Thursday, August 11, 2016

Quick Takes

Just popping in here with some quick thoughts about a few of the books I've read recently. First up is Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. Part of Hogarth's Shakespeare series, which commissions current authors to reinterpret some of Shakespeare's classic plays, this novel offers a modern version of The Taming of the Shrew. This was my first time reading anything by Anne Tyler, who is one of those quietly but widely renowned authors, and I was really impressed with her writing. Her style, at least in this book, manages to convey a compelling drama while still being rooted in the ordinary little facets of everyday life. I also appreciated the direction went she with the story. A modern reinterpretation of The Taming of the Shrew could easily go a very cliche route--I'm imagining something in which Kate is portrayed as some kind of driven "career woman" who needs to be softened. Instead, Tyler takes a more subtle, unexpected route, casting her Kate as the 30 year old daughter of an eccentric scientist whose blunt personality starts to veer toward bitterness as she feels increasingly trapped by her life circumstances. The romantic lead she clashes with is her father's research assistant, an Eastern European immigrant whose visa is about to expire. It's the type of pairing you don't read about every day, and it plays out in a very satisfy way.

Next is a Persephone book, Few Eggs and No Oranges, the wartime diary of Vere Hodgson that spans the years 1940-1945. You might say that this falls at the more utilitarian end of the diary spectrum. It's not a memoir in which Hodgson has wrapped up her experiences in a neat and tidy package, nor is it secret diary in which she's revealed her innermost thoughts and feelings. Instead, this is a diary that she wrote and circulated among relatives living abroad as a way of updating them on her life in London during the war. She chronicles each day in a brisk way, succinctly recording the work she does, the increasingly skimpy food rations that she eats, and the endless air raids she experiences. There is very little plot beyond this sometimes repetitive chronicling, yet it is compelling in its own way. It gave me a new and deeper understanding of World War II from simply absorbing the daily grind of it through Hodgson's eyes. In a similar way, I also grew to love Hodgson as her wonderful, resilient character was revealed from witnessing several years' worth of her daily activities. At around 600 pages, I'll admit this may not be a book for everyone, but it's a real treasure for anyone who's interested in WWII and the female writers of the period.

Finally, a book that didn't quite his the mark for me: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. I was excited to read this mystery after seeing it highly praised on a few of my favorite blogs in recent months. It's widely thought of as one of Christie's best, with a completely unexpected ending that was apparently very innovative for its time. Unfortunately, I think the vague allusions I had read about this amazing ending were exactly what spoiled the novel for me. From page one I found the characters to be a little dull and the plot a little hard to get into, but I kept reading on high alert, looking at the book from every angle to try to guess the ending. I did eventually hit on it, which made the end of the novel feel like more of a big letdown than a big reveal.

What are you reading these days?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday Fancies

Last week, the structure shown in the picture below suddenly appeared in front of one of the buildings on my block. I believe it's a Little Free Library, although the lack of any kind of label means that it might only be meant for a select group of people already in the know. I took a chance and added two books to the 3-4 that were already in there. Over the past week they've all disappeared, but the box has yet to be replenished. What to you think--was I correct in my assumption or did I just clutter up a neighbor's mailbox?

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

Test your book smarts with this quiz that The Strand bookstore requires of its prospective employees. (I scored a 46/50!)

The origin of publishers' names.

I just discovered this children's book by a favorite artist.

And I recently finished Trollope's Miss Mackenzie, which was enjoyable and might arguably be described as an early precursor to some of Barbara Pym's work. As always, Trollope's delightful character names were out in full force: Mr. & Mrs. Fuzzybell, Dr. Slumpy, and the law partners Mr. Slow and Mr. Bideawhile.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Enchanted August

As someone who has experienced a fair number of Augusts in Maine, I was eager to read Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen, a modern day retelling of Enchanted April. Like Elizabeth von Armin's original, the novel features a group of four near strangers who rent a house together for a month, this time replacing the Italian villa with an island cottage in Maine. There they form a sometimes rocky friendship with one another, reflect on issues they have been experiencing with their respective husbands, families, and careers, and begin to reassess their own lives.

