Friday Finds: Revisiting Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I am part of the generation that ‘grew up’ with the Harry Potter books. I was roughly the same age as the characters as all of the books came out and remember vividly waiting for the final installments to figure out what happened next. And while the series never meant as much to me as it did to some of my friends (it was a formative series for many people my age), I did really enjoy the books. For years I’ve been curious to revisit them as an adult. I finally took the opportunity and, before embarking on a transatlantic flight, I downloaded a Harry Potter audiobook from the library. I chose the one that I remembered as being my favorite in the series: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. After twelve hours of listening to it on planes, trains and automobiles, in airports and coffeeshops, I can say that it was, frankly, pretty incredible and much better than I even expected.

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Friday Finds: How to Give Up Plastic (Book Review)

One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life is a parrotfish. I was snorkeling with my dad on a vacation in Cozumel (we lived in Texas, so holidays to Mexico were frequent). I remember there weren’t many fish that day, and it was quite sandy where we were – just some tufts of brownish seaweed, a couple of little fish darting here and there. But then I saw him. He was huge, with a multicolored, almost neon, body and bright blue lips, like he’d smeared on some crazy lipstick. He was swimming slowly and I remember just staring at him: he looked hefty and majestic, gliding through the shallow water. I couldn’t believe how colorful he was – how big and strange and serene. If you don’t know what a parrotfish looks like, these are the little fellows I’m talking about:

A photo of a parrotfish, photo credit: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble, accessed via the Wikimedia Commons

Seeing such a majestic fish was amazing but not rare. Off the beaches of Mexico and the Bahamas, in the clear water, I saw fish of all shapes and sizes, living amongst the colorful coral reefs. It was a beautiful place and I definitely took it for granted it multiple ways. I didn’t know that we lived close to some of the best coral reefs in the world, some of the most sought after beaches. And I didn’t know that, by the end of my lifetime (or much sooner than that), those reefs and many of those fish might be gone.

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Friday Finds: Women & Ghosts by Alison Lurie (Book Review)

Truth be told, I picked this book because of the title. I found it at a favorite outdoor bookstall that sometimes pops up in a nearby park during the weekends, which always has good finds! The cover wasn’t anything remarkable, but I was (of course) drawn to the title: Women & Ghosts. Because, quite simply, I enjoy stories about women…and ghosts. I hadn’t heard of American author Alison Lurie at the time but several quotes on the back promised that this short story collection was ‘funny’ and full of ‘cerebral irony’. Since, in my opinion, not enough ‘literary fiction’ leans into humor and I love things that are both beautifully written and funny, I picked it up.

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Friday Finds: The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry (Poetry Review)

I’m not going to lie: I chose this book because I liked the title and the cover. When I spotted the book at my local Oxfam books, I had vaguely heard the name ‘Wendell Berry’, but I was mostly just drawn to the sparse cover image of the cracked, winter branches. I also liked the title-The Peace of Wild Things-the tension there between ‘peace’ and ‘wild’. And even though I’m not a super outdoorsy person I often enjoy poetry that deals directly with nature and the natural world (for example, I love Mary Oliver). So when I read on the back that Berry is considered ‘the poet laureate of America’s heartland’ and writes (according to a quote from The Washington Post) ‘with calm and sanity out of the wilderness’, I was intrigued.

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Friday Finds: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (book review)

Welcome to the first Friday Finds: where I share mostly book recommendations (or recommendations of other cool things I’ve come across). For this week I wanted to chat about American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. This book came out in 2008 and it’s a novel inspired by the life of the former first lady Laura Bush. A friend of mine handed me the book when I visited York recently and while I was initially a bit unsure – I have no particular interest in Laura Bush and I don’t read a lot of political biographies or autobiographies – once I started it, I was totally swept away. It reminded me more of a sweeping 19th century novel – something like Anna Karenina maybe – that encompasses a coming-of-age story, explorations and reflections on love and marriage, a good bit of melodrama and tragedy, a smattering of politics, and a whole lot else in between.

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Madeira Mondays: changes ahead!

