Friday, December 4, 2015

Friday Fancies

It's hard to believe that we're into December already! Have you been doing anything festive for the holidays yet? The twinkle lights and the Charlie Brown Christmas album have been on nonstop in my apartment this week, and later tonight I'm heading up to Newport, RI for the weekend. I'm excited to check out their holiday festivities and hope to report back with some pictures next week.

(bit of sparkle for the mantle)

In the meantime, here are a few little treats from around the web:

Although we're already a few days into December, I have to share this great idea for an advent calendar focused on Christmas activities and experiences.

A fantastic idea for a literary "hen party". (Plus a nice discussion of The Member of the Wedding.)

My favorite new Twitter account to follow.

Celeste Ng perfectly captures my feelings about Elena Ferrante's novels in her Year of Reading over on The Millions, saying, "don't be put off my the list of characters at the beginning" (I almost was) and "when you hit that gut-punch of a last line, be prepared to run out and get the next book" (I did, every time).

Love to see a mid-century British female writer garnering some attention from B&N.

Have you heard of the Roxburghe Club, an exclusive society of bibliophiles with only 40 members?

And last but not least, these literary candles would be the perfect stocking stuffers for book lovers.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Etty Hillesum

I recently finished reading An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43. I probably would not have sought out this Persephone book had I not come across a copy at a book sale. There I picked it up for its signature grey jacket, barely glancing at the title. Upon further research, I saw the book described as a young adult's answer to Anne Frank. This is a simplification, but apt in the sense that it's a work that should be taught alongside the works of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel.

Born in 1914, Etty was twenty-seven and living in Amsterdam in 1941, during a time when its Jewish population was beginning to be deported by the Nazis. Etty lived in a house with several bohemian housemates, gave Russian lessons, and worked for the Jewish Council. She began studying with Julius Spier, a psycho-chirologist who combined Jungian analysis with palm reading. They developed a close friendship that at times veered into a love affair, and Etty grew to view herself as a disciple of his teachings. With Spier, Etty undertook the study of Biblical, religious, and philosophical works, and found her own spiritual development as a result. This is the basis of most of the diary entries in the first half of the book. The second half is made up of letters Etty wrote to her friends in Amsterdam after she was sent to the Westerbork camp in 1942. Through these, she paints a picture of life in a camp where Jews waited to be deported to other concentration camps farther East. Etty and her family were themselves deported to Auschwitz, where they died in 1943.

This is a difficult book to write about, or make any attempt to review. I can't honestly say that I enjoyed it, although I found many parts to be very inspiring. This is especially true of the Etty's diary entries, which show how she relied on her inner spirituality to find happiness and a sense of peace even as the conditions for Jews in Amsterdam were growing more dire. At the same time, though, the diary entries  feel somewhat repetitive as Etty continually revisits her relationship with the much older Spier, which can seem questionable at best from a modern perspective. I found the letters in the second half of the book to be more engaging and was fascinated by Etty's descriptions of her year at Westerbork. Her portrayal of the camp is that of a microcosm of the outside world.  Its residents somehow find a modicum of normalcy even in the face of the atrocities that occur on a daily basis. Friendships are made, cliques are formed, and Etty's resilient attitude shines through it all.

Etty's writing is interesting and inspiring, yet also very difficult to encounter at times. The strength she exhibits in the face of horrific events is truly heartbreaking and I found myself reluctant to pick up the book at times. What kept me going was a certain sense of duty to reading her story. As far as I can tell, Etty is not as well known as she should be--at least not here in the U.S. She deserves a more prominent place in the canon of WWII and Holocaust literature and I'd encourage anyone to seek this book out.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Friday Fancies

This week I reread Colm Toibin's lovely novel Brooklyn, prompted to pick it up again after seeing ads for what looks to be a very good film adaptation that's just been released. This second reading confirmed that it's as good as I thought it was when I read it the first time, although I cringe a bit when I see what I wrote about it in 2010. That post lacks a bit of depth, to put it kindly, and I literally have no idea what I thought the "small parallel to Pride and Prejudice" was--certainly nothing that I noticed this time around. It's so fascinating how our frame of mind can influence our reading. Now, writing from what I hope is a wiser and more insightful vantage point, I would describe Brooklyn as a quiet but perceptive look at a young Irish woman trying to figure out her place in the world. I highly, highly recommend this novel, especially to any fans of Persephone or Virago Classics. This novel could easily sit among those because of its focus on the minor yet fascinating domestic struggles that make up a life.

A few other things that caught my eye:

If you were a Reading Rainbow fan as a kid, then I'm sure you can understand these book lover problems (starring LeVar Burton!).

