No, these were noises which belonged to the winter pleasures; her spirits rose under their influence. — Jane Austen, Persuasion
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January 14, 2019

Books with food



I write novels and I cook dinner, and some days the edges blur. Like me, my characters know their way around a kitchen, and like my family, they are good eaters. Increasingly, my plots thicken in restaurants, as waiters hover, and increasingly readers ask, 'What's with the food in your books?'
      My answer is, doesn't everybody characterize people by what they eat? Isn't it another descriptive tool, like a story's furniture or its clothes? ...
      Characters have to eat, don't they? Mine simply do it while you're watching. They make reservations, study menus, talk and cook, talk and eat, refill their wineglasses, linger over decaf. I'm at peace with this predilection because I find that every interaction with the stove, refrigerator, plate and fork provides an opportunity to mine the telling detail, to make abstract notions complex in a way I hope is a kind of shorthand.
from I Can't Complain:  (All too) personal essays, by Elinor Lipman

      I first discovered this recipe before I was married,in a long ago Gourmet magazine. I ripped it out and took it with me for a week with my parents and assorted relatives in a rented house at Scarborough Beach in Narragansett, Rhode Island. There, in the hot, outdated 1970s-era Formica-linoleum-avocado green kitchen, I made loads of tomato pies, maybe even dozens. The recipe got splattered with tomato guts and mayonnaise -- yes, there's mayonnaise, too, but only a third of a cup -- the words smearing in spots. But it didn't matter, because by the end of the week I had made so many tomato pies, I knew the recipe by heart. The first layer of biscuit crust is covered with sliced fresh tomatoes, then sprinkled with chopped basil ad topped with shredded cheddar cheese. A mixture of mayonnaise and lemon juice is then poured over the filling, which is covered with the second crust and baked until it's browned and bubbly. The smells of that pie on a hot summer day make you feel dizzy, so intoxicating are they.
      No one in my family knew just how important that tomato pie was to me. Not just because it used the freshest ingredients at their prime deliciousness. Not just because eating tomato pie is something akin to reaching nirvana. Not just because eating tomato pie made me popular and made me look incredibly talented. No, this tomato pie was important to me because it wasn't just anybody's recipe, it was Laurie Colwin's recipe.
from Kitchen Yarns:  notes on life, love and food, by Ann Hood

I've had this post sitting in draft since New Year's, and right now the nicest thing I could do for you is to stop trying to write something about these two books and just recommend with all my heart that you read both of them.

One of them is by a writer whose books I always read and almost always love, and reading her essays made me even fonder of her.  They're not all about food (one chapter is) -- they touch on her family, and what it's like to be a writer and an ordinary person, or have one of her novels turned into a movie, and heartbreakingly, her long marriage and her husband's early death from a rare form of dementia. The best part of reading this book was to read it as an audiobook narrated by the author, and I'm very grateful to JoAnn for telling us about it.

The other is by an author I've certainly heard of but have never read.  I confess that I was drawn to it by its pretty cover and its foodiness, but I'm glad I was. The chapters (with a recipe or two in each) move from growing up in a tight-knit family in Rhode Island to love affairs and several marriages (with a final happy one), to raising her family, to becoming a writer, and even when she's writing about something that made her unhappy there's a sense that she's someone who will get through it. The chapter about Laurie Colwin's tomato pie is also a chapter about Colwin's books, and how when Hood was an aspiring young writer, Colwin may have smiled at her for a moment at a book reading.  It was completely captivating.  I loved Hood's description of Colwin as 'a kind of Manhattan Jane Austen,' and I'm definitely going to make the tomato pie next summer and read this chapter again. :)


I Can't Complain:  (All too) personal essays, by Elinor Lipman
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2013
Audiobook, read by the author, borrowed from the library

Kitchen Yarns:  notes on life, love and food,  by Ann Hood
W.W. Norton and Company, 2018
Borrowed from the library

December 30, 2018

Looking backwards...


