Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Fancies

This week I came across a simple recipe on Pinterest for pumpkin frozen yogurt. The mixture of 1 cup Greek yogurt, 1 cup pumpkin puree, 1 tablespoon of sugar, and 1 teaspoon of pumpkin pie seasoning seemed like the perfect way to start enjoying pumpkin flavored desserts that was still appropriate for relatively mild weather. I worried that the easy recipe might be too good to be true, but it actually worked out perfectly. I might even prefer it unfrozen, when it tastes more like a creamy pumpkin mousse. I definitely recommend trying this one.

(image via here)

I'd also recommend checking out:

These chocolate swirl meringues look divine.

Pretty iPhone cases.

Wouldn't these be a pretty little gift to give to a flower girl in a wedding?

And a really interesting interview with Jeffrey Eugenides where he discusses the first sentences and last words in his novels, plus the screenplay for the film version of The Marriage Plot.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Less Than Angels

I read my first Barbara Pym novel, and I didn’t love it. I liked it, I just didn’t love it, and that was a bit disappointing. I’ve heard so many great things about her work that I was ready to have my socks knocked off, but they were still firmly in place on my feet when I reached the last page. I think my reaction had very little to do with Pym’s writing and more to do with the book I picked to start out with- not Jane and Prudence or No Fond Return of Love, both of which have been sitting on my To Read list for a while, but Less Than Angels, a novel that I knew nothing about but that happened to be the only Pym book my library had in stock.

Less Than Angels centers around a group of anthropologists and anthropology students, as well as their families and significant others, in 1950’s England. We watch the foibles of various characters as they navigate the events, small and large, that occupy siginificant portions of their lives: jockeying for grant money for anthropological field work; breaking off one romantic relationship in favor of another; keeping tabs on eccentric neighbors. The spotlight of the book focuses on a triangle composed of Tom, the dashing, seemingly brilliant anthropologist who is slogging through his thesis after returning from Africa, Catherine, the slightly older, passionately literary woman he lives with, and Deirdre, the nineteen-year-old anthropology student who pulls him away from Catherine. These three are only slightly in the leading roles, though. Pym constantly shifts around among a huge cast of supporting characters, offering a microscopic look at a segment of society that spends their time placing other societies under a microscope. I think it was ultimately this focus on such a large group of characters that hindered my connection with the novel. It felt clear to me that Pym appreciates and likes her characters, flaws and all, and some in particular, like Catherine, came across as especially sympathetic and affecting. However, the constant motion among all of their viewpoints left me feeling a little more detached than I would have liked, and actually made parts of the novel feel like a slow read to get through.

One aspect of the novel that I did really enjoy was Pym's wit and sense of humor. I've read some descriptions of Pym that liken her to a Jane Austen of her time and I can absolutely see where that's coming from. She uses just the right touch in infusing the novel with subtle humor and seems to have a keen eye for the funny aspects of relatable, everyday people and situations. It's a very different type of humor than something like the madcap, wacky situations of a Wodehouse novel, for instance. This, along with the high praise I've heard for some of her other books, that has me excited to give more of Pym's work a try.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Back to School Bars

Certain flavors are naturally associated with certain holidays. Pumpkin for Thanksgiving, gingerbread or peppermint for Christmas....maybe cherries for President's Day. The baking I did over the weekend made me realize that there's also a flavor that's perfect for the unofficial holiday that is Back to School, and that's peanut butter and jelly. The PB&J Bars  I made from a recipe from The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook were an unexpectedly light (in texture, not in calories) treat that blended subtle peanut butter flavor with strawberry jelly and a vanilla glaze. They'd be a perfect dessert to celebrate someone's first day of school, or to just mark the start of the fall.

It looks like someone posted the recipe here, if you're interested. There are just a few days left in September to make them before pumpkin seasons hits.

Monday, September 24, 2012

You, Fascinating You

After I wrote this post, in which I raved about the nonfiction book Apollo's Angels, I was contacted by a small publisher, Pale Fire Press, regarding one of their current releases, You, Fascinating You. Since an historical fiction novel that touches on the world of ballet holds an obvious appeal for me, I eagerly accepted their gracious offer to send me a copy.

