Category Archives: Reading

A Tour of Washington DC Indie Bookstores

I’ve made a resolution since returning from Brooklyn–when joining my husband on business trips I will endeavor to research, patronize, and publicize my favorite independent bookstores. (In case you missed it, you’ll find some wonderful Brooklyn options in this post.) On this trip our hotel was in Georgetown, so I picked bookstores within walking distance.

Perhaps the most famous indie bookstore in the District is Politics & Prose, but it was more than an hour’s walk away, and since I’d been there when we lived in D.C. it seemed appropriate to explore other options.


On Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle, Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe is a large, bustling store open from 7:30am to 1:30am, except on Friday and Saturday when it’s open until 3am. (Wow!) It has a hip and energetic vibe that encourages both leisurely, uninterrupted browsing and boisterous socializing in the cafe/bar. I appreciated how much space they devoted to recommended books, and when I saw Ghosted by Rosie Walsh on prominent display–and noted its blurbs–I had to have it.

Kramerbooks has so much to offer, but it isn’t a cozy sort of bookstore. Lucky for me, I found plenty of cozy in the two used bookstores I visited.


Also near Dupont Circle, Second Story Books is open 10-10 daily and offers a wonderfully ordered, inviting, and tranquil environment perfect for browsing. It also has a fascinating history of expansion and consolidation dating back to 1973. At one point they had six stores from Alexandria to Baltimore. These days there are two: the 16,000-square-foot warehouse store in Rockville (oooh!) and the Dupont Circle location, which celebrated its 40th Anniversary in 2018. They offer so many interesting services beyond the typical appraisal/consignment options. Learn more here.

After a leisurely stretch of browsing, I came away with a neat edition of Jane Gardam’s Bilgewater and the ginormous Complete Old English Poems, translated by Craig Williamson.

(I really need a running list of obscure titles on my phone so that when I go to stores like this I can search with a purpose instead of wandering in a fog of overwhelmed delight.)


My favorite bookstore of the D.C. visit was this lovely shop in Georgetown. Founded in 1996, The Lantern is run entirely by volunteers and all the proceeds fund scholarships for Bryn Mawr student summer internships. I could have browsed this store all day, and perhaps I will actually spend a day there in the future, armed with that wish list on my phone, eh? I was tempted by so many books on their shelves but managed to walk out of there with just one–Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor. (How could I resist that title?) Of course I am a big fan of A.S. Byatt, and won’t it be interesting to read something written by her estranged sister? Drama!


Here are the lovely new editions to my library.

Stay tuned for a blog post about–you guessed it–TEA in Georgetown!

Tea and Comfort with D.E. Stevenson

No doubt I’ve said this before, but lately the world is too much with me. More than ever I crave the escape of fiction, and today I’m recommending one of my very favorite “escape artists” — Dorothy Emily Stevenson.

I wrote about D.E. Stevenson a few years ago when I  recommended Miss Buncle’s Book. Little did I know at the time that I would get to enjoy TWO more books about those characters before moving on to Stevenson’s standalone novels. Since devouring the Buncle trilogy, I’ve happily consumed twelve additional Stevenson novels–some of them more than once–and I think there are 25+ more waiting to be read. It makes me feel quite spoiled for choice. Such luxury!

I’m very fond of my editions from Sourcebooks Landmark, which you can see in the featured image above. Furrowed Middlebrow, an imprint of Dean Street Press, also has released two Stevenson books with an introduction by bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith. Perhaps if I can’t convince you to give Stevenson a try, he will:

[Stevenson’s novels] are in a category of their own: clearly-written straightforward tales that take the reader through a clear plot and reach a recognisable and unambiguous ending. The appeal that they have for the contemporary reader lies in the fact that there is no artifice in these books. They are not about dysfunctional people. They are not about psychopathology. There is no gore or sadism in them. The characters speak in sentences and do not resort to constant confrontational exchanges. In other words, these books are far from modern.

Quite a few D.E. Stevenson books are available at Audible.com, and I can vouch that they are cozy entertainment for long drives. If you’d like to know a little (or a lot) more about Stevenson and her books, you’ll find plenty of information at this lovingly curated website.

To complete my bloggish offering of comfort, how about some tea and a sweet treat? D.E. Stevenson was born in Scotland and lived there her entire life (as far as I can tell), and thus I thought a Scottish treat might be just the thing. What could be more Scottish than shortbread? I searched for recipes online until I found this interesting variation: Jam-filled shortbread cookies. They were so easy to make and quite delicious–I had all the ingredients on hand already, including strawberry and black current jam. The cookie cutters were procured from JoAnn, and for tea I chose a Scottish afternoon blend from Brodies Fine Teas, a Fair Trade option available at Amazon. It makes a very strong cup, perfect for an afternoon pick-me-up, but I wouldn’t steep it for more than 3 minutes.

