Tuesday, January 20, 2015

New Costume Drama

I was reading Harper's Bazaar the other day and an interesting item caught my eye. It was about the beautiful costumes in a new period film Testament of Youth, just released in the U.K. It stars Alicia Vikander in the central role. The film is based on the book Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain's powerful and moving memoir of World War I. The book was published in England in 1933 and was an instant hit, selling out on its first day of publication. It hit a nerve with the public, capturing the anguish and life-changing drama of the first world war. It was told from the perspective of a young woman who was 22 in 1916. It was the year her fiance was killed on the western front. Her beloved brother and two closest male friends would also be dead by the time the armistice was signed in November 1918.

According to the article, the film adaptation features beautiful period costumes that reflect Vera Brittain's love of fashion. It seems that the young suffragette did not want to dress like a frump and enjoyed spending her wages from her work as a nurse on beautiful pieces of clothing. And although she tells a gut-wrenching story of war and death, there are passages in the book that show Vera as a normal young girl who loved pretty things. The writer quotes a passage in which Brittain buys "a neatly cut navy coat and skirt, a pastel-blue blouse in soft crepe-de-Chine, an unusually becoming fawn felt hat trimmed with crimson berries and a black taffeta dinner-dress with scarlet and mauve velvet flowers tucked into the waist."

When she went to Oxford dressed in pastel silk to take her entrance examinations, she was mocked by the examiner for dressing like a debutante. She soon learned that feminine frocks had no place among the more utilitarian outfits worn by her classmates. However, her career at Oxford was cut short by the war and her life was turned upside down; she left school early to become a nurse and care for wounded soldiers. She never accepted society's expectations for young women and always did her own thing. She held strong political convictions and wanted an education and an independent career. Perhaps the only thing conventional about Vera Brittain was her love of beautiful clothing. This passion is captured in the new film.

I decided to do a little research into Vera Brittain's life since I don't know much about her. There was a television adaptation of Testament of Youth on Masterpiece Theatre many years ago that starred Cheryl Campbell. I remember loving this production, but don't remember many details. This is what I learned.

At the end of the war, after losing her fiance, brother and two closest friends, Brittain vowed to write a book that would immortalise them all. Surprisingly, it took 17 years for her to complete it. Part of the problem was that she tried to write the story as a novel. When that didn't work she decided to write the book as herself and in her own voice. This was a good decision, since at that point the book simply flowed out of her in an honest and heart-wrenching fashion. She told the story of her generation's wartime experiences, focusing on the four young men most important to her who died in the trenches. When the book was published in 1933, it was hailed as a great wartime memoir, the only one told by a woman. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary of staying up all night to finish it.

After many years as a bestseller, the book fell out of fashion with the outbreak of World War II because of its pacifist philosophy. In the 1970's the publisher Virago reprinted it and the television adaptation was made. Once again the book became hugely popular. But sadly Vera Brittain did not live to see the resurgence of the book's popularity. She died in 1970 thinking that her literary reputation was over. She never knew about the second chapter of her career. Hopefully this film adaptation will enlighten a new generation of readers about her book. Its release feels very timely, considering that last year was the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of World War I.

 I don't know about you, but I am swooning over these images from the piece in Harper's Bazaar. They are a visual feast for anyone who loves vintage fashion. 

The filmmakers have depicted Vera Brittain as a serious young Edwardian woman with an eye for beauty. Go here to read more. 

 Have you read Testament of Youth?
I can't wait to see the film!

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Long Weekend...

 Photo via here

If you are looking for a great place to spend a long weekend this month or in February, look no further than the Farmhouse Inn located in the beautiful Russian River Valley. Last year my husband and I spent a wonderful three days at the Inn and got a chance to explore this beautiful part of Sonoma County in Northern California. We drove on country roads, visited wineries, shopped in the lovely town of Healdsburg, ate delicious meals, and spent many happy hours relaxing at the rustic Farmhouse Inn. This place is a treasure and much of its charm comes from its understated luxury and laid back vibe. Staying at the Farmhouse Inn while you explore this enchanting part of the world has everything you need for the perfect weekend getaway.

