Book Review: Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs

Amaro

Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

For Christmas last year, my partner and I decided to go to Vedge, a fancy vegan restaurant in town, for dinner, instead of giving each other physical gifts. It was at Vedge that I had Cynar, a digestif made from 13 herbs and botanicals (among them artichokes), for the first time.

The drink was both challenging and delightful and I became hooked on the concept of amaro, herbal, bitter liquors designed to be drunk at the end of the meal to help with digestion. So it was a real delight to get to read through Brad Thomas Parsons’ Amaro, which is both a love letter to and a primer on the wide world of bitters.

First off, let’s define what amaro or a digestif is. Although in the US, we might classify Campari and the like in the same group as Cynar and other amari, Parsons points out that those beverages are technically not classified as amaro in Italy, as they are typically consumed before a meal. Amaro is reserved for the big, heavy bitter drinks, like my friend Cynar, that you drink afterwards.

Along with a section on apertivo, there’s an entire section of fernet, a specific type of amaro that I really have no plans on trying soon. There’s also a section devoted to new world amaro, including a number of beverages created in the US, and lots of stories about bitter bars and amaro-devoted bartenders throughout.

Parsons really did his research here, visiting the manufacturers of some of the more well known amari, trying to wheedle the secret recipes and formulas (and there are a lot of secret formulas) out of the owners. But to no avail. Only a few people will get to know what goes into some of these beverages, ever. And I think that’s OK.

So far, I’ve enjoyed Amaro purely for the information Parsons provides. I haven’t yet had a chance to try any of the cocktail recipes included, although there are some classics, such as the Negroni. One recipe that I’m particularly intrigued by features Amaro Montenegro and orange soda. Although there are a few drinks featuring my beloved cynar, I think I’ll probably pass on making those (they contain bourbon or rye, and I’m just not a fan) and will continue to enjoy it my favorite way: straight up, with nothing added.

Book Review: David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book

David Bowie changed my life. I think I would be a very different person, not just in terms of my musical tastes, but also in terms of my politics and belief systems, had I not found Bowie’s music and read a biography about him during high school. So I was happy to have the opportunity to review Mel Elliot’s David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book.

The coloring book doesn’t just have images of Bowie’s most iconic looks (and a few lesser known looks, such as from his early days and later years). It also includes a bit of biographical information about him and his work.

The only trouble is that the content is thin at best and the pictures aren’t so great. For one thing, the book is on the small side, about 8 inches square. So the pictures are pretty small. For another, they’re not that detailed. I’m not really into the whole adult coloring book trend, and I got this book purely because I am a Bowie fan. But this is just disappointing as a coloring book because there’s really not that much to color.

While I appreciate the text that accompanies the images in the book, I feel it really leaves you wanting more. The author provides details about who designed some of Bowie’s costumes, and comments on his stylistic choices throughout the years, but the text doesn’t really do much to give you a full in-depth understanding of who Bowie was and why his alter egos and musical choices throughout the year matters.

Well, you  might argue, if the David Bowie Retrospective is for real fans, then just a blurb or two of text should suffice, since they already know all the details. But I’d almost rather that book have more or better images and less text than a few half-hearted images (seriously, there’s one picture that’s just a pair of brogues) and mediocre text.

Although it’s a disappointment as a coloring book, there is one way that I’ve found to enjoy the book. That’s using the images as transfers for embroidery. I copied one of the pictures onto fabric transfer paper and have been working on stitching up Bowie as Aladdin Sane.

David Bowie Retrospective and Coloring Book

All in all, I get the sense that the book was created as a way to cash in on fans’ sadness at Bowie’s death. That’s cynical, I know, but it’s the only way to explain why the book is just so lackluster when nothing about Bowie was.

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

Books I Read In October and November 2016

It’s play reading season for me, so I didn’t get to read as many published books as usual. Here’s what I read in October and November, including Hagseed, the Night Manager, and the Language Hoax.

The Night Manager by John Le Carré

Yes, I read the Night Manager because I watched the mini series on AMC. Since the novel was written in the early 1990s and the TV series was set in present day, I was curious to see what had been updated or changed from the book.

I can’t really say I enjoyed reading The Night Manager and there were a lot of  times when I considered abandoning the book. Le Carre’s language is … let’s just say it’s pretty flowery. Despite the fact that the novel was a thriller, it had a really slow pace.

Was it different from the TV show? Yeah, it was, a lot. The night manager of the title was the same, and the main bad guy was the same. But the chief spy, who’s a woman on TV, was a dude in the book. A sign of the times, I guess? The ending was a lot different too, and after seeing the televised version, I felt that the book’s ending was a let down.

Would I feel the same had I not seen the mini series? Maybe. I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book if I hadn’t seen the show, so there’s that.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

After the mild disappointment of the Night Manager, I enjoyed The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo more than I thought I would. I have a few problems with Amy Schumer’s comedy –mainly her approach to race issues and her insistance on describing herself as fat. But her memoir goes beyond her comedic persona, offering a glimpse at who she is as a person.

