Monthly Archives: May 2010

Ah, Italy…

The end of May always makes me think of Italy. The first time I went was in early May (I’ve been three times… I’ll try to keep the “obnoxious” down a bit.) I was 23, had never flown, and was totally on my own. I had just finished my undergraduate degree and had planned my trip for nearly a year, saving and scouting possible hostels and restaurants.

I bought a travel journal, a nifty little journal that I still have and use when I go anywhere. I got it at Barnes & Noble, and it was a great trip-planning tool. It wasn’t one of those that simply looks nice and has blank pages inside. No, this one had handy dandy tips from fellow travelers. It was slim with a band around it to hold receipts, passports, tickets, and it had quotes and spaces to write what I wanted out of this trip, why I wanted to go and to where. It also had plenty of practical details. And, lo and behold, in the back, it had books geared toward different areas of the world. Much as Savidge Reads likes to read books about or set in or by an author from the part of the world to where he travels, so do many people. I was planning on a short jaunt to Venice – I wasn’t planning on liking it as it seemed to me cliche- and the journal suggested The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan (I‘ll link to A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook if you want a thorough review). This book is about a couple vacationing in Venice, meeting another couple, and… let’s just put it this way, things go terribly, terribly wrong. I was horrified. I was petrified.

I proceeded to read everything I could about Venice before leaving, and each resource advised not to arrive after dark. When did I arrive? After dark. Alone, and for the first time on that entire trip, I was scared. I’ll never forget trekking up and down bridges, across narrow passageways, thinking I would never get out alive, peering down dark alleys and seeing lone, hulking figures. Finally, I saw the warm glow of an open hotel lobby and stepped inside. A young man, probably younger than I am now, took one look at me and asked what was wrong. To my utter humiliation, I began crying – the kind of hiccuping cry no one outside of yourself should ever hear – and he was so kind. He brought me water, got someone to watch the front desk, and walked me to my hotel, speaking soothingly in broken English and Italian the entire way.

I ended up loving Venice. The sound of the water lapping against the generations-old stone bridges and walks. The ever-narrowing passageways sometimes leading to nowhere. The flowers growing unbelievably out of cracks of stone and hanging from people’s balconies. The dogs scurrying around outside the open markets that dot the small town. Venice is surreal in so many ways, as is much of Italy. Since that trip, I’ve been back twice – both times with great friends. Although I loved those trips as well and will always remember them, that first exploration will remain with me always. In May, I break out my linen pants, which I wore almost daily in Italy (Italy just seems to call for linen), and dream of the grapefruit-sized lemons of Positano, of the view from a small monastery window looking down in the hills of Tuscany below Cortona, of small-town Italian festival, of an afternoon spent eating gelato and people watching, of walking through lush Italian gardens, and drinking unbelievably-good red wine or Prosecco.

Before I left the first time, people told me traveling abroad would be a life-changing experience. I hate cliches and fought against it, but Italy made me a new person. It made me appreciate the small joys and daily pleasures of life, so today I hope you too find something small in which to take pleasure. As for me, I may be found sitting on the front porch reading a book and just maybe, drinking a glass of Prosecco.


Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Like Water for Chocolate came out when I was 9, so I didn’t pick it up right away. ūüôā However, the name has always stuck with me and resurfaced when I looked at one of my favorite blogs a couple of months ago. Sotto Il Monte Vineyards is a beautiful blog with photography, food, architecture, and decor, so when I saw this post in January, I added the book to my list. I got it at the library Monday afternoon and read it yesterday evening.

Told in one-month episodes by the great-granddaughter of the main character, each chapter/month begins with a recipe and is the story of a family of women, Mama Elena, Gertrudis, Rosaura, and Tita, living on the Mexican-American border. Mama Elena is a hard woman, raising three daughters on her own on a ranch in Mexico with help only from a woman housekeeper, Nacha. Tita, her third daughter is born

on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves, and cilantro, steamed milk, garlic, and , of course, onion….The way Nacha told it, Tita was literally washed into this world on a great tide of tears that spilled over the edge of the table and flooded across the kitchen floor.

