Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday Fancies, The Pre-Holiday Edition

Have you heard about The Happy Reader, a new book-centric magazine partially backed by Penguin Classics? I ordered the inaugural issue and have found it to be a really enjoyable read so far. The issue is divided into two halves: the first half makes the deliberate choice to showcase an avid reader rather than a writer and features an extended interview with a well-known book lover (in this case, Dan Stevens); the second half delves into a classic book from a variety of different angles. In this issue, the book in question is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and eight different essays that relate aspects of the novel to history, fashion, and food, among other things.  Peppered throughout  are funny little asides and marginal notes that make for a lighthearted--dare I say happy?--read.

I also recently got wind (via a post over on My Porch) of another magazine for readers, Bookmarks Magazine. I'd never heard of this before, but the cover illustrations alone look pretty fantastic.

I'm still firmly tied to print for my personal reading, but for those who have embraced digital, the Oyster digital subscription library looks like it's one of the more elegant options out there.

This is the best thing I've seen online this Christmas.

And finally, this roundup of various writers favorite reading experiences of 2014. Not only is there something for every taste on this list, but I love the fact that it focuses on favorite reading experiences, rather than the typical "best book" designation. This is something I'm going to keep in mind as find my footing again with this blog in 2015. Rather than feeling tied to posting reviews of every book I read, I'm instead going to try to focus on highlighting books that I find particularly enjoyable or memorable, or that resonate with me in some special way.

With that, I'll say Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and I'll meet you back here in 2015!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Reading Lately

I've been on a hot reading streak for the past few months, finding book after book that I've loved. Here's an overview of some of my favorites, starting with some current fiction.

I’m nearly halfway through The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and so far it’s living up to its hype as a completely engrossing, modern-Dickensian coming of age saga. I’m amazed at how such a minutely detailed world—both in terms of exterior setting and the interior world of main character Theo—can spring from the mind of one author. Another book that inspired the same amazement was The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Although the last two chapters of the novel pale in comparison to the whole, and I didn't find the novel as a whole to be as successfully conceived as Cloud Atlas, I still found it to be a very worthy read.

A novel garnering much praise lately is Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. The novel is divided into two halves, one which follows George, a modern-day teenage girl who has recently lost her mother and one that follows the rise of Francesco del Cossa, a fifteenth-century Italian painter who isn’t exactly as he seems. Though the two halves of the story are linked by the painter and his frescoes, they are not fully dependent upon one another. In fact, half of the books printed start with George's half of the story while the other half start with Francesco's, emphasizing the point that they work together no matter which order they're read in. Despite all of the attention that the post-modern (or maybe post-post-modern? I feel like I should go back to college to debate this) structure is getting, the individual stories are very readable and beautifully written, particularly in the sections that explore memories. How to Be Both is probably the most interesting novel I’ve read in a while. It would be a perfect book club book, especially if the members were divided into two groups that read the stories in different orders, then compared their impressions.

Last but not least, I also caught myself up on one of the more buzzed about books from a year or two ago, George Saunders's Tenth of December. I've wanted to read this ever since it came out, but only just got around to it. I was very impressed by how his stories were simultaneously quirky and moving. I really enjoyed the majority of this collection and plan to seek out more of Saunders's work in the future.

Of course, my literary diet isn’t complete without copius helpings of 20th century British female writers and two of my favorites of late are Margaret Kennedy and Angela Thirkell. I discovered the former a few months back when I read The Ladies of Lyndon a few months back during Margaret Kennedy Reading week. That single novel was good enough to elevate Kennedy to favorite author status. I’m looking forward to reading Together and Apart next. And then there’s Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series, which I’ve been reading as a sort of palate cleanser in between denser books. Most recently I finished Pomfret Towers, which may be my favorite of hers so far. In it, Thirkell hits on the perfect combination of witty writing, a glamorous setting, romantic entanglements with happy endings, and a collection of characters who are imperfect and irritating at times, but who manage to highlight some very relatable human emotions.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Holiday Mood

I got a small record player for my birthday last month and, with the holiday season in mind, one of the first records I bought was the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, which just happens to be made out of a festive green vinyl.

There is something so cozy and festive about lighting the Christmas decorations, burning a candle, and having this slightly jazzy music quietly playing in the background. It's fast becoming my nightly routine.

