Top Five Friday: American Classics

Today, I finished reading a really interesting adaptation of a classic novel. I don’t want to say any more about it now (I’ll save it for my review!), but it got me thinking about my favorite classics. This is such a wide category that I thought for today, we’d narrow it down to classics in American literature. I don’t think it’s the English major in me that makes me love these stories. Some of the books I had to read in high school, I absolutely loathed and swore never to teach when my time came (I’m looking at you, Huckleberry Finn). I think I loved these particular books because they stuck with me, demanded that I think and feel something, and made me go back to them over and over. Sometimes, I read books that make hardly any impression on me at all, but each of these books left its mark in some way. So for today’s Top Five Friday, here is my list of favorite American classics.

 

 mockingbird 1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s strange to me that I love this one the way that I do. Even I have to admit that not a whole lot “happens” for the first third of the book. But by the time Lee introduces Tom Robinson, I’m always hooked. Sometimes, I pull it off the shelf and just read the trial scene. Do I hate Mayella Ewell? Do I feel sorry for her? It’s a different story every time I read it. And I can’t, absolutely CANNOT, ever stop reading until the end once I get to chapter 27. I cry every time. I love Atticus and Dill and Boo Radley and the whole crew, and there is something really magical about Lee’s writing style.
 OM&M 2. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I think that somehow, of all the book characters I’ve met in my entire life, Lennie might be the one who touches my heart the most. That’s saying something, isn’t it? There must be hundreds of thousands of book characters rattling around in my head, but Lennie inspires the most compassion of any of them. I’ve given up trying to convince Brad to read this – he knew the minute that Lennie got a puppy that things were headed somewhere he didn’t want to go. I know I’ll never get Brad to see it my way, but I think this has to be one of the most beautiful stories I know.
 little women 2 3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This is a comfort read for me. I used to imagine that this book must be exactly what it’s like to have sisters. I love the episode of Friends where Joey reads this and has to put it in the freezer, and I especially love the Broadway musical original cast with Sutton Foster as Jo.
 streetcar 4. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Can I include this one, even though it’s a play? There is just so much going on in this play that, every time you read it, something different jumps out at you to focus on. Blanche is really fascinating to me. I always hope it will end differently, and I can’t help being sad when it doesn’t.
daisy miller 5. Daisy Miller by Henry James. I always think it’s interesting to watch the way Americans behave abroad. Beth and I were talking not too long ago about how so many people seem to want to experience other cultures and countries, but when they get there, they spend their entire trip wishing for things to be just like home. It’s especially interesting to get perspective on this from an American author who spent most of his life living in Great Britain.

 

What are your favorite American classics?

Have a wonderful weekend.

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“The Long Way Home” Book Tour

Thanks to my sweet mother-in-law, I had a ticket to see Louise Penny speak at Fearrington Village last night. What a turn-out they had! 500 people with tickets, and a standing crowd in the back. Chatting with the people around us before the event began, we learned that people had come from Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and even Alabama to see Penny.

The format for the event was really enjoyable. Rather than doing a reading or giving a prepared talk, Louise and her publisher (Andy Martin, from St. Martin’s imprint Minotaur), sat in big armchairs on a stage and engaged in a funny, informal Q&A about Penny’s work. It was clear from their interaction that they are good friends as well as colleagues, and so the whole event had a conversational, relaxed tone.

It was great to hear Penny talk about how she got into writing. Martin asked her when she first knew she wanted to be an author, and Penny recalled her experience reading Charlotte’s Web. Penny said that her worldview when she was a child was fairly bleak – the world was a scary place, people were inherently bad, and the safest place she could be was in her room reading books. She said she was scared of so many things, but one of her greatest fears was spiders. Penny recalled vividly being about halfway through Charlotte’s Web when she had two major revelations:

  1. Charlotte was a spider.
  2. Penny loved her anyway.

She said that, from that moment on, she understood that stories must be very powerful if they could so completely wipe away one of her fears. She knew then that she wanted to be a writer.

Having said all that, Penny freely admits that when she was writing Still Life, she never thought her books would be published. When Martin asked her to explain how she formed the character of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, she said that her original intent was for Gamache to be a very dark, deeply flawed man who struggled from some sort of addiction or mental illness. But then she realized that she would be living in this man’s head for the foreseeable future, and so instead she created a man whose company she imagined she would love to spend time in. Penny said she was so pleased with herself for writing such a cultured, intuitive, fine character, and then she looked across the breakfast table one morning and realized she hadn’t created him at all – she’d simply written her husband, Michael.

If you like Louise Penny, and you’ve read all her books and are looking for something to try, she did mention that three of her favorite authors are Deborah Crombie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Rhys Bowen.  Listening to Penny speak and watching her interact with her readers has definitely convinced me that I’ve got to get back into her series. I’ve got eight books to catch up on before I can start The Long Way Home.

