Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday Fancies

Earlier this week, the night before an impending snowstorm that only amounted to rain, I took Millie out in the yard and just happened to glance up and see a very dramatic looking moon. Of course I ran for my camera to snap a picture.

(moon over almost-Manhattan)

And speaking of Millie, it makes me happy that the phrase "beagle family" was a common search term that led people to this blog in the past week!
Ann Patchett's bookstore.

A vending machine for books.

A series of photographs that blend the past with the present by combining images of modern day San Francisco with scenes from the earthquake of 1906.

Holiday cards with a literary bent, featuring Christmas scenes of authors' homes.

Yet another online source for cute specs. (Bad news for a glasses collector like me.)

Anyone up for a group re-read (or first time read) of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding in the new year?

And a list of "made in America" companies for your holiday shopping. Will you be trying to buy anything made in America this year? I was pleasantly surprised to see that I've already bought a gift from one of these companies.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Shakespeare's Kitchen

I didn't intend to take a week long break from blogging, but the kick-off of the holiday season got the better of me. Between eating leftovers, decorating my apartment, and causing undue stress for myself on Cyber Monday as I spent the night watching a site I wanted to order from crash, my thoughts about Shakespeare's Kitchen kept getting pushed to the back of my mind. There appears to be multiple books with that title, so to be clear, the one I'm talking about isn't this cookbook, featuring Renaissance recipes for the modern cook, but rather the short story collection by Lore Segal.

The stories in this collection are all linked and build upon each other, very much in the vein of Olive Kitteridge if that book were less poignant and more quirky. Segal's stories follow Ilka Weisz, an academic who leaves her New York City circle of friends to take up a position at a university in a seemingly bucolic Connecticut town. There she slowly finds her place within a new circle of friends, at the center of which are Leslie and Eliza Shakespeare of the book's title.

The first stories in the collection chronicle Ilka's feeling of loneliness and her attempts to ingratiate herself with potential new friends. The writing style throughout the book, and particularly in these early stories, allows the reader to experience some of the same feelings that Ilka experiences. Names and brief descriptions of supporting characters are presented one after another, creating a sense of confusion that is much like Ilka's when she is first dropped into a large set of new acquaintances. Segal seems to view everything with a wry sense of humor and uses many unique, almost gleeful descriptions of mundane things, like when Ilka eats a "triangle of pizza that behaved like Dali's watch and kept folding away from her mouth". At first, this writing style alone made the stories delightful to read. As the larger narrative of the linked stories progressed, however, I found myself getting more and more annoyed by Ilka. In the beginning, her fumbling attempts at making new friends are sympathetic and relateable. I viewed her as the character to root for as she butted up against other characters' eccentricities. Once Ilka found her footing among her new group, my attitude began to change. Her own eccentricities and shortcomings became apparent and at certain times I found my loyalties shifting to favor the supporting characters over Ilka. Although this fact made me lose reading steam the further I got into the book, I can't really disparage it because in some ways it's just another example of my earlier point, about how the writing style mimics the emotional experiences of the characters. Over the course of the stories in the collection, we see Ilka as a lonely outsider, then as the new friend in the group, who delights and is delighted by everyone around her, and finally as a settled insider, who has deep relationships, both good and bad, with various members of her circle. The evolution of my feelings toward her during the course of my reading very much matched the fictional evolution of characters' attitudes toward each other as the plot progressed. I can't help but think that's an impressive feat for a story collection to achieve, regardless of the personal enjoyment I got from reading it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gobble Gobble

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hope your tables are set for some good food, food family, and good friends tomorrow. I'll be spending the rest of today making a couple of tried and true dishes, like creamed corn and sausage stuffing, and trying out a couple of new recipes for cranberry sauce and sweet potato cupcakes. I may pop by these parts again on Friday, if I can tear myself away from Black Friday shopping.*

(last year's Thanksgiving table)

*Just kidding. Small Business Saturday is way more my speed!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Grumpy Old Men

Jane Gardam is an author who I've been wanting to read for quite a while. I've heard many good things about her work, all more or less along the lines of the fact that she's a treasured British writer who's under appreciated in America. It didn't take many pages of Old Filth to realize that all of this praise was warranted and that Gardam does indeed write beautifully. Yet in spite of that, much of this book was a slow go for me. The story takes a circuitous route, weaving a meandering path through the life of Sir Edward Feathers, nicknamed "Old Filth", which stands for the acronym "Failed In London, Try Hong Kong". Feathers is a retired lawyer who made a name for himself as a judge in Hong Kong. He's well known and well respected throughout the legal community, but assumed to be just a staid old man by all of his professional acquaintances. They aren't privy to what we come to learn as we see scenes play out from various phases of Old Filth's life: his birth and early years in Asia, his time spent as a "Raj orphan" living with a foster family and at a boarding school in England, his coming-of-age during World War II, and his final years with his wife, to name just a few. 

