The Literary Salon – Eating Local

(This months Book Review may motivate you to eat healthier…..or you may just crave a piece of cherry pie.) 

A few weeks ago I attended a Harvestfest supper prepared entirely from  locally sourced food.   Although I had intended this post to be a restaurant review of that meal,  it grew too long so this will be the literary review for the month.      The books discussed here are older ones but they inspired me to try and eat better.   If you’re not into books, please feel to skip right over to the main menu.   (see Part Two for The Harvestfest Supper).

Harvestfest menu Many of us have the desire to eat healthier, but in today’s fast paced world it’s becoming more difficult to do so, hence the arrival of all those companies who will conveniently, albeit for an outrageous price, send you weekly pre-measured food preparation parcels – voila, supper in 30 minutes, as if a grown person wasn’t capable of going to a grocery store, buying food and preparing it just as quickly.    Perhaps there are fewer left-overs, but aren’t leftovers a good thing and would you really enjoy all those recipes they send?   As well, a large percentage of debt-ridden people eat out several times a week, a major hit to the family budget, and now you don’t even have to go out as those grub-hub apps will deliver the meal right to your front door.  And then there is the ever present lure of fast food restaurants so conveniently located along strip malls everywhere.   No wonder we have all forgotten how to cook, or in my case never bothered much.     

For many years eating local was the standard way of life.   When half the population lived in a rural environment you ate what you grew or raised.    My mother says that in her early married years, she only visited the grocery store for a few staples, which she bought with the $8 twice weekly cream check.   My father had dairy cattle so cream, milk and butter came from the cows, meat, chicken and eggs were all raised organically on the farm, and a large fruit and vegetable garden supplied canned goods and jams over the winter.    Self-sufficiency without delivery – although the breadman and milkman did make home deliveries.   

Things started to change in the mid-60’s with the arrival of processed food.  For an understanding of this shift in food production, I found a series of books by author, Michael Pollan to be excellent reads.    His 2008 book, In Defense of Food, is famous for it’s mantra, “Eat Food, Mostly Plants.  Not Too Much.” and “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize”. 

In Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoIn Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Simple words that changed my eating habits ten years ago when I first read this book, or at least made me stop and think first. Don’t eat anything your Grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Also wise words. This book provides an interesting history and peek into the multi-million dollar processed food industry – what started out as an attempt in the fifties to make food better and healthier and last longer, has backfired so that we now have transfats, plasticizers and softeners in our bread and fast food burgers which never decompose. Certainly an eye-opener – you may never eat the same way again.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsThe Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

In his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he discusses how food scientists thought they were improving food stability and palatability by adding chemicals and preservatives and such.   And while no one would argue that organic vegetables don’t stay fresh as long and bakery bread does tend to grow mold after a few days, if you look at the long list of unpronounceable ingredients on a box or can in the grocery store, it does seem strange to want to manipulate food from it’s natural origins to a more chemical state.   

Perhaps their intentions were good, and Tang orange crystals did supply the astronauts with vitamin C (although I remember it as tasting rather artificial), but starting in the 60’s the processed food revolution had begun – with snack foods, frozen TV dinners, cakes from boxes and fast food burgers – and there was simply no stopping it.   It was convenient and it tasted good – who cared if it was good for you.  

Like many farm women, my mother was a wonderful cook, of the plain meat/potato/vegetable type and we had plenty of homemade cakes, pies and cookies.     So while I may think I grew up eating healthy nutritious meals, and most of the time I did, by the sixties we also had penny candy and weekly trips to McDonalds on grocery shopping days and Saturday night treats of potato chips and pop (usually Coke) while watching Hockey Night in Canada.  Of my poor student days I have absolutely no recollection of what I ate, (did I eat?) other than residence food the first few years which was so bad I lost ten pounds.    Once I had an apartment with a kitchen we still never cooked but ate cheap meals like beans on toast, (never KD though), grabbed yogurt and grilled cheese from the student cafe, and drank endless cups of mostly vile donut shop coffee.   Our idea of splurging was an occasional trip to Bloor Street – Swiss Chalet (chicken), Steak and Burger (tough steak but warm apple pie) and Mr. Submarine (still the best subs IMO).   When I started working I had to contend with decades of hospital food, some of which used to be quite good when it was prepared from scratch, (I remember our cafeteria serving Seafood Newburg in the early 80’s before the discovery of cholesterol), but which eventually turned into those cook, chill and reheat meals which are now standard hospital jokes – if you’re well enough to complain about the food, you can go home.    I usually brought my lunch, except for the soup – as they always had some kind of homemade soup, probably loaded with salt.    After I changed jobs I was often too busy to eat, and lunch would be chocolate milk or half a sandwich grabbed in the staff room, and I would arrive home at night ravenous and eat whatever was in sight.    BTW, the invention of microwaves in the 80’s was a godsend, as then you could quickly reheat leftovers. 

Now that I’ve thoroughly scared myself with a review of my poor dietary habits over the years, I resolve to do better.  The Michael Pollan books have made a big influence on my food choices.   I read food labels now.   Buy as little processed stuff as I can and generally try to eat better, except for deserts, in moderation.  And isn’t that the more sensible way – everything in moderation.    It’s why diets don’t usually work – if you crave something, eat it, a small portion.   I craved cherry pie the other day, so I had a piece and froze the rest. The French way of eating, including lots of walking, is based on this principle.  As eating is one of the pleasures of life, why deprive yourself.  

