Category Archives: Reading

Tea with Miss Marple

Over the last several months I re-read (or in some cases read for the first time) Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories featuring Miss Jane Marple. What a delight! In addition I introduced myself to the Joan Hickson TV adaptations (most excellent) and revisited nearly all of the Geraldine McEwan and Julia Mckenzie versions that were canon Miss Marple. Might you indulge me as I share a few favorites?

Favorite book: I keep changing my mind on this one, but at the moment I think it might be A Pocket Full of Rye. Miss Marple has a very personal stake in this one as her former maid Gladys is involved. The pacing is good and the misdirection effective, and I enjoyed the chemistry between Marple and Inspector Peele. That said, I’d also put The Moving Finger, 4:50 from Paddington, and Sleeping Murder close to the top. The beginning of At Bertram’s Hotel is so charming (and I will revisit it even though the mystery itself is rather “meh”), and I quite enjoyed Nemesis for its window into Marple’s sleuthing process.

Favorite short story: The Thirteen Problems was an entertaining story collection and I was pleasantly surprised to find so much Gothic goodness running throughout. The most Gothic of all was “The Idol House of Astarte,” a country house mystery involving a fancy dress party that ends with a deadly accident. Or was it murder? I wish this one could somehow be adapted to television!

Favorite TV adaptation: While the Joan Hickson versions are excellent and much truer to the original texts, I have to admit that my favorite of all the individual adaptations was the Geraldine McEwan version of The Moving Finger. One might say it takes liberties with its blatantly Noir setup and the hero’s PTSD angst, but it also gives more agency to the love interest and effectively reimagines that troubling “makeover” scene. It’s a delightfully cheeky adaptation, and James D’Arcy and Emilia Fox have great chemistry as the Burton siblings.

Favorite Miss Marple quote: “I like living myself — not just being happy and enjoying myself and having a good time. I mean living — waking up and feeling all over me, that I’m there — ticking over.” (from A Murder is Announced).

[My favorite non-Marple quote might be Gina’s description of Stonygates in They Do It With Mirrors: “It’s pretty ghastly, really. A sort of Gothic monstrosity. What Steve calls Best Victorian Lavatory period.”]

And now for tea!

After all the time I spent with Miss Marple, I felt she deserved a celebratory afternoon tea out on the town. Las Vegas actually has several options for proper tea, and for this occasion my husband and I tried the offerings at Rí Rá Irish Pub in Mandalay Bay.

[Did Miss Marple ever take tea at an Irish pub? Probably not. But I certainly can imagine her nephew Raymond coaxing her into a local pub for tea just so he could study the “local color” for one of his novels.]


We found Rí Rá very charming. The server placed us in a comfy little nook near the entrance of the pub — does one call this a “snug”? — and we were fortunate to have it all to ourselves.


Here is a closer look at the cozy china pattern. We both chose the Organic Assam tea, which was perfectly steeped and delicious.


And here you see the tea tray, featuring sandwiches (ham & tomato, egg mayo, cheddar with Ballymaloe relish, cucumber & creme fraiche), raisin scones with cream and black current jam, and a selection of “decadent desserts.” It was the perfect amount for two — we ate almost all of it and didn’t feel too stuffed. (It helped that we took a long walk through the Luxor to Excalibur and back before returning to our car.) I do think Miss Marple would have approved!

Do you have a favorite Marple novel, story, or TV adaptation? If so please share in the comments!

October Reading Recs

For various reasons this has not been my best year for reading, but the situation seems to be improving of late. Today I have two books to recommend, and though they don’t have that much in common, they both celebrate female relationships.

A Secret Sisterhood synopsis: Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually mythologized as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses. Coauthors and real-life friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney prove this wrong, thanks to their discovery of a wealth of surprising collaborations: the friendship between Jane Austen and one of the family servants, playwright Anne Sharp; the daring feminist author Mary Taylor, who shaped the work of Charlotte Bronte; the transatlantic friendship of the seemingly aloof George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, most often portrayed as bitter foes, but who, in fact, enjoyed a complex friendship fired by an underlying erotic charge.

Through letters and diaries that have never been published before, A Secret Sisterhood resurrects these forgotten stories of female friendships. They were sometimes scandalous and volatile, sometimes supportive and inspiring, but always–until now–tantalizingly consigned to the shadows.

If you know me at all, you understand how thrilled I was to hear about this book! I was especially delighted to learn that the co-authors have been close friends for years. That said, it took me a little while to sink into their narratives. Part of this stemmed from their “creative” approach — Midorikawa and Sweeney often convey details through reconstructed scenes, which I found a bit jarring at first. (When I reached the footnotes, however, I saw that all these “scenes” were carefully annotated.) Another challenge was balancing my expectations with what I already knew about the featured authors.

