A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I’ve been gathering some picture books to tell you about all at once. This winter, I enjoyed these visually enchanting escapes which took me from the streets of New York, to France, and even wartime England.

 

Intrigued? 

 

Well, grab a beverage of choice and sit right down next to me and let’s look at them together.

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Going Into Town

A Love Letter to New York

by Roz Chast

When Ms. Chast’s daughter was preparing to move to Manhattan for college, Ms. Chast wrote up a tongue-in-cheek guide book with tips for suburbanites navigating the city. This little booklet turned into Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York which is a cartoon book about all the things Ms. Chast appreciates — or doesn’t— in the city she loves.

I love Ms. Chast’s work and always chuckle at her cartoons in the New Yorker magazine, on greeting cards, or her books. Remember THIS?

This book is a collection of  stories and visuals — the “overheard and the overseen”, on the streets of New York — and Ms. Chast is her usual funny and cynical self.

She starts with a brief background on how she and her family moved out of the city to the suburbs for the better schools and the chance to have actual trees.  But the downside was that her daughter had no city skills when venturing to university in the city.

There’s an introduction to the geography of Manhattan

Diners are all but extinct, hawks aren’t, Uber cars outnumber taxis, and in GENERAL:
3 blocks = 1 avenue
20 blocks/7 avenues = 1 mile
even streets run east, odd run west, crosstown run east-west

Going Into Town then goes on to describe the people you’ll encounter, with special warnings about the tourists…

It is evident throughout the book that poor Ms. Chast greatly misses living in the city.  There’s a section on the things to do from the obvious Broadway musicals and gallery openings to the more obscure — “best hat on a dog contest”.  She advocates looking — really looking  — as you walk around — freshly seen through her quirky visual lens.

 

While Ms. Chast may have wanted to give her daughter a straightforward guide to the city, she can’t help herself and interrupts the narrative with delightful digressions about such things as the quirky stores that sell nothing but ribbon or enticing off-brand lipstick.

or the city’s great variety of standpipes,

As the title says, this is Ms. Chast’s very own love story to New York:

I feel about Manhattan the way I feel about a book, a TV series, a movie, a play, an artist, a song, a food, a whatever that I love. I want to tell you about it so that maybe you will love it, too. I’m not worried about it being ‘ruined’ by too many people ‘discovering’ it. Manhattan’s been ruined since 1626 , when Peter Minuit bought it from Native Americans for $24.00.

And, if like me, you’re stuck on the opposite coast – you’ll have a hankering to follow the author’s advice:

One of the greatest things you can do in life is walk around New York

 

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France is a Feast

A Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child

by Alex Prud’ Homme & Katied Pratt

 

From the coauthor of My Life in France, this volume is a collection of the photographs taken by Paul Child during his and Julia Child’s years in France.

This is a sometimes fascinating look at the lesser-known Paul Child, who in fact, was a talented artist, photographer, painter, lithographer, woodworker, metalsmith, stained glass expert, writer and poet.

Here’s just a sample of his fine photographic eye:

But Paul also delighted in photographing Julia:

She[Julia] was ten years younger than Paul, and not well known at the time, but she was a sunny, questing, powerful personality who had a profound impact on her husband’s evolution.  He adored her and photographed her constantly; without realizing it at the time, he was chronicling her rise from a fumbling know-nothing in the kitchen to an accomplished cook and author, and America’s first celebrity TV chef.

 

Because of my slight obsession with Julia Child, I found myself lingering on those iconic photos:

My Life In France was one of my favorite books about Julia and Paul’s life in France and I had high hopes for this photographic essay.  However, their relationship is sketched over and the often pedantic writing is focused on Paul Child, his career and interests. The final pages are devoted to the Child’s move back to Cambridge and Paul’s decline which Julia handled with courage and grace.  Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to know more about Paul Child but I often lost interest. Perhaps he will always remain in Julia’s shadow.

The photographs are fascinating and France is a Feast for the eyes, but alas, not the writing.