Recently they have changed Canada’s food guide to emphasize fewer meat and more plant sources of protein, but I wonder how practical that is – are you really going to get people to eat more tofu, legumes and nuts?   It is accessible or affordable?    Maybe – those vegetable burgers seem to be very popular, but aren’t they just another form of manipulated processed food, fried on the same greasy grill as the meat ones?  

I’m certainly more of a foodie now than I used to be, but in moderation, not like those food network shows which drive me crazy with their pretentiousness – it’s just food folks – no need to have a melt down over a slightly burnt creme brulee when half the world is starving.    But I have become more selective in my eating habits.   When I eat something now I want it to be nutritious as well as delicious.  As we get older we worry more about maintaining our health – and as the saying goes, you are what you eat.  If you are in need of motivation – check out the books.  

Enough of the discussion, on to Part Two – The Harvestfest Supper.    As Julia Child used to say, “Bon Appetit”! 

 

The Literary Salon – Beach Books Summer 2019

Beach umbrella

What makes a great beach book – any book with summer in the title.   Here’s my summer reading list (four read, two to go), and although only two of my selections qualify with respect to the title, they are all beach-worthy in one way or another.   

First place, as always, goes to Elin Hilderbrand’s annual summer release, Summer of 69.  

Summer of 69

Publisher’s Blurb:  Follow New York Times bestselling author Elin Hilderbrand back in time and join a Nantucket family as they experience the drama, intrigue, and upheaval of a 1960s summer.   Welcome to the most tumultuous summer of the twentieth century. It’s 1969, and for the Levin family, the times they are a-changing. Every year the children have looked forward to spending the summer at their grandmother’s historic home in downtown Nantucket. But like so much else in America, nothing is the same: Blair, the oldest sister, is marooned in Boston, pregnant with twins and unable to travel. Middle sister Kirby, caught up in the thrilling vortex of civil rights protests and determined to be independent, takes a summer job on Martha’s Vineyard. Only-son Tiger is an infantry soldier, recently deployed to Vietnam. Thirteen-year-old Jessie suddenly feels like an only child, marooned in the house with her out-of-touch grandmother and her worried mother, each of them hiding a troubling secret. As the summer heats up, Ted Kennedy sinks a car in Chappaquiddick, man flies to the moon, and Jessie and her family experience their own dramatic upheavals along with the rest of the country.   In her first “historical novel,” rich with the details of an era that shaped both a country and an island thirty miles out to sea, Elin Hilderbrand once again proves her title as queen of the summer novel.

Why I liked it:    Her usual fare, but anyone who lived through the summer of 1969 (sorry millennials), will find this book especially appealing.   I was the same age as Jesse the youngest of the siblings, so I could really relate to the story line, the fashions and the music.    I especially liked how she incorporated songs of the era as chapter titles. 

“For What It’s Worth” I think we had better songs back then.   I’d like to “Get Back” to that year on “A Magic Carpet Ride” as “Those Were the Days” my friend.   I was a “Young Girl” in ’69, a year when “Everybody’s Talking” about “Fly Me To The Moon”, that distant orb in the sky which was “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.    It was the “Time of the Season” for love and as we were “Born to be Wild” we were full of “Midnight Confessions”.   We didn’t need “Help” from “Mother’s Little Helper” or “White Rabbits” or have the “Summertime Blues” as it was a time of peace and hope.   For all it’s protests it was also a time of optimistic change, as politically “Everyday People” who had “Heard It Through The Grapevine” (as opposed to CNN or Fox), did not have “Suspicious Minds” and could look at issues “From Both Sides Now”.    Perhaps, “Someday We’ll Be Together” again, hopefully “More Today than Yesterday.”     Whew – I got them all in!   (How many do you remember?)

Instead of flying to the moon, let’s fly to Paris – One Summer in Paris – by Sarah Morgan

One Summer in Paris

Publishers Blurb:  To celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Grace has planned the surprise of a lifetime for her husband—a romantic getaway to Paris. But she never expected he’d have a surprise of his own: he wants a divorce. Reeling from the shock but refusing to be broken, a devastated Grace makes the bold decision to go to Paris alone.  Audrey, a young woman from London, has left behind a heartache of her own when she arrives in Paris. A job in a bookshop is her ticket to freedom, but with no money and no knowledge of the French language, suddenly a summer spent wandering the cobbled streets alone seems much more likely…until she meets Grace, and everything changes.   Grace can’t believe how daring Audrey is. Audrey can’t believe how cautious newly single Grace is.  Living in neighboring apartments above the bookshop, this unlikely pair offer each other just what they’ve both been missing. They came to Paris to find themselves, but finding this unbreakable friendship might be the best thing that’s ever happened to them…

Why I liked it:   I’m not a big fan of romance fiction, but was attracted by the title and the book jacket.    I’ve never been to Paris, the story line sounded promising and it had a bookstore in it.   Basically this book was pure fluff, albeit readable fluff.   I don’t think I’ll be reading anything more by this author, as she is traditionally a romance writer and it was a bit too predictable for me.   Plus there was actually very little about Paris or the bookstore in it, which just goes to show how we can get sucked in by marketing.     (I swear if I ever write my murder mystery I’m going to call it Murder at the Paris Bookshop even though it’s set in another country – guaranteed sales – but perhaps that title has already been taken?)    

Did I mention I’m a sucker for any title with a bookstore in it, so No. 3 is The Bookstore on the Corner – by Jenny Colgan.   

The Bookshop on the Corner

Publishers Blurb:   Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.  Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.

