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.

Catching up to the New Year

Every year I look forward to a quiet week between Christmas and New Years. The holiday feeling is still in the air, the house is cozy and perfect for some major league reading.

Happily, once again, the week was jammed with fun events — entertaining friends, a belated Christmas celebration with others…and even a BBQ with some other friends (sorry to those on the East Coast, but we did eat indoors).

Given all this merriment, I’ve yet to catch up with the New Year and have neglected Book Barmy.

So my New Year starts today.   Putting away Christmas things, the last of the treats have been eaten (except for some very yummy peppermint fudge ice cream which only comes out once at year from our favorite ice cream place), and I’m back here to tell you about a book I did get to read last week.

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Last Christmas In Paris

by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

 

In spite of the cheesy cover, this novel grabbed me from the opening pages  — and why not?  It’s written in my favorite epistolary style, set during WWI, and somewhat about Christmas.

 

 

From the blurb:

August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes—as everyone does—that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafes of Paris.  But as history tells us, it all happened so differently…

Evie, is a British society girl who yearns to do more for the war effort than rolling bandages and knitting socks.  Her best friend Alice, her brother, and her brother’s best friend Thomas are all on the front line and having seemingly exciting adventures.

Last Christmas in Paris was co-written by two authors Ms. Gaynor wrote as Evie, and Ms. Webb wrote as Thomas, Evie’s brother’s best friend, a scholar who sees the war as a chance to escape from running the family newspaper.  This results in two distinct voices, which through their letters reveal their personalities,  hopes, and ultimately their fears during this ‘war to end all wars’.

Initially the letters are full of lighthearted banter as this young group is carried along by the excitement of war, but as the battlefields of France become a nightmare, the letters become start to contain raw emotions, fear and wistfulness for a lost youth.

This is a correspondence of friends evolving- learning war is no great adventure after all, falling in love, and the uncertainly of the future.    Ultimately this is a romance, but set against the backdrop of a brutal war.  The psychological shell shock that beset many soldiers and how they were treated.  The ravages of the Spanish Flu epidemic and the hardships for woman — both involved in the war and at home in Britain.

I devoured Last Christmas in Paris and was drawn in by the fascinating and sometimes haunting letters. There are telegrams interspersed which give the reader the urgency of communicating life-changing words and feelings all during the brutality of war.

There is a timelessness about these letters back and forth — because the expressions of friendship, misgivings, fear, and ultimately, love are indeed timeless.  Our mode of communication may have changed in the modern day – but not the heart-felt human emotions.

Because Last Christmas in Paris is not really about Christmas, I recommend this fascinating novel any time of the year.

 

A digital advanced readers copy was provided by HarperCollins via Edelweiss.

 

 

 

In the Dark Streets Shineth by David McCullough

In the Dark Streets Shineth packs alot of Christmas spirit in a very small book.

Written by author and historian David McCullough, it recounts the infamous meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt during Christmas of 1941.

Churchill traveled in great secrecy and at considerable risk across the ocean to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Roosevelt poses the question;  How we can celebrate Christmas because of the war?”

And, so they both spoke from the Whitehouse balcony to a crowd at twilight Christmas Eve.  A reporter notes

A crescent moon hung overhead.  To the southward loomed the Washington Monument …as the sun dipped behind the Virginia hills.

Both speeches are in the book so I’ll only quote a few lines which moved me.

Our strongest weapon in this war is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies.                                                     Roosevelt

Therefore we may cast aside for this night at least the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for children an evening of happiness in a world of storm.               Churchill

 

Christmas morning, Churchill and Roosevelt attended Christmas services together and they sang Oh Little town of Bethlehem, which Churchill had never heard before.

The book has numerous and rare photos from the World War II meeting — photos of the meeting but also of the Roosevelt family celebrating in the Whitehouse.

Here they are on the White  House Balcony…

The book goes on to share the stories behind the traditional Christmas carols ~~ Oh Little town of Bethlehem and I’ll be Home for Christmas.

There’s a DVD included with this book — in it, David McCullough presents the story at the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s 2009 Christmas concert.