Tita’s kitchen birth gives her a special affinity to the kitchen and food. Her tears are supposedly because as the youngest in this family, she is expected to remain single and to care for her mother until one of the two dies. However, Pedro, a neighboring young man, loves Tita, and Tita loves Pedro. Her mother refuses to allow the marriage, so in order to be close to the woman he loves, Pedro marries Tita’s older sister Rosaura. (Are you groaning? Yes, it’s a horrible idea.) The story follows with the clandestine love of the two, the volatile relationship between Tita and her mother, and the dynamics of this matriarchal household.

Tita’s love of the kitchen is what moves the story along, and Tita, in true magical realism, cooks her soul into her dishes. At the marriage of Pedro and Rosaura, Tita prepares a multi-course dinner, culminating with the cake. Tita cries as she makes the icing, and

The moment [the guests] took their first bite of the cake, everyone was flooded with a great wave of longing….But the weeping was just the first symptom of a strange intoxication – an acute attack of pain and frustration – that seized the guests and scattered them across the patio and the grounds and in the bathrooms, all of them wailing over lost love.

In turns sad, joyous, sensual, frustrating, and angering, Like Water for Chocolate was an enjoyable read. I particularly enjoy magical realism* and Mexican/Hispanic stories. The translation by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen is excellent, and I look forward to watching the movie.

* If you have read this or are curious about magical realism, I highly recommend Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. It is an absolutely epic familial tale with magical realism galore. It’s one of my favorite books.


Welcome to Picky Girl!

Welcome! I hope you’ll stop by, read a few reviews, share your own thoughts, and return for more bookish talk. I love to read, but occasionally I’ll throw in a post about gardening or decorating my 104-year-old house. As for the picky part, well, let’s just say, I’ve been picky for 29 years… I don’t think that characteristic is going anywhere.

Happy reading!


Housekeeping

Ok, so if you’ve been here before, things have changed a bit. Now that I’m getting the hang of blogging, I thought I would change my theme. Simple, right? Um, no. Not at all.

There is this big, blank space that on the sample Structure theme shows a photo. However, I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get anything in that space. It’s not a widget space. I think it’s a Feature Image, but I cannot seem to find where I would upload something to that space.

In other words, HELP! Any advice you can give me would be great. Thanks.


If only we all had such confidence…


Blurbs and a Trip to the Library – or vice verse

I returned my last week’s library stash this afternoon, having read all six and a couple around the house. I walked in and deposited my books on the counter and the librarian was the same who checked me out last week. She said, “Wow. That was fast.” I thought to myself: You have no idea. Get ready to enter a reader/librarian relationship like you’ve never had before.

So I browsed, and as I did so I thought quite a bit. Having not been a library patron over the last 15 years, I usually know exactly what I want to read and pick it up. I was irritated when I got into the stacks that I had not written down book titles from other great bloggers. I did this for a while but have stopped. When I read a review and want to read the book, it’s as if I think my brain will retain not only the title but the author as well. It ain’t happenin. I was a bit frustrated, but the beauty of the library is that I can wander around, as long as I want, and find books I’ve forgotten or never knew I wanted to read.

However, the blurbs do not help. I read some truly awful blurbs this afternoon. One of the worst was for a Michael Cunningham book; it basically listed the characters and talked about how their personalities brought on the climax of the book. Sheesh. Really? The characters brought on the climax of the book? I figured it would be Harry Potter rushing in to save the day. I mean, come on. I put the book down, don’t remember the title, and was a bit annoyed at the laziness of it. There was nothing more enticing about that book? Ok, so maybe I’m a bit harsh, but I always check the blurb and the first paragraph. If they don’t hook me, I don’t pick it up.

