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!

27 Books…and counting!

 

IMG_4555
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!)

IMG_4558
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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Cranky August

I have always had mixed feelings about August. On the one hand, summer’s winding down, the beach is behind us, my husband’s hay fever settles in for a week or two of misery for him. On the other hand, there are all the new pens, pencils and notebooks (I still buy a few for myself) and the prospect of a fresh start. Here are a few August 2020 ups & downs.

One good read

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson, turned out to be an especially timely choice for my book group to read and discuss last month. The title sounded a little quirky, but the story is based on fact. In the 1930’s the WPA recruited women from tiny Appalachian towns and hamlets to deliver books, magazines and any other available reading materials to isolated homes and schoolhouses. This was a poverty-stricken landscape, and the women had to provide their own mule, horse or donkey to help them travel their forested, mountain routes. Hazards included snakes, bears, weather and individuals who did not want their families to have reading materials. Couple those conditions with the fact that the main character, Cussy Mary Carter, is blue. She suffers from a genetic disorder called methemoglobinemia. Her blue skin tone places her with the “coloreds.” In addition to poverty and illiteracy, Cussy Mary’s story also confronts racism head on.

(Hematologist Madison Cawein III eventually studied this condition and was able to treat some families with methylene blue, alleviating symptoms and reducing their blue skin coloring.)

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek could have been a difficult read, but most of us found it absolutely mesmerizing. And sadly its themes mirror much of what we have been grappling with the last few months. After 85 or 90 years, we still haven’t figured this out.

I know I’m not the only reader who has found it difficult to concentrate on books during the pandemic. Despite the fact that this book really captured my attention, as have a few others earlier this spring (you can read about them here and here  and here ) I have generally found it difficult to read many that I know I’ll enjoy later. I’ve read my way through Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and moved on to Dona Leone’s Guido Brunetti mysteries (They’re set in Venice!). Right now I’m diving into the fourth Harry Potter. One friend told me she re-read Gone With the Wind, “pure escapism,” she said. Escapism is good. Most of all I think many of us want to reach back to another time — maybe any time — even if its a tough time like WWII, Winston Churchill and The Vile and the Beautiful.

What about you? Have your reading choices changed during the pandemic?

My cranky mood

My husband and I set out on our morning walk recently when he mentioned that I seemed to be in a cranky mood. “Yes, I am,” I said, offering no apology. “So,” he said, “should I be heading in the opposite direction?” “No,” I assured him, because I enjoy this time together and it was one of those brilliant, blue-sky August mornings and not really at all hot. And by the time we got back, 40 minutes later, I did feel better. Fresh air and sunshine are therapeutic.

If we have learned anything at all from the pandemic it is to savor good days and time together.

My cranky mood, however, continues to simmer below the surface. And I don’t think it’s necessarily all related to the pandemic. This has just turned into such an ugly time. A pandemic should not be political; it should be about stemming the virus and saving lives. There is so much anger, most of it justifiable. As a lifelong Chicagoan, waking up on a Monday morning to once again see the windows smashed at Marshall Field’s (Yes, I know it’s Macy’s now, but to many of us the building will always be Field’s), I felt literally sick.

I have tried to counter all this with a little more socially distant socializing with friends, and my husband has even pried me out of the house to eat outside at a local restaurant. (Really, the first time sine March.) Being with friends helps. Being with strangers is hard.

How’s your mood? And if it’s at all cranky, what’s your antidote? I’d love to hear.

See you again soon!

 

Three to read and one from my soapbox

There’s always another read waiting on my bookshelf!

My road thru the pandemic has been paved with a significant stash of books. Reading has been (as it nearly always is) my salvation. Like many of you I often tilted these months at something a little lighter, or at least from another time period. I didn’t want to feel like I was reading the news. But along the way I also read three memorable titles.

Some books are challenging, but you still can’t put them down. There are those that are challenging to the point of troubling, but still compelling. I recently read three novels in short order that fit that description. Each had some uncomfortable moments and pushed my thinking — about the pandemic, African Americans, and immigration. And that, of course, is the “reader’s curse.” You read things that make you squirm, feel sad, maybe even make you want to walk away, but then you come back to see what happens next.

