A handful of good reads

Not a new release but an engaging story.

I have been on a really good reading run lately, These titles aren’t new releases and have little relationship to each other. They do, however, reflect various times in history. With the exception of Strapless which I read for one of my book groups, I picked them up because they looked good or came highly recommended. Although it’s great fun to read the new release everyone is talking about, I sometimes worry that focusing my reading there eliminates way too many good books. I’m trying to mix it up.

The Golden Hours by Beatriz Williams is one title (and not a new one) in her long series of historical fiction, a genre I really enjoy. This book alternates between the early days of WWII, in the Bahamas, when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were in residence (and they play a significant role in the WWII story) and twenty years before during WWI. Lots of romance and intrigue and — thanks to the Windsors — a fair amount of glam.

The Paris Library (and who even knew there was one) by Janet Skeslien Charles is another novel that moves between two distinct time periods — the Nazi occupation of Paris in WWII and a small Montana town in the early 1980’s. I found the Parisian story fascinating when it focused on the various subscribers to the library and how the staff and subscribers survived during the occupation, although I found the young heroine in Paris was maybe too naive. However, the intergenerational friendship between Lily and Odile in Montana was inspiring.

If you enjoyed watching The Empress on Netflix, you may really like reading more about Sisi.

After watching The Empress on Netflix, the story of Elisabeth “Sissi” von Wittelsbach, Princess of Bavaria who became Empress of Austria upon her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph, I picked up a copy of Siri: Empress on Her Own by Alison Pataki. A friend recommended it a few years ago and I just didn’t get around to it until now, but it picks up where The Empress left off. Despite its fairytale beginning, Sisi and the emperor did not enjoy a happy marriage, but she was beloved by her Austrian and Hungarian subjects and played an often pivotal role in the politics of the day.

I’m sure I shared with you earlier that my book group was reading Strapless by Debra Davis, about Virginie Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent’s controversial painting, unveiled at the 1884 Paris Salon. Both were relatively unheard of at the time, and hopeful that the painting would change that. Unfortunately Gautreau’s reputation did not assume the stardom of Sargent’s. In fact she was shunned socially, though Sargent, of course, eventually assumed a stellar reputation.

The story behind the story 

At the beginning or end of a book do you read the writer’s notes on how they got the idea for the book, did the research, and/or perhaps struggled to get this particular story all on paper? Often these comments are thrown in with long lists of thank-you’s to publishers, editors, assistants, researchers, family and friends. In some respects that makes them somewhat forgettable to the average reader. We just want to dig into the story itself. But then there are the times they reveal so much. I don’t  know how or when i started reading these notes, but this book had such interesting roots, I think they are worth sharing.

Davis happened onto the story when a friend compared a dress Davis wore to that of Madame X, AKA Gautreau.. Curious, Davis researched and discovered the woman, the painter and the painting. And then, of course, the story and the mounting research carried her along. This is more history than novel and unlike historical fiction there is almost no dialogue. In fact another member of the book club and I both wondered when the Preface would end and the story begin, until we realized it wasn’t the preface we were reading, but the book! 

So much of this is so interesting to me: the way Davis discovered the story, the amount of research she did on both of the main characters as well as other, more minor characters, to flesh out Sergant’s artistic background and the world of artists and patrons in which he moved. The same is true of Madame Gautreau who was initially something of a sensation in Parisian society and then, after the painting, led an increasingly circumscribed life. 

The most appealing bookstore

And while we’re talking about books, if you have not yet seen these pictures and many more of Beacon Hill Books and Cafe, You need to up your Instagram game. Recently opened on Boston ‘s Charles Street, photos of the charming, uber-stylish interior (which is apparently also available for private parties) are popping up everywhere. Or just visit the website for a closer look.

You could settle in here to read…
Or you could host a private event.

Looking ahead, one of my book groups has chosen Dinners with Ruth by Nina Totenberg as our next read. Totenberg is the legendary NPR correspondent and Ruth refers to her friend, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I just downloaded this to my Kindle and I can’t wait to read it! These two remarkable women were friends for nearly 50 years. I’ll also be catching up the the Book of the Month Club recommendations of my daughter and daughter-in-law.

What about you? Read any good books lately?

Thanks for taking the time to stop by. I’ll be back again soon!

The September miscellaneous file

Did you give summer a proper send-off last weekend? We did with a football theme, (see below). My miscellaneous file also includes a report of my summer without a garden as well as what I have been and will be reading. I hope you enjoy the this-and-that-ness of this post as I sink my teeth into September, one of my favorite months! (It’s those bluer than blue September skies that get me every year.)

Of books, book clubs, & good reads

After decades of participation in my Wheaton book club, I cannot tell you how many people have asked if I have found a new one. The short answer is yes. In fact, I found two. First, I joined one in our neighborhood. It limits participation to less than 10 people, a far cry from the twenty members, give-or-take another ten that I am used to. And while I am uncomfortable with the size limitation (who wants to tell someone they can’t come to the discussion?), I understand the reasoning. We met recently to discuss Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, had a great discussion, and the small group allows everyone to participate fully. 

