemption, set in the streets of Paris and the canals, rivers and vineyards of southern France.

The Little Paris Bookshop was originally published in German as Das Lavendelzimmer (The Lavender Room) in 2013. The English-language version is pretty good; there are only a few passages that hint of this being a translation, and even they lend a quaintly amusing air to the book.

The title is a bit of a misnomer. Only the first few chapters take place in Paris, and the bookstore in question is of a rather peculiar nature: it’s a renovated barge operated by Monsieur Perdu, a self-styled “literary apothecary”. Like the bonbon-dispensing confiseuse in Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, Perdu prescribes just the right book to his customers, each of whom is searching for more than a good read. The lonely and broken-hearted, the damaged and bewildered – even the stereotypical silly tourist – all board the floating bookshop in search of Perdu’s particular brand of pistou for the soul.

When it comes to helping his patients, the apothicaire may be skilled, but he is unable to find a cure for his own despair. Just as the book barge is permanently moored to the banks of the Seine, the middle-aged Perdu has lived-but-not-lived for twenty years, transfixed by grief, regret, missed opportunity and the fear of death. Will he, with the aid of several eccentric companions, be able to cast off the tethers which bind him to the past and navigate the winding and sometimes treacherous route to wholeness and a peace-filled mind, body and soul?

Literary references, gustatory delights and lyrical landscapes abound in this novel which is equal parts travelogue, culinary journey and paean to books and food, friendship, France and love. It is by no means perfectly written; there are some tiresome clichés, and I can’t stomach the fact that all the characters spend every moment of their lives in deep, hand-wringing angst. However, I’m a sucker for evocative novels set in sun-drenched, lavender-scented France and Italy (think: Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert), and George’s take on the countryside, traditional food and wine, plus the quirky French-ness of the protagonist and his friends, came at just the right time. As the stubborn vestiges of winter still cling, The Little Paris Bookshop is a welcome breath of fresh air.

Up next: Do-it-yourself springtime scents, inspired by The Little Paris Bookshop!

Detail, 12″ x 12″ Recollections scrapbook paper in “Paris Florals” from Michaels

Bring On Spring!

I mentioned in an earlier post, New Beginnings, that the practice of looking for signs of seasonal change in nature is called phenology. The lightening of days, less bite to the breeze, shy heads of crocus peeking through last year’s leaves. With that first robin’s song or even a softer, gentler rain, suddenly our hearts are lifted and there is, yes, a spring in our step!

Today marks the Vernal Equinox, the first day of Spring. Here’s a look at just a few of our earliest-emerging species, typically seen in eastern Canada mid to late March, early April and May. To me, they are the surest signs that Monsieur l’Hiver has left us for another nine months or so, and that sweet Mademoiselle Printemps is here to stay!

Click on each image for expansion/slideshow and details.

St. Maewyn’s Day

You may know this fellow better by his adopted name: Patrick.

Patrick was named Maewyn Succat when he was born circa 385 CE to a wealthy Roman family in either Wales or Scotland. At age 16, he was kidnapped by raiders and sold as a slave to Ireland, living there for six years as a shepherd and learning about its people until he managed to escape back to England. It was when he became a priest that he changed his name to Patricius. Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary, preaching and converting the pagans to Christianity. In the Catholic church, his feast day is the day of his death, traditionally believed to be on March 17, 416 CE.

Legend has it that Patrick used the three-leaved shamrock (Irish seamróg = “little or young clover”) as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity. He may also have chosen this plant because the number 3 was significant for Celtic pagans; it is the “number of everything”. It wasn’t until the 18th century, though, that the shamrock began to be used as an Irish symbol. The shamrock (several species of Trifolium) has traditional medicinal value and was a common Victorian motif. In the Language of Flowers, the red clover signifies the virtue of industry, white clover means “think of me”, and the four-leaved variety says “be mine”.

Wearing green today? When the chivalric Order of St. Patrick was founded in the 1700s, blue was adopted as its official colour, which led to that colour – not green, which was considered unlucky – being associated with the saint. The use of green to represent Irish nationalism stems from 17th and 18th century political movements.