A long read about an early visit to Amazon's new bookstore.

A short read about Ali Smith's new project.

This looks like a sweet children's book (discovered via this post).

Jhumpa Lahiri's next book sounds interesting.

And Barnes & Noble is once again doing their Black Friday signed books promotion. I'm not entirely sure what I think about this. I like that it encourages the gifting of books, but I'm hard pressed to think of a current author whose signature I would go out of my way to get.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Golden Age of Television

Have you binge-watched any good TV shows lately? Over the past several months I've been on a streak of watching some fantastic series on Netflix. It all began with Friday Night Lights. I had known this was a cult favorite but never had a strong interest in watching it until I went on a trip to Austin last Spring. Friday Night Lights was shot on location there and I was curious to see if the show's would match my impressions of the city. Turns out that it didn't match up at all, but after just a couple of episodes I was hooked on the amazing characters, writing, and acting and quickly worked my way through all 5 seasons.

After Friday Night Lights I started watching another show starring Kyle Chandler, the Netflix original series Bloodline. This series centers around the Rayburns, a prominent, successful extended family in the Florida Keys, and follows what happens to them when the black sheep of their family comes back into their lives. The dark and shady dealings that ensue aren't anything unique in and of themselves, but the way in which they are revealed the the viewer is. Each episode flashes forward from the present action to show one of the final scenes of the season. It's fascinating to watch how the family descends from point A to point B when, at first, the two places appear to be worlds apart. The beautiful yet slightly foreboding Floridian setting adds a great sense of place to the show, too.

Finally, I watched another series full of secrets and lies (aren't they all these days?), The Honourable Woman. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the part of Nessa Stein, an Israeli-British woman who uses her family's business to try to work toward peace in the Middle East. On the eve of the launch of a big project for the company, the kidnapping of someone close to her sets off a chain of events that sheds light on a traumatic episode from Nessa's past and the machinations of various government agencies. Beaing an eight part miniseries means that The Honorable Woman requires less of a time commitment to watch, which is probably a good thing because the show was actually quite stressful at times. The great acting performances made it well worth watching, though.

What series should I check out next? I just watched the first episode of Aziz Ansari's new show Master of None and it looks promising, and Walking Dead has been saved in my Netflix queue for quite a while now.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sneaky Pumpkin Pie

I did some seasonal baking over the weekend and made one of the easiest pumpkin desserts ever. I'm calling this a sneaky pumpkin pie because it requires only two key ingredients and although it's not quite a traditional pumpkin, it provides a pretty close imitation of one.

To make this sneaky pie, you'll need a box of yellow cake mix and a 29 oz. can of pumpkin puree. Season the pumpkin puree to your liking using whatever spices of have on hand, either pumpkin pie seasoning or a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Then use a hand mixer to blend the dry cake mix into the pumping puree. Pour this mixture into two pie plates (one 11x13 baking pan will work, too) and bake according to the time and temperature given on the box of cake mix. 

The texture will be less creamy and more cake-like than a true pumpkin pie, but it self-forms a slight crust that allows it to hold its shape when sliced. When topped with a basic cream cheese icing, this could earn a place on the holiday dessert table, particularly if you're looking for a quick way to check a pumpkin flavored dessert off of your baking list.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday Fancies

Are you reading anything spooky to get in the Halloween mood? I just finished Career of Evil, the third installment of J.K. Rowling's mystery series written under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, and while I didn't intentionally choose it to align with the season, the novel has enough creepy and suspenseful elements to make it a fitting choice for this time of year. Although I don't consider myself to be an aficionado of mystery novels, I absolutely love this series. Private detective Cormoran Strike and his partner, Robin Ellicot, are such rich, likable characters that I find myself more interested in seeing how their characters develop than solving the mystery of the plot.

Here are a few other things that have caught my eye lately:

The funniest Halloween costume idea I've seen so far this year.

An essay about Murakami in Hawaii.

A pistachio cream puff recipe to tie in to Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend

A short story vending machine.

And last but definitely not least, my dog Millie has joined instagram! Follow her there and you'll get to see her in her Halloween costume on Saturday!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Home Front

Recently my reading and my TV watching have aligned around the subject of the home front during World War II. 

First, I've spent the past few Sunday nights watching the miniseries Home Fires on PBS. It centers around the a Women's Institute in a rural village at the start of WWII. The WI's membership comprises a wide cross section of women--old and young, upper and lower class, housewives, shopkeepers, and farmers--and shows the impact the outbreak of war has on their lives. While it's interesting to see such a range of characters portrayed, my favorite thing about the show is its setting. From the neighborly sense of everyone knowing everyone's business in the village to shots of cozy British interiors, I can easily imagine the world of Home Fires being populated by a cast of Barbara Pym characters a few years down the road.

