Category Archives: Mmmm …. books

Great books for “Downton Abbey” fans (or fanatics)

At long last, “Downton Abbey”  is back.  If you’re like me, the advent of the new season was met with great rejoicing and a celebratory cup of tea.

I know this show appeals to a wide range of people, but I suspect that moms have a particular affinity for it.  I’d venture to guess that most modern moms fantasize about living like Lady Grantham, with her beautiful clothes and every-present lady’s maid and a stunning home that she doesn’t have to clean herself.  In reality, our lives are closer to that of the cook, frantically trying to keep multiple pots from burning while snapping at anyone who gets in our way (or is that just me?).

Anyhow,  if you can’t get enough of big English homes with elaborate social hierarchies, here are a few books that you might enjoy.   Save them for those rare moments of Lady Grantham-like relaxation, and see if you can convince someone to bring you breakfast in bed to make the fantasy complete!

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One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens

This memoir, first published in  1939 , is a gem.  The twenty-something Dickens, unsatisfied with her life as a debutante, decided to try a new existence as a cook for the upper classes.  She hid her privileged background  and embarked on a series of jobs for various employers, both in London and the country.  The book is consistently interesting and, at moments, side-splittingly hilarious.  Dickens describes her struggles both with the cooking and with the eccentricities of her employers and fellow workers.  She has a fabulous turn of phrase (of a bad-tempered milkman, she writes, “he looked capable of watering the milk with the tears of little children”). The chapters where she works as cook for a Downton-style estate are  my favorite; her descriptions of the malevolent butler, the dim-witted scullery maid, and the handsome chauffeur (” whose name, appropriately enough, was Jim Driver”),  are brilliant.

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The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

I have a mad love for Persephone Books, the English publishing house dedicated to reviving “neglected” books.   Most of their books are by women; many of them center on home and family relationships, which is surely the reason why so many haven’t gotten the attention they deserve (insert rant about why war is taken seriously as a fictional subject and human relationships are not).

One of their most high-profile authors is Dorothy Whipple, who was a phenomenal novelist.  Her book The Priory is the story of an old country home in England, inhabited by a retired Major and his adult daughters, and the changes that ensue when he marries a much younger wife.  Whipple makes the servants into fairly major characters in their own right; there is a well-drawn and painful subplot about a bit of a “love triangle,” for lack of a better term, and she brings the character of Nanny to terrifyingly competent life.  Whipple was a sharp, sensitive novelist who excelled at describing relationships; the prose carries you along, and 530 pages feel like nothing.

Persephone’s books can be hard to find in the US, but you can order from their website and they arrive quickly.  One other cool thing: Each of their books has the same dove-gray cover, but the colorful endpapers inside are different for each book, and each is a reproduction of a textile from the year the book was published.  I love that.

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The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

I blogged a few years ago about The House at Tyneford, which I couldn’t put down.  I won’t repeat the review here, but suffice to say that it’s a most unusual love story.  It takes place a few decades after DA — World War II, to be precise — and it’s about social class,  the experiences of refugees, and the reinvention of self once everything familiar is gone.   And yes, it all happens in a big, beautiful country house.

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The Royal Spyness mysteries by Rhys Bowen

The Royal Spyness mysteires, set in the 1930s,  are fun and a half.  There are eight  in the series, and they tell the story of minor royal Lady Georgiana Rannoch, thirty-fourth in line to the throne of England.   Georgie is an impoverished royal with a drafty Scottish castle but little cash; luckily, she is rich in adventure as she ends up being drawn into murder mysteries wherever she goes,  from English country houses to a royal castle in Transylvania.  The books are a great blend of whodunit, humor, and social commentary, with tinges of P.G. Wodehouse.  For sheer escapist fun, these can’t be beat.

A Christmas stick and old Saint Nick: Two new holiday books for kids

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Every mom knows the experience of having her child unwrap a birthday or Christmas toy, only to find that the child has more fun playing with the box it came in.   It’s a near-universal experience, one that points to a certain truth: Kids need fewer toys than they think they do (or than we think they do).

It’s a tough truth to live by, though, especially this time of year when ads and store windows try to convince our kids that they need more.  That’s why a book like The Christmas Stick (written by Tim J. Myers, illustrated by Necdet Yilmaz) is such a welcome one.

