Friday, August 26, 2016

Reading the Classics: a beginner's guide

I am a classics reader--of course, that's not all I read--I believe in supporting contemporary authors and I love to read hot new books to see what the fuss is about, and I like memoirs and travel books, and on and on, but back to the classics.

I think everyone should read at least something by each of the following authors, so here are my top 20 recommendations for enjoyable, accessible, memorable British/American classics.

  1. Shakespeare - Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night's Dream - don't just read the play, get a good movie version and read the text while watching!
  2. Jane Austen - Persuasion or Pride and Prejudice
  3. Charlotte Bronte - Jane Eyre
  4. Charles Dickens - Oliver Twist or Great Expectations
  5. Mark Twain - short stories (The Mysterious Stranger, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaverous County)
  6. John Steinbeck - Of Mice and Men or Cannery Row
  7. F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby
  8. Thomas Hardy - The Return of the Native or Tess of the D'urbervilles
  9. Elizabeth Gaskell - North and South
  10. George Eliot - Silas Marner (short) or Middlemarch (long)
  11. Louisa May Alcott - Little Women
  12. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - any of the Sherlock Holmes stories
  13. E.M. Forster - A Room With a View
  14. Washington Irving - The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
  15. Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird
  16. Bram Stoker - Dracula
  17. Edith Wharton - Ethan Frome
  18. E.B. White - Charlotte's Web
  19. Lewis Carroll - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
  20. William Thackeray - Vanity Fair

I think these are the books that will whet one's appetite for more classics.  They all have good stories, are well written and interesting.  Not chock full of arcane language and topical references that are incomprehensible or irrelevant to a modern reader.  They also tend not to have long tangential flights of fancy that bore many readers--Dickens does this in some of his long novels, as does Trollope.

Then, when you've read all these books, go back and reread them!  That's what I do.  Good books are meant to be enjoyed and revisited and savored, not just checked off.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Books That Have Been On Your Shelf (Or TBR) From Before You Started Blogging That You STILL Haven't Read Yet

Today's Top Ten list is all about procrastination and good intentions!  The post title says it all--what has been hanging around the TBR shelf since before I started writing about what I've been reading?

In no particular order, although the first is the first book I put on my GoodReads TBR list.

  1. The Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon
  2. Villette, by Charlotte Bronte
  3. Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte
  4. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See
  5. Trinity, by Leon Uris
  6. Chesapeake, by James Michener
  7. Battle Cry of Freedom, by James MacPherson
  8. The Art of Eating, by M.F.K. Fisher
  9. The Proud Tower, by Barbara Tuchman
  10. Perdita, by Paula Byrne
Interestingly, none of these are on a reading list for this year.  Maybe I've just gotten comfortable with where they are on the shelf.  Anything I should push to the top of next year's lists?

Visit The Broke and the Bookish to see what others have a hard time committing to!

What's on your list of good intentions?

Friday, August 19, 2016


Eventide is evening, in the poetic sense, and Kent Haruf chose well when he chose this title for the second novel in his series set in fictional Holt, Colorado, a small town east of Denver on endless prairie.

I loved Eventide even more than the first book in the series, Plainsong, which I absolutely adored.  Some of the stories and characters continue seamlessly from one book to the next, particularly the story of the McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond, and the teen they befriend, Victoria Roubideaux, and her baby daughter, Katie, and some are new in the second book.  But it works because the tenor of life in the small town--the heartbreak behind closed doors, the struggles to work through the dark to the light, the comfort of an open heart and a willing spirit--is what really flows from one book to the next.

I loved the experience of reading Eventide--I loved the language, the stories, the tenor, the mood. Haruf was a master of his craft--his sparse prose creates a depth of understanding and compassion that is a joy to experience.

Eventide is the 6th book I've read on my TBR Pile Challenge.  We're a bit past the mid-point of the year, which means I'm a bit behind but making steady progress.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Bel Canto

I read Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, a couple of months ago but never got around to posting a blog on it.  Between getting ready for vacation and then actually travelling for a few weeks, it fell by the wayside but I am correcting that now because it was such a fantastic novel and one that affected me deeply.