Listening Valley, a gift from dear friend Glenda, was my most recent read from Stevenson. Not my very favorite of her novels, but a pleasure to read nonetheless. Now that I think of it, it reminded me vaguely of L.M. Montgomery’s stories of Emily Starr — when you learn what “listening valley” means to the heroine, perhaps (like me) you’ll be reminded of “the Flash”?

Let us close with some final thoughts from Alexander McCall Smith:

These are gentle books, very fitting for times of uncertainty and conflict. Some books can be prescribed for anxiety–these are in that category. And it is an honourable and important one.

Yes, indeed!

What are your comfort reads? Do share in the comments!

A tour of Brooklyn Bookstores

In the second post of my “Brooklyn travel trilogy” I’m featuring Brooklyn indie bookstores.


Books are Magic is located in Cobble Hill on the corner of Smith and Butler. It is owned by author Emma Straub and her husband, Michael Fusco-Straub. I love this from the website: “Books Are Magic is their third child. Their two sons are very excited about the new addition to the family.” The store is small but cozy, with a staff that is friendly without being obtrusive. I couldn’t resist getting a New York Review Books Classics copy of Daphne du Maurier’s short story collection, Don’t Look Now, along with The Governesses by Anne Serre. So fun to browse the shelves here.


WORD Bookstore is located in Greenpoint at the corner of Franklin and Milton Streets. I knew I would love it when I saw the Audre Lorde quote displayed boldly on their window: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” According to their website their goal is to carry “a lot of paperback fiction (especially classics), cookbooks, board books, and absurdly cute cards and stationery.” They also like bookish events, so if you’re in the area keep an eye on their calendar. I browsed to my heart’s content and left with a copy of Brooklyn resident Ben Dolnick’s The Ghost Notebooks, which I read on the flight home. JUST my sort of thing!


Stories Bookshop + Storytelling Lab, located at 458 Bergen Street and situated “at the nexus of the neighborhoods of Park Slope, Prospect Heights and Boerum Hill,” is a sweet little store for children’s titles. (You can see their captivating storefront in my featured image at the top of this post–note all the strollers!) They sell board books, YA novels, and everything in between. The storytelling lab, located in the back of the store, hosts afternoon, weekend, and summer programming for kids. Check here for more information on story times and workshops. The MG section was pretty packed when I visited, but as soon as I saw The Wallstonecraft Detective Agency in the MG section I knew what I wanted. How could I resist Ada (Byron) Lovelace and Mary (Godwin) Shelley as young sleuths?


Here is my haul. Isn’t it a handsome collection?

Stay tuned for a final Brooklyn blog post featuring my TEA SHOP adventures!

Tea and a Book and an Art Installation: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I haven’t updated “Tea and a Book” since Christmas! I am determined, however, to mend my ways AND account for April with this post…

During a recent chat with my friend and crit partner Brandi, she recommended Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. (I think we’d been talking about Quakers, early American feminists/abolitionists, and a story I’m revising.) What a fascinating novel!

Quick take: This creative retelling of the life of Sarah Grimké, a notorious abolitionist raised in a slaveholding South Carolina household, includes the perspective of Handful (originally “Hetty”), a young slave gifted to Sarah whom she later “returns” when unable to stomach the idea of owning another human. The novel is beautifully written and thoroughly absorbing but not necessarily an easy read due to the horror and heartbreak that shadow these women’s lives. Yes, this was an Oprah book and perhaps you’ve all read it already, but I still wished to celebrate it.

Goodreads synopsis: Hetty “Handful” Grimké, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

Two memorable passages:

Sarah: I saw then what I hadn’t seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I’d lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it. (130)

Handful: We’d leave, riding on our coffins if we had to. That was the way mauma had lived her whole life. She used to say, you got to figure out which end of the needle you’re gon be, the one that’s fastened to the thread or the end that pierces the cloth. (386)

I happened to be in Brooklyn when I finished the novel, and imagine my surprise when I learned from the author’s note that Kidd was inspired to write this story after seeing Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” at the Brooklyn Museum:

The Dinner Party is a monumental piece of art, celebrating women’s achievements in Western civilization. Chicago’s banquet table with its succulent place settings honoring 39 female guests of honor rests upon a porcelain tiled floor inscribed with the names of 999 other women who have made important contributions to history. It was while reading those 999 names on the Heritage Panels in the Biographic Gallery that I stumbled upon those of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, sisters from Charleston, South Caroline, the same city in which I then lived. (…) Leaving the museum that day, I wondered if I’d discovered the sisters I wanted to write about. Back home in Charleston, as I began to explore their lies, I became passionately certain.


