On My Bookshelf: Jane Eyre

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I will be very honest here: I tried to read Jane Eyre as a high schooler and failed. I never made it past the Red Room. This is a common theme in my life, and in recent years I’ve revisited classic books that I either didn’t like or couldn’t finish (or couldn’t finish because I didn’t like) when I was forced to read them in school. Jane Eyre was no exception; I originally started reading it at summer camp because it was on my summer reading list.

But many of my friends love this book, and when Tracy at Fanserviced-B recommended it on Instagram, I decided it was time to revisit it (incidentally, I think I’ve loved every book recommendation I’ve gotten from Tracy). So I went to find it for Kindle, as most of my reading time happens in the dark after putting the baby to bed. And it turned out, I’d actually attempted to re-read the book a while ago because it was already on my Kindle (no, Amazon is not yet so creepy that it can predict that I’d be getting around to re-reading Jane Eyre soon… I don’t think).

Anyway, the book. If you are concerned about spoilers for a book that was written over 150 years ago, well, you probably should leave now. Yes, I recognize that not everyone has read the book, and some people might be genuinely surprised by the twists and turns of the plot, but really, elements of the plot have become commonly-referenced literary tropes (ones that I’ve referenced even when I’d never read that far in the book).

The story follows the life of Jane Eyre, an orphan who was sent to live with her aunt and their three children, including their oldest, John. After being neglected and abused until the age of ten, she is sent to a girls’ boarding school that is infamous in it’s poor treatment of its charges. While there, she befriends a girl who later dies of consumption, and a teacher, who doesn’t. She makes her way through the trials and tribulations of the school, eventually becoming a teacher there, and then leaves at 18 to take a position with a man who is looking for a governess for his young ward.

Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall to find a motley assortment of characters, including her pupil, a very silly French girl named Adele, who may or may not be her employer’s illegitimate daughter. She eventually meets her elusive employer, Mr. Rochester, when his horse throws him while passing her in the street. Their relationship is very reminiscent of the Disney “Beauty and the Beast” montage of Belle and the Beast. All the while, there are strange goings-on, including a fire from which Jane saves Mr. Rochester, all of which Jane attributes to the servant Grace Poole, whose job is not made immediately obvious, and who apparently has a taste for strong drink.

After Jane saves his life, Mr. Rochester starts to act more warmly towards Jane, and she starts to wonder if she might be falling in love with him. But shortly after, he brings in a pretty heiress who is speculated to be a potential new wife for him. Jane is jealous, which Mr. Rochester can sense, and uses this jealousy to get her to admit her feelings for him, at which point he proposes marriage to her and she accepts. But the strange events escalate, with a mysterious woman coming into Jane’s room to rip her veil apart one night. And during the wedding ceremony, a man arrives to announce that Mr. Rochester cannot marry Jane because he is already married, though his wife has a congenital disorder that results in erratic behavior and has been imprisoned in the attic of the house. It is therefore revealed that Grace Poole’s job has been to guard her, and they mysterious incidents are the doing of Mrs. Rochester when she escapes.

Despite Mr. Rochester confirming his love for Jane and offering to live with her as husband and wife in another country, Jane refuses him and leaves. At this point, I realized that I didn’t really know all that much about the book, since I never really thought about the fact that there was plot outside of the “mad wife in the attic” reveal, but it was here that you see Jane’s character start to anneal and become stronger. While her early life is certainly hard, it is almost entirely the result of other people doing horrible things to her. At this point, she makes a decision for herself, and chooses not only to leave Thornfield Hall, but to leave it immediately, with little preparation and no notice to anyone else.

And she is immediately beset with surprisingly realistic troubles. While she has a little money and brings along a bundle of belongings, her money does not get her as far as she had hoped, and she ends up losing her belongings on the coach she takes away from Thornfield Hall, so she finds herself sleeping rough on the moors, nearly starving. She manages to find a village, where she is generally refused by the inhabitants of the houses she approaches, but eventually finds the house of the local clergyman and is rescued. Once again, she has a new life into which to settle, until she learns that her elusive uncle, who never knew of her ill treatment at the hands of his wife and children, had previously found her at Thornfield, and later died and left his sizable fortune to her. Not only that, but the clergyman and his sisters, with whom she has becoming close, are her cousins. She shares her new fortune with her newfound cousins and continues to live with them.

