Thursday, January 15, 2015

Family Circle's Complete Book of Beauty and Charm

Yep.  That's the title.  Wanna guess the publish date? 1951.  Knowing my inordinate love of all things vintage, my dear mother got me this book for Christmas.  I saved it for my Sunday afternoon reading and I just finished it this past Sunday afternoon.  And now I'm going to show it to you.

First of all, I took pictures of the inside of the book, so you get an idea of what it's like:


See?  The book tells you comfortingly that glasses can, too, be attractive, if you carefully
read their chart.

This caption says, "Even housewives need to take care of their hands!"

Properly applying foundation.
Necklines depending on your face shape.

I love books like these-books that are simply for the purpose of providing a window into another time, the purpose of inspiration.  This kind of reading is what I call Sunday Afternoon Reading, also known as inspiration reading.  Sunday Afternoon Reading is generally nonfiction, usually filled with pictures, always chock full of inspiration for the coming week.  I don't normally read for the sole purpose of getting good ideas or just for enjoying something for its prettiness.  Books normally have to hold something more for me, but not on Sunday afternoons.  That is when I pick up books just because they're pretty and inspiring and fun.  And while I wouldn't love to read like that all the time, it's actually very lovely to have that one day a week set aside where I do read like that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Best Hot Chocolate

We've been in the middle of a pretty bitter cold snap and that means that I've been spending huge amounts of time inside.  Sure, it leads to cabin fever and absolutely must be relieved by (very) short daily runs outside, followed by standing by the fire whining about not being able to feel my legs.  However, my book load is lightening at such a rapid pace; I can't remember reading this much in a month before.
Can you see the little flash of red from the cardinal?

But, I absolutely require that there is a steady stream of hot beverages while I'm sitting by the fire of an evening.  I've narrowed it down to, truly, the best hot chocolate.  It's also the speediest.  It was (very roughly) copied off of this blogger's recipe, but I've gotten more loosey-goosey with the method in order to spend the minimum amount of time in my freezing kitchen.

When I was young, my mom used to make stove top hot chocolate when we came in from sledding-stirring cocoa and sugar and water until it boiled, then adding milk and heating for what seemed an interminable amount of time.  Then on the other end of the spectrum is the tepid watery sludge made by mixing powdered milk (blech), cocoa powder, and heaven knows what else into water that, for some reason, is never quite hot.  I'm grossed out just thinking about it.  This hot cocoa is the happy medium.  It's got the full-body flavor of the stovetop method with the quickness of the awful hot cocoa mix method.

This is like no hot chocolate mix you have ever had before.  In fact, it doesn't even deserve to have the same name as that sludge-in-a-package.  I think you'll agree with me after you've made a mug.

Here's the recipe and, oh, is it a lovely to have that hot chocolate ready and waiting in the pantry.

Get out a pint jar and into it put:
1/2 c. cocoa powder (don't bother using some cheap, Dutch-processed, alkalized baking cocoa…use a very dark cocoa powder instead-the flavor is far better)
1/2 c. white sugar
2 tsp. cornstarch (This is to make a smooth hot chocolate mix…don't leave this out!)
Now, this part is pretty optional and I haven't actually seen a huge difference when I omitted it.  However, you can add about 1/4 c. very, very finely chopped dark chocolate (I stuck mine in the food processor)
Then, when you go to make yourself a cup of hot chocolate, just dump, oh, about a tablespoon into a mug full of milk and heat.

Enjoy with your next good book!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

One of my goals for this year was to read some nonfiction and branch out a little from my usual staid fiction reading.  I started with this book because it looked funny, was interesting, I really do love science, and I owned it (fulfilling my requirement for a library-free January).  What better book to start out my January?

What If? is written by Randall Munroe, the writer of the website XKCD, a website where people post absolutely absurd what if? questions.  Some of the questions reminded me of the questions that toddlers ask repeated all day every day.  Except these are, presumably, written by grown people.  IF

Here are some of the examples:

If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn't the common cold be wiped out?

What would happen if a hair dryer with continuous power were turned on and put in an airtight 1x1x1-meter box?