Why I liked it:    I haven’t read it yet, but with a bookstore, how could it fail?  (I’m reserving judgement, see above).   (Edited to add:  Two chapters in and I’m loving this book – the main character, the humorous style of writing, the Scottish locale, it’s simply charming, and there are actual books in it!)  (Note after finishing:  I’m quite disappointed – two thirds of the way through this book turned into a Hallmark movie.   It was all down hill after the scene with Mr. Darcy wearing a kilt and carrying an injured lamb…..well those were actually two separate scenes but you get the drift….really I m much too old for this romance stuff.  Where is Jane Austen when you need her!)   

It’s summer concert season.   Let’s go back in time again, this time to the 70’s.  Based loosely on the rock group Fleetwood Mac, Daisy Jones and the Six – by Taylor Jenkins Reid was a selection of Reese Witherspoon’s book club.    I can already see the movie being made….now who will play the lead singers?

Daisy Jones and The Six

Publisher’s Blurb:  Everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six, but nobody knows the reason behind their split at the absolute height of their popularity . . . until now.
Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock and roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.  Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.   Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend.   The making of that legend is chronicled in this riveting and unforgettable novel, written as an oral history of one of the biggest bands of the seventies. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a talented writer who takes her work to a new level with Daisy Jones & The Six, brilliantly capturing a place and time in an utterly distinctive voice.

Why I liked it:  Despite it’s great reviews I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book.   It wasn’t a subject matter that interested me, as I attended a Catholic high school and my recollection of the 70’s was not exactly sex, drugs and rock and roll.    But I ended up loving it – and it’s definitely one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year.  Basically it’s a love story, but not your typical one.   I even liked the unique interview format a la Rolling Stone, which surprisingly readable.  The book is pure fiction but the characters seemed so real that several younger reviewers on Goodreads believed it was a memoir about a real band.   Someone really needs to set those lyrics at the end to music.

Enough of the retro, here’s a psychological thriller to keep you in suspense during those nights when it’s too hot to sleep – The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient

Publishers Blurb:  Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.   Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.   Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him….

Why I liked it:   I don’t usually like first person narratives, especially by male protagonists,  but this was very well done and overall an excellent book for a first time novelist.    Never even saw the ending coming – I am in awe of the brilliance.  

And lastly, because even the best of summers have to come to an end and real life resumes, a family drama – After the End – by Clare MacIntosh.

After The End

Publisher’s Blurb:  Max and Pip are the strongest couple you know. They’re best friends, lovers—unshakable. But then their son gets sick and the doctors put the question of his survival into their hands. For the first time, Max and Pip can’t agree. They each want a different future for their son.   What if they could have both?  A gripping and propulsive exploration of love, marriage, parenthood, and the road not taken, After the End brings one unforgettable family from unimaginable loss to a surprising, satisfying, and redemptive ending and the life they are fated to find.

Why I liked it:   I haven’t read this one yet either.   I’m saving it for August, but it sounds like a departure from her usual crime suspense novels (I Let You Go, I See You).    We shall see….

There – a little something for everyone under the sun – Happy Reading!    

PS.   What are you reading this summer?

Beach pail

The Literary Salon – Help Me

Help Me BookThis month’s literary review is about one woman’s humorous but perfectly disastrous journey through the world of self-help books.   

The Publisher’s Blurb: 

Marianne Power was a self-help junkie. For years she lined her bookshelves with dog-eared copies of definitive guide after definitive guide on how to live your best life. Yet one day she woke up to find that the life she dreamed of and the life she was living were not miles but continents apart. So she set out to make a change. Or, actually, to make every change.

Marianne decided to finally find out if her elusive perfect life—the one without debt, anxiety, hangovers or Netflix marathons, the one where she healthily bounced around town with perfect teeth to meet the cashmere-sweater-wearing man of her dreams—lay in the pages of those books. So for a year she vowed to test a book a month, following its advice to the letter, taking the surest road she knew to a perfect Marianne.

As her year-long plan turned into a demented roller coaster where everything she knew was turned upside down, she found herself confronted with a different question: Self-help can change your life, but is it for the better?

About the Author:

Marianne Power is a successful British journalist and blogger.  She lives in London, England.    She was a freelance writer at the time the book was written.

My Goodreads Review:

Help Me: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your LifeHelp Me: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life by Marianne Power

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Marianne Power’s year long journey sampling the shelves of the self-help section is an enormously entertaining look at the self-help genre.    We’ve all read self-help books, except maybe those with perfect lives and non-dysfunctional families.    But are they…well…helpful?    We tend to read them and then toss them aside, so how intriguing to read about someone who spent a year road testing them.   I absolutely loved this book – it was brilliantly written, hilariously funny and when she spirals out of control into the depths of despair, painfully honest.   Not many people would be so revealing about their less than perfect lives and perceived flaws.  Fortunately, Marianne had her mother, so full of wisdom and sensible advice, to help her through her year of applied psychology.   I can just hear her mother sighing, “Oh Marianne, you’re fine, just the way you are.”   And she is.   PS.  I hope now that she has become a successful author, she makes enough money to pay off all her debts and buy a house.    

Discussion: 

I noticed this book on the Just New Releases shelf at my local bookstore, because pursuing the self-help section is something I’m long past.   When you’re older, you realize that your life doesn’t need fixing…. you’re happy to be still living, reasonably healthy and mostly content.   If I do pick up a self-help book it’s more likely to be one about living with gratitude or something practical like how to get organized – Marie Kondo I may be revisiting you before I empty out those kitchen cupboards! 

