Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Do you like it?

Ours was a quick courtship. We had been dating for five months when we first started talking about marriage. So I did what any sensible girl would do when faced with a prospective groom, I began to look for a ring. By June, I had found it. My next move was to leave a message on his voice mail with the item code and ring size. His next move? A proposal a week later. 

But as anyone who is married knows, the true story begins after the vows are exchanged. J. Courtney Sullivan smartly adheres to that principle in her novel The Engagements. But first, she introduces Frances Gerety.  In the opening pages, we meet Frances who not only creates an ad slogan, but the tradition of proposing with a diamond engagement ring. Following Frances through her career, we discover with each new ad campaign how she remakes the diamond’s image according to the mineral resources, and pocketbooks, of each decade. 

Interspersed throughout Frances’ tale, are the stories of four couples. We read about their courtships, engagements, affairs, and disappointments. And of course we find out about their rings, which reflect the expectations and fashions of each time. By housing each couple in a unique setting and only revealing their story in parts, Sullivan succeeds in building genuine interest.  

Although she skips from Philadelphia to Paris, from 1947 to 2012, Sullivan rewards the patient reader by cleverly tying the five stories together toward the end of the novel. The ending is almost as gratifying as hearing those four little words. And saying yes.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Visitors

January of 1922, a young girl and her guardian travel to Cairo. Recovering from illness, Lucy Payne is slowly coaxed out of her malaise with picnics under the pyramids, tea parties with archaeologists, and ballet lessons with her new friends Rose and Frances. Returning home to a devious tutor and absent father, Lucy has only her growing library of Egyptian lore to keep her company. 

The Visitors by Sally Beauman also introduces us to Lucy in her nineties.  Here, she reminisces with Rose while evading the prying questions of a documentary filmmaker. Their conversation foreshadows Carter's discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun and Lucy's own discoveries regarding Carter. 

Whether traveling through 1922 Cairo or 2002 Highgate, Beauman's characters are well-drawn to time and place. The reader, in turn, is drawn into the mystery of this multi-layered tale. And won't want to leave.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Last Book You'll Read by the Pool (this year anyway)

With Labor Day weekend quickly approaching, I realized I have been remiss in finding a good summer reading list. Browsing CNN this week, I found this post from July.

Since I've already read these in the hardback version, I wouldn't mind throwing these paperbacks in next to the sunscreen. Luckily for us Texans the pool bag doesn't get put away until October.

1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
5. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
12. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The following, however, might have to wait for the Christmas list…

2. The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan
3. Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris
13. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Having studied Virginia Woolf as an undergraduate, I was pleased to see a children's book titled Virginia Wolf on the library endcap. I picked it up and discovered that Kyo Maclear, the author, was inspired by Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell. 

"One day my sister Virginia woke up feeling wolfish," Vanessa tells us on the opening page. Lightly painted in color by Isabelle Arsenault, the first illustration features a smashed alarm clock and wolf ears peeking out of the bed clothes. Vanessa describes how her sister's mood brings the whole house down: "bright became dim and glad became gloom." As we turn the pages, the pale washes of color darken to stark blacks and whites. Vanessa tries to cheer Virginia up but is unsuccessful. Finally,Virginia tells her about a place that would brighten her mood: Bloomsberry. Soon, Vanessa has painted the walls, and black and white blossoms into turquoise birds and purple butterflies. Seeing the vivid world, Virginia is ready once again to go outside and play. 

Sold on both story and pictures, I snuck the book into my daughter's already sagging book bag. I thought it may have been skipped over or ignored, but she brought it in just now and said, "Mommy, can I read this to you?" Not only do I love hearing her confidence in reading, but I also love hearing her asides as she flips the pages. "See, you get a surprise at the end," she said on the last page. When her brother didn't understand the surprise, she explained, "See how she looks like a wolf, but she's actually a girl with a bow. You think she's a wolf sister but then she's a girl."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Yes, Chef

"I have never seen a picture of my mother, but I know how she cooked," begins chef Marcus Samuelsson in the opening pages of his memoir Yes, Chef.
Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, but he and his older sister were adopted as children by Swedish parents. Influenced by his grandmother's kitchen, Samuelsson decides as a teenager to pursue a career in cooking. 

From Switzerland he works his way to Austria, and eventually lands a position in a Swedish restaurant in New York. Rollerblading through Chinatown and past Indian groceries, his taste buds are opened to international cuisines, spices, and textures. As one mentor reminds him, "Food is not just about flavor. It has countless dimensions, and one is visual. What do you want it to look like? What do you want the customer to see?"

And the reader easily visualizes, through Samuelsson's fascinating memories and Veronica Chambers' writing polish, not only his signature dishes but the markets, kitchens, and friends that have shaped him. Samuelsson reminds us it is not about the accolades of a Top Chef win or a White House dinner, but hard work, curiosity, and humility.