At the core of this novel is the true story of Hungarian ballerina Margit Wolf. Frustrated by the limited opportunities for her in Hungary, she and a few fellow dancers cast their lot in with an Italian man named Buffarino, an "impresario" who claims to have connections that will get them positions as ballerinas at La Scala opera house in Milan. Buffarino is more huckster than anything else, and Margit finds herself performing in a circuit of touring variety shows instead of pursuing the classical ballet career of her dreams. On these tours, she encounters Maestro Pasquale Frustaci, the womanizing composer for several Italian pop standards of the day, including one called "Tu, Solamente Tu" (which translated into "You, Fascinating You and was recorded by Glenn Miller in the U.S.). Margit and Pasquale end up marrying and having a son together, but are soon split up when an escalation in Italy's involvement in WWII traps Margit and her son in Hungary with her Jewish family while Pasquale remains in Italy. The novel wasn't quite as ballet-centric as I thought it would be. There were certainly a few references to things that I had a little extra insight into thanks to Apollo's Angels, but I actually found myself reminded more of another recent read, The Balkan Trilogy. Like Manning's novels, You, Fascinating You is filled with a sense of tension that results from characters being forced to wait for the course of the war to determine their fate. This is especially true during the middle part of the novel, when Margit's observance of the war is similar to that of someone watching events unfold on a stage without fully accepting that she herself will be pulled into the action. She ultimately must face this in a harsh way when she returns to her family in Hungary and is swept up in the many atrocities the Germans committed against the Jews there.

If there's one thing I wish the novel had done better, it would be to have more fully explored and exposed the inner workings of the relationship between Margit and Pasquale. We're told that she loves him and is drawn to him in spite of the many misgivings of her friends, but didn't see enough to explain why this is. I never warmed up to Pasquale as a character and and found myself firmly in camp with the friends who warned Margit against him. I would have liked to have seen some more moments that showed Pasquale through Margit's eyes. By seeing more of the good that she saw in him, I probably would have been more invested in rooting for their reunion in the latter half of the novel. On the other hand, if I had to name one thing that I think the novel did really well, it would be the ending. I wouldn't go as far as calling it a surprise ending, but Margit's circumstances at the end are revealed in such a way as to give the preceding story a frame that I hadn't expected and that was unexpectedly touching.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Friday Fancies

Now that fall is officially arriving and temperatures are starting to creep towards chilly, I'm excited to get back into a routine of cooking and baking that the summer heat had put a damper on. This weekend I'm hoping to make these savory hand pies and some PB&J bars from Back in the Day Bakery. Are there any fall recipes that you're looking forward to making?

(image via here)

If your answer to that question was anything from either of Sophie Dahl's cookbooks, then here's a little Q&A you might enjoy.

And another bookish Q & A with Emma Thompson.

A pretty hair tutorial.

A fashion blogger doing a series on literary inspired outfits (in three installments so far)

The book that I'm now most looking forward to reading despite having never heard of it before this week.

And for the first Christmas gift hint of the season- Penguin Drop Caps are going to be a new series of twenty-six classics with typography inspired designs. The first six are coming out this fall. I think if would be a fun game to try to guess the titles for letters G-Z.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Taking Pictures of Food

This is officially the last post you'll see about my trip to Maine. I intentionally saved the food recap for the end because I've only just gotten to the point where I'm no longer sick of lobster! At nearly every meal, I ate lobster in some form: lobster rolls, lobster tacos, lobster stew, lobster cobb salad, lobster mac & cheese. It was all delicious, so of course I couldn't resist taking a few pictures at the table:

Two examples of lobster rolls, plus some blueberry beer.

Lobster mac & cheese and in its more traditional form from Nunan's Lobster Hut, a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant near Kennebunkport where the atmosphere is rustic and the menu is basically just a matter of choosing what size lobster you want.  Then, for a little variety, organic, free range chicken with blueberry barbecue sauce from Bandaloop, one of my favorite restaurants anywhere.

Last but not least, tollhouse and blueberry pies, and one of the famous popovers from The Jordan Pond House in Acadia Park.

And with that, I think it's about time for lunch. Suddenly my turkey sandwich seems pretty uninspired.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Reading Edith Wharton

When I decided to join up with The Classics Club, I chose 49 classic titles to read or re-read. Then, after some great suggestions left in the comments, I decided to add an Edith Wharton novel as the 50th book on my list. Not any one in particular, just something by Wharton. I chose her because I felt like she was an under-appreciated writer for me. Aside from Ethan Frome, which I liked immediately when I read it in high school, her novels have never really done much for me. I’ve read, or attempted to read, her big three: The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and The Custom of the Country, without having much luck. The plots are blurred together in my memory and I’m pretty sure that at least one of those was left abandoned along the way. But, since many people whose literary opinions I trust rave about her work, I began to think that the problem might have been mine, not Wharton’s. Maybe if I revisited her work now I’d be in a better place to appreciate it. And so, with that thought fresh in my mind, off I went to the library. The result: Not only did the last book added to my list become the first one I tackled, it became the first three books that I tackled. I picked up an edition that included Ethan Frome, Summer, and Bunner Sisters, and I ended up loving all of them.

