Tuesday, February 25, 2014


I said I wouldn't count re-reads of Jane Austen novels for my book-a-week challenge, but I didn't say I would avoid new Austen-inspired novels.

Longbourn, by British author Jo Baker, likely will appeal to fans of Downton Abbey as well as Austenites. Ms. Baker has imagined, in astonishing detail, the lives of the Bennet family servants, who are her central characters. Her story tracks that of Pride and Prejudice from the downstairs perspective, where anxiety about the future of Longbourn and its entail is perhaps even more pitched than it is upstairs.

The principal character is Sarah, a housemaid barely mentioned in the original novel. Her days at Longbourn are long with boredom and heavy work that drains her physically and mentally. I've never fully appreciated the wonders of flush toilets and automatic washing machines until I read this novel.

Despite Sarah's hardships, she never fails to notice the tiny delights of the natural world around her. Ms. Baker's vivid descriptions of the English countryside permeate the novel and approach the level of poetry.

Austen's novels were set during the Napoleonic Wars, but those events are barely acknowledged in her stories. The presence of a militia camp in the nearby village of Meryton and its later removal to Brighton is significant only for its romantic implications for the Bennet sisters. Ms. Baker, through the character of the footman and former soldier James, portrays the horrors of those wars.

This is not Austen fan fiction, and Ms. Baker does not attempt to imitate Austen's style. It is simply a famous story retold by a gifted writer from an alternate perspective. Perhaps an apt comparison would be that Longbourn is to Pride and Prejudice as Paula McLain's The Paris Wife is to Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Eating on the Wild Side

In Eating on the Wild Side, nutrition researcher Jo Robinson turns the produce aisle into a medicine cabinet. She has sorted through massive quantities of food studies to reveal the fruit and vegetable superstars and how to select, store and prepare them to maximize absorption of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.

Each fruit and vegetable is introduced with a description of its wild ancestor and a brief history of its domestication and resulting nutritional changes. Some cultivars have retained more of the wild nutrients than others. Robinson discusses the cultivars most available in U.S. supermarkets or farmer's markets, the relative merits of each, and when canned or frozen versions may serve as well as fresh.

I learned, for example, that purple carrots are the richest in bionutrients, and for all carrots, nutrients are more available if the carrot is cooked rather than raw. The best practice is to steam the carrots whole and slice them after. She also recommends eating them with a little oil or fat.

At the end of each chapter, Robinson provides a chart of recommended types and varieties of the fruit or vegetable for shoppers and home gardeners, as well as a good-better-best summary.

I checked this book out from the library, but I'll probably buy a copy so I won't have to copy half of it for reference.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Rules of Civility

I had trouble sleeping after finishing Amor Towles' mesmerizing Rules of Civility. Every time I woke during the night, I resumed thinking about the characters' choices and consequences and wishing I had been alive to experience New York City in 1938.

The central plot of Towles' novel is the love triangle of Katey Kontent, Eve Ross and Tinker Grey, but another trio of loves permeates the pages: literature, jazz and the energy of the world's greatest city. Gotham is the central character in the story, the polestar around which the characters invent and reinvent themselves.

I could subtract a rating star for the author's overuse of metaphor, but I restore it in gratitude for his giving me a heroine in Katey that I'm unlikely to forget. My only other quibble would be that the story may have been stronger if he had told Katey's story in the third person rather than the first; I was several chapters into the novel before I need to stop reminding myself that Katey was a woman. But eventually, she felt so real that I wished I could have dinner with her, if not be her.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Element

I've just marked 50 trips around the sun, and quite serendipitously, the book I was reading as I reached this milestone was The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, by Ken Robinson. The serendipity comes because, now that I'm entering my second half century, I've decided it's finally time to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Unfortunately, Sir Ken doesn't tell me what that is. I shall have to decipher this on my own. But he does provide copious anecdotal evidence, mostly from the lives of successful and famous people, that devoting my energies to something I love would be a worthwhile endeavor, especially if it turns out I have some ability at that something.

This book made my reading list because it was on a list of books recommended to change your life, or a similar promise. Perhaps this would be true if I were reading it at age 19, but I suspect that most people of my age have encountered Robinson's themes previously. I recall as a teenager having Dr. Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking thrust upon me by my parents, who apparently thought I was mired in teen negativity. Imagine that! In the intervening years, I've had exposure to finding my "zone", the "artist's way", and myriad programs of workplace creativity-inspiring. And yet, I still can't definitively label my particular element. There are numerous activities I enjoy, and a few I even do well, but nothing I could accurately describe as an overriding passion.

