Sunday, August 31, 2008

Zuleika Dobson: or an Oxford Love Story (1911)

It is no secret that Dr. M and I really like lists. It is also common knowledge that I am a ridiculous woman who loves making spreadsheets. So, when we got a copy of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, complete with an extensive list of books that he thinks deserve to be canonized, we decided to read them. In alphabetical order by title. So: I made a spreadsheet! It's really a pretty nice one, and since we were able to find a copy of the list online, it mostly just involved a lot of cutting and pasting (really a lot, since there are 1521 titles on the list). And to be excessively strange about it, I am starting at the bottom of the list, and Dr. M is starting from the top.

Which brings us to Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (1911).

Zuleika Dobson is a satirical novel of life and love at Oxford in the Edwardian age. The title character is a compelling and beautiful woman who made her way in the world as a magician after the death of her parents. After a reconciliation with her grandfather, a Warden at Oxford, she comes to the University for a visit and instantly conquers the heart of every undergraduate. Zuleika is used to this kind of reaction and had previously turned down proposals from royalty and offers from wealthy industrialists. You see, Zuleika loves to be loved, but she can never love any of the men who are in love with her. Then she meets the Duke of Dorset, a confirmed bachelor who turns away as she rides by her carriage, snubs her at dinner, and ignores her batting eyelids and blushing cheeks. This, naturally, drives Zuleika wild. But little does she know, the Duke actually does love her. And that is where everything falls apart.

This novel takes a sharp look at love, class, ego, academia, and (of course) Oxford, without ever losing its quick pace and playfulness with the English language. It is also probably the funniest book you will ever read about mass suicide.

Beerbohm was a contemporary and friend of Oscar Wilde and was known as a wit and aesthete in turn of the (last) century London. He was a popular critic (who followed in the footsteps of George Bernard Shaw at the Saturday Review), satirist, and caricaturist. Zuleika Dobson was his only novel, and definitely one worth reading...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hiking Big Bend National Park (2005)

I am an information professional, which means I can get excited about doing a little bit of research. And yet, even though I am really looking forward to my upcoming trip to Big Bend, I hadn't done much more than poke around a bit at a few websites. The problem with the Internet is, if you don't really know what you are looking for, you find too much of it. That is probably why, when the lovely Joolie lent me Hiking Big Bend National Park by Laurence Parent (2005), I initially planned to just skim through it and look at the pictures, but got so excited about an actual, physical book, that I ended up reading the whole thing.

Parent gives a brief introduction to the park and some general hiking tips and then plows ahead with the meat of the book: detailed descriptions of 44 hikes in the park, along with three hikes in the nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park. Although parts of the descriptions are a bit dry (particularly if you haven't actually been there), Parent spices them up with interesting historical anecdotes and information about plant and animal life in the area, as well as some beautiful (although black and white) pictures.

Most importantly, now that I have actually read a physical book about the park, I have a way better idea of what I'm looking at when I check out a site like Texas Hiking (which has some nice descriptions of Big Bend trails, including some pictures), or the enticing panoramic pictures on the Virtual Big Bend page.

And now, even though Dr. M is completely tired of hearing about Big Bend, I can't wait to do a little more trip planning...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Helpful Hint

When smelling lotions in the aisle of the drugstore to figure out the cheapest one you can get that doesn't smell ultra-perfumy, take care to squeeze the bottle just enough to waft out some scent, but not so much that a squirt of lotion flies out and goes up your nose. I'm still not sure if anybody saw me, and it took a couple hours for the smell to work its way out of my nostril...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sweetsmoke (2008)

I got this copy of Sweetsmoke by David Fuller (2008) from the always wonderful LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program. It will be available for purchase in September (I think -- the cover isn't entirely clear).

Sweetsmoke is the story of Cassius, a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation in the middle of the Civil War. Cassius is a favorite of the master, Hoke Howard, and was trained as a carpenter which keeps him from the field work and gives him a little more independence than the other slaves. A horrible event in his past caused him to lose his wife and son, and almost lose his life, but he was healed by Emoline Justice, a former slave from the Sweetsmoke plantation who gained her freedom from Hoke. While he is recuperating in her home, she teaches him to read and write and opens up a second world when he is forced to return to the plantation. But then time passes, and Emoline is found murdered in her home. Although he is a slave with little freedom of movement and fewer rights, Cassius decides to solve the mystery of Justice's murder and avenge her death.