Our next read is Strapless by Debra Davis, about Virginie Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent’s most famous painting, unveiled at the 1884 Paris Salon. Both were relatively unheard of at the time, but of course that quickly changed. Unfortunately Gautreau’s reputation did not assume the stardom of Sargent’s. It’s one of those books that has a bit of a buzz, and the story along with the 19th century art world setting should be interesting.

I’ve also discovered a very informal book group in the New Albany community. They will meet in October to discuss Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus which I just read and loved. It’s a book that begs for a conversation so I’m looking forward to that. 

I’ve decided the trick to finding a good book club is identifying one that likes to read the same material that you do, and maybe — hopefully — pushes you to read a bit beyond your comfort zone. It’s great if the books aren’t always current best sellers. Empire Falls was published in 2001, but there is so much depth and layering to the characters that the conversation just kept rolling. Not every book or author lends itself to that kind of examination. Some of my fellow readers in my last book group got me started on Louise Penny, and I devoured her mystery series. But I don’t think we would ever choose one for a book discussion. And I think the same is true of a lot of writers and not only of mysteries. What about you? 

My summer without a garden 

I’ve missed being able to go outside and cut some flowers for the table.

If you have followed my blog for long, you know I wrote often about my garden (for example here) and about cooking from the garden (as I did here and here), but at the Reset we are still waiting for irrigation, final grading and sod before we can plant much of anything. The front has been landscaped with boxwood, day lilies and a nice bed of mulch. I’m sure we’ll add to this scheme, but not until the builder finishes his work on the lot. 

In the meantime I have a few mis-matched planters of annuals on the front porch. There is no rhyme or reason to them: one over-sized pink geranium, because it was in full bloom back in May (and has continued to be so most of the summer), a pot of assorted coleus that I have cut back several times and yet it is taking over its spot along with a Boston fern from my grandson’s school flower sale. It’s also out of control. However, they don’t all really work together and so I need a better plan for next year. Any ideas?

And what about the missing vegetable garden? I honestly haven’t missed canning tomatoes (though I will probably miss cooking with them this fall). I bought some beautiful basil at the farmers market to make pesto. I do have pots with rosemary, thyme and parsley on the patio. so I can still duck out and snip what I need for a recipe.

This is Big Ten football country 

Meet Brutus, part OSU mascot, part OSU ambassador.

Columbus is the home of Ohio State University (my husband’s alma mater, but that’s another story) and you only have to be here once, on a fall Saturday, to grasp the football fever that grips Columbus. So, it should not have been a surprise to me — but it was — that when I attended a community event on September 1st — two days before kickoff against Notre Dame — the event had a bit of an OSU pep rally feel to it. EVERYONE — and I do mean EVERYONE — was dressed in some variation of an OSU shirt/hat/socks/shorts, etc. And in fact Brutus, pictured here, joined us for coffee. And that was just the beginning of kick-off weekend. We dropped by a community watch party in a park on Saturday night. It was fun – a huge screen streaming the game, food trucks, and more. Frankly, I am entertained by the fans as much as the game.

Thank you, as always, for stopping by to spend a little time with me. I hope you’re having a great week. And if you’re one of the millions experiencing our extreme weather, I hope the worst is behind you.

See you again soon!

June reading: history, mystery & gossip

 Wow! How did it get to be almost-July already? For me, June begins like a sweet promise — long, sunny days strung out for months. Then that image is interrupted by the flash, sparkle, and bang of July. It’s hotter, and the beach seems like a really good idea, but if you don’t act fast August is here and summer is waning. It’s back-to-school time and hay fever. Yikes! I’m making myself older just sitting here on my laptop. 

Forget the calendar, what I really meant to report on today are some books I’ve read over the last several weeks. My reading life has finally moved on from a seemingly endless stream of Stephanie Plum mysteries. I was just digging into London: The Novel by Edward Rutherford (a slow start but it does get better) when I was side-tracked by Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers. The hoopla surrounding the Queen’s Jubilee got me started on this. (I’m a sucker for the Queen, the rest of the royals not so much.) I’ll be honest — it begins with Camilla and Diana and ends with Kate and Megan. And the Queen is always at the center because, well, she is the Queen. Charles, Andrew, William and Harry play their respective parts, because no soap opera is complete without the men.  There is definitely a soap opera quality to the book. 

Brown draws from credible sources, though she rarely ever names them relying instead on her reputation as a journalist. What did I glean from this besides a lot of juicy gossip? First, power is everything in royal circles. If you have it, you need to keep it; if you have no power, you need to find some. It’s pretty simple. Second, a lot of this power is granted to secretaries, schedulers and PR teams (and, yes, everyone has one of them too). In fact it seems the royals often communicate via secretary to secretary. And if you have ever played telephone, you know how that goes. What a complicated life!

