Friday, September 14, 2012

Book Review: THE FORRESTS by Emily Perkins

I love big novels about small things. Because no matter how strange the events and circumstances surrounding individuals are, it’s a person’s relationship to those events that imbues them with meaning in the end. I think my predilection for those kinds of small insights in writing explains why I was so totally captivated by Emily Perkins’ latest novel, The Forrests.

Lee and Frank Forrest grew up in wealthy households, but by the time we meet them the money they had counted on has been squandered away. They leave the US with their four children – Michael, Evelyn, Dorothy and Ruth – for an unconventional life in New Zealand. The third-person narrative focuses on the two middle children, Evelyn and Dot, and their attempts to make a life for themselves despite the uncertain, hand-to-mouth existence their parents have provided – a lifestyle that seems to be fine with Frank, but which is increasingly difficult for the children’s mother, Lee. It also focuses on Daniel, a child taken in by the Forrests, whose presence at first anchors the family, and then pulls it apart.

The Forrests live a patched-together life, which Perkins emphasizes in the patched-together chapters of the novel. I’m not usually of a fan of non-linear narrative, but in this case the device gave me real sympathy with the Forrest siblings, whose circumstances were constantly changing because of their parents’ inability to plan for them. I had to figure where I was and what had happened to get me there at the beginning of each chapter, reorienting myself to new circumstances like an often-uprooted child must have to do. At times, I admit, it was slow going, but it kept me focused, trying to understand their world.

To say that The Forrests is beautifully written doesn’t really do it justice. Reading it is like driving a circuitous route through varied terrain, each vista totally gorgeous, but not wholly connected to the last. Perkins’ words spill together, leaving the reader awash in emotion, stretching to reach the plot beneath it:

The mention of his name made Eve want to rip a hunk of grass from the earth. This could not be done, and nothing could be said to her sister. Better to bury Daniel because face it, she’d had no right to him and she’d wanted him for so long and followed him across the world and by anyone’s standards she probably deserved to have him leave her but she could never, never tell Dot. How to know whether the secrecy – really the lying -- came from love, or shame, or the sheer envy of having been the one left out by those two for all that time? They’d never talked about it but she knew, like she knew Michael being a pot fiend when their parents insisted it was just that he was shy. Could she judge whether or not Daniel had been worth it? She was frightened that, if she looked in her heart, she would discover that he was, and would have to face up to what that meant, now he was gone. “Actually, I should get home. I’m on dinner. What should I make?”

I cannot recommend this book highly enough for lovers of contemporary literary fiction. Perkins is inventive and daring with language, describing in extraordinary detail what might have been ordinary, even tawdry lives, if they had not been examined closely. I will definitely be seeking out her previous books.

I read this book – albeit in delayed fashion – as part of TLC Book Tour. I received a galley of the book in return for my honest opinion. Many thanks to Lisa Munley at TLC for shifting around some deadlines to accommodate my unexpectedly difficult schedule this summer. I’m glad to be back blogging, and I’m looking forward to seeing what has been going on while I’ve been away!

For other reviews of this book, check the TLC links here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tuesday Intro: Carlos Ruiz Zafón's THE PRISONER OF HEAVEN

Here is the opening paragraph from Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Prisoner of Heaven,the third of his Cemetery of Forgotten Books novels. The first two, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, were worldwide bestsellers, and have been translated from the original Spanish into at least eight languages. The series is fascinating in that it is not meant to be experienced chronologically – you can read the books in any order.

I love Ruiz Zafón’s atmospheric writing, and the way he makes Barcelona, a city I love, a character in his novels. I will be coming back to this one for a complete review in a few weeks, but I can already tell you it is one of my favorite books of 2012!

Barcelona, December 1957

That year at Christmas time, every morning dawned laced with frost under leaden skies. A bluish hue tinged the city and people walked by, wrapped up to their ears and drawing lines of vapour with their breath in the cold air. Very few stopped to gaze at the shop window of Sempere & Sons; fewer still ventured inside to ask for that lost book that had been waiting for them all their lives and whose sale, poetic fantasies aside, would have contributed to shoring up the bookshop’s ailing finances.

What do you think? Would you jump into the series here?

And if you’re looking for inspiration, why not head over to Bibliophile by the Sea and check out other First Chapter, First Paragraph Tuesday Intro ideas! Thanks, Diane, for hosting!

I am reading this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. You can check out other opinions here.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Super Simple White Sangria

It's hard to believe we got home from China less than 48 hours before our daughter graduated from high school--and we threw a party for 40 people! Obviously, anything we did had to be easy -- so I whipped up a few batches of this sangria for the thirsty grown-ups who came to celebrate with us. It's always a huge hit, so I thought I'd share for those with summertime parties coming up!

Mango White Wine Sangria

2 liters Chardonnay wine (we just bought one of the huge Yellowtail bottles – it was fine)

2 cups Triple Sec

1 liter Goya Mango Nectar

1/4 cup lime juice

Frozen peaches, strawberries and mangoes for floating in the jug

Blackberries, strawberries, apples and limes for garnish

Have all ingredients cold, including Triple sec. Mix all ingredients aside from garnishes in a large drink dispenser (preferably one with a spout on the bottom) 3-4 hours before serving, so the flavors can come together. Serve garnishes in bowls on the side, so everyone can make the drinks "their way." (You can also make up pitchers, as you see in the picture.)

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!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Audiobook Review: COLOUR SCHEME by Ngaio Marsh

I fell in love with Ngaio Marsh last year when I read Vintage Murder for the Vintage Mystery Challenge. How can you not love a writer who devises a death-by-champagne-bottle plot? So when I put together this year’s list for the Vintage Mystery Challenge 2012, I created a “Vicious Vacations” theme (murders that take place in a location I’d kill to visit!), and knew I had to put another of Marsh’s New Zealand-based books on the list. The only one I was able to find on audible was Colour Scheme, so I downloaded it. And it finally came up on my gym cue last week. The fact that I logged an extra hour and a half on the treadmill indicates that my second Marsh title didn’t disappoint.

Maurice Questing is an insufferable, conniving, lascivious man. A long-term resident of Wai Atta Tapu*, a small thermal spring resort, it’s clear from the beginning that Questing has some kind of hold over Colonel and Mrs. Claire, the stuffy but good hearted expats who own the spa. The book takes place during World War II, and the daily blackouts and shipping reports that were part of the daily life of New Zealanders at the time feature prominently in the book. The setting allows Marsh to put together a fascinating group of characters and possible motives for Questing’s inevitable – and quite gruesome – murder.

In addition to the Claires and Questing, other expats include the Claire’s adult children, ugly duckling Barbara and son Simon, who is working to perfect his Morse code in advance of being called up to the air force. There’s also the famous (and high-maintenance) Shakespearean actor who is taking a cure of lumbago in the mud baths, Geoffrey Gaunt, along with his entourage: personal secretary named Dikon Bell, a New Zealander, and his British dresser and man-Friday, Calley. Another guest at the hot springs, Septimus Falls, is totally agreeable, but evasive about his background. Spa handyman Smith is known to hate Questing openly, even accusing him of attempted homicide.