 Since I'm covering three books in a single post, I'm going to try to keep plot summaries short and sweet, which should be easiest to do with Ethan Frome. Many people are already familiar with the story, in which Ethan's bleak, isolated life running a failing farm and caring for his hypochondriac wife is enlivened by a brief and tragic love affair with his wife's young, lively cousin Mattie. I think Ethan Frome is a pitch perfect novel, which made it all the more surprising to learn from the book's Introduction that it actually began as a French composition exercise that Wharton did as a means of studying the language. I find it amazing that a novel that feels as careful and deliberate as this one does would have such unorthodox and mundane origins. The Introduction (which, let’s be honest, is something I usually skip over, but I came away feeling so interested in these novels that I went back and read it at the end), also drew parallels between the character of Ethan and the knights who turn up as characters in some of the poems of Keats. These knights become wrapped up in an infatuation with a representation of an ideal woman, but are only able to sustain their love while they maintain a distance from her; once they get too close and realize their fantasy of love, it destroys them. I was especially interested to read this because not only does it capture the relationship between Ethan and Mattie, but it’s also the same theme that I studied and applied to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work in my college thesis. I felt like pulling out a copy of that and adding a new chapter on Wharton!

In many ways, Summer feels like a sister novel to Ethan Frome. It's set in a nearly identical rural world and the protagonist, Charity Royall, is like Ethan in that she has a passionate sensibilities but, being poorly educated and restricted to the confining culture of a small town, has no outlet for them. No outlet, that is, until young architect Lucius Harney arrives in town to study some of the historic buildings. They fall in love but, this being a Wharton novel, things end badly. Of these three novels, Summer felt like the most nuanced and the hardest to describe to someone who hasn't read it. Although the relationship between Charity and Lucius is the focal point of the novel, I actually found the peripheral subplots and the overall atmosphere of the book to be even more interesting than the romantic pairing. There's a sense of menace throughout the novel that comes from a mountain that's adjacent to the town. Locals think of it as The Mountain, a sinister and wild place that's populated by a group of the poorest of the poor who are not part of the larger community. Charity is actually from The Mountain herself, having been adopted from there by Lawyer Royal and his wife, who has passed away. All of Charity's home and family life is very murky, with The Mountain lurking mysteriously in her past and Lawyer Royal, who continues to serve as her guardian, infusing tension into her present life by being alternately leering and adversarial to her. The book culminates with a series to events that leave Charity feeling that she has nowhere else to go but back up to The Mountain. It sounds half ridiculous, half melodramatic describing it here, but Wharton manages to turn it all into an extremely compelling story.

In Bunner Sisters, Wharton leaves small town life behind for working class Manhattan. The title sisters are Ann Eliza and Evelina Bunner, two spinsters who live together in a single room behind the small ladies' shop that they own just east of Union Square. As the elder sister, Ann Eliza takes on a mothering role toward Evelina, allowing her privileges like pouring out the first cup of tea and taking the larger slice of cake. Their mundane routine is interrupted when Mr. Ramy, a German clock maker, enters their lives. Ann Eliza briefly places her hopes on Mr. Ramy and allows herself to imagine being married to him. Soon, however, it starts to seem that Evelina is his favorite of the pair and his preference becomes an accepted, if mostly implicit, fact between the sisters. Ann Eliza is therefore shocked when, after seeming to court Evelina, Mr. Ramy proposes to her instead. After spending a moment savoring his offer, Ann Eliza reverts into her mother role and refuses him, knowing that it would crush Evelina. Mr. Ramy eventually does propose to and is accepted by Evelina, but their marriage is far from a happy ending. I found Bunner Sisters to be another example of how Wharton is able to carefully and deliberately paint realistic and nuanced portraits of marginalized characters. One small example that sticks out in my mind relates to the German accent she ascribes to Mr. Ramy, where t’s are often pronounced like d’s, and vice-versa. After Evelina becomes engaged to him, there is an instance where she is telling her sister about something Mr. Ramy said or did, and she says “he heart about...” instead of “he heard about...”. That’s it. It wasn’t anything blatant or over-the-top, and she resumes her normal, correct pronunciation later in the same paragraph, but it was a moment of enough significance to show how much influence Mr. Ramy was gaining over Evelina, and I thought it was an incredibly skillfull piece of writing. The final highlight I'll mention about Bunner Sisters is that it includes not one, but two ferry trips over to Hoboken, which is described as a pastoral kind of place that offers a break from the urban crush of Manhattan. When in Hoboken, the characters take note of the fresh air and see chickens roaming around in yards that were probably just around the corner from my current apartment!

