Books

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Joan Didion was one of 24 leading figures in American arts and culture who gathered on Wednesday in East Room of the White House, where President Obama made the annual presentation of the National Medals of Art and the National Humanities Medals. She looked so frail as she made her way, with a special escort, to the stage. Obama reached out to try to keep her steady.

He told the crowd in his opening remarks: “Somebody like Joan Didion, who, rightly, has earned distinction as one of most celebrated American writers of her generation. I’m surprised she hasn’t already gotten this award. But in her early years, she was in school only sporadically, basically taught herself how to read while she and her family followed her Army officer father around the country. She obviously learned quickly. She won a contest for Vogue in college; gave up her dream of being an oceanographer, writing became her world. And today, decades into her career, she remains one of our sharpest and most respected observers of American politics and culture.”

I’m sure Didion would have made a fine oceanographer, if that’s what she had decided to do. But the fact that she became a writer instead gives us a deeper understanding of what it means to live a full life, complete with hurt and loss, in this world.

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The Vintage Tea Party book
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Vintage Tea Party 5
Up for grabs this week: Angel Adoree’s “The Vintage Tea Party Book,” from Anthropology!
“A complete Guide to Hosting Your Perfect Tea Party.”

THE WINNER IS GAGAN!

Thank you everyone for entering. Look for next week’s giveaway!

xo
Tina

 

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From Tumblr blog aptly named Awesome People Reading.
MORE HERE!.

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How did I not know about these amazing Jane Austen postcards?! Found these photos tonight on The Daydream Princess tumblr blog. Found them for sale for $13.60 a box on Amazon!

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week exercising his feminine side and delving into women, women and more women.

It used to bug me how, at a certain point at parties, half a dozen of the most interesting women would get up and stroll to the ladies room.

Their reason, I came to understand, was neither cosmetic nor functional — they just knew a better party was to be had sitting on the edge of the bathtub, chatting among themselves.

One night I did what I’d wanted to do for years: I followed them.

An exception was made and — be still my heart — I was treated like “one of the girls.” And I understood why they fled the living room: A better time really was to be had without men. That is: greater intimacy, sharper sharing, edgier stories.

That is also true of Susanna Sonnenberg’s “She Matters: A Life in Friendships.” I’d read her first memoir — Her Last Death — and greatly admired her account of a childhood spent with a drug-soaked, sex-addicted, wildly destructive mother and an eccentric, distracted father. Sonnenberg’s story was compelling, but what really impressed me was the writing. By now pretty much anyone can serve up a lurid tale; Sonnenberg not only faced the truth about her family’s pathology, she crafted it with style, wit, and, remarkably, distance.

“She Matters” tells twenty stories: Sonnenberg’s intense friendships with twenty women. That number alone is impressive — I don’t think I’ve had twenty friends in my life. And I don’t know anyone who would say that friends are as crucial to life as oxygen.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week in awe of a woman in pajamas.

“Slow love” is a good description of the way I’ve come to know Dominique Browning. After decades of a nodding acquaintance when we worked at glossy magazines, we started reading the other’s web sites. There was a chance meeting at a dinner, and, recently, cultural expeditions peppered with questions, stories, ideas. Now I grasp what others figured out long ago: Dominique Browning is that rare talent who’s both intellectually and emotionally fearless.

“Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness” begins in 2007, with Condé Nast’s sudden decision to close House & Garden, the magazine Browning has edited for 13 years. The news flattened her: “I’ve lost the very thing that defined my days, paced and regulated my life…. Suddenly I’m floundering. I’m terrified.”

This memoir is not just the book you expect: “a story of psychological collapse, of struggling to start over again.” There’s also a parallel struggle: “not to make the same mistakes again.” She’s looking backward and forward, struggling to be wide awake, so in 267 pages, you get two books in one. [To buy the paperback from Amazon for the bargain price of $6, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Looking back: Her magazine had burned through five publishers in ten years. Every few months, rumors had Browning following them out the door. The editor of Architectural Digest, also owned by Condé Nast, announced, “I killed that magazine once and I’ll kill it again.” Overlords called Browning in to note her failure to buy designer clothes in sufficient quantity.

Looking forward: The absence of work was even more painful. Browning slept all day, then developed insomnia. She wasted hours reading just about anything on the Internet. And had a predictable response to panic:

Within hours of leaving my office for the last time, I could hardly bring myself to care about my reputation. I just wanted to eat. I began calling every employed person I knew to take me to lunch. I wanted to fill my calendar with the promise of meals, even if they were only penciled in — this, after all, being Manhattan. Only food could ward off the rage, despair and raw fear that overcame me.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week cheering for the singer-songwriter adored by English majors and the men and women who adore them.

I love silent days crafting sentences alone, but if you put a gun to my head and told me I’d have to trade my maid’s room for the stages of music clubs and universal critical praise and the adulation of America’s smartest audiences.….yeah, I guess I could stand being Josh Ritter.

From his first release, a decade ago, to “The Beast in Its Tracks,” this guy hasn’t made a foolish move. As a writer, he produces lyrics that, if they were prose, you’d underline them. As a singer, he’s like Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Paul Simon; there’s one person he’s trying to reach, and that’s you. And in performance, backed by a crackerjack band, he’s mesmerizing: exuberant, goofy, unfiltered and absolutely delighted to be onstage. No one has ever had more fun at a Josh Ritter concert than Josh Ritter.

This time, newcomers may suspect an exploration of darker themes. “The Beast in Its Tracks” is being presented as a “breakup” record because he wrote these songs in response to his wife’s out-of-the-blue announcement that, after just a year, their marriage was over. I understand this shorthand, but I don’t think it will last long. As Josh takes these songs across America — he’s about to start a 37-city tour — I think they’ll connect with audiences more immediately than any music he’s made. And then “Beast” will become his “breakthrough” record.

For a writer who can toss off long, convoluted lyrics, he’s served up 13 fairly simple songs here. And they’re surprisingly jolly — he’s not cranking up the band for take-that-bitch revenge songs. He’s got a new lover; he hopes his ex-wife does too. (He hasn’t totally forsaken clever; in that song’s final line, he notes that if she’s still alone, “well, that would make me happy too.”) His new lover is “hopeful” for him. He’s thrilled to be “in your arms again.”

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, thinking he really ought to meditate more often.

“Peace can be found within, no matter the external circumstances,” Allan Lokos writes in “Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living.”

“Forgive me, Allan,” I thought, when I read his book for the first time. ”You may be the founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center in New York City, and you may be tight with the most celebrated Buddhists on the planet, but I have read this many times in many books. And the words roll off me. I prefer deeds: how people react under stress. As in the Zen saying is blunt about this: ‘Watch how the master puts on his sandals and peels his orange.’”

Well, now we know about Allan Lokos.

On Christmas Day, Allan and his wife, Susanna Weiss, were in a plane crash in Burma. They had to fight their way to get to the wing exit, which was on fire. Allan pushed his wife through burning jet fuel. But it was easier to save his wife than save himself: When Allan jumped, he was badly burned.

Susanna wrote friends:

We were in dire circumstances in hilly, rural Burma. After a rough ride on winding rutted roads on the metal floor of the “ambulance”, we spent the day in a type of rural hospital with virtually no care–there is no medical care for the local Burmese people. They are very kind people, and though there was no medical treatment, some of them gave their time and resources freely. Two US Embassy consuls were vacationing there and came to help us get out. At first it was impossible, all government red tape, but through some miracle, the president of the airline sent his private jet from Yangon to take us that night to Bangkok Thailand, the nearest city with any real hospital.


That whole awful day and then the flight to Bangkok was very hard on Allan, who needed immediate acute treatment. We spent four days in Bangkok in a good hospital trying to get him stabilized to travel, as he desperately needed to get to a Burn Unit. Two days ago we were medivac-flown to Singapore, where Allan had a major surgery of over 5 hours.

