Wednesday, March 5, 2014

UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY by Nancy Horan

I have an emerging benchmark for author-centered novels: if it doesn’t make me want to read the protagonist’s books, it isn’t that good. I knew The Paris Wife was a fantastic read when I found myself putting A Moveable Feast on my Classics Club list, despite the fact that I HATE Hemingway. Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky had the same effect on me. Despite the fact that I am not a fan of “boy” fiction, I have decided to read Treasure Island, because her story of the relationship between Robert Louis Stevenson and his feisty American wife, Fanny, was so compelling that I have to see for myself what that romance gave to English literature.

I am not sure that most people know that Scotsman R.L. Stevenson owes so much of his legacy to his indomitable, much older, American wife, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne. I certainly didn’t know it. They met when she escaped her philandering Californian husband to forge her own existence as an artist in Europe. When she left Europe to give her marriage a second chance and the behest of her family, Stevenson was devastated. But when she sent a telegram saying she was sick and needed him, he forsook his family and his own health and traveled in steerage to the US, and then across North America, just to rescue her. (Frankly, it makes Darcy spending a few hundred unearned pounds to buy off Wickham seem pretty shoddy, indeed.)

Horan writes directly but sensitively, so that you feel the characters’ turmoil, without ever hating them for their bad behavior. Fanny is quick-tempered but always sorry for erupting; Louis is a brooder, and sometimes seems ungrateful for all Fanny has sacrificed for him and his career. Their love story is jagged and gripping. But I actually think for me thesome of the best parts of the book were Fanny and Louis’ insights into their travels together, as in this reflection in the Pacific:

He was too much of a realist to romanticize the South Sea islanders or demonize the whites who traded with them and lived among them. But as far as he could see, not much good had come of Europeans bringing their notions of civilization. Of the islands they’d visited, it seemed that the ones with the least contact with the outside world had fared best. And in many places the kanakas, as the natives were called, had been hideously misused by the colonizers. p. 364-365

I recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction and literary fiction. But also to anyone who loved Treasure Island or Kidnapped or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Understanding Stevenson’s own problems with health and medicine, as well as his quest for the “perfect” climate to accommodate his frail lungs, will surely add complexity to those classics. I am looking forward to reading them myself, “boy” books be damned!

I read this as part of a TLC Book Tour. Thanks to Lisa for including me on the tour! Click here for links to other opinions about Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

BIG GIRL PANTIES by Stephanie Evanovich

Sometimes a book’s title is enough to get me to give it a try. That’s pretty much why I read Stephanie Evanovich’s Big Girl Panties. Something about that title seemed to capture good humor and a bit of snark, two characteristics I generally like in a chic lit title. In this case, the title didn’t really disappoint.

I found myself involved right away because the book starts with Holly’s rock-bottom moment: having to squeeze herself into an airline seat next to a clearly annoyed – and gorgeous – man. She’s clearly mortified by her situation, but rather than withdraw, she finds herself telling her seatmate the sad tale of how she got to this place in her life. A quiet, brilliant Brown graduate, she had lived a happy if withdrawn life with her investment whiz husband, until a long illness left her a lonely widow at 32 years old. During her husband’s decline, Holly let herself go completely. Her Adonis-of-a-seatmate is horrified that he’s been so judgmental, especially since he’s a highly-paid personal trainer to the stars. In a fit of remorse he offers to take over Holly’s training. And that’s when you know things are going to get interesting.

But the critical part of the book comes down to whether or not Logan (a.k.a. the Bronzed God) can handle the fact that he’s fallen in love with a woman who represents less than society’s “ideal” woman. And that’s where the plot falls a bit short, because the love interest is not as loveable as I would like. He’s not just a bit flawed; he’s totally obnoxious. Even he knows it:

But when Logan was alone, his body drained and exhausted of every available ounce of testosterone, he would catch himself thinking, How can I help her get that weight off? Or, Maybe just a little bit of liposuction is in order. He knew medically that she was an endomorph, that no amount of exercise and dietary changes, short of starvation, would have her reaching a single-digit size. He knew logically she was healthy and her body was as finely tuned and conditioned as any athlete’s. She had followed every piece of advice he ever gave her. He preferred going to her house instead of bringing her to his to avoid any drop-bys that could lead to confrontations. He rationalized that the reason he never took her out was because she preferred a quiet existence, devoid of the hectic pace of the high-profile nightlife. He also knew he wasn’t being completely truthful. p. 222

What a jerk! The point where Holly finally hauls off and belts him wound up being the highlight of the book for me.

