What Am I Thankful For?

I'll admit that today I'm having a difficult time feeling thankful. The night before last it was 6 am before I fell asleep; last night I went to bed with high hopes that I'd sleep just from sheer exhaustion but I watched the sky lighten in the window and was still awake at 8 am. My eyes feel gritty and I'm in a fog and aching all over but I think it's times like these that it's especially critical to count one's blessings so that discouragement doesn't take over as it very much wants to do.

What I'm thankful for today is that as I age it gets easier to admit things like this. I'm not so concerned as I used to be about what people will think of me. Things get simpler and clearer as the years go by, making it easier to figure a lot of things out. I used to wonder why I didn't like gardening - it seemed like any decent person should like growing things - but now it's come down to one simple fact: I hate dirt. I don't like it on my hands or under my nails and I no longer see it as a reflection of my character but just as a personality trait, and I don't feel guilty about it anymore.

The years have also changed my thinking about books. Not finishing a book used to be nothing short of a failure in my mind but I've gotten quite comfortable with the concept in the past couple of years. As someone at my book club said: life is too short to read books you aren't enjoying. It was a struggle for me - a pride thing - to admit that I had "quit" a book but as you can see from my "Books I Didn't Finish" page, I'm getting over it.

There are lots of difficult things about aging, but there are good things too, and one of the best is knowing yourself better and being ok with who you are, what you like and what you just don't want to bother with.  

"A Thousand Days In Venice"

A Thousand Days In Venice by Marlena De Blasi

The authour was on vacation in Venice when she met a stranger named Fernando. Barely knowing one another, but suddenly and deeply in love, they made plans for her to sell her home, quit her job, and leave her life and grown children behind in America. She would move to Venice into his tiny, shabby apartment, and they would marry and start a new life together.  

The story includes all the usual moving-to-a-foreign-place problems with government red tape, a new language to learn, cultural missteps, etc, but the heart of the story is the whirlwind romance. Romance stories have never been my cup of tea but in this one the authour wrote a lot about the people, streets and shops of Venice and for me that made it worthwhile. I didn't love it, but I didn't dislike it either.

This little book gives the reader only a small slice of their overall story; it ends as they are at another beginning. They renovated the Venetian apartment and got married, and the book was winding down when Fernando decided to quit his job. They sold the apartment, bought an inn and prepared to become innkeepers in another part of Italy, then the story ended. It didn't feel right stopping there but the title gives fair warning so I shouldn't have been disappointed.

Marlena De Blasi is an accomplished chef as well as a writer and has filled the last chapter with recipes from her time in Venice. I always appreciate a travel book more when it includes recipes, but here they are all clumped together at the end and it would have been nicer if they'd been sprinkled throughout and included as part of whatever story they belonged to.

All in all A Thousand Days In Venice was just ok for me. It was an entertaining interlude between other books, but I'm afraid I found it less than memorable.

Top Ten Tuesday

Usually we are given a specified top ten to list but today The Broke and Bookish asked us to list our top ten favourite anything. I decided to go with my top ten favourite authors to read on those days when my brain is on overload and I want a book that will simply entertain me and not demand anything in return. Some call these "comfort reads" - a good description because they take you away from your life and tell you a story without asking you to take responsibility for anything. So here are my top ten authours to read for pleasure only:

1. Maeve Binchey - she was such a great story-teller.
2. Rosamunde Pilcher  - I love the settings and language
3. Alexander McCall Smith - reading the Isabel Dalhousie series set in Edinburgh
4. Anne Perry - there seems to be an endless number of these mysteries. I'm not really a fan of mysteries but I like the time/setting/language of these books
5. Elizabeth Peters - the Amelia Peabody series is very entertaining
6. P.G. Wodehouse - have only read one, but I'm loving the dry humour
7. Miss Read - again have only read one but that was enough - I'm hooked
8. Wilkie Collins - gothic and melodramatic - they are a great escape
9. Lucy Maude Montgomery - lovely innocent stories of days past
10. Louisa May Alcott - her books create a nice atmosphere to spend time in

Stop by The Broke and Bookish to find a long list of other top tens that might interest you. So many blogs, so little time...

