Monday, January 27, 2014

A Scottish Castle

Inveraray Castle in Scotland

I have fallen in love with a castle and, if you are a fan of Downton Abbey, you can probably guess which one. It is the romantic Scottish castle featured in the third season of "Downton Abbey." Right out of a fairy tale, it captured my imagination from its very first appearance on the screen. And later when I spent a little time looking at images online, I was truly smitten. This is the castle where the Crawley family go to stay with Lord Grantham's cousins. It is the family home of Lady Rose, the rebellious and spirited young woman who comes to live with the Crawleys at Downton. The episode (A Journey to the Highlands) was filled with iconic Scottish images: breathtaking countryside, bagpipers, highland reels, and lots of tartan. The castle known as Duneagle on the show is Inveraray Castle in real life, the ancestral home of the Duke of Argyll. He lives there with his wife and children. If you are a fan of Scotland, take a look at these dreamy images of Inveraray Castle and its grounds in western Scotland. They will have you longing to plan a trip to the Scottish Highlands.

The countryside alone is enough to satisfy any lover of Scotland

But the castle itself is right out of a fairy tale

Covered with snow, it becomes a winter wonderland

And in the spring, it looks lovely and inviting

The running river

A walkway

The Duke and Duchess of Argyll, pictured with their children, have opened the castle to the public

Inside: the Armoury Hall Fireplace that greeted the Crawleys upon their arrival

The saloon

The state dining room

The old kitchen

The MacArthur bedroom

The Aray Bridge

The stunning view from the castle

And speaking of Highland beauty, the clothes worn by Lady Rose in this episode are a dream. The hats, the tweeds, the rich colors. Reflecting the time and place, her clothes are breathtaking!

I love this new "Downton Abbey" character; her independence and rebellious spirit feel like a breath of fresh air.


Inveraray Castle is located in the county of Argyll in western Scotland, on the shore of Loch Fyne. It has been the seat of the Dukes of Argyll and the Clan Campbell since the 17th century. The castle is open to visitors from April 1 - October 31. Go here to find out more. If you are planning a trip to Scotland, this would be a wonderful place to add to your itinerary.

All photos of Inveraray Castle via here

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Jane Austen Book Club

Why do we still read Jane Austen? I asked myself that question when I started reading Northanger Abbey recently. Within the first chapter I came across these memorable passages: 

"No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother; her own person and disposition, were all equally against her."

"'Catherine grows quite a good-looking girl, -- she is almost pretty today,' were words which caught her ears now and then; and how welcome were the sounds! To look 'almost' pretty, is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain for the first fifteen years of her life, than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive."

"She had reached the age of seventeen, without seeing one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility...This was strange indeed! But strange things may be generally accounted for if their cause be fairly searched out. There was not one lord in the neighborhood; no -- not even a baronet. There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door -- not one young man whose origin was unknown. Her father had no ward, and the squire of the parish no children.
But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of the forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero her way."


Despite the fact that she was writing two hundred years ago and never ventured more than a county or two away from her home, Jane Austen's writing is timeless. She understood human nature and her ironic take on society can be applied to the world we live in today. True, we first need to immerse ourselves in her 19th-century world and get used to period details such as barouches, the Entailment property law, Regency War officers, and the healing waters of Bath. But once we get comfortable, we realize we are in the company of a wise and funny writer who never seems dated. A master storyteller, Austen writes about heroines who hold out for love, despite the economic realities of their lives and, after a series of obstacles thrown their way, always find it. We forget how smart, funny and ironic she is until we pick up one of her books after not having read her for a while. This is what happened to me last week when I spent some time getting reacquainted with Jane Austen at the Hotel Bel-Air.

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in the 2007 film Becoming Jane

When I heard that Professor Charles (Lynn) Batten of UCLA would be speaking about Jane Austen, I immediately signed up. Professor Batten is one of the wittiest and most knowledgeable experts on Jane Austen in Los Angeles and is a well-known and well-loved lecturer on the topic. I have heard him speak many times. And so last week I found myself at the beautiful Hotel Bel-Air listening to him talk about Northanger Abbey. This was part of the lecture series The Jane Austen Book Club put on by Literary Affairs.