The book was so engaging, I just could not put it down.    I enjoyed her witty style of writing.   The chapter on angels was LOL funny, but then I grew up Catholic so I could relate.    

‘My guardian angel was a daily companion who got me through exams and my ever-present fear that a burglar would break in while I slept.  Every night I’d pray to her, turn off the lights, and then when I’d be practicing playing dead, (I figured murderers wouldn’t kill me if I was already dead in my bed), I’d imagine her flying over me, her golden wings flittering, like Tinkerbell.   She was pretty.  As all angels should be.’       

While I was aware of some of the titles and authors she explored, I had only ever read Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway (which surely must be from the 80’s), and The Secret, (during my Gospel according to Oprah phase).   I knew of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and that Tony Robbins was a popular life coach but the chapter on his workshop was just too weird and cult-like.    Of all the books she mentioned, the one that seemed to resonate the most with her was The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.    She had tried to read it once but her therapist recommended it might speak to her now, as sometimes it’s a case of the right book at the right time.   I might check that one out as I tend to be a worrier and have trouble staying in the present.   (Edited to add – sorry to say but I abandoned Mr. Tolle at the halfway point,  although I did find him helpful those nights I had insomnia mulling over all  those kitchen reno decisions – it was so boring that after a few pages I was out like a light). 

She did see a therapist, and that brings up another issue about self-help books – many people turn to them because they can’t afford a therapist or a life coach and there’s only so many times your friends and family can listen to you moaning about the same old problems.   Not everyone has a wise sage of a mother dispensing sound advice, so to obtain nuggets of wisdom and fresh points of view from the pages of a book cannot be dismissed.  Discussions about how to live a good and happy life have been with us since the days of the Greek philosophers.    But is too much introspection a bad thing?   The last chapter sums things up nicely.  

Some Quotes:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”  (Socrates)

“All this thinking about yourself is not good for you.”  (Marianne’s Mum – Chapter 11)

 Is there a particular self-help book which you have found helpful?

The Literary Salon – Enchanted April

Last April I posted about a delightful book, Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnin, and since it is April again, I thought this would be a good selection for this month’s Literary Review.    Although this book was written almost a hundred years ago, it’s a favorite of mine for it’s theme of beauty and hope, and how a lovely environment can renew one’s life and perspective.  Here’s a link to the blog……Enchanted April.    I hope your April has been enchanting too! 

The Enchanted AprilThe Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved this book, but I had watched the movie first. A timeless tale with a lovely story line and such vivid descriptions of flowers, gardens and beautiful countryside that you almost felt like you were there.

Italian Villa - AMc - 2015

Italian Villa – 2015

The Literary Salon – Travel Books

If you’re not fortunate enough to get away for a vacation this year, what better activity than to curl up with a travel book and listen to the March winds howl, (like a lion the same way they came in).    Last year I wandered into the travel section at bookoutlet.com and never left.   There are so many wonderful travel books available, it’s difficult to narrow it down to just a few, but here are some of my personal favorites.    (Warning: travel memoirs can be equal parts enjoyable and annoying.   There can be a fine line between reading about someone’s wonderful experiences in a sunnier place, especially when you are still in the dull dreary dregs of winter, and resenting the hell out them.    But remember there can be comfort in staying home too…see The Golden Age of Travel post).      

The Pioneer

Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim, was published in 1923, and could be called the first travel memoir of it’s kind.   Set in Italy, I profiled it in a blog last year – see link   How could a book with a captivating opening sentence like this, not be good.    

“To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.  Small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain.  Z, Box 1000, The Times.”

The King and Queen  

A Year in Provence (1989) by Peter Mayle was the first travel memoir I read, and I found it LOL funny.   He went on to write a whole series of memoirs  (read) and a few novels (not read), about Provence.   He made Provence so famous that at one time he moved to Long Island to get away from all the publicity.   He died last year, shortly after his last Provence book was published, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence – Reflections on Then and Now, (read) which is a summary of his life there.   

If Peter Mayle is the King, then Frances Mayes, of Under the Tuscan Sun fame, is the Queen, and she made Tuscany a very popular place to visit.   It’s been 25 years since her bestselling book, and she has written wrote four or five more travel books, (read) and has a new one coming out this year See You in the Piazza – New Places to Discover in Italy.  (on order)  She also wrote a novel, Women in Sunlight, last year, which I found so unreadable that I can not recommend it.   I’m still not sure how a novel about four women who travel to Italy can miss, but it did.   Travel memoirs are definitely her forte.   

My Personal Favorite

Susan Branch is my personal favorite of all the travel writers.    For those who think of her as just The Heart of the Home cookbook author, did you know that after she lost her publishing contract with Little and Brown in 2009, she started self-publishing and now has a trilogy of marvelous illustrated journals, with a fourth on the way next year about England, Ireland and Wales.   Her first, Martha’s Vineyard, Isle of Dreams, is about her move from CA to Martha’s Vineyard in the 80’s after a divorce, which I enjoyed as that is a part of the world I would love to visit.  (Her second is about growing up in the 60’s and 70’s and is not really a travel book, but more a memoir of her youth).  

A Fine Romance:  Falling in Love with the English CountrysideA Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside by Susan Branch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

Her third, A Fine Romance, is about her trip to England and is full of photos and watercolor illustrations, of such sites as Beatrix Potter’s farm in the Lake District and the Jane Austen House in Chawton. 