After that read I needed a bit of a palate-cleanser, so I picked up A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham. My daughter-in-law gave me this book for Christmas, along with a membership to the Book-of-the-Month Club, but then I got so focused on moving I put it aside. It was the perfect read! The story focuses on Chloe Davis, whose father was jailed 20 years earlier for a series of murders of young, teen-age girls. Now, after two decades and just as Chloe is about to marry, two more young women die in the same way. Chloe is oddly connected to these victims and forced to revisit the earlier murders to resolve the current ones and clear her own name. Solving the crime isn’t simple, and the mystery takes a number of twists and turns. I thought the unexpected ending was a stunner — when I finally got there. If you love a good mystery, this is for you. 

Looking ahead, this is my to-be-read stack, above. I’m really looking forward to This Tender Land by William Kent Kruger. I read and loved his earlier novel, Ordinary Grace, more than a few years ago. It’s one of those books that just stays with you. Read it if you can. My daughter gave me The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s one of her recent favorites. We both loved The Invention of Wings, also by Kidd. Finally, I’m looking forward to All That She Carried by Tiya Miles, a true story of an enslaved woman in 1850’s South Carolina and the bag she prepared for her nine-year-old daughter before they were separated. The bag continued to be shared thru subsequent generations. This may not be a “summer read,” but I’m looking forward to it. 

And that’s my summer reading plan for now. How about you? Any recommendations?

I’m so glad you stopped by & wish you a star-spangled July 4th holiday. 

See you again soon. 

Putting our stamp on the Reset

Our second move — from rental to new house — has posed some interesting creative opportunities. This house is much more open with more flexible living spaces, making how we want to use them the challenge. We think we’re getting a handle on it, and Steve and I have dived in, unpacking boxes and making the Reset our own. For someone who loves tweaking and arranging as much as I do, this is the perfect project. 

Once we saw the “flex room” under construction, Steve and I knew it would make a great library.

Those of you who visit Ivy & Ironstone regularly know I am a book lover and find it nearly impossible to part with many of my books. Add to that a shelf or two of books that I have kept from my parents, as well as Steve’s library and you can see why we moved 28 boxes of books. (Okay, some were partial boxes, with other items included. But still, 28 boxes!) 

I have been saving images of library walls and bookshelves to a Pinterest page since long before we knew we were moving, so you can imagine I had plenty of ideas on how to stow my library. And this house has a “flex” room off the foyer that Steve and I both thought would be perfect for a wall of book shelves.

Sourcing the shelves

Now that we had the space, we had to find the shelves. Months ago i started looking into buying finished book shelves. That resulted in serious sticker shock. I knew it would be pricey, but yikes! I decided to search out other options just to see. Our realtor suggested her handyman, so after we moved in I asked him to come by and look at what I had in mind. Alas, I had a “furniture look” in mind and that was not at all what he was envisioning. So, I’m saving his talents for other tasks, but I still needed the shelves and a place for all those books. 

Along the way, Steve and I had both been attracted to some Ikea hacks, including more than one involving their various bookshelf components. We made a few trips to Ikea checking out the options in person, coming home to measure again (and again!), and then finally purchasing three Hemnes bookcases in the black-brown finish. They’re made of solid pine with six shelves, five of them adjustable and one fixed for added stability. This was not a huge financial investment, so we thought we’d give it a try. 

Originally, we assumed we’d use four bookshelves because that fit the length of wall perfectly, but the shelves are deeper than the adjacent wall. We didn’t think we’d like the idea of them extending five or six inches into the doorway. We also thought we would choose white, but decided it might be a little “blah” against the pale walls and all the white trim. I knew I was going to use these shelves to show off some of our collectibles, and the dark background is a great foil for the ironstone and transferware I’ve used there.

The shelves went together easily, but assembly definitely took time.
We used additional hardware to anchor the frames together and then to the wall.
Once the shelves were up and anchored, I literally flew into action unpacking books, collectibles and arranging. This was so much fun!

The shelves need some finishing touches: some trim top and bottom and perhaps some lighting. But we had to stop here and move on to other projects just to get the boxes unpacked. Here’s some of the styling I did with pitchers, baskets and candlesticks.

 

I had not started out thinking I would put my baskets on top of the bookshelves, but I think they really work!
I used to gang all these candlesticks on my dining room table (with candles of course) and I loved that look. So, I tried it here, I just couldn’t fit in the candles!

Lessons from moving a collection

One of the things I’ve learned in the moving process is that I need to let go of some of my ironstone and transferware collections. This is in part a space consideration. I just don’t have the display space I once did. But I’m also opting for a leaner, cleaner look. When the realtors finished staging our former home for sale, I wasn’t at all thrilled about what they kept and what they removed, but I really liked the cleaner look. And to tell you the truth the house was beginning to look a little too granny-ish. So my new mantra is “keep the best, let go of the rest. “ 

I know I said I left five pitchers on top here, but I “borrowed” one for flowers on the kitchen island. And I just noticed the crooked print hanging above. Oops!