But eventually, her cousin the clergyman thinks that she would make an ideal clergyman’s wife, and proposes marriage to her, despite being in love with another. Jane refuses him at first, but when she considers accepting, she mysteriously hears Mr. Rochester’s voice echoing over the moors saying her name. In the one moment of “deus ex machina,” Jane returns to find that Thornfield has been burned to the ground, and Mrs. Rochester died by suicide while it burned. Mr. Rochester has been gravely injured, and though he still loves her, he fears his injuries make him too hideous for her. But, in a moment of impeccable sass, when he asks Jane if she finds him hideous, she replies that he is, of course, as he always has been. And thus, the two lovers, neither particularly pretty, are together in the end.

I love this book because Jane is flawed and impulsive and naive and makes mistakes, but is ultimately led by a strong moral compass. Though I don’t necessarily share her faith or morals, I admire how she doesn’t compromise them, even to achieve happiness. She also has a strong need to care for other people, but tries her hardest not to lose herself in the care of others, as evidence by her interactions with her cousin St. John when she knows he is proposing a loveless marriage for the sake of having a useful wife on mission with him.

But I think the best part of this book, and one that is supremely overlooked in pretty much all of the film and television adaptations, is that both of the romantic protagonists are explicitly said to be not very attractive. While the story is told from Jane’s perspective, so it could be excused as overmodesty on her part, it is referenced by other characters. And Mr. Rochester’s coarse appearance is also commented upon throughout his parts of the story, which gives the story more of its “Beauty and the Beast” feeling. But while Rochester is aloof, he doesn’t cross the line into abusive or cruel, even alleviating Jane’s jealous virtually as soon as he learns of it. And when they reunite, it is clear that it is Jane’s choice to be with him and care for him.

I love the agency that Jane has, despite having some real tribulations befall her. While she is somewhat forced into some very nasty situations, she neither despairs nor blames fate and instead chooses to make her own way as best as she can. It’s a remarkable book and one that I’m sad that I never read sooner. Like many “classic books” that I was assigned to read in high school, I feel like it is the kind of book that benefits from the insight of age. I highly recommend everyone try to re-read a few of the books that you hated when you were forced to read them in school. You may find some new insights.

On My Bookshelf: Luster

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I want to start this post by saying, up front, that I bought this book because I knew the author when she worked in my office. While I appreciated how good she was at her job there, I’m thrilled that she’s moved on to bigger and better things. This is not the kind of book that I would typically buy, largely because it is firmly in the “literary fiction” camp (how could it not be when the prose very rightly feels like it was written by a poet?) and it is firmly a modern, non-fantastical story.

I was expecting to finish it, and maybe even enjoy it. I was not expecting to devour it and feel it working it’s way into my mind for days after. As I mentioned in an aside before, the writing style in Luster, by Raven Leilani, is deft. The main character, Edie, is a painter who has lost the drive to paint, and I think similarly to how Raven describes Edie’s process of crafting a painting, from reconstituting dried-out paints to mixing colors to create a face, she also creates her scenes and emotions from the words she chooses. It is no surprise that her words feel poetic because she has previously published poetry in some of the most prestigious outlets.

But what surprises me most is that for such an obviously well-written book by someone who understands that the point of literary fiction is to communicate humanity, I never find the book annoying or overwrought, like I’ve found so many other literary fiction books. There is something about the loveliness of the mundane that makes the store engaging and intriguing without ever feeling like Raven is gloating over her intellectual superiority or artistic skill.

One warning: This is probably not a book you can talk about at the office. This is a book that will leave you biting the edge of your lip and glancing around to see if anyone else notices the heat rising up the side of your neck as you read Raven’s accounts of Edie’s sexual encounters and fantasies. Somehow, she captures the awkwardness of actual sex without losing the appeal of some of her more erotic scenes. And I find Edie’s asides about her sexual misadventures endearing, to the point where you almost root for her to get some every time she does.

But it’s not all sex. To my first read, it didn’t even really read as being mostly about sex. The sexual relationship that initiates the plot turns out to be the least important part of the actual story. There are so many intriguing relationships in the book that I somehow feel it is a disservice to talk about it like it is the story of a women becoming a part of a man’s open marriage. Edie’s relationships with the two women in the family far outshine her relationship with any man.