One of the things that made this book particularly interesting was the inclusion of Maori characters, including a retired Member of Parliament, Rua. Marsh treated the Maori characters and their traditions with dignity, while still illustrating the tensions between the three cultures: Brits, “colonials,” and native New Zealanders. One of the possible premises for Questing’s murder stems directly from the Maori element in the novel, since he is accused of stealing Maori artifacts for illicit sale to collectors. The second premise is indirectly related to the Maori, as there appears to be a fifth column spy signaling from the Maori reserve lands where Questing is known to wander in the evenings.

I never figured out the murderer, in part because I didn’t pay as much attention to the title as I should have. There are a couple of interesting twists toward the end, and more than a few red herrings, but I love it when I think back and the solution to a mystery was difficult but fair, which has been the case in both of the Marsh titles I have read. I’d call it good fun.

I am finally on the board for another challenge, Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2012, hosted by Bev at My Reader’s Block! I have some catching up to do, but that’s what summer is for, isn’t it?

*An apology – since I listened to the audiobook, and couldn’t find a complete list of characters online, I have likely spelled some names wrong. I have gone with the most common spellings.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Book Review: THE MOON AND SIXPENCE by W. Somerset Maugham

If Paul Gauguin was an Englishman who callously threw a respectable British life away to go to Paris (and later Tahiti) and paint, and an acquaintance from his first, respectable life chose to write a biography of him, the end product might well have been a fascinating essay of the kind you read in The New Yorker. But since that isn’t the case, we have instead W. Somerset Maugham’s fascinating novel The Moon and Sixpence, a portrait of a man literally consumed by his passion to create art, which reads exactly as if it were that piece of feature journalism.

At the beginning of the novel, Charles Strickland appears to be a comfortable if not rich British stockbroker, more annoyed than enthused about the “artsy” types his wife brings to the house for her famous salons. The first-person narrator of the novel, himself a writer who has been “collected” by Strickland’s wife (and who never shares his name in the novel) meets Strickland at one of these salons, and finds him absolutely unremarkable. Until, that is, one day he is called upon to intervene after Strickland quits his job, abandons his wife and children without a farthing, and runs off to Paris to paint – despite having shown no interest in painting his entire life.

What follows is a novel examining the value of passion in art. Strickland is absolutely brutal – to himself, to anyone who tries to help him, and especially anyone who loves him. All that matters to him is creating art, to the point that he nearly kills himself by spending the little money he has on supplies, rather than food. From the narrator’s perspective, the only thing that saves Strickland from being a completely abhorrent character is his single-mindedness in his devotion to art. But the question that remains is whether or not the emotional and social cost is truly “worth” the price of creating beauty.

The difficult relationship between art and beauty is articulated in the novel by Dirk Stroeve, a very successful but conventional painter who recognizes Strickland’s genius and, consequently, his own mediocrity:
”Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody that he sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge, and sesnitiveness and imagination.” p. 56, Kindle edition
Maugham’s writing manages to be both powerful and austere. Not a word is wasted. I was completely mesmerized by this novel, particularly in the first-person narrative voice, which mixed such admiration with disdain. For me, it struck a masterful balance.

It only took six months, but I’m finally on the board in this year’s What’s in a Name 5 Challenge. This title fit in two slots (something in the sky and something in a pocket, purse or handbag), but I’m linking it to the purse category, and assuming it’s a very old, beat-up British purse – after all, the charge is to be creative! This title also counts as my 20th Century classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much. Progress at last!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Weekend Cooking Book Review: WEEKNIGHTS WITH GIADA

Confession: I didn’t have the best experience with my first Giada de Laurentis cookbook, Giada’s Family Dinners. The dishes I tried came out fine, but almost everything was in the “Weekend Cooking” category – the stuff you make rarely, because it takes lots of time and lots of ingredients. (The Everyday Family Entrees section included Rack of Lamb with Mint-Basil Pesto and Veal Scallopine with Saffron Cream Sauce. Delicious, yes, but not the stuff a working mom is likely to whip up after a day at the office.) Still, the flavors were good, so when I saw the Netgalley of her new cookbook, Weeknights with Giada, was available for review, I decided to put it to the test before I bought it.

With a beautiful steak in the freezer, we decided to try the Rib Eye Steaks with Smoky Arrabiata Sauce. The prep was simple: the arrabiata sauce consisted of canned, crushed tomatoes and veggies with a serrano pepper and smoked paprika for kick. No oil at all – just a few pulses in the food processor and heat for 25 minutes. And the steak was just coated with olive oil and salt. Definitely an “after work” kind of meal, but reviews were split. My husband loved it. My oldest pronounced it, “Meh.” But my youngest asked, “Why can’t we just have ketchup?” And I thought the addition of 2 tablespoons of sugar into the already sweet crushed tomatoes (I used San Marzano tomatoes) was just too much against a not very spicy arrabiata. But I liked the idea, and it was a good deal healthier than ketchup. Score one and a half a points for Giada.

To be fair, I wanted to try one more recipe. In reading the book, I noticed that a number of recipes called for canned salmon. That seemed weird to me – I grew up on Long Island, and while I can easily give up meat, I could never give up fish. But I am fussy about it. Could Giada convince me to like canned fish? I was dubious. Still, sustainably caught fresh salmon is very pricey, so sustainably caught canned salmon, at about half the price, would be a nice alternative. So last night we tackled Salmon Cakes with Lemon-Caper Yogurt Sauce.

Verdict: YUM! I really couldn’t believe it. The salmon cakes were a bit of a mess to put together, and next time I would definitely put them on parchment paper while they rest in the fridge. I was suspicious about making two recipes (the cakes and the sauce) on a weeknight, but in this case a number of ingredients could be prepped once and used in both recipes. My husband and I agreed it wasn’t any more hassle to put two together than one. And the taste was fantastic. Both of my girls went back for more, and my oldest said she loved the salmon with the corn. Four points for Giada that round.

Maybe it stands to reason that now that she’s a mom herself, De Laurentis has a better feel for the pressures of a working mom who still wants to put a healthy meal on the table. I found this a big improvement, time-wise, over her previous family-oriented book, and I’ll probably be buying this one, because there are a number of other meals I’d like to try, especially the pastas.

Salmon Cakes with Lemon-Caper Yogurt Sauce from Weeknights with Giada by Giada De Laurentis

Salmon Cakes

1 (14.75 oz) can boneless, skinless pink salmon, drained

1 large egg, beaten

1/3 cup chopped fresh chives

26 saltine crackers, crushed

½ cup frozen corn, thawed

¼ cup mayonnaise, plus more as needed

2 tbsp Dijon mustard

1 tbsp capers, rinsed and drained

1 tbsp grated lemon zest

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

3 tbsp vegetable oil

3 tbsp unsalted butter

Using a fork, flake the salmon into ½-inch pieces into a medium bowl. Add the egg, chives, ½ cup of the crushed crackers, corn, mayonnaise, mustard, capers, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Mix gently until just combined. Form into 10 patties, each about ¾ inch thick (if the mixture is too dry to form into patties, add extra mayonnaise, 1 tbsp at a time). Carefully coat the patties in the remaining crushed crackers and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat oil and butter together over medium heat. Add the patties and cook 7 to 8 minutes on each side, until golden and crispy. Drain patties on paper towels.

