Wednesday, October 31, 2007

This Time of Dying

This Time of Dying by Reina James is the tale of ordinary people living in extraordinary times. The story tales place in London during the Fall of 1918 - a time of war and of the Spanish Flu and is told primarily from the points of view of two people. Allen Thompson is a lady. She is a widow, a schoolteacher, a caregiver for her invalid sister and a woman who is ahead of her time. She is unusually kind to her maid and has a burgeoning friendship with a man below her station. Henry Speake is an undertaker whose first love is music and playing the piano. He sees the effects of the epidemic firsthand and reads a letter left behind by a victim which gives him insight as to how serious this flu may be.

This novel describes Allen and Henry's everyday activities. Her school closes and she visits the sick with her friend. She deals with her sister who is in a state of decline. Henry takes care of more and more of the victims, running out of lumber for coffins and time to arrange burials. Each day Allen and Henry meet and talk and get to know one another and the people around them tell them more and more how inappropriate their relationship is. I found it interesting the extent to which Henry's family and coworkers were upset with him over his relationship with Allen. They felt she was 'ruining' him which I wouldn't have expected.

Despite the dramatic subject matter, I found this to be a very quiet book. I found myself rooting for this disparate pair and hoped they would not be parted by the expectations of society. I enjoyed this book, though I never felt a very strong connection to it. That puts it in more of a 'liked it' than 'loved it' category for me and I'm glad I decided to read this.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Almost Moon

As I said in my last post I enjoyed Alice Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones (except for that strange part at the end and I see I'm not alone there). Despite the odd ending, I considered it a book I might re-read at some point.

I don't like to give away plot points, but I think by telling you The Almost Moon is about a woman who kills her mother I've given nothing away. This fact is made clear in the first line and the rest of the book details this daughter's actions and thoughts over the next 24 hours, as well as a look back at her dysfunctional family and childhood.

I like Sebold's writing, I think she tells a good tale. But the tale itself? Mmmmmmm, well, I was not a fan. I like sad books, depressing books, books that show the negative side of human nature. But this was somehow different. Perhaps because all our families are a little bit dysfunctional or odd behind closed doors, perhaps because at some point most of us will deal with an aged, or ill parent, perhaps it hits too close to home but it all serves to make this an uncomfortable read. The first few chapters are so intense I wouldn't be surprised if casual readers don't make it past them. I do like the cover of this book - an almost blinding red - it is intense and harsh, just like the words it holds within. The characters in this book are highly unlikable - I found I couldn't identify with them or their choices, particularly the main character, Helen.

I am sure The Almost Moon will be purchased and read by the thousands, thus my opinion won't hurt it's success at all. I'll certainly be interested to see what others think of this book. To tell you the truth, I don't think I can say 'I'm glad I read it' but I don't think I could have helped myself.

On a brighter note, I posted a while back about some cookbook releases I was looking forward to. I've been fortunate enough to borrow some of these from the library and thought I'd share one I've particularly enjoyed browsing, The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without by Mollie Katzen. This is a slim book, only around 160 pages containing just under 100 recipes. The book is beautifully produced with a colorful cover and the hand written text and drawings within are done by Katzen. I have tagged so many recipes in it, I think this may have to go on my Christmas list. The recipes are interesting and unique without being fussy or calling for too many ingredients. Here are some of the wonderful sounding recipes:

Artichoke heart and spinach gratin
Tarragon pecan asparagus
Braised Brussels sprouts in maple mustard sauce
Southwest summer corn hash
Mushroom stuffed mushrooms with wild rice and goat cheese

And many more! I think this would be a great book for a vegetarian or really anyone looking for interesting vegetable recipes as a side dish.

Incidentally, my Bookclub met on Thursday evening to discuss Water for Elephants and it was universally loved by all. We found ourselves discussing our own lives a bit more than the book, but it was a good meeting and a rarity since we hardly ever all agree on books.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Chicken Soup.....and the stack on my nightstand

Chicken soup simply had to be made this week - not only did I have a chicken carcass, but I also have a cold. I do not have a picture to share - for several reasons, but the main one being that the soup was not that pretty, quite dark actually. I used Nigel Slater's Roast chicken broth recipe from Real Cooking as a template.

