Friday, December 21, 2012

Friday Fancies

First off, thank you to everyone who entered or commented on my giveaway for Me Before You. In the interest of being both random and festive in picking the winner, I put slips of paper with each name into a stocking, closed my eyes, and picked:

Congratulations, Some Day is Right Now!

Email me your address at: miss(dot)bibliophile(dot)blog(at)gmail(dot)com and I'll get your copy out to you shortly.

In other news:

Tiny Christmas books that contain intricate works of art.

An Etsy artist who puts a unique spin on the ubiquitous antlers-as-wall-art.

Hot rollers de-mystified.

And this may be old news to anyone in the UK, but did you know you can go ice skating at the Tower of London? The especially caught my eye since the Tower is the setting of the book I'm currently reading (more on that on the other side of Christmas).

Last but not least, I want to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday. I really appreciate everyone who takes time to stop by this little blog of mine and hope that however you spend the holiday, it's your own perfect combination of family, friends, good food, festive music, and maybe a book or two!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Old School Cookies

I had a holiday "aha" moment last week when I saw this post and realized that vintage Christmas cookie books from the 1970s-1980s may be a more widespread phenomenon than I thought, going  beyond my own family's bookshelf. All of my favorite Christmas cookie recipes come from one beat up, mid-eighties era cookbook, the likes of which I would never give a second look to if I saw it in a bookstore today.

It's falling apart, filled with stains, and its production value is a far cry from some of the eye candy cookbooks that I've come to love, but its recipes yield the best cookies. So far this week I've make big batches of two varieties: Chocolate Cherry Chips and Cream Cheese Gems. This year I've been really diligent about scooping out tiny balls of dough to achieve paper thin cookies that have a slightly chewy quality that I love and practically melt in your mouth. They've given rise to a slight family debate, as my mom now says she prefers the thicker, chunkier cookies she used to make when she baked these recipes. I get the last word, though, by resorting to the argument, "well, if you want thicker cookies, you can bake a batch yourself". (All in good fun, of course.) Where do you stand on the thin vs. thick cookie debate?

(P.S. - Tomorrow I'll choose and announce the winner of my very first giveaway. There's still a little time to enter, if you'd like.)

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Streak

I'm fresh off of finishing two books in a row that both failed to live up to my expectations for them.

 First was In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, the nonfiction account of the American ambassador to Germany in 1933, during Hitler's rise to power. Like in his earlier acclaimed book The Devil in the White City, Larson focuses this story around two principle figures, Ambassador Willam Dodd, a Chicago academic who was something like Roosevelt's fifth choice for the post, and his twenty-something daughter Martha, who accompanies her father to Germany on the heels of her divorce. Once they are settled in Berlin, the Dodd family becomes reluctant witnesses to the increasing power of the Nazis. As the book chronicles Dodd's official duties and Martha's active social life, it emphasizes the complicated grey area that marked much of the American perception of Hitler in those early days. Although the Dodd family is disturbed by various acts of violence against foreigners and mistreatment of German Jews, they still count certain Nazi party members as friends and allies, and tend to believe Hitler's assurances to the outside world. Their hopeful, or some might say gullible, attitudes erode as the book progresses and the writing on the wall becomes more legible.

Although this is certainly a worthy and interesting story, it just didn't hold me in its grip in the same way that The Devil in the White City did, perhaps because the ultimate outcome of the story is already common historical knowledge. The individual episodes portrayed in the book are heavily focused around diplomatic meetings, events, and government correspondence, which naturally make the story lean a little more toward the dry end of the spectrum. There were a couple of interesting details that stood out to me, like appearances by famous writers like Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolfe in Martha's circle of friends and the way that Roosevelt comes off as much more of a waffling politico than he's typically portrayed as being. In spite of these highlights, I found that I had to push myself to make it through to the end of this book.

The second disappointment was The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty, which was widely raved about when it came out this past summer. It's a fictional telling of movie star Louise Brooks's first trip to New York City. At he behest of her parents, Louise, who is headstrong and dangerously wise beyond her years, travels in the company of a chaperone, Cora Carlisle, a Kansas wife and mother of grown children who as a secret reason of her own for wanting to visit New York.