Come with me on a mini-tour and see what this area and hotel has to offer. My photos are from last year's trip as well an earlier one I took with my daughters. 

Our room at the Farmhouse Inn

With special touches

And more special touches

The dining room

Where freshly baked pastries and fruit are served before breakfast each morning  

On our first day we explored the small town of Healdsburg, stopping at shops and cafes along the way

We spent time browsing at Antique Harvest where we found many treasures

 Such as old books

And beautiful china

The Downtown Bakery is a convenient place to stop for a mid-morning latte and sticky bun

And it's the best sticky bun you'll ever have!

  Shed is an amazing food, housewares, and garden emporium. There is also a cafe that serves delicious food.

Everything is beautiful 

The assortment of kitchen wares is like eye candy

All the items are beautifully curated and displayed

Lunch was at Willi's Seafood Bar where they specialize in fried clams

But the best part of being in Sonoma is driving the country roads

The winter landscape has a rugged beauty with rustic dwellings aged by time

And majestic oak trees

The blue sky and puffy clouds made a beautiful backdrop for the bare trees and vines

We went to fabulous wineries with gorgeous views -- this vista is from the Thomas George Estates Winery

On our way back to the hotel, we drove past fields of beautiful wild flowers

And lush vineyards

The first time I visited the Russian River Valley I knew there would be lots of good food, wines, antiques, and adventures. Little did I know that I would be discovering one of the most beautiful areas in California. Distinguished by country roads, wineries, breathtaking natural scenery, and the charming town of Healdsburg, the Russian River Valley is a little slice of heaven. If you find yourself in northern California, check into the Farmhouse Inn and get to know this special region. You won't be disappointed! 

Monday, January 5, 2015

What Book is on Your Nightstand?

The new year has arrived and one of my goals for 2015 is to make more time for reading and writing. One of the best sources for book suggestions, as well as literary inspiration, is the The New York Times Book Review. Do you read it every Sunday? Well, if you do then you probably read the column By the Book. Each week a writer is interviewed and asked questions about literature and the literary life.

I love reading the answers to questions such as: What book is on your nightstand? What book made you want to write? If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What is your favorite literary genre? How do you organize your personal library? What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?  

I can't tell you how many times I've torn out this section of the Book Review to save for future use. It is filled with great book recommendations as well as illuminating insights into the writer's life. For example, I read Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield after Sylvia Nasar recommended it as one of her favorite comic novels. And she was right! I read Goerge Eliot's Middlemarch after Anna Quindlen called it her favorite book of all time. And I agreed with her that it is truly a great book. I loved J.K. Rowling's answer to the question: If you could be any character from literature, who would it be? She answered "Elizabeth Bennett, naturally." I felt as if I knew her a little bit better and we were kindred spirits. No matter what the topic, I am always inspired by the passion that these writers have for books.

 I was swept away by John Irving's answer to the question "What book changed your life?"

"Great Expectations. I was fifteen. It made me want to be able to write a novel like that. It was very visual -- I saw everything, exactly -- and the characters were more vivid than any I had heretofore met on the page. I had only met characters like that onstage, and not just in any play -- mainly in Shakespeare. Fully rendered characters, but also mysterious. I loved the secrets in Dickens -- the contrasting foreshadowing, but not of everything.You both saw what was coming and you didn't. Hardy had that effect on me, too, but when I was older. And Melville, but also when I was older."

His answer made sense and its infectious enthusiasm about great writing made me want to sit down immediately and try to write a novel! 

In a stroke of genius, the editor of this column decided to collect 65 of the best interviews and publish them together in a book that is aptly named By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review. I got it for Christmas and have spent the last week happily browsing its pages. It was fun to ask myself some of these questions. Here are three which were easy to answer:

1. What book is on your nightstand?

There are three right now: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Summer in February by Jonathan Smith, and The Ambassadors by Henry James

2. What is your favorite book of all time?

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

3. Are you a rereader? What books do you find yourself returning to?

Yes, I am a rereader. The three books I find myself returning to again and again are Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, Howards End by E.M. Forster, and The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. These books never fail to take me to that cozy place I sometimes crave and always make me feel good.