It's been quite a while since I read Enchanted April--long enough for me to wonder if I actually did read it or if I just saw the movie--so it's hard for me to give a complete assessment on how  Enchanted August pays tribute to its source material. It does capture the eccentric group of four, successfully updating each of the characters while retaining their key traits from the original novel. Bowen's plot relies on a lot of coincidences that happen among the four vacationers, especially toward the end of the novel, that probably require a bit more suspension of disbelief than von Arnim needed. A few of these plot points made me roll my eyes a bit, but wouldn't be too distracting for anyone who's reading for pure summer entertainment. Another thing that Bowen absolutely does capture is the atmosphere of summer in Maine. The fictional island is set somewhere near the vicinity of Bar Harbor, so many of Bowen's references were familiar from my past vacations there, as were her descriptions of the characters' long trip up to the island, with drives along wooded roads in the rainy dusk and parking lots filled with the "official state car", the Subaru. It all provided a fun way to relive a Maine adventure.

Have you read any novels set in your favorite vacation spot?

A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Shuttle

I just finished reading The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett and I have to say, it might be my favorite Persephone book yet. I know for a fact that I have said this before about other books, but I may really mean it this time. It combines elements that are reminiscent of Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and Edith Wharton, features a heroine that is equal to any of their classic characters, and just may be the latest addition to my list of favorite books of all time.

The Shuttle takes place in the early 20th century, when American heiresses were just beginning to marry into the British aristocracy. The shuttle of the title refers to the steamer ships that crossed the Atlantic, ferrying prospective brides and bridegrooms back and forth across the pond. The novel opens during the first wave of this phenomenon. The wealthy Vanderpoel family (fictional counterpart to the Vanderbilts) marries their eldest daughter Rosalie to Lord Nigel Anstruthers, an evil philanderer hiding behind the mask of a respectable title. As soon as the sweet, simple Rosy reaches England, she's easily overpowered by her husband, cut off from her family and money, and forced to live a reclusive life in Nigel's dilapidated manor house, Stornham Court. This section of the novel is pure Gothic fare.

Cut to twelve years later when younger sister Bettina Vanderpoel enters the scene as both the heroine of the novel and the hero of the day. Unlike Rosy, Betty is clever, composed, and courageous. She is close with her millionaire father and has inherited his practical business acumen along with his money. She brings both with her to find and rescue Rosy. She sweeps into the Gothic decay of Stornham and immediately begins to rehabilitate both the house and her sister. Gothic elements reappear as Nigel tries to plot and scheme against Betty, but they are always counterbalanced by her modern outlook, one that comes from a world where there's law and order and where people cannot be held captive against their will. This push and pull between the Gothic and the modern reflects the similar dynamic that occurs as American and English cultures mingle throughout the novel. Of course, there is a climatic scene in which Betty nearly does fall prey to Gothic horror at Nigel's hands--I won't reveal any spoilers, though. This is a true page-turner that's satisfying on many levels. (Did I mention that there is a romantic male lead who is at least as dreamy as Mr. Darcy? And characters with wonderfully ridiculous names like Ughtread and Mount Dunstan?) I can't recommend  this book highly enough!

Do you have a "favorite" Persephone book? Or at least a current favorite that has yet to be dethroned?

Friday, June 24, 2016

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is the story of a group of kindergarten parents whose seemingly petty schoolyard dramas hide deeper secrets that escalate into a criminal act. That's not exactly the kind of story that would normally attract me, but I was intrigued enough to give it a try after learning that Reese Witherspoon had optioned the rights and is making it into a miniseries starring herself and Nicole Kidman. Still, I was skeptical as I started the book. I had just come off a string of mediocre reads and, for the first hundred pages or so, it seemed like this might be another one. As the momentum began to build, though, I found myself more and more drawn in. This turned out to be a completely enjoyable book that left me thinking about it days after finishing.

