Monday, October 29, 2012

The Hireling

The definition of a hireling is "a person employed to undertake menial work, especially on a casual basis". To my mind, it also evokes an impression of someone who is meek and servile, which couldn't be farther from the persona of Steve Leadbitter, the hireling at the center of L.P. Hartley's novel The Hireling.

In The Hireling, Leadbitter is a chauffeur who is hired on an as-needed basis by wealthy clients. He's an ex-military officer whose business is his life. Unlike the menial servant that the term "hireling" might suggest, Leadbitter conducts himself according to a strict code of strength and discipline. He looks down upon most of his clients, yet prides himself on his ability to cater to their needs and personalities. The handsome face and proper manners he presents at work hide an interior life that's bleak and belligerent. On the rare occasions when he's not driving his car, waiting for the ring of his telephone to herald more jobs, or sleeping, he frequently finds himself picking quarrels at pubs just for the sake of confrontation itself. He also harbors a misogynistic view of women that stems from a poor relationship with his flighty mother. Without realizing it himself, that view begins to slowly erode when he is hired to drive a new client, the beautiful young widow Lady Franklin.

Although Lady Franklin outwardly appears to be a damsel in distress, she has an ulterior motive of her own. Racked with guilt after the death of an older husband whom she never fully loved, Lady Franklin has slid into a deep, depressive grief. Acting on the advice that she needs to open up and unburden herself, she hires Leadbitter with the intent of using him as a sounding board for her problems. Thinking that she will be pleased by some frank conversation in return, Leadbitter begins spinning tales about the trials and tribulations of his nonexistent wife and children. The stories he tells serve as a positive distraction that help pull Lady Franklin out of her gloom. She is so grateful to him, and has become so invested in the story of his family, that she is easily duped into giving him a large monetary gift when he alludes to some fictional financial hardships.

Leadbitter sounds like an obvious villain here, but his actions are tempered by feelings of growing affection for Lady Franklin. She frequently occupies his thoughts and he centers more and more of his decisions and actions around her. Yet after living so long in an emotional freeze, he's unable to recognize his growing feelings for what they are. Instead, he thinks that his deep interest in Lady Franklin is simply a new form of trying to give his clients what they want. It's only after he takes a step that forever changes their relationship that he realizes he loves Lady Franklin. 

I've been wanting to read this novel ever since reading an interesting review of it on another blog (which, of course, I can't remember now. If anyone recalls seeing it elsewhere, do tell as I'd love to see it again) and found it to be a really interesting read. On the surface it has the makings of a romance that crosses class divides in the vein of Downton Abbey. This is far from the case, however, as The Hireling takes a much darker and more ambiguous turn. It's cast of characters is flawed and hard to like, but I found myself reading through the novel, eager to find out what their fates.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Fancies

When I write up my Friday post each week, I usually take a quick browse around Pinterest to find an image that catches my fancy. But starting this week, I'm going to try to cut back on that, if not stop completely. From now on, I'm going to try my hardest to use a photo I've taken myself each Friday. I'm hoping this will prompt me to start pulling out my camera on a more regular basis, even during  mundane weeks when I don't do anything that's obviously photo worthy. Help hold me to this, friends!

Actually, next week I shouldn't have a problem posting interesting photos of my own because I have some literary themed adventures planned for this weekend that I hope to share...

With that hint, I'll leave you with these:

I seem to always be posting or pinning recipes for different variations of meringues. These look so good I can't pass up adding them to the growing list.

I need to add this movie to my Netflix queue.

A striking series of finished unfinished portraits.

And 50 experiences every dog should have in its lifetime (Millie, I'm looking at you).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas. What to say about Cloud Atlas? This is the question that has been running through my mind since I finished my highly anticipated reading of it last week. I’m hesitant to talk in too much detail about the nuances of the book so as not to ruin the reading experience for anyone who might be on the verge of picking it up. The way in which this book unfolds, and then refolds, is unlike anything else and I’m glad that I went into it without knowing too much in advance. So, if you haven’t read the book and want absolutely no spoilers, stop here. If you’ve already read it, or if you haven’t and don’t might just a few revealing details, read on.

