Book Review: The Debutante by Kathleen Tessaro

The Debutante Kathleen Tessaro

Escaping from heartache in New York, artist Katie returns to London to stay with her Aunt Rachel, owner of a niche valuation and auctioneer house.  Rachel hopes to help Katie deal with her despondency by asking her to assist employee Paul with the cataloguing of the contents of an old house by the sea.  Paul has his own torment to deal with and is reluctant to share time with a stranger, but despite his protests, he is obliged to do so anyway.

Endsleigh, the house they are sent to, was home during the 1930s to the Blythe sisters, society’s most celebrated debutantes of the time.  One of the sisters, Diana went missing, and it is this mystery that Katie is determined to solve.  The story follows Katie’s efforts to find out more about the sisters and the events that unfolded at Endsleigh all those years ago.  Interspersed with this are letters that were sent by Diana during the 1920s and 30s, which give a glimpse into her life and loves.

I have read one of Kathleen Tessaro’s previous novels, her debut Elegance, and found The Debutante to be just as sumptuous and engaging.  I love a good mystery, and especially one set during one of my favourite eras.  All of the characters, modern and past, were well developed by the author , so I empathised with them and understood the motivations for their actions.  The use of the letters was a brilliant tool, enabling readers to see actions from the point of view of the key players in the past actions, rather than just through the eyes of those looking back.  I read the book in one sitting, because it was a well flowing, easy read, though that is not to suggest that it is in the realms of ‘chick lit’ fluff, because it is certainly classier than that.  The writing was divine, and the conversations in the book were believable.  I also loved the Author’s note at the end of the book where she describes her influences for the story, and how she overcame problems during the writing of it, which gave a great insight into the life of a writer.

Kathleen Tessaro has a new book out in April 2013, which I have added to my ‘to read’ list – The Perfume Collector – and hope it is as enjoyable to read as The Debutante was.

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The Literary Owl rating: 8/10

Read with: a glass of champagne and some jazz playing on the stereo.

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Quotation of the Day

Today’s quote is dedicated to my 6-year-old nephew, who has already caught the reading bug and absolutely loves books.  When I saw him recently and asked him what he was currently reading, he spent a good 5 minutes describing the full story to me – something about a tree and some goblins – and I am just delighted that he already has such a passion and I hope it continues long into adulthood.

Dr Seuss

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Book Review: Keeping the World Away by Margaret Forster

Keeping the World away Margaret Forster

Published in 2006, Keeping the World Away is a fictionalised account of a real painting and the women whose lives it touches.  The novel opens with the story of the painter herself, early 20th century artist, Gwen John.  The painting, of a corner of her attic room in Paris, then passes from creative woman to creative woman through the 20th century up to the present day.  The lives of these women are very different, but they all share a desire to find a place of their own that reflects the tranquility of the space they see in the painting.

Before reading this book I confess that I hadn’t heard of Gwen John, but I think this lack of prior knowledge probably enhanced my reading experience because I had no pre-conceived ideas about what her life would be like, and I enjoyed learning about the artist and her painting as the book progressed.

I think the reason that this book caught my eye in the library was the title: as a self-confessed introvert I feel the need at regular intervals to keep the world away and retreat into my own head and my own physical space.  For this reason the book, and some of the characters in particular, really resonated with me.  My husband and I currently live with his parents, and they kindly let me commandeer the rarely used attic space to use as my creative space.  I spend part of most days up here, surrounded by art and craft supplies; books; photos and quotations on the walls.  Up here I can focus, and be creative purely for creativity’s sake.  If anyone wished to know the ‘real me’, I would just show them this room and say “This.  This is me”  One of the quotes that stood out in the book:

“Quickly, she finished the floor and closed the door on the newly clean and tidy hut.  Leaving it, she always felt reluctant, whether she had been working well or not.  It was her place…..Strange, she thought, how a room, and in this case just a makeshift room, could take on an atmosphere.  There was little in it that was purely personal except for her paintings, no belongings or furnishings that reflected her own personality, and yet the hut felt like hers.  It was her.”

This was the first Margaret Forster novel I have read, and I certainly enjoyed reading it enough to want to seek out her other books.  Being partly based on historical fact gave the book an extra interest, and the fictional lives of the characters were believable and moving and will stay with me for some time.  I am also keen to find out more about Gwen John and her art, and think a print of ‘A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris’ would fit well in my own creative attic space.

