Tuesday, January 31, 2012

My New Favorite Cookbook (And I Mean It This Time)

I think I'm in danger of getting a reputation as the girl who cried wolf when it comes to cookbooks. I've declared a new favorite at least three different times now. First there was this one. Then there was this one, and then this one (which, to be fair, could technically be classified as my favorite baking book). While I still enjoy all of those, I think I may have found my favorite favorite: Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights by Sophie Dahl (granddaughter of Roald).

The book itself is gorgeously designed. Just reading it makes me feel like I too can sip something out of a pretty China cup while wearing wellies, tights, and a bohemian sweater coat. The recipes themselves, organized into breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes for each season, are simultaneously unique and simple. Memoirs about the role food has played in Dahl's life accompany each season and are perfect for reading while risotto simmers or while you're waiting for an egg to poach. 

In the span of a week, I've made poached eggs over portobello mushrooms with goat cheese:

...brown rice risotto with pumpkin and marscapone:

...and Eton mess, a British dessert made by combining the most delicious, light-as-air, crispy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside meringues with whipped cream and raspberry compote:

I can't recommend this book highly enough. (Although I reserve the right to crown a new favorite when her new book comes out in April.)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility was one of the books from the past year that I've been most looking forward to reading. The widely praised debut novel by Amor Towles, telling the story of a working class girl who is thrust into the upper class sphere in 1930's Manhattan, was heralded as being written in the style of a modern-day Fitzgerald. I was predisposed to like this novel and, happily, I did.  The Fitzgerald influence is apparent, particularly in some of the more elegiac moments at the beginning and end of the novel, the working girl in the city storyline hearkened back to The Best of Everything, and there's a slight twist at the end that's so subtly well done that it caused me to smile at myself for not catching it earlier. But on top of all of that, the real and surprising standout of the novel is its smart narrator, Katey Kontent.

 As the story begins, Katey is working as a legal secretary and sharing a boardinghouse room with her friend Eve. A chance encounter on New Year's Eve catapults both of them into wealthy New York society life. Katey navigates both sides of the line, mixing more and more with the upper class while maintaining her fifth story walk-up lifestyle. Widely read and well versed in Dickens, Wharton, Thoreau, Chekhov (in the original Russian), and, yes, Agatha Christie, she's one of the most literate characters I've encountered. She judges all facets of New York society with a wry, confident attitude that initially gave me pause. At first I found myself thinking that her voice seemed less like that of a twenty-something girl and more like that of the middle-aged male author who created her. As the details of her background emerged, I became more and more convinced that her attitude was believable, and would be the natural product of her tough, scrappy, Brooklyn upbringing as the first generation daughter of Russian immigrants. On her own from the age of nineteen, she's not the naive, wide-eyed girl I had expected when I started the novel. Instead, she's one of the smartest, most engaging heroines I've read in a long time.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Fancies

This week I have a question in addition to some favorite things. The other day I alluded to having read this book. Because of something that one of the characters reads in the course of the story (and notwithstanding what I previously said about mystery novels), I want to try reading something by Agatha Christie. Have you ever read anything by her? Do you have a recommendation for one of her books that I should start with? I'd love to hear about it if you do.

Now, on to the things that caught my eye this week.

(image via here)

Some sweet little illustrations.

These book collections--a splurge indeed.

A fun look at (and quiz about) some Liberty fabric prints.

And this apartment, for its interesting mix of vintage, Victorian, modern, and shabby chic styles.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Many Are Called

I just finished reading Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, which I'll say more about another day. For now I want to talk about how reading it led me to discover some interesting photos by Walker Evans. The Prologue of the book opens in the 1950's, years after the main story takes place, with the protagonist at a museum opening for Many Are Called, an exhibit of candid photos from the late 1930's (right around the same time as these pictures). Taken with a hidden camera (!) they depict unsuspecting New York City subway riders.

(Images from here, here, here, here, and here)

I'm not sure which is the most intriguing: the vintage clothing and newspaper, the blank stares and world weary attitudes....or those two chatty ladies!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Maisie Dobbs

I'm not that much of a mystery reader. I have nothing against the genre, but for whatever reason, I only seem to dip into it once in a while. What's more is that I've even passed up books in the past, thinking, "Oh, I don't know if I feel like a mystery...". That was the reaction I had whenever I would come across Maisie Dobbs in the bookstore. I was drawn to its post-WWI England setting (I promise I'll move on to a new fictional time and place soon), but always put it down, not quite in the mood to follow Maisie, a maid-turned-battlefield nurse-turned-detective, track down her latest case. I recently read a couple of glowing reviews of it, though, so I finally decided to give it a try.