Okay, it wouldn’t be fair to say whether or not he’s redeemable or not. I will say the book is entertaining, even though the most likeable characters in it aren’t the main ones – that job is reserved for Logan’s best friend the baseball player and his sassy wife (apparently their story is in Evanovich’s next book). This is a breezy evening of a read, and I really liked Evanovich’s sometimes-caustic writing style. I just wish both the main characters (including the mostly wishy-washy heroine) had been stronger and easier to like. I am definitely looking forward to her next book!

I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other takes on Big Girl Panties, check here. Thanks, Trish, for including me on the tour!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Weekend Cooking: Cheese Shortbread

Here’s a simple, savory nibble. I made these for my book club’s annual tea, and they were a big hit. These are so much easier than gougéres, but hit that same cheesy note that goes perfectly with a glass of wine or Champagne. Even my 13-year-old fell in love with them, and asked me to put the last few in her lunch the next day.

Cheese Shortbread

(adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman)

8 T cold butter
2 c grated Cheddar or other semi-hard cheese
1 ½ c all-purpose flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ t salt
½ t cayenne pepper
1 t Hungarian paprika
1 T dried dill

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put all ingredients in a food processor. Pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal -- do not overprocess.

Form the dough into 1 inch balls (or you can wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate until ready to bake). Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake 10-12 minutes, until golden brown and puffy. Cool completely on a wire rack. Store in an air-tight container.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

THE BEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD...

...is drinkable bread! It might sound crazy, but f you haven’t tried Banana Bread Beer, you truly must. I tried it for the first time in Las Vegas, at a steak house with some fabulous bloggers, and I was thrilled this week to find out it is now available here in Central PA!

But the real reason I’m featuring it here is because I have a culinary question: Does anyone cook with fruit-flavored beers? And if so, what kinds of recipes do you use them in? In the past month I’ve had both this ale, and a delicious holiday beer brewed with figs (while having lunch with our own Beth Fish), and it occurs to me I’ve been missing out on a culinary sensation. So any suggestions you have would be appreciated!

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Looking Forward: 2014 Reading Plans

I’ll admit it, 2013 was a lousy blogging year for me – although not actually a bad reading year, as it turns out. So one of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2014 is to get myself on a reduced (from 2011 and 2012) but consistent blogging schedule, starting with three times a week, throwing in some memes, as appropriate. I’m also planning to contribute consistently to Beth Fish’s Weekend Cooking, and maybe get busy with my camera for some Wordless Wednesday fun.

When it comes to reading challenges, I’m only planning on a couple this year. I will continue with Back to the Classics, now hosted by Karen K. at Books and Chocolate. I plan on reading for R.I.P. IX, assuming Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings decides to host again this autumn. Similarly, if Dolce Bellezza decides to bring back the Japanese Literature Challenge, I’ll participate in that one. My daughter and I will also be going back to the What’s in a Name Challenge, now hosted at The Worm Hole, because that was the challenge that made us start a book blog in the first place. Aside from that, it will be book club choices and reading inspired by others’ reviews, including lots of classics and literary and translated fiction, as well as more non-fiction than in previous years, because it’s a genre I really enjoy. I’ll be reviewing mysteries, another favorite genre, throughout the year. And, of course, I’ll be continuing to work through my list of 50 titles for the Classics Club. Here’s what I have planned so far:

Back to the Classics Challenge 2014
1. A 20th Century Classic: Voltaire in Love by Nancy Mitford
2. A 19th Century Classic: Middlemarch by George Eliot
3. A Classic by a Woman Author: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather 4. A Classic in Translation: That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda
5. A Classic About War: Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (To be honest, I really hate books about war, so I picked a comedy about an accidental war correspondent)
6. A Classic by an Author Who Is New to You: A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

There are some really interesting optional categories in this year’s challenge, and I admit I’m tempted. But I don’t want to (over)commit right now. So more on that later!