"The House of the Seven Gables"

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

It's been a very long time since I read anything quite as boring as this. I've been reading it for months just a few pages at a time to get it off my Guilt List and I did succeed in doing that so I guess it wasn't completely pointless. Let me explain why I'll never recommend this book to anybody.

 My copy had 342 pages and nothing actually happened till page 251. The first 250 pages were spent describing the old house, the old woman who lived in the old house, her old brother, their young cousin and a couple of other people. And the garden. It wasn't really that much of a garden but there were pages and pages and pages about the trees, leaves, flowers, bumble bees, how the sun looked on the leaves and flowers and how the breeze moved the leaves and flowers and how the bees moved around the leaves and flowers. Ugh. I've read some wordy authours over the years - Hardy and James can ramble with the best of them - but Hawthorne is in a class of his own. And yet he says quite seriously: "But we strive in vain to put the idea into words." Trust me, there was no striving. He had no problem finding words. Many, many words.

The basic outline of the story is this: (Spoiler alert...but this book is 162 years old so the ending probably isn't much of a secret) Rich guy cheats little guy out of his rightful property. The family living on the property doesn't prosper. The old woman tries to earn money by operating a cent shop out of the house. She rents a room to an idealistic young artist. Her frail, addle-pated brother comes to stay. Their sweet young cousin comes to stay. They sit in the garden. A lot. The young cousin goes home but is coming back very soon. Then, on page 251, their filthy rich evil cousin comes to the house and threatens them. He dies from choking...or something...it's not quite clear. Everything that happens from this point on takes place with the evil cousin's cold, dead body sitting in the parlour. The old woman and her brother take a train to no place in particular and back. The sweet young cousin comes back and has a romantic scene with the artist. They finally tell the authourities about the body, they inherit all the money and they live happily ever after. It's not much of a story and at no point in what little there is did any of the characters feel real or make me care about them. It's like a very dismal fairytale with some - and by some I mean too much -  heavy handed preaching thrown in.

The writing is quaint and old fashioned, with words like quidnuncs and eleemosynary, and would have been pleasant to read if only there hadn't been so many words about so few things.There is lots of foreshadowing in passages like this one: "But Hepzibah did not see that just as there comes a warm sunbeam into every cottage window, so comes a lovebeam of God's care and pity for every separate need." so whatever was coming was never a surprise. (lovebeam...?)

When I read The Scarlet Letter years ago I don't remember it being this much of slog to get through and can only hope The Blithedale Romance won't be as bad because it's still on my list. As for The House Of The Seven Gables, unless you absolutely have to read it for some reason beyond your control, skip it and spend your precious reading time on something more interesting.

"I Capture The Castle"

I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

Casandra Mortmain lives in a run-down English castle (I never can resist a book about an old house) with her family: father, James; step-mother, Topaz; sister, Rose; Brother, Thomas; and friend/boarder/hired hand, Stephen. James is a writer who had some success in years past but now fritters away his days doing crosswords and unknown things behind a closed door, leaving his family pretty much penniless. The furniture, china and anything else of value were long ago sold for food and other necessities. They have all grown accustomed to being cold and hungry, and yet there is little resentment. They accept things as they are, making the best of not-so-pleasant circumstances and looking for the positives.

Things begin to change when an estate in the area is inherited by an American family and the Mortmain's lives become entangled with theirs. There is romance, and that's how this book and it's movie are usually promoted, but there is much more to it than that. Cassandra's  relationships with her family members are a major part of the story, as is the castle itself. I wouldn't categorize it as a romance, but then I'm not sure what I would call it.

