Thursday, October 29, 2020

This is the Time to be Slow


Hadrian's Wall, east of Twice-Brewed

This is the Time to be Slow 

This is the time to be slow,

Lie low to the wall

Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let

The wire brush of doubt

Scrape from your heart

All sense of yourself

And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous,

Time will come good;

And you will find your feet

- John O'Donohue, Book of Blessings

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Late Summer and Early Fall Potpourri

Here's what I've been reading this season.

Mysteries, of course, it's the R.I.P. season

Death and Judgement, #4 in my reread of Donna Leon's fabulous Guido Brunetti series set in Venice. Oh, Guido, how I love spending time with you and your family!

Track of the Cat, #1 in my reread of Nevada Barr's fabulous Anna Pigeon series set in National Parks. I first read this about 30 years ago, so it was great to start over with Anna. Always makes me want to go for a hike.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by the queen of the genre, Agatha Christie. When I heard that this first of Christie's mysteries was published 100 years ago this year, I knew I had to read it. It introduces the world to the incomparable Hercule Poirot, and was a classic locked room, country house mystery. Very enjoyable.

The Dry, by Jane Harper - #1 in her Aaron Falk series set in Australia. Absolutely great - I intend to read the rest in the series. I don't read too much set in Australia, but I should as I love the setting. This was an intricate small town mystery--love those small town mysteries. Well written with interesting characters.

Broken Harbor, by Tana French - it is #4 in the Dublin Squad series, but I am reading them slightly out of order, so it was #3 for me. I'm not sure why I skipped Faithful Place, but that's the next one for me. I am blown away by French's writing. This was a really powerful story and the ambience is so gritty.

And now for something completely different...

The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo - I learned about this book from JoAnn at Gulfside Musing, and listened to it. Middle-class family drama based in the Chicago suburbs. I can't really even call them a dysfunctional family--their issues weren't horrific, but I was swept along by the great writing and interesting characters. I really wanted to find out what happened next.

The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion, by Fannie Flagg - I love reading Fannie Flagg novels and it was such a pleasure to listen to Flagg read her latest novel herself. The premise is simple--a very nice Southern lady discovers she was adopted. It's a gentle story about self-confidence, love, loyalty, and family. It's also a wonderful history lesson about the WASPs, the female aviators who were contracted by the Army during WWII to ferry planes from the manufacturing plants to the bases where they were deployed for use in the war. Again, great writing, great characters, and a feel-good story during a time when I really needed to feel good.

Hope you are all healthy and finding the solace, joy, connection, and comfort that books provide.


Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck has been a favorite of mine for a long time. I've read Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday multiple times, along with Of Mice and Men and East of Eden. Last year I finally read Travels with Charley and a few years ago I read Tortilla Flat, and I've visited his house in Salinas as well as the National Steinbeck Center.

All that said, I wasn't a fan of The Grapes of Wrath. Like for most American teenagers in the 1970s, it was required reading in high school. Those were the years when I discovered Jane Austen and the Brontes, and I simply didn't want to read about an ex-convict and his destitute family trying to reach the Promised Land of California only to learn that the promises were empty. I struggled through it, wrote my paper, and couldn't imagine rereading it.

Now, 45 years later and hopefully more mature, I did decide to reread it. It was incredible. Truly a 5-star book worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 1940. The writing is excellent with Steinbeck at his best. The structure is artful and effective. The characters and their story poignant, inspiring, heartbreaking, and very, very real.

Here's what I liked:

  • Steinbeck alternated chapters that were specific to the story of the Joad family with chapters about the plight of the Oklahoma farmers who faced depression, a dust bowl, and corporate takeovers of mortgaged farms that forced them to forsake the land their forbears had homesteaded and head west in order to survive. This technique married the specific with the general, making the story literature--that is, a story that transcends the particular and is universal.
  • The relationship of Jim Casy, the ex-preacher, and Tom Joad. Jim was one of my very favorite characters--definitely a Christ-type character who seeks to help the poor and downtrodden and oppressed. He gives Tom sage advice and is colorful and honest and willing to sacrifice himself for the people. His example inspires Tom to essentially become his disciple.
  • I loved Tom's Ma. She literally holds the family together and demonstrates that at our core, we are really a matriarchal species. 
  • I think it was very effective that the first half of the book was the journey to California, and the second half was what they found after they got there. It would be like Austen writing a novel that included what happened after the wedding.

