On the Shelf: Jo Baker’s Longbourn

   I’ve wanted to read Longbourn, the clever and original new novel from Jo Baker, all year. Last week, I finally got my hands on it and it proved to be one of the first novels I’ve read in awhile that I absolutely devoured.  As in, staying up too late night after night even though I know I’ll wake up bleary-eyed the next morning.

Set in eighteenth-century England, Longbourn follows the ‘downstairs lives’ of the servants scarcely mentioned in Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice.  Austenites will find the novel especially delightful, but even if you’ve never read Pride and Prejudice, readers with a taste for evocative language and a setting which feels real enough to live in, will want to curl up with this cosy read.

Like millions of readers, I was enchanted by Pride and Prejudice; by the love story of Elizabeth Bennet and her Mr. Darcy; appalled at the self-importance of Mr. Collins and humored by the high-strung antics of Mrs. Bennet. Longbourn not only heightened this interest, but offered a deeply satisfying and engrossing perspective on P&P’s other world through the observations and experiences of the servants.

Baker’s careful and considered details brought regency England to life while her realistically-drawn characters offered fascinating insights into what life was like for most people. This is not the England of ball gowns and pump rooms, but one in which day to day living is only wrought by cracked hands, sore backs and hour after hour of exhausting labor.

Above all, you’ll become deeply concerned for Sarah, a young servant discovering what it means to find happiness and fulfillment in a class-constrained world. You’ll cheer on her budding romance with James and effortlessly turn the pages for hints, clues and lush details about the characters’ past and present lives which are anything but simple.

If you enjoyed Crusoe’s Daughter, you’ll definitely enjoy Longbourn.

Our New Nightime Ritual

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Hello, everyone! I hope today finds you well and appreciating the fact that we’re one day closer to spring. Even in cold and snowy Minnesota, the days are starting to get longer and it’s made a world of difference in my mood. Thank goodness for light! Outside of the longer days, I’ve also been sleeping so much better and I’m excited to let you in on my secret.

I’ve always been a nighttime reader, turning pages until well past my bedtime and drinking one too many cups of coffee the next day as retribution. And as much as this was worth it, I always felt somewhat guilty a) leaving the light on b) isolating Brady during these rare quiet minutes. Never did I think that getting a Nook would be the solution.

I’m traditional in almost every sense of the word and the familiar feel and weight of books has been a comfort to me for as long as I can remember. I also loved the sense of accomplishment from growing my own library and lending favorite reads to friends; not to mention decorating with books. So it was with keen resistance that I let Brady get me a Nook for Valentines. My impetus was that it would make traveling light so much easier-and it has-but it’s also made our nighttime ritual much sweeter.

Instead of delving into my private world, we’ve fell into the routine of listening to audio books together. We recently finished The Jungle Book and have just started A Tale of Two Cities and since starting this routine, we’ve both been sleeping better. Maybe it’s the comfort of being read to or the fact that you can’t dwell on worries when you’re listening to a story, but it’s one of the best things we’ve done together this year. Simple and worthwhile.

Do you always read before bed? Have you ever listened to audio books before falling asleep?

Image courtesy of @NookBN

 

 

On the Shelf: Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle

captureI hope it’s true  I’m not the only book fiend who hadn’t yet read Dodie Smith’s beloved novel I Capture the Castle and hope that if you haven’t already gulped it down, you’ll do so right away. As The Weekly Standard quipped upon its reissue fifty years after its release, the novel is “much more fun than the reader has any right to expect.”I call it the sort of novel which goes down like a warm cup of tea and plump slice of butter cream cake. In short, Cassandra Mortmain’s journal entries which sharply and freshly chronicle her eccentric family’s curious life and unexpected adventures are a delightful indulgence.

My first experience with the novel took place when I was seventeen. My older sister had moved to British Columbia for school and returned innately more fascinating and worldly.  She had brought the movie with her and curled up in the basement with our family’s dachshunds, I met Cassandra played by the brilliant Romola Garai and her classically beautiful sister, Rose (Rose Byrne). My naïve, culpable self instantly related to Cassandra’s keen observations about love and relationships and finally reading the novel this past month felt like returning to my formative years; to the days before boyfriends, college and marriage when the future was a deliciously clean canvas.

Before I gush about the sparkling writing, I’ll briefly mention the clever, instantly engaging story-line which follows the Mortmain Family’s comically sad life. Living in an old English castle, the family somehow subsides off stale biscuits and tea until the unexpected appearance of two brothers, one of which whom owns the castle the Mortmains call home. The brothers, Neil and Simon, are opposites much like Cassandra and Rose, and as the sisters and Topaz, their colorful stepmother, attempt to conceal their poverty, Neil and Simon are amused. The action which follows is satisfying, unpredictable and ever witty.

Smith’s lush yet specific language makes the story float right along and this is the first book since Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic which made me belly-laugh. Cassandra’s antidotes and descriptions of everyday life are dry and always on the mark. During a dinner party with the Fox-Cottons, Cassandra asks Neil how he likes Rose’s dress. His reply:

“Not very much, if you want the honest truth—it’s too fussy for me. But she looks very pretty in it. Knows it, too, doesn’t she?”