When I was styling the bookshelf, I used four of my favorite ironstone pitchers. Then I put another five of the best and biggest ones atop another cabinet. But I still have eight of them on a shelf behind this cabinet door, along with assorted sugar bowls, sauce tureens, etc. I used to think that I could never have enough white ironstone; now I’m not so sure.  

I have always loved collections — the bigger the better — and the character they lend to a space. And frankly I love the look of the blue and white transferware, the ironstone and the shelf of brass candlesticks on the library wall. I could “rotate my stock” from time to time or I could have a sale. What would you do? 

Thank you so much for stopping by. It’s taken me a while to get my head out of the boxes and back into the blog. But there’s so much more to talk about, like what I’ve been reading (did you see my Instagram post of the Book Loft in German Village), what I’ve cooked now that my kitchen is open for business, and have you seen “Downton Abbey: A New Era” ?

See you again soon!

Reading lately: It’s (almost) all a mystery

It’s been awhile since I have shared recent reads, and in gathering the titles for this post it’s clear that mysteries are my current genre of choice. And why, you ask? Mysteries are my go-to when I have a lot on my mind (like moving to a new state). In a series they can be a bit addictive, individually they capture my imagination but don’t require a big mental investment from me. 

Some, like the Stephanie Plum series below or Sue Grafton’s alphabet series (A is for Alibi) or Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series are addictive. They’re fun to read, and there’s always another title to tackle. They’re like binge-watching a favorite Netflix series.

As you know, I am a huge fan of Louise Penny and her Inspector Ganache series of mysteries, so I was intrigued when she left Three Pines long enough to team up with Hilary Rodham Clinton to write State of Terror, a page turner about a newly appointed female Secretary of State defusing an international crisis. This could have been a cliche, but not in their capable hands. I’m sure co-author Clinton is one of the few people who could provide the insight into international negotiations on which this plot hinged, as well as the behind-the-scenes life of a cabinet member. Penny is the ideal co-author to deftly maneuver the plot twists and turns the book into a true who-done-it. But one of the real joys in this story is how the Secretary of State and her best friend and confidante manage the crisis. It’s two women “making the world a safer place.” This is not great literature, but it is a really good read. 

My daughter-in-law gave me The Neighbor’s Secret by L. Alison Heller. Much like Liane Moriarty, Heller has a breezy style writing about the residents of an upper class suburb and the female book club members in this novel that act as the unofficial communications/moral code police/leadership system for the community. Sound familiar? In addition to the book club, their paths intersect at school functions and social events. Their kids are friends or not. Rivalries come and go. The story begins with a handful of acts of vandalism. Who would do such a thing in this lovely community and why?  And the mystery proceeds. This may not be as gripping as Louise Penny, but it has its moments. And you may find yourself reading more just to see what happens to the book club member that reminds you so much of your next-door-neighbor. Read this on the beach this summer, then pass it on to a member of your book club. 

And while we’re on the subject of beach reads, I started reading Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series (One for the Money, Two for the Dough, etc.) on the beach in South Carolina well over a dozen years ago. Plum is a hapless Trenton, New Jersey, bounty hunter who readily admits she captures her fugitives more by luck than skill. Her sidekicks include Lula, a former ‘ho, who consumes fried chicken and various donuts to calm herself, and Stephanie’s Grandma Mazur, who never misses a viewing at Stiva’s Funeral Home. Her back-ups include Ranger, a former military type with a profitable and mysterious protection business, and Morelli, a hunky Trenton cop and her on-again, off-again boyfriend. There are a host of other regular characters too, which makes this series at once fun and a little formulaic. I read several of these mysteries (and always laughed out loud at least twice in every one) before deciding that the stories were so similar I could not remember what I’d read. And I moved on.

But then we started this moving project and I needed a light, late night reading escape when I couldn’t sleep. I discovered the series had added several new titles. Stephanie Plum had moved all the way to Game On: Tempting Twenty-Eight. So, for several weeks I was back in Trenton, catching up on Plum’s recent adventures, at least until they got a little too formulaic. 

No mystery, just a fun read

Stanley Tucci’s latest book, Taste: My Life Through Food, is essentially a biography of his family’s  love affair with cooking, the recipes handed down from his Italian grandparents to his parents to Tucci and his sisters. His focus moves from his mother’s cooking to other memorable meals — from comfort food to celebratory food. Much of it is Italian, but it’s also French, Asian, British and more. (Tucci is both well-traveled and an adventurous eater.) Some of these cooks have Michelin Stars, some are preparing their mother’s treasured recipes in their own kitchen. If you watched “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” on CNN, you got a taste (no pun intended) of his appreciation of food and culture. This was a fun read — Tucci writes like he talks in the CNN series. He drops just enough Hollywood and Broadway names to keep the reader waiting for more, and he includes a number of recipes, his own and others from the chefs in the book.

What’s next? 

Here are a few on my short list:

  • London, the Novel by Edward Rutherford. You may recall I had a very slow start to his Paris book but then loved it, so I’m looking forward to London;
  • The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. Erdrich is a favorite author and this book is also featured in a recent issue of “Shelf Awareness” by Page 1 Books;
  • Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, recommended by Modern Mrs. Darcy, among others. My book club loved his American Marriage; and
  • A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham, a Book of the Month pick from my daughter-in-law.

