Friday, February 28, 2014

Oscar Weekend

Jennifer Lawrence
Photo via here

What is everybody up to this weekend? I am very excited to watch the Academy Awards on Sunday night. I love the Oscars -- the awards, the fashions, the glitz, the performances, the speeches, the jokes, the musical numbers...the whole package. It's just so much fun! Will you be watching? 

I am cheering on a few of my favorites this year. I am a big fan of David O. Russell and his films. He is such an exciting film maker. I loved last year's Silver Linings Playbook and this year's American Hustle.  Hopefully "American Hustle" will win for best picture. I thought it was one of those films that harkens back to the great films from the sixties and seventies, one that will stand the test of time. It captured a particular era -- the seventies -- so well. The costume design could certainly win an award. And what a story it told of con men, reinvention, survival and love. The best films always tell the best stories and David O. Russell tells his stories in such a romantic style. The music was perfection and the energy of the film was exhilarating and often magical. The cast included such talented actors and all the performances were excellent. Jennifer Lawrence just may walk away with a second academy award, this time for best supporting actress. She was so good.

Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence from "American Hustle"
Photo via here

But truth be told, I am secretly hoping that Sally Hawkins wins for her supporting role in Blue Jasmine. I am a big fan of hers. It seems that there is a lot of enthusiasm for Matthew McConaughy to win for best actor and Jared Leto for best supporting actor for their performances in Dallas Buyers Club. That would make me very happy. And Cate Blanchett has to win for best actress! Her performance in "Blue Jasmine" was simply breathtaking. But as we all know, there are often surprises and we'll just have to wait and see what happens on Sunday night. Who will you be rooting for?

Wishing you a fabulous Oscar weekend! 

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Bloomsbury Girls

Duncan Grant's studio at Charleston Farmhouse
Photo via here

Be still my heart. As most of you know, I am a big fan of the Bloomsbury Group. Last week as I was looking through the Style section of the New York Times I was stopped in my tracks by an article that almost leapt off the page. You don't often hear the names Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf mentioned in a piece about high fashion. It was a review of Fashion Week in London where the biggest star was the Burberry Autumn/Winter collection inspired by the art of the Bloomsbury Group. This article was a review of the collection which is called "The Bloomsbury Girls." Fashion and Bloomsbury have come together at last. 

A door painted by Duncan Grant at Charleston
Image source unknown

The garden room at Charleston
Photo via here

I have often thought that the imagery and style of the Bloomsbury Group, a collection of friends made up of some very famous English writers and artists working in the early 20th century, would be a great muse for fashion. After all, the country retreat where some of them lived and most of them hung out -- Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex -- is literally bursting with sunny and garden-inspired art which happens to be very pretty. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant moved there in 1916 and lived together for fifty years; during that time they covered the walls, furniture, bookcases, doors, and ceramics with their own decorations. Their friends (who spent a lot of time there) included Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster, and Vanessa's sister Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. It was a happy, bohemian, and messy kind of place, a hive of creativity and friendship, and one that so obviously contained artistic and unconventional souls. Their style has inspired interior decorators for years and I am so happy that the fashion world has taken notice. 

A painting by Duncan Grant
Image source unknown

The Burberry fashions from this collection capture the exuberant feeling and the loose and fluid brushstrokes of Bloomsbury art, its recognizable shapes and patterns, and the delightful decorations that fill Charleston. They hark back to an era when very exciting things were happening in art and literature. I learned that all of the items in the collection -- shoes, handbags, dresses, shawls, etc. -- were in some way hand-painted. Christopher Bailey, the designer for Burberry, decided to go back to a time when things were being done by hand. He was inspired by the romantic vision of nature and flowers that he found at Charleston. Take a look at these beautiful clothes. They will remind you of an English country garden with a distinctly Bloomsbury twist. Go here to see the entire collection.

