Monday, February 23, 2015

The Gipsy in the Parlour by Margery Sharp

I guess I'm on a Margery Sharp roll!  This book review has been in the works for 2 months.  I read this book right after Christmas, then the review got buried in my drafts box and now I'm finally pulling it out because this book really does deserved a proper review.
Photo Credit: www.margerysharp.wordpress.com
A very interesting-looking blog devoted to Margery Sharp.

The Gypsy in the Parlor is told through the eyes of an eleven year old girl who, every summer, leaves her lonely, cold house in the city to live with her big, bold aunts and their uninteresting husbands, the Sylvesters.  The summer of our narrator's eleventh birthday, a new aunt, Fanny, the prospective wife of the youngest uncle, comes on the scene.  She is the complete opposite of the older aunts-frail, timid, weak, and, finally, the night before her wedding, she succumbs to a mysterious sickness that threatens to take down all the powerful Sylvesters.  Our nameless narrator is the only one who feels the slightest connection to Fanny and we watch as Fanny uses this to her advantage.  And then (I am working very, very hard not to give spoilers here), our narrator turns from Fanny's pawn to the force that brings Fanny down.

I am curious about the use of the word Gypsy in the title.  First of all, in my edition, it's spelled Gipsy (and spell check doesn't seem to object to this, either).  Is this simply archaic spelling?  Spelling used in a specific geographic location?  This makes me very curious and I think I will have to do some research about this.  The other thing that I wonder about is how the word "Gipsy" is being used in this book.  The Gypsy is, of course, Fanny Davis, but the book never comes out and says that she is of Romany descent, so is this being used in the sense of, "person who is of dark and mysterious origin" or, "person who has done much traveling and is dark and mysterious"?  Just in the context of this book, I'm guessing it's the latter, but I'd love any feedback you have.

I was impressed by how well Sharp wrote a child narrator.  Writing about children is a skill that many authors don't have, let alone writing through a child.  I can think of many examples of gifted authors who simply could not convincingly write about or through children.  This is the only book I know of by Sharp, though, where a child is the key storyteller, so this surprised me even more.

The book's time setting did not look promising to me.  The story begins, "In the heat of the spacious August noon, in the heart of the great summer of 1870…", and I gave a little groan.   In my humble opinion, prior to, oh, the 90s,  a lot of authors were very unskilled at handling historical fiction and positively ruined a perfectly good storyline with all sorts of annoyingly anachronistic things that weren't necessary.  For the most part, I absolutely love fiction written in this era (1930s-60s), but once those authors turn to historical fiction, I quickly abandon the book.  All that to say, Sharp actually did a very good job.  The time period was very well written.  The observations on the decline that so many wealthy women would fall into was fascinating and so believable.  The narrator tells us, "It wasn't, at the time, particularly uncommon.  Ladies lay in declines all up and down the country…" and gives a very witty and biting description of declines and the lower-class's perception of them.

Of course, Sharp's wonderful dry humor is present throughout the book as it is in all of her writing.  This isn't one of her more famous books, but it should be.  I laughed and laughed throughout this book and was completely engrossed until the last page.  In fact, this book was so captivating that, when I was first reading the synopsis on some blog, I actually got a burning curiosity about the Fanny Davis mystery (and that was just from reading a synopsis, people!).  I really recommend that you find this book.  I suspect you might have a difficult time finding it, but I think it's worth it to search for it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Mrs. Appleyard's Kitchen by Louise Andrew Kent

"Some of the best reading in the world, Mrs. Appleyard says, is found in cookbooks.  She ought to know because she began to read them as literature long before she took to wielding the egg beater.  "

So begins this charming book that had been sitting on my TBR pile for several months.  The Mrs. Appleyard books, written by Louise Andrews Kent in the 1940s are about the indomitable Mrs. Appleyard, a busy, cheerful, plump housewife with an eye for the funny and interesting in the mundanities of daily life.  I first was introduced to Mrs. Appleyard through Mrs. Appleyard's Year-a book that covered a year in Mrs. Appleyard's life through her journal.  I loved that cozy read and was so excited when I found Mrs. Appleyard's kitchen, a book oozing with all of Mrs. Appleyard's charm and chock full of recipes I want to try.