Susan Branch book

Susan Branch book

I find her monthly newsletters inspiring, and you can check out her books and order them from her website.    I wish she would venture into France and Italy.   

A Paris Year - Janice MacLeod

A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod

All About Paris

One of my favorite books about Paris, is Janice McLeod’s, A Paris Year, which I profiled last year in a blog titled, April in Paris – Part Two  A watercolor artist, her journal is illustrated with her own artwork, and is a quirky and whimsical look at her day to day life in Paris.  

A Paris Year - Janice MacLeod

A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod

Italy Revisited

Marlena de Blasi has written three memoirs about Italy – A Thousand Days in Venice, A Thousand Days in Tuscany and The Lady in the Palazzo – At Home in Umbria, which was my favorite of the three.    Her books are well-written and  often poetic, but sometimes irritating with respect to her ex-pat mentality and whining about their failure to fit into a foreign culture.   So if you want to read about someone who makes an impulsive decision to buy a run down palazzo and then complains about how long it takes to renovate it, then this book is for you.    So much of appreciating a travel memoir is based on finding the essayist appealing, still it’s an interesting if illogical journey.  

My Current Read

Elizabeth Bard wrote Lunch in Paris – A Love Story with Recipes, about her  move to Paris and subsequent marriage to a Parisian, which was good, even if I wasn’t much interested in the cooking part, (there are recipes at the end of each chapter).    But I am really liking her second book, Picnic in Provence – a Memoir with Recipes, about their move to a small village in Provence, with their young son.   The writing is honest and real and so well done, that it’s easy to overlook the fact that she has a wee bit of a privileged princess attitude.  

Le Road Trip book

My Latest Discovery

My latest discovery is Vivian Swift, another watercolor artist, found while browsing the bookoutlet website.  (I feel like I’m regressing to my childhood with all these picture books!)    Le Road Trip – A Traveler’s Journal of Love and France is a self-illustrated memoir of her fun and whimsical jaunt through France on her honeymoon.

Le Road Trip Book

 Her latest book (2015) entitled, When Wanderers Cease to Roam – A Traveler’s Journal of Staying Put  details the pleasures of finding a place to call home (Long Island Sound) after 23 years of wandering – because sometimes there’s nothing nicer than staying home and reading about travel!    

As you can see, my tastes run to England, France and Italy.   But there’s a whole wide world out there.  What is your favorite travel book?

 

The Golden Age of Travel

Tropical Vacation - AMc         This is the time of year I used to be winging my way south to escape  winter for a week.    Travel-wise people routinely book flights months in advance to get the best prices for the prime travel season over the February/March break, but years ago travel was still an unknown venture for the vast majority of people.   Only 15% of North Americans had even been on a plane in the 1970’s.   It took the hippie generation of young baby boomers, staying in hostels and Euro-railing their way across Europe on $10 a day, to jump start the travel industry so that flying became a commonplace  experience.  In the Pan-Am years of the 50’s and 60’s with the first charter  trips to the Caribbean and Mexico (Acapulco anyone), travel was only for the fortunate few and the very rich.   The jet-setting life of airline stewardesses was advertised in books like Coffee, Tea or Me……a line that would surely be considered sexist now.    My SIL was an airline stewardess in the mid-80’s and said it wasn’t really all that glamorous….more like being a hard-working waitress in the air and trying to sleep in stuffy hotel rooms. 

When I took my first trip in 1975, March break to Florida with four high school friends, we went on a bus.    While a two day drive, the bus at $380, was considerably cheaper than flying, and that included the hotel room.   I still have the set of baby-blue Samsonite luggage my parents bought me, not just for the trip but also for going away to university (currently in the basement  as I never throw anything even remotely vintage out).  luggageToday the majority of people hop on a plane at least once a year and think nothing of it.   It’s hard to remember when flying was a new and exciting experience, whether someplace tropical or abroad.   (The whole concept of Abroad used to be considered exotic, bringing to mind an era of elegance, with ocean liners like the Queen Elizabeth and sleeping cars on the Orient Express).   Now flying is just routine, often fraught with headaches, and certainly not part of the fun of going away.   Unmanned check-ins and luggage kiosks, long pre-boarding wait times, luggage fees, cramped seats, no meals or drinks and a general lack of amenities have taken the fun from the friendly skies.    And consider yourself lucky if no one is ejected from your flight for rude comments or behavior, as many online videos can attest.    A friend of mine was so traumatized by a bad airline experience that when her husband found a great price on a mid-winter trip she turned it down because she didn’t want to have to deal with the airport.   (I am imagining a future where we might be instantaneously whisked away to our destination in our own magic bubbles like the Jetsons).    

airplane            I was 24yrs old when I took my first plane trip, a two-week vacation to Hawaii, a popular destination in the 80’s but expensive even back then.    I flew on on a Wardair Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, a 9½ hour flight straight from Toronto to Oahu – an experience I will remember forever.   Wardair was a Canadian airline company started by Max Ward in 1946 as a bush pilot operation carrying cargo from the Yukon and Northwest Territories to Edmonton, which eventually expanded into a luxury domestic and international travel fleet of aircraft.   Mr. Ward believed that PART OF THE FUN OF TRAVEL SHOULD BE GETTING THERE.    Wardair’s  motto was luxury “Steak and Champagne” flights at reasonable prices.   Here’s a Wikipedia link for more on the Wardair history.

