Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday Fancies

The first week back from vacation is a little easier to bear when it ends with a long holiday weekend. Even though I'm ready for fall, I'm still looking forward to enjoying a few last relaxing days of summer. Here's one more picture from Maine--I only have a few (dozen) more in store for next week--plus some other favorites to check out.

I'm really regretting not picking up one of these chocolate bars when I saw them at Stonewall Kitchen in Maine.

Cute prints on wood. 

The Downton Abbey influence on fall fashion.

Speaking of fashion, I love all the layers in Emerson Fry's fall preview.

Possibly the funniest Amazon reviews of all time. (Thanks, Leslie!)

And my favorite book review of the week...for a book I have no intention of reading.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Best Book Sale Ever

In my last post, I alluded to something that happened on vacation that was even more exciting than an encounter with Martha Stewart. One of the unexpected highlights of the trip was finding some treasures at one of the biggest, best book sales I've ever been to that just happened to be going on at the Bar Harbor library. Tables and boxes of books stretched along the front of the library, wrapped around to the back of the building, and filled all of the interior rooms, including the basement. It was a far cry from the sidewalk folding table my local library puts out for their sale. I could tell there were some serious bibliophiles there.

I came away with a stack of books that are on my To Read list.

I also got a very small, sweet French edition of Tom Sawyer, complete with an inscription inside the front cover.

(I like to think that Mrs. Plourde was Darcy's French teacher.)

I picked up a 1936 edition of Gone with the Wind and a very pretty copy of Anna Karenina with illustrated color plates.

And just as I was wrapping up my shopping, I spotted two gorgeous Folio editions of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. I literally gasped when I saw how pretty they were...

...and then proceeded to walk away from them! They were priced at $20 apiece, which seemed like a fortune compared to all of the other $1 and $2 books. Of course I came to my senses in a matter of moments and went back for them, only to see another woman looking at them. She put them down and took a step away; I swooped in and scooped them up. As I lurked off to the side waiting to pay, I could hear her trying to haggle down the price for them. Unaware that I had grabbed the books, she pulled the bookseller over to where they had been to point them out, talking about how Nancy Mitford was her favorite author. Confusion ensued when the Mitford fan couldn't find the books. Finally the bookseller spotted me with them. The Mitford fan acquiesced when she realized that I was willing to pay full price for the books, although I did have to assure her that I love Nancy Mitford and promise to enjoy the books. It all happened in under a minute but felt very dramatic. I left feeling breathless and shaky and only a tiny bit guilty.

Have you ever found any used book treasures?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

One Morning in Maine

My picture taking habits mean that a week long vacation can easily translate into enough material for a month's worth of blog posts. I'll try not to go that far, but today I will begin a little break from regularly scheduled programming with the first of my pictures from Maine, beginning with a few days spent in Bar Harbor.

For anyone unfamiliar with the area, Bar Harbor is the biggest town on Mt. Desert Island, located about halfway up the coast of Maine. The island is home to several smaller villages and, most notably, Acadia National Park, where mountains and dense woods lead right up to rocky cliffs that drop down into the ocean. The entire area has an active, outdoorsy, lace up your hiking shoes kind of vibe, and the town itself is bustling throughout the day and night, with lots of outdoor restaurants, unique shops, a big dog culture-- we saw pets accompanying their humans at nearly every restaurant we visited.

(And as a reward for sticking with me through all of these pictures, I'll tell you about a celebrity sighting at the end of this post!)

Now for the promised reward:

One afternoon, my parents and I drove over to Northeast Harbor, another village on Mt. Desert Island. Smaller and sleepier than Bar Harbor, it's known as an enclave of summer homes of the wealthy. It has one main street with a handful of quaint shops, bakeries, and antique stores. As we walked along it, a man and a woman were coming along the sidewalk in the opposite direction. The man caught my eye because he was dressed in what would be a fashion conscious New Yorker's idea of New England chic: slim fitting white pants, a navy polo, and boat shoes. Just as they reached a point along side of us, the woman said something and as soon as we heard her voice, both my dad and I was Martha Stewart, one of the celebrities who's known to have a house in the area! A quick peek over our shoulders confirmed it was her, and my mom identified her male companion as Kevin Sharkey, the creative directors on her show and namesake of Martha's French bulldog.

