Category Archives: Book Review

Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle by Anthony Russell

51w58jivQ3LI’m not sure where my fondness for the British aristocracy comes from. Maybe it’s just from too much of reading fairy tales.

But many elements of Anthony Russell memoir feel like a fairy tale. He grew up in the famous Leeds Castle, which had been purchased and restored by his formidable grandmother, Lady Baillie. There were ceremonies for releasing baby ducks. There was a formal, rigid daily structure called the Castle Way, which in some ways reminds me of my own grandmother’s house. Every time I read this memoir (this being the 3rd), I am stuck by the overwhelming desire to make toast by the fire side and trot off to England to spend my Christmas.

Russell does acknowledge repeatedly that his upbringing was privileged and called that “dangerous” as it little prepared him for life outside the castle. His shyness, which was ignored by the adults at the Castle, made boarding schools a challenge. Nevertheless, he reflects positively on the experience overall. The ends in 2009, when he return to the castle which is now a museum. Talking with a former member of the staff, they reminisce fondly on the way life used to be.


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Blood, Bones, & Butter


Gabrielle Hamilton’s 2011 is a funny, occasionally dark, look at her life and how she came to open Prune, the successful New York restaurant. She grew up with a French mother and an American father.

While my mother is Italian, I can connect deeply with the inherent sense of “other.” Like Hamilton, I have always reveled in my “otherness,” emphasizing my Italian heritage.I enjoy pronouncing things as authentically as possible and didn’t grow up with traditional American snacks and desserts.

Hamilton married an Italian doctor and returns annually to his family’s villa in Puglia. My family is from much further north, near the border with Switzerland, and we certainly don’t have a villa. But like hers, our country house is crumbling slowly. Whenever my family would go home to Italy, we always stayed at my grandparents house where everything stays the same. I can understand her desire to get out, to see more of the country, to change things. Feelings I expect my father, the American, feels. His grasp of Italian has never been strong and while he is beloved by my Italian relations, I’m sure he feels the desire to get out and adventure.

My mother and I (and now fortunately, my husband) lack that instinct. To sit in the kitchen together, go to the market and the bakery everyday, that is enough. I have been spoilt with other opportunities to travel around the country and am more than content to spend my days sitting in my grandparents’ dining room, listening to old stories and cooking dishes from our past.

Hamilton manages to blend her many experiences into her cooking with a skill that I hope to someday acquire. For now I will content myself with trying to get to her restaurant and try the dishes, now that I know the stories behind them.

Available from Random House, $11.99

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Eating for England


A couple of years ago, I finally discovered Nigel Slater.

He had been around but I’d never really paid attention to him, more focused on Simon Hopkinson or Jamie Oliver. So, when Netflix suggested I watch Toast, I was intrigued. I found the story engaging and charming. This seemed like a man who talked about food the same way I wished I could. I promptly went out and bought four of his books.

Those who know of my Anglophilia won’t be surprised that amongst the titles I selected was Eating for England: The Delights and Eccentricities of the British at Table. I have at least three cookbooks which focus specifically on cooking in the British Isles. This tongue-in-cheek volume looks at the British and their relationship with food.

Nigel Slater is certainly a man after my heart, or stomach. He understands the intricacies and delights of eating a Toblerone. He is on Team Rice Pudding over Team Tapioca. He loves tea time and sweets and holidays. While he will write several very similar blurbs about the same idea, the books still manages to be both charming and witty.

Slater understands that sweets mark important occasions, whether they be good or bad. It reminds me of my own cooking, especially of late. Cooking for comfort. 2016 has been a long year and I am ready for it to wrap up. I plan to spend the rest of he year doing things I enjoy. Reading books because they amuse me, not because I have to. Cooking and baking what I enjoy, not because I am watching calories and judging myself. Spending time with people I like, doing things I like. Because isn’t life too short for anything else?

