Friday, December 21, 2012

Friday Fancies

First off, thank you to everyone who entered or commented on my giveaway for Me Before You. In the interest of being both random and festive in picking the winner, I put slips of paper with each name into a stocking, closed my eyes, and picked:

Congratulations, Some Day is Right Now!

Email me your address at: miss(dot)bibliophile(dot)blog(at)gmail(dot)com and I'll get your copy out to you shortly.

In other news:

Tiny Christmas books that contain intricate works of art.

An Etsy artist who puts a unique spin on the ubiquitous antlers-as-wall-art.

Hot rollers de-mystified.

And this may be old news to anyone in the UK, but did you know you can go ice skating at the Tower of London? The especially caught my eye since the Tower is the setting of the book I'm currently reading (more on that on the other side of Christmas).

Last but not least, I want to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday. I really appreciate everyone who takes time to stop by this little blog of mine and hope that however you spend the holiday, it's your own perfect combination of family, friends, good food, festive music, and maybe a book or two!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Old School Cookies

I had a holiday "aha" moment last week when I saw this post and realized that vintage Christmas cookie books from the 1970s-1980s may be a more widespread phenomenon than I thought, going  beyond my own family's bookshelf. All of my favorite Christmas cookie recipes come from one beat up, mid-eighties era cookbook, the likes of which I would never give a second look to if I saw it in a bookstore today.

It's falling apart, filled with stains, and its production value is a far cry from some of the eye candy cookbooks that I've come to love, but its recipes yield the best cookies. So far this week I've make big batches of two varieties: Chocolate Cherry Chips and Cream Cheese Gems. This year I've been really diligent about scooping out tiny balls of dough to achieve paper thin cookies that have a slightly chewy quality that I love and practically melt in your mouth. They've given rise to a slight family debate, as my mom now says she prefers the thicker, chunkier cookies she used to make when she baked these recipes. I get the last word, though, by resorting to the argument, "well, if you want thicker cookies, you can bake a batch yourself". (All in good fun, of course.) Where do you stand on the thin vs. thick cookie debate?

(P.S. - Tomorrow I'll choose and announce the winner of my very first giveaway. There's still a little time to enter, if you'd like.)

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Streak

I'm fresh off of finishing two books in a row that both failed to live up to my expectations for them.

 First was In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, the nonfiction account of the American ambassador to Germany in 1933, during Hitler's rise to power. Like in his earlier acclaimed book The Devil in the White City, Larson focuses this story around two principle figures, Ambassador Willam Dodd, a Chicago academic who was something like Roosevelt's fifth choice for the post, and his twenty-something daughter Martha, who accompanies her father to Germany on the heels of her divorce. Once they are settled in Berlin, the Dodd family becomes reluctant witnesses to the increasing power of the Nazis. As the book chronicles Dodd's official duties and Martha's active social life, it emphasizes the complicated grey area that marked much of the American perception of Hitler in those early days. Although the Dodd family is disturbed by various acts of violence against foreigners and mistreatment of German Jews, they still count certain Nazi party members as friends and allies, and tend to believe Hitler's assurances to the outside world. Their hopeful, or some might say gullible, attitudes erode as the book progresses and the writing on the wall becomes more legible.

Although this is certainly a worthy and interesting story, it just didn't hold me in its grip in the same way that The Devil in the White City did, perhaps because the ultimate outcome of the story is already common historical knowledge. The individual episodes portrayed in the book are heavily focused around diplomatic meetings, events, and government correspondence, which naturally make the story lean a little more toward the dry end of the spectrum. There were a couple of interesting details that stood out to me, like appearances by famous writers like Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolfe in Martha's circle of friends and the way that Roosevelt comes off as much more of a waffling politico than he's typically portrayed as being. In spite of these highlights, I found that I had to push myself to make it through to the end of this book.

The second disappointment was The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty, which was widely raved about when it came out this past summer. It's a fictional telling of movie star Louise Brooks's first trip to New York City. At he behest of her parents, Louise, who is headstrong and dangerously wise beyond her years, travels in the company of a chaperone, Cora Carlisle, a Kansas wife and mother of grown children who as a secret reason of her own for wanting to visit New York.