[Interesting that only at the end of her letter does Susanna write, almost as an aside: “I have some burns on my face and hand, not major, and I had a broken vertebra as the plane crashed.”]

Allan made it through surgery, a 30-hour flight in an air ambulance and eight weeks in a Manhattan burn unit. Slowly, slowly, he is recovering. His spirit, from all accounts, is more resilient than his body.

This gives his book unusual credibility. Like a ton. [To buy the paperback of “Patience” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle download, click here.]

Suffering, writes every Buddhist, begins when you want things to be different from the way they are. And on this point, Allan is a world expert: “Wisdom evolves from seeing things as they are and patience comes from accepting things as they are…. Patience is born when we create a pause between our experience of a feeling and our response to that feeling.”

Reading “Patience” a second time, with Allan’s acceptance of his situation in mind, I am much more impressed by his thoughts. Clearly, his practice — especially the part about developing patience — helped him survive. It’s worth considering that it can do the same for us.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, here to present a woman who feels much worse than you can in the dull bottom of February.

The favorite writer of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is said to have been Jean Rhys (1890-1979). If so, that says a lot, for the main character in a novel by Rhys tends to be a woman in her 30s who is losing her looks and her ability to attract men. She drinks. She lives in a cheap hotel. She has no expectations that things will get better for her — indeed, she almost wills life to get worse.

Jean Rhys was a first-tier writer who deserves to be widely known, and I can easily understand why — on literary grounds alone — Mrs. Onassis would elevate her to her personal pantheon. I can also understand why Mrs. Onassis might identify with a Jean Rhys character: Mrs. Onassis was notoriously tight. I’m guessing here, but I’d bet she had an irrational fear that she had to hold on to every dollar lest she end up poor and alone — a bag lady. She wouldn’t be the first to feel this way; any number of rich people I know seem to tell themselves daily, “This could all go away.” [To buy an inexpensive paperback of 'After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie' from Amazon, click here.]

For Julia Martin — the main character in ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ (1930), probably the finest of the novels by Rhys — it has all gone away. It’s the late 1920s, and Julia’s in Paris, where her nightly companion is a bottle rather than a man. Outside, there’s an endless party, but she stays in her gloomy room all day, reading. And musing:

She found pleasure in memories, as an old woman might have done. Her mind was a confusion of memory and imagination. It was always places that she thought of, not people. She would lie thinking of the dark shadows of houses in a street white with sunshine; or trees with slender black branches and young green leaves, like the trees of a London square in spring; or of a dark-purple sea, the sea of a chromo or of some tropical country that she had never seen.

That burst of writing is on page 3. It is both a tour de force of insight and a warning: Rhys has an unblinking eye. What that eye sees may not be pretty — but you can count on it to be the truth. Here is the key truth of this novel: a woman in her ’30s, already looking back rather than forward. You can’t help but worry for her.

Work? “By her eyes and the dark circles under them you saw that she was a dreamer, that she was vulnerable.” Drunk, she looks out at the Seine and imagines it’s the sea. Dear Lord, how will she make her way?

That grotty topic — money — is ignored in most novels. People just…. have it. Not here. Indeed, the engine of the plot of ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ is money. Julia lives from check to check — on the kindness of the men who have used her and discarded her, you might say. Which is fine when the men are generous and guilty.

But now comes a lawyer’s letter, with a check for 1,500 francs, five times the usual amount: This is her final payment. Mr. Mackenzie is cutting Julia off. A prudent woman would — well, what good does it do to outline a plan of action that is unavailable to an imprudent woman like Julia? We know what Julia will do: seek Mr. Mackenzie out and have a scene. Which she does. In a restaurant. Where she ends her haughty, desperate monologue by slapping him lightly on the cheek with her glove.

Ah, but luck is with her. Reeling out of the restaurant, she encounters George Horsfield, a troubled, interior man who is attracted to birds with broken wings. Bars follow. Too many drinks. Much talk. From Mars, this could look like a mating dance.

England beckons. I can’t see why — there’s nothing for Julia in London except a sister resentfully nursing their dying mother. But the change of scene energizes Julia: “She had lost the feeling of indifference to her fate, which in Paris had sustained her for so long. She knew herself ready to struggle and twist and turn, to be unscrupulous and cunning as are all weak creatures fighting for their lives against the strong.”

Her mother’s death triggers a complex reaction: the realization that she hates her sister (and vice versa), a sharpened resentment against the power of money, the feeling that she can almost see “the thing that was behind all this talking and posturing,” a sense of herself as “a defiant flame.” And on a more basic level: Can she cut a deal with George Horsfield?

Sex is ahead. Very 1920s sex — what passes for passion in that time will be an eye-opener for some readers. And more wine. A funeral. A kind of crack-up. And, finally, the return to Paris. All along, you cannot help but think: What is it with Julia? Has she just had some bad luck and it turned her sour? Is she a selfish bitch who’s getting exactly the life she deserves? Will she come to a “bad end” —- or does her decay roll on like the Seine?

Ah, but there is Mr. Mackenzie in a cafe. This time Julia doesn’t hesitate to approach him. And to ask him — with a directness she lacked earlier — a question. It’s a short scene for an end of a book, just two quick pages. But they are so stunning they take your breath away. If you didn’t know, from the terse writing on every page before this, that Jean Rhys is a great writer and that this, but for the grace of God, is the story of your life, you know it now.

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Illustration by Foxtales.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, checking in between winter storms. And thinking: It’s a lot colder in this classic movie. So why not suggest it? Readers will feel better about themselves as they watch a great film they may have missed.

Robert Altman liked to say he hated Westerns. He didn’t much enjoy working with Warren Beatty. He was silent about directing Julie Christie. He probably disliked her too.

But in the winter of 1970, Altman took Beatty and Christie to the Pacific Northwest and made one of the best Westerns I’ve ever seen.

Well, not exactly a Western as you may think of it: John Ford, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood.

In 1970, our President was a crook, we were locked in an Asian war we could not win, our kids were growing their hair long, smoking weed and fornicating in the stairwells.

With that going on, no way does Robert Altman make a traditional Western.

This movie is about much more than the plot, but here’s the plot: Warren Beatty (McCabe), a small-time gambler with more dreams than brains, comes to the tiny community of Presbyterian Church to open a bar and bordello. It is his great good fortune to run into Julie Christie (Mrs. Miller), an opium-smoking prostitute who actually knows how to run a whorehouse. They join forces, get successful, have an awkward romance. A corporation decides to buy them out. Christie’s in favor of the deal — she understands the power of Big Business — but Beattie fancies himself a negotiator. So the corporation dispatches three gunmen to kill him.

I was just out of college when “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was released. I was a disciple of Leonard Cohen (whose early songs provide a gloomy, dreamy soundtrack). I admired Altman, respected Beatty, had a crush on Christie. My reaction to the film was predictable: It was one of the greater films I’d ever seen. [To buy the DVD from Amazon for $6.35, click here. To rent the video stream and watch it now for $2.99, click here.]

Watch the opening sequence and see if you don’t fall under its spell:

Most critics didn’t agree. Here’s Vincent Canby, of The New York Times: “The intentions of ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ are…meddlesomely imposed on the film by tired symbolism, by a folk-song commentary on the soundtrack…and by metaphysically purposeful photography….Such intentions keep spoiling the fun of what might have been an uproarious frontier fable.”

Talk about wrong-headed! Canby wanted Altman to make another “M*A*S*H.” But Altman wanted to get inside a genre, to show that the West wasn’t Gary Cooper and John Wayne — it was just like now, with little people starting small enterprises and getting a town going, then the Big Boys muscling them out and sucking the soul from the community. The story of the hardware store and Wal-Mart. Kind of the domestic story of our time….