It’s also fairly funny while it discusses some pretty dark stuff. In one part, she describes her tendancy to black out when drinking. As part of the chapter, she recounts a relatively recent event, during which she took Ambien after drinking. She ended up eating butter “like it was guacamole” while her horrified boyfriend looked on.

I think people have a tendancy to conflate who Schumer is as a person with the characters she creates for TV and her movie. The book is a reminder that they are not one and the same, and that there’s more to Amy Schumer than her comedy.

Hagseed

Hagseed by Margaret Atwood

Hagseed is Margaret Atwood’s re-telling of the Tempest. Instead of simply adapting the story of Shakespeare’s play, Atwood creates a sort of story within the play. After being ousted from his role as artistic director at a theater festival, Felix finds himself living in exile in some hovel somewhere in Canada and teaching drama at a local prison. A highlight of the prisoner’s lives in the annual Shakespearean production they put on. In an interesting twist, the same people who fired Felix now have plans to shutter his prison literacy program. Felix comes up with a plan to get his revenge and convince the men to keep the program going.

Before he was fired, Felix had plans for a great production of the Tempest at the festival. Those plans were shelved, but not forgotten. Now, at the prison, he sees a chance to bring his plan for the Tempest to life, while seeking revenge on the people who fired him.

The fact that Felix is producing the Tempest while the plot of the play also parallels his life makes Hagseed a particularly fun read. It’s much more than just a straight-up adaptation or retelling. It presents the original work while also imitating and riffing on that work. There’s a lot of room for failure in that premise (I initially thought it would be very cheesy). But, Atwood pulls it off. She makes Felix a character you both feel for and feel annoyed by. Instead of simply rehashing the plot, she turns it into something else entirely.

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

The Language Hoax by John McWhorter

I took a linguistics course on Coursera recently and McWhorter’s The Language Hoax was one of the recommended, but not required readings. I’ve read other books by McWhorter and find him to be a fun read. The Language Hoax was no different.

It’s an argument against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues that people’s language shapes their culture. Although it’s a problematic hypothesis that leads to people occasionally making broad and inaccurate statements such as “_____ language has no color for green, thus ____ people don’t see green!” or “____ has simple grammar. Thus, ____ people are simple!,” the hypothesis has lived on. It’s often mentioned in the media (they mentioned in the movie Arrival) in a way that’s overly simplified.

McWhorter argues that it’s not language that shapes culture but rather, if anything culture that shapes language. Or more likely, a series a random of events that form language and have nothing to do with cultural preferences or the intellectual abilities of one people over another.

Take, for example, the use of the definite article. Not every language uses “the.” Does that mean languages without “the” have no sense of definiteness? Or that people who speak those languages can’t pick out one specific object from a group? No, probably not.

At the end of the book, McWhorter stresses that despite our cultural differences, we can look at language to find out what makes people more the same than different.

Shopping: MM LaFleur Bento Box Review 2.0

Nearly a year ago, I ordered my first Bento Box from MM LaFleur, a company that specializes in clothing and personal styling for “professional women.” The Bento box concept is similar to how other personal styling services work. You fill out a survey, they send you clothes that might fit you based on your answers. In my review of my first Bento Box, I noted that I kept one item, the Graham kimono. I had a similar experience this time around, and ended up keeping one of the items in my box.

The Bento Box Request

When you Re-bento, you can make specific requests to your stylist. I’ve been wanting to try the Foster pants, but given my track record with pants, was nervous about purchasing them and having to return them. I figured getting a pair in my Bento would be the ideal option. If they worked, great, if not, no worries, back they’d go. I left a note with my order requesting the pants.

MM LaFleur’s newest collection has a number of dresses in an amazing deep, forest green color. Since green is my favorite color, I asked my stylist to include a few of their new dresses in that color.

The Bento Box Arrives

My box arrived a day before my requested date (10/5, it got here on the 4th). When I opened it up it contained:

mm lafleur bento box review - foster pant in black

Bento Box: Foster Pant

So let’s start my Bento Box review with the Foster pant. The description on the website said that the pants ran small, so I asked for a size 8. My first reaction when pulling them out of the box was, well, I’m not going to fit into those.

I did, but just barely. I had to suck in to pull the waist closed and I’m standing with my legs slightly apart in the photo, because I couldn’t really bring them together due to the tightness of the pants. Not a good look and definitely not how I would want to go about my day.

The fabric of the Foster pant was also a bit of a surprise. I was expecting a soft and stretchy ponte, since they are described as feeling like yoga pants, but these were a woven cotton-blend fabric. They were stiffer than expected, which didn’t go well with the overall tightness.

Suffice it to say, I didn’t keep them.

bento box review mm lafleur davis top

Bento Box: Davis Top

I was pleasantly surprised to get the Davis top in my Bento. I’d seen in on the website and thought it looked interesting, but wouldn’t have ordered it for myself, especially in the yellow-orange watercolor print.