After looking in a couple of shops, we were heading back down the street when we spot them coming back toward us in the opposite direction. I posed for a quick fake picture so my mom could secretly take one of Martha, but she chickened out when she felt Martha's stare. As they came closer, I did what anyone would do when feigning celebrity nonchalance- started talking loudly about one of the bakeries on the street, waving and pointing my arms, nearly hitting Martha in the face. Then, just at the moment they passed us, my dad stepped up to the plate:

"Good afternoon, Martha," he said.

"Hi, how are you?" she replied, politely smiling and nodding and continuing on her way.

This ranks pretty high on my list of celebrity sightings, although it still wasn't my favorite thing that happened that day. Intrigued? Stay tuned....

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Balkan Trilogy

My first exposure to Olivia Manning was through her lovely coming of age novel School for Love, which was one of the first books I ever blogged about way back when. Although that novel garnered attention when NYRB re-released it several years ago, the centerpieces of Manning's work are The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, which collectively follow young British bureaucrat Guy Pringle and his wife Harriet as they experience the storm of World War II in various countries throughout Eastern Europe and the Mideast. (Together these trilogies were combined into a 1980's British miniseries called Fortunes of War starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branaugh.)

I'm not sure why the word "trilogy" didn't tip me off to the fact that this would be a work comprised of three full length books, The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City, and Friends and Heroes. In any case, I was a bit shocked when I went to the library to pick up the copy I requested and found a 900+ page doorstop of a book waiting for me. I decided to soldier on through it, albeit grumbling to myself for the first hundred pages or so. As I read, I found myself thinking about the book in terms of the Goodreads rating system. Anyone else ever do that? After The Great Fortune, I thought I'd give the novel three stars. Once I got through The Spoilt City, I had mentally bumped it up to four stars. And by the time I reached Friends and Heroes, I was completely swept away and couldn't imagine anything less than a full five star rating. Kind of a superficial way of thinking, I know, but it turns out to mirror what I've since read about the critical reception of the three books and is a perfect analogy for the way Manning's story slowly builds, drawing the reader in bit by bit.

The trilogy opens as Guy and Harriet  travel by train to neutral Romania while German forces ravage much of the rest of Europe. Newly married after a very brief courtship, Guy and Harriet are heading to Bucharest where Guy will resume his former post as an English professor at a Romanian university. Once they arrive, their story progresses through a series of small story arcs that are punctuated by major historical events. Lacking students to teach, Guy mounts an amateur production of Troilus and Cressida that engrosses the expat community and provides a distraction from news of the war on the night that Paris falls to Germany. Harriet bickers with Guy over an unwelcome house guest, but later welcomes the interloper as a friendly face in Athens, where she has evacuated ahead of Guy as Romania's fall to Hitler looms. Without going into too much detail about the specifics of the story, I'll say that this is a very different kind of war novel from most others that I've read. Compared with novels that depict the heat of battle or offer first hand portrayals of the atrocities of war, many parts of Manning's story seem almost uneventful as she illustrates what is essentially a waiting game for the Pringles. Trapped away from their homeland, they are forced to watch the German army advance through Europe and, along with the British diplomatic community they belong to, must allow Hitler's next move determine their own. It's an interesting look at a side of war, and at a geographic area, that isn't often seen.

Equally interesting is the way in which the state of political and geographic uncertainty the Pringles  live in mirrors the ebb and flow of their marriage. Focusing on Harriet's perspective, Manning shows how she is constantly recalibrating and reassessing her relationship with Guy. The longer they are married, the less she feels she knows him. Their vastly different personalities seem to drive a wedge between them. Harriet's unhappiness manifests itself not through any melodramatic scenes, but through increasing feelings of ennui and decreasing expectations of Guy. In many ways their marriage feels like a mundane one, but seems all the more profound for being so. The gulf between them is capable of being instantly overcome, however, during dramatic moments that occur during some of the key historic occurrences depicted in the novel. 

