Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Friday, December 09, 2016

A little Library Haul for the holidays

So, this past weekend, I was able to return the remainder of my three previous takeouts from the library(one had been brought back by my sister the week before) and with the holidays coming up, I thought it best to keep my new selections simple and sweet.

With that in mind, I decided to try a new author, Helen Simonson, and her latest hardcover, The Summer Before the War. The war in question is WWI and our heroine is Beatrice Nash, who moves to the small town of Rye in Sussex, England. Beatrice is to be the new Latin teacher at school but plans to tutor a trio of boys during the summer.

While the local townfolk are less than thrilled about a woman teaching Latin, they are more perturbed by the arrival of Belgian refugees, who are fleeing the growing oppression in Germany that  threatens to cross over more than one border. As Beatrice settles into the routine of Rye life, she finds an unexpected ally in Agatha Kent, a formidable woman in her own right, and is able to offer support to both newcomers and long time residents as the oncoming war changes all of their lives.

I have heard good things about this author(mainly about her debut novel, which I'll get to in a moment) and right now, a good old fashioned read like this sounds picture perfect to me. Most of the reviews that I've read about TSBTW have said that this is an ideal novel for Downton Abbey fans, which means that it should be the right cup of storytelling tea for me:

I do hope that The Summer Before the War is as good as it sounds, so then I will have another new book to enjoy,which I may have to borrow from Book Lender. Helen Simonson's first book is readily available in paperback and that one also takes place in a small English town.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand has the retired widower of the title struggling to get over the recent loss of his brother Bertie and dealing with his callow son Roger, all the while engaging in a friendship with Mrs. Ali, a widow who runs the local food shop.

Their slow yet steady romance raises a few eyebrows and an invitation to an annual dance doesn't go as well as it could. Nonetheless, true love is determined to win the day, not to mention a pair of hearts. This does appear to be a delightful book and I will find a way to read it soon, regardless of how I feel about TSBTW(although I think that I'll like that one as well):

The other book that I took out that day happens to be nonfiction, a memoir to be exact. Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year chronicles the writer's first out of college job at a literary agency in NYC, who happened to have J.D. Salinger on their list of clients.

Salinger himself doesn't make an appearance here, apart from some phone calls and correspondence regarding a book project, but the core of this story is about Rakoff's life and times in that end part of the 1990s as she grows to love books and publishing even more than she already does.

I'm part way through the book at this point and it has a blend of Gilmore Girls meets Mad Men vibe, as Rakoff learns to work in an office that resists any new tech equipment(one of her first duties is to figure out how to use a Dictaphone machine) and handle the quirky attitudes of the other inhabitants of the agency, as well as the pretensions of her boyfriend Don and their social circle in pre-gentrified Brooklyn.

This is a book that moves along as quickly as Lorelai Gilmore's dialogue at times, so I have to force myself to slow down and savor all of the glowing details. Joanna Rakoff has quite the snappy style and I look forward to reading more of her work:

Having two library books(with the promise of another in the future) for the holiday season feels quite right. After all, I do have more of my regular reading to do,including finishing up the final book in my Year with Hemingway series(have a new reading project on deck for next year,will give out details soon!) yet it is nice to add a little literary treat to my daily reads.

As for after the holidays, I do think that library haul posts are going to be a regular feature from now on at LRG. Libraries are part of most of our bookish lives and now that I'm back in that particular book borrowing game, I hope that I can pay back the library love just right:

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Singing the praises of The Queen of the Night

On my last library haul, I picked up a book that I had on hold, The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee, and just this past weekend, I stayed up late and woke up early the next morning to finish reading it.

 Since there was another hold on the book, I wasn't able to renew it again and after turning that last page, I am glad to have returned it in order to let someone else share the glorious experience of this amazing novel.

The leading lady of the story is Lilliet, a famous opera singer in Paris of 1882 who is approached by a writer whose new novel is about to be adapted for the stage. He asks her to take the lead role, which would make this a stand out moment in her career. However, upon reading the book, she realizes that this is a thinly disguised version of her life story and that someone from her past must be setting a trap for her.

To tell anymore than that would only spoil the numerous surprises that Lilliet's tale has in store for you. I've read and heard many wonderful reviews of this book and for once, the hype is true.

This is one of the best books of the year and I'm sorry that I didn't read it sooner in order to put it on my Best of 2016 list. Well, to make up for that, I have put together a playlist of songs that I feel highlight the themes of the book very well. Granted, these are pop songs and the music featured in TQOTN is in the opera category but the same emotional levels can be felt in both genres:

LOVE: Romance is a major part of the book, both the lack of true love and the deep longing that authentic love gives Lilliet and the other characters in her life. At one point in her journey, Lilliet must go through the motions of a love affair with a man she despises, due to his own obsession with her and other forces at work.