With all of this on my mind, when it came time to start a new book, I naturally gravitated toward On the Side of the Angels by Betty Miller, a Virago Classic that I had picked up at a used book sale. Also located in a rural village, the novel centers around two sisters: Honor, a mother of two whose husband is a physician in the local army hospital, and Claudia, a schoolteacher whose lawyer fiance has recently been invalided out of the service after developing a heart condition. Honor tends to be meek and prone to daydreams. Her world centers around her husband and she resents the pull that the commanding officer in his unit seems to have over his actions. Claudia is intellectual and feisty. She has very clear ideas of how she should act and how her life should be. She comes to question these ideas for herself when a British Commando comes to the village. His aggressive demeanor and his reputation for heroic deeds behind enemy lines cause all of the characters, both male and female, to reevaluate their impressions of the home front.

One key difference between Home Fires and this book is that while many of the characters in the former are left on their own when their husbands head to the front, in the latter both Honor and Claudia have their husband and fiance present with them. This highlights the different ways that the male and female characters deal with life on the home front. One theme that surfaces in the novel is the suggestion that the characters are actually glad for the war because of the opportunity it offers them to step out of their everyday civilian lives and adopt more exciting roles for themselves. While I felt that this argument could only hold up among people like Miller's characters, whose upper class professions enable them to serve on the home front and who are not separated from their loved ones, I nonetheless found it to be an interesting take that I had not considered before. While it doesn't evoke the kind of cozy atmosphere that Home Fires does, On the Side of the Angels is well worth reading for the new perspectives it offers on this time period and location.

Friday, October 23, 2015

On Rising Early

Are you an early bird or a night owl? As much as I like the idea of waking up early to start a productive day, I generally have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, especially as we enter these darker Fall and Winter months. Surprisingly, the time in my life when I came closest to being an early bird was actually in college, when I would easily wake up early to go to the gym before my classes. Of course, "early" back then meant 8am, so maybe that's not so surprising after all.

I'm trying to change my mindset about mornings--although first I should backtrack and mention Yoga With Adriene, the YouTube yoga channel that I've been following. After doing yoga in various forms over the past few years, finding Adriene's channel completely revitalized my practice. Her laid back approach has resonated with me more than any "live" yoga teacher I've taken class with. The channel's mantra is "find what feels good", which, to me, takes on a couple levels of meaning. First, it's the idea that modifying a hard pose or using a prop shouldn't be thought of as something only for beginners, but rather should be considered options to use depending on how your body is feeling on any given day. Next, it can be seen as the idea of trying to find some comfort and ease while you're in a yoga pose that might be uncomfortable, which is also a metaphor for how a regular yoga practice can translate into other areas of life and help you find ease in uncomfortable situations you might find yourself in. I highly, highly recommend the Yoga With Adriene to anyone with a remote interest in trying yoga. The channel has a ton of videos of every length, level, and purpose, as well as a Thirty Days of Yoga program that got me to commit to a daily practice earlier this year. Now I'm doing yoga almost exclusively at home and feel like I've gotten stronger and progressed more than I ever did in public classes.

(image via here)

But back to waking up early. Last week Yoga With Adriene launched Rise, a seven day program of yoga practices to do in the mornings. This seemed like exactly what I needed to get myself out of bed a little earlier and free up some time later in the day for other things (like keeping up with this blog!). I haven't made it through the full seven days of the program yet because I've been feeling a little under the weather this week, but I did enjoy the two mornings I got up to practice. So far, so good. And on a related note, I was very intrigued when I stumbled upon this blog post about the Miracle Morning program. It actually makes a 5am wake up call sound appealing, although I'm not quite sure I'm ready for that yet. Let's see how this morning yoga goes first.

Do you have any morning rituals?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Neapolitan Novels

The buzz around Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels has slowly built up to a full-blown literary frenzy over the past couple of years. So much has been written about the novels and the mystery of Ferrante's identity. I've seen nothing but praise for the books, but that praise was tempered by descriptions calling the books brutal or bleak often enough to give me pause. I was finally prompted to read them when my local bookstore started to promote and rave about the series. It's such a well-curated store that I trust their recommendations and they did not lead my astray with these. In fact, reading the series turned out to be exactly what it took to push me back to this blog after many months away.