My initial lack of interest in the book stems from its synopsis, which makes it sound like something campy and melodramatic. Instead, it's smartly written on many levels. Moriarty's characterization and dialogue is pitch perfect. She balances out the novel's darker plot points with many funny moments, as well as with scenes that offer spot-on commentary on various modern-day social issues and themes. Even better is the way the novel is structured. In most mysteries, the plot surrounding a crime leaves the reader trying to figure out who did it and what the motive was. Here, not only are those two questions unknown, but the actual details of crime itself it a big unknown until the end of the novel. Moriarty cleverly unravels this bit by bit throughout the book. There are a few surprise twists that I was able to guess, plus one final twist that I did not see coming at all. This is a perfect summer read that's thought-provoking in an entertaining way. I can easily imagine this translating onto screen and can't wait to see the miniseries adaptation.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Light of Paris

In my last post I talked about  the start of summer reading season. While my own summer reading this year will include, as always, its fair share of classics and British middlebrow novels, I'll also be making a point to read at least a few of the season's new releases. The first such book that I can  recommend is The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown, author of the very good debut novel, The Weird Sisters.

 In The Light of Paris, Brown alternates between two eras with parallel story lines-- a plot structure that I always enjoy. The contemporary half of the story, set in 1999, centers around Madeline, a thirty-something woman who has lost herself by trying to conform to the expectations of others, first to please her cold, high-society mother, then to please equally cold, perfectionist husband whom she married out of convenience. As she contemplates the possibility of a divorce, she returns to her childhood home in a quaint Southern town where she reassesses her life and rediscovers her love of art. While there, she also discovers a set of journals kept by her grandmother, Margie, during the 1920s. They tell the story of how Margie escaped similarly rigid societal expectations by spending a year living in Bohemian Paris.

Neither Margie's nor Madeline's story lines are perfect--the way the former's ended left me a bit unsatisfied while the latter's personal journey felt repetitive at times, with many scenes in which her "heart aches" as she remembers choices from her past. In spite of that, both heroines are likable and easy to root for, and novel's wonderfully drawn settings more than make up for any other imperfections. It turns out that alternating scenes of a charming Southern town and Jazz Age Paris make the perfect combination for a enjoyable summer read. The beautiful descriptions of Paris were especially captivating--almost enough to convert this Anglophile to a Francophile, at least temporarily. This is an ideal beach read, although it's one that may make you want to leave the beach early to go home and rewatch Amelie or Midnight in Paris just to soak up more of the French atmosphere.

(A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher. All thoughts and opinions are my own.)

Friday, June 3, 2016

Friday Fancies

We're finally getting into summer reading season. Are there any books you're especially looking forward to in the coming months? Between several trips to the library, a small spree at my local bookstore, and an order with a few new Persephones on the way, I should be all set for at least the next month. I'm particularly looking forward to reading this short story collection, which I picked up entirely based on seeing the following quote: "I fix myself a hot chocolate because it is a gateway drug to reading." I couldn't agree more.

(Some new succulent plants in two vintage head vases. I'm hoping they'll thrive as a result of being placed near the Nancy Mitford books.)

Speaking of hot chocolate, it's completely out of season but I've been on a kick of making it from scratch lately and this recipe hits it out of the park.

Some of the best zingers from Jane Austen.

And a newly discovered site that reveals the secret life of punctuation, plus a BBC interview that includes an interesting discussion about getting punctuation to look the way that you want something to sound.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Desk Dispatches

In my last post, I gave a glimpse of my "new" desk, which is really just my restyled dining table. In theory, it has always served the dual purpose of table and desk, but it was pushed against the wall and only rarely used as a desk, generally for onerous chores like doing my taxes. After seeing some inspiring desks on instagram, I decided to give mine a simple makeover. I rotated it 90 degrees to face the windows, pulled up a comfortable armchair and a little bench where I can rest my feet, and replaced some stray place mats with a goose-neck lamp and some other pretty accessories. Now it's become a cozy spot that I enjoy sitting at almost every day, and it can still be called into action as a dining table when guests come over.