Most of Robinson's success stories involve people who found their element seemingly by chance. I'm left to wonder what happens to the would-be dancer who is never taken to the ballet studio and thus never discovers this latent gift? Robinson doesn't address that, although he does give examples of people who find a passion later in life, or in a unorthodox context.

I spent most of the book also wondering who would drive the garbage trucks if everyone is out looking for their creative element. Surely some tasks are necessary but unlikely to elicit much passion. Zen Buddhists tackle this reality by urging mindfulness and reverence when performing every task, no matter how mundane. But Robinson doesn't seem to be coming from the "be here now" school of thought. However, he does indirectly address the question in a section titled "for love or money," noting that some people pursue their passion as a hobby while working a job to pay the bills.

Robinson's stories are engaging and inspirational, and every now and then even those of us in our middle years can benefit by renewed attention to this question of, "what are my dreams and am I pursuing them?"

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Luminaries

Had I read The Luminaries with no prior knowledge of its author or date of publication, I would have believed it to be a work of 19th century British literature. Yet extraordinarily gifted writer Eleanor Catton is a New Zealander in her mid-twenties. How astonishing!

Ms. Catton has crafted 830 pages of intrigue with a large cast of richly-drawn characters that will no doubt, when its announced television miniseries is produced, represent an employment opportunity for British actors not witnessed since the Harry Potter series concluded.

I was loathe to leave her world of the 1860s New Zealand gold rush, and even when I reluctantly set the story aside to attend to such mundane tasks as eating, I imagined the streets of Traverse City had transformed to those of Hokitika, and I considered which dining establishment might receive my custom for the evening.

Ms. Catton takes care to introduce each character with a comprehensive description of appearance, personality, and motivations. Some are endearing, some are villainous. Some meet with the fates they deserve, some do not. Most early mysteries are explained, but there are a few blanks the reader will need to fill in with her own imagination.

I have only two quibbles with this hefty novel. First, the astrological structure was beyond my comprehension so I don't know if I missed some important meaning. Second, the dust jacket (of the American version) referred to it as a "ghost story", so I spent the entire novel wondering when the ghost would appear. I believe I know the "apparition" that elicited this description, but having finished the story, I wouldn't qualify it as a ghost, unless it is part of the meaning I fear I have lost by not being a student of astrology.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Book of Air and Shadows

I'm slightly behind schedule in my goal to read a book a week in 2014, but I'm optimistic I'll catch up and not because I'll be choosing short books. My current selection is 830 pages.

Earlier this week I finished The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber. I picked up this novel for $1 at my local library's book sale a few months ago.

The plot is rather intricate and involves a possible lost Shakespeare play, Oxford dons, librarians and Russian mobsters. The story is told from the points of view of its two primary characters: Jake Mishkin, a rakish intellectual property rights lawyer who narrates in the first person, and Albert Crosetti, a nice guy computer geek who dreams of going to film school and relates to all events as if they are happening in a movie. Crosetti has an intriguing theory that movies and television influence real world behavior. We may think what we see on the screen reflects our life, he says, but actually our lives are reflecting what we've seen on the screen. For example, police officers have watched enough episodes of "Law and Order" to understand the behavior the citizenry expects of them and they adjust accordingly. Such is his theory.

If this book were made into a big-budget film, the role of Mishkin would go to a marquee actor, perhaps Ben Affleck, and Crosetti - the real star - would be a breakout role for a young talent. Meaty supporting roles are plentiful, with a beautiful ingenue taking third billing as damsel-in-distress/possible-villainess Carolyn, and familiar movie faces would portray Mary Peg, Klim, Amelie, Miriam, Paul and Haas. There's even a cameo for Robert De Niro near the end.

But back to the story. Gruber writes intelligently and elegantly. In the suspense thriller genre, I would categorize this novel as much more intellectually demanding than The Da Vinci Code but less erudite and more accessible than Foucault's Pendulum. It's not quite a lose-sleep-over-it-page-turner, but it's engaging with an almost believable plot and diverse, fleshed out characters. The ending is a bit confusing, with regards to Carolyn and Haas anyway, and doesn't neatly tie up all loose ends, which could be disappointing to some readers.

As this is ostensibly a knitting blog, I must make an effort to link the book to the fiber arts. Well, some of the scenes take place in England, and good yarns happen there, and if I could knit and read at the same time, I would probably choose a pattern from Alice Starmore's classic Tudor Roses to accompany this fine novel.