I already was well acquainted with The Dinner Party because my stepmother experienced it soon after it was first exhibited (1979) and had shared her enthusiasm with me. I won’t lie–as a kid I found the concept rather weird. When I saw it in person this past Saturday, however, I was overwhelmed by its impact. I circled the table at least four times and took my time studying my favorite settings (which you can see at my Instagram).


I even crouched on the floor and searched until I found the inscription for Sarah Grimké, appropriately located near the Sojourner Truth table setting.

Now for tea:

This may be a cheat, but I still think it’s appropriate. After being dazzled by The Dinner Party I really wasn’t that interested in the rest of the museum. Instead I was HUNGRY. So I made my way to the museum restaurant (The Norm) and bellied up to the bar. As soon as I saw their brunch options I knew exactly what to order–the Horchata French Toast.

MY GOLLY. This crunchy french toast with blueberries, mango, strawberries and a spiced maple syrup was absolutely divine. The English Breakfast tea paired perfectly. Every bite/drop was consumed and cherished!

Recipes for Horchata French Toast:
Love and Olive Oil
Rick Bayliss at Men’s Journal
Kate in the Kitchen

Stay tuned for more from my Brooklyn trip!

Friday Flashback: Reading Gaskell’s North & South

This post is a continuation of my Friday Favorites post on North & South (2004) and perhaps will only be interesting to those who are already fans of the mini-series. (Or maybe it will inspire potential new fans? One can hope.) In 2006 I read the novel and had great fun comparing it to the series in two Livejournal posts.

Jan 11, 2006

If you’ve listened to the commentary for N&S, you already have a good idea of what they’ve changed, added, or deleted in order to adapt the novel into a film. The main differences I see so far:

— Mrs. Hale was not happy in Helstone. She’s just generally malcontented. You learn that her sister married for status & money (and hated her husband), but Mrs. Hale married a poor clergyman for love, and has always mildly resented her lowered standard of living. (And Dixon is very sympathetic to this, of course.)

— Mr. Thornton is NOT beating the crap out of people in the sight of young ladies

— There are no union meetings with Higgins rallying the workers. This makes me sad. I found those scenes very moving in the film.

— Bessie isn’t quite as sassy and snarky — more the typical lower class Victorian invalid.

Various interesting passages:

Henry Lennox to Margaret:

Well, I suppose you are all in the depths of business — ladies’ business, I mean. Very different to my business, which is the real true law business. Playing with shawls is very different work to drawing up settlements. (10)

What a self-important prig! Do you think Gaskell’s female contemporary readers would have been equally irked by that? Or would they just have accepted it as “separate sphere” sort of bantering? I have to believe that this is Gaskell telling her readers “Sure, this would be a socially appropriate partner for Margaret BUT TRULY HE’S JUST THE PRACTICE ROUND!”

Margaret’s physical description:

Sometimes people wondered that parents so handsome should have a daughter who was so far from regularly beautiful; not beautiful at all, was occasionally said. Her mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a “yes” and “no,” and “an’t please you, sir.” But the wide mouth was one soft curve of rich red lips; and the skin, if not white and fair, was of ivory smoothness and delicacy. If the look on her face was, in general, too dignified and reserved for one so young, now, talking to her father, it was bright as the morning, — full of dimples, and glances that spoke of childish gladness, and boundless hope in the future. (17)

And then there’s the scene of Mr. Thornton having tea with the Hales. This passage, in which he contemplates Margaret, seems almost erotic to me:

It appeared to Mr. Thornton that all these graceful cares were habitual to the family; and especially of a piece with Margaret. She stood by the tea-table in a light-colored muslin gown, which had a good deal of pink about it. She looked as if she was not attending to the conversation, but solely busy with the tea-cups, among which her round ivory hands moved with pretty, noiseless, daintiness. She had a bracelet on one taper arm, which would fall down over her round wrist. Mr. Thornton watched the re-placing of this troublesome ornament with far more attention than he listened to her father. It seemed as if it fascinated him to see her push it up impatiently, until it tightened her soft flesh; and then to mark the loosening — the fall. He could almost have exclaimed — “There it goes, again!” There was so little left to be done after he arrived at the preparation of tea, that he was almost sorry the obligation of eating and drinking came so soon to prevent his watching Margaret. She handed him his cup of tea with the proud air of an unwilling slave; but her eye caught the moment when he was ready for another cup; and he almost longed to ask her to do for him what he saw her compelled to do for her father, who took her little finger and thumb in his masculine hand, and made them serve as sugar-tongs. (79)