In this colorful new picture book, a spoiled young prince receives a stick for Christmas.  He’s not sure what to do with it at first — it gets ignored as he focuses on the other, flashier toys — but then as the novelty of those toys begins to fade, he turns to the stick and finds that it’s a lot more fun than the others.

A stick can be a sword!  It can be a lute!  It can be a giant’s club!  The book shows the prince letting his imagination rip as he explores all the possibilities of a simple stick.  In the end, he also learns about kindness and giving in a lovely little twist in the plot.  It’s  an utterly charming book, with a message that we can’t get enough of this time of year.   It just may inspire you to wrap up an old broom handle as a gift for your kids and see where their imagination goes.

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A while back, my son and I thoroughly enjoyed the book Saint Francis and Brother Duck by  Jay Stoeckl, OFS .  This year, together we’re reading his new book Saint Nicholas and the Mouse of Myra.  Like its predecessor, Saint Nicholas and the Mouse of Myra is a graphic novel about the spiritual journey of a saint.  Like its predecessor, it also features an adorably-drawn animal sidekick to help convey the story of the saint in question.  The mouse in this book is full of personality, cheeky and smart and frequently challenging Nicholas to explain his life choices  in a way that allows for the saint’s beliefs to unfold easily throughout the story.

The book moves along at a nice pace and is a very engaging and colorful introduction to the saint upon whom Santa Claus is based;  I particularly like its message about generous giving to the poor.  It’s a great read for kids eight and up (and for their parents, too — I’m learning a lot about Saint Nicholas that I didn’t know before).

Both The Christmas Stick and  Saint Nicholas and the Mouse of Myra were review copies courtesy of Paraclete Press, which publishes all sorts of great spiritual books for kids and adults.  Check them out — I promise you’ll find something you like.

Blog tour: “Wholehearted Living: Five-Minute Reflections for Modern Moms” by Jennifer Grant

 

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A few years ago, frustrated by my inability to add  prayer to my busy morning routine, I came up with the perfect solution.  I call it “prayer by stealth.”

It involves pouring myself a cup of coffee and taking it back to my room and closing the door.  The kids don’t bother me because they assume I’m getting dressed for the day, which I am – but before I do, I sit down with my warm mug at the prayer table and take five minutes to read something.  Sometimes I read the Mass readings for the day; sometimes I open a devotional book.  Whatever it is, those five stolen minutes restore my soul, a soul that – in the way of most modern moms – is already harried at 6:45 AM.

So when I read the introduction to Jennifer Grant’s new book Wholehearted Living: Five-Minute Reflections for Modern Moms, I thought to myself: She gets it.

Grant writes:

Wholehearted Living is a book of short, daily readings for women whose season in life affords only limited time for contemplation.  It’s a “pause” button for mothers who want to take a break from talk of juice boxes and snow pants in favor of confronting their fears or reconnecting with their dreams.

It’s for moments when you feel drawn toward the divine, as well as for those times when you feel like your frailties are holding you captive and you really just want to stand in the corner, face the wall, and scream.

Oh, yes.  She gets it.

This is a terrific book, this collection of daily meditations.  I like it for its accessible structure: there is one page-long reflection each day, with a meaningful quotation and an invitation to take the subject of the reflection into your daily routine.  I like it for its focus on real mom-life, with all the joys and challenges thereof.

Most of all, I like it because Grant – a mother of four  – doesn’t  focus every entry on the experience of motherhood.  She has entries that cover other areas of  life, including friendship, spiritual life, marriage.

This speaks to me.  We moms are more than just moms; we are women trying to honor and nurture the other roles in our lives as well.  Often, these other roles are given short-shrift, lost in the day-to-day demands of parenting.  Grant’s insightful reflections affirm that we are also dreamers, friends, aunts, sisters,  pray-ers, romantic partners.   The result is a book that is wonderfully affirming of all the many facets of a woman’s life. (And because I myself am on the other side of forty, I really appreciate that the book reflects the experiences of a mom in midlife.)

All in all, Wholehearted Living is  both inspiring and down-to-earth, a book that meets modern moms right where they are.   It’s a book that is full of heart, yes — but it’s also full of brain, and wit, and soul. Highly recommended.

Wholehearted Living is available through the Loyola Press website, on Barnes and Noble.com, and on Amazon.com.  

Great Thanksgiving books for kids

Christmas books for kids are easy to find. But Thanksgiving books?  Not so much.  In the area of children’s literature — as in so many things — Thanksgiving gets the short end of the stick.

