Category Archives: Review

Books Worth Reading: Badass Women Edition

There’s something called the rapture of the deep, and it refers to what happens when a deep-sea diver spends too much time at the bottom of the ocean and can’t tell which way is up. When he surfaces, he’s liable to have a condition called the bends, where the body can’t adapt to the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. All this happens to me when I surface from a great book.

– Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad About My Neck

You and me both, Nora.

There is nothing quite like surfacing from a deeply absorbing novel – you feel like you have left a part of yourself behind in its world. Some books you never entirely recover from, and they remain a part of your psyche and shape your worldview long after you have turned the last page (I’m looking at you, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ).

However, I have a tendency to dive into similar works of fiction again and again, so I decided that this installment of Books Worth Reading would explore previously uncharted waters (or at least those I had not previously dipped my toes into).

And with that, I bring you this new selection.

Most of these authors are contemporary; all of them are incredible. Go forth and read.


Jenny Wren: Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Girl

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We begin our jaunt very much within my 19th century comfort zone.

In fact, I’m pretty sure this book was written just for me.

A collection of essays published anonymously (under the pseudonym Jenny Wren) in the 1890s, the book deals with topics that are still relevant to the modern woman, from falling in love and tolerating babies to afternoon tea and slightly rude parlor games.

If this passage doesn’t pique your interest in Jenny’s delightfully biting essays, I don’t know what will:

“For those who have a taste for speaking spitefully of their neighbours, I can suggest an amusing game which was, I believe, started in Oxford. It is called Photograph Whist and is played by four. Two or three dozen photographs are dealt round and each person plays one, he who plays the ugliest portrait taking the trick. The more hideous the photograph, the greater its value as a trump! I have played the game with a man who always keeps his brother to the end and then brings him out with enormous success, the said brother never failing to overtrump any other card in the pack! So you see it is a most amiable game altogether. You must only be careful not to spread your doings abroad, or no one will present you with their portraits ever again.”

19th-Century Twentysomethings — They’re Just Like Us!


Anne Brönte: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

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You may not have heard of Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and you certainly wouldn’t be alone in that. It is not nearly as well known (or as much adapted) as some of the works by the other Brönte sisters, like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

However, its obscurity is not well-deserved.

Because of its unflinching portrayals of alcoholism and escape from spousal abuse, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was so controversial that Charlotte Brönte suppressed its publication after Anne’s death.

But this is a work that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

One passage about the need for equality in the moral education of boys and girls had me practically cheering, so I thought I would reproduce it here:

“Well, Mr. Markham, you maintain that a boy should not be shielded from evil, but sent out to battle against it, alone and unassisted […] – but would you use the same argument with regard to a girl?’ […] ‘No; you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant – taught to cling to others for direction and support, and guarded, as much as possible, from the very knowledge of evil.

[…] You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters must not even profit by the experience of others. […] I would not send a poor girl into the world, unarmed against her foes, and ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself.”

#feminismbeforeitwascool

Speaking of underappreciated Bröntes, read Charlotte’s Villette. There’s a classic Brönte heroine (who may not be what she seems), a ghostly nun, and a whole lot of 19th century snark.

#postmodernismbeforeitwascool


Susannah Cahalan: Brain on Fire

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I picked this book up at the airport bookstore with no context other than a spontaneous recommendation from a fellow shopper who saw me scanning the back cover.

Two pages in, I was hooked.

This harrowing autobiography chronicles the author’s apparent descent into madness – and eventual recovery due to the diagnosis of a rare autoimmune disease.

While it moves at the pace of a mystery thriller, the story continued to smolder in my mind long after my plane landed and I turned the last page.


Deborah Blum: The Poisoner’s Handbook

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I have a serious weakness for Agatha Christie, secretly enjoy watching forensic procedurals, and am endlessly fascinated with America in the 1920s (Exhibit A).

Since The Poisoner’s Handbook fits perfectly at the intersection between these interests, I was expecting to love it. However, the story of the beginnings of forensic pathology (and particularly poison detection) in New York City in the Jazz Age exceeded even my wildest expectations.

Equal parts political intrigue and corruption, true crime, and chemistry, The Poisoner’s Handbook is a must-read for anyone with an interest in mystery, history, or science.

When you’re done, pick up Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon for even more true stories of scientific achievement. In this case, the subtitle says it all: “True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements.”

Then, pick up Simon Garfield’s Mauve to find out “How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World” and Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman for “A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.”

History is crazy, ya’ll!


