Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Literary Wanderings

I hope you are enjoying the beginning of spring! Here in Los Angeles the temperatures are rising and everyone seems to have spring fever. When I'm not outside in the garden, I have been inside doing a lot of reading, writing, and watching some great television. Here are a few treasures I have discovered that I want to share with you. They are all connected to some of my favorite writers.

 A Rediscovered Classic

I just finished reading The Mayor of Casterbridge for the second time, though it felt like the first since its been so many years. This may be Hardy's masterpiece. I was struck by the power of his writing to capture the shocking incident that opens the book: a man sells his wife and a daughter to a stranger. An incredible event. I was also struck by Hardy's ability to depict this man's character. The man in question is Michael Henchard, the "Mayor of Casterbridge," who spends much of the book battling his inner demons. I don't think I've ever read a book that so thoroughly depicted a man unable to escape his character flaws. It's heartbreaking in a way to watch this man sabotage his own personal happiness. I was also struck by Hardy's incredible talent at capturing a time and a place. We're deep in rural England in the 1800's, a place that seems very far away. The customs, manner of speaking, types of people, class differences, farming practises, and town life are all vividly brought to life. The only other writer I can think of that matches Hardy in capturing the quaintness, nuances and minutiae of that other life would be George Eliot, especially in "Middlemarch." These two writers are masters at world-building. I can't recommend this book highly enough!

House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth

Thanks to a couple of friends who alerted me to this fabulous fashion exhibition at Chatsworth House in England, it is now on my wish list for my upcoming trip. I have never been to Chatsworth House and have always wanted to go. A big fan of of Nancy Mitford's books, I was excited to learn about her youngest sister Deborah Mitford. After reading Deborah's fabulous memoir Wait for Me I found another Mitford to love. Deborah was the youngest of the Mitford sisters and often felt overlooked. Her life took a glamorous turn when she became Duchess of Devonshire after marrying Andrew Cavendish. They lived at Chatsworth House, one of the great treasure houses of England. It is set amid the rolling green hills of the Derbyshire Dales. The Duke and Duchess hosted many celebrities and dignitaries here over the years and their stories will be told as part of this fashion exhibition which is curated by Hamish Bowles of "Vogue." Keeping my fingers crossed I make it there! 

This Article on Jane Austen in "The New Yorker"

After reading Anthony Lane's fascinating article about "Sanditon," Jane Austen's last and unfinished book, I now want to read it. As he writes, "Although--or precisely because--"Sanditon" was composed by a dying woman, the result is robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions of human foolishness. It brims with life." I learned some interesting facts about Jane Austen from Lane's article. Did you know that of her six mature novels, four were published in her lifetime and none have her name on the title page? Her nephew, who wrote her biography, claimed that she was always sweet of temper. Lane tells us that wasn't always the case and quotes Austen in a letter saying "Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked." He goes on to give a fascinating review of "Sanditon." Any Jane Austen fan will want to read this excellent article about Austen's last book written when she knew she was dying. That fact gives "Sanditon" an intensity not found in her other novels.

"To Walk Invisible"

"To Walk Invisible" is the two-hour film about the Bronte sisters made by British filmmaker Sally Wainwright. It aired on Sunday night as part of Masterpiece Theatre. I loved it and thought it was brilliant. I don't want to give away any spoilers in case you haven't seen it, but there is a fabulous short video on the Masterpiece website that tells what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish. Here are some highlights: 

Sally's intention was to tell the true story of the lives of the Bronte sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) and to bust some of the myths that have grown up around them. She lived near Haworth as a child and was always taken there. Consequently she grew up knowing all about the Brontes. Her film is about the family, rather than the individual sisters, and the dynamics of that family. They were not at all well-off and the idea of publishing comes about because they are worried about the future. The actor who plays Branwell, the alcoholic, tragic brother, says that although the time covered in the film is a very painful three years it is also hopeful and magical. I agree after seeing the film. The director talks about the fact that people who get hooked on the Brontes get passionate about them and interested in their lives as much as their books. (very true for me!) She goes on to say how remarkable it was to have three geniuses in one family, three separate brilliant people any one of whom would have become famous for what they accomplished. Go here to learn more. I absolutely adored this poignant and beautiful production. My favorite line? When Anne Bronte says, "I feel most alive when I am writing."

