Julie and Julia

OK, here I am…I just finished the last of the 5 books for my From the Stacks Winter Reading Challenge. I had saved Julie and Julia for last, figuring it would be a light, fun, breezy read, which might suit me well after some of the heavier topics I had thus far covered. I was right. To be honest, I knew very little about this book/blog/idea before the book was given to me as a gift last Christmas. I knew that the author, Julie Powell, lived in New York, that she decided to make every recipe in Julia Childs’ famous cookbook, Mastering The Art of French Cooking, 524 recipes, in one year. I’ll confess that I kind of wondered if this might be a book by a Martha Stewart wannabe, someone who was going to go into excruciating detail of each and every recipe, and how perfectly they all came out, and so on. Or maybe, it was going to be the blog, one year worth, written into a book, which also? Not so interesting. I needn’t have worried. I mean, Jefito and his lovely bride gave me this book, and I should trust them, right? So here we go, I’m reading along, and I find that I’m reading about someone who knows when to use the ‘f word’ (whenever possible, it seems). If profanity is a problem for you, skip the book. Clearly, I was raised with this word, so it wasn’t a problem for me.

How was I to know, then, that not only would Julie Powell, the author and crazed woman who took this project on, would, in addition to having a blog that she loved and swearing like a trucker, have a Buffy addiction! I mean, outside of her cooking brains and kidneys and so on, this woman and I could be friends! Here’s a quote:

It made me philosophical, or maybe just hungry…Anyway, as I was stuffing and sealing turnovers, I found myself considering the essential rights of Roquefort filling. I brought the filling into being, and now I was seeking to entrap it in a buttery pastry prison, though it was obvious from its evasive behavior that there is nothing Roquefort wants more than to be free. Was this not arrogance? Was it not, in essence, a slave-owning mentality, to be approaching this from the perspective of how best to trap the Roquefort filling, without consideration for the Roquefort’s fundamental desire for freedom?
I was getting a little dizzy.
In retrospect, of course, this can be recognized as the first sign of my imminent psychotic break.

I would recommend this book heartily, to anyone with a passion for living, at least SOME interest in cooking, and who doesn’t mind discovering that the author is so overwhelmed that she has allowed maggots to fester in her kitchen. Ugh.

Year of Wonders

Last night, I finished the 4th book in the Winter Stacks Reading Challenge, Year of Wonders.

This is the tale of an English village beset by Plague in 1665-1666. The protagonist of the story is a young widow, Anna. Anna’s husband was an Iron miner, and died in a mining accident, leaving her to support and care for her two young children. In addition to working as a servant at the rectory, she takes in a border to supplement her income.

Her border is a tailor, and they get along very well. He enjoys her children, and brings laughter back into the home. There is the start of a romance, and it looks as though Anna and the tailor might consider getting married. All is well, until the tailor receives a bolt of cloth from London, which is infested with the Plague. He quickly falls ill, and on his deathbed, begs Anna to burn all of his wares, as he has seen the effects of Plague and how quickly it can spread. Unfortunately, the townspeople who had placed orders with the tailor, and who had already put down deposits on garments, refuse her advice to burn the fabric, and they take it into their homes. Thus the disease is loosed into the community, and many people suffer because of it.

Anna continues her work in the rectory, and the nature of her work changes dramatically. From cleaning and cooking for the rector and his young wife, Elinor, to comforting the ill and working to find a cure through herbs and medicines, and eventually even midwifery, she and Elinor become close friends. Elinor teaches Anna to read, and tells her her deepest secrets.

The story is written with an attention to detail that is very moving. The descriptions of the English countryside make you long to vacation there, while the descriptions of those suffering from Plague are disturbing and somewhat gross (but not in a gratuitous, disgusting way). The effects that the disease has on the village is profound. Not only do they lose 2/3 of their population to the Plague, along with the skills and knowledge that those people had provided to the community, but fear, superstition, and greed play their parts as well.