Karen Abbott: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

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Speaking of history (and badass women), Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy takes a close look at four female spies during the American Civil War.

  • Belle Boyd is a young Southern firebrand whose complete lack of subtlety is more than made up for by her complete lack of fear. Determined to catch the attention of Stonewall Jackson, Belle brazenly flirts with Union officers while smuggles messages to the Confederates right under their noses.
  • Emma Edmonds enlists in the Union army as Frank Thompson, where she is tapped as a spy and, during several missions, finds herself as a women dressed as a man dressed as a woman.
  • Rose O’Neale Greenhow is a DC socialite turned Confederate spy. Engaging in scandalous affairs with Union officers and high-ranking politicians to gather information, she continued to use her young daughter to gather information and convey coded messages even after she was placed under arrest.
  • Elizabeth Van Lew is a wealthy abolitionist living in the Confederate capital. Disgusted by the politics of slavery and secession, she builds up a wide-ranging spy ring and helps Northern prisoners escape – all while being repeatedly investigated by suspicious rebel detectives.

The courage, resourcefulness, and cool thinking under pressure of all of these women is both inspiring and riveting.


Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries, The Rehearsal

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The Luminaries may be an intimidating 850 pages, but by the time I turned the last I was wishing there were 850 more.

Eleanor Catton’s New Zealand gold rush mining town – and the cast of characters with which it is inhabited – are impeccably wrought, and while the novel is full of murder, prostitution, opium, and (of course) gold, it never slips into the sensational.

The story centers around Walter Moody, a fledgling prospector who ends up unearthing rather more secrets than gold when he unwittingly stumbles into a secret council his first night in town. Layered over this tale of murder and mystery is a celestial structure, wherein each member of the council is associated with one of the signs of the zodiac. Additional characters, including Walter Moody, are associated with the heavenly bodies. Furthermore, the novel is divided into 12 successively shorter sections, mirroring the waning of the moon.

But just as the plot never veers into the sensational, the symbolism manages to avoid seeming gimmicky. In fact, it is subtle enough that you could easily choose to ignore it entirely as you read. In any case, if you enjoyed the first two installments of Amitav Ghosh’s similarly opium-fueled Ibis trilogy (the third has yet to be published), you will love The Luminaries.

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Eleanor Catton’s other novel, The Rehearsal, is something else entirely. An exploration of the aftermath of a high school student’s affair with her music teacher and the local performing arts school’s appropriation of the scandal, the story is alternately seen through the high school student’s younger sister and a first-year drama student. While the plot, the characters, and even the writing style could not be farther from the gold fields of The Luminaries, The Rehearsal is hauntingly absorbing in its own right. If nothing else, it proves Eleanor Catton’s impressive versatility as a writer.

I know I’m looking forward to her next novel, whatever it might be!


Catherine Lacey: Nobody Is Ever Missing

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When Elyria buys a one-way ticket to New Zealand – leaving behind her husband and her middle-class New York life – she is really trying to run away from herself.

The novel’s run-on sentences bear you along through the currents of Elyria’s mind as she hitchhikes alone through an unknown country. But what we find out in the title, she has to learn the hard way: Nobody is ever missing…from themselves.

Here’s a beautiful passage that embodies the mood and tone of much of the novel:

What’s your trouble? He asked me. Tell me your trouble, baby.

I looked back at him like I didn’t have any trouble to tell because that’s my trouble, I thought, not knowing how to tell it, and this is why my favorite thing about airport security is how you can cry the whole way through and they’ll only try to figure out whether you’ll blow up. They’ll still search you if they want to search you. They’ll still try to detect metal on you. They’ll still yell about laptops and liquids and gels and shoes, and no one will ask what’s wrong because everything is already wrong, and they won’t look twice at you because they’re only paid to look once. And for this, sometimes, some people are thankful.

Who hasn’t felt this way in an airport sometime? Who hasn’t at some point felt the urge to run away?

In this passage and throughout, Nobody Is Ever Missing is simultaneously opaque and utterly relatable.


Looking for more? Check out Books Worth Reading, More Books Worth Reading, and Even More Books Worth Reading, the first three installments in this series, for additional thoughts and recommendations.

I would also love to hear your thoughts and recommendations, so please feel free to leave some in the comments!

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Even More Books Worth Reading

One of my absolute favorite parts of being a grown-up remains the ability to take the time to explore new authors and read as much as I want to for pleasure. I have certainly been taking advantage of this opportunity, and have been reading even more this year than I did as a Comparative Literature major back in school (ok – maybe not that much – but it’s certainly close!).