If you're wondering whether these photos were staged, the answer is, yes, a bit. A helter-skelter pile of books has by now found its way back onto the desktop. But of course I always have tea and a plate of macarons at the ready.

Have you rearranged anything in your home lately?

Friday, May 20, 2016

Friday Fancies

I've never been big on listening to podcasts, but over the past few weeks I've been starting to enjoy them. One that I've discovered is The American Edit, which focuses on various designers, businesses, and entrepreneurs who are trying to build new made-in-America brands. It's very tied into the "slow" anything movement, the reviving interest in where clothes and products come from and how they are produced, and the focus on quality over quantity. On a completely different note, there's also Song Exploder, which features interviews with bands breaking down one of their songs note by note. There's something strangely thrilling to me about hearing, say, a piano melody that I had never noticed before isolated from a song and hearing about what went into recording it. And continuing with the musical theme, I've also been enjoying exploring the archives of the BBC's Desert Island Discs, which asks famous figures to choose eight songs, one book, and one luxury item to bring with them onto a desert island. Although I'm not sure if this one is technically considered a podcast, it does comprise nine decades worth of archived episodes (I'd particularly recommend the Barbara Pym episode, and the Tom Hanks episode is unsurprisingly delightful).

A view of my newly rearranged desk (more on that soon).

Please do let me know if you have any favorite podcasts--I'm eager for recommendations! In the meantime, here are a few recommendations of my own.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is so often associated with the East Coast or Paris, but his Midwestern roots run deep.

Awful Library Books highlights some of the funniest, strangest, and most outdated books that get weeded out of libraries.

London's biggest bookstore basically sounds like it's the size of a mall.

And this might just be the best tribute to Shakespeare you'll ever see--highly worth watching!

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Master

Although the title of The Master by Colm Toibin refers to the novel's subject, Henry James, it could easily refer to Toibin himself and the way that he is apparently a master of characterization and narrative voice--at least, that's my opinion of him after reading both this and his lovely novel Brooklyn. The tone of each novel is so different that it would be easy to believe that they were written by two different authors. In Brooklyn, he draws a nuanced and intimate portrait of a young Irish girl on her own for the first time. In The Master, he focuses a similar lens on a middle aged Henry James, but uses a completely different writing style that mimics James's own style, with long sentences that slowly reveal the most minute occurrences and thoughts.

There is no strong plot line running throughout The Master. Instead, each chapter focuses on a different episode in James's life, and in particular the different, often unconventional, relationships he had with family, friends, and potential lovers. The threads that do connect each segment of the novel add up to create a picture of a self-contained, highly observant, witty, and often lonely writer. The fact that the writing style does take a similar tone as James's work does mean that the pace can feel like it's dragging a bit. Just like many of  James's novels, I found The Master to be a slow start. Once I got beyond the first third, though, I was completely drawn into it. The portrait of James's life was so interesting that I'm sure it will inspire me to read more of his novels in the future, despite the fact that those are reading experiences that I sometimes regret

Friday, April 15, 2016

Friday Fancies

One of the more interesting pieces of bookish news that I've seen this week is that the founders of Out of Print clothing have just launched a new app called Litsy. From what I can tell, it seems like it combines features from Goodreads and Instagram to create a new social app of book lovers. I'm intrigued, especially if it's more independent than the Amazon-owned Goodreads, although my reading lists are already so entrenched there that I can't imagine fully switching away from it.

(a vegan chocolate peanut butter doughnut--aka the prettiest spring treat that I had recently)

Writers who spied, plus recommendations for five literary spy novels.

