Taking a break from blogging

on sabbatical

Many moons ago, when I was only a young lass in grade school, summer vacation was the pinnacle of my life: two and a half months of sunshine, jump rope, neighbourhood wading pools, and going to the corner store for Nerds and Lick-a-Stick with whatever pocket change I could find. Since I graduated, and “officially” embraced adulthood and joined the 9-to-5 brigade, the summer months have taken on a whole new meaning. There’s something special about getting time off during the summer. It’s less of a privilege and more of a necessity. Otherwise, a nervous breakdown might be in order.

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Anyhow, it has become painfully apparent that I’ve lost some motivation on the blogging front. However, I do not want to abandon four years of creative and fun work. So, a happy medium… a blogging sabbatical. I’m taking the summer off. Offline, that is. The summer months will be spent outdoors, without my computer, and without my stupid, uncontrollable, self-imposed rules of blogging every book I read, whether it’s worth mentioning or not. I want to read for the sake of reading again. I’ll return in the fall, but I will continue to read the blogs to which I subscribe, and contribute to the conversation as best I can. Twitter might be an unfortunate sacrifice, but such is life.

Hopefully, this break will render my habit of incessantly checking my statistics every day completely obsolete and useless. Perhaps, by then, I’ll be chomping at the bit to recommend a fantastic book. Not to mention, fewer messages crowding your email inbox! Everybody wins. Have a great summer, wherever you may be. Enjoy the weather, have a Popsicle, eat outside as much as possible and don’t forget the mosquito repellent!

Until September, adios amigos!

Because Toni Morrison is fabulous

I just finished Song of Solomon, and I have fallen in love with Morrison. Her characters, her words, the whole enchilada. It has been a long time since I’ve reacted this way to a book: utter enthusiasm and wonder. I watched this insightful interview, and felt compelled to share. What a great voice. Enjoy!

The Blue Bistro by Elin Hilderbrand

the blue bistroSo, it appears that I’ve triggered an uncharacteristic fascination with all things summery, whimsical and romantic. Maybe it’s the weather. For the first time in weeks, I can look out the window and smile. It’s not grey or rainy or raining, but sunny. The promise of warmth is unfamiliar but welcome. The birds are out, and every dog I pass in the street has a jaunty spring in its step. Dare I hope? Has summer finally descended upon us? Graced us with its cheerfulness? Fingers crossed it doesn’t go away. This optimistic need for sunshine likely has something to do with my reading choices of late, which brings me to The Blue Bistro.

Never have I read anything by Elin Hilderbrand. Her genre, which appears to be a mix of romance and family drama, is uncharted territory. But, let me start by saying this was really quite enjoyable. I loved the descriptions of Nantucket, the beachy heat and the wonderful food. Adrienne Dealey and Thatcher Smith were surprisingly likable. I enjoyed spending time with them, and the other colourful characters who work at The Blue Bistro. I respected Adrienne’s sweet relationship with her father, and the sporadic emails they send back and forth.

The plot itself is fairly simple: girl meets boy, boy and girl fall in love, boy has mysterious relationship with The Blue Bistro chef, Fiona. Somewhere in between, Adrienne struggles to maintain a relationship with a “complicated” guy, a former ballerina falls in love with a bartender, and the various patrons of this restaurant, at first ritzy and elegant, are slowly revealed as flawed individuals.

Hilderbrand is great with dialogue and character development. The ending was melodramatic and syrupy, but it worked for the story as a whole. I didn’t feel compelled to roll my eyes; instead, I could understand the emotion, and its function within the novel. Perhaps I’m softening. Perhaps I’m losing my edge, but that’s okay. There’s something therapeutic about reading a “happy” book. It’s also an unexpected adventure to experiment with unknown authors and genres. Normally, I lose patience with the “longing glances” and “deep kisses” but Adrienne and Thatcher felt like real people, with legitimate internal monologues. They said and felt things, though trite at times, that remained relevant to their development as characters, but also acknowledged the reader’s skepticism.