Hmmm... overall, I think I read less this year than I wanted to, and almost all of the books that stood out for me came toward the end of the year. But all in all, it was another wonderful year of reading, and especially of reading about reading, with all of you.  So thank you, and all the best in the new year!

These were my favorite books this year (in the order I read them) ...


Dorothy Whipple
{March}

This was a good year for Persephones! {and a special note of thanks to Jane, for her Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, and many other pleasures during the year}


Diana Tutton
{June}

'This book was funny, and lovely, and wise, and I'm sure it will always rank among my favorite Persephones (as will its endpaper...).'


Queen Mary
James Pope-Hennessy
{October}

I'm not sure how this book ended up on my radar, but I'm oh-so-glad it did... more proof that a great biography (and a great biographer) transcends any lack of interest in the subject. :) And my enjoyment of reading this long, detailed and completely engaging book was increased by finding this one, which was a behind-the-scenes look at the writing of the biography.  How wonderful is that?




Susan Orlean
{October}

'...heartbreaking, fascinating and very very hard to put down.'  Probably the most memorable and meaningful book I read this year.


How the Light Gets In
Louise Penny
{November}

I love this series...I buy the books as soon as they come out, and then save them to read as a treat, which means (joy of joys) that I'm several books behind. This one was especially good.


What She Ate:  Six Remarkable Women and the Food that
Tells Their Stories
Laura Shapiro
{December}

I just finished listening to this yesterday {another book that I was foolishly  'saving'}, and it has already sent me in search of books about Dorothy Wordsworth and caused a craving to re-read all of Barbara Pym as soon as possible.


And I couldn't possibly end the year without a thank you and a big hug for JoAnn.  She and I have now read/listened to twelve, yes TWELVE, Trollopes together -- the Barchesters and the Pallisers. It seems we both liked the Barchester Chronicles more than the Palliser novels {though they had their moments!}, and the last one we read, The Duke's Children, ended (and now that I think of it, began} in a way that left us a little bereft, I feel so lucky to have found this author and the most wonderful reading companion.



December 28, 2018

Looking forward...


Happy almost New Year!  I probably shouldn't make (or admit to...) grand reading plans since I'm not very good at keeping them, but I do have a few...


1. I'm going to join Karen's Back to the Classics Challenge, for the first time, because I know it will lead me to reading great books with wonderful friends.  I'm not sure if I'll make it to 12 books from the list, but I'll definitely do 6, or maybe 9 (see note above). :)  I'm still thinking through my list, and will post it soon.


2. May 24, 2019, is the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria's birth, and since I'm such a fangirl, I'm going to indulge myself in reading about her as much as possible this year.  I have two books, at least, lined up...


... (the one on the left, thank you very much!, courtesy of @netgalley), so I'm very excited.


3. With lists, and books on hold, and plans, this doesn't happen very often anymore, but yesterday I went to the library to pick up three books that were on hold, and then browsed the new books, thinking I really couldn't manage another book, and then found one I didn't know about, by an author I've enjoyed before. I'm 75 pages in and very glad I did. (One of the blurbs on the back says 'Written with warmth, panache,and conviction, its formidable research is lightly worn,' which is my idea of a perfect biography.) I'm vowing to hope this happens a little more often.

4. This hopefully goes without saying, but I also hope to read more, and note down all of the books you're reading so I can read them next, and read along with you whenever possible. :)

December 20, 2018

'Tall, strong-minded and intelligent, but a bad chooser of husbands ...'



... she found herself needing to earn her own living. After a couple of false starts and one-offs, she settled from 1936 on a form of fiction described in her own novels (via her fictional heroine, thriller-writer Mrs. Morland) as the 'good bad book': in other word a competently conceived and well-written formula which readers could instantly identify and of which they would want more .. they wouldn't mind if they found they're read it before. ...

from 'A Bad Chooser of Husbands,' by Hilary Temple, 
in Slightly Foxed, Autumn 2005

I just treated myself (after long wanting to) to a subscription to Slightly Foxed, which comes with online access to 18 years (!!!) of back issues. I think it's a wonderful omen that one of the first articles I found was this one, about Angela Thirkell.  I'm with my people.  