In honor of the 400th year anniversary of his death, Hogarth Press is launching an intriguing series of novels that offer modern interpretations of Shakespeare's works....

...and Emma Bridgewater has launched a pretty commemorative mug.

And mysterious stacks of books seen around NYC recently were actually an art project. I wish I had encountered some of these!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Bright Star

Although in theory I'm a person who likes going to Broadway shows, in actuality--particularly in recent years--it takes a lot to motivate me to spend the time and money to go see a certain show. All of the necessary motivating factors converged recently for Bright Star, the new musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. After seeing the pair interviewed about the show, which incorporates music from the two bluegrass albums they wrote together, I began listening to said albums, which fit right in with the genre of Americana music that I love. Once I started listening, I couldn't stop. Each song is so evocative that listening to one feels akin to reading a short story. A glowing review from a coworker sealed the deal and convinced me that I had to see the show.

(Snapped outside the theater.)

Bright Star is loosely based on an historical newspaper headline. The plot hinges on some surprises so I won't give away too much other than to say that it tells the story of the female editor of a Southern literary journal and a young solider just home from World War II who aspires to be a published writer. There are scenes in a bookstore and plenty of literary name-dropping, making it the perfect show for a bibliophile. All of that is really just a side-note, though, and pales in comparison to the way the story unfolds on stage. The action jumps back and forth between the 1940's and the 1920's, and from scene to scene the female lead, played by Carmen Cusack, either ages or goes back in time--sometimes literally right in front of the audience's eyes. It's a great acting performance that's enhanced by innovative staging. There are no flashy special effects; everything is done out in the open, like when the supporting cast members move around the set pieces, but it's done in such a creative, choreographed way that it feels magical.

(image via here)

An even bigger highlight than all of that is the show's music. It's performed by a small bluegrass band that is in costume and front-and-center on stage. They sit inside a wood framed house that serves as the center piece of the set and that gets pushed around the stage for different scenes. The songs are recognizable from Martin and Brickell's albums, although with slightly altered lyrics in some cases. Hearing them performed within the context of the story and by different voices gives them an added emotional punch. I know I'm going to be listening to the Broadway cast recording once it comes out (and I never listen to Broadway soundtracks).

(image via here)

The final rave I'll give is for the costumes, especially for the female characters, who wore structured dresses and hats during the 1940's scenes and floral farm dresses for the 1920's scenes. All were pretty and perfectly conveyed their time period. I really can't speak highly enough about Bright Star. I would see it again if the opportunity arose and I'll be rooting for it to win some Tony awards (although it's chances may be slim since Hamilton is also in the running this year, which is a bummer).

Friday, March 25, 2016

Friday Fancies

I'm taking a couple of days off for a long weekend, which will see the coincidence of Easter weekend with the giant book sale that has become an annual event for me. Wish me luck for some nice Spring-like weather and some good book finds.

Millie last Halloween, but equally appropriate as an Easter lamb.

Here are some links you can check out while I'm up to my elbows in piles of old books:

Julian Fellows writes a letter to fans and alludes to a Downton Abbey movie...or musical?!

In case you were wondering, this is what Donald Trump would sound like as a literary critic.

The benefits of finding a personal uniform.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Found in Books, Vol. 1

One of my favorite things about buying used books is when you come across surprises left inside by the previous owner, like an inscription or a little scrap of paper or forgotten note stuck between the pages. I've shared some of my discoveries in the past--like this dedication from an author and this secret message in a library book--and now I've decided that I will start to chronicle them more formally here in a little "Found in Books" series. My latest find was a piece of notepaper tucked into a used copy of Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson.

One side lists items needed for some type of DIY sculpture project. The crafter jotted down ideas for blocks that included: "Play Doh or clay which is built up, squeezed, dried, fired; Marble--stone cut down; Wood-shaped; Bronze" and a list of supplies that included synthetic wax, paraffin wax, and beeswax.