        During our long non-stop flight all 500 plus seats were treated to first class service.    My sister had warned me about the initial rush of takeoff, (which I found a bit scary), but the jet was so big once we were up on the air it felt like nothing at all.    The stewardesses (all female in those days) had passed out trays of candies in preparation for any ear popping.   About an hour into the flight we were treated to a champagne breakfast on real china, then they passed out hot towels.  The seats were spacious.   All drinks were free.   An in-flight movie followed, nothing I remember.   One of the stewardesses, a classmate of mine from high school, sat down with me on her break and regaled me with stories of her four day lay overs in Hawaii.     What impressed me most was the spiral staircase to the upper deck where there was a bar where you could mix and mingle, or just stretch your legs.     Imagine a bar in the sky – very James Bond.airplane   

Later we were served a wonderful filet mignon dinner on the special Wardair Royal Doulton china with snowy white draped tablecloths and napkins, your choice of wine, then coffee and a fancy dessert.    We read and rested, then more hot towels to wipe your face and hands before we arrived – at 3pm with the time change.   I remember descending into balmy weather where we were greeted with the traditional lei necklace welcoming us to Hawaii.   Yes, this flying was a wonderful thing – I was spoiled for life.    

Fast forward a few years, and after a few cramped experiences with Air Canada (famous for frozen green peas and rubber chicken), and other airlines, I was less than impressed .  Flash forward to the 80’s and another set of luggage (wheels had been invented), with a vintage-style carry so chic it once got me upgraded to First Class and salmon.   

As a carry on it was pretty useless, but so Audrey Hepburnish, with all those little spaces for cosmetics and toiletries.    In regular class you still got fed, (I remember a particularly stale sandwich on a flight out west), but all the frills were gone.   A few more years, and Wardair was gone too…..bankrupt.   Mr. Ward had expanded too quickly and people were now being swayed by discount airlines, cheap flights and frequent flyer miles.    

I haven’t been on a plane in years, for a variety of reasons – work, family, medical.   If there is one airborne germ circulating on the plane it will have no difficulty finding my seat.   My last trip was spent in a Mexican five star all inclusive resort with a sore throat and sinus cold so miserable I barely left the room, except to gaze upon the bougainvillea on the balcony.   The food was tasteless, and deficient in chicken noodle soup.   (At least in Hawaii the dreaded sore throat did not arrive until the second last day although it took three days for my ears to unplug from the flight home).    I do hope to travel again someday, but not in a run down but let’s cram everything into one week and arrive home sick and exhausted kind of way, but at a more leisurely pace.   When you are young, cheap and basic will do, when you are older, you require a bit more luxury and space.   High rise hotel rooms where you can’t open a window make me feel claustrophobic, so perhaps an Airbnb or renting a villa for a month would be more appealing.   In the meantime, while everyone is talking about their trips down south, I am thinking of this quote from a delightful book by Vivian Swift, who finally put down roots in a small Long Island town after twenty years of roaming the world  When Wanderers Cease to Roam – A Traveler’s Journal of Staying Put. 

Quote:     ‘Travel is not what it used to be.  And that’s a good reason to Stay  Put.’          

In the meantime I am living vicariously through travel books – let someone else deal with the crowded airports and the lost luggage. 

(See the upcoming Literary Salon – Travel Books – in March).     

What was your worst airplane/travel experience?         

 

The Literary Salon: The Perfect Couple

Beach Book

We all know them – the perfect couple.  Or are they?   The Perfect Couple is the perfect book for Valentine’s Day, because who doesn’t like to read about relationships, perfect and otherwise.    At the very least, you can escape winter for a few hours  – just keep an eye out for any dead bodies washing up on shore!

The Publisher’s Blurb:

It’s Nantucket wedding season, also known as summer – the sight of a bride racing down Main Street is as common as the sun setting at Madaket Beach. The Otis-Winbury wedding promises to be an event to remember: the groom’s wealthy parents have spared no expense to host a lavish ceremony at their oceanfront estate.

But it’s going to be memorable for all the wrong reasons after tragedy strikes: a body is discovered in Nantucket Harbor just hours before the ceremony-and everyone in the wedding party is suddenly a suspect. As Chief of Police Ed Kapenash interviews the bride, the groom, the groom’s famous mystery-novelist mother, and even a member of his own family, he discovers that every wedding is a minefield-and no couple is perfect. Featuring beloved characters from The Castaways, Beautiful Day, and A Summer Affair, The Perfect Couple proves once again that Elin Hilderbrand is the queen of the summer beach read.

A bit about the Author:

Elin Hilderbrand is a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University and the Iowa Writers Workshop. She has lived on Nantucket for 25 years and is the mother of three teenagers.   The Perfect Couple is her twenty-first novel.

My Goodreads Review:

My Goodreads Review:The Perfect CoupleThe Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Perfect Beach Read. Her best book yet, the usual island fare with the added twist of a murder mystery. After a dead body is found floating in the water the morning of a fancy wedding all the guests and family members are suspects. Intricately plotted, the characters and descriptions are so real you will feel like you just spent a week on Nantucket. If you take this book to the beach you will not look up once it is so engrossing…..I could hardly put it down. I hope she does more murder mysteries…..looking forward to her new winter series.

Discussion:

The first book in my Literary Salon series – An Unwanted Guest – was a study in plot development, just how does one plot a murder mystery?   One of the reasons I chose this second book was for it’s characterizations.  If you have written 21 novels, how do you keep coming up with new characters?  Or are they just cookie-cutter people – change the job, name, appearance?   Her characters are usually flawed beings who make bad choices.  They drink a lot….like fish since we’re going with the water theme.   Sometimes they are so annoying and make such stupid decisions that you feel like abandoning them altogether.   You want the reader to like your characters or at least sympathize with them, not think they are fools.  (Note to self –  make my characters smarter and sober…..no vino for them).    

