Monday, July 30, 2012

A Pair of Blue Eyes

Given the fact that I don’t read his works quite as often as those of some other classic writers, I forget how much I enjoy reading a Thomas Hardy novel. I also forget how frustrating they can be, resulting in the urge to yell, “No, no, don’t do it!” at characters about to make the fate-changing mistakes that play key roles in his stories. The events depicted in A Pair of Blue Eyes were no exception to this, although they were slightly less dramatic than the action of some of his other novels, like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Hardy’s heroine in A Pair of Blue Eyes in Elfride Swancourt, a twenty-year old girl who leads a sheltered life with her widowed clergyman father. Excitement enters her rural country world in the form of Stephen Smith, a young, guileless architect from London who comes to stay with the Swancourts while working on the restoration of the local church. He quickly falls in love with Elfride, who returns his affections largely out of proximity and novelty, and agrees to become engaged to him. When it’s revealed that Stephen is actually the son of some of the lower-class tradespeople in the village, Elfride’s father, who places a great premium on family lineage, withdraws his support for the match. This obstacle increases Elfride’s love for Stephen and she agrees to secretly elope with him. After travelling by train to London, Elfride has second thoughts and insists on returning home. In a twist that seems like nothing from our modern perspective, the fact that she travelled alone, unmarried with a man is potentially more damaging to her reputation than if she had gone through with a secret marriage. She and Stephen agree to keep their trip a secret and to maintain their engagement, hoping that Stephen can win her father over after earning fortune and success working in India.

During the year that passes with Stephen away in India, Elfride’s father remarries a wealthy neighbor, throwing Elfride into a higher sphere of society. Through her new social position, she meets Londoner Henry Knight, her stepmother’s cousin and, coincidentally, Stephen’s former mentor and friend. Unaware of her connection to Stephen, Henry finds himself drawn to Elfride’s innocent manner. Although she briefly tries to maintain her loyalty to Stephen, Elfride eventually becomes engaged to Henry without so much as a word to Stephen, leaving him to discover that he has been snubbed upon his return from India. Despite feeling hurt and angry, Stephen tries to protect Elfride by keeping quiet about their past relationship. But, this being a Hardy novel, the truth eventually comes out in a way that makes Henry question his feelings and assume the worst about Elfride.

Like many Hardy novels, the mistakes and misunderstandings that drive the plot are often the result of small choices, and often come out of social norms that can feel very dated, almost quaint, to the modern reader. Yet the secrets, romances, and tragedies that result from them seem just as entangled and dramatic as any modern-day soap opera. A Pair of Blue Eyes wouldn’t be the Hardy novel that I’d recommend to someone just starting to read his work, but it is an interesting read if you’re looking for a lesser-known classic to tackle.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Friday Fancies

Who's excited for the Olympics to start tonight? I am, although I'm probably looking forward to seeing scenes of London more than any of the actual competitions. I do enjoy watching certain events, like swimming, but I wish they'd show more of the unusual sports, like archery or fencing. Which Olympic sport is your favorite?

(image via here)

Here are some interesting things to check out when boredom inevitably sets in around hour 3 of the Opening Ceremony:

All of this London talk makes me feel like having a cup of tea. I wish I had some from the Jane Austen Tea Collection by, fittingly, Bingley's Teas. I'd like to try a cup of Compassion for Mrs. Bennett's Nerves.

Even though I still haven't gotten around to using Instagram, I some of these photo editing apps look fun.

Wouldn't you like to have a book themed summer picnic?

 Or if you're feeling a little more materialistic, you might enjoy shopping Nordstron's Anniversary Sale vicariously through this series. That was always a big back-to-school shopping event for me (especially the year I got a pair of burgundy Doc Marten boots!).

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Summer Supper

I've been trying to focus my summer cooking around dishes that require little or no cooking time. I've been making a lot of new varieties of salads, quinoa, and other veggie-centric meals. There's one in particular that I keep coming back to at least one or two times per week.

Despite appearances, it's not pasta....'s actually a zucchini dish. Adapted from a recipe from this cookbook, it would be a perfect meal for someone who's trying to avoid carbs in their diet. Personally, I just like it because it tastes delicious and is easy to put together:

Start by prepping your veggies: chop up one clove of garlic, slice a couple of handfuls of grape tomatoes in half, and use a vegetable peeler to slice 2-3 zucchini lengthwise into long, thin strips. You can use either green or yellow zucchini. I used all yellow for this batch, which is why it looks like homemade fettuccine.

