Tag Archives: books

Book Talk | Three Summer Reading Suggestions

Summer Reading Suggestions

For me, one of summer’s truest delights has always been the additional reading time. Nothing beats a seat in the shade with a tall glass of lemonade (or perhaps something a little stronger…) and a page-turning novel. When I was young, I took enormous pleasure in deciding what stack of books I’d read during my school-free days, and now I teach part-time I still get to take advantage of the summer holidays to knock off as many books from my TBR pile as possible.

Here are some recent reads of mine that I think would make excellent choices for the summer, whether you’re enjoying lazy evenings in the garden or need a good book for a plane.

1/ The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

Described as ‘Sliding Doors set in a bookshop,’ this debut novel by Cynthia Swanson instantly caught my attention. The Bookseller is set in Denver in the 1960s and is told from the perspective of Kitty Miller, a 30-something spinster who runs a bookshop with her best friend from high-school. One night, Kitty goes to sleep and wakes up to find herself in an alternate reality, where she’s living the life she always thought she wanted: married to a caring husband with piercing blue eyes and the mother of three young children. Every time she goes to sleep, Kitty dreams about this new version of herself, who knows how to cook and buys much more expensive (if rather dull) clothes.

Kitty discovers that Lars, the man she married in her dream world, is the same man who stood her up on a blind date several years ago. In real life, she finds out that Lars had died suddenly before meeting her, and her dream life shows her the path she might have taken had he lived. Kitty gets more and more drawn into her imaginary world, only to discover that her seemingly perfect other life may be far less idyllic than first appears….

The Bookseller kept me gripped right to the end, and I enjoyed its satisfying plot twist. I loved the period details, especially the descriptions of the books Kitty enjoys reading and that she stocks in her shop. This book would make an excellent light, entertaining read for a long journey. I’ve now bought a copy of Cynthia Swanson’s recently published second novel, The Glass Forest, and can’t wait to read that too.

2/ An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I talked about An American Marriage on a recent Tea & Tattle Podcast episode, and I highly recommend adding it to your summer reading pile. Jones’ novel describes what happens to a newly wed black American couple, after the husband is arrested and wrongfully imprisoned for rape.

An American Marriage is told from the perspective of three main narrators: husband and wife Roy and Celestial and Celestial’s best friend, Andre, who’s been in love with her for years. The triangular love plot lies at the heart of the story, which deftly examines the themes of racial prejudice, familial ties, professional and creative ambition and the societal expectations of women.

I loved Jones’ full-bodied, finely honed prose  and her tender understanding of people’s struggles, desires and failings. None of her characters are perfect, or indeed wholly likeable, which makes them all the more human and ultimately endearing. It’s easy to see why An American Marriage has been a firm favourite on the New York Times bestseller list, and it would make a great choice for your next holiday read.

3/ The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark apparently thought The Driver’s Seat her best novel, which made me very curious to read it. The book is extremely slim, so I was able to read almost all of it on a long-ish tube journey. The Driver’s Seat is a disturbing story about a character hellbent on one of the most self-destructive holidays ever imagined.

Having burst into a fit of hysteria at work, the book’s protagonist, Lise – neither young nor old, neither pretty nor plain – gets the afternoon off and goes shopping to prepare for her holiday in Italy (the destination is never specifically named, but it’s most likely Rome). She chooses an outfit of wildly clashing colours, the first of many insanity-tinged decisions she makes within the following few hours she remains alive….

In The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark inverts all the traditional elements of a murder mystery. The reader is aware almost from the beginning that Lise will be murdered, but Lise is no ordinary victim. It is hard, indeed, to attach the word ‘victim’ to Lise, and her engineering of events forces the reader to an uncomfortable consideration of the fine line between Lise’s complicity in her end and the horrific victimisation of her death. Reading this book feels rather like experiencing a psychedelic nightmare, but I can assure you it’s a story you’ll never forget.

~

You can keep up with my book recommendations on my books-only Instagram account, @mirandasbookcase

Book Talk | Laura Shapiro Discusses ‘What She Ate’

Book Talk | Laura Shapiro Discusses 'What She Ate'

One of the non-fiction books I’ve most enjoyed lately is What She Ate by Laura Shapiro. As a journalist and culinary historian, Shapiro has long been fascinated by what a person’s appetite says about who they are.