The first chapter or so started out really strong, making me think I was in for a treat. The story is really more Cora's than Louise's, and the way Cora is characterized at the beginning made her seem like a complex and likable character. There's one fantastic passage early on where Cora listens to a neighbor extol the "good works" the Ku Klux Klan is doing. Cora, while internally revolted, knows that she must be careful not to be too vocal in expressing her dissent. Instead, she targets her neighbor's weakness--a desire for wealth and prestige. Trading on the fact that she is the wealthier of the two, Cora implies that she is staying away from Klan activities because they are "common" and instantly see her neighbor's opinion change. It was such an interesting passage in that it showed Cora as someone who was capable of using cunning tactics in pursuit of good. I had hoped to see more of this complexity as the story progressed, but unfortunately, it didn't make as strong an appearance as it did in that first scene. Instead, the emphasis turned to Cora's "prudish" morals in the face of Louise's outrageous behavior,  Which were played up to the point of irritation. I found myself siding with Louise as they butted heads and came to view her as the more interesting character. I would have preferred to have seen more time devoted to getting inside Louise's head instead of just relegating her to a rebellious thorn in Cora's side.

Not to belabor my negative reaction here, but I really felt like this was a book where the more I read it, the more I disliked it. I'll admit that a lot of that may have had to do with the particular mood I was in at the time. As increasingly dramatic revolutions were made, I found myself craving more quiet, slice-of-life kind of story. I will give The Chaperone points for the ease of Moriarty's prose. It made for a quick read, which was a bit of salvation when I got to the later chapters of a book that went on for long beyond the point at which the story could have ended.

I can't wholeheartedly recommend either of these (unless you're an avid history buff--then In the Garden of Beasts might be worth a try). A book that I can recommend, however, is the one you can win in my giveaway. You still have until Thursday to enter!

Have you had any big reading disappointments lately?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday Fancies

This is the third Christmas that I've lived in my apartment and I've finally reached the point where I've perfectly honed my holiday decorations: wreath on the mirror, lights around the windows, tabletop tree in place. But my favorite decoration is actually the lit garland I put on my mantle (or faux mantle, I should say, since it's a ledge against a brick wall with no fireplace in sight). Each year I love finding new little treasures, usually silver and sparkly, to tuck into it. One of my new additions this year is a miniature domed cake stand that I filled with mirrored ornaments.

Now for some links from the week. Surprisingly, most are non-holiday related:

Houses of Fiction is an art project that showcases dual versions of famous literary rooms. One is a literal representation of the room as described in the story, the other is a more metaphorical interpretation of the madness experienced by the fictional character who inhabits the room.

A thought provoking post about commenting on blogs.

Fun photos using record covers.

Would you wear the entire text of a classic novel?

And to end on a somewhat seasonal note, who doesn't love a good holiday book gift guide? This one is for you if cookbooks and coffee table books are your thing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Me Before You (and a Giveaway!)

I recently accepted an offer from Penguin to receive a review copy of Me Before You, the new novel by Jojo Moyes. Apparently quite successful in the U.K., it's being released here in the U.S. at the end of the month. Billed as an unexpected love story between an ordinary girl and her wealthy, moody, wheelchair-bound boss, it sounded like a novel that would have a Beauty and the Beast dynamic, or maybe even some hints of Jane Eyre and Rochester. Since that would be right up my alley, I jumped at the chance to preview the book.

After reaching the final pages, possibly with slightly puffy eyes, I can safely say that Me Before You was not at all the novel that I was expecting. It's a true tearjerker without being a "downer", which, to my mind, most often connotes characters who are bleak, depressing, or unlikeable. That's not at all the case in Me Before You, with its vividly drawn, immensely sympathetic characters who just happen to face a tragic fate. This is the kind of book that offers a good cry, yet also delves into some serious and potentially controversial issues.

As the novel opens, twenty-something Louisa "Lou" Clark is jobless and living a very small, very ordinary life in the town where she grew up and still lives with her family. As a last resort to find work, she takes a job as a paid companion/ caregiver to Will Traynor, a thirty-something quadriplegic. Will had lived a very flashy, high-powered life until a sudden traffic accident left him in a wheelchair, practically homebound, and very bitter. Although initially resistant to and critical of Lou, Will slowly thaws to her personality. And while she cheers him up and takes him out of his own head, he in turn broadens her horizons, introducing Lou to new books and music and encouraging her to think about her future more that she's wont to do. Just as their friendship starts to take off, and just as we get hints of deeper romantic feelings between them, Lou discovers that Will has plans to end his own life, and has even gotten his parents to agree to take him to an assisted suicide center in Switzerland at the end of a six month waiting period. Lou's mission then becomes to do everything she can to show Will that he can still experience a life worth living. As the novel starts to approach its conclusion, we're left in suspense, wondering, along with Lou herself, if her efforts will be enough to change Will's mind.