So… what did you end up with, you may ask:

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (I’ve wanted to read this for years.)

The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors by Michele Young-Stone

Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella

Bandbox by Thomas Mallon

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

Black Hills by Dan Simmons

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

Yea! and Happy Monday!


The Known World by Edward P. Jones

“The boy filled up the whole piece of wood and at the end of the last line he put a period. His father’s grave would remain, but the wooden marker would not last out ¬†the year. The boy knew better than to put a period at the end of such a sentence. Something that was not even a true and proper sentence, with subject aplenty, but ¬†no verb to pull it all together. A sentence, Matthew’s teacher back in Virginia had tried to drum into his thick Kinsey head, could live without a subject, but it could ¬†not live without a verb.”

Edward P. Jones novel The Known World is about legacy. Just as quilts made by African Americans during the time of slavery visually document the happenings of ¬†their lives, Jones follows the town of Manchester in Virginia and the people living there in the years leading up to the Civil War. Augustus and Mildred Townsend are slaves on William Robbins’ ¬†plantation. Augustus is a talented woodworker and carpenter and is allowed to do work off the plantation with a commission to Robbins. In so doing, he is able to ¬†buy his own freedom, later his wife’s, and then much later his son’s freedom. Henry Townsend, their son, grows to be a favorite of Mr. Robbins, Robbins thinking ¬†of him almost as a favorite son. Henry is smart and hardworking, so Robbins continually ups the price Henry’s parents owe to free him. Left with his mother’s ¬†friend, Rita, Henry seems to sometimes be resentful of the parents who love him and are working for him. Once freed, Augustus asks him how he feels, and Henry ¬†answers that he feels no different. Augustus tells him: “You don’t have to ask anybody how to feel. You can just go on and do whatever it is you want to feel. Feel ¬†sad, go on and feel sad. Feel happy, you go on and feel happy…. this freedom situation. It’s big and little, yes and no, up and down, all at the same time.”

Henry grows up, making shoes and boots and making a nice living on his own and then proceeds to … buy a slave. As the census worker tells the reader, “in 1855 in Manchester County, Virginia, there were thirty-four free black families, with a mother and father and one child or more, and eight of those free families owned slaves, and all eight knew one another’s business.” Henry tells his parents, and Mildred “went through her memory for the time, for the day, she and her husband told him all about what he should and should not do….Pick the blueberries close to the ground, son. Them the sweetest, I find. If a white man say the trees can talk, can dance, you just say yes right along, that you done seen em do it plenty of times. Don’t look them people in the eye. You see a white woman ridin toward you, get way off the road and go stand behind a tree. The uglier the white woman, the farther you go and the broader the tree. But where, in all she taught her son, was it about thou shall own no one, havin been owned once your own self. Don’t go back to Egypt after God done took you outa there.”

Aside from a former slave owning slaves, the other fascinating aspect of this narrative is that the narrative voice is constantly introducing characters and telling the reader of that character’s future and demise, then leaving the character and continuing with the main story – furthering each character’s legacy as the reader waits to get back to hear how the character arrives at his or her end. The tangible fear and anxiety Jones creates in Manchester County and its inhabitants makes the reader constantly aware of what that time and place must have been like. Jones reinforces the concept that we are only as free as someone above us thinks we are and how dangerous and thin a line there is between freedom and bondage.

Weaving the lives of men and women, free, slave, passing, white, black, good and evil, Jones creates an effecting novel of legacy and heritage and memory, much like one character describes a work of art:

…people were viewing an enormous wall hanging, a grand piece of art that is part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure – all in one exquisite Creation, hanging silent and yet songful on the Eastern wall. It is … a kind of map of life of the County of Manchester, Virginia. But a “map” is such a poor word for such a wondrous thing. It is a map of life made with every kind of art man has ever thought to represent himself. Yes, clay. Yes, paint. Yes, cloth. There are no people on this “map,” just all the houses and barns and roads and cemeteries and wells in our Manchester…There are matters in my memory that I did not know were there until I saw them on that wall….[and] I sank to my knees.