The first chapter or so started out really strong, making me think I was in for a treat. The story is really more Cora's than Louise's, and the way Cora is characterized at the beginning made her seem like a complex and likable character. There's one fantastic passage early on where Cora listens to a neighbor extol the "good works" the Ku Klux Klan is doing. Cora, while internally revolted, knows that she must be careful not to be too vocal in expressing her dissent. Instead, she targets her neighbor's weakness--a desire for wealth and prestige. Trading on the fact that she is the wealthier of the two, Cora implies that she is staying away from Klan activities because they are "common" and instantly see her neighbor's opinion change. It was such an interesting passage in that it showed Cora as someone who was capable of using cunning tactics in pursuit of good. I had hoped to see more of this complexity as the story progressed, but unfortunately, it didn't make as strong an appearance as it did in that first scene. Instead, the emphasis turned to Cora's "prudish" morals in the face of Louise's outrageous behavior,  Which were played up to the point of irritation. I found myself siding with Louise as they butted heads and came to view her as the more interesting character. I would have preferred to have seen more time devoted to getting inside Louise's head instead of just relegating her to a rebellious thorn in Cora's side.

Not to belabor my negative reaction here, but I really felt like this was a book where the more I read it, the more I disliked it. I'll admit that a lot of that may have had to do with the particular mood I was in at the time. As increasingly dramatic revolutions were made, I found myself craving more quiet, slice-of-life kind of story. I will give The Chaperone points for the ease of Moriarty's prose. It made for a quick read, which was a bit of salvation when I got to the later chapters of a book that went on for long beyond the point at which the story could have ended.

I can't wholeheartedly recommend either of these (unless you're an avid history buff--then In the Garden of Beasts might be worth a try). A book that I can recommend, however, is the one you can win in my giveaway. You still have until Thursday to enter!

Have you had any big reading disappointments lately?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday Fancies

This is the third Christmas that I've lived in my apartment and I've finally reached the point where I've perfectly honed my holiday decorations: wreath on the mirror, lights around the windows, tabletop tree in place. But my favorite decoration is actually the lit garland I put on my mantle (or faux mantle, I should say, since it's a ledge against a brick wall with no fireplace in sight). Each year I love finding new little treasures, usually silver and sparkly, to tuck into it. One of my new additions this year is a miniature domed cake stand that I filled with mirrored ornaments.

Now for some links from the week. Surprisingly, most are non-holiday related:

Houses of Fiction is an art project that showcases dual versions of famous literary rooms. One is a literal representation of the room as described in the story, the other is a more metaphorical interpretation of the madness experienced by the fictional character who inhabits the room.

A thought provoking post about commenting on blogs.

Fun photos using record covers.

Would you wear the entire text of a classic novel?

And to end on a somewhat seasonal note, who doesn't love a good holiday book gift guide? This one is for you if cookbooks and coffee table books are your thing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Me Before You (and a Giveaway!)

I recently accepted an offer from Penguin to receive a review copy of Me Before You, the new novel by Jojo Moyes. Apparently quite successful in the U.K., it's being released here in the U.S. at the end of the month. Billed as an unexpected love story between an ordinary girl and her wealthy, moody, wheelchair-bound boss, it sounded like a novel that would have a Beauty and the Beast dynamic, or maybe even some hints of Jane Eyre and Rochester. Since that would be right up my alley, I jumped at the chance to preview the book.

After reaching the final pages, possibly with slightly puffy eyes, I can safely say that Me Before You was not at all the novel that I was expecting. It's a true tearjerker without being a "downer", which, to my mind, most often connotes characters who are bleak, depressing, or unlikeable. That's not at all the case in Me Before You, with its vividly drawn, immensely sympathetic characters who just happen to face a tragic fate. This is the kind of book that offers a good cry, yet also delves into some serious and potentially controversial issues.

As the novel opens, twenty-something Louisa "Lou" Clark is jobless and living a very small, very ordinary life in the town where she grew up and still lives with her family. As a last resort to find work, she takes a job as a paid companion/ caregiver to Will Traynor, a thirty-something quadriplegic. Will had lived a very flashy, high-powered life until a sudden traffic accident left him in a wheelchair, practically homebound, and very bitter. Although initially resistant to and critical of Lou, Will slowly thaws to her personality. And while she cheers him up and takes him out of his own head, he in turn broadens her horizons, introducing Lou to new books and music and encouraging her to think about her future more that she's wont to do. Just as their friendship starts to take off, and just as we get hints of deeper romantic feelings between them, Lou discovers that Will has plans to end his own life, and has even gotten his parents to agree to take him to an assisted suicide center in Switzerland at the end of a six month waiting period. Lou's mission then becomes to do everything she can to show Will that he can still experience a life worth living. As the novel starts to approach its conclusion, we're left in suspense, wondering, along with Lou herself, if her efforts will be enough to change Will's mind.