The Neapolitan series tells the story of the lifelong friendship between Elena and Lila, two girls from the same poor neighborhood in Naples. Both girls are exceptionally bright. Elena is more reserved and is a traditionally good student who advances through the university level. Lila, who leaves school after the elementary level and marries early, has a natural intelligence that is often at odds with the tempestuous life she leads in the neighborhood. The first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, begins when Elena and Lila first meet as children playing in their neighborhood and ends with Lila's wedding at the age of sixteen. The second book, The Story of a New Name, spans the early years of Lila's marriage and the final year's of Elena's university studies. Although their lives follow different paths, the two girls remain closely linked throughout their lives, even through long periods of separation.

Ferrante's portrayal of this complex friendship is the hallmark of the novels, and it's the aspect that has been the focus of much of the praise they have received. The aspect that made the biggest impression on me, however, actually comes about as a byproduct of the way this friendship is portrayed. Through Elena's narration of the novels, she tells the story of her own life, but focuses most heavily on the parts of her life that intersect with Lila's, or that fall under Lila's influence from afar. She is so outwardly focused on Lila and Lila's impact on her life that she is unable to have a true sense of herself other than as she appears in contrast to Lila. There are a few moments in which the curtain is pulled back and she is afforded a brief glimpse of herself as others see her, not merely as a counterpart to Lila. The idea that it can be difficult to see an accurate picture of oneself is very true to life and is skillfully portrayed by Ferrante. Interestingly, she achieves this portrayal by going against the old adage that a good writer should show rather than tell the reader what's happening. Ferrante's style is very formal and verbose, with more time devoted to Elena's summary of events than to long scenes of dialogue. It somehow works to create an overall tone that held me completely enthralled.

I highly recommend these novels, and would love to know what you think if you've read them. I'm now at the halfway point of the series, having just finished The Story of a New Name.  I had every intention of trying to spread out the remaining books, but the last few sentences of book two left me so eager to find out what happens next that I'm fairly certain I'll be running to the bookstore this week to pick up Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Fancies

I've been saving up links for a few weeks now, so I have lots to share today, offering a little bit of everything.

One of several recent articles I've seen about how women undermine themselves with their choice of words. A few of these really resonated with me, especially the point about the use of "just". I'm constantly starting out work emails with "Just checking in about..."and am making a conscious effort to curb that.

Speaking of word choices, here's an in-depth look at who vs. whom.

Ten tips for becoming a better reader. (Note the mention of Slightly Foxed in #9...perhaps a sign that I really need to start subscribing to that.)

The teeny, tiny ad that announced The Great Gatsby's publication 90 years ago.

A new literary website worth checking out.

A preview of a new Eric Ravilious exhibit.

For Mad Men fans: an illustrated chronicle of Don Draper's women (not mention the evolving fashions of the series).

For Broadchurch fans: David Tenant makes up lyrics to the opening theme.

And it was just announced that Reese Witherspoon will narrate the audiobook of Go Set a Watchman. Sounds like a good choice to me--something about her voice seems like it will evoke Harper Lee's South really well.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Touch Not the Cat

And now for a complete change of pace from Flannery O'Conner:  Touch Not the Cat, Mary Stewart's awkwardly named novel that I enjoyed probably a bit more than I should have! Stewart is one of those mid-century British writers whose work I've discovered through blogging. I've read several of her novels over the past few years and have found them to be generally pleasant reads filled with cozy English settings, gentle characters, and hints of magical happenings here and there. In this book, though, Stewart seems to pull out all the stops. The story is crammed with every type of silly supernatural element you can imagine: a suspicious death, a crumbling estate, illegitimate family connections, a maze, a love story involving a telepathic connection with a mystery man, a pair of evil twins that have their own telepathic connection...all as depicted very literally on the 70's-era cover of my used copy.

I would be the first to admit that all of these elements seem way too over the top to come across as anything other than really cheesy, but somehow Stewart manages to make it all really fun. I was more than happy to just suspend my disbelief and just enjoy the pot as it unfolded. I think this might actually be my favorite Mary Stewart novel to date! 

Are there any novels that you've enjoyed even though they might sound silly on paper? 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Discovering Flannery O'Connor

I don't know how she alluded me for so long, but prior to this year, I had never read anything by Flannery O'Connor, apart from maybe one story included in an anthology that I read for a class once. I had actually never been that interested in her, but this book, loosely based on her correspondence with Robert Lowell, piqued my interest. I finally worked my way through her Complete Stories over the past couple of months, then followed that up with her first novel, Wise BloodNow I have a new addition to my list of all time favorite authors.