Once you've prepped everything, heat the garlic in a frying pan with olive oil and a few pinches of red pepper flakes for about a minute, then add the zucchini and season with salt and pepper.

After the zucchini cooks for a few minutes and begins to look tender, add the tomatoes. Cook them until they start to release their juices to create a light sauce.

Remove from the heat and stir in some ricotta cheese, anywhere from a couple of tablespoons to a half cup, depending on how much you're making.

I hope you try this. It's a good one!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Be Quiet

When Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking was released several months ago to much hype in various articles and in author Susan Cain's TED talk, I immediately knew that it was a book I'd be interested in reading. I have a very distinct memory of the day in grade school, probably during a vocabulary lesson, when we learned the meanings of extrovert and introvert. The teacher asked for a show of hands for the following: Who considered themselves an extrovert? Who was an introvert? And who thought they were a combination of both?

Of the entire class of about 25-30 kids, not a single person raised their hand for introvert. Not even me, a girl whose parents had by then gotten used to hearing the refrain "she's a perfect student, but needs to speak up more in class" during their parent-teacher conferences. Although I certainly knew I was an introvert, I raised my hand for the "combination of both" category. Looking back, it makes sense. What introvert, especially an introverted kid, would want to raise their hand to be singled out in front of a crowd? And since I now know that roughly half the population considers themselves to be introverted, I think it's safe to say that at least a few of my classmates were lying along with me that day. Although we were just learning the meaning of those words, we already had the sense that being talkative, loud, and boisterous were desirable qualities while being quiet, thoughtful, and reserved were traits to be covered up or corrected. It's this societal preference for extroversion that Cain uses as the basis for her studies in Quiet.

Cain, a self-proclaimed introvert, writes about how extroversion emerged as the prized personality trait in Western culture. She discussed the various way that our society orients itself around extroverts, from school desks that are clustered into pod-like groupings to workplaces that have adopted open floor plans and endless collective brainstorming sessions. On a more social level, Cain addresses, and debunks, the stereotype that introverts are backward hermits who like to be locked away by themselves all the time. She instead described common types situations that introverts prefer: meaningful conversations over small talk; dinner with one or two people over twenty; meeting a friend at a favorite coffee shop over a crowded, unfamiliar bar.

Through the experts she interviews and the research findings she cites, Cain goes one step further to show how introversion, rather than being a chosen behavior tendency, is actually something innate to a individual's personality that develops out of some combination of nature and nurture. One of the most interesting studies she discusses is one in which infants were exposed to jarring, unfamiliar things, like a loud whistle or brightly flashing lights. Some of the babies stayed fairly calm, while others reacted by crying and flailing their limbs. Researchers later followed up with these babies to see which had grown introverted children and which were extroverted. They discovered that, contrary to what you might assume, those who became introverts were the ones who had been more upset by the unfamiliar stimuli as babies. This is because introverts are inherently more comfortable with things that are familiar, expected, and controlled, and tend to be more easily upset by the unknown or unexpected than extroverts are. Though adult introverts hopefully no longer cry and thrash their arms around, their dislike of the unexpected manifests itself in other ways, like over-preparing for a work meeting rather than speaking off the cuff or feeling a little bit anxious when going to a new restaurant to meet a friend. Somewhat ironically, introverts, who are naturally more deeply observant than extroverts, are better at taking in and process details in crazy or hectic situations. We'd just rather not be processing and observing them at the same time as we're called on to react to them.

There are many other interesting points made and examples given in this book, but I don't want to risk watering them down even more than I already have with my ramblings. The only fault I can find with Quiet is that it may be a book that preaches to the choir. Although Cain continually returns to the idea that both introverts and extroverts have qualities that can benefit each other, it's clearly a book written by an introvert for introverts. And even though it's refreshing for us quieter types to get some long overdue personality validation, I'd be very curious to hear an extrovert's take on the book.

So, are you an introvert or an extrovert? Or did I just ask for a virtual show of hands?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Friday Fancies

In all honesty, there are some weeks when it's a stretch to come up with a few links to share for my Friday Fancies post. This was not one of those weeks. There seemed to be interesting things everywhere I looked online this week, starting with my favorite discovery, the art of Janet Hill. I'm completely enamored with her work. It's as though she specifically set out to capture my aesthetic in her pieces. I basically want to buy everything in her shop, but I think I may settle on these two. And maybe this one. The portrait below was a closer runner up, though. (Doesn't she remind you a little of Lady Mary Crawley?)
(image: Kathleen would never be described as beautiful, but there was something extraordinary about her by Janet Hill, via here)

Here are the (many) other things that caught my eye this week:

It was so hot the past few days that I couldn't resist trying this homemade ice cream. A refreshing treat from just four ingredients, no churning needed.