As you will discover in the reviews below, the thread running through my most recent round of literary discovery is fantasy and the surreal with, as usual, a touch of mystery thrown in for good measure. This time around, I also took a brief detour into the world of (surprise!) non-fiction for several fascinating books about the history of the English language.

Here are my quick reviews. I would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations as well!


Haruki Murakami: 1Q84, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, After Dark, & Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Unknownbks-afterdarkthe_windup_bird_chronicle1q84As you can tell from this and the last Books Worth Reading post, I’ve been on quite the Murakami kick lately. With good reason too – if you have not read anything written by this man, drop everything and head to the library (or Kindle store) right now!

All of his books share a haunting sense of semi-surreality and incredibly evocative imagery, and all include at least one awesomely mundane scene where the protagonist whips up a simple (yet delicious!) meal. Murakami, you certainly know how to make me hungry!

Of the four listed above, the one that really stood out for me was 1Q84 (pronounced one-cue-eighty-four in English – in Japanese, the pronunciation for the number 9 and the letter Q are the same). The novel takes place in – surprise, surprise –1984, and begins with the protagonist, Aomame, slipping unknowingly into a dystopian alternate version of reality (the “Q” in the title stands for “question,” as Aomame must figure out where she has ended up and how – and if – she can return). As it progresses, Aomame’s story intertwines with that of Tengo, a ghostwriter who takes on an unusual project – which quickly turns out to be much more than it seems.

The novel is composed of 3 books and runs to nearly 1,000 pages, so any attempt to distill the complex plot to a few sentences is doomed to fail. Suffice it to say that 1Q84 is the most deeply satisfying of Murakami’s novels, and the world it creates is as convincing as the reality we live in.

As for the others, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle explores the increasingly surreal happenings that befall the unemployed protagonist, Toru Okada, after his wife’s cat runs away and she subsequently abandons him. The novel is part detective story, part love story, and part historical fiction as Toru’s investigation unburies secrets from Japan’s forgotten Manchurian campaign during WWII. After Dark was the quickest read and the most forgettable of the four listed above. It takes entirely between the hours of midnight and dawn as an ensemble of odd characters collide in a seedy section of Tokyo. Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World was another one of my favorites. It is split between two narratives – that of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland and that of the End of the World. The two distinctly dystopian narratives gradually converge, and in the process the novel explores the concepts of identity and the unconscious mind.


George R. R. Martin: Song of Ice and Fire series

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After weeks of being the only one at work who couldn’t join in the (many, many) conversations about the HBO series Game of Thrones, I decided to finally break down and actually read the books. Various people have been recommending the Song of Ice and Fire series to me since 2008, and I have been lent the first book in the series, Game of Thrones, on several occasions. As much as I love fantasy novels in general, I had resisted beginning the series for so long because it reminded me too much of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which I had a rather embarrassing level of obsession with in middle school.

Eventually, uncomfortable flashbacks to 7th grade aside, Song of Ice and Fire (or, more accurately, the TV version Game of Thrones) became such a cultural force that I couldn’t ignore it any longer.

And I’m glad.

Flawed as the books may be (excessive rape scenes, female characters who are consistently defined by their appearance, stomach-churning amounts of often superfluous violence), the stories are incredibly well-crafted in their complexity and the characters are horribly and relatably human. Even when I was utterly disgusted, I couldn’t put these books down.

So, if you haven’t already, it’s worth giving these a read. It’s also worth taking some time to consider the role of women in fantasy literature and why “historical accuracy” isn’t much of an excuse for making all your female characters either mothers or sex objects (and why one token “warrior woman” isn’t enough). The articles listed below go a long way towards explaining why even though George R. R. Martin (admirably) said this:

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…his depictions of women and the world that he created can still be considered problematic.

Sexism in Historical Fantasy

Authentic Sexism in Fantasy: Let’s Unpack That

By the way – the books left with absolutely NO desire to see the show. Less complexity and more graphic violence? No thanks.


Carlos Ruiz Zafón: The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, & The Prisoner of Heaven

The-Prisoner-of-Heavenangelthe-shadow-of-the-wind-by-carlos-ruiz-zafonI first discovered Carlos Ruiz Zafón in high school, when I was working retail in Portland, Maine’s scenic Old Port. Summers in Maine are gorgeous, and so I liked to take my half-hour lunch breaks outside, across the street. One day, as I settled down to eat my sandwich on a sculptural bench, I noticed a book seemingly abandoned beside me. The Shadow of the Wind. Picking it up to look, I found a sticker inside the front cover saying that the book was meant to be passed along from person to person – read, and then placed strategically for someone else to find. Intrigued, I began to read.