I was hoping to love this book, if only for its upstairs/ downstairs theme. I think I only managed to like it, however. Although Maisie is logically a very likable character, I didn't feel any strong connection to her. The case she's trying to solve is framed around a large flashback to Maisie's own personal history, which is the more compelling part of the story. As the first book in a series, it's clear that the author was trying to fully introduce Maisie and set her up for future adventures, but the mystery plot suffered as a result, seeming to be relegated to left field and lacking any real sense of drama or tension. I came away with the sense that it was a pleasant story, but not one that I felt personally invested in. I may read another in the series sometime, but I'm not running out right this minute to do so. Which is probably just as well. I don't exactly need more fuel for my Downton- era obsession.

What's your take on mysteries? Do you like to read them? Do you have any favorite authors?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Friday Fancies

I'm afraid that this was another one of those weeks where I found myself skimming through more blog posts than I would have liked in an effort to keep up with everything. (Google Reader, you are both a blessing and a curse!) So with that in mind, just a few favorites for this week.

(image via here)

I was charmed by these sweet and wintry sketches by Krisatomic.

I was intrigued by this interesting DIY for glowing paper lanterns.

And I was glad that Leslie shared this video, showing 2011 in one second per day.

Window Shopping on Etsy

I love Etsy, but I tend to run a bit hot and cold with it. I have a tendency to forget about it for a month or two, only to swing back into obsessively searching it for new shops. I thought I'd share some of my recent finds, starting with a few that sell quirky and whimsical art pieces.

For some reason, I've been really drawn to watercolors lately. The ones from JessicaIllustration have an especially bold, graphic quality to them. My British alter ego may want to pick up some of these UK inspired prints.

Based in the Netherlands, IsabellasArt creates intricate shadow puppets based on literary characters, like Mary Poppins and Pippi Longstocking. These would be so fun to incorporate into a children's room.

And on another literary note, if I ever find myself in need of a doll version of an author, UneekDollDesigns seems like it would be the place to look. Isn't the resemblance pretty uncanny on these Shel Silverstein and Joyce Carol Oates dolls?

Have you discovered any interesting Etsy shops?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

I had never read anything by Julian Barnes until my book club chose his short novel The Sense of an Ending as our current selection. The thing that struck me most about his writing was its ease. The narration, which seems to combine the autobiographic quality of Philip Roth with a certain British refinement that reminded me of Ian McEwan's work, hit just the right note for the story and had a natural feel and flow to it from the very first page. That's not necessarily an easy feat, either, when the plot involves memories, and discrepancies of memory, from a character's past.

The novel's narrator, Tony Webster, is completely upfront with the reader about the possible unreliable nature of his memories. The first part of the book is a series of scenes that paint a picture of the close knit group of friends of his youth. Drawn to different universities and girlfriends, they drift apart and are ultimately hit with the tragic death of one of their own. Years later, a chain of events forces Tony, now a sixty-something divorced grandfather, to revisit these memories. Through a series of twists and turns, he learns that he may have misinterpreted the facts of his past.

I found the twists that Tony uncovers to be truly surprising. I shared his bewilderment at certain points in the story and thought I'd just about figured things out when I suddenly realized that things weren't exactly what I (or he) had been expecting. Looking back now, I can't decide if I really think the ultimate plot twist was truly believable or not. That's almost irrelevant, though, since I think the most interesting takeaway from the book is its portrayal of a narrator who is very self-aware, even about his own lack of awareness in certain areas, yet who is forced to completely reappraise himself and revise his view of his own past.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hot Chocolate Scones

There's a little coffee shop near me that I love. They serve good coffee, they have a nice neighborhood feel, they're dog-friendly, and it didn't take them long to learn my regular order. All of that makes them pretty great, but what really sets them over the top is that they make some of the best scones I've ever had. They're moist and buttery and are served sliced in half, filled with berry jam. I usually stop and pick one up as a Friday morning breakfast treat for myself. Last Friday, I noticed that a new flavor scone had arrived on the scene- hot chocolate. Obviously, I ordered one.