The book is organized like a normal cookbook, with sections for meat, cheese, fish, soups, cakes, preserves, and, my favorite, "Vegetables, including Spaghetti".  I actually do want to try quite a few of these delicious-looking recipes, from the peach ice cream to the cheese rusks to almond-butter frosting.  The recipes are not presented in the more modern fashion, with pictures and diagrams and whimsical musings from the author (I scoff, but that's not to say that I don't love reading those cookbooks on occasion).

However, in addition to recipes that make me hungry, there are all kinds of stories about Mrs. Appleyard's family and her thoughts on food.  You have to read through the recipes carefully because, scattered among the recipes, you will find little gems of stories.  For instance, after a recipe for Rhubarb and Strawberry Conserve comes the following story:

"An accident, such as might happen in any home-if Mrs. Appleyard happened to be in it-produced an interesting variant on this conserve and also a word for the Appleyard family dictionary.  There were not quite enough strawberries for the full twelve cups, it was discovered after Mrs. Appleyard had been out and pulled up the rhubarb from behind the springhouse and cut it into juicy green and pink cubes [can I add how, in late February, this is making my mouths water?].  Remembering that she had seen a bowl of crushed strawberries in the ice chest, she got it out and with a sweeping dramatic gesture poured it over the rhubarb and strawberries.  Now, the flavor of onion is a delicious one, but not usually associated with strawberries.  The bowl, in point of fact, contained about a quart of borscht with plenty of onions in it.  
No one needs to think that our heroine was dismayed by this happening.  She simply added a half-teaspoon of cloves, a teaspoon of cinnamon, and a little nutmeg, two more lemons thinly sliced and quartered, and proceeded as above.  The conserve was a particularly handsome color and of a flavor that-luckly, perchance-defied immediate analysis….It was natural, after this episode, for the verb 'to borscht' to establish itself in the family dictionary….(You can borscht a dinner party, too, Mrs. Appleyard says-but not always with such happy effect)."

So, if you like reading cookbooks, gently funny novels, and books that will keep you happily absorbed for at least a day, then I highly recommend that you find this book.  I think that it should be fairly easy to find.  I'm not sure about the other Mrs. Appleyard books, but Mrs. Appleyard's Kitchen was republished in 1993.  I recommend that you seek this book out.  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Nutmeg Tree

"I had a little nut tree and nothing would it bear; but a silver nutmeg and a golden pear…."
-A nursery rhyme and also made reference to in this book title.

This book, written by the accomplished Margery Sharp, was the perfect book to get me out of a bit of a reading rut.  I was feeling generally whiny in that late-February way and I idly reached for a flimsy little WWII edition of The Nutmeg Tree.   Feeling pretty unimpressed, I opened it and proceeded to become completely engrossed for the several hours that the little book lasted.

The Nutmeg Tree centers around the very charming, very much lower-class, middle-aged theater woman named Julia.  When she was very young, she got pregnant with and consequently married a soldier during WWI and, after he died, she went with the baby girl, Susan to her new in-laws house.  However, this proper, upper-middle-class life was completely stifling for Julia, so she leaves Susan to be raised by her grandparents and returns to the city life without a pang.

Fast forward 20 years later to Julia Packett who is in a sad state without a current man and not a prospect in sight.  She receives a letter from her very, very proper daughter urging her to come.  Susan has fallen in love with and wants to marry an improper man and grandmother doesn't approve.  Eager to win her daughter's respect and love, Julia determines to go and sort out Susan's problems, while remaining at all times a perfect lady.  But Julia, who can't seem to avoid some trouble at once realizes that her prospective son-in-law is definitely the wrong sort, begins to fall for Susan's eminently respectable godfather, and has to find a way to solve her pressing money troubles.  Can Julia, through all of these trials, come to respect herself in spite of her rough past, or will she continue to keep up the facade of a respectable lady?

I'm sure that Julia's life affairs must have been truly shocking for the time this was written.  While Julia's actions definitely don't raise eyebrows today the way they did back then, I am still amazed that we can come to love, even respect Julia through the book.  It shows real skill, I think, to be able to pull off a sympathetic, but not entirely respectable character, particularly at that time.  I really appreciated the emphasis Sharp placed on Julia's good traits rather than her social standing.  While Julia had had a rough past, she was still a kind, generous woman who was quick to sympathize and willing to help and that, in the end, was what counted.