Lemon-Caper Sauce

½ cup full-fat plain Greek yogurt

1 ½ tbsp capers, rinsed, drained and chopped

1 tbsp grated lemon zest

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

½ tsp kosher salt

¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper

In a small bowl, mix the yogurt, capers, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

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!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Review: EQUAL OF THE SUN by Anita Amirrezvani

Growing up one of my best friends had a dad from Iran. Only the family never referred to it as Iran. They referred to themselves as “Persian.” Over the years, spending time at their house, “Persian” came to stand for a beautiful (though unintelligible) language, sweet desserts and colorful carpets. And over the years, as more and more bad news came out of the Middle East, I think I’ve compartmentalized my beliefs: Iran as a political entity, and Persia as a culture. Little wonder, then, that I jumped at the chance to read Anita Amirrezvani’s Equal of the Sun, a historical novel about Imperial Safavi Persia.

The book tells the story of Pari Khan Khanoom Safavi, a powerful daughter of Shah Tahmasb, as told by her faithful eunuch servant, Javaher. Pari is both a diplomat and a poet, a woman of great importance. In fact, during her father’s reign she was one of his most trusted advisors. But her father’s death turns her world upside down, and she and Javaher have to negotiate a completely different world than the one they have previously inhabited.

This book was the first I’ve read about the Safavi dynasty, and I was surprised and intrigued by the power of the women in the book. Yes, they were part of an Islamic world. But according to Amirrezvani many were able to wield a behind-the-scenes power I never imagined. In fact, Pari uses her gender to her advantage. At one point, her former guardian vaguely suggests that Pari might have been involved in her brother’s death:

From behind her curtain, Pari said, “Curious rumors are always circulating amoung you men about the royal harem. You seem to imagine it as an opium den full of connivers, but it s more like an army regiment organized by rank and task. How could you know what goes on in the harem? Have you ever been inside?”

“Of course not,” said Khalil Khan.

“Then I think you are best off leaving such concerns to me.”
p. 339
I was also fascinated by the long-term orientation of the characters in the book as they created and destroyed alliances based on their own goals. Amirrezvani presents the reader with a ruthless world where the Shah was truly all-powerful, with the fate of his subjects literally in his hands, to dispose of as he saw fit. Individuals in the palace are shown constantly balancing their own needs against the Shah’s, advancing often by the destruction of others.

As a historical novel, Equal of the Sun has exactly what you’d ask for: strong, likeable characters, exotic locations, believable relationships and lots of intrigue. Even at more than 400 pages it’s a quick read, and lots of fun, although the unfamiliar names and shifting alliances were sometimes confusing. I really enjoyed it, and I’d recommend it highly for those who enjoy historical fiction, particularly those with an interest in Middle Eastern history. Another one for the Historical Fiction Challenge!

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 links to other opinions, look here.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Weekend Cooking Book Review: Tamar Adler's AN EVERLASTING MEAL

If I told you that I might never make a recipe from a cookbook I’d read faithfully, you’d think it was a flop, wouldn’t you? So if I then told you that this has become one of my favorite books, inspiring and heartwarming, you might think I was a bit loony. But I can make both statements without reservation when discussing Tamar Adler’s outstanding meditation on cooking from the heart and pantry, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for people who love food: cooking it, sharing it, and just thinking about it.

Adler’s book shares the life lessons she has learned while working in the kitchen. The chapter entitled “How to Feel Powerful,” for example, explores the tactical use of strong ingredients like anchovies, capers, olives and cornichons that should always occupy your pantry. Another chapter, “How to Make Peace,” discusses turning a small amount of anything into a meal through the use of rice and polenta. It’s more philosophy than cookbook, really, and thought-provoking in its simplicity.

In the chapter entitled “How to Build a Ship,” Adler discusses how to regain your love of the kitchen when you’re overwhelmed or frustrated. Here’s some great advice:

Let smells in. Let the smell of hot tarmac in the summer remind you of a meal you ate the first time you landed in a hot place, when the ground smelled like it was melting. Let the smell of salt remind you of a paper basket of fried clams you ate once, squeezing them with lemon as you walked on a boardwalk. Let it reach your deeper interest. When you smell the sea, and remember the basket of hot fried clams, and the sound of skee-balls knocking against each other, let it help you love what food can do, which is to tie this moment to that one. Then something about the wind off the sea will have sttled in your mind, and carried the fried clams and squeeze of lemon with it. p. 142
So why won’t I make a recipe from the book? Because Adler’s recipes are simply meant as a starting point for the readers own imagination, tastes and circumstances. I can’t help feeling that I’d fail Adler miserably by making up one of her recipes as written, as she’s inspired me to do so much more. But she definitely provides some wonderful templates in the book, including a recipe for Ribollita I intend to work from this week.

The cover notes indicate that Adler was an editor at Harper’s Magazine, as well as a cook at Prune and Chez Panisse. This book brings together both her talent with words and her love of food in a really beautiful way. I can’t think of a real cook who wouldn’t enjoy this book, and I’ve already picked it out as a great Christmas gift for at least two people, as I think it would be especially comforting to read in winter.

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!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Guest Post: Olivia Boler's THE FLOWER BOWL SPELL

Being hosted by Col Reads is such a treat. Thank you so much for having me as a guest blogger today and for bringing some attention to my new novel The Flower Bowl Spell, available as an ebook and in paperback.

I’m feeling particularly jazzed today. I recently got done attending the Book Passage Children’s Writers & Illustrators Conference in beautiful Corte Madera, California. Since I’m drafting a young adult (YA) prequel about Memphis Zhang, the witchy heroine of The Flower Bowl Spell, which takes place when she’s about fifteen years old, going to this conference was my chance to see if I was on the right track with my writing so far.

A little about Book Passage. It’s an amazing independent bookstore that also has a lovely café and sells travel gear, cards, and gifts. They have a superb book-buying staff that does tons of research on the latest best books out there, and are extremely selective about what they carry. They also host a bazillion book groups as well as small conferences, classes, and workshops for aspiring and established writers. I’ve attended readings by authors I admire, bought books, and nibbled on cookies in the café, but this was the first conference I’d attended there.

I’m no newbie when it comes to writing conferences, but the ones I’ve gone to in the past were pretty different. One focused on writing and craft, and less on selling and publishing. It was held in the Napa Valley, so there was plenty of good food—and of course, incredible wine! Another conference I attended a couple of years ago was the San Francisco Writers Conference. This one was fairly huge with hundreds of people and loads of panels mostly focused on getting agents, attracting editors, and marketing tips. While it inspired me to get The Flower Bowl Spell published, it was also overwhelming and gave me a sense of just how many writers there are out there who share the same dream of publishing—and who might not see their dreams realized. (Did I mention it was overwhelming?) Of course, with self-publishing gaining ground, those writers have a better shot, but that’s another blog post…

Thanks so much, Olivia, for sharing your thoughts on Col Reads. I'm looking forward to finishing "The Flower Bowl Spell" soon!