Synopsis (extracted from Amazon blurb):
At a birthday party for Japanese industrialist Mr. Hosokawa somewhere in South America, famous American soprano Roxanne Coss is just finishing her recital in the Vice President's home when armed terrorists appear, intending to take the President hostage. However, he is not there, so instead they hold the international businesspeople and diplomats at the party, releasing all the women except Roxanne. Captors and their prisoners settle into a strange domesticity, with the opera diva captivating them all as she does her daily practicing. Soon romantic liaisons develop with the hopeless intensity found in many opera plots.
When I first found out that Bel Canto was a hostage story, I was not thrilled, but since I loved Patchett's State of Wonder and The Story of a Happy Marriage, I decided to trust her to give me a good book.  She did!

I was enthralled almost from the beginning, and came to love and understand and be invested in all the characters, the revolutionaries (both the leaders and the child soldiers) as well as the hostages.  I thought Patchett's exploration of the relationships that can develop between people who share a space in the world, even when separated by language, background, and prospects was profound.

I was absolutely crushed by the ending.  I kept on wondering how Patchett could save the revolutionaries, and she didn't and I cried for them.  Also, I didn't buy that Roxanne Cox and Gen were a real couple at the end.  That came out of the blue and made no sense to me, given the rest of the story and who they were and who they cared about.  I've searched a bit and it seems like a lot of readers felt the same way about the ending that I did.

I read this book as part of the TBR Pile Challenge for 2016.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Ten Books You'd Buy Right This Second If Someone Handed You A Fully Loaded Gift Card

Today's Top Ten Tuesday at The Broke and the Bookish is all about doing a top ten list you missed.

The one I missed and wanted to do was just last week: Ten Books You'd Buy Right This Second If Someone Handed You A Fully Loaded Gift Card

  1. A History of Modern Britain, by Andrew Marr 
  2. Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett
  3. Young Pioneers, by Rose Wilder Lane
  4. The Edge of the Empire: From the Heart of Rome to Hadrian's Wall, by Bronwen Riley
  5. The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens
  6. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, by James Shapiro
  7. Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren
  8. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Sloot
  9. Hadrian's Wall Path, by Henry Stedman
  10. The Fall of the House of Dixie, by Bruce Levine

These are but a fraction of the books that are in my Amazon cart and/or on my GoodReads To-Read shelf, but they are the ones I would get with a gift card!

Friday, August 05, 2016

The Song of Achilles

When I first read about Madeline Miller's debut novel, The Song of Achilles, a few years ago, I immediately put it on my TBR list, but it took my son reading it and loving it to make me move it to the top of the list and I'm so glad I did as it is my favorite book read in 2016!

Based loosely on The Iliad, Miller tells the story of the Trojan war from the perspective of Patroclus, friend and lover of Achilles, and what emerges is that this shy, awkward, exiled prince is the real hero of the Trojan war.  But to tell the story, Miller has to go back to childhoods of both Patroclus and Achilles, and tell us how and why they became friends and how that friendship evolved into a deep and abiding love.

As I read, I regularly checked the internet to see how Miller's telling of the story lined up with the myth cannon of Achilles and I was thrilled that each event she fleshed out was thoroughly grounded.  For some reason that mattered to me--I guess what I'm getting at is that Homer created a legendary world and Miller's story was consistent with that world.

I also thought Miller dealt with the gods beautifully--larger than life, more beautiful than bearable, but heavy with the burden of immortality.  The gods of Homer, and hence Miller, are not lovable, awful, yes, but not warm.  There's one part where Apollo appears atop a wall of Troy and the writing is just wonderful--it gave me a perfect image of how the immortals pushed through the fabric of the human world at will.