To express that false front, Seal's "Kiss from a Rose" is suitable, particularly since the man that she is being made to be seen as his lover is in possession of a iconic piece of jewelry given to Lilliet by the Emperor of France and yes, it is in the shape of a rose:

Lilliet does have a true love, however, a composer who is caught in several entanglements himself that makes it difficult to openly be with her. That bittersweet relationship can be showcased by one of the songs that Whitney Houston performed for The Bodyguard, "Run to You". She is no stranger to running for her life yet taking him along with her proves to be harder than she thought or planned:

FREEDOM: As much as she does want a permanent home, Lilliet often feels more content when finding a way to choose her own fate and that is usually done by shaking off whatever shackles are placed upon her. Kelly Clarkson might not seem operatic but "Miss Independent" does describe our heroine rather well in this department there:

IDENTITY: It's not a spoiler to say that Lilliet is not the real name of our main character and over the course of the story, she changes names and personae with the near ease and grace of X-Men's best known shapeshifter Mystique. Those shifts in identity are at times necessary to her survival but they do take a toll on her there. To channel that struggle, I think Lady Gaga sings it best with "Perfect Illusion":

Well, I hope that my musical picks do the book justice and that anyone out there in need of a gorgeously immersive read will find this book the answer to their prayers.

The Queen of the Night is also out in paperback, so it would make for a great holiday gift(and no, not being paid to say so, just sharing the love).  If you love historical fiction, music or strong female characters, this book is pretty much tailor made for you and worth passing on.

Since any true diva ought to have a closing number, let me add a finale from the Queen of Disco that I sincerely believe Lilliet Berne would appreciate,especially since she always did like the chance to dance:

Monday, December 05, 2016

A trio of tasty TV treats to tide you over this viewing season

With the end of the year approaching, many of our regular shows are going on break and while that's all well and good, there are only so many holiday specials and reruns that one can take during prime time.

So, if you're looking for fresh new shows and are all binged out otherwise, cooking competition series might be your best bet for entertainment here. I know of at least three that have already begun yet you can easily catch up with  them either online or On Demand and all of them are fine fare to relax with during this drought period of TV:

THE GREAT AMERICAN BAKING SHOW: This is the second time that a US version of England's Great British Baking Show has hit our airwaves and I think they've got it right this time, going to ABC instead of back to CBS.

Famed GBBS judge Mary Berry(who is no longer on the UK series) teams up with celebrity pastry chef Johnnie Iuzzini, along with hosts Nia Vadalos and Ian Gomez, to test home chefs on their skills with cookies, cakes and pies.

 The format is much more like the British original than the previous one and the overall atmosphere is as pleasantly enticing as the scent of homemade sweets coming from your grandmother's kitchen:

HOLIDAY BAKING CHAMPIONSHIP: Food Network's seasonal baking shows are always fun but the first is the best.

 This is the third season of this series, which started just before Thanksgiving, and so far, we've seen autumn themed pies, ugly Christmas sweater inspired treats and new takes on the classic Yule long cake.

Judges Duff Goldman(the Ace of Cakes himself),Lorraine Pascale and Nancy Fuller have a nice vibe that reminds me of the old school American Idol panel, with Duff being the Paula Abdul of the bunch. This is a sweet show worth catching up, preferably with a plate of cookies by your side:

TOP CHEF: Believe or not, it's season 14 of Bravo's culinary competition and this time out, we have eight new contenders going up against eight former cheftestants to battle it out, hopefully with a bowl of batter.

The setting here is Charleston, SC and the special guest judge for the season is Graham Elliot(who has done similar duty on the American version of Masterchef). Like most Bravo series, there will be some drama but as always, it's the food that we're here for and this ought to be an entertaining feast for the eyes at the very least:

There are other cooking shows out there, of course, but these three are on my viewing menu for sure and hopefully, we can all actually learn a few cooking tips that might help us out for our holiday meal making. On the other hand, it is nice to have a special dinner that you don't have to clean up after and food shows during this season do give you that gift in abundance:

Friday, December 02, 2016

Inviting a few gal pals over for Jo March's belated birthday party

Earlier this week, it was Louisa May Alcott's birthday and as a lifelong fan of her classic novel, Little Women, I was sorry not to be able to acknowledge that wonderful occasion sooner.

However, as the March family she brought to life on page knows all too well, some pleasures need to be delayed a little bit yet that does not mean they will not be celebrated with more joy later on. To that end, I'm imaging a lovely belated birthday party for one of LMA's most beloved leading ladies, Jo March.

Jo was never one for "fuss and feathers" but she did like to have a good time,especially with good friends. Her feisty nature and literary drive inspired many a budding authoress both in her time and even to this day. No doubt Jo would want to do a dramatic reading or goof around with Laurie at such a party but she would allow her other guests to be just as entertaining to the whole company as well:

A most welcome guest to this party would be Elizabeth Bennet( I am quite sure Miss Austen would be able to spare her from her P&P duties for the occasion).