The top fits close up in the bust, but then loosens up over your waist and hips. It’s lined, so it’s a really sturdy feeling shirt.  I like the overlap on the front, but ended up returning it for two reasons. One I’m not super into the yellow-orange pattern. Two, it was $210, which I think it just a bit too much for a top, although it is made in NYC.

Bento box review Aditi 2.0 dress

Bento Box: Aditi 2.0 Dress

Let’s move on to the dresses. I love the shape and color of the Aditi 2.0 dress. But this style doesn’t work on me. This is a size 6, and there are a lot of bumps and rolls in the dress because of its close fit. Some of those bumps are me, some are the dress.

Maybe it’d be worth trying in an 8, but this was just way too tight for me to wear.

Bento box mm lafleur lydia dress

Bento Box: Lydia Dress

I debated for a couple of days over whether to keep the Lydia or not. Arguments in favor of the dress: great color, interesting twisty part at the shoulder, soft, comfortable fabric. Arguments against the dress: weird fit, dry clean only.

I ended up sending it back, because it was loose at the waist and very tight at the hips (this was a size 8). Also, I dunno, I just don’t want another dry clean only dress.

bento box mm lafleur woolf jardigan

Bento Box: Woolf Jardigan

Last, but not least, the one piece I did keep. The Woolf Jardigan (that’s jacket + cardigan) is a slightly longer version of the St. Ambroeus jardigan (which I also own). It was love at first wear. From the minute I pulled on the Woolf, I knew I was going to keep it, even though I really, really don’t need another jacket.

The Woolf works well as both a blazer and a comfy cardigan. I always feel a bit dowdy in cardigans, but not in the Woolf. It also has split seams on the side, which give it a more flattering shape and look. It looks OK worn with pants, but I find it’s most flattering worn over a dress.

So there you have it. My second Bento Box. All in all, I find getting a Bento a fun experience and will probably do it again. I think specifically asking for items or giving your stylist a clue about what you like and don’t like, helps make the Bento experience more useful, rather than hoping and praying your stylist gets it right.

Book Reviews: What I Read in September 2016

Another month’s gone by! Check out the book reviews for what I read in September:

How Not to Travel the World by Lauren Juliff

I feel pretty conflicted about How Not to Travel the World by Lauren Juliff. A memoir of the year the author spent traveling around (through parts of Europe and Asia, spending a lot of time in Thailand), the book really lives up to its name. Juliff starts her big round-the-world trip off by nearly missing her flight to Croatia. Once she gets to the airport, she struggles at check-in because she doesn’t know what a “checked bag” is. When she finally gets past security, instead of dashing to her flight (she’s late, after all), she dawdles in the bookshop. From there, she has mishap after mishap, some of which are brought on by her complete lack of common sense, others of which (like nearly experiencing a tsunami in Thailand) are just due to bad luck or bad timing.

Yeah, so the book is basically what not to do when traveling 101. My main struggle with it was it didn’t feel that believable. “Really, you’re in your 20s, you live in London and you don’t know what checked luggage is?” That sort of thing. I get that the writer had lots of anxiety and that traveling around and breaking out of her shell was a struggle for her, but the whole “I didn’t realize” schtick gets old pretty quickly.

It was a quick read, and Juliff’s a pretty engaging writer, but after more than 300 pages of “oops!” I’d had enough. Small annoyances aside, the book did make me want to travel to Thailand. So I guess it didn’t entirely fail as a travel memoir, since it did incite some wanderlust.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Years ago, this guy I was going out with gave me a copy of the The Secret History by Donna Tartt, because I was a classics major. I broke up with the guy and never read the book.

Then, a few years ago, I read the Goldfinch and really liked it. So, I figured it was time to revisit the Secret History. Creepy ex boyfriend’s copy was long gone, so I picked one up at the library. I’m really glad I finally read it.

Set at a fictional liberal arts college in Vermont, the book is narrated by Richard, a transfer student from the West Coast. Since he studied ancient Greek at his old school, Richard decides to study it at his new college. The thing is, the classics students at Hampden are few (there are just five) and admission to the program is closely regulated by Julien, an eccentric professor.

Rumors swirl about the school about Julien and his students — that they worship the devil, for instance, but Richard is undeterred. He convinces Julien to accept him into the program and quickly becomes part of the group.

The Secret History is a murder mystery, but a murder mystery that’s been flipped. The murder opens the book, the next 500 or so pages are spent learning why the murder happened and the consequences of it.

More than a thriller, though, the novel takes a look at the effects of privilge on a group of young students. All five of the classics majors, save for Richard, come from cushy backgrounds. Most of them have inheritances to rely on and families to support them. No matter the consequences of their actions, there’s the sense that they will be fine.

Richard doesn’t have that same assurance. He’s cut off from his family (in part by choice, in part not). He has no financial cushion. Although he’s part of the action (he is there at the murder), he’s also outside of it, standing aside the narrator, retelling the story many years later.

