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, 2014

'All the months...

...are crude experiments out of which the perfect September is made.'

-- Virginia Woolf

August 27, 2014

Under Magnolia

If I'm going to be honest, I would have to start by saying that normally, Under Magnolia  -- a contemporary memoir, one focused on childhood and a not-very-happy family, and a book about the South  --wouldn't check any of my reading boxes. But I've loved the books Frances Mayes wrote about Tuscany, for the way she writes more than what she writes about.  When I was offered a copy to review, I couldn't pass up the chance to read it.
Frances Mayes came to my local bookstore on a book tour a few years ago and I remember her southern accent.  When you've 'know' someone as a college professor and a poet, living  in California, a woman who impulsively buys and restores a villa in a small village in Tuscany and writes lyrically about food and setting and people, it's a little surprising (and fascinating) to read about the people and place she came from. For much of this book, she is a precocious, sassy, curious little girl, the 'accidental' youngest of three sisters, growing up in a small town in southern Georgia in the 1950s.  Her parents may have loved each other once, but now spend nights hurling accusations and glasses at each other. Mayes writes about her grandparents, the family's black maid and her extended family, about her mother's drinking,  about school and boys and first kisses, about her bigoted grandfather's reaction to the Kennedys and the Freedom Riders, ending with college and her first marriage.  Her anecdotes are horrifying or funny {I loved the one about her grandfather, who supported the family after her father's early death but kept records of Frances' phone calls to boys and deducted the cost of each one from her inheritance, with the family lawyer reading out the list}. Not an unhappy childhood, but one she seemed driven to escape from. But there's a strong pull that you can feel as you read; as the book opens, Mayes is on a book tour, spending the night in a southern city, and finds herself calling her husband to say that she wants to live in the South again.

As  in her books about Tuscany, a work of nonfiction written by a poet is a beautiful thing.:)   This book is also filled with lush descriptions of food, and places, even the bolts of cloth her mother stored in her closet for dressmaking. In the end, the writing carried me forward, even when the people and the place might not have, and I'm very glad I had a chance to read it.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.


August 23, 2014

Blood on the Water

By now, I know what to expect when I read the next book in one of Anne Perry's excellent historical series. Thomas Pitt or William Monk will be called in a difficult case, Charlotte or Hester will help them solve it, Lady Vespasia or Oliver Rathbone will lend their wisdom or influence, there will be an early resolution, which comes too early in the book for me to think it's the real one, then a long courtroom drama, and there will be something to threaten them before the real villain is revealed. But her books are so well-written, and so intelligent, that I don't mind. I always look forward to them.

In this one, the newest William Monk mystery, Monk (who leads the River Police in Victorian London), is crossing the Thames with his sergeant when they witness a horrific explosion on a pleasure boat.  Monk and Orme help to rescue some of the victims, and are devastated by their inability to save others.  Monk is also haunted by what he saw first:  a man leaping from the boat, seconds before the explosion.  The next day, Monk is enraged to learn that the case has been taken away from him.  There's an immediate suspicion of terrorism, and of a link to unrest over the dangerous working conditions at the building of the Suez Canal.  The investigators quickly satisfy the public's demand for justice by arresting an Egyptian man, but Monk, Hester and Scruff (their adopted son) continue to investigate, in part to prove that the insult to the River Police was not justified.

One of the things I like best about these books is what the author does with her 'other' recurring characters, which adds another dimension to the story.  Sir Oliver Rathbone was a central figure in the last book, and has gone from being a newly-appointed judge to being disbarred after he acts unethically to secure the  conviction of a dangerous man. In this book, he has just returned from a three-month European tour with his father -- something he has always wanted to do -- and is trying to settle into his new home and his new life, but instead of being at the center of the courtroom proceedings, he can only quietly advise and observe.

Blood on the Water will be published in September; I had the chance to enjoy it early courtesy of Netgalley.

