Thursday, January 31, 2013

And Speaking of Dresses...

In keeping with the theme from yesterday's post, here are two of my favorite dresses from the SAG Awards red carpet:

Something about the combination of the strapless top, full skirt, and unexpected pockets made Marion Cotillard look elegant yet relaxed in this dress.

As much as I hate to see Rory Gilmore with skeevy Pete Campbell, I thought Alexis Bledel looked pretty (and Atonement-esque) in this green dress.

And for a quick nod to jewelry, I loved the flapper-esque necklace that Amanda Seyfried wore. It looked like something that could have been borrowed from the the costume department of the upcoming Gatsby film.

Have you been following the awards shows this year? What have been your favorite dresses?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Secret Lives of Dresses

The best way that I can describe The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean is to say that it's a vanilla ice cream kind of book--pleasant while you're in the midst of it, but not special or memorable enough to make it a must read. 

The story is comfortably predictable. College senior Dora Winston leads a dull and uneventful life. She dresses in boring clothes, working a boring job in a coffee shop, and is about to aimlessly float into a graduate degree in liberal arts for lack of a better plan for her future. Dora is unexpectedly forced to snap out of her bland existence when the grandmother who raised her suffers a sudden stroke. Dora rushes home to be with her and to take charge of her grandmother's vintage clothing shop. Immersed in all things vintage, Dora begins to find a new purpose in life. (Of course, she also finds a new potential romance with a young contractor in town.)

The key twist in the novel, which is hinted at in the title, comes about when Dora discovers that her grandmother has a stash of stories that go along with different dresses in the shop. Told in first person from the point of view of the dresses themselves, they describe key moments in the lives of the women who originally wore them, ranging from the beginning of an extramarital affair to a sweet moment between a mother and her children. At first, these dress stories were a nice change of pace from the main plot line. After a while, though, I started skimming, and eventually began to entirely skip over the sections of italicized text that signaled them. In theory, I liked the idea of the dress stories, but in reality they didn't add much to the book besides an unexpected twist related to them that comes at the end of the novel. 

The bottom line is that the novel as a whole was much like Dora's character--kind of flat, even after it developed. If this book crosses your path for some reason, it could be worth a read. Otherwise, I don't think it's one to seek out.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Friday Fancies

The only coping mechanism I've found for the frigid temperatures this week has been to come home from work, blow off any semblance of responsible chores, like cleaning my apartment or working out, and instead indulge in a book, a blanket, and a big mug of hot tea. In my case I've been re-reading Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, in the pretty Folio edition that I fought for in Maine last summer.

Since I was hit with the flu last Thursday, here are some links I've collected over the past two weeks:

A cool photo series.

A nice article about Edith Wharton's birthplace (a.k.a., a Starbucks on 23rd St.)

The Myers-Briggs personality types of fictional characters. In case you were wondering, I'm an INFJ type, which matches up to Little Women

An Ideal Bookshelf print that I think I must have. The books in the grouping could have been hand picked for me.

And another food and books blog worth checking out.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Pym I've Been Waiting For

My first lukewarm Barbara Pym reading experience left me with the opposite reaction of what one might expect--I was dying to read another one of her novels. Specifically, I was dying to read the highly recommended Excellent Women in the hopes that it would be the Pym novel that would make me see what all the fuss was about. I'm happy to report that it was, it did, and it all around exceeded my expectations, possibly even joining the ranks of my favorite books of all time.

