Monday, December 21, 2015

Last Minute Christmas Gifts

If you are looking for a last minute Christmas gift, books are always a great idea. Unwrapping a book on Christmas morning and flipping through it during the day is a treasured tradition in our house. If I'm lucky there will be a few to open and that stack is a beguiling sight in the days to come. Which one will I read first? The quiet weeks after Christmas always allow for some good reading time. And settling in with a good book on a cold winter afternoon or night is one of the best things about this time of the year. Here are some books that have caught my eye recently. I hope this list will give you a few suggestions for last minute Christmas gifts. They are guaranteed to while away a cozy winter night in front of the fireplace.

The Bronte Cabinet by Deborah Lutz

The Bronte sisters are endlessly fascinating and now there is a new book to add to the vast scholarship on the topic. "The Bronte Cabinet" is an intimate portrait of the sisters' lives based on the objects they possessed. This is such a good idea. After visiting many of my favorite writer's houses, I feel that I know them better after seeing their possessions. Victorian scholar Deborah Lutz looks at the complex lives of the Brontes through the things they wore, stitched, wrote on, and inscribed. The first chapter is called "Tiny Books." For the passionate Bronte reader, this would be a wonderful addition to a collection.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

In "The Paris Wife" Paula McClain brought to life not only the tempestuous marriage of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway but also the heady days of Paris in the twenties. Now she is back with another historical novel, "Circling The Sun." It is about Beryl Markham, the record-breaking aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denis Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir "Out of Africa." I've already started this and love it.

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

This historical novel is about the life of the nineteenth-century writer George Sand. She started out as Aurore Dupin but changed her name after leaving her husband and starting her career as a writer. She had a passionate love affair with Frederic Chopin and defied the conventions of the day. Her friends and lovers included Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, and Victor Hugo. Paris in the nineteenth century is vividly evoked in this book as it tells the story of the loves, passions, and fierce struggles of this fascinating woman.

It's hard to imagine how Shakespeare at the age of 42 wrote three iconic masterpieces in one year: "King Lear," "Macbeth," and "Antony and Cleopatra." That kind of creativity is awe-inspiring. James Shapiro takes a close look at the political and social turmoil of Britain in the year 1606 that contributed to the creation of these three incredible plays. I can't wait to read this one!

For many people, Nancy Mitford is the ultimate comic novelist. This collected set of her sparkling, astute and hilarious novels would be the perfect gift for a friend who loves British humor. Mitford pokes fun at British aristocrats and their eccentric ways and evokes a long ago vanished time. These books are lough-out-loud funny. What a treasure to have all the novels together in one collected set.

M Train by Patti Smith

After the success of "Just Kids," Patti Smith has written another book. She describes this one as "a road map to my life." She tells the story of the odyssey of her career through the prism of the cafes and haunts she has worked in around the world. This book is a non-linear meditation on topics that have been important to her over the years: books, art, travel, the artist's craft and artistic creation. For your friends who loved her first book, this would be a wonderful gift.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

"The Story of the Lost Child" is the final installment of the four Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. I read the first book in the series, "My Brilliant Friend," and was impressed by this powerful story. It tells of a friendship between two women that seems unbreakable despite the most difficult odds. This fascinating tale of growing up in the working class of Naples in the 1950's amidst poverty, danger and violence also deals with the serious challenges of being a woman in that environment. The essence of these books seems to be the mysterious chemistry that holds these two women together as friends. The latest installment to the series has received great reviews.

Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford

This book is being called a modern day "House of Mirth." A first novel by Stephanie Clifford, it is about the young and wealthy in New York City. The story follows Evelyn Beegan, a middle class millennial from Maryland, whose great aspiration is to work her way into young Manhattan's elite society. It takes its title from the last line of Stephen Sondheim's song "The Ladies Who Lunch." From everything I've read, this book promises to be a funny and sharply observed story about old money in New York.

At Home in the Garden by Carolyne Roehm

This gorgeous coffee table book by Carolyne Roehm is about the gardens at her historic Connecticut home, Weatherstone. I have seen this one and it is impressive, in size and beauty! All of Roehm's books are filled with inspiration for home decor, entertaining and lifestyle. This would be a great gift for the garden lover in your life.

Garden Inspirations by Charlotte Moss                         

Another book about gardens, this one is by celebrated interior designer Charlotte Moss. She writes about the garden as her inspiration for interiors, entertaining and good living. The garden is her muse and this book shows the many ways it has influenced her life. Another beautiful book for your gardening friends.

Did you know that "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" turned 150 this year? On the occasion of this milestone birthday, Anna Bond of Rifle Paper Company has illustrated a beautiful new edition for Puffin Books. This charming book would be a treasure in anybody's library as well as a wonderful gift for the young person in your life.