So I guess all of this was a lot of words that never really told you what this story is about. And, well, a lot of that is by design. You see, the story is mostly about being a human being with a body and needs and a socio-political place in the world, whether it is as a millennial or as a woman or as a Black person or as an artist. Edie explores her identities both in terms of who she is when she’s by herself and who she is when she’s with others.

If you like books, I am not promising you’ll like this book. But you should definitely try it.

(If you’re wondering about the drink in the photo, it’s a cocktail inspired by Raven and her book. It’s 1.5 oz. Hendricks gin, 1.5 oz. lavender kombucha (y’know, for probiotics), and topped with Rare Tea Company TeaLady Grey cold brewed in sparkling water, with a lemon wedge because I didn’t have limes)

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

On My Bookshelf: Infused: Adventures in Tea

Everyone and their brother in the tea social media universe has become enamoured of Henrietta Lovell’s new book Infused: Adventures in Tea. So of course I need to add to the chorus of her praises here with my own thoughts on this fun little book. It is an ambitious work, blending memoir and tea education into a work that reminds me more of some books on yogic philosophy that I read years ago than a typical tea primer. Henrietta has led an amazing life as “The Tea Lady” and this book is foremost a collection of her experiences in tea.

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She starts at her home, where she discusses her “bed tea,” that first cup of tea in the morning, preferably drunk in bed. From there, we circle the globe, meeting tea producers and tea consumers the world over. It is perhaps worth noting that the chapters follow the teas that her company, The Rare Tea Company, sells, which is perhaps a brilliant marketing strategy because as I read the book, I became enchanted by the stories she tells and wanted to try the teas. So I can now make myself a cup of her White Silver Tips as my own cup of bed tea and have a little ponder about this delightful little book.

I think the thing that makes this book so utterly enjoyable is that you get a clear sense of Henrietta’s personality in her writing style. She is a classic British lady (English, mostly, and Scottish when it suits her) with a love of tea and red lipstick. How could I resist? While I have not had the pleasure of meeting her in person, as she had not yet made plans to come to Washington, D.C., on her tour, friends who have met her insist she is exactly like you would imagine from the book. As an avid reader of fiction, it is charming to believe that one of these characters from a book I loved might be walking around in my world. As she travels the globe investigating tea and other plants, she often gives her guests in each chapter the starring role, but there is enough personal anecdote to feel like you’re in the room with Henrietta as she regales you with stories of her life.

And while I’ve mentioned that the book serves as an excellent advertisement for her company’s teas, it doesn’t come off as artificial. The desire to try her teas is so strong precisely because she gives the teas and farmers the stage, letting them present themselves, rather than sounding like a salesperson. By punctuating her chapters with recipes, she entices you to try her tea, though she always writes to allow that you may order the same variety of tea elsewhere. And her final appendix on making a good cup of tea is approachable to anyone with an interest in tea, not just the expert or connoissieur. While she herself uses a gaiwan and often drinks tea gongfu style with tea masters, she does not demand it of her reader, nor does she presume to educate on these forms. Her book is about the leaf, first and foremost.

Perhaps the highest praise I can personally give this book is that her immersive prose has convinced me to give a second chance to a tea I have for years thought I despised: rooibos. Her chapter on the farmer who grows Rare Tea Company’s Wild Rooibos is excellent and her description of the complex flavor of the infusion made me second guess my own convictions. And the conviction that I dislike rooibos has long been my most firmly-held. But upon tasting Rare Tea Company’s Wild Rooibos, prepared using the method in Henrietta’s book, I found a warm cup that rivaled the complexity of my favorite whiskies.

So those are my thoughts on this lovely book. It is certainly one I would recommend to any tea lover, or as a gift to anyone with even a passing interest in tea. I am already wondering who among my friends and family might receive a copy for the holidays.

NB: I purchased everything mentioned in this post with my own money and was provided no incentive to review or feature them.

On My Bookshelf: A Little Tea Book

At first glance, A Little Tea Book appears to be a typical decorative book. It’s the kind of brief, heavily-visual book with just enough text that my in-laws might put it in a guest bathroom for a little light reading on the toilet. But such books are generally pretty to look at without a whole lot of substance. Granted, coming from a pre-eminent tea authority, author, and illustrator, it’s likely to be enjoyable, at the very least. But A Little Tea Book went beyond these superficial expectations and surprised even me.