It’s understandable that legend, cultures and customs meld over time. It’s still an odd thing to me, however, that folk worldwide suddenly become Irish for a day on March 17 – and celebrate it in some pretty outrageous ways. I don’t march in parades or look for leprechauns, but I have been known to wear green on the day – although I wear it often, as it, along with blue, is one of my favourite colours. I don’t drink beer, so the green Guinness is out. (But that would be an insult to Guinness aficionados, anyway!)

I do think of my paternal grandmother, though. I know very little about her; my father never said much, for the very reason that he wasn’t given the chance to know her, either, and now there is no one left to ask. What I did discover through genealogical research, however, was that she emigrated as a young woman from Belfast to Canada in the early 1900s. Why? To seek a new life: employment, better housing, a marriage? I don’t know whether she had known my English-born grandfather, who was already living in Toronto, before she set foot on that ocean-crossing steamer. Regardless, they married soon after she arrived – and soon after that, came my dad! Sadly, that little family’s hopes and dreams died along with her a couple of years later in childbed, after my father’s little sister was born. A heart-wrenching story of hardship, struggle and lost dreams – but then, historically speaking – doesn’t that make me so quintessentially Irish?

Detail, Book of Kells scarf – a treasured gift from a friend.

Spring Forward

“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”

20160309_180048 (3)At this time of year, my parents always quoted this old chestnut, no doubt learned from their parents before them. It’s a proverb possibly of English or Welsh origins (in Wales, it’s used more often for April); some say it comes from Pennsylvania. No matter where or how it started, it refers, of course, to quixotic March weather and the hope for a warm and gentle Spring. My mother has often told me that, on the day I was born in early March, she watched a brisk wind outside her hospital room window toss the willows in a chill and fitful dance. (Perhaps that presaged the highs and lows of my own nature, which can at times run to the tempestuous.) I’m sure as she gazed out at the pale and blustery landscape, that young mother had her own hopes and dreams for me, her third and youngest child.

Here in southern Ontario, we’ve enjoyed a little bit of everything weather-wise so far this month. A few warmer days, a bit of rain, some fog, and – finally – a few kinder, sunny afternoons. Last night, however, as I set out for home after work, a mini snowstorm hit, with biting winds that made the snow swirl smokelike across the road. Winter was back, but only temporarily. This morning dawned bright, still cold, but most of the snow has already melted. The sky is robin’s egg blue, and the sunlight pooling on our wooden floor feels warmer than it did last week.

In my part of the world, it is the eve of Springing Forward – changing our clocks to Daylight Saving Time. At 2:00 a.m. on the 12th (the second Sunday of March), we move our clocks ahead one hour. With that, our time zone abruptly changes from Eastern Standard Time (EST) to Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), and in November, it all changes back again. Some Canadian provinces, indeed some towns or regions, choose to opt out of this method of (supposedly) making better use of daylight and saving energy, i.e. moving an hour of daylight from the morning to the evening. Different countries have different change dates.

With every new season, I like to visit a local plant nursery for a bit of fresh air and a lot of browsing. I don’t have a garden (although I can grow herbs and vegetables in pots on the balcony), but I like to roam the aisles, breathing in the scent of rich potting soil and living, growing things. This particular nursery also has an extensive shop with giftware and accessories, all arranged in charming seasonal vignettes. Almost to this day last year, I went to see what they had on offer for Spring. Soft pastels, spring greens, eggs and rabbits were all there – and lambs!

20160309_180048 (6)My mother was also born in March, near the end of the month. Last year, I completed a cross stitch sampler featuring lambs, one of her favourite creatures. I didn’t have the funds at the time to get it framed, but maybe I can do it in time for her birthday this year. If I do, I’ll post a photo of it; it’s a lovely, bucolic design, perfect for a fresh, new season.

Here is more weather-related March lore:

“A dry March and a wet May? Fill barns and bays with corn and hay.”

 “March winds and April showers? Bring forth May flowers.”

 “So many mists in March you see / So many frosts in May will be.”

 “As it rains in March, so it rains in June.”

Pinning Inspiration

DSC_5702 (3)The bulletin board above my work table has a multiple personality. It’s located in the tiny “dining room” of our apartment (i.e. right in our living room) – oh, how I envy those fortunate enough to have their own craft room/studio! On this board I keep a very utilitarian calendar with my work schedule and other day-to-day appointments. (You wouldn’t want to see my chicken scratch and crossed-out scribblings, so I used a nice cleaned-up version for the photos.) Because the calendar is so easily seen every time I pass by, it’s a good place to keep track of life’s busy-ness.