In Excellent Women we meet the wonderful Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried thirty-something woman living in a quiet corner of London. Although still young by today's standards, Mildred is resigned to a life of spinsterhood. At times she seems content with this path, busying herself with stereotypical activities like church jumble sales and reveling in the small pleasures of her daily routine. At other times, though, she seems to chafe against this role and experiences mild bouts of bitterness and depression over the way she feels herself to be taken for granted by society. Her feelings of discontent emerge even more upon the arrival her new downstairs neighbors, Helena and Rocky Napier, with whom she shares a bathroom. Helena is an anthropologist who refuses to cook or do housework, shows the bare minimum of neighborly courtesy toward Mildred, and has an overall air of blasé glamor about her. Rocky is a handsome and suave former Naval officer who has the talent of making anyone he talks to feel as though they're the mod witty and fascinating person in the world. He turns his charm on Mildred and she soon finds herself drawn into the Napiers' world--attending anthropology lectures, dining (and drinking) out, and making endless pots of tea as she listens to the details of their latest marriage crises. Mildred's involvement with the Napiers pushes her out of her comfort zone and she finds herself balancing her new world, and a tentative new friendship with aloof anthropologist Everard Bone, with her old obligations, like her long standing friendship with the local vicar, who's on the cusp of abandoning  bachelorhood for marriage. Soon Mildred unexpectedly finds herself to be a part of two separate yet equally awkward love triangles. She also begins to feel overwhelmed with exhaustion from being drawn into the problems of everyone around her. As the plot moves along, we wonder, will Mildred be able to define the life she wants for herself, and live it according to her own terms? Or will she continue to be defined by the demands and expectations of others?

As I read this book, I couldn't stop thinking about what a nice change of pace it is from so many other novels. Some stories create an engaging world where interesting things happen, but rely on unrealistic or convoluted plot devices to do so. These can be very entertaining, but often have little in common with real life. Other times (and often more annoyingly), a story will be very realistic and gritty, but with just a vague plot that obliquely hints at a capital M meaning hiding behind mundane details. Excellent Women breaks both of these molds. It portrays a believable slice of a small world where the daily comings and goings of its inhabitants make for an extremely compelling plot and have a deeper meaning that most people can relate to. It's filled with the kind of humor that comes from seeing the little absurdities in everyday life. It's also filled with a bittersweet sense that comes when events and people fail to live up to the expectations. Pym herself probably says it best in the book when she writes, "after all, life was like that for most of us--the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longing rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs or history or fiction". 

All of this makes for a very cozy little book, the reading equivalent of a warm winter blanket. As soon as I finished it, I wanted to go back and reread it again, which is exactly what I indulged in a few days later when I was struck down with the flu. When I pulled it back off the shelf, I realized that I had unconsciously placed it next to the lovely Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith. This unintentional pairing made me realize that Glaciers is a modern novel that actually has a Pym-like quality to it, not necessarily in terms of Pym's humor or wit, but in its focus on the tiny quiet rituals that mark a day in the life of the main character. I highly, highly recommend reading both novels. And in the meantime, I'll be working on reading more of Pym's novels.

(P.S.- I generally prefer editions with "pretty" covers rather than covers that try to literally illustrate a scene from the book, but I came across this one and think that it perfectly captures Mildred and the Napiers.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Darlings

I recently received a review copy of The Darlings by Cristina Alger to promote Penguin's release of the paperback edition. I had actually looked at this book several times when it was first out in hardcover but, for whatever reason, hadn't pulled the trigger on reading it. It's a novel that's best described as a combination of what I might call a financial thriller and recession fiction. And while those sub-genres may sound very different from the types of books I commonly pick up, the combination of them actually made for a pretty entertaining read.

The novel centers around the prominent and wealthy Darling family: patriarch Carter, CEO of a successful financial firm, his typical Park Avenue wife Ines, his glamorous daughter Lily, and his smart and sensible daughter Merrill. Living up to their surname, they truly are the darlings of Manhattan's social and business worlds. In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, the Darlings are just managing to stay afloat and maintain their lavish lifestyle. Then scandal hits when a prominent suicide brings to light the fact that Carter's company had ties to a Bernie Madolf-like Ponzi scheme. It becomes clear that someone from the Darling family will have to take the fall, and a race to reveal the truth will determine whether that person will be Carter himself or Merrill's earnest and hardworking husband Paul, an honorary Darling by marriage, who finds himself torn between family loyalty and his own integrity.