The only qualm that I can point to in the entire novel is a small piece of Lou's characterization. Her narrow horizons at the beginning of the novel manifest themselves through a limited knowledge of many cultural and life experiences, which makes sense, but also through a limited knowledge of how to use a computer. During a scene in which Lou visits the local library to research and plan an outing for Will, she actually seems to be using a computer for the very first time. For a novel set in the mid-2000's, I just didn't think this was plausible, no matter how small of a place one comes from. That's really just a small, nit-picky complaint, though, in the face of what's an overall emotional, engrossing novel.

(Just for fun, I'm already casting the film adaptation in my head. The role of Lou is still up for grabs, but I have Johnny Lee Miller in mind for Will and, in an unexpectedly dramatic turn, Jemaine Clement as Will's New Zealand born healthcare aide.)

And last, but not least, since the nice people at Penguin also sent me a second galley copy of Me Before You, I've decided to spread a little holiday cheer and try my first ever blog giveaway! If you'd like to win a copy for yourself (and if you're a U.S. resident), just leave a comment below by 11:59pm EST on Thursday, December 20th. I'll randomly choose and announce a winner next Friday, December 21st.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

It's That Time of Year Again...

...for pictures with Santa!

This year Millie (left) was joined by my parents' dog Olive (right), only jumped off Santa's lap once, and only pulled his beard off twice. In other words, things went ever so slightly more smoothly than last year.

You could also say that it's the time of year when it's easy to push blogging onto the back burner in favor of holiday preparations and events. I'm definitely guilty of that, but I do have a book review in mind for tomorrow, along with something that will be a blog first for me, so I hope you stop by again.

Don't you just hate it when bloggers are coy and tease about upcoming posts? ;) 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Friday Fancies

You know how every year, there's one person in your family who is impossible to shop for at the holidays? This year, I think I'm in danger of becoming that person in my family. I really can't think of any suggestions to give them when they ask what I want for Christmas. So what I want to know today is, what's on your holiday wish list this year?

(I reserve the right to steal any and all ideas for my own list.)

Really hoping that this future BBC miniseries eventually makes its way to U.S. television.

Nancy Mitford wrote a Christmas themed novel? Who knew!

Why are camera bags so pretty yet so expensive?

I'm thinking of downloading one of these to make my computer time a little more festive.

And watch out Maddie, Momo may be giving you some competition.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Miss Buncle's Book

 Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson was one of the first books that I can remember becoming aware of when I started discovering book bloggers who read and write about lesser known, early-to-mid twentieth century, often female, often British writers (a very specific niche indeed). Since then, I'd always had it in the back of my mind as something I needed to get around to reading. When I noticed the cover below staring up at me from the new paperbacks table at the Barnes & Nobel in Union Square, I snapped it up, my excitement over the unexpected find only dampened by a tiny amount of guilt over the fact that I wasn't reading the pretty Persephone edition. That was really the only downside to what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The novel is set in the small English village of Silverstream. A short train ride away from London, it's the kind of place where everybody knows everybody's business and where freshly made buns are still delivered to your doorstep every morning. Barbara Buncle, frumpy and forty-ish, is one of the most unassuming and overlooked of the villagers. In the midst of the Depression of the 1930's, she finds herself needing to supplement her dwindling income. After dismissing an ill-conceived scheme to raise hens, she settles on plan B- writing a novel under a pseudonym. Since Miss Buncle is a keen observer and can only write what she knows, she ends up with a novel that's a barely veiled version of the people and places in Silverstream (a villager named Colonel Weatherhead is turned into the fictional Major Waterfoot, etc.). Throughout her book Miss Buncle's characters behave exactly as their real-life counterparts do until The Golden Boy, an inexplicable and random pied piper figure, comes marching through the town. His presence brings clarity to and ignites the passions of Miss Buncle's characters, all of whom start behaving in extraordinary ways. 

Much to Miss Buncle's surprise, her books gets published and becomes a runaway hit. Her amazement turns to dismay when her neighbors begin reading it. Recognizing themselves, a witch hunt of sorts erupts. The town becomes determined to unearth the author of the novel, never once suspecting that it could be Miss Buncle. In an ironic twist in which life starts to imitate art that imitates life, the villagers are shaken out of their usual behavior patterns and start to act in unexpected ways, just as they do in the second half of Miss Buncle's novel. In the "real" Silverstream, the disruptive role of The Golden Boy turns out to be played by Miss Buncle's book itself.