Elin Hilderbrand is the Queen of Beach Fluff, a genre that is often romance but usually just something lighthearted enough to take to the beach.    She comes out with a big fat beach novel every July, and often a short novella before Christmas.    While I have always enjoyed her books, I had grown a bit weary of the format.   The same old bed-hopping, drinking, even worse drinking while driving, piss-poor parents (her words) whose uncontrollable teenagers are doing the same thing – tale grows stale after awhile, and I admit the books wouldn’t be half as appealing if they weren’t set on the island of Nantucket.   (In much the same way I had tired of Joanna Trollope but her last novel, An Unsuitable Match, about a late in life marriage, was actually quite good – but that’s a whole other topic).    These books are fast food fiction, you already know what you are going to get.   There’s usually plenty of family dynamics and complicated romances all destined to work out (or not) in the end, because hey – it’s beach fluff.   But in this her latest book, you have all of the above, plus she has added a murder mystery and the book seems to have taken on a more serious tone.   She is older now and survived breast cancer in 2014.    I enjoyed the mystery aspect of it, and hope she does more in that vein.    I am currently reading the first of her new winter series, Winter in Paradise – see link, in which a wife loses her husband of 25 years in a helicopter crash in the US Virgin Islands, and finds out he had a whole other life on the island.   (not good – back to trashy again….five drinks on a boat cruise before 10am????)   In the jacket blurb the author says she vacations on St. John’s for five weeks every spring, so she can get big chunks of her writing done in privacy.  (maybe that’s my problem – I need to rent a Caribbean villa with turquoise views).   She does seem to like writing about islands, and the island lifestyle.   She’s certainly been a very successful author financially, and if the format works keep at it, but I can’t help but wish she would tone it down a bit.   But then I probably fall into this category, wherein, Tag the father in law, (who was having an affair with the maid of honor), describes the average reader of his wife’s books.         

‘Her fan base is nearly down to no one but the devoted cat ladies.  Tag is thinking about the devoted cat lady – tucked away in her Cotswold cottage fixing a cup of tea and preparing to spend a rainy afternoon in an armchair with a tabby spread across her lap as she cracks open the latest exotically located Greer Garson mystery.’

In his view, this is a dull life, but it sounds appealing to me and I don’t even own a cat.   But then I am older and her books are pretty much the only romance genre I read.   Although she is a good storyteller, I sometimes find her books are just too trashy.   I would love to see what she does with a theme and characters a little less shallow….and a little less preoccupied with booze and infidelity.   That may seem like an odd thing to criticize as we read escapist fiction to escape, but she is such a good writer that I wish she would tackle some more important stuff, like Jodi Picoult does.   Despite that, The Perfect Couple does have something to say about relationships, both old (how many long term couples stay together for financial reasons despite the affairs) and new, plus a riveting story-line.    If you grew up in the eighties with the Not-Married- Before-Thirty-Terrorist Theory of Love and rom.coms like When Harry Met Sally (doomed IMO, totally incompatible all that arguing) and Sleepless in Seattle (flying all the way across the country to meet someone whose voice you liked on the radio?) then love at first sight may seem perfectly plausible – but do the couple at the end of the book stand a chance?  What do they know about each other?  Yes, there are red flags, but isn’t it all unpredictable anyway – fate is fickle.    Success in love and marriage happens for some people and not others, but hopefully you don’t drown in the process.

Quote of the Day:    “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want, is a wonderful stroke of luck.”   (Dali Lama)  

Song of the Day:  Makin’ Whoopee – because the lyrics are fun

 

The Literary Salon – An Unwanted Guest

An Unwanted Guest

This is the perfect book to curl up with by the fire, when the first big January snowstorm descends, perhaps with some mulled wine in hand to calm your nerves, for it is so well done you may feel like you have checked into the country inn yourself.     

The publishers  blurb:  When the storm hits, no one is getting away….

A remote lodge in upstate New York is the perfect getaway. . . until the bodies start piling up.  It’s winter in the Catskills and the weather outside is frightful. But Mitchell’s Inn is so delightful! The cozy lodge nestled deep in the woods is perfect for a relaxing–maybe even romantic–weekend away. The Inn boasts spacious old rooms with huge wood-burning fireplaces, a well-stocked wine cellar, and opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or just curling up with a book and someone you love. So when the weather takes a turn for the worse, and a blizzard cuts off the electricity–and all contact with the outside world–the guests settle in for the long haul. The power’s down but they’ve got candles, blankets, and wood–a genuine rustic experience! Soon, though, a body turns up–surely an accident. When a second body appears, they start to panic. Then they find a third body. Within the snowed-in paradise, something–or someone–is picking off the guests one by one. They can’t leave, and with no cell service, there’s no prospect of getting the police in until the weather loosens its icy grip. The weekend getaway has turned deadly. For some couples, it’s their first time away. For others, it will be their last. And there’s nothing they can do about it but huddle down and hope they can survive the storm.

A bit about the Author:

SHARI LAPENA  is the internationally bestselling author of The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the House. She was a lawyer and an English teacher before turning her hand to fiction.
She lives in Toronto.