My favorite part is when Patroclus and Achilles are still young and are apprenticed to Chiron, a centaur on Mt Pelion. They sleep in caves, play on the mountain, and basically live an idyllic life until, of course, Paris ruins everything by stealing Helen from Menelaus.  Achilles as the best Greek warrior is pressured into joining the expedition to steal Helen back, and Patroclus, bound by a promise he made when he was a child, also goes, though he is no warrior.

I also loved the character Breseis, one of the Trojan women captured by the Greeks, who becomes one of Achilles' prizes, as in spoils of war.  Besides Patroclus, she is my favorite character.

Achilles, of course, is hard to love.  He is too beautiful, too effortlessly strong and swift and sure, too godlike and too arrogant to be loved, except by Patroclus.  His pride, his vanity, his thirst for fame render him unlikeable, just as in Homer's version.  And yet, Patroclus' love for Achilles is completely believeable.  Patroclus loves Achilles, as he is, without reserve but also without blinders.

Endings are hard, but again I think Miller did a masterful job in ending her telling of the legend.  The conversation between Achilles' goddess mother, Thetis, and Patroclus' ghost was a perfect way to resolve the story arc and bring it to a satisfying close.

Really a beautiful story about friendship, love, honor, and family and the messes that we mortals get ourselves into.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Colorado Gumbo-laya

One of my favorite cookbooks is San Francisco Ala Carte, from the SF Junior League back in 1979, and one of my favorite recipes is their Gumbo, but I change it up a bit, adding some of the elements of Jambalaya and some ingredients that my family just likes.  If you search on the difference between Gumbo and Jambalaya, you'll basically get the idea that Gumbo is more of a soup, Jambalaya is more of a paella, and they share many of the same ingredients.

I love making soup and stew and since I'm starting to feel ready for fall, I made this last night for dinner and fell in love with it all over again!

Colorado Gumbo-laya

2 quarts chicken stock
Handful of dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 tbs of tomato paste
1/4 tsp of ground cloves
1/8 tsp cayenne
3 tbs olive oil
3 cups chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped bell pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cup diced ham
1 cup tomato sauce (I use homemade tomato glut, that I freeze in 1 cup portions) or 1 pound can of stewed tomatoes if you like tomato chuncks
1 tbs brown sugar
Handful of dried basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Hot sauce to taste (I prefer Cholula to Tabasco)
1 tbs Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 cup diced cooked chicken
1 cup basmati rice
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 pound shrimp, deveined, shell-off, and tail-off
Flour for thickening

In a large soup pan or Dutch Oven, combine the stock, thyme, bay leaves, cloves, tomato paste, tomato sauce or stewed tomatoes, and cayenne.  Bring to a boil then simmer/

Meanwhile, in a skillet, heat oil and saute onions, celery, bell pepper, and garlic until soft and onion is translucent.  I usually lightly salt and pepper at this stage.  I will often had the diced ham at the last to flavor it before adding the mixture to the liquid.  If I don't already have cooked chicken, I wipe out the skillet and then saute diced chicken in a bit more oil and add a bit of salt and pepper for flavor, and then add that to the soup pot.

Add hot sauce, lemon juice, and Worcestershire sauce, and simmer for at least 30 minutes, partially covered.

Add rice and simmer for another 20 minutes.  Add shrimp (cut to size of chicken and ham, or whole if you prefer it that way) and cook for 10 minutes.

Thicken with flour/water as needed.  My family likes thick soup, so I always make a slurry and thicken it at the end.

Serve with a baguette.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Treasure Island: Long John Silver

I just reread Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson for the first time in decades, and it was an absolute treat.  There's a reason this is the definitive pirate story--RLS provided a prototype for a genre, and provided a lingo and a style and a swagger that is incomparable.  And, it's a good story, with a wonderful boy hero, who is smart, loyal, brave, and tender-hearted.  I just love Jim Hawkins!

