Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Season's Readings

Well hello again, and happy any readers who may still be out there, that is! I have to admit  that over the past several months I've been guilty of two of my biggest blogging pet peeves: 1) repeated apologies and excuses during slow periods of blogging; and 2) a long, unexplained stretch of radio silence (in my case it was mostly due to a lack of blogging inspiration). I'm feeling ready to start posting more regularly around here, though, Maybe that will happen in the new year, maybe earlier. I don't want to commit to anything definite, but I did want to briefly pop in with a recommendation for a perfect seasonal read: Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford.

Coupled together in a recently reissued volume, these are two of Mitford's earliest novels. Like her more famous works, these are frothy and witty reads. With influences from Mitford's own life, they simultaneously offer a glimpse into and poke fun at the British aristocracy of a certain time period. Unlike her later novels, though, these two have more hi-jinx going on in their plots, with mistaken identities and characters who are not what they seem. In Christmas Pudding, a writer poses as a tutor to gain access to a country house and the biographical papers of its family. In Pigeon Pie, the outbreak of World War II sees a flighty heiress get drawn into a German spy plot that's unfolding right under her nose. Both are thoroughly enjoyable reads, particularly for anyone who's already a Mitford fan. And although only one of the two stories unfolds during the holiday season, either one would be a great read for this time of year--perfect light reading for when you're curled up on the coach with Christmas music playing in the background.

Have you read any Christmas themed books lately? Or are there any non-holiday books you're planning to read this season? I know that I'm looking forward to diving into at least a few more during my upcoming holiday break.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Reading Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner is the latest in the string of authors I've read as a direct result of encountering them through other bloggers. Brookner doesn't seem to be quite as widely or loudly praised as, say, Barbara Pym or Muriel Spark, but over the years I've noticed at least a few quiet but ardent admirers of her work, of which there is an impressive amount to choose from. Although her most famous novel is Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker Prize, Brookner has been prolific from the 1980s to the present. The first novel of hers that I picked up was A Friend From England, purely by chance of coming across a copy at a used book sale.

A Friend From England is told from the perspective of Rachel Kennedy, a Londoner in her early-thirties who is part owner of a bookshop. She befriends her accountant, Oscar, who had known Rachel's father, and is soon drawn into his family's circle. With no living relatives of her own, Rachel prides herself on being independent and progressive, yet she finds herself drawn to the conventional family dynamic that Oscar and his wife provide over the course of regular weekly visits. She's happy to be drawn into their world, yet finds herself at odds with Oscar's twenty-something daughter, whose perspective of marriage and family seems to be drastically different from Rachel's own.

A Friend from England is the kind of book that gradually engrosses the reader. Its action is subtle, with much of it occurring within Rachel's mind, but the character portraits are so richly drawn that I was completely captivated by the end of the book. Upon finishing I immediately wanted to read more of Bookner's work, so I headed to the library where I found Falling Slowly, in which we meet Beatrice and Miriam Sharpe, two middle aged sisters who have both faced disappointments in their lives. While Beatrice deals with hers by withdrawing from life and becoming more solitary, Miriam begins to act in uncharacteristic ways. Their relationship and their individual lives come to a turning point when Beatrice faces a health issue. Falling Slowly is another novel that builds up gradually. It gets off to an even slower start than A Friend From England does, and it stagnates in that slow pace for a longer time. I had to push myself to keep reading for much of it, but I did eventually hit a certain point where the development of the characters hit its full stride and made me eager to read on. 

After reading two of Brookner's novels practically back to back, I'm left feeling intrigued by her work, but in need of a change of pace from it in the immediate future. I like the way she dissects the unexpected inner lives of her characters. In some ways, they are very similar to the types of people Pym writes about, although her overall effect is much less cozy and more psychologically probing, as if she set out to give the Henry James treatment to some of Pym's "excellent women". Her sentences are certainly dense and long enough to rival those of James. Overall, I think her novels are best for when you're in the mood to get lost in rich language and characterization, but they can easily prove frustrating when you're in more of a mood to quickly move from one book to the next.

Have you read any of Anita Brookner's work? Do you have any recommendations for a novel of hers I should try the next time I'm in the mood for a slower-paced read?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Friday Fancies

It's been ages since I've done a Friday Fancies post. I'm slowly but surely working my way back into the blogging routine, so without further ado, here are a few links of note that caught my eye recently.

(plus a gratuitous close up of Millie, because why not?)

In keeping with the canine theme, here's a look back at the PBS series Wishbone.

A new food blog on the horizon that looks promising.

A fantastic essay by Neil Gaiman about libraries and reading fiction.

And a sneak peek at a literary cameo that we can expect on Season 4 of Downton Abbey.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fall Festival

It seems like the fall festival season has been in full swing for the past few weekends. I recently went to the Batsto Village Country Living Fair, which is held at a state park in New Jersey's Pinelands regions. Although it features crafts, antiques, and food, you wouldn't know it from the pictures I took, which make it seem more like a 4H fair.