Gardam writes in such a way that Old Filth's memories of all of these times in his life merge with and flow into the mundane moments of his current condition as a lonely retiree in the English countryside. It's impressively well done, but, like I said, just didn't resonate with me for some reason. I actually think it may have had something to do with coming too close on the heels two other books about older men looking back on their lives, Ancient Light and The Sense of an Ending. Besides making me feel a little bit fatigued with reading about this type of character, Banville's and Barnes's novels got me used to the added layer in which the character doing the reminiscing is suspicious or doubtful of his own memories.  This added a nice tension that I found lacking in Old Filth, in which Old Filth's memories are (for the most part) treated in a more straightforward way. It's the outsiders who are in the dark about the details of Filth's biography, not Filth himself. 

The one element of tension that pervades the novel is a murky image of an incident that happened during Filth's time with his foster family. Vague details are alluded to, like an abusive foster mother and a tragic occurrence that resulted in Filth being removed from the home, but we're never told exactly what happened. It's as if Filth knows the facts but had suppressed them from the part of his memories that we become privy to throughout the story. It's only at the very end of the novel that the truth comes to light, both for readers and for Filth. When the details of this mysterious incident were finally revealed, it was somehow simultaneously exactly what I was expecting and not at all what I was expecting. The excitement of this revelation in the final thirty pages or so made up sit up and engage with the book in a way that I hadn't up until then. I can't say that it was enough to make me love the book as a whole, but it did leave me firmly convinced that I'll give more of Gardam's work a try in the future.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bittersweet Bounty

About two years ago, a small used bookstore opened in my hometown. This was cause for both excitement and disbelief on my part. Excitement because, well, it's a bookstore. Disbelief because my hometown isn't exactly the kind of place where you would expect a bookstore to open and thrive. In spite of that (and in spite of being located in a unit adjacent to an auto repair shop), the owner turned it into a very cute place, with cozy decorations, comfortable chairs, and a decent selection of books. I was therefore really disappointed when I recently stopped by and discovered a sign announcing that the shop was set to close in two weeks. It's always sad to see a book business fail to make it. I felt especially guilty in this instance because I had only been into the shop three or four times during visits home, and usually traded in more books than I bought. To assuage my guilt a little, I entered the shop determined to find a few books to buy as a way of bidding it farewell.

Turns out, I didn't need much determination at all because the shelves seemed to be stocked with books directly from my To Read list, including two Barbara Pym novels, a Murakami novel, and Cecelia by Fanny Burney. And as if these finds weren't enough, the owner insisted on taking the entire payment out of my past credits for trade-ins, so I ended up not paying a penny for any of them.

Second only to my windfall in Maine this summer, this was one of my luckiest used-book shopping experiences ever, albeit a very bittersweet one.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Friday Fancies

I'm getting a late start with my Friday post today, but I think I have a good excuse- it's my birthday today! My first order of business was to take the day off work and sleep in a little. I also fully subscribe to the idea of celebrating my entire birthday week with little treats here and there. These are usually just really simple things, like treating myself to a few extra fancy drinks from Starbucks or to a rereading of Persuasion, that still somehow make the week feel special.

 (my Dad and I celebrating a birthday from the past)

Then there's always the option of vicarious online treats, like some of these:

A behind-the-scenes peek at the upcoming film adaptation of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding.
A new, pretty series of classics from Penguin Classics.

Season 2 of The Hour is getting closer--it just premiered in the U.K.

Have you heard of The Book Depository? I just discovered it thanks to a tip from Anbolyn and I have a feeling I'll be placing some orders in the future.
And in a bit of a departure from most of my wardrobe, I find myself drawn to these patterned pants.

Have you treated yourself to anything lately?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Do Not Disturb

My trip to Boston a few weeks ago had a decidedly literary theme to it. The day after visiting The Mount, we went downtown to check out the Boston Book Festival. Held in the Boston Public Library and spilling out into the neighboring Copley Square area, the festival was made up of outdoor exhibitors and vendors (which, to be quite honest, were underwhelming) and a series of literary talks by an array of authors ranging from the big name to the more academic. We sat in on one of the latter, a lecture called "Great Brits and Books" that was put on by the British Consulate.