I was entranced. The first in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series (the three titles above are the only three so far), The Shadow of the Wind take place in post-Civil War Barcelona. In the novel, the young Daniel Sempere comes across a mysterious book by an even more mysterious author. Captivated, he probes into its murky past and uncovers much more than he bargained for.

The other two books likewise center around the Sempere & Sons book store and involve a visit to the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books. In The Angel’s Game, a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind, struggling author of pulp fiction David Martín takes on a suspicious commission from a sinister publisher in hopes that it will allow him to reclaim some part of his shattered life. Although not as strong and satisfying as The Shadow of the Wind – the plot is perhaps overly melodramatic and a shade difficult to follow – The Angel’s Game is still a fascinating read, especially in the context of the series. The Prisoner of Heaven, which again takes up Daniel Sempere’s storyline, is a much stronger effort. Zafón returns from the metaphysical mysteries of The Angel’s Game to the more personal and political drama of The Shadow of the Wind.

All three are thrilling examples of modern Gothic fiction, and the richness of Zafón’s language and characterization ensure that his tales of blood and darkness will captivate even when the plot stretches thin.


Maureen Johnson: The Name of the Star & The Madness Underneath

the-madness-underneath-pic1the-name-of-the-star-by-maureen-johnsonFull disclosure: I LOVE young adult fantasy novels, and in particular young adult fantasy novels featuring strong and spunky female leads.

The first two (and unfortunately as yet only) books in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series certainly fit the bill. I discovered the series (and the author) during a visit to sunny southern California to visit my friend and fellow fantasy-lover Kate. She entrusted to me a copy of The Madness Underneath to bring back to St. Louis as a birthday present for our mutual friend Catie. Intrigued by Kate’s effusive recommendation and the synopsis on the back cover, I ended up downloading the first book – The Name of the Star – on my phone and reading the entire novel on the plane ride back to St. Louis. I followed up with The Madness Underneath and polished off both books before bedtime.

In some ways reminiscent of Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit series (another of my perennial favorites), the books follow American transplant Rory Deveaux’s involvement with the secret ghost police of London.

In The Name of the Star, Rory’s new London boarding school finds itself at the center of a series of brutal murders mimicking the Jack the Ripper killings of more than a century before. The only one to see the prime suspect, Rory races to solve the mystery of the murderer’s identity before it’s too late. Closely following The Name of the Star chronologically, The Madness Underneath tracks Rory’s return to London and the sinister events that follow. Rather than being a self-contained mystery like the first novel, The Madness Underneath is clearly a set-up for the rest of the series.

I can’t wait to see what the next novel – the as yet unpublished Shadow Cabinet – will bring!


Bill Bryson: Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language

Unknown-1Further disclosure: I am an English nerd, and never tire of reading books of pop etymology and linguistics.

This is where my reading takes a sharp turn from the fantastic into the linguistic.

Bill Bryson has been a favorite of mine since I first read A Walk in the Woods back in high school, and I have read practically every work in his oeuvre since (with the notable exception of A Brief History of Nearly Everything – sorry, Joe). Some of my absolute favorites include his forays into the history of English and those who write it. I especially love Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as a Stage and The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.

Recently, I decided it was finally time to dive into the follow-up to The Mother Tongue, which focuses entirely on American English rather than examining the language as a whole. In typically Bill Bryson fashion, the book was hilarious (I’m pretty sure I actually laughed out loud on several occasions), well-researched, and full of fascinating historical trivia (I’m definitely sure that I repeatedly bothered multiple people with all of my head-popping-up “Did you know!?” moments).

As a further bonus, this book will teach you that barely any of the American history you learned in elementary school is actually true as Bryson deconstructs our national creation myths (from the Pilgrim’s to the Founding Father’s to General Motors).

Even if you haven’t any more than a passing interest in words and where they come from, this book is a rollicking read.


John McWhorter: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of the English Language

9781592404940Did I mention that I’m a nerd who loves reading books about English?

When I was picking up Made in America at the library, I couldn’t resist grabbing this slim little volume off the shelf as well (I mean, with a title like that…).