I'm not sorry I read it in high school. Yes, that reading made me think I didn't like the book, and I certainly didn't appreciate it. But, I think reading it might have helped develop the sense of compassion and empathy that my parents tried to instill in me. I may not have liked it, but reading a book this powerful must have shaped or affected me to a degree I will never know. I know my three kids read it in high school also--interestingly, they liked it more than I did at the same age. I'm glad it's still required reading for high school students. We need more compassion and empathy in the world.

This book is my 20th century classic for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth
by Helen Castor was exceptionally good, definitely a 5-star non-fiction.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that it is about one of my favorite time periods, medieval Europe. It chronicles the lives, ambitions, successes, and compromises of four women rulers who tried to be king and who paved the way for Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, the first queens of England to rule on their own and not as consorts.

Matilda - the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I. Her brother was drowned when the White Ship went down, and although Henry I did name her as his heir, she fought and lost the crown to her cousin, Stephen. In the end, she was able to secure the crown for her son, Henry II, whom Stephen named as his heir. She was formidable - courageous, politically savvy, passionate about her cause, but able to sacrifice short-term triumphs for the long game, ensuring that her son became king.

Eleanor of Aquitaine - Henry II's wife and duchess of Aquitaine in her own right. She shared many traits with her mother-in-law, Matilda, and fiercely protected the rights of her favorite son, Richard. She was an able ruler and more than anything else, a survivor. Imprisoned by HII, she was able to endure long years of isolation by keeping her eyes on the prize and finding the inner strength to endure.

Isabella of France- wife of the hapless Edward II, reputed to be the very worst of all English kings. After it was clear that he would never allow her to help him be a good, or even passable, king, she figured out how to escape to France, secure her teenaged son, find a lover capable of leading an insurrection, overthrow the king, and see her son crowned King Edward III. Her downfall was that she wanted to rule her son, who was having none of that! Not so incidentally, her bloodline is what provided the excuse for the 100 Years War between England and France.

Margaret of Anjou - another strong woman married to a weak king. Unlike EII, Margaret's husband, Henry VI, really had no interest in being king or in the trappings of pomp and majesty. Margaret had a long, arduous strong time of it, battling the Yorkist aspirants to the throne during the War of the Roses. I found myself less sympathetic and more critical of Margaret, probably due to Philippa Gregory's The White Queen and the TV series of the same name, as well as Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour, and other Yorkist-leaning novels and histories I have encountered over the years. That said, she was definitely a she-wolf, but unlike the other three female leaders she was not able to secure the throne for her son.

The final chapter provides a look at the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth, pointing out changes in society that made their reigns possible...the lack of legitimate male contenders to the throne didn't hurt them either.

All in all, an excellent, readable, captivating look at strong women leaders. Castor didn't try to do everything in this book. She didn't attempt to write a definitive book covering all aspects of the lives and times and reigns of the four women, but she painted their portraits within a specific premise, namely that their experiences made the reigns of the Tudor queens possible.

Apparently, there's a BBC documentary called She-Wolves: England's Early Queens. Must figure out how to watch this!

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Kitchen by John Ota


A couple of months ago, my brother Colin sent me The Kitchen, by John Ota, a fellow Torontonian who took part in a U of T webinar on "The Evolution of the Kitchen." Knowing that I like to cook, eat, and spend time in kitchens, Colin figured I would like the book, and I did!

I read it slowly, sometimes only a chapter at a time, in between other books, but that is one of my favorite ways to read non-fiction.

The premise of the book is that John and his wife are designing their dream kitchen and so John visits a number of kitchens in the U.S. and Canada to get ideas on functionality, décor, esthetics, and ergonomics. Each chapter focuses on one particular kitchen from a particular time period and includes a cooking session, usually in the actual kitchen being profiled, as well as an annotated layout and recipe of what John and the resident food expert made.