The talk was interesting, if a bit unfocused. Rather than keeping to one unifying theme, the panelists jumped around among topics that were related to their own personal areas of specialization--Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and J.M. Barrie. Although I wouldn't say that I learned anything groundbreaking, a few interesting tidbits of information did come up. For instance, one of the scholars on the panel has studied the way that books were used and viewed in Victorian times. One specific detail she discussed was they way that books provided freedom and escape to women who had narrow roles in society at the time. My immediate assumption when she raised this point was that she was referring to freedom through exposure to new ideas in books, but no. It turned out that she was referring to something much more literal--the way that holding a book up in front of her face was like a "do not disturb" sign for a woman back then, allowing her to briefly escape household or societal distractions. The discussion eventually wound its way  around to the idea that cell phones are today's cultural "do not disturb" sign, which is very obviously true to anyone who's ever ridden public transportation during rush hour. People who pore over their phones on the subway always give off the impression that they're  either really busy, really important, or really diligent, forced to stay connected at every moment and keep up with emails as soon as they come in. It always amuses me when I get closer peek at their screens and realize that most of them are just playing games. Of course, sometimes I'm guilty of using my phone to pass the time, too, but more often than not I just silently laugh to myself as I go back to the book I'm reading.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

Like many who have read and enjoyed the Harry Potter series, I was curious to see what J.K. Rowling's first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy would be like. I was eager to read it, but not excited enough to run out and buy it as soon as it was released. As I waited for my requested copy to come in through the library, I began to grow a little wary. I saw several reviews of the book along the lines of, "it's well written, but nothing really happens in the story and it wouldn't be a big deal if it came from any other author" that my expectations were lowered enough to make me approach the book with caution. But now, after finishing it, I feel confident telling anyone who might be on the fence about reading it to throw caution to the wind and jump in. If you liked Rowling's writing in Harry Potter, I think you'll enjoy this too, even in spite of its vastly different subject matter.

The subject matter of The Casual Vacancy sounds banal enough--a small British village is up in arms when a local councilman dies and a special election is held to fill his seat. For a story that takes place in a tiny geographic world, it's peopled with a huge cast of characters from all walks of life, all finely and realistically drawn, and all preoccupied with their own set of prejudices and conflict, some petty, some not. They view the village's election through the lens of these preoccupations. As a result, we see how the unexpected death of one seemingly ordinary man has a ripple effect on the lives of a widely diverse group of people.

Many other reviews of the book I've read have made the same point I'm about to make, but it bears repeating--The Casual Vacancy truly is for adults and many of its characters deal with troubling social issues that aren't really appropriate for young children. What I think it does have in common with Harry Potter, though, aside from Rowling's skill as a vivid storyteller, is an unflinching views of its subjects. As the Harry Potter series progressed, I recall that critics frequently pointed out the way that those books, in a departure from many other children's books, openly dealt with death and loss in their storylines. The Casual Vacancy is equally open and honest about the flaws of its characters. Every character in the book is obviously flawed, some to a fatal degree. It's an ambiguous world in which the "good" characters can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from the "bad" ones. Yet event the blatantly "bad" characters, as annoying and hateful as can be, are portrayed with nuance and complexity. Although many of the characters and their actions are by no means likable, they're all fascinating. In this way, The Casual Vacancy is both a big departure for Rowling and a book that continues to play to her one big strength--creating vivid imaginary worlds that readers can spend endless amounts of time getting lost in.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Living without heat last week turned out to be the perfect excuse to bake a lot as a way of using the oven to warm up my apartment. One of the new recipes I tried out was a Spiced Pumpkin Cookie recipe from the Pretty Delicious cookbook. They turned out to be a very odd little seasonal sweet. After baking, the cookies came out with a very cake-like consistency and never spread out into a flat, round shape. To top it off (pun intended), the pumpkin glaze for the topping turned out kind of sticky and never really hardened into an icing like the recipe promised. I was pretty disappointed and thinking that this recipe wasn't a keeper....until I tasted them and discovered that they tasted like really good, baked pumpkin doughnuts.