These clothes are eccentric and beautiful with a quirkiness that feels very British. All of the items  capture the bohemian, handmade and crafty feeling of Charleston. The designer has done an amazing job. Rarely has high fashion felt so cozy, domestic and romantic.

After doing a little research I learned that this isn't the first time that Christopher Bailey of Burberry has been inspired by Bloomsbury. His Autumn 2009 collection was inspired by Virginia Woolf. (How did I not know this!) But this time the connection will be made official. In the fall Burberry will become a  patron of The Charleston Trust to help protect its creative and cultural heritage for the public. What a boon for Charleston! If you ever find yourself in this beautiful part of England where the house is located, be sure to visit. You will be amazed to see a place in which the inhabitants painted everything -- bookcases, doors, fireplaces, you name it. As Christopher Bailey said, "It has this beautiful effect, as if all these objects have a little bit of soul." And there is also a lovely garden and pond. I have never been to an historic home that reflected its owners more vividly than this joyous and magical place in the Sussex countryside of England.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"Sense and Sensibility" -- More Jane Austen

"The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!" --  Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

The second book in The Jane Austen Book Club lecture series was Sense and Sensibility. Last week I went to the beautiful Hotel Bel-Air to hear UCLA Professor Charles (Lynn) Batten talk about the essential ideas and themes in this book. There were about 30 of us in attendance. We listened, we discussed and, most importantly, we laughed since no one can make Jane Austen more fun than Professor Lynn Batten.

Taking a course like this is a delight since we get to discuss an author whose themes are as relevant today as they were 200 years ago: love, friendship, money, marriage, reputation and personal happiness. Wars were being fought on the world stage at the time she was writing, but Jane Austen chose as her stage a small English village and the quotidian events that happen there. In Sense and Sensibility the action concerns the Dashwood family and their financial straits. The book begins with a death, that of Mr. Dashwood. Because of the entailment law his wife and three daughters cannot inherit his property. On his deathbed Mr. Dashwood implores his son (by his first wife) and heir to leave the Dashwood women an annuity. However, by the end of the first chapter his son is talked out of doing so by his wife. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters are forced to leave their house and will now have to rely on the kindness of others. And their top priority will be to get the daughters married and married well.

There are so many thing to love about Jane Austen's books. One of them is the comedy and subtle irony she uses in depicting the absurd characters in her books (we all know them in our own lives). The Palmers, the Middletons and Mrs. Jennings provide many comic scenes. But more than anything, the element in her books that keeps Austen fans coming back for more is the romance. Jane Austen's heroines are determined to find true love. They hold out for the real thing. They typically stumble along the way, make mistakes and even choose the wrong man. But ultimately they find Mr. Right.

"Lose your heart and come to your senses" was the catchphrase on the movie poster for the gorgeous 1995 Ang Lee film of Sense and Sensibility that starred Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson (pictured above). And it was true. The film was so beautiful and romantic. I remember thinking that every scene looked like a painting. The movie did a great job of covering most of the highlights from the book. Here are the ones that stood out for me:

The Dashwood girls leaving their childhood home after their father dies; their brother John Dashwood being talked out of giving them anything by his awful wife Fanny; the Dashwoods moving into the modest cottage provided by the wonderful Mr. Middleton; Colonel Brandon entering their lives and falling in love with Marianne;  the handsome Willoughby rescuing Marianne in the storm; Marianne's growing infatuation with Willoughby, portrayed so beautifully by the radiant Kate Winslet; Willoughby cutting her at the ball and the sisters' realization that he has only been toying with Marianne, always intending to marry money; Elinor's silent suffering at Edward Ferrars' (the man she loves) behavior towards her; Marianne's illness; Marianne coming to realize she loves Colonel Brandon; and Edward finally telling Elinor he has loved her all along, but first had to be released from his engagement to Lucy Steele. I adored the film and couldn't wait to revisit the book and hear what Professor Batten had to say.