Hope to be back around these parts at least a few more times before the end of the year. In the meantime, tell me what holiday routines you're enjoying lately.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday Fancies

Over the past week or so, I've felt like I really hit the summer reading stride. I recently finished a couple of books that I really enjoyed and am currently in the middle of a couple more that are--so far--equally good. It's put me in an intense reading mood, and just in time, too, since I signed up for my library's adult summer reading program, which may or may not involve prizes for the people who read the most by the end of August.

Further proof that I have books on the brain: I had a dream one night this week that I was in a used bookstore and was pulling vintage orange Penguins off the shelves.

(image via here)

Here are a few literary-themed links from the past week:

While vicariously browsing on The Book Depository, I noticed that Virago has released some pretty editions of some of L.M. Montgomery's classics.

A forensic artist has reconstructed a model of Jane Austen, based on known portraits and written descriptions by those who knew her.

And as most of the internet has heard by known, J.K. Rowling has released a new story featuring a 30-something Harry Potter & Co. (Personally, I'm still more excited about reading The Silkworm.)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

One Plus One

As promised, my second reading recommendation for the long holiday weekend is something a bit more beach-friendly-- One Plus One by Jojo Moyes. Though I've only read one other novel by Moyes (her breakout hit, Me Before You), it's clear that she's found a formula that works and is sticking to it. Both novels tell similar girl-meets-boy stories in which the girl and boy come from different economic classes, have a tenuous employer/ employee connection, and end up embarking on a life adventure together even while each is working through their own personal hardship. In some ways, the characters in One Plus One are indistinguishable from the characters in Me Before You, other than the fact that the former are not embroiled in such tragic circumstances. This is not necessarily a criticism, though. By cribbing some of the best elements from Me Before You but lightening up the mood a bit, Moyes may have actually created a novel that offers more in the way of straightforward reading enjoyment.

The main character of One Plus One is Jess Thomas, a young single mother who is struggling to make ends meet so that she can support her math whiz daughter, Tanzie, and her sullen teenage stepson, Nicky. She cleans houses for a living, including the seaside home where Ed Nicholls, a successful software entrepreneur, is laying low while he's under investigation for insider trading. The stress he's under causes Ed to act rudely when he meets Jess for the first time. To make up for it--decent guy that he actually is--he pulls over to offer his assistance when he sees Jess stopped on the side of the road one night, children, dog, and ancient car in tow. His attempt at being a good Samaritan ends up resulting in him offering to drive Jess and her family to a math competition in Scotland, which could be Tanzie's ticket to a fancy private school and an improved life. The road trip brings a series of mishaps, dramatic events, and emotionally charged reunions with people from both Jess and Ed's past. Though surprises pop up along the way, the overall plot trajectory is easy to predict and each passing occurrence bring Jess and Ed further from their initial antagonism and closer to each other. 

This is a novel that fans of Moyes will surely love, and that others will very likely enjoy as some comfortable summer reading.

Now that you've had two recommendations from me, do tell--what will you be reading this Fourth of July weekend?

A copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin. All thoughts and opinions in this post are my own.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Levant Trilogy

I'm back with two summer reading suggestions in anticipation of the upcoming holiday weekend. The first is an epic novel by Olivia Manning--in my opinion, one of the most under read mid-century female writers. To quote from a blurb I saw that perfectly describes it:

“How many Americans who have read Barbara Pym, Beryl Bainbridge, or Iris Murdoch have ever heard of Olivia Manning? Yet she is one of the most gifted English writers of her generation.... Nobody has written better about World War II—the feel of fighting it and its dislocating effects on ordinary, undistinguished lives.” —Eve Auchincloss, The New York Times

Although she doesn't seem to have experienced the resurgence in popularity that some of her contemporaries have in recent years, her books have found a place among my favorites, as evidenced by my gushing over The Balkan Trilogy. Ever since reading that, I've been on the hunt for a copy of its hard-to-find follow-up, The Levant Trilogy. As thrilled as I was when I finally tracked down a copy at a used book sale, I was equally happy to see that it was re-released by NYRB earlier this month, making it easier to access this wonderful book.