If every person on Earth aimed a laster pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?

How quickly would the oceans drain  if a circular portal 10 meters in radius leading into space were created at the bottom of Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the ocean?  How would the Earth change as the water was being drained?

Randall Munroe is a former NASA roboticist, but he's also a comic writer.  He brilliantly combines both his humorous comics with truly fascinating science.

Like I said, nonfiction is not something that I normally read, but this actually made me change my mind.  The book was funny and actually held my attention.  I wasn't reading as some sort of discipline  or goal to read something nonfiction.  I was just reading for the pure fun of it, which is something that I don't frequently do with nonfiction.

So I really enjoyed this book.  If you're looking for a place to dip your toes into nonfiction writing or just are looking for an informative, yet funny book, this is a great place to start.  I highly recommend it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Classics Club 2015

So I decided to join Classics Club!  It was on my to-do list for this year and I'm ready to start on the challenge.  I really love reading classics and so I'm quite excited to start this.
So here's my list of classics I'm going to read in 2015:

1.)  Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte-Technically, already checked off
2.)  She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
3.) Paradise Lost
4.) Don Quixote
5.) Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
6.) Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan
7.) The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper
8.) Something by Emerson…haven't nailed that down yet
9.) Something by Dickens that I haven't read…
10.) Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
11.) A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstencroft
12.) Poems by Tennyson (I want to work on poetry reading this year
13.) Poems by Poe
14.) Poems by Keats
15.) One of Alcott's earliest writings that, according to many people, were terrible…I'm still curious
16.) How Like an Angel Came I Down by Bronson Alcott
17.) Brave New World by Alduous Huxley
18.) The Wind in the Willows (This is going to be my children's classic for the year)
19.) North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
20.) Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
21.) Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
22.)  Probably something by Wilkie Collins
23.) Watership Down by Richard Adams
24.) The Frogs by Aristophanes
25.) Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Classics Club has a rule about reading at least 50 books in at most 5 years.  I'm not going to do more than 25 this year, so next year I'll read the other 25.  I'm still debating about the other 25 and which ones I'll be reading…so I'll let you know after I've thought about it for awhile.

What about you, readers?  Is anybody else participating in Classics Club this year?  What books are you planning on reading?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Wuthering Heights-Book Club Review

Well, here's my Wuthering Heights book review, finally.  Just as I had an influx of books to review, my laptop crashed.  Gah.  So it's in the shop, but that means that I am computer-less, except for the slow, old computer up in the chilly attic that is Strictly For Work.  So I caved and went up to the freezing attic, because I absolutely have to write this post.

A few weeks ago, Girl With Her Head in a Book asked me about participating in a Wuthering Heights book discussion, hosted by Kirsty, from The Literary Sisters.  I readily agreed, even though Wuthering Heights would probably never make it onto my TBR list.  And, much to my surprise, I enjoyed it much more than I ever thought I would.

Wuthering Heights is something that pretty much everybody reads in school at least once and, many times, loathe to the end of their days, or, in other cases, love and remember fondly to the end of their days.  I was one of the former.  I don't like being wrenched and feeling as though I am being emotionally manipulated every second of a book.  I thought the characters were ridiculous and emotional to the point of unbelievability.  But then I picked up this book and my perceptions started to change.

First of all, the narration of this book is fascinating.  It's somebody telling a story about somebody telling a story about somebody else.  So this is 3rd-hand news, in other words.  It reminded me of those pictures you see of somebody taking a picture in a mirror and having it reflected in multiple little mirrors in the picture (did that make any sense?  I have an image in my head).  I was especially struck by the amount of error that could have occurred in the tellings and, indeed, Emily Bronte leads us to believe that all kinds of information is being shifted, nay, lied about.  The narrators are Nelly Dean, who leads us and the other narrator, the foppish and pompous Mr. Lockwood to believe that she is a pious and righteous woman, never prone to any kind of mistake or problem.  In her eyes, she is the warm and kindly housekeeper who can do no wrong.  And yet, brilliantly, Emily shows us how wrong Nelly can be.