The novel is composed of six separate stories. To say that they are connected or interrelated would be to oversimplify things. The most accurate description I've come across so far is to say that the book is set up as a kind of stacking Matryoshka doll that opens and closes, with the six stories presented in the order of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The stories progress from the past into the future and back again, with number 1 being the most historic and number 6 taking place in a far-off, post-apocalyptic future. My one word of caution about the book is that the first storyline, set on a ship sailing the South Pacific seas in the 1800s, is actually the weakest of the group, and may require a bit of soldiering through. Getting to the subsequent storylines is worth the effort, though. They cover a range of different genres and offer something for every reader’s taste, from a noir thriller in the 1970s to a modern day British comedy to a futuristic dystopian tale. With each genre comes a vastly different writing style that, to be honest, can be a little jarring when you’re first introduced to each new story. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the transitions were confusing, but they did make me feel as though I had to be on high alert while reading, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It made me realize how, as a pretty fast reader, I tend to quickly adapt to the flow of the writing in a particular book and just fly through the pages. Of course, an easy flow isn’t a bad quality for a piece of writing to have, but with Cloud Atlas I gave extra attention to every word so as not to miss any clues about the connections between stories.

And speaking of those connections, I thought they were just about perfectly executed. With each revelation in the book, Mitchell successfully balances enough surprise to stop you in your reading tracks for a moment with enough subtlety to still leave room for interpretation. One of the themes he explores is that of storytelling, and the idea of a story within a story. Moving through the six vignettes you soon see a pattern in which the preceding story turns up as some kind of narrative form in the current story. For instance, the characters and plot of the third story in the series turn up in the fourth story in the form of an unsolicited manuscript sent to a publisher. The publisher's adventures, which unfold in the fourth story, turn out to be a movie that the characters in the fifth story watch. Yet even though this story within a story pattern exists, its actual meaning is never definitively established. The interplay of reality and fiction is one obvious theme. The idea of history repeating itself is another, as is the idea of reincarnation, hinted at through the symbol of a uniquely shaped birthmark that's shared by several characters. Just as the six stories exist in layers in the novel, the ideas that Mitchell explores are layered together in a similar coexistence, leaving it to the reader to decide how much or how little to buy into each one.

If you've stuck with me this far, has any of this made sense? Cloud Atlas is definitely one of those books that's best discussed with other people who have read it. So, hurry up and go read it! I need someone to talk to about it!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bread and Jam for Frances

When I was little, I loved the Frances books by Russell and Lillian Hoban. My middle name is Frances, which of course made me think that the entire series of books about the funny little badger was written specifically for me. Lately I've found myself thinking about one installment from the series, Bread and Jam for Frances, every time I bake a bread recipe I've been making from Sophie Dahl's first cookbook.

The recipe in question yields an odd little loaf of bread that Dahl classifies as being part of a "musician's breakfast". Almost like a cross between a traditional bread and a quick bread, it includes yeast and goes through a period of sitting and rising before it's baked, yet it never really develops into a firm dough that you can knead or hold in your hands. With other ingredients like spelt flour, oats, and honey, it has a hearty, health food kind of taste with just the slightest hint of sweetness. In other words, it's exactly the kind of bread that I imagine Frances eating topped with jam. I've been trying it that way myself with some jam of the raspberry variety.

It's also pretty good topped with a thick layer of peanut butter. Or dipped into some leftover marinara sauce. But Bread and Marinara Sauce for Frances just doesn't have the same ring to it, does it?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Glimpses of the Moon

When I embarked on my recent Edith Wharton reading phase, I didn't expect to find a book like The Glimpses of the Moon among her work. It's a novel that I didn't even know existed until its art deco cover caught my eye on the library shelf. Compared with Wharton's other work, The Glimpses of the Moon marks a great leap forward for her as a writer, not in terms of artistic or literary merit, but in terms of time period. With a 1920's setting, it's a novel that feels like it could have been the result of an idea pitched by F. Scott Fitzgerald, then handed over to Wharton for execution. If I had read an unmarked copy of the novel, I certainly would never have guessed that Wharton was its author.

Protagonists Nick Lansing and Susy Branch are a young man and woman caught up in the Jazz Age whirlwind of New York's high society. Both are of limited means and rely on the extravagant generosity of their friends to allow them to live comfortably lavish lifestyles. After they meet, Nick and Susy are simultaneously drawn to and resistant of each other. Both have enough self-awareness to admit that their expensive tastes mean they will have to marry for financial advantage rather than for love. This obstacle is temporarily overcome by an idea of Susy's: They will marry each other and spend a year-long honeymoon traveling as newlyweds among their friends' houses in Europe. At the end of the year, they will part ways and make their permanent, more mercenary matches. 