A large cast of supporting characters--from lawyers to journalists to SEC investigators--becomes involved in unraveling the truth about the Darlings, and, although these ended up being some of my favorite characters in the book, this was one area in which I thought the novel faltered a bit. Each and every character was vividly and sympathetically drawn, managing to humanize even the most unlikeable of them. However, going into such detail about all of the peripheral figures had the negative side effect of breaking the momentum of the main plot at times. The beginning of the novel felt like a slow enough start as each of the main Darling characters was introduced. Then, just when the action started rolling and I found myself getting invested in the suspense of the financial investigation, there would be a break when a new supporting character came on the scene, and his or her backstory would be covered in detail. These backstories were all well crafted and made me feel invested in the characters in question, but ultimately left me feeling a little bit unsatisfied at the end of the book when there was no real resolution for them. I would have preferred to either see these subplots edited down or cut entirely, so as not to feel like such a tease, or to see the book lengthened just enough to devote some time to wrapping them up.

That being said, the times when the main action of the book kicked in were truly suspenseful and engaging. The Darlings is a novel that deals with meaty, timely topics, but in a way that still manages to feel like a frivolous, purely entertaining read. If corporate thrillers or white collar suspense novels are your thing, then this novel might be worth trying for a new variation on a theme.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Cookbook Roundup

After a few new additions that came in the form of Christmas gifts, my cookbook collection is officially bordering on the verge of being out of control. The three newest members of my kitchen are a pretty diverse bunch, each offering a chance to escape into a different culinary world depending on my mood.

First up is Jamie's Great Britain, which is filled with traditional British foods for every type of meal. Of course, the recipes appeal to the Anglophile in me (I say that a lot on this blog, don't I?). This is the first  Jamie Oliver book that I've ever owned and I was pleasantly surprised by how appealing many of the recipes sound. Although there's one chapter devoted to wild game of the venison and rabbit varieties that I'll completely ignore, that will just leave me with more time to focus on the sweets in the chapter on afternoon tea. I've already tried making an Earl Grey tea loaf and a banana and walnut loaf with chocolate butter, pictured above. The chocolate butter is proving to be a perfect treat. It's sweet and decadent, but with a consistency that's still enough like real butter to keep me from eating it by the spoonful (as opposed to, say, a jar of Nutella).

Next is From a Polish Country House Kitchen, co-written by a Polish and an American author, that gives fresh, updated versions of the food of my ancestral homeland. It's supposedly Polish food updated for the modern palette, and at the very least that's true in terms of the look and feel of the book itself. It's filled with beautiful photos, gives some interesting background information on Polish cuisine, and has a focus on using local, seasonal ingredients. Of the three new books, the recipes in this one will be the most challenging to master. So far I've made one batch of stuffed cabbage that I wasn't entirely happy with, but I'm going to press on. I think some of the really complicated recipes, like homemade pierogis, will be a good project for some snowy Saturday.

And finally, I got The Vintage Tea Party Book, which is a collection of vintage-inspired recipes centered around various type of tea parties. It has decorating, craft, and fashion ideas, too, which makes it a fun book to look through. I haven't made any of the recipes yet, but have my eye on some brie and walnut savory scones for some Downton Abbey watching festivities in the near future.

Have you discovered any good cookbooks lately?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Look on the Sunny Side

Since I'm afraid that all of my Winnie-the-Pooh experience is of the Disney variety, The Sunny Side was my first encounter with A.A. Milne's writing, adult or juvenile. Prior to gaining fame for his children's books, Milne was a contributing writer to the British humor magazine Punch. This book is a collection of short stories and essays taken from that period of Milne's life.

