Sunday, June 19, 2022

Solstice - Food, Love, and Friendship

 It's almost the long days, cool mornings, and color everywhere. My garden is doing well. The peonies were splendid as were the irises, and the lilacs were robust this year. I have lots of perennials that are coming back and baskets of annuals and a deck full of containers. I am loving succulents lately and playing around with different textures. I have a bed of red onions and a bed of yellow onions, and today I am picking the first of the spinach (I planted it rather late). I am excited about the bed of sunflowers I planted, and I can't wait for the tomatoes and peppers to make my August spicy and delicious.

A view of my terraced garden

Oh right, I was supposed to be talking about what I've been reading.

Love & Saffron: A Novel of Friendship, Food, and Love, by Kim Fay -  a super enjoyable epistolary novel recommended by Joann of Gulfside Dreaming. Set in the 1960s, 20-something Joan is living in Los Angeles and writes a fan letter to Imogen Fortier, a much older woman, who is a columnist living in the Pacific Northwest. They strike up a long-distance friendship and share recipes and adventures in food exploration. I particularly like Joan's discovery of Mexican food and how she shares her growing knowledge and passion with Imogen. I also loved the nostalgia of reading about the 1960's of my childhood. A perfect summer read.

Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate Dicamillo - one of my favorite essays in Ann Patchett's These Precious Days was about her discovery of Kate Dicamillo, Newbury award winning author of YA novels. Since I have never read Dicamillo myself, I got a few titles and promised myself that I would read them this summer. First up was this first published novel of Dicamillo and winner of the Newbury Honor. I absolutely loved the book. The main character, Opal, is a wonderful child, and her dog, Winn-Dixie, is everything a dog should be. Like Love & Saffron, this is a book of friendship, food, and love. At one point, I found myself with tears absolutely streaming down my cheeks. Dicamillo knows what she is doing.

Happy Solstice, everyone! And, as always, happy reading...writing, working, and playing!

Monday, May 30, 2022

Big Book Summer Challenge


Once again I am signing up for the Big Book Summer Challenge, hosted by Sue at Book by Book. I honestly have no idea what I will be reading as this year is turning out to be something of a freeform, reading wise. I have read a few books on the Back to the Classics challenge, but am letting whimsey rule and am following white rabbits down various literary holes.

Sue keeps her Big Book Summer Challenge pretty chill. Just read one or more books of 400 or more pages and you're in! I love historical fiction that runs to well over 400 pages, so likely that is where I'll be delving, but who knows! It runs Memorial Day (today) to Labor Day (Sept 5). This is the 10th anniversary of the challenge, and there is a GoodReads group where you can post about your progress and check out what others are reading for the challenge.

See you in the Big Books section of the bookstore or library :)

Friday, May 27, 2022

My Blog is 14 Years Old Today!


Fourteen years ago today, I posted my first book review: FanFic: Reading "The Democratic Genre" by Sheenagh Pugh and the rest is history.

In that time, I have made 935 posts, received 5815 comments, and have 67 followers. I have made so many blogging friends over the years and discovered countless new favorite books and authors through the book blogging community.

39 posts are labeled Jane Austen, and 69 are labeled Elizabeth Gaskell. I have 8 for Shakespeare and 12 for William Shakespeare. I have 15 labeled George Eliot, 13 labeled Charlotte Bronte, and 27 for Charles Dickens. Given these numbers, it's no surprise that I have 48 posts labeled Back to the Classics Challenge, and 10 Big Book Summer Challenge posts. I do also try to read contemporary fiction and non-fiction, but my heart is with the classics.

I also have 14 travelogues, which are among my favorites to write and reread (blush).

In all those years and all those posts, I have just one other post labeled Blogoversary! Too busy reading to celebrate, I guess.

Anyway, my heartfelt thanks to those of you who visit my blog and share your thoughts and recommendations for my reading and writing life. I have no intention of hanging up my keyboard any time soon!

Sunday, May 22, 2022

These Precious Days

I haven't read all of Ann Patchett's books, but I've read enough to count her as a favorite author of both fiction and non-fiction. These Precious Days is a collection of essays, a sequel of sorts to This is the story of a happy marriage. I listened to the audiobook, which was read by the author. It earned every one of the five stars I awarded it on GoodReads.