I sauteed onion, carrots, and leeks in olive oil, then added the chicken carcass and browned it. Brandy and red wine are added at this point and allowed to cook until almost evaporated - this made the soup dark brown. I then threw in 4 cups of water, bay leaves, peppercorns, and some fresh thyme and cooked gently for an hour. The house smelled fantastic - as though I were cooking Thanksgiving dinner. After I strained it, I brought it to the boil and added a bit of sherry (Nigel's suggestion - this is a very boozy chicken soup), leftover chicken, some orzo and peas for color. It was delicious. Nigel suggests using ginger and mushrooms during the initial vegetable saute, which sounded wonderful, but I didn't have either.

I haven't finished any books because I keep starting new ones. Here is what I've got going right now:

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell- It's been a few weeks since I picked this up, but I definitely plan on going back to it.

This Time of Dying by Reina James- I noticed this in the Portobello Books catalog and found a copy at the library. I am enjoying it so far.

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold- I was a fan of The Lovely Bones (despite that strange out-of-body-experience portion towards the end) and hoped that despite the negative press I've heard about this one, it might be a winner. I'm about 80 pages into it since I picked it up at the library yesterday and I can say it's dark. It's very dark.

The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett- This is the first book I've won from the Library Thing early reviewers program - I am thrilled! I only put my name in for a couple of books that I was really interested in and knew I would want to read right away. It feels very official! It came with a letter from the publisher addressed to me, not just 'Dear reader'.

I have my bookclub meeting tonight when we will discuss Water for Elephants. I cannot wait to see what everyone thought of it. I think we will also start emailing lists of each member's suggestions for next year, which I always look forward to.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Catching up

I have so much going through my mind right now, I'm going to make this a bullet post so as to try to gather my thoughts.

** We had a really nice visit with my Dad. He traveled from sunny Florida to (mostly rainy and chilly) Minnesota. It's always great to see your child interact so easily with your parents, even though they don't see one another very often. We visited the Minneapolis Sculpture Gardens which was a terrific place for my noisy exuberant child, and the Minnesota Zoo where we saw a moose for the first time. They are enormous!

** I didn't have much reading or computer time over the past 5 or so days, but did manage to finish one book, Almost a Crime by Penny Vincenzi. She is definitely my 'trashy' novel writer of choice. This book turned out to be a perfect read for the moment since I didn't have much time to read and it was easy to pick up and become quickly absorbed in the story. Also, I haven't been feeling great - this is shaping up to be the Cold That Lasts The Entire Fall Season - and my brain isn't working so well, so a light read was great. Almost a Crime is the story of a power couple that has to deal with the husband's infidelity. There was a lot of business being discussed towards the beginning (I mean, I did have a headache) so I wasn't sure if I would like this but I fell right into it. I think Penny Vincenzi does a couple things really well; first of all, the reader generally knows more than the characters so that creates an interesting sense of anticipation. There are a lot of characters and the action is never in one place for long - every couple of pages it shifts - I think this serves to make her fairly long books read very quickly, and the reader never has time to become bored with the story. I think this was one of my favorites of Vincenzi's books. If you like a big, fat, juicy novel full of romance, deception, and power based on the lives of what seem to be quite rich English people, you'll like Vincenzi.

** Mail. I have a lot of mail. The holiday catalogs are arriving with great speed and since I'm a lover of catalog/online shopping I will be perusing these with great interest.

** Blogs. Wow. Everyone is so prolific, my bloglines account is packed to the gills with interesting reading and I'll get to that over the next few days. Please forgive me if I haven't responded to comments from last week...I really only spent a few minutes online each day this past week. I do appreciate all your thoughtful comments and cherish every one. They are just the icing on the cake of this great blogging community.

** I almost forgot. I've had a request for a Butterfly Birthday party so I am working on planning that. I welcome suggestions!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Chatterton Square.....Finally.

I've been reading Chatterton Square by E.H. Young for what feels like forever. I first read E.H. Young earlier this year - Miss Mole - and enjoyed it so much that I obtained copies of many of her other novels, published by Virago as Modern Classics.