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A Fine Romance

Falling in love with the English Countryside

by Susan Branch

A friend gave me an Amazon gift card for Christmas and I quickly ordered A Fine Romance.  I had longingly thumbed through this beautiful book in a little bookstore ages ago and added to my list of “someday books”.  Well, this past January was that someday.

This is not a travel guide, there is no agenda here other than to entertain and delight the reader  A Fine Romance is a hand-written, illustrated chronicle of Ms. Branch’s visit to England with her husband.  I lingered over almost every page — each watercolor is a tiny jewel — all interspersed with photographs, her reflections and observations

Here I’ll show you:

 

 

 

 

 

 

I read bits of this book each morning (with the obligatory cup of tea) in order to slowly savor the experience of going along as they roam the English countryside.

The book opens with the story of how the divorced Ms. Branch met Joe, which proved a bit tedious as well as, well, creepy.  Here’s the creepy bit; on one of their first dates, she asked for two hotel rooms but behind her back he reserves only one. She’s surprised,unsure but just goes along with it. (Say what? Ever heard of respect for boundaries?)

This little niggle in no way detracts from the charm of the book (I just had to make that comment).

Apparently Ms. Branch has a huge following and has an impressive website with recipes, events and merchandise which sports her watercolors on everything from calendars to party favors.  A bit over the top for my taste, but take a look HERE to see what you think.  She also has a BLOG which I enjoy, especially the travel entries, just to admire their elegant travel style — always accompanied by a great deal of luggage.

A Fine Romance is not only for Anglophiles, but for anyone who likes pretty villages, cozy cups of tea, and beautiful gardens.  Part travelogue, part diary, part sketchbook, part personal scrapbook —  A Fine Romance is just wonderful.

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The War Brides Scrapbook

by Caroline Preston

 

I loved Ms. Preston’s previous novel, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt ,a gift from my sister.  So I had to purchase another “someday” book — her newest scrapbook novel, The War Bride’s Scrapbook.

It is 1941 and Lila has graduated from Sweet Briar without the two things her mother expected; making connections with moneyed friends and a rich fiancee.  Instead she came home with a magna cum laude and an art degree. Her true passion is architecture, but there’s little opportunity for women in the field.  She goes to work instead for her father’s insurance business.  She meets and falls hard for enlisted soldier Perry Weld and, after a three week whirlwind romance and marriage, he has shipped out.

Following the advice in a woman’s magazine,

Lila starts a ‘War Bride’s Scrapbook’ in which she chronicles their two-year separation — through their letters, but also tickets, menus, food labels, and newspaper articles.

This ‘story in pictures’ is told through this scrapbook device, as we get to know the characters and their experiences both at home and in war-time Europe. 

Just take a look at this visual and literary feast.

Lila matures into a strong independent woman who eventually gets accepted into the male-dominated Harvard architecture school and onto a career of her own.

Ms. Preston uses this scrapbook to give us a insight into the issues of the time — the changing roles and societal expectations for women, PTSD, the atomic bomb, and even the Japanese American imprisonment.

Many of the visuals are from Ms. Preston’s own collection of vintage scrapbooks and ephemera, but she also did a fair share of research and borrowed items from other artifact collectors.

The War Brides Scrapbook brims with vivid characters and a brilliantly laid-out collection of WWII-era ephemera.

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Whew, congratulations  you made it through this long post.  So now, we’ll have to return to the real world of grown-up books -most, sadly without pictures.

Italian Fever by Valerie Martin

Back in January, I tended my yearly ritual of cleaning out my books.  Not a task for the faint of heart, as it involves days of books stacked on the floors of various rooms, books teetering off my bedside table, and overflowing bags destined for donation to the library.  I always end up with a pile of books on probation ~~ books I want to peruse a bit before deciding their fate.

Italian Fever made its way into this probation pile and I don’t remember where I got it, but I did remember why.  It reminded of some of my favorite novels that transported me to the warm and beautiful Italian countryside – Summer’s Lease by John Mortimer, The Enchanted April, and of course, A Room With a View.