When the major consequence of the murder happens, Richard is the one who stands to lose the most, since he lacks that familiar support. Yet, he’s the only who ends up pressing on with his studies, earning a degree. The novel is as much a commentary on the damage having too much wealth can do as it is on the damage of having a single professor be the sole influence over you in college.

book reviews

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

About a year ago, I saw Kazuo Ishiguro at the Free Library, when The Buried Giant had just come out. He mentioned that he had meant for The Remains of the Day to be a comedy, but few people saw it that way. I don’t know if his saying that influenced my reading of the book, but I did find it quite funny. And tragic. But also fairly funny.

James Stevens served as a butler for Lord Darlington for three decades. Now, Darlington is dead and the great house has been purchased by an American. Stevens, ever the proper butler, wonders often is he should be bantering with his new boss, since the boss is American, and don’t Americans like banter? His uncertainty and his attempts at banter are quite hilarious.

Around this time, Steven gets a letter from a former coworker, Miss Kenton, who was once a housekeeper there, but then got married and left. She seems unhappy in her letter, so Stevens gets the idea that he’ll drive out to her and see if she wants to come back and work at the house, which now has a limited staff.

Over the course of his multi-day drive across the country, he reminiscinces about his past at Darlington Hall. His remembrances about Miss Kenton are tinged with the suggestion that he was attracted to her, and she to him, but that his inaction was what led to her to go off and marry someone else. Stevens also begins to question his many decades of devotion to Darlington, who it is revealed in the flashbacks, might not have been such a great guy.

It’s not just Stevens’ love life that suffers because of his sense of propriety and his refusal to act in any way but as an exemplary butler. His relationship with his father also suffers. In one memory, Stevens leaves his father on his deathbed because he feels he needs to fufill  his duties for the day. His father dies and Stevens has no chance to say good-bye.

So, a funny book at times. But also a deeply heartbreaking book about a life lived under so much constraint that you might argue it wasn’t a life lived at all.

 

fates and furies book review

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies closely examines the marriage between Lancelot (“Lotto”), a successful playwright and former struggling actor and Mathilde, his wife. It’s divided into two parts, the first of which (Fates) focuses on Lancelot/Lotto. The second part (Fury) is all about Mathilde.

The pair meet in college and get married pretty quickly. Everyone thinks they’ll get divorced, but the years gone on and they don’t. It looks as though Mathilde is the quiet wife, supporting her husband while he pursues an acting career, standing by his side after he makes sit as a playwright. But there’s much more to it than that and the second part of the book rips off the facade of the first part, unveiling Mathilde and giving more of an explanation for the couple’s relationship. It’s not so much telling the story of a marriage from two different people’s point of view. It’s telling two different stories that happen to contain the same people and events that take place at the same time.

It’s not so much the story of Fates and Furies that made it such a good read. It’s Groff’s style. The words tumble on the page. We’re shown brief, terrible glimpses of the character’s past and future, all in one breath. It’s a beautifully written book, probably one of the most stylistically engaging novels I’ve read in a long time.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

*I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review*

One day, Yeong-Hye stops eating meat. She’s been having terrible dreams about murder and violence, so she gives up meat.

But it’s not as if she simply goes vegan. She stops eating most foods and wastes away. Her behavior changes too, unsettling her husband and family. At a family dinner one day, things reach a tipping point and Yeong-Hye ends up in the hospital.

Although Yeong-Hye is the title character, The Vegetarian is told from everyone’s perspective but hers. There are some brief descriptions of her violent dreams, from her own point of view, in the first part of the book, but otherwise, the action is narrated by her husband. The second part of the book is from the POV of her brother-in-law and the final part is from her sister’s point of view.

The Vegetarian is some sort of terrifying parable. When Yeong-Hye finally tries to assert herself, by first becoming vegetarian and by doing other considerably more shocking things later on, her family’s reaction is first to force her to eat meat and later to lock her up. No one gets what is going on with her. The response is either to abandon her, to take advantage of her or to have her actions call into question everything that a character once believed or thought important.

The premise of the novel might feel so strange and foreign to us that it can be easy to dismiss it. I think it’s more important not to try to define the “meaning” of the story or to really analyze what it all means, especially the ending. My first inclination was to think, oh clearly, this is a woman throwing off the shackles of society. But there’s more to it than that. Yeong-Hye isn’t just rejecting the expectations placed on her by society. She’s throwing off the expectation that she is even a human, and that is what ultimately terrifies her family and others around her.

 

 

Book Reviews: What I Read in August

Hey! It’s September already, which means it’s time for a few book reviews from the month of August. Let’s start with a book I didn’t like and work our way up to one I absolutely loved.

These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf

I guess if “These Things Hidden” has one thing going for it, it’s that it was a quick read. Other than that, ugh, where to begin.

Set in Linden Falls, a small town in Iowa, the novel alternates point of view among four characters, Allison, Brynn, Charm and Claire, in each chapter. Sometimes the chapters are written in first person. Sometimes in third person. I don’t know why the author made that choice. But that’s how it goes.

Allison has recently gotten out of prison for doing something terrible as a teenager and has returned to Linden Falls to live in a halfway house and start her life over. Her sister, Brynn, has fled their small town and now lives a few hours away with their grandmother. Their parents have pretty much cut the two sisters out of their lives because of what Allison did.