He reminded us that this is a book about two sisters who are the polar opposites of each other. Marianne Dashwood is passionate, romantic and wears her heart on her sleeve. Elinor is reasonable, practical and reserved about her feelings. In other words, Marianne is the character of sensibility and Elinor is the character of sense. When Marianne is miserable, all the world must suffer along with her. When Elinor is miserable, she keeps it to herself in consideration of others. The novel explores the question of what should govern one's life: head or heart -- reason or passion. The answer is that to be truly happy you must combine both. Jane Austen's novels are always about the education of her heroines and by the end of Sense and Sensibility, the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find true happiness. We watch as Marianne develops a degree of sense by making a very good marriage with Colonel Brandon who has inherited his family fortune and Elinor develops a degree of sensibility by marrying her true love Edward Ferrars who has been disinherited by his. As Professor Batten points out, Colonel Brandon will be helping Elinor and Edward financially.

In terms of some of the more technical aspects of the book, Professor Batten told us to look for a few things: opposites, pairings, triangles and patterns. I think I have figured out a few. Opposites -- the Dashwood sisters and many of the married couples. We learn that the marriage of opposites can work, though not always. Pairings - the heroines and the men they love, Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne who are very much alike, and Fanny and Lucy Steele, terrible characters who become friends. Love triangles -- Willoughby, Brandon, and Marianne is one. Elinor, Edward and Lucy Steele is another. It was fascinating to think about all this. But perhaps those mathematical qualities are the very ones that create the pleasing symmetry of the books. No matter the obstacles thrown in their way, the heroines always end up married to the right person. The ending of this book neatly ties things up by having the sensible sister marry her true love and the emotional sister marry the man she did not initially love, but who is the much more sensible and satisfying choice of a husband. Patterns.

He also told us to look at the marriages in the novel, some of which are bad. For example, the Palmers and the Middletons. And to look for the coping mechanisms that the characters use in these bad marriages. Mr. Middleton is always inviting people over to provide a buffer between him and his wife. And Mr. Palmer hides behind a newspaper and completely ignores the silliness of his wife. I thought about another bad marriage, the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Bennett retreats to his library to get away from his wife, as well as his screaming daughters.

So much to think about, so much to discuss and so much to love. I am very excited to be spending the next few months discussing one Jane Austen novel each month. Next up -- Pride and Prejudice!

What is your favorite book by Jane Austen? 
My favorite is Emma, but that could change by the end of this lecture series.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Winter Mornings

How was your weekend? Did you watch the Olympics? I watched a little of the skiing and ice skating, but mostly I read. This weekend was cold in Los Angeles, though mild compared to the rest of the country. And yesterday was one of those mornings a little too chilly to take a walk. With the fireplace lit, staying home sounded awfully good. That walk could wait for later. I pulled out the newspapers, magazines, and books I have been meaning to get to and settled in for a nice day at home. The plan was to catch up with all my reading. Don't you love it when you have all day to read? Here are a few things that caught my eye...

From the February, 2014 issue of "Town and Country:" Starting on March 1 Winterthur Museum and Gardens in Delaware is hosting Costumes of Downton Abbey, an exhibition of 40 looks from the show. It includes the dress Lady Mary wore when Matthew proposed. I have never been to Winterthur and would would love to plan a visit to coincide with this exhibition!

And speaking of "Downton," there is a fashion spread in the January issue of "Vogue" featuring Laura Carmichael who plays Lady Edith. Up until this season her clothes were not very remarkable, but she is now wearing some fabulous costumes from the twenties. In real life, she loves fashion and looks beautiful in this photo shoot.

And in the same issue of "Vogue" there is an article on the three very handsome actors who play new characters this season on "Downton." It was fascinating to learn that Julian Ovenden who plays Charlie Blake (on the left), the man who seems to be falling in love with Lady Mary (see last night's episode), is an acclaimed tenor and will be performing at Carnegie Hall with Michael Feinstein on Valentine's Day!