But forget all of that. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is no more about its plot than your life is. It’s about dreams. And wanting to build something for yourself when you’re over your head and you don’t really know the players and all you have is you. And then it’s about taking the next step — gambling on love, on dreams. The Leonard Cohen lyric about the gambler says it all: “He’s just looking for a card so high and wild he’ll never have to deal another.”

And then it’s about weather. First drizzle, then snow. And as the snow blankets the town, the movie gets quieter and quieter. The climax is inevitable and dark; it’s played out in bright, silent snow. What ends badly also ends beautifully — so beautifully that you can only imagine what lies Altman told to get the money for this film.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week wearing le smoking and smirking.

Arsene Lupin — you know him not, but to generations of European readers he was the French Sherlock Holmes. Well, better than the Brit detective. Holmes was on the side of the law, a stodgy enterprise. But Lupin was a burglar. A gentleman burglar. A burglar with wit and style. It was a thrill to watch him work.

And, indeed, you could watch him work, for Lupin liked to announce his crimes in advance, the better to turn theft into sports. In the most famous of the Arsene Lupin stories, he breaks into a Baron’s residence, takes nothing, but leaves a card for his unwitting host: “Arsene Lupin, gentleman burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine.” (To buy the book from Amazon, click here.)

And how about this note, to a Baron so paranoid that he has had his chateau sealed, so that no one but staff may enter:

There is, in the gallery in your castle, a picture of Philippe de Champaigne, of exquisite finish, which pleases me beyond measure. Your Rubens are also to my taste, as well as your smallest Watteau. In the salon to the right, I have noticed the Louis XIII cadence-table, the tapestries of Beauvais, the Empire gueridon signed ‘Jacob,’ and the Renaissance chest. In the salon to the left, all the cabinet full of jewels and miniatures.

For the present, I will content myself with those articles that can be conveniently removed. I will therefore ask you to pack them carefully and ship them to me, charges prepaid, to the station at Batignolles, within eight days, otherwise I shall be obliged to remove them myself during the night of 27 September; but, under those circumstances, I shall not content myself with the articles above mentioned.

Accept my apologies for any inconvenience I may cause you, and believe me to be your humble servant, “Arsene Lupin.”

P.S. Please do not send the largest Watteau. Although you paid thirty thousand francs for it, it is only a copy, the original having been burned, under the Directoire by Barras, during a night of debauchery. Consult the memoirs of Garat. And I do not care for the Louis XV chatelaine, as I doubt its authenticity.

There’s something delicious about a man who commits non-violent crimes with panache — it’s almost as if he’s liberating the art and furniture, rescuing them from nobles who take pleasure only in owning them. The French thought so, anyway: Starting in 1906, Maurice LeBlanc pounded out twenty volumes of stories about Lupin, all in the neat, near-non-fiction style of de Maupassant and Flaubert. (Inevitably, Lupin would confront Sherlock Holmes. Guess who won?) Later, there were plays, movies, even comics. And the character has been easy to update — on television, Lupin morphed into “The Saint.”

Lupin is at once a 19th century figure and a modern rogue: “Why should I retain a definite form and feature? Why not avoid the danger of a personality that is ever the same? My actions will serve to identify me.” All he cares about is his art. It gives him pleasure to commit a crime even while locked in a jail cell. And because disguise and indirection are his greatest skills, it thrills him to announce, with all candor, “I shall not be present at my trial — Arsene Lupin remains in prison just as long as it pleases him, and not one minute more.”

It is great fun to try and outguess Lupin. Consider dressing the part while you savor these tales. A smoking jacket or a silk robe. A brandy. Chopin. After a while, Lupin’s cracked morality starts to make a great deal of sense, and your mind drifts. By the third or fourth story, you’ll be contemplating a jewel theft. And why not? Mrs. X doesn’t really appreciate that necklace. And it is insured.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week making you an offer you can’t refuse.

It was the spring of 1983. On a long plane trip, I started reading “The Queen’s Gambit.” The author was Walter Tevis, who had also written “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “The Hustler” (and who would later write “The Color of Money”). I had read none of those books. Nor had I seen the movies made from them. I just had a hunch.

I was never smarter — this is a novel that, very simply, cannot be put down. The woman who would become my first wife tried to make conversation; I shushed her. A meal came; I pushed it aside. All I could do was read, straight to the end — weeping, cheering, punching the air.

I got off the plane and optioned the film rights to “Queen’s Gambit,” and was soon at work on the greatest script I will probably ever undertake. Every young actress wanted to star in it, a half dozen “hot” directors wanted to direct it. Then the parade moved on. I couldn’t afford to keep the option. Walter Tevis died. His widow, needing money, sold the movie rights to people who, in 25 years, have not been able to get the film made. The book went out of print.

Two decades later, a paperback edition appeared. No Kindle; the publisher is asleep. (To buy the book from Amazon, click here.)

What’s the fuss about? An eight-year-old orphan named Beth Harmon. Who turns out to be the Mozart of chess. Which brings her joy (she wins! people notice her!) and misery (she’s alone and unloved and incapable of asking for help). So she gets addicted to pills. She drinks. She loses. And then, as 17-year-old Beth starts pulling herself together, she must face the biggest challenge of all — a match with the world champion, a Russian of scary brilliance.

You think: This is thrilling? You think: chess? You think: Must be an “arty” novel, full of interior scenes.

Wrong. All wrong. “The Queen’s Gambit” is “Rocky.”

But here is the catch. Although this is a very adult book — what is more grown up than the realization that we cannot really succeed in life, no matter how “gifted” we may be, if we are alone and unloved? — it is so artlessly written it seems almost to have no style. This is the dream novel: 100% story.

Here, for example, is Beth, freshly orphaned, breaking through her shyness to confront the silent giant of a custodian who spends his days playing solitary chess in the orphanage’s furnace room:

”Will you teach me?”

Mr. Shaibel said nothing, did not even register the question with a movement of his head. Distant voices from above were singing “Bringing in the Sheaves.”

She waited for several minutes. Her voice almost broke with the effort of her words, but she pushed them out, anyway: “I want to learn to play chess.”

Mr. Shaibel reached out a fat hand to one of the larger black pieces, picked it up deftly by its head and set it down on a square at the other side of the board. He brought the hand back and folded his arms across his chest. He still did not look at Beth. “I don’t play strangers.”

The flat voice had the effect of a slap in the face. Beth turned and left, walking upstairs with the bad taste in her mouth.

“I’m not a stranger,” she said to him two days later. “I live here.” Behind her head a small moth circled the bare bulb, and its pale shadow crossed the board at regular intervals. “You can teach me. I already know some of it, from watching.”

“Girls don’t play chess.” Mr. Shaibel’s voice was flat.

She steeled herself and took a step closer, pointing at, but not touching, one of the cylindrical pieces that she had already labeled a cannon in her imagination. “This one moves up and down or back and forth. All the way, if there’s space to move in.

Mr. Shaibel was silent for a while. Then he pointed at the one with what looked like a slashed lemon on top. “And this one?”

Her heart leapt. “On the diagonals.”

See? You don’t need to know anything about chess. Tevis was a storyteller whose genius was to tell great stories; there’s nothing between you and the people.

I believe that you will care about Beth Harmon more than any fictional character you’ve encountered in years and years.

I believe that you will grasp the wrench of loneliness — and the power of love — as if this book were happening to you.

And I believe that you will weep, and cheer, and, at the end, raise your fist like a fool for a little girl who never existed and a game only nerds play.

If you don’t love it, I’ll buy it from you.

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I was in Washington DC last week for work. The trip wouldn’t have been complete without time spent exploring at least one local bookstore…
This sign was posted at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle…

I know it’s counterintuitive to shop for books and magazines while traveling…Definitely undermines the concept of traveling light…

Like local grocery stores, local bookstores provide an interesting glimpse into the lives and tastes of the locals…

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, with a book for all ages.

