Sunday, September 04, 2022

The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall

I love to visit Italy, and I love to learn about its history. Since I am on a mission to read all of the books I received as gifts last year, I eagerly turned The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall, by Christopher Hibbert. Published in 1974, it's not the latest scholarship, but I did enjoy it for the most part and read it fairly carefully until Part IV, 1537 - 1743. Like most people I am most interested in the rise of the family during the Renaissance, but I found my mind wandering while reading about the last of the Medici. I sort of felt like author did too, and the narrative became far less compelling in the last section. 

I also loved learning more about Florence, especially on the heels of reading City of Vengeance earlier this summer. I visited Florence in 2015 and although I loved seeing David in particular, I really expressed then and since that I had no desire to revisit the city because of the hordes of tourists. After reading so much about Florence, I'm reconsidering but would definitely go in the off season. I can deal with wind and rain better than I can crowds.

I was disappointed in the illustrations, which were just black and white images and some of them pretty grainy. Now, I am on the lookout for a more modern book, with color illustrations, on the same topic. Any suggestions?

I also want to watch, for the 3rd time, the marvelous TV series, Medici. I know it is not all historically accurate, but the production is great and fun to watch.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Old Filth - Jane Gardam

I picked up Old Filth, by Jane Gardam, a few years ago after a friend was shocked that I hadn't read it much less heard of it. And then it sat on my TBR shelf until I pulled it out on a whim last week. I really had no preconceptions going in, so it was a complete joy to find out what a superb book this is.
Here is the GoodReads blurb by way of synopsis:
Sir Edward Feathers has had a brilliant career, from his early days as a lawyer in Southeast Asia, where he earned the nickname Old Filth (FILTH being an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong) to his final working days as a respected judge at the English bar. Yet through it all he has carried with him the wounds of a difficult and emotionally hollow childhood. Now an eighty-year-old widower living in comfortable seclusion in Dorset, Feathers is finally free from the regimen of work and the sentimental scaffolding that has sustained him throughout his life. He slips back into the past with ever mounting frequency and intensity, and on the tide of these vivid, lyrical musings, Feathers approaches a reckoning with his own history. Not all the old filth, it seems, can be cleaned away.

Borrowing from biography and history, Jane Gardam has written a literary masterpiece reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling's Baa Baa, Black Sheep that retraces much of the twentieth century's torrid and momentous history. Feathers' childhood in Malaya during the British Empire's heyday, his schooling in pre-war England, his professional success in Southeast Asia and his return to England toward the end of the millennium, are vantage points from which the reader can observe the march forward of an eventful era and the steady progress of that man, Sir Edward Feathers, Old Filth himself, who embodies the century's fate.
I loved the way Gardam told Eddie's story, as he remembers his childhood and grapples with the loneliness and failing health of his present. The writing is clean and elegant and deeply emotional without being overblown or hysterical, much like Eddie himself. My heart absolutely ached for the "Raj Ophans," like Eddie who were shipped back to Britain as very young children for fostering and then school while their ex-pat parents pursued their lives and careers in the far-flung corners of the empire.

My favorite part of the novel was when Eddie joins the army during WWII and is part of the guard protecting Queen Mary (the king's mother) from kidnapping while she was evacuated from London. Their intereaction made me want to learn more about this particular member of the royal family. His remembrances of this time while visiting it as an old man was absolutely compelling.

There are two more books in the series. The second, The Man in the Wooden Hat, is focused on Eddie's wife Betty, and the third, Last Friends, is the story of his nemesis, Terry Vedeering. Both sound terrific.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Mid-August Roundup - Reading, Walking, Learning

Dog days of summer--lots of rain in Colorado (hurrah!), a bit cooler weather, still no tomatoes. What's up with that? But don't you love my sunflower garden? The teddy bear sunflowers are finally coming out, and they are adorable!

Lots of walking. I've been closing my circles on my Apple Watch every day since Jan 1, and accomplished the July challenge (average 60 minutes of exercise per day), and I 'm track to do the August challenge (average burn 668 calories from exercise per day). Am I proud of this? You bet!