One of the main things that struck me about O'Connor's stories was their haunting quality, for lack of a better description. Each one offered up new images that stuck with me long after I had finished reading it. This is partly due to the Southern Gothic style she writes in. Her darkly eccentric characters are very flawed, but they're fascinating and hard to look away from. Equally fascinating are the reactions that these characters draw from the reader. Many of them are sanctimonious, self-described "good country people" who sit in judgement of others of different classes or backgrounds. Their hypocritical prejudices are readily apparent to the reader (especially to the modern day reader). Yet even though we might not like or share their feelings, they do evoke a certain sympathy. O'Connor seems to have a knack for making us feel a connection to the most unexpected characters, ranging from the irritating to the unsavory to the downright evil. Her ability to make us question and reassess our feelings about her characters is possibly the most shocking aspect of stories that are already filled with shocking things.

(image via here)

O'Connor was well know for her devotion to her Catholic faith and her morally ambiguous characters serve to personify the religious themes that lurk behind much of her writing. At first glance, the combination of religious themes with weirdly dark characters doesn't exactly seem like it would make for page-turning reading, but in O'Connor's hands it does. I think this is because she grounds these elements with a very traditional style of fiction writing. Her short stories are very classically structured and filled with small but vivid details about mundane things that create a realistic portrait of characters who might otherwise seem unrealistic, resulting in a very believable fictional world that makes readers want to find out what will happen next while allowing her deeper themes to settle in more subtly once the plot has unfolded.

Have you read Flannery O'Connor? What do you think of her style?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Friday Fancies

I recently finished the current must-read novel The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. On the whole, I was a little underwhelmed. An unique concept with an intriguing construction, it did have me racing through to the end, but that was less because I felt invested in the story and characters and more because I knew it was marketed as a "things aren't what they seem" thriller and I just wanted to get to the end to find out the big twist. In spite of that, it did feel nice to be reading a current novel of the moment while it was still just that, instead of waiting a couple of years like I typically do.

Are you reading any current books right now?

In other news:

NYRB is having a sale. If you're looking to treat yourself, I'd recommend Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban.

I love punctuation--here's a look at it's evolution through texting. So, what kind of texter are you? I'm definitely a Classicist.

A project to fill your Sunday nights until Downton Abbey returns next January.

And between the references to Charlotte Bronte, Nancy Mitford, and Jane Austen, this interview with Kazuo Ishiguro makes him a new frontrunner for the writer I would most like to be best friends with.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Station Eleven

“Lovely” and “beautifully drawn” are the kind descriptions I find myself a little too apt to use when describing books. They sound nice, but are so broad and used so often that they render themselves meaningless. An exception, however, has to be made in the case of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Of all of the books in my recent memory, it’s one of the most lovely and beautifully drawn—a surprising thing given the fact that it’s a novel about the collapse of civilization as we know it.

The dystopian elements of Station Eleven are far different from the type of dystopian novels that are so trendy right now, especially in the YA genre. In it, the end of civilization comes about not as the result of a Brave New World regime in the distant future, but rather because of a deadly flu epidemic. As a plot convention, the epidemic feels both frightening and frighteningly immediate—it’s recognizable as something you could imagine happening tomorrow. The post-epidemic world is made up of loosely organized rural communities. Lacking electricity, fuel, and any form of transport more advanced than a horse-drawn cart, the small population that did not succumb to the flu now lives in small, localized settlements, reclaiming deserted box stores and fast food restaurants as housing, and farming and hunting for their food. The action of the plot is driven by the nomadic Traveling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians who travel from town to town performing Shakespearean plays. The central character within the Symphony is Kirsten Raymonde. Fifteen years prior, she was performing as a child actress in a Canadian production of King Lear on the day before the flu epidemic struck. On that last night, Kirsten shared the stage with Arthur Leander, the famous actor playing the title role, and with Jeevan Chandury, a paramedic in training who springs into action when Arthur suffers a heart attack mid-performance. As Station Eleven unfolds, we come to see how Kirstin, Arthur, and Jeevan share a connected fate to the people the Traveling Symphony encounters in the course of their wanderings.

While Kirsten ostensibly represents the heart of the novel, I actually found her to be one of the least interesting characters. She’s too young to remember much from the pre-epidemic era, and therefore serves mostly as a touchstone for certain connecting elements in the older characters’ earlier lives. I won’t say more so as not to give anything away, but it’s these recurring connections that are the most intriguing parts of the novel. We see them emerge through flashbacks that show the lives of Jeevan, Arthur, and Arthur’s ex-wives and friends, both before and during the epidemic. These flashbacks contrast with the novel’s post-apocalyptic present in a way that’s really poignant and that—at the risk of sounding a bit cheesy—left me looking with newfound appreciation at even the most banal daily conveniences that we take for granted. Highly, highly recommended.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Fancies

If you're reading this blog, chances are that you're someone who has an extensive To Read pile, whether on your night stand at home or virtually on Goodreads. I've always acquired books faster than I can read them and can therefore appreciate some of the sound advice in these tips for tackling your To Read pile. I especially like #2. I used to try to plan out my reading order in advance, but lately have been preferring to just go with my mood when it's time to pick up a new book.