The Blue Bistro is a great summer read. Very little commitment required, an easy story – but not peripheral either. Hildebrand balances frivolity with depth to create a unique combination, perfect for an afternoon at the pool. Weather permitting, of course…

According to Technorati, 95% of blogs are abandoned

have you ever wanted to quit your blog

A 2009 New York Times article, “Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest,” recounted the experiences of a few ambitious writers who started, then stopped, blogs of varying success during the early 2000s. Journalist Douglas Quenqua explains that “According to a 2008 survey by Technorati, which runs a search engine for blogs, only 7.4 million out of the 133 million blogs the company tracks had been updated in the past 120 days. That translates to 95 percent of blogs being essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream — or at least an ambition — unfulfilled.”

Why am I bringing up such sad statistics? Because I’m experiencing a few growing pains. I haven’t completely lost interest in my own blog, but I have recently had more than just a few moments of fading inspiration. And, I must admit, that I’ve fallen into the stats trap; I monitor the number of views far more often than necessary. It’s quite easy to become preoccupied with page views, rather than the act of reading itself. Perhaps The Literary Lollipop has served its purpose, helping me ease out of my academic malaise after finishing school. But, now I feel (slightly) burdened by this thing, this little slice of the internet all my own, and sometimes I struggle to meet my own expectations. It’s my fault, really. I’ve burdened myself. I think I take it too seriously, like I do everything else. Eye roll. Oy vey.

Sometimes I write and blog when I have nothing to say, which is where the lack of motivation becomes a problem. If I don’t feel connected to the material, how can I expect you, the readers, to connect to the material? Although I’ve managed to stay fairly consistent, in terms of blog presence and posts, the last year has been a wishy-washy, iffy experience. For some reason, I’ve assigned myself the task of publishing a specific amount of posts per month, in accordance with blogging advice circa 2001. I find it hard to just leave it alone. I’m not blogging for a profit, that’s for certain. Most of us book bloggers don’t make any money. (Those of you who do, congratulations!) We enjoy reading, and want to share our enthusiasm with others for the heck of it. So, when did the self-imposed rules come into play? “I must publish 2-3 times per week. I must get X amount of views per month.” Yadda, yadda, yadda.

And yet, the prospect of abandoning a four-year-old blog is a disappointing thought. I’ve published over 500 posts, and I’ve enjoyed sharing some short fiction and film reviews along the way. Not to mention, the community is super nice and welcoming. There were times when I allowed 3-4 weeks to lapse without a post, but I always returned. I suppose that’s the beauty of this medium. It can fade on and off our radar, and will always be accessible when we feel compelled to join the conversation again.

Not long ago, I lamented that a few of my favourite book bloggers had fallen off the grid. Some have migrated to other forms of social media, while others have simply tired of or lost interest in the subject matter. Or, more likely, people’s lives have become busy, and a blog isn’t always at the top of the priority list. Completely understandable, of course. Sadly, I am beginning to feel the same way.

Unfortunately, I can’t help but notice that the community of which I spoke above is shrinking somewhat. Bloggers are falling off the radar permanently, perhaps because the tool doesn’t seem as relevant as it once was, or maybe because the investment of time and effort doesn’t always match our envisioned results. Or, more simply, maybe they have lost interest or become bored. Either way, I’m sensing a minor exodus taking place, and not just in the book blogging community, but the entire blogging community in general. Am I delusional, or have you noticed this as well?

Why do you keep blogging? Have you ever wanted to quit? What keeps you going? Has blogging changed your approach to reading?

Watermelon by Marian Keyes

Watermelon Marian KeyesJune! It’s officially time for beach reading! I was in the mood for something fun, frivolous, and – gasp! – romantic. This is a first. Rarely do I actually seek out a romantic book. In other words, a rom-com. Most of the time, I have a tendency to gravitate toward mysteries or melodramatic thrillers or a popular young adult trilogy. Not this time.

After testing out Marian Keyes’ Saved by Cake last year, I decided to try one of her novels and, coincidentally and unintentionally, read her debut, Watermelon. It is the book that introduced readers to the Walsh family for the very first time, a gaggle of rambunctious sisters and their quirky parents from Dublin. The story is narrated by Claire Webster, a hysterically funny woman, who is deserted by her husband, James, for another woman, the very day she gives birth to their daughter, Kate. Got that? I think I tried to put too much information in that one sentence. Oh, well. Moving on…

Completely blindsided by the news, she leaves London to spend her maternity leave with her family in Ireland. (Spoilers ahead.)

