Friday, March 29, 2013

Friday Fancies

I took a couple of days off from work this week to enjoy a longer Easter holiday. I'll be spending some of that time making some holiday treats, like the chocolate nests below. Yesterday I had a treat of another sort when I visited what is purportedly the largest used book sale on the East Coast. I'll give a full report of the treasures I found next week.

Some noteworthy things from the past week:

Hilariously bad book covers.

Mindy Kaling has a new book in the works!

The second season of Call the Midwife premieres on PBS this Sunday.

And is anyone else disappointed by the news that Amazon bought Goodreads?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Liking Lately

 Since I'm still working my way through my Classics Club Spin pick, I thought I'd take a little break from books today and share a few other things that I've found myself enjoying lately.

Watching: The Americans

(image via here)

I watched the first episode of The Americans simply because it stars Keri Russell, whom I've been a fan of since her Felicity days, and became instantly hooked on the show. Set in 1981, it follows two deep cover KGB operatives living in Washington DC and spying against the US government. Matched together as a married couple by the KGB, they live an average, nondescript life working as travel agents and raising their two American-born children, who have no idea about their parents' double lives. Of course, their new neighbor just so happens to be an FBI counterintelligence agent. It's a really well done show, filled with suspense, complex characters, and blurred lines between good guys and bad guys, plus period costumes and details that make the 80's seem cool instead of cheesy.

Listening to: Alabama Shakes

(image via here)

I'm late joining the bandwagon on this one, but I started listening to Alabama Shakes a couple of weeks ago and love their unique sound--southern rock meets 60's folk meets Janice Joplin meets Motown? Something like that?

Doing: yoga

(image via here)

Over the years I've made sporadic attempts at doing yoga, but frankly, never liked it all that much. I could usually keep up with whatever random class I stumbled into, but certainly never got the whole mind/ body connection (probably because I was always nervously hoping the class wouldn't break into crazy handstands). But on a whim I signed up for a six week yoga fundamentals class at a local studio.  The teacher has been going through one or two poses in minute detail each class and something just clicked for me.  Suddenly, I can't get enough yoga! I've noticed a real improvement in the way I feel as a result of it, too.

Eating: cookies

(image via here)

And finally, I never thought this day would come, but cookies may have eclipsed cupcakes as my sweet of choice. I knew a fundamental shift had occurred when, finding myself on the Upper West Side and in need of a treat, I chose a cookie from Levain over a cupcake from nearby Magnolia. Granted, Levain's cookies are a big, gooey, scone-sized breed unto themselves, but the batches of  homemade cookies I've been making on a nearly weekly basis (with single serving microwave cookies in between) are further signs that cupcakes may have slipped into the number two spot!

What new discoveries have you been watching, eating, doing, or listening to lately?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Year Five Begins

Yesterday marked four years since the day I wrote my first post ever, about three books that I read while I was recovering from having my gallbladder removed and that I would still highly recommend (the books, not the surgery!). It's crazy to think that something that has become such an integral part of my daily life started out as a whim back when I could only just barely call myself a blog reader and was too shy to even comment on another blog. I remember feeling so accomplished after my first few posts which, of course, seem so simplistic when I look back at them now.

(Apropos of nothing, peonies in DC last spring.)

 I've enjoyed sharing little bits of my life--literary and otherwise--and getting to know other bloggers more than I could have ever imagined when I first hit Publish four years ago. So with that, on to year five!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

My Favorite Persephone (So Far)

I've read quite a few wonderful Persephone books over the past couple of years, but I've just finished what might be my favorite--Mariana by Monica Dickens, granddaughter of Charles Dickens.

Mariana is the coming of age story of Mary Shannon, an English girl who grows up in a state of shabby gentility during the inter-war years. She spends summer vacations at the country home of her dead father's family, who own a successful London restaurant and move in somewhat high society circles. During the school year, she lives with her mother, a dressmaker, and her maternal uncle, an actor of variable success, in a modest flat in the city. 