So one rainy night, I opened Italian Fever to determine its destiny.  While the novel wasn’t up to the caliber of the fore-mentioned novels, it did hold my interest and did envelope me in the atmosphere of the hot, sunny Tuscan countryside.

Our main character is Lucy, who is a New York based assistant to the famous US novelist, now based in Italy.   She harbors a deep resentment of DV’s success, despite his mediocre writing,  but her role has always been to coddle him along to finished manuscripts.  However, as we learn in the prologue, DV has died while walking at night and Lucy is sent to Italy to settle his affairs — including retrieving his latest potential blockbuster manuscript.

When viewing the photos of his body, Lucy notes signs that he may have been beaten to death.   Near his house in Tuscany she encounters a faintly sinister family of aristocrats: the elegant Antonio, his mother, his fiery but elderly father. Lucy seeks evidence of their involvement in DV’s death and the disappearance of his lover Catherine.  The local police are typically holding something back and not aiding in any further investigations.

At first, I thought Ms. Martin was giving us a typical amateur sleuth solving a crime in a foreign land — but no, not really.  There are surprising, but sometimes flimsy tangents in Italian Fever –as it twists from a mystery, into the Gothic, turns romantic adventure, with a bit of art history and, finally, a underlying ghost story.

The setting provides a beautiful backdrop to this unconventional story line, and for a few hours on that rainy night I was vicariously driving round the Tuscan countryside, window shopping in Rome, and gazing at Piero della Francesca’s fresco, The Resurrection.

Lucy winds up getting ill and the descriptions of being sick in a foreign country are some of the best passages in the novel. Her fever brings on bad dreams and disorientation which leads her to believe she is hearing ghosts and crimes being plotted.

Upon her recovery, Lucy, who has a sharp sense of humor, but lousy taste in men, allows herself to be taken in by the cliched Italian lover, Massimo — ignoring the much finer Antonio Cini.  There’s some hot romance and a stereotypical break up.

Much more is discovered about DV, his death, the missing manuscript, Catherine —  and I kept expecting a thrilling climax but alas, it did not transpire.  Having traveled along the many twisty roads of the plot, I didn’t find any depth of drama or suspense. 

As I turned the last page of Italian Fever, I decided that, yes, for a few house, I’d taken a pleasant journey to Italy with some beautiful sights, met some interesting characters, but nothing really memorable happened.

 

A myriad of memorable memoirs

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve read several very different memoirs.  Unlike novels, I’m tough on memoirs — they must grab my interest almost immediately.  I find if a memoir is boring or uninteresting, then so is the the author. Yes, I’m that brutal.

However, I found each of these memoirs engaging from the first pages, despite their widely differing approaches and themes.

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Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

I heard about this book on NPR and filed it away in my mental list of books I may want to read  — someday. Then a friend raved about it and gave me her copy.

I was instantly laughing in my tea at the opening “Reader’s Agreement”.  In this agreement (with spaces for you to sign and date), Ms. Rosenthal has a range of requests — from agreeing to refrain from taking on your cellphone while working out to giving her your credit card number so she can shop to her heart’s content at Anthropologie.

The book is called an “encyclopedia” because it chronicles the small moments of her ordinary life in an alphabetical, short-entry structure.

She has collected thoughts, observations, and decisions to create an alphabetized personal encyclopedia, complete with cross-referenced entries and illustrations.   Like this…

Ms. Rosenthal reveals the minutiae of her life, from pumping gas:

Every. Single. Solitary. Time I go to get gas I have to lean out the window to see which side the tank is on.

to toast:

I cannot stress this enough:  One second your toast is fine, golden brown: the next second it is black.

But then she stops the reader cold with a profound and insightful observation. There’s a touching entry on her need to complete things quickly to get them over with – eating dinner, when she’s out she wants to be home, etc..  She laments on how she can’t experience the full pleasure of an act or task until she has crossed it off her list.