Almost two years ago, I sat down to write the first ‘Madeira Mondays’ post. I had just finished my Doctorate of Fine Arts (which was looking at 18th century historical fiction and forgotten women in the early American South), was working on a historical fiction novel, was volunteering as a costumed historical guide…basically my life was: all 18th century, all the time. This blog series was meant to be a fun way to share my research and passion by writing about all the cool (and bizarre) stuff I’d learned about during my PhD. I would share 18th century recipes and strange facts about 18th century underwear! My first post was on one of my favorite novels about this period of early American history: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes.

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Madeira Mondays: Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens (book review)

A few weeks ago, a billionaire went to space in a rocket. I’m really not impressed. What does impress me is the work that scientists and actual astronauts have been doing for years to map the heavens and better understand our place in this vast, incomprehensible universe. On that note, I wanted to recommend a book which I read last summer that combines two interests of mine: history and outer space. It’s a non-fiction book about the first ever global scientific collaboration conducted on Earth, which actually happened in the 18th century!

The book is Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens by Andrea Wulf. It has adventure on the high seas, it has danger, it has rivalries, and best of all it has international cooperation (something that we could use a lot more of these days).

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Madeira Mondays: A Witch in Time by Constance Sayers (Book Review)

This book was such a pleasant surprise! I should say immediately that when I received it as part of my subscription to ‘How Novel’, which sends you a mystery book each month, I was a bit turned off by the ridiculous and goofy title: A Witch in Time.

The UK paperback version of it that I received had a lovely cover with intricate gold designs but the title…my initial reaction was to roll my eyes. I personally struggle with titles so – I get it. Titles are hard. And I know that titles should, ideally, from a marketing perspective, reveal something about the content of the book to those who haven’t read it. But to title a book about a time traveling witch…’A Witch in Time’? It’s actually a little bit insulting to this rather well written, well researched and overall interesting novel – to give it such a goofy title based on a bad pun! I am convinced the author did not pick this silly title!

That being said – I really enjoyed A Witch in Time (arg! I can barely write it!), which tells the story of a woman reincarnated in four different time periods (ranging from the 1890s through to the mid 2000s) and cursed to relive a doomed love affair in each. A lot of the book is about art (we meet several artists, painters, photographers, writers) and also about breaking the (sometime self-destructive) patterns of behavior that we find ourselves in – more on that in a second.

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Madeira Mondays: Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain (Book Review)

‘Imagine/you’ve spent hours walking the mountain/deeper and deeper in/until you’ve come to know its paths/its rocks and burns, its deer trails/as well as you know the surface of the leaf/held all day between finger and thumb’ – from Ben Dorain, ‘Part Five: Colour’

This is an immensely special book. It’s the sort of book where, as I was reading it, I kept putting little sticky notes next to phrases or words I liked – until the pages were too cluttered up with sticky notes and I had to force myself to stop.

Frequently I post on this blog about ‘historical fiction’ i.e. fictional works set in a previous era (usually the 18th century!). This book is not historical fiction per se but it certainly concerns history and approaches history in some pretty unique, challenging and ultimately really fascinating ways. It’s a book of poetry which is at once a loose translation of an 18th century Gaelic poem by Duncan Ban MacIntyre AND an entirely new poem by author Garry MacKenzie. Both poems explore a highland mountain called Ben Dorain, and specifically a herd of deer who live there. Both the old and the new poems are positioned next to each other – side by side – on each page. They intermingle, as past and present often do, into one new whole where, as MacKenzie writes in his introduction, ‘various voices and traditions speak alongside each other.’

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Madeira Mondays: ‘For I will consider my cat, Jeoffry’

‘(Christopher Smart’s) poem about his cat is to all other poems about cats what The Illiad is to all other poems on war.’ – TS Eliot

These days, lots of people post pictures of their pets online. We can see these pictures as little tributes, little celebrations of these animals – their cuteness, their ridiculous quirks, their personalities. Back in 18th century London, Christopher Smart, a ‘mad’ poet living in an insane asylum, wrote a tribute to his feline companion, an orange cat called Jeoffry, in the form a poem. The lines that he wrote about Jeoffry became some of the most famous words ever written about a cat in all of English literature, and over the ages, Jeoffry has become a bit of a literary celebrity.

Oliver Soden’s delightful little gem of a book Jeoffry, The Poet’s Cat: A Biography (2020) imagines the life of Jeoffry the cat himself and his misadventures in Georgian London.

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