For instance, I’m a passionate fan of Jane Austen and feel like I know her characters well, but I haven’t yet read the author’s letters or a detailed biography. (I promise to read Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre le Faye, very soon! And doesn’t this book look good?). As I delved into the first chapter, I think I had unrealistic expectations regarding Austen’s friendship with the family governess, Ann Sharpe. As it turned out, their acquaintance was not as enthralling as I’d hoped, perhaps because the facts were a bit sketchy and for the most part originated from the journals of Jane’s young niece, Fanny Knight. I was glad to learn that Jane knew another writer, and of course I’m always interested in governesses — especially those who “scribble” — but for me this was the least fleshed-out friendship in the book.

On the other hand, I already knew a great deal about Charlotte Brontë’s relationships with Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor from reading biographies and letters (I particularly recommend Juliet Barker’s The Brontës: A Life in Letters), so the details revealed in the second chapter, though compelling, were mostly familiar to me. Your mileage may vary, but for me the first two “Secret Sisterhoods” were entertaining but not particularly revelatory.

That said, I truly enjoyed and learned much from the chapter on George Eliot/Marian Evans’ friendship with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Middlemarch ranks among my very favorite novels, but I never knew that much about its author and now feel compelled to find a good biography. (Perhaps I’ll start with My Life in Middlemarch and see which biography Rebecca Mead recommends?) Stowe was a vivacious personality and, lo and behold, an avid Spiritualist (much to Evans’ dismay). Though I don’t yearn to read her fiction, I think it might be interesting to read more about Stowe’s life.

The authors’ take on Virginia Woolf’s complicated relationship with Katherine Mansfield was perhaps my favorite part of the book. I’ve read To The Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own and have always felt intimidated by Woolf’s intellect, but Midorikawa and Sweeney presented her in a very accessible way. No longer will I automatically think of her as the tormented genius who drowned herself, for I have replaced that default image with one of a younger Virginia painstakingly setting the type for her Hogarth Press publications. Katherine Mansfield was the least familiar to me of all the published authors featured in the book, but she was such a vivid character in this chapter that I do intend to explore her short stories and perhaps read her letters and journals.

Now I turn to you, dear reader — can you recommend collections of letters or journals by favorite authors? I own and still need to read Dorothy Sayers’ letters, and I know there are multiple volumes of L.M. Montgomery’s journals to be had. What else?

Bonus book recommendation: The War I Finally Won

The sequel to Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War that Saved My Life (which I recommended in this “tea and a book” blog post) was such a joy to read. I don’t want to say too much in case you haven’t read the first book, but the wartime setting is even more compelling in this book, especially because we learn more about Lord and Lady Thornton and are introduced to a new character who boards with Susan, Ada, and Jamie. All the clichés apply: I laughed, I cried, I couldn’t put it down, I didn’t want it to end, and though it all wraps up in a satisfying way I would love to have MORE. Of course, I’m not the only one who feels giddy about the book, for it has received umpteen starred reviews and is an Amazon and NYT bestseller. HOORAY!

Mothers of Invention — A Tribute

Hello blog friends! It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here. I’ve missed chatting with you.

I should explain that my lovely and loving mother died on May 19 at the age of 71. Since then I’ve alternated between sorrow, anxiety, numbness, and a cautious cheerfulness. Many of you have been through this. No doubt you’d tell me there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, and that I should give myself as much time as I need. I do appreciate that.

This post really isn’t about grief, however. It is about a legacy of love. To honor my mother (and grandmother) I’d like to share a specific example of their magical influence on my life.

I promise this will make you SMILE.

Like many young girls, I obsessed over the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. My fascination began when Mom read Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie to me at bedtime. As Laura and I grew older, I graduated to reading the novels on my own. Wishing to be as much like my favorite protagonist as possible, I demanded that my hair be braided, wore my ruffled calico dress until it burst at the seams, and begged to go to Grandma’s farm where I could practice baking, butter churning, and cow tending. (Working in the garden was less inspiring, but imagining myself as Laura helped make it endurable.) When Mom remarried I decided henceforth that she and my stepfather would be known as Ma and Pa. No one dared to disagree. Even my Barbie dolls were forced to hold down a claim under a tree in the backyard. In their little frame house they cooked on a miniature cast iron stove, slept on straw-filled mattresses, and fed fragrant grass seed to their (plastic) horses.

Mom and Grandma were well aware of my obsession. They shared it, after all. And thus one year they concocted a plan for my Christmas present–a plan so ambitious they must have been as intimidated as they were excited by the enormity of their task. They undertook to sew a complete wardrobe for my Barbie dolls based on Laura Ingalls’ wedding trousseau from These Happy Golden Years.