Here are the kitchens John visited:

Pilgrim Kitchen - Plymouth, MA (1627) - I would love to visit this kitchen, and John talked a lot about comfort food. Life was hard in Plymouth Colony, and cooking was challenging but the recipes yielded good, hearty food.

Thomas Jefferson Kitchen at Monticello - VA (1809) - another place that is on my short list to visit. The kitchen, staffed by slaves, and the food prepared there reflected Jefferson's passion for innovation in horticulture and architecture.

Hermann-Grima House Kitchen, New Orleans (1831) - this kitchen in the French Quarter focused on Creole recipes, but the French Toast that John and his guide cook up sounds divine.

Point Ellice House Kitchen, Victoria, BC (1890) - we're planning a trip to WA/BC next September and I have already added this house to our itinerary. A lot of the focus here was on the kind of gracious living that comes from having a staff of servants, think Downton Abbey. Interestingly, the dish that John made in this kitchen was Hindoostanee Curry. Indian dishes became popular in Canada during the second half of the nineteenth century when most of India came under British rule.

Levine Tenement Kitchen, NYC (1897) - I visited the Tenement Museum on the lower east side of NYC a few years ago, and toured some of the apartments. The recipe for this kitchen is matzo ball soup, and it does sound delicious!

Gamble House Kitchen, Pasadena, CA (1909) - another site that I've also visited. We went for the Arts and Crafts architecture and really enjoyed touring the house, but I don't know that the kitchen was included in the tour. I mostly remember how dark it was inside with all that wood and minimal artificial lighting. John helped prepare pinwheel sandwiches and "Automobile" salad for a picnic. 

Spadina House Kitchen, Toronto (1920) - another Victorian house, decked out for Christmas when John visited, and the shortbread he makes with a 90-year old guide sounds heavenly.

Georgia O'Keefe Kitchen, Abiquiu, NM (1949) - I love the Southwest and the Santa Fe and Taos areas, but I've never visited Abiquiu. This chapter is all about garden-fresh produce and living close to the earth. Georgia liked good food and taught her cooks how to cook what she liked. John attended a Georgia O'Keefe-inspired cooking class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. This is now on my list of things to do on our next trip to Santa Fe!

Frank Lloyd Kitchen at Kentuck Knob, Mill Run, PA (1956) - what could be more apt than to prepare a Baked Alaska in a mid-century modern kitchen? I've never actually had Baked Alaska, but I think I need to figure out how to try one. Is it on any menus anywhere anymore?

Julia Child Kitchen, Smithsonian Museum, Washington, D.C. (1961) - yep, I also visited this kitchen during a Spring Break with the kids in DC. I loved this chapter because Julia's kitchen reminded John of his mom's kitchen and how she cooked and how it was such a creative outlet for her. I think I once tried to make Julia's cheese soufflé - it was yummy but without the right airiness that John describes in the one he makes. 

Louis Armstrong Kitchen, Queens, NYC (1970) - red beans and rice, turquoise kitchen, jazz, family and friends singing Hello, Dolly. I love red beans and rice--want to try this recipe.

Elvis Presley Kitchen at Graceland, Memphis, TN (1977) and Honeymoon Hideaway Kitchen in Palm Springs, CA (1960s) - visiting the kitchen was fun, but I really enjoyed the Elvis party that John and his wife hosted for fellow Elvis fans...meatloaf and fried peanut butter sandwiches for dessert. He said both were great.

Pearlstone Kitchen, Vancouver Island, BC (2016) - my dream kitchen - high on a cliff, looking out over the ocean. My dream lifestyle - harvesting everything you need from the earth, the ocean, and the air, all within a stone's throw of your home. Sort of full circle to where we started at Plymouth, but with modern conveniences!

As you can tell, I loved this book. Enjoyed the time travel, the recipes, the insights and observations, and the love of food, company, and conversation.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Wrapping Up: Big Book Summer Challenge

Hosted by Sue at Book by Book, this has become one of my favorite challenges.

 I did pretty well on the Big Book Summer Challenge--all you have to do is read a book over 400 pages.

Here's what I planned and how I did - 3 out of 5 completed by Labor Day!

1. Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens - loved rereading this wonderful early Dickens novel. 

2. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck - still reading this, just over half done, and enjoying it so much more than when I was in high school. Definitely a masterpiece and clearly a contender for The Great American novel, and so sadly still pertinent today.

3. Men to Match My Mountains, by Irving Stone - non-fiction, exceptionally interesting, very detailed.

4. Devil's Brood, by Sharon K. Penman - loved this book so much. Historical fiction is my favorite genre, Medieval history is one of my favorite periods to read about, and Penman is the queen of her craft. Immensely satisfying novel about Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, RIchard I, John and so many others.

5. A Dance to the Music of Time, 1st Movement, by Anthony Powell - didn't even attempt it. Maybe next year.

I do like big books, and since I tend to read books in parallel rather than serially, I can spend weeks or months on a book and really feel like I've experienced the book and it will stick with me.

Monday, September 07, 2020

R.I.P. XV - Readers Imbibing Peril

Everything about 2020 may be different from years past...except the excitement around the yearly reading challenge, Readers Imbibing Peril, or R.I.P, now in its 15th or XV incarnation.

I usually stick to mysteries for R.I.P., but I have been reading a lot this year already so I am going to branch out a bit.

Here are two that I will definitely be reading. I feel good that one is a new book and one is a classic, and both are out of my comfort zone.

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia - set in 1950s Mexico in a very spooky house.

Carmilla, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu - it's a vampire story that predates Bram Stoker's Dracula, by the leading ghost-story writer of the 19th century, at least according to GoodReads. My good friend, Charles Dickens, also wrote quite a few ghost stories as well.

 And then, of course, I have a slew of mysteries that I can always fall back on as the mood strikes.

Hope you all remain healthy as we march toward the equinox.

Take care and read on!

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Devil's Brood


I love Sharon Kay Penman's historical novels, but they are long and so I usually can only fit in one a year. However, it's been since January 2017 since I've indulged so it was a real treat to dive into The Devil's Brood, referring to the warring, scheming, selfish sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. As Henry muses at one point, everyone wants a son and heir but daughters are much easier!

During most of the novel, Eleanor is Henry's prisoner, which is pretty horrible in and of itself, but she did betray him and plotted with her sons against him and while Henry was able to forgive them, he could never forgive her. For only a few years was she in discomfort, but her real misery (apart from freedom to travel and reign) was that she was kept in rainy, dismal England and was so homesick for lovely, warm, sun-splashed south of France.

Having visited Normandy, Brittany, and Paris in 2018, I felt so much more comfortable with the geography of the book than when I read Time and Chance, which chronicles the early years of HII and Eleanor's marriage -- up to when Becket was murdered in the cathedral. And most of this book does take place in France rather than England. I actually did visit some of the places mentioned--Mont St Michel, Rouen, Rennes, Bayeaux, Caen, and, of course, Paris. 

Penman did a particularly good job of bringing into focus Hal, the Young King, the oldest son to survive into adulthood and whom HII foolishly crowned, so there were actually two Kings of England at one time. Why he thought this would make for a happy home life remains a mystery! Hal reminded me so much of Shakespeare's Prince Hal before he became Henry V. 

I also enjoyed reading about Geoffrey -- the son after Richard and before John. He was the Duke of Brittany, and actually seems the most able ruler of all the sons. He wasn't necessarily a nice guy, but he was smart and capable.

Both Richard and John almost seemed a bit cardboard compared to the richness in character Penman gave to Hal and Geoffrey. But then, Richard is center stage for the next two books in the series so I think I'll get to know him pretty well in time.

Clocking in at 730 pages, I felt like one of the family, with ample time to get to know all the main characters as well as the extensive cast of servants, knights, confidants, and relatives. Yes, this book is chock full of history and details about life in Medieval Europe, but at its heart it is the story of a dysfunctional family led by two people who are soulmates and yet find ways to tear each other apart year after year. 

Now, I'm eager to read Lionheart, next in the Plantagenet series, about Richard I and the Third Crusade.

And you guessed it, this book qualifies for the Big Book Summer reading challenge.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Books I'm Excited to Read

I tend to focus on what I've read rather than what I'm jazzed about reading. So, breaking that mold, here's a sampling of the books I'm most excited about reading this fall (or spring if you are down under).

