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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