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is a super-quick read (I started the book on the metro as I was heading to a morning doctor’s appointment and finished it up during my lunch break later that day). Not only does the book run to only a brief 200 pages or so, it’s also written in a style that’s incredibly accessible to the non-linguist (McWhorter is no impenetrable Saussure, that’s for sure).

While this read may be most enjoyable for the more serious armchair linguist (its main premise is an argument for Celtic influence on early forms of English), it’s straightforward style and fast pace ensure that it is anything but boring.


Intrigued by anything you read here? Check out Books Worth Reading and More Books Worth Reading, the first two installments in this series of mini-reviews, for even more thoughts and recommendations.

I would also love to hear any of your thoughts and recommendations, so please feel free to leave ‘em in the comments!

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More Books Worth Reading

According to Oscar Wilde,

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.

In an effort to remain someone for whom I can have respect, I have been trying my hardest not to devolve into constantly reading fluff. Even though I’m haven’t yet been quite intrepid enough to pick up the various postmodern novels bound together with those I read in my Comparative Literature classes, I’ve still been trying to stick to things I’m not embarrassed to be seen reading on the Metro.

It’s a diverse and international collection, but the thread through all of the following books is history. From historical fiction to novels written in other eras to books exploring the way the past is inextricably linked to the present, all of these works are well worth a little of your own time.


Haruki Murakami: Dance Dance Dance (Dansu Dansu Dansu)

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Ben Stone recommended that I read anything by Haruki Murakami, so the next time I was at the library I dutifully looked for his name among the fiction shelves. The only book the library had by Murakami was Dance Dance Dance. I was suspicious of the title, but since it seemed interesting enough so I took it home with me.

And I am so glad I did.

The story follows a nameless protagonist who returns to a location from his past in an effort to make sense of what has happened since. The book borders on the surreal, but if you relax, slip into it, and accept that not everything will make sense, it is wonderful. What struck me the most about Dance Dance Dance was the imagery. Murakami certainly has a way with word-pictures. I can only wish that I had been able to experience it in the original Japanese.

This book left me feeling melancholy yet oddly satisfied (or satisfied yet oddly melancholy – I’m still not sure). I highly recommend it, and will certainly be on the lookout for more Murakami novels myself.


Amitav Ghosh: Sea of Poppies & River of Smoke

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These recommendations came from Matt Miller.

These two novels are some of the most richly and meticulously detailed works of historical fiction I have ever read. The first of the two, Sea of Poppies is set in colonial India in 1838, right before the Opium Wars. The aspect of this book that struck me the most was the way in which the dialect of the dialogue instantly immerses the reader in the the world of the story

The second in what will be the Ibis Trilogy (the third book is not yet published) is River of Smoke. When I picked it up I was looking forward to re-immersing myself in the language and locales of Sea of Poppies, but River of Smoke is surprisingly different in scope and feel from the first book. While many of the characters carry over from the first book, is set in primarily Canton as the Opium Wars are beginning in 1839. My disappointment barely lasted beyond the first few pages however, as River of Smoke turned out to be just as arresting and deeply imagined as Sea of Poppies.


Tana French: Faithful Place & Broken Harbor

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Since I loved In the Woods so much when Kate Williamson recommended it to me, I had to track down the rest of the ongoing series. You can find my reviews of In the Woods and The Likeness here. The third and fourth books, Faithful Place and Broken Harbor, were enough like the first two that they were satisfying, yet different enough that they remained unpredictable.

Each book centers around a character who had a supporting role in the preceding story. In the Woods is from a detective’s point of view, The Likeness from his partner’s point of view, Faithful Place from her former boss’s point of view, and Broken Harbor from his old rival’s point of view. I appreciated this device immensely, as it meant that with every succeeding book the worlds of the preceding ones became richer and more detailed as previously unsympathetic or minor characters became more three-dimensional and their personalities and motivations were revealed to be more complex than it initially appeared.

Tana French’s novels also fit extremely well with the theme of history running through this post, as each book examines an event in the central character’s past in terms of how it affects their work and relationships in the present. This focus on motivation and the psyche of the individual takes what would otherwise be ordinary police thrillers and elevates them into something much more compelling.

I would highly recommend the whole series.


Lev Grossman: Codex

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Codex was a fast-paced, gripping read…that was ultimately disappointing. The set-up of the novel was fascinating, yet it did not achieve enough depth to remain so. Furthermore, the ending felt rushed and none of the many puzzle pieces fit together quite as well as they were meant to.