After a few initial months of bliss, Nick and Susy's arrangement begins to crumble. During a stay at a friend's mansion in Venice, Susy agrees to help their hostess cover up an affair she is having. Nick, who,somewhat hypocritically prides himself on following a very definite set of moral rules, is disgusted with Susy's lax judgement when he finds out. An argument ensues and Nick storms away, intending to take a few days apart from Susy. Days soon turn into weeks and months as a series of  miscommunication leads both Susy and Nick to believe that the other one is ready for their marriage to end. Operating under an escalating set of misapprehensions, Nick and Susy remain separated, moving closer to the edge of divorce while simultaneously realizing that they each value their love for each other more than their previous material concerns.

What I found most interesting about The Glimpses of the Moon was that it revisited what seems to be one of Wharton's favorite themes, that of feelings left unspoken. In a novel like Ethan Frome, much is left unsaid because the characters lack the emotional eloquence to give voice to their inner lives. In The Age of Innocence, things are not said aloud that would go against the implicit code of the society the characters operate in. This time, in The Glimpses of the Moon, it's pride and misunderstanding that causes the characters to keep their feelings to themselves. The chain of events that keeps Nick and Susy apart certainly represents a lighter take on this theme of the unsaid. As in her other novels, Wharton allows the reader to enter into her characters' inner conflicts and turmoil. Here, though, Nick and Susy's thought processes feel like they rehash the same territory over and over again throughout the book. Although they both do evolve for the better, their character development lacks the emotional heft that's in some of Wharton's better known works. Because of that, I can't say that this was one of my favorites. What I can say, though, is that it's an interesting example of Wharton stretching her work in a new direction and sure to be a novel well worth reading for any of her ardent fans.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday Fancies

With both the Nobel and Man Booker prizes being awarded in the past week, you might say that mid-October is to literature what early February is to football. I don't know very much about Nobel winner Mo Yan, but two-time Booker winner Hillary Mantel has had a place on my To Read list for a while. I'd better make it a priority to pick up her first winning novel, Wolf Hall, before her next book comes out and racks up a third win.

Have you read anything by either winning author?

(image via here)

Other "winners" from the week:

I'm kind of upset I didn't win this blog giveaway. I love the high/low combination of the leather and diamonds in that bracelet.

I may have to console myself by making a warm and cozy drink, like this one or this one.

Check out these cut paper illustrations depicting different children's books.

21 authors were challenged to tweet a novel in 140 characters. (I like Jeffrey Archer's the best.)

And at the opposite end of the spectrum, this NY Times piece praises the language of literary excess in the face of a trend towards writing that is short, direct, and to the point.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Decisions and Revisions

The other day, I was chatting with my friend Leslie about the book Swamplandia!, which she had just finished. It's been over year since I read it and was slightly disappointed by it. Since I suffer from mild bouts of literary amnesia, I started racking my brain to remember the specifics of the book. To my amazement, so much of the book quickly came back to me. Specific plot points, characters, and details were vividly there in my memory, right alongside the gut wrenching, tense feeling that I had as I read the book. It's so rare for a book to stick with me like this that it's actually led me to change my prior opinion . In many ways, my initial thoughts on the book were mostly in reaction to the fact that the story was much, much darker than I was expecting it to be. It is very dark, and depressing and terrifying by turns, but the fact that it's remained so memorable for me leads me to think that Karen Russell really pulled off something special with her writing. In fact, I'm even starting to think that Swamplandia! might deserve a place on this list.

Have you ever changed your mind about a book after some time passed from your initial reading?

(Random note: this image is from the original hardcover edition of the book, which I hadn't seen before since I read the paperback. For anyone else who's read the book- is that supposed to be the bird man in the illustration? I feel chills just looking at this knowing that's a possibility!)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Hologram for the King

It's pretty safe to say that there are two camps of readers when it comes to Dave Eggers: those who love his work and those who hate it. I'm firmly in the former group and with his latest work, A Hologram for the King, I think I've finally figured out why.