Chatterton Square is a very quiet book in which the action doesn't move much from the Square for which it is named. It is the tale of two families, The Blacketts and The Frasers. The Blackett family is headed by Herbert Blackett, a man with an inflated image of himself. He is quite concerned that his life appear a certain way, a 'proper' way, and insists that everyone in his household defer to him in all matters. Then there is Mrs. Bertha Blackett, who has on the surface been a proper and agreeable wife, but underneath it all harbors a great dislike, really a great hatred towards her husband. She simply loathes him, thinks him an insufferably silly man and the force with which her feelings are made clear is stunning. When Mr Blackett goes away, Bertha experiences freedom for the first time in her married life and it makes his homecoming all the more difficult and it is impossible for Bertha to hold her feelings in any longer.

The Fraser family is headed by Rosamund Fraser. She is separated from her husband who is overseas. She lives with her five children and a friend, Miss Spanner. Rosamund has lived on Chatterton Square her entire life and is a bit of a free spirit. Miss Spanner is the daughter of a minister and had a very unhappy childhood and expects to remain a spinster.

Mr Blackett does not approve of the Fraser family and their lifestyle, yet is oddly attracted to them. During Mr Blackett's travels, the families - particularly the adult women become friendlier which is very disturbing to Mr Blackett upon his return. The novel takes place just before England becomes involved in World War II which is a constant character in its own right, and of course each character has different views on how it will change their destinies.

I enjoyed this book, but not in the same way I enjoyed Miss Mole. There is not much action in the book, it is mostly a series of conversations between the characters along with reflections of the characters. I tended to pick this up in the evening when I was tired and it was difficult to become absorbed in this book in a way I would have wished to. Another obstacle was keeping track of the 8 offspring of the Frasers and Blacketts. I think it is simply a case of being not quite the right book for the moment for me. That is not the say I didn't like it or that it's not a good was a difficult read for me.

One particular incident that I found so interesting and wanted to share was when Mr Blackett returned from his travels and his family had gone out for the day. It seemed that there was only one key and of course Mrs Blackett had it, leaving Mr Blackett to sit on the sidewalk and wait for her return. I found it so intriguing that a family would only have one key to their home.

On a personal note, my Dad is coming from Florida for a visit so I don't think I'll be posting the rest of the week.

Friday, October 12, 2007


I was lucky enough to win a prize in a drawing held by The Book Depository and Tess Gerritsen's The Mephisto Club came my way. You should check out Mark's blog there, he has said he might do more giveaways in the future. Though I've mentioned it before, I'll say again that The Book Depository is a wonderful place to purchase books - particularly for us Americans who are enamoured with books and authors only available in the UK.

The Mephisto Club is certainly not the sort of book I generally read but I took this as an opportunity to try something different. This book falls neatly into the murder/mystery category and of course there were murders and detectives and medical examiners and police on the scene and trying to solve the case. Plenty of gruesomeness and brutality if that's your thing. It became apparent quite early on that this book is part of a series, that the characters had history with one another and that that history was never going to be made perfectly clear to me. Since I tend to be a reader more interested in the relationships between the characters and less interested in the crimes, this was a bit disappointing - certainly the story could still be followed but those loose ends are not tied up - you must read the rest in the series. The story was told from three different perspectives - the first being that of the current murders being committed, the second having to do with the youth of the killer, and the third - and the one that I found quite compelling - that of a woman being pursued through Europe. Overall, I found this book an entertaining read, it is very fast paced and the author creates a sense of urgency. I really wanted to get to the end after reading 2/3 of the book. I would recommend it if you enjoy these sorts of books.

The second book I have the pleasure to review really deserves its own post. I read Water for Elephants earlier this week and my bookclub will be discussing it in 2 weeks. Water for Elephants is a story with a unique setting, that of a traveling circus during the depression. The story is told in retrospect, from the perspective of an elderly gentleman who joined the circus in his youth. This book has it all: drama, humor, humanity, romance, animals, and circus freaks. I just adored this book. I've read quite a lot of books this year that I've 'liked' but this one grabbed me as few have and I just loved the experience. If every book was this good, I'd never get a thing done because I literally couldn't put it down. I have a hard time putting my finger on just why I liked this book so much - was it the writing? the story? the characters? I don't know - it's just a smashing good tale. I can't say it will change my life or my views but it simply entertained me in a most wonderful way. I thought the ending was sublime - completely irrational and unlikely but it fit this book perfectly.