Cassandra tells her story through a series of journals she keeps. She begins with a cheap notebook, moves on to a better one and finishes with a blue and gold leather bound journal received as a gift from one of the American brothers. The book is structured into three sections according to the journal she's writing in and the months covered. "The Sixpence Book - March" is followed by "The Shilling Book - April and May" and "The Two Guinea Book - June to October". She's a wonderful narrator - bright, observant, witty and rich in personality. When I got to the end I didn't want to be finished. I wanted, and still want, more of this writing, more of this story and more of these people. I want to live in the crumbling castle and be part of it's story.

This is another of the older books I've been finding lately, first published in 1948, that have recently been brought back into print. I wonder how many forgotten treasures like this one are buried in old libraries never seeing the light of day. I'm grateful there are publishers bringing some of them back into circulation.

On the back cover of my copy a quote from the New York Times says: "It is an occasion worth celebrating when a sparkling novel, a work of wit, irony and feeling is brought back into print after an absence of many years. So uncork the champagne for 'I Capture the Castle'." This book should be celebrated. I loved every page of it. I hope you'll read it and find it as endearing and satisfying as I did. 


Thank you for the music...

Today I am thankful for music - all of it - classical, rock, gospel, folk, blues. Where would any of us be without it? With or without lyrics music can reach places in us that nothing else can. It allows us to express our happiness, grief, joy, loneliness, hope, fear and every other thing a human being can feel.

I'm grateful for every time I've fallen asleep to Frank Sinatra singing I'll Be Seeing You or The Beatles singing Hey Jude. Other times it's been Pavarotti, Barbra Streisand, the Bee Gees, Bob Seger, The Gaither Vocal Band, Simon and Garfunkle or Andy Williams. There's been music for every mood and every emotion I've ever experienced. It's always been there, running through my head for as long as I can remember, adding colour, texture and meaning to my days and helping me say what I couldn't say otherwise.

Graphic courtesy of Antique Images
In the words of Martin Luther: "Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us."  It has calmed my agitations thousands of times, but it has also given me energy when I couldn't muster any up on my own. There seems to be a song perfect for every situation.

I love music in every genre; a single playlist on my ipod might include John Denver, Adele, Ray Charles, Bon Jovi, Perry Como, Jefferson Airplane (oh please, look it up!) Kelly Clarkson and Celine Dion. I have singalong playlists and driving playlists, going to sleep playlists and worship playlists. I used to think it was weird to sometimes crave sad songs but then I came across these words from Reba McEntire: "For me, singing sad songs often has a way of healing a situation. It gets the hurt out in the open into the light, out of the darkness." I don't feel so bad now about my "Sad Songs" playlist.

I have never thought that my life would make for a very interesting movie, but it would have one heck of a sound track and for that, I'm thankful.


Top Ten Tuesday

 Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

Today's top ten challenge is : 
The Top Ten Favorite Covers of Books You've Read

This was not easy. I'm a pushover when it comes to covers and often choose books based largely on what they look like. Sad, I know. I did manage to choose ten but there are many more that could have gone on this list. Here are the ten I picked:

1. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston
2. The Aluminum Christmas Tree by Thomas J. Davis
3. The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay
4. A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
5. The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer
6. Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer
7. The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
8. Christmas On Mill Street by Joseph Walker
9. The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
10. Up In The Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

Do you have a favourite book cover?

"Our Spoons Came From Woolworths"

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

I first heard about Barbara Comyns 3 years ago when I started blogging. She was recommended by so many bloggers that I felt I must be missing out on something special, so I looked up some of her books and put this title on my TBR. When I decided I was in need of some light reading I grabbed a few titles off my book shelf and this one made it to the top of the pile. It did what I wanted it to do - got me involved in a story other than my own and took me away for a while - but it didn't impress me as much as it seemed to impress others.