Each day, as soon as I was safely on the school bus, my mother collected my Barbies and drove to Grandma’s house. Together they pored over the text of the book, taking notes on her descriptions of fabrics and dress styles. They cross-referenced these details with a reproduction 1900 Sears & Roebuck catalog and adapted Barbie dress patterns to the old-fashioned styles. Once they knew exactly what they would be sewing it was time to plunder the ragbag for fabric scraps that closely resembled the dresses described in the book. Only after they’d exhausted that resource did they take out their pocketbooks and travel to the fabric store for the materials they did not already have.

They watched the clock carefully in the afternoons to ensure my mom would get home before the bus. Each day she returned my dolls to what she hoped was the exact spot where I’d left them. To her credit, I never had a clue of the costume fitting adventures my Barbie dolls had undertaken during the day…


At least, not until Christmas Day brought this box of MAGIC.

Would you like to see what was inside?

[Here’s where I confess to devoting an entire day to a Barbie photo shoot, just so I could show you the clothes that were packed in that box. Many thanks go to Disney’s “Belle” Barbie for standing in for my long lost dolls. And as always with my blog photos, if you would like a closer view, click the image to enlarge.]


First there was the brown poplin dress:

It’s smooth, long sleeves fitted her arms perfectly to the wrists, where a band of plain silk ended them. The neck was high with a smooth band of the plain silk around the throat. The polonaise fitted tightly and buttoned all down the front with small round buttons covered with the plain brown silk. Below the smooth hips it flared and rippled down and covered the top of the flounce on the underskirt. A band of the plain silk finished the polonaise at the bottom. (These Happy Golden Years, 162-63).

I loved that there were two parts to this dress, and that you can see the underskirt’s ruffle peeping out below the silk ribbon of the polonaise. Note: this was the dress Laura wore during the infamous buggy ride in which she shook the buggy whip and startled the colts, all because Almanzo tried to put his arm around her. Cheeky young man! (And “devilish” young lady!)


The pink lawn dress also came in two pieces and was gorgeously feminine. Grandma and Mom were particularly adept at recreating the tuck work that Laura described:

They made the waist tight-fitting, with two clusters of tucks down the back, and two in front…The skirt was gathered very full all round into a narrow waistband, which buttoned over the bottom of the waist to secure them from slipping apart. All down the full skirt, tucks went around and around it, spaced evenly a little way apart, and below the bottom tuck was a full-gathered ruffled four inches wide that just touched Laura’s shoe tips (243-44).


Laura’s black cashmere wedding dress was constructed of soft, fine-waled corduroy, complete with lace at the neck and a tiny wooden brooch painted with an even tinier strawberry. [See a closer view of the brooch.] Grandma and Mom sewed Laura’s straw poke bonnet out of roughly textured green fabric and lined it with blue cotton.

Laura was ready when Almanzo came. She was wearing her new black cashmere dress and her sage-green poke bonnet with the blue lining and the blue ribbon bow tied under left ear. The soft black tips of her shoes barely peeped from beneath her flaring skirt as she walked (279).

(For the record, I simply could not manage to tie that ribbon under Belle’s left ear without it looking ridiculous.)


Being very attentive to detail, Mom and Grandma did not forget Laura’s underclothes. Mom cleverly constructed a narrow hoop skirt of wire and tape–“the very latest style in the East” (161)–and even fashioned a tiny bustle that could be taped underneath for fullness or on top for modest backside enhancement. Knowing Laura preferred a small bustle, I usually taped it on top. (In the photo, however, it is taped underneath for maximum enhancement. Check the side view of the black wedding dress for the effect.) To cover the hoop they provided a soft white cotton petticoat with yellow ribbon trim. Their pièce de résistance, however, was a corset of white satin sewn with the tiniest of stitches to fit the fabric exactly to Barbie’s inhuman proportions.


Mom and Grandma even found time to sew a long-sleeved, flowing nightgown of white flannel sprinkled with delicate purple flowers for Barbie. They also made a girl-sized one out of the same material for me. Sadly, my gown is long gone, but Barbie looks quite cozy in hers, doesn’t she?

As you might imagine, I was thoroughly enchanted by this miniature and very complicated wardrobe, and I spent hours dressing and undressing my dolls. A few items didn’t survive the heavy use, and one dress (a blue calico?) was drastically retooled during my Medieval Barbie phase, but the rest were passed down to my baby sister when I went to college. (I honestly can’t remember how I felt about this. I wonder if I even knew?) Eventually my dear nieces played with them as well, and I’m certain the dresses enjoyed their varied adventures over the years. Their good condition today is a testament both to the care that went into their construction and the delicacy with which we played with them.