**Thanks to Kinna Reads for reviewing Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City, which is how I found this book in the library.


Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Beginning in the chaotic moments after President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and then taking the reader back before the start of the Civil War, Thomas Mallon masterfully weaves the story of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, whose lives, it seems, culminated and froze in that fateful moment when they shared the box at the Henry Ford Theatre with the President and First Lady. However, the story is much more than the ruination of their lives and the death and gore they witnessed. The reader follows Henry Rathbone as a young man who has lost his father and whose mother is determined not to be alone. Clara Harris has lost her mother, and her father Ira Harris is a politician and thinker. From the moment Clara sets eyes on Henry after the marriage of their parents – Clara was 13, Henry 11 – she knows she loves this dark, sardonic boy. They grow together as the nation swiftly grows apart. Their love survives a war but is very nearly crushed after the events of April 14, 1865 when President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, and Henry was nearly mortally injured. Unlike many books that end after the main action occurs, Henry and Clara continues, following Henry’s mental breakdown and Clara’s fierce determination to pull the man she loves from the depths of his anger and disturbed imagination.

I enjoyed this book for a number of reasons. If you look at the print above, Henry and Clara are the two standing figures on the left. Thomas Mallon takes two people, forgotten by history, and fleshes them out, making them whole and breathing life into their forms. History fascinates me, and although this is historical fiction, Mallon follows letters and historical documents as closely as possible. There are also not many contemporary books of which I am aware that are set during the Civil War. I remember, growing up, reading Across Five Aprils, watching Gone With the Wind, and I know there are a few others. This dirty, contemptuous war captured my young attention. The descriptions of brother fighting brother and the chaos of these untrained soldiers saddened and frightened me, and though the book doesn’t focus much on the war itself, it certainly does look into the political climate leading to the war and Washington’s atmosphere during it. Henry and Clara is a sad account, but it chronicles how immense, public tragedy can forever scar an individual and the relationships he has cultivated.


The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Painting by Sisley - at Musee d'Orsay

I loved The Historian. I know others found it to drag or to be too long, but I enjoyed every second of that book. It scared the pants off me, and it fascinated me. As many fans out there, I waited anxiously for Kostova’s new book, The Swan Thieves. I began it Monday evening and finished it yesterday afternoon. At a hefty 561 pages, it is quite long. However, I really found this book to be absorbing. Even once I put the book down, the characters stayed with me, and I had to really think about several different areas I want to address in my review, so please forgive the sometimes incoherent nature of the following…

The publisher’s blurb:

Robert Oliver, a renowned painter, has brutally attacked a canvas in the National Gallery of Art. What would compel an artist to destroy something he values beyond all else? From the confines of his hospital room, Oliver maintains a stubborn silence, offering only the briefest explanation before he stops speaking altogether: “I did it for her.”

Andrew Marlow, an amateur painter himself and Oliver’s doctor, delves into the mystery of why Oliver attacked the (fictitious) painting Leda and the Swan by (fictitious) Gilbert Thomas, a 19th-century French painter and gallery owner. He originally takes on the patient out of professional curiosity that rapidly takes Marlow to the limits of his profession. Marlow is a solitary figure, past 50 and single. When told from his perspective, the action occurred 3 years prior, which can sometimes throw the reader. He contacts Oliver’s ex-wife and then his former lover who also narrate at times, trying to put the pieces of Oliver’s life and mania together and to determine the dark lady he paints obsessively, even maniacally. Along the way, Marlow finds Oliver has a strange and fierce fascination with 19th century letters between a woman named Beatrice de Clerval and her husband’s uncle, Oliver Vignal. The letters are in French, but he has them translated. The beauty of these letters was easily one of my favorite aspects of the story.