For a novel that's set in a very ordinary sort of world, Miss Buncle's Book is actually a bit mind-bending to summarize. I won't even try to explain the details of the point at which you realize that you're reading a novel about a novel about a novel. I'm sure there's some postmodern interpretation that could be made if you were so inclined, but I'd rather just focus on the fact that this was a really fun story to read. Stevenson writes in a way that's a nice blend of humor and coziness. She pokes fun at various characters without seeming mean or snide; she describes the details of the setting in a way that made me want to jump right into the book, like when Sarah Walker, the town doctor's wife, sits up late in the study waiting for him to come home, reading eating a poached egg and cup of cocoa from a tray; and I don't think it will be giving too much away to say that she manages to pull off a very satisfying ending by granting happy endings to exactly the characters you want them for.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Christmas in New York

Hosting a friend visiting from out of town last weekend was the perfect chance for me to play tourist and show her around some of the holiday sights of the city. And when I say play tourist, I mean it, from taking pictures at every corner to getting yelled at for standing in the way of a line snaking around some of the holiday windows.

I kept up just enough grumbling about the crowds to maintain some of my credibility as a local.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Feel Good Books

With the holiday season in full swing, I find myself wanting to read a very specific type of feel good book. Not necessarily books with a holiday theme--although those can be festive, they also seem to be few and far between. The feel good books I'm talking about are the ones that manage to combine a story that completely absorbs me with a theme that's just uplifting enough to restore my faith in humanity a little. They're the kind of books that you want to read while curled up by a fire and leave you feeling full of the good cheer of the season. Lucky for you, I have two books that fit the bill perfectly.

The first is a book by Maud Hart Lovelace, who many people know as the author of the beloved Betsy-Tacy children's series. When I stumbled across Emily of Deep Valley, a standalone book she wrote for adults, I was intrigued enough to pick it up. 

Two caveats to what I just said. First, although it's an adult novel, it still deals with a group of very young characters. Emily, the heroine, just graduated from high school in the class of 1910 in Deep Valley, the same town that serves as the setting for all of the Betsy-Tacy books. Which brings me to my second caveat, that although it is a standalone book, there are some cameos made by the author's other characters, like Betsy and Tacy themselves. Those more famous characters are a few years older than Emily, who is a smart, sweet, and reserved girl who's always been a little bit of an outsider, even among her group of school friends. Orphaned at a young age, she lives with her elderly grandfather and it's because of her devotion to him that Emily stays behind in Deep Valley after graduating. Once the rest of her class leaves for college, Emily finds herself struggling with feelings of being left behind, stuck in an old version of herself while everyone around her moves on and changes. It's a universally familiar situation that makes it impossible not to root for Emily as the novel progresses and she begins to find small ways to find her place in the world and define herself according to her own terms. It's a simple, quiet story that's innocent without feeling too saccharine. Some of the details of the time period naturally feel a little big quaint, but overall the novel still manages to feel modern and relevant. There's even a part of the plot involving Emily's work with a group of Syrian immigrants that seems almost startlingly current. There's a lot to love about this book, whether or not you're a Betsy-Tacy veteran. I liked it so much that when I finished it, I was in the mood to read something else I'd be guaranteed to love. That meant there was only one thing to do: re-read Persuasion

This time around, just a short way into the story of Anne Elliot, I was struck by the fact that Austen's oldest heroine struggles with many of the same themes that are prominent in Emily of Deep Valley. At twenty-six, Anne's starts out as a passive character living in a world where everything is changing around her. Her family home is being let out to save money. Her father and older sister are looking forward to moving from the country to Bath. Her younger sister is married and absorbed in herself and her own affairs. And with one broken engagement and one refused proposal behind her, Anne doesn't seem to have any life changing prospects ahead of her. Ultimately it's the reentry of Captain Wentworth, her former fiancé, into Anne's life that gradually spurs her into small acts that allow her to strike out against the current that she's being swept on by her family and friends, acts like visiting her poor friend Mrs. Smith instead of her aristocratic relatives or stepping out of a receiving line to acknowledge Wentworth. Although it might seem like Wentworth comes back to Anne and saves her, this reading made it apparent to me--and I know I'm about to sound like a women's magazine here-- that it was really through her own volition that she managed to improve her own life. (The other thing this reading made me realize is that, despite being one of my favorite Austen leading men, Wentworth starts out as kind of a jerk! Luckily he redeems himself well by the novel's end.)

So, do you have any recommendations for feel good books this time of year?  And more importantly, will you indulge me and let one paragraph about Persuasion count toward my Classics Club challenge?  Two down, forty-eight more to go.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday Fancies

Earlier this week, the night before an impending snowstorm that only amounted to rain, I took Millie out in the yard and just happened to glance up and see a very dramatic looking moon. Of course I ran for my camera to snap a picture.

(moon over almost-Manhattan)

And speaking of Millie, it makes me happy that the phrase "beagle family" was a common search term that led people to this blog in the past week!
Ann Patchett's bookstore.