We learned that Jane Austen was a fan of the 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson and, in the same tradition as Johnson, wanted to give the reader truthful representations of nature. The characters in Northanger Abbey are obsessed with Gothic romances which, unlike Jane Austen's novels, are unrealistic. The Mysteries of Uldopho by Anne Radcliffe is one of those romances that Catherine Morland is reading. Northanger Abbey is about the education and the maturing of Catherine Morland who will learn that the life she is living is not the life from a Gothic romance. It turns out that once she accepts that, she becomes the heroine of her own life. Not surprisingly, Catherine Morland is one of those Austen characters we fall in love with. I am now reading Northanger Abbey with the fascinating insights provided by Lynn Batten.

Next month -- Sense & Sensibility!

I am having such a good time immersing myself in the world of barouches, the Entailment and Regency War officers!

Photos two and three via Pinterst

Friday, January 17, 2014

January Mornings

January feels like the perfect month to make a pound cake. I am not sure why exactly, but it just feels right. Maybe it has to do with the feeling of a fresh new year and wanting to keep things simple. A pound cake is rustic, humble and homey. The winter months always inspire me to bake. And lately I have been spending some happy hours in the kitchen looking at recipes. Last weekend we were having friends over for dinner and I decided to make one of my all-time favorite cakes: Brown Sugar and Chocolate Chip Pound Cake with Maple-Espresso Glaze.

I found this recipe in a Bon Appetit magazine years ago. If you are looking for something delicious and comforting to serve on a chilly day, look no further than this cake. It is made with pure and simple ingredients, such as maple syrup which always makes me think of winters in New England. 

The batter is made with brown sugar, butter, and chocolate chips

After smoothing over the top, you bake it in the oven for about an hour

Once the cake has cooled, it is time to make the maple-espresso glaze

Which is delicious -- made with powdered sugar, maple syrup and instant espresso powder, what's not to love!  

After you drizzle the glaze over the cake, you let it set for a while

I couldn't resist buying this Vermont maple syrup from Williams-Sonoma. I have to admit I was completely seduced by the packaging. But, fortunately, it is delicious maple syrup!

The next morning, I surveyed the remains of the cake

And decided that not only is it a great dessert cake, it is also a delicious coffee cake for breakfast. Especially on a beautiful January morning!

  It was perfect. A slice of cake, a cup of coffee, the Sunday paper and memories of New England -- heaven!

Go here for the recipe

Wishing you a lovely winter weekend!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Dinner with Friends

Vita Sackville-West wrote, "It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily away. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?" I couldn't agree more. There are special moments that we don't want to forget. Last week, I had a memorable night with a group of friends. There was friendship, good conversation, flowers and candlelight. I didn't want to forget any of it.

My book club is one of those joys of life that I cherish. We have been together for about 20 years and we treasure our friendships. It is one of those wonderful things that came out of a simple conversation. I remember vividly the day the club was born. A group of us, consisting mostly of mothers at my daughter's school, had breakfast together one morning and talked about wanting to create a book group. We were all enthusiastic and decided to take the plunge. We set a date, picked a location and chose a book: Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. The book club was born and has been going strong ever since. New friends have joined over the years, but most of that core group has remained. We have gone through the milestones of life together and shared many things. Books are our focus, but friendship is the glue that holds us together.

We meet at each other's homes for dinner and our gatherings are cozy, fun and always stimulating. The other night the meeting was at my house and because we were celebrating a member's birthday, I decided to do something a little special. I styled the table with flowers from Hollyflora, new place mats and napkins, and lots of candles to give it a festive feel. We were discussing a book, but we were also celebrating a birthday.

The flowers set the tone for the table 

Hollyflora specializes in groupings of small, romantic flower arrangements 

Even our book The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt looked fetching in this setting

I put out votives for ambiance

The flowers were so beautiful that I couldn't stop taking pictures 

Before everyone arrived, I lit the candles

They gave the table a warm glow

The green and gray napkins are from Lavender Blue, a store in Pacific Palisades that carries French linens

The flower arrangements of pinks, green, yellows and apricot complemented the linens

 The scene looked magical bathed in candle light

The table was ready and it was time for everyone to arrive. The doorbell rang and my friends walked in, buzzing about the book and excited to sit down and eat. It was a cozy and fun evening. The food, brought by one of our members, was delicious. We drank a good wine and toasted the birthday girl. We had birthday cake for dessert. And the book...we were all enthusiastic about The Goldfinch! We had a fascinating discussion about the first half of the book. So many parallels to Dickens, more than I had already discovered. And how did the author Donna Tartt manage to do such a good job of getting inside the heads of two lost, adolescent boys binging on alcohol and drugs? She writes about grief in a powerful way. We talked about this brilliant writer who cultivates such an air of mystery. She took ten years to write this book. So much more to talk about. To be continued next month when we tackle the second half of the book...