What I love about great novels — maybe what I love best about them — is how much they make me feel.

That’s become more and more important to me over the course of this last decade, because most of every day I — and maybe you too — have to work incredibly hard not to feel. I never kidded myself about life being fair, but it wasn’t until a certain president and a certain war that I witnessed people using the euphemisms of politics to systematically put the screws to the old, the sick, the poor, the immigrants, the darkly pigmented — and taking malicious pleasure in that cruelty. It’s painful to watch, painful to know there’s not much you can do about it, painful to have to turn away and tend to your own business lest you slip into the ranks of the dispossessed.

But when you enter the world of a great book, you surrender to it. Its concerns are yours. Here, through characters that remind you of parts of yourself, you can do something. What looks to a non-reader as an escape from the world is anything but — it’s a confrontation with all the stuff that makes you crazy.

The Fault in Our Stars
— a Young Adult novel about two teenagers with cancer — was the book that took me over last year. When I finished reading, I said, “I hated that I’d read it because there was nothing I wanted to do more than read it again for the first time.”

That’s how I feel now about R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder.” Like “Fault,” this is a YA novel that’s easy for kids to read and challenging for adults to deal with. (Topic for another day: why are the best YA novels so much more engaging — more passionate, most thoughtful, most dramatic — than most adult fiction?)

Like “Fault,” the main character in “Wonder” is an outsider. Auggie Pullman, now 11 and a fifth grader, was born with Treacher-Collins Syndrome, a rare stem cell condition that results in facial deformities — small jaws and cheekbones, distorted ears and poor hearing. Inside, he’s a kid. Outside, he’s a freak.

Does that put you off? Of course. Which is the first reason why you should read this book as soon as you can — always run to the greatest opportunity for personal growth. [To buy "Wonder" from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the audiobook on CD, click here.]

You ask: How does a novelist come up with a character like that?

From life.

Palacio was traveling with her two young sons when she saw a girl with misshaped features. She panicked. Rushed her kids away. The girl and her mother, she realized, had to know why. Next realization: This was a moment the mother and daughter experienced many times.

“On the journey home to Brooklyn,” Palacio has recalled, “I could not stop thinking about how the scene had played out. What could I have done differently? Is there something you can do to prepare your kids for moments like that? Was I not teaching my kids something they should have known?”

“Wonder,” a Natalie Merchant song, came on the radio as she was driving. The lyrics were a dart:

Doctors have come from distant cities/ Just to see me/ Stand over my bed/ Disbelieving what they’re seeing/ They say I must be one of the wonders/ God’s own creation/ And as far as they can see/ they can offer/ No explanation

Things “collided” for Palacio: “The first line came to me, and the whole premise of the novel. The book wrote itself.”

Really, the book spoke itself. Our daughter is a fifth-grader, and the cadences of her conversations with her friends are stunningly like the language in the novel. (There’s an excerpt below.) The games, the clothes, the concerns — Palacio listened hard to her kids and took notes.

But what’s more astonishing is how Palacio is able to frame the great moral drama of middle school. The fifth grade is when life starts to get complicated. Boys notice girls, girls notice boys, cliques form. It’s not an easy time; in some ways, it’s the end of childhood. You may imagine how much harder the school environment is for a boy who has had 27 surgeries, has always been home-schooled and knows his situation exactly: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

Sending Auggie to middle school, his father says, “is like sending a lamb to the slaughter.” His father has it wrong. Auggie isn’t a lamb. He’s a great kid, and you root for him from page one. He’s smart and funny, and I know you don’t see how this can be possible, but there are laughs along the way. He has terrific parents. His sister isn’t a jerk. He even has a dog that tugs at your heart, and believe me, I am immune to fiction that throws a cute woofer at me.

Tears? I cried a river. And loved every minute I cried. Interestingly, several reviewers have reported that they cried early and often, but their kids — who also loved the book — didn’t cry at all. I think I understand why. Kids don’t know what we do. They see no weakness in kindness. It’s natural to them. It’s only a career effort for adults.

To read “Wisdom” is to remember what cruelty feels like. And what struggle feels like. And what victory over long odds feels like. A fable? Sure. But, most of all, a wake-up call. And a thrilling reading experience.

For kids 11 to 16, this is The Gift. For you, even more so.

EXCERPT

I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go.

If I found a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all. I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look-away thing. Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.

But I’m kind of used to how I look by now. I know how to pretend I don’t see the faces people make. We’ve all gotten pretty good at that sort of thing: me, Mom and Dad, Via. Actually, I take that back: Via’s not so good at it. She can get really annoyed when people do something rude. Like, for instance, one time in the playground some older kids made some noises. I don’t even know what the noises were exactly because I didn’t hear them myself, but Via heard and she just started yelling at the kids. That’s the way she is. I’m not that way.

Via doesn’t see me as ordinary. She says she does, but if I were ordinary, she wouldn’t feel like she needs to protect me as much. And Mom and Dad don’t see me as ordinary, either. They see me as extraordinary. I think the only person in the world who realizes how ordinary I am is me.

My name is August, by the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

Why I Didn’t Go to School

Next week I start fifth grade. Since I’ve never been to a real school before, I am pretty much totally and completely petrified. People think I haven’t gone to school because of the way I look, but it’s not that. It’s because of all the surgeries I’ve had. Twenty-seven since I was born. The bigger ones happened before I was even four years old, so I don’t remember those. But I’ve had two or three surgeries every year since then (some big, some small), and because I’m little for my age, and I have some other medical mysteries that doctors never really figured out, I used to get sick a lot. That’s why my parents decided it was better if I didn’t go to school. I’m much stronger now, though. The last surgery I had was eight months ago, and I probably won’t have to have any more for another couple of years.

Mom homeschools me. She used to be a children’s-book illustrator. She draws really great fairies and mermaids. Her boy stuff isn’t so hot, though. She once tried to draw me a Darth Vader, but it ended up looking like some weird mushroom-shaped robot. I haven’t seen her draw anything in a long time. I think she’s too busy taking care of me and Via.

I can’t say I always wanted to go to school because that wouldn’t be exactly true. What I wanted was to go to school, but only if I could be like every other kid going to school. Have lots of friends and hang out after school and stuff like that.

I have a few really good friends now. Christopher is my best friend, followed by Zachary and Alex. We’ve known each other since we were babies. And since they’ve always known me the way I am, they’re used to me. When we were little, we used to have playdates all the time, but then Christopher moved to Bridgeport in Connecticut. That’s more than an hour away from where I live in North River Heights, which is at the top tip of Manhattan. And Zachary and Alex started going to school. It’s funny: even though Christopher’s the one who moved far away, I still see him more than I see Zachary and Alex. They have all these new friends now. If we bump into each other on the street, they’re still nice to me, though. They always say hello.

I have other friends, too, but not as good as Christopher and Zack and Alex were. For instance, Zack and Alex always invited me to their birthday parties when we were little, but Joel and Eamonn and Gabe never did. Emma invited me once, but I haven’t seen her in a long time. And, of course, I always go to Christopher’s birthday. Maybe I’m making too big a deal about birthday parties.

Categories: Blog, Books, Jesse's Book Reviews, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week contemplating that indoor sport: the affair.

You wait for the phone to ring.

That’s your life, waiting.

You never know when he’ll call, so you leave your home as little as possible. Hair dryers and vacuum cleaners make noise that could drown out a ringing phone; you use them sparingly. And then, without warning, there’s the voice you crave — he can be free for a few hours without his wife getting curious.

In a panic, you bathe. Frantically clean your home. File your nails so there’s no chance you’ll leave a mark on him. Lay out drinks, ice, his favorite snack.