The light, funny depiction of Mary's childhood and young adulthood is framed in a more poignant, serious way. As the novel opens, Mary and her dog are spending a stormy night alone in a rural cottage. Mary's husband is off serving in the Navy. Hearing dire radio reports about the ship he's stationed on, Mary spends a sleepless night dreading the bad news that she knows will come her way in the morning. To distract herself, she reminisces about key moments in her life, mostly marked by various misguided decisions or beliefs. We see her romping around her family's beloved country house, pining away for her older cousin Denys. In her later teenage years, we witness her miserable acting attempts during a stint at a dramatic college. And as a young woman, we watch her get swept up in Parisian life and narrowly escape a marriage to a charmingly irritating Frenchman. 

It's obvious that Dickens has a great affection for her characters, and appreciates the momentous importance small or even silly moments have in their lives. Yet she doesn't idealize her characters too much, vividly detailing all of their flaws. Mary isn't excluded from this treatment. Her shortcomings run the gamut from a stubborn streak that causes her to cling to bad situations long after they're doomed to a sensitive stomach that, in one of the sweetest scenes in the novel, leads her to meet her eventual husband, Sam. The mistakes and minor embarrassments that plague Mary throughout her life make her all the more relateable and likable for us as readers, and keep this sentimental story from veering into saccharine territory. 

Simply put, I think Mariana is coziness in book form. I've been remembering it with a smile ever since I finished it. Definitely worth bumping up to the top of your Persephone reading list.

And if you are already a Persephone fan- which book of theirs is your favorite so far?

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Burning Air

I don't read very many books that are considered psychological thrillers, so I was initially on the fence about reading The Burning Air when it came my way, but something about it--very possibly the jacket blurb comparing its author, Erin Kelly, to a modern day Daphne du Maurier--tempted me to give it a try. Not only am I now glad that I did, but I'd highly recommend it to other readers who might also be  ambivalent about thrillers. The novel's unexpected structure, both ambitious and beautifully executed by Kelly, is worth the price of admission alone, and lays the groundwork for a subtle, quiet, yet utterly mind-blowing twist.

Darcy Kellaway is an only child living a poor, isolated existence, home-schooled by an agoraphobic, anorexic mother whose only goal in life is for Darcy to win a coveted scholarship to the local private school. Although Darcy performs well on the school's exam and interview, the scholarship ultimately goes to another child. Darcy's mother is convinced that the school's head admission's officer, Rowan MacBride, corrupted the review process and awarded the scholarship to his own son, stealing away Darcy's rightful place. Her paranoia grows and infects Darcy, and the two spend the next fewyears waging an invisible, and increasingly bitter, campaign against the MacBride family, trying to find proof of Rowan's nepotism.

Fast forward twenty years. Rowan, mourning the recent death of his wife, gathers with his three grown children, their significant others, and his grandchildren at the family's country home to partake in the local village's bonfire night, a favorite MacBride tradition. Before the weekend is over, they'll be once again faced with Darcy Kellaway and become the victims of a long dormant revenge plan.

Although The Burning Air is the kind of book I could talk about all day, I'll leave it at that so as not to risk revealing too many details. This is a novel that you have to experience for yourself. (And once you do, leave a comment here or on Goodreads, to let me know what you think. I'm dying to talk more about this one!)

A copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin. All thoughts and opinions in this post are my own.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Friday Fancies

The daylight savings time change is hitting me especially hard this year. I have a hard enough time waking up in the morning--specifically, on early weekday mornings, when I stumble out of bed and grumpily vow to climb back in for a nap as soon as I get home that day, which of course I never actually do--and I need every bit of morning sunlight I can get, so it was hard to go back to darkness when my alarm went off on Monday. Needless to say, I'm hoping to bank a little extra sleep this weekend.

On a completely unrelated note, apparently Google is going to be doing away with Reader!?! Anyone have any suggestions for good blog-reading tools to use instead?

(A bunch of daffodils brought a bit of spring inside, brightening up cold and dark mornings)

A few things to check out:

Book Sale Finder is a site that helps you find books sales near you. I have a feeling I'll be checking this often.

Gorgeous long exposure photos of ballet dancers.

A festive movie to live in for St. Patrick's Day (even if it's not the best romantic comedy ever made).