Meanwhile, Claire owns a bookstore in Linden Falls. She’s adopted a son, Joshua, who was left at a fire station as a baby. Charm’s a nursing student who drops into the bookstore sometimes and feels a connection to Joshua.

The novel has a lot of twists and turns, each one more implausible than the next. It doesn’t really develop its characters beyond flat stereotypes. Charm’s mom is the trashy slut. Allison’s and Brynn’s parents have too high expectations. Their grandma seems nice, but that’s all we get. There’s never really a sense of the why behind each character’s action, except for maybe Claire, who seems driven by her need/desire to be a mom. Snoozefest.

SPOILER

So, OK, let’s just do a spoiler here. You’ve been warned. Allison went to prison for throwing her baby in a river. Turns out that not only did she not know she was pregnant or was somehow able to conceal her pregnancy for the entire time, she was pregnant with twins.

You’re putting two and two together. Yeah, Joshua was the other baby. And! Plot twist! Allison gets a job working at the bookstore, where she instantly recognizes Joshua and decides she must tell her sister about him. Oh, and by the way, Brynn’s very  mentally ill. This is depicted by her saying random words out loud sometimes and by her trying to drown Joshua.

From it’s unbelievability to its handling of characters with mental illness, there’s not much to recommend about These Things Hidden.

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

I’ll be honest and admit that I picked up Jojo Moyes’ One Plus One off of the library shelf because I really liked the cover. The story inside was enjoyable, too, but it was really the cover that drew me in. So, “never judge a book by its cover” doesn’t have much weight here.

The formula for One Plus One is pretty similar to Moyes’ Me Before You. A down-on-her-luck single mom, Jess, ends up with a wealthy, but seriously flawed, tech entrepreneur, Ed Collins.  Although the two initially don’t get along, their romance has a chance to bloom over the course of a days-long road trip from their home town on the coast of England to Scotland, where Jess’ daughter, Tanzie, a math whiz, has the chance to win a math contest. The prize money from the contest would be enough to cover the cost of her going to a posh private school.

Of course, there are a lot of literal and figurative bumps in the road on the way to the contest. Turns out Tanzie can’t ride in cars going more than 40 mph, which is why the trip takes so long. Jess doesn’t want to pay for hotel rooms and won’t eat in restaurants, because of concerns about cost. The whole reason they’re riding with Ed is because their rickety Rolls Royce broke down on the side of the road. Ed himself is running from his own demons (and possible jail time for insider trading) at home.

The novel alternates point of view and narration between chapters, giving Jess, Ed, Tanzie, and Nicky, Jess’ stepson, a chance to tell their stories. The change in narrator actually does give you a multi-faceted view of the situation and helps create a deep and engaging story.

Although One Plus One does have a happier ending than Me Before You, it’s not all smooth sailing on the path to love or whatever. Ed doesn’t simply swoop in and save Jess from her financial troubles. Jess doesn’t just jump in and make Ed a better man instantly.

That’s what I love about Moyes’ books. They’re sappy romances, sure, but they aren’t all hearts and love and mush. Her books feel hopeful, but still depict the day to day challenges all people face.

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett

I read about Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes in Tom Wolf’s take down of Noam Chomsky in Harper’s in July and decided I really wanted to read it. Chomsky has this theory that language and grammar are innate, that every person has the ability to learn grammar and that all language share things in common, even if those languages are very different. This is an over-simplification, but I’m not reviewing Chomsky here.

Anyway, along comes Everett, who’s spent 30 years of his life living among the Pirahã tribe along the Maici river in Brazil. Everett’s also a linguist and has dedicated himself to studying the Pirahã language. What he’s found is a grammar like no other, with thoughts pretty much exclusively in the present tense and each sentence containing only one thought.

His book, “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes,” is part memoir of his time with the tribe and part linguistic discussion and analysis. It caused a stir in the linguistic community when published, because it did bring Chomsky’s theories into question.

But even if you’re not interested in the intricacies of language and how a culture shapes the language it creates, it’s worth a read. One for the evolution of its narrator, who originally traveled to down the Maici River as a missionary, intent on converting the Pirahã to Christianity, and two, because it’s important to learn about other cultures, particularly about those that are on the brink of being lost.

As Everett argues, every time a language dies, the world loses something. Knowledge about how cultures can think differently, for one thing. A different way of looking at daily existence, for another.

 

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

Underground Airlines is a controversial book. Written by a white guy (this is part of the controversy. The other part is the mostly tone deaf NY Times review), it imagines a world where the US civil war never happened and where slavery is still legal in four states, even in the present day. Not only is slavery still legal, but the Fugitive Slave Act is still in effect, meaning if a slave escapes to another state, he or she can be brought back to the plantation (or factory or slaughterhouse) and re-enslaved.

It’s an interesting story, of a former slave who’s been forced to be a bounty hunter for the US Marshals (the government arm in charge of chasing down and recapturing escaped slaves). There are twists and turns, including a particularly chilling revelation at the end.