As is probably obvious, The Levant Trilogy does indeed pick up where The Balkan Trilogy left off. After evacuating from the Balkan peninsula when it falls to German forces, Guy and Harriet Pringle find themselves in Egypt. Adjusting to a new climate and new customs, they find themselves facing an even greater sense of waiting. Guy throws himself into any work that he can find, or that he can create for himself. After a short period working for the American embassy in Cairo, Harriet struggles to find ways to occupy her time. New characters enter their orbit, new relationships form among characters who evacuated from the Balkans with them, and Manning once again paints a portrait of the Pringles marriage, this time almost exclusively from Harriet's point of view. For my money it's the more compelling one, and Harriet evolves as a character in a way that surpasses her portrayal in the first three installments of the saga.

That isn't the only way in which The Levant Trilogy surpasses The Balkan Trilogy. Manning seems more sure-footed in a number of respects: the plot lines surrounding her supporting characters are more interesting and tightly drawn; she strikes a more perfect juxtaposition between the action on the front lines and the stagnant atmosphere among the diplomats who are playing out their lives just behind them; and she seems to have perfected a technique of referring back to things from past volumes within the trilogy so that it feels less like summary and more like memory. All in all, I'd say that The Levant Trilogy stands perfectly fine on its own and can be read independently from The Balkan Trilogy. Of course, I'd highly recommend them both, but if you're feeling curious about Manning's work, this might be the more intriguing one to jump into.

Still not convinced? I'll be back later this week with a current book for anyone who's looking for lighter, more modern beach read.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Fancies

Writing this post feels like the return of a long lost friend. These Friday posts used to be some of my favorites to put together. At a certain point, though, I started to feel uninspired by much of what I was seeing online. Of course, I still kept up with a core group of favorite bloggers whose posts I always look forward to reading and commenting on. At the same time, however, there was a whole other group of blogs in my feed that I felt committed to keeping up with, but was just barely skimming through. It started to feel like a chore to mine through everything out there in the hope of finding some links to share on a Friday.

Am I back to a regular schedule of Friday posts now? I'm not sure. But I may be moving toward that direction. I've pared down on some of the blogs I subscribe to, eliminating those that I don't enjoy or find inspiring. I've also been feeling re-energized about blog reading recently because of several new-to-me blogs that I discovered, the kind that are so good they make me want to go back and read through all of the archived posts. 

(image via here)

Here are some of my new favorite online reads:

Deliciously Ella is an food blog focused on healthy meals based on whole foods and vegetables. It's kick-started me to give my daily diet a spring cleaning.

Speaking of whole foods, Sophie Dahl's blog has plenty of recipes that feature them, plus lovely photography and posts on travel, art, beauty, and the like.

Shiny New Books is a, well, shiny new quarterly online magazine that looks like it will be a real treat for bibliophiles (especially for those of us who can't seem to grow our To Read lists fast enough).

And EmilyBooks is another literary blog featuring thoughtful posts on an interesting array of books.

Have you started reading any new blogs lately? Do tell...I want to keep up this momentum and discover more.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Another Year, Another Book Sale

A couple of weeks ago I made my second annual trip to the Bryn-Mawr Wellesley Book Sale, one of the biggest on the East Coast. I didn't make it there on half-price day like I did last year, but still did  well for myself, coming away with almost thirty books for just over $50. Here's a look at what I found:

A new-to-me novel and novella by Edith Wharton; a lavishly illustrated copy of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall by Washington Irving, which I know nothing about but looks like it might be worth a read when the holidays roll around; and a little book called A Gift From the Sea by Ann Morrow Lindburgh, which drew me in with it's sweet book jacket.

Vintage Penguin editions of novels by Sinclair Lewis and Evelyn Waugh; The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen; a collection of the juvenilia of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte; and Miss Mackenzie by Trollope.

A smattering of (mostly) more recent novels that have (mostly) been on my To Read list for a while: Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh, Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Charms for the Easy Life by Kay Gibbons, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf, Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner, and All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky.

Several Barbara Pym novels to round out (and add a couple duplicates) to my collection, plus three novels that I hadn't heard of but picked up based on the fact that they were green Virago editions: The Squire's Daughter by F.M. Mayor, On the Side of Angels by Betty Miller, and Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley.

And last but not least, my favorite finds of the day were a handful of books that I've been on the hunt for for quite a while: three installments of E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia series, The Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning, and the first installment of Angela Thirkell's Chronicles of Barsetshire series.

Have you found any used book treasures lately? Are there any that you would particularly love to find?