I loved hearing about Patchett's writing life, and consider those that explored this topic the best overall. From childhood, she was determined to be a writer and it was interesting to hear how her drive to develop and use her talent for writing was always foremost in her mind when she made life choices--what to study, where to study, whether to have children, etc. I absolutely loved the essay "To the Doghouse," in which she credited Snoopy and Charles Schultz for inspiring the shape of her writing life. Later, when she talks about how reading and rereading Saul Bellow and John Updike informed her literary style, I remembered that before Saul and John, there were Peanuts books that really laid the foundation and taught her life lessons that she carried into her career.

I also loved reading about who she likes to read, and I have added Kate DiCamillo to my list of authors I need to read. I rarely think about reading children's book, but clearly DiCamillo is writing for the ages. I also plan to get some Eudora Welty short stories and I've added Tom Hanks' book Uncommon Type to my tbr list.

The Tom Hanks book is the bridge to the title essay, "These Precious Days," in which Patchett becomes friends with Hanks' assistant, Sookie Rafael, whom she meets when she interviews Hanks at a book event. This is an incredibly moving essay about friendship, love, generosity, pain, and the joy of living. 

I am looking forward to listening to this set of essays again later this year on a roadtrip. Patchett is great company and these essays are interesting, thoughtful, and beautifully written. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Tidelands, Leonardo, and a Dud

May got off to a shaky start, reading-wise, but I feel back on track with several great books underway.

To recap my May so far:

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro - my sister lent me this book with a "here, read this, it's fabulous," instruction, so I did. I read about 250 pages (i.e., more than 3/4 of the book) before finally conceding that I hated reading it and didn't want to waste another minute on this book. I loved the author's The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, but despite the rave reviews on Goodreads as well as the endorsement by my sister, this novel was tedious, implausible, and simply not interesting. I cared nothing about the first-person narrator, Christopher Banks, and felt like I was cheated out of a great story by the way in which Ishiguro chose to tell it. It is allegedly about how memory is unreliable, which is an interesting concept, but I felt like I was in a fog most of the time, had a hard time caring enough to follow the weak plot, and there was zero character development.

Tidelands, by Philippa Gregory - book #1 in the author's Fairmile series, this was a great historical fiction about a midwife/healer living in a tiny fishing village in the tidelands along the southern shore of England. Set in 1848 and 1849, the characters and country are caught up in the rise of Oliver Cromwell and the fall of Charles I. As I said in my Goodreads review,  I was anticipating the final major scene throughout most of the book but was pleased and surprised by the ultimate turn of events. While I have had many issues with Gregory's Tudor novels, I don't know the history of this time period well enough to spot and gnash my teeth over historical inconsistences, so I could simply sit back and revel in the story and setting. I loved the details Gregory provided about life in the 17th century for both rich and poor, urban and rural. I absolutely loved the main character Alinor and her children, Alice and Rob. It ticked the boxes on so many interests: herbs, folk medicine, witchcraft and the whole mania about rooting out alleged witches and the accompanying misogny, as well as English history and geography. I am planning on reading book 2 in the series, Dark Tides, later this summer.

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson - fabulous bio of one of the world's greatest artists, philosophers, and dreamers. I loved every minute of this book, from the details of Leonardo's life and travels, the discussion and back stories of his art and artistic legacy, the history of the time period (Renaissance Italy) and info about the principal political players (e.g., Ludovico Sforza, the Medicis, Niccolò Machiavelli, Cesare Borgia, Francis I of France). What I loved most of all was the enthusiasm with which Isaacson talked about the genius of Leonardo--how he saw the world, his keen, almost supernatural powers of observation, his relentless, unquenchable curiousity about literally everything. And, like most enthusiasms, it was infectious. 

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Madam, Will You Talk - Mary Stewart's 1st novel

For the Back to the Classics 2022 challenge, I decided to read Madam, Will You Talk for the Mystery/Detective/Crime category. Published in 1955.

I have long been a fan of Mary Stewart's novels, which are a delightful blend of suspense and romance, usually in exotic settings, and well-written to boot. My blogger buddy Constance, of Staircase Wit, has recommended this first of the Mary Stewart novels on more than one occasion, so I finally put it on a reading list...and, voila!

Here's the GoodReads blurb:

Widowed Charity Selborne had been greatly looking forward to her driving holiday through France with her old friend Louise - long, leisurely days under the hot sun, enjoying the beauty of the parched Provencal landscape. But when Charity arrived at their hotel in the picturesque French town of Avignon, she had no way of knowing that she was to become the principal player in the last act of a strange and brutal tragedy. Most of it had already been played. There had been love--and lust--and revenge and fear and murder.