It was an intriguing book, and one that I would highly recommend. Not, perhaps, if you’re currently suffering from ‘flu, however. πŸ˜‰ I liked it well enough that when we went to the bookstore yesterday, I purchased March, which is another book by the same author. For those of you who enjoyed Little Women, March is the tale of Mr. March, the absent father in Little Women, and his experiences while off in the Civil War. I’m looking forward to reading it, but not yet…next on my list is the last book in the challenge, Julie and Julia, which was given to me by some dear friends last Christmas. I saved it for last in this challenge, because I thought I might need cheering up after some of the heavier topics I visited…including adultery, cancer and personal freedom over one’s own body, and homesteading in the 1800s.

Happy Reading!

(If you’re wondering why this post is so dang late in the day, I wrote it up, and tried the Google Toolbar spellcheck, and somehow lost my first post! ARGH! So I stopped, took a shower, did some work, went to the neighbors house to check on her cats while she’s out of town, ate breakfast, and only now am getting back to a second try. Whew.)

The Jump-Off Creek

Sunday night, after Ted and Maya had gone to bed, I was considering watching a DVD, perhaps Out of Africa. But then I decided that I didn’t want to stay up that long (it’s a long movie, and it was already 9:00), and that I was enjoying my book, so I would read instead. I made the right choice. πŸ™‚

I read the concluding chapters to book three in the Winter Stacks Reading Challenge, The Jump-Off Creek, by Molly Gloss. This is a book by a local Portland author, which I picked up while we were in Oregon this summer. I read maybe a chapter of it then, and then got distracted by another book, or a movie, or whatever, and lost interest. It looked like it might become one of those books that you don’t immediately get sucked into, and then you give up on them in favor of another book. Sometimes, that is the right choice, because really, why spend good time on bad books when there are so many good books out there, but in this case, I’m glad that I committed to it in the challenge, because it got me to return and give it another try. The first chapter or two were kind of clunky to me, and I wasn’t sure…but when I got into the language, and started to feel more of a sympathy toward these characters, I started to really enjoy the novel. This, from Library Journal, via Amazon.com:

Not a standard “Western,” but a novel of the West notable for its accurate portrayal of life on a homestead and for the quality of writing that will make readers linger. At the height of the Depression of 1895 Lydia Sanderson, freed by the death of her husband, travels to Oregon where she homesteads on a mountain, living in a wretched hovel on land not fit to grow even a vegetable garden. Her companions are two mules, two goats, and hard work. Lydia’s neighbors are few and far but bound together by a common struggle to survive. Their life is one of terse converse, kindness, and quick response to one another’s needs. A rare treat of a first novel. ~ Sister Avila, Acad. of Holy Angels, Minneapolis

The characters in this book are a prickly bunch…not warm by today’s standards, clearly. I think the author does a good job of conveying the emotions that are hidden under the surface of these quiet folks, most of whom are more comfortable in the harsh wilderness than in any city or even town. They consider their words carefully before speaking, and think long and hard before making any moves, at least most of the time. There are a few instances where a character acts without thinking, usually to disastrous results.

I really liked this book, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in reading a character study of the type of person that goes into homesteading, or ‘cowboying’, as she called it. Anyone interested in seeing what life on the frontier might be like, would definitely enjoy this book.

Next up: Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks.

My Sister’s Keeper

“What do parents look like?”

“You know how the tightrope guy at the circus wants everyone to believe his act is an art, but deep down you can see that he’s really just hoping he makes it all the way across? Like that.”

I recently finished the second book in the From the Stacks reading challenge. The book was My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult. The premise is this: A young girl, Kate, is terribly ill. She has leukemia, and the only thing that can save her, maybe, is donated umbilical cord blood. So, her parents have another child, Anna, a child that they select from several embryos because she is a perfect match for Kate, and thus Kate has a better chance of recovery with donations from Anna than from anyone else. The problem is that Kate doesn’t get better…or, more accurately, she goes into remission for three years, and then gets sick again. And again. Almost every time she is ill, the solution is to harvest something from Anna. Bone marrow, etc. It never works as well as it should. At the time we join the book, Kate’s kidneys are failing her, and she is dying, again. She is 16 years old, and Anna is 13. Anna decides to sue her parents for medical emancipation, so that she can refuse to donate her kidney to her sister.