There was a beekeeping demonstration by an extremely nonchalant beekeeper.

A pot bellied pig attended the fair in a nice ride. 

(Overheard conversation:

Woman: "I hear they're very intelligent animals."

Man: "Well it is being pulled around in a wagon...")

And two adorable alpacas were on display at a stand selling handspun alpaca wool and hand knits.

I really think they may be the cutest animals in the world....

...aside from these two, of course:

Have you been to any fall festivals in your area?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Broccoli Grilled Cheese

It's been a while since I last blogged about cooking, but the arrival of the cooler fall weather has put me in the mood to get back in the kitchen and try out some new recipes. This one is less of a recipe and more of an impromptu creation that I made to replicate a broccoli and white cheddar panini that I tasted at a local bakery when I was in Maine this summer. To put it together I just sliced and caramelized some red onions in olive oil for about 15 minutes. While that was happening, I quickly steamed some broccoli to get the rawness out, then added them to the pan with the onions and sautéed them together for about 5 minutes. I layered the broccoli mixture on some bread with a few slices of white cheddar and pressed into a grilled cheese.

The combination is a bit out of the ordinary, but worth trying if you're in the mood for a new spin on grilled cheese. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Wish Her Safe at Home

Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar is one of the most bizarre, unsettling, fascinating books that I've read in a while. It opens with fifty-something Rachel Waring unexpectedly inheriting a far-off house that belonged to a long-lost aunt. Instead of selling the house for a profit like all of her acquaintances expect her to do, Rachel decides to move into it, abandoning the office job and dismal shared flat that are the trappings of her mundane life in London. Initially, Rachel seemed to have traits in common with a typical Barbara Pym character and I thought a similar kind of story was about to unfold. But then, almost as soon as she moves into her new house, Rachel begins acting in ways that make me see her less like a Pym-esque woman to more like a disturbed Amelia Bedelia meets Muriel Spark's Jane Brodie.

Throwing herself into her surroundings, Rachel sets out to see only the positive in her new town and neighbors, interpreting them at their most literal and taking an overly optimistic view of everyone and everything she encounters. At first, her upbeat attitude seems kind of admirable. Even when her actions garner ridicule from others, Rachel finds a certain bliss in her ignorance. She also finds bliss in a portrait of a man who lived in her house many years before. After some research at the library reveals him to be local figure of minor historical significance, Rachel develops an interest in him that quickly grows into an unhealthy obsession. She hangs his portrait over her mantel, has conversations with him, and writes a fictional account of his life. She comes to believe that in a past life, she herself was the woman he loved and lost. Things take an even more uncomfortable turn when she finally reveals her "relationship" with him to her new friends in town, a group who already seems to be suspiciously intent on taking advantage of Rachel's generosity towards them. Once they realize how far removed from reality she is, events spiral further down hill.

Although that all might sound like a fairly direct progression of a character going insane, Benatar doesn't present things quite as linearly as that. Rachel's moments of madness are interspersed with moments of humor and clarity, when her feelings are relatable and her thoughts even verge on being wise. This makes her descent into madness all the more uncomfortable. Wish Her Safe at Home is a very strange novel, but one that I would recommend if you're in the mood for something out of the ordinary.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Farmers Market Envy

With only a month or so left in the farmers market season in my area, I need to make a conscious effort to get there more often. I went to my town's market fairly regularly at the beginning of the summer, but I've been feeling uninspired by it since coming back from Maine, where I stumbled upon an amazing one. It was small but well represented with vendors selling everything from produce, breads, and cheeses to flowers, homemade wine, and, of course, fresh lobster, crowded with locals who probably line up every Sunday morning to get a coffee and stock upon their locally grown treats for the week.

My biggest regret was that I didn't have the means to bring home anything and had to limit myself to browsing and snapping some pictures.

What's the best thing at your local farmer's market?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Mary Stewart Reading Week

I'm so glad that Anbolyn spearheaded Mary Stewart Reading Week this week because it prompted me to read The Moonspinners, which in turn finally allowed me to fully appreciate the appeal of Stewart's writing. I've read two other novels by Stewart and thought they were okay, but wasn't enamored with them. I kept getting hung up on some dialogue that sounded a bit dated and on extensive descriptions of landscapes, which aren't my cup of tea. (Although the latter is 100% my problem, and not Stewart's. If you are into reading descriptions of landscapes, she writes lovely ones.) Something clicked with The Moonspinners, though, and I found myself quickly engrossed and fully entertained by it.

