Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Gorgeous Nothings

The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope PoemsThe Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems by Emily Dickinson

You will never be able to see how Vermeer painted a canvas, but if you open "The Gorgeous Nothings" you can catch a glimpse of Emily Dickinson's mind at work. I started thinking I would read one or two and found myself gobbling a dozen, then going back and looking again at the alternate words and phrases, as she worked out a line, tried out a different phrase. So small, intimate and personal. The difference between her printed works and these handwritten facsimiles is similar to the email and the handwritten note. Both get the job done, but the handwritten note conveys the person within its language. If you're skeptical, here's an example.

As old as Woe --
How old is that?
Some eighteen thousand years --
As old as Bliss
How old is that
They are of equal years

Together chiefest they are found
But seldom side by side
From neither of them tho' he try
Can Human nature hide

Now, take a look at the original at the Emily Dickson Archive.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ultimate Peter Rabbit

Ultimate Peter RabbitUltimate Peter Rabbit by Camilla Hallinan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the kind of "picture book" that a grown-up can while away the hours with. Yes, I ended that sentence with a preposition. Too bad. The book is filled with photographs of Beatrix Potter and her family, as well as hundreds of drawings and sketches of Peter and his animal friends. The illustrations bring out the strong connection in Potter's work between the beauty and mystery of the natural world and the everyday, routine activities of life, with the occasional adventure thrown into the mix. It is a small sip of joy to look at the world through the eyes of such a unique artist and storyteller.

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sweet Revenge

Sweet Revenge (A Lady Arianna Regency Mystery, #1)Sweet Revenge by Andrea Penrose
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an easy, enjoyable read. It reminded me a bit of the Lauren Willig "Pink Carnation" series and the Tasha Alexander "Lady Emily" mysteries, as a few other reviewers mentioned. The strongest points were the plotting and pace. The research needed to create a plausible financial scheme in the Napoleonic era separates this from fluffier historical fiction. The heroine was no-nonsense and the hero was likeable and not perfect (which I find completely off-putting in a story). I wasn't terribly into the chocolate thing, but in general, I like characters who appreciate good food and drink, so it was OK by me.
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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Downton Abbey Meets Pride and Prejudice

I'm reading "Longbourn" by Jo Baker. It tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the servants' perspective.

Then, dressed and coiffed and beautiful, Elizabeth and Jane wished her a good evening. They wafted out of the room and clipped softly down the stairs. Sarah laid her new gown reverentially down on the bed; she tidied away the brushes and combs, the spilt pins and ribbons. She smoothed the rumpled counterpane. The room was dull now, and meaningless, with the young ladies gone from it. They were both lovely, almost luminous. And Sarah was, she knew, as she slipped along the servants' corridor, and then up the stairs to the attic to hang her new dress on the rail, just one of the many shadows that ebbed and tugged at the edges of the light.

So many fans of Pride and Prejudice identify with luminous Lizzy. I think many of us are closer to Sarah, whether we want to admit it or not.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small ThingsThe Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best Austen biography I've read. By anchoring each chapter on a physical object, the author has given each facet of Austen's life, and larger life in Georgian England, a realness and intimacy that is often lacking in history or biography. Rather than surmising about what Miss Austen may have thought about this or that, Paula Byrne delves into the facts of life in Georgian England, and particularly of the Austen family. Jane Austen is revealed as a very human, complex woman. Is it any wonder that her works have endured and continue to engage so many different kinds of readers?

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Who Would Know Himself

"It is a very wise rule in the conduct of the understanding, to acquire early a correct notion of your own peculiar constitution of mind, and to become well acquainted, as a physician would say, with your idiosyncrasy. Are you an acute man, and see sharply for small distances? or are you a comprehensive man, and able to take in, wide and extensive views into your mind? Does your mind turn its ideas into wit? or are you apt to take a common-sense view of the objects presented to you? Have you an exuberant imagination, or a correct judgment? Are you quick, or slow? accurate, or hasty? a great reader, or a great thinker? It is a prodigious point gained if any man can find out where his powers lie, and what are his deficiencies, — if he can contrive to ascertain what Nature intended him for: and such are the changes and chances of the world, and so difficult is it to ascertain our own understandings, or those of others, that most things are done by persons who could have done something else better.