On the flip side is what appears to be a draft of a birthday poem that reads as follows:

"We are all so happy you're still alive
Now you've reached the age of 85.
[two lines that I can't decipher]
This will be a gala year
New hip to swing
So you will walk
You'll meet more people
To talk & talk.
No longer you'll need the arm of Frank
And your pony will be your own shank.
You're going to have some much fun
When down to the beach you'll run & run."

This may very well be the only ode to a hip replacement ever written. I'm left with so many questions after reading it. Was the hip replacement a success? Did the birthday person make it to the beach that year? And, more importantly, what became of Frank once his arm was no longer needed?

What's the most interesting thing you've ever found in a book?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

WWI in Books

Last October, I wrote about how everything I was reading and watching seemed to align around World War II. Now I've jumped back by a few decades to focus on World War I, with two of the best books that I've read recently both set during that time period.

(Vera Britain, image via here)

First, I finally got around to reading the memoir Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Published in the 1930's, it looks back on Vera's life when she leaves her place at Oxford to serve as a nurse during the war. Brittain writes about her experiences at the various hospitals she's posted at, both in England and abroad, about the deaths of her fiance and her brother, and finally about her subsequent return to Oxford to complete her studies after the war. It's easy to see why Testament of Youth has been considered one of the definitive literary accounts of WWI. Although Brittain brings 15 years' worth of perspective to her narration , she extensively uses excerpts from the actual diaries she kept during the war. The effect of that combination makes for one of the most compelling and moving books I've read in any genre.

After reading A Testament of Youth, I can see how it probably serves as source material for more recent works set during that time period, from the early seasons of Downton Abbey to Wake, the 2014 novel by Anna Hope. As the book's description points out, the word wake has several meanings: to emerge from sleep; a ritual for the dead; and a consequent or aftermath. Set just after the war, Wake illustrates these different meanings by using three different story lines in which three women interact WWI veterans in different ways. Their stories end up being intertwined, and are also woven into a narrative that follows the journey of the body of an unknown soldier as it is removed from its resting place in a French field and makes it way to London for a ceremonial burial. This was a beautifully written novel with smart plotting and character development. I can give it the highest compliment I can think of lately, which is that I can easily imagine this being a novel written by a beloved but forgotten mid-century writer only to be reissued by Persephone Books. Happily, it was written by a modern author, a fact that leaves me eager to read what Anna Hope writes next.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Friday Fancies

After such a long radio silence, is it bad form to pop up here just to comment on the Downton Abbey finale? I hope not. I think it's safe to assume that all of us fans of the show aren't ready to stop talking about it quite yet. There were a lot of good things about this final season (along with a few questionable things--was anyone really interested in the endless hospital storyline?) and I was glad to see things turn out well for pretty much every character, but I thought the final episode itself could have used a few more dramatic moments. I've grown so used to drastic twists and turns throughout the series as a whole that it felt strange to have the finale play out so smoothly. And while I did like Violet's closing dialogue, my ideal alternate ending would have been something that connected the past to the present day--perhaps having the last shot fade out to show modern visitors lining up to tour the house as a historic site, underscoring the ongoing theme of the disappearing aristocracy. What do you think? How did you like the finale?

(image via here)

I have quite a few links to share today, some of which I've accumulated over the past couple of months. They're not all the most current, but they are worth a look:

Keeping with the Downton Abbey theme, here's what to read and what to watch to avoid withdrawal.

Or you can wait for Julian Fellowes's next work, which is planned as an app.

An interesting look the effect high profile celebrity memoirs have on the rest of the publishing industry.

Misty Copeland as a Degas ballerina.

This cool instagram account offers its own take on famous works of art.

A way to visualize famous novels based on their punctuation.

And as you may have heard, Amazon's first brick-and-mortar store is open. I think I would prefer to visit the oldest (and also haunted) bookstore in America.


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