(image via here--I've never read any Tolkien, but these pretty editions might almost tempt me.)

The food styling behind Downton Abbey--an interesting read for the lead up to Sunday's season finale.

Speaking of TV, the new season of Broadchurch starts airing on BBC America next week. Watch it!

And here's an intriguing concept- centireading. Would you ever try it? Which book would you choose?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Revisiting The Woman in White

It's been quiet around these parts lately not because I haven't been reading, but because I've been reading too much. Or, more accurately, I should say that I've been reading too many things at once. I had three books in progress over the past few weeks, which didn't leave a lot to blog about. One of these books was The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, which I was rereading. This time around, some of the tensions in the plot and conflicts between characters left me feeling so stressed out that I had to lay the book aside for a while. It would be very hard to argue that Collins isn't a master of suspense. That said, The Woman in White is not without its flaws--a fact that became apparent as I revisited it this time around.

The Woman in White begins on a dark night when artist Walter Hartright encounters--of course--a mysterious young woman in white. They meet on the deserted road and Walter escorts her for a small leg of her journey into London. Shortly after they part, he overhears a passing conversation that leads him to deduce that the woman had escaped from an asylum. In the following days, Walter takes a position as a drawing instructor to half-sisters Laura Fairlie and Marion Halcombe and is unsettled to learn that their family may have a connection to the mysterious woman. Walter's narrative during this opening section is one of the strongest parts of the novel, setting a moody and atmospheric tone for what's to come. Because it's so good, it feels a bit disappointing when the novel switches narrators. We see much of the plot unfold through a series of devices like Marion's journal entries, letters from peripheral characters, and recorded testimonies from household servants. Aside from Marion, most of the characters who take a turn narrating are long-winded and irritating at best, completely unlikeable at worst, which can make some of their sections feel a bit tedious. It makes for a novel that you want to race through, both so that you can find out what happens next and so that you can move on to a different narrator.

The character of Laura Fairlie was another element that was slightly irritating upon this second reading. She's portrayed as kind, innocent, and delicate--traits that are all pretty typical for heroines of that time period, but that tended to grate after 600 pages worth of Walter and Marion tiptoeing around her fragile constitution. Although Laura is cast as the romantic heroine and the center of the novel's mystery, it's the active and competent Marion who is the stronger female protagonist (though Collins doesn't let her get away without having a few moments of simpering herself).

Although this rereading brought out some of these flaws for me, it didn't change my overall favorable opinion of the novel. The issues that stood out might even be attributed to the fact that it was first published as a magazine serial--making its overall success as a self-contained novel a testament to just how good of a mystery writer Collins was.

What do you think of The Woman in White? Or is there any other book that you enjoy in spite of its flaws?

Friday, February 6, 2015

Friday Fancies

Obviously the biggest book news of the week--or of the year, really--was the announcement that a new novel by Harper Lee will be published this summer. I can't remember the last time I felt such a jolt of excitement from reading a piece of news. In the subsequent days, many questions have been raised about whether or not Lee really wants this novel published. Personally, until there is more than just speculation that she's being taken advantage of by her lawyer or her publisher, I plan on focusing on the excitement of reading Go Set a Watchman. This piece in the Guardian argues in favor of taking that point of view.

While we're all waiting for the book's summer release, here are some nonfiction essays by Harper Lee to check out.

A Nancy Drew cookbook--who knew?

And 40 ideas to cultivate a richer reading life--I definitely want to try some of these.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Ghost Stories for Winter Nights

Sometimes the winter season puts me in the mood to read cozy, Pym-esque books. This year, however, all I've been in the mood for are mysteries, dark thrillers, or ghost stories, as evidenced by the facts that I'm currently re-reading The Woman in White and that I only seem to want to watch moody TV shows like Broadchurch. In case you happen to be feeling the same, I thought I share a quick recommendation for Simone St. James, a Canadian author whose books I discovered last summer summer. Her three novels, The Haunting of Maddy Clare, Silence for the Dead, and An Inquiry into Love and Death take place during the inter-War years. They follow three different young women who are on their own in life and who find themselves in unusual jobs that throw them into the midst of mysteries with supernatural twists.