The story is told from many points of view…Anna, her mother, her father, her brother, her lawyer, the court appointed person who is supposed to recommend a solution to the judge of the trial. They each get a voice. The voices are honest and true, and strike a chord of sympathy as you are reading.

The issues are complex, and the sad thing is that you know there is no easy answer, no way for everyone to win in this story. That’s part of what keeps you turning the pages, I guess.

I was completely sucked into this book, and it was a much easier read than The Scarlet Letter, being as how it was written in this century and all.

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read the book, and if you think you might, don’t read on. I’m giving away the surprise plot twist at the end of the book!
My only problem with the book, and it was kind of a doozy for me, was the ending. Anna wins her freedom, and is on her way to the hospital (perhaps to donate her kidney anyway, we’re not sure), when she is in a terrible accident, and she dies. WTF? They are able to harvest her kidneys, which are donated to Kate, and apparently put her into remission, for the last chapter of the book is a couple of years in the future, and Kate is still alive and healthy. I didn’t think that was necessary at all. Perhaps having Anna save Kate with her kidney, and everyone living all happily ever after would be too Hollywood, and perhaps that’s why Ms. Picoult chose the ending she did. Perhaps she’s read too much Hans Christian Anderson, and there can be no such thing as a happy ending. Perhaps she had toyed with Kate dying, with or without the kidney transplant, and decided that was too cruel, and yet SOMEONE had to die. But it was a bit too movie of the week for me, too gratuitous, to have her die that way. Everything leading up to that point was so good, though, that I may find myself picking up other books by this author. I’ll at least give her one more try. Any suggestions, without such a sensationalist ending?

The Scarlet Letter

I’ve finished the first book of my reading challenge. One of my New Year’s resolutions a year or two ago was to go back and read some of the ‘classics’ that I missed in high school and college. One such book was The Scarlet Letter.

Reading books written 150 years ago requires me to slow down, to concentrate. I liken it to reading a book in a second language; a language of which I am familiar & fluent, yet it is not my first language, so I have to stop and consider the meanings of the various words and phrases. The style of the writing is such that I could hardly slog through the introductory chapter, The Custom House. I confess that I read the first half, then skimmed the rest. Then I got to the meat of the book, the story of Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Dr. Chillingworth. If you don’t know the story, and you don’t want to, skip the rest of this post, because there will be spoilers.

Hester is a young woman in Boston, circa 1649. She is married to the much older Chillingworth, who came to the colonies on a later voyage than Hester. He has not yet been seen in Boston, and because it has been over 2 years since she last saw him, and he can’t phone or IM, he is presumed to be dead.

Arthur Dimmesdale is a Puritan minister, one who is terribly popular with his congregation, for he is young and handsome and his sermons hold so much feeling, they are said to be so beautiful that they save souls.

When we join the story, Hester is completing the jail sentence for her crime. What crime, you may ask? Though she has not seen her husband in over 2 years, she has just given birth to a baby girl, named Pearl. Upon her release from prison, Hester is condemned first to stand on a platform in the center of the village, holding her baby and wearing a scarlet letter “A”, identifying her to all as an adulterer. She will be required to wear this scarlet “A” for the rest of her life. In the midst of her shame, she spies the man she had assumed dead, Dr. Chillingworth. He urges her to keep his identity secret, and seems to forgive her somewhat for her transgression. He does not, however, forgive her paramour, and wishes to seek his revenge. Hester will not reveal the identity of Pearl’s father.

Arthur Dimmesdale is tortured by a deep secret. He has committed a sin so great that he fears his soul has no chance of ascending to heaven, and if this sin were discovered, the punishment would be death. Though he might prefer death to the slow torture of his guilty conscience, he feels that he has much work to accomplish here on Earth, through his sermons, so he does not confess his sin.

Have I spoiled the story for you? This is but chapter 1 of the tale. Hawthorne’s glimpse into the mores and customs of the Puritans is a fascinating, if slow, read. If you’ve not yet read it, I highly recommend that you do.