I thought it might just be a fancy name for a chocolate chip scone, but I was thrilled to find out that I was wrong. The scone itself had a slight chocolate flavor and was spread with a layer of practically molten chocolate, with a few gooey marshmallows added in. I had to go back on Sunday to get the one you see here (strictly for blog documentation purposes, of course).

It's going to be very hard to keep my Friday morning treat from becoming a Monday morning, or Wednesday morning, or any morning treat.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Three by Henry Green

Henry Green is an early twentieth-century British novelist who completely slipped under my radar. I went from knowing nothing about him to suddenly, within the past few months, hearing him mentioned and praised by a variety of completely separate sources. I was a little bit intrigued, and ultimately motivated to pick up a collection of three of his novels, Loving, Living, Party Going, because it held the promise of covering that upstairs/ downstairs, high class/ low class territory that I've been so obsessed with lately.

At the risk of sounding a little like a teacher's pet, I'll say that I found these to be challenging but rewarding novels. The majority of the writing is dialogue, with very little exposition. This effect, in combination with some heavy regional dialects, was a little disorienting and hard to get into at first. Once I fell into its rhythm, though, I was quickly pulled into the intertwined storylines of the characters. I kept coming back to the idea that these were stories being told through the streams of consciousness of entire groups of people.

The group in the Irish country house setting of Loving is made up of upper class homeowners and their servants. They go about their lives, complete with love affairs, family squabbles, and domestic disputes, and deal with rising tensions as they anxiously watch WWII from afar. Living (which, truth be told, was my least favorite of the three) centers around a Birmingham, England factory and follows the conflicting interests of the wealthy owners, aging workers looking to maintain their status quo, and young men dreaming of escaping the factory for a better life. And in Party Going, perhaps the easiest of the three, a group of friends deals with various major and minor crises that arise when they become stranded in a railway station on their way to a holiday abroad.

In all three, there's something strangely compelling about the way Green's writing style showcases his subject matter. The hopes and fears of his characters are are set against the backdrop minor daily events and petty interactions with others. They're striking novels that might not be everyone's cup of tea, but that definitely made a strong impression on me.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Fancies

I'm more than ready for the three day holiday weekend. This week has felt impossibly long. Was it because it was the first full week back to work? Possibly, but it may have more to do with the long wait between episodes of Downton Abbey! Because of that, you may notice a bit of a trend among some of my favorite things from the week.

(image via here)

Have you seen Slaughterhouse 90210, the Tumblr site that combines literary quotes with pop culture or tabloid photos? A couple with Downton Abbey themes have especially made me smile.

And speaking of Downton Abbey...Living In It? Yes, Please!

For some reason, the second of these two Madewell outfits is making me feel nostalgic for the Doc Martens I had freshman year of high school. I loved those boots!

On the other end of the style spectrum, a look back at some of Kate Middleton's top outfits, in honor of her 30th birthday.

And I wonder which kind of latte art is harder to do, this or this?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dressing Up to Sleep In

The post-holiday, mid-winter months are when I probably feel the least in the mood to shop, with stores showing spring clothes won't be used for anything other than populated the closet for a few more months of bleak, cold weather. That's why, when I got the latest Anthropologie catalog, I was struck by their genius move of devoting a lot of space to sleep and lounge wear that's both pretty and perfect for hibernating all winter long.

I don't know about you, but now I'm in the mood to expand my pajama wardrobe and add to my supply of bed linens.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Apothecary

One of the books I got for Christmas was The Apothecary by Maile Meloy. I didn't know anything about it, but it automatically gained some points in its favor when I learned that it's a YA novel that was one of Ann Patchett's favorite book picks from last year.

Set in the 1950's, the story follows Janie Scott, an American teenager who moves to London after her Hollywood screenwriter parents are blacklisted by the House Un-American Acvitivies Committee. Once in London, she meets the local apothecary who, like a Herbology professor straight out of Hogwarts, has the secret ability to use rare plants to create potions with magical effects, like making time stand still or turning people into birds. When the apothecary is abducted by Russian spies, Janie and the apothecary's son embark on a mission to rescue him.