Book Review: Pamela Haag's MARRIAGE CONFIDENTIAL

I was looking for a non-fiction title when I got this book description for review for Pamela Haag’s Marriage Confidential:
With bracing candor, Marriage Confidential take us inside a world where romantic ideas have given way to a “post-romantic” mood and a fair number of marriages end up “semi-happy.” It’s a world where the husbands of “workhorse wives” pursue the Having It All dream that married women have abandoned; where children have migrated from the children’s table to the centerpiece; and where technology, demography, and economy place unprecedented stresses on marital fidelity. Among other examples of marriage trailblazers, Haag even presents a case for how updated ideas of non-monogamy might be an option for the future.

Uniquely weaving together cultural commentary, memoir, storytelling, history, and research, Marriage Confidential gives us a riveting glimpse of what the future of marriage might look like.

Well, looking at my 21st wedding anniversary, I figured I was the target market for the book. But it turns out I was utterly wrong. I just wasn’t prepared for Haag’s general level of negativity about marriage.

I don’t think of myself as either Puritan or a marriage apologist, but I found the author’s premise shocking: If you’re not 100%, head-over-heels in “romance” with your spouse absolutely all the time, you’re being cheated. Monogamy, Haag suggests, is a trap for the soul. And the antidote for the marital doldrums? It pretty much boils down to this: “Have an affair.”

Having admitted that “having it all,” has morphed into “doing it all” for modern wives, the author still seems to want it all. Seriously.

Haag realizes that many people will see her thesis as “whining.” And she’s right, that was my first reaction. She has a husband who loves her, a kid she adores, a good job. Really, is life so bad? Is a marriage that doesn’t play out like the final scene from a Jane Austen novel every day just “semi-happy,” as the author puts it? I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her poor husband—that would be a lot to live up to.

But then I realized maybe that’s not entirely fair. I consider myself happily married, so I don’t really buy the premise that modern marriage is a broken institution. And I think that’s why the book simply didn’t work for me. Still, lots of people have loved this book, so I guess it’s tapping into some kind of cultural anxiety. It’s just not one I happen to share.

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. You can find links to other opinions here.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Book Review: THE CONCUBINE SAGA by Lloyd Lofthouse

I have to confess: I read Lloyd Lofthouse’s The Concubine Saga, while I was teaching in China and I really think my review is impacted by that fact. The saga tells the story of Robert Hart, a low-level interpreter in Britain’s Foreign Service, who went on to become a trusted advisor to China’s Qing royal family. Lofthouse credits much of Hart’s tremendous success in China to his relationship with his concubine, Ayaou, and builds his novels around that relationship. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, not so much for the love story, but for its tremendous insights into the complex relationship between China and the West.

The Concubine Saga brings together two previously released novels: My Splendid Concubine and its sequel, Our Hart.Putting two novels together isn’t always a winning strategy, but I think in this case the two novels really do form a complete work. The story opens with Hart, a Methodist from Northern Ireland, trying to redeem himself after a dissolute stay at University. His plan is to make a name for himself in China, and return triumphantly home. He never could have anticipated, however, how living in China would change him.

Hart arrived in China during the height of the Taiping Rebellion, when Southern China was a complex war zone where the Taiping “Longhairs,” based in Nanking, fought not only the Chinese, but British and Portuguese forces trying to secure China’s trade routes. Hart’s position in the British consulate in Ningpo brought him into the conflict, and he met his future concubine, Ayaou, during a raid he participated in to take back British opium – and secondarily, the local boat people who were helping the British – from the rebels.

What Lofthouse does very well is bring the world of 19th century China to life. He gives disturbing insight into the place of women in the society, helping the reader understand the cultural issues that led to the concubine system. He also underscores the ethnic tensions between the Manchu, founders of the Qing dynasty, and the majority Han Chinese, whose ambitions the Manchu kept in check. He underscores the relationship between language and culture, and points out that while the Chinese writing system served to unify, spoken language served as a great divider, both socially and economically, between China’s many ethnic groups.

What the author did less well, for me at least, was set up a compelling love story. Hart, through his chivalrous intentions no doubt, winds up with both Ayaou (although he never actually has the opportunity to pay for her properly) and her sister Shao-mei as concubines. The way Hart and the teenaged sisters seem to be “playing house” felt sort of creepy to me. Yes, Hart was a very young man, and Lofthouse does try to underscore his conflict, but the girls were younger than 15, for goodness sake. I had a hard time getting past that. The passages with the two pubescent sisters fighting over Hart’s “sun instrument” were particularly cringe-worthy.

Still, as a Westerner working in China, I found myself appreciating the lessons that Hart learned the hard way about “face,” and the place of foreigners in China. Ayaou, although on the lowest rung of the Chinese social ladder, is able to share the culture with Hart, because she has totally absorbed it. This allows him to replace fear with understanding and respect, and makes his success a possibility. This book – well, two books in one – is highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction, especially those with an interest in China. But I would also be quick to recommend it to anyone considering living in China for any amount of time, as I thought it really captured the conundrum of the expat life there admirably, even though the events Lofthouse described took place more than 100 years ago. Events happen quickly, but culture changes very slowly.

I read this book as part of a Premier Virtual Author Book Tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

This is another one for the Historical Fiction 2012 Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry. Looks like there is little chance of me not finishing that one!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Book Review: Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

I love historical fiction with big female characters. And that’s what Susan Vreeland serves up with Clara and Mr. Tiffany, her homage to the “New Independent Woman” who ran the women’s design studio responsible for many of the best-known Tiffany lamp designs around the turn of the 20th century, Clara Driscoll.

Vreeland brings to life a story that only a few people knew – the story of Tiffany’s Women’s Division, and the prejudice his female workers faced at the hands of both Tiffany’s male workers and the unions that represented them – and from which women were barred. While open-minded enough to admire the talent and innovation of the women he hired, Tiffany’s company policies specifically prevented them from working directly with men, or from working once they were married. Additionally, the individual designer’s of Tiffany’s award winning lamps and windows were not given credit in his catalogues, allowing Tiffany to benefit from the actions of the women, while binding them to him in their obscurity.

 In addition to the feminist tension, there’s also capitalist tension, with Tiffany’s financial officers constantly at war with Tiffany’s designers. Not surprisingly, the “suits” are seeking profitability, while the “hands” are moved by creativity. The heart of this debate goes back as far as artists have required benefactors to pay for their continued innovation. But it’s interesting that this particular debate about the “corporatization” of art took place right at the time when the ornamentation of the Victorian era was being replaced by a more modern aesthetic. It made me wonder how much of the change was driven by the desire to produce more profitable art.