 I would love to know your answers to these questions.

If you are a passionate reader and an aspiring writer, get this book. You will love it!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Happy Holidays!

Wishing you the happiest of holidays!

May the new year bring you good health, happiness, and lots of great books!

See you back here in 2015

xo/ Sunday

Monday, December 15, 2014

Deck The Halls

Living room

This holiday season has been a hectic one and I wasn't sure I'd be doing any decorating. My new granddaughter was born on November 25 and my younger daughter just relocated from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I am jumping for joy about both these events. But there has been little time to work on the house. As of last Thursday I hadn't done a thing to get ready for Christmas.

Family room

But on Friday I turned the corner, caught the holiday spirit, and everything started to come together. Part of this was reading some holiday essays I have saved over the years. We put up the garlands and got the tree. It will be a quiet holiday this year -- no parties at the house, there just hasn't been time to plan anything -- but that's exactly what I'm in the mood for. As the years go by, I realize the big parties and celebrations are receding and the smaller, magical moments are becoming more important. Have you noticed this also? I'm looking forward to sitting down and writing holiday cards, making cookies, decorating the tree, and having my family around the dinner table. I can't wait to take a photo of my granddaughter in front of the Christmas tree. In the meantime, here are some special holiday moments that have been making me very happy.

Discovering a new recipe for brownies -- you will love these!

Taking out the decorations for the tree. I have had these green and white storage boxes for ages and the sight of them always fills me with anticipation.

Finishing the tree! I love having it in the library.

Finding the perfect book to give my granddaughter for Christmas, though I won't be able to read it to her for a while. But getting her started on the Madeline books with this special 75th anniversary edition is very exciting!

Finding a present for myself

The Writer's Garden is about the way gardens have held a special place in many authors' lives. It is filled with beautiful photos and fascinating text about the gardens belonging to writers such as Daphne du Maurier, Jane Austen, Winston Churchill, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie and many others. This would make a great gift for your gardening and literary friends.

Taking a few peaceful hours in the day to write my holiday cards 

Going to the Christmas tea that my book club has every year

And being touched by how much trouble my friend Judie took to make it look so beautiful!

Many writers have written about the redemptive power of making a home for the holidays. I read an article years ago on this topic. The writer discovered that working on his house and creating a holiday for his family was a way to create a sanctuary in the midst of the chaos and confusion of the world. I was inspired by the idea of making a beautiful and safe place to shelter our loved ones. This year with a new grandchild in our family, I especially feel this. It will be fun as the years go by to see the excitement in her eyes as she experiences the holiday. Each year, when I think about that article from years ago, I appreciate the value of getting the house ready for the holidays. Often it's the little things that make the holiday so magical!

Fudge Brownies Sprinkled with Coffee Salt

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 and 1/4 cups of sugar
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour
Stumptown Coffee Flake Salt for sprinkling (You can order it here)

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8-inch by 8-inch baking pan with parchment and grease well. Melt chocolate and butter over low heat, stirring constantly until mixture is smooth. Remove pan from heat and set aside to cool. Add vanilla, sugar, eggs and salt to chocolate mixture and mix until combined. Add flour and stir until completely combined. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Bake for about 40 minutes. Do not overbake! When done, a toothpick inserted into the middle should come out just barely clean. Sprinkle the top with coffee salt. Cool in pan and cut into squares.

This recipe comes from Anne Zimmerman, a friend who is a writer and an excellent cook!


Monday, December 8, 2014

The Art of Making a Home

Every now and then a book comes out that captures the feeling of home and hearth that many of us crave around the holiday season. A book that is perfect to give to our literary, homebody, and design-addicted friends, as well as ourselves. A book that is a place to escape from the holiday madness. This year the book that hits all the right notes for a cozily domestic and inspiring read is Novel Interiors by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti. Its theme is "living in enchanted rooms inspired by literature." That description alone has me running out to buy copies for all of my friends.

