The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. — Adam Gopnik

September 1, 2015

Framley Parsonage


All in all, I agree with JoAnn, my friend and fellow #6barsets reader, that Framley Parsonage was just a little less wonderful than the first three books in this series. On the other hand, I also agree that even slightly-less-good Trollope is still pretty great. :)

I got off to a slow start with this fourth book, something that had nothing to do with the book {and everything to do with silly distractions}. It took me a long time to get back to it, and a long time to settle into it once I did.  On first meeting them, the Reverend Mark Robarts, his wife Fanny, and the imperious but loving Lady Lufton aren't the most engaging characters, not when we've had Mrs. Proudie, and even Mrs. P. seemed a little subdued this time around {at first, anyway}.  But I knew everything would be all right once Miss Dunstable re-appeared, and then there was Mr. Smith's lecture on the Papua New Guineans, and Mrs. Proudie's conversazione, and Miss Dunstable's conversazione, and Mr. Sowerby's shameless use of his friends, and the thorny conversation between mousy Mrs. Grantly and Lady Lufton, and then I found myself spending almost my whole day off re-immersed in Barsetshire and not wanting to leave.

And Miss Dunstable and Doctor Thorne!  I think I've mentioned that a book I have about Angela Thirkell tells us that some of her characters are descendants of this marriage, and since there was no prospect of it in Doctor Thorne I was wondering if Thirkell had made it up.  Part of me wishes she had; that would have been fun.

{Since happily there are other Miss Dunstable-ites among us, I went back to that book — Going to Barsetshire:  a companion to the Barsetshire novels of Angela Thirkell, by Cynthia Snowden — to find out who her descendants were:  Lady Pomfret, of Pomfret Towers, Canon Thorne, of Miss Bunting, and possibly Mrs. Belton, of The Headmistress, who was 'also born a Thorne.' Grandchildren or great-grandchildren?}  

The Small House at Allington is next for us; if anyone else would like to read it we'd be very happy to have you.

August 31, 2015


Oh, this was fun. I'm so glad, because I've have such mixed experiences with contemporary memoirs, but the premise for this one was wonderful and I really wanted to like it. :)

The author, Cara Nicoletti, grew up a few towns away and spent afternoons after school playing with her cousins in her grandfather's butcher shop. When I started reading, I thought I recognized his name, and then I connected it with one of the places I discovered when I first moved here. {The Salett's I loved going to wasn't the traditional butcher shop she describes, but a tiny store lined with freezer cases stocked with not terribly expensive but very elegant individually wrapped portions of meat. It  must have been an offshoot of some kind of restaurant-supply business, and it was very enticing. My favorite thing to buy was chic little stuffed chicken breasts, which I could bake either for myself or when people were coming for dinner. I miss that little store!} For me, that local, less-than-six-degrees-of-separation thing is appealing in a memoir.

She also describes herself as a child who loved to read and who was obsessed with descriptions of food in the books she read, even writing out imaginary recipes on the inside back covers of her books. {Obviously, my kind of person.} In college, she worked in coffee shops and later as a baker; when she was laid off during the recession she found work as an apprentice butcher in Brooklyn's best butcher shop, and started first a literary supper club and then a 'literary food blog.'  {As I said, obviously my kind of person. :)}

In Voracious, she writes short, thoughtful vignettes about the many books she read as a child, then as an adolescent/college student, and finally as an adult, describing the food she found in them, telling a story {about the soft-boiled eggs in Emma, and a job interview that consisted of cooking one for the chef} and then crafting a recipe. She's much younger than I am, but we still have some childhood books in common, like Nancy Drew {double chocolate walnut sundaes} and Pippi Longstocking {buttermilk pancakes} and many more later, like Pride and Prejudice {white soup}. She's also found food in books that I remember this way, like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow {buckwheat pancakes}, and others that I don't, like Mrs. Dalloway {chocolate eclairs, of all things}, but now I just have a reason to read them again.