Each entry reads like a short story – witty, sad, insightful and peculiar…many very peculiar.

There are some entries I found mundane and the part showing her high school yearbook signatures I found just plain boring, but then I perked up with this:

In most cases, it is more satisfying to get a friend’s answering machine and leave a cheery, tangible trace of your sincere commitment to the friendship than it is to engage in actual conversation.

There’s a section on how she contested a parking ticket on the grounds of Karma, complete with photocopies of the paperwork she submitted and the check she wrote for the 25 cents she should have put in the meter.   Spoiler alert – she won.

Yes, this really is an encyclopedia of the author’s life – her hopes and dreams, childhood experiences, loves and hates, daily routine.  It’s the sort of thing you can pick up and dip into to relate, laugh and even ponder — perhaps just as the author wanted.

Sadly, Ms. Rosenthal died of cancer in 2017 and she wrote “You May Want to Marry My Husband,”http://nyti.ms/2mFk0fE in her final days, some wonderful, but heartbreaking, writing

As one reviewer on the book jacket says:

An ordinary life, perhaps, but an extraordinary book.

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Am I Alone Here?

by Peter Orner

This wins the most unconventional award, as it’s described as “a book of unlearned meditations that stumbles into memoir.” (Say what?)

Mr. Orner, a professor, poses questions on literature and life and the reader is invited into this, at times, existential exploration.  At first blush the book appears pedantic, but have courage readers, Am I Alone Here? is affecting on so many levels.

The author’s true love is the short story, mixed with poetry and the occasional novel.  Each chapter shows a rendering of the book cover, reviews the story (or poetry), gives background on the author (many of which were unknown to me) and then, how the story relates to Mr. Orner’s own life. 

Mr. Orner is a thinker — a ponderer and as with many artists he struggles with the meaning of his life as it relates to his gift…and gifted he is.  There’s some staggeringly beautiful writing on display here. 

On reading a book of poetry by an obscure poet:

Books pursue us.  I’ve always believed this.  I dug Herbert Morris out of the free bin outside Dog Eared Books (San Francisco).  What compelled me to stop that day?  How can I express my gratitude to a poet who never sought it, who only wanted me to know his creations, not their creator?  An how many others might be out there, somewhere, under all this noise, tell us things we need to hear?

I must admit I skipped around while reading Am I Alone Here? and found some bits more interesting than others. The format is unusual which allows for picking and choosing chapters to suit.  And the chapter titles — so intriguing:

Euroda Welty, Badass;  Shameless Impostors; Surviving the Lives We Have; My Father’s Gloves; Night Train to Split: Unforgiveable

Don’t you just want to see what they’ll offer?   My Father’s Gloves is a tender tribute to his father and, unless you’re a hard case, will bring tears to your eyes.

Sometimes heavy, often cynical, but always probing, and insightful– Am I Alone Here offers plenty to think about long after you’ve finished. An as an added bonus, if you’re like me, you’ll come away with a whole new list of authors and poets to explore.

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The Outrun

by Amy Liptrot

Amy Liptrot has returned to her childhood farm in Scotland’s remote Orkney islands, after suffering a horribly-gone-wrong life in London.

Her London life spirals out of control as she falls deep into alcoholism.  She finally agrees to  rehab (national health funded) and slowly works herself out of her addiction.

When I first left Orkney, my friend Sean gave me a compass. I used to wear it round my neck at parties, and when people asked about it, I would tell them it was so I could find my way home. I left the compass somewhere one night, then I was totally lost.

But go home she does.  To her family farm on Orkney with a large coastal grazing area called an “outrun”.  Slowly she adjusts to a gentler, slower life — sans alcohol and discovers an new equilibrium.

Eventually, Ms. Liptrot ends up on the even smaller island of Papay, population 70.  She gets a job working for the RSPCA counting corncrakes (an endangered ground bird) as well as puffins and arctic terns.  Her new life opens her eyes to the healing power of nature.