All three of these works are centered around a common class of people and depict the hardships of rural or inner city life, which is a departure from the high society, Manhattan drawing room world with which Wharton is most often associated. That fact makes it that much more surprising that these were the Wharton novels that finally clicked for me. I'm hoping that this is just the beginning, though, and am looking forward to giving some of her more well known novels another try.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Singles

Everything about The Singles by Meredith Goldstein, from the title to the cover to the jacket copy, seems to hint that it’s a chick-lit book, which, to my mind, does the book a disservice. Not that there’s anything wrong with chick-lit. It's what I was expecting when I picked up the book, but it doesn't fully categorize the story that’s found inside the outer package. Admittedly, a plot involving five guests who turn up dateless to a wedding does seem ripe for stereotypical romantic entanglements, but, over the course of the wedding, the relationships between them develop in less predictable ways.

The five singles of the title are all slightly quirky, slightly dark characters. Yes, there is the longtime friend of the bride who finds herself as the only single bridesmaid, but there is also the bride’s depressive college friend who travels with a seasonal affective disorder lamp, an older uncle who leads a successful yet immature life in Vegas, and even an absent single, who decides to skip the wedding entirely. The five singles interact with one another in various ways and in various combinations. By the time the night is through, these interactions prove to be impactful enough to bring about a certain degree of change in all of them. The ending may be a little too neat and tidy to be completely believable, but the lead up to it offers some interesting character studies and makes this book a fairly quick but  satisfying read.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Fancies

After posting so many pictures of landscape and scenery from my vacation, I figured I should probably share a few of myself taken in Maine. Of course, given the amount of the aforementioned photos, it shouldn't be too surprising that most of the pictures of me are of me taking pictures!

Now for some (video-centric) links that I enjoyed this week:

I've started watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a cute and clever adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, told in the format of a modern-day Lizzie's video diary.

If you want something else to watch, here's some vintage footage of Anna Pavlova dancing. (To go off on a ballet tangent that may be more than you're interested in knowing, I used to think that old time ballerinas just weren't as technically good as modern ones because of things like the low height of their arabesques and their lack of jumping. After reading this book, I was fascinated to learn that, back in those days, it was actually considered crude and inelegant for dancers, female or male, to life their legs high or exaggerate their turnout. Those techniques developed in later years. )

I love sea glass and always look for it when I'm on the beach. After seeing this, though, I'm starting to think that I've been looking on the wrong beaches.

This peek inside the book The British Character Studied and Revealed introduced me to the fantastic cartoons of Pont that highlight some stereotypical British traits. You can see more here. I'm kind of obsessed with looking at them now.

And last, but by no means least.....Flight of the Conchords is back!!! (Kind of). You're welcome.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Franciscan Monastery

There's a Franciscan Monastery located right in Kennebunkport that's pretty unique in that, in addition to having a church and being home to a group of monks, it also operates a guest house that's open to the public. Although the term guest house sounds rather quaint, the actual lodgings look more like a college dorm, like a minimal but more affordable alternative to staying in a hotel. Although I didn't stay there myself, I did snap a few pictures as I walked around the grounds of the monastery, which include various monuments and shrines where people leave all manner of prayer offerings and tokens of remembrance.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Aunts Aren't Gentlemen

I'll be wrapping up my vacation recaps this week and thought I'd start easing back into book-centric posts with Aunts Aren't Gentlemen, the second Wodehouse book I've read and the first from his Jeeves and Wooster series. Apparently this was one of Wodehouse's later novels that was originally published in the U.S. under the title The Catnappers, which is more accurately descriptive of the story but much less comically intriguing.

As the story begins, an outbreak of spots on his chest has driven Bertie Wooster to see a doctor. The spots amount to nothing, but he's ordered to the country to try to counteract his late nights, frequent drinks, and otherwise harmful bachelor lifestyle. Wooster removes to a sleepy English village with his faithful butler Jeeves in tow. Also staying nearby is Wooster's Aunt Dahlia, who is heavily invested in an upcoming horse race that will pit her host's thoroughbred against that of his arch rival from across the village. His rival's horse has struck up a close relationship with a cat and, in an attempt to throw the horse off of this training, Aunt Dahlia forms a wacky scheme to kidnap the cat. She draws Wooster into the plan and, of course, madcap complications ensue. The entire plot is very tongue in cheek and quite funny, but funny in a way that tends to make me think, "Oh, that's clever" rather than actually laugh out loud. It left me wanting to read more from the Jeeves and Wooster series in the future, but not enamored enough to run out and get some more immediately.