Happy Release Day, Louise Penny!

long way home

Today’s book birthday is Louise Penny’s The Long Way Home. This is actually the 10th book in Penny’s mystery series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Two of the most consistent comments I see in reviews of Penny’s books are that her characters seem as familiar as your friends and that her setting is so intimate it becomes a character itself. Penny created a village called Three Pines in Quebec for these stories, and the village is based on Penny’s home town. This past Sunday, NPR’s Linda Wertheimer interviewed Penny about her series, and Penny calls her books “great big thank you letters to a place that made me feel at home when I needed it.” If you’re interested in the rest of the interview, there is a full transcript available on NPR’s website.

I’ve only read Still Life, the first book of the series, but I enjoyed it and will definitely continue it when my TBR pile is less outrageous! I’m also going to hear Penny speak at Fearrington Village tomorrow, so that’s exciting.

Here is what Minotaur has to say about The Long Way Home:

Happily retired in the village of Three Pines, Armand Gamache, former Chief Inspector of Homicide with the Sûreté du Québec, has found a peace he’d only imagined possible. On warm summer mornings he sits on a bench holding a small book, The Balm in Gilead, in his large hands. “There is a balm in Gilead,” his neighbor Clara Morrow reads from the dust jacket, “to make the wounded whole.”

While Gamache doesn’t talk about his wounds and his balm, Clara tells him about hers. Peter, her artist husband, has failed to come home. Failed to show up as promised on the first anniversary of their separation. She wants Gamache’s help to find him. Having finally found sanctuary, Gamache feels a near revulsion at the thought of leaving Three Pines. “There’s power enough in Heaven,” he finishes the quote as he contemplates the quiet village, “to cure a sin-sick soul.” And then he gets up. And joins her.

Together with his former second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and Myrna Landers, they journey deeper and deeper into Québec. And deeper and deeper into the soul of Peter Morrow. A man so desperate to recapture his fame as an artist, he would sell that soul. And may have. The journey takes them further and further from Three Pines, to the very mouth of the great St. Lawrence river. To an area so desolate, so damned, the first mariners called it The land God gave to Cain. And there they discover the terrible damage done by a sin-sick soul.

If you like cozy mysteries, you should give Still Life a try.

Top Five Friday: Historical Mystery Series

In the spirit of gearing up for Pink for All Seasons, I have been thinking a lot lately about my favorite historical mystery series. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that historical mysteries were a thing – but now, they make up a surprising percentage of my reading! So for today’s Top Five Friday, here are my favorite historical mystery series. You’ll never guess which series is number one…

 

 pink carnation 1. Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series. I’ve talked endlessly about this series, so for now I won’t reiterate all the reasons why the books are great. If you haven’t tried this series yet, make sure to drop by in September, when we’ll start reading The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.
 vienna 2. Tracy Grant’s Suzanne and Malcolm Rannoch series. The series begins with Vienna Waltz, and I have to tell you, I was hooked absolutely from the first line. I tore through that book and have snapped up each installment in the series as it was published. The first book is set in Vienna in 1814, just after Napoleon’s defeat, when major players from the dominant European countries are getting together to determine the fate of the Continent. It’s a fascinating time historically, so Tracy’s first murder mystery has an excellent backdrop. Suzanne and Malcolm are really wonderful, complex characters, and Tracy just keeps making them more interesting with each book.
 silent 3. Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia series. How can you not love a story that begins like this: “To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.” The first book, Silent in the Grave, introduces us to Lady Julia Gray, a Victorian aristocrat whose eccentric family and unconventional interests make for really interesting reading.
 anatomist 4. Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby series. This series caught my eye because I thought the premise for the first book was really unique. Kiera Darby is a widow whose ghastly late husband forced her to use her considerable artistic talent to illustrate his cadaver dissections for an anatomy textbook. After his death, she is considered a freak (or something even more sinister) by most of society, and she gets caught up in a murder investigation when her knowledge of human anatomy comes in handy. The first book is The Anatomist’s Wife, and there are now three books in the series.
 blue death 5. Charles Finch’s Lenox series. Finch’s books are set in Victorian London (no pattern to see here, folks), and they revolve around a private detective named Charles Lenox. In the first book, A Beautiful Blue Death, Lenox investigates a maid’s death in the household of his lifelong friend Lady Jane. The maid appears to have committed suicide, but Lenox discovers that the poison that killed her was rare and expensive – not something the maid would have easy access to. As Lenox tries to uncover a motive for murder, another dead body turns up in a ballroom at the height of the Season. This series is possibly “cozier” than the others (Finch describes Lenox as “an armchair explorer who likes nothing more than to relax in his private study with a cup of tea, a roaring fire and a good book”), but it is still a great one.

 

I have to also give an honorable mention to C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries and Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily series – I’ve read several of these as well, and they are excellent. C.S. Harris is particularly good if you’re looking for fewer ballrooms and more fistfights with Bow Street runners.

I know that this list is skewed towards female protagonists and stories set in Britain. Am I missing out on a great historical mystery series? If you’ve got a favorite that you don’t see listed, let me know!

Pink for All Seasons: Just Wow.