December 5, 2018

December 1, 2018

Hot milky drinks and boiled eggs



... it's easy to see why she occupied such a relatively obscure niche for so long. Barbara [Pym] specialized in a minor-key world located well back from fiction's cutting edge, with a gentle stream of irony running quietly below the surface. Her mild-mannered heroines are often found musing on their favorite lines from Anglican hymns or making Ovaltine at moments of late night crisis. When Barbara sets a scene in a bedroom, there's generally a book of Victorian poetry nearby and a nice cup of tea. ('Life's problems are often eased by hot milky drinks.') Yet these are women who can skewer a narcissistic male with wit so deft he barely notices, and their hilarious, finely tuned perceptions light up every page. Her admirers regularly evoke Jane Austen, and she shares territory with Anthony Trollope as well; but she was up against a postwar literary canon that didn't have a lot of patience with Ovaltine. Critics seemed embarrassed to praise her work even when they loved it. Reviewing Barbara's second novel, John Betjeman said many people would surely find it 'tame,' what with all the church bazaars and the the boiled eggs. He added, almost apologetically, 'To me it is a perfect book.'
. . .

      Barbara was mystified when people talked about the unhappy lives of the women she invented. One reason she loved them was for the pleasure they took in all aspects of the ordinary. She herself went through life that way, with an  unlimited capacity to be fascinated bu whatever passed in front of her. ... But perhaps the most overlooked theme of her novels --the motif that tells us again and again that these are women with a passion for life -- is the delight they take in food. Intensely curious herself about what people were eating, whether they were characters in books or real people sitting across the table from her, Barbara was always disappointed when novels and memoirs left out the culinary details. Hence she made a point of embedding them in her own fiction. Bad food, good food, other people's food, the food on their own tables. Barbara's narrators are captivated by all of it.  How could so many discerning critics miss this glorious proclamation of faith?


from What she ate:  six remarkable women and  the food
t
hat tells their stories, by Laura Shapiro






October 28, 2018

The Library Book



I'm a devoted library person {that's an understatement}. I belong to two wonderful public library systems {Massachusetts is generous that way}. I can walk to one from home, and another from work, so I often do.  I have borrowing privileges through work to the university libraries and all their riches, and I even belonged for a time to Boston's venerable and quirky Athenaeum. (That was something I had always wanted to do, and I miss going there, but it's hard to justify the membership fee when I can find almost everything there ... except the atmosphere, a few Persephones and Slightly Foxed ... at the college library. But I'm still tempted to rejoin, and I know I'll give in,)

So, for me, this new book was heartbreaking, fascinating, and very, very hard to put down. It focuses, in part, on a devastating fire at the central Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, which destroyed or damaged more than a million books and caused the building to be shut down for more than five years. Ranging out from that event, the author writes about Harry Peak, the young man suspected of setting the fire (he was never charged, and later investigations cast doubt on whether arson was committed) and the process used to salvage water-damaged books {they're frozen for two years, to prevent mold from growing, then dried}.  But there's much more:  Orlean traces her childhood memories of going to the library with her mother, and her family's relationship with borrowing and owning books, and the history of the LAPL, as it grew and changed along with the city/ She writes about the people who worked and work there, and goes behind the scenes to see how the library works today, 

These story lines intersect and move back and forth between chapters, so this is the perfect book to dip into now and again, but that might be hard to do.  It's very readable, and very engaging, and will definitely be on my list of favorite books for this year.


The Library Book, by Susan Orlean
Simon & Schuster, 2018
Borrowed from the Boston Public Library

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