Then the door opens and your life begins. You barely speak, this isn’t that kind of relationship. Later, he looks at his watch. You sigh. He showers, dresses. A final touch, and he’s gone. Your life once again turns to waiting.

That’s a woman’s story. (It’s the rare man whose life revolves around an unavailable woman who has trouble finding a moment to call and has an even harder time arranging a rendezvous.) Indeed, it’s Annie Ernaux’s story — a lightly fictionalized account of a two-year affair she had with a married Eastern European diplomat.

The whole story takes just 64 pages. And nothing really happens; it’s mostly waiting. But the waiting is so acutely observed that in France — Ernaux lives in a suburb of Paris — ‘Simple Passion’ was the #1 bestseller for 8 months, with more than 400,000 copies sold. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle download, click here.]

The appeal of the book is, if you will, how manly it is. How matter-of-fact. Writing, Ernaux tells us at the start of the novel, should be like sex. That is, there should be “a feeling of anxiety and stupefaction. a suspension of moral judgment.”

So you won’t get any speculation about his feelings. Or if he’ll leave his wife. No, this affair is about sex. It’s about “lying in bed with that man in the middle of the afternoon.”

The man, like the woman, is nameless. He’s 38. He likes “Yves Saint-Laurent suits, Cerruti ties and powerful cars.” He watches bad TV. He drinks. But these preferences hardly matter. For the narrator knows at the beginning of the affair something that most woman only learn at the end: “The man we love is a complete stranger.” As is, perhaps, the woman.

Something happens at the end of the book — nothing dramatic, like a murder or even a confrontation, but I don’t want to spoil the experience for you — and we’re forced to consider her anew.

Who is Annie Ernaux? You’ve probably never heard of her, but she’s one of the biggest names in French fiction. Born in 1940, she grew up in a small town. She became a literature teacher in Paris. And, from her first book to her most recent, she had her style down pat: short, autobiographical books, so honestly told you feel she’s scraping off skin with every word. She never presents herself as a victim or a hero; she just is. Her books win prizes. And, though they’re chilly, they sell. Her humanity — that honest expression of desire and weakness — only looks simple. It’s a bitch to write.

Ernaux says that passion is the luxury of adults. I think I understand what she means: It’s time out of time, a shared secret, a deep and wordless acknowledgment of need and a gloriously hot way of satisfying that need. I think that’s why women, in particular, gravitate to Ernaux’s short, disturbing books — they know they’re real. How? Because, at one point or another, they’ve been that woman looking at her phone, praying for it to ring.

Categories: authors, Blog, Books, Jesse's Book Reviews, love & loss | Tags: | 3 Comments »

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, with a gift of personal peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t use a telephone, so when I interviewed him for America Online, I had to pick him up and drive him to the office. TNH practices “walking meditation.” That is, he walks very slowly, breathing very consciously, so that every breath and step become prayers. I knew this. And walked very slowly. But not slowly enough. Every ten paces, I had to stop and go back.

That is not because I am a speedwalker, but because I’m not truly mindful. My loss. For as TNH points out:

The Buddha confirmed that it is possible to live happily in the here and the now — even if you still have lots of pain and sorrow within yourself. Mindful breathing helps you become fully alive. And when you are really there, you can touch all the wonders of life that are available in this very moment for your enjoyment…for your nourishment…and for your healing
.

This is a very happy man presenting a joyous view of life. You think Buddhism is nihilistic because it lacks a God-figure and does not offer a road map to eternal life? Well, listen to this:

This body is not me. I am much more than this body. The space of 50 or 60 or 70 years is not my lifespan. It is not true that I did not exist before I was born. It is not true that I will no longer exist after the disintegration of this body. My ground of being is the reality of no birth, no death. No coming, no going. It is like water is the ground of being of a wave. The wave might be afraid of being or non-being. But if she knows that she is water, she will lose all her fear. Nothing is born…nothing dies. Birth and death cannot really touch us. If you know that, you will be able to enjoy every second of your daily life — even if you are in terminal illness.

I take great comfort in those words. And in the notion that meditation can be as simple as a conscious in-breath, a conscious out-breath. And that the key to everything is to be wide-awake — to be “mindful.” [To buy the paperback of "Essential Writings" from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Who is Thich Nhat Hahn? He became a monk in Vietnam at 16. He studied Zen (no, Zen is not just a Japanese strain of Buddhism), but in an “engaged” form, so, in the early 1960s, he founded the School of Youth for Social Services — a Vietnamese Peace Corps — to help his war-battered countrymen. A university and a magazine followed.

In 1966, TNH’s non-violent appeals caused him to be exiled from Vietnam. He taught at Columbia University, then founded a retreat in rural France called Plum Village. He comes to America about once a year and gives lectures in a voice so quiet and peaceful you have to lean in to hear him.

His themes resonate deeply for me:

Do not be bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones… Avoid being narrow-minded… Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge…. Do not force others to adopt your views… Do not avoid contact with suffering…. Do not maintain anger or hatred… Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature.

Dreamer? TNH is the ultimate realist. “Do not believe that I feel that I follow these precepts perfectly,” he says. “I know I fail in many ways. However, I must work toward a goal. These are my goals. No words can replace practice, only practice can make the words.”

It has long been clear to me that this peace starts with the personal — before I can help others create peace, I must be at peace within myself. Over time, I have found that TNH is the teacher who best helps me do this. Maybe you will find that to be true for you as well.

TNH is prolific. Where to start? Easy: a 163-page paperback, “The Essential Writings.”

Categories: authors, Blog, Books, Jesse's Book Reviews, Uncategorized | Tags: | 2 Comments »

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Some of my favorite books as a child were literal picture books – no words, just pictures. Every time you “read” the book you make up a different story to go with the pictures.

This is kind of like that.

Yusuke Oono created a cut paper book that captures a bit of Christmas.

I love this so much, it is beautiful and delicate, elegant and festive, a perfect snippet of Christmas.

I can imagine using this book to invent a story, maybe a new one each year.

I also love how tiny it is – just a little snippet, small enough to fit in a pocket.

 

Have a magical Tuesday,

Sarah from Design Flourishes

all images from here

via My Modern Met

Categories: Blog, Books, illustrations | 4 Comments »

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, hoping to lighten your holiday load.

With winter upon us, the child’s school had a coat drive. We had none to give. Then a package arrived. Coats. My wife had bought them online, on sale, so we could give them away.

I thought: That’s an O. Henry story. And it warmed me. I’m a fool for small gestures, private experiences, little personal moments that could easily be overlooked but which say everything. But the holidays? This year, I’ve lost the beat. Just a few miles from here, the storm erased whole communities. I have a roof and heat and lights and water. I want nothing more. Gifts for loved ones? I picture hungry children and classrooms without books, and I want to be the person who changes that, if only for a few.

But….’tis the season. I say this year, as I do every year, it came too soon. I say I’m not in the mood and won’t be. But here’s a church bazaar. Handel. Our daughter choosing a tree. And this. Always this.

It’s all horribly sappy and completely wonderful, and in the end, I surrender. Maybe that’s the reason I produced a new version of “A Christmas Carol.”

And then there’s this Gift Guide. I am a creature of ritual, and this one’s big for me — I set the bar high, I try to present books, music, movies and products you won’t see in InStyle. But it’s more than that. Creating the Gift Guide is my end-of-year report card. It forces me to look back and consider if what I chose to feature on these screens has enriched your lives as much as it did mine.

These are the choices I affirm. I hope they’re what you might want to give to people you like too much to give Jon Meacham’s dreary biography of Thomas Jefferson, Gillian Flynn’s over-praised “Gone Girl” and the newest releases from graduates of American Idol.

STOCKING STUFFERS

Egyptian Magic
The ingredients are olive oil, bee’s wax, honey, bee pollen, royal jelly and bee propolis. And — so it says — “divine love.” With the exception of the last “ingredient,” you could whip it up yourself. But you couldn’t improve on the original. What does it heal? Burns, scrapes, skin irritations, diaper rash, sunburns, eczema, psoriasis — and more.