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The Literary Owl rating: 7.5/10

Read with: a glass of French red wine, in a space of your own.

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Meet my blogging assistant

I am currently typing with one hand due to my assistant sitting on my lap and demanding to be stroked.  I am of course referring to an assistant of the feline variety; meet my beautiful rescue cat, (and fellow book lover), Sebastian:

Sebastian

My husband and I adopted Sebastian in the autumn of 2012 and he is now just over 6 months old.  His last family decided that they didn’t want him anymore after he had to have an eye removed.  We couldn’t believe that people could be so heartless but we are so happy to have him in our lives, and we spoil him with lots of love and cuddles every day.

He is qualified to assist me with this blog because he loves chewing books, playing with bookmarks, rolling pens around on the floor, and typing on my laptop by walking across the keys or sitting on it while I am in the middle of doing anything important.  He may not post anything that makes sense to us humans, but I am sure he has a really important message for his cat brothers and sisters around the world.

iiiiiiiiiiiiihsj from him, and Happy Friday from me.

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Quotation of the Day

Here in central England, winter is currently treating us to snow, ice and below-freezing temperatures, which makes for pretty scenery and cold noses.  I sit here at my desk in the loft wearing 3 layers of clothing, and leeching any available warmth from my snuggie (blanket with sleeves), steaming cup of green tea, and a hot water bottle in my lap.  So I thought a cold themed quote was in order for today.  The picture is one I took a few years ago when in a similarly cold winter even the canal froze.

Emily Dickinson

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Back to blogging

My current 'To read' shelf

After rather a poor effort last year, 2013 will be the year that I give this blog the attention that it deserves.  In my defence, 2012 was not the best time for me to set up this blog, given that halfway through the year I left New Zealand to live a rather nomadic life travelling through Asia before returning to the UK in September to start the unenviable task of looking for a new job.  I did of course read lots of books during this time (just as I of course drank water and breathed oxygen), but didn’t really have the inclination, or the regular internet access required to keep posting.  I am also the worst procrastinator, but I have come to realise that the source of my procrastination is my long-held perfectionism, which keeps me mired in the thinking and analysing stage of projects and away from the just-bloody-do-it part. Without turning this into a self-improvement/new year resolution type of post, lets just say that I am planning to succeed in my endeavors this year, whatever that ‘success’ looks like.  For me initially, success will be actually having something to show for my efforts, rather than a big headache full of ‘why didn’t I just….’ and ‘what a waste of….’

So, expect regular posts, quotes, book reviews and news.  The picture above is my current shelf of books from the library waiting to be read, well from the libraries actually.  For anyone who hasn’t read my about or book reviews sections (and if not, why not?!) I love going to the library, and the vast majority of the books I read come from the library.  I very rarely buy books because I rarely re-read them, I am very thrifty, and because I have moved around the country (and world) so much since my late teens that any possessions just get in the way.  The library I have used for many years in the UK is the Birmingham Central Library.  However, due to a new Library of Birmingham opening later this year (yay!) the current one has closed most of its floors, and has very few books available to borrow compared to usual.  Luckily for me, there is a tiny (living room sized) library just a few doors down from where I live, which for some reason I had never been in until last week.  I have now joined it and have fallen in love because it has a perfect number and range of books that will keep me occupied, and I can order books to go there from other libraries in the county.  I will do a post, or posts, dedicated to libraries at some point, but for now let’s just say that libraries have always been a big part of my life, and long may they continue to be so.

Not shown in the picture, is the book I am currently tackling, which is resting on my bedside table until later.  It is Margaret Forster’s ‘Keeping the World Away’, which I am enjoying so far, and looking forward to snuggling up with it tonight.  My review will be coming up some time in the not so distant future.

Bye for now, and happy reading!

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Book Review: Think by Lisa Bloom

“Twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Twenty-three percent would rather lose their ability to read than their figures”

So begins Think – Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, in which Lisa Bloom explores the paradox of modern women and girls in the US: excelling in education at all levels, yet more knowledgeable about celebrity culture and reality TV than politics and world news; outperforming their male counterparts in employment in urban areas, yet obsessed by trying to attain the beauty ‘ideal’ and resorting to dangerous cosmetic surgeries in order to do so.

The first half of the book focusses on the problem and if the first paragraph wasn’t a depressing enough statistic for you, how about:

“One-third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. “

“Eighty percent of American families did not buy or read a book last year”  80 percent!  I could have cried.