And what about a real-life Dowager Duchess of Grantham? In the March issue of "Town and Country" there is a gorgeous 12-page spread on Deborah Mitford, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and her granddaughter Stella Tennant. There are some stunning shots of the Dowager's home Chatsworth (a 1000-acre estate in the English countryside) as well as some great shots of her when she was simply Deborah Mitford and of her famous sisters. Have you read her memoir Wait for Me ? It is wonderful.

I love this photo of Stella at Chatsworth. I am pretty sure that is Nancy Mitford in the background.

Several magazines have articles on the new book My Life in Middlemarch. The author Rebecca Mead has written about her lifelong relationship with the novel Middlemarch by George Eliot. It is getting very good reviews and I can't wait to read it. I understand the idea of returning to favorite books over the years. "Howards End," "Mrs. Dalloway" and "Excellent Women" are books I always seem to take down from the bookshelf and revisit. I get something new from them each time. Hmm...I wonder if I can convince my book club to read "Middlemarch"?

Jude Law in "Henry V"
Photo via here

In the "New York Times" Ben Brantley has written a fabulous article about several Shakespeare plays that are on in London right now, all starring leading film actors: Jude Law in "Henry V", David Tennant in "Richard II," and Tom Hiddleston in "Coriolanus." Oh, to be in England...

Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul
Photo via here

In the same issue of the NY Times there is a fascinating article about Istanbul, the home of Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk gave Joshua Hammer, the writer of this article, a personal tour of his beloved city. The text and photos are excellent. Many years ago I read Snow by Pamuk and considered it an accomplishment since the book is a challenging read but very worth it. This travel piece is a keeper...

And from a visit to one of my favorite websites...

My copy of this classic

Persephone Books is issuing a new edition of The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield. The beautiful endpapers (which Persephone Books is famous for) will be based on the original Harper & Brothers New York cover of the book from 1931. Just in time for Valentine's Day, Persephone is making the book available prior to its official April release for two weeks only and is offering it at a discount. Go here to learn more and see the lovely endpapers. And go here to read more about this book.

And, finally, staying home can yield all kinds of discoveries...

A Valentine card I gave my husband years ago. Isn't that quote perfect?

I hope you stayed snug and warm this weekend.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Winter Soup

This seems like the perfect weather to make a big pot of soup. When the weather is cold, few things are  more comforting than having a delicious soup simmering on the stove. And so the other night I pulled out some of my cookbooks to find a good one. Sometimes looking for recipes is half the fun.

I browsed through Giada de Laurentiis' new cookbook Giada's Feel Good Food. It is filled with healthy and delicious-looking recipes.

I decided to make her Turkey, Kale, and Brown Rice soup which looked beautiful

It couldn't have been simpler. You start by chopping some vegetables.

After you saute them, you add the remaining ingredients which include kale, brown rice, red peppers, and herbes de provence. The soup simmers for about 30 minutes. This will make your kitchen smell heavenly!

The result is a beautiful, warm and nourishing soup to eat on a cold February night. Add a savory scone and a green salad and you have a delicious winter meal.

Go here to get the recipe for Giada's Turkey, Kale, and Brown Rice Soup. And better yet, go here to order her beautiful book.

I hope you enjoy it. What are you cooking on these cold winter nights? Isn't it bliss to stay home?
And what are you reading? I am almost done with The Goldfinch. Can't wait to discuss it with my book club next week!

Monday, February 3, 2014

"Someone" by Alice McDermott

If you are looking for a book to remind you of the pleasures of great writing, look no further than Someone: A Novel by Alice McDermott.