Having finally read RLS's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde a few years ago, it was easy to compare the character of Long John Silver, the leader of pirates who charms his way onto the Hispaniola, the ship that conveys the treasure seekers to Treasure Island.  Silver definitely is adept at wearing a mask under which he conceals his true nature, one which doesn't hesitate to lie, cheat, steal, or murder to further his own ends.

Unlike the premise behind the Jekyll and Hyde story, it's not that Silver has two personalities that struggle with each other for dominance, but rather Silver is able to completely hide his true pirate self when needing to ingratiate himself with non-pirates.  This is not an uncommon trait, but Silver is so much better at it than is usual.  Shows incredible self-control and self-awareness, actually.

Treasure Island was published in 1883, two years before Jekyll and Hyde, so perhaps the two faces of Long John Silver were in the forefront of RLS's mind when he started working Jekyl and Hyde.

I also really enjoyed the character of Dr. Livesey.  He's outspoken, sarcastic, but takes his oath to heal seriously, even at personal peril.  He is a match for the pirates and a good mentor to Jim.

This is my adventure classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Travelogue: Taking the Oregon Trail to Olympic National Park...and beyond

Just returned last Friday from a two-week journey from Colorado to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.

Boulder to Brigham City, UT - I-25 to the 287 cutoff west of Fort Collins meant we didn't make it up to Fort Laramie, one of the rest/refuel stops on the Oregon Trail so I had to be content with following the contour of the trail as it arced up to Casper, WY and then dropped down to cross the continental divide at South Pass. We crossed the Divide ourselves after Rawlins (where we ate lunch in pretty Washington Park) and before Rock Springs.  We hooked up with the trail at Ft Bridger, and then left it to stop over at Brigham City (north of Salt Lake) where we spent a glorious morning at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and a glorious afternoon at the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory where the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met on May 10, 1869. We talked to an awesome ranger there who told so many entertaining historic stories.

Brigham City to Boise, ID - A short drive to Boise took us along the Snake River, which the trail followed closely.  We had a wonderful stop at Glenn's Ferry (Three Island Crossing), where thousands of pioneers attempted to cross the Snake, and some made it. We got to Boise with plenty of time to visit the World Center for Birds of Prey, which has a successful condor breeding program, helping to bring condors and other endangered birds back from the brink of extinction.

Boise has loads of charm - We stayed at the Modern, which is a revamped 1950's era motel, and felt hip and healthy (one of the very best hotel breakfasts ever!).  We enjoyed walking around the downtown area, watching lots of people catching Pokemons.

Boise to Hood River, OR - Mostly followed the trail, and had a great stop in Baker City, OR where we visited the Oregon Trail Interpretative Center and bought way too many books.   Lunch in Pendleton at the Great Pacific Wine & Coffee Company, which is a favorite stop on our frequent treks to WA.  Then, we hit the Columbia--what a gorgeous river.  By the time we checked in at our river view room at the Vagabond Lodge, we didn't want to leave so we just hung out, watching the river slowly fade to darkness (it gets dark late up here in the summer!).

Hood River to Lake Quinault, Olympic National Park - Hood River was also a charming little town and we explored it a bit before heading down river, only to get sidetracked at the Bradford Island Visitor Center, just west of Cascade Locks on the river.  They have underwater viewing of the fish that migrate upstream, lots of info on locks and dams and other nerdtastic stuff.  After leaving the trail at Portland, we headed directly to the coast and had lunch at the Buoy Bar in Astoria, before heading up to Lake Quinault, our first stop on the Olympic Peninsula.

Lake Quinault - Absolutely gorgeous.  Two days of hiking through temperate rainforests with enormous trees that were shaggy with moss.  Stayed at the Lake Quinault Lodge--love the national park lodges, and this one had tons of charm and personality (i.e., almost non-existent wifi, tiny bathrooms, windows that don't want to open, but lovely and old and mellow).