It's written in the first person, which I like because it gets you inside the character's head and lets you connect with them emotionally, but in this case she (Sophia) speaks with such detachment that I feel I never get to know her. She narrates her stories, good and bad, on the same even keel without letting her feelings show very much. For example, in this passage where she is nine months pregnant, beginning contractions and wondering whether to wake her husband, she sees her mother's ghost (a thing that has never occurred before) but she shows no fear, hardly even any surprise: "...during the night rather a pain came in my tummy so I sat up in bed and wondered if I should wake Charles. Then I saw my mother's ghost sitting in the rocking chair, and it was rocking in quite a normal way, so I did wake Charles and said "Look! There is my mother's ghost. She must have come to tell me it's time to go to the nursing home. I do feel a bit queer."

Later, when Charles gives her a little speech that would surely qualify him for BIGGEST JERK EVER status, she barely reacts at all. This is what he tells her: "I am very fond of you but I loathe this domestic life. The children are quite beautiful, but they don't mean a thing to me. I don't feel like a father, and have never wanted to be one. I may be inhuman and selfish, but I must be, life is so short, and the young part of our lives is going so quickly. I must be free to enjoy it and not be weighed down by all these responsibilities." Her reaction? "All right, Charles...we will part. I'll make my plans. Already there are some quite good ones in my head, so don't worry." She packs up the kids and they leave. He stays in the apartment while she hits the streets with two small children and no money. I wanted to scream at both of them, him for being a spoiled child and her for not kicking his butt out of there and standing up for herself and her children. Her children for pete's sake.

Because Sophia tells her story with this emotionless eccentricity, she stays very distant, a stranger really, right to the end. I did enjoy the reading, but I can't say I loved it because I couldn't ever get hold of her and figure out who she was. Many times my only response to her was shaking my head at the thoughtless decisions she was making.

So. I didn't love this book but I would like to try another because I enjoyed her writing. I seem to be preferring British authours these days; the way they use the language is so very appealing. Since I've been rather negative about this one, I'll leave you with this lovely bit of writing as a balancing positive: "I think the afternoons skating must have been the happiest I had ever had. The feel of the cold air on my face as I glided round and the exciting sound of our skates cutting the ice - suddenly a startled blackbird would fly in a great hurry from a bush, scattering hoar-frost and giving little cries. In the distance there was always someone chopping wood, which made us feel warmer somehow." Beautiful.

"Miss Hargreaves"

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker

Miss Constance Hargreaves, poet, is a figment of the imaginations of Norman and Henry, two young Englishmen who are lifelong friends and who like to invent harmless histories to make themselves appear well connected and knowledgeable and help them gain admittance where they might otherwise be shut out. Completely caught up in the story they'd concocted about her Norman sent off a tongue-in-cheek note to Miss Hargreaves expressing their warm regards and inviting her to come for a visit.

The trouble started when they received a reply. They decided someone was just messing with them, but then a book of Constance Hargreaves verses turned up in Norman's father's bookshop. It was an old, well-used volume, one that couldn't have been recently put together and planted there by a practical joker. All of this is impossible of course, and yet there she was arriving on a train, a living, breathing human being, an eccentric old woman greeting Norman as a dear friend and causing him to question his own grasp on reality.

The complications for Norman were endless. He had to find a way to explain her presence in his life - to his girlfriend, his family, his friends and his employers, all of whom were soon worrying about his mental state. Things got more and more difficult until his life was completely going off the rails and he knew he would have to do something desperate to get it back. I'll leave it to you to read how he solves his dilemma.

It is such a treat to find a book with a plot that is completely fresh and new, unlike anything you've ever read before. It's a rare thing - let's face it, most stories have been told over and over again - so when an unusual one comes along it's a nice surprise. This was a new one to me, this tale of an imaginary character coming to life. I would have enjoyed it for the novelty alone but happily it also had pretty good writing.

There were interesting characters too. Miss Hargreaves is as quirky a character as you'll ever find. You love her, then hate her, then feel sorry for her, then love her again; the one thing I don't think I'll ever do is forget her. Norman's father is annoying and adorable, fascinating and monotonous. Norman himself is basically a regular guy, a decent guy, but one whose overactive imagination is about to become his downfall. There were a couple of times when I wanted to shake him for doing obviously dumb things that would make things worse and I wondered why the authour put those things in, but in the end I think they made Norman more relatable. He's an intelligent guy, a talented classical musician who might have seemed out of reach if he hadn't shown those moments of poor judgement.