There were one or two things in the book that made me scratch my head a bit. I don't think the 50's-era setting was captured as well as it could have been, and I'm not sure that the Cold War backdrop was the best choice for the book to begin with. I was only aware of those qualms when I took a step back from the story, though. Most of the time, I was completely engaged by the magical elements, fast-paced plot, and sympathetic characters. Don't think my complaints were anything more than minor ones. It's a fun, entertaining book that makes me wish I knew more actual young adults to recommend it to.

Monday, January 9, 2012

In the Club

Everything is said to have been more of an event in the old days. Air travel was an event. Seeing a movie was an event. Even going out was more of an event. Not too long ago, I came across some old pictures of my grandma that prove it.

When asked about these pictures, my grandma first gave a vague answer, something to the effect of, "Oh, that was my club...". Turns out that what she was calling her club was her group of friends that would go for nights out in Manhattan together, to the kind of supper clubs you see in movies like White Christmas, where Bing Crosby walks into a room filled with tables of people dressed to the nines, sitting around having cocktails and watching a floor show.

These were all taken from around the late 1930's to 1940, when my grandma (second from the left in the picture below) and her friends were barely even twenty years old!

To make these outings even more of an occasion, all of the pictures were in little commemorative folders, designed to be souvenirs from the different clubs.

Can you imagine going out back in those days? It was such a different time, yet there's something so timeless about a group of laughing friends posing for a picture during a fun night out.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday Fancies

Now that the holidays are over, who wouldn't like to just curl up with some blankets for a long winter's nap?

Here's what caught my eye during this first back-to-reality week.

(image via Pinterest)

This short (under 10 minute) documentary about Jane Austen. (I actually saw the exhibit this was made for when it was at the Morgan Library and, ironically, I was kind of underwhelmed by it. I like this little film much better.)

I think these simple water color sayings would look so pretty hanging on a wall. I'm tempted to try making some myself as a little DIY for my bedroom.

I'm intrigued by this Century of Books challenge. I don't think I'll intentionally do this myself, but I may try to see how many years I inadvertently hit during the course of my reading this year.

I was so impressed when I saw this thrifted and altered dress. It looks like something Kate Middleton would wear.

And have you discovered which Downton Abbey character you are yet? Apparently I'm most like....Bates, the valet?!? Let me know who you are.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Pioneer Woman

Do any of you follow The Pioneer Woman's blog? I look at it from time to time, and over the holidays I discovered that she also has a show on the Food Network. I watched a couple of episodes, and between a few yummy looking recipes, Ree Drummond's bubbly personality (she reminds me a little bit of a Midwestern version of Nigella, with some of Paula Deen's liberal butter usage thrown in), and the interesting peeks into life on a ranch, I found myself in the mood to read her memoir, The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels.

It tells the story of how Ree's life unexpectedly changes when, during a stop in her Oklahoma home town while moving from LA to Chicago, she meets her future husband, a cattle rancher on a rural farm. The writing is funny, approachable, and self-deprecating--exactly what you'd expect from reading a few of her blog posts. The one strike against it was the non-stop descriptions of how she swooned over her husband while they were dating. I'm not one to mind a little gushing, but it gets a little repetitive when she goes weak in the knees in every chapter. Overall, though, it's lighthearted and fun, and if you like her blog, you'll probably like this book.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Two Desserts

I made two desserts for my family's Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations--one new, and one a trusted standby.

The new one was a nutmeg spice cake with rum buttercream frosting from Flour, which has become my go-to baking book. The cake had a very nice, almost Chai-like flavor, and the frosting was very rum-y. This was my first ever attempt at making a multi-layer cake and I found it fairly easy. It may not have looked perfect, but I was pretty pleased with the end result.

The second dessert, the trusted standby, was Giada's panna cotta recipe. I go back to this creamy custard again and again because it's so simple to make (literally just stirring the ingredients in a saucepan for about ten minutes), but the end result seems like something kind of elegant and special. I usually use glass dessert dishes, but this year I filled up some festive mugs to make it easier to enjoy while sitting around the Christmas tree.

Did you try any new desserts this holiday?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Scenes from the Holiday

Anyone feel like staying in holiday mode just a little bit longer? Good, because so do I. Here are some random shots from the past couple of weeks (with a strong emphasis on cute pups).

Tomorrow I'll share a couple of final holiday treats that I made and then, reluctantly, accept that it's time to take down the decorations.


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