Monday, September 23, 2013

Farmers Market Envy

With only a month or so left in the farmers market season in my area, I need to make a conscious effort to get there more often. I went to my town's market fairly regularly at the beginning of the summer, but I've been feeling uninspired by it since coming back from Maine, where I stumbled upon an amazing one. It was small but well represented with vendors selling everything from produce, breads, and cheeses to flowers, homemade wine, and, of course, fresh lobster, crowded with locals who probably line up every Sunday morning to get a coffee and stock upon their locally grown treats for the week.

My biggest regret was that I didn't have the means to bring home anything and had to limit myself to browsing and snapping some pictures.

What's the best thing at your local farmer's market?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Mary Stewart Reading Week

I'm so glad that Anbolyn spearheaded Mary Stewart Reading Week this week because it prompted me to read The Moonspinners, which in turn finally allowed me to fully appreciate the appeal of Stewart's writing. I've read two other novels by Stewart and thought they were okay, but wasn't enamored with them. I kept getting hung up on some dialogue that sounded a bit dated and on extensive descriptions of landscapes, which aren't my cup of tea. (Although the latter is 100% my problem, and not Stewart's. If you are into reading descriptions of landscapes, she writes lovely ones.) Something clicked with The Moonspinners, though, and I found myself quickly engrossed and fully entertained by it.

The heroine of The Moonspinners is Nicola Ferris. In what seems to be true Stewart fashion, she's a plucky, parent-less girl in her early twenties who doesn't hesitate to get caught up in danger. Nicola is also very independent with a worldly, urbane streak, which keeps all of that pluck from becoming twee. She and her older cousin, Frances, go on holiday in a rural, sleepy Greek seaside town. While exploring the surrounding mountains, Nicola stumbles upon Mark and Lambis, a young English tourist and his Greek guide, who are holed up in an abandoned shepherd's hut while Mark recovers from a gunshot wound he received after accidentally stumbling upon a murder in progress. Nicola is quickly swept up into the mystery and a series of adventures ensues, with many twists and turns that I won't spoil by trying to describe.

With its exotic Greek setting and its mid-century time period, I could easily imagine The Moonspinners as a classic film, with Nicola played by Audrey Hepburn in a Roman Holiday-esque dress. The novel's face paced action seems like exactly the stuff of movies. There are a lot of "only in fiction" elements to it, not least of which is the amount of adventure and trouble that the characters are able to squeeze into just two days' time! But that just added to the charm of it for me and made for a truly fun reading experience.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Noblesse Oblige

Noblesse Oblige is an unusual little book that I picked up at a used bookstore on Cape Cod. Edited by Nancy Mitford, it's a slim volume that proclaims itself to be "an enquiry into the identifiable characteristics of the English Aristocracy". It makes this enquiry though a series of essays by Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, and others that dissect the distinctions, primarily related to language and speech, between the British upper class and everyone else.

The collection opens with an essay about sociological linguistics by Alan S.C. Ross in which he outlines some of the differences between upper class (U) and non- upper class (non-U) usage. This covers everything from how to refer to places ("I'm going to Downton" would be U while "I'm going to Downton Abbey" would be very non-U) to specific word choices (radio and wealthy are both non-U words, while wireless and rich are U). This is followed by Mitford's own essay, in which she offers her response to what Ross says, which is in turn followed by an open letter in which Evelyn Waugh responds to what Mitford says, and so on and so forth. It all has the potential to be very dry, but Mitford and Waugh (as well as some of the less famous essayists) bring just enough of their characteristic wit and irony to their contributions to make the subject bearable.

Based on some of the online reviews I've read, it seems that public opinion is a bit divided about Noblesse Oblige. Should its arguments be taken seriously or is it meant to be read as satire? I think the answer lies in the middle. It's essays provide genuine, albeit lighthearted, commentary about a minor social debate that arose at the time of its publication. It's by no means a must-read, even for Mitford fans, but it does have enough to interest and amuse to warrant a quick skim if a copy should happen to cross your path.

Incidentally, I can't help but wonder what George Bryant of Bogota, whose path my copy crossed back in 1964, thought about the book:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Snapshots from Maine

Just a handful of photos to share from my trip to Maine this summer. I found that I wasn't pulling out my camera quite as much as I did last year, but I did manage to capture a few interesting moments, from pretty sunsets to paddle boarders to an unexpected frog.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Three In Brief

In the interest of playing catch up, here are my very quick takes on three books that I finished recently, none of which made enough of an impression on my to devote an entire post to.