 The novel is compelling, and I found myself indignant at times, and charmed at others. But there were also times when I felt the story was somewhat constrained by Clara’s first person narration. I think that’s because Vreeland wants us to have context for Driscoll’s amazing accomplishments, but it served to contort the narrative, making Clara’s voice seem stilted, or worse, boastful:
Creativity happens, I thought, when you look at one thing and see another – like Mr. Tiffany seeing a lamp in a nautilus shell. No one would think of a woven basket in connection with an underwater scene, but I did. Fish swimming among tall seaweed made me think of a current threading its wayin front of and behind the warp of reeds. Water made of ripple glass could give the illusion that strips of glass could be pliable, as they might appear underwater. The fish would be recognizable but the rest more abstract, simpler, with fewer “things” in the sea. I sensed a coming breakthrough from Victorian quaintness to a new idiom, and took the drawing to Mr. Belknap. He approved immediately.p.209
You had me until the “coming breakthrough.” It’s a little thing, but in other parts the book reads so well that the “social history lesson” parts felt distracting. What I did love was Vreeland’s telling of the complex story of how Tiffany windows and lamps evolved, and how the Tiffany Studios pushed the boundaries of technique and design to produce the gorgeous pieces I’ve oohed-and-aahed at in museums. And I was somehow glad to know that a committed group of women were working ahead of their time to bring the pieces to life.

 This book is highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction and feminist fiction, especially those interested in the history of women in the workplace. I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour for the paperback release of this novel, and received a copy in return for my honest opinion. Your can find links to other opinions here.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Weekend "Cooking" in China

Hi, Blogging Buddies, and sorry for my long silence. Many of you know that we're traveling in China this month, which has definitely put a dent in my reviewing -- but has expanded my eating horizons tremendously! So I figured I'd update you all with some photos of the dishes we've been served at the formal banquets we've been lucky enough to attend with our hosts here in Shanghai!

This is Squirrel Fish -- it's actually a bream that's been scored and deep fried to give it that "furry" appearance. It's served in a sweet and vinegary sauce, like sweet and sour pork, but with more spices. Incredibly delicious!

Looks like noodles, but it's actually tofu in a fish broth with shrimp and baby bok choy. I'm not a big tofu fan, but this was way better than I would have guessed.

We jumped right in to this Sichuan Frog dish -- the frog "cutlets" in fiery sauce were delicious. Unfortunately, Lee tried one of the peppery berries you see garnishing the dish, and it made his mouth numb for an hour!

I hope you're having a wonderful month. I am looking forward to catching up on everyone's blogs and working on my summer reading list when I get home!

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!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Review: Angela Davis Gardner's BUTTERFLY'S CHILD

Very few people can have watched the tragic end of the famed opera, Madama Butterfly, without wondering what happened to the little boy she loved and hoped to protect through her own suicide, placing him in the care of his American father, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Angela Davis-Gardner’s Butterfly’s Child offers one possible glimpse of Benji Pinkerton’s future in a novel that certainly captures the raw emotion of Puccini’s masterwork. The novel is beautifully written, and the story is compelling, but it also left me oddly deflated, without the hope that infuses the opera it’s based on*.

Imagine what life would be like for Benji in rural Illinois at the turn of the last century. Frank and Kate Pinkerton tell everyone they’ve selflessly adopted a “heathen” child, although it’s clear to anyone who bothers to look that Benji can’t be pure Japanese. The newly married Kate is devastated to learn of her husband’s liaison with Butterfly, and struggles to give Frank an American family of their own. Benji finds love from his grandmother, Mrs. Pinkerton, and the local veterinarian, Dr. Keast, and he grows up a motivated and intelligent young man, determined to find his mother’s family in Japan. But Davis-Gardner takes Pinkerton down a far darker road than the one I’d imagined, turning what was a callow fellow in the opera into a truly cruel one in the novel. As his web of lies unravels, it’s clear they’ve turned him into a worse father than he was a husband – poor Butterfly sadly bet wrong on his character:

Rage boiled up in him. He imagined lashing Benji with a cat-o’-nine-tails, wrapping it around his neck, and tearing off that suffragist’s clothes and making her march through town naked. In the saloon, men would take turns with her. Aimee Moore too – she was in on this. pg. 221
This book contains a couple of huge plot twists that I don’t want to give away because they are central to the novel. But in the end I can say that one of those twists unfortunately rang hollow to me – specifically, the one that involved the US diplomat Sharpless, who had grown fond of Butterfly and sought a way to revenge her death. “Really?” I couldn’t help wondering aloud. I am not sure how exactly to walk the literary line between “life” and “art” in this kind of a novel, and I am looking forward to hearing others’ opinions on this plot line.

I love novels with multicultural themes, and this one does a great job of dealing with race from many perspectives, without much sentimentality or anachronism. I also love opera, and I enjoyed Davis-Gardner’s reexamination of Puccini’s characterizations. There is a lot to like in this novel, but in the end I didn’t find it as satisfying a “next act” as I had hoped. But maybe my own thoughts on the opera made that inevitable.

I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

In 140 characters or less: Angela Davis-Gardner’s emotional look at the consequences of Madama Butterfly’s final, desperate act of love.

*Yeah, I know it sounds weird to call an opera that ends with a woman plunging a knife into her chest “hopeful,” but in the sense that she is taking a leap of faith in her “husband” Pinkerton, I’ve always seen it that way.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: R.L. Prendergast's DINNER WITH LISA

I grew up with my father’s stories of the Great Depression. Only it never seemed so depressing at all. My father was part of a huge Irish-American family, growing up among some 30 cousins in New York City. He spoke wistfully about taking potato sandwiches to school because there was no meat. And how he hated rice, because eating it meant that they couldn’t even afford potatoes. (To this day, my dad won’t eat rice unless it’s safely tucked under a plate of Chinese food!)

R.L. Prendergast’s Dinner with Lisa gave me a new appreciation for my own family’s Depression era history. So much so that I already put the book on my dad’s Christmas list. It’s that good!

Joseph Gaston is out of luck. His beloved wife died right after the birth of their fourth child, and his small farm has been taken in bankruptcy. His only hope for his family’s future lies a week’s train ride away on the other end of Canada, in a little town called Philibuster, where his Quebecois brother Henri and his wife have helped him secure a coveted job at a local dairy. Without a job, he might soon be forced to give up the children to a relative – or worse, the government . Prendergast does a good job of outlining the bleak options available to the poor in mid-Depression, as well as explaining the failed policies that brought them to that place. Sometimes the situations seem eerily familiar:

Joseph had heard stories of camps where men spent eight hours a day clearing brush and piling stones. The workers could have been employed productively, cutting timber to make houses for the poor, or constructing public buildings, but for the fact that some big contractor or lumber company with political connections would raise a stink. Free labour would kill their businesses. The rich knew how to stick together.Kindle location 1775
I remember my dad telling stories about his uncles getting work with the W.P.A., and I always love seeing the results of those projects when I visit National Parks in the US. The book made me think about how bad the situation must have been for the government to have taken such extraordinary steps to put people to work.

Joseph soon finds that the little town retains its Wild West character, with a crooked mayor, divided loyalties and a deep hatred of outsiders that constantly threaten to undermine his chance at a new life. But it’s also home to a group of industrious free spirits who are making the best out of a very bad situation, finding fun, food and fellowship whenever and wherever they can. The supporting cast brought Prendergast’s novel to life for me: Beth Hoogaboom, the rowdy dry goods store owner; Police Chief Montgomery Quentin, who knows the dark side of the mayor’s policies, but remains under his thumb to keep his job; and Tom Wah, a Chinese immigrant fearful of losing the family he has built in Canada to the town’s bigotry. I also loved the intimate way the Prendergast brought us into the lifeworld of the Canadian plains, with black blizzards and freezing temperatures and lots and lots of gophers.