If you've read Wodehouse, tell me- what other Jeeves books would you recommend?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Friday Fancies's possible there may have been a sneak peek of this post back on Wednesday. Someone who shall remain nameless may or may not have forgotten to schedule the date and time before hitting Publish while she was lining up some posts in advance. If so, just pretend you never saw that!

This week meant back to school for many of those who are still involved in school. I'm feeling in a slightly academic mood myself as I reread and rediscover some of Edith Wharton's novels. I find I have a completely new appreciation for them and feel an Edith Wharton phase coming on. I'll do my best to channel the urge to write a college paper about her work into a future blog post instead.

(image--inspired by Joe Fox--via here)

Here are my non-Wharton must-reads from the week:

I love this mini-series in which readers were asked to submit the story behind two photos by The Sartorialist. 

Panna cotta and anything with lavender are two of my signature desserts. I'm dying to try this recipe that combines the two. 

The latest preview of Downton Abbey Season 3. (Take note of the new tall footman!)

I want to knit everything in Brooklyn Tweed's Fall 2012 Look Book. First I should probably finish the current project I'm working on.

list of the greatest American novelists, as ranked in 1929. Some surprising choices, no?

And even though it's geared to people half my age, I'm oddly charmed by Amy Poehler's Smart Girls Ask Amy web series, where she gives funny and sweet advice in response to questions from teenage girls.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Another Morning in Maine

Just a few more pictures from the second leg of my vacation, a few days spent in Kennebunkport. Only a  couple of hours south down the coast, Kennebunkport has a beachy and relaxed feel that was nice after the comparative bustle of Bar Harbor. I could have easily spent another week there and fallen into the routine of a morning bike ride, midday beach time, and a little kayaking in the afternoon. (Very mild lagoon kayaking, which probably goes without saying for anyone who knows me, and me weak arms, in real life.)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Vacation Reading Recap

When I went on vacation, I intentionally packed books that I thought would be light, entertaining, and easy to breeze through. The four that I read during my trip ended up delivering on the first and third counts, but mostly fell a little short on the second. Don't get me wrong, they were all okay. There were things I liked about each of them, but I didn't really love any of them.

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones was the strangest book of the lot. Set in a Downton Abbey-like English manor, the novel centers around an eccentric family struggling to maintain a grip on the upper rung of the social ladder. As they gather to celebrate a birthday, their home is unexpectedly inundated by a group of lower class travelers seeking refuge from a nearby train accident. Theoretically this should have been a very mysterious novel, but the book's epigraph is so literal that it practically serves as a spoiler. I kept expecting some second twist, thinking that the author wouldn't give away the entire plot before page one. Although there were one or two surprising details, the novel ended pretty much as I had guessed and I was left feeling a bit underwhelmed.

Last Chance Saloon, picked up for a buck at a library book sale (not this fantastic one), was the first book I've read by Marian Keyes, a well known British chick lit writer. It follows three lifelong friends who grew up in a small Irish town and are now living a British Jones-esque lifestyle in London. When a serious health crisis befalls one of them, the other two are prompted to step out of the ruts in their own lives. This was actually my favorite of the group, as it was entertaining with a surprising amount of serious heft to balance out the humor.

Summer Crossing is one of Truman Capote's earliest, unpublished novels. Apparently he worked on it one and off throughout his life, only to lose the manuscript when it was left behind in a box during a move. Later rediscovered and published in its unpolished form, it chronicles a questionable summer romance of a young Manhattan socialite. The whole mood of the book reminded me of Mad Men, The Rules of Civility, or The Best of Everything. It contains many passages of truly beautiful writing, along with an equal amount of unpolished passages and details, making it obvious that this was an early work of a great writer still finding his footing.

And finally, I ventured into Georgette Heyer territory for the first time with Bath Tangle, about--you guessed it--a romantic entanglement set in Regency Era Bath, England. I had heard so much about how reading Georgette Heyer is the next best thing to reading Jane Austen and I have to say, I'm not sure I would go that far. I think there are a least two or three other steps separating the two. Although the details of Heyer's characters and settings were fun, the novel lacked the wit and heart of an Austen novel. I may try something else of hers again in the future, but I'm even more likely to reread one of my favorite classics if I'm feeling in the mood for a Regency Era fix.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Out to Sea

Just a few more pictures from Bar Harbor, taken during a morning spent on a boat ride that cruised around the coast and nearby islands of Acadia park.


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