So read Lev Grossman, certainly. Just stick to The Magicians and The Magician King (which I did not review in my first post but probably should have). The first is a work of fantasy that borrows shamelessly from the Harry Potter series and the Chronicles of Narnia (and slyly alludes to many other well-known works of fantasy), yet somehow manages to still stand up in it’s own right. The second takes the story further, to a darker, less Christian, version of Narnia itself. Both are lots of fun (if something so dark can be fun) for avid Fantasy readers. How many references can you catch?


Jane Austen: Everything

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I just went on a Jane Austen binge. I read Persuasion, and then Mansfield Park, and then Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sense & Sensibility, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and finally Pride & Prejudice.

What can I say? They’re all classics for a reason.

The real beauty of Jane Austen novels lies not in the romance, but in the characterizations. Her characterizations are as astute and well-drawn as Dickens’, without crossing the line into caricature (although some do come close – Mr. Collins, anyone?).

So, read these. You too, men.


Alexandre Dumas (Père): The Three Musketeers (Les Trois Mousquetaires) & The Count of Monte Cristo (Le Comte de Monte-Cristo)

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The Three Musketeers was one of my favorite books in high school. In fact, on a somewhat related note, my two best friends and I dressed up as three musketeers in high school. Not the fashionable Parisian guards…the candy bars.

Anyway, revisiting The Three Musketeers lately inspired me to pick up the much longer (although ultimately much more absorbing) Count of Monte Cristo. I had previously tried to read The Three Musketeers once before, but gave it up as a bad job when I realized the reason I suddenly couldn’t figure out who any of the characters were or what was going on halfway through the book because the version I had was not only abridged, but badly so. Reading that version of The Count of Monte Cristo was almost as bad as having the ending to A Tale of Two Cities ruined by the heavily, HEAVILY abridged learn-to-read version that I read in 2nd grade. WHO MAKES A LEARN-TO-READ VERSION OF A TALE OF TWO CITIES FOR CHILDREN? WHO DOES THAT? (But actually, if anyone else has ever heard of this, please let me know. I am trying to find it again because I am so curious. The book would be about the size of your palm and has a pink spine).

Wow, so many sidetracks. SO. The Count of Monte Cristo – I’d be willing to say that it’s one of the best and most epic tales of revenge EVER. Well worth making it through all 1,200 or so pages.


If you’re looking for even more mini book reviews, check out the first installment of “Books Worth Reading”. Please share any recommendations of your own in the comments!

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A Love Letter to Letters

 Since I graduated from college and my closest friends moved to such far-off places as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, London, and even Seoul, I have embraced letter-writing in a way that I have always wanted to but never had reason to.

I know, I know.  Writing letters is so anachronistic.  Why would you take the time and spend the money to produce and mail a letter, only to wait so long for it to be delivered that the news is obsolete once it finally arrives?

Well, I have put some thought to this very question and come up five reasons it’s worth picking up your pen and dusting off those Forever stamps.

  1. Letters are conducive to sustained conversation.  How many email threads have you begun with the intention of keeping up a regular correspondence, that nevertheless died quickly when you ran out of anything new to report?  It’s hard to wait to respond when you have an email sitting in your inbox: If you mark it unread, it’s a constantly staring back at you prompting you to respond.  If you leave it marked as read, it quickly blends into the rest of your inbox and fades into obscurity.  A mail correspondence, on the other hand, has built in wait times that ensure you have something new to report by the time it is your turn to reply again.
  2. Letters are exciting.  There are a few exceptions (I know I don’t much enjoy bills or credit card offers), but opening the mailbox at the end of a long day to find a hand-addressed envelope provides a warm, fuzzy feeling few emails can hope to replicate.  The anticipation only builds as you rip through the envelope and unfold the contents within.  Which brings me to my third point:
  3. Letters are physical.  I am completely entranced by the look and feel of nice stationary, but no matter what you write on, the paper and handwriting of a letter provide contextual backdrop in a way that the targeted Google advertisements next to your emails just don’t.  Additionally, it’s much more difficult to be distracted from a letter because the need to hold the paper creates a much more immersive reading experience.
  4. Letters are personal.  It takes time and energy to write a letter, which demonstrates your care for the recipient.  It means a lot to me when I see that someone has taken time out of their (assuredly busy) life to sit down and think about me for as long as it takes to write, address, stamp, and mail a letter (or even a quick postcard).  A well-chosen postcard with a sentence or two scrawled on the back then carries the same emotional weight as a lengthy email update.
  5. Letters show you really mean it.  This is a variation of the previous point, but diverges in that it particularly applies to the all-important, should-never-be-forgotten Thank You Letter.  When you send a thank you letter in the mail as opposed to dashing off a quick email, people take notice.  While a thankful email is likely to be deleted shortly after reading, a thank you letter is something that people hold on to (my two bosses both recently admitted that they still have the letters I sent to them after my first job interview).