First, An American Marriage

I wrote briefly about the Tayari Jones bestseller here. It’s a popular title on a number of reading lists. The story centers on an upwardly mobile African American couple in Atlanta. They are married for just a short time when, on a visit to the husband’s family in a small town, the husband is accused of sexual assault. You can see where the story spirals. He is arrested, tried and jailed. And while he depends on her as his link to the world, she begins to move on.

I am probably over-simplifying here, but Jones does a remarkable job with characters whose life spirals in a predictable way, but one that is perhaps foreign to most readers. I read this earlier this spring, weeks before the death of George Floyd. If you haven’t read it yet, think about doing so now.

Then my daughter shared Valentine

Elizabeth Wetmore’s debut novel was one of Jenna Bush Hager’s recent picks for her Today Show book club. When she announced this title she noted that readers from West Texas will really get this book (and I’m paraphrasing here). Well, I’m not from West Texas, but this is one compelling read. I understand why my daughter couldn’t put it down, because I couldn’t either.

Set in the 1970’s the story revolves around women in a dirt-poor town in West Texas. They are thrown together after a fourteen-year-old girl — an immigrant from Mexico — is savagely attacked. Yes, there is violence, racism and poverty, but there is also strength, humor, hope and bravery. This is Elizabeth Wetmore’s first novel and I think she hits it out of the park.

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

.My book group is discussing this title on Friday at our monthly Zoom meeting. (Also a Jenna Bush Hager choice.) This book opens in Palestine in 1990 when seventeen-year-old Isra is married off to a Palestinian husband from Brooklyn, New York. Her sheltered life hasn’t begun to prepare her for the new home she & her husband share with his family. Isra quickly gives birth to four daughters — but no son — and is expected to shoulder most of the cooking and cleaning for the extended family. Her husband works long hours and she is not allowed to leave the house unchaperoned.

In alternating chapters Rum tells the story of Isra’s eldest daughter Deya, raised by her grandparents after Isra and her husband are killed in a car crash. Deya longs to know more about her mother and what happened, and she dreads the string of suitors her grandmother forces her to “sit with” as she nears high school graduation. Deya’s quest for the family’s truth makes for a good mystery, but the real story here is how a family clings to its cultural ways, no matter how restrictive and controlling. I suspect it’s the story of an endless number of migrant families.

I surfed the web for comments about this book, as well as reviews. A number of readers with similar backgrounds were painfully honest, saying, essentially, “This is what life is for Arab women.” Most of these women also said they were blessed to have families who embraced western customs. The bottom line: this book made me think about how little we really know about the rest of the world.

And now, a moment from my soapbox.

We know that masks, social distancing and hand washing slow the corona virus. Experts in communicable diseases  aren’t making this up. But inexplicably in this country that believed so much in science that we eliminated polio and landed a man on the moon, many have decided to ignore the experts. It’s boring. No one wants to be told what to do. It won’t happen to me. There’s always an excuse.

Now simple actions to slow the pandemic have become political footballs.

Meanwhile the pandemic numbers are rising to frightening levels. According to the CDC’s webpage, there were 52,228 new cases of the virus on Sunday, July 5th. More than fifty thousand in one day. It boggles my brain and it’s heartbreaking. I know we all have to work out our own comfort zone, but, please, wear a mask.

I hope you enjoyed a safe and relaxing holiday on this unforgettable July 4th.

Thanks for stopping by and see you again soon.

Five books by cooks

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this post…

A few months ago, I wrote here about recent books I’d read and included an enthusiastic review of Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl. After that, I started thinking about other books I had read that were written by cooks, and it  occurred to me that the book lovers/cooks among my readers may enjoy learning about them. So here’s a quick look at what that shelf in my library might look like. And — wait for it — here’s the funny thing: If you’re a bit of a Francophile, you’ve hit the motherload, because it turns out that each of these cooks have or are are working and cooking in France!