“Maybe You Touched Your Genitals” Liquid Hand Soap

The label features an attractive woman in a crisp white blouse and a neighborly smile shaking hands with a man in a suit.

Antica Dolceria Bonajuto Aranciata, Orange Peels and Honey
Strips of Sicilian orange peel dipped in honey. Insane.

Ready, Steady, Shoot: The Guide to Great Home Video
A 113-page, pocket-sized book that will help you to master the basics. How to hold the camera steady. How many different shots you might want to use, and in what order. How long each shot should last. Invaluable.

THINGS

Zojirushi Stainless Steel Vacuum Insulated Mug
What is astonishing about the Zojirushi? How long hot stays hot and how long cold stays cold. Fill it with 16 ounces of steaming coffee in the morning, and six hours later, you can still burn your lips. Put ice cubes in a cold drink, and, six hours later, there’s still ice.

Yamaha Micro-Component Music System
We tried cheaper systems. And they were exactly that. The Yahama is all about function: CD player, FM radio, iPod and iPhone dock. It ‘s a legitimate piece of technology. Sitting next to an Apple laptop, it looks very much like a product Apple would make.

Etón American Red Cross Microlink Self-Powered AM/FM/NOAA Weather Radio
Solar powered. With Flashlight and Cell Phone Charger. Because there just might be another storm.

Timex Easy Reader Watch
Esquire: “The simple retro face looks cooler than some watches that cost six times as much.” Under $30.

HOLIDAY MUSIC

Phil Spector: A Christmas Gift for You

The best holiday album ever made. $7.29 at Amazon.

Christmas with the Tallis Scholars
Founded in 1973 by Peter Phillips, this English group has released 50 CDs and given 1,600 concerts. Over the decades, the Scholars have become the gold standard of Renaissance music. As this recording proves.

E-BOOKS


A Christmas Carol

The Charles Dickens masterpiece is 28,000 words. Good luck reading them all to a kid. So I edited it to 13,000 words. Paige Peterson created great illustrations. And we published it as an e-book. Some hate it (and me). Others love it. Starting with our kid.

The Greening of America
The New Yorker issue of September 26, 1970 contained a 70-page, 39,000-word excerpt from “The Greening of America” — the longest book excerpt in its history. A few weeks later, “The Greening of America” was the #1 nonfiction bestseller, dominating the New York Times list for 36 weeks. In hardcover and paperback, Charles Reich’s book eventually sold 2 million copies. All these years later, I edited it and published it as an e-book.

FICTION

Beautiful Ruins
The best novel I read this year. With a huge cast: the proprietor of a six-room, three-table nothing of a resort in an Italian coastal town only accessible by boat, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, a Hollywood publicist turned producer, a novelist who can’t get beyond the first chapter, an unproduced screenwriter, a singer-comic, an assistant film executive whose boyfriend can be found at strip clubs, and a young American actress named Dee Moray, who was briefly in “Cleopatra” and has come to this nowhere hotel because she’s been told she’s dying of cancer.

The Fault in Our Stars

A novel for teenagers about two teens dying of cancer? No. A love story. And a very great one.

The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars
Maurice Dekobra’s name is now almost completely forgotten, but in 1927 he published a novel called “The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars” that sold a million copies in France. Why? His heroine. Lady Diana Wynham is well known for her unabashed amorality. Presented with a list of her lovers, in chronological order, she has only one correction: “Excuse me, but they were contemporaneous.”

Young Man With a Horn
The fictionalized story of Leon Bismarck “Bix” Beiderbecke (1903 – 1931), who rocketed out of Davenport, Iowa with a sound so distinctive his only competition was Louis Armstrong. How it starts: “What I’m going to do now is to write the story of Rick Martin’s life, now that it’s over, now that Rick is washed up and gone, as they say, to his rest.” Could you stop there? I never can.

The Quiche of Death
A retired public relations executive sells her London business and moves to a cottage in the Cotswolds. A murder follows. And a delightful mystery,

NON-FICTION

God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine

“God’s Hotel” — the term comes from the Hôtel-Dieu, the French charity hospitals of the Middle Ages — reads as much like a memoir as a chronicle of daily life in an unusual hospital, it’s the story of Victoria Sweet, who came to Laguna Honda on a part-time basis for two months, stayed two decades and, along the way, staged a successful “twenty year escape from health care.” It’s an intellectual adventure story; a doctor follows an insight and reconnects with a way of practicing medicine that’s almost totally forgotten.

SMALL CHILDREN

This Is Not My Hat
“This hat is not mine,” a little fish tells us on the first page. “I stole it.” And why not? It was too small for its owner, a big fish. And the big fish was sleeping, and likely to remain asleep for a long time. “And if he does wake up, he probably won’t notice it’s gone.” Guess what? He wakes up.

MEMOIR

All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia
A record of a mother’s dementia. But Alex Witchel’s book is more than a story of a triumphant personality laid low. It’s a guide for those whose parents are disappearing. And it’s a love story. Alex and her mother. Alex and her husband. Very affecting.

COOKING

Canal House Cooks Every Day
Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer won the lottery. They get to live authentic lives and cook real food and write books that are both creative and simple. These 250 recipes are the proof.

At Home with May and Axel Vervoordt: Recipes for Every Season

The Vervoordts live in a castle. Axel is an art and antiques dealer and a decorator. May cooks. She quotes Virginia Woolf: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Her guests do.

TRAVEL

Atlas of Remote Islands (Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will)
The author disdains any island you can easily get to. The more remote the destination, the more enthusiastic she is for it. Like Peter I Island in the Antarctic — until the late 1990s, fewer people had visited it than had set foot on the moon. A one-of-a-kind treat.

MUSIC

Blake Mills
A major talent, an actual artist, a musician without an upper limit. And, pretty much, a secret.

Leonard Cohen
Just because.

Alabama Shakes

Many reasons. Not least, the way Brittany Howard screams: I don’t care, I can’t pay attention/ I don’t give a fuck about your attention at all…

BONUS VIDEO

Categories: Books, Jesse's Book Reviews, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

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Once upon a time there was a clumsy dragon who was chosen to save the world. It’s just a shame he wasn’t very good at it.

Last year I had the privilege of being introduced to one of the most adorable, flawed, fun middle-grade fiction characters I had ever met: Crispin Scales, a dragon.

The first thing I loved about this story was that its bumbling dragon-hero seemed to go backward. In most hero stories and fantasy epics, we watch the ordinary become extraordinary. Four ordinary school children cross a magic threshold and wind up becoming kings and queens of Narnia. A nerd is bitten by a radioactive spider and starts wearing lycra and climbing walls. A hobbit goes on a journey and returns home with a ring of formidable power.

But what if the story went the other way? What if the story began with a dragon, and a royal dragon at that, one destined for greatness? And then: what if that dragon ultimately lost everything and became, well, just like us?

There is a series of ‘Crispin’ books. I read the first two in their draft format, and couldn’t put them down. Neither, apparently, could the more-than 50 children on whom the stories were tested. The first book, Crispin Scales and the Golden Pearl by Ruby Blessing, was released last month. I can’t wait to buy my own copy. Go here to take a look at the funny and magical world of Crispin for yourself.

Yours truly,
Naomi xo

Categories: Books | 1 Comment »

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week clearing out his cookbook shelf because a new arrival is the answer to so many cooking questions.

We were giving a dinner for an Important Person, so we made up a guest list of friends we regard as Important.

It is a measure of my wife’s skill in the kitchen that we don’t hesitate to invite Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, the team that produces the Canal House cookbooks.

Because the Important Person was foreign, we decided to give him an All-American meal: Sloppy Joes and Mac & Cheese. Naturally, both recipes had been personalized.