Dinner with Lisa was a surprising title. I sat down to read it and didn’t put it down until I finished. Prendergast is a new author to me, but I will definitely seek out more of his work. This is highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction, Canadian fiction, and fiction with Western themes.

I read this book as part of a Premier Virtual Author Book Tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

This is another hit for the Historical Fiction 2012 Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry. Looks like there is little chance of me not finishing that one!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: ENCHANTMENTS by Kathryn Harrison

How does a teenager process the fact that her beloved father’s murder signals the death knell of the world she’s known? What part of her old world can she take with her into the ominous new one? And who can she turn to for comfort when her lot in life is to comfort others? These would be difficult enough questions to tackle for any young woman – but for a daughter of the monk Rasputin, the personal turmoil reverberates throughout a country.

Kathryn Harrison’s Enchantments is a beautifully written story about the end of the Romanov dynasty, imagined from the point of view of an actual eyewitness: Matryona “Masha” Rasputina. Novels that present a well-known story from a new standpoint are certainly not uncommon. Still, there is something to be said for “pivoting the table” as my quantitative friends would say, and exploring a tale from a new or unique angle. Harrison uses the tsarina’s desperation at the loss of Rasputin to bring Masha inside the palace as a surrogate healer for her hemophiliac son, Tsarevich Alexander, which gives her narrative a unique insider/outsider perspective on the last days of the royal family – and a turbulent time in history.

The novel centers on the relationship between the tsarevich, known to his family as Aloysha, and Masha. Rasputin led the tsarina to believe that Masha shared his healing powers, but Masha is not convinced, and instead uses her true gift – story telling – to amuse the doomed young man while they wait for they know not what. Ironically, her stories give him an appreciation for a Russia that none of the other Romanovs ever bothered to know, which is the reason why he’ll never rule it.

Harrison’s writing is rich and evocative, as she describes the end of an era:

In the years before the Bolsheviks seized the city, St. Petersburg was a playground in the throes of a kind of decadence – determined, desperate – that presages collapse. As if the aristocracy knew apocalypse was imminent and, also knowing there was nothing to prevent its arrival, stayed up drinking and dancing and inhaling cocaine when they could get their hands on any, distracting themselves by whatever means they found. Spending money in a frenzy of champagne, caviar, jewels, gowns. On parties with full orchestras, themed costume balls excusing all manner of ostentation: hostesses riding through ballrooms on gilded elephants, servants dressed up like gondoliers or Vikings or pharaohs. p. 180
I loved Masha’s voice, but unfortunately the disjointed, asynchronous narrative was not as successful for me. The story jumps from Rasputin’s early life to the family’s time in St. Petersburg to Siberian folk wisdom to Masha’s exile from Russian rather incoherently at times, so that I often didn’t have a handle on the plot. I cared about the characters, but in fits and starts. I also found the “coming of age” portions of the book between Aloysha and Masha squirm-inducing. They seemed to belong more in a YA title than in this one – especially because they were accompanied by high-end philosophical thought on the nature of virtue and morality.

Still, the story was interesting and fast-paced, and it made me rethink what I knew about Rasputin and the Romanovs, so I would highly recommend it to lovers of historical fiction, especially those with an interest in imperial Russia. This title counts toward the Historical Fiction 2012 Challenge, which seems to be the only one I’m tearing up so far this year. Thanks to Historical Tapestry for hosting! I do have some additional books to review, though, so I’m hoping to start really making progress on my reading goals for the year!

I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

In 140 characters or less:The beginning of adulthood and the end of the world from a Rasputin's perspective.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Book Review: TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis

Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog introduces readers to a near future when Oxford historians routinely travel through time for investigative purposes. Their work is underwritten by a wealthy, overbearing American – Lady Schrapnell – whose pet project is the rebuilding of the Coventry Cathedral to reproduce its appearance on the day her revered Victorian-era grandmother saw it for the first time, and thereby changed the course of her life, as well as the whole family’s. But the small-scale interactions of the historians and their environment set up the possibility of large-scale disasters down the proverbial road: like the possibility of the Allies losing World War II.

The book represents a loving homage to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, whose subtitle was “To Say Nothing of the Dog.” Ned, the time traveler tasked with finding an artifact from the Coventry Cathedral called “the bishop’s bird stump,” has made so many time jumps that he has a form of the bends, and misunderstands the mission he’s on. And like Jerome’s crew, Ned and new found friends Terence St. Trewes and his absent minded Oxford don Professor Peddick travel the Thames in a skiff, and find more adventure than the relaxation they so desperately need.

I think it’s taken me seemingly forever to review the book because this Hugo-award winning novel defies simple description. Yes, it’s a time travel story. But after reading it, I’d probably categorize it under “humor,” before “science fiction.” Because unlike other novels that might focus on the mechanics of voyages in time and space, this book shoves those aside, focusing instead on the truly hilarious consequences of unintended actions. I adored the way Willis took a beloved classic and retrofitted it – even allowing the characters from the original to make a cameo appearance! Oh, and there’s even a couple of love stories.

In fact, if there’s any downside to the book, it’s that Willis seems to gloss over some information about the “world” she’s created that the reader could really use. For example, what is the new time traveling ability based on? Why do individuals react to it so differently? If I was in a mood to be particularly persnickety I’d call it somewhat troublesome that the book’s ending reveals that one of the science fiction “premises” the story was based on was completely unfounded. But it feels like quibbling, because those things didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book.

If you’re looking for a light and amusing sci-fi title, this is definitely it. I’d also suggest it to those who love contemporary humor titles, especially Douglas Adams (although I’m certainly not promising you’ll love it as much as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Christopher Moore (and I’d call this a clear winner over his Fluke). I was planning on counting this for Carl V’s Science Fiction Experience in January, but couldn’t get my act together to get the review up in time. Reading this did inspire me to seek out a few more sci fi titles, so it’s still a win!

In 140 Characters or Less: Time travel hijinks, in search of a cantankerous cat.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: Gone hikin'

Red Rock Cairns, Fay Canyon, AZ

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Alyce at At Home with Books. To participate, post a photo that you (or a friend or family member) have taken then leave a direct link to your post in the Mister Linky. Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. Please don’t post random photos that you find online.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Gone hikin'

Shhhh! This week I will be catching up on my reading in a quiet, much photographed location. I'll be back -- and recharged -- next week! Hope you all have a lovely week of reading ahead.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Read Along Check in #2: Clarissa, or the History of a Young Woman by Samuel Richardson

Well, after a slow start, things are starting to heat up in Clarissa’s world. She has been dragged with little warning from her friend Miss Howe’s home because her family learned that Lovelace (her brother’s enemy) had visited there. So she’s now been made a prisoner in her own home, with her family trying to force her to marry Mr. Solmes, who she dislikes intensely, and to get hold of the property her grandfather left her, despite the fact that they obviously have plenty of money themselves.