Their size and shape even makes them look a little like doughnut holes. They may not be the most photo-worthy of desserts, but if you're looking for a pumpkin-y treat for fall, or if your looking to fool someone into thinking that you slaved over homemade doughnuts, then this is your recipe.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Friday Fancies

It feels good to be back to a regular Friday roundup after the chaos of last week. I still don't have heat or hot water in my apartment so things aren't completely back to normal, but I do feel like I've more or less caught up with things. Now I feel in the mood to pull up a chair with a hot cup of tea and catch up with some things from around the blog world:

(photo taken in Copley Square, Boston)

First, I have to link to this post if only to say, check out the size of those meringues on the counter in the first picture!

Have you guys seen these Goodreads Live interviews yet?

Here's some unique semi-permanent jewelry in the form of a screw cuff bracelet.

On a less frivolous note, there are still a lot of hurricane related stories and pictures floating around the way. For me, the most jaw dropping were these interactive before and after satellite shots of the affected areas.

With 50% of proceeds going to charity, these prints by artist Sophie Blackall are one of the prettier relief efforts I've seen.

And yes, we did get a dose of wind, snow, and slush as Nor'easter came up the coast yesterday (salt, meet wounds). It actually wasn't that bad, though, and these photos take a beautiful view of the storm.

Anyone have any fun plans for the weekend? Or will you be getting a jump start on winter hibernation?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ancient Light

If any of you are like me and are fans of watching The Voice on NBC, then you'll be familiar with the "battle rounds" of the competition. For any of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, that's the point in the show where the celebrity singing coaches/ judges pair up two singers from their teams who have similar styles and make them sing duets. Whoever gives the best performance gets to move on to the next round. If I were judging a literary version of The Voice, I would probably have to pit John Banville's new novel, Ancient Light, against a novel I read at the beginning of this year, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Both books share narrators who are older men looking back at pivotal moments from their youth, torn between their memories and their awareness of the unreliability of memory.

In Ancient Light, the older man in question is Alexander Cleave, an aging British stage actor. In the novel's present tense, Cleave is acting in his first ever film role, forging a friendship of sorts with the young starlet who is his costar. During the course of this acting job, Cleave also undertakes the task of recording in his journal the events of an inappropriate affair he had with his best friend's mother when he was a teenager. The action jumps back and forth between these two story lines, mingling in Cleave's more recent memories of the unexpected and unexplained death of his troubled adult daughter ten years prior.

Banville has a very lyrical style of writing that's in full force here and it gives an elegiac quality to the memories that are are dealt with in the novel. As a narrator, Cleave frequently points out bits of memories that he knows are inaccurate, such as the way that he pictures an incident unfolding against the backdrop of a spring day when he knows for a fact that it happened in the fall, or the way that characters in his memory wear very specific articles of clothing that would have been outlandish had they worn them in reality. Cleave often comes across as being bemused or charmed by these tricks of the mind, and is at the very least resigned to accepting them as an integral part of the history he's constructed for himself. This attitude is somewhat different than that of the narrator in The Sense of an Ending. Although that narrator was also very forthcoming about the possible inaccuracies of his memories, he also seemed to be more suspicious of them, and certainly not resigned to accepting them. There's the sense that he thinks he can somehow get to the bottom of his memories and reconstruct the true version of events, which is ultimately played out in the way the plot of that novel progresses.

It's tough for me to decide which treatment of memory I prefer. Banville's might be more beautiful but Barnes's has a certain tension to it that I also liked. If it did actually come down to a head to head competition, I think it would be a real toss up.

(And yes, I did just spend an entire post connecting two Booker Prize-winning authors to a reality singing competition show. You're welcome.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Visiting The Mount

 When Hurricane Sandy hit, I had just returned from a short trip to Boston, where I spent a long weekend visiting my friend Lara. On that Friday, we drove out to The Berkshires and spent the day visiting Edith Wharton's historic home, The Mount. Of course I snapped a lot of pictures while I was there, if you'd care to see.

Wharton was an avid book lover and collector and the library at The Mount is filled with thousands of books that belonged to her personal collection. There are apparently another couple thousand that are not on display because they are still being reviewed and studied for all of the notes Wharton wrote in the margins. Wouldn't that be a fascinating job to do?

The Mount was sold after Wharton relocated to Europe and it changed hands several more times before being restored as an historical site. Because of that, most of the furniture (aside from the library) in the house are new reproductions and not the original items that Wharton actually used. You might think that this lack of artifacts would cause The Mount to lack a sense of authenticity, but I actually found the opposite to be the case. Because the majority of the pieces are not precious antiques, you can fully wander through the rooms, even sitting down if you'd like. You have the sense that you're experiencing the rooms the way that Wharton did.