 

 

My Goodreads review:

An Unwanted GuestAn Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Best to save this book for a dark and stormy night in January when a sudden snowstorm has descended and you are safe by the fire with a hot toddy. Absolutely loved it, so creepy and suspenseful I went around and checked all the locks before bed. It’s a simple premise, probably done before, a group of strangers snowed in at a country inn with no outside communication, and one by one they get picked off – by an unwanted guest. Vivid descriptions of the inn and the weather, a twist turning plot, and solid characterizations all make for a great read. A well developed story, from a psychological point of view – how well does anyone really know anyone else……psychopaths dwell among us.

Some thoughts:

It’s a deceptively simple premise for a murder mystery, take a group of people, in this case eleven, nine guests and two staff, and confine them to a space, a la Murder on the Orient Express, so you know the murderer must be among them.    Although this book generally received good reviews there was some criticism that it was too similar to Agatha Christie’s, And Then There Were None, which I have not read, having only ever read her Orient Express book.   But as a famous author recently proclaimed in one of his podcasts, all possible ideas have been done before anyway, what makes a book different is the authors unique spin on it.    At 290 pages it is a slim book, with the author giving us just enough information about the guests in the first few chapters to enable us to differentiate between them…..and then slowly revealing more background. 

‘The large diamond glittered when she picked up her champagne glass, her eyes sparkled when she looked at her fiance.  Everything about her was shiny and bright.  She has a bright shiny life, Lauren thinks.  Then she directs her attention to the man to whom she is engaged.  What does she think of him?  She thinks he is someone who collects bright, shiny things.’

By the end of the book five of them are dead and I still had no idea who did it until the last couple of pages, although I was a bit let down as there was no dramatic climax, just a slow unraveling, and one clue which I found rather cliche.    Perhaps all the clues have been done before too.     

I always like to check out the authors background, and an English major with a law degree is a lethal combination –  grammar and details.   I hope she sells the movie rights because I’m already casting it in my head.    Her first novel was published in 2007, and her second, Happiness Economics, was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal of Humor in 2011.    Just how does one switch from writing humor to murder, but I suspect there is more money in murder mysteries.   This is her third mystery and best so far.   Her two previous books had simple plot ideas as well.    In the Couple Next Door, a couple is invited to dinner at the townhouse next door, but when the babysitter cancels at the last minute, they decide to go anyway and rig up the baby monitor and one of them goes home hourly to check, except when the evening is over, the baby is gone.   In A Stranger in the House, a newly married couple find they don’t know much about each other’s background at all.    As a Canadian writer she has a Canadian agent, and while not as well known as Claire MacIntosh or Ruth Ware, I think she is well on her way, and certainly an inspiration for those of us still struggling to find a plot.   How hard can it be to write such a simple thing…..it turns out very hard indeed.   

(See introduction to The Literary Salon link). 

Song of the Day:

 

The Literary Salon

I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore and host a literary salon at night for all my witty and talented friends.    A literary salon is different from a book club, as people can just drop in, like a cocktail party.   In Paris in the Roaring Twenties salons were frequented by intellectuals, writers, artists and the celebrities du jour (Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald & Co), with the sole purpose of providing stimulating conversation, amusing repartee and a lively exchanges of ideas…..plus free booze.   With a book club, you can have all of those too, but you are there to focus on the book…..hopefully.  

My experience with book clubs has been poor.  Attempting to infiltrate a library book club proved a disaster as the tightly-knit group had been together for over a decade and there always seemed to one or two members who squashed any opinion which didn’t agree with theirs, or worse monopolized the discussion.  The group was so large (18-25), as to be unwieldy, with some (myself included), being too intimidated to speak up, despite the best efforts of the moderator to make sure everyone had a say.  The structure was rigid, with a list of questions to cover in a set period of time.   Also, there was no food, or even coffee and it was late afternoon, which tended to interfere with my nap time.   I then thought of hosting my own more informal book club evenings with a smaller group of literary friends, perhaps once a season with food, like Southern cooking for The Help….pass the pecan pie please.   A group of local women self-published a book about their book club theme nights, complete with menus and lots of bevies, but they were rich and prone to extravagant weekend getaways, plus the hostess had to buy everyone a copy of the next book.      

What is the difference between a book club and a famous literary salon like the ones Hemingway attended, other than better food and more chic clothing?

Paris salon

Hard to imagine Hemingway at a book club.   Do men do book clubs – possibly in big cities, but not in my neck of the woods.   Only in the movies, like The Jane Austen Book Club, where they may have an ulterior motive ie. a crush on one of the members.   But they might be tempted to drop in on a literary salon if alcohol was provided.   Most afternoon book clubs tend to be female affairs  with tea in china cups and fancy sandwiches and cookies, or evening wine and cheese and gossip….but first we must discuss the book with a list of questions to cover.    Literary salons tend to be more free ranging affairs with small groups of individuals, male and female, congregating and discussions covering any number of topics…..and of course gossip!   It would be nice to combine the best of both worlds, good conversation, good food and drink and a relaxed atmosphere (one where you can hang out in your PJ’s).   Of course, if you are hosting a literary salon, having a Paris address helps, but since WordPress is our blogging home, that will have to suffice.     

So starting in January, I would like to present my new virtual Literary Salon.  We will open with the murder mystery, An Unwanted Guest, by Shari Lapena  (see link).   It’s the perfect book for a blizzard, so button up your overcoat, you don’t want to get chilled.     Please feel free to drop by anytime…..   

Postscript –  Bring Your Own Beverage – a Bloody Mary might be suitable for our first selection. 

Cue some jazzy twenties cocktail music: