Thursday, July 17, 2014

Summer vacation ... at last! 
I'll catch up with you soon.

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune 
by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.
Ballantine Books, 2013
496 pages

narrated by Kimberly Farr
Random House Audio, 2013
13 hours and 34 minutes
source: purchased

Publisher's Summary:
When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly 60 years, he stumbled through a surprising portal into American history. Empty Mansions is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the 19th century with a 21st-century battle over a $300 million inheritance. At its heart is a reclusive heiress named Huguette Clark, a woman so secretive that, at the time of her death at age 104, no new photograph of her had been seen in decades. Though she owned palatial homes in California, New York, and Connecticut, why had she lived for 20 years in a simple hospital room, despite being in excellent health? Why were her valuables being sold off? Was she in control of her fortune, or controlled by those managing her money?

Dedman has collaborated with Huguette Clark’s cousin, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., one of the few relatives to have frequent conversations with her. Dedman and Newell tell a fairy tale in reverse: the bright, talented daughter, born into a family of extreme wealth and privilege, who secrets herself away from the outside world.

Empty Mansions reveals a complex portrait of the mysterious Huguette and her intimate circle. We meet her extravagant father, her publicity-shy mother, her star-crossed sister, her French boyfriend, her nurse who received more than $30 million in gifts, and the relatives fighting to inherit Huguette’s copper fortune. Empty Mansions is an enthralling story of an eccentric of the highest order, a last jewel of the Gilded Age who lived life on her own terms.

My thoughts:

If ever there was a book perfectly suited to a read/listen combination, Empty Mansions is it. The text includes photos, charts, lists, etc., but the audio version includes recorded conversations between Huguette Clark and her nephew, the book's co-author, Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

The beginning of this book is slow going. It's mostly about Huguette's father, W.A. Clark, and how he became the richest man in American history you've never heard of. Your patience may be tested, but the background provided in this section is essential for a clear understanding of Huguette. The audio production and Kimberly Farr's excellent narration helped pull me through to the main attraction.

 Huguette Clarke's story is much more interesting and, once the focus shifted to her, any thoughts of putting the book aside vanished. She was ultra-wealthy, extremely reclusive, and passionately interested in art, music, dolls and dollhouses, and Japanese culture. When she died in 2011 at 104, her closest relatives hadn't seen her in decades.

The question is whether she was manipulated by those closest to her (accountants, lawyers, and nurses were gifted huge sums of money), or simply shy, but happy within the narrow boundaries she imposed upon herself. Huguette's voice, as heard in phone conversations included in the audio version, certainly gives the impression of an alert, engaged, and cheerful woman. In many ways she reminded me of my husband's great aunt, who also lived to be 104 and read The Wall Street Journal until the day she died.

Book club reaction:
My book club's reaction to Empty Mansions was lukewarm, at best. Several member did not finish the book. They gave up during the early history of the Clark family and never even got to Huguette's story. The comment "too boring" came up repeatedly and we did not have much of a discussion. My reaction was the most favorable.

Several group members are audiobook fans and I suspect they would have enjoyed the book more if they'd listened.

Bottom line:  I recommend listening to this book, but be sure to borrow a print copy and take a look at the photographs.

My rating:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The All of It by Jeannette Haien

The All of It
by Jeanette Haien
HarperCollins e-book, 2009 reprint
145 pages
source: purchased

Summary (from goodreads):
A sleeper hit when first published in 1986, Jeannette Haien's exquisite, beloved first novel is a deceptively simple story that has the power and resonance of myth. The story begins on a rainy morning as Father Declan de Loughry stands fishing in an Irish salmon stream, pondering the recent deathbed confession of one of his parishioners. Kevin Dennehy and his wife, Enda, have been sweetly living a lie for some 50 years, a lie the full extent of which Father Declan learns only when Enda finally confides "the all of it." Her tale of suffering mesmerizes the priest, who recognizes that it is also a tale of sin and scandal, a transgression he cannot ignore. The resolution of his dilemma is a triumph of strength and empathy that, as Benedict Kiely has said, makes The All of It "a book to remember".

My thoughts:

This book appealed to me for three reasons:
1.  It was recommended by Ann Patchett, who also wrote an introduction to the latest edition.
2.  The cover is gorgeous.
3.  It was offered as a kindle daily deal for only $1.99.

Upon finishing, I thought:
1.  I'll take a recommendation from Ann Patchett any day.
2.  Reading on a kindle paperwhite does not allow you to fully appreciated  beautiful covers.
3.  I certainly got my money's worth.

Not much happens in this quiet little novel set in the Irish countryside. Aside from a bit of salmon fishing, the bulk of the action consists of a newly widowed woman telling her story, "the all of it",  to the parish priest after her husband died before finishing his final confession. Her story, in turn, creates a moral dilemma for the priest.

Haien's writing, a little wordy and with lots of punctuation (beware if you don't like that kind of thing), was another highlight of my reading experience.

I was disappointed to learn I had actually purchased the older 1986 edition, without Ann Patchett's introduction. The fact that neither Barnes &Noble nor my local library had a copy of the newer edition only compounded my disappointment. Unfortunately, I have yet to read Ann Patchett's introduction.