Fuller spent eight years researching this novel, and it shows in the knowing details of the landscape, the plantation house, and the quarters. Writing about slavery and the Civil War is a tricky proposition that can easily swerve into the land of overblown cliches, romanticizing, and melodramatic and manipulative action. Fuller doesn't do that, here. Horrible things happen, and many of the scenes are uncomfortable and sickening, as you might expect, but there is something else -- a straightforwardness in his characters and a focus in the story that makes this a really nice read.

Wanna borrow it?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Moustache bargain!

Free shipping at my friend Nikki's shop, bumbles & lu. Now you can buy me that moustache wallet, just like you always wanted! Lucky you!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Christmas Wish List, ca. 1961

A Christmas wish list from my dad to his older sister and her family, probably written in 1961 or 1962 (when he was 9 or 10). I think it was very nice of him to provide prices for everything (I'm guessing his mother prompted him to do that), and I hope he got his Spoook Hand, tiny camera, or U.S. Army Dragon Turbo Jet Helicopter (only 98 cents!). Just click the letter for a larger version.

[And see page one of the letter here -- I had no idea he called my Aunt Charlotte, Chazz...]

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Heat (2006)

I read Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford (2006), thanks to the lovely Choo who has an unlimited number of books that she is always graciously willing to loan.

Buford is a journalist (including 16 years as an editor for Granta, and a stint as the fiction editor for The New Yorker). After inviting Mario Batali to a dinner party, he decides to write a profile on Batali and his restaurant, Babbo, and embarks on a lengthy research-based journey as a slave in the Babbo kitchen -- chopping, carrying, picking, grating, braising, and boiling his way up to a spot in the kitchen during dinner service. Then after a brief period back at his desk job, Buford quits everything and goes back to Babbo.

This section of the book is an equal mix of profiles of the eccentric members of the kitchen staff, revelations of "shocking" kitchen secrets (Mario thinks the pasta dough is kneaded for 45 minutes, but they really only knead it for 10 minutes if he isn't around!), a history of Batali's education as a chef, and detailed descriptions of the work of a professional kitchen. It's this last part that was most interesting to me, and Buford's status as an outsider on the inside makes him a perfect guide. Since I don't have cable and have never seen "Molto Mario" or any of Batali's other shows, the biographical profile of him as a chef and the "behind the scenes" look at his personality was a little less interesting to me (although he is a pretty engaging character, so I got on board with him pretty quickly).

In the second half of the book, Buford follows the steps of the pre-Babbo Batali and goes to Italy to learn how to make pasta and later, to apprentice himself to a volatile and impulsive Tuscan butcher. Oddly enough, the fictional biography of Michelangelo that I read a few weeks ago takes place primarily in this same region of Italy, and I found a lot of overlap between Buford's historical profiling of the region and Irving Stone's meticulous recreation of the 15th century Tuscan countryside.

Luckily for me, Dr. M cooked exclusively pasta dishes this week, so I got a taste of the Italian food that I was reading about every day. This book made me very hungry.

If you have an interest in Italian cooking, the New York restaurant scene, or the life of a professional chef, then you won't go wrong reading this book. At the end Buford hints at a future book exploring French cooking in the same way, and I would love to read it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Camping Consumer

So, I'm going on a camping trip to Big Bend this October with some friends. Woo hoo! I've never really actually been on a camping trip before unless you consider high school drinking at the lake or a few times at a campground in Iowa with my dad and sisters when I was a kid (usually one of my sisters and I would end up putting the seats down in the car and sleeping in there). Since I've never really been camping, I don't have many supplies, and while I'm hoping I can borrow most of what I need, I'm only just beginning to realize the wonderful possibilities of outdoorsy consumerism.

There is a lot of stuff out there. And it is all fun and cool and brightly colored. And I want it all.

So far my only major purchase are the radical hiking shoes pictured above. I also bought a hat. But there are so many other neat things to covet: like a tent cot (which looks a little claustrophobic, but also like a personal fort); absolutely anything from the outdoorsy section of American Science & Surplus (possibly my favorite browsing catalogue on earth with surprisingly good copy writing and a little hand-drawn illustration for every item), but especially the survival kit, and the Maxi-Cool Multi-Tool (I love things that do more than one thing); some Superfeet insoles that the shoe guy got me thinking about; plus all the many camping items that fold, compress, pack neatly, and perform either a very specific task or a whole multitude of them.