What’s in a Name 2014
1. A reference to time: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
2. A position of royalty: The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg
3. A number written in letters: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
4. A forename or names: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophesies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
5. A type or element of weather: South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

This second list is far more speculative, and subject to change at this point, depending on what books my book club chooses for the year when we meet in January. The only theme is that they are all contemporary titles I’ve been thinking about reading but haven’t found a reason to do so, and they fit the categories. I may come up with a better theme as the year goes on.

I am looking forward another great year of reading, reviewing and blogging – and especially looking forward to getting inspiration from the other great bloggers I have come to count on for my book recommendations. Happy 2014, everyone!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

SCARAMOUCHE by Raphael Sabatini and My Back to the Classics 2013 Wrap Up

What if the French Revolution was actually spurred on not solely by the anger and desperation of the masses, but for the love of a noblewoman? That is the swashbuckling, romantic premise of Rafael Sabatini’s historical adventure Scaramouche. When my dear friend Tasha of Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Books said that this was one of her favorite books ever, I knew I had the “Classic Adventure” category for the Back to the Classics Challenge nailed – but I didn’t anticipate how much fun it would be. I absolutely loved this book!

Andre-Louis Moreau is a young lawyer of uncertain parentage who has been educated by his godfather, M. de Kecadiou. He is in love with Kecadiou’s niece Aline, although considering that everyone in pre-Revolutionary Brittany believes him to be the bastard child of his godfather, he has no hope of ever marrying her. Andre-Louis is particularly disgusted when an older aristocrat of the worst king, M. de la Tour d’Azyr, asks for Aline’s hand in marriage. When Tour d’Azyr kills Andre-Louis’s young priest friend for his speech against the French establishment, the two men are set against each other in a feud that it seems can only end with the death of one of them.

Andre-Louis naively believes that his knowledge of law will bring Tour d’Azyr to justice. But he is forced to confront for the first time the French system in which privilege is more important than justice. At that point, he puts his powerful ability for rhetoric to work for the cause of reform, although it’s by no means clear whether or not he actually believes in the cause himself, or just wants to make trouble for Tour d’Azyr and his kind. From that point on, Andre-Louis goes from adventure to adventure, first as a roadie for a circus troop, and ultimately its star, Scaramouche. From there he becomes a master swordsman, owner of a fencing academy, and ultimately a politician, always guided by the move that will bring Tour d’Azyr the most misery. In a letter to Tour d’Azyr, Andre-Louis reveals the depths of his hatred:

Had you died, had you been torn limb from limb that night, I should now repine in the thought of your eternal and untroubled slumber. Not in euthanasia, but in torment of mind should the guilty atone. You see, I am not sure that hell hereafter is a certainty, whilst I am quite sure that it can be a certainty in this life; and I desire you to continute to live yet awhile that you may taste something of its bitterness. p. 209

Italian-English Sabatini has a real gift for recreating the sensibility pre-Revolutionary France, and I loved how he peppered the novel with historical characters so seamlessly. Knowing the outcome only increased the sense of doom gathering, like watching the guillotine platform being built. I really don’t want to say anything else, because I’m afraid of giving anything away. You simply have to read it! Truly, you must.

Back to the Classics 2013 Wrap-Up

So that’s my last review of the year, finishing up one of the few challenges I entered – seems fitting. I really enjoyed all of the books for the challenge:

1. 19th century classic: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
2. 20th century classic : Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
3. Classic from the 18th century, or earlier: Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
4. Classic related to the African-American experience: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
5. Adventure classic: Scaramouche by Raphael Sabatini
6. Classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title: Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

I love the mix of English language and translation, male and female authors and varying time periods that this year’s list represents. My favorite was definitely Their Eyes Were Watching God -- it was an absolute revelation. But it would be difficult to pick a least favorite among the group – I’d recommend any of them. Every author was new to me, which was one thing I hoped to accomplish with this Challenge, and aside from de Laclos (who was apparently a one-hit wonder, literarily) I would definitely read other books by the same authors.