What are you reading and/or recommending now? I’d love to hear!

Thanks for stopping by!

A bookish dilemma  

The last month has had its challenges. As a result my writing muscle got a little lazy. But it’s getting back in shape, and I have a reading dilemma to discuss.

Do you ever find it hard to get “into” a book?

I’m sure this happens to all of us. Sometimes a book just doesn’t click, And that’s okay. We all don’t have to read the same tings. But if you give it a second or even a third chance and you actually read and enjoy it, you have to wonder how many other books have you passed up? That’s dilemma #1.

A few years ago (or maybe more than that) my son recommended Edward Rutherford’s historical novel, Paris. So I picked up a copy and tried to read it, but I just couldn’t get into it: its 800 pages cover Parisian history through the lives of two families from some year in the 6th century to the 1990’s. It was daunting. There was always something more urgent/fun/appealing to read, so I put it aside.  

But Paris taunted me as it languished on my nightstand shelf in one of my to-be-read piles. I couldn’t  bring myself to give it away, but I also was not willing to crack it open again — until late this summer…

I decided to give Paris another try and gave myself permission to just skip the first few chapters, and jump in. (Note: my personal reading rules do not typically permit any shortcuts, but I granted an exception here.And this solved one of my dilemmas.) That jump-start worked, and I got hooked on the story (and also eventually went back and re-read those earlier chapters). Part of this may be that I just love France, including Paris, and if I could not visit in person then I would do so by book. But the story also hooks you with fictional families that flirt on the periphery of French history. One sent a daughter to the Court at Versailles, another worked with Monsieur Eiffel on his tower. The characters are all fictitious, but the history is real. It’s an interesting concept. I’m trying to decide which of Rutherford’s books to read next. Have you read any of them? Do you have a favorite? 

One author, two books

You may recall that in August I wrote here about reading The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. The bestseller is the story of the Vignes sisters, identical twins growing up in a small, Southern African American community who run away at 16. Initially they stick together, but one discovers she can pass as white and runs away again to create a new life. This is a story about identity and reinvention. My book group loved The Vanishing Half; it offered  a lot to discuss.

My daughter liked The Vanishing Half so much that she went on to read another, earlier novel by Brit Bennett, The Mothers. She liked it even better and passed it on to me. And guess what? I like it even better too. Of course, just because Mag and I might rank one book as better than another, is no reason for anyone else to do so. 

This got me thinking…

Why do we rank books at all? And how much do publishers and press agents, etc., determine the best sellers we read? I think we all tend to pick up books — both fiction and non-fiction — that have a buzz about them. They show up in popular magazines, on talk shows, in splashy bookstore promos. They’re often award winners or by tried and true authors. But I wonder how many good reads are slipping past because they may not have the same fanfare. (Dilemma #2: how do you find them?)

Lately I’ve paid more attention to recommendations from Modern Mrs. Darcy,  a lifestyle blog with a heavy emphasis on reading. I also read Shelf Awareness from Page 1 Books. (Please note that both blogs have a sales component, but buying is not a prerequisite for reading them. And, they support independent bookstores. A real bonus in my eyes.) They are not recommending the same books, so I think I’m getting a broader look at what’s out there. Mrs. Darcy does not rely solely on new books. A real bonus — there re so many good books already in print. Not every good read has to be a new release.

Why or how do we choose what we read? And I’m thinking here about choices beyond what the book club may be reading this month. Are you reading for information, entertainment, research? My guess is that our reasons for reading shift a lot. During the worst of the pandemic, I really just wanted to escape and entertain myself with a good story. For me that’s often a mystery or a biography. Lately I’ve begun to look more for information. Perhaps the pall of the pandemic is lifting from my brain a bit.

I’m frankly curious: has your reading changed over the last 18 or 20 months? And if so, how? Who and/or what is your source for reading recommendations? I’m just curious (my mother would say snoopy.) I’d really like to know.

Thanks for stopping by. Have a great week!

My latest book list!

July2018_WireBasketBooksSince my posts about books generate so many comments from you, my readers, I thought I would share at least some of the latest reading list my book group generated for August thru next July. This isn’t the complete list — just a “teaser.” 

If you are a regular Ivy & Ironstone reader, you may recall I am a member of a book group that’s been meeting on the first Friday morning of the month for well over 50 years. I wrote about it here   We  recently met to choose our books for the coming year.

This was also the first time we met in person since the pandemic began.  We have met faithfully via Zoom, but readily admit technology is a poor substitute for the intimacy of in-person greetings, mingling over coffee before we launch our discussion. Some hugs, lots of laughs. It’s just so good to be together, a shot of emotional tonic. 

But I digress. We’re talking books here and you probably  want to hear titles. I won’t bore you with all eleven books, but I will share a few I am especially looking forward to. 

Caution: if you’re looking for beach reads, this may not be the right place — although a few of them could be — and this list has little to do with best sellers, although a few of them are. It does include a few critically-acclaimed first novels, a few prize winners (or at least contenders) and some authors that this book club returns to again and again.  

First up, we are reading Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore, which I read and wrote about here. I really liked this book and, more importantly, think it will generate a good discussion. It’s not “happily ever after,” but it is a story that stays with you. I’m eager to see what the rest of the group thinks.

We’re also reading The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, about African-American twin sisters from small-town Louisiana who eventually move to the city where they discover one can pass as white. This revelation fractures the sisterhood and examines the subject of identity and family. It’s been included on several “best books of 2020” lists. It was already on mine. 

This group often goes back to authors we have enjoyed in the past, so we chose The Cold Millions by Jess Walter, author of The Beautiful Ruins, which we loved. Set in 1909 Spkane, the novel focuses on two brothers caught in the class warfare of the early the twentieth century. Sound familiar? More than one critic has noted the similarity to today’s social climate. 

I may take the next two titles with me to the beach next month. Technically they are not necessarily “beach reads,” but I’m looking forward to reading both. And who defines “beach read” anyway?

The first is Stories from Suffragette City, a collection of 13  short stories all set on October 23, 1915, when thousands of women marched up Fifth Avenue in New York demanding the right to vote. We  love the topic and the history. I think this may be our first short story effort, so it will be an interesting discussion. It is, of course, our October selection.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman is described as “an intelligent mystery about four septugenarian sleuths who find themselves in the center of a murder investigation.” It’s set in an English home for senior citizens. It sounds a little whimsical,  but several members of my book group are also enthusiastic mystery readers. And I have no comment on the “septugenarian” angle. 

I’ll share more with you as the reading year goes on. In the meantime, if you want a break from reading and some pretty pictures to look at, how about these personal libraries? I don’t need a separate room, but would love a library wall like one of these. 

EricCrossBookshelves

JamesTFarmerShelves

Before I close, I want to thank all of you who took the time to wish my husband and me well after our “break through” Covid diagnosis. Your care and concern are sincerely appreciated. (And, boy, quarantine is really lonely!) We have recovered & are catching up on what we missed. It’s very good to be back!

That’s it for now. Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

Hemingway, french toast, & garden starts 

EHemingwayHow are you & how’s your  week? It’s chilly and rainy here in Chicagoland, with the potential for snowflakesI I was working on a couple of posts, then realized I could just mash them into one. Hopefully a little something for everyone.  Here for your reading pleasure are books, looks, cooks and gardens all in one! Enjoy!

Did you watch the 3-part Hemingway series on PBS? As an English major with a concentration in 20th Century American writers, I positively devoured each episode. (Plus, it’s produced by Ken Burns. How could you go wrong?)

Hemingway is all you would expect from the Ken Burns team — a deep dive into a man both charismatic and cruel, a brilliant writer in search of “one perfect sentence.” Many of his books were deemed instant classics, others suffered withering reviews. While still in his twenties, Hemingway and his first wife became part of the romantic group of authors and artists in Gertrude Stein’s “salon.” In fact, Stein read and critiqued much of his work and F. Scott Fitzgerald introduced him to his publisher. 

What has always fascinated me about Hemingway the writer is how spare he is with words. Editing, revising, and editing more. Some of the most telling scenes of the series detailed his careful, endless editing of his own work, crossing out words, sentences, and entire paragraphs until he had the manuscript he wanted. He wrote books and short stories full of perfect sentences, but as the literary scholars and contemporary writers in the series point out, some of his writing was stunning, some just fell flat. 

Hemingway the man was complex. He married fours times, falling in love with wives number two, three and four while still married to their predecessors. He adored his three sons but later experienced angry splits with them just as he had with his own mother. He drank too much, dared too much, inserted himself into two world wars and more than one foreign civil war. He loved bullfighting, hunting big game in Africa and designed his own boat for fishing the waters off Key West and Havana. He lived a very big life that was often depicted in his novels and short stories.

For me, Hemingway is both writer and cultural character  from a significant period in American history. The series captures that history memorably. You need not be a book lover or Hemingway fan to appreciate the context.

(If you want to toast the new season with Hemingway’s famous daiquiri, you can get the recipe from David Lebovitz here, )

French toast perfection

IMG_4741For years I made the most basic pancakes and waffles — you can do just about anything with that box of mix, right? My husband, however, really likes french toast. His is pretty basic: sandwich bread dipped in beaten eggs and grilled. I just never saw (or tasted) the charm. However, our annual beach trips have always included at least one trip to a breakfast buffet I would describe as breakfast nirvana — chafing dishes of bacon, sausage, grits, potatoes, waffles, pancakes or — wait for it — french toast. This is thick, flavorful french toast, much more than eggs and bread. Earlier this spring, when my husband and I had way too much time on our hands and were hanging around the house waiting for vaccinations, we went on a quest for french toast perfection.

IMG_4707The bread is essential. We tried an unsliced white country-style loaf that we could slice thicker. It was good, but I thought the bread should contribute more flavor. Next we tried a brioche, again in a loaf we sliced. This was too soft (maybe I should have let it sit for a few more days?). It did not hold up well to eggs or grilling. Finally, I found an unsliced challah loaf. This was our favorite, although I think it should also age for a day or so. 

We also needed the right egg mixture. We took a look at some “fancier” recipes and began to tinker with each batch. We beat the eggs with cream instead of milk. (Typically the only milk in our refrigerator is skim and it just doesn’t work in recipes requiring a certain silkiness.) To boost the flavor, we added fresh orange juice, orange zest and a dash of Grand Marnier. (The additions in the restaurant recipe we used as a jumping off point.)

The first batch with the country white bread, juice, zest and Grand Marnier was a definite improvement over our old bread and eggs, but too orange-y. When we tried it with the brioche we skipped the juice and used the zest and Grand Marnier. Better flavor, messy toast. Our next effort used the challah and the improved egg mixture. This was the keeper. 

We learned a few things from our recipe testing: 

  • Using cream or cream cut with half & half gave the egg mixture a lot more body. 
  • Beat eggs until they are completely smooth (no globs of egg white). 
  • Zest is better than juice; a tablespoon of liqueur adds a subtle touch. 
  • The bread is everything. It needs to be at least a day or two old and sliced 3/4 to 1-inch thick. 
  • We dipped the bread in the egg mixture, flipping it over to make sure it was fully coated, then laid the slices in a single layer in a shallow pan. When all the slices were in the pan we poured the remaining batter over them.

IMG_4708As a cook, I enjoyed making this a few times in quick succession, tweaking the recipe until I had something I was willing to serve friends and family. But, let’s face it, this was a decadent experiment. We only added the bacon and fruit on the last try and each time we made this it was more brunch than breakfast. We used 4 eggs and 3/4 C of cream to make 6 slices, two of which we never touched. 

So, we’re ready for houseguests, brunch on the porch and maybe even Father’s Day, but it’s probably best for our waistlines and our cholesterol that we’re vaccinated, the weather has warmed considerably, and we’re tackling a long list of outdoor projects. 

Garden starts

Chicagoland gardening is slow to start compared to so many other parts of the country. But despite erratic temperatures,  Mother Nature has been busy. Daylilies, daisies, hostas and perennial geraniums are greening up the beds. I have tulips and daffodils in all stages of bloom. And this redbud is getting ready to show off. 

Although I am not at all good at starting annuals by seed, I did start one tray of marigolds and cosmos, and look! They’re coming up. The real trick, however, is making the transition from these nurturing peat pots into garden spaces. Fingers crossed! 

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I hope your garden is greening up, you’ve found something engrossing to read or watch, and — if all else fails — just make some french toast!

Thanks for stopping by. See you aqgain soon!

In my January Kitchen

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Mise en place on the new cutting board.

January has been a fun month in my kitchen thanks to some new tools from my family. And with new tools, of course, come new recipes and a few new lessons. 

For starters, I have been wanting one of these Boos wooden cutting blocks since I worked on a smaller one at The Cook’s Atelier in France. Working on wood is much kinder to my knives than the vinyl and ceramic mats I have been using. This one is large  ( 15” by 20”) and therefore genuinely heavy. I can’t just snatch it up with one hand, and I may have to re-think how & where I store it, but it’s a delight to work on. It stays in place on the counter and is roomy enough to work with large vegetables, meats, etc.

Wood boards are a bit picky about maintenance. They clean up with soap & water, but must be immediately dried. Wood can be sprinkled with salt, then wiped with lemon  to eliminate strong odors (a.k.a. garlic); wiping with distilled vinegar disinfects the board after cutting raw meat. Treated to regular coats of oil, my board should last a life time. 

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Plenty of yummy comfort here. 

I was eager to give the block a work out, so I launched a two-day soup-making marathon using recipes from Ina Garten’s new book, Modern Comfort Food, a gift from my son & daughter-in-law. Ina’s Chicken Pot Pie soup is fabulous, every bit as delicious as her recipe for the pot pies in Make It Ahead, but with a flavorful broth instead of white sauce. There are a few ingredients that give it an edge over standard chicken soups: leeks, fennel, tarragon and a piece of parmesan cheesed rind that adds a subtle but yummy flavor dimension. 

Then, because I had a hambone left from Christmas and a bag of split peas, I made her pea soup, also in New Comfort Cooking. I love pea soup and this one is delicious and pretty much what I have always made based on my mother’s recipe which was my grandmother’s recipe. (As I write this I realize that my family recipe was never written down. I’d call Mom and say how do I do this and she would walk me through it. I’m sure she learned it from watching Grandma. Do you use recipes like this?)

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Each tray section is marked for 1 and 2 cups. This is a 2-cup porti0n.