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Provincial Lady

E.M. Delafield's "Provincial Lady" novels have long been on my radar time thanks to seeing them praised by various book bloggers. I found a copy of the second in the series at a used book sale last year, but had it to put it on hold until I could get my hands on the first in the series. I finally did that last month when Persephone had a special preview sale of their new edition of The Diary of a Provincial Lady.  I didn't intend to read both books back to back, but a few days after finishing the first I found myself missing the narrator's witty take on life so much that I just couldn't help myself from reading it sequel, The Provincial Lady in London. Both are utterly charming books.

Both novels take the form of continuous diary entries of the unnamed narrator who writes about her life between the Wars. Her self-deprecating, shorthand style might be said to be a forerunner of Helen Fielding's work. Unlike Bridget Jones's diary, however, the Provincial Lady's diary feels more true to life as it focuses on the minor absurdities found in everyday events. The novels aren't structured around one overarching plot arc. Instead, they ebb and flow with the tedious and the exciting sides of the narrator's life, all presented through the lens of her keen eye. We see her deal with disgruntled servants, mischievous children, an aloof husband, and tedious neighbors. While her life has that cozy English feel that I enjoy so much in books, it's not too cozy. The Provincial Lady is actually quite modern. She's a feminist and a writer with an active social life. She travels abroad on her own and, eventually, publishes a novel and rents a pied a terre in London. The point of view and sense of humor that the Provincial Lady brings to both her family life and her individual intellectual pursuits feels refreshingly relevant, even today.

E.M. Delafield wrote several other installments of the Provincial Lady--she apparently goes to America, visits Russia, and survives wartime. After reading these two, I'm now eager to see how she handles all of those adventures.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Little Rant

Since I'm in the middle of three different books right now and don't have any that I'm ready to write about, I thought I'd indulge in a little rant about a new reading app I saw in a blog post today. The app is called Spritz and it's intended to improve reading speed based on the theory that 80% of reading time is spent on the time it takes your eyes to move across a page. To cut down on this time, Spritz flashes one word at a time on screen, allowing the reader to keep their eyes fixed on one point as they absorb a string of words. Not only does this allow you to read more words per minute, but Spritz also claims that it increases reading comprehension....and it's that idea that I take issue with. 

Spritz's method may indeed allow readers to quickly comprehend something they're reading since they have to force themselves to stay focused on the screen in order to not miss a word. But doesn't that also suggest that reading is something to be gotten through as quickly as possible? There may be some kinds of reading where that's the case, like an instruction manual, but for most forms of literature, I think there's more to reading comprehension that just getting through the words and remembering what happened. To truly comprehend and appreciate a book, I think you need to allow time to pause when you come to an idea that stops you in your tracks, or to go back an reread a beautifully written passage. There's something to be said for building some breathing room into your reading, allowing time for your mind to wander, to daydream and really absorb what it is you're reading. The concept behind Spritz seems to totally negate that kind of reading experience.

And don't even get me started on the eye strain it must cause!

(image via here)

What do you think? Are you a slow or fast reader? Would you consider reading with Spritz?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Circle

I've written before about the fact that Dave Eggers seems to be a "love him or hate him" kind of author. While he might not be quite that polarizing, I think it's at least safe to say that there are a lot of skeptics when it comes to his work. It's also safe to say that I'm not one of them. I'm always eager to see what he will do next, which it why I was glad when I finally had the chance to read his latest novel, The Circle. In it, as in his past novels, Eggers creates a world and commits to it, giving the impression that its one he's intimately familiar with. This time around, that world is the corporate landscape of The Circle, a technology company that's the successor to Facebook and Google in the not-too-distant future. We're brought into that world through Mae Holland, a young woman who leverages a college friendship to gain a sought after entry level job at The Circle. Through her eyes we see all of the amenities of The Circle's idyllic campus: free food, state of the art offices, sprawling grounds where free concerts and activities are held for employees. Gradually, other details with more sinister undertones emerge about life at The Circle, like when additional computer screens appear at Meg's workstation (she gets up to seven or eight) so that she can devote more time to mandated participation on the company's social media streams, or when she's reprimanded for leaving The Circle's campus to spend time with her family. The ominous goals of The Circle soon become clear to the reader, who's left to wonder whether or not Mae will realize them for herself before the novel's end.