Although it was set in an alternative world, it was a world with a lot of similarities to our own. Michael Jackson still existed, for example, and was a famous pop star. LBJ became president (although Lincoln was assassinated before he was president, preventing the war). There’s an Internet, there are cars, and so on.

I guess the similarities are important for making the book feel relevant and timely to us. We can’t just be like, ‘oh this isn’t happening, it’s completely fiction,” because there are a lot of parallels between the novel and with how black people are treated in our actual society. The chilling revelation at the book’s end might never be real in our world, but the similarities between how free black people are treated in the book and how they are treated in our society (I’m talking about the shootings, the suspicions and the disregard) are chillingly real.

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

About a year ago, I was with a group of theater people who were discussing a project that commissioned contemporary playwrights adapt or rewrite Shakespeare’s plays. It seems Hogarth has done a similar thing, but in novel form. The Gap of Time is Jeanette Winterson’s take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

A quick recap, in case you’ve never read The Winter’s Tale (there’s a more fully fleshed out version in the novel itself): A king, Leontes, becomes convinced that his best friend, Polixenes, is having an affair with his wife, Hermoine. Leontes is absolutely sure that the fetus Hermoine is carrying is actually Polixenes’. Sadness and death follow, as the baby, Perdita, is left and Hermoine is killed.

In Winterson’s version, Leontes is Leo, a jealous hedge fund manager and Polixenes is Xeno, a video game designer. Hermoine is MiMi, a singer, and Perdita, is, well, Perdita, a baby found and raised by Shep and his son Clo in New Bohemia (think of it as a fictional form of New Orleans).

I really loved this book, more so than I thought I would. The Winter’s Tale is one of those  Shakespearean plays people don’t know what to do with, since it’s neither purely a tragedy (although there is death and stuff) and it’s not fully a comedy (there’s happiness and marriage at the end, though). The novel tries to figure out what to do with the subject and plot of the challenging play.

Winterson’s version is fully modernized. Leo and Xeno are former lovers (they went to boarding school together). Although Leo is now married to a woman, Xeno identifies as gay. MiMi isn’t just a woman who’s stuck with her husband. She’s a singer, she has her own money, she can make her own decisions. That makes Leo’s treatment of her all the more terrifying.

If anything, Winterson’s version fills in the gaps created by the play and helps solve some of the confusion. One of the big issues with the Winter’s Tale is that Leo’s sudden jealousy isn’t really understood. Winterson has him install cameras in his wife’s bedroom and spies on her and Xeno together. Their interaction is innocent, but Leo twists and perverts it in his mind, setting the events of the book into motion.

It’s worth noting that The Gap of Time isn’t strictly an adaptation. I don’t know how clear the story would be without the introduction that recaps the plot of the Winter’s Tale. Winterson also jumps into the novel at the end, to share her reason for rewriting or covering it. That was a  little jarring, but I guess makes sense if you’re going to look at the book as a cover version, and not just an adaptation of the story.

*I received a free copy of The Gap of Time from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.*

Shopping: Planning a Fall Wardrobe

As I mentioned in my last post on capsule wardrobes, I’m moving away from the concept. Rotating through four seasonal capsules last year definitely helped me get a grip on spending on clothing and helped me avoid impulsive clothing purchases. It also helped me figure out what I like wearing versus what I don’t. But, the process of capsuling takes a lot of time and effort and I’m not interested in investing that time or effort anymore.

One interesting discovery I made doing capsules: I love wearing dresses. I always thought I was a skirt person, but dresses are so easy. It’s one piece. If it fits you well and looks good, all you have to do is put it on and you’re good to go. Of course, the fit part is key.

Another thing I learned from capsuling: I hate quantifying my closet. I really don’t care if I have 37 pieces or 50 pieces, as long as they are pieces that I love and actually wear. That’s mainly why I’m not going to bother with capsules any more. As long as it’s not excessive for you, there’s no reason to obsess about numbers.

Putting Together a Fall Wardrobe

The aspect I did like about having a capsule was taking the time to plan my wardrobe out. For fall, that means taking a peek at what I have and figuring out if there are any gaps. For example, I don’t currently have a basic navy or black pencil skirt. I have a colorblocked number from Boden, but it’s not that versatile. I’d like something that I can wear pretty much all the time.

Because I love the fabric the Miyani dress from Theory is made out of, and have a blazer in a matching fabric, their pencil skirt is at the top of my list for fall pieces. It’s also made in the US, which is another plus. I actually went to Nordstrom a few weekends ago to try on, but they didn’t have it in stock. That’s OK, though, because my plan is to wait for it to go on sale during a Friends and Family event or similar, rather than pay full price.

Other Fall Wardrobe Pieces

To round out my fall wardrobe, I’d like a casual, light jacket. The jacket I’ve been wearing since 2012 recently ripped and I’m a little over its style (it was a moto style jacket in a French terry fabric. Kinda edgy, but also kinda suburban).