Once in Dublin, she curls up into a ball and, in between baby bottle sessions, chugs vodka, wine, and any other alcoholic substance she can get her hands on. Needless to say, she’s heartbroken and has completely lost faith in her abilities as a wife and mother. Slowly, with the help of her crazy and uniquely supportive family, she pulls herself together, digs herself out of the depressive hole into which she’s fallen, and learns to take good care of her daughter.

While she goes through this difficult process, she meets Adam, an abnormally hunky man who, for a reason that Claire cannot comprehend, is clearly attracted to her. He’s too good looking, too tall, too understanding and patient, too kind, too good to be true. And yet, she can’t help herself; neither can he. Soon, after much flirtation and adorable conversation, the two find themselves in a unique situation.

Unfortunately, two months later, the douchey James decides to return, manipulate Claire into believing her own behavior was the cause of his affair, which she (shockingly) believes momentarily. It takes the Jaws of Life to extricate herself from her husband of five years, who can’t understand why she won’t give him a second chance. Thankfully, she realizes her mistake, tells him to jump off a bridge, and welcomes Adam into her life. This part is all very cute and happily-ever-after, and totally unrealistic, but who cares? It’s entertaining.

Watermelon was sincerely enjoyable. Keyes is exceptionally funny, and her characters are incredibly well drawn. They are human, susceptible to manipulation, but also thoughtful and insightful, capable of changing their lives for the better. And the dialogue! Pitch perfect!

My only critique is that Watermelon, at 520 pages, was too long. Details upon details upon details upon details, all of which weren’t absolutely necessary to the story. There were more one-sentence paragraphs than I could count. Every random thought, for some reason, deserved its own paragraph. Still, length aside, I was immensely captivated by the characters, and I will definitely be visiting the Walsh family again in the future!

“Don’t read too fast,” she said.

a moveable feast

A Moveable Feast is my very first Hemingway. When the edition I ordered arrived, I inspected the author photograph on the front (a 1923 passport picture) and back cover. I immediately loved his little half-grin, his crooked I-don’t-know-if-I-want-to-smile smile. The slight upturn of mouth never changed. As a young, swaggering, macho man, and as an older, bearded, Nobel Prize winner, that cute, smirky smile remained. And it is with this observation in mind that I opened my restored edition of A Moveable Feast to the very first page.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Hemingway, but all of the reviews on Goodreads for this Paris memoir were positively glowing, so I was eager to get started. Like Julia Child’s autobiography, My Life in France, the adjectives that came to mind about Hemingway: adorable, funny, observant. I loved reading his little conversations with Sylvia Beach, owner of the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. She’s constantly asking him if he’s eaten enough, and offering to lend him books, even though he couldn’t afford the library membership fee.

I started with Turgenev and took the two volumes of A Sportsman’s Sketches and an early book of D.H. Lawrence, I think it was Sons and Lovers, and Sylvia told me to take more books if I wanted. I chose the Constance Garnette edition of War and Peace, and The Gambler and Other Stories by Dosteyevsky.

“You won’t be back very soon if you read all that,” Sylvia said.

“I’ll be by to pay,” I said. “I have some money in the flat.”

“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “You pay whenever it’s convenient.” (32)

For some reason, Hemingway reminds me of a little boy. Despite his excessive machismo, there’s something sweet and naïve about him, like a child. He has gravitas, no doubt, but that little smirk reminds me that the uncertain writer, who didn’t know how he would ever make a living selling his short stories, never really went away.

In addition to his sporadic encounters with Sylvia Beach, Hemingway was a frequent visitor of Gertrude Stein. If you’ve seen Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, you’ll remember that her apartment was the hub of much creative buzz – poets, writers, and artists alike. She often served as a sounding board for their percolating ideas and works-in-progress. Although Hemingway alluded to some unfair tit-for-tat deals between literary critics, I still got the impression he respected her opinion and enjoyed her company.

The picture of Paris that Hemingway paints is both typical and unusual. He conveys the ugly and the petty, but also the delicious and beautiful elements. Due to extreme poverty, he often spends much of his time walking through nature, far away from the restaurants (so he wouldn’t be tempted by the odor of freshly baked bread). This perspective offered an interesting balance between the romantic notions of Paris, which are usually unrealistic, with the reality of daily life, and rigors of productivity.