The only qualm that I can point to in the entire novel is a small piece of Lou's characterization. Her narrow horizons at the beginning of the novel manifest themselves through a limited knowledge of many cultural and life experiences, which makes sense, but also through a limited knowledge of how to use a computer. During a scene in which Lou visits the local library to research and plan an outing for Will, she actually seems to be using a computer for the very first time. For a novel set in the mid-2000's, I just didn't think this was plausible, no matter how small of a place one comes from. That's really just a small, nit-picky complaint, though, in the face of what's an overall emotional, engrossing novel.

(Just for fun, I'm already casting the film adaptation in my head. The role of Lou is still up for grabs, but I have Johnny Lee Miller in mind for Will and, in an unexpectedly dramatic turn, Jemaine Clement as Will's New Zealand born healthcare aide.)

And last, but not least, since the nice people at Penguin also sent me a second galley copy of Me Before You, I've decided to spread a little holiday cheer and try my first ever blog giveaway! If you'd like to win a copy for yourself (and if you're a U.S. resident), just leave a comment below by 11:59pm EST on Thursday, December 20th. I'll randomly choose and announce a winner next Friday, December 21st.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

It's That Time of Year Again...

...for pictures with Santa!

This year Millie (left) was joined by my parents' dog Olive (right), only jumped off Santa's lap once, and only pulled his beard off twice. In other words, things went ever so slightly more smoothly than last year.

You could also say that it's the time of year when it's easy to push blogging onto the back burner in favor of holiday preparations and events. I'm definitely guilty of that, but I do have a book review in mind for tomorrow, along with something that will be a blog first for me, so I hope you stop by again.

Don't you just hate it when bloggers are coy and tease about upcoming posts? ;) 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Friday Fancies

You know how every year, there's one person in your family who is impossible to shop for at the holidays? This year, I think I'm in danger of becoming that person in my family. I really can't think of any suggestions to give them when they ask what I want for Christmas. So what I want to know today is, what's on your holiday wish list this year?

(I reserve the right to steal any and all ideas for my own list.)

Really hoping that this future BBC miniseries eventually makes its way to U.S. television.

Nancy Mitford wrote a Christmas themed novel? Who knew!

Why are camera bags so pretty yet so expensive?

I'm thinking of downloading one of these to make my computer time a little more festive.

And watch out Maddie, Momo may be giving you some competition.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Miss Buncle's Book

 Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson was one of the first books that I can remember becoming aware of when I started discovering book bloggers who read and write about lesser known, early-to-mid twentieth century, often female, often British writers (a very specific niche indeed). Since then, I'd always had it in the back of my mind as something I needed to get around to reading. When I noticed the cover below staring up at me from the new paperbacks table at the Barnes & Nobel in Union Square, I snapped it up, my excitement over the unexpected find only dampened by a tiny amount of guilt over the fact that I wasn't reading the pretty Persephone edition. That was really the only downside to what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The novel is set in the small English village of Silverstream. A short train ride away from London, it's the kind of place where everybody knows everybody's business and where freshly made buns are still delivered to your doorstep every morning. Barbara Buncle, frumpy and forty-ish, is one of the most unassuming and overlooked of the villagers. In the midst of the Depression of the 1930's, she finds herself needing to supplement her dwindling income. After dismissing an ill-conceived scheme to raise hens, she settles on plan B- writing a novel under a pseudonym. Since Miss Buncle is a keen observer and can only write what she knows, she ends up with a novel that's a barely veiled version of the people and places in Silverstream (a villager named Colonel Weatherhead is turned into the fictional Major Waterfoot, etc.). Throughout her book Miss Buncle's characters behave exactly as their real-life counterparts do until The Golden Boy, an inexplicable and random pied piper figure, comes marching through the town. His presence brings clarity to and ignites the passions of Miss Buncle's characters, all of whom start behaving in extraordinary ways. 

Much to Miss Buncle's surprise, her books gets published and becomes a runaway hit. Her amazement turns to dismay when her neighbors begin reading it. Recognizing themselves, a witch hunt of sorts erupts. The town becomes determined to unearth the author of the novel, never once suspecting that it could be Miss Buncle. In an ironic twist in which life starts to imitate art that imitates life, the villagers are shaken out of their usual behavior patterns and start to act in unexpected ways, just as they do in the second half of Miss Buncle's novel. In the "real" Silverstream, the disruptive role of The Golden Boy turns out to be played by Miss Buncle's book itself.