I was also interested in how lightly Julia's abandoning her daughter was taken.  In fact, that is one area where I think you would see more social stigma today as opposed to in the late 30s.  Julia states very pragmatically that Susan will have a better education, better opportunities, and will generally become a more respectable member of society if she stays with her grandparents as opposed to traveling with her free and easy mother.  I think that attitude, while still in existence is at least less apparent today.  Of course, one attitude makes a very good story and the other, more modern attitude would probably not be as interesting to write about.

I completely fell in love with these characters while reading this short book.  This was one of those books that you read as slowly as possible in order to draw out the story.  The Nutmeg Tree is out of print now, but I think you could still find it many places.  I own this book, but I know that my library also has it.  Really, seek this book out.  If only for a few hours, it raised me out of my late-winter doldrums.

Friday, February 13, 2015

3 Quick Book Reviews and an Update

Hello, dear readers.  I am still here, lest you thought I was frozen into the side a snowbank, never to appear again.

In spite of my lack of blog activity, I have been up to a lot of things, some reading related.  I have 3 books on the reading pile, two of which I have finished.

1. Don Quixote-
My latest Classics Club read.  It's funny and enjoyable and the translation done by Edith Grossman is great.  I've been enjoying just a few chapters every evening by the fire with hot Earl Grey tea, my new favorite.  I usually make the tea into a London Fog-with lots of steamy hot milk.
But back to the book, there is something so eerily amazing about reading a book that is so old.  I'm quite enjoying it and there will be a full-fledged review, once I've finished it.

2. Small Victories by Anne Lamott-
I love Anne Lamott's writing and this is her latest book.  I have about 5 pages in the book and I can't wait to get a review up about it.  Lamott has had a strange, at times pretty rackety life, but the thing that strikes me reading her books is her incredible grace and wisdom through all kinds of scenarios that I am not entirely sure how I would handle.  If you haven't read anything by Lamott, this is definitely a must-read.

3. The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp-
This is a re-read, but I do love Sharp's incredible sly wit.  The Nutmeg Tree is about a young, irrepressible widow who is left in the early days of WWI with a baby.  After a dreadfully boring stint as a respectable young widow, she leaves the baby with her kindly in-laws and heads to the city. Susan, the baby, grows up dull and respectable, until she falls in love with an unscrupulous man and Julia has to help her get out of the mess.  It's really funny and was a very quick read.

In addition to all of this reading, I'm working and doing as little outside as I possibly can (which usually means just the once-a-day trudge to do the animal chores and then scurrying inside as quickly as possible).  I'm also dreaming of summer through a big stack of summer clothes that I have waiting at the sewing machine.  So see?  I haven't turned into a frozen brick of ice.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

After a month of going without any library visits, I was chomping at the bit to get to the library.  So, on February 1st in the afternoon I headed to the library and reveled in that lovely whiff of books and that something else that my public library smells like.  I headed to the stacks and then….found nothing to read.  It was quite a let-down after all of the waiting.  Well, I didn't exactly come away with nothing.  I actually don't think that is physically possible for me.  I got a book that didn't look terribly promising (can't remember the name) and then a slim little volume called Dear Committee Members.  It was on the new book shelf, but it was released this summer.  I was mildly interested and so took it home.

Dear Committee Members is written epistolary form, but it's unique in that all of the letters are letters of recommendation.  I was so impressed that an author could craft a book that was moving and funny and had, you know, a plot, that the story itself could have been pretty bad and I still would have admired and enjoyed the book.  The story is told through the letters of recommendation written by a beleaguered English professor, Jason Fitger, who is watching his little midwestern college fall apart.  He sits amid the rubble and dust in his office which sits underneath the Economics department which is being renovated to include such amenities as a heated yoga studio and showers.  Meanwhile, the eccentric English department is slowly crumbling apart as students leave for more practical fields.  There is a steady stream of students requesting letters and there is one student in particular who has caught Fitger's attention.  This boy is slowly wasting away as he works at trying to find a job so he can publish his eccentric book.  Added to this unassuming scenario is an angry ex-wife whom Fitger still loves and an old flame who also hates him.