There was a twinkle in his eye which took off the rudeness. And I must admit that Rose was knowing it all over the place.

When the Mortmains, to their glee, receive a gift of ham from the Fox-Cottons, Cassandra describes it as “a meal of glory.” After hearing the cistern bubble and remembering it is her night to bathe, Cassandra’s romantic logic continues: “Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cure for depression.”

Another beautifully captured scene is Cassandra’s desperate swim with Neil in the mote in which she recalls:

I felt like with the moonlight, the music, the scent of the stocks and having swum round a six-hundred-year-old-mote, romance was really getting a splendid leg up and it seemed an awful waste that we weren’t in love with each other…

If you find yourself with time before bed tonight or a few spare hours this weekend, find a copy of I Capture the Castle and prepare to have your cake and eat it too.

On the Shelf: Love in the Time of Cholera

ImageLove in the Time of Cholera is, at its core, a story both about the buoyant unpredictability and unchanging grasp of love.  The novel begins with the sudden death of Fermina Daza’s lifelong husband and, thus, her former life. Shortly thereafter, her childhood sweetheart, Florentino Ariza returns to profess his “eternal fidelity and everlasting love” to her. Fermina is initially outraged by Florentino’s bold confession, but as the story continues, she becomes aware of the utter truth of his sentiments.

Against a colorful Caribbean backdrop alive with textures, aromas and taste, Marquez expertly weaves his tale, seamlessly unfolding Fermina and Florentino’s idyllic romantic past and tumultuous romantic present. In the process, the reader feels the constant weight of Florentino’s passion and the lingering burden of Fermina’s first refusal.

I began this novel because, first and foremost, I was drawn to the evocative colors of the cover and the exotic ambience of the synopsis. Within the first few pages, I instantly felt the novel’s atmospheric heat and pulse and enjoyed the inside access it gave me to sweet Florentino and, from first glance, stony Fermina.

About half way through the novel, I remember feeling distinctly impatient. After all, Florentino and Fermina were in their forties—wait now sixties—and if they’re really meant to be, they wouldn’t wait a lifetime to be together. Do they?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez makes you experience the yearning and feel the unbending chain of time as Florentino and Fermina live their lives together and apart. This novel will cause you to appreciate the pulse of your own love affair or, as Florentino would do, create a new love story.

Xx E.

The Best Coffee Table Books

photo courtesy of The Glitter Guide

photo courtesy of The Glitter Guide

Maybe it’s because I’m no longer living out of a suitcase in a very tiny room or because I’m no longer over drafting in textbooks every fall (one of the few perks of adulthood!), but , for whatever reason, I’ve been obsessed with coffee table books this year.

Not only do books bring immediate personality and character to a room, but an interesting book—even a great cover— is an instant conversation starter.  It’s a perfect way to express your interests to others and, for me, there’s no better way to spend a few extra minutes than moseying through beautiful photographs and words.

I’m still in the process of creating my collection, but a few favorites on my coffee table are:

The New York Times’ 36 Hours Series

I’ve long loved the NYT travel section and when their 36 Hour Travel Series was anthologized in beautiful, cloth-bound pastels covers, I couldn’t be more thrilled. I currently have The 36 Hours in Europe book and look forward to collecting the rest. I love browsing through the full-color pages remembering my adventures in Europe and plotting out the destinations I’ve still got to see.

Paris in Color

I heard about this new book via a Parisian blog and ordered it from Amazon on the spot. To my delight, the photographs are truly representative of the Paris I remember from my visit last spring and are a sure way of adding vibrancy to any ho-hum day.

Audrey always has to be in the picture!

Audrey always has to be in the picture!

The Life and Love of Trees

I spotted this stunning book in a little boutique in pretty Excelsior, Minnesota and loved how it infused the space with nature and energy. For those of us with a black thumb, this is the perfect way of bringing the outdoors in.

The French Dog

If you’re anything like me, you’ve dreamed of escaping to France to live a quiet life of drinking good wine, savoring perfect cheeses and enjoying leisurely walks through the French countryside…perhaps what I’m really dreaming about is the life of a French dog? While they may not sip champagne, these pooches charmingly captured by Rachael Hale certainly live the good life.

Les Petits Macaroons: Colorful Confections to Make at Home

This was a sweet gift I received from my in-laws after they toured the California Culinary Academy. While I’m guilty of not yet attempting to make these pretty treats, I’ve definitely taken my fill of the beautiful photographs and reading through the scrumptious, honestly easy to follow recipes.

Design Sponge At Home

Yes, I admit: when I purchased this book right after our October wedding, I knew I had been missing out for far too long, but no more. This book has become my go-to guide for awesome DIY ideas and home inspiration. I’ve looked through it dozens of times, but still take a peek or two when  in need of décor motivation.

What are your favorite coffee table books? Where do you shop for  them?

Xo, Em