The heroine of The Moonspinners is Nicola Ferris. In what seems to be true Stewart fashion, she's a plucky, parent-less girl in her early twenties who doesn't hesitate to get caught up in danger. Nicola is also very independent with a worldly, urbane streak, which keeps all of that pluck from becoming twee. She and her older cousin, Frances, go on holiday in a rural, sleepy Greek seaside town. While exploring the surrounding mountains, Nicola stumbles upon Mark and Lambis, a young English tourist and his Greek guide, who are holed up in an abandoned shepherd's hut while Mark recovers from a gunshot wound he received after accidentally stumbling upon a murder in progress. Nicola is quickly swept up into the mystery and a series of adventures ensues, with many twists and turns that I won't spoil by trying to describe.

With its exotic Greek setting and its mid-century time period, I could easily imagine The Moonspinners as a classic film, with Nicola played by Audrey Hepburn in a Roman Holiday-esque dress. The novel's face paced action seems like exactly the stuff of movies. There are a lot of "only in fiction" elements to it, not least of which is the amount of adventure and trouble that the characters are able to squeeze into just two days' time! But that just added to the charm of it for me and made for a truly fun reading experience.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Noblesse Oblige

Noblesse Oblige is an unusual little book that I picked up at a used bookstore on Cape Cod. Edited by Nancy Mitford, it's a slim volume that proclaims itself to be "an enquiry into the identifiable characteristics of the English Aristocracy". It makes this enquiry though a series of essays by Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, and others that dissect the distinctions, primarily related to language and speech, between the British upper class and everyone else.

The collection opens with an essay about sociological linguistics by Alan S.C. Ross in which he outlines some of the differences between upper class (U) and non- upper class (non-U) usage. This covers everything from how to refer to places ("I'm going to Downton" would be U while "I'm going to Downton Abbey" would be very non-U) to specific word choices (radio and wealthy are both non-U words, while wireless and rich are U). This is followed by Mitford's own essay, in which she offers her response to what Ross says, which is in turn followed by an open letter in which Evelyn Waugh responds to what Mitford says, and so on and so forth. It all has the potential to be very dry, but Mitford and Waugh (as well as some of the less famous essayists) bring just enough of their characteristic wit and irony to their contributions to make the subject bearable.

Based on some of the online reviews I've read, it seems that public opinion is a bit divided about Noblesse Oblige. Should its arguments be taken seriously or is it meant to be read as satire? I think the answer lies in the middle. It's essays provide genuine, albeit lighthearted, commentary about a minor social debate that arose at the time of its publication. It's by no means a must-read, even for Mitford fans, but it does have enough to interest and amuse to warrant a quick skim if a copy should happen to cross your path.

Incidentally, I can't help but wonder what George Bryant of Bogota, whose path my copy crossed back in 1964, thought about the book:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Snapshots from Maine

Just a handful of photos to share from my trip to Maine this summer. I found that I wasn't pulling out my camera quite as much as I did last year, but I did manage to capture a few interesting moments, from pretty sunsets to paddle boarders to an unexpected frog.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Three In Brief

In the interest of playing catch up, here are my very quick takes on three books that I finished recently, none of which made enough of an impression on my to devote an entire post to.

I've read enough Henry James novels by now to know that although there's a lot I can appreciate about his writing, I get very little pure enjoyment from them. What Maisie Knew was no exception. Written from a child's perspective, it tells the story of a girl who finds herself used as a pawn, first by her divorced parents, then later by her respective stepparents. James infuses Maisie's voice with an unsettling combination of both childishness and world-weariness. He really dissects the psyche of his character's, although he uses his usual tediously wordy style to do so. I would have much rather read this as a short story than in the form of a full length novel.

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker  is a novel that I had high hopes for after seeing it highly praised around the blog world. Narrator Norman Huntley is skilled at making things up on the spur of the moment, like the eighty-year-old woman he and a friend invent as part of a prank against the groundskeeper of a rural church they tour. Days later, Norman is shocked when his creation, Agatha Hargreaves, enters his life in the form of a very real, very eccentric elderly woman who wreaks havoc on his life. It's a clever concept on the whole, but again, one that I would have preferred to see done in short story format. I personally didn't find the characters to be entertaining enough, or Miss Hargreaves's antics to be madcap enough, to hold my interest for the full length of the novel that it is. It felt like a witty comment that loses its initial charm after being repeated one too many times. 

And finally, my favorite of the three was the lightest, fluffiest, and most fun: The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Cafe by Mary Simses. Its heroine is a Manhattan lawyer who travels to her grandmother's small hometown in Maine to take care of some unfinished family business. Like many novels in a similar vein, once she's there she begins to reevaluate her own life, including her upcoming marriage. Although by no means a groundbreaking novel, it's solidly written and manages to cover well charted territory in an engaging way. A perfect book for reading on vacation--although I may be partial since I read it during my trip up to Maine!


Related Posts with Thumbnails