La Push  - Moved on to stay oceanside in the fishing village of La Push, which is part of the Quieleute (pronounced Quil-lay-ute) reservation.  Hiked on the beaches, which were rocky, saw at least a dozen bald eagles, and lived without wifi!  Visited the Hoh rainforest and the Sol Duc falls, both of which were magnificent.  Drove up to the Makah reservation in the nw corner of the peninsula, and walked out to Cape Flattery, the most nw point of the contiguous 48 states.  Spotted a river otter grooming on a rock, more bald eagles, black oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots, cormorants, and a murder of crows and a conspiracy of ravens!

Port Angles - Three nights here, with hikes up Hurricane Hill in Olympic National Park, and whale watching in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  The captain of the Puget Sound Express (out of charming Port Townsend) heard we were birders (or twitchers as our UK friends call us) and he swung by Discovery Island so that we could see puffins!  For dinner, let me recommend the Next Door GastroPub - a fun place, with outside dining, great service, and outstanding, upscale pub grub.  We went there twice!

Heading home - we stopped in Tacoma, one of our favorite towns, and where our oldest went to college for a wonderful stay at the awesome Silver Cloud Inn.  We did a pass through Point Defiance Park, with a walk through the bloomless rhododendron garden, and then we did more walking along the shore of lovely Commencement Bay.  We spent the night in Boise again, and retraced the Oregon Trail back to Fort Bridger, stopping this time in Park City instead of Brigham City.  I wasn't thrilled with Park City--I think Colorado does the mining town to ski resort thing better than Utah, but then I am prejudiced and probably ready to be home!

Loved, loved, loved our trip.

Happy trails to you!

Monday, July 25, 2016


I just returned from a wonderful road trip from Colorado to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, traveling through WY, UT, ID, and OR along the way.  Enroute we listened to most of Centennial, by James Michener, having started it on a road trip in May.  It did take two road trips because it's a long book, over a 1000 pages in the mass market paperback version I have on my shelf.

It was first published in 1974, anticipating the 100th anniversary of Colorado's statehood and the 200th anniversary of the USA's nationhood in 1976.  It is dated, with some quaint bits explaining how cassette players work in cars and the use of the term Chicano, which I haven't really heard much in about 20 years.

Centennial is a framed story, which I wasn't expecting.  The idea is that the first-person narrator is a historian, hired by a magazine to vet the research done by its staff on an article series on the Platte River, and its role in the shaping of Colorado.  The historian visits the fictional town of Centennial, which was located north of Greeley and east of Fort Collins, on the Colorado prairie, and sends back chapters that tell the story of Centennial, in his own words and based on his own research. It's a cute premise, and one that reflects what I know about how Michener set about writing his own massive novels--a team of researchers who put together the material that he drew from to create his own narrative.

As with most Michener works, Centennial begins with the formation of the earth and we get stories about the dinosaurs, prehistoric horses, bison, beavers, snakes, and eagles, all before Michener gets around to the human inhabitants of the land we know as Colorado.  Then, he describes the various tribes of Native Americans, focusing in on "Our People," the Arapaho, who lived in the part of Colorado where I live.  I loved hearing about Lame Beaver and his wife Blue Leaf and their daughter, Clay Basket, who married the two trappers who ventured into Arapaho lands to hunt and trade.  As a native Coloradan, I know the geography well that Michener describes, even though he changed many place names.

The rest of the story, from the trapper days to the present, was structured around real events and real people that Michener renamed and reformed to suit his story arcs.  For example, he moved the Sand Creek Massacre from southern Colorado to the northeastern plains.  Once I stopped protesting and accepted the fact that Centennial was pure fiction inspired by history, I enjoyed it.  My favorite character was Ellie Zendt, Levi's first wife, followed closely by Charlotte Lloyd, the British heiress who fell in love with the Colorado prairie and found Bristol boring by comparison!

Believe it or not, I've never actually watched all of the TV series (one of the first mini-series to come out), so I will be embarking on that project tonight.  But taking it slowly.  I know that the production values are as dated as Michener's narrative, but it is a veritable cast of 1970's stars, which should be loads of fun to see again).