To be honest, my hopes weren't that high going into this novel. The story focuses on a middle-aged business man who, after effectively outsourcing himself from the bicycle company where he began his career, finds himself hugely in debt and taking whatever independent consulting work comes his way. He leaves his dreary life behind to go to Saudi Arabia on a seemingly endless, very possibly pointless, business trip. His job is to secure an IT contract for a developing Saudi city and his success hinges on presenting innovative holographic teleconferencing technology to the Saudi King. In other words, the plot didn't sound like my typical cup of tea and probably isn't something I would have even picked up if it was by any other author. To a certain extent, by suspicions were true in that the writing style Eggers uses here is quite different from his other novels. It's sparser, and he reigns in some of the tangential, rambling tricks of his that I usually like so much.  Despite this change of pace, I still found myself thoroughly enjoying the story, laughing during some parts and eager to read on to see what happened during others. Eggers has a keen eye for the absurd and in reading A Hologram for the King it struck me that his brand of absurdism veers more toward the whimsical and optimistic rather than the weird and strange. It's this touch of whimsy that manages to enliven a novel that otherwise deals with an experience of inertia in a bleak, foreign landscape. Looking back a bit, I think it's this same whimsy that lightens the emotional load of the heavy subjects that are dealt with in Zeitoun, What is the What, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I'm sure that his detractors would argue that the very fact Eggers always uses varying degrees of this style is one of his flaws, but to my mind it's one of the best things about his work.

So, do you love or loath Dave Eggers? Or are you a member of that rare group that hasn't read anything by him yet?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday Fancies

How clearly do you picture fictional characters when you're reading a book? When I read, I can see the story playing out as a movie in my head, but characters' faces are the one area where my imagination suddenly turns blurry. I typically have a very clear image in mind of every other detail in the story, including characters' hair, clothing, skin tone, and general shape and size. For some reason, though, it's only very rarely that I can clearly picture their facial features. More often, I see a blurred out haze over their faces, as if I was looking at them without my glasses. I assume this has to be common to other readers besides me, but I'm still puzzled as to why I have this one blind spot. Despite that, I still hate it when actors' faces from film adaptations start to creep in and replace the blurry faces of my imagination.

All of that was really just leading up to saying that I'm about one-third of the way through Cloud Atlas and am having a really hard time keeping myself from looking at the cast list for the upcoming movie. I know a few of the actors who are in it, like Halle Berry and Tom Hanks, and have guesses about who they are playing. I'm really curious to find out who was cast  for all of the other characters, but don't want to spoil my reading experience with too many outside influences. I think this may be the first time when the chance to look at IMDB is serving as my motivation to race through a book!

(image via here)

A random assortment of links that caught my attention this week:

I've been loving the flavor of sage lately and think that this pasta recipe looks just about perfect for the fall.

Wouldn't these fox masks make a quirky Halloween costume?

Some entries in the International Book Cartoon Contest.

An interesting look at how Fashion Weeks are portrayed online versus how they actually look in real life.

And speaking of Fashion Week, these elevators take the concept of a runway show to new heights.

(P.S.- Anyone else having trouble editing image sizes in Blogger? Every time I change the size in the HTML, my images disappear, so for the moment I'm limited to the preset settings of large, extra-large, etc.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Over the weekend I went to a performance of the New York City Ballet that featured three contemporary repertory pieces that all premiered within the past year. Two of the three featured really interesting collaborations between the choreographers and other artists from outside the ballet world. First was Two Hearts by Benjamin Millepied, former member of the company and current Mr. Natalie Portman. It featured simple and striking costumes designed by Rodarte. You can see them in motion here.

Next up was Year of the Rabbit, an ambitious piece choreographed by Justin Peck, an up-and-coming member of the Corps de Ballet. The ballet was set to orchestral arrangements of music by Sufjan Stevens and was broken into different segments that were meant to represent different signs of the Chinese Zodiac. To be honest, I didn't fully see that connection, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the piece for the dancing in and of itself. A snippet of it can be seen here, in a short video that seems more akin to a movie trailer than something to promote a ballet. 

(images via here and here)

Going to performances of contemporary repertory can be a roll of the dice. I've seen a few that were way too experimental for my taste. Happily, neither of these pieces fell into that camp. Both seemed to be a well balanced combination of the contemporary and the classic in a way that seemed very much in line with the tradition of Balanchine's work. Two Hearts and Year of the Rabbit may now rank among some of my favorite ballets.