I've finished six titles from my Classics Club list since August, so I am happily ahead of the 10/year pace. Scaramouche, like so many classic titles, was available as a free Kindle download. That means my total for the Classics Club remains at $12.29, or about 2.05 per title! Happy New Year, and Happy Reading, everyone!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

PINOCCHIO: THE TALE OF A PUPPET by Carlo Collodi

When it came to this year’s Back to the Classics Challenge, the one that really stumped me was the “Animal” category. My immediate thought was to include a classic children’s book in that slot, since kids and animals seem to go together. But it wasn’t as easy as you’d think. I didn’t want to do a re-read, so Charlotte’s Web and Call of the Wild were out. And I didn’t want to read something that was going to make me cry, so forget Old Yeller or Black Beauty. In desperation, I turned to goodreads.com and found an unlikely list: “Best Anthropomorphic Animal Books." (Random, don’t you think? I am beginning to think there’s a goodreads list for everything!) And that’s why I whittled away (sorry I couldn’t resist) a couple of hours with this children’s classic last month.

Those who like me haven’t read Carlo Collodi’s original story of the marionette who comes to life might be surprised at how closely the folks at Disney actually followed the original Pinocchio. There are differences, of course, but the bulk of the plot was the same. As you might expect, the original is way more violent than the Disney version -- Pinocchio manages to kill the conscientious cricket who was later renamed Jiminy by folks at Disney during their first meeting, for example. Strangely, the original is also way preachier than the Disney version, with constant lessons about young boys’ behavior.

I guess the biggest surprise for me was that Pinocchio is a lot less likeable as a character in the original version of the story. He’s no sooner sentient than he’s jeering and rude to poor Gepetto. The innocent quality of the Disney version was entirely lacking. Pinocchio isn’t led off the straight and narrow because of bad company in Collodi’s story; his flaws appear to be innate. I found that such an interesting take on the nature of children. Are they inherently innocent and needing to be protected, or are they inherently bad and needing to be brought to heel?

For example, toward the end of the book, Pinocchio’s bad behavior causes him “donkey fever,” and his kind friend the Marmot has to tell him the sad truth about what has happened to him:

”My dear boy,” said the Marmot, by way of consoling him, “you can do nothing. It is destiny. It is written in the decrees of wisdom that all boys who are lazy, and who take a dislike to books, to schools, and to masters, and who pass their time in amusement, games, and diversions, must end sooner or later by becoming transformed into so many little donkeys.” Kindle location 1265 of 1637

I actually enjoyed reading Collodi’s Pinocchio, but here’s the thing: I’m not sure that the average 21st Century parent would relish reading the original version of this classic to their children. Yes, there is ultimately a happy ending, but that comes through Pinocchio learning the difficult lessons of self-denial and obedience -- and those things seem somehow woefully out of fashion today. Cleverness and individuality and most other values that contemporary children’s book authors focus on are entirely absent in Collodi’s tale. But that may be too bad, because thrift and selflessness are still powerful values for children to emulate. In fact, they may be increasingly important values for the generation of kids who need to deal with problems like global warming and the knowledge gap. Maybe there’s a place for another interpretation of the tale, minus the corporal punishment and violence, but more in keeping with the redemptive nature of work, from Collodi’s perspective?

So that’s the fifth book for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and number 5 on my Classics Club list. And the good news is that I have the last book read, so that review will be coming tomorrow, meaning I will at least finish the one Challenge I joined this year! Pinocchio: The Tale of a Puppet (translated by Alice Carsey) was available as a free Kindle title, so the cost of the challenge after 5 books remains $12.29 -- or about $2.46 per title. Thanks to Sarah Reads Too Much and the Classics Club crew for hosting the 2013 challenge! I'm looking forward to participating in 2014 when it will be hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.