I almost skipped this book because it was one of many that came in for me at the library all at once, but then I tucked it in my work bag, dipped into a few of the short chapters on the bus going to work and coming home, looked forward to my next ride, and even bookmarked a few recipes — currant buns from The Secret Garden, those buckwheat pancakes, an olive oil yogurt cake from Middlesex, honey-poppy seed cake from The Aeneid, and Mr. Woodhouse's perfect, harmless soft-boiled egg — to try soon.

August 18, 2015

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

If you had asked me if I'd like to read a new novel about a telegraphist working in Victorian London, I might have said, 'Sure.' {Historical fiction has been growing on me, especially historical mysteries.}  If you asked me whether I liked the first few pages, I would have said 'Oh yes!' {And so I did.} If you were a gentlemanly Japanese watchmaker, and quietly told me that I would soon finish this book and know it would be one of my favorite books for this year, I would have smiled wanly and asked you if you would like some tea so I wouldn't have to contradict you. And then it would have been just like the green dress and the man with the dog and the waiter who drops the tea tray.

I was just thinking about the book I read before this one, and all the ways I wanted it to be better, and then thinking that Natasha Pulley did all those things. She let us follow just one plot line, without knowing where it would go, and she focused on just three characters so they weren't so overcrowded.  She painted London and the places in it instead of telling me everything she knew about them. She asked us to suspend disbelief, but in ways that seemed believable {a contradiction, I know}. Her writing was often lovely (or funny, or both) and at times, a sentence or an observed moment gave me a little flutter.

...Mori watched him look, not for long, then pulled his hand back and folded his arms. It was a lonely thing to do, Thaniel thought. He wanted to ask what the matter was, but he saw Mori's shoulders stiffen at the approach of that future, then ease again when he stopped intending it.
      'Lord Carrow is outside our house,' he said. Thaniel sighed, because he had forgotten about grace and he was tired now, and not keen to argue with a man he didn't know. Mori didn't look at him, but his nearer shoulder eased back, like an opening door so that they could speak from adjoining rooms. 'You needn't do it.'
      Thaniel shook his head. 'I think it's a bit late for that.'

And though she did put in some real historical figures, two of them were Gilbert & Sullivan, which for me is almost as great as their being Henry James.

In the end what I loved most about this book was just that I simply enjoyed reading it...which for me is really what matters, however we find it. :)

August 16, 2015

The Fifth Heart

I can't delay leaving tomorrow, thought James. If I stay, I'll never see the end of these conspiracies or complications. ... I've been caught up in one of the romantic-adventure novels I so despise... — and the only way I can escape is to walk away from everything I've seen and heard today, everything I've seen and heard the last few weeks since the Seine. That way lies reality. Or at least literature.

This book wins, hands-down, my award for the very best not-very-good book of the year.

I think I probably squealed out loud when I first heard (wherever that was) that someone had written a novel connecting Henry James and Clover Adams.  I love reading about Henry (as you probably know) and I've been fascinated by Clover Adams ever since I first read about her in college. {We were reading The Education of Henry Adams in a literature seminar and reading her story was much more interesting ...}

The meandering, overfilled, at times downright silly plot has two major lines:  an investigation into whether Clover's death was a murder, not a suicide, and an effort to foil a plot to kill world leaders across the globe, beginning with President Grover Cleveland, who is in Chicago to open the  Chicago World's Fair in 1893.  The twist is that the book opens as Henry, approaching his dreaded 50th birthday and in despair over his lack of literary success, travels to Paris to throw himself into the Seine, and is rescued by Sherlock Holmes, who draws our Henry into both stories. And Dan Simmons let Henry climb out onto some rafters in an abandoned chicken-plucking factory to spy on a meeting of the anarchist plotters, which counts for a lot.

I listened to this off and on for a month and I lost the plot a few times along the way... and by the epilogue, as Henry is finally sailing back to England, I wanted to say 'enough already!'  I do think this would have been a better book if it had been shorter and more restrained in its name-dropping and historical-detail dropping, but then it wouldn't have been as much fun. It sent me running to the Internet to see what the White City {temporarily erected for the fair} looked like, and to the library for a book of Henry's short stories so I could read one that was mentioned in a tangent.  Definitely a guilty pleasure, but with Henry, Clover and a couple of tangents, I was very happy to spend time with it.