 The Circle presents an interesting concept overall, but works better as a fictional cautionary tale rather than as an effective novel. There isn't much of a story arc and the ending seemed particularly dissatisfying. Various details about the world of The Circle and about the new products they create do provide Eggers with a platform for thought-provoking commentary on what the boundaries of social media should be and on the potential absurdities of a world in which people are too busy "liking" things online to actually like anything in real life. His arguments are engaging, but could have easily been conveyed through a short story rather than a 500-page novel. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Homemade Chai

One of the gifts I got for Christmas was a little set of the spices and teas that go into making homemade chai.

Boiling them in water and milk with a few teaspoons of sugar yields a really delicious cup of chai that's more delicate that what you typically find at coffee shops. It's such an easy treat that I plan to buy my own spices once I deplete the supply from the chai making kit.

And for best results, serve in a pretty mug.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Characters on Film

There's been a distinct cinematic connection to much of my reading over the past few weeks. What's more is that the films in question have actually enhanced the reading experience for me, breaking with the notion that the book is always superior to the movie.

First, I finally got around to watching last year's film adaptation of Julia Strachey's Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. After watching the beautifully shot film, I immediately picked up the novella to reread the story of moody young bride Dolly as she prepares for her wedding day by brooding upstairs over a hidden bottle of rum while her wedding guests gather downstairs. On its own, the book is amusing but somewhat difficult to wholeheartedly like since none of its characters are particularly likable. The movie tries to elicit more sympathy for Dolly through flashbacks to an earlier romance. I felt neutral about these not entirely necessary additional scenes, but what I really loved was the way the movie brought to life the cast of minor characters that make up Dolly's eccentric family and friends. With a newly vivid picture of them in my mind, it was these characters who stood out for me during my second reading of Strachey's book.

Another novel that was enhanced by a film counterpart was Helen Fielding's latest installment in the Bridget Jones saga, Mad About the Boy. I could actually be a bit harsher here and say that the memory of the earlier films was the only thing that saved the current book. There were spoilers all over the internet when Mad About the Boy was first released, so I won't repeat them here other than to say that the book picks up with Bridget as a fifty-year-old mother of two. In the first Bridget Jones novel, her diary cheekily tracked her smoking and dieting habits, among other things. This time around, two of its major focuses are Bridget's Twitter followers and texting habits. What might have been a cute joke if left at one or two mentions is tediously drawn out through the entire book. When she's not texting or tweeting, Bridget's up to some of her same old antics, only they don't translate as well as they used to. For much of this book, I could only find Bridget's character remotely appealing if I pictured Renee Zellweger's charming portrayal. On the whole, I think I'd say that the Bridget Jones films have definitely eclipsed the books.

And finally, proving that good things come to those who leave half-written blog posts sitting in the draft folder for a week, on Sunday night I stumbled onto The Making of a Lady on PBS, the film version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Making of a Marchioness. The novel was the very first Persephone classic that I read and while I enjoyed it, it was subsequently eclipsed in my mind by other Persephone novels. Seeing the movie version reminded me of how much I enjoyed the story. It was a perfect blend of the romance and the creepiness that make up the two halves of Burnett's work. I know what I'll be picking up to reread next.

Do you have any favorite film adaptations that you think are as good as, or even better than, the books they're based on?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Heat Lightning

When I was in Maine last summer, I went to the Big Chicken Barn Antique and Used Book store, which has a massive second floor entirely devoted to shelves and shelves of used books. Although I only came away with one find, it was a good one: a vintage copy of Heat Lightning by Helen Hull, which I snapped up knowing that it had been recently reissued by Persephone Books. It wasn't until several months had passed, however, and I finally took it off the shelf to read that I realized what I treasure I had found....

...when I opened the front cover and discovered an inscription from the author, reading "Inscribed for Gale M. Hinckley, Most Sincerely Yours, Helen Hull, July 31, 1936". 

Interestingly, on a whim I Googled Gale M. Hinckley and, in addition to some census records, a number of results came up for used book dealers that mention Gale M. Hinckley's bookplate in the description of various books they have available for sale. One is even noted as being inscribed "with cordial regards, J. Edgar Hoover, 1938". It's so fascinating to think that this woman, a fairly ordinary person as far as I can tell, has spread a tiny legacy of herself through her bookplates. It makes me want to start using them in my own books now.