It was a night to remember!

Monday, January 6, 2014

The "It" Book

Every now and then a book comes out that creates a lot of excitement. It captures the popular imagination and everyone seems to be reading it. You hear about it from your friends, discuss it at dinner parties, read about it in the paper, and see it on the bestseller list. It is prominently placed in your local bookstore, that is...if they have any copies left. My neighborhood book store was recently sold out and had to order it for me. Two copies actually, as I gave one to my daughter for Christmas. 

Right now that book is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I would say this book is the IT book of the new year. It actually came out in October of 2013, but right now there seems to be a huge buzz about it. In an amazing coincidence, the book's publication date in October fell on the same exact date that an Exhibition of Dutch paintings opened at The Frick Museum in New York. An exhibition that includes "The Goldfinch," a 1654 masterpiece by Carel Fabritius, the painting at the center of Donna Tartt's new novel. And if you are reading the book, you know how important the painting is to the plot of this novel. You can see why there would be a lot to talk about at your next book club or dinner party! And why there are record crowds at the Frick.    

Have you read it?  I am in the middle and have to resist moving beyond mid-point until after Wednesday night. That is when my book club is discussing the first half. Upon reflection, I think this was not such a great idea. Who knew this would be one of those books you can't put down? This is what happened -- when I suggested The Goldfinch as our next book club choice, I disclosed that the book is 800 pages long. Most of us didn't want to commit to reading an 800-page book in one month,  so we decided to do it in parts. Little did we know that not finishing it would be so difficult! In fact, some of our members, unable to resist, have gone on to read it to the end, but have promised not to give anything away.

"The Goldfinch" painted in 1654 by Carel Fabritius
Currently being exhibited at The Frick Museum in New York

The book is about a young boy, the 13-year-old Theo, who one day ducks into the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with his mother during a rain storm. The relationship with his mother is the most important one of his life, since his father left them a long time ago and he has no siblings. They wander around separately looking at art with a plan to meet shortly. An explosion occurs and, as Theo digs his way out of the rubble, he encounters an old man who begs him to save "The Goldfinch" from destruction and also gives him a gold ring which Theo is to to take to "Hobart and Blackwell. Ring the Green Bell." The old man dies and after Theo unsuccessfully searches for his mother, he leaves the museum with the painting and the ring and goes home to wait for her return.

The book takes off from this point and becomes almost impossible to put down. Theo's adventures begin. He is as alone and adrift as any of Dickens' most famous orphans, and in fact, the book has many characteristics of the great novels by Dickens. Like many of Dickens' characters, Theo is a child with no power at the mercy of the adults around him. He will have to deal with the bad and menacing ones, but also the good and kind ones, just as in any novel by Dickens. James Hobart, the former business partner of the dying man at the museum, is one of the good and kind ones. He runs an antiques restoration business and Theo becomes friends with him as well as an apprentice. Hobie is a Dickensian character in his goodness and eccentricity and the scenes in his workshop and home have a coziness and warm domesticity that appeal to Theo. 

There is also a beautiful young woman, the granddaughter of the old man, whom Theo fleetingly gets to know and love, and from whom he is abruptly separated. This may be his Estella, though I am not far enough along to know. And then there is perhaps the most vivid character in the book: Boris, the young and wild Russian who becomes Theo's best friend and with whom he gets into a lot of trouble when he moves to Las Vegas to live with his unscrupulous father. Boris is one of those larger-than-life characters you will never forget. These two seriously neglected boys find solace in their friendship and have some incredible and raucous adventures together. In the meantime, Theo's father is up to no good and there is a menacing feeling to much of the Las Vegas section.  

There is obviously so much more to come. In the first half of the book, the fact that Theo is still holding onto the precious painting never leaves the reader's mind and creates an ominous atmosphere that pervades everything. We can only wonder where it will take Theo. I will be anxious to pick up the book on Thursday so I can find out!

The novel has inspired record-breaking crowds at the Frick Museum in New York. There is another  much more famous painting in this exhibition: Vermeer's "The Girl with the Pearl Earring." It even has its own room at the Frick. However, it turns out that "The Goldfinch" is the second most popular painting in this exhibition because of Donna Tartt's new book. Now if I could just figure out a way to get to New York before January 19th, when the show closes...I would love to know if you were able to see this exhibition. I am sure it was wonderful!