A quick note about the title: I keep thinking the title is The Little Book of Tea, which reminds me the episode of Black Books where Bill swallows The Little Book of Calm. And similarly, I have utterly devoured this book. Though I haven’t gained preternatural skills in meditation or tea from my consumption, I found the entire book thoroughly enjoyable.

The book combines information about the botanics, history, processing, and enjoyment of tea written by a foremost authority with beautiful photographs and illustrations to perfectly offset the text. It begins with the botany of the tea plant, and how processing turns a single species of plant into a diverse array of types of tea, before going into the differences between varieties and cultivars. I found this particularly fascinating because, while I know that only Camellia sinensis can truly be considered tea, and I have a passing familiarity with the two major varieties, I’d never gone into much detail about the cultivation of tea. I also appreciated the personal anecdotes about rarer types of tea.

From there, the book discusses the cultural context of tea, describing the naming of tea and how history has affected global distribution and tastes in tea. I was intrigued by the historical background, particularly how politics and economics drove different tastes around the world.

And finally, the book goes into the enjoyment of tea. I appreciate Sebastian’s informal, forgiving tone on the subjects of flavoring and adding to tea, neither demonizing either practice, while not encouraging it. He suggests tasting teas as they are, but ultimately admits that the best way to drink tea is the one that you enjoy. After all, tea rules, as he says, are less rules, and more “rules of thumb” (or as I like to say: tea rules are like the pirate code; they’re really more like guidelines).

And through the whole book, the visuals are fantastic. Gorgeous photographs of tea growing, processing, and brewing are interspersed with Wendy MacNaughton’s watercolor illustrations, which are both beautiful and informative. My favorite illustration would have to be the “flavor tree” of teas. But of course, I would expect nothing less from the illustrator of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

All in all, I would consider A Little Tea Book a delightful gift for both the veteran tea-lover as well as an enthusiastic novice. It is both beautifully designed and illustrated and contains a non-threatening, yet informative, introduction to the culture and enjoyment of tea.

NB: I purchased this book with my own money and have not been given any incentive to review it. All thoughts are my own.

On My Bookshelf: The Woman on the Orient Express

I posted a cryptic Instagram post about this book a few weeks ago, but I thought I’d share a full review. The Woman on the Orient Express, by Lindsay Jayne Ashford, was a book I purchased on a whim for my Kindle. I liked the premise of an historical fiction book about Agatha Christie, whose work I enjoy and whose life I wish I knew more about. Of course, the book is entirely fictionalized, if based on real people, but it is an interesting look at characters based at least in part in history.

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The story itself is not serious literature or high art. It has intrigue, action, and plot twists, but nothing ground-breaking. Of course, because it was about Christie, I assumed the story would be a mystery, which it isn’t really. But for some reason, most of the book felt like the setup of an Agatha Christie mystery. In each chapter, something is mentioned or set up that, in one of Christie’s works, would be a clue for a diminutive Belgian detective. Likewise, this book is full of Chekhov’s guns, sprinkled liberally throughout the story.

The plot begins with Agatha Christie planning a trip to the Middle East in an attempt to escape the publicity surrounding her mysterious temporary disappearance and her divorce. She is not only hurting from being left for another woman, but she is trying to balance recovery from a breakdown that has put her in the public eye. Ashford’s picture of Christie as a character is actually quite relatable, although she is sometimes a bit thick. However, whether the Christie of the book is just too stupid to see what’s in front of her or purposely turning a blind eye because she subconsciously wishes it weren’t so isn’t so apparent.

The other main characters are Nancy, based in part on Christie’s husband’s mistress, and the archaeologist Katherine Keeling, who was based on Katharine Woolley, a noted archaeologist of the time. I like how Ashford weaves the other two women into the story, although sometimes the particular plot choices are a bit soap-opera in their dramatism. That said, the characters themselves are well-enough written that they can handle their respective overly-dramatic subplots. If anything, the male characters tend to be one-dimensional, which is perhaps a welcome change in literature, in some light.

The plot does meander a bit, but it does eventually get to the point, with a rather unsatisfying climax, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a whole. There is a bit of romance, but the central focus seems to be the relationship among the three women. And it certainly doesn’t ever get boring.