Speaking of food, Fictitious Dishes features meals from five famous novels.

I wonder which literary character would eat this crazy looking breakfast muffin? (And by crazy, I mean amazing.)

Can one of these pop up somewhere near me?

Nice bookmarks made from the spines of old books.

A new period drama coming to PBS this fall.

Some very sweet, personalized wedding couple and bridal party illustrations.

Wouldn't you love to show up to a work meeting or a class with one of these notebooks?

Some fanciful phone booths popping up around London.

And the Underground New York Public Library just might be one of the most compelling photography/ blog projects I've seen yet.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Do you think there is a modern day heir to Jane Austen? It's an idea I've seen thrown around a little bit, but most often it seems to be used as blurby praise on jackets of chick-lit novels that directly borrow Austen's plots. Although there's nothing wrong with those books (I've certainly enjoyed some of them myself), I think the true heir to Austen's throne--as much as there can ever be one--would be someone who captures something of the spirit of Austen's works but takes it in a new, original direction. Maybe Nora Ephron deserved the title, with her stories about people surmounting romantic inconveniences and misunderstandings that also said a lot about the time and society she was writing for. Another candidate I might put forward is Helen Simonson, for her debut novel Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

The title character of Ernest Pettigrew is a retired Army major nearing his seventies. A widower, he lives in a quintessential English village. The Major is a true English gentleman, active and respected in his town, with high standards of politeness and decency that result in frequently repressed feelings of frustration at what he views to be the crass conduct of his friends, his twenty-something son, and his future American daughter-in-law. As the novel opens, the Major is shaken by the news of the sudden death of his younger brother. A chance encounter during the height of the Major's shock throws him together with Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani proprietor of the local village convenience store. The comfort she offers him causes the Major to view Mrs. Ali in a new light. A subdued romance develops between them, which of course brings with it a clash of cultures involving Mrs. Ali's disapproving relatives and Major Pettigrew's disbelieving friends.

The novel is Austen-like in its focus on manners, its distinctive cast of characters inhabiting a close-knit world, and its nearly bungled romantic entanglements. Simonson does a good job of modernizing these elements by focusing them around a kind of romance that we don't often read about--one between two older people. The obstacles the Major faces as he tries to find the right way to court Mrs. Ali are fun to read about, but can also be seen as a statement about where old fashioned values fit into modern culture. In this way, Simonson uses her characters to explore societal issues, but with a very light, unobtrusive touch. The climactic scene at the end of the book veers further into action movie territory than seems necessary, but aside from that, this is a charming and delightful read.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

DIY Watercolor

I don't post many DIY craft projects around here, largely because I don't actually do too many of them. My mom has always been very crafty, though, and recently created a sweet watercolor portrait of Millie.

The process she used to make it began with a photo of Millie (her all-time favorite):

Then she used the Sketch Me! iphone app to turn the photo into a drawing:

After printing it out on watercolor paper and painting over it in a bold color scheme, it was ready to frame:

The simple process would be fun to try on other types of pictures, like a house or an interesting landscape. This one, though, will have a special place in a future wall grouping in my apartment.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Lost Garden

It's been over a week since I finished The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys and I'm still not sure what to say about it. On one hand, I feel like I should be writing something beautiful and poetic to do justice to such a wonderful novel. On the other, I want to give away as few details of the story as possible so that anyone else who decides to read it can fully experience it for themselves. 

I've decided to give my second concern precedence, so all I'll reveal about the story is that it centers around Gwen Davis, a lonely, thirty-something horticulture expert who flees WWII London for the English countryside where she takes up a post in the Land Army, leading a group of girls who plant and harvest crops on the grounds of an old estate. One recurring theme that Gwen returns to throughout the book is her affinity for Virginia Woolf's writing. At one point, remembering her reaction to one of Woolf's novels, Gwen thinks, "I kept expecting the story to drop me, but it held me up, kept me buoyant". This quote perfectly describes how I felt about The Lost Garden. It's a small novel (under 200 pages) that I could have polished off in a couple of hours, but I kept setting it aside, consciously wanting to savor every moment of the story and extend the experience of reading it for as long as possible. The writing is word-perfect, using deliberate and gorgeous prose to explore the ways in which relationships that are fleeting, ephemeral, or even largely internalized, still have the power to add love and meaning to a life. I truly can't recommend this book highly enough, even though I can't seem to find a more eloquent way of describing it.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Friday Fancies

Today I'm doing a guest post for my friend Sadie, who is one half of the blog Frosting and Filigree. You can find me over here, talking about some summer reading ideas. (And consider yourself warned: while you're there you just might see some recipes that will put you in the mood to bake something.)