DSC_5742 (3)I also use my bulletin board as a temporary repository for memorabilia. It’s here that I display photos, notes from friends or family, ticket stubs, birthday cards or postcards I’ve received – or ones I’ve purchased that are just too pretty to give away – items that mark happy or significant events. When eventually they come off the board, these items will be stored in a keepsake box: an old, decorative tin that once held chocolates (another of my favourite things!). That box safeguards decades-old treasures that I can’t and won’t throw away; with all its bits and bobs, including quite a few antique postcards I’ve collected, it’s also a great source of props for my still-life photography.

My board’s third raison d’être is rather more fanciful. I’ll occasionally pin up ephemera such as tags and labels, business cards, bookmarks, poems or quotes, magazine clippings, ornaments, even jewellery – anything with a pretty or striking design, attractive colour, shape or sentiment. These serve to amuse and inspire, especially when I’m sitting at the table trying to think of what to work on next. I gaze at the board with its mish-mash of images and let the creative juices stir and flow. In a way, it’s an old-school and very personal version of Pinterest.

Here I’ve given my inspiration board a Spring facelift, choosing mostly fresh, floral and green elements from nature.

Do you have a similar board for your artwork, crafts or other creative endeavours? What kinds of things do you keep there to help inspire and motivate you?DSC_5735 (3)

New Beginnings

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American Robin (Turdus migratorius) keeping an ear out for worms

I haven’t been on WordPress much lately, so I apologize for not making the rounds of all your wonderful posts, but I’ve been engaged in a much-needed and long overdue activity: job-finding. This was the number 1 item on my 17 for 2017 list, and I’m happy to report that, after a January-long search, several interviews and a couple of days of orientation, I started a new job last week! It is in a field I know well but have been away from for several years, so it’s good to get back to the familiar, where I can put my skills to good use. This new situation, however, will bring a learning curve, new challenges, and, no doubt, a fair deal of stress. I expect a surprise or two each day, but as I settle in, things will become easier.

For this blog, as February turned quickly to March, I didn’t have a clear vision for a monthly theme. I looked at the calendar. Yes, there’s St. Patrick’s Day; I’m one-quarter Irish, so I might give this a nod. The most significant event seems to be the Spring equinox, which graces us here in the Northern Hemisphere on Monday, March 20 at 6:28 a.m. EST. (It occurs at the same moment worldwide, despite differing time zones.) The first day of Spring, and all its fresh promises! Given the positive change in my working status, I finally had a theme for March: New Beginnings!

The word equinox comes from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). This is what The Old Farmer’s Almanac has to say: On the vernal equinox, day and night are each approximately 12 hours long (with the actual time of equal day and night, in the Northern Hemisphere, occurring a few days before the vernal equinox). The Sun crosses the celestial equator going northward; it rises exactly due east and sets exactly due west.

Meteorologically speaking, the official Spring season always begins on March 1 and continues through May 31. This is based on annual temperature cycles rather than the Earth’s position relative to the Sun. Planting is done according to the gradual increase of sunlight, warming temperatures and a thing called Phenology (Greek for science of appearances) – watching for nature’s signs. Did you know, for instance, that it is generally safe to plant radishes, parsnips and spinach once the crocuses have bloomed? Or that perennials can be planted when maple trees begin to leaf out?

I think we all practice a bit of phenology as we eagerly look for signs of the new season. In March, worms begin to emerge from the earth, giving rise to this month’s full moon name: the Full Worm Moon. Birds have already begun to migrate north, following the path of the Sun. Here in southern Ontario, red-winged blackbirds have been here for a week or two, to keep company with small pockets of hardy, overwintering robins. (The rest of the red-breasts will surge north to join their cousins – and pick off all those worms – any day now.) Song sparrows are usually the next to follow, and cardinals have been singing their exuberant heads off for quite some time. Birdsong is, in fact, triggered by the increasing sunlight; I’ve always thought that birds sound happier on warm, sunny days.