Christopher noticed.

My wife explained: “Before I sprinkle buttered breadcrumbs on top of the macaroni, I put on slices of American cheese.”

Christopher had an admission of her own — there’s a brick of Velveeta in her refrigerator.

The moral of that story: The foundation of Hamilton and Hirsheimer’s success is their deep populist understanding of the unlimited bounty that America offers to those willing to embrace it, contradictions and all.

Really, these women might as well have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. After decades at the pinnacle of New York food magazines, they set up shop along the Delaware River, just across from New Hope, Pennsylvania. In their little town, there’s still a noon whistle, and church bells toll the hour.

Their studio, located in an old redbrick warehouse, overlooks a canal. But “studio” makes their loft sound professional. They prepare food on an old wooden carpenter’s worktable, with their pots and pans hanging overhead. They cook on the kind of stoves you find in rental apartments. They have a dishwasher, but prefer to clean up by hand.

But let them tell you about their workplace:

In warm weather, we throw open the French doors and the voices of the people walking or fishing below float up to us. We plant herbs in our window boxes and grow tomatoes in pots on our wrought-iron balcony. In the winter we build fires in the Franklin wood stove to keep cozy when its snowy and gray outside.

It is a dream. And yet it is their lives. Enviable? Yes, especially because they come in every day and live that day — these are women of weather and season, of inclination and intuition.

Of course they toss stale bread to the ducks in the canal.

Of course, in late summer, they eat tomato sandwiches over the sink. (“The tomatoes are so sensual that they should probably be eaten behind closed doors.”)

Of course they have a “studio dog” they take on walks.

Of course they wear aprons all day.

Of course their idea of a big dream involves acquiring a … walk-in refrigerator.

Everything about Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer delivers the same message: We won the lottery. We get to live authentic lives and cook real food and write books that are both creative and simple.

Disclosure: If I sound certain of these perceptions, it’s because I know these women. They were friends of friends when I wrote about their first, self-published cookbook. By Number 2 and Number 3, admiration had become acquaintance. By Number 4 I was like those groupies who run after the rock star’s limo. By Number 5 and Number 6 and Number 7, we were in a form of friendship.

Not, however, the kind of friendship that has them confiding in me. So I was stunned to get a 384-page brick of a hardcover book, with 250 recipes and 130 of Hirsheimer’s photographs and Hamilton’s illustrations. “Canal House Cooks Every Day” is just that: recipes for every season, using ingredients of the season. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here.]

That means you get tone poems to asparagus and berries, hymns to tomatoes. Again, let them speak:

We call ourselves salt-and-pepper cooks. We forsake the convenience of the supermarket and live in the season — slicing big ripe tomatoes, preserving tomatoes, grilling leeks, roasting chickens and slathering them with herb butter, foraging for chanterelles, turning corn into succotash, baking berry cobblers, and making apricot jam. Cooking is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the season around you….

And an easy way. Want to make deviled eggs but have no time? Split hard-boiled eggs, spread mayonnaise over them, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle salt and pepper. And… done. Spare ribs? Baste them with hoisin sauce and bourbon. Chicken in a pot needs only scallions. And no recipes call for foam or truffle oil.

The book’s final recipe? Thin, crisp chocolate chip cookies. Of course.

Some recipes…

Cleansing Ginger-Chicken Soup
serves 6

Ginger has long been known for its health benefits. Prized for its anti-inflammatory properties, it is also known to calm an upset stomach. We love the heat it adds to this rich, satisfying broth. We remove the chicken breast halfway through cooking to keep it tender and juicy. The purity of this broth needs little else, but if you want more substance, add rice or noodles.

1 onion
sliced 2 ribs celery
chopped 1 big hand fresh ginger (about 8 ounces), unpeeled and sliced into big pieces
1 clove garlic
10 black peppercorns
1 organic chicken, cut into 7 pieces (2 breasts, 2 thighs and legs, 2 wings, and the back)
Salt
Handful fresh cilantro leaves

Put the onions, celery, ginger, garlic, and peppercorns in a heavy large pot, then add the chicken pieces, placing the breasts on top so they will be easier to remove from the hot broth halfway through the cooking. Cover with 4 quarts cold water and bring just to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface.

After about 30 minutes, remove the chicken breasts and set them aside to cool. Continue to gently simmer the soup for 1½ hours.

Remove all the chicken from the broth and set it aside until it is cool enough to handle. Pull off and discard the skin, bones, and gristle. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl then return the broth to the pot. Boil the broth over high heat until it has reduced to about 8 cups. Season with salt to taste.

Put a handful of chicken in each of 6 individual bowls, then ladle in the hot broth. Serve garnished with cilantro leaves.

Braised Beef Brisket with Onions & Currants
serves 4–6

We’re often looking for ways to add saltiness or sweetness to a dish by using more complex ingredients than straight-up salt or sugar. Anchovies, capers, preserved lemons, and pancetta are some of our favorite saline seasonings. In this recipe, we add sweetness to the beef brisket and its rich, silky braising sauce with onions, ketchup, sherry vinegar, and dried currants. This is how we build flavor. The trick to cooking is learning how to balance flavors and seasonings while keeping them from getting murky. We’ve been cooking a long time and we’re still learning constantly. It’s one of the reasons we love to cook.

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 medium onions, sliced into thick rounds
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
One 3-pound beef brisket with a nice layer of fat
1 tablespoon pimentón
Salt and pepper
1 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons sherry or red wine vinegar
1 cup dried currants or raisins

Preheat the oven to 300°. Heat the olive oil in a large enameled cast-iron or other heavy ovenproof pot with a lid over medium-high heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook until softened and slightly collapsed, about 5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat. Rub the brisket all over with the pimentón and a generous seasoning of salt and pepper. Put the brisket in the pot, fat side up on top of the onions.

Stir together the ketchup, ½ cup water, the vinegar, and currants in a small bowl, and pour over the brisket. Cover the pot and transfer it to the oven. Braise the meat until it is very tender, about 3 hours.

Remove the pot from the oven, then transfer the meat to a cutting board. Skim off the fat from the sauce. Slice the meat and serve with the sauce.

Categories: Books, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week with a totally inspiring story.

James Holman was a 21-year-old British sailor with the bad luck to be the man on deck as his ship was buffeted by a winter storm off Nova Scotia. He had the frame of a boy — he weighed just 146 pounds — and not enough of a man’s coat to make a difference. By the end of his watch, he felt stiff in every joint.

The diagnosis was gout. He got some rest, was sent home, received a new assignment — and, once again, was on deck in terrible weather. By 24, he was taking water cures in Bath. But this time, he developed new symptons: shooting pains in his eyes.

At 25, for reasons unknown, he was completely blind.

You can scarcely bring yourself to read about the treatments for blindness in 1810. Start with leeches “applied directly under the eyes.” Move on to a “slender spike” inserted in the eye. Luckily for Holman, he wasn’t looking for a cure as much as he was seeking an explanation.

He never found one. But he did find something better: a refusal to live out his days as an invalid on a Navy pension — or, worse, as a beggar. So he acquired an “ordinary walking stick” and a writing machine. He soon learned to get about the streets. And to create documents.

He was now ready to make his way in the world.

The world. Well, he had lifetime tenancy of three rooms. He had 84 pounds a year. He was 26 years old. [To buy the paperback from Amazon.com, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

He enrolled in medical school. He made it look easy — but then, he made everything look easy, so as not to call attention to himself. Still, he took ill. Doctors recommended a rest in the South of France. He taught himself to swim alone. To be self-sufficient — although the wives of fellow travelers were only too happy to help him make ready for bed.

And then comes the huge surprise. This guy wants to go around the world. On the cheap. Without a guide. Traveling through expanses too daunting for the average tourst — who crossed Russia in those days?