See what I mean?  Quite the little book, and well worth adding to your Christmas book collection.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

After my last slow, careful reading of Crossriggs, I wanted my next book to be an easier read.   But my mind was reluctant to leave the 19th Century.  Then, lo and behold, my requested copy of The Jane Austen Project came through from the library.

I dashed over to my branch, and read the back cover blurb as I walked home — (What do you say, you don’t read and walk?  It can be done, albeit carefully in a city) — A Jane Austen time travel piece?  Why yes — yes please.  Book Barmy readers know I’m a sucker for time travel books.

Dr. Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucaneis come from a technically advanced future where food is 3-D generated, there’s been an ecological die off, and time travel has become successful.  As part of a scientifically sanctioned journey, Rachel and Liam are selected and rigorously trained to travel back to 1815.  Their assignment is to meet and befriend Jane Austen in order to bring back a trove of lost letters, as well as an unpublished manuscript.

The book opens with our couple waking up from their time travel in a damp Surrey field in 1815, and in forthcoming pages we quickly learn the backstory and the premise of their time travel assignment.

In order to meet Jane Austen, their first task is to integrate themselves with Henry Austen, her favorite brother.  They pose as brother and sister, William and Mary Ravenswood from Jamaica looking for investments with Henry who owns several banks in 1815 London. They find a flat in London, purchase clothing, hire servants and begin their adventure.

There much to enjoy in discovering The Jane Austen Project first hand, so I won’t tell you much more about the plot — at the risk of ruining it for you.  But I will tell you that Ms. Flynn, an Austen scholar, has created a most realistic time of Jane Austen.

Her descriptions are stellar, giving the reader a true feel of the London streets, the stark contrast of poverty versus the gentility, the food, the servants, the country estates, and the clothing — turns out, 19th century men were the true fashionistas.

I sighed in envy over a scene where William and Mary (Liam and Rachel) go book shopping for Jane Austen’s contemporaries at none-other than, London’s Hatchard’s Bookstore which is still in operation today, just as it has been since 1797.

 

 

The Jane Austen Project shines with vivid authenticity, the author weaves in colorful details of the Austens’ lives — how they looked, their family dynamics, their travels, and the state of their health.  Ms. Flynn also nails the time period details — manners, morals, habits, and gender roles.  Mary (Rachel) is a doctor, but can not publicly use her skills when first Henry, and then Jane, falls ill.  She must have William (Liam) pose as a doctor and she advises him from behind the scenes. 

The usual time travel rules (yes, there are time travel rules don’t ya know) insist travelers do not impact history.  But, right or wrong, Ms. Flynn allows her time travelers to be human, interact with the people of the time and indeed effect small changes. When Mary (Rachel) observes her first chimney boy crawling up her chimney to clean it, she is horrified and pays his boss to release the alarmingly young boy to her custody.  Then there’s the scene where Fanny (yes that Fanny) is choking and Mary (Dr. Rachel) automatically uses the Heimlich maneuver, unheard at that time.  When Henry Austen proposes marriage to Mary, she must put him off for as long as it takes to complete their assignment.  Also, there are changes (obviously fictional) to Jane Austen’s later novels, but I’ll let you discover those imaginative bits for yourself

For me, the pure joy of The Jane Austen Project were the scenes with Jane Austen, Henry, her sister Cassandra, and the various friends and family who are (or will become) characters in her novels.  If you’re like me, you’ll hold your breath when our intrepid travelers finally get to meet and share tea with Jane.

Jane, herself, is depicted with a quick intelligence, quiet intensity, and a keen ability to read others.  And in 1815, she has already published some of her works.  Just imagine being a fly on the wall during this scene where Mary (Rachel) and Jane Austen discuss Pride and Prejudice:

She (Jane) laughed.  “Life is full of such oddities is it not?  How did Mr. Darcy happen to fall in love with Elizabeth Bennet, when he could have had any lady in the kingdom?”

“Because you made her so lovable?”

“Oh, yes, perhaps that was why.”