This is an older book, first published in 1940 and is one of several early twentieth century books republished for the modern reader by The Bloomsbury Group. Other titles include "Henrietta's War", "Love's Shadow", "Mrs. Tim of The Regiment", and "The Bronte's Went To Woolworths". I haven't read any of those, but this one is a satisfying story, worth your time and I do recommend it.

Thankful Thursday

I’m starting something called Thankful Thursday, where I will write briefly about something for which I’m grateful. If you are feeling thankful for something in particular, big or small, please make my life more interesting by leaving a comment. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; gratitude is good whether it’s for a major part of your life or a small detail of your day.
I find myself losing enthusiasm for the status quo here at Ordinary Reader so, for something different,

Clipart courtesy of Antique Images
Today I am thankful for the happy chirping of the birds outside my window. When I am homebound that sound coming in to me makes me feel content, like I’m missing less. It brings the sense of spring with its fresh green, its warming air and sunshine into my room. Birdsong has a way of lifting spirits quite unlike anything else I know.

The last two stanzas of Shelley’s “To A Skylarksay it well:

"Better than all measures
      Of delightful sound,
  Better than all treasures
      That in books are found,
 Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

  Teach me half the gladness
      That thy brain must know,
 Such harmonious madness
      From my lips would flow
  The world should listen then, as I am listening now.”

"A Supremely Bad Idea"

A Supremely Bad Idea by Luke Dempsey

Luke Dempsey, born in England but now a resident of the US, is a book editor in New York City and an avid birder. He was introduced to the sport by his friends Don and Donna Grafitti, with whom he has traveled all over the US in a quest to check as many birds as possible off his "life list".

From the time Donna handed him a set of binoculars, he was hooked. He started spotting birds in his own back yard and spending time in city parks, then the Grafitti's introduced him to the concept of birding trips, traveling with the specific intent of spotting as many bird species as possible  in the time they had. They began traveling together when their various schedules and responsibilities allowed it, taking trips to every corner of the country. He takes us along back roads and into state parks, introducing us to landscapes and local people, showing us the country through his eyes - the eyes of someone in love with nature. Of course the birds themselves are the stars of the show. Dempsey describes them vividly, telling us about colour and shape and markings, giving us enough facts to make it interesting but never making it dull with too much information.

The three traveling birders provide the comic relief. Dempsey is smart and funny with a gift for irony and sarcasm that lifts his writing right off the page. Don is a living collection of quirks and idiosyncrasies who really anchors the story; it wouldn't be the same without him at all. Between his obsessive interest in Luke's dislike of tomatoes, Luke's own minor superhero tendencies and Donna trying to keep everybody on an even keel, they get into some dicey situations but always manage to escape serious consequences and move on.

On the negative side, the authour uses quite a bit of coarse language and there are times when it would be nice if he exercised a little more tolerance in his dealings with other people. In spite of those things I enjoyed the authour's sharp wit and the book overall. I recommend it - with a language warning.

"The Great Gatsby"

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I love this book! I love the writing, I love that Fitzgerald puts paragraphs of meaning into a single sentence, I love the symbolism packed into it from cover to cover and I love the vivid picture this book presents of life in 1920's New York. There's very little about it I don't love.

Jay Gatsby's story is narrated by Nick Carraway who rents a small house and finds himself living next door to Gatsby's mansion, watching the beautiful people come and go at his extravagant Saturday night parties. Across the harbour from Gatsby's house is the home of Tom and Daisy Buchanan; Daisy is a distant cousin to Nick and the former love of Jay Gatsby. Gatsby's only goal in life is to get Daisy back and he uses his budding friendship with Nick to get access to her. That's the basic story line but there is so much more to this book than just the story.