In addition to reading, I've been listening to Great Courses on Audible. Here's what I've listened to so far:

  • The Vikings, by Kenneth Harl - a 36-lecture course on the history and impact of the Vikings in medieval Europe. Absolutely, wonderful. The net-net is that Harl believes that the Viking raids, settlements, and assumption of power in certain areas was a major force in shaping Christian Europe. The Normans who invaded England in 1066 were essentially Vikings who had settled in Normandy and took control of the area. I did not realize that!
  • A History of Hilter's Empire, by Thomas Childers - a 12-lecture course that outlined the development of the Nazi party, its rise and fall. Again, incredibly interesting.
  • World War II: A Military and Social History, by Thomas Childers - I am just over half-way through this 30 lecture course. While I am getting more comfortable with the chronology and key points of the war in Europe, I am getting information that is largely new to me about the war in the Pacific and North Africa and the southern Mediterranean.
So why all this learning about WWII? My daughter and I are planning a trip to Germany in March/April. Because we are both interested in WWII, we want to visit a lot of the museums and historical sites from that time and the Cold War, so I wanted to do some pre-trip learning. I am also learning some German via Duolingo.

Now on to what I've been reading. 

The Midcoast, by Adam White - we're headed back to Maine for 10 days in September, so I wanted to read another novel set in Maine, and I saw this on a few blogs and thought I would give it a try. It was a solid 4-star novel, a debut novel, set in a very small town in Maine with an interesting story. Basically, the main character, Andrew, is a lot like Nick in The Great Gatsby in that he observes the rise and shattering fall of a family and how the facade of money and power can crumble when pushed even a little. The main character is an observer, not a player, without having much of a storyline himself. Not sure how this novel is doing overall in the market, but I think it could definitely use a better title, which I found dull and not enticing at all.

City of Vengeance, by D.V. Bishop - this is the first in a mystery series set in 16th century Florence and featuring Cesare Aldo, an officer working for the criminal courts in Florence, which bascially makes this a cop mystery. Absolutely loved the setting and Cesare is a great character with lots of potential for future stories. The writing was good and the mystery was interesting. Will definitely read the second in the series. Interestingly, I thought at the beginning of the book that it was going to be a take on The Merchant of Venice, as the first section deals with a gruff Jewish moneylender and his wayward daughter. The story didn't end up paralleling Merchant at all, but I was afraid we were straying into stereotypical grounds. Glad the author pulled back and told his own story without riding on Shakespeare's coattails. At 416 pages, this books squeaks under the wire to qualify for the Big Book Summer challenge.

The Diamond Eye, by Kate Quinn - WOW! I loved this book about a female, Russian sharpshooter during WWII. Not quite as good as The Rose Code, but wonderful nevertheless. I especially enjoyed the first part of the book, where Mila (aka Lady Death) is learning to be a soldier and developing her leadership skills (she eventually commands a platoon). The second part of the book deals with her visit to the US, Canada, and Great Britiain to drum up support for the US to aid the Allies and fight the Nazis. Mila Pavlichenko was a real person who wrote a memoir about her time in the Red Army and her trip to the US. The Author's Notes at the end is critical to enjoying/understanding the book, in my opinion, as she explains that 90% of the characters in the book are real people, and the only parts that she really fabricated were the larger story of Mila's estranged husband and the stalker who is trying to kill Roosevelt while she is visiting the White House. I particularly loved Mila's relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, of whom I am a big fan! Reading this book while listening to the WWII Great Courses lectures was a perfect pairing.

Clocking in at 435 pages, this book also qualifies for the Big Book Summer challenge

Hope everyone has a good rest-of-August and happy reading, walking, and learning!

Friday, August 05, 2022

Summer Garden Stew - or How to Use Up All That Squash

I've made the following concoction twice now and it is so delicious I simply had to share. This is definitely my own recipe, based on what I have on hand. 
  • Peel and dice medium yellow squash. I didn't grow zucchini this year, but I think it would work just as well. 
  • Peel and dice 1-2 Japanese eggplants. They're small, so just have roughly equal amounts of squash and eggplant. 
  • Dice any other veg you have on hand--last time I threw in some bell pepper, but I didn't have any this time; carrots are also good.
  • Core, halve, and thinly slice one medium to small jalapeno pepper (or omit if you don't want the heat).
  • Peel, smash, and chop 3-4 cloves of garlic.
  • Saute the vegetables in olive oil and season with salt and pepper, onion powder (or add diced onions), oregano, and thyme. 
  • Add 1 14.5 oz can of fire roasted diced tomatoes with their juice. I don't have any homegrown tomatoes yet, but I'm eager to sub them in when I do. 
  • Add juice of 1 lemon. 
  • Add diced cooked bacon and/or sausage. I had some leftover from Sunday breakfast and it adds a nice depth of flavor as well as protein, but going meatless is certainly an option. 
  • Let simmer 5 minutes or so. 

Try to limit yourself to one bowl of this incredible goodness at a time!