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The pale promise of Spring

Some trees and shrubs, such as pussy willows and forsythia, are setting out buds. Crocuses and snowdrops have been flowering in sheltered areas; tulips and daffodils won’t be far behind. Amphibians such Spring Peeper frogs and hibernating mammals are beginning to wake and stir from their cosy winter dens. Just yesterday, a friend who lives in the countryside remarked upon the annual re-emergence of George, a six-year-old female woodchuck, from her burrow beneath the deck. George, my friend is happy to report, looks sleek and well-rested and quite ready to face another sun-filled season grazing on clover, dandelions and all those freshly-planted crops!

While there is little historical evidence that ancient peoples of Britain and Europe honoured an equinoctial god or goddess, there is speculation that Xáusōs, a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn, may have given rise to Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon dawn goddess, and to Ostara, the neopagan moon goddess of Spring and fertility. Modern pagans celebrate Ostara at the vernal equinox, considering it one of the eight major festivals of the Wheel of the Year. Thousands gather at Stonehenge to mark the equinox sunrise through the ancient stones. In Japan, Vernal Equinox Day is a national holiday spent visiting family graves and holding family reunions.

Symbols of new life are starting to abound; soon there will be bunnies and egg-painting and baskets filled with improbably green “grass”. Folklore tells us that the Spring equinox is the only time of year when an egg can be stood on its end. While I’ve never tried it myself, I’ve read that this is just a myth. Clover and other three-leaved plants were considered gifts from the faeries to bring protection and good luck; they were co-opted into Christian symbolism, particularly associated with St. Patrick, as a representation of the Holy Trinity.

The practice of Spring cleaning stemmed from the desire to rid the home of old or negative energies accumulated over the dark winter months. Some people drink dandelion and burdock cordial as a rejuvenating, blood-cleansing tonic. In keeping with ancient tradition, I will most likely mark the equinox with fire – a symbol of the Sun. A pure beeswax candle, some fresh herbal incense, perhaps a few pretty purple amethyst stones to catch the light.

How will you celebrate this time of awakening, when the world seems young again and the air holds the promise of regeneration and new growth?

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Tulips at the local market – a glorious sight to behold!

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

dsc_5618-4This novel (my third of 16+ to read in 2017) was another bargain-bin find which I snapped up at the beginning of January. The choice was a no-brainer. How could I resist the title, the cover illustration of aged parchment, herbs and an old key, plus reviews which promised “spine-tingling witchery”, “a captivating thriller of the hidden powers of women throughout the centuries” and “literary alchemy”? I dove right in, and, for the most part, wasn’t disappointed.

This debut novel by Katherine Howe (Hyperion, 2009), is set in New England in the early 1990s, with flashbacks to the Salem witch trials of 1692. (Howe claims to be a descendant of two trial victims – one who survived, and one who did not.) I was snared from the start by yet another case of the Stone Cottage Syndrome; I fall for this woman-inherits-old-fixer-upper plot every time. But there’s much more to the story, and it kept me turning the pages well into the wee hours.

Into the cauldron of delicious witchiness, Howe throws the discovery of a centuries-old relic and the search for a long-lost book of shadows, plant lore and spells, a taste of ivy-league academia, plus fascinating facts about the Puritans and what may have led to those 17th century witch trials – all the criteria, as far as I’m concerned, for a ripping good yarn.

I wanted to love this book, but found that, the farther in I got, I could only like it. There were times, however, when I was just plain irritated.

The first half of the story is well-paced and forms the bones of the book: a spooky thriller. But I feel that the author loses her way and allows events to bubble over the brim just a bit near the end. That’s not to say what’s left in the pot is a burnt mess; only that a tighter narrative and more judicious editing would have made for a rather more satisfying brew. But I cannot forgive Howe for making Connie, the heroine – a gifted Harvard PhD candidate – incredibly obtuse when presented with the most obvious of clues. I had the mystery figured out from the very first one (basic facts that a specialist in American colonial history like Connie couldn’t fail to know), but it takes her pages and pages before the lantern finally flickers on.dsc_5600-3

Those sins aside, I’m glad that I picked up this novel – happier still that I paid only $3 for it. (It was, by the way, originally published in the U.K. as The Lost Book of Salem, and retitled later.) And I’m willing to give Howe another try; her subsequent novels are The House of Velvet and Glass (2012), Conversion (2014) – which includes brief cameos by two Dane characters – and The Appearance of Annie van Sinderin (2015). She has also published The Penguin Book of Witches, a 2014 work of non-fiction.