A Book a Month from Persephone Books

The endpapers for the Persephone Books edition of "London War Notes" by Mollie Panter-Downes
Image via here

And finally if you really want to give a bountiful gift to a book lover, send them a year's worth of books from Persephone Books. Have you visited their charming bookshop in London? It is filled with lovely gray books whose gorgeous endpapers are derived from the pattern of a textile tied to the year the book was originally published. Persephone Books publishes out-of-print titles mostly by mid-twentieth century women writers. Authors include Katherine Mansfield, Monica Dickens, Julia Strachey, Enid Bagnold, Winifred Holtby, and E.M. Delafield. One of my favorite Persephone books is "Diary of a Provinical Lady" by E.M. Delafield. For your Anglophile friend who can't get enough of British novels set in the early 20th-century, give a year of books from Persephone Books. Go here to learn more.

Wishing you the happiest of holidays and a great year of reading in 2016!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Pleasures of the Season

What is it about celebrating with girlfriends at this time of the year that is so comforting? Maybe it's because this is the season to count our blessings. And friendships are one of life's greatest treasures. It's the time of the year when we celebrate our friends. If you're like me you probably belong to a book club, bridge group or other organization with girlfriends. Most women I know love to have a reason to get together on a regular basis. Maybe it's over work, books, art, writing projects, knitting, golf or philanthropic activities. In the best of circumstances, these groups give women an opportunity to talk, listen, support, and encourage each other. Getting together on a regular basis keeps the connections strong. And appreciating each other during the holidays with a festive get-together is a wonderful way to end the year.

Yesterday I hosted a holiday lunch for my bridge group. I see these women each week for bridge and I treasure our regular get-togethers. We always manage to catch up with what's going on in our lives. And each December we make time for a holiday lunch. This year we had a potluck. My job was to make soup and savory scones. My friends brought salad, a gorgeous cheese board and a luscious chocolate cake. It was a cozy lunch on a cold December day here in Los Angeles. The fireplace was lit, spiced apple cider was simmering on the stove, and spirits were high. It's the kind of celebration I love during the holiday season. Sometimes the simplest pleasures are the most meaningful. Spending a cozy afternoon with friends brings a little extra joy to an already wonderful time of year.

Everyone loved the menu and I wanted to share three of the recipes with you:

Mulled Cider with Winter Spices

18 cups apple cider
1/3 cup orange juice
Peel (orange part only) from 1 large orange, cut into strips
1 bay leaf
1 and 1/2 Tbsp. brown sugar
3 cinnamon sticks
3 whole cloves
3 whole allspice
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Pinch of salt
2 and 1/4 cups applejack brandy (optional)

Mix first 10 ingredients in large saucepan. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer mixture 30 minutes to blend flavors. Strain mulled cider into mugs. Serve cider, passing applejack brandy separately, if desired. Garnish each serving with a cinnamon stick. Serves 16.

Sugared Lemon-Rosemary Scones

2 and 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling
2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 Tbsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 and 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cubed
3/4 cup heavy cream, plus more for brushing

In a food processor, pulse the flour with the 1/3 cup of sugar, rosemary, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal, with some pea-size pieces of butter still visible. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the 3/4 cup of cream until a shaggy dough forms. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and gently knead just until it come together. Gently roll the dough into a 14-inch log, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour or until firm. 
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Slice the log into 8 rounds and transfer to the baking sheet. Brush the scones with cream and sprinkle generously with sugar. Bake for 22-25 minutes, until the scones are golden. Let cool slightly before serving. Serves 8.

Smoky Split Pea and Root Vegetable Soup (go here for recipe)


Thursday, December 10, 2015

My Reading Life...

Happy December! What have you been reading? As you can see from the stack above, my reading has been eclectic. It's the end of the year and critics have been compiling their favorite book lists. I haven't had time to look back on all the books I read this year, but glancing at the stack on my nightstand gave me a sense of the books I have been reading for the last few months. It's a varied group and I have to confess to jumping from book to book. There are books that felt like homework as well as books chosen for pure pleasure. Happily the categories have occasionally merged and it turns out that some of that homework has been satisfying. Here is a little report on my reading life as it stands right now:

A book I loved and can highly recommend --
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. The writing is beautiful and the story is fascinating and unexpected. It looks at a successful marriage from two perspectives, that of the husband and the wife. The first part, "Fates," is told by the husband. The second part, "Furies," is told by the wife. The question the book explores so brilliantly is how well anyone can really know their spouse. It is about the secrets kept in a marriage.

The characters are drawn with tremendous depth and skill. The husband, Lotto, is a much-loved and pampered young man when he first meets his wife, Mathilde, at Vassar. Handsome, rich, and destined to be an actor, he is attracted to the calm and mysterious Mathilde, a beautiful young woman who seems to have no past. Her strong and supportive nature is the foil he needs to balance his tempestuous and all-consuming personality. She will become the caretaker in their marriage. He soon discovers his talent as a playwright and becomes successful, though Mathilde edits and rewrites most of his work. She gives up her career to be his helpmate. Only in the second section do we find out how much she is responsible for his success. There is a dark side to her story. The second part of the book will take your breath away. The book is brilliant and a tour de force. I rank it among the best books written in recent years, one of those books I will hang on to and go back to later. I promise it will sweep you away. And, this is so exciting, President Obama just announced it is his favorite book of the year! Lauren Groff must be in heaven right now.