What She Ate explores the food stories of six very different women: Dorothy Wordsworth, devoted sister to her famous brother, William; Rosa Lewis, who cooked for the most distinguished of Edwardian society; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; Hitler’s consort, Eva Braun; the British author Barbara Pym and Cosmopolitan editor (and chronic dieter) Helen Gurley Brown. These women were important influencers within the realms of literature, society or politics, but little else connects them, apart from a shared seat at a table. What She Ate highlights the complex relationship women have long held towards their meals, and shows that a person’s food story is rarely straightforward.

As someone with an eager interest in the domestic minutiae of people’s lives, I found What She Ate a compelling read and was delighted when Laura Shapiro agreed to answer some questions about her book.

Book Talk | Laura Shapiro Discusses What She AteLaura Shapiro, photographed by Ellen Warner

MN: Would you tell me a little about yourself and your own food story?

LS: My mother was a wonderful cook — she taught herself to cook after she got married, and became so good at it that eventually she started catering. My own cooking is much more haphazard, but what I did inherit was a fascination with food in all forms and at all times.

My favorite food memory from childhood is waking up early, the morning after my mother had catered a party, and going downstairs to find the refrigerator full of leftovers. She loved making hors d’oeuvres, so there were always lots of those packed up and put away — “party rye” with onion, mayonnaise and parmesan, little cream puffs filled with crabmeat, sauteed mushrooms on squares of toast — all cold, of course, and all so delicious. That is still my idea of a perfect breakfast, ideally eaten standing at the open door of the refrigerator in pajamas, picking out just what I wanted from each tidy package.

MN: In your book, you say ‘food talks’ and what a person does or doesn’t eat can say so much about them. In general, though, a person’s culinary history is largely ignored by biographers, even though all other aspects of famous people’s lives are examined under a microscope. Why do you think what people are cooking and eating so often gets left out of their personal histories?

LS: Traditionally, of course, food would not have been considered a dignified subject to include in the biography of a great man — and great men were the ones people wrote biographies about. Food had to do with the body, it came from women’s world or the world of servants, and it couldn’t possibly have any significance beyond nourishment.

And the second reason, which today would now be the first reason, is that there’s so little information out there. Until Instagram and food blogs came along, most people writing about their lives — writing diaries, letters and memoirs, that is — rarely mentioned what they were eating. So even if a historian or biographer is dying to know what someone ate, it’s going to be very hard to find out.

MN: It was reading about Dorothy Wordsworth eating black pudding that first sparked your idea for ‘What She Ate.’ Would you explain why that particular meal interested you so much, and how you came to write your book?

LS: When I stumbled across the mention of black pudding in a biography of Dorothy Wordsworth, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I knew a little about her, and nothing in that picture even hinted that she would eat such a thing. Her social class, her own cooking as she described it in the Grasmere Journal, her history of colitis — black pudding for dinner would have been an affront to all of that. It was basically a sausage of blood and oatmeal, and although it had a longtime place on upper class breakfast tables, even that was starting to fade by the time this mention came along.

So I started to wonder, and I realized that if I could get a grip on this mystery, maybe I would learn something about Dorothy Wordsworth that I hadn’t known before. Maybe food would give me access to someone’s life in a new way.

MN: I loved a passage in your book when you wrote ‘our food stories…go straight to what’s neediest.’ You chose to examine women who in general had a complicated, and in some cases very insecure, relationship with food. How did you settle on which women to write about? Were you especially drawn towards food stories about women who saw food as troubling, more than delicious?

LS: So much of the food writing that’s appeared in the last ten or twenty years — popular writing, I mean, as opposed to scholarly — is about the same thing: Food is love. Food is emotional support. Food brings us together. Of course all those things are true — I’ve written them myself, many times — but I really wanted to get to something else in this book. I think all kinds of things happen at the dinner table, and plenty of them are not about food-brings-us-together. So I chose women with complicated, hard-to-decode relationships with food, women whose food stories lurked below the surface.

MN: Do you think men and women eat in a very different way? Would men’s food stories be largely different from women’s?

LS: I’m absolutely positive men’s stories would be different — but I have no evidence for it at all. I do think women have an immediate and instinctive relationship with food that comes from a billion years of physical nurturing of babies, so that’s one big difference between women and men, but I would never give myself the imaginative freedom to explore men’s food lives the way I’ve always explored women’s. For me, it would be like writing in a foreign language. There certainly are writers who can imagine other sexes — in fiction and in non-fiction — but for me it’s difficult.

MN: During the majority of the history you wrote about in ‘What She Ate’, a woman’s place was very much considered to be within the domestic sphere, and yet many of the women you wrote about wielded food as a weapon to gain power in worlds beyond their kitchen. I thought it was especially fascinating to read about Rosa Lewis’s incredible career. Would you tell me a little more about how food completely changed her life?

LS: Rosa Lewis was an amazing example of a woman who made food her career for a very specific reason that I don’t think had anything to do with food. She wanted to climb from working class to upper class, and she could see that in Victorian/Edwardian London, cooking would help her up the ladder.

What complicates the picture is that she didn’t really want to change who she was. What she wanted was to be accepted at the top of the ladder as exactly who she was — a former scullery maid named Rosa Lewis who could cook as well as Escoffier. And she succeeded, but only as long as she kept cooking. When she hung up her apron, after World War I, she lost her place on the ladder.

MN: Your book shows that there is a great deal of emotion – both positive and negative – attached to food, and yet Eleanor Roosevelt seemed most comfortable with food during her time at the White House when she could strip meal time from any emotive resonance and think of food as simply fuel for living. Why did she serve such dreadful food at the White House, and why did she seem to enjoy eating so much more later in life?

LS: Eleanor’s story is very much about her marriage to FDR. After his affair with Lucy Mercer, she was devastated, and from then on their marriage was basically a political partnership. She shared his ideals, but what she couldn’t bear was his luxury-loving side, the cocktails and fine meals and enjoyment of life that he had known while growing up and still relished when the workday was over. That was the side of FDR that gave rise to his flirtatious attentions to other women and of course the affair with Lucy Mercer. She didn’t want to feed that side of him — literally, I believe. So she made no effort to change the terrible food served by the mean-spirited housekeeper she had hired. But when she was out of the White House — travelling, or with her own friends, or pursuing her second career after FDR’s death — she was free to eat with pleasure.

MN: Two women in your book seemed to derive the most pleasure from food by simply not eating it at all. Would you tell me more about how a lack of food shaped the stories of Eva Braun and Helen Gurley Brown?

LS: These were, of course, the two dieters in the book. I hasten to add that they had nothing else in common, but they did share a fixation on staying slim. They felt very competitive with other women, and they desperately wanted to appeal to what neither of them knew yet to call the male gaze.

Helen Gurley Brown’s single-minded focus on eating as little as possible throughout life did quite a bit of damage to her readers, since she was promoting an ideal of the female body that was unnatural and essentially unattainable. Eva Braun’s effect on her moment in history was subtler but more terrible. Sitting at the table with Hitler and his entourage, she was so sweetly and stereotypically feminine that her presence created, in effect, a guilt-free zone for Hitler and his entourage.

MN: In terms of my own attitude towards food, I most identified with Barbara Pym. I liked the unpretentious, but still appreciative, approach she took towards food, both in her books and in real life. Would you tell me more about how the food she wrote about reflected the world around her?

LS: Barbara Pym had a wonderfully healthy relationship with food — she just loved it, and it caused her no problems whatever as far as I can see. When it was delicious, she enjoyed eating it, and when it was awful, she enjoyed thinking about it. When she started on her life as a novelist after World War II, a whole spectrum of food was spread out in front of her — tinned soups and flabby blancmange, and perfectly roasted duck with peas from the garden.

All of it went into the books, which is why it’s possible to read her novels as a revisionist history of British cooking after the war. Pym was no fantasy-writer: her novels emerged from the world around her, and if she saw plenty of good food along with the stereotypically awful food of that time, I think we can believe her.

MN: Finally, Laura, what’s next for you? Are there any upcoming projects you’re working on that you’re able to share at the moment?

LS: I wish I knew! I’m in that nerve-wracking state of testing new ideas, discarding and revising and fiddling and re-discarding and re-revising.

MN: If people would like to keep up with your news, where can they find you online?

LS: My website is laurashapirowriter.com.

~

What She Ate by Laura Shapiro is available on Amazon and all good booksellers.

Find me on instagram: @mirandasnotebook and @mirandasbookcase

P.S. You may also be interested in my interview with Annie Gray on Queen Victoria’s life in food on Tea & Tattle Podcast. 

T&T 60 | Discussing Gretchen Rubin’s Personality Quiz

Listen to the latest Tea & Tattle episode here or on iTunes.

This week, I’m so delighted to say that my co-host, Sophie, is back on Tea & Tattle, after having some time away following a sad bereavement. Today on the podcast, we catch up with each other, swap our theme words for 2018 and discuss Gretchen Rubin’s fascinating book, The Four Tendencies.

Gretchen Rubin hosts one of my favourite podcasts, Happier, and she’s written several bestselling books on human nature, happiness and habits. The Four Tendencies is Gretchen’s most recent book, and in it she describes the framework she developed to help people better understand themselves in order to achieve their goals. Whether you’re an Obliger, Rebel, Questioner or Upholder is determined by how you respond to both internal and external expectations. I found The Four Tendenciesan illuminating read that helped pin-point my own strengths and weaknesses, and it was so fun to chat about it with Sophie and find out her tendency.

ALSO: I make a special announcement in this episode, concerning a change to Tea & Tattle Podcast (it’s a good one!), so do listen to the end to find out what I’m launching on Friday.

Listen to learn more about The Four Tendencies and which tendency we identify with the most.

My January Reading Goals

Although I don’t generally consciously articulate any reading goals I may have, I’ve come to realise that I often do have reading targets I like to meet on a monthly basis. I thought it would be fun to start writing them down properly and sharing them with you. Here are my reading goals for January:

1/ Read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. This month celebrates the 200th anniversary since Frankenstein was first published, so I thought it was about time I finally read it. When I announced I was going to start it on my @mirandasbookcase account, people’s opinions seemed quite divided on it – many loved it, but some said they’d be glad never to read it again. I’m curious to see what I make of it!

2/ Continuing the Frankenstein theme, I also want to read the latest biography of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson, which sounds fascinating. Someone also suggested I read Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon, which describes the lives of both Mary Shelley and her famous mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. I’ve bought the book, which looks fantastic, but it’s enormous so I doubt I’ll get to it this month.

3/ Keep a Reading Journal. This January, I’ve started a journal where I write down a list of books I read, buy and am given. I’m finding it so much fun already, and I think I’ll love looking back on it at the end of the year.

4/ Read a book that helps me keep better habits. I’ve knocked this goal off my list already, as I read The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin, which describes the framework she uses to help people better understand themselves and their ability to form good habits.

5/ Take part in a book discussion on Instagram. This month, I’m joining in Shelbi’s discussion of Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. I’m half way through the book, so I’m keeping up fairly well which pleases me!

As always, too, I am constantly looking out for good books and reading a great deal for Tea & Tattle Podcast. I’m changing the layout slightly to my joint episodes with Sophie, and I’m including a section that will help our listeners to read more in less time, which I’m very excited about and enjoying researching at the moment.

Do you have any reading goals for the month?

T&T 57 | Dickens, Books and Food

Pen Vogler Interview | Dinner With Dickens

Listen to the latest Tea & Tattle podcast here or on iTunes.

For the last episode of Tea & Tattle before the New Year, I’m so pleased to bring you a wonderfully festive conversation with the writer and food historian, Pen Vogler. Pen’s new book, Dinner with Dickens, is packed with delicious recipes inspired by Charles Dickens’s life and novels.

Pen lives in London and works for Penguin Press, but she has also written books on the history of food in literature, including Dinner with Mr Darcy and Tea with Jane Austen.

In today’s episode, Pen tells me what inspired her latest book, Dinner with Dickens, as well as a little about her research process in sourcing recipes. We also chat about the legacy of A Christmas Carol, and how the novella influenced the type of Christmas dinner we still eat today. It was fascinating, too, to learn about the types of dinner parties Dickens enjoyed hosting and how experiencing hunger as a child influenced his relationship with food later in life.

Listen to learn more about the importance of food in Charles Dickens’s life and books.

T&T 55 | Tatiana de Rosnay Discusses Daphne du Maurier

Listen to the latest Tea & Tattle episode here or on iTunes.

This week on Tea & Tattle, I’m thrilled to be speaking with the celebrated author, Tatiana de Rosnay, about her biography of Daphne du Maurier, Manderley Forever. Tatiana lives in Paris and writes in both French and English. She is the author of the international bestseller, Sarah’s Key, which is one of the most moving books I have ever read.

A consummate story-teller herself, Tatiana has often cited Daphne du Maurier’s books as being highly influential on her own work. Daphne du Maurier is one of my very favourite authors too, so I was delighted to read that Tatiana had written a new biography of the famous novelist.

Tatiana de Rosnay. Image credit: Denis Felix/Albin Michel

Manderley Forever was originally written in French, but was translated into English and published in the UK in October. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy, and found it an absorbing read. Tatiana draws a brilliant picture of Daphne du Maurier’s character and life and fleshes out details that have previously been rather obscure: like Daphne’s time in France, her love for Paris and interest in her own French heritage.

In this episode, Tatiana explains how she came to write Daphne du Maurier’s biography, what she discovered about the French edition of Rebecca, and the complex nature of Daphne’s personality. This is a brilliant listen for any Daphne du Maurier fan, and if you haven’t read one of her novels yet, then I’m sure you’ll be tempted to get reading right after this episode!

Listen to learn more about Daphne du Maurier’s fascinating life.

T&T 51 | Susan Owens and the Cultural History of Ghosts

Tea & Tattle Podcast, Episode 51 | Susan Owens and the Cultural History of Ghosts

Listen to the latest Tea & Tattle episode here or on iTunes.

This week on Tea & Tattle podcast, I’m hosting a special episode that’s perfect for Halloween and is bound to get you in the mood for any spooky happenings tonight. The art historian Susan Owens has joined me for a fantastic conversation about Susan’s latest book, The Ghost: A Cultural History, which examines the significance of ghosts in British art, literature, film and folklore.

Tea & Tattle Podcast, Episode 51 | Susan Owens and the Cultural History of Ghosts

In today’s episode, Susan explains how moving to a Medieval house prompted her research into ghosts, and how people’s stories and artwork featuring ghosts offer an intriguing insight into the wider culture and politics of the times.

Tea & Tattle Podcast, Episode 51 | Susan Owens and the Cultural History of GhostsSusan Owens, photographed by Stephen Calloway

I questioned Susan about what she considers to be the earliest ghost stories, which famous literary ghost best represents its era, why seances became so popular in Victorian society, and so much more.

Listen to learn more about the cultural history of ghosts in Britain. 

P.S. don’t forget to subscribe to the Tea & Tattle newsletter for the latest episodes and exclusive news and recommendations from Sophie and me every week.

T&T 50 | Our Favourite Persephone Books

Listen to the latest Tea & Tattle episode here or on iTunes

Today on Tea & Tattle podcast, Sophie and I are in conversation about one of our favourite subjects: books! In this episode, we’re chatting about the London based publishing house, Persephone Books, which has gained a loyal fanbase of readers from all over the world.

Tea & Tattle listeners have frequently asked us both which Persephone books we most recommend, and so we decided to devote a whole episode to this topic. We hope that, by the end of the episode, we’ll have inspired our listeners with some excellent reading choices for the colder months ahead.

Persephone Books was founded in 1998 by Nicola Beauman and reprints neglected or forgotten fiction and non-fiction, mainly from the first half of the 20th Century, and mostly written by women. It’s easy to see why these books are such Tea & Tattle favourites! Oh, and if you’re wondering about my choice of pomegranates to illustrate the header image of this post, then you can read about the significance of this fruit and the goddess Persephone here.