What happens on these trips is so beyond our sense of what is possible that you read this book with jaw slack. You can readily understand how his travel writing became immensely popular, why Darwin cited him as an authority — as Holman put it, “I see things better with my feet.”

You will see things better if you read this remarkably entertaining and inspiring biography.

Categories: Books, Travel | 1 Comment »

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week bringing you a droll voice from the long-lost past.

Maurice Dekobra?

His name is now almost completely forgotten, but in 1927 he published a novel called “The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars” that sold a million copies in France. (It was eventually published in 24 languages.) In 1928, The New York Times described him as “the biggest seller of any living French writer — or dead one either.” Fifteen of his novels became films. (“Madonna” was filmed twice.) Over his career, he sold 15 million books in 32 languages, and his kind of writing — a slick blend of journalism and high-society intrigue — acquired a brand name: dekobrisme.

“The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars” went out of print in 1948.

It’s finally back. So let me introduce you.

Maurice Dekobra (1885-1973) began his career as a translator (Daniel Defoe, Jack London, Mark Twain). In the early 1920s, he was a journalist and foreign correspondent. His fiction reflects his training — it’s grounded in the news, is briskly paced and has an unusually tart point-of-view.

The plot, as these things go, is simple. Lady Diana Wynham is a London widow known for her beauty (“the type of woman who would have brought tears to the eyes of John Ruskin”). She is just as well known for her unabashed amorality. Presented with a list of her lovers, in chronological order, she has only one correction: “Excuse me, but they were contemporaneous.” [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here].

Lady Diana is about to be ruined financially. Her sole hope of salvation is l0,000 acres of Russian oil land that her late husband, the English ambassador to the court of St. Petersburg, received as a gift from the government of Nicholas II. It is — in 1920s money — worth 50 million dollars.

The bad news: Russia’s Bolshevist government has confiscated all foreign property.

The good news: Leonid Varichkine will get it back for Lady Diana in exchange for “one night” of love.

What are a few illicit hours to a woman “who could never be happy without a great deal of money?” But Lady Diana is as clever as she is amoral. She proposes a better deal.

“Madonna” starts in London, makes stops in Berlin, an Arabian prison and a yacht in the Mediterranean, with a melodramatic climax in a castle in Scotland. In addition to distance, lessons are learned: a Communist can be converted to capitalism for less money than you might think, and “passing infractions of fidelity” are “trivial.”

I’ve dipped into a few other Dekobras. They’re not awful. But “Madonna” is clearly his showpiece. It’s a fun, terse, story that is as convincing about London drawing rooms as it is about Russian execution chambers. And he makes you care about Lady D.

Categories: Books, Paris | 5 Comments »

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week making his contribution to a cult — a good cult.

On October 23, 1992, with her daughter tucked in and her husband next to her, Laurie Colwin went to sleep. She did not wake up. She was 48 years old.

The memorial service was standing room only, for Laurie Colwin was much loved. Some people there knew her from the 1968 campus uprisings at Columbia, when she cooked for the student protesters who had taken over university buildings. Some knew her from the soup kitchen where she cooked for the poor and elderly. But most were writers, with writers’ stories, like Scott Spencer, who talked about the early days, when Colwin pretended to be an agent and shopped his first manuscript around town: “She saw me in ways I had never seen myself before and never since.”

A curious thing happened after Laurie Colwin died. Her books remained in print, all of them. And that’s saying something, for she was prolific: five novels and three books of short stories, with two more books published after her death. Eighteen years after her death, her website launched.

It makes sense that Laurie Colwin, in death, should be more popular than a lot of living writers who mine the same terrain. She hit the sweet spot. She wrote about privileged people so well you could legitimately call her our Jane Austen, But also, well before Nora Ephron, she threw in recipes, and in some of her perceptions, she was cousin to Woody Allen. In a time when “literary fiction” was mostly pinched and gloomy, she was the half-full glass — she even called one of her novels “Happy All the Time.” And her writing had that key element, energy; there was a reason they played Sam and Dave before her memorial service.

What to read?

The cooks and eaters among you will gravitate to “Home Cooking,” a collection of the columns she wrote for Gourmet magazine. (Here’s a spooky story. A few months before she died, she called Gourmet’s editor and said, “I have all my columns for next year, is it O.K. if I send them in now?” She did. And for almost a year after she died, a Laurie Colwin piece was in the issue.)

“Home Cooking” is exactly that. It begins: “Unlike some people, who love to go out, I love to stay home.” She wrote a prose poem to the power of the dinner party: “It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back. Often they retaliate by inviting you again, and you must then extend another invitation. Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.” But she wasn’t really complaining. This is quintessential Colwin: “One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.” [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

On to the fiction. Colwin’s cult is divided about The Best Book. Some insist it’s “Happy All the Time.” I understand why. Four lovers in their twenties, far from poor, highly educated, with the special tics of the intelligently self-obsessed. The writing is lush:

“There are going to be thousands of dinners like this, thought Misty. This is my place at the dinner table. This is my intended husband’s best friend and that is the wife of my intended’s best friend whom I am going to spend the rest of my life getting to know. Across the table, Vincent looked seraphically happy. How wonderful everything tasted, Misty thought. Everything had a sheen on it. Was that what love did, or was it merely the wine? She decided that it was love.
“It was just as she suspected: love turned you into perfect mush.”

One character is Jewish and mouthy, a stand-in for the author and a great humanizing factor — this is, in every other way, a story from the 1970s, when these self-involved lives were still possible. [To read Chapter 1, click here. To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

I prefer “Shine On, Bright & Dangerous Object.” It has a word-perfect beginning, with a solid narrative voice and a keen appreciation for the Important Facts:

My husband died sailing off the coast of Maine, leaving me a widow at the age of twenty-seven. This was the time when a lot of girls were losing their husbands to the air war or the ground war; I lost my husband to recklessness, to a freak storm and a flimsy boat. I had no bitter, apologetic telegram to inform me, no grieving soldier at my door with the unsent letter, watch, and kit, no child to console.
His name was Sam Bax, and no one ever stopped him from anything.

Colwin nails grief and the ways it wants you to be by yourself even as it pushes you to be with people. It is inevitable in these 180 pages that the person Elizabeth Bax will be pushed toward is Sam’s far more solid (and appropriate) brother. Colwin gets the push-pull just right. And, for a Jane Austenite, she writes decent sex. [To read Chapter 1, click here. To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

Colwin’s fans admit no flaws, but I see one. Each of these novels doesn’t end where it should. Each has an extra section that takes the characters where they don’t need to go, only to bring them back to the ending we could have had many pages earlier. True, without these sections, the novels would have been novellas. They would also have been perfect.

But this is to quibble. If you like old-fashioned novels of manners, here they are, regrooved. A pity there won’t be more of them.
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ROAST CHICKEN À LA LAURIE COLWIN
Serves 4

‘There is nothing like roast chicken,” Colwin wrote. ‘It is helpful and agreeable, the perfect dish no matter what the circumstances. Elegant or homey, a dish for a dinner party or a family supper, it will not let you down.”

a 3- to 3 1/2-pound chicken
3 to 4 cups cubed whole-wheat bread
1/2 cup porcini mushrooms
1/4 to 1/3 cup broth
Salt and fresh ground pepper
Paprika
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon melted butter or water or broth for basting.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Rinse chicken and pat dry.

Combine bread and mushrooms in a bowl and toss with broth. Season to taste. Stuff chicken and secure with poultry pin or toothpick. Place in roasting pan and sprinkle with salt, pepper and paprika. (If desired, surround it with carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic and a red pepper.)

Roast for about 2 hours, basting frequently with melted butter and pan juices. The chicken is done when the leg bone wiggles and the skin is the color of teak.

Categories: authors, Books | 1 Comment »

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