I would love to know if you have read "The Mayor of Casterbridge" and how you liked it. Are you a fan of Nancy and Deborah Mitford and have you been to Chatsworth? And please let me know if you watched "To Walk Invisible." 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Preparing for London

Do you love planning and researching a trip as much as I do? It's almost as fun as the actual journey! I am getting ready for a trip to London and Yorkshire in the spring and have discovered three fabulous books on London to help me create my itinerary. Each one validates the well-known adage that if you are tired of London you are tired of life. They are filled with wonderful suggestions for things to do in London. Some have been on my to-do list forever, some are ones I have never heard of until now, and others are places I have already been to and now can't wait to revisit. Here are the books and some interesting things I learned from them:

Literary London by Eloise Millar & Sam Jordison. This books gives us the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of our literary heroes. It tells the stories behind the stories, giving us fascinating facts about London's best literary landmarks, taking us into publishing houses, cafes, parks and all our favorite authors' stomping grounds. There are charming maps within the pages to help us find the best of literary London. Here are a few fun and quirky things that stood out to me:

1) A Dickensian pub crawl including the George Inn on Borough High Street, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (love the name) on Fleet street and the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden which boasts a little plaque in the alleyway commemorating Dickens' time there. In his days the tavern had a slightly more sinister name: The Bucket of Blood!

2) Berry Bros & Wine Merchants on St. James Street. I walk past this wine shop every time I am in London. I loved learning that it has had the same slanting floor since 1698 (better for rolling barrels) and was the poet Lord Byron's shop of choice for his wine cellar.

3) Brown's Hotel. I've been to Brown's for afternoon tea but didn't know it was the model for Agatha Christie's "At Bertram's Hotel." An interesting fact: Brown's Hotel was opened by Lord Byron's former valet a few years after the poet's death in 1837 (and on Albermarle Street, the same road as Byron's publisher). And the tea is supposedly very similar to the one Miss Marple eats.

4) Maison Bertaux. Located at 28 Greek Street, Soho, this is London's oldest French patisserie. The Bloomsbury Group loved to gather here for pastries and coffee.

The Art Lovers' Guide, London. This is a fully illustrated guidebook about the finest art in London. I learned a few interesting facts about some very famous paintings.

1) "Ophelia" by John Everett Millais which is at the Tate Britain was worked on by the artist for four months. He worked on a riverbank in order to copy the background accurately. For the foreground his model Lizzie Siddal posed for days in a cold bath, becoming ill in the process.

2) "The Swing" by Fragonard is the most famous masterpiece of Rococo art at the Wallace Collection, one of my very favorite places to visit in London. The Wallace Collection is located in London's Hertford House which was once the home of Richard Wallace and his descendants. It is now a national museum exhibiting the family's acquisitions of European art, including London's finest group of 18th-century French paintings. Next time I go I will seek out "The Swing."

3) "A Bar at the Folies-Bergeres" by Manet is one of my favorite paintings and I have enjoyed seeing it at the Courtauld Gallery. This painting of the famous Paris musical hall was Manet's last major work. The Courtauld is located in beautiful Somerset House and has a fabulous collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art. I haven't been for many years and after reading details about its impressive collection, I can't wait to go back. The description of the paintings by Degas and Renoir at the Courtauld are especially enticing.

The London Cookbook by Aleksandra Crapanzano. This wonderful book is both a guide to some of the best restaurants in London as well as a cookbook featuring some of the best recipes from these restaurants. Here are a three that I want to go to that feature some of the the best of British cooking.

1) La Fromagerie. This is a cheese shop with a cafe that is supposed to be a great place for lunch. The featured recipe in the book is "Alpine Fondue." In the notes for the recipe, the author writes that a great fondue is a balancing act, melding different varieties of cheese so no single one claims center state. This dish is served with bowls of cornichons, ham, boiled potatoes and cubes of crusty bread. I would love to order this dish if I make it to the restaurant!

2) Bucca Di Luppo.  An Italian restaurant that I have been to, it is located on a tiny street in Soho. This is another great place for lunch, especially sitting at the bar where you can watch the cooking. After reading about the featured recipe, Chestnut Straccetti with Mushrooms and Chestnuts, a pasta dish that includes chestnuts, pancetta, sage and mushrooms, I now want to go for dinner.

3) Nopi. One of Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurants, Nopi is a brasserie located in Soho. I have all of his cookbooks and would love to finally eat at his restaurant. The featured recipe is Purple Sprouting Broccoli with Olive Oil Mash. As the author says, "You may well wonder why I've included a recipe here for what is essentially mashed potatoes and grilled broccoli. The answer is simply Yotam. When Yotam cooks vegetables, magical things happen." That answer is good enough for me. I have been cooking his food for years and have total confidence that this dish will be delicious!

And one more thing: a good friend just returned from London where she saw the Vanessa Bell retrospective at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. She brought me home a copy of the collector's edition of the March  2017 issue of Harpers Bazaar UK which includes two fabulous articles about Vanessa Bell and Bloomsbury written by Virginia Nicholson as well as a short story by Virginia Woolf that was originally published in Harpers in 1936. I am planning to see the Vanessa Bell exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and can now read up on it. I will be adding this to my ever-growing pile of research for my trip!