So while I readily admit the value of email and social networks, I am not quite ready to give up on snail mail.  The inbox hasn’t completely replaced the mailbox, after all!

Who’s with me?

{ps: send me your address and I’ll send you back a genuine, hand-written letter}

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The Campbell House

One of the many historic buildings on Locust is the Campbell House, a nineteenth-century mansion-turned-museum that also happens to be the home of David Newmann, Joe’s bandmate and the building’s new caretaker.

Of course Joe and I had to stop by and check out his new digs on our epic walk down Locust.

The first word that comes to mind to describe the interior of the house is opulent. Robert Campbell made a fortune in fur trading and the family was close with, among other notable figures, General/President Ulysses S. Grant. So, as you can imagine, the place is chock full of rich fabrics, hand-painted china, and such a wealth of luxurious detail it can be hard to take in all at once.

The grounds are beautiful too, with an ornate gazebo and full rose garden.

The history of the Campbell family itself is also fascinating. Robert Campbell was a self-made millionaire and his surviving sons, one of whom was schizophrenic, had such reclusive habits that the Campbell house became known as the “Ghost House” during the later years of their lives (no one was ever seen to go in and out, but lights would turn on and off and curtains would move from time to time).

I don’t want to spoil the experience by giving away any more than those few tidbits, so I’ll just say that you can check out the Campbell House for yourself here. A tour is only $7, and it’s well worth it if you’re interested in the history of St. Louis or of the Civil War, if you just enjoy looking at fancy things, or if you would just like to get a sense of how the 1% used to live.

If you go on a weekend, you may even get a tour from Newman himself!

Speaking of, Newman’s apartment over the carriage house (the former residence of as many as six stable hands at a time) is pretty cool too. I especially enjoyed the little port-hole windows along one side, which formed part of the architect’s scheme to make each side of the carriage house reflect a different style.

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While we were there, I got to play with Newman’s awesome pet snake and Joe spent some time really getting into period character. All in all, visiting the Campbell House was a great way to cap off our Locust adventure!

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The Collection of Teas on my Shelf

I love tea. A lot. In fact, it’s more than love. My feelings for tea border on full-scale addiction (as any of you who have seen me consume upwards of five cups in a single day well know). Part of the reason I love tea so much is that there is a variety for every occasion. Tired in the morning and facing a long day? A cup of cardamom black tea or Earl Grey with a hint of Lapsang Souchong and you’ll be ready to go. Need a pick-me-up in the afternoon but want to avoid the caffeine jitters? Have some oolong, maybe with a little rose or lavender mixed in for good measure. Need to wind down in the evening? That’s the perfect time to pull out some Jasmine or Lemongrass Green. And of course, chamomile or a vanilla rooibos will always hit the spot right before bedtime.

Ever since I first discovered the wonder of tea back in middle school (the gateway was Barry’s Irish Breakfast–a delicious and inexpensive classic black), I’ve had an extensive collection on my shelf. Since moving to St. Louis a few years ago, I’ve found a few tea treasures in the city to keep me stocked and happy.

First and foremost is the London Tea Room on Washington Avenue. Their tea menu is extensive, and as full of wit and whimsy as it is of fine teas and tisanes. I can never resist a pot of the 5th of November (a black tea with smoky berry notes) when I’m there, but the Coconut Oolong also deserves special mention (it’s delicate, creamy, and cost effective since oolongs only improve on the second steep). The Tea Room has also recently transitioned to a sit down cafe menu with a full selection of soups, salads, and sandwiches (of which my favorite would probably have to be the Brie & Apple, set apart from all the others by the genius addition of a tangy lime marmalade). Finally, no review would be complete without acknowledging the Tea Room’s stunning bakery array, with everything from quiches to cupcakes to fabulous black currant scones that are simply out of this world when taken with jam and clotted cream.

So what are you waiting for? You can find the Tea Room for yourself here.