“51 percent of eighteen-to-twenty-five-year-olds said that becoming famous was their most important or second most important life goal”

“Half of young women would rather get hit by a truck than get fat”

Now Lisa may be writing from an American perspective but it didn’t take too much of a leap for me, as a British woman, to find common ground with the issues raised in the book. It would be a mistake to think “Oh sure America has a problem with the dumbing down of society, not us” (whoever that ‘us’ might be) I am sure that there exist equally damning studies about how much more time British women spend watching inane ‘reality’ TV shows over reading the latest news about the conflict in Syria.  I live in New Zealand and whilst impressed by the numbers of women here who play competitive team sports, concerned more with sporting achievement than exercising for the sake of losing weight, the newsagents are still full of gossip magazines detailing the weight loss and gain of celebrities.

One Australian magazine (most magazines in New Zealand are Australian) is simply called ‘Famous’, and proudly boasts that reading it is “the closest you’ll get to the stars without stalking”  Great(!)  I can cancel my flight to Los Angeles, and my order of binoculars and a map of the stars homes; instead I’ll just read this magazine.  This week’s front cover screams “Fat or Fab” and details the ongoing saga of an Australian model called Lara Bingle who has allegedly been told to lose weight or face cancellation of her TV show.  Now besides from the impact this must have on Lara Bingle herself when she is faced with unflattering pictures of her ass on magazine covers, what impact does this have on young girls and women?

Lisa details how women are more obsessed with their bodies than ever, with one study showing that adolescent girls who were more frequent readers of women’s magazines were more likely to report being influenced to think about the perfect body, to be dissatisfied with their own body, to want to lose weight, and to diet.   This isn’t something that girls easily grow out of.  Tabloid magazine ‘US Weekly’ has a circulation of around 2 million weekly, and it certainly isn’t just adolescent girls lapping this stuff up.

Now I devour a lot of books and have done since I first learnt to read; I stay somewhat updated with world news and politics; but could I name the Kardashians even though I have never watched a full episode of their ‘reality’ show?  Yes.   Do I have gossip websites saved as favourites on my computer?  Yes.  Do I frequent these sites multiple times per week?  Yes.  Do I spend more time blow-drying and straightening my hair than reading a newspaper?  Yes.  In a recent after-hours quiz at work did I struggle to name what countries border Switzerland, but instantly recognised the name of Miley Cyrus’ latest album?  Embarrassingly enough, yes.  Now I don’t, as an intelligent, well-travelled woman admit those things very easily, but I do know I’m not alone; I do know that it’s not good for me; and I do want to change.

I’m sure some of you are asking whether it really matters?  Don’t we deserve a little escapism after stressful days at work?  After all, what harm can it really do?  Lisa convincingly argues that our failure to think has profound consequences for ourselves, our community and the world.  When we’re pouring over tabloid magazines, and prioritising our beauty regimes above all else, what we’re not learning about, and not doing is devastating.   We are tuning out of what is really happening in our countries and the world, and leaving our leaders unchecked in their actions.  We’re ignoring genocide, famine, environmental crises, and poverty.  Lisa refers to ‘garbage in, garbage out’ where the crap we feed our brains is lowering our IQs and damaging our mental health.  We’re escaping into this world of titillating gossip and superficiality at the expense of a real connection with humankind.

It’s easy to blame the media, but Lisa asks whether it’s the producer or the consumer who is to blame.  After all, she points out, all of the research she did for the book came from the media: the serious news sources that do report on hard-hitting international stories.  The information and the resources are there, but so many of us are not making use of them.  If we truly analyse what we are doing,  what we are consuming and what impact that is having on our lives and the lives of those around us, we can choose to act differently.  We can choose to think.   In talking to news directors, Lisa was told that they have to broadcast stories about celebrity scandals, fashion, and cosmetic surgery in order to capture the female market.  This should truly shame us.  The more we lap this stuff up, the more they will feed it to us.  Is that really what we want?

As Lisa points out, women’s accomplishments are rarely celebrated in our media unless the “accomplishment” is in one of 5 areas: appearance, romance, marriage, pregnancy, or babies.  She clearly illustrates this in a discussion about Angelina Jolie, whose true accomplishments are a far cry from her relationship, children and appearance.  The truth will surprise a lot of people, but this information is available to the public, if you choose to find it.  Several years ago I read Angelina Jolie’s “Notes from my travels” detailing her early work with refugees, a book which has an average 5 star review on Amazon.  I highly recommend it as an introductory insight into the work of the UN and the plight of refugees throughout the world.  It is this aspect of Jolie’s work that we should be celebrating and discussing.