I'm eager to follow their story in The Levant Trilogy and can't wait to get my hands on a copy. In the meantime, I can't recommend Manning's work highly enough. She's a classic writer who is ripe for being rediscovered more widely. Start with School for Love if you need a little convincing before committing to the epic of The Balkan Trilogy.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

10 for 10

Not too long ago, when a certain book came to mind, I found myself thinking, “if I had to make a list of the top ten books I’ve read in the past ten years, that one would be on it”. That led me to think about what the other nine books on that list would be. It may seem like somewhat arbitrary time frame, 2002-2012, but it’s interesting to think about recent favorites without muddying the waters by trying to compare them with all-time favorite classics. So here, in no particular order, is my list of ten from the past ten.

(I should say that I’m not necessarily saying these are the ten best books, or most well written, or even very representative of all of my favorite authors, but rather that these are ten books that have really stuck with me, for one reason or another. And I should also say that for the purpose of this list, I’m further limiting myself to books that were written within the past ten year. Got it?)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows- This novel calls to mind adjectives like charming and delightful, which is no small feat given the fact that it's also a novel that delves into the hardships of WWII faced by residents of Guernsey, one of the English Channel Islands. Written in an epistolary format, it's witty, informative, and just an all around feel-good book.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics- by Marisha Pessl- An un-put-down-able story that carries on the tradition of the boarding school novel, with some unsettling twists.

The Unnamed - by Joshua Ferris- A outlandish premise that manages to be both funny and moving, highlighting the humanity of a cast of distinctly modern characters.

Never Let Me Go - by Kazuo Ishiguro- Beautifully written with a lot of unexpected moments that seem extra special given the fact that the story's trajectory seems easy to predict.

Bel Canto - by Ann Patchett- Although I love all of Patchett's work, the story and situation in this novel stand out in my mind as especially vivid.

Let the Right One In - by John Ajvide Lindqvist- If I had to do a critical analysis of these books, this one might not rank among the best, but it would certainly be one of the most memorable. The setting and overall atmosphere of the book is so haunting and distinctive that it's really stuck with me in the years since I've read it. The same goes for the Swedish film adaptation.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - by Muriel Barbery- This is one of those books that inspires widely mixed reactions. It seems like people either love it or hate it. I'm in the former camp. The story isn't quite as lighthearted and whimsical as the title and cover suggest, but it's full of philosophical charm.

Let the Great World Spin - by Colum McCann- My first introduction to McCann's work that immediately turned me into a fan of his. Combines beautiful writing with an engrossing plot made up of several storylines that are skillfully woven together.

The Lacuna- by Barbara Kingsolver- This might just be my favorite of all of Kingsolver's works. With fascinating, historical fiction portrayals of figures like Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the novel itself hinges upon the idea of a lacuna-- a gap, a missing piece, an unknowable part of a story.

The Brief History of the Dead - by Kevin Brockmeier- The premise of this novel is so unique and thought-provoking that I've found myself thinking about it time and again since reading it.

What would be on your list of top ten list from recent years?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Fall Dream Closet

With my vacation coming to an end in a few days, I'm just about ready for fall and all of the cozy sweaters and boots that go along with the cooler weather. I know we'll still have at least another month of warm temperatures to deal with after Labor Day, but if weather and money were no object, this is what I'd start wearing as soon as I return from my trip.