If there's anyone who knows a thing or two about making a warm and welcoming home, it is Lisa Borgnes Giramonti. She has been writing about it and inspiring us to do just that on her beautiful blog A Bloomsbury Life for years. Her new design book "Novel Interiors" has just been released and for those of us who love her blog, it is an occasion to rejoice. I know Lisa and from the first day we met at a book reading by Dominque Browning in Santa Monica -- we just gravitated towards each other -- she has been an inspiring and supportive friend. We bonded over our passion for Bloomsbury and English literature and have gotten together many times to exchange books and ideas. She is a treasure!

Photos from "Novel Interiors" that illustrate Lisa's design philosophy inspired by classic literature 
These rooms convey a cheerful domesticity

If I could think of one concept to describe Lisa's blog, and hence her book, it would be how to live a meaningful life. One way she has personally done this is by creating warm and happy homes wherever she has lived, homes that are inspired by great literature. "Novel Interiors" is all about that idea. Like many of us who love to read, Lisa has discovered many truths from classic novels. And one of those is that a cheerfully and warmly designed home can add to a happy life. In her new book, she gives us hundreds of design ideas to accomplish this. As she writes, "Don't underestimate how important these details can be to your life. Happiness has a wonderful way of reverberating outward -- when you are surrounded by things that bring you a deep sense of well-being, everyone around you feels better also."

Her ideas for a more stately and traditional look

As she has written on her blog, the books she has loved in her life have shaped the person she is today. They have influenced her personal style, especially the way she decorates her home. In "Novel Interiors," Lisa shares with us "the beautiful moments" from her favorite books and how they can be recreated in our homes. The photographs by Ivan Terestchenko of houses and their interiors are gorgeous and the quotes from Lisa's favorite books are inspiring and plentiful. According to her, many of us nesters want our rooms to feel cozy and warm, or chic and glamorous, or earthy and natural. It all depends on who we are. We want our homes to reflect ourselves. This book will show us how. And for the bibliophiles amongst us, aren't we always looking for a good book to read? Lisa's book will help us accomplish that as well.

The book is divided into chapters: "Shall I Put the Kettle On?," "Remembrance of Things Past," Living au Naturel," "Oh, the Glamour of it All," "Anything Goes," and "Sometimes a Fantasy." Each chapter guides us through the settings of more than sixty literary classics and shows us how they can inspire our decorating style. Here's the introduction to "Shall I Put the Kettle On?" --

"In the classic novels of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and others, home sweet home is a well-worn sanctuary where the furniture is a bit threadbare, the kitchen has yet to be tidied up from breakfast, and a cheerful domesticity reigns over all. Woven into the architecture of these richly detailed worlds are countless lessons on how to live simply and meaningfully. When in doubt, keep it comfortable, they tell us. Embrace the charms of disorder. Go ahead and let the stitches show. And don't ever underestimate the power of a good armchair."

Elements of a glamorous design

After reading this book, you will be inspired by how easy and satisfying it is to create a warm environment for yourself and your family by paying attention to the little things -- such as having fresh flowers in a favorite vase and placing them in a spot that catches the afternoon light or putting out an earthy tea kettle in the kitchen next to mugs and tea accoutrements signaling afternoon tea. There is also the idea of a drinks tray for mixing that evening cocktail. It's the details that make all the difference.

A drinks tray adds a note of hospitality and graciousness to a room

You will also be delighted by how many great book suggestions Lisa makes. I always seem to be on the hunt for a good book. Lisa's anthology is excellent and emphasizes the classics, including some titles you may not have heard of. I will be searching for Lark Rises to Candleford by Flora Thompson, Loving by Henry Green, and Vainglory by Ronald Firbank. So get ready to be ordering some new books as well as rearranging a cozy corner or two around your house. You will be inspired to find the perfect spot to read one of these books, brew that perfect pot of tea, make an evening cocktail, and create some beautiful moments of your own! Go here to order a copy.

Photo by Megan Taylor

Lisa signing my book at her book launch in Beverly Hills