But in our family library, we have two Thanksgiving books that help get all of us – myself included — into a proper holiday frame of mind.

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Thanksgiving is Here! by Diane Goode is a pretty simple, almost plotless picture book. Grandma and Grandpa host Thanksgiving for a huge, sprawling family, whose members arrive with frequent ringing of the doorbell and throw themselves right into the joyous celebration.  They help with the cooking, move the furniture, push tables and mismatched chairs together, clean up afterward, take a post-meal walk, and just generally enjoy each other’s company.

But even though the story is basic, the book is wonderfully compelling.  There’s a nice rhythm to the words, and Goode’s drawings are fabulous.  Each family member has so much personality, and the pictures of the family activities manage to capture the cheerful chaos of a huge family gathering.   My kids love this book, and I do too, because it reminds me of why I adore Thanksgiving: it’s a holiday that is all about loved ones gathering together around a table and enjoying each other’s company.  You don’t need more than that in life, really, and this gem of a book is a colorful reminder.

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Cranberry Thanksgiving by Wende and Harry Devlin is a classic from my era (written in 1971).   It’s about Maggie and her grandmother, who live in a house on the edge of a cranberry bog in New England.  Grandmother has a top-secret famous recipe for cranberry bread hidden behind the fireplace, and the plot starts to spin when they have two guests come over for Thanksgiving and one of them just might be trying to find and steal it (the cad!).

I won’t give away spoilers, but let’s just say that it’s a sweet story about not jumping to conclusions, and about not judging a book by its cover.  There’s a little theme of forgiveness at the end, too, which is nice.  And the illustrations are so colorful and charming, with that unique early ’70s picture book aesthetic. They are evocative, too; the drawings of the house by the bog always make me feel Thanksgiving-y and oddly nostalgic, even though this California girl would not know a cranberry bog if she fell headfirst into one.   It’s a darling book, and it even has a recipe for cranberry bread on the back cover … a nice touch.

Do you have any favorite Thanksgiving titles to share?  Please do!

The Book Pile: Willa Cather, Phryne Fisher, Ross Poldark, and more

So books!  What have I been reading lately?

Well, work has been so crazy for the last six weeks that I’ve mostly stayed away from the heavy stuff. I’ve put away some pretty mindless chicklit, the kinds of titles that I’d be embarrassed to share here.  But even among all the beachy stuff, there have been a few titles of substance that I’m happy to crow about.

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Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather was an unusual read. It’s not so much a novel as a series of vignettes about two priests who settle in New Mexico.  It’s lyrical and beautiful; Cather doesn’t shy away from the brutal aspects of life on the frontier, but there is a vein of hope and human goodness in this story that links all of the different episodes.  It makes me want to read more Cather, and to spend more time in the Southwest.

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Apparently the Poldark series of books by Winston Graham (first written in the 1940s) were made into a popular British TV series in the 1970s.  I haven’t seen the series, but I’ve just read the first two books, and they’re terrific.  They take place in eighteenth-century Cornwall, a place I love to read about (blame Daphne DuMaurier), and they center on the young squire Ross Poldark and the various people in his world.  Love! Loss!  Family feuds!  Sassy servants!  Mining!  It’s all here, and it’s a treat. (Ross Poldark is the first one in the series, if you’re planning to start.)

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My mom is a huge fan of Gladys Taber, a mid-twentieth-century columnist/writer who lived in an old farmhouse in Southbury, Connecticut.  She wrote several books about her life in New England, and this past summer, my mom gave me the 1959 book Stillmeadow Sampler.  It’s arranged by season, and is a compendium of Taber’s musings about living in the country, about cooking, about family, about dogs, and about life in general.  It’s an utterly delightful book, the kind of book you read with a cup of tea on the table next to you.   Highly comforting.

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This past summer, Scott and I got  hooked on the Australian TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.  It’s based on a series of books by Kerry Greenwood, and I just had to check them out.  So far I’ve read four, and they were great; the setting of 1920s Melbourne is unique, and the characters are a blast.  I can’t really call them “cozy mysteries”; the stories are a little too dark for that, and Phryne Fisher is not a cozy kind of character, though she is certainly an entertaining one.  She’s sort of the female James Bond,  adventurous both outside and inside of the boudoir (even moreso in the books than in the TV series — skip these if you can’t stomach bedroom scenes in your mysteries), and she has a fabulous cast of supporting characters.   These are very engaging mysteries that keep you guessing.

So what have you been reading lately?