The fact that St. James's novels have so many common elements could easily turn them into cliched retellings of the same story. What saves them from this, though, is the way that St. James seems to take pains to develop her casts of characters in unique and interesting ways. In spite of the basic similarities of their circumstances, all of her protagonists are uniquely and vividly drawn. The same is true for the love interests they meet along the way--all former soldiers whose battle with the metaphorical ghosts of war create an added layer of depth as they battle more tangible ghosts in the course of the novels. Although it's obvious that St. James has a formulaic approach to her writing, it's one that works and that exceeds expectations thanks to her attention to detail and character development.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Over a recent cold and snowy weekend, I binge-watched the British show Broadchurch on Netflix. Have you seen it? It's such a well-done show, cinematic show and I can't stop thinking about it now that I've finished the first season.

Broadchurch is set in a small seaside town in which a local young boy has been murdered. The investigation into the crime is led by a duo of detectives: Ellie Miller, a local with deep ties to the community whose son was friends with the victim and Alec Hardy, a jaded outsider who was recently brought in to fill the job Ellie had her sights on and who is (of course) haunted by demons from a past case. The show is part police procedural, part psychological thriller. As the investigation unfolds over the course of eight episodes, we see the residents of Broadchurch begin to turn on one another as everyone becomes a suspect. 

I don't always enjoy very dark shows, and Broadchuch would certainly qualify as that since it deals with the death of a child. What makes it so compelling, though, is the fact that it's tempered with really nuanced and complicated performances, especially by David Tennant as Detective Hardy, that bring a full range of emotions to the story. Apparently there actually as an American adaptation called Gracepoint, also starring DavidTennant, that had a short-lived run on Fox. It doesn't sound like it was very well-received, but I'm tempted to try to find it just to sustain myself until Season 2 of Broadchurch premieres in March on BBC America. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

West of Sunset

Over the past few years there's been a steady stream of historical fiction centered around the wives of figures like Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as multiple novels written from the point of view of Zelda Fitzgerald. After reading a couple of the former and hearing about the latter, I couldn't help but imagine the possibilities for a fictional retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald's own life. That retelling has finally arrived in Stewart O'Nan's new novel West of Sunset and it is superb. As a fan of Fitzgerald, I expected to find this novel interesting as it related to him. I didn't expect to love it as a beautiful work in its own right.

West of Sunset does not take place during the heyday of Scott and Zelda's fame in the roaring twenties. Instead, O'Nan smartly sets the work in 1937, after Zelda has been placed in a mental institution and Scott has gone to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter to supplement his dwindling income. It's one of the lesser-known periods of Fitzgerald's life and one that typically fails to pique the same interest as his more glamorous life during the 1920s. In particular, his relationship during that time with gossip columnist Sheila Graham often struck me as being dull and second-rate after the mythical great love that he and Zelda shared. O'Nan's treatment of this period has completely changed my opinion. 

Though a work of fiction, West of Sunset is full of true details of Fitzgerald's Hollywood life. We learn surprising things about his film work, like the fact that he spent a short time writing dialogue for Gone with the Wind. We see him interact with celebrities of the era, both movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and literary peers like Dorothy Parker and Hemingway. (My sole criticism of the book is that in the first chapter or two, the steady stream of celebrity cameos feels a bit forced, but that eventually evens out in the balance of the book.) Perhaps most interestingly, we see his relationship with Sheila Graham in an interesting, complicated light, offset by the sections of the novel in which Scott returns East for visits with Zelda. As he maintains both of these relationships, we see Fitzgerald actively try to hold onto something that is disappearing, a theme in much of his work, and ultimately come to terms with the fact that he cannot. O'Nan manages to convey all of this using a writing style that is worthy of Fitzgerald's own. Although I haven't read any of O'Nan's other works and so don't have a basis to compare West of Sunset to his other writing, it seems that here he manages to perfectly evoke the style of Fitzgerald without falling into mimicry.

As is probably obvious by now, I'd highly recommend this for anyone with an interest in Fitzgerald. I'd even recommend taking a look at the companion book club guide, which, unlike most that I've seen, actually offers some interesting information. As for myself, I'll probably be rereading The Love of the Last Tycoon in the near future. Seeing Fitzgerald's character plan out this final novel in the book has put me in the mood to revisit it.

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

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday Fancies

In what's become something of a new tradition, my family visited Grounds for Sculpture in the days following Christmas. It remains one of my favorite museum experiences and the unusually mild weather was perfect for taking in both the nature and the sculptures.

Yale's collection of Edith Wharton papers includes some of her recipes. I'm tempted to file this away for next Christmas.

An interesting article related to Mark Zuckerberg's recently announced book club and his discovery that--news flash!--books are intellectually fulfilling.

Here's a great story about Kale Chips, the overweight beagle who's getting some much-needed help from a Chicago rescue group.