Left to right from top: a peter pan collar shirt, a striped and embroidered cardigan, ballet flats with an interesting chain detail, a cozy sweater with a bold print, Frye boots, and a puffer vest with a herringbone twist that's almost Downton Abbey-esque.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

How it All Began

The action of Penelop Lively's How It All Began unfolds as a domino effect. Elderly Charlotte falls and breaks her hip when she's mugged on the streets of London. Her daughter, Rose, rushes to her side at the hospital and is forced to miss out on a business trip with her employer, retired academic Lord Peters. He in turn calls upon his niece, Marion, to take Rose's place. Marion sends a text to update the married man she's having an affair with. Said text is discovered by his wife. Meanwhile, Charlotte moves in with Rose for the duration of her recovery, which throws Rose into an unlikely friendship with an Eastern European immigrant that Charlotte is tutoring in English. The novel juggles all of these story lines, connected by the fact that none of them would have come to pass if it hadn't been for the random act of Charlotte's mugging.

I always like when a simple twist of fate plays a role in a story, but I felt as though it was an unnecessary device in this novel. Certain moments, often at the beginning or closing of a chapter, took time out of the action to remind readers that "such and such wouldn't have happened if Charlotte hadn't had her accident". I almost wonder if this was emphasized as a way of giving the book a hook for its jacket copy and an angle from which to market it. Once the story moved away from this focus, I found that the various characters and their story lines were richly drawn enough to stand on their own, without having to take the premise to gimmicky heights. Lively strikes me (in this book, at least) as an author who has a lot of affection for her characters. Each undergoes his or her own transformation, but in ways that are realistic and recognizable. Very much along the lines of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, this is a novel that features the kinds of relationships that don't often take center stage in popular fiction, and portrays them with sensitivity and insight.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Classics Club

I've decided to join a new club-- The Classics Club, a blog that brings together other book bloggers who pledge to read 50 classic novels within 5 years' time. Literary classics rank among some of my favorite and most frequently read books, but, in thinking about it, I realized that my blog might not always reflect that. I'm hoping that taking part in The Classics Club will give me an impetus to rediscover some old favorites and to finally get around to reading a few of the more daunting titles that have sat on my To Read list for years, like James Joyce's Ulysses.

(image via here)

Coming up with my list of 50 books was no easy task, especially since the definition of a "classic" is kept pretty loose. I had some inner debates to deal with: Should I include Barbara Pym novels? How much of Jane Austen's work should I include given the fact that I happily reread them year after year? I finally settled on the list below, divided into New Reads and Re-Reads.

New Reads:

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
Angle of Repose - Wallace Stegner - completed 1/14
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Between the Acts - Virginia Woolf
Black Beauty - Anna Sewell
Camilla - Fanny Burney
Cecilia - Fanny Burney
Dr. Zhivago - Boris Pasternak
Eugene Onegin - Alexander Pushkin
The House in Paris - Elizabeth Bowen
The Ivory Tower - Henry James
The Master and Margerita - Mikhail Bulgakov
Othello - William Shakespeare
The Other House - Henry James
Our Mutual Friend - Charles Dickens
Out of Africa - Isak Dinesen
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark- completed 1/13
The Secret Garden - Franced Hodgson Burnett
The Stranger - Albert Camus
The Taming of the Shrew - William Shakespeare
Ulysses - James Joyce
Up at the Villa - Somerset Maugham
Walden - Henry David Thoreau 
The Warden - Anthony Trollope -completed 6/13
The Winter's Tale - William Shakespeare
The Years - Virginia Woolf


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain
Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh -completed 6/13
The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Cranford - Elizabeth Gaskell
The Death of the Heart - Elizabeth Bowen
Felix Holt: The Radical - George Eliot
Howard's End - E.M. Forster -completed 7/13
Little Women- Louisa May Alcott
North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell
Persuasion- Jane Austen - completed 12/12
Night and Day - Virginia Woolf
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
The Picture of Dorian Grey - Oscar Wilde
Rebecca - Daphne du Murier
The Secret Agent - Joseph Conrad - completed 3/13
A Separate Peace - John Knowles
Sister Carrie - Theodore Dreiser
Tender is the Night - F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
To Kill a Mockingbird- Harper Lee
To the Lighthouse- Virginia Woolf
The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

After all that, I still only have 49 books on my list, so I'm looking to you all for suggestions. What's another classic that I should add as my 50th book?