Beyond the love story, we see the shallowness of the monied classes who are swimming in the wealth that had come with a growing, prosperous economy. Money can get them anything they want. It's the answer to every question and it's their refuge when they get into trouble. The Buchanans fit into this group. Fitzgerald says; "They were careless people -Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made...". Wealth without any kind of moral code left them bored, unhappy and with no purpose but their own pleasure; soon there was no pleasure in anything.

Gatsby is not of their class. He is new money, represented by the location of his house in West Egg; the Buchanans are old money, represented by their community of East Egg. He grew up poor but smart and used his wits to amass the wealth he would need if he was to have any chance with Daisy. He didn't care about the legality of his enterprises as long as they got him what he wanted. He's a flawed human being but at least he has some humanity. He loves Daisy, making him the only character who cares about much of anything; I felt sorry for him in spite of all his deficiencies. I felt no sympathy for the rest of them with their beautiful, superficial lives. Beneath the thin veneer, there is nothing.

I had forgotten how short this book is. Fitzgerald packs so much atmosphere into every page that you feel you've not just read the story but lived inside it. It makes such an impact that every time I think about, or read a reference to the 1920's my mind goes to this book. It's been my reference point for that era since I first read it decades ago.

Fitzgerald uses a lot of symbolism which lets him mean a lot more than he's actually saying. (I like it when an authour shows me something and trusts me to understand what it means rather than spelling it out for me because he assumes I can't think for myself. Authours should trust their readers and I think Fitzgerald does.) He uses colour a lot: green to represent hope, grey for waste and emptiness, gold to imply value, and yellow, trying to be gold but always falling just short: Gatsby's expensive yellow car, the yellow dresses of girls at one of his parties, and my favourite, "yellow cocktail music."

I could go on forever. But I won't. I'll stop here with just a few quotes that show how nicely Fitzgerald sets a tone with only a handful of words, like a poet:

"I drove over to East Egg to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all."

"A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell."

"She was incurably dishonest."

He..."bought a mansion where he dispensed starlight to casual moths."

If you're thinking of buying a copy, The Book Depository has a very nice blue and silver hard cover copy for under $12. The pages are edged with silver and it comes with a hard protective sleeve like the one in the picture above. It's nice and compact at about 4" x 7". A great book for a great price; you absolutely must read it!

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by the lovely young ladies at The Broke And The Bookish, who each Tuesday ask participants to list 10 bookish somethings. I've been looking for meme ideas because truthfully I'm a little bored with Ordinary Reader right now and being somewhat list-obsessive I thought this might be fun. This week they ask us to list the top ten books we go to when we need something light and fun to read. I have a melancholy tendency to read serious things but there are a few books that I enjoy as lighter reading, though I don't know if others would call them light or fun.

Here are my ten:

1. 84, Charring Cross Road - this is a series of letters between a girl in New York City and a book shop in England. This book is a treasure.

2. Anne of Green Gables - I love this sweet, funny story of a young girl growing up in  Prince Edward Island.

3. The Fairacre series by Miss Read. Delightful reading. I read my first one at Christmas and I am hooked.

4. The Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters. I've read a couple of these and go to the next in the list when I need something light.

5. The Sunday Philosophy Club series by Alexander McCall Smith. This is another series I go to when I want something that is easy to read but still has an interesting story.

6. Books about books or set in book shops, libraries, etc. I find these the most fun of all.

7. The Provence books by Peter Mayle. I will never tire of these books.

8. Anything by Maeve Binchey, who was a great storyteller.

9. Anything by Rosamunde Pilcher, another wonderful storyteller.

10. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons - this is one of the funniest things I've ever read! Deliciously odd.

"Alice In Wonderland"

Alice In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

This is yet another of those books I've seen all the cartoons, movies etc. for but have never read. I have to say, it was a delight. Carroll has a wonderfully light comic touch. It was fun, whimsical, imaginative - something I think any child would enjoy reading. I do sometimes wonder if kids are still interested in these older books; the language is so different from what is being written for them now. Are children still reading things like Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan or The Chronicles Of Narnia?