What does a 36-year-old woman do when she loses her corporate job? How about cashing in her savings and heading to Paris to attend the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school? That’s what Kathleen Flinn did, fulfilling a long-held dream. Then she wrote The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School. Sounds romantic and it was, but then again her french was not good and her classmates were very competitive. Not only is this a recipe-laden personal memoir, it’s also the first book-length account of the experience of attending the famous school. The Sharper Your Knife did earn a spot on the New York Times best seller list and was included on a number of “best of” lists in 2007. Since then she has also written The Kitchen Counter Cooking School and Burnt Toast Makes You Sing.

Long before Kathleen Flinn took on Le Cordon Bleu, there was Julia Child. My Life in France recounts Julia and Paul’s early move to France, her discovery of — and passion for — french cuisine and her cooking adventures before, during, and after (including her own time at Le Condon Bleu!). Of course there are recipes, but I really loved this book for the story it told about Julia and Paul. The book is largely based on letters written by Julia and Paul Child to his twin, Charles Child, grandfather of co-author Alex Prud’homme. Julia’s uniquely pitched and enthusiastic voice is everywhere in the book. Most of us think of her as the dynamo behind Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which many say brought french cooking to America, and the subsequent PBS series The French Chef, both wildly successful. But Julia and Paul weathered more than their fair share of personal and professional challenges along the way, and they too are part of the story.

David Lebovitz is a former pastry chef, who spent 13 years in the restaurant fast lane at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse before heading across the Atlantic to Paris. (Don’t they all?) He writes a dynamite blog on cooking, dining, drinking, and life in France, begun as a website before there were “blogs” and intended to promote his first book, Room for Dessert. In addition to seven recipe books, he wrote The Sweet Life in Paris which recounts his move there and the ups and downs of adjusting to Parisian life. It includes recipes for everything from hot chocolate to spiced nuts, including Carnitas, Absinthe Cake, Fig-Olive Tapenade, and so much more. David Lebovitz is fun because his cooking is all over the map.

I also read L’appart, the Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, which recalls in detail both painful and funny the story of Lebovitz buying an apartment he envisioned (really a large open kitchen) and one he can afford (a derelict space in an uncertain building). In addition to his endless stream of Parisian anecdotes, this book is armed with appealing recipes like Bacon, Green Peas and Tarragon Quiche, Beef Stew with Olives, and an intriguing cocktail called The Truth Serum featuring tequila and Izarra or Charrteuse.

Finally, I’m including The Cook’s Atelier by Marjorie Taylor and Kendall Smith Franchini. They think of it as a cookbook and I do too, but it’s also a coffee table book with it’s oversized, lush photos of the Burgundy countryside and their beautiful shop in Beaune, France. And then there is the story of how Marjorie ran a successful restaurant in Phoenix before following her daughter to France, and their search to build a successful family business around their Burgundian way of life in Beaune, and the business that grew and portraits of the  farmers, shepherds, butchers and more that complete their picture. The atelier’s philosophy is built around seasonal cooking, and the recipes are arranged accordingly. for example, Spring Dinner in the Wine Shop includes White Asparagus with Hollandaise, Green Garlic Souffle, and Rustic Apricot Tart.

Bonus! Virtual cooking from a Charleston, South Carolina kitchen. I’ve just discovered @BrooksReitz on Instagram. Reitz is a Charleston restauranteur and the man behind Jack Rudy Cocktail Company. He is, as he says, a cook not a chef, and his video recipes (filmed at home by his wife) are short, simple and use what you have in your pantry. (He’s big on frozen peas, eggs, celery, and whatever fresh herbs you may have.) But here’s the catch — they don’t taste simple. Reitz  layers flavor to make simple ingredients stand out and gives some great lessons in technique along the way.

So there you have a particular shelf in my “library,” part cooking, part travel and part biography. If I checked out your bookshelves (real or virtual), what would I find?

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you’re safe. I hope you’re healthy.

See you again next time!