Note 1…I found myself interested in renting the movie version with Demi Moore, but when I read that in the film, they don’t ever succumb to temptation, I gave up that idea. Where is the main story, without little Pearl as the incarnation of that big red ‘A’? And the cover made it look as though there might be some steamy scenes in the film, which is never the case in the book. There was a public television mini series released in 1979 that I thought of renting, but that’s 4 hours. Ouch.

Note 2…Because Hawthorne and his ancestors are from early Salem, as were some of mine, I was curious to learn whether we might be distant cousins. Alas, I could find no connection. So he doesn’t get added to the list.

From the Stacks Winter Reading Challenge

Lotus Reads found a great reading challenge that might finally get some of those books on my sidebar out of the way, making room for some new ones. This sounds like a really good idea to me, so I’m in.

Here’s the premise, from the woman with the great idea, Michelle at overdue books:

“If you are anything like me your stack of purchased to-be-read books is teetering over. So for this challenge we would be reading 5 books that we have already purchased, have been meaning to get to, have been sitting on the nightstand and haven’t read before. No going out and buying new books. No getting sidetracked by the lure of the holiday bookstore displays.

The bonus would be that we would finally get to some of those titles (you know you picked them for a reason!) and we wouldn’t be spending any extra money over the holidays.

The time frame would be Nov. 1st until Jan. 30 and there will be some small, fun prizes awarded to random participants and/or those with clever review posts. There will be one random drawing for a prize to those who submit their list of books in the comment section by Nov. 15th but feel free to join any time. There will be another random drawing for those who submit five reviews by Jan. 30 for a small gift certificate to Amazon.”

I have many books sitting on my bedside table, waiting semi-patiently for me to get to them. A couple of them I received for Christmas last year, or maybe my birthday. A couple I have purchased since then. I have a new one that I got last week that’s tempting me, but since that’s not the idea here, it will have to be pushed to the rear, and WAIT its turn. Hopefully, this will make some room for the books on my holiday wish list. πŸ˜‰

Here’s my list:

  1. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathanial Hawthorne. I’ve barely started this book. Mostly I’ve found out that Nathaniel Hawthorne was from Salem, MA, and since I had a lot of family from there in the early part of our nation’s history, I kind of wonder if we might be distant cousins. I’ll have to find out, so I can add him to the list.
  2. The Jump Off Creek, by Molly Gloss. I picked this book up in Oregon this summer, on our vacation to Portland, and thus to Powells books. If you’re ever in Portland, you should really check out Powells. It’s pretty great. The Jump Off Creek is a story of a woman homesteading alone in the mountains of Oregon in the 1890s. I intended to read this while in Oregon, but I got distracted and put it aside. Good chance now to pick it up again.
  3. Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks I had been thinking of reading another book by the same author, March, which is the story of Mr. March from Little Women, and his experiences in the Civil War. The book store I was at on the day I was looking for March didn’t have it in paperback, however, so I found this book. Year of Wonders is the story of a small village in England, which is infected with the plague in the year 1666. It sounds like an intriguing story…I’ll let you know.
  4. My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult. Wow…this book promises to pack an emotional punch. A family has a child, who suffers from leukemia, and they are unable to find a matching bone-marrow donor for her. So they have another child, hoping this child will be able to help save her sister. The book comes in when Anna, the donor child, is 13 years old, and is starting to really question her role in life, and to wonder if she might have any say over her destiny.
  5. Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell. From Amazon:”Julie & Julia is the story of Julie Powell’s attempt to revitalize her marriage, restore her ambition, and save her soul by cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, in a period of 365 days. The result is a masterful medley of Bridget Jones’ Diary meets Like Water for Chocolate, mixed with a healthy dose of original wit, warmth, and inspiration that sets this memoir apart from most tales of personal redemption.”This book is the work of Julie Powell, who chronicled her culinary adventures on her blog, and looks to be a great read. I received this as a Christmas gift last year, and it’s been calling out to me ever since, but I’m easily distracted. So I’m looking forward to getting to it via this challenge.

So that’s my list. If you’re interested in taking this challenge, be sure to let Michelle over at ‘overdue books‘ know, so she can add you to her list. Happy Reading!