**UPDATE: I was thrilled with all of the suggestions left in the comments. I ended up deciding to go with some Edith Wharton for my 50th classic. Or rather, I should say my 50th - 52nd books, since I picked up a collection of three of her works from the library: Ethan Frome, Summer, and Bunner Sisters. Although I've read and enjoyed Ethan Frome a couple of times in the past, I feel like I may have under appreciated her other work, and was intrigued by the two titles I hadn't heard of, so decided to give them a try.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Friday Fancies

My blog posts have been becoming slightly fewer and farther between lately, partially due to an intentional slow down and partially due to the fact that I mentally checked out for summer vacation a bit early. Now my body will have a chance to catch up with my brain as I go on an actual summer vacations. This will be my last Friday post for a couple of weeks, so I'll leave you with a few things to check out, plus a couple of upcoming things I have scheduled for while I'm away.

(image via here)

As the Olympics start to wind down, check out this BBC tool to find out which athlete is your body type match.

NPR's list of the top 100 YA books ever. I'm glad to see some favorites on there, like A Separate Peace and I Capture the Castle, but I'd definitely argue with their positions on the list.

I just recently got a bamboo plant for my apartment. Based on my track record with house plants, I'm keeping my fingers crossed. If this one goes, then I may have to limit myself to these plants from now on.

What a fun looking low key wedding.

And also from Etsy, a summer reading roundup with some corresponding handmade and vintage items. After seeing this list I realized that I've heard enough about Georgette Heyer books now that I feel I need to give her a try. Any recommendations for me?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bitter Heart

Judging solely by the bookstore or library shelf real estate her books occupy, I’d venture to say that Joyce Carol Oates is the thinking woman’s Danielle Steel. The seemingly inhuman amount of books she produces makes it nearly impossible for someone like me, a casual reader of hers, to do more than just scratch the surface of her body of work. I’ve enjoyed the past few books of hers that I’ve read, but found that the latest one I picked up, Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart, wasn't quite my favorite.

The premise of the novel is intriguing. Growing up in the midst of the racial tensions of a small town in the 1950’s, Iris Courtney is the daughter of an alcoholic mother and a gambler father. Continually moving to increasingly dismal apartments and new schools, Iris tries to fit in with her peers, but only marginally succeeds. Outwardly she adheres to the prejudices common among the other white students, her teachers, and her parents, but inwardly she doesn’t embrace their feelings. Iris begins to undertake small acts of rebellion, such as sneaking out to questionable parts of town late at night. It’s during one of these trips that she’s attacked by a white teenage boy, a member of one of the more troublesome families in town. Jinx Fairchild, a black teen with a promising academic and athletic career, intervenes in her defense and ends up killing the attacker. As the only witnesses, Iris and Jinx implicitly agree to keep quiet about the incident. The novel goes on to show the ways in which their secret haunts them as they move through their lives.

The novel is, of course, well written and, like many of Joyce Carol Oates’s novels, takes an interesting look at complex and potentially controversial subject matter. It fell short of my expectations, though, particularly in the latter half. After spending the first half of the book waiting to get to the climactic event of the attack, I thought that its aftershocks were handled with almost too much subtlety. Both Iris and Jinx go on to lead lives that are accepted paths for them: Iris goes on to college and becomes engaged while Jinx leaves his basketball career behind to start a family. There are incidents in both of their lives that appear as anomalies in their seemingly normal outward existences. It’s assumed that their behavior in these instances is motivated by the darker inner feelings they struggle with that stem from the secret of the murder, but the connection wasn’t always very apparent. It was the kind of book where vaguely explained character behavior left me thinking, “Okay, this must mean something”, but not finding as strong a meaning as I would have liked.

If you’re in the mood to read something by Joyce Carol Oates, this might not be my top recommendation. Now that I’ve narrowed that down, you only have about ninety-nine other novels of hers to choose from.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Summer Fruit Pie

Over the weekend, I rediscovered a temporarily forgotten recipe that deserves an award for being one of the easiest, most refreshing desserts ever: summer berry pie.

