Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Spectacles: A Memoir by Sue Perkins (2015)

One of my favorite television shows has become the The Great British Bake Off, a competition among amateur bakers taking on challenges posed by the judges, the lovely Mary Berry and the serious Paul Hollywood. It's a nice hour of television that focuses on baking and the contestants without everyone turning on one another. I resisted watching the show for the longest time, but the thing that drew me to The Great British Bake Off was the humor of the presenters.

Presenting the show is the comedy team of Sue Perkins and Mel Gierdoyc. I love the wit these women bring with the play on words and often naughty innuendo and the way they bring such a spirit of fun to the proceedings.

When I heard about Sue Perkins' recent autobiography, Spectacles, I wanted to read it. The book doesn't disappoint. I can't recall when I've laughed so hard while reading a book. Perkins writes with a distinctive voice and has the gift of telling a story in a hilarious way. Honestly, several times I had to put the book down and laugh. 

I enjoyed reading about Perkins' childhood as well as her time at Cambridge and how she became part of the illustrious comedy group, the Cambridge Footlights. It was also fun to read about how she met her comedy partner, Mel, and their beginnings as a comedy team. There's also a chapter about the Great British Bake Off that sheds a bit of light about what goes on behind the scenes. 

Spectacles isn't all laughs, though, and the book has its poignant moments. Several of those moments brought tears to my eyes.

Perkins' writing style is fantastic. I hope she'll try her hand at fiction one day.

Most of all, I appreciate the fact that Spectacles made me laugh. Laughter is a gift in this time when the news is so dreadful. 

Needless to say, I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros: The Way Back Home by Freya North

Happy Tuesday! I'm taking part in First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea where bloggers share a bit about what they're reading or planning to read soon.

The Way Back Home by Freya North (2015) caught my eye a few months ago, and I bought the book with summer reading in mind.

From the back cover:

"Born and brought up in an artists' commune in Debyshire, Oriana Taylor had freedom at her fingertips in a house full of extraordinary people. 

Malachy and Jed, two brothers, shared their childhood and teenage years with Oriana. In the rambling old mansion and tangled grounds, their dreams and desires took wing unchecked.

But too much freedom comes at a price. Something happened the summer they were fifteen. And now, almost twenty years later, Oriana is back."

This is their story."

The opening:

"When I was . . .

When I was born there were already other children at Windward. None was beyond toddling age and, as such, we were grouped together pretty much like the clumps of perennials in the garden, or the globs of paint on a palette in one of the studios, or the music which drifted from the top rooms--discordant notes that, as a whole, wove together into a quirky harmony of sorts. We were who we were, the children of Windward--a little ragtaggle tribe further defining the ethos and eccentricity of the place."

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Reading New England: American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever

American Bloomsbury--Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work by Susan Cheever (2006) caught my eye earlier this year at a used book sale. I loved the title, and right away, I knew that a book about the Transcendentalists was something I wanted to read for the nonfiction category of Reading New England over at Emerald City Book Review.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, known as the "sugar daddy" of the group (Cheever's words, not mine), provided the financial means for this group to write as well as places in Concord for them to live. Although Emerson conducted lecture tours at various times in his life to generate income, he was also independently wealthy from the fortune he inherited upon his first wife's death. Emerson made much of this money available to finance the ventures of the Transcendentalists. Emerson's connections and his influence was also invaluable in launching the careers of several of the writers.

Cheever covers a lot of ground in American Bloomsbury, from 1840 through 1868, and she portrays the group as the hippies of their day, thumbing their noses at society. I loved knowing the background on writers' lives, and it was fascinating to read about the relationships between the writers.  

Cheever focuses at length on author and women's' rights advocate Margaret Fuller and her relationships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Emerson's wife would burst into tears whenever Fuller appeared at the Emerson home where Fuller was a frequent visitor, often staying with the Emersons for weeks at a time. However, Hawthorne's wife, Sophia, treated Fuller as a friend and welcomed her husband's spending time with Fuller so that she could devote her time to her passion as an artist. Fuller's relationship with Emerson did her no good professionally. Fuller was the editor of his literary journal, The Dial, but Emerson refused to pay her the wages that he owed her. Eventually, she moved to Europe, only to die an untimely death in a shipwreck on a trip to the United States.

Although Cheever's narrative is a bit rambling at times, I learned a lot about the Transcendentalists. Cheever's enthusiasm for Concord makes me want to visit and see what the place is like. Also, reading American Bloomsbury has given me an interest in reading the work of Margaret Fuller and the early writings of Louisa May Alcott.    

I would recommend American Bloomsbury to anyone interested in these writers or reading about how the literary movement of the Transcendentalists came to be.

From left to right: Louisa May Alcott; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Margaret Fuller; Nathaniel Hawthorne; and Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Betrayal and Happenstance in The Reef by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton's 1912 novel The Reef is on my list for the Classics Club. I had the chance to delve into the novel last week, but it left me with mixed feelings. 

In The Reef, George Darrow is a diplomat travelling from London to France to propose to Anna Leath. George and Anna have known each other for years, but she's now a widow with a young daughter, Effie, and a stepson, Owen. Owen will soon inherit Givré, the estate where Anna, Effie and Owen live with Anna's mother-in-law, Madame de Chantelle. 

George's trip takes a different turn when he receives a telegram from Anna asking that he postpone his visit. Feeling weary of being put off by Anna, he decides to go to Paris. He meets Sophy Viner, a beautiful young woman who is also on her way to Paris to start her career in the theater. Sophy has no money, so George decides to show her Paris, and soon they begin an affair.

Months later, George gets his chance to propose to Anna. He visits her at Givré where a family drama is taking place. Owen wants to marry, but Madame de Chantelle doesn't approve of the young woman he wants to marry. George finds an unexpected and an unwelcome coincidence that Sophy is not only Effie's governess but also Owen's fiancée. 

George and Sophy try to keep their past relationship a secret. He's given little thought to Sophy or what happened between them in Paris. George tries to influence whether Sophy and Owen will marry and takes several opportunities to speak to Sophy in private, suggesting that she leave Givré and continue with her career in the theater. It soon becomes impossible for them to keep their secret. Much of the second half of the novel deals with the feelings of the characters and Anna's attempt to decide whether she can marry George after his betrayal.

Although I loved the writing in the novel and found the characters interesting, the last few chapters of the book left me wanting more. In these chapters, the story moved back and forth from the French countryside to Paris as Anna tried to decide what to do. The ending seemed a little ambivalent and abrupt. I'm still not sure exactly what happened, or what Anna finally decided. 

In reading about The Reef, I found a quote from Edith Wharton. Apparently, The Reef wasn't her favorite novel, and she called it "a poor miserable lifeless lump." I certainly wouldn't go that far, but I did want more from the story. Having said this, however, I would still recommend The Reef, especially for readers who enjoy Wharton's novels.

Have you read The Reef?