A Moveable Feast was a great introduction to Hemingway. He’s got a great sense of humor and, although the machismo can be distracting at times, his prose style agrees with me. Any suggestions for further reading of this icon of literature?

Balenciaga: Master of Us All

Balenciaga

It would be a shame to end May in France without talking a little about fashion. Although I would hardly consider myself an expert, and I’ve never purchased anything, ever from a design house like Balenciaga, I do read Vogue once in a while. And, I am a girl. At the risk of admitting to a gender stereotype, a great handbag or a fabulous pair of shoes has the capacity to put a smile on my face. Sometimes I’ll stare wistfully at the display window of Michael Kors and BCBG Max Azria. Anyhow, budget usually renders my involvement in high fashion to a reasonably priced bottle of perfume, or perhaps a fancy tube of mascara. (For a mere $100, you too can experience Dior or Chloé!)

You might be wondering: “Balenciaga is Spanish. Why feature this designer during May in France?” Well, it appears that Balenciaga developed a very unique relationship with his Paris audience. His show room on Avenue George V was a hub of style, though subtly and sparsely decorated. Biographer Mary Blume extensively interviewed Florette Chelot, Balenciaga’s first employee, to provide the skeleton of her story. It is these interviews that informed the bulk of Blume’s research.

Unfortunately, as beautiful as Balenciaga’s work is, Blume’s biography is not very thorough. This, of course, is not really her fault, because he was exceptionally, famously private, which makes compiling a biography, one might imagine, very difficult. She says so much in the prologue:

Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) was considered the greatest couturier of his time: in the words of Christian Dior, “the master of us all.” But the man himself remains mysterious, though private is perhaps the word he would have preferred. “Do not waste yourself in society,” he told his friend the fabric designer Gustav Zumsteg, and followed his own advice. Two of the things about him that one can state with absolute certainty are that he had sinus trouble and he loved to ski. (3)

Blume spends a great deal of time explaining the social and cultural climate of Spain and France from the early 1900s through World War II; relevant, I’m sure, and quite captivating, but not especially a good use of space in a 209-page book. In her defense, there are many useful and illustrative pictures of Balenciaga’s genius. The colour inset has a great close-up of some intricate embroidery. It’s hard to ignore the quality craftsmanship and artistry.

Also, I found it difficult to follow the cast of characters: investors, customers, suppliers, family and significant others, important politicians and socialites, employees, favourite models. Before you finished one sentence about the husband of one “vendeuse,” Blume was already referencing the colleague of another. Granted, it’s difficult to create a consistent story and timeline out of vignettes, but that is what Blume had to do, which makes the reading experience somewhat spastic and messy.

Regardless, Master of Us All was fun and educational. I knew nothing of the couturier business, so my eyes were sufficiently opened to the subtle dance and choreography that’s involved with dressing some of the world’s most sought after celebrities, socialites, and royalty.  I found some vintage footage of Balenciaga’s Paris show to give you an idea for the silhouette. His pieces are incredibly smart and tailored. (This book also provided some interesting background on Madeleine Vionnet, a contemporary of Balenciaga, who is credited with inventing the bias cut. I look forward to learning more about her in the future.)

If you could afford a piece from any designer, who and what would you choose? 

My Paris Kitchen (and other French food)

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Although I had every intention of trying more recipes from My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz, it didn’t quite turn out that way. Regardless, I did tackle one time consuming recipe: the Butternut Squash Crumble. It took approximately one hour to peel and dice four pounds of butternut squash, and another hour to pre-cook and brown the squash, and eventually bake the full dish. I was definitely prepared to invest time and effort into this dish, but I was surprised by the vast volume of chopping. I was chopping for so long that the index finger on my right hand ended up with a blister.

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Despite the extensive and somewhat painful labor, the meal was absolutely delicious. The crumble topping, which called for Parmesan cheese, butter, egg, bread crumbs, corn meal, and some aromatic herbs, was a rounding success. The taste was rich and exquisite.