I think I've nearly finished catching up on the children's books I missed reading over the years. I still have to get a copy of "Winnie The Pooh" and I've recently discovered that "Through The Looking Glass" is a separate Alice book (I didn't know there were two) so I've got that on my e-reader now. Come to think of it, I haven't read Watership Down yet either. As I said, nearly finished.

I certainly don't recommend the e-reader for children's books because, at least in the ones I've seen, you don't get any of the illustrations. I just know they would be gorgeous and I feel like I'm missing a valuable aspect of the book by not having them. I do recommend "Alice In Wonderland" though. It was great!

Book Blog Hop May 3 - May 9

The Book Blog Hop is hosted by Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer

 This week's Book Blog Hop questions is:
"What was the last book you read that was recommended by someone else? 
Did you like it?"

That would be Henri Nouwen's "The Return Of The Prodigal Son". I loved it. It was recommended to me by someone whose taste in books is very similar to mine so when she suggests a book I always read it and almost always love it. It was a phenomenal book about God and His love for His children. It's one of those rare books that really does change things, whether it's your attitude or your perspective or maybe even your whole world view. Well worth reading.  

"Letters To A Young Housekeeper"

Letters To A Young Housekeeper by Mrs. Bayard Taylor (Marie Hansen-Taylor)

I was a little bit disappointed in this one. I hoped the letters would deal with all the various aspects of running a home but they addressed only cooking. It was nevertheless interesting and fun to read, if a bit monotonous at times.

I'm guessing these 24 letters were written in the 1860's or thereabouts. Taylor was born in 1829, so 1860 or 1870 would make sense; I couldn't find much information. Wikipedia has a page on her husband, poet and travel writer Bayard Taylor, but nothing on Marie. The letters were written to a young friend who was setting up housekeeping and who, apparently, had little experience preparing meals.

Mrs. Taylor speaks with authority on the subject. She is firm in her belief that variety in meals is important: "If you wish your husband to be nervously debilitated by and by, disheartened and the reverse of cheerful, give him breakfasts without substance and dinners without variety. Be they cooked as well as you please, that will not tend to mend matters in the long run." She also encourages economy, but not at the expense of quality: "To provide for your meals buy the best of materials; it is the cheapest because it goes furthest in nourishing".

 She begins her instruction with how to prepare various meats, including beef, mutton, venison and poultry. Pigeon seems to have been a fairly common item on the table. I'm glad that trend has passed. Subsequent letters discuss soups, sauces, gelatin dishes, rice, macaroni, vegetables, fish, salads, eggs, light desserts, cakes and preserves. The final letter suggests menus for a dinner party.  She's quite knowledgeable about the science and history of cooking, and mentions several recipes acquired in European travels. Most of the recipes are labour intensive; it's hard to imagine how she had time to do anything other than cook.

Butter, cream and eggs are used often and without much restraint, though she does at least mention restraint at one point. A recipe for Vienna Cake calls for a pound of butter, 14 eggs and a pound of sugar. We are told to mix in the eggs one at a time, then "Stir for half an hour." Seriously? I am going to try one of her cake recipes but there won't be any 30 minute stirring marathons unless the Kitchen Aid does it.

It was interesting to see how food preparation and attitudes toward certain foods have changed over the last century. I would never have guessed there was a time when carrots were considered fine for soups and stews but not for serving as a vegetable. Pork was thought adequate for the family table but not for dinner guests. 

This book offers an interesting look at the life of a home cook in a different time. It won't appeal to every reader but if you like that kind of thing it's worth looking at. I downloaded a free e-reader version that turned out to be a mess; there were headings mixed up with the text, lots of broken up sentences and words out of place all over the pages. Hopefully you'll find a better version. I am so never giving up real books.