After the discovery of the inscription, it was icing on the cake to find that I completely loved Hull's writing in Heat Lightning. The novel tells the story of Amy Norton, a New Yorker who returns to her Midwestern hometown for a week's respite to escape a rough patch in her marriage. Amy's family is one of the most prominent in their small town and her week with them is filled with all manner of drama, from birth to death with several revelations of scandalous family secrets in between. It's a plot that in lesser hands could easily fall into the territory of silly melodrama, but Hull handles them skillfully and with subtlety. The family members' interactions with one another offer one of the most realistic portrayals of an extended family that I've seen, even in spite of some of the less than typical situations that are thrown at them. During the course of Amy's visit, she sees the lifecycle of her family condensed into a matter of days, which in turn makes her reassess her own life with her family in New York. I highly recommend this one--even if you're not lucky enough to get your hands on an autographed copy.

Monday, February 3, 2014

That Time I Drank Wine With a Giraffe

Today I have some photos to share that are a throwback to last fall when, during my non-blogging black hole, I went to a wine festival at Six Flags Great Adventure. I realize that Six Flags might not seem like the most classy place to be sipping wine, but it was actually a really fun day. The amusement park was closed for the season and they had two large pavilions set up for local New Jersey wineries to offer tastings. After trying endless sips of delicious wine, we then got to go on a ride through Six Flag's animal safari (which, incidentally, has become much more pleasant since my elementary school days, when people drove themselves through and the big thrill was waiting to see if the monkeys were going to climb all over your car).

At about the halfway point, we got to stop and get off of the safari vehicle, taste more wines, and feed giraffes.

This one was Meredith. She thought her mixture of giraffe pellets and crushed-up sugar cones was full bodied with just a hint of sweetness.

Monday, January 27, 2014

North of Boston

Boston fisherman, U.S. Naval researchers, Inuit natives of the Arctic, environmentalists, and perfume industry executives make up an array of characters diverse enough to provide fodder for at least a few separate books, but in North of Boston, the debut novel by Elisabeth Elo, they're twisted together into a single intriguing storyline.

Elo's heroine is Pirio Kasparov, a first-generation American who is heiress to the perfume empire her Russian parents built. In spite of the more glamorous trappings of her life, Pirio has a decidedly rebellious streak to her nature, seemingly less comfortable in the plush surroundings of her father's Beacon Hill townhouse than she is in a South Boston dive bar with her alcoholic best friend, Thomasina. She's a devoted godmother to Thomasina's son, Noah, and a friend to Noah's father, Ned, who introduces her to the world of Boston's fishing industry. Pirio's adventure begins during a fishing trip with Ned, when a commercial ship strikes their small boat, destroying it and killing Ned. Pirio manages to survive by withstanding hours floating in frigid water, a miraculous feat that garners interest from Navy scientists. While she submits to medical tests to measure her body's unusual capacity to adapt to cold temperatures, Pirio simultaneously begins to investigate the accident, determined to find out who is responsible for the hit-and-run and bring some closure for Noah. Of course, as these things usually go, once Pirio starts to poke her nose where it doesn't belong she realizes that she may be dealing with a larger criminal conspiracy than she ever imagined.

Although I'll be the first to admit that I'm not an expert in crime thrillers, North of Boston feels like it transcends what I often associate with that genre. Elo mixes her fast-paced plot with decidedly Noir elements, from sleazy characters loitering on foggy harbor piers to desolate scenes on the frozen landscape of the Arctic Circle, where Pirio's investigation ultimately leads her. It makes for a sophisticated page turner that's well worth reading and that seems ripe for a moody film adaptation a la Mystic River or Gone Baby Gone.

A copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin. All thoughts and opinions in this post are my own.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Two Family Sagas

Two of my first reads of 2014 share the common theme of being multi-generational family sagas, with characters that leave their families to head west toward new lives.

First was a classic that's been on my To Read list for some time, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Although it's a novel that I've long wanted to read, its early-twentieth century American West setting gave me pause since that's typically not my favorite era or region to read about. However, I quickly realized that any preconceptions I had in the shape of Wild West mining towns, cowboys, sheriffs, and saloons would not apply here. Stegner's portrait of the West is filled with hardship and pioneering spirit, but is painted with much more detail and refinement than I was expecting.

Guiding the story is Lyman Ward, an elderly, wheelchair-bound historian who, while living a hermetic life in 1970's California, sets out to reconstruct the life of his grandmother, Susan Burling. An aspiring artist with a strong taste for high society, she's a character who could be easily imagined populating any of Edith Wharton's New York stories. Instead, she finds herself drawn into a marriage to Oliver Ward, an engineer and mining expert who moves his family from job to job in California, Idaho, Mexico, and Colorado. Susan's story unfolds in an interesting way through a combination of Lyman's memories, excerpts from her letters that he reads, and fictional reconstructions that he creates. It's a completely engrossing effect that--somewhat to my surprise--made the novel quite a page turner for me. Combine that with some really beautiful passages of writing, particularly around themes of how one generation relates to the next, and it's easy to see why Angle of Repose is considered a modern classic.

Next was Jhumpa Lahiri's latest novel, The Lowland. Spanning the globe from India to New England to California and back, it's a bit larger in scope than many of her other stories, yet still portrays the lives of immigrants in their adopted homeland in vivid and realistic detail. The story starts with two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who grow up extremely close despite their vastly different personalities. Both bright, Subhash is more reserved, devoting himself to his family duties and schoolwork, while Udayan is more impulsive, bold, and argumentative. As a young man, Udayan becomes involved with the Naxalite movement, India's left-leaning outgrowth of the Communist party. When Udayan is killed as a result of escalating political violence, Subhash steps in to marry the young, pregnant wife he left behind. Subhash takes his new family to Rhode Island, where he is earning is PhD, and remains there for the rest of his life, raising Udayan's daughter as his own. As the novel progresses, we see the ramifications of that choice on each member of his family and, eventually, learn the true circumstances of Udayan's death.

The early part of the novel got off to a somewhat slow start for me with its myriad of heavy details about Indian politics in the 1960's and 70's, but any fears I had that it might not live up to Lahiri's other works were quickly pushed aside once I became absorbed in the beautiful, complex character portrayals that she does so well. I happened to notice that one of the blurbs on the back cover of the book described her writing as something along the lines of "translucent prose that makes you forget you're reading". Although that sounds like one of those lyrical lines that don't really make sense but sound good in a book review, I couldn't help thinking that I actually found that to be true with this book--just don't ask me to explain what it means!

There's definitely something satisfying about diving into a multi-generational tale. Do you have any favorite literary family sagas to recommend?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Glass of Blessings

A Glass of Blessings marks yet another Barbara Pym novel that I completely loved, which will come as no surprise to anyone who's been following along as I've gradually been reading all of her works over the past year.

This time our heroine is Wilmet Forsyth, who is something of a departure from the "excellent women" that Pym often writes about. While those characters are typically middle-aged spinsters, sometimes a bit dowdy in appearance, often overlooked or taken for granted by their circle of friends,Wilmet is a married, well-off woman in her early-thirties who is always stylishly dressed and sure to be included in any local social event. Married to a civil servant who doesn't want her to work, Wilmet fills up her days by allowing herself to be carried along on a wave of neighborhood gossip, afternoon teas, and church activities, although she's half-hearted about these things. Even while she holds herself apart as an observer, offering herself a silent wry commentary about what everyone else is doing, she seems to wish she was able to dive into the center of it all. She soon finds a pleasant distraction, though, when she begins to suspect that she has more than one male admirer on her hands.

I found Wilmet to be such a likable heroine. She's self-centered in a way that's relatable, not selfish, and by the end of the novel she comes to realize that many of the motives she ascribed to her friends and neighbors were actually projections of her own feelings. Yet in her true fashion, Pym ends Wilmet's story by showing that even these kinds of imagined projections can have meaningful real-life ramifications. With its chic, intelligent protagonist and its interesting, diverse cast of supporting characters, A Glass of Blessings brings a slightly more modern feel to the timeless themes that Pym typically covers...and, of course, gets a high recommendation from me.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Grounds for Sculpture

Over the holidays I had a chance to visit Grounds for Sculpture, a sculpture garden located in central New Jersey. Founded in 1984 by a member of the Johnson & Johnson family, it's situated on the former New Jersey State Fair Grounds and features acres of outdoor sculpture installations (including several that put new spins on well-known works of art) and two buildings that house rotating collections of works, like the current exhibit of sculptures by Edwina Sandys, the granddaughter of Winston Churchill.

Arriving shortly before dusk on a winter's day, we had just enough time to look at some of the works, see the holiday light display (which was the only underwhelming part of the visit), and watch the peacocks that wander the grounds fly up into the trees to roost for the night.


It's an incredible place that now ranks among my favorite museum experiences. I'm definitely planning to return for a longer visit during the warmer months.


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