Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday Fancies

Just a few book related finds to share this week:

(image via here)

Some interesting predictions from 1962 about what the book industry would be like in the 21st century. Some are pretty accurate, but some....well, let's just say that microfilm and speed reading haven't quite caught on as planned. 

One of my favorite Etsy artists has opened a new shop that pays tribute to late 80's/ early 90's book loving nostalgia. (Remember Scholastic book fairs and Pizza Hut's Book It program?) Very cute!

And my jaw dropped when I found out about The Literary Gift Company. I've barely scratched the surface of exploring what they have, but it seems like the place to find a little gift for a bibliophile.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Muriel Spark Reading Week

I have yet to learn how to leave McNally Jackson without buying at least one book. I can't help it--they just jump off the shelves at me, especially when I'm standing near the British fiction section. This past weekend, the jumper in question was The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. Perfect timing for some unplanned, spur of the moment participation in Muriel Spark Reading Week.

This was the first novel of Spark's that I've read. I actually didn't know much about her until a couple of years ago. To be honest, due to an unfortunate name association on my part, I may have subconsciously assumed she wrote bad romance novels in the vein of Nicholas Sparks. My ignorance couldn't have been further from the truth!

The Girls of Slender Means centers around the women living in a London boarding house called The May of Teck Club on the heels of WWII. While much of its surrounding neighborhood has been reduced to rubble, The May of Teck has seemingly escaped the war unscathed, with its residents pluckily carrying on with all of the standard activities of being a young woman-- working as secretaries, engaging in romantic intrigues, squabbling with the older matrons of the house, and squeezing through tiny bathroom windows to sunbathe on the roof.

Anchoring the cast of females is Jane Wright. She differs from the other girls by being plain and plump and by working not as a menial secretary, but in publishing, or, as Jane prefers to call it, "the World of Books". She prides herself on her "brain work", which often keeps her from joining in the more frivolous activities of the house.  Jane's "brain work" is primarily comprised of two things: writing carefully tailored fake fan letters to famous authors in the hopes of getting handwritten replies that she can sell to an autograph collector (for Hemingway, she poses as a recently released female convict, while an illegitimate child letter gets a sympathetic reply from Daphne du Maurier); and doing quasi-detective work for her publisher boss, gathering insight into potential authors so he can learn their weak points and pay them as little money as possible. In the course of one such investigation, Jane brings Nicholas Farringdon, minor poet, would-be author, and anarchist, into the world of the May of Teck Club. Fascinated by all of the girls in turn, Nicholas becomes increasingly drawn into the daily life of the boarding house.

The comic, slightly satirical telling of the present action of the plot is interspersed with snippets of scenes, from some undisclosed time in the future, that allude to the fact that Nicholas has been killed in Haiti while serving as a religious missionary. The circumstances of his demise are so far removed from everything else we've seen of his character that it's easy to assume that there must be a vaguely madcap explanation for them. It's only upon reaching the twist at the end of the novel (which is too effective to spoil by describing in detail here) that we see how the characters' lighter facades are altered by a truly tragic event. I was so impressed by the many layers of depth contained within such an easy wisp of a novel. I'll definitely be reading more Muriel Spark in the future.

(And in case you're wondering- yes, I will be referring to my job as "brain work" from now on.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Makings of a Reading Nook

Many months ago, I bought a vintage chair at Goodwill, with the intention of having it redone to use in a reading nook in my bedroom. After quite a bit of heel dragging, the "after" is finally ready to be revealed. Here's a reminder of the "before", covered in a worn out rose colored velvet:

And here's a peek at the "after", covered in a taupe and blue bird patterned fabric that I found on

I'm really pleased with how it turned out, although I will say that it was by no means a bargain. Even though the chair and the fabric were only $50 combined, the price of labor to have it reupholstered made it cost as much as a brand new chair. I think it was worth it, though, to end up with something that's one of a kind and exactly what I wanted.

Next up, choosing some art to create a wall grouping to finish off the reading nook. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sweet & Salty

Back around Easter time, I got to sample a few of the most delicious chocolates I've ever tasted, made by a local candy shop in North Jersey. What made them special was the fact that they were made of simple ingredients--like a large macadamia nut covered in a thin layer of caramel, a cluster of fresh shredded coconut, or a chewy dried apricot--all covered with a layer of high quality milk chocolate. In other words, a far cry from the overly sweet nougats and cremes that are found in your average box of chocolates. They were so good that I was inspired to raid my own pantry to see if I could recreate something similar.

Since I had some dried apricots on hand, I dipped them into melted semisweet chocolate.

I also used some chopped pistachios to make slightly salty chocolate covered nut clusters.

I'll admit that the end results were nowhere near as delicious as the professionally made versions, but they still hit the spot as a simply and satisfying treat.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Hons and Rebels

After having enjoyed reading The Sisters, a biography of the Mitford sisters, it was a pleasure to revisit some of the same territory in the memoir Hons and Rebels. While The Sisters weaves together the lives of all six Mitford girls, Hons and Rebels follows the thread of just one-- Jessica ("Decca"), the second youngest and arguably the most interesting of the sisters.