A few years ago Mom and I searched through the toy box and collected all the Laura Ingalls items we could find. Just last week I conducted my photo shoot–partly for posterity, but mostly as a way to celebrate Mom and Grandma. They were true mothers of invention, and it is such an honor (not to mention a balm to my sore heart) to share their industry and artistry with you!

I will close with a message for these dearly departed ladies: Thank you, Grandma and Mom, for taking time out of your busy days to enter a child’s imagination, for making her dreams come true, and for gifting her with your love of history and story. Thank you for the magic. You both will live forever in my heart.


Grandma and me (You can see I inherited her mouth) on Christmas Day, 1978? (Photo taken by Mom)


Margaret Ellen (Grandma) and Marcia (Mom), circa 1962

**Many thanks to my sister, Heather Miller, who searched the family albums for the Christmas photos!

A Valentine’s tea with Margery Sharp

Last month, through the power of BookBub, I discovered Margery Sharp.

Or perhaps I should say rediscovered, for I was a fan of The Rescuers as a child. I had no idea she’d written so many novels for adults until BookBub featured Cluny Brown*.

This charming story features an eccentric and headstrong girl from London who is sent by her uncle into service at an elegant country house. Knowing little of domestic labor in a stately home, she struggles to understand household tasks, class barriers, and unexpected romantic overtures. Passages like this in which Cluny is chatting with potential suitor Mr. Wilson (the local chemist who lives with his nearly catatonic mother) made me giggle:

“Thank you for letting me stay,” said Cluny, blinking.
“Mother’s taken a liking to you,” said Mr. Wilson. “I can see that.”
Cluny wondered how he could tell. Several years before she had made quite a friend of an old man who took a tortoise into Kensington Gardens; and he told her he was never sure whether the tortoise enjoyed these outings or not, whether it didn’t after all think, “Damn this grass.” However, Cluny supposed that from long experience Mr. Wilson could detect in his mother shades of expression, intimations of pleasure, unapparent to any one else.

Cluny Brown was adapted to film in 1946 by Ernst Lubitsch, whose lengthy directing resume also includes my personal favorites The Shop Around the Corner (inspiration for You’ve Got Mail) and the delicious pre-code romp Design for Living (based on the Noel Coward play and featuring an extra-swoony Gary Cooper). I was able to locate the DVD for Cluny Brown, but you can watch it in its entirety on YouTube! Lubitsch took many liberties with the original story, but it all serves to bring the romance into sharper focus AND to feature Charles Boyer, who basically runs away with the film.

*I was struck by the name “Cluny” because I love the Musée de Cluny in Paris, but according to the novel Cluny is short for Clover.

Following Cluny Brown I read The Flowering Thorn (1934), about a Bright Young Thing who impetuously adopts an orphaned boy. She can’t afford to keep him in London, so with the help of an uncle they move to the country. Hijinks ensue, but not in the silly way you might expect. This is a quieter novel than Cluny Brown, and it’s more about our heroine falling in love with a community than a mere man. Currently I am reading Something Light (1960), featuring a plucky dog photographer who is tired of her “Girl Friday” status with the men in her life. She’s ready to marry for money! This book is much more along the quirky lines of Cluny Brown, and I am avoiding all spoilers because I know this novel will surprise me in delightful ways.

**********

And now for our Valentine’s tea, I offer you gluten-free glazed sugar cookies with “Thé des Amants” from Palais des Thés.


I cheated a little and used this mix from King Arthur Flour, purchased at Whole Foods. (Click here if you’d like to make the cookies from scratch.) I don’t ordinarily keep gluten-free or almond flour around the house, so my trick for rolling out the dough was to put it between two sheets of parchment while still soft, roll it, chill it, and then cut the cookies out. No flour needed at all! And the recipe for the glaze is right on the box. Easy peasy.


Tea description (from the purveyor): Rich and sensual, Thé des Amants is a heady, fragrant blend of black tea, apple, almond, cinnamon and vanilla, spiced up with a hint of ginger. In French, Thé des Amants means ‘Tea of the Lovers.’ Délicieux!


And here is the tea tray!

How about you — any romantic reads or Valentine snacks to recommend?

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY TO ALL!

Tea with Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte’s 200th birthday last year inspired me to re-read Jane Eyre, and I decided to make this part of my Read Harder Challenge by watching two film adaptations for comparison to the original text. I’d been meaning to re-watch the 2006 BBC version with Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson, and I’m always eager to watch the 2011 theatrical version with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska. What a pleasure to read the book*, watch both adaptations and compare! It also was great fun to pair the book with tea and a sweet treat, as you’ll see below.