The narrators also interested me because both of them are so unlikeable.  It's not a new phenomenon to have plenty of unlikeable characters in a book, but for the most part, the author writes the narrator as a sympathetic character with whom the reader is supposed to identify.  But not Lockwood and Nelly Dean.  The only reason they aren't as despicable as Heathcliff is because they haven't the imagination or the tortured personalities.

Actually, there's nobody to like in the whole book. Heathcliff is purely awful, his wife, Isabella, is spoiled and weak, Cathy is tempestuous and headstrong and decidedly selfish, exactly like her mother, Catherine, Hindley is despicable, a gambler, and slightly insane, the servants are pretty bad, too...Hareton is the closest any of the characters come to being likable.

And then there's the chain of characters that confused me until about halfway through the book.  The inbreeding is ridiculous.  Luckily, in the front of my flimsy little edition was a family tree with notes about who married whom.  Thank goodness for that, because I would have been lost without it.  Here's the family tree, which is very similar to the one that was in my book, linked from this very interesting website.
Photo Credit:
http://www.wuthering-heights.co.uk/genealogy.php

This time around, I was impressed by how actually reserved this book is.  The writing is surprisingly unflowery and dramatic.  Sure, the plot line is pretty intense (like Cathy being locked into Heathcliff's house until she agrees to marry his wormy little son, Linton), but the writing in and of itself is very withdrawn and calm.

I would love to know what experiences Emily drew from when writing this tortured novel.  The type of secluded life she lived was not exactly conducive to lots of adventure and experience with people.  Was it purely imagination?  Inspiration from other books of the time?  There is an innocence in the way she writes about such characters as Heathcliff.  They are simply bad people, but not bad in complicated ways or for complicated reasons.  And how was Isabella really dashing around the moors, supposedly pregnant by that time with Linton?  Emily doesn't appear to have wondered.  The innocence, yet the incredible understanding of human nature fascinated me in this book and that, in and of itself, was enough of a reason to read this book.

For instance, Catherine and Heathcliff's intense longing and love, mixed with loathing was written so believably.  This is the quote that so many people bring up when talking about Wuthering Heights, but I think that it really does perfectly depict Catherine and Heathcliff's intense, tortured relationship.

“I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.” 

The story was really gripping.  Each morning, I'd plow through a couple of chapters over breakfast and then in the evenings I'd tell everybody to stop talking to me so I could read Wuthering Heights.  I was drawn in and spent more time than I thought I would thinking about the characters and wondering what was going to happen next.

Would I recommend reading this book?  Oh, yes!  I recommend keeping a large-ish slip of paper in your book as a bookmark.  I then wrote notes and thoughts on it as I was reading the book.  I think a lot of observations and general notes about the characters would have been forgotten if I hadn't been writing them down.  So I think that, if you were like me, one of the people that scoffed at Wuthering Heights, turn to this book again and give it a second chance.  I think you won't regret it.  I'm certainly glad that I cracked open the pages of Wuthering Heights again.

Other posts about this book:

http://girlwithherheadinabook.blogspot.com/2015/01/readalong-review-wuthering-heights.html?showComment=1420820338260#c5963247034216209094

http://theliterarysisters.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/blogging-book-club-wuthering-heights-by-emily-bronte-classics-club-93/

http://www.emeraldcitybookreview.com/2015/01/back-to-moors-wuthering-heights.html



Sunday, January 4, 2015

Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle

As part of giving up library reading for the month of January, I've been spending lots of my perusing my own bookshelves.  I have quite a collection of children's books from my own childhood and one that I re-read on a whim during this Christmas vacation was Meet the Austins.  Pretty much everybody I know has read and loved this dear book by Madeleine L'Engle.  If you haven't read this, I am, frankly, shocked.  You must go at once and read it.
I think this might be an original.  See the 60s hair and the mother below in her 60s swing coat?



Meet the Austins is narrated by 12 year old Vicky Austin.  Right on the cusp of adolescence, Vicky, along with her charming family-Her father, mother, older brother, John, younger sister, Suzy, and younger brother, Rob, as well as a kindly bachelor uncle and a doting adopted aunt-experience a whirlwind series of events.