That said, the thing that really grabbed me about this book was the afterwards, in which the author explains what inspired her to write this story. You see, the story is, in some way, an imagining of how Christie met her second husband. And the author calls Christie “the patron saint of second marriages,” which spoke to me on a personal level as I prepare myself to get married for the second time.

In the time in which Christie lived, it was considered a deep failing of a woman to end up divorced, and indeed it was sometimes catastrophic to end up without a husband and without the social dignity of widowhood. But the book goes further than this, bringing up the timeless issues of personal self-doubt, children’s lack of understanding, and the feelings of helplessness that accompany a divorce. Because Christie was fortunate enough to have an independent income in her writing, Ashford can treat her as a somewhat more modern-style divorcee, which helps the story reach a modern audience.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book for what I intended it: a piece of light reading in between other works. But I found a surprising depth of insight in the words of the author about Christie and her divorce and remarriage.

Time Spent in the Kitchen

One of my favorite things to do is to cook and bake. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen when I have it, and I love to play around with recipes and food. A lot of time, I don’t even use a recipe, but come up with my own versions of classic dishes. My mother really taught me to cook, and I have fond memories following her about in the kitchen, learning how to make a Bechamel sauce or gravy, and learning about seasonings. Most of our family traditions still revolve around food.

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But the best thing my mother taught me was when to go to a cookbook. My favorite cookbook is The Settlement Cookbook. Our family copy when I was growing up was a constant reference, with its aged mustard yellow cover and spotted pages. Some of the pages were more well-worn than others, such as the baked pancake I used to make often. When I moved out and was on my own, it was my one wish, and my mother came through, finding another old copy of it, which I still have. I’ve memorized most of my go-to recipes, but the referene is still there.

I’ve also had some luck finding old, public-domain cookbooks online. One in particular that is adorable is 1001 Ways to Please a Husband with Bettina’s Best Recipes. It’s a sweet book that follows a fictional newly-married couple. The wife is ingenious when it comes to the kitchen and seems to be able to put together a four-course meal from an old boot and a tin of sardines. The book is written in little stories that follow the seasons and highlight a menu. They have casual dinners en famille, and big dinner parties. She even teaches her neighbor how to cook and plays matchmaker.

Now, this book was written in 1917, so don’t expect progressive political ideas. But, as another blogger I read has said, one could easily see Bettina in the modern world playing the role of a party planner. And when it comes down to it, you don’t need to cook for a man to cook from scratch. While I do cook for Boyfriend most nights when I’m not at rehearsal, I spent years living on my own cooking simple, delicious food for myself. And that’s where books like these come into play. I’m not necessarily going to cook myself something fancy and complicated, but I will cook a roast chicken that will keep me in meat for a week, or a baked pancake on the weekend, or a batch of biscuits.

And if I need something a little kitschy or vintage? I can go to the older books for colorful fruit and jello salads, or a fun party spread. And since I managed to fry my last meat thermometer, it’s nice to have an outside estimate of how long to roast certain cuts of meat by time (although vintage roasting times are notoriously over-estimated). But simple food never goes out of style.

A Cozy Start to the Weekend

Yesterday, I came home from work chilled. It was cold and blustery, and I had chosen too light a jacket for the day. I needed to snuggle up, so I made myself a cup of tea,  put on some fleece leggings and a wool sweater, and snuggled up with my favorite cashmere shawl and an Agatha Christie book on my Kindle.

My cashmere shawl is actually my boyfriend’s shawl. He got it for Christmas from a family friend who didn’t quite understand why it was too big to be a scarf. It’s very soft cashmere in a grey-black-white plaid pattern and it’s the coziest thing.

After maybe an hour snuggled up, Boyfriend got home and we considered dinner. I had thawed two fish fillets, which I wrapped up with lemon and olive oil and salt and pepper into little packets. These nestled in the oven along with some cubed butternut squash and potatoes tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper. The veggies roasted and the fish steamed. When it was all done, I steamed some kale quickly and dished the whole thing up. It was both light and hearty at the same time. I find potatoes have a kind of comforting solidness to them that makes any meal more warming.

After dinner, we continued to relax, he with a scotch and myself with a glass of port. It was just the perfect beginning to the weekend.