If you choose to represent the various parts in life by holes upon a table, of different shapes, — some circular, some triangular, some square, some oblong, — and the persons acting these parts by bits of wood of similar shapes, we shall generally find that the triangular person has got into the square hole, the oblong into the triangular, and a square person has squeezed himself into the round hole. The officer and the office, the doer and the thing done, seldom fit so exactly, that we can say they were almost made for each other."

--Sydney Smith, Lecture IX: On the Conduct of the Understanding, (the origin of the phrase a square peg in a round hole)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Elegy for Jane

“She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”
― Cassandra Austen

This makes me wish I had a sister.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Death in the Floating City

Death in the Floating City (Lady Emily, #7)Death in the Floating City by Tasha Alexander
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I've said about other Lady Emily stories in this series, I really like the premise and the ideas behind these mysteries better than the execution of them. I wish I could identify what it is that leaves me feeling a bit flat whenever I read one.

This time around, we are treated to a visit to Venice, unarguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is the star of the show and the descriptions are excellently done. Of course, there is a murder to solve and Lady Emily and her husband Colin get right to work. Along the way, they eat delicious food and drink a fair amount of prosecco. Lady Emily samples limoncello while her husband sticks to whisky and scotch, out of national pride or just to needle his wife, it's never clear. The mystery is slowly unravelled and it hinges on a love story from the late 1400s Venice involving two influential families. Their names are not Capulet and Montague, but you get the picture.

Maybe I am just out of sorts with mysteries these days. I find all the other aspects of the story engaging, but the actual mystery seems inconsequential to me. That could explain why I keep coming back to this series but never find myself wowed by it. Since that's a little like reading Dostoyevsky and complaining it's depressing, I'll give "Death in the Floating City" a 3.5 because it can't help being a mystery. That's what it is. And as a vehicle for a luscious travelogue, it's really quite good.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Death in the Floating City (In the Rain)

Reading a Victorian-era historical mystery set in Venice, while rains patter on windshield and windows. Extra points for atmosphere! This photo reminds me of the scene in "Cotton Club" where shadows from a lace curtain fall on Diane Lane's face.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Jane and the Wandering Eye

Jane and the Wandering Eye (Jane Austen Mysteries, #3)Jane and the Wandering Eye by Stephanie Barron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read several books in this series a few years ago, but didn't remember them in any detail. During my recent Jane Austen Festival frenzy, I decided to try a re-read. Unfortunately, my library did not have #1 or #2 available, and though I am loathe to (re-)start a series in the middle, I turned to Jane and the Wandering Eye. Jane is in Bath near Christmastime. Her Gentleman Rogue has dispatched her to keep an eye on his niece Lady Desdemona, who has decamped from London, after rejecting the Earl of Swithin's proposal. At a masquerade rout, a knife is plunged into the heart of one of the guests, and Jane is off on another sleuthing adventure. An intriguing clue found at the scene of the crime is an eye portrait. The author's website has a fascinating discussion of these portraits, if you get all Art Historical Geeky about this kind of thing like I do.

The Art and Drama of Bath: Jane and the Wandering Eye

I seem to recall thinking that the idea of Jane Austen as an intrepid sleuth was a bit much the first time I read these books. After all the subsequent vampyre, zombie, and semi-pornographic interpretations of her works, I have revised my first impressions. Jane and the Wandering Eye is just right in its tone and touch.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron (Jane Austen Mysteries, #10)Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron by Stephanie Barron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm still on my Jane Austen-inspired reading marathon. This mystery was well-written, though the pace did lag a few times. I enjoyed the descriptions of Regency Brighton and Prinny's less-than-dignified behavior.

Jane joins her grieving brother Henry in a seaside holiday, following the death of his wife Eliza. A sweet, young thing gets herself murdered, her corpse deposited in Lord Byron's bed. Yes, it's a frame-up. The goings-on of the ton make the Kardashians and Beyoncé seem rather uninspired. I've said it before, but there really is nothing new under the sun.