A vending machine for books.

A series of photographs that blend the past with the present by combining images of modern day San Francisco with scenes from the earthquake of 1906.

Holiday cards with a literary bent, featuring Christmas scenes of authors' homes.

Yet another online source for cute specs. (Bad news for a glasses collector like me.)

Anyone up for a group re-read (or first time read) of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding in the new year?

And a list of "made in America" companies for your holiday shopping. Will you be trying to buy anything made in America this year? I was pleasantly surprised to see that I've already bought a gift from one of these companies.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Shakespeare's Kitchen

I didn't intend to take a week long break from blogging, but the kick-off of the holiday season got the better of me. Between eating leftovers, decorating my apartment, and causing undue stress for myself on Cyber Monday as I spent the night watching a site I wanted to order from crash, my thoughts about Shakespeare's Kitchen kept getting pushed to the back of my mind. There appears to be multiple books with that title, so to be clear, the one I'm talking about isn't this cookbook, featuring Renaissance recipes for the modern cook, but rather the short story collection by Lore Segal.

The stories in this collection are all linked and build upon each other, very much in the vein of Olive Kitteridge if that book were less poignant and more quirky. Segal's stories follow Ilka Weisz, an academic who leaves her New York City circle of friends to take up a position at a university in a seemingly bucolic Connecticut town. There she slowly finds her place within a new circle of friends, at the center of which are Leslie and Eliza Shakespeare of the book's title.

The first stories in the collection chronicle Ilka's feeling of loneliness and her attempts to ingratiate herself with potential new friends. The writing style throughout the book, and particularly in these early stories, allows the reader to experience some of the same feelings that Ilka experiences. Names and brief descriptions of supporting characters are presented one after another, creating a sense of confusion that is much like Ilka's when she is first dropped into a large set of new acquaintances. Segal seems to view everything with a wry sense of humor and uses many unique, almost gleeful descriptions of mundane things, like when Ilka eats a "triangle of pizza that behaved like Dali's watch and kept folding away from her mouth". At first, this writing style alone made the stories delightful to read. As the larger narrative of the linked stories progressed, however, I found myself getting more and more annoyed by Ilka. In the beginning, her fumbling attempts at making new friends are sympathetic and relateable. I viewed her as the character to root for as she butted up against other characters' eccentricities. Once Ilka found her footing among her new group, my attitude began to change. Her own eccentricities and shortcomings became apparent and at certain times I found my loyalties shifting to favor the supporting characters over Ilka. Although this fact made me lose reading steam the further I got into the book, I can't really disparage it because in some ways it's just another example of my earlier point, about how the writing style mimics the emotional experiences of the characters. Over the course of the stories in the collection, we see Ilka as a lonely outsider, then as the new friend in the group, who delights and is delighted by everyone around her, and finally as a settled insider, who has deep relationships, both good and bad, with various members of her circle. The evolution of my feelings toward her during the course of my reading very much matched the fictional evolution of characters' attitudes toward each other as the plot progressed. I can't help but think that's an impressive feat for a story collection to achieve, regardless of the personal enjoyment I got from reading it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gobble Gobble

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hope your tables are set for some good food, food family, and good friends tomorrow. I'll be spending the rest of today making a couple of tried and true dishes, like creamed corn and sausage stuffing, and trying out a couple of new recipes for cranberry sauce and sweet potato cupcakes. I may pop by these parts again on Friday, if I can tear myself away from Black Friday shopping.*

(last year's Thanksgiving table)

*Just kidding. Small Business Saturday is way more my speed!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Grumpy Old Men

Jane Gardam is an author who I've been wanting to read for quite a while. I've heard many good things about her work, all more or less along the lines of the fact that she's a treasured British writer who's under appreciated in America. It didn't take many pages of Old Filth to realize that all of this praise was warranted and that Gardam does indeed write beautifully. Yet in spite of that, much of this book was a slow go for me. The story takes a circuitous route, weaving a meandering path through the life of Sir Edward Feathers, nicknamed "Old Filth", which stands for the acronym "Failed In London, Try Hong Kong". Feathers is a retired lawyer who made a name for himself as a judge in Hong Kong. He's well known and well respected throughout the legal community, but assumed to be just a staid old man by all of his professional acquaintances. They aren't privy to what we come to learn as we see scenes play out from various phases of Old Filth's life: his birth and early years in Asia, his time spent as a "Raj orphan" living with a foster family and at a boarding school in England, his coming-of-age during World War II, and his final years with his wife, to name just a few. 