I have to work all weekend so I have my first pot of soup of the season on the stove right now. Roasted pumpkin, coconut milk, red curry paste, chicken broth, onion and salt....I think it will be perfect for this chilly weekend.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

100th Post!!!

I pleased to note that today I am publishing my 100th post. As I only post 1-3 times per week this is a really big milestone for me. I never expected to be doing this- at all, in fact - and it's been a blessing in so many ways.

Since I'm feeling celebratory, I thought I would share some interesting things I've found browsing through catalogs recently.

Bookopoly is available from the Signals catalog. The description states you "collect bookstores and trade them for libraries....find out if you're elected president of the book club.." What fun! I think it would be great for a Book-blogger get-together.

Or what about the 'Too fond of books..' ornament, also available from Signals. Signals has other bookish items, and lots of other great gift ideas. I'm not sure how I got on their mailing list, but I'm pleased I did.

The Acorn catalog has loads of great gifts, particularly for the BBC lovers among us.

I wouldn't mind seeing Lillies,

The House of Elliott, or

The Duchess of Duke Street.

Everyone I know says that I am so difficult to buy for. I don't know why, I seem to have no trouble with it myself!

Monday, October 8, 2007

The lights went out..

Our electricity went out early Saturday morning due to a storm and came back on around noon. It felt so strange around here, not in a bad way, just in a quiet way, and I think the break in my routine of checking email just pushed me away from the computer for the rest of the weekend. Which is not a bad thing - certainly I spend too much time on it, but I just wasn't interested. I think I'm back in form now, though, having spent my entire workday in front of one.

I've had the cooking bug lately and a few things have turned out well. I made what I consider 'my best mashed potatoes ever' - though my dear husband disagrees - he says his are better. Anyhow, I have heaps of shallots, so I sauteed them in butter and oil for a long time - they were practically crispy - then stirred them into yukon golds mashed with lots of milk - added salt, pepper, and some leftover chives. Oh, yum. My mashed potato hating child actually ate some. There are leftovers....I'm considering combining them with an egg and then dipping in flour then frying them up like potato pancakes to go with dinner tonight. These were served Saturday evening and Sunday brought more shallots. I sauteed them again, then added 2 cut up apples and sauteed those. I removed those from the pan, added pork chops seasoned with s/p and sage, removed those and deglazed with apple cider, apple cider vinegar, Dijon mustard, and maple syrup. I served the pork chops with rice to soak up all that lovely sauce and roasted brussels sprouts. I considered it a perfect fall meal......

I have finished a couple of books, but since I'm feeling long winded I'll only share one of them now.

Out of the Silence by Wendy James is an Australian book I picked up on bookcloseouts. I have some sort of fascination with what sort of books women are reading in other countries, so that is what drew me to this. This novel is based on a true story and is told from the perspective of two different characters. The first, Maggie Heffernan, was a country girl and a real person. The second is Elizabeth Hamilton, a fictional person that serves to offer a perspective on life for single women in Australia at the turn of the 20th century. Elizabeth has close ties to Vida Goldstein, a suffragist and her story collides with Maggie's due to a crime. I enjoyed this novel overall, though I found myself enjoying Maggie's part of the story more, and felt at times as I was just trying to get through Elizabeth's tale. The most interesting part for me was reading about women in Australia from 2 different walks of life, yet both desiring much the same thing.

Friday, October 5, 2007


I felt as though I hit the jackpot yesterday - I visited a different Half-Price Books (HPB) location than the one I usually frequent and found lots of great titles. I think that's what is so satisfying about shopping used book stores - the thrill of the chase.

From top to bottom:

Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell - I'm having a Gaskell moment and picked this up even though I have a copy - which is not as nice as this. I really like these black Penguin Classics paperbacks.

The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser - Subtitled: The origins, evolution, eccentricities, and meaning of table manners.

Miss Miles by Mary Taylor - This caught my eye as it has the same cover image as my copy of Wives and Daughters. The author is introduced as 'Life-long friend of Charlotte Bronte'. The blurb on the back suggests there is some controversy about whether this could possibly be CB's work.....I doubt it, but I suppose someone thought that would help this book sell. In any case, I'd never heard of this and was happy to come across it.