Although the collection boasts both stories and essays, the line is very blurred between what is pure fiction and what is a fictionalized account of Milne's own life. The pieces are loosely grouped according to theme, such as home life, wartime, etc. Throughout all of them, Milne writes with a voice that's sweet, funny, and a pleasure to read. His tone has a tendency to be self deprecating, with several stories poking fun at personal mishaps that get him into trouble, from minor white lies, like pretending he's read a book that he hasn't, to more absurd situations, like posing as a bird expert during a weekend holiday in the country...until an actual bird expert unexpectedly joins the party. At other times he writes with a slightly more serious undercurrent, like in he wartime story "Common" about a little stuffed dog that serves as a good luck charm in the trenches of World War I. It's by no means a heavy or sombre story, but it manages to mix a poignancy in with its humor. 

Oddly enough, this is a collection that has grown on my over time since finishing it. I think I made the mistake of reading it cover to cover, which caused many of the pieces to blend into one another. Looking back, I would have preferred to read just one or two stories at a time to let them sink in and give myself more time to appreciate little gems like this quote from the book:

"We all have one special book of our own which we recommend to our acquaintances, regarding the love of it as perhaps the best passport to our friendship."

While I'm not sure that one book can make or break an entire friendship, I do think that a commonly loved book can help forge a bond, even more than a shared taste in music or movies can. Do you have a favorite book that you'd consider to be a ticket to your friendship? 

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Heiress

Over the weekend I saw The Heiress on Broadway.

The play was written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz in 1947 and is based on the Henry James novel Washington Square. The current Broadway version stars Jessica Chastain as Katherine Sloper, a shy and awkward young woman, David Straithairn as her wealthy doctor father, and Dan Stevens as a potential suitor for Katherine. Although all of the action takes place in the confines of the Sloper's drawing room, it's actually quite a suspenseful story, filled with layers of questionable motives.

It was a treat to see a group of such well known actors, especially Jessica Chastain (now I'll be rooting for her during the Golden Globes and Oscars, even though I haven't seen the movie she's up for).  While all of the performances seemed equally strong, it was Dan Stevens and his Matthew Crawley aura that drew audible gasps and swoons when he made his first entrance!

And the next time you're in the mood to watch a classic movie, I'd highly recommend the 1949 film version starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, which I think remains the gold standard adaptation.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Friday Fancies

There's a very good chance that my Friday posts for the next few weeks may fall into a repetitive pattern of gushing about the latest episode of Downton Abbey. Did you watch it last Sunday? It was a great episode that left me feeling reassured that the writing for the show is still in top form. There were so many little scenes that I loved, from the allegiance between Matthew and Tom to the running joke about the casualness of black tie tuxedos. And of course, Lady Violet's one-liners were better than ever and had me laughing out loud (and still chuckling about some of them the next morning).

Last but not least, I have to mention Mary's wedding look, especially her veil and headpiece. Weren't they gorgeous? I have a feeling it may spark a trend for early 1920's style weddings. At the very least, it prompted me to break my self-imposed rule about posting my own photos today. 

A few other things, just on the off chance you're not a Downton fan:

An interesting article discussing the unexpected connection between F. Scott Fitzgerald and PG Wodehouse

A lovely new blog venture that I'll be keeping my eye on.

And a little something for Martha Stewart fans. (Remember when I encountered her this summer?)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise was one of the most unexpected reading treats I've encountered in quite some time. Although it's a novel set in modern times, it has an otherworldly, fairytale-like feel because the action is centered around a group of residents who live in the Tower of London. Balthazar Jones is a Beefeater, one of the royal guards who is stationed to live in the Tower and guide tourists around its most infamous historical sights. He lives with his wife Hebe, who is one of two employees at the London Undergound's Office of Lost Property that deals sundry lost item ranging from glasses, books, and canes to tomato plants, magician's coffins, and locked safes. Balthazar and Hebe have had a strained marriage ever since the unexpected death of their young son several years earlier. 