I loved Marisha Pessl's first novel, so I'm excited to see that her second, Night Film, is finally on the horizon.

And over the years, I've read various blog posts in which a blogger wonders how long they'll continue blogging. This 96-year-old blogger proves that the answer to that question is, as long as you want to!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Essays of Elia

I first learned about Charles Lamb when I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. He plays a key role in the novel as it's one of his books that brings about the correspondence between two of the main characters. They write to each other about how much they love his work, which in turn made me want to try reading it (kind of like reading The Mysteries of Udolpho because you like Northanger Abbey). 

Lamb himself is a fascinating figure of the late 18th/ early 19th century. His life was a combination of the mundane with the literary, and was marked by a dramatic family tragedy. His writings brought him literary acclaim and his circle of friends included such heavyweights as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, yet he spent most of his adult life writing only in his spare time, holding down a day job as an accountant with the British East India Company. When he was about twenty, his elder sister Mary suffered a manic fit and stabbed their mother to death. Faced with life in prison, Mary was ultimately released into Lamb's care. He spent the rest of his life tending to her as he himself suffered with bouts of alcoholism and depression.

For as much hardship as Lamb dealt with in his life, his writing is surprisingly good natured, though occasionally melancholy. Essays of Elia is a collection of pieces originally written for London newspapers around the 1820's. In them, Lamb assumes the identity of Elia, a thinly veiled version of himself. Told in the voice of Elia, Lamb's essays tend to fall into two general categories: those that described situations and people from Lamb's own life, such as his accountancy work and his sister, who he presents as the character of Elia's cousin/ housekeeper, and those that gently poke fun at slices of everyday life, such as chimney sweeps, or the practice of saying grace before a meal.

 The foreword to the edition I read points out that Lamb's work can be viewed as a precursor to much of the nonfiction we read today, especially memoirs that are written in ways that verge on the fictional, like some of Dave Eggers's work. Reading the essays, I came across a lot that did feel current. Some of his more humorous essays reminded me of a nineteenth-century version of the kind of observational comedy that we're used to today (like Seinfeld's "Did you ever notice how..." monologues). And I couldn't help thinking that the phrase "smug marrieds", coined by Bridget Jones, may owe something to Lamb's essay "A Bachelor's Complaint of the Behavior of Married People". Yet along with these little gems, I encountered an equal amount of material that hasn't quite stood the test of time, particularly in essays in which Lamb paints highly detailed portraits of acquaintances or general public figures who, though widely known at the time, mean little to the modern reader. As I worked my way through the entire essay collection, I felt lulled into a skimming boredom as often as I felt entertained. In the end, I think I've come away from Lamb's work, not loving it, but simply appreciating what its value must have been for the time in which it was written.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Homemade Girl Scout Cookies

Pinterest can be a dangerous thing when it comes to recipes. Not only do I tend to pin way more than I actually get around to making, but the ones I do try out seem to have 50/50 odds of being a winner or being a dud. I recently discovered one of the former, though--this recipe for peanut butter sandwich cookies

 With two light peanut butter and oat cookies sandwiching some creamy peanut butter frosting, the end result comes out tasting like a more delicious version of the "Do-Si-Do" variety of Girl Scout Cookies. The recipe is really easy and calls for items you probably have in your kitchen right now, which can be a bit dangerous. I think I've managed to whip up a batch every weekend for the past few weeks!

These definitely deserve a place on your To Bake list.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Week in Winter

I've only read a couple of Maeve Binchy novels in my lifetime--the classic Circle of Friends, of course, and I think maybe The Glass Lake. Ever since Binchy's death last summer, I've had it in the back of my mind to read something else by her. When I spotted A Week in Winter at my library, I picked it up thinking it would be perfect as both a Maeve Binchy fix and as an appropriate read during these last weeks of winter.

