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
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August 13, 2018

Reader, I {would have} married him...

      Perhaps this is why I prefer reading to any other activity. When one reads, one is forced to look down at the words, and the imperfections of the face become less noticeable due to the angle of one's head. More so, the act of reading is a silent rebellion. To read in the presence of company is a most convenient excuse for not partaking in conversation. ...  if you are sitting behind your sisters and occupied with a book, it is as if to say to the guest, 'I would rather spend time with the litigious husbands, gamblers, and spendthrifts of this novel than with you, dear sir, even if you had no interest in wooing me in the first place.'
from Mary B, by Katherine J. Chen

{Painting found here.}

August 7, 2018

A Bite-Sized History of France

This very readable, very enjoyable book was my bus and lunch-hour companion, on and off, for much of July, and a treat to read. (I also read on Twitter that Scott Simon from NPR and his family were reading it aloud to each other during their vacation in Paris, and that made it even more charming for me.)

It's written by a married couple, a 'dilettante French cheesemonger' and his American wife,  and it's literally bite-sized, with about 50 short chapters each connecting a food, drink, or a trend -- oysters, fleur du sel, liqueurs, bread, mustard, cheese, chestnuts, eating vegetables out of season, nouvelle cuisine, sauces, chocolate, wines -- with a place, an event, a historical trend, or a historical figure, beginning with the Gauls and continuing almost to the present. If reading about French food and wine weren't enough, it's the kind of history I often enjoy most, where historical events or periods are connected with everyday life.

This book has just been published by The New Press.  I read an advance copy courtesy of NetGalley.

A bite-sized history of France: gastronomic tales of revolution, war and enlighten ment, by Stéphane Henaut and Jeni Mitchell
The New Press, 2018
Previewed via NetGalley

August 5, 2018

Old friends in new books

I've come to love books with recurring characters.  This started, I'm sure, with all of the series mysteries I read, but it's sometimes even more enjoyable to find them in other kinds of fiction, because it's less common. But they're there! -- in Anthony Trollope, in Angela Thirkell, and sometimes in Barbara Pym.

So, I was overjoyed when I heard that these two books were coming out, because their precursors -- Allison Pearson's I don't know how she does it (2003) and Marisa de los Santos' Love walked in (2005)  are long-time, special favorites of mine, and because it''s been such a long time since the original books came out. They were charming, and there were scenes in each that I've always remembered. I even decided to re-read (or, in both cases, re-listen) to the original books before the new ones arrived.  I was happy to see that I still enjoyed them - especially Love walked in, which had a brilliant This Is Us-esque moment that I had not remembered at all (and an especially good narration).

I don't usually write about books that I don't especially enjoy -- and that's not the case here, I enjoyed both of these, but in both cases I think the originals will stay with me longer than the sequels.  Allison Pearson's novels center on Kate Reddy, a hedge fund executive/working mother, and how she copes with both; in the new book, she is approaching her fiftieth birthday, her children are teenagers, her husband is trying to re-find himself, and, desperate for a job, Kate ends up working in a junior position at the fund she had founded in her earlier working days.  I think this book would have been much less appealing if I weren't reading it as a sequel, and there was a little too much (graphic) focus on Kate's struggles with perimenopause. 

Marisa de los Santos' series (there's another one in between these two) focus on the extended family that's created when Cornelia Brown, a young woman managing a Philadelphia coffee shop, ends up becoming a second mother to an eleven-year-old girl, Claire Hobbs. All of the characters she created are wonderfully drawn, and and there were plot twists and romantic entanglements to go with them. This new book opens on the day before Claire's wedding, as she meets Edith, a kind elderly lady who helps her realize that she doesn't want to marry her unstable fiance; when Edith dies and leaves her rambling ocean-side house to Claire, Claire sets out to unravel the mysteries in Edith's life.  It's a little darker, and I think I was disappointed because I wanted more of the other characters, especially Cornelia and Teo.