It all starts after a description of a lovely day that completely convinced me of L'Engle's writing powers before the book really started.  This description was so lovingly written that I instantly flashed back to so many evenings like this in my own childhood.  Everybody roaring around, dinner cooking, the mad race to the telephone every time it rings.  And then everything comes to a standstill when Aunt Elena, mother's roommate from boarding school, calls and tells them that her husband is dead in a plane crash, along with his copilot who has left a little girl.

Of course, the Austins agree to take in the little girl, Maggy, since Elena, who was made her godmother, is a concert pianist about to go on tour.  Maggy completely upsets the family's daily life by turning out to be a train wreck of a child.  But, over time, she comes to find a home with the loving Austins.

Along the way, there are funny and charming family stories.  There is one, in particular, that made me laugh out loud in which the whole family dresses eccentrically to shock one of the uncle's snobbish girlfriends.  The Austins have all kinds of adventures while getting used to the shell-shocked Maggy, from picnics to stargazing to a trip to see the grandfather who lives in a barn.

One of the reasons I love this book so much is that it is a direct refutation of Hemingway's famous quote about unhappy families, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  This book shows that, no, happy families are different and interesting and absorbing.  To be miserable does not necessarily mean that one is romantic or interesting or enjoyable to read about.

The story is also interestingly written.  It's written exactly like a child telling you a (slightly longwinded) life story.  Of course there's a plot and direction and flow to the book in a way that a child's story wouldn't, but there is something about the quality of the writing that is so childlike.  For one thing, everything is presented exactly at face value without a lot of analysis on the part of the narrator.  Also, the sentences are kind of run-on.  It's not in a bad-writing-run-on-sentence kind of way, but in a child talking kind of way.  Just think about the last conversation you had with a 12 year old.  That's what the book reads like.  But trust me, it's charming, not annoying.

Some interesting things stood out reading this book this time through.  The main thing was my perception of Maggy.  Now, realize that I last read this book in 6th grade, maybe.  I absolutely despised Maggy and was truly enraged at how she consumed the Austin family life.  This time around, I ached for her lack of family and her brattiness simply read as a very sad, neglected little girl.  Also, there were some pretty dated discussions and references (this book was published in 1960) that I thought were funny reading this time around that I never would have thought to notice back whenever I first read this.

This book is so beautifully told, so funny and poignant, there is just no way you can go through your whole life and not pick up this book at least once.  If you have a child in your life, this would make an absolutely marvelous read aloud.  And if not, or even if you do, you must read this for yourself.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Years Resolutions and the First Book of 2015

Happy New Year, everybody!  I had a lovely, fairly low-key little party last night and now I'm full of plans to sit by the fire and read any number of books.  My first read is Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.  I'm actually really enjoying the dramatic, yet surprisingly unsentimental account of passionate love on the barren moors.  I'm reading this as part of a book club, so I'll be writing a nice long analysis very soon.  Just 100 more pages to go!

My copy is a very ratty, beaten up one with some college notes in it.  Interesting, but not the most beautiful copy.  Anyway, that's my first read of 2015.

My reading resolutions are as follows:

1.  Better balance between blogging and reading.  It's easy to read a whole bunch and then get completely lazy and not feel like writing about the books.  Or, to spend too much time focusing on the blog and not enough on the books.  So my main goal this year is to focus on finding that balance.

2. Join Classics Club.  I have heard so many wonderful things about this great club, including the facts that it is fairly low-maintenance, gets you to read some great literature, and you can connect with others also reading classics.

3.  Read through more books that I own and stop checking out ones from the library until I've made a serious dent.  I do love the library.  I think it's probably one of the greatest civic institutions.  But I have books at home that I really, really need to read.  This resolution was inspired by Lory's great challenge for January.


4. Read some nonfiction!  I want to branch out in my reading.  I am normally a strictly fiction reader and I want to change that a bit.  I've started by reading What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.  It's a fun, quick nonfiction read and I'm really enjoying it (and I own it!).



My resolutions aren't huge, but I'm hoping to follow through with them.  I wish you all a very, very happy 2015 with lots of good reading!