A book that takes a little time to get into but is well worth it --

The story begins in a small village in Chechnya during the conflicts between the army of post-Soviet Russia and the Chechen guerrillas. It occurs between 1994 and 2004. An 8-year old girl named Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father and burn her house down. Akhmed, a kind neighbor and friend, rescues her from the woods and takes her to the nearby bomb-shattered hospital for safekeeping. He puts her in the care of Sonja, the only doctor left at the hospital. Sonja is war-weary and dejected; she has been searching for her sister Natasha who disappeared during the war. We learn through flashbacks of the horrors this group of people have experienced. Refugees have poured into the little village for ten years and many people have gone missing. Akhmed has painted portraits of the dead and vanished and hung them around the neighborhood. People have become informers after being tortured and turned in their friends. The nightmare of this episode in Chechnya is heartbreaking. As I make my way through the book, I am moved by the tragedy of this war. Somehow I think that the child Havaa holds the key for helping the characters find some kind of peace. A harrowing book but I think well worth reading. Especially now. It is a powerful depiction of the innocent victims of war.

A book that is escapist fun -- 
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon 

My hand keeps reaching for this each night and now that it's finished I will move onto the second book in the series. By now most everyone knows what "Outlander" is about, either from watching the television show or reading the series of books by Diana Gabaldon. But just in case, here is a quick review:

Claire Randall is an English woman who is united with her husband Frank at the end of World War II. They spend a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands where Frank, a historian and former intelligence officer, researches his Scottish ancestry. Claire, who has been a nurse during the war, goes off to collect plant specimens and enters a circle of standing stones. She is pulled toward a strange buzzing noise and faints when she touches one of the stones. She awakens in the middle of a firefight between British soldiers and Scottish rebels. At first she thinks she has stumbled into a movie set. But she quickly realizes that somehow she has ended up in the year 1743. Her husband's ancestor "Black Jack" Randall is about to assault her, when she is whisked away by a group of Highland rebels. Among them is the handsome and brave Jamie Fraser who is injured. She tends to his wounds and in time they fall in love. This turns into one of the great literary romances.

I was a latecomer to the "Outlander" phenomenon and experienced it for the first time on television. When the first season ended I bought the book and devoured it. I loved getting more details about Jamie and Claire as well as what was happening in Scotland at the time. This tale is even better in book form. I continue to be amazed by the imaginative genius of Diana Gabaldon and the entire world she has created. I highly recommend these books.

A book that I have been dipping into for pure pleasure --
Daphne Du Maurier At Home by Hilary Macaskill

This book is about the homes that Daphne Du Maurier, author of "Rebecca," lived in and how they affected her life and work. Especially her homes in Cornwall, a place that became the love of her life. I have been enchanted by everything I have read about her life so far. Here are a few highlights:

Du Maurier grew up in London in a big and bustling well-to-do family. Her father was Sir Gerald Du Maurier, the leading actor-manager of his day. Her home life was Peter Pan-like, led by her imaginative and whimsical father. In fact, the writer J.M. Barrie was a friend of the family. In the first production of "Peter Pan" in 1904, Gerald played the parts of Captain Hook and Mr. Darling. Barrie often visited the Du Maurier house and loved watching the children act out "Peter Pan." It was a household dominated by the theatre. The leading writers and actors of the day were in and out all the time and it wasn't surprising that Daphne began to dream of being a writer. When she was nineteen her family moved to Cornwall where she discovered her muse. Cornwall, its place and people, would inspire all her writing. It was there that she fell in love with her future husband, a dashing young major in the Grenadier Guards. And it was there that she discovered an ancestral home called Menabilly. It would become the inspiration for Manderley in her novel "Rebecca."

This is as far as I have gotten. Having gone to Cornwall last year and fallen in love with it myself, I am getting so much pleasure reading about Du Maurier's life set in this beautiful part of the world. She was a romantic at heart and poured great spirit into her life and her writing. The photos are gorgeous and the story reads like a novel itself.

A book I just purchased and can't wait to read --

Another book about a writer, this one is a memoir by novelist and historian Lady Antonia Fraser. It promises to be about her passion for writing and history and the childhood "wonderland" where it all began. Like Daphne Du Maurier, Antonia Fraser was from a big literary and artistic family. As a young girl she became fascinated with historical figures and read all the biographies she could find of kings, queens, and warriors. She went on to write some pretty famous biographies herself. "Mary Queen of Scots" was her first big success. It became a worldwide bestseller. She wrote her first memoir a few years ago about her romance with the playwright Harold Pinter. I loved that book. Now she has written a memoir of growing up. It is being described as a magical memoir about her journey to becoming a writer and a historian. I am looking forward to this one!

Happy reading!