Both recipes gave me plenty of chopping and dicing practice on my new board, but making the pots of soup also exhausted my supply of homemade chicken stock. So a few days ago I got out the pot, a cut-up chicken and the requisite fresh veggies to make more. This time in addition to a few quarts of stock for the freezer I also have frozen, 2-cup blocks of stock thanks to these silicone soup blocks, also from my daughter-in-law. Each section holds up to 2 cups of liquid. After freezing, you can pop them out of the tray (like ice cubes) and keep them frozen in a bag. They should be the perfect quantity for recipes calling for a lesser amount of chicken stock and they take less freezer space. Win/win!

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And look: My name is on the cover!

I hope you are’t too bored yet because I have one more tool to share and it’s this kitchen journal from my daughter. I have wanted something like this for some time, initially to track menus and what I served and to whom and when. Sometimes it would also be nice to refer back to how much of a given dish/appetizer/dessert I served. (As in, what cheeses were the favorites on the cheese board and what did everyone pass on?) It’s perfect for recording those unwritten recipes, like Grandma’s pea soup, my stuffing recipe, and how I prep and freeze summer vegetables.

There’s probably an app to track this on my computer, but since I am a paper and pen girl at heart, I love the idea of writing it down.

I know these are essentially small things, details perhaps in the grand scheme. But I am grateful to have this interest to fall back on during the continuing pandemic. Cooking is creating as much as painting, drawing, knitting, sewing, and all the other pursuits so many of us have adopted to stay engaged, to look forward. 

What about you? What’s keeping you going these winter days?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

27 Books…and counting!

 

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Except for the Marie Benedict book on top, the rest of this stack is “to be read.”

The reading app that I use on my iPad gave me a remarkable report the other day: I’ve read 27 books on my electronic sidekick this year! Trust me; I’m not a numbers person. (I can’t even tell you what a loaf of bread or gallon of milk costs!)  I don’t think I’ve ever tallied my reading before. This number just popped up, so I went thru the list. Yep, it’s right.

Most of this has been what I would call my “pandemic reading,” more than a dozen Louise Penny mysteries and, when I ran out of Louise Penny, I went thru the Sue Grafton alphabet mysteries that I had missed along the way. No surprise this worked for me. There are some similarities: both series feature likable detectives and charming casts of returning characters. I find them remarkably easy to slide into and escape current events.

But there’s more: I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I usually downloaded these books late at night when I really needed new reading material and found the $6.99 to $8.99 price tag a bargain versus looking for a sleeping pill. (Have you suffered from insomnia the past year?) Of course, there is the chance I got so engrossed in the books, that I read longer than I should have. But that’s another post. 

No apologies

These were the books I read when I couldn’t concentrate on anything tougher, and I make no apologies. Like so many others, I found that the pandemic, civil unrest and the charged political atmosphere made for some very unsettling times. I have often thought of reading as an escape or the roadmap to information and answers. My iPad reading list reveals just how much I needed to escape! 

On the other hand, as you may recall from other posts, I did truly enjoy some meatier reads in 2020. The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir by Ruth Wariner is one of those books that has stayed with me. I wrote about it here    One of my favorites was The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson. This book was based on real events and had an especially meaningful message about about racism and bigotry. I wrote about it here  I wrote about three more great reading choices here,  Check them out. 

I think, however, my favorite was Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile recounting Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister. Larson’s writing seamlessly marries the details of aircraft, strategic planning and internstional diplomacy with lively details of everyday life drawn from his impeccable sources. Churchill surrounded himself with a colorful cast of characters, and his family was equally entertaining and plays a significant role in the book. For history nerds like me, it was totally engrossing. (A member of my book group confided that she was only permitting herself to read a limited number of pages per day, to make the book last longer!)

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My book group is discussing this next week. I can’t wait to hear what everyone else thinks. 

I just finished The Only Woman in the Room by  Marie Benedict. Like The Sound of Gravel and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, this story of Hedy Lamarr’s (Yes! That Hedy Lamarr!!)  role as a scientific inventor (with composer George Antheil) of a “frequency-hopping” radio communication technology that eventually was linked to the development of our wifi is a well-layered tale. Before she was Hedy Lamarr actress, she was Hedy Kiesler, young  Austrian actress and then Hedy Mandl, married to Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy, pro-fascist  Austrian arms dealer and munitions manufacturer.

Lamarr’s escape from Nazi Austria to Hollywood stardom is more than enough to make for a good read, but her struggle to be accepted for more than her beauty and glamour makes it a contemporary tale as well. Author Benedict has a talent for telling the story of women who broke the rules of convention by moving well-beyond their expected roles. The Other Einstein recalls the life of Mileva Maric,  a brilliant physicist who just happened to be the first wife of Albert Einstein, and Lady Clememtine, wife of Winston Churchill, both of them also often “the only woman in the room.” (These last two are also both good reads.)

Looking back at the year in books, instead of what I missed because of the pandemic, I realize I am genuinely lucky to enjoy the riches I’ve found in reading.  Hopefully you can look back with a similarly thankful heart. Looking ahead, I sincerely wish you a healty and happy new year. And plenty of good reading material!

Thanks for stopping by!

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