Lisa believes, and I would agree, that women don’t actually want to be ignorant.  We want to be smart; we want to spend less time on our appearances and more time doing things that matter.  When we are informed about devastating occurrences like earthquakes and tsunamis, we dig deep in our pockets and freely donate what we can.

After setting out the problem and the fallout, the second half of the book is all about how we can make the necessary changes and reclaim our brains and consequently our lives.   Lisa’s plan is sensible, practical and smart.  I won’t reveal all of the answers; you need to read the book 🙂 but Lisa will first help you to reclaim your time.  If you follow her advice, whether you are a single girl at university, a busy working mom, or anything in between, not only will you be less tired and stressed, but you will also be able to find better use for your time than surfing social networking sites and doing mind-numbing housework.  Lisa, as a successful smart working mom, proves that you can have it all, and she is happy to give you the advice and tools that you need to attain this for yourself.

Lisa is a great advocate of reading books, and her advice on how to get smart is this: “Read.  Read until your eyes are sore.  Then read some more” Unsurprisingly, as someone who has created a blog dedicated to the joys of reading, I am behind this statement one hundred percent.  A few months ago I had a psychometric test as part of a job application.  When the tester went through my result for the verbal reasoning test (I scored in the 98th percentile) the first thing she asked was “Do you read a lot of books?  We find that people who score highly in this test are avid readers”  A lot of books?  Yeah, you could say that! 🙂  One of the appendices to Lisa’s book contains some recommended reading, some of which I have read and others I have added to my ‘To read’ list.  The list will continue to be updated on the excellent accompanying website to Think – http://think.tv/  Lisa’s passionate promotion of books is a delight to read, and made me feel connected to her, much in the same way reading books connects us to the author and people we may never meet in real life.  These experiences in print truly do shape our lives and fill our minds with knowledge, wonder, compassion and understanding.  You can’t say that about a tabloid magazine.

Although Lisa also promotes electronic and audio books, one thing I would add as a piece of advice for people wishing to expand their horizons and learn, it to make use of podcasts.  I don’t listen to audio books, but I do love podcasts for those times reading isn’t possible (I have seen the odd person walking down the street reading a book but this is unfortunately a skill I don’t think my un-coordinated clumsy self will ever manage to perfect!) or practical (when drying & straightening my hair)  One podcast that has changed my life, helping me make the transition from vegetarian to vegan, is  Vegetarian Food for Thought by Colleen Patrick Goudreau; and I am currently listening my way through the very interesting British History Podcast, which is teaching me all about the complete history of my home country in a more effective and in-depth way than school ever did.  Whatever your interest may be, you will be able to find a podcast to suit.  And, they are FREE.  Free learning for life: now that is something to swoon over.

Another part of Lisa’s action plan is to give up the tabloid media for 30 days, and after that to only partake as often as you would eat cake, say once a month.  Cake is actually my dietary weakness, so I may have to pick something else, but in any event I know that she is right.  My downfall has always been procrastination, and since the availability of the internet, the easiest distraction for a procrastinator is to look at rubbish online.  That is how I find myself, 4 hours after coming home from work, still surfing the net having gained nothing but a feeling that this is doing me no good at all, and a wish that I could have that time back to start my evening again.  So here is my public declaration that I will no longer spend my time catching up with the lives of people I don’t know, don’t actually care about, and in some cases probably wouldn’t even like in real life anyway.  My time is more important to me and I have so many things I would rather use that time for.  For one, think of how many more blog posts this site would have if I wasn’t so distracted with trivialities!

The solutions I have outlined above just scratch the surface of the content of this book.  Please buy it, or borrow it from the library, and find out for yourself.  Think is a book that has literally changed my thoughts and woken me up to the dire consequences of some of my actions and inaction.  Lisa’s style of writing is passionate, smart, and quite frankly: ass-kicking.  Her wake-up call to women is timely, compassionate and inspirational.  I couldn’t thank her enough for this work, and will do whatever I can to not only promote her work to friends and family but also by my actions be a good role model to younger girls around me.  After all: what we think……..we become.

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 The Literary Owl rating: 5/5

Read with: a cocktail, vegan cookies, no distractions, and your feet up.   Oh, and a notebook to write down inspiring paragraphs, and recommended reading.

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