FinalPink

I am so overwhelmed right now, in the best possible way, by the number of you who have visited, commented, and emailed me about Pink for All Seasons.  It’s wonderful to know that the circle of people I can talk Pink with has grown so significantly.

To those of you who have sent me emails asking to participate in the blogging for the next year, thank you.  I worried I wouldn’t find eleven people who would want to help out – I never dreamed I’d have so many volunteers that I would have to circle back and ask people to share books and split responsibilities.  Thank you for being so generous with your time and willing to share what you love about Pink.  I’ve enjoyed hearing what you have told me so far about which book is your favorite and why, how you found the series, and how some of you are using your artistic abilities to share Pink with a wider audience.  You guys are my tribe.

If you have emailed me, and you are still waiting for me to respond, I will do it soon.

I would be remiss if I did not say thank you to Miss Eliza of Strange and Random Happenstance once again for the awesome banner design for Pink for All Seasons.  And a huge thank you to Lauren, of course, whose books are the reason the Pink challenge exists, and whose humor and grace always make me smile.

Ten days to go until September 1 and Pink I.  Let’s do this!

Happy Release Day, Colleen McCullough!

bittersweet

Today’s book birthday is Colleen McCullough’s newest novel, Bittersweet. McCullough is another of those prolific writers who I’m always hearing about but haven’t tried yet. I know GoodReads keeps recommending books to me from her “Masters of Rome” series, but truthfully, this one looks more up my alley. Who doesn’t love a Roaring Twenties story? Thanks in no small part to Baz Luhrmann’s Gastby and Downton Abbey, the twenties are enjoying a surge in popularity, and that is just fine by me!

Here is what Simon & Schuster has to say about Bittersweet:

In her first epic romantic novel since The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough weaves a sweeping story of two sets of twins—all trained as nurses, but each with her own ambitions—stepping into womanhood in 1920s and 30s Australia.

Because they are two sets of twins, the four Latimer sisters are as close as can be. Yet these vivacious young women each have their own dreams for themselves: Edda wants to be a doctor, Tufts wants to organize everything, Grace won’t be told what to do, and Kitty wishes to be known for something other than her beauty. They are famous throughout New South Wales for their beauty, wit, and ambition, but as they step into womanhood, they are not enthusiastic about the limited prospects life holds for them.

Together they decide to enroll in a training program for nurses—a new option for women of their time, who have previously been largely limited to the role of wives, and preferably mothers. As the Latimer sisters become immersed in hospital life and the demands of their training, they meet people and encounter challenges that spark new maturity and independence. They meet men from all walks of life—local farmers, their professional colleagues, and even men with national roles and reputations—and each sister must make weighty decisions about what she values most. The results are sometimes happy, sometimes heartbreaking, but always . . . bittersweet.

Rendered with McCullough’s trademark historical accuracy, this dramatic coming of age tale is wise in the ways of the human heart, one that will transport readers to a time in history that feels at once exotic and yet not so very distant from our own.

In Which I Have Been Neglecting My Responsibilities

August has not be a stellar month for blogging – my apologies! I feel like I have been busier in the past three weeks than the rest of the summer combined, and consequently I have fallen behind on my reading and posting.

This weekend, I was traveling for a wedding (congratulations again, Sibby & Chris!), and so I have weddings on the brain. When I was packing for my trip, I got to thinking about weddings in books. Why is it that, more often than not, the wedding is the end of the story? I guess it’s because weddings or proposals tend to represent happy endings, but isn’t a wedding really the start of something new and exciting?

With that in mind, I tried to come up with a few books that have weddings (or wedding planning) earlier in the story. I could only come up with three!

LM Mongtomery’s The Blue Castle

blue castle

This is a sweet story about a girl named Valancy (what a name!) who discovers that she is dying and decides she wants to enjoy what little time she has left. She proposes to Barney Snaith, a man she hardly knows, as a way of escaping her overbearing family. To her surprise, Barney agrees, and the husband and wife carry on quite happily together until Valancy receives a piece of unexpected news that will change her life – again.

Donna Andrews’ Murder with Peacocks

murder peacocks

In this mystery, Meg Lanslow is scheduled to be the maid of honor in three weddings before the summer is over. Meg has plenty to keep her busy, what with bridal showers, dress fittings, and cake tastings, but when a new neighbor turns up dead, things get even more hectic. “Soon, level-headed Meg’s to-do list extends from flower arrangements and bridal registries to catching a killer–before the next catered event is her own funeral.”

Lauren Willig’s Deception of the Emerald Ring

deception

Letty Alsworthy never meant to steal her sister’s husband – but when she climbs into a midnight carriage intent on stopping an elopement, she finds herself forced to either marry Geoff herself or subject their families to an even bigger scandal. Determined to make the most of her marriage, Letty tries to make things right with Geoff, even going so far as to sneak on board a ship bound for Ireland when Geoff is called there to help a league of British spies catch a dangerous French instigator.

I know I must have read other books that involve weddings at some point other than the end, but I’m drawing a blank. Can you think of any?