And now I have to stop writing before I go buy this exciting stuff. Do you have any camping things I can borrow?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Though I Know She Lies (1965)

Though I Know She Lies (1965) is a solid mystery novel by Sara Woods, and is one of the nearly 50 "Antony Maitland" mysteries that she wrote in her 25 year career.

Antony Maitland is an English barrister who often works alongside his Uncle, Sir Nicholas -- who is also a barrister, although a much more orthodox one than his creative and hunch-filled nephew. Antony is called in by his uncle to do a little investigating on his case defending a beautiful woman who has been accused of murdering her sister. The case has just gone to trial, so there isn't much time, and Antony soon finds himself tied in knots around a series of witnesses who are all obviously lying, but about different things and for different reasons. And although Antony and the rest of the defense want to believe that their captivating client is innocent, they all suspect that they may just be duped by her beauty into wanting her to go free.

This is an engaging mystery with fun twists, turns, and red herrings, and a satisfying ending. If you like mystery novels, then I don't see how you could go wrong with Antony Maitland and his crotchety uncle.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


When I posted the other day about tasty iced peppermint tea, I forgot about my other new favorite summertime drink: limeade. I could drink this stuff all day. I make mine with all the limes and/or lemons in my fruit bowl that look like they might go weird soon (I try for at least six or seven of them -- enough to get between 3/4 and 1 cup of juice). Juice them into a pitcher. Add sugar to taste -- I am a sourpuss so I do about 1/3 cup of sugar to 1 cup of juice, but you could easily double that if you like the sweets. Stir the sugar and juice together like crazy until the sugar dissolves. Then fill up your pitcher with water (about a quart or so, I'd say). Stir it up some more. Taste it. Add more sugar if needed. Serve over ice.

And since all my favorite summertime drinks must be able to convert into cocktails at a moment's notice, don't forget that you can put vodka in this too!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Angelic Recordkeeping

This little pendant was very nicely bought for me by a work friend at an antiques store in New York while she was on vacation. Apparently there are angels for everything...

[And if that doesn't do it for you, check out the Hollandia beer bottle and Dr. Mystery. If you can even tell them apart.]

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961)

I've read one other Irving Stone book (The President's Lady -- a goofy historical romance based on Andrew Jackson and his wife), and while I am a total sucker for historical fiction, I didn't get into Stone's writing style at all. Why then did I just read the extremely long The Agony and the Ecstasy: the biographical novel of Michelangelo, and why do I also own (and plan to read) his Lust for Life, a fictional novel of the life of Van Gogh? The answer might be that I am a fast reader who will read anything. I'm also pretty patient and forgiving if I'm interested in the subject. However, even with all these qualifications, The Agony and the Ecstasy was a bit of a chore to get through.

Stone spent several years researching this epic novelization of the 90 year life of Michelangelo. He lived in Florence and Rome, had all of Michelangelo's letters and papers translated into English, worked in archives and libraries, and spent time with stonecutters, sculptors, painters and architects. While this probably gave his book more historical accuracy than a less intensively researched effort, he seemed to be compelled to fit every tidbit of his acquired knowledge into this book. This results in long lists of the architectural wonders of Florence, who sculpted them, when they were built, and what they are north, south, east or west of. We also get long lists of names of artists, politicians and other movers and shakers in 15th century Italy, along with who their fathers were and a list of their greatest accomplishments. As you might imagine, this distracts a bit from the main plot of the novel.

The plot itself eventually slides into a pattern of hills and valleys where Michelangelo is either excitedly working on a giant art project (David! The Sistine Chapel!) or unable to work because he has made a nobleman mad with his brusque nature or the pope who was sponsoring him just died. The descriptions of his artistic intentions and the process of creating his master works were worth reading, and generally well-written (although there were several rather forced metaphors comparing sculpting to sex, and one very very limpid sex scene that compared sex to sculpting). Michelangelo, like almost all the characters in this novel, is somewhat of a one trick pony. Once his personality is established at the beginning of the book, it stays unchanged until the very end. Each character that Michelangelo comes into contact with can immediately be labeled as a bad guy or a good guy, and with the amount of heavy-handed foreshadowing in the book there are few surprises as things move forward. By far the most interesting characters in the book are the Medici family -- a dynasty whose fortunes are closely intertwined with the history of Italy and Michelangelo's career, and a historical subject I'd really like to read more about.

So, not a glowing recommendation, but certainly worthwhile if you are a fast reader with an interest in art history or Italian politics. You can't borrow my copy, though, because I'm selling this big boy to Half Price Books to make room for less of a guilty (not so pleasurable) pleasure on my shelves.