Gardam writes in such a way that Old Filth's memories of all of these times in his life merge with and flow into the mundane moments of his current condition as a lonely retiree in the English countryside. It's impressively well done, but, like I said, just didn't resonate with me for some reason. I actually think it may have had something to do with coming too close on the heels two other books about older men looking back on their lives, Ancient Light and The Sense of an Ending. Besides making me feel a little bit fatigued with reading about this type of character, Banville's and Barnes's novels got me used to the added layer in which the character doing the reminiscing is suspicious or doubtful of his own memories.  This added a nice tension that I found lacking in Old Filth, in which Old Filth's memories are (for the most part) treated in a more straightforward way. It's the outsiders who are in the dark about the details of Filth's biography, not Filth himself. 

The one element of tension that pervades the novel is a murky image of an incident that happened during Filth's time with his foster family. Vague details are alluded to, like an abusive foster mother and a tragic occurrence that resulted in Filth being removed from the home, but we're never told exactly what happened. It's as if Filth knows the facts but had suppressed them from the part of his memories that we become privy to throughout the story. It's only at the very end of the novel that the truth comes to light, both for readers and for Filth. When the details of this mysterious incident were finally revealed, it was somehow simultaneously exactly what I was expecting and not at all what I was expecting. The excitement of this revelation in the final thirty pages or so made up sit up and engage with the book in a way that I hadn't up until then. I can't say that it was enough to make me love the book as a whole, but it did leave me firmly convinced that I'll give more of Gardam's work a try in the future.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bittersweet Bounty

About two years ago, a small used bookstore opened in my hometown. This was cause for both excitement and disbelief on my part. Excitement because, well, it's a bookstore. Disbelief because my hometown isn't exactly the kind of place where you would expect a bookstore to open and thrive. In spite of that (and in spite of being located in a unit adjacent to an auto repair shop), the owner turned it into a very cute place, with cozy decorations, comfortable chairs, and a decent selection of books. I was therefore really disappointed when I recently stopped by and discovered a sign announcing that the shop was set to close in two weeks. It's always sad to see a book business fail to make it. I felt especially guilty in this instance because I had only been into the shop three or four times during visits home, and usually traded in more books than I bought. To assuage my guilt a little, I entered the shop determined to find a few books to buy as a way of bidding it farewell.

Turns out, I didn't need much determination at all because the shelves seemed to be stocked with books directly from my To Read list, including two Barbara Pym novels, a Murakami novel, and Cecelia by Fanny Burney. And as if these finds weren't enough, the owner insisted on taking the entire payment out of my past credits for trade-ins, so I ended up not paying a penny for any of them.

Second only to my windfall in Maine this summer, this was one of my luckiest used-book shopping experiences ever, albeit a very bittersweet one.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Friday Fancies

I'm getting a late start with my Friday post today, but I think I have a good excuse- it's my birthday today! My first order of business was to take the day off work and sleep in a little. I also fully subscribe to the idea of celebrating my entire birthday week with little treats here and there. These are usually just really simple things, like treating myself to a few extra fancy drinks from Starbucks or to a rereading of Persuasion, that still somehow make the week feel special.

 (my Dad and I celebrating a birthday from the past)

Then there's always the option of vicarious online treats, like some of these:

A behind-the-scenes peek at the upcoming film adaptation of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding.
A new, pretty series of classics from Penguin Classics.

Season 2 of The Hour is getting closer--it just premiered in the U.K.

Have you heard of The Book Depository? I just discovered it thanks to a tip from Anbolyn and I have a feeling I'll be placing some orders in the future.
And in a bit of a departure from most of my wardrobe, I find myself drawn to these patterned pants.

Have you treated yourself to anything lately?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Do Not Disturb

My trip to Boston a few weeks ago had a decidedly literary theme to it. The day after visiting The Mount, we went downtown to check out the Boston Book Festival. Held in the Boston Public Library and spilling out into the neighboring Copley Square area, the festival was made up of outdoor exhibitors and vendors (which, to be quite honest, were underwhelming) and a series of literary talks by an array of authors ranging from the big name to the more academic. We sat in on one of the latter, a lecture called "Great Brits and Books" that was put on by the British Consulate.

