Friday, June 29, 2012

Think of England

Finished Think of England by Alice Elliott Dark. For years I saw this book on the staff recommendations shelf at the Border's flagship store in downtown Ann Arbor. I was drawn to the cover as well as the title. It's been on my TBR list for about five years and I have finally gotten around to reading it.

Like Atonement and The Five Quarters of the Orange, this novel is the story of a woman who has spent her whole life blaming herself for something terrible that happened during her childhood, and how she finally is able to come to terms with it.

Barchester Towers

Finished Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, the second book in his Chronicles of Barsetshire series. I was assigned this book in a Victorian lit class when I was taking courses at Harvard in the summer of 1984. I remember the professor telling us that the book was very humorous. I wish he had emphasized this more. We were assigned a book a week and I was a slow reader. Other books included Middlemarch and Little Dorrit, some of my now favorites. I was a slow reader in those days, and spending three hours a day on the T to get to and from Harvard Square. I couldn't read on the train, it made me sick. So, I admit it. I bought the Cliff Notes. The fact is, this book is hilarious. Like the first book in the series, The Warden, there is the never ending fuss of high church politics. Underneath however, is a love story that mirrors A Midsummer Night's Dream in it's absurdity and confusion.

I also found myself thinking of Father Tim Kavanaugh, a longtime favorite character of mine, from Jan Karon's The Mitford Years series. In Barchester Towers, Mr. Arabin is the bachelor Vicar of St. Ewold. He is in his forties, and like Father Tim in the first Mitford book, At Home in Mitford, he has managed life fairly well as a man on his own. But then, just as Father Tim meets his new neighbor Cynthia, a divorcee, Mr. Arabin meets Eleanor Bold, a widow who makes him realize that life with a helpmate would be so much better. In both stories the would be lovers misunderstand each other and almost part, but of course neither Trollope nor Karon would ever allow that to happen.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Finished The BFG by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake. BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant. While the BFG is big, he is considered a runt by the other giants who live in his land. None of them are friendly. They are horrible, odious, odorous fiends who snatch humans from their beds and eat them. The BFG, on the other hand, is a collector of dreams. He captures and jars them like fireflies and then releases good dreams into the rooms of sleeping children. He does this in great secrecy, in the dead of night. One night he is observed by a small girl named Sophie. When he realizes that he has been seen he picks Sophie up and takes her back to the land of giants. There he explains himself and alerts her to the danger of the other horrible giants. Sophie is appalled by his account of these giants and says that something must be done to stop them. Together, she and the BFG devise a plan to alert the Queen of England to the danger and enlist her help.

The BFG is benevolent. He is also the king of malapropisms. This book made me laugh until I cried. Blake's drawings of Queen Elizabeth II charmingly capture her facial expressions. This book is a new favorite and highly recommended.

Five Quarters of the Orange

Finished Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris. The story jumps back and forth between World War II and the present. Like Harris' Chocolat and Blackberry Wine, the book is interlaced with food descriptions and recipes that entrance the reader.

Biose has returned to her family farm in France forty years after she, her siblings and mother were driven away by the locals who blamed them for the massacre in the village. Biose returns under an assumed name and opens a creperie, making the recipes her mother transcribed amid emotional code in a journal during the war. While Biose fears discovery by the locals, it's actually family members who threaten her exposure. Meanwhile we learn the story of her childhood friendship with Tomas, a German soldier who gives her and her siblings chocolate and comic books obtained through the black market.

The book reminded me a bit of Atonement, in that both novels feature a young girl who witnesses adult situations that she does not understand. This character then becomes embroiled in a situation that leads to a tragedy which she will forever feel guilt over.

This book was intriguing. I read it quickly and also followed it's recipe for Creme de Frambiose. It has to sit in the basement for 18 months. We'll see how it comes out at Christmas 2013.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary

Finished Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary by Ruby Ferguson. Originally published in 1937, it is purported to be the Late Queen Mum's favorite novel. It is also another Persephone treasure. In her preface, Candida McWilliam says, "For this is really a fairy tale with all the savagery they invariably bear. No fairy tale is thornless; that is the point." So true.

The book begins in the present with three tourists stopping to see "KEEPSFIELD: Magnificent Residence TO BE LET Furnished with Rough Shooting and Grazing Parkland." Keepsfield is in Scotland and the tourists ask at the gate if they may see the house. The gatekeeper sends them up to speak with Mrs. Memmary, the caretaker. As Mrs. Memmary walks them over the house and grounds they learn of Lady Rose, the little girl who grew up to be the present Countess Lochlule, now an old woman. Her story begins in 1861 on her sixth birthday when she meets Mr. Charles Kingsley, author of the children's classic The Water Babies. The book bounces back and fourth between the narrative of the present and Rose's story. We see Rose through finishing school, presentation at Queen Victoria's court, debutant balls, marriage, motherhood and beyond. I won't say anymore about the story, because I do not want to give anything away. This book is like a cube of sugar with a candied violet pasted on top, so dainty and fine, and so easily and quickly dissolved. I adored it.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Finished Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling. I had read the first Harry Potter book to my daughter years ago, when it first came out. We tried reading the second one, but I was so bored with it I put it aside. I don't know what it is about certain types of fantasy books, but I simply cannot suspend my disbelief enough to get into the book. Well, this time I listened to it as an audiobook, read by Jim Dale. His reading was delightful. He had specific voices for all the characters and his flair for the comedic is excellent.