She joins the local swim club and finds that breath shattering cold sea swims are a new way of getting the high formally gained from drinking.  (See me shivering as I write this.)

Ms. Liptrot re-discovers an interest in astronomy, as the island is one of the best places to see the stars with almost no light pollution and there are the occasional glimpses of the Northern Lights.

I’ve swapped disco lights for celestial lights but I’m still surrounded by dancers. I am orbited by sixty-seven moons.

There is a memorable passage about the rare and beautiful noctilucent clouds.   These clouds are invisible most of the year, but in the summer, in this far northern latitude, they catch the sun’s rays in the last stages of twilight, as the ground grows dark. Then they burst into brilliant colors.

The first half of The Outrun was beautiful and fascinating, but by the second half, it became repetitive with the author’s “self help” observations. I must admit I skipped over much of the latter half of the book — but greatly appreciated the totality of the work.

Ms. Liptrot is an exquisite chronicler of island life so near the Arctic Circle, with starkly beautiful passages on island life, sunsets, waves and even shipwrecks

The Outrun is a brave memoir, unvarnished and beautifully written. I closed the book picturing the author living her life — strong and clean:

I stride onwards… I am a lone figure in waterproofs walking the coastline, morning after morning, miles from anywhere, at the north of nowhere. But down here, inside myself, I feel powerful and determined.

 

A digital review copy was provided by W. W. Norton & Company via NetGalley

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The New Old Me 

My Late Life Reinvention

by Meredith Maran

We’ll end this myriad of memoirs on a lighter note — this unexpectedly funny and uplifting memoir.  From the cover blurb

Maran writes “a poignant story, a funny story, a moving story, and above all an American story of what it means to be a woman of a certain age in our time” (Christina Baker Kline)

Meredith Maran’s marriage has dissolved, her Victorian house on the edge of Berkeley lies empty, and her free-lance writing life is in shambles – so what does she do?  She accepts a full time writing job at a start up firm in Los Angeles.   And thus begins one woman’s story of starting over at 60 in youth-and beauty obsessed Hollywood.

One can imagine moving to a new city, making new friends, trying to find love while in your twenties, but Ms. Maran makes this move in her sixties.

She’s alone, missing her friends, her estranged wife (yes Ms. Maran is gay), her family (yes she has children from a previous heterosexual marriage) and terror-struck at having to work with millennials (remember she’s 60 – a very good looking 60 — but still it’s that number 6-0, a great distance from the twenties).

We ride along as she finds a cute and somehow affordable apartment in Los Angeles, granted it overlooks a convenience store air conditioning unit, but its hers and we delight as she decorates it from found objects and little bits from here and there.  But still there’s still the bittersweet-ness of being alone:

Biggest. Surprise. Ever. That cheery feminist crap is true. For the first time since childhood, I’m responsible to no one. I can be Helena’s girlfriend or break with her without upsetting my kids or my own living situation or my finances. I can make money or rest on whatever laurels I’ve got without depriving anyone of anything. I can binge-watch Girls till midnight or go to sleep at nine. The bad news and the good news is the same. I have nothing and no one to lose.

Ms. Maran does make friends, discovers joy walking in the hills, and eventually goes on dates – once with a man, which turns into a teeth clenching experience for both her and the reader alike.

She faces death in quick succession, her best friend back in the Bay Area and then her father. During the trips back, she sells her house, finalizes her divorce, and rids herself of belongings from her her former life.  A roller coaster ride of emotions which Ms. Maran somehow makes both funny and heartbreaking.

Once in awhile a writer’s voice will enchant a reader and Ms. Maran does just that.  She twists what is actually heartbreaking loss into a story of resilience, love and humor.  She never takes herself too seriously and her story of re-invention, re-discovery, and recovery is told with grace, wit and compassion.  I adored this memoir.

 

Mendocino Sojourn

We took a few days up in Mendocino, a very favorite spot of ours.