And PBS is on hot streak with it's shows lately. Besides the new season of Downton Abbey, they've also started showing The Great British Baking Show and Grantchester premieres this Sunday. Are you watching?

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Goldfinch

 The Goldfinch is an epic, coming-of-age tale that would be an ideal read if you're looking for something big to sink your teeth into this winter. The novel tells the story of Theo Decker, a Manhattan teenager who survives a museum bombing that kills his mother. As expected, the tragedy alters the course of his life--though not necessarily in ways that could be easily predicted.

Much has already been written about The Goldfinch, especially in regards to its Dickensian elements. It's an apt comparison, with Theo as the orphan protagonist who is thrust against various elements ranging from wealth and privilege to seedy criminal types as he struggles to find his place in the world. And, like in the best of Dickens, Theo isn't portrayed as a hapless victim of these forces, but rather as a complex character whose own choices--both good and bad--play just as big a part in his life as the circumstances he's dealt in life. 

One of the highlights of the novel for me was they way in which Tartt portrays Theo's mother. Although she's only an active character for a very small portion of the book, she is a recurring touchstone for Theo, especially in the first two-thirds or so of the novel. After her death, we see her through Theo's eyes as he remembers moments that they had together. We even get to see his memory of her memories, as he recounts stories that she told him of her Midwestern childhood. She's portrayed so vividly and is such an overarching force in the story that, about halfway through the book, I found that I was actually missing her, wishing that she would come back as a character in the present action of the novel. Tartt evokes in the reader the same sense of loss that she describes Theo as feeling for his mother. 

In addition to this vivid portrayal of Theo's mother, the entire world of the book is realistically imagined down to the most minute detail (another Dickensian trait). Even offhand remarks thrown out by minor characters feel spot-on, making it seem like Tartt has actually lived through what she writes about. Out of the entire 800+ pages, there was only one detail that proved to be a stumbling block for me--the accent of Theo's friend Boris. A Russian by way of Ukraine, Boris grows up moving around the world as his father takes mining jobs in different cities. He's described as speaking English with tinges of both a Russian and an Australian accent. No matter how hard I tried to imagine this, I could not get this combination of accents. Half the time I heard his accent as Russian, the other half as Australian.

Have you read The Goldfinch yet? 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Persephone Under the Tree

I always feel like a bit of a braggart when I do a post that recaps books I got for Christmas. Then, of course, I stop and realize that the majority of people probably wouldn’t consider a book to be a gift worth bragging about. Hopefully that’s not the case for anyone reading this blog, who may be more likely to share in my excitement over the collection of Persephone books that I received this year.

First there's The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield-Fisher, one of the more buzzed-about Persephones in recent months. It tells the story of a stay-at-home father in the 1920's, when that was anything but common. Perhaps even more than the intriguing premise and good buzz, it was the cover illustration of the Persephone Classics Edition that drew me to this book. It features a Norman Rockwell painting called Crackers in Bed that is so warm and cozy looking that it practically makes the book jump off the shelf, begging to be read during these dreary winter months. I'll definitely be tacking this one very soon.

The Village by Marghanita Laski and High Wages by Dorothy Whipple were both titles that I added to my wish list after browsing through the most recent Persephone Biannual. While the latter is still waiting on my shelf, I read The Village over the holiday break. It’s the story of a romance between an upper class girl and a working class boy, told through the eyes of the small British village they live in during the inter-War years. Laski introduces us to a huge group of characters and she skillfully makes each one multi-dimensional. The result is that you spend time liking and disliking aspects of nearly every character in turn. The love story feels almost secondary to this realistic character study. I wasn’t thrilled with the way the ending was wrapped up, which might keep this one from being one of my top Persephone recommendations, but it was still a very engaging novel.

The Persephone Book of Short Stories is a book that I've been wanting to get my hands on for quite a while. The writers represented in the collection include Dorothy Whipple, Dorothy Parker, Edith Wharton, Helen Hull, Susan Glaspell, among many others, which pretty much makes it a no-brainer.

And last, but not least, is The Country Life Cookery Book by Ambrose Heath. Traditionally I’ve steered away from Persophone’s nonfiction books on cooking or homekeeping, but this one spoke to me because of the way it features recipes broken down according to season, very much on-trend even though it was written in the 30's, back when eating that way was the norm and not a trend. Yes, it’s a very different kind of cookbook than the modern-day ones that clutter my kitchen, and yes, there are recipes for some dishes that I would never dream of preparing today, but there are also a fair amount that I can actually see myself trying. And as a bonus, each chapter is illustrated with drawings by Eric Ravilious, an artist whose work I’m always interested in seeing.

That was my holiday haul. Did you get any books for Christmas, Persephone or otherwise?


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