(image via here)

Here are some other noteworthy finds from the week:

Some cool floral arrangements by artist Diana Scherer, who sculpts plants' roots into the shapes of vases.

Speaking of vases, I'd love to put big hydrangea blossoms in these.

The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge lists every book that Rory mentioned or read during the course of the show.

These texts from Jane Eyre made me chuckle.

And I've been loving the photography on this blog lately (including a group of engagement photos that were shot around Hoboken!).

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Apollo's Angels

Apollo's Angels by Jennifer Homans is a massive, meticulous book that chronicles the history of ballet. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for everyone (hudrends of pages dissecting the origins of ballet within 18th century royal courts might be best left for ardent ballet fans), but I found it to be an interesting and enjoyable read that has given me a new level of appreciation for an art form that I've always loved.

Having studied ballet for many years growing up, and having continued to go to ballet performances as an adult, I felt that I came to this book with a little more knowledge than the average person on the street. Once I got into it, though, I discovered how superficial much of my prior understanding of ballet had been. After covering the aforementioned court dances of European royalty, Homans breaks down the history of ballet on a regional basis-- Italy, Denmark, pre- and post-Revolutionary Russia, England, and America. This structure allows her to delve into the cultural nuances and historical developments of each location and how they resulted in very specific technical and artistic styles of dance.

The author's writing is smart and engaging throughout the book, but becomes truly poetic in the chapter about the American ballet tradition that grew up around George Balanchine during the 20th century. Homans herself studied at the School of American Ballet and danced professionally in several companies that subscribe to Balanchine's style. It's clear from her writing that this piece of ballet history holds a special place in her heart. Because of this, it's all the more poignant when she reaches the conclusion of her epilogue- that ballet is, indeed, a dying art form. Homans states that, in writing this book, she had hoped to use history to find the seeds of the future of ballet. What she found instead was a bleak outlook for dance. She argues that the fact that most major ballet companies are simply reviving the works of the major choreographers of the past and not taking dance in any new directions that will truly advance the tradition (she dismisses most of the avant garde works being created) means that ballet will continue to become less and less relevant to popular culture (as opposed to the momentum it found at other points throughout history, when crowds would line up for tickets to performances in New York, London, and St. Petersburg).

As I said, this isn't a book for everyone, but if you have an existing interest in ballet, I'd highly recommend reading it as a way of deepening your ballet knowledge...before it (perhaps?) becomes extinct.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy

 When classic stories are reworked for a modern setting they're often pleasantly entertaining at best and and a recipe for disaster at worst. Because of this, I was intrigued yet apprehensive when I picked up The Flight of Gemma HardyMargot Livesey's retelling of Jane Eyre set in 1950's Scotland and Iceland. I didn't have to read very far into the novel to realize that my fears were ungrounded. Livesey strikes just the right balance, skillfully walking the line between conforming to Bronte's original details and diverging from them when needed. She creates a novel that is entertaining, but that also brings some fresh insights to a well known story.

Livesey's novel adheres quite closely to Bronte's plot, with Gemma Hardy standing in for the original title character. Gemma is a girl of Icelandic origins who, after becoming orphaned at a young age, is taken to Scotland by her kindly uncle. His eventual death leads to mistreatment at the hands of her aunt and cousins, years spent at a harsh boarding school, and eventual employment on the Orkney Islands as an au pair for the wealthy Mr. Sinclair. Although the overall narrative arc was familiar from having reread Jane Eyre so many times, my reaction to the various parts of the story was surprisingly different. When I read Jane Eyre, I tend to get a little impatient during the first third of the book. I'm secretly thinking, "Okay, horrible childhood, I get it, now let's get to the good part." In Gemma Hardy, though, I found the beginning to be one of the most compelling parts of the book. The trials that Jane Eyre faces have almost become too easy to digest under the assumption that that kind of bleak, Dickensian treatment of the poor and orphaned was just par for the course in that era. The time period of Gemma Hardy, so much closer to our own, makes the abuse she suffers seem all the more poignant. The same is true for the latter portion of the book, after Gemma runs away from her post with Mr. Sinclair. Jane's suffering after her escape is, of course, terrible, but a coach ride, wanderings on the moors, and eventual rescue by lovely, cottage-dwelling siblings seem almost picturesque compared to the much more looming threats that Gemma faces when she finds herself penniless on the streets of a foreign city. Her struggles heighten the sense that, during the course of the story, Gemma truly finds a place for herself for herself, not simply in relation to a Mr. Rochester figure.