A couple of quotes:
Discordantly - out of the mists - he heard her voice: "Dead faces," she said whitely, "they're all the same. They don't, I mean, tell of the person as they were alive." 
"One thing I've learned, Father - that in this life it's best to keep the then and now and the what's-to-be as close together in your thoughts as you can. It's when you let the gaps creep in, when you separate out the intervals and dwell on them, that you can't bear the sorrow."
My rating:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Classics I Want to Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Today's actual topic involves other types of stories (movies, television shows, etc.), but I'm going rogue again. After last week's list of my ten favorite classics, I can't resist following up with those at the top of my TBR (to be read) list.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (or maybe Barchester Towers)
Melissa and Amanda's project has me itching to read more Trollope.

Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck
Loaded on my kindle and ready to go, I hope to read it this summer.

Villette by Charlotte Brontë 
It's definitely time to read another Bronte sister novel

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky 
...the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, please

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
...because I loved North and South

Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton
More of a novella, I have a copy on my shelf

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty
I learned from The Optimist's Daughter that I love Welty's writing.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
I should have read this novel based on a local story ages ago.

suggested by Les because she knows how much I love Willa Cather

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola (or maybe Germinal)
Therese Raquin and The Ladies Paradise left me wanting more Zola.

As always, tomorrow's list could be totally different, but I'm tempted to make this a fall of classics.

Which classics do you want to read right now?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Weekly Update: July 14

Monday, already? The past week has been marked by unusually violent storms, for this part of the country anyway. We don't often see tornadoes, but at least a couple touched down during Tuesday's storm leaving four dead in their wake. Now there is talk of an impending polar vortex - a term I was unfamiliar with prior to last winter. Crazy stuff...

In #100HappyDays, my garden seems to be thriving with all the rain.

Reading//  I wasn't able to read much during the week, but managed to polish off the second half of The Ship of Brides yesterday afternoon. This is yet another winner from Jojo Moyes. Written in 2004, it's available in digital format now and will be released in paperback in the US this fall.

Listening// The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is one amazing audio production! I have just over 30 minutes to go (will finish in the car later this morning) and am going to be sad to leave these characters behind.

On the blog// 
My Ten Favorite Classics
My review of The Vacationers by Emma Straub
Thoughts on The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (my classics spin book)
Weekend Cooking: Seared Halibut and a Cookbook Challenge

Up next//  Review copies stress me out. Now that I've finished The Ship of Brides, the only other book I really feel obligated to read this summer is We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. Fortunately, I'm really excited about this title and will get started later today.

The audio decision is a little tougher. Three titles I'm considering starting next are Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (which everybody loves), Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (tons of rave reviews on this one, too), and Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder (a good follow-up for The Bell Jar). Look for a choice later today.

Looking ahead//  Strange as it sounds, I'm heading to Florida later this week. Our remodeling project is complete, so my sisters and I are going down to put the place back together... and have a little fun.

How was your week?

This post is linked to It's Monday, What Are You Reading? hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Weekend Cooking: Seared Halibut and a Cookbook Challenge

We cook outdoors almost every evening during the summer, but storms moved dinner prep back to the kitchen a couple of times this week. On Tuesday, torrential rain sent me scrambling for a last-minute indoor alternative to grilled halibut. Pinterest to the rescue...

My search ended with this recipe for Seared Halibut with Cherry Tomato and Caper Pan Sauce from Mountain Mama Cooks. She's a personal chef and often uses this recipe at home when she's short on time. I've got to tell you, this was the easiest and most delicious halibut ever.

The ingredients are all staples in my kitchen and I prepared the recipe exactly as written. Instead of cherry tomatoes, I used the grape tomatoes I had on hand, and cut them in half rather than leaving them whole. I also ran out of capers so used only half the amount called for, but it was still delicious. Dinner was ready in literally 10 minutes - it doesn't get much better than that!

Moving on to the next item... Have you heard about Trish's Cook It Up Challenge? It's set up to be an extremely flexible and user-friendly way to use all those cookbooks on your shelf. Structure it any way you like - focus on a specific cookbook, set a goal for a certain number of recipes to try, or even borrow a cookbook from the library and take it for a "test drive". Trish will put up a linky post the first Saturday of the month. And If you don't want to write a post, you can just share photos on twitter and instagram.

So, what am I going to do? My plan is to try several recipes from one book. I'm not sure if I'll start with  Real Grilling (which I bought for my husband along with a new grill for Father's Day nearly a decade ago... but he doesn't use cookbooks) or Tequila Mockingbird (cocktails with a literary twist, borrowed from the library). Check back August 2nd and find out.

What's happening in your kitchen this week?

Weekend Cooking, hosted at Beth Fish Reads, is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Classics Spin: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The most recent Classics Club Spin dealt me The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Our task was to read and review the chosen book by July 7. Surprisingly, I finished this novel toward the end of May. Unsurprisingly, I'm still late posting my thoughts.

Originally published in 1963, The Bell Jar struck me as very readable and insightful, yet painful and tragic. One can't help but wonder exactly where autobiographical facts end and fictional details begin. I appreciated the seemingly accurate, honest portrayal of slipping into a deep depression, but overall this was not an especially enjoyable or memorable reading experience. Plath's summer in NYC was the most interesting aspect of the novel for me. I might have preferred reading  Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953  by Elizabeth Winder.

A quick glance at goodreads ratings and blogger reviews tells me that The Bell Jar is a well-loved classic. Could being over 50 at the initial reading have influenced my reaction? This seems like a book I would have loved in my 20's and possibly even into my 30's. Maybe I should chalk it up to the "Catcher in the Rye effect"...  a book many young adults love, but which loses its luster for some middle-aged readers.

Bottom line - I wish I'd read The Bell Jar in my 20's. Perhaps it doesn't shine quite as brilliantly for the over-50 set.

My rating:


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