August 8, 2014

The Fortune Hunter

I liked Daisy Goodwin's first novel The American Heiress (read it once, listened to it again) and so I was happy to hear that she had written another.  But as sometimes happen, I put it on reserve so long ago that when it came in last week I found that I had forgotten that the main character was Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sisi), the consort of Emperor Franz Joseph and 'the Princess Diana of the nineteenth century.' (It's funny, I mentioned this book to three friends and they all knew immediately who she was. I didn't!) As is turns out, the other two main characters - the dashing, womanizing, cavalry officer Bay Middleton and Charlotte Baird, the unconventional young woman who falls in love with him -- were all real people. {So are Queen Victoria, her Highland servant, John Brown, and  Princess Diana's ancestor, Earl Spencer, but they're all secondary characters and not all that interesting.}

Charlotte is young, not very beautiful, intelligent, uncoventional, and seriously interested in photography.  She is also heiress to the Lennox diamonds and a great fortune, and chafes under the guardianship of her dull aunt and her blundering older brother Fred.  Fred is about to marry slightly above his station to Lady Augusta Crewe, who has finally found a husband after four London seasons.  Charlotte is summoned to a house party at Melton, Lord and Lady Crewe's estate, at the time of a famous English fox hunt, where she meets Captain Middleton.  But the Empress, an imperious, aging beauty and a fearless horsewoman, has also come to England for hunting season, and Middleton, one of England's best riders, is prevailed upon to serve as her pilot, and it's probably not much of a spoiler to tell you that there is a love triangle and a good scandal.

It make sense that this is a novel that's built more around characters rather than plot, though none of them is sketched very deeply.  In a video clip I saw on Goodreads Daisy Goodwin refers to Sisi as her 'heroine,' but I found it hard to see her in that light. (I didn't really like Daisy Goodwin's first heroine either, now that I think of it), and as for Bay, I wanted someone better for Charlotte.  I love the idea of historical fiction based on historical events, though it can be hard to pull off in my humble opinion. I think I liked this book better for knowing that it was based on real people, and probably took some interesting liberties with them.  I have the feeling that this would be a great way to write a novel. Not great literature, but a book that I was happy to turn to all week, even though I knew how it would end...  :)        

August 2, 2014



The new Virago editions of Angela Thirkell's books are finally becoming available here! High Rising arrived today, Christmas at High Rising is supposed to arrive next week {I say supposed to, because I ordered it in time to read it last Christmas, and although they tried and tried and looked and looked and emailed and emailed, Amazon was unable to find it. Uh huh. :) }, and Pomfret Towers and Wild Strawberries are due next March.  {Update:  I just realized that my image of C. a. H. R.  is backwards. Maybe that's why Amazon suddenly can't find it. Again.} I can wait... I already have a motley collection of all her books {I was, for once, an early adopter} but I love the covers and the fact that her books are reappearing and I can read them with you.

I re-read High Rising not too long ago {but longer ago that I thought}, but there's an introduction by the beloved AMS in the new edition to read before it goes on the shelf with the Angelas. I'm up to Wild Strawberries if I read them in order starting over, {but I would read my old copy, because I wouldn't want to wait}.  But as Fleur just reminded us, there is August Folly, and it is August, and it's one of the ones I found on Audible... 

August 1, 2014


But this was cruel! Not just unkind. Untrue. Jeanne's sisters thought nothing of themselves. Sylvia berated Lew all the way home to Weston. Helen stayed up late in Brookline, baking. Lemon squares, and brownies, pecan bars, apple cake, sandy almond cookies. Alone in her kitchen, she wrapped these offerings in waxed paper and froze them in tight-lipped containers.

Her husband, Charles, ventured, 'You should get some rest.'

What a thing to say!  How could anybody rest?  Helen had not pursued a career like Jeanne, the music teacher, or three successive husbands, like Sylvia. No, Helen had always been a homemaker. Now her family needed sustenance, so she doubled every recipe and froze half. After all, there would be a memorial service, and shivah afterward. Helen could already picture Jeanne's students descending with their parents. Sylvia hadn't baked in years because Lew was diabetic. As for Melanie and Andrea -- what would they throw together? A box of doughnut holes?  No. Helen has the baker of the family. What she felt could not be purchased. She grieved from scratch.
from 'Apple Cake,' by Allegra Goodman

I loved this short story from The New Yorker, recommended and shared on A Work in Progress (thank you, Danielle!).

{image from Janet Hill}