I’m willing to admit I was totally wrong about Miss Howe. In the last of the February letters we finally hear her perspective on what’s happened, and she appears to have Clarissa’s best interests at heart. In fact, she’s giving Clarissa the same kind of support and advice that any good girlfriend would: “Your family is treating you badly,” “Don’t let everyone walk all over you,” “If you don’t like the guy, you shouldn’t lead him on.” Only with Samuel Richardson it takes a good many more words to get those sentiments across:
I know he has nothing to boast of from what you have written: but is not his inducing you to receive letters, and to answer them, a great point gained? By your insisting that he should keep the correspondence private, it appears there is one secret which you do not wish the world should know: and he is the master of that secret. He is indeed himself, as I may say, that secret! What an intimacy does this beget for the lover! How is it distancing the parent! pg. 53 of Volume 1
You can say that again, Miss Howe.

It’s clear from the agitated tone of the letters that Clarissa's situation is getting desperate. Although she has property of her own that should protect her from her family’s greed (and clearly that’s what her grandfather intended), the convention of the times leaves her at the mercy of the male members of her family. I have a feeling that March is going to be a critical month for Clarissa Harlowe.

I’m assuming that the pace of the letters is about to increase, as we’ve only reached page 24 of the first of nine volumes! Breaking this into 12 parts makes taking on such an enormous epistolary novel possible, so thanks to Terri at Tip of the Iceberg and JoAnn at Lakeside Musing for hosting this year long event. I am headed over to check out the links and see what everyone else thought about this month’s readings. Has the book captured you yet? I think I’m getting there!

Venice in February: Balzac’s Massimilla Doni and Corona’s The Four Seasons

In eighteenth and nineteenth century Venice, music was an obsession, marriage was a part-time occupation, and love was a spectator sport. Ironically, I read two books written more than 150 years apart by authors from two different continents (neither of them Venetian), for Bellezza and Ally's Venice in February event and found them strikingly similar.

The first was Honoré de Balzacs classic novella Massimilla Doni, which forms part of his masterwork, La Comedie Humaine. One of my goals for this year was to read some of the classics I’ve missed up until now, and Balzac was on that list, so I figured I’d test the waters with one of his shorter works. I actually enjoyed it, but his flowery style and the treacly heroine made it a bit slow-going at times.

Emilio Cane is a prince with no money, thanks to the conquering Austrian’s usurpation of the family patrimony. He falls in love with the beautiful and virtuous Massimilla Doni, an heiress who has been married off in a loveless marriage to the aging Duke Cataneo, and they hold hands and yearn for each other while chastely occupying her fabulous villa for what seems like the first half of the novella. But when renowned soprano Clarina Tinti and the great tenor Genovese arrive in Venice, the lovers quickly head back to town for the musical season. This is when the book becomes really interesting, as the tempestuous Clarina becomes – through a set of pretty unbelievable circumstances – Massimilla’s rival for Emilio’s affection.

The Duke, as it turns out, would like an heir, but has no interest in helping Massimilla out in that way, so he and apparently everyone else in Venice are anxious for Emilio and Massimilla to just get on with it. Balzac leads the characters down a circuitous road that involves opium, stage fright and suicide, examining the impact of passion on both relationships and art, and also manages to give the reader a nifty synopsis of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto, all in the course of a 120 page novella. Phew!

For a lighter take on Venice, I returned to one of my comfort zones: the historical novel. I have had Laurel Corona’s The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice on my TBR pile since I first read about it. I have loved Vivaldi’s masterpiece since I first saw those pixies spreading dewdrops to it in Disney’s Fantasia, and I thought I’d enjoy a novelization of how it came about. And I would have, if that’s what I read – but Corona actually delivered so much more than I’d anticipated with this fantastic book!

Maddalena and Chiaretta are abandoned as children by their courtesan mother on the doorstep of the Ospedale della Pieta, an orphanage known for its famous “coro” of musically gifted young women who perform for Venetian society. The young women of Pieta are taught the womanly arts and allowed to make money from their crafts and performances until they are old enough to either get married or enter a convent – the basic choices for women in 18th century Venice. Chiaretta’s extraordinary voice leads her to the coro early on, but Maddalena’s talent with the violin goes almost unnoticed until Vivaldi (who I had no idea was a priest) takes the job as musical director of the coro. Vivaldi begins to write for the sisters, and the novel follows the sisters’ diverging paths: Chiaretta as the wife of a wealthy Venetian businessman and Maddalena as Vivaldi’s muse.

The irony is that the cloistered life of the Pieta actually gives Maddalena far more autonomy than Chiaretta has as a member of Venetian society. In order to marry Chiaretta, her husband signed an agreement that she would never sing in public, so the book puts the sisters’ struggle with their musical passions in stark relief. Chiaretta adores her husband, but finds that fidelity is not an accepted part of marriage in Venice. In fact, her husband goes so far as to choose her paramour. This seems to have been a function of Venetian society, where to keep wealth in the family, second daughters were put into convents and second sons acted as a sort of “honor guard” for the women whose husbands were otherwise engaged with the city’s courtesans – unless they went into the priesthood, like Vivaldi.

The Four Seasons was a surprise. The female characters were complex and interesting – such a contrast to Balzac’s heroine. I would heartily recommend it to any lover of historical fiction, especially those who love books associated with masterpieces, like Tracy Chevalier’s novels. As for Massimilla Doni, I would say it’s an accessible introduction to La Comedie Humaine. I enjoyed it, and I think anyone interested in the roots of French literature would too. Just don’t expect Zola!

I did some double-dipping with my Venice in February titles. Massimilla Doni is my translated classic for the Back to the Classics 2012 Challenge, and The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice counts toward the Historical Fiction Challenge 2012. Thanks to Sarah Reads Too Much and Historical Tapestry for hosting!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: SONOMA ROSE by Jennifer Chiaverini

Normally, I am a person who hates to come into a book series in the middle. So I’m going to admit to being a little worried when Jennifer Chiaverini’s Sonoma Rose arrived and I saw the subtitle: An Elm Creek Quilts Novel. I had never heard of the series, so I went to visit the site and realized I was jumping into the middle of what appeared to be a cottage industry: novels, fabric patterns, even a cookbook, all inspired by Chiaverini’s work. There was no way to catch up (there are already 18 books in the series), so I just decided to jump in and hope for the best. I’m happy to say I was rewarded with a novel of depth and grit that brought a time and a place that I know very little about – Prohibition era California – to life.

The novel begins with Rosa Diaz Barclay trapped in a loveless and increasingly volatile marriage to John, desperate at having lost four of her 8 children to a mysterious wasting disease that attacked them right after they were weaned. Two of her four remaining children suffer from the same affliction, although the other two, including her eldest, are completely healthy. Having been abandoned by her family, her only support comes from her childhood sweetheart, Lars Jorgensen, and a new arrival in Arboles Valley, Elizabeth Nelson. When Elizabeth witnesses one of John’s jealous rages, the stage is set for Rosa to run. The family’s attempt to free themselves both from the tyranny of an abusive spouse and the nightmare of a disease that the local doctors cannot understand comprise the main action of the novel, and I was caught up in Rosa’s world from the very beginning.