We were able to arrange a home exchange with a house right in Mendocino village.  Extraordinary to be able to walk right out the back door, then around the village, wander the headlands, and best of all seeing whales migrating.

With apologies to the snow-bound … here are some photos.  If it makes you feel any better it was windy, at times rainy, and chilly.

Our exchange house — sigh.

 

Went to visit this lighthouse after enjoying it flashing through our windows at night….

We wandered around the headlands —

 

One evening, at the suggestion of our home exchange partners, we went to see a Neil Simon play, Rumors at the Mendocino Playhouse – a cute 75-seat theater and a fun play.  One of the actors was our wine tasting host at Baxter winery where stopped the day before.

Small town, small village, everyone knows everyone.

 

A wonderful few days.

 

For my fellow Murder She Wrote geeks fans.

Here’s Jessica’s house aka Blair House.

 

 

 

 

I was filled with thoughts of moving here ~~

Does anyone else ever imagine living full time in a place they visit?

Once I stole a book…

It’s Throwback Thursday, when I rave about a book I read years ago.

 

 

The Know World

by Edward P. Jones

Once dear readers, I accidentally stole a book.  Stuck in an airport in 2004, I was of course browsing in the book store, magazine in one hand, this hefty paperback in the other.  I panicked when my long delayed flight was suddenly announced and quickly paid the cashier for the magazine, both of us oblivious to the book under my arm.  As I galloped to the gate, I mindlessly tossed the book in my bag.  Once I got on the plane, and looked at my receipt I realized the error of my ways.  I tempered my guilt by recounting the money I’d spent at this book chain (they have since gone out of business, probably due to thievery like mine). 

Turns out this lucre kept me fascinated for the entire cross country flight.  I barely looked up when the food was served. (Just imagine, once even coach passengers were served a meal on cross country plane trips.)

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel centers on a family of free blacks who run a plantation in pre-Civil War Virginia.  The Southern slave culture was so deeply embedded, that it was not considered odd (or even ironic) when freed blacks became slave holders themselves;  a little know part of American history.

Henry Townsend is a young black man living in Virginia 20 years before the Civil War — a free son of parents who were freed slaves. His father, a skilled woodworker, holds strong convictions regarding the evils of slavery.  But Henry grows up to idolize a white plantation owner and the most powerful slave-owner in the county. Much to his father’s horror, Henry purchases his own plantation and keeps black slaves.  When Henry dies unexpectedly, his widow Caldonia struggles to hang on to his legacy, but things start to unravel as the plantation slaves start to break the bonds of their servitude.

These slaves (like some others of the time) were able to buy their freedom by working in off-the-plantation enterprises such as builders, artisans, and agronomists which allowed them to earn cash. They could then pay for their own freedom as well as the price demanded for their wives and children (at full market value no less) .

The Known World is unique and some thought it a difficult read.  The novel is not chronological, but follows thematic arcs, often going back and forth in time and recounting different versions of the story line.   I didn’t find it confusing — I enjoyed being told a riveting story from several different points of view.  Mr. Jones has provided a handy list of the numerous characters in the back of the book, but I never needed it. Somehow each of the many characters are richly rendered and fleshed out.  Each character had a fine-tuned personality and it was easy to keep them separate, as I got to know each so well.

 “The Known World” is an apt title, as it represents the limiting life of a few plantations which comprised the entire world for the slaves. One master may sell a slave to a nearby neighbor; another one is freed and moves in close proximity to his former master, so that their universe rarely grew larger. Even traveling on an errand from one neighbor to another, or from the plantation to town, required the written permission of the owner. 

I can understand why Mr. Jones won the Pulitzer for this novel.  His ear for dialog, eye for detail and command of the language was a joy to this reader, against the bleak backdrop of slavery and the grim ways in which power/greed so easily corrupt.

I highly recommend The Known World, filled with rich stories and a sense of place so real, so honest – you’ll find it difficult to believe you’re reading fiction.

A copy of this novel was unknowingly provided by a large anonymous book chain, which has since gone out of business.