The Verneys by Adrian Tinniswood - I've had an interest in this book and found this ARC - so it was inexpensive.

Beard on Food by James Beard - This is an ARC of the soon to be re-released 1974 book.

These books have been filtering into my house over the past few weeks.

The 2 Viragos, Olivia by Olivia and A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn are from Paperbackswap (PBS).

Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell - A nice black Penguin Classic that I didn't already own - from HPB.

The Working Poor by David Shipler - from PBS.

Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier - Danielle wrote an amazing review of the short story which gives this collection its title....happened across this at HPB.

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz - I've read a few reviews of this recently in blogland...cannot remember where...and found this for $3 at HPB.

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson - I've wanted this for some time...a copy came to me from PBS.

The Splendid Table by Lynne Rosetto Kasper - I've read that Julia Child considered this book the 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' of Northern Italian food - this is from PBS.

Finally at the bottom is Reading Women by Stefan Bollman which I've managed to leave out of the photograph. This is another book that Danielle featured and I couldn't live without.

I'm thinking about going to see Once tonight; Nan wrote about it earlier this week - I already love the music. Have a great weekend - I hope to get some reading in.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

What's new

Thanks so much to everyone who left me such caring messages on my last post. I really do appreciate your thoughtfulness. My back is feeling better, but is not better - I'm still having pain but I think things are improving slowly.

I have failed miserably at the Non-Fiction Five Challenge. I did read the number of non-fiction books required (actually, more since I read 8 instead of 5) but none of them were on my original list. I think this just goes to show that I am not meant to sign up for challenges. I simply want to read what I want to read when I want to read it. I do feel a bit strange about this, I'll admit. So many people seem to really enjoy doing the challenges, it makes me wonder why I don't want to be so 'challenged', that perhaps I am lacking in some way. In any case, this means no more challenges for me and that is okay. For the same reason, I don't think I would make a very good paid reviewer - not that my reviews are any good, but a bit of the pleasure is gone for me when there are deadlines to be met. Thank you Joy for hosting this challenge - it's not you, it's me!


On to happier things.

I had the distinct pleasure of watching the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South this past weekend. Oh, my. I loved it, I really, really loved it and would say it is one of my favorite 'costume dramas' ever. I haven't read this book, though it is on my nightstand now, and was surprised at the similarities between this and Pride and Prejudice. I thought it was just brilliantly filmed. The scenes in the Northern city of Milton are so drab and colorless and when the action shifts to London or 'the South' the colors and light are so vivid and dramatic. All in all, very well done, I loved the actors in their respective roles and I cannot believe I waited so long to see this.


I was lucky enough to be the winner of Karen's BAFTA drawing this past summer. (There is another drawing going on right now, so do visit Karen and sign up). Karen sent me the lovely book you see here - A Childhood in Scotland by Christian Miller and it demanded to be read this past weekend. It is a small book, really that could be my only complaint about it, that I wished it were longer. Childhood is a memoir of Miller's childhood years spend at her family's estate in Scotland in the 1920's and is a wonderful example of what life was like for the upper classes. It is really about day to day life - Miller describes the castle she lives in, how bitingly cold it is, mealtimes, her schooling, the gardens, hunting expeditions - simply a wonderful look at a time gone by. What struck me the most reading this was the experience of children at this time. Certainly Miller's situation was better than most, but reading some the following excerpts made me feel very sad.

"..outside the schoolroom, I was rationed to one question a day"

".. my parents refused to answer me;they looked on my curiosity as mildly amusing, but also as something that should not - because it was a nuisance to grown-ups--be indulged."

"three of the twelve indoor servants....were employed for the sole purpose of making sure that my parents had as little as possible to do with us."

"In my entire childhood, for instance, I only once remember my mother giving me my bath.."

"Our parents never went on holiday with us."

Miller writes at one point that upon her father's death, she is confused as to why everyone expects her to cry - she never knew him, was only frightened of him - why would she be upset?

You could certainly argue that children today have too much say in their own lives and the lives of their families; there must be a happy medium. Thank you so much Karen for such a wonderful book, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Edited to add: If anyone knows if the castle (as she described it) Christian Miller lived in is currently a place that can be visited, I'd love to know about it. Not that I'll probably get the chance to visit it, but there might be photographs online.