While the core of the novel deals with Balthazar and Hebe coming to grips with their grief, both individually and as a couple, the  very real emotional heft of their struggle is nicely offset by their unique living situation and the quirky cast of supporting characters that surround them, including the lonely Tower clergyman who pines for a wife while secretly writing award-winning moralistic erotic fiction (the proceeds of which he devotes to a home for reformed prostitutes) and the coworker of Hebe's who likes to try on the various costumes that turn up in the lost and found--like a Darth Vader suit--and catches the eye of an unlikely suitor in the process. Balthazar himself has the odd hobby of collecting jars of rain, and can differentiate hundreds of kinds of rain by smell alone. Things get even more quirky when the queen sends a collection of zoo animals to live at the Tower in attempt to recreate the royal menagerie that existed there in centuries past. 

I promise, it's all much more charming and whimsical than it may be coming across from my summary. Julia Stuart strikes a perfect balance between the serious themes in the book and their more magical context. I finished this around Christmas (so technically it belongs on this list) and don't think I could have picked a more enjoyable book for holiday time reading. The thought, "I just love this book" kept running through my head each time I picked it up.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Figgy Pudding

One final holiday post to share one of the new desserts I tried making this season, a traditional English Christmas pudding.

I'll admit it was more the Anglophile in me than anything else that prompted me to try making this. The ingredients and process, as well as the use of term "pudding" itself, are all quite unusual compared to the typical American dessert. The pudding preparation actually began several weeks before Christmas. I combined a laundry list of ingredients--everything from dried fruit, flour, and shortening to grated carrots and apples to brandy and Guinness-- in a mixing bowl and steamed it in a stove top water bath for a whopping seven hours. Then, after sitting in the back of the fridge until Christmas Eve, I steamed it for another two hours before unmolding and serving it. The prominent flavors in the finished pudding were sweetness from the fruit and Bradny, and the overall consensus was positive. I'm not sure if it will become a yearly tradition, but it was a fun project to try at least once.

The pudding recipe I used came from a source that some people might actually be skeptical of: Celebrate, Pippa Middleton's cookbook/ entertaining book.

I picked this up for a look out of pure curiosity when I saw it in the bookstore and was so pleasantly surprised by what I found inside that I ended up buying it. Divided into four seasons, the book offers recipes, party themes, and decorating suggestions for a a variety of holidays and occasions. The ideas may not be anything that Martha Stewart hasn't already covered in her day, but I found them to be festive and inspirational in an accessible way. I've tried out several of the other recipes besides the pudding so far, including bean stuffed peppers, butternut squash lasagna, and a chocolate coffee cake with a buttercream icing, and all have turned out delicious and have met with rave reviews. I'm not naive enough to think that Pippa herself necessarily created all of these on her own without the help of recipe developers and food stylists, but I do think the overall collection is a worthy book that can be enjoyed by an audience beyond just curious Royal-watchers.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Belated Bests

I'm about a week late with this, but I so enjoyed reading other bloggers' best of 2012 lists that I was inspired to put together one of my own. Here are the books that I most highly recommend from my reading last year.

As far as classics go, 2012 was the year that I discovered a new love for Edith Wharton. I also discovered two of her lesser known works,  Summer and Bunner Sisters , both beautifully written, tragic, and thought provoking. If you're looking to stay in the territory of a more well known classic, I'd recommend The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesy for a well done reimagining of Jane Eyre. And if you're interested in something of a forgotten classic, and don't mind sinking your teeth into a long read, I'd suggest trying The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, which I found to be surprisingly captivating.

As far as modern literary fiction goes,  The Lost Garden by Helen Humphries and Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith were two of my favorites. For more of a period piece,  Rules of Civility by Amor Towles combined a compelling story with a fun, 1930's New York setting.

If you're someone who likes reading futuristic fiction or magical realism, I'd recommend giving Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell or 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami a try. Even readers who normally stay far away from those genres might just find themselves engrossed by these epic stories.