Wharton's bedroom was light, airy, and feminine. Her routine was to spend the mornings writing in bed, dropping each handwritten sheet to the floor once she had filled it. She also loved her dogs and made them an integral part of her home, as represented by the small stuffed versions that are strategically placed around The Mount.

I found Wharton's views about decorating a home to be very inspiring, both in terms of her larger ideas about creating beautiful spaces for yourself and in terms of small, specific things, like the way she surrounded herself with books and incorporated them around her home. Books are casually stacked on tables or tucked into nooks and crannies in nearly every room. Touring The Mount made me feel reinvigorated to think about the way I decorate my space and creating some new groupings of books may be an easy place to start.

The grounds were beautiful, too, albeit a bit subdued now that the fall is turning colder. Visible from nearly every room, the gardens serve as an extension of the home and mimic Wharton's preferences for balance and symmetry of form.

The Mount was by far my favorite historical home I've ever toured. It's a must-see in New England for literary and interior design buffs alike.

Monday, November 5, 2012

When in Doubt, Read Something Fun

I can't help but think that one of the best things to do when faced with unexpected events or an interruption to your routine is to pick up a light book that offers an entertaining and comforting read. When In Doubt, Add Butter by Beth Harbison is a perfect candidate for just such a book.

To get the obvious out of the way up front: Yes, the cupcakes on the cover were a major factor for me deciding to read this. But once I got beyond that, I found a very cute story that's centered around thirty-something private chef Gemma, whose trials and tribulations unfold against the backdrop of the lives of her various clients. All of the typical chick lit elements, like the "good guy" Gemma will end up with and the "bad guy" who will distract her, are there and easy to identify. Then an unexpected plot twist turns everything on its head and you realize that nothing is what you thought it was. Clever and fun, this is one of the better quick, feel-good novels I've come across in a while.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

We Interrupt This Broadcast

As some of you know or may have guessed, my unplanned blogging silence over the past week was a result of Hurricane Sandy hitting the East Coast. My personal storm saga began on Sunday, as I was on a train heading back from a weekend in Boston. The train was packed due to Amtrak canceling service later in the day. During the course of the trip, I found out that my company was closing for two days in anticipation of the storm and that some parts of my town were being evacuated. As a result, I got off the train in New York and headed directly to my family's house to ride out the storm. (The irony that I was leaving Hoboken and heading closer to the eye of the storm at the Jersey Shore was not lost on anybody.)

I think the general mood leading up to the storm was that people were concerned and taking serious precautions, but that deep down everyone thought it would leave most areas unscathed the way that  Hurricane Irene did last year. The early part of Monday seemed to support this way of thinking. It was the kind of stormy day that made you glad to be able to stay inside and catch up on blogs or watch a movie. Then the power went out. And the wind whipped up. We spent the next two days in the dark with a battery radio as our main source of news about the damage that many local areas were facing.

Hoboken was hit very hard with flooding and power outages, and my office ended up closing for the entire week. I'm finally venturing back to my apartment this weekend, but am not sure if I'll be able to stay there immediately without power and hot water. The subway lines that run between New Jersey and Manhattan were flooded out and are still closed, resulting in enforced carpooling and gas rationing around the region. 

Back here at the shore, my family has a second house a few towns south, where we lived until I was in kindergarten. It's located on a lagoon, on the mainland directly across from Long Beach Island, one of the barrier island communities that was hit very hard by the storm. When we went to check on that house the other day, we found that about 2-3 feet of water had seeped in. Although it receded on its own, water had to be mopped up of the floors, some furniture and a carpet had to be trashed, and some of the sheet rock on the walls is going to have to be ripped out and replaced. One of the most dramatic sights in that neighborhood, though, was the boats that floated off in the storm surge and are now strewn around the yards of some of the other homes.

Finally, I'll just end by saying that this post and these pictures are meant to be a little glimpse of what I've seen of Sandy. I don't want to over-dramatize my personal experience and I'm certainly not trying to solicit sympathetic comments. It's been an unusual week filled with some uncertainty and inconvenience, but the clean up and repairs that my family is facing are very, very minor in comparison to the devastation in some of the hardest hit areas.

Now, fingers crossed that I'll be back to regularly scheduled blogging next week.


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