August 14, 2015


      'I'll be here for only a third of the time. I have a dozen other things to do.'
      'What things?'
      'Everything.' Fanshaw sighed. He dropped into his chair. From his desk drawer he took out a tweed pincushion, full of glass-beaded pins, and a piece of fabric with a needle pushed through it. Thaniel could only see the underside of the stitching, but he thought it was half an ivy pattern. 'Though  I swear I spend at least half of my time directing Lord bloody Carrow to Lord Leveson's office. It isn't as though he's moved in twenty years.  These people seem to think it unnecessary to memorise the layout of a building when fellows like me are around to do it for them.' He cast around aimlessly. 'I've forgotten something. I've always forgotten something. You know how one ends up with a constant nagging sense that one has walked out of one's house without some vital item of clothing and so one lays out a second pair of trousers for the express purpose of forgetting them? Tickets!' he said suddenly. 'FO employees get tickets to the ball, you can pick one up in Chivers' office round there. Wouldn't want you to miss it. Not after all the effort I've put into the damn thing. Oh, and you'll need to sign some more secrecy oaths, I shouldn't wonder. If you thought HO material was sensitive, wait until you see what comes through the wires here. The salary is proportionally enlarged, I should add.'
      ' God, you were serious?'
      'Thank you.'
      Fanshaw waved it away. 'Can't waste a Japanese speaker on Home Office telegraphy.' He sighed again, falling back into his previous lethargy. He looped the needle through a new stitch and the green thread hissed quietly.
      'What are you doing?' said Thaniel, who had held it in for as long as he could, which wasn't long.
      'What? Oh, the embroidery. Symptom of overwork, I'm afraid. If I don't work at it a bit every now and then I go gently mad.'
      'Why does embroidery help?'
      'You are such a genuine fellow, aren't you. I think it's to do with doing something with one's hands that doesn't involve one's brain. I suspect it might be a developing neurosis, I have been meaning to see someone. Runs in the family. I'm not a patch on my brother, you know. He has to go around the estate counting the railings. There are quite a lot of railings. I suppose numbers, being immutable, are comforting when one feels one isn't quite in control of things. Three will always be three.'
from The watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley

{Pincushion found here.}

August 13, 2015


The Home Office telegraphy department always smelled of tea. The source was one packet of Lipton's at the back of Nathaniel Steepleton's desk drawer. Before the widespread use of the electric telegraph, the office had been a broom cupboard. Thaniel had heard more than once that its failure to expand was a sign of the Home Secretary's continuing mistrust of naval inventions, but even if that wasn't the case, the departmental budget had never stretched to the replacement of the original carpet, which liked to keep the ghosts of old smells. Besides Thaniel's modern tea, there was cleaning salt and hessian, and sometimes varnish, though nobody had varnished anything there for years. Now, instead of brooms and brushes, there were twelve telegraphs lined up on a long desk. Three to an operator during the days, each wired to separate places within and without Whitehall, and labelled accordingly in the thin handwriting of a forgotten clerk. ...
      Thaniel shifted stiffly and turned himself to the left of his chair rather than the right, and slid his book along the desk. The wires from the telegraphs were threaded through holes in the desk and then down to the floor, leaving all twelve trailing just where the knees of the operators should have been. The senior clerk liked to complain that sitting sideways made them look like society girls learning to ride, but he complained more if a wire snapped; they were expensive to replace. From the telegraphy room, they ran down through the building and spidered out all over Westminster. One went across the wall to the Foreign Office; one to the telegraph room at the Houses of Parliament. Two joined the clusters of wires strung along the street until they reached the post office headquarters at St. Martin's Le Grand. The others wired direct to the Home Secretary's own home, Scotland Yard, the India Office, the Admiralty, and other sub-departments. Some of them were pointless because it would have been faster to lean out of the main office window and shout, but the senior clerk said that would have been ungentlemanly.

from The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley

This is only the first page and a half; a lot more has already happened during my morning bus ride. My pile of library books is a little out of control, and this one is due today, but with apologies to the sixteen people waiting in line, I think the overdue fines are going to be worth it.

I hope your day has started out as well. :)