This book is not the kind of book I would normally pick up.  It's a dry, biting humor as opposed to the more laugh-out-loud style that I normally read.  It's also a grim commentary, another genre that I almost never read.  The whole book is a eulogy to the gravy days of college life when professors were tenured and students flocked to majors that weren't necessarily job-oriented; when the arts were valued and students didn't write stories in creative writing classes about zombies and werewolves.  The book reflects sadly on the loss of such dinosaurs as the Slavic Languages department and the days of professors with multiple published books.  I think it was even more poignant because this book was actually written by an English professor.  I admit to be slightly depressed at the end of this book.

This book does not end happily.  I won't say more because spoilers can be annoying to some, I understand (I am not one of those people).  All this to say, would I have read this book if I hadn't been in such dire need of reading material?  Probably not.  But I'm still glad I took the time to pick up this book.  It's very well written and short, so even if it isn't your normal reading pattern, it's not a waste-of-time kind of book.  Now, this isn't just damning with faint praise.  I have to emphasis how good the book really was.  It's one of those books that you shut and say, "Hey, that was actually a really well-written, generally good book!"  Jason Fitger has a very funny voice and gets in plenty of jabs at the lack of grammatical common-sense in the US.  So I do recommend this book.  Go ahead and read it!


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Book Tag: I Mustache You Some Questions

Lory, from Emerald City Book Review (isn't that the best blog name?) just tagged me in a tag called I Mustache You Some Questions.  Since I have a bit of a penchant for silly puns and I enjoy book tags, I was more than happy to play along.   Here are the questions, most of them original, with one left out because I'm pretty (probably too) cautious about information on the internet and one added :

Four Jobs I've Had:
1. Multiple childcare/babysitting/etc. jobs throughout high school
2. Farming
3. Writing
4. Various musical-related things…some paid some not so much

Four Of My Favorite Songs/Artists/Composers
1. L-O-V-E by Nat King Cole-It's such a cliched, over-used song, but I still love it.
2. Doris Day-This is my cooking music
3. Chopin-When I was taking piano lessons, this was always the composer I most loved.
Even today, I will still listen to Chopin for fun.
4. Simon and Garfunkle-Actually, I love all this 60s music as a genre.


Four Movies I've Watched More Than Once

1. Mary Poppins-I think maybe 3 times?
2. The Parent Trap- Why are all my rematches children's movies?
3. Sense and Sensibility
4. Pride and Prejudice-This one wins for most-watched movie.

Four Books I'd Recommend
1. Absolutely anything by Jane Austen.  If you haven't read Jane Austen, your life is Incomplete (and that does get capital letters).
2. Something by C. S. Lewis; also because your life will be Incomplete.
3. She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith-I just read this and it's laugh out loud funny.
4. The Melendys-A wonderful children's series that needs to be read by everybody.

Four Place I'd Rather Be Right Now
1-4. Places that don't have several feet of snow on the ground

Four Things I Don't Eat
I am not a picky eater whatsoever, so I had to think for quite awhile about this one.
1. Eggs-Eggs are pretty much the only thing I don't like.  There is something that just makes
me shudder about eggs, particularly fried and dippy.  Blech.
2-4.  I absolutely can't think of anything else.  I'm not being pious.  I really can't think of anything.

Four of My Favorite Foods
1. Coconut (milk, flaked, fresh, anything)
2. Grapefruit
3. Really good curry
4. Bagels with lox, cream cheese, capers, tomato, and red onion

Four TV Shows I Watch
Well, I don't have a TV, but I do have Netflix.
1. Parks and Recreation-I've started with Season 2, because my friends told me that Season 1 wasn't any good and that the show only got funny with Season 2, and now I'm on Season 4….3 more seasons to go and I'm already feeling slightly sad about the end.  But really, if you like comedy, this is the best show.
2. Sherlock
3. PBS Miniseries, just as a class
4. Gilmore Girls-Except then it got stupid after about 5 episodes.

Four Things I'm Looking Forward To This Year
1. More reading, but of course
2. Spring
3. Some interesting job opportunities
4. Summer

Four Things I'm Always Saying
1. Have you read this book?  I can't remember the title or the author, but here's the basic plot line.
2. So I saw this thing on Pinterest…
3. That reminds me of this one book….
4. Can you find my (fill in the blank)?  (I am quite absentminded, which leads to misplacing things all the time.  For instance, the other day I stuck my scissors in the fridge and then spent a good 20 minutes looking for them.)