I am usually drawn to coats with some sort of military detailing. For example, I can’t afford it, but I love this jacket from Burberry:


This coat from Banana Republic is a pretty decent and affordable substitute:

Along with a fall jacket, I’m hoping to add a few every day dresses to my wardrobe. I’ve recently become a bit enamored of the selection from Brooks Brothers. I know they’re usually so preppy, but they recently hired Zac Posen as their creative director, and I have to say I really like some of their pieces. A brown and black houndstooth print wool dress is standing out to me particularly. They also have some jackets that look fantastic.

I’m also looking at the Hattie dress, from Boden. It seems to be a simple, stretchy dress with a flared skirt. Perfect for everyday work wear. I’m unsure whether I want to venture into pants this fall, but if I do, the Foster pant from MM LaFleur seems perfect. Everlane is also introducing a ponte pant, which might be worth checking out.

Fall Wardrobe Budget

I’d like to budget around $600, at the most, for this fall’s wardrobe. But the sticker price of all the items I’d like to get for fall is more than $1,000. Yikes. That’s what happens when you start looking at quality over quantity — the price jumps. For that, I could afford to get that Burberry coat (but then, that would be all I could get…).

Of course, we live in the era of never ending sales, or so it seems. For example, I’ve already ordered the jacket for Banana Republic for 40 percent off, and it’s not even the end of August yet.

Still, I’ll obviously  have to make some cuts and decisions about what to get and what not to get. That’s another reason why I’m moving away from a capsule concept.

With the capsule, you stock your wardrobe at the start of the season, which I think can lead to making not the best purchases. Instead, I plan on making sure I actually have a need for an item (like a casual coat, which I will definitely need when the weather gets cooler) before purchasing it. Will I actually  have a need for a new pencil skirt? We’ll see. It might be that I can find one that’s less expensive than Theory, but equally as good.

 

Reviewing the Reviews Part 2: J.Crew Circle Mini Skirt

Let’s do another review of the reviews, shall we? A few months ago (in March), I ordered and reviewed the J.Crew Circle Mini Skirt in Crepe. At the time of my review, I admitted to being skeptical about the skirt’s quality, but also pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t the train wreck I was anticipating. Here it is again for reference:

J.crew circle mini skirt in crepe

Review Revisited: J.Crew Circle Mini Skirt

So, flash forward about four months. How’s the skirt holding up?

Eh, not so well, I’m afraid.

In my original review, I said this about the fabric:

The fabric is a poly/viscose/elastane blend. It’s got some texture to it and a soft hand. I’d be afraid my cat would snag it, but he snags everything, so that’s not really an issue. The skirt is lined, which adds some heft to it.

Some texture and a soft hand equals a nightmare for cat owners. Every time I wear this skirt, it gets covered in cat hair. COVERED. It’s like a cat hair magnet. Even if I don’t pet or cuddle with my cat, the skirt winds up looking like a mess. I must spend about 15 minutes before leaving the house lint rolling the skirt and applying packing tape to it to remove the hair.

It’s not only cat hair that’s the problem, though. The fabric just seems to pick up every stray piece of lint and dust in the world around it. Keeping it looking clean and decent is pretty difficult. It’s dry clean only, so it’s not like I can just toss it in the wash and hope for the best.

I’ve gotten to the point where I wear the skirt at home and change into something else before leaving the house.

Yeah. That kinda sucks.

It’s not just that the skirt is a lint/cat hair/dust magnet. It’s also got some quality issues.

The grosgrain ribbon waistband I was so concerned about is holding up fine. But, the tag inside the skirt has fallen off. I have to say that this is the first time I’ve had a tag fall off of any piece of clothing. That sounds like a minor issue, but if I wanted to sell the skirt at some point, it would be a problem. Not that anyone wants to buy this skirt, given that it looks beat to crap after just four months of wear.

Another deal: the fabric is pilling in spots, notably on the sides of the hips. Blugh.

I think this circle mini skirt is the proverbial final nail for me. I’m done with J.Crew. It’s one thing to sell cheap, low quality clothing and fully admit that. It’s another to sell them while at the same time crowing about your commitment to quality and the like.

 

That all said, if anyone has any recommendations for a well made, black skirt, I’m all ears.

Books: What I Read in July

And … I’m back. Decided to take a bit of a break from blogging for July, so I’m going to skip reviews of what I read in June and get right to the books I read last month. Except for the first book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, because it’s really five books and I read them over the course of June and July, along with a few others.

Ready? Let’s begin.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I have a bit of a hypothesis about Douglas Adams’ books. I like the Hitchhiker’s trilogy (it’s actually five books. Just let that sink in and you’ll get the humor found through the books). But I love Dirk Gently. And I think that’s because I read the Dirk Gently series first. Meanwhile, people who read Hitchhiker’s first love it, but only like Dirk Gently. My hypothesis that whichever Adams series you read first is the one you like more could have nothing to do with anything and could just because we are different people, and so we like different things.