I think I'll go back and read this series from the beginning.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ready, Set, Promenade

We are in the final stages of preparing for our much-anticipated Jane Austen tour of England. The tour concludes in Bath at the Jane Austen Festival, where we plan to join 600 other Janeites in full Regency costume to promenade from the Royal Crescent lawn to the Parade Grounds.

Why not join the 600 people (ticket entry only restricted numbers this year) dressed in Regency Costume for this world famous spectacular official opening to the Festival. Departing, with kind permission of the residents, from Royal Crescent lawn, accompanied by red coats and navy officers and led by our own town crier and drums we will certainly “be of all the consequence in our power, draw as many eyes, excite as many whispers, and disturb as many people as possible!” The Promenade lasts about 90 minues and ends in Parade Gardens near Bath Abbey.

Assembling our costumes has been as much fun as anticipating the tour. I've even reclaimed my inner seamstress. She's been in hiding since high school home economics sewing class, where I made a quite adequate duffel bag, thank you very much. Researching period costumes and accessories was so diverting, and of course, we had to re-watch the various adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park and my favorites, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey

Nevermind that Austenland just came out! We certainly aren't crazed Darcy-fan weirdos. We read the JASNA Newsletter for the articles...

Bloody Jack #1

Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy (Bloody Jack, #1) by L.A. Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So much better than typical "pirate romance" stories. Since it's a teen YA book there are fewer heaving bosoms. It would, however, qualify as a "kissing book" by The Princess Bride criteria, but it's a sweet one. The heroine disguises herself as a ship's boy to escape a horrible life as a London street urchin in the late 1790s. The fact that she finds the grim life on board a Royal Navy ship a walk in the park compared to begging and stealing on land tells you how horrible her former life must have been.

The story is well-written and paced. Here are several of my favorite passages:

Attending a shipboard sermon:
"A weedy little clerk what was on the dock the first day turns out to be a preacher, too, and after a few songs and some prayers, he gets up behind the box and tells us what rascals we all are, and how Jesus wants us to turn to the right path, and I think as how I always turn to the path that will most likely get me out of a scrape and I hopes that's the path he means."

Before going ashore in Palma:
"...I can't wait to get ashore. But not for oranges. We fidget and wait.

I know the men are anxious as well. They've been in a state of high hilarity the whole time since we set course for this place. They were barely able to contain themselves during the last Church we had, with the Deacon warning about loose women and vile vessels and evil seductresses and such, and working himself up into a fine froth. I don't think it made much of an impression on the men, though, for all that.

The Professor put his two pence in with the words for yesterday being debauchery, dissipation, and wantonness. I've a feeling that me and my sisters do not have a high standing in the worlds of religion and learning."

Shipboard lessons for the boys:
"Hamlet was a good one. I thought the deceptions in that one were pretty well thought up. Shakespeare and I could have come up with a couple of corkers together, I'll wager. Poor Ophelia, though. It's always the girl what gets it, be it song or story. Or play. 'Course they all gets it in the end and it serves that Hamlet right, he who could have had the love of a good girl and been prince and all, but, no..."

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Saturday, August 24, 2013


Blameless (Parasol Protectorate #3)Blameless by Gail Carriger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book #3 in the series is 3.5 stars. The Parasol Protectorate Series has become one of my guilty reading pleasures. Another reviewer called it "brain candy" and that's one way to look at it. I don't read much paranormal or steampunk, so the premise of a preternatural woman who can take away the supernatural powers of werewolves and vampires by touching them is already pretty just-for-fun to me. Put her in Victorian England and make her deal with social niceties and corsets and bustles (and a hulking Scottish lord of a werewolf for a husband!) and you've got a good romp on your hands.

The supporting characters were given more attention in this installment and I really liked that. The location settings in France and Italy were a nice change after two books set in the UK. Alexia found a new food to love: pesto (garlic for vampires, basil for werewolves--who knew?). And then when the Knights Templars come into the picture, it's just about perfect. That and the ongoing rivalry between the werewolves and vampires, sort a paranormal Hatfield-McCoy type feud played out across the last three thousand years of history, make for an engaging, light adventure.

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen

The Lost Memoirs of Jane AustenThe Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading several biographies of Jane Austen this year, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this fictional memoir of the author. Syrie James fleshes out the mysterious "seaside gentleman" that has been hinted at in various Austen biographies, but never identified. Though we know there cannot be a happy ending for Jane and Frederick, they do have their "We'll always have Paris" moment a la "Casablanca" after spending several weeks together in London in 1810.