(*Actually, I alternated between reading the e-book and listening to Thandie Newton’s spectacular audio performance.)


I’d forgotten that both the 2006 and 2011 adaptations were filmed at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire (as was the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli version with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg!). I’ve visited Haddon Hall in both the summer and at Christmas time, and it’s one of my favorite old piles in all of England. It seems perfect for Thornfield Hall–castellated and gloomy in a Gothically romantic way, also boasting a rushing stream and lovely terraced gardens. The 2006 version makes a little more use of the Haddon Hall interiors, whereas the 2011 version uses Broughton Castle (another lovely place to visit!) for many of the interior shots.


So, which adaptation did I like better? The 2011 adaptation will always be my favorite, but the 2006 TV movie is quite good in its own right. Excellent performances from Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson, and a teleplay by Sandy Welch that is mostly true to the original. Welch departs from the book by presenting Rochester as a naturalist, and by introducing house party discussions of the scientific study of twins (???), as well as musings on the paranormal. There’s even a scene with a table transformed into a talking board. (Why add a talking board when you already have gypsy readings?)

The 2011 theatrical version is stripped-down, but effectively so. I like the Rivers family as a frame, and I do prefer Fassbender’s darker Rochester–he has a bit more menace to him and doesn’t babble so much as the original. Mia Wasikowska truly does seem little and plain(ish) in this adaptation, but also strong-willed. I think the scene that really seals the 2011 version as my favorite is when Rochester begs Jane to stay after the revelation of his dark secret. “I cannot get at you, and it is your soul that I want!” (Watch the scene–you know you want to!) I also love the ending–very compressed from the original, but somehow more satisfying to me.


I’ve probably mentioned my Haddon Hall china from Minton before. I first saw the pattern at the Haddon Hall gift shop, but it just wasn’t feasible to ship a set back to the U.S. Fortunately, I later found pieces from various sets at Replacements.com. They don’t match perfectly, but I think that makes the collection all the more charming. And, of course, the Haddon Hall china seemed perfect for a Jane Eyre tea!

For my tea treat, I made parkin, a spicy oat cake from the north of England, particularly popular in Yorkshire (home to the Brontës).

[Parkin] is eaten in an area where oats rather than wheat was the staple grain for the poor. It is closely related to tharf cakes – an unsweeted cake cooked on a griddle rather than baked.[7] The traditional time of the year for tharf cakes to be made was directly after the oat harvest in the first week in November. For festive occasions, the cake would be sweetened with honey. In the seventeenth century (about 1650) sugar started to be imported from Barbados[b]- and molasses was a by-product of the refining process. Molasses was first used by apothecaries to make a medicine theriaca, from which name the word treacle is derived.[8] As molasses became plentiful, or treacle as it became called at that time, it was substituted for honey in the preparation of tharf cakes. (From wikipedia)

After a disastrous attempt with a different recipe, I had success with this: Parkin–a Guy Fawkes Night Tradition. The recipe is accompanied by a helpful explanation of Parkin’s connection to the 5th of November, and it uses U.S. measurements and ordinary ingredients. (I happened to have golden syrup on hand, but according to the recipe corn syrup will suffice.)


It looked a bit like a pan of brownies when it came out of the oven, but oh, the glorious spicy smell!


This parkin was very moist and filling. If Jane Eyre had tucked some of this in her pocket, she might not have suffered so much on the moors before the Rivers family took her in! For tea I needed something strong to match the spice of the bread, so I chose the Irish Breakfast from David’s Tea in honor of Charlotte Brontë’s Irish heritage through her father, Patrick Brontë (originally Brunty or Prunty from County Down, Ireland).

Some related links for your edification and amusement:

The Best Yorkshire Recipes (some nice options for sweet treats here)
–A Jane Eyre tea blend from Adagio
Every Meal in Jane Eyre, Ranked in Order of Severity, from The Toast
–A Tea with Jane Eyre necklace at Etsy
Jane Eyre Tea Cozy patterns for knitters!
Walnut Tea Sandwiches inspired by Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre, the Fragrance, from Ravenscourt Apothecary (this is a NEAT site!)
–And finally, this long-time favorite: Dude Watchin’ with the Brontës from Hark, a Vagrant.

Also, some of my previous Jane Eyre-related blog posts:
Brontës on the Brain (Nov 2013)
The Problem of Kissing in Jane Eyre ’11 (Aug 2011)
Derbyshire Top Ten, including photos of Haddon Hall (July 2011)
I saw Jane Eyre yesterday (April 2011)