For a novel that's set in a very ordinary sort of world, Miss Buncle's Book is actually a bit mind-bending to summarize. I won't even try to explain the details of the point at which you realize that you're reading a novel about a novel about a novel. I'm sure there's some postmodern interpretation that could be made if you were so inclined, but I'd rather just focus on the fact that this was a really fun story to read. Stevenson writes in a way that's a nice blend of humor and coziness. She pokes fun at various characters without seeming mean or snide; she describes the details of the setting in a way that made me want to jump right into the book, like when Sarah Walker, the town doctor's wife, sits up late in the study waiting for him to come home, reading eating a poached egg and cup of cocoa from a tray; and I don't think it will be giving too much away to say that she manages to pull off a very satisfying ending by granting happy endings to exactly the characters you want them for.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Christmas in New York

Hosting a friend visiting from out of town last weekend was the perfect chance for me to play tourist and show her around some of the holiday sights of the city. And when I say play tourist, I mean it, from taking pictures at every corner to getting yelled at for standing in the way of a line snaking around some of the holiday windows.

I kept up just enough grumbling about the crowds to maintain some of my credibility as a local.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Feel Good Books

With the holiday season in full swing, I find myself wanting to read a very specific type of feel good book. Not necessarily books with a holiday theme--although those can be festive, they also seem to be few and far between. The feel good books I'm talking about are the ones that manage to combine a story that completely absorbs me with a theme that's just uplifting enough to restore my faith in humanity a little. They're the kind of books that you want to read while curled up by a fire and leave you feeling full of the good cheer of the season. Lucky for you, I have two books that fit the bill perfectly.

The first is a book by Maud Hart Lovelace, who many people know as the author of the beloved Betsy-Tacy children's series. When I stumbled across Emily of Deep Valley, a standalone book she wrote for adults, I was intrigued enough to pick it up. 

Two caveats to what I just said. First, although it's an adult novel, it still deals with a group of very young characters. Emily, the heroine, just graduated from high school in the class of 1910 in Deep Valley, the same town that serves as the setting for all of the Betsy-Tacy books. Which brings me to my second caveat, that although it is a standalone book, there are some cameos made by the author's other characters, like Betsy and Tacy themselves. Those more famous characters are a few years older than Emily, who is a smart, sweet, and reserved girl who's always been a little bit of an outsider, even among her group of school friends. Orphaned at a young age, she lives with her elderly grandfather and it's because of her devotion to him that Emily stays behind in Deep Valley after graduating. Once the rest of her class leaves for college, Emily finds herself struggling with feelings of being left behind, stuck in an old version of herself while everyone around her moves on and changes. It's a universally familiar situation that makes it impossible not to root for Emily as the novel progresses and she begins to find small ways to find her place in the world and define herself according to her own terms. It's a simple, quiet story that's innocent without feeling too saccharine. Some of the details of the time period naturally feel a little big quaint, but overall the novel still manages to feel modern and relevant. There's even a part of the plot involving Emily's work with a group of Syrian immigrants that seems almost startlingly current. There's a lot to love about this book, whether or not you're a Betsy-Tacy veteran. I liked it so much that when I finished it, I was in the mood to read something else I'd be guaranteed to love. That meant there was only one thing to do: re-read Persuasion

This time around, just a short way into the story of Anne Elliot, I was struck by the fact that Austen's oldest heroine struggles with many of the same themes that are prominent in Emily of Deep Valley. At twenty-six, Anne's starts out as a passive character living in a world where everything is changing around her. Her family home is being let out to save money. Her father and older sister are looking forward to moving from the country to Bath. Her younger sister is married and absorbed in herself and her own affairs. And with one broken engagement and one refused proposal behind her, Anne doesn't seem to have any life changing prospects ahead of her. Ultimately it's the reentry of Captain Wentworth, her former fiancé, into Anne's life that gradually spurs her into small acts that allow her to strike out against the current that she's being swept on by her family and friends, acts like visiting her poor friend Mrs. Smith instead of her aristocratic relatives or stepping out of a receiving line to acknowledge Wentworth. Although it might seem like Wentworth comes back to Anne and saves her, this reading made it apparent to me--and I know I'm about to sound like a women's magazine here-- that it was really through her own volition that she managed to improve her own life. (The other thing this reading made me realize is that, despite being one of my favorite Austen leading men, Wentworth starts out as kind of a jerk! Luckily he redeems himself well by the novel's end.)

So, do you have any recommendations for feel good books this time of year?  And more importantly, will you indulge me and let one paragraph about Persuasion count toward my Classics Club challenge?  Two down, forty-eight more to go.


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