So this is Harry's second year at Hogwarts. There is a new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher, wizarding celebrity Gildiroy Lockhart, and what an ass he is too. He's the biggest poser and Ron is on to him from the start.

Someone has opened the Chamber of Secrets and unleashed something dreadful that has been attacking students with muggle blood in them. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are hard at work trying to figure out who. Much of the school suspects that Harry himself has done this terrible thing. All the more reason for he and his friends to hurry to solve the mystery.

The fact that the dangerous creature in this book is a giant basilisk was a bit much for me. After having just read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in the The Jungle Book, with all it's evil cobras, I felt as if I'd reached my quota of snakes for the year, but no..... While the book is very funny at times, it's also really disgusting in parts as well. Something kids seem to enjoy these days.

That being said, I honestly enjoyed listening to this book. Since Dale recorded all the books in the series, I look forward to listening to them all, over time. Maybe one a year? We'll see.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Nightingale Wood

Finished Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons, author of the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm. Referred to as a fairytale, it’s much more than that. We see so many characters stuck in their various social ruts, but some of them break out of these with delightful consequences.

Recently widowed, former shopgirl Viola goes to live with her inlaws at The Eagles, a tomb of a house in Essex, where nothing ever happens. At the closest house, Grassmere, cocktail and boating parties are often taking place. The music from these drifts across the wood that separates the two establishments. Viola is enticed by the music and daydreams of someday being invited to one of the parties. Meanwhile, her two spinster sisters-in-law, Madge and Tina are busy trying to break the constraints of their father’s dull domain. Madge is a sportswoman who longs for a dog of her own to chum around with. Quiet, artistic Tina has a crush on the new chauffeur and longs to have him teach her to drive. All of these wishes are granted with surprising results, and the reader is reminded once again, that servants are the greatest snobs of all.

I had several laugh-out-loud moments, when people peered around corners at me to see what was so funny. This would be an excellent summer hammock read. Take it with you on vacation and enjoy!

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Jungle Book

Finished The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Although Kipling spent much of his childhood and early adult years in India, these stories were actually written when he lived in Vermont of all places.

I was familiar with the stories of the man-cub Mowgli and the mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi from animated adaptations I saw as a child. The other stories were all new to me. I especially liked “The White Seal” and “Her Majesty’s Servants.” I think quite a lot of children’s literature anthropomorphizes animal characters. Reading this type of story feels comfortable and comforting to me somehow. Perhaps this is why books like The Wind in the Willows and Charlotte’s Web are among my favorites.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Ella Enchanted

Finished Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. It won the Newbery Honor Medal in 1998. This is a clever and frustrating retelling of Cinderella’s story. Ella is very smart and confident. So why would she hang around and let her step-mother and step-sisters boss her around? Because she has been enchanted. When she was born the fairy Lucinda bestowed the gift of obedience upon her, so when told to stop crying, she did. But this gift quickly became a curse. If someone told her to stand on her head she would have to do it.

Ella is befriended by Prince Char. The two eventually fall in love, but Ella knows that if the prince’s enemies learn of her obedient state, it would endanger Char’s life and kingdom. Ella begins a quest to find Lucinda and ask her to remove the curse, but Lucinda has renounced large magic and cannot revoke her gift. Ella must break the curse all on her own. There is a lot of meanness and thoughtlessness in this book. It is necessary to the story, but it still pissed me off. An excellent girl-power book.

The Lean

Finished The Lean: A Revolutionary (and Simple!) 30-Day Plan for Healthy, Lasting Weight Loss by Kathy Freston. It encourages readers to slowly lean towards better health with daily diet and wellness changes. Each chapter covers a different suggestion, adding one each day until you have a list of 30 changes that you apply daily. Many of these are easy to implement (drink water, eat an apple, take your vitamins, eat a superfood). Others are more challenging and frankly, not my cup of tea. While I have cut back on my daily dairy intake, I cannot give up cheese. And while eating vegetarian for lunch is no big deal to me, becoming a vegetarian, let alone a vegan, is out of the question. That does not mean that omnivores cannot garner good suggestions and additional knowledge from this book, they can. I did. I found the tone of the book a bit facile, but I think it’s geared at the wellness skeptic, the person who thinks they can never change their ways and thus their lives, rather than me, who is constantly dipping in and out of books like this, looking for new tricks. It’s worth a gander.