Very soon her dreams turn into a nightmare, when by befriending a terrified boy and catching the attention of his enigmatic, possibly murderous father, Charity has inadvertently placed herself center stage. She becomes enmeshed in the schemes of a gang of murderers. And now the killer, with blood enough on his hands, is waiting in the wings.

I absolutely loved the setting, starting out in Avignon and ending up in Marseille, with terrific car chases, visits to ancient Roman and medieval French sites and landmarks, cafe lunches, moonlit strolls, kidnapping, and lots of derring-do along the way. Charity is a wonderful heroine in the Mary Stewart mold, literary, lovely, and full of the right stuff. Her relationship with David, the boy she meets at the hotel in Avignon, tells you all you need to know about the goodness of her heart. The romance is pretty sappy, but palatable. The suspense is marvelous--definitely couldn't put it down as I neared the end of the story.

This would make a great movie, but alas, I couldn't find one. I would love to see Hallmark devote some effort to bringing Mary Stewart's novels to the screen. 

You might enjoy Constance's travelogue to France from October 2021--her post on Avignon is what made me decide this was the year I finally read this book. And yes, Avignon is now on my must-visit list.

France 2021, Day 9, Avignon

The title is from a folk song called I Will Give You the Keys of Heaven from Cheshire.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

April Roundup - more on Langston, more on passing, and Jane Austen!

 April was a particularly good month, bookwise. Here's what made me happy in April (in addition to the dull brown of a Colorado winter starting to green up and warm up!).

Finding Langston, by Lesa Cline-Ransome - I loved Langtson Hughes's first autobiography, The Big Sea, so when I was browsing the audio section of the library and found this little gem, I knew I had to check it out. It is a short book--a quick listen that I flew through in just a couple of days--but the characters are memorable and their story poignant. Here's the blurb on GoodReads:
When 11-year-old Langston's mother dies in 1946, he and his father leave rural Alabama for Chicago's brown belt as a part of what came to be known as the Great Migration. It's lonely in the small apartment with just the two of them, and at school Langston is bullied. But his new home has one fantastic thing. Unlike the whites-only library in Alabama, the local public library welcomes everyone. There, hiding out after school, Langston discovers another Langston, a poet whom he learns inspired his mother enough to name her only son after him.
As much as anything, this book is about the power of literature to transport, enrich, transform, comfort, and ennoble us. For many people, poetry can be daunting, but hearing Hughes's poems through the mind of a lonely 11-year old boy made them so accessible and vibrant. That said, I don't want to minimize the bones of the story--the struggles of the African Americans who participated in the Great Migration and fled the Jim Crow South for the mean streets of Chicago. Leaving home, even when home is oppressive, is hard. Great book.

The Personal Librarian, by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray - OMG, what a fantastic book. Again, here is the GoodRead blurb (can you tell that I hate to write synopses when I can lift one that sings!).

In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene is hired by J. P. Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Pierpont Morgan Library. Belle becomes a fixture on the New York society scene and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helps build a world-class collection.

But Belle has a secret, one she must protect at all costs. She was born not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and a well-known advocate for equality. Belle's complexion isn't dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that lets her pass as white—her complexion is dark because she is African American.

The Personal Librarian tells the story of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, style, and wit, and shares the lengths to which she must go—for the protection of her family and her legacy—to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives.

What do I love about this book? Let me count the ways. First, I love the Morgan Library--one of my favorite places to visit in NYC, and I've been there at least three times. So, it was a no-brainer to read this book--I'm not a particular fan of Robber Barons, but I do find J.P. Morgan interesting because he used some of his millions to procure the art and manuscripts that he loved. The fact that a financier can love art for its own sake redeems him...a bit. 

Next, the whole phenomenon of "passing" is something I never even thought about until fairly recently. Of the several books I have read on the subject (Passing by Nella Larsen and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet), I think this is the best because it is grounded in historical fact. I'm not saying I didn't really like both of the other books, but Belle da Costa Greene really lived a double life, really made the hard choices, really struggled with identity, really had to reconcile her ambition and need to lead a full, rich life against the backdrop of overwhelming and debilitating racial prejudice. 