The first half of the memoir covers many of the same anecdotes as The Sisters, painting a vivid picture of life growing up in the midst of an eccentric aristocratic family. The two books begin to diverge when Decca reaches her teens. After witnessing two of her older sisters embrace Fascism during the pre-WWII years, Decca breaks with the rest of her mostly conservative family and turns to Communism. Joining forces with Esmond Romilly, the left leaning nephew of Winston Churchill whom she eventually marries, Decca runs away to Spain to join in their civil war, spends time living and working in some of the poorer environs of London, and finally emigrates to America.

Decca's remembrances of her earliest years in America is where Hons and Rebels really shines. She and Esmond walk an interesting line as they travel from city to city around the U.S. The social introductions they wrangle out of their British friends and family allow them to hobnob with an array of wealthy and influential Americans. At the same time, they live in humble apartments and take on whatever jobs they can get to pay their bills. Their life among the lower and middle American classes is due as much to their lack of funds as it is to their left leaning social interests.  Decca writes with a self deprecating humor about her misapprehensions as she struggled to reconcile British and American culture during those years, including  naive errors like expecting cookies to be small cakes baked into the shape of cooks, with hats and aprons piped on with icing.

Not long after these years, Esmond will be killed in battle while serving with the Canadian army. Decca will eventually go on to make a name for herself as a journalist and will get involved with the American Civil Rights movement. Hons and Rebels ends well before these tragedies and changes take place. It covers a short, seemingly charmed period in Decca's life in a way that makes for a charmingly vivid read that's a must for any fan of the Mitfords.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Friday Fancies

I'm in a weird reading mood right now, working my way through The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. A free copy that came my way has been sitting on my shelf for a good couple of years, so I figured it was about time to get around to it. It's not bad. I even might go so far as to call it compelling at certain moments. The problem is, in the past week I managed to add a ton of books to my To Read list that sound so good, I'd rather be reading any of them. I'm probably short changing The Lotus Eaters, but right now I'm just looking forward to getting through it so that I can move on to something else. Hopefully the rain predicted for this weekend will hold off just long enough for some gallivanting in the city, then arrive and give me an excuse to stay in and get some serious reading done.

On another note, I can't even begin to list my favorite things from this weekend without mentioning last Sunday's episode of Mad Men. I think it was the best one so far this season!

(image via here)

Some other noteworthy things from the week:

I absolutely hate waking up to my alarm (and even try to force myself to wake up a few minutes early so that I can shut it off before I have to hear it), so I was very intrigued when I read about this iphone app. I can't wait to give it a try.

This umbrella, which has been making the blog rounds this week, would brighten up a rainy day.

And for dessert, this twist on ice cream looks strange but delicious.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Most of the TV comedies that I consider favorites—Arrested Development, Flight of the Conchords, Seinfeld, earlier seasons of The Office—have long since gone off the air. Other than Modern Family, there haven’t been many comedies that I’ve been excited about watching lately…until I discovered Psych this past winter.

(image via here)
Do any of you watch? Although it’s been on for several years, it seems like a show that’s flown under the radar. Kind of like a funny version of The Mentalist, it follows the crime solving adventures of a fake psychic detective. The actual cases that are solved are all a little bit tongue in cheek (no “ripped from the headlines” drama here) and mostly serve as a backdrop for the dialogue between characters, which in my mind is the highlight of the show. It’s written in a way that’s funny and quick, with subtle one-liners and endless references to 80’s and 90’s pop culture, giving the impression that being a staff writer on the show would be one of the most fun jobs ever.

The season finale just aired last week, but I’d highly recommend checking out some episodes online and getting hooked before the new season starts in the fall.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hard Boiled

Up until last week, I had never cooked a hard boiled egg in my life. I won't shy away from rolling up my sleeves and trying out a new, complicated baking recipe, but, despite being a basic cooking skill, hard boiling an egg always seemed so mysterious to me. How could I be sure the egg was really done in there? And wouldn't it be hard to get the shell off once it was?

I'm not entirely sure what came over me, but on a whim I decided to try it and put all these questions to rest. It turned out so well that I've become a bit obsessed with making meals that incorporate hard boiled eggs. I tried out a couple of recipes from The Pioneer Woman, like a spinach salad with bacon, mushrooms, and grilled onions....

...and breakfast muffin melts that I made as a special birthday breakfast for my dad. These were a huge hit and couldn't have been easier. (Yes, that's some bacon again.)

I also tried one of Heidi Swanson's recipes for a French gribiche salad--hard boiled eggs with broccoli, asparagus, potatoes, and shallots in a light dressing.

Now there are no more eggs left in my fridge. Probably a good thing, for moderation's sake.

Are there any simple recipes or cooking techniques that you're too intimidated to try?