Her final novel, published posthumously, A Week in Winter centers around Stone House, a small but luxurious hotel in a rural village on the coast of Western Ireland. In the course of the novel, we meet various characters who come to Stone House for different reasons: Chicky Starr, the hotel's proprietress, who, after twenty years in New York, returns to Ireland with secrets in tow; Orla, Chicky's niece, who comes to help her run the business; and Rigger, the son of Chicky's girlhood friend, who she takes in as the hotel's handyman and manager to help him escape a criminal past. We also meet the group of guests who come to stay at Stone House during its opening week, a diverse group made up of young and old, couples and singles, and even an incognito American movie star. Each of the hotel's staff members and guests come to Stone House bearing some kind of personal burden, and each subsequently finds that his or her time there magically relieves them of their problems.

This is exactly the kind of cozy, feel good novel that I would expect from Maeve Binchy. However, it also feels a bit unfinished. Each chapter tells the story of a different character and, although they share the common setting of Stone House, and common characters and events surround them, they read more like discrete short stories in which each character's tale is introduced and then wrapped up in about twenty pages or so. It made me wonder if Binchy had planned to due subsequent revisions to weave all of the characters' stories together, but passed away before she the chance. And in general, some of the stories had the feel of something that was written by an aging author. Although set in the present day, the modern details that pepper them are dealt with in ways that seem just a little bit old fashioned.

While this isn't a bad book, if you find yourself in the mood to read some Maeve Binchy, going back to one of her earlier, classic novels might be the better bet.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Birthday Beagles

Today marks one year since my parents adopted their tiny beagle Olive. For all intents and purposes, that makes March 5th her birthday. My tiny beagle Millie and I got to visit with Olive over the weekend and I had some fun dressing her up in a little something special fit for a birthday girl.

Of course, Millie had to join in...

...but quickly got tired of all of the fun.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Eight Girls Taking Pictures

Though ostensibly a novel, Eight Girls Taking Pictures by Whitney Otto might be better described as a collection of related short stories, each one dealing with a female photographer living in a different time and place. Starting out in 1917 with a story about Cymbeline Kelley, a pioneering female photographer whose studio has just been burnt down, the stories go on to feature a diverse group of women: a plucky British girl who starts her own photography studio and ultimately uses her art to help her husband, shell-shocked from WWI; an Italian immigrant who, by way of San Francisco, becomes embroiled with the Communist party in 1920's Mexico; a privileged American who becomes model and muse to some of Europe's most prominent Surrealists just before WWII; and a Manhattan housewife who literally uses the world outside her window as her photographic subject matter. In spite of their varied circumstances, each character deals with the common challenges of finding her place in a world dominated by male photographers and struggling to balance her artistic drive with her family obligations. 

I liked this book quite a lot, although it's one whose appeal grew on my slowly. The opening story, although crucial to the book and marked by a dramatic case of arson, is perhaps one of the weakest and least memorable. I found the subsequent stories that are more closely tied to world events to be much more engrossing. Any one of those felt like it could have been expanded into a full length novel in its own right. I should also admit that as I made my way through this book, it took some time for me to let go of my preconceived notions about it. I had expected that each story would be very interrelated, with each character having explicit ties to characters who came before her. Although the final two stories in the novel, set in the 1970's and 1980's, do circle back to 1917's Cymbeline Kelley, they are mostly independent of one another. There are a few cameos in which one character is mentioned in another's story, but the overall theme of the novel is not one of underlying connections. Instead, the purpose of the novel almost seems to be a revisiting of the same character--a female photographer--over and over again, showing how she fares during different periods throughout time. In the end, I liked this effect much more than the one I came to the book expecting. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Friday Fancies

Are there any signs of spring popping up where you live yet? The other day I noticed some tiny green shoots on one of the shrubs in my backyard, barely visible amidst all of the dead leaves. Even though it's only the first day of March, seeing them may just be enough to make me keep my eye out for some spring clothes as I'm out and about this weekend.

Here are some other things that caught my eye this week:

If there are any trips to New Haven in your future, Yale's British Art exhibit on Edwardian opulence looks interesting.

A recipe fit for Jane Austen (plus a little glimpse at what her culinary life was like).

Plum & Ashby is a charming online shop from England, made more appealing by their canine mascot, Bertie.

And The Audience starring Helen Mirren looks like a funny play about Queen Elizabeth II--maybe it will make it's way to Broadway?


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