The talk was interesting, if a bit unfocused. Rather than keeping to one unifying theme, the panelists jumped around among topics that were related to their own personal areas of specialization--Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and J.M. Barrie. Although I wouldn't say that I learned anything groundbreaking, a few interesting tidbits of information did come up. For instance, one of the scholars on the panel has studied the way that books were used and viewed in Victorian times. One specific detail she discussed was they way that books provided freedom and escape to women who had narrow roles in society at the time. My immediate assumption when she raised this point was that she was referring to freedom through exposure to new ideas in books, but no. It turned out that she was referring to something much more literal--the way that holding a book up in front of her face was like a "do not disturb" sign for a woman back then, allowing her to briefly escape household or societal distractions. The discussion eventually wound its way  around to the idea that cell phones are today's cultural "do not disturb" sign, which is very obviously true to anyone who's ever ridden public transportation during rush hour. People who pore over their phones on the subway always give off the impression that they're  either really busy, really important, or really diligent, forced to stay connected at every moment and keep up with emails as soon as they come in. It always amuses me when I get closer peek at their screens and realize that most of them are just playing games. Of course, sometimes I'm guilty of using my phone to pass the time, too, but more often than not I just silently laugh to myself as I go back to the book I'm reading.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

Like many who have read and enjoyed the Harry Potter series, I was curious to see what J.K. Rowling's first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy would be like. I was eager to read it, but not excited enough to run out and buy it as soon as it was released. As I waited for my requested copy to come in through the library, I began to grow a little wary. I saw several reviews of the book along the lines of, "it's well written, but nothing really happens in the story and it wouldn't be a big deal if it came from any other author" that my expectations were lowered enough to make me approach the book with caution. But now, after finishing it, I feel confident telling anyone who might be on the fence about reading it to throw caution to the wind and jump in. If you liked Rowling's writing in Harry Potter, I think you'll enjoy this too, even in spite of its vastly different subject matter.

The subject matter of The Casual Vacancy sounds banal enough--a small British village is up in arms when a local councilman dies and a special election is held to fill his seat. For a story that takes place in a tiny geographic world, it's peopled with a huge cast of characters from all walks of life, all finely and realistically drawn, and all preoccupied with their own set of prejudices and conflict, some petty, some not. They view the village's election through the lens of these preoccupations. As a result, we see how the unexpected death of one seemingly ordinary man has a ripple effect on the lives of a widely diverse group of people.

Many other reviews of the book I've read have made the same point I'm about to make, but it bears repeating--The Casual Vacancy truly is for adults and many of its characters deal with troubling social issues that aren't really appropriate for young children. What I think it does have in common with Harry Potter, though, aside from Rowling's skill as a vivid storyteller, is an unflinching views of its subjects. As the Harry Potter series progressed, I recall that critics frequently pointed out the way that those books, in a departure from many other children's books, openly dealt with death and loss in their storylines. The Casual Vacancy is equally open and honest about the flaws of its characters. Every character in the book is obviously flawed, some to a fatal degree. It's an ambiguous world in which the "good" characters can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from the "bad" ones. Yet event the blatantly "bad" characters, as annoying and hateful as can be, are portrayed with nuance and complexity. Although many of the characters and their actions are by no means likable, they're all fascinating. In this way, The Casual Vacancy is both a big departure for Rowling and a book that continues to play to her one big strength--creating vivid imaginary worlds that readers can spend endless amounts of time getting lost in.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Living without heat last week turned out to be the perfect excuse to bake a lot as a way of using the oven to warm up my apartment. One of the new recipes I tried out was a Spiced Pumpkin Cookie recipe from the Pretty Delicious cookbook. They turned out to be a very odd little seasonal sweet. After baking, the cookies came out with a very cake-like consistency and never spread out into a flat, round shape. To top it off (pun intended), the pumpkin glaze for the topping turned out kind of sticky and never really hardened into an icing like the recipe promised. I was pretty disappointed and thinking that this recipe wasn't a keeper....until I tasted them and discovered that they tasted like really good, baked pumpkin doughnuts.

Their size and shape even makes them look a little like doughnut holes. They may not be the most photo-worthy of desserts, but if you're looking for a pumpkin-y treat for fall, or if your looking to fool someone into thinking that you slaved over homemade doughnuts, then this is your recipe.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Friday Fancies

It feels good to be back to a regular Friday roundup after the chaos of last week. I still don't have heat or hot water in my apartment so things aren't completely back to normal, but I do feel like I've more or less caught up with things. Now I feel in the mood to pull up a chair with a hot cup of tea and catch up with some things from around the blog world:

(photo taken in Copley Square, Boston)

First, I have to link to this post if only to say, check out the size of those meringues on the counter in the first picture!

Have you guys seen these Goodreads Live interviews yet?

Here's some unique semi-permanent jewelry in the form of a screw cuff bracelet.

On a less frivolous note, there are still a lot of hurricane related stories and pictures floating around the way. For me, the most jaw dropping were these interactive before and after satellite shots of the affected areas.

With 50% of proceeds going to charity, these prints by artist Sophie Blackall are one of the prettier relief efforts I've seen.