The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel - the third in the marvelous trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's hatchet man who has the tables turned on him. I loved reading both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies as well as watching Wolf Hall. Mantel is incredibly good at making this 500-year old story relevant and gripping.

Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald - I loved H is for Hawk and am eager to read Macdonald's essays on birds, nature, etc.

Code Name Helene, by Ariel Lawhon - just read a review of this last week and was enthralled. French resistance during WWII, based on memoir, just up my alley!

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennet - heard really good things about this book, and should be a good tie-in to Nella Lawson's Passing, which I recently read.

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia - probably my October scary read. Listened to an interview with the author on NPR and cannot get this book out of my head. The cover alone is absolutely delicious.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Summer catchup

Just as everyone else is experiencing, summer is different this year...mostly. I am still working full-time, reading as much as I can, gardening, and hiking. No traveling, though. No visiting the kids, or meeting up with them. As Rick Steves said in his recent article in Time, "Be in that group that loves it while we stay home..." So here is what I'm doing that make me say I am loving it at home.

Garden - my garden has never gotten this much attention. Every Sunday, I weed. Every evening after a hot day, I give the flowers a shower bath. I have been fertilizing, pruning, and noting each new blossom. The hummingbirds are having a great time. I think we have a couple of nests that have produced because we went from a couple of birds in June to literally a dozen or more now, doing aerial feats and dogfights all over the yard.

We've made pickles every Sunday for the past month - picking the right sized cukes fresh. I made salsa with tomatoes, onions, and peppers from the garden, only buying garlic as I forgot to plant any! I've made zucchini bread and the most delicious zucchini pancakes - a lot like potato pancakes, but better, I think.

Hiking - Rocky Mt National Park is only 40 minutes away, but they have timed entry this summer due to Covid-19. So we have gotten 8 am tickets for 2 visits in July, 3 in August, and 2 in September. Doing favorite hikes and exploring parts of the park we haven't visited often (aka the west side). Yesterday's hike took us to the site of Lulu City along the Colorado River - 7.4 miles but beautiful, peaceful, and full of wild flowers.

Birding - it's shaping up to be a good year. I got my 249th bird on my life list a week ago Saturday--a three-toed woodpecker. What a thrill! Same day we saw an American Dipper, and we had a Lesser Goldfinch take a bath in our backyard fountain.

TV - after years of prodding, my daughter finally convinced me to watch Once Upon a Time, and it is so much fun! Up to season 3, with Emma, Captain Hook, Snow White and Prince Charming, the Wicked Queen, and Rumpelstiltskin in Never Land trying to rescue Henry. 

Also watching the Rockies win most games. Don't judge me, but I'm liking the Designated Hitter--seems to be good for us anyway.

Italian - I've been in Duolingo's Diamond League for about 4 weeks now, trying to get at least 100 points a day learning Italian. I've been trying to read short stories in Italian, but I still don't have a big enough vocabulary to read much.

Reading - yep, as much as I can. In addition to the books that I've already blogged about, I've read:

Death in a Strange Country - book #2 in Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti series - so enjoying rereading this favorite series about one of my favorite cities, Venice.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens - what took me so long to read this? Absolutely loved every minute of it. Hope they make a movie. So good.

 Dressed for Death - book #3 in Guido series - I liked rereading book #2 so much, I just had to stay with Guido for another adventure.

The Perfect Couple, by Elin Hilderbrand - recommended by JoAnn at Gulfside Musing, a neat little mystery set in Nantucket, where I love to visit with Hilderbrand on a regular basis. It was fun, escapist, and enabled me to travel in my armchair.

The A.B.C. Murders, by Agatha Christie - I was reading Eight Perfect Murders and this was on the list, so I felt the urge to read it. Gave in to the urge and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Eight Perfect Murders, by Peter Swanson - another recommendation from a fellow blogger,and it was a so good. A psychological thriller, nice and tight, interesting. Usually I hold off reading mysteries until October, but with everything else different this year, I decided to just read whatever, whenever.

Hope you are all healthy and finding way to love being at home.