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Mid-summer Mini Reviews

The twin peaks, Longs Peak and Mt Meeker, on my Saturday morning walk earlier this month.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman - finally got around to reading this, knowing nothing about the story whatsoever, so was pretty blown away by how good it was. Honeyman did a masterful job in keeping Eleanor's pov on target. In a way, it reminded me of a time travel story in which a person from another time/space is plunked down in the modern world and is aghast at what passes for normal amongst the natives. I loved how Eleanor grew as a person as she traveled the road from trauma to health, and the ending was particularly satisfying.

A Sunlit Weapon, by Jacqueline Winspear - the latest Maisie Dobbs mystery, still in WWII, but this time focused on female pilots and the work they did during the war. I absolutely love this series and seeing the war through Maisie's eyes and experiences.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell - I read O'Farrell's Hamnet last year and absolutely loved it, so when Joann of Gulfside Musing reviewed this earlier novel by O'Farrell, I promptly got a copy and dived right in. Like Eleanor Oliphant, the story is about a woman who is out of step with her world. In this case, Esme is the wild child of a conservative colonial family that returns to Scotland from India in the early 20th century (between the wars). Like Honeyman, O'Farrell does a masterful job of revealing the full scope and horror of Esme's story layer by layer over time as her last living relative, Iris, digs for the truth of who Esme is and what her family did to her. I cannot say that I loved the ending as I did with Eleanor--in fact, it shocked and disturbed me. It almost ruined the book for me, but I respect O'Farrell and trust that she told the story she wanted to tell.

Sharpe's Triumph, by Bernard Cornwell - number 2 chronologically in the series about Richard Sharpe, soldier of the British Empire, circa 1800. As with the first book, this was a terrific adventure story in which I learned about military strategy and the British subjugation of India. I picked up the next four books in the series--it's that good!

Hope everyone is having a good summer if you are in the northern hemisphere and a good winter if you are down under. It's been hot here in CO, but mercifully our afternoon thunderstorms are yielding much needed rain (though not nearly enough, as always), which cools everything off to bearable.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

My first big book of the summer, qualifying for the Big Book Summer Challenge, is a reread of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire aka The Duchess, by Amanda Foreman. I loved it as much the second time around as I did the first time when I read it 15-20 years ago (in my pre-GoodReads days when I didn't keep track of when I read what).

Knowing the arc of Georgiana's story as well as her weaknesses, strengths, frustrations, and ambitions, I was more understanding of the predicaments she got herself into but no less frustrated. Without giving too many spoilers, she was a compulsive gambler and wasted so much time, money, and energy throwing away her husband's money, dodging creditors, and lying and scheming to get out from under the pressing weight of her debts, that it is a wonder she had time to do all that she was able to do in the political world of George III, William Pitt the Younger, and Charles James Fox.

I loved reading about her early days when she was the fashion leader of the ton. I was pleasantly surprised to read about her fascination and study of chemistry and mineralogy during her later years--I had completely forgotten that aspect of her story--she preferred going to lectures rather than socializing in her 40's and even had her own chemistry lab.  I also hadn't recalled all the writing Georgiana had done, poetry as well as fiction and plays, and how respected it was by the readers of her day. I felt the same level of frustration as before when I read about her adulterous husband preventing her from seeing her children when it turns out she had an affair of her own. 

During this reading I also really noticed how Foreman depicted Bess (i.e., Lady Elizabeth Foster) as the villain in Georgiana's life, painting her as an insincere, conniving friend who everyone but the Duchess and her Duke could easily see through. It might actually be interesting to read a biography of Bess. Every narrative needs a villain, of course, and not many in Georgiana's circle truly liked her, but I do wonder how fair Foreman was with this portrayal. Georgiana loved her and confided in her until she died, which counts for a lot in the final reckoning.

This is an incredibly readable bio with just enough detail to make the Georgian world come alive but not mind-numbing with extraneous minutia. I felt that this time I was able to follow the political story much better than the first time around when I was more interested in finding out how Georgiana's life turned out than whether the Whigs or the Tories were in power. I also hadn't recalled what a scoundrel Sheridan was. Makes me think twice about liking his School for Scandal, in which he used Georgiana as a model for Lady Teazle to her absolute delight, without considering what else he was up to beyond writing plays.

As always, I enjoyed reading about Georgiana's travels throughout Europe, particularly her time in France before and during the Revolution. I find Georgiana to be a fascinating historical person--charming, intelligent, democratic, and brimming with life and wit.

Here are my thoughts (from 2009) about the movie The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley as Georgiana.

Finally, I found myself thinking a fair amount about Princess Diana while reading this bio. There have been many articles noting the parallels between the lives of Diana and Georgiana, who was her great-aunt many times over (Georgiana was a Spencer too). Here is a pretty good NYT article on the topic.

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.