Quotes from a number of Austen works are sprinkled throughout the story and I found them to be nicely done. The domestic scenes within the Austen family were also rendered very well -- their homes and interests were those of real people, not just characters in a story. Jane's craft and process as a writer was a major focus of the novel, equally if not more so than her romantic adventures. This gave her character a greater realism than is often found in many historical fictional heroines. Bravo!

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Trim Your Bonnet

Flowers are very much worn, and fruit is still more the thing. Elizabeth has a bunch of strawberries, and I have seen grapes, cherries, plums, and apricots. There are likewise almonds and raisins, French plums, and tamarinds at the grocers’, but I have never seen any of them in hats… Elizabeth has given me a hat, and it is not only a pretty hat, but a pretty style of hat too. It is something like Eliza’s, only, instead of being all straw, half of it is narrow purple ribbon. I flatter myself, however, that you can understand very little of it from this description. Heaven forbid that I should ever offer such encouragement to explanations as to give a clear one on any occasion myself! But I must write no more of this. . .
--Jane Austen to Cassandra, Queen’s Square, Bath, June 2, 1799

Isn't she lovely? The Jane Austen Centre website has an informative page of instructions on trimming a Regency bonnet. Jane was quite the fashionista, and not the spinsterish blue-stocking some have think she was. How anyone could think that after reading her books is a mystery to me. The woman had such wit!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria (Pink Carnation, #10)The latest novel in the Pink Carnation series was released on August 6, 2013.

"The Passion of the Purple Plumeria" is the tenth book, and gives readers a much anticipated adventure with Miss Gwen at the helm. Miss Gwendolyn Meadows has served as second-in-command to the Pink Carnation, one of England’s most intrepid spies, throughout the series. As a supporting character she has always provided hilarious scenes with the take-no-prisoners use of her parasol to enforce proper behavior among her charges. As detailed on the Goodreads site: In this latest novel she has just learned of an alliance forming between Napoleon and an Ottoman Sultan. But, when the Pink Carnation’s little sister goes missing from her English boarding school, Gwen reluctantly returns home to investigate the girl’s disappearance.

The stories in the Pink Carnation series are well researched and written, and seldom disappoint when you are in the mood for an entertaining, lighthearted book. I'm looking forward to reading the latest one!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Cinnamon and GunpowderCinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A reader's treat, as much as it is an inspiration to reluctant adventurers and food lovers alike. I found myself savoring the words, like I do when I make every bite of a delicious meal last. My two favorite quotes, the first from early in the the story:

“I now have some intimacy with death, and like the hops in a beer, it has both embittered and fortified me.”

And this achingly beautiful one from near the end:

“Some foods are so comforting, so nourishing of body and soul, that to eat them is to be home again after a long journey. To eat such a meal is to remember that, though the world is full of knives and storms, the body is built for kindness. The angels, who know no hunger, have never been as satisfied.”

If there such a genre as the philosophical romp, this novel belongs near the top of the list.

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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Difficile Far Niente

Most people are familiar with the phrase "Dolce Far Niente" which means "pleasant idleness" or literally "sweet doing nothing." After a particularly hectic day, I'll say to myself, or even out loud to my family (the more damning option), "Tomorrow I'm going to take it easy. Not going to do a thing!" Before lunchtime I'll catch myself scrubbing down the kitchen sink or cleaning out science experiments from the fridge. Wait! I was going to relax today. What happened? I need to change the saying to "Dolce Far Meno" (sweet doing less). It's far more accurate and I won't feel guilty when I slip into old habits.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Chicken 65

We've been missing our Hyderabadi favorites.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


I listened to an intriguing Freakonomics podcast last night. At the conclusion, host Stephen J. Dubner said the following (emphasis added):

"A quitter never wins and a winner never quits." In 1937, a self-help pundit named Napoleon Hill included that phrase in his very popular book Think and Grow Rich. Hill was inspired in part by the rags-to-riches industrialist Andrew Carnegie. These days the phrase is often attributed to Vince Lombardi, the legendarily tough football coach. What a lineage! And it does make a lot of sense, doesn't it? 