 

While the premise of The Jane Austen Project may seem preposterous (and perhaps it is), this is a fascinating re-creation  — an escape into the world of Jane Austen — and I loved every moment of my imaginary and wonderful  journey.

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Nina Sankovitch

Every so often, a reader can’t help but form an instant connection with an author.  Especially when they share a passion for the same things.  That’s just what has happened with me and the author Nina Sankovitch. These two books delve into two of my favorite things  — a love of reading and a fascination with old letters.

Imagine the chats we could have over a cup of tea…

Back in 2012, I read Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

Ms. Sankovitch lost her beloved sister, Ann-Marie, to cancer at age 46.  Reading was a lifelong passion for them both. During Ann-Maire’s final months in the hospital, Ms. Sankovitch read aloud to her — spending as much time together as possible during her last days.

After her sister’s death and overcome with grief, Nina decides that the same passion that bonded her with her sister and carried her through her life will be her therapy. She will read a book a day for a year. 

A book a day, I wondered?  Even I, a voracious reader, can’t compete with a book a day.  These were her rules:

• She would read only one book per author,
• She would not re-read any books she had already read,
• She would limit her choices to books that were no more than one inch thick, ensuring that they would, for the most part, be in the range of 250-300 pages each,
• And she would only read the kind of books she and her sister, Anne-Marie would have enjoyed together.

For those of us who want to read about what someone else is reading, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair takes us on her journey, as she reads from her favorite purple chair. 

She shares her epiphanies and discoveries  — all from the pages of her carefully chosen books.  She intersperses her bookish insights with memories of her sister and of growing up in a bookish immigrant family who instilled in her the belief that books are not a luxury, but a necessity.

Never fear, this is not a grim tale of a painful year, nor is it an instruction manual for grieving.  Ms. Sankovitch gives us a book straight from her heart, full of hope and wisdom.  It’s about stopping the merry-go-round of a busy life to read, think and learn.

This book will appeal to any bibliophile, but especially for those of us who turn to books for answers, comfort and wisdom. 

 

 

Signed, Sealed, Delivered begins with Ms. Sankovitch’s discovery of an old steamer trunk she finds in her backyard which holds hundred year old letters written by a Princeton freshman, James Seligman, to his mother in the early 1900s.

These letters are fascinating, as he reports on an explosion in the J.P. Morgan building, comments on Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, and the death of his uncle on the Titanic. His letters are dry and acerbic, but filled with details.

Ms. Sankovitch’s book goes on explore the history of letter writing  and we get to read correspondences ranging from the ancient Egyptians, to medieval lovers, to letters exchanged between Samuel Morris Steward, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas — the latter, some racy and fun reading. 

Her section on the letters President Lincoln received after his son’s, Willy’s, death, revealed a rare bit of history.  Franklin Pierce and family were in a train crash on their way to Washington DC to take office in 1853. Thrown from the carriage, Pierce and his wife watched helplessly as their son was hit and killed by the still-moving train. Pierce was writing from his own similar experience when he penned his heartfelt condolences to Abraham Lincoln.

Ms. Sankovitch interweaves her own experiences and correspondences with well-researched accounts of other letter writers in history.  I love to read other’s correspondence, peeking into their day-to-day lives, hopes, and dreams.

The book is a love story to the lost art of letter writing, a wonderful way to glimpse into history and relationships  — all revealed through letters:

“A written letter is a one-of-a-kind document, a moment in time caught on paper, thoughts recorded and sent on, a single message to a special recipient.”

“Sir, more than Kisses, letters mingle souls.  For thus, friends absent speak”  John Donne, “To Sir Henry Wollow”

Ms. Sankovitch’s own son is heading off to Harvard, and she hopes that he will write to her, as the Princeton student wrote to his mother and as Nina wrote to hers — but she knows she will have to settle for emails or text messages.

“Yes, I am waiting for an answer to my letter but waiting is not my main activity. To be dependent on e-mail and text is to have access to immediate response — but diminishes the rich opportunities that come from living with delayed gratification. For so much happens in the delay.”