I've read enough Henry James novels by now to know that although there's a lot I can appreciate about his writing, I get very little pure enjoyment from them. What Maisie Knew was no exception. Written from a child's perspective, it tells the story of a girl who finds herself used as a pawn, first by her divorced parents, then later by her respective stepparents. James infuses Maisie's voice with an unsettling combination of both childishness and world-weariness. He really dissects the psyche of his character's, although he uses his usual tediously wordy style to do so. I would have much rather read this as a short story than in the form of a full length novel.

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker  is a novel that I had high hopes for after seeing it highly praised around the blog world. Narrator Norman Huntley is skilled at making things up on the spur of the moment, like the eighty-year-old woman he and a friend invent as part of a prank against the groundskeeper of a rural church they tour. Days later, Norman is shocked when his creation, Agatha Hargreaves, enters his life in the form of a very real, very eccentric elderly woman who wreaks havoc on his life. It's a clever concept on the whole, but again, one that I would have preferred to see done in short story format. I personally didn't find the characters to be entertaining enough, or Miss Hargreaves's antics to be madcap enough, to hold my interest for the full length of the novel that it is. It felt like a witty comment that loses its initial charm after being repeated one too many times. 

And finally, my favorite of the three was the lightest, fluffiest, and most fun: The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Cafe by Mary Simses. Its heroine is a Manhattan lawyer who travels to her grandmother's small hometown in Maine to take care of some unfinished family business. Like many novels in a similar vein, once she's there she begins to reevaluate her own life, including her upcoming marriage. Although by no means a groundbreaking novel, it's solidly written and manages to cover well charted territory in an engaging way. A perfect book for reading on vacation--although I may be partial since I read it during my trip up to Maine!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Food (Trucks) + Wine

There's a local New Jersey winery that my family had often heard about and talked about going to, but never seemed to actually make it there. Earlier this summer, we heard that it was hosting a food truck festival and decided it was the perfect excuse to finally pay a visit.

The winery itself was really expansive and pretty, with lots of rustic, old farm buildings on the grounds.  The fields of grapevines are much more accessible than at other wineries and are surrounded by trails and paths that visitors are encouraged to explore.

But on the day in question, all of the focus was on the food trucks.

We tried some (very disappointing) lobster rolls, delicious gourmet grilled cheese, some kind of sliced potato-on-a-stick (because what's a food festival without something on a stick?), and a Belgian waffle topped with nutella and whipped cream (the only item I actually thought to grab a picture of).

Even though all of this was shared among several people, I'll be the first to admit that it was an eclectic combination of foods to be eaten at once. That, in combination with the heat and the crowds, was likely the culprit in making me feel suddenly ill, with chills, lightheadedness, and queasiness. I was lucky in that the feeling quickly passed, but not before I spent a few minutes in the ladies' room, resting with my head between my knees, fully aware that I looked like someone who had overdone it on the wine.

 I only had one glass of sangria! 

(That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The New Yorkers

It took me until the very last days of the season to discover the book that was my favorite read of the summer, and among my favorite reads of the year so far:  The New Yorkers by Cathleen Schine. It tells the stories of a group of residents living on a nondescript block on New York's Upper West Side whose lives intersect because of the dogs they own. In a Q&A with the author in the back of the edition I had, Schine cites Trollope as a favorite writerIt's easy to see his influence in the way that Schine manages to turn the Big Apple into a small country village by focusing on the daily, small-scale intricacies of a microcosm within the city. 

The New Yorkers is the kind of book that had me anxious to race through it yet wanting to pace myself so that I wouldn't come to the end too soon, and it left me thinking about its characters even when I wasn't reading it. As a novel, I think it has an obvious appeal for many: dog lovers, city-dwellers, and fans of You've Got Mail, since it's easy to imagine Joe Fox walking Brinkley somewhere on the periphery of its pages. I'm also going to go out on a limb and say that it would appeal to Barbara Pym fans, since its structure and tone are some of the most Pym-like that I've come across in contemporary fiction. A bold statement, I know, but the small daily hopes and tragedies of its characters make The New Yorkers worthy of the comparison. The end of the novel feels a bit too perfectly tied up, but that's a very, very minor flaw in an otherwise lovely book.


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