Monday, April 16, 2012


At the worst of times, reading a nearly 1000 page novel can be a long, tiring slog. At the best of times, it can be an experience that transports you into another world entirely. Luckily, Murakami's epic 1Q84 falls into the latter category. Each time I cracked its cover over the past weeks, I was excited to step into its alternate universe. Which is somewhat ironic, since the plot actually involves an alternate universe. It also involves a pair of star crossed lovers, an old fashioned private detective, ghostwriters and literary agents, religious cults, alter egos, hints of reincarnation, and a band of all-knowing "little people" who emerge from the mouths of sleeping people, dead bodies...or dead goats. In other words, it's nearly impossible to discuss the specifics of the plot, characters, or themes in a way that will make sense to anyone who hasn't already read the book.

As fascinating as all of the surreal elements are, I found myself equally, and possibly even more, fascinated by little details of the writing style and language choices. Small things that I noticed throughout the novel stacked up to create an overall tone that seemed to be equal parts Murakami’s own unique style, English translation choices, and Japanese cultural details. Here are a couple examples of the kinds of things I noticed, and what they left me wondering:

In certain scenes, the dialogue between characters is incredibly stilted and clinical sounding. Characters repeat what’s already been said and tend to describe their most minute, obvious actions. One specific instance that comes to mind involves two characters having dinner at restaurant together. One says to the other something to the effect of, “Let’s close our menus now so that the waiter will know to come take our order.” If I saw a line like this in any other book, I would likely dismiss it as bad writing, but somehow, in Murakami’s hands, I’m willing to go with it. I do wonder, though, if this was a deliberate stylistic choice on his part or if it’s something that would sound less awkward and seem less extraneous if read in the original Japanese.

Besides characters repeating lines of dialogue back to one another, there’s also a ton of repetition in the vein of plot points being reviewed over and over. Each new chapter takes time to recap what was happening with the characters when we last left them in an earlier chapter. Even the names given to certain characters or objects do this to a certain degree. Someone is referred to as being a certain character’s “older girlfriend” for nearly half the novel before she’s ever referred to by name. Again I wonder if this kind of repetition is something that’s common in Japanese literature or is it unique to Murakami? Was it included because the book was published in multiple parts in Japan (that were, amazingly, each translated by a different person)?

Although I did enjoy the overall story, what 1Q84 really left me with is a desire to read more fiction set in Japan or dealing with Japanese culture. Not only do I want to read more of Murakami’s work, but I’d like to find other Japanese authors to read as a point of comparison. Do tell if you have any recommendations for me on that front. And if you’ve read 1Q84, I’d love to know what you thought of it!

(P.S.- Apologies if the title of this post looks confusing. Apparently the new font I switched to doesn't really lend itself to capital Qs.)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday Fancies

This week, a post on The English Muse led to me a website where you can write an email to be sent to your future self. What do you think? Would you ever do it? It actually reminded me of a snail mail version  that I did in one of my high school English classes. We had to address letters to ourselves that the teacher was supposed to mail out to us in something like five or ten years' time. I still haven't received anything, which makes me suspect that the teacher probably just opened them all herself and had a good chuckle after we left class that day!

Some other interesting finds from the week:

In keeping with the dance theme from my last post, I think this documentary looks great.

Here's the first peek at the new novel by J.K. Rowling coming out this fall.

I love these extended takes on vintage photos by Spencer Studio.

Wouldn't you like to try some of these cleverly packaged wines?

I found out about a great blog that pairs up classic authors with literary inspired recipes.

And Millie's pick of the week is The French Dog. She's begging me to order it when it comes out next month.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dancers Among Us

The hardest part of my self-imposed blogging hiatus last week was having to wait to share an amazing art project I discovered, Dancers Among Us. It's one part photography, one part guerrilla ballet that captures dancers in unexpected, everyday scenes. The final shots are gorgeous, not least because of the surprised reactions from some of the unsuspecting bystanders caught in the scene.

All of the images can be found here, along with many others well worth a browse, more information about the project, and some interesting behind the scenes videos that show how these scenes were captured.

In other news, I'm in the running for the Independent Book Blogger Awards on Goodreads. I normally don't do things like this, but I figured, why not? If you're on Goodreads and are so inclined, you can send a vote my way using the link in my sidebar. Ironically, I probably don't seem like much of a book blogger based on the topics of my recent posts. Don't worry, I haven't given up on reading, I'm just deep into the middle of 1Q84. I have about 300 pages left to go, so more coming soon on that, I promise!

Monday, April 9, 2012


Two things that have been vaguely on my To Do list for a while are to finally join the Instagram bandwagon and to learn how to create moving .gif files. Both of those goals became obsolete today when I got the Cinemagram iPhone app.

I've been having too much fun playing around with it.

It's pretty addictive, so you'll probably be seeing more around here. Consider yourselves forewarned.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Happy Easter

Hope the Easter Beagle visits your basket today!


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