While London Tea satisfies my cravings to enjoy the occasional cup of tea in the company of friends (and scones), most of my tea drinking takes place while I answer phones and emails at work or while I read and write or snuggle up on the couch in the evenings. While it is possible to purchase bulk tea at the Tea Room, most of my home supply comes from another St. Louis gem, Jay International on South Grand. The international grocery store and market is a fascinating conglomeration of sights and smells, and the perfect place to find, say, fresh spring roll wrappers or instant dashi and miso paste. As convenient as this is when I am trying to expand my cooking horizons, the real reason I love Jay is for the tea aisle. Yes, there is an entire length of aisle devoted to tea of all sorts, and most of it is loose-leaf and beautifully packaged in colorful tins. Don’t just listen to me! See for yourself a few of the teas I’ve found at Jay:

Ahmad Cardamom Black Tea

Ahmad Earl Grey

Heaven Dragon Lychee Black Tea

Heaven Dragon Ti Kuan Yin (Oolong)

Jasmine Green Tea

Lapsang Souchong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If what you see here has inspired you to check out Jay’s tea selection, head down to 3172 South Grand Boulevard and be sure to take some time to explore the rest of the store too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, all of this writing has made me thirsty. Time to put the kettle on!

(Update: Rose Black tea steeped with a touch of Lapsang Souchong and finished with a splash of almond milk? Heavenly.)

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A Rave Review

So I just have to rave a little bit.

A few weeks ago my coworker, Shari, told me about Birchbox, a supercool website that will send you a small box full of generously proportioned high end beauty samples each month (or generously proportioned samples of “grooming products” and “lifestyle accessories” if you sign up for the men’s box).  What’s that?  Getting a package in the mail every month (which to me is exciting in and of itself)  AND lots of little beauty samples of things that are too fancy to be sold at Walgreens or Target (currently my only suppliers of beauty supplies)?  Sounds too good to be true!  Oh, and the products are personalized based on a profile you create with the site so you don’t end up with a lot of useless things that you can’t use.  Oh, and the shipping is free.   Oh, and you can review the products you get in your box online in exchange for points that you can then redeem for full-size versions of your favorite products.

I know.

I haven’t even received my first box and I’m already thrilled.

The story behind the site is also pretty interesting.  It was founded by two women who met at Harvard Business School after having been through college internships in the beauty industry, where they saw how many free samples were haphazardly given out by beauty companies.  Their sample-box-a-month brainchild is a win-win for company and consumer.  In exchange for providing Birchbox with free samples, the companies get data about customer purchasing behavior and demographics.  In exchange for $10 a month, the customer gets a regular supply of quality beauty samples without having to wade through the vastly intimidating selection of products available at Sephora or department stores.

The only downside is that there’s a waiting list.

So what are you waiting for?  Check it out for yourself here.

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The Ten Albums I’m Listening to Most Right Now

Between several airplane flights, not taking calls at work for a few days due to having lost my voice, and moving this past weekend, I’ve been listening to a lot of music lately.  Since this is a place for sharing, I thought I would share some of the albums I’ve been returning to over and over.

I know, I know.  I don’t have nearly enough hipster cred to pull this kind of post off.  You will probably have HEARD of these bands before.   Which is why this post is based on what I am currently listening to a lot as opposed to being something like the “Top Ten BEST Albums of All Time.  Period.”  So, I open myself to judgment and would love to be able to open your eyes to at least one awesome new song along the way.  I would also love to hear some suggestions back, because I am well aware that I am hardly musically omniscient.

The ten albums are in alphabetical rather than numerical order.  You’ll see the band name first, and then the album title and a song or two I would particularly recommend, along with a link to listen to it.  Convenient, right?

Arcade Fire

The Suburbs

Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

the bird and the bee

ray guns are not just the future

love letter to japan

The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love

(Picking one album is just hard since I love them all, but I would say that the Hazards of Love benefits the most from a listen all the way through since it’s one continuous story.)

The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)

(Like I said, it’s a continuous story so start from the beginning.  However, if you’re too impatient for the largely silent prelude, start here.)

Florence + the Machine

Ceremonials

What the Water Gave Me

The Glitch Mob

Drink the Sea

Animus Vox

Janelle Monáe

The ArchAndroid

Cold War” or “Wondaland

Kishi Bashi

151a

Manchester

 

Of Montreal

Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

The Past is a Grotesque Animal” or “Gronlandic Edit

Regina Spektor

Far

Blue Lips” or “Dance Anthem of the 80’s” or “Laughing With

(You really can’t go wrong.)

Yeasayer

Odd Blood

I Remember” or “Rome

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