Of course it takes tremendous amounts of time and effort and, for lack of a more scientific word, stick-to-itiveness, to make any real progress in the world. But time and effort and even stick-to-itiveness are not in infinite supply. Remember the opportunity cost: every hour, every ounce of effort you spend here cannot be spent there. So let me counter Napoleon Hill's phrase with another one, certainly not as well known. It's something that Stella Adler, the great acting coach, used to say: Your choice is your talent. So choosing the right path, the right project, the right job or passion or religion — that's where the treasure lies; that's where the value lies. So if you realize that you've made a wrong choice — even if already you've sunk way too much cost into it — well, I've got one word to say to you, my friend. Quit.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere CastleLady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by Fiona Carnarvon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What I most enjoyed about this book was the interweaving of the family living at Highclere Castle with the larger events going on in the world at the time. Movers and shakers would be one way to describe them. They knew everybody and entertained them in style. What else is money for? It was definitely the end of an era -- and once the Great War started, you could sense it.  To her credit, Lady Almina also used a great deal of her money (settled on her by her natural father Alfred de Rothschild) during the war to set up hospitals to care for wounded British officers. Her husband, Lord Carnarvon, was the famous and ill-fated partner of Howard Carter. Together they discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings.

While the end of her life was ignominious (lurid divorce/alimony trial and money-laundering/tax-evasion: is it any wonder the author, Fiona Carnarvon, decided to leave this part out?), the 5th Countess of Carnarvon's life while she reigned at Highclere Castle was an interesting, if a bit high-gloss, read.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Egg Curry

I saw this on an episode of Rick Stein's India.

Fry hardboiled eggs in mustard oil and spices.

Add onions, ginger, and chiles.

The colors in the wok at this point are so gorgeous. 

Simmer with some coconut milk.

You may think this sounds odd, but it is delicious. Serve with basmati rice.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Poolside Conversation

ME: Please don't point at people. It's not polite.

DS: Why not?

ME: How would you like it if you saw a kid pointing at you and talking about you to someone?

DS: I wouldn't mind it unless they dropped an F-bomb in my face.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Red & Blue Dessert for July 4

Here is my patriotic nod to Independence Day: Rhubarb Blueberry Crisp.

The topping isn't quite white, but it's close enough for government work.

I express most of my emotions through food.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


KeptKept by D.J. Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A clever pastiche of a Victorian novel. Lots of characters to keep track of. Nefarious goings on. Great language and narrative descriptions. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

“There was dust everywhere: dust on the cracked and rheumy window; dust over the drugget that made shift as Mr. Guyle's carpet; dust on the framed portraits of my lords Eldon, Coke and other luminaries that hung on the wall; and dust, it may be presumed, in the ventricles of Mr. Guyle's ancient legal heart.”

Two lawyers named Mr. Crabbe and Mr. Guyle. Names after Charles Dickens' heart!

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Petunias for mojotecho

School's out, as Alice said, and as Bros. Gershwin said, "The livin' is easy."

Monday, June 10, 2013

Jane Austen: An Unrequited Love

Jane Austen: An Unrequited LoveJane Austen: An Unrequited Love by Andrew Norman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An overview of author's life and her works. Not for somebody looking for detailed investigation into tiny nuances of JA work, etc. but more of a big picture of themes, etc. and how they may have related to events in her life.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

More Daring Adventures

I just finished a collage for the art class I'm taking this spring. This online class is lots of fun and easy to fit into my day. Students post their work on Flickr, so we have a chance to share our work with the group. Seeing all the different interpretations of each assignment is inspiring!

This week we will be "following our compass" as we explore the idea that our experiences and ideas are "guiding us and show up in our artwork. From the colors we like, to the imagery we choose, to the texture and influences from travels and life experiences that find their way into our art making." (Mati Rose McDonough)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Daring Adventures in Paint

It sat half-finished for months. It wasn't impatient. It wasn't afraid. I was both. Impatient with myself; fearful I would mess it up. Then I read a blog entry by Mati Rose McDonough.

The Daring Adventures in Paint & Life e-course starts tomorrow.