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There’s a great, educational segment in My Paris Kitchen that explains how to put a cheese plate together, so I experimented with Brie, which turned out to be absolutely delicious. (It seems, to me, impossible to mess up Brie, but I digress). I ate a few slices on crackers, and melted some into an omelet. Two thumbs, way up.

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My Paris Kitchen has a wonderful selection of recipes and I look forward to trying more. It is full of autobiographical vignettes and essays, alongside relevant tutorials, which made this title much more than a traditional cookbook. I hope to attempt the green lentil salad and Caramel mousse very soon.

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Over the past month, as promised, I experimented with a couple of different French wines. The first was a wonderful Bordeaux, the perfect white wine for warm weather. Keep in mind that I know nothing about wine, and that I usually choose a bottle because the label is pretty, but I was pleasantly surprised by the light taste.

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The Louis Latour Chardonnay, however, was definitely not for me. It was too strong, like vinegar, and generally unpleasant. Minus one glass, my mother inherited the remaining nearly-full bottle. She liked it, though, so it’s a happy ending after all.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tender is the Night

I didn’t plan on reading Tender is the Night. It was sitting on my shelf and, while absentmindedly perusing the first page, I suddenly realized it took place in the French Riviera. Although the characters are of the jet-set kind, spending winters in Switzerland and a few weeks in Italy, the majority of this novel takes place in France: Paris, Cannes, and various towns across the South coast. Although my edition is not the one pictured here – my copy was a less expensive, poorly edited Wordsworth Classics version from 1995 – I preferred the gorgeous cover to express the absolute luxury of the setting.

On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half-way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach. Lately it has become a summer resort of notable and fashionable people; a decade ago it was almost deserted after its English clientele went north in April. Now, many bungalows cluster near it, but when this story begins only the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water-lilies among the massed pines between Gausse’s Hôtel des Étrangers and Cannes, five miles away. (1)

I enjoy F. Scott Fitzgerald, but it has been a long while since I’ve read anything he wrote. Like everyone else, I read The Great Gatsby, which is wonderfully tragic, but Tender is the Night has an equally melodramatic reputation. Apparently, he drew from experience, and looked to his own marriage for inspiration, and his wife’s diagnosed psychological issues.

Unfortunately, the story lacked something. I’m unable to put my finger on the exact element this novel appeared to be missing, but I couldn’t quite sink my teeth into the plot, which straggled and left me hanging at odd moments. However, there were a handful of quotables that jumped right off the page, and inspired me to grab a highlighter and anoint a few lines with florescent green marker. For example, a few lovely sentences from chapter eight:

Rosemary shed tears again when she heard of the mishap – altogether it had been a very watery day, but she felt that she had learned something, though exactly what it was she did not know. Later she remembered all the hours of the afternoon as happy – one of those uneventful times that seem at the moment only a link between past and future pleasure but turn out to have been the pleasure itself. (50)

Truer words have never been spoken. And yet, Rosemary Hoyt, the character who introduces us to the beautiful couple, Nicole and Dick Diver, doesn’t have a clue. She’s vacant, flaky, and attached at the hip to her mother, which makes the observations inspired by her experiences a little flat. Arresting, but flat in effect.

Nicole, on the other hand, who is annoyingly dismissed as crazy, is the only person in this novel who expands the story beyond the face value of wealth, luxury, and privilege. Dick is the perplexing one. I’m not quite sure if we’re supposed to have sympathy for him, because he is apparently saddled with a loose-cannon wife, a childish woman who requires constant supervision. Are we supposed to feel as trapped as he does? I didn’t. He was constantly reaching for romance and “love” but he’s just as disconnected as his wife, perhaps even more, because nothing really works for him. The novelty and glitter of new experience eventually fades and he has to come up with some new distraction, and he has all his marbles.

I also wonder what the reader is supposed to deduce from Nicole’s unusual past. Is the incestuous relationship with her father the symptom of her malady, or the result of the trauma? It’s difficult to tell, because the incident is related with so little background information, it’s hard to develop an adequate interpretation. I would be inclined to see Nicole’s schizophrenia as the result of her father’s inappropriate behavior. Unlike Dick, I think we should give Nicole the benefit of the doubt, and truly hear the words coming out of her mouth.

Have you read Tender is the Night? What did you think of the Diver marriage?