This novel serves up a really interesting piece of historical fiction, and throws in a offbeat love story for good measure. Rosa and her family find themselves among the desperate northern California vineyard owners who are trying to hold onto their land and their heritage as Prohibition slowly destroys their way of life. I had never really thought about the unintended effects of Prohibition on law abiding citizens – and how desperation might have forced vineyard owners into relationships with criminals, just to keep their heads above water. The book emphasizes the ambiguity of the time by contrasting the slimy Prohibition agent, Dwight Crowell, with the protective bootlegger, Mr. Lucerno.

It was also fascinating to think about how much medicine has changed our lives in less than 100 years. In the time before genetic testing and antibiotics, illness must have seemed so much more mysterious and ominous than it does to us now. Rosa’s attempts to deal with her children’s condition were so heartbreaking that any mother reading could easily put herself in Rosa’s place.

While Sonoma Rose was identified as part of the Elm Creek Quilt series, quilts and quilt-making are only tangential to the storyline. From what I’ve read, this may make Sonoma Rose an unusual part of the collection, but for me it meant there was no problem understanding what was going. It’s possible that the heirloom quilts that Elizabeth gives Rosa are detailed in a previous book, but not knowing that didn’t detract in any way from my enjoyment of the book.

I’ve been reading a lot of translated fiction and classic fiction lately, and Sonoma Rose was a nice, light break. Not being a quilter, I’m not sure if I’d go back and read the rest of the series. But I did enjoy this novel very much, and recommend it to those interested in 20th century historical fiction, regardless of whether they are quilters or not. This book counts for the Historical Fiction Challenge 2012 – it’s about time I got something done, challenge-wise, to keep February from being a complete bust! Thanks to everyone at Historical Tapestry for hosting!

I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: Catherine McKenzie’s SPIN

I worked in publishing for about ten years before I went to graduate school. Which is probably why I felt an immediate affinity for Catherine McKenzie’s debut novel Spin. When writer Kate Sandford got an interview at her favorite magazine, The Line, I remembered walking into the USA Today offices for the first time. Okay, I didn’t go down in flames spectacularly by showing up to my interview drunk. And I didn’t get an offer to “try out” for my dream job by going undercover at a rehab facility to spy on a famous actress. But I really did relate to the whole “trying-to-get-a-job-in-publishing” pressure that Kate put herself through.

Kate is a very likeable character: talented and driven, but also deeply flawed. She meets starlet Amber Sheppard and is amazed to find her a real person with real problems. Problems, as it turns out, that aren’t so different from her own.

Spin would have been a pretty light chic-lit title, if not for Kate’s own emerging realization that outside of the tabloid spotlight, she has more in common with Amber than she ever would have believed.

Now, I don’t usually drink in the morning, but there was something about that morning that felt out of the ordinary. It was a combination of things, really. Seeing the tiny plane I was going to have to fly in. Going undercover. Being about to meet a celbrity I’d been watching for weeks on television. Having the opportunity to finally get where I wanted to be as a writer. Going to rehab. It all balled up inside me, and I needed something to calm me down. The chamomile tea I had before I left for the airport wasn’t cutting it, so I headed to the always open airport bar and ordered a gin and tonic. p. 83-84
McKenzie did a credible job of showing Kate’s growing ambivalence about her assignment as Amber transforms from tabloid fodder to a living, breathing human being. Kate’s growing self-awareness definitely made the novel more interesting. That being said, I was sort of surprised by the grittiness of the story. Based on the description and the cover, I thought the book would have a “lighter” feel to it – but it’s definitely not a comedy, not even a dark one.

I also have to admit that the love story element didn’t work well for me. This may be because there were so many characters to keep track of – but there just weren’t enough interactions between the characters to truly develop a good romance. That’s not to say I wasn’t rooting for the main characters, I just didn’t feel all warm and fuzzy when the resolution came.

I liked Spin, and am intrigued by McKenzie’s writing. Her first-person narration was direct and accessible, without ever feeling “staged.” I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Super Bowl Entertaining Edition

No need to let the Packers’ and Steelers’ dream-crushing losses keep us from enjoying a perfectly good pseudo event here in Central PA. So tonight we’re having a few friends over to watch ads – and some football in between. And to make sure we don’t expire before the halftime show, I’m serving up two Foccacia Super Sandwiches.

We started by making two loaves of foccacia this morning: one white and one whole wheat. We waited for them to cool and sliced the tops off. Then we got to work on the sandwiches.

The first one is for Veggie Lovers: goat cheese, olives, roasted red peppers, marinated artichoke hearts and thinly sliced yellow tomatoes dressed with olive oil.

The second one is for Meat Lovers: hard salami, prosciutto, provolone, roasted red peppers, mild banana peppers and basil dressed with vinaigrette.

These get wrapped tightly (with the top layer replaced) and sit in the fridge until game time. Then we’ll slice them each into 16 pieces. My friends are bringing the sides and dessert – so all I have to do is sit back and watch Giselle’s husband lose. Or maybe Peyton’s brother. Either way, it will be tasty!

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!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Read Along Check-In #1: Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Woman by Samuel Richardson

When JoAnn at Lakeside Musing and Terri at Tip of the Iceberg announced their idea for a year-long read along of Samuel Richardson’s epic Clarissa, I realized I had my chance to approach a book I knew I should read, but never had made time to read. Just looking at the book might intimidate the most voracious reader: I wouldn’t want to drop it on my toe, for fear it would break it. But somehow it seemed more likely that I’d actually finish it if I was reading it with a group, so I jumped in!

Obviously, I’ve have had a terrible blogging month for a number of reasons – but it hasn’t actually been a bad reading month. So tonight I’m sharing my thoughts on the January readings for Clarissa.

To begin, I am amazed at how “modern” the book is. Clarissa Harlowe is not, as I had feared, some Victorian milquetoast heroine. She is a young woman with a mind of her own, politic enough to realize that the unusual bequest her grandfather has left her puts her in a precarious position vis-à-vis her jealous siblings.

Lovelace is an ambiguous love interest thus far. Clarissa is not impressed by him at the beginning of the book. But there is something extremely appealing about him, especially in his distaste for Clarissa’s vile brother James. It was frightening to consider how much power a male child had over a female child within a family, even though he had no real accomplishments of his own.

I am not sure I trust Miss Howe at this point. She seems to be a very close friend of Clarissa’s, but her flowery and supercilious writing leaves me wondering about her sincerity. However I am absolutely unsure as to whether or not that is a function of the time and place that the book was written – so I’m reserving judgment for the moment. We’ll see if she is truly friend to Clarissa in the end, or if she is harboring some ulterior motives.

I am so glad that I signed on to participate in the read along, and if you haven’t yet, feel free to join us – there’s a whole year of fun to come, and you can easily catch up! It’s early in the read, but I am already enjoying this more than I expected, so I am eager to see that February’s letters bring to our heroine. The links to the January Clarissa links are at Tip of the Iceberg.