But both books had their good moments, and I'm glad I read them, if  only because they reminded me of how much I loved the originals. :)

How hard can it be?, by Allison Pearson
St. Martin's Press, 2018

Borrowed from the library

I'll be your blue sky, by Marisa de los Santos
William Morrow, 2018
Borrowed from the library

July 28, 2018

Dear Mrs. Bird


Dear Mrs. Bird,

I was planning to spend all this month reading about Paris, but when this book came in at the library I could not resist. I know I put more books on hold than I can possibly read, and then they all always come in at once, and I'm very sorry but I GAVE IN.  It was very pleasurable, though, and I was able to keep it close to me on the bus all week ...
Mrs. Bird, who writes the "Henrietta Helps" column,  would be horrified at the very thought of answering my letter, because it contains UNPLEASANTNESS ('pleasurable' is on her list of trigger words), but fortunately the magazine has hired a new junior typist who may not be able to resist trying to help.  Emmeline (or Emmy) Lake is a young woman. living in London during the Blitz, who dreams of becoming a war correspondent.  She types documents at a solicitor's office by day, answers calls the Fire Brigade at night, and shares a flat and all her secrets with her best friend, Marigold Tavistock (known to everyone as Bunty).  When she answers an ad for a new part-time job, she thinks she will be on the first step of her career as as reporter, but finds instead that she is typing correspondence for the large, loud and redoubtable Mrs. Bird, the Acting Editress of Woman's Friend, a languishing magazine.  She stoutly refuses to answer most of the letters that come in, the ones that ask about That Sort of Thing, and generally tells other readers to Pull Up Their Socks and Get On With It, but Emmy sympathizes with the letter writers and wishes someone would really help. You can probably guess what happens, and that's where much of the plot, and the heartwarming part of this book, comes in.

But there's also heartbreak:  Emmy and her childhood friend William, who is engaged to Bunty, fall out when she expresses her fears over the risks he is taking as he rescues people from bombed-out buildings, and the war that they have been witnessing comes much too close to them.  I did really read this book as I was going back and forth to work on the bus, and found myself caught up in the story -- thanks, I think, to the lively and well-drawn characters more than to the plot, but a very good first novel and a lovely bit of reading in any event. :)

Dear Mrs. Bird, by AJ Pearce
Scribner, 2018
Borrowed from the library

July 17, 2018

At the bibliothèque

A little while later I visited the new Bibliothèque Nationale, the big -- the unbelievably vertigo-inspiringly enormous -- library, out at the other end of the quai in the Thirteenth. It seems to have been designed by a committee made up of Michel Foucault, Jacques Tati, and the production designer of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The whole thing is set up, way up, on a wooden platform the size of six or seven football fields, high up off the street. There is an unbelievably steep stairs, leading up to this plateau... Then there are four glass skyscrapers. each one set at one of the corners of the platform, and all very handsome, in a kind of early-sixties ... way. The vast space has been planked out with teak boards, to make it 'warmer,' but this just makes it more slippery. They have had to put down cheap-looking runners on a sticky backing, to keep people from breaking legs. (Apparently there were quite a few victims early on.)
My delightful morning-commute reading only got better ...
Downstairs, you wait at the accueil for your card. This is done with the usual French functionary hospitality:  Who are you. what do you want, what makes you think, etc.? Finally, after an hour, you may get a card., First you visit the desk of one severely disciplinary young lady, who takes your coordinates and enters them into the single-overseeing computer system that was intended as the glory of the place. You are now sent to another young women, who reenters and corrects all the information that the first girl entered...
      When you at last have your card, you begin your descent into the vast underground caverns, the sous-sol, where the reading rooms are. (The books are, famously, all up in the towers.) First you go to a kind of master computer and enter your request for a seat.  The computer lets you know that there is no room for you in L, M, and disdainfully awards you your number, the new you:  N-51. ...
      You insert your card into a turnstile:  it takes its time and then lets you pass into tiny space with a spiked metal floor, which leads in turn toward two immense two-story-high brushed metal doors. There is no signage or any indication of where you are going -- because where you are going is into another turnstile, another spiked metal floor, and another pair of vast metal doors. Windows and sunlight have been left far behind. Once you are through these, you can get on an escalator for a ten-story descent into the basement; there are concrete pillars around the escalators, winsomely decorated with iron-mesh hangings...
and better...
When you come to the end of the escalator, there are two more turnstiles and two more windowless metal doors to pass through. Now you are into the entrance to the reading rooms, and you see that they are built around a grass court, which opens to the sky, high high above. In the glassed-in court is a bizarre amenity, a garden -- no, a small forest of immense trees, pines and evergreens mostly, all planted close together in tight rows, in the shallow green center block of grass. ... The trees are so shallowly rooted -- or else, according to other people, the wind sweeping down from above, is so strong -- that they all have to be chained to the concrete floor. ...
      Step up three or four shallow steps from the glass wall enclosing the trees and wires -- it is absolutely forbidden, by the way, for anyone to pass through the seamless glass walls and into the garden -- and you are in the main reading room, dark, gloomy and at once terrifyingly vast without being compensatingly magnificent. It is just one huge horizontal space, broken by discreet letter indicators telling you that you have passed from N to M and onward. Searching, at last you find your seat, N-51, which is simply  a single space at a vast table with several hundred such spots marked, You feel more like an ant than an archivist.
from Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik

Paris is so romantic, n'est-ce pas?  Of course, after spending all morning imagining all of this horribleness, I had to Google some pictures while I was eating my sandwich.  It's definitely more fun to imagine it than to look at the real thing  :)

July 16, 2018

'Join'd by Friendship, Crown'd by Love'

When I lived (briefly) in Delaware, I drove down to Virginia to visit Mount Vernon.  I loved it, and hope I'll have another chance to send some time there. That was part of the reason that I was drawn to this joint biography of George and Martha Washington; the other was reading Antonia Fraser's memoir, loving that too, finding out that she was the daughter of one biographer and the mother of another, and going in search of their books.  (As for why I eagerly bought this book in 2015, and have only read it now... Sigh. there's no good reason for that.)

But I loved this, too.  Flora Fraser (the daughter) gives us a look at their early lives, and provides details on the Revolutionary War and Washington's work as president (it was a good reminder of history I'd learned but forgotten -- when and why did Washington cross the Delaware?) but focuses mostly on their marriage and family life.  They had a very loving and companionable marriage for almost 50 years. George was already a decorated soldier, living (but only as a tenant) at Mount Vernon, and Martha was a rich and pretty widow with two young children, when they married in 1757. Their personal lives revolved around improving and essentially making a living from Mount Vernon, and caring for the children  (and later, their grandchildren) and other relatives. I knew about this a little, from a visit to Valley Forge with my cousin, but during the war Martha would travel to military headquarters to be with George, spending time here in Cambridge, at Valley Forge, in Philadelphia, and in many other places; her presence helped him cope with the stress of command.

The book is filled with domestic details -- of the houses they lived in, and the work of running Mount Vernon {both George and Martha did a lot of shopping :) }.  All together, I think this book was the perfect way for me to learn more about them.

{I just noticed that the book cover shown above has a different subtitle than mine. The phrase on mine is on their lovely.}

The Washingtons:  George and Martha, 'Join'd by Friendship, Crown'd by Love',
by Flora Fraser

Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
From my bookshelves

July 9, 2018

The light of Paris

'I dare say, moreover,' she pursued with an interested gravity, 'that I do, that we all so here, run too much to mere eye. But how can it be helped? We're all looking at each other — and in the light of Paris one sees what things resemble. That's what the light of Paris always seems to show. It's the fault of the light of Paris — dear old light!'
      'Dear Old Paris!' little Bilham echoed.
      'Everything, everyone shows,' Miss Barrace went on.
      'But for what they really are?' Strether asked.
      'Oh, I like your Boston 'reallys'!  But sometimes — yes.'

From The Ambassadors, by Henry James,
quoted in Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik

{The painting is Boulevard Montmarte, by Camille Pissaro, found here}

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