Elizabeth and Jo do have much in common, both being second eldest sisters in a large family who many consider to be too clever for their own good. However, while Jo would shun snobbish society, Elizabeth manages to be as agreeable as possible while still maintaining her self respect and independent nature. Jo might want to take a few lessons from her on that front:

Some might think that Anne Shirley was a bit young to be attending a party like this but I am certain that Jo would be pleased to have Anne of Green Gables on her guest list.

Such a spirited young girl with a lively imagination as she would get along with Jo and company rather well. I am new to the charms of Anne Shirley myself and find her most charming, despite her flashes of temper, which Jo would easily relate to and offer some advice to her about handling it:

Finally, I do believe that one of the most interesting guests to this particular party would be Hermione Granger, provided she had the proper permission, via owl of course, from Hogwarts to accept the invitation.

No doubt Hermione would be happy to answer any of Jo's questions regarding magic and higher education for females. Granted, some magical secrets she might not be able to reveal yet it would still be a lively conversation.

Hermione's fierce intelligence might cause her hostess to feel slightly ill at ease with envy there but once she learned of the prejudices such a talented young woman with a Muggle background had to deal with at school, Jo would rally to her cause.

If she did see Hermione as a bit too prim and proper for her taste, that notion would be quickly dispelled if a few gate-crashers like Draco Malfoy tried to make their way in:

As we leave such a happy get-together, I do wish Louisa May Alcott a happy belated birthday and a Merry Christmas in advance. Many of us Little Women out there are extra joyous during this time of year, particularly since that wonderful book starts off during that happy holiday and it's a good way to prepare for the challenges that this upcoming new year will bring us:

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A few other superhero team-ups to bring to the CW Superhero Crossover party

This is a big week for fans of the small screen DC superheroes as the CW is airing a set of four crossover episodes with the collective title "Heroes Vs. Aliens".

This tie-in quartet started last night with Supergirl and will pick up this evening with The Flash, followed by Arrow and DC's Legends of Tomorrow.

As someone who watches three out of the four shows(I'm too far behind on Arrow to catch up), this is a whole lot of geeky fun. To further enhance the joy, I've gathered together a few other superhero team-ups from the past to present for your viewing pleasure:

CHALLENGE OF THE SUPER FRIENDS: Out of the three cartoon incarnations of DC's Super Friends(aka The Justice League of America) on ABC's Saturday morning line-up back in the day, this one is definitely my favorite.

Pitting the JLA against their worst enemies united as the Legion of Doom(run by Lex Luthor, of course) was great for all sorts of elaborate schemes and story lines, not to mention introducing a number of lesser known characters to young audiences.

 I first learned about heroes like Black Vulcan and Hawkman on COTSF, along with villains such as Giganta,Cheetah and Gorilla Grodd. Since there may be a Legion of Doom forming on the current series of CW shows, a re-watch might be in order,folks:

WORLD'S FINEST: While many of us were disappointed with a certain big screen match-up between Batman and Superman, there is fortunately a viable alternative, thanks to the folks behind both the Batman and Superman animated series.

This special two part episode can be found on AM:TAS and at first, both of our heroes are less than impressed with each other.

Soon enough,however, they quickly learn to work together to defeat the mutual threat posed by the Joker(with an assist from Lex Luthor) and even get over the potential romantic rivalry over Lois Lane. It's too bad that Hollywood doesn't use the talents of the writers from those series to create better live action versions of these iconic characters:

THE AVENGERS: As DC has been slow to get it's act together on the silver screen,except for Batman,Marvel has been rightfully ruling the roost on that cinematic front. I think it's safe to say that a key gem among their crown jewels was formed by bringing this ultimate team-up to live action life.

It helped greatly that many of the characters were introduced to film fans via their own solo stories before being brought together as one band of brave souls ready to defend the world. Granted, we're still waiting for that Black Widow movie but in the meanwhile, just listening to the assemblage of  Avengers is enough to make even the mightier Big Bad quake in their boots :

MYSTERY MEN: Yes, this rag tag crew from the cult comic book The Flaming Carrot are meant to be a joke but it's one that can still get a few well earned laughs there.

Their 1999 film debut is also a cult favorite and while some of their powers are not quite effective, when they do get together to fight the local bad guys, this motley crew can be a force to reckon with:

This CW crossover event will not be the last, as there is word of a future Supergirl/Flash episode that will be a musical one and with the original Wonder Woman Lynda Carter on board as well! In the meantime, let's enjoy this early Christmas present from the combined forces at work here(DC, The CW and the Joss Whedon of our time, Greg Berlanti) and rejoice in the superhero goodness that will hopefully get through the end of this particular year:

Monday, November 28, 2016

Starting off the Christmas Spirit season right with some Jane Austen mystery treats

While Thanksgiving is considered more of a home bound holiday,even if you're visiting relatives, things can get busy indeed. