Remembering another Miss Austin

No, not Austen. And not Jane. But they have books and writing in common.

It was a verdant Central Pennsylvania summer, and I was in my last term, anxious for graduation. Summer terms were rapid-fire in those days, eight weeks as opposed to the usual ten. Classes met four times a week and, as I recall, were about half an hour longer than during the regular academic year. In retrospect, a truncated term probably wasn’t the best to take on the Victorian novel. None of the stars of the period could be considered an easy or quick read, and coupled with my other classes, I easily had about 300 pages of reading a night. I won’t swear that I read every single page for my other classes, but I didn’t miss a single word of the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, and—of course—Charles Dickens.

Deborah Austin was a Kathryn Hepburn type with a sturdy Yankee demeanor and sparkling eyes. She pulled her salt-and-pepper hair back in a twist, always with a few stray strands framing her face. She was born in Boston (like me!) and raised in  Maine, not  far from the tiny paper mill town where my father grew up. I suppose I loved her even more for that, and for that sweet whisper of Maine in her voice… not an accent, mind you, just a whisper. I could have listened to her all day long. My experience in her class shaped my reading habits forever. I learned to love, appreciate, prefer a believable, gimmick-free story masterfully told, with complicated characters, complex relationships, and revealing dialogue.

Miss Austin* was an accomplished poet whose work appeared in such worthy publications as The Atlantic Monthly and the collection The Paradise of the WorldOne of my great regrets is that I didn’t get to know her better. We had several spirited conversations about Dickens and our dogs when the term ended, but then, like hundreds of her other students, I graduated and went on to my grown-up life elsewhere. I wish I’d kept in touch.

Miss Austin loved Dickens and taught me to love him, too. Not necessarily more than Hardy, Eliot, or the others, but for his own sake and in his own right as a master storyteller. To this day I haven’t found any description to equal the aborted wedding celebration scene in Great Expectations, the heart-rending exchange between the dying Paul Dombey and his sister Floy  (which is reported to have set all of England weeping), or, of course, the lasting lessons of A Christmas Carol.

I don’t know what kids in college read today, but I do know that there are plenty of good lessons about right and wrong and managing the ebb and flow of life in the thousands of pages that Dickens turned out during the course of his writing career. If you’re casting about for something to read, I highly recommend almost anything in the Charles Dickens oeuvre.

*At my alma mater, it was considered gauche to refer to those along the “professor” continuum as anything but Mr., Mrs., or Miss, and Ms. hadn’t come along yet.

Cover photo:  Old Main lawn, Penn State iGEM 2008 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The books I keep

Whereas buying a book now and then requires minimal space—I can always accommodate another book on my nightstand or the coffee table if need be—the haul from the thrice yearly book sales is another matter.

To be sure that I have sufficient space for half a dozen or so treasures, I’ve adopted the ritual of deep-cleaning and “editing” the bookcase before each sale, in February, June, and October. It works out rather nicely. The books I’m ready to part with go into the donate bag, those I want to share go to family, friends, or neighbors, and those I keep are lovingly dusted and restored to their home on my shelves.

I know people who never hold on to books. I know people who only buy used books. I know people who don’t buy them at all. Either they’ve gone totally electronic, or they rely on the library. Which is fine. But I still buy “real” books, and I still keep them. Among them are a few childhood favorites, my Rockwell Kent-illustrated Shakespeare, and two of my mother’s treasures—a gilt-edged edition of Webster’s and a Metropolitan Opera Guide from many, many moons ago. The only college text I’ve held on to is the expansive English Romantic Writers. What can I say? Every now and then, I need a dose of Wordsworth.

There are several reasons why I continue to buy “real” books. One is the pure joy of browsing through a bookstore.  We don’t have any really good “indies” around here, but when we travel north or south, bookstores are always on the agenda. At home, I rely on Amazon and our local Barnes & Noble. Another is that a book you love becomes part of you in ways that only a committed reader can understand. A third is that I like to support the writers I love, the writers who consistently show up in my pre-release queue. They represent a mix of genres, for sure: Andrea Camelleri, Louise Penny, Richard RussoDonna Leon, Alan Furst, David McCulloughMonica Wood, Frances Mayes, Gail Godwin, MFK FisherDoris Kearns Goodwin, Pat Conroy, and, of course, the inimitable Adriana Trigiani.

If you’re a reader, chances are, like me, you check out the bookshelves when you visit a home for the first time.  “You love Paris, too! Who knew?” Our book choices, at least the ones we choose to display, are revealing in so many ways.  For instance, have a look at some of my  keepers:


I love reading about France and food.


Mysteries and Annie Lamott.


My daughter introduced me to this series, set in Sicily, that was also adapted for television. Commissario Montalbano is irresistible in either version.


Perennial favorites.

Au revoir, Monsieur Mayle

I teared up, almost as if I’d lost a friend, when I saw that Peter Mayle had passed.  After all, he had given me Provence—first on the printed pages of his charming, insightful trilogy—A Year in Provence, Encore Provence, Toujours Provence—and thereafter the engaging, lighthearted novels he set there, irresistible confections all. Hotel Pastis and A Good Year were my personal favorites.

When we traveled in Provence, I confess to looking for Peter Mayle on the cobbled streets of Menerbes and Lourmarin and Gordes. There were no sightings, but I have seen many online comments from folks who did run into him there, and found him ever gracious and engaging. I hoped they thanked him for all the pleasure his pen provided; I surely would have.

If you haven’t read A Year in Provence, please do, then watch the British TV adaptation with the great John Thaw, whom you might know as the original Inspector Morse, as Peter, and Lindsay Duncan as his wife.



January reads

January is that metaphorical new broom that sweeps clean. I like to start out the new year re-establishing routines, tackling those niggling little tasks that typically fall by the wayside, and trying to get back to my happy places, chief among them my reading time. After what I like to refer to as my “medical adventure” in the fall, and the marathon of holiday preparation that came swiftly on its heels, I’d gotten out of the  reading  habit. Although most of us reach this point now and then, my barren period had passed the two-month mark and was really driving me crazy.

I thought I’d have plenty of time for recuperative reading and had a stack of books at the ready. Best-laid plans. While I managed work responsibilities without a problem,  I just couldn’t read for pleasure. Meanwhile, those books on the nightstand sat there, glowering at me. Even worse, I’d failed my Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge after overachieving the year before. In retrospect, I fully acknowledge how silly and self-absorbed it was to  even think that my Goodsreads 2017 Reading Challenge mattered. Still, like book club (at which I fail repeatedly because I’m usually too stubborn to abandon my queue for the monthly selection), it was a motivator.

My neighbor, thank goodness, hauled me back from the abyss with a Christmas goodie bag containing  a hardbound copy of Fredrik Backman’s illustrated short story, “The Deal of a Lifetime.” I read it start-to-finish on New Year’s Day, which admittedly took only about 20 minutes, and thus started 2018 off in the right direction, the nasty dry spell broken.

Triumphant, I attacked the stack on the nightstand, barreling first through Glass Houses, Louise Penny’s latest installment in the Inspector Gamache series. If you love mysteries with a sense of place and can tolerate more than a little of the “dark side,” try this series set in the quirky village of Three Pines, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships outside of Montreal.

Next on my list, a gift from my BFF, was David Lebovitz’s L’Appart, a nearly unbelievable (but how could he possibly have made it up?) recounting of his experience buying and renovating a Paris apartment. Although not without its funny moments, it’s one of those “welcome to my nightmare” stories that makes any other renovation project seem like a walk in the Parc Monceau. It’s also full of fascinating perceptions of life, language, and culture in the City of Light. Lebovitz, who has a popular blog, has penned several cookbooks and was once a pastry chef at Alice Waters’ Chef Pannise. Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen, another wonderful gift from my BFF, has taken on a whole new meaning since I found out how much he suffered to get that kitchen.

Then I picked up Elizabeth Strout’s magnificent My Name is Lucy Barton. Oh, how I loved it! Spare, honest, poetic, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize—I could go on and on and on. A perfect rendering of a mother-daughter relationship and all of the complexities contained therein. Read entirely in one sitting, early last Saturday morning. Note: Ugly cry guaranteed.

It’s now January 15, I’m four books up on my reading challenge, and well into my fifth—Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns’ 1984 novel about a family in a rural Georgia town in the first decades of the 20th Century. It was a thoughtful gift from my cousin Dorothy, who loves it and wants me to love it, too. So far, so good.

What is everyone else reading to start the New Year???









Open concept

If you’re anything like me, you fairly gag at the monotonous “one script is all” banter that occurs on House Hunters and all of its variations:

“It’s a good size.”
“I love the granite counter tops.”
“It’s pretty small for a master.” (What would you expect in a house built in 1920, folks?)
“This would fit my furniture.” (One of the most offensive and awkward misconstructions I have ever heard. The furniture fits into the room, House Hunters, not vice versa.)
“I could see myself sitting here, having coffee.”
“This would be great for entertaining.”

“I wanted open concept.” 

It’s the last that’s on my mind right now, as I sit here surrounded by a pre-holiday mess. “Open concept” is an invention of the last 30 years. There was virtually no “open concept” until roughly the last decade of the 20th Century. The point was to HIDE the mess in the kitchen. And for the cook to be able to concentrate while making the soufflé or Beef Wellington—or tuna noodle casserole, for that matter—without the distractions of a blaring television or bickering siblings.

Now, everyone on House Hunters, and, apparently, everywhere else, prefers not to be isolated from the rest of the household while working in the kitchen. That’s a nice idea in theory; it’s true that an open concept living area allows you to keep an eye on the kids, participate in family discussions, and enjoy your guests. But unless you are one of those people who thinks the only real dream kitchen is an unused one,  an “open concept” living area also means a mess for all to see. And while the perfume of bread in the oven may be pleasant and comforting, it is not necessarily pleasant or comforting to get a whiff of the sausage and peppers—or worse, fish—that you made for dinner when you’ve settled down for the evening in the den. Trust me—you can’t open a window when it’s 20 degrees, and the fan on full force and the candles don’t always do the trick.

I like living on one floor. I really do. And I love my house. But do not expect to see kitchen counters cleared of clutter and punctuated with fascinating decorative items à la Joanna Gaines (of whom, incidentally, I’m a committed fan). That’s fine for people who don’t really cook in a big way. And since Christmas is an especially messy time of year, you will at any given time this week find, in our lovely little home, not only a floury mess in the kitchen, but also a tangle of gift wrapping in progress on the dining room table—wide open to all who cross the threshold. Some time between now and Christmas Eve, all will be put in order. But until then, let’s just say we have that “lived in” look, right out there in the open.

PS That’s Adriana Trigiani’s delightful new edition of Cooking with My Sisters in the photo above.. The stories are wonderful, as you would expect.

Christmas in black and white

You’ve heard my prattle about Hallmark Christmas movies. Except for mentioning that The Christmas Train is head and shoulders above all the rest and my absolute favorite so far this season, I’ll leave you to chat about Hallmark movies amongst yourselves. This post, instead, is about their worthy ancestor of an entirely different ilk, our favorite black-and-white movies from the 1940s.

Most of us know and love It’s a Wonderful Life, and it’s certainly on our list. But there are some lesser known gems that you might really enjoy if you give them a chance. I’ve heard many folks say they can’t watch anything past the opening and closing scenes of The Wizard of Oz in black and white. That’s their loss, as far as I’m concerned. I will say, however, that to enjoy these movies, you must  1) stop wishing for color*; 2) understand and appreciate that most of these films have a point of view that is clearly traditional and religious, 3) accept that they reflect the social conventions, among them misconceptions and narrowness, of their time, and 4) of course, suspend your disbelief.

Just as an aside, note that many of the holiday flicks we consider “classic” today are funny, and centered largely on Santa Claus and family shenanigans. Don’t misconstrue—we love the lot:  A Christmas Story, Elf, Tim Allen’s reluctant Santa Claus, Fred Claus and his highly dysfunctional family , and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, of course, as much as anyone. Belly laughs are good medicine for holiday frenzy.  But the ones on our list, even the funny ones, are far more subtle. We watch them every year, sometimes more than once. (And just to squash any ideas to the contrary, most of these were released before I was born.)

It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey, Clarence, and the rest of the entourage do not need a plug from me. Director Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece about a man lifted out of despair by an unlikely angel.

The Bishop’s Wife. David Niven as a depressed bishop, Loretta Young as the wife who struggles to cheer him, and Cary Grant as the angel who fixes it all. Directed by Henry Koster and released in 1947.

The Shop Around the Corner,  Director Ernst Lubitsch’s utterly charming Christmas-in-Budapest tale, released in 1940, that was Nora Ephron’s inspiration for You’ve Got Mail. Jimmy Stewart strikes gold again, this time with Margaret Sullivan. Fun hint: You’ll remember “Mr. Matuschek” from “behind the curtain” in another classic film.

The Man Who Came to Dinner. The token crazy farce on the list, featuring the pedantic, obnoxious Sheridan Whiteside and his band of nutcase friends, admirers, artifacts, and penguins. A fabulous cast including Monty Woolley, Betty Davis, Ann Sheridan, Billie Burke, Jimmy Durante., directed by William Keighley and released in 1942.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue. English majors may remember James M. Barrie’s play, The Admirable Crighton, in which the servants reverse roles with their masters after a shipwreck. This movie always reminds me of that play, except that it’s the homeless, and particularly homeless veterans returning from the war, who are taking over the estate. Released in 1947 and directed by Roy del Ruth.

Christmas in Connecticut. Barbara Stanwyck as a Martha Stewart type, except that… well, I won’t give it away. Enjoy. Directed by Peter Godfrey and released in 1945. (Just make sure you don’t get the 1990s remake by mistake, with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson, which surely falls into my “worst of all time” collection.)

Miracle on 34th Street. Is he or isn’t he? This is a marvelous movie, even though I always end up hating the mother for being so hide-bound. Maureen O’Hara at her loveliest, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and then child star Natalie Wood. Directed by George Seaton and released in 1947.

Note that these films were all made between 1940 and 1947, and imagine them in that context. Imagine yourself being given respite from keeping a “stiff upper lip” through the constant fear and worry of war on two fronts, or the life-altering changes the war brought to so many.  I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons we love them so much.

*Don’t succumb to colorized versions if you download any of these movies or buy the DVDs. They are so much better in their original form.

Photo: Vieux Québec—the old city—during the carnaval d’hiver.




Hallmark movies, redux

Just in case you didn’t hear the news, Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” is once again upon us. Be still, my heart! Thirty-three new Hallmark Christmas movies plus, no doubt, innumerable repeats, will begin October 28, three days before Halloween. In one of my first blog posts last January, I wrote without shame about my attachment to these bits of holiday fluff. Once I came out of the Hallmark Christmas movie closet, many others owned up, including some of my most “cultivated” acquaintances.

Post-Christmas, I watched with amused interest as Hallmark aired first its winter-themed flicks, then Valentine’s Day, then spring, then June weddings, then summer, then autumn-in-wherever. I’ve seen my fair share of these non-Christmas movies and found most of them to be so bad, actually, that they’re good. Good enough to provide amusement that requires absolutely nothing of you. Good enough to iron by. And especially good if you join in one of my Hallmark games. Want to play? Try these:

The where-was-it-shot game. Many movies set in a particular place aren’t actually shot there, for reasons that are mostly economic. Betcha didn’t know that the interiors in  Moonstruck—maybe my favorite movie of all time—were shot in Toronto. But while in first-rate productions such scenes would be undetectable, Hallmark substitutions are way too easy to spot. You might see a flyover opening shot that establishes a location (Seattle’s space needle or a Manhattan skyline, for example), but that’s where the authenticity ends. Point in fact: There are no mountains in Bucks County,  and almost nothing in that dog show movie looks like New York, probably because it’s Vancouver. Vermont is not flat. That New Jersey bakery is really in Bucharest (which is probably why one customer’s feigned New Jersey accent was so dreadful).

The find-the-mistake game. Whoops! Snow on the ground and summer-fresh green leaves in the background! Please, Hallmark, don’t ask us to suspend our disbelief that much. No snow in December in Garland, Alaska? Or how about this—big-time marketing executive needs to come up with a holiday marketing plan for a corporate client, with only three weeks left before Christmas. I don’t think so.

The find-the-worst hair game. Hasn’t anyone at Hallmark figured out that HDTV  reveals EVERYTHING? I know full well that wigs are used widely in movies because they save time and forestall bad hair days when the camera’s rolling. I get it. The Downton Abbey ladies we all came to love—and miss every single Sunday, by the way— wore wigs for historical authenticity as well as ease. I get that, too. But some of the Hallmark wigs are so so obvious, and frankly, so dreadful looking, that one wonders why they couldn’t spend a few bucks more to give the real hair. After all, Hallmark owns this high-ratings franchise. And don’t even get me started on the male leads’ hair, some of which is just ridiculous—and far from “manly,” in my estimation—even when it isn’t “supplemented.” Who looks like that???

The switch-the-script game. My BFF says the thing she likes best about these movies is that you can join any one of them at any point in the action and it won’t matter because you always know what happens next. Which, of course, is  comforting in a quaint sort of way. You will find only a handful of plot lines in the entire universe of Hallmark movies, and they are “creatively reused” in each of the seasonal series. The heroine gets grounded in a snowstorm or returns to her home town or goes on a trip and meets up with her high school beau or struggling Christmas tree farmer or errant prince or stalwart widower. A rival of some sort—a conniving female or a really bad ex—gets in the way but is foiled in the end, when love conquers all. Point is–you could take the beginning, middle, or end of any of these movies and drop it into almost any other.

The find-the-familiar-face game. Hallmark seems to deliberately go after former TV stars whose luster has faded—either because they weren’t very good to begin with or because they’ve “aged out.” If you watch enough of these movies, you’ll find yourself muttering, “I know that face…” The late Alan Thicke showed up frequently, usually as a rigid dad with unfair expectations. I’ve spotted Patricia Richardson, the Home Improvement mom, who looked normal (which is to say, her face actually moved) and  turned in an atypically great little performance. Most recently, Hallmark scored a coup reuniting Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner, the bionic heroes of the 1970s, in widely promoted but, sadly, weakly written supporting roles.

The pick-the-worst-painting-in-the-art-show game. You may have noticed that Hallmark movies favor certain professions: struggling/frustrated/underrated/broke chefs, writers, and artists turn up frequently. The artists are always getting ready for a big show. Notice that at the gut-wrenching gallery opening, all of the once or about-to-be famous painter’s  works on display will be utterly dreadful, and not one will be anything like another.

So, all that being said, have I sworn off these featherweight fantasies?

Not on your life.