This book made me think about future generations.  Somehow, I suspect that no one is saving emails and text messages in old trunks. Without letters — from those who made history, shared their love for each other or, just reported on their routine lives — how will we know those long dead?

Luckily I have boxes of old letters, filled with letters from teenage pen-pals, past loves, from Husband, parents, grandfather and those I wrote to my family when I was away at college.  Some rainy night – I will revisit those.

Thanks to Simon and Shuster for a an advanced readers copy of Signed, Sealed, Delivered

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Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning

I hope you will forgive me, but I will quote a professional review which captures perfectly, the book I just finished — Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning.

“A brilliant exploration of what it meant to be a slave owner in antebellum Virginia where farming depended on slaves, and their presence in the household gave them an intimacy with family members that could be both comforting and threatening. This story of Thomas Jefferson’s devoted daughter, the indomitable Martha Jefferson Randolph, helps us understand all the complexities and contradictions endured by Martha and her family as they struggle with their consciences and responsibilities toward their families, their plantations, and the people who work for them. Highly recommended as an engrossing tale of a strong woman in tumultuous times, with deftly interwoven historical details that make her trials all the more authentic.”
— Library Journal

Historical fiction fascinates me, but only when the author doesn’t stray too far from actual events.  Ms. Gunning based this historical novel on actual correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and his eldest daughter Martha. The author says:

As soon as I came across a letter the fourteen year-old Martha Jefferson wrote: “I wish with all my soul that the poor Negroes were all freed . . .” I was hooked.  I read all of Martha’s letters to her father and his to her.

The book follows Martha Jefferson Reynolds, her revered father Thomas Jefferson, and their families as they live their lives and make history at Monticello during the late 1700’s to early 1800’s.

Martha adores her father and wishes nothing more than to work with him to build and manage the Monticello plantation.  But her relationship with her father is complicated not only by the entire issue of slaves, but the intimacy between her father the coddled slave, Sally Hemings.

While this strained relationship with her father is crucial to her life, the majority of the book is devoted to her difficult marriage. Martha marries Tom Randolph and over the years, gives birth to 12 (yes 12!) children.  Martha and Tom struggle.  Tom is often depressed and their financial failures and dependence on Thomas Jefferson further threatens their marriage.

(One reviewer pointed out that Thomas Mann Randolph is portrayed unfairly as a weak, paranoid alcoholic who lived as a parasite on the goodwill of Thomas Jefferson. Despite the fact he served in both houses of the Virginia Assembly, became a Congressman and then Governor of Virginia.)

Monticello plays a wonderful backdrop in this novel.  Nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, we see how the gardens were treasured.  How Jefferson experimented with crops and imported plant seeds. Descriptions of the clothing, home furnishings, and architectural details of Monticello allows the reader to see it as a true home where Jefferson escaped his political worries and thrived.

But we can’t escape the fact that Monticello was a working plantation with slaves.  And, even though Thomas Jefferson spoke out against the institution of slavery, at the same time he owned slaves of his own – and fathered numerous children with one of the them (Sally Hemings).  

Monticello (the book) gives insight into this Jeffersonian paradox, and what is today, totally incomprehensible.  We see plantation life in all its light and darkness, not to mention the usually caring, but sometimes cruel human interaction of slave and master.

Through Martha’s eyes we see Thomas Jefferson as a beloved father, an architect of our constitution, a renaissance man, and an intellectual.  But most importantly, we also see him as just a man, like any other man in any other time period — struggling with the political tsunamis and conflicting morals of his time.

I was thoroughly lost in the pages of  Monticello and had trouble putting it down.  When I did have to stop reading, (you know meals, sleep, showering, those pesky interruptions) it took me a bit to clear my mind and return to current day life.

Monticello is one of my favorite historic sights and you must visit, but in the meantime you can see Jefferson’s library HERE.  (It’s swoon-worthy)

 

N.B.  The day after I finished this book, I purchased this other novel about Martha Jefferson.  It was my birthday, I’d hurt my back and I didn’t need any more excuses — and so it goes.  Another Jefferson read awaits me.

 

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