Available from Harper Perennial, $14.95


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Z – A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald: Book Review

This month’s book may be late but it is well worth your attention. Therese Anne Fowler has written a novel on Zelda Fitzgerald. It covers shortly before her 18th birthday to F. Scott’s death in 1940 and slightly beyond.

It details their wartime courtship, quiet New York City wedding, and subsequent move to Long Island, whose lavish parties and extravagant lifestyle inspired Great Gatsby. In a search for quiet life, the couple moved to Paris where Scott became involved with a new set including Hemingway. It provides another side to the Hemingway/Fitzgerald friendship which has made me rethink Hemingway as an author. I knew there was a reason for his macho-man persona!

Zelda’s mental problems naturally make up a part of the storyline. Frankly, they seem as much Scott’s problem as anything which is wrong with her. True, she is feisty and a little wild, but she is nothing compared to today’s socialites and reality TV stars. I couldn’t help but wonder if she would have been happier if she lived nowadays, without Scott’s constant desire to provide for her and to prevent her from excelling in anything she would like to do.

Zelda’s writing was published under Scott’s name, her ballet career was halted, and her painting restricted, at least in the story. I don’t know how accurate a text it is, but I don’t really care. I found the book enthralling and really beautiful. So often the picture that we have a Zelda Fitzgerald is a partial one. Hemingway’s vicious characterization in A Moveable Feast. Scott’s skewed portrait in Tender is the Night. The wild and lost Zelda of the film Midnight in Paris.

Finally, Zelda is given her own voice. And, boy, does she have a story to tell.



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Maine: Book Review

One fractured family. One summer house. One heart-wrenching novel.

I began reading this book expecting a light summer read about three generations of women. What I didn’t expect was a book that would make me cry in my car. Did I mention this was an audiobook? No? Moving forward, the narrator was fantastic. Her Boston accent was wonderful and she managed to make each character distinctive. I now long for a geographically distinctive drawl to my own voice and may have to make one up.

The novel itself is equally lovely. It takes place over the course of a single summer in a vacation compound along the coast of Maine. With much in common to the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, you aren’t surprised by how the marriage of the grandmother, Alice, turns out or what her relationship with alcohol or her daughters is like. Even a granddaughter who writes is almost identical to Well’s novel. What is different is the lack of sisterhood. These women all live fairly isolated lives. Their inability to communicate with others is what makes this piece unique and moving. Relationships with siblings are complicated enough.

Descriptions of warm, Maine summers with crisp mornings and croissants left me longing for summer already. Or at least a trip up to Kennebunkport (go to Federal Jack’s and get the clam chowder!)

Most certainly a book to add to your summer reading list, if not your winter.



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Toast by Nigel Slater

One of my favorite foods, natch. Now, one of my favorite books/films. I saw the movie on Netflix some time ago and really enjoyed it. I made several lemon meringue pies.

Now I picked up the book at a used bookstore. It is even better than the movie, which I wasn’t sure if it could be. There is some overlap in the memories described. However, it still feels completely fresh. I now have an overwhelming desire for British candies, lamb chops, pommes dauphinoise, sponge pudding, steak Diane…

…mmmm, food.

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The Sun Also Rises: Book Review

The Sun Also RisesI’m going to start by saying something unpopular: this is not my favorite Hemingway. That honor goes to A Moveable Feast.

The Sun Also Rises centers itself around “The Lost Generation,” struggling to orient itself following World War I. A group of Americans and Brits decamp from Paris to Pamplona. Amongst them is Jake Barnes, a journalist and avid watcher of bullfights. His comrades include the suitors of Lady Brett Ashley, with whom Jake has also been romantically entangled. Copious amounts of alcohol and sexual tension drive the narrative and lead to some fairly spectacular rows.

Never having been to Spain, I used mental footage from bits of France and southern Italy. This book is supposed to be about moral bankruptcy and spiritual dissolution. While I suppose that some aspects of that are present in the novel, it seemed to me more that the characters were on vacation and behaving irresponsibility. Adults acting like crazy teenagers.

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