Margaret’s perception of Thornton:

Now, in Mr. Thornton’s face the straight brows fell low over the clear deep-set earnest eyes, which, without being unpleasantly sharp, seemed intent enough to penetrate into the very heart and core of what he was looking at. The lines in the face were few but firm, as if they were carved in marble, and lay principally about the lips, which were slightly compressed over a set of teeth so faultless and beautiful as to give the effect of sudden sunlight when the rare bright smile, coming in an instant and shining out of the eyes, changed the whole look from the severe and resolved expression of a man ready to do and dare everything, to the keen honest enjoyment of the moment, which is seldom shown so fearlessly and instantaneously except by children. Margaret liked this smile; it was the first thing she had admired in this new friend of her father’s . . . (80)

Now, the first bit agrees quite nicely with the film version, but I don’t think Richard Armitage ever smiles so much that all his teeth show. And I’m rather glad of that. It’s much more powerful when he lets slip those rare wee smiles.

Jan 18, 2006

Over the weekend I told a friend that the most illuminating thing about the novel was the opportunity to get into Thornton’s head. In the film he’s quite enigmatic in his brooding, glaring silences. I suppose we see his vulnerability in the scenes with his mother, but as with Pride and Prejudice (book AND film versions) we usually don’t comprehend the pain suffered by the hero during his difficult moments with the heroine. But in Gaskell’s novel, we get both viewpoints during the scenes that involve Margaret and Thornton interacting with each other — AND we get their private assessments of the interaction later on. What delights!

As he waits to propose to Margaret:

Mr Thornton stood by one of the windows, with his back to the door, apparently absorbed in watching something in the street. But, in truth, he was afraid of himself. His heart beat thick at the thought of her coming. He could not forget the touch of her arms around his neck, impatiently felt as it had been at the time; but now the recollection of her clinging defense of him, seemed to thrill him through and through, — to melt away every resolution, all power of self-control, as if it were wax before a fire. He dreaded lest he should go forwards to meet her, with his arms held out in mute entreaty that she would come and nestle there, as she had done, all unheeded, the day before, but never unheeded again. His heart throbbed loud and quick. (193)

Oh! It kills me when he imagines holding out his arms to her in “mute entreaty” and thinks of her “nestling” there. Such tenderness. And doubly touching because we know what’s about to happen!

After the proposal:

When Mr. Thornton had left the house that morning he was almost blinded by his baffled passion. . . He had positive bodily pain, — a violent headache, and a throbbing intermittent pulse. He could not bear the noise, the garish light, the continued rumble and movement in the street. He called himself a fool for suffering so; and yet could not, at the moment, recollect the cause of his suffering, and whether it was adequate to the consequences it had produced. It would have been a relief to him, if he could have sat down and cried on a door-step by a little child, who was raging and storming, through his passionate tears, at some injury he had received. He said to himself, that he hated Margaret, but a wild, sharp sensation of love cleft his dull, thundering feeling like lightning, even as he shaped the words expressive of hatred. His greatest comfort was in hugging his torment; and in feeling, as he had indeed said to her , that though she might despise him, contemn him, treat him with her proud sovereign indifference, he did not change one whit. She could not make him change. He loved her, and would love her; and defy her, and this miserable bodily pain. (207)

Why do I love to read about Thornton’s torture and angst? There are many similar passages after this, particularly after he sees Margaret with Frederick at the train station. Oh, how he does work himself into a mental frenzy over that! I won’t quote it here — you simply MUST read the book!

I’ll conclude with this funny little moment — I think we can all relate to Thornton here:

They found Margaret with a letter open before her, eagerly discussing its contents with her father. On the entrance of the gentlemen, it was immediately put aside; but Mr. Thornton’s eager senses caught some few words of Mr. Hale’s to Mr. Bell.

“A letter from Henry Lennox. It makes Margaret very hopeful.”

Mr. Bell nodded. Margaret was as red as a rose when Mr. Thornton looked at her. He had the greatest mind in the world to get up and go out of the room that very instant, and never set foot in the house again. (332)