The recipe comes from the cookbook Lickety Split Meals by Zonya Foco, a nutritionist who has a cooking show that's on PBS sporadically. As cookbooks go, it has a bare-bones kind of style that's the polar opposite of the type of lavishly produced, image-heavy cookbooks that typically appeal to me (like this one or this one), but what it lacks in style it makes up in content, featuring a lot of good ideas for easy and healthy recipes.

This summer berry pie is made by layering slices of banana, peaches/ nectarines, strawberries, and blueberries in a pre-made graham cracker crust. Then a mixture of strawberry gelatin (dissolved in water), vanilla instant pudding mix, and skim milk is poured over the fruit. Chill for a couple hours and enjoy a sweet and light dessert.

I have a feeling I'll be using every excuse in the book to whip up one of these. Monday night treat? Sounds about right to me.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Friday Firsts- Vacation Reading

I’m going away later this month and have vacation on the brain, so my question for today is- What’s the first book you remember reading on vacation?

(image via here)

For me, it’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Since I was in high school when I read this, it's technically not the first book I ever read on vacation, but it’s one that I remember most vividly because I read it during a trip to Savannah. The nonfiction account of scandalous murder trial that ripped through Savannah’s high society oozes with a languid, spooky Southern atmosphere. Seeing some of those sights in person as I was reading the book just added to the richness of the setting.

So what’s a memorable book that you read while on vacation? Any recommendations for books I should bring on my trip?

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Russia has never been my favorite setting to read about in a novel. I’ve never been that drawn to it, for whatever reason, perhaps because it seems so complex and foreign. When I read some of the classics by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, the details of Russian culture, like the long, multi-part character names, always felt like something to be deciphered to get through the story. But then I read this book and inadvertently came away from it with a better understanding of Russian history. My interest was piqued and I found myself searching for books with a Russian setting. One of the first, more current novels I found was Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison.

Enchantments takes place at the end of Imperialist Russia, right as the Tsar is overthrown by the Bolsheviks. The narrator is Masha, the teenage daughter of Rasputin, who is taken in by the royal family after her father is murdered. The Tsarina hopes that Masha will show signs of her father’s mystical powers and heal Prince Alyosha, the hemophiliac only son of the Tsar. Although Masha is not a mystic, she and Alyosha develop a close friendship as they are forced into increasing levels of captivity. To pass the time, Masha tells Alyosha stories, both about his family’s history and hers. It’s unclear to the reader, and possibly unclear to the characters themselves, how much and which parts of these stories are true.

I liked the meandering narrative style of the novel. Masha flashes back to a memory, then interjects a story, then makes reference to something in the future, foreshadowing events that will have happened by the end of the novel. This back and forth helped reinforce the sense of a blurred line between fact and fantasy created by Masha’s stories. That blurriness reminded me of the novel The Tiger’s Wife, although somewhat less engrossing. The Tiger’s Wife maintained a steadier narrative thread throughout both the narrator’s story and the fantastical story-within-a-story that kept me wanting to see what happened next. In Enchantments, Masha’s stories and reminiscences are broken into more discrete blocks and feel a bit static. Though the novel unfolds in a unique way, I didn’t feel any sense of character growth by the time I reached the end. Not a bad read overall, but not one that I’d highly recommend, either. My search for some good, Russian-centric fiction continues.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Breakfast of Champions

Today day I have a very quick, somewhat random, recommendation. Meet my current breakfast obsession, Quaker Real Medleys oatmeal.

Sold in individual cups, they’re filled with whole oats, fruit, and nuts, so they do seem  more “real” than other prepackaged oatmeal. The cherry pistachio flavor especially is to die for. They're a little bit pricier than the boxes of oatmeal pouches, but I think it’s well worth it for a breakfast food that I look forward to every morning and that’s healthier than some of the other breakfast treats I was indulging in all too often (scones, breakfast sandwiches, I’m talking about you).


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