And speaking of Mr. Rochester, the tension in the relationship between the two lead characters was another aspect of the story that was interestingly heightened here. When I read Jane Eyre, I'm probably guilty of doing a little mental photoshopping to make Mr. Rochester into a more appealing romantic figure. It's easy to picture his "older" age as being, say, mid-thirties, and tell myself that young brides were nothing unusual in those days. It's a lot harder to put a glossy coat on a relationship between a 41-year-old man and a nineteen-year-old girl living in the 1950's. Although Livesey highlights the bond they share, some of their interactions were downright uncomfortable to read, and I can't help but wonder if this creates a literary experience closer to what Bronte originally intended for readers of her time.

My only complaint with the book was the ending. The final reunion between Gemma and Mr. Sinclair is squeezed into a handful of pages and felt both rushed and flat. I suspect that the specific circumstances of the ending, which I won't reveal, may have been intended to portray Gemma and Mr. Sinclair becoming more equal to each other, but it just didn't work for me. Yet even though a problematic ending may seem like a big flaw, it's truly just a minor issue in light of the rest of the novel and doesn't keep Gemma Hardy from being a must-read for Jane Eyre fans.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Friday Firsts- Grown Up Books

This month, my Friday First question is:

What was the first book that made you make the switch from reading kids' books to adult books?

For me, I'd have to say it was Jane Austen's Emma. I read it in seventh grade, right after seeing the film version with Gwyneth Paltrow. The copy I read was actually the move tie-in version with her on the cover. From there I read all of Austen's other novels, then moved on to the Brontes. I guess I'd say that Emma was the start of my love of classic British novels. And now that I think about it, it was also the start of me being a long-time Gwyneth Paltrow fan. Coincidence?

What was the first book that started your adult reading habits?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Fourth!

Happy Fourth of July! What are you up to today? I'm taking a couple of extra days off and plan to spend as much time as I can outside and get a jump on my summer reading (I have about 10 books checked out from the library at the moment!). I'm also keeping my fingers crossed for an impromptu get together so that I'll have an excuse to try making Ina Garten's icebox cake.

(image via here

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sweet and Sour

Last week at the farmer's market, I picked up some sour cherries. It was my first time trying them and, although at first taste they didn't seem too sour, their tartness really started to kick in after a few bites. To tone that down a bit, I decided to try making them into a mini-crisp using the same method that I've done before with blueberries. 

I simply sprinkled the cherries with sugar and lemon juice, then topped them with a mixture of oats, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and melted butter and microwaved for just over a minute. The flavor combination was great, despite the fact that the end result turned out a bit messy. Notice the paper towel in that picture? That's from the cherries exploding all over the microwave. Definitely keep your eye on it while it cooks if you try this one at home!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Case Histories

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson is a book that truly bridges the genres of mystery and literary fiction, possibly more than any other book I've read. The plot juggles several story lines as private investigator Jackson Brodie tries to solve three different cold cases. Despite containing so many mysteries, the most interesting part of the novel didn't seem to be the mysteries themselves, but rather the character portraits that Atkinson paints, from Brodie himself to the various victims who come to him, desperate for answers to their own personal mysteries. 

It's entirely possible that I felt this way because, having seen the film adaptation on PBS's Masterpiece last year, I already knew the solutions to all of the mysteries. I picked up the book in spite of this because I enjoyed the film so much, largely because of the atmosphere it created. It was moody and dark, perfect for watching on a Sunday night in early autumn, which is when it aired. I was slightly disappointed that the book didn't evoke quite the same atmosphere for me. The details were mostly the same in both versions (aside from an Edinburgh setting in the movie that differed from the Cambridge setting of the book), but somehow they seemed less vivid in the book. This bothered me less the further I progressed through the book, but it still left me feeling a bit let down, like the experience of reading the story didn't live up to the expectations I had from watching it (that's probably a first, I know). I do think it's an extremely well written novel, though, and definitely worth reading, particularly if you have the benefit of coming to it without the preconceptions that I had.


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