If you're in the mood for a nostalgic read that will lift your spirits, I can't say enough good things about Emily of Deep Valley,  a sweet novel written by Maud Hart Lovelace, the author of the famous Betsy-Tacy children's series.

And for any nonfiction readers--though admittedly probably just those who are interested in dance-- Apollo's Angels by Jennifer Homans gives a comprehensive and fascinating history of ballet from the 1700s to the present day.

Those are my highlights. What was your favorite book that you read last year?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Friday Fancies

Today I thought I'd take a minute to talk about (gloat about?) some of the books I received as Christmas gifts. For anyone who has read this blog for any length of time, it should come as no surprise that a couple of pretty Penguin classic editions were in the mix, specifically the Drop Cap edition of My Antonia by Willa Cather and the Mr. Boddington's Studio edition of Little Women. I also received a new Persephone title, Mariana by Monica Dickens, and a three book boxed set of nonfiction memoirs and travelogues about France by classic authors James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson, and, most exciting for me, Edith Wharton. I have a lot of good reading ahead of me this winter!

Just a few links this week, due to a combination of some eye strain and an overflowing Google Reader that I still need to catch up on.

These Stay at Home Club items seem very apropos as we enter the winter hibernation season.

This review of Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford made me wish that I had tracked down a copy for the holidays.

And for anyone who's counting down until 9pm this Sunday, here's a Q&A with Jessica Fellowes, niece of Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

As part of my continuing effort to ease into the new year, this is going to be a short and sweet post about what is now the third Muriel Spark novel I've read, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Of the two other Spark works I've read, I loved The Girls of Slender Means but found Symposium to be a little too creepy to wholeheartedly enjoy. For me, this novel fell somewhere between the two, combining satirical humor and an entertaining premise with some decidedly darker tones.

Spark's most well known, and arguably most beloved, novel follows Jean Brodie, a woman in the self-described "prime" of her life who teaches at a Scottish girls' school. Her teaching style incorporates everything from passionate lectures about art and history to passionate reminiscences about her love life. Although these unorthodox ways understandably raise the eyebrows of school administrators, they captivate Miss Brodie's "creme de la creme", a group of six girls who remain her devoted pupils even as they graduate and move out of her immediate class. As the girls age, they become more and more involved in the love triangle between Miss Brodie and two of the male teachers at the school, one of whom is married. In typical Spark style, the novel jumps between the present and the future, foreshadowing a time when one of the girls in the group will betray Miss Brodie. Revelations throughout the story both helped the puzzle to come together and increased my intrigue in reading on to find out what was going to happen. The darker tones I alluded to weren't necessarily any more sinister than what I've encountered so far in Spark's other works, just a little more unexpected. It seems to me that Spark always walks the line between satire and sinister and it was surprising, and at times unsettling, to see her dark humor applied to a group of young school girls. Compounding this was the way in which Spark's narrator is able to deal with the present and the future in the same breath, sometimes following a description about one of the young girls with a commentary about the kinds of adult women they turn into. This definitely isn't a typical boarding school novel, but it is an interesting read.

(It also just happens to be another book to cross off my Classics Club Challenge reading list.)

If any Spark fans out there have read Miss Brodie, I'd love to know what you thought of it.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Easing Back In

Happy New Year! I think that January 2nd, and the back-to-reality rude awakening it brings, might just be the worst day of the entire year. Which means that 2013 should be uphill from here on out!

I always have big blogging plans for holiday breaks, but when the vacation days actually arrive, I just can't bring myself to sit in front of my laptop for any length of time. I decided to ease back into regular posting in the most painless way possible- by posting a few pictures from Christmas.

Pretty Packages

Beagles Opening Stockings: Before, During, After

Sweet Treats: Holiday Cupcakes; Mulled Wine; Poached Pears with Cranberries, Walnuts, and Blue Cheese

Tree Treasures

Anyone else having a hard time easing back into reality? More importantly, did anyone get any good books as gifts?


Related Posts with Thumbnails