Then, there is the art and manuscripts--I loved learning about the art world of the early 20th century--Belle is nothing if not totally masterful in how she infiltrates the world and procures the pieces that she and J.P. love to distraction. 

Finally, there is the whole gilded age and pre-WWI fashion, parties, and high society. What a great book!

I belong to the Jane Austen Society of North America, Denver/Boulder region, and our bookclub selection for the May meeting is The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner. True to form, here is the GoodReads blurb:

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England's finest novelists. Now it's home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen's legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen's home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

The first thing to know is that the novel is not based on the actual facts or people involved in the creation of the real Jane Austen Society in the UK. It is completely a product of Jenner's imagination, as is the letter that one of the characters finds in a book in which Austen provides tantalizing details about one of her reputed love affairs. Remember, this is all fiction! It was a fun read. Somewhat lightweight compared to my other April books, but still fun. And it will be fun to discuss with other JASNA bookclubbers in a mid-May, Can I recommend it? Why not? We all need some fun and what-ifs from time to time.

Best wishes for a stellar reading month in May.

Sunday, April 03, 2022

The Big Sea - Langston Hughes

I have known of Langston Hughes for a long time but never read anything he wrote or knew anything much beyond his name until last year when I read When Harlem Was in Vogue about the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. For this year's Back to the Classics challenge for the BIPOC category, I decided to read Hughes' autobiography, The Big Sea, which chronicles his childhood through young adulthood. A second memoir, I Wonder As I Wander, recounts his life during the 1930s. Since Hughes was born in 1901, he spent his 20s in the 1920s, and so on. 

I absolutely loved reading The Big Sea and gave it 5 stars on GoodReads. I think it was a great introduction to the man and his work--he sprinkles some of poems throughout, providing the backstory to how and when he came to write specific milestone works and putting his thoughts about his early work into perspective.

I was particularly interested in hearing about his many travels and the various jobs he did to support himself and his mother while he was a teenager and young man. His father and mother split up early in their marriage, and his father lived in Mexico where Langston visited him during the summers when he was in high school. Langston also worked on many ships, travelling to Africa and Europe and the Caribbean. He lived for awhile in Paris as well. He says many times that his best writing was done during low points in his life, and he definitely had many hard times.

Reading about the Harlem Renaissance, of which he was an active participant, and his interactions with the other major players--the artists, promoters, and patrons--was absolutely fascinating, especially after reading When Harlem Was in Vogue. I found myself looking up people, places, songs, and other things that he mentioned.

I'm always interested in reading about the writing life, and the motivations, inspiration, and work habits of great writers is a topic that I never grow tired of. One of the things I liked about this memoir is that Hughes doesn't brag about his accomplishments but he is not coy about them either. He knows he is a gifted writer and poet. He is self-aware and acknowledges when his work is at its best, and I really appreciate his willingness to embrace who he is and what he has to offer the world. Published in 1940, when he was just 39 years old, so much of his major work was still in front of him when he wrote this memoir. That's actually one of the things that makes this so interesting--he wasn't an old man looking back and remembering. Much of what he recounted was still relatively fresh and recent.

I will probably read I Wonder As I Wander later this year, after I get my hands on some of his poetry books. I now think that I will have the right frame of mind to appreciate them more than if I had simply dove into the deep end.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

March Roundup

With April literally just around the corner, arriving mid-week, it's time to give some mini-reviews of my March reading.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - most definitely a 5-star novel from 2013. This is the story of Ifemelu, a young woman from Nigeria who immigrates to the US as a college student and then returns to Nigeria after 13 years. I listened to the audio of this book and recommend it as I think hearing the accents and the cadence of the dialogue enriched the experience for me. The stories of Ifemelu and her friends, family, lovers, and co-workers were powerful and eye-opening and consciousness raising, but they also provided connection points for someone like me, who knows little outside my own little sphere, to recognize feelings and emotions that I can relate to. Loved this book and have found myself thinking about it a lot after finishing it.

Adichie's website is definitely worth visiting:

In particular, I loved seeing Ifemelu's blog, which features prominently in her life in the US and when she returns to Nigeria. 

Three Junes, by Julia Glass - an interesting novel that provides two short stories and one longer story from within a single family. The first story is about a man on a tour of the Greek islands shortly after the death of his wife. The middle, longer story is about one of his sons and the issues and traumas of his life. And the final short story, is still about the son but a bit later. This is all rather vague because I don't want to give spoilers, but it is a poignant look at the tragedy of AIDS. I cannot say I loved the book, but it was interesting and well-written and I'm glad I read it.