Anyway, Hitchhikers. The basic premise: Right before Earth is destroyed so that an intergalatic superhighway can be built, Ford Prefect (an alien) whisks Arthur Dent (a human) off of the planet. Hilarity ensues, over the course of five books.

Admittedly, some of the books are better than others. I found the third book, “Life, the Universe and Everything,” to be a bit of a slog, while I thought the fifth book, “Mostly Harmless,” was the most enjoyable (after the first book, which is absolutely hilarious). “Mostly Harmless” is a little on the dark side and the ending is a bit, “whoa, OK, did that just happen?” But I liked it.

If you’ve never read Hitchhiker’s, go read it. But first, I’d recommend reading Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Just to test my  hypothesis.

 

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

July was all about re-reading books I’d enjoyed in the past. I first read The Children Act, a slim novel from Ian McEwan, when it was published in 2014. It’s been on my re-read list ever since.

Fiona Maye is a high court judge in the family court in London. She’s earned praise and recognition for her level headed decisions in challenging cases, most notably a case involving conjoined twins. Severing the twins would save the one, but kill the other. Leaving them attached would kill both.

In The Children Act, Fiona faces another challenge. A 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness has leukemia and is refusing blood transfusions, because of his religion. The transfusions would most likely save his life. Fiona has to decide whether to accept that his wishes are valid or rule in favor of the hospital giving him the transfusions.

At the same time, her personal life is going to shit. Her husband has announced that he’d like to have an affair (but stay married) and promptly leaves their shared flat. Fiona’s constantly wondering if she made the right choice in not having children. Although she ultimately makes a decision in her case, a few of the choices she makes at the same time come back to haunt her.

Although The Children Act is a short book, it packs a powerful punch. Fiona’s a character steeped in regret. She’s done well professionally, but she’s not sure if she made the right choices throughout her life. The books not only focuses on the big choice she must make and the ramifications it will have for Adam (the teenage boy) and his family, but also how the small choices and decisions she’s made and continues to make have affected her life and those around her, for better or for worse.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Not only was July re-read a few favorites month. It was also “man month,” in that I only read books by male authors. I guess it happens sometimes. The last book I read in July was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I first read the book in 2003,  after the Oprah’s book club debacle (my copy actually has a small label on it announcing the book as a book club pick. Oops.)

If you’re never read the book, it centers on the Lambert family. Albert and Enid, the dad and mom, live in a small town in the midwest. Their children have scattered, with their oldest son, Gary and their only daughter, Denice, in Philly. Their middle child, Chip, is in Lithuania by way of New York City and some terrible life choices.

The first time I read the book, I was a super naive 20-year-old. Now, I’m a less naive 33-year-old, a year older than the youngest character, Denice. So, I guess I got the book a bit better this time around. There were parts of it that I found funny, and I don’t remember there being so much humor the first time I read it. There were parts of it that were more relatable.

Although The Corrections was Franzen’s third novel, it’s interesting to re-read it and note how much like a first or beginning novel it feels. There’s a lot of heavy handedness about it, in terms of metaphors and symbolism (true to its title, the book sure talks about things being corrected a lot).  It’s like you can feel him trying to write the Great American Novel. There’s a sense of strain throughout, like he’s trying to achieve greatness. I’ll have to re-read Freedom and Purity, but I don’t remember getting the same sense from those two books.

 

Shopping: Nisolo Smoking Shoe

A good pair of shoes is hard to find. Everyone’s feet are slightly different, sizes vary, quality of material varies. Since I work at home, I probably wear shoes more infrequently than the average person. But, I still need to go out from time to time, and that requires shoes.

nisolo smoking shoe

Luckily for me, I recently found not a just a good pair of shoes, but a great pair of shoes. Handmade in Peru, the Nisolo Smoking shoe is super comfortable, well-made, and decently priced.

Nisolo Smoking Shoe in Noir

My friend actually told me about the brand (she was raving about it), and gave me a $25 discount referral code (thanks!).  I wanted a pair of black flats to replace my well-worn BR flats, but didn’t actually want a ballet flat. The smoking shoe fit the bill. It can go casual with jeans (not that I wear jeans that much) or work well with a business casual look. If you need to go professional and don’t like heels, I think you could pull these off, too.

nisolo smoking shoe

The shoes are made from leather, leather, leather and there’s a rubber cap on the heel to keep it from wearing out too quickly. The insole has a bit of cushioning and arch support, to make the shoes more comfortable.

I ordered a size 10, the largest size available, and crossed my fingers that they would fit. They did, with a tiny amount of room on the sides, so I hope they don’t stretch out too much as I wear them.

The leather of the shoe isn’t super stiff right out of the box, which is nice, but I do get the sense that they will need a bit of a break-in period before I can walk miles and miles in them (which I can easily do in my BR flats at the moment).

The company’s stated commitment to making the fashion industry more sustainable attracted me to Nisolo. Like Everlane, they share the production process of their products on their site and describe the company’s mission.

The shoe are also great. I can see these lasting for a long time, and when the heels wear out or whatever, they’d be easy to bring to a shoe repair shop for a fix.

Save

Save

Save