The Persephone shop and office at 59, Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury is an utter delight to visit, although do make sure to leave plenty of time for a thorough browse, as you’re likely to spend hours poring over the beautiful books, stationery, ceramics and fabric available to buy.

Persephone Books have published over 100 books, so it was difficult for Sophie and me to narrow down our selection to only a few. We may well have to do a Part 2 episode next year! Sophie and I decided to split our suggestions into categories: The Persephone Books Starter Kit for first time readers, The Best Comfort Reads, Gripping Page-Turners and Unexpected Delights. If you’re a fan of Persephone Books too, then we’d love to hear about your favourites as well, so please do get in touch.

Listen to learn more about Persephone Books and our top recommendations for both new and long-term readers.

Special Request!!

Sophie and I need your help! Our next conversation together will air on 7th November, which marks exactly one year of Tea & Tattle podcast. We are amazed and proud to realise how far Tea & Tattle has come in a year, and we’d love to have your help in creating a special celebratory episode to mark our podcast anniversary. Part of the episode will be devoted to questions from our listeners, so please do ask us anything you’d like to know about ourselves or Tea & Tattle. You can email us at teaandtattlepodcast@gmail.com, or find us on instagram (@mirandasnotebook and @sophie_perdita). We’ll do our best to answer all your questions!

P.S. Remember to subscribe to the Tea and Tattle newsletter to receive the latest episodes and exclusive weekly recommendations from Sophie and me. 

T&T 49 | Nell Stevens Discusses Bleaker House

Listen to hear the latest Tea & Tattle episode here or on iTunes.

In today’s Tea & Tattle episode, I’m joined by the writer Nell Stevens to discuss Nell’s debut book, Bleaker House. Nell lives in London and has a PhD in Victorian literature from King’s College London, and an MFA in Fiction from Boston University.

In her book, Nell describes her journey to the Falkland Islands, in search of the distraction-free, solitary existence she believed would help her to write a novel. Both funny and poignant, Bleaker House is one of the best books I’ve read about the writing process and what it means to be a writer.

It was a real joy to get to chat to Nell on the podcast and find out more about her day-to-day routine on Bleaker Island, as well as what her experience taught her about herself and her writing. Nell also explained how she came to structure the book in an unusual way, assembling it into a kind of collage to include her account of life on Bleaker Island, as well as extracts from her fiction writing and anecdotes about her past.

Nell Stevens, photographed by Mat Smith

I also questioned Nell about the title of her novel and the significance that Dickens’s Bleak House held for her writing process. Nell also makes an exciting announcement at the end of the episode about her next book, so be sure to listen out for that!

Listen to learn more about Nell’s experience of Bleaker Island and of writing a book. 

Don’t forget to subscribe to the Tea & Tattle newsletter to get exclusive updates and recommendations of favourite books and products from Sophie and me every week.

T&T 47 | A Secret Sisterhood

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Today on Tea & Tattle, I’m joined by authors Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, to discuss their book, A Secret Sisterhood, which describes the hidden literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

In their captivating book, Emily and Emma offer a fresh perspective on the lives of these famous women and show how important their friendships with other female writers were to their literary endeavours. As best friends and writers themselves, Emma and Emily have a particular interest in examining the role of friendship in writing, and they run the charming blog, Something Rhymed, which is dedicated to celebrating female literary friendships from the past and present.

I was so delighted to be able to speak to them both about how their friendship has influenced their own writing careers, as well as the discoveries they made whilst writing A Secret Sisterhood. Their book has been meticulously researched, and Emily and Emma even uncovered a document written by Jane Austen’s niece, Fanny, that had never previously been found. We chat about this exciting discovery, as well as how Emma nerved up the courage to ask one of her present-day literary heroines, Margaret Atwood, to write the brilliant introduction to the book, and so much more.

Listen to learn more about the hidden literary friendships of some of the most famous female writers. 

P.S. Don’t forget to sign up to receive the Tea & Tattle newsletter for exclusive content and the latest episode.