Not a traditional mystery, The Swan Thieves definitely has twists and turns; however, I knew the big “tada” moment long before it was revealed. It wasn’t difficult to determine, and it was somewhat annoying that Marlow never commented on these pivotal letters pieced throughout the main narrative. It also reminded me of a more high-handed version of these rampant Da Vinci Code narratives, where privileged people run around, buying exorbitant plane tickets and traveling at the drop of a hat. It seems unrealistic to me, and not just because I’m broke and jealous (wink). Marlow also completely crosses the line of ethical behavior and not once does anyone call him on it.

The character in whom I was most interested – Robert Oliver – was also conveniently clipped at the end. After the second quarter of the book, he seems to become unimportant to Kostova’s plot and is left in the dust. This enigmatic painter whose presence I keenly felt seems to almost become a plot device, a way for Kostova to advance her main story and a platform for Marlow to become the sometimes unlikable protagonist. Yet, Oliver is the one I want to follow. For a year, he sits in Marlow’s presence, mute, painting and sketching, clearly tortured; Marlow says he is attempting to help Oliver but later admits to himself and the reader he no longer has him at the forefront of this journey. Then, once the mystery is gone, Oliver speaks, and bam! No more Robert Oliver. Maybe it is simply because I am surrounded by creative people, all artists in their own right, but I was able to sympathize and identify with Robert Oliver. His passion, his obsession are what he cares most for; people get in the way of that and can become liabilities. It’s an interesting examination of what a creative life can be like – lonely, exhausting, and many times, masochistic. I felt Kostova shortchanged herself and her character by leaving him off so easily. Continue reading


The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella (Did you think I was talking about myself?)

This undomestic goddess finally finished grading research papers last week – all 100 or so of them. I figure I read about 620-720 pages of some good and some not-so-good research on “The Tell Tale Heart,” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” A Doll’s House, “The Swimmer,” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Needless to say, once finished, I armed myself with some old movies and cheap sangria for the weekend. I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Dial M for Murder, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. I’ve seen all of these before, but it had been years. The Hitchcock, unsurprisingly, was by far my favorite of the three and actually one of my favorite Hitchcock movies as well. It’s quite ironic, as my own life in recent days has mirrored Tippy Hedron’s in The Birds. Yes, a mockingbird has been dive bombing me when I’m in my front yard. The past two days, he/she has tried four times. The first time I thought it was my imagination; there was only a swooshing noise and a small breeze at my back. However, the next three occasions were blatant and a little petrifying. I’ve been ducking to get to my car only when absolutely necessary.

Yesterday I had some last-minute university business to clear up and went to the library for the first time in years to get my library card and check out books. I was so excited. However, I was reasonable. I only check out six books. Then I promptly came home (just missing a wonderful thunderstorm) and read and finished The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella. I’m not much for chick lit, but I love her quirky, funny voice. This was a quick read, but I loved it. It was fun and light and just what I needed. The main character Samantha is a high-powered attorney, set to make partner, the youngest partner to date, at Carter Spink. The day she realizes this goal, however, is the same day she realizes she has made an awful mistake, a career-ending mistake. So she leaves the office, leaves her life, and gets on a train. She ends up in a small village with a roaring headache and knocks on the first door she sees. The woman inside mistakes her as a housekeeper from the agency she called and promptly takes Samantha inside. The book was funny, fun, romantic, and full of Bridget Jones moments.

Then, last night I started The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova – no, The Case of the Missing Book is still open. I couldn’t stand it anymore and picked up a copy at the library. I’ll post my review tomorrow as I just finished reading it this afternoon. I need to let my impressions set a bit before I delve into this review. Suffice it to say that I like her writing style very much. ¬†I’ll leave the rest for tomorrow.

Tonight, I think I’ll have a walk with Maddie, a bit more sangria, and a new book. Hmmm, which one? Probably a mystery. I need something else light after the 561-page brick I just finished. ūüôā What about you? What are you reading?