(In case you're curious, this is my all-time favorite ballet.)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Cookalong With: The Secret Adversary

I think I've finally found my reading niche among Agatha Christie's mystery series, and it's not with Miss Marple or with Hercule Poirot. It's with Tommy and Tuppence, a Jazz-age sleuthing couple who make their first appearance in The Secret Adversary

In 1920, Tommy, a young veteran of WWI, and Tuppence, a former wartime nurse, are both struggling to find jobs and make ends meet. On a whim, they decide to team up and advertise their services as "young adventurers". Surprisingly, they quickly receive a response and are engaged to help track down a missing girl who, years earlier, had secretly smuggled a set of highly secret government papers off of the Lusitania on the night that it sunk. As Tommy and Tuppence set off on the hunt, they soon realize that there's more than meets the eye to their case and their success or failure could have international diplomatic implications. The Secret Adversary was simultaneously the most fun and the most suspenseful of any of the Agatha Christie novels I've read so far. Tommy and Tuppence are extremely likable couple who exude humor and spunk in the face a dangerous enemy whose mysterious identity kept me turning the pages. I definitely plan to seek out the rest of the books in the Tommy and Tuppence series, and hope to read the next one while nibbling on fig and orange scones with Devonshire cream.

When I did my first attempt at a "cookalong with" post, I created a recipe based on a meal that was featured in the book. I should be clear here that this installment is really a fantasy cookalong. These scones don't actually appear in The Secret Adversary and I haven't actually made them yet, but when I saw the recipe on Paper and Salt and read about how Agatha was a voracious lover and eater of cream during her tea time, the connection seemed too perfect to resist. I love having clotted cream on scones and have never found a recipe to make it at home before. The crockpot method sounds easy enough for me to consider trying. If it comes out well, I'll break out another Christie novel in honor. And I'll be sure to blog about it, of course.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Friday Fancies

Have any of you read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell? It's one of those books that I had vaguely heard about, but never entertained the thought of reading. Then I heard that a film adaptation was about to come out and discovered that there was a devout group of fans who were excited about it. Still, I didn't think too much about seeing the movie or reading the book. Then I happened to see a short clip of the movie trailer and something just clicked. Now I'm dying to read the book (even though I only have a very broad idea of what it's about) and may start it this weekend. This post and the extended trailer made me even more eager.

 (image via here)

Apparently this comic has been floating around for a while, but I only just saw it.

Some of these documentaries look interesting. I've already added Happy, First Position, and Born Rich to my Netflix queue.

One of my favorite blogger photographers has a small collection of prints for sale.

Speaking of prints, how about these unique maps? I especially love the tube one.

And I seem to be starting a little Friday tradition of finding interesting author interviews. Here's one with John Banville. Now I feel challenged to find one for next week.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

In Brief

I've been sitting on a few books that I've finished in the past couple of weeks but haven't posted about yet. In theory, I like the idea of leisurely digesting each book and taking my time in deciding what I want to write about each one. In reality, my memory of those books gets a little bit foggier with each passing day. As someone who prides myself on being an avid reader, my dirty little secret is that I have an embarrassingly bad memory when it comes to the concrete details of novels. More often it's a few images or scenes, or an overall mood, that sticks with me while specific character names and plot points go flying out of my head. So, in the interest of trying to get caught up with where I am in my real-life reading, here are just a few brief thoughts on The Undertow by Jo Baker.

The Undertow is a family saga that follows four members of the Hastings family who share a common name and experience some of the key historical moments of each of their generations. William Hastings is killed while serving in the British Navy during WWI. His son, Billy, grows up fatherless and abandons his career as an aspiring Olympian to serve in WWII. Billy's son, Will, attends Oxford during the 1960's and raises a daughter, Billie, who lives in modern-day London. It's not an exhaustive family sage that tracks every detail of each generation. Instead, it zooms in and out over the years, fast forwarding through time and pausing for brief intervals that illuminate some of the defining moments for each of the characters. A key focus of the novel is the emotional experiences that are passed down  and shared through the generations, and many beautifully drawn common details crop up in different parts of the book to reinforce this idea. 

See, I told you I'd be brief on this one.

Do any of you struggle with literary forgetfulness like I do? Or do you have any other "embarrassing" reading traits to confess?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


I recently gave the wall grouping above my sofa a little makeover. The "before" version looked something like this. I wasn't unhappy with it per se. I still liked all of the individual pieces, but found myself getting tired of that particular arrangement. I  removed a few pieces and added in some new items, both recent acquisitions and some long forgotten older pieces. The end result looks like this:

I kept one of my Black Apple prints in place, added an old Chagall print that I've had forever, two small canvases by Janet Hill, a mirrored frame from Pottery Barn (with a vintage author photo as a placeholder until I can find the right personal photo for it), and a vintage mirror matted with a page from an old encyclopedia that I picked up in Maine.

Have you done any redecorating lately?


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