Quietly in Their Sleep, by Donna Leon - this was a reread of #6 in Leon's fabulous Guido Brunetti series that takes place in Venice. I am rereading the series and enjoying every step of the way as Guido walks through Venice, solving crimes and dealing with the intricacies of life in Venice. This one involved assisted living facilities, nuns, and Opus Dei. Needless to say, it was great.

After listening to Americanah, I was at a loss for what to listen to next as I have a couple of books on hold at the library and I think my turn at them is coming soon. I scanned my library of Audible titles on my phone and discovered that I have a Great Courses lecture series on the Early Middle Ages, taught by Philip Daileader, of the College of William and Mary. What a treat! Part I was all about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and now I'm into Part II and hearing about the rise of Islam and the rise of the Carolingian dynasty in France. I am absolutely loving it. I enjoy reading historical fiction about the Middle Ages and I am gearing up to read a bio of the Medici family, so getting some good grounding in the backstory will pay off in understanding down the road.

Sunday, March 06, 2022

Late Winter Wrapup

Okay, technically Spring doesn't start until March 21 and it is snowing and blowing this weekend in Colorado, but it is March so I'm calling Spring!

Since my last roundup, I've read some terrific books (and one dud, The Marble Faun, which got its own post).

The Heron's Cry, by Ann Cleeves - #2 in her new mystery series featuring Matthew Venn and set in Dorset. I enjoyed the first book in the series, The Long Call, and the second book was just as good, with an interesting plot, interesting characters, and endearing returning characters. I love how in just two books, I can see growth and change in Matthew. I love it when the main character in a series is not stagnant--it makes their world that much more real. Cleeves really knows what she's doing.

The Family, by Naomi Krupitsky - I loved this book so much. Two Italian-American girls (Sofia and Antonia) literally growing up together in Brooklyn in the first part of the 20th century. Interestingly, they were born just a couple of years before my own mother, who was born in 1923, and so in reading about their lives in a city I could track her life in a city (Montreal). Thankfully, my own mother's life, while not a bed of roses when she was young, didn't have the pall of the Italian Mafia (the Family, of the title) hanging over it. I was so frustrated by some of the decisions Sofia and Antonia made, but their fallibility made them feel so real to me and the world they lived in so claustrophobic.

La Dolce Vita University: An Unconventional Guide to Italian Culture from A to Z, by Carla Gambescia - this was a Christmas present from my wish list, and it was absolutely a treat to read, from A to Z. The idea is that the author provides mini-essays on a wide variety of topics that are anywhere from a paragraph to a few pages. I loved it, learned a lot, and took my time reading it (just a few pages a night during January and February). Honestly, anyone planning a trip to Italy will not go wrong by reading this before, during, or after the trip. 

Here's a sample of the topics, brought to you by the letter B: 

  • Barbells and Bikinis
  • Bellini
  • Bernini's Angels
  • Beatrice (Love at First Sight)
  • Botticelli's Venus
  • Bonfire of the Vanities
  • Burano's Candy-Colored Casas
  • Bolognese...Sauce or Dog?

A Town Called Solace, by Mary Lawson - set in northern Ontario, way northern Ontario, I loved this story told by three people, an 8-year old girl, a sixty-something woman, and a thirty-something man. The man is given the house next door to the girl by the woman and their lives intersect in ways that are interesting, affirming, and comforting. I know nothing else about the other books that Lawson has written, but her bio on GoodReads says she is a distant relative of my beloved L.M. Montgomery, so I will be digging into her backlist for sure!

Sharpe's Tiger, by Bernard Cornwell - This isn't the first book about hero Richard Sharpe in the series set during the Napoleonic Wars but it is the first chronologically. Set in southern India, the action concerns the British attack on Mysore in 1799 during their campaign to bring the entire subcontinent under British rule and become a jewel in their crown. While the storytelling is first rate, and Richard Sharpe is an intriguing hero (not pure as the driven snow by any means), I was reading this with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia as a backdrop. Cornwell didn't employ stereotypes or paint the British aggression as anything other than it was, but it was still a bit weird to read the book with the current world situation unfolding. I do plan to read more in the series and Cornwell is a terrific historical writer.