There are books that announce themselves with dramatic fanfare. From the opening pages the reader is drawn into life-changing events and the characters' reactions to those events. These books are hard to put down and keep us on the edge of our seat. Other books present themselves more quietly and draw us into the world of an ordinary life, slowly revealing ideas and themes. They gently show how the characters deal with circumstances and events. Rather than being focused on big plots and action- packed stories, they tell a tale of a human life. In fact, they tell what it feels like to be human. In this vein of literature, I can think of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Barbara Pym. After reading the new and incandescent novel "Someone," I would add Alice McDermott to that group.

The "story of an unremarkable woman's unforgettable life" is how the publisher describes Alice McDermott's novel on the dust jacket. And it is a perfect description. Like the characters in a Barbara Pym book, the central character and narrator Marie is not someone you would necessarily notice walking on the street. Her looks are plain, she wears thick glasses and her clothes are unremarkable. Her weak vision is a problem she will deal with her entire life. The events are the typical events of a woman's life but, as they are illuminated by McDermott's beautiful prose, they demonstrate that no life is ordinary and that everyone is "someone." Marie's story is compelling for its realness. I read this book in a couple of days and was in awe of the power and emotional resonance of this quiet tale. Anyone who admires good writing will be impressed by this book. So much brilliance is packed into seemingly ordinary language. That Alice McDermott does so much with such economy seems miraculous.

The book begins in an Irish American neighborhood in Brooklyn where Marie lives during the time period between the world wars. She tells the story of her life, from sitting on a stoop at age seven waiting for her father to come out of the subway to sitting in a care facility at the end of her life. There is nothing linear about this tale; it is told in an episodic and impressionistic manner, like a slide show, and in that respect feels like real memory. Marie is a born noticer with weak eyes, a theme that is repeated throughout the book. It is the idea of the blind seer. These kinds of mythological and Biblical themes run throughout the book in such a subtle way that we notice them almost as an afterthought. But when we do, they stay with us.

Marie's Irish Catholic family includes her immigrant parents: a handsome and alcoholic father and a  strong and independent mother. She has one sibling: her beloved and delicate brother Gabe who enters the priesthood. His story is perhaps the most poignant in the book. The priesthood doesn't work out for him and he struggles with identity and emotional issues. One scene in particular depicts his pain and sorrow in the most haunting imagery.

Marie takes us through her childhood and early encounter with death (her best friend's mother), her first romantic experience and heartbreak, her job as a funeral director's "consoling angel" where she meets her husband, her happy marriage, the birth of her first child which almost kills her, and her later years when she is almost blind and living in a care facility. I loved the stories that capture Marie's stubbornness and strength (her best qualities), such as when she refused to learn how to cook from her mother and purposefully ruined the bread she was asked to bake for the family. We later learn that the young Marie had worried that if she learned how to cook her mother would die, just as her best friend's mother did.

I loved this book. If you don't own it, please go out right now and pick up a copy. I promise that when you put it down you will realize that you have had the pleasure of meeting "someone" worth knowing and whose life has much to teach us.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Ballet Weekend

Ballet fans in Los Angeles have reason to rejoice this weekend. And I am one of them. We have the opportunity to see the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company's production of Giselle. I have never seen "Giselle" or this ballet company before and cannot wait to see what promises to be a magical performance.

This is the North American debut of Royal New Zealand Ballet's "Giselle," a production that is being hailed as historic and has even been made into a 2013 feature film, selected for screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. I did a little research into this ballet and discovered that "Giselle" is one of the oldest surviving ballets still in the international repertory. It was first staged in Paris in 1841 and is considered one of the most beautiful and romantic of the classic ballets. I am already swooning...

Going to a ballet performance is one of my favorite things to do. I love the the moment when the curtain goes up and we are transported into this world of music, dancing, and wonder. The ballet has that power to enchant, inspire and take us away from the everyday. I leave the theater feeling enriched and in awe of the power of dance. This should be a very special weekend for those of us who love ballet!

If you live in Los Angeles and want to go to a performance this weekend, click here to get tickets. I would love to know if you are a ballet fan. And if so, what are your favorites?

Wishing you a lovely weekend!