And yes, we did get a dose of wind, snow, and slush as Nor'easter came up the coast yesterday (salt, meet wounds). It actually wasn't that bad, though, and these photos take a beautiful view of the storm.

Anyone have any fun plans for the weekend? Or will you be getting a jump start on winter hibernation?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ancient Light

If any of you are like me and are fans of watching The Voice on NBC, then you'll be familiar with the "battle rounds" of the competition. For any of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, that's the point in the show where the celebrity singing coaches/ judges pair up two singers from their teams who have similar styles and make them sing duets. Whoever gives the best performance gets to move on to the next round. If I were judging a literary version of The Voice, I would probably have to pit John Banville's new novel, Ancient Light, against a novel I read at the beginning of this year, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Both books share narrators who are older men looking back at pivotal moments from their youth, torn between their memories and their awareness of the unreliability of memory.

In Ancient Light, the older man in question is Alexander Cleave, an aging British stage actor. In the novel's present tense, Cleave is acting in his first ever film role, forging a friendship of sorts with the young starlet who is his costar. During the course of this acting job, Cleave also undertakes the task of recording in his journal the events of an inappropriate affair he had with his best friend's mother when he was a teenager. The action jumps back and forth between these two story lines, mingling in Cleave's more recent memories of the unexpected and unexplained death of his troubled adult daughter ten years prior.

Banville has a very lyrical style of writing that's in full force here and it gives an elegiac quality to the memories that are are dealt with in the novel. As a narrator, Cleave frequently points out bits of memories that he knows are inaccurate, such as the way that he pictures an incident unfolding against the backdrop of a spring day when he knows for a fact that it happened in the fall, or the way that characters in his memory wear very specific articles of clothing that would have been outlandish had they worn them in reality. Cleave often comes across as being bemused or charmed by these tricks of the mind, and is at the very least resigned to accepting them as an integral part of the history he's constructed for himself. This attitude is somewhat different than that of the narrator in The Sense of an Ending. Although that narrator was also very forthcoming about the possible inaccuracies of his memories, he also seemed to be more suspicious of them, and certainly not resigned to accepting them. There's the sense that he thinks he can somehow get to the bottom of his memories and reconstruct the true version of events, which is ultimately played out in the way the plot of that novel progresses.

It's tough for me to decide which treatment of memory I prefer. Banville's might be more beautiful but Barnes's has a certain tension to it that I also liked. If it did actually come down to a head to head competition, I think it would be a real toss up.

(And yes, I did just spend an entire post connecting two Booker Prize-winning authors to a reality singing competition show. You're welcome.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Visiting The Mount

 When Hurricane Sandy hit, I had just returned from a short trip to Boston, where I spent a long weekend visiting my friend Lara. On that Friday, we drove out to The Berkshires and spent the day visiting Edith Wharton's historic home, The Mount. Of course I snapped a lot of pictures while I was there, if you'd care to see.

Wharton was an avid book lover and collector and the library at The Mount is filled with thousands of books that belonged to her personal collection. There are apparently another couple thousand that are not on display because they are still being reviewed and studied for all of the notes Wharton wrote in the margins. Wouldn't that be a fascinating job to do?

The Mount was sold after Wharton relocated to Europe and it changed hands several more times before being restored as an historical site. Because of that, most of the furniture (aside from the library) in the house are new reproductions and not the original items that Wharton actually used. You might think that this lack of artifacts would cause The Mount to lack a sense of authenticity, but I actually found the opposite to be the case. Because the majority of the pieces are not precious antiques, you can fully wander through the rooms, even sitting down if you'd like. You have the sense that you're experiencing the rooms the way that Wharton did.

Wharton's bedroom was light, airy, and feminine. Her routine was to spend the mornings writing in bed, dropping each handwritten sheet to the floor once she had filled it. She also loved her dogs and made them an integral part of her home, as represented by the small stuffed versions that are strategically placed around The Mount.

I found Wharton's views about decorating a home to be very inspiring, both in terms of her larger ideas about creating beautiful spaces for yourself and in terms of small, specific things, like the way she surrounded herself with books and incorporated them around her home. Books are casually stacked on tables or tucked into nooks and crannies in nearly every room. Touring The Mount made me feel reinvigorated to think about the way I decorate my space and creating some new groupings of books may be an easy place to start.

The grounds were beautiful, too, albeit a bit subdued now that the fall is turning colder. Visible from nearly every room, the gardens serve as an extension of the home and mimic Wharton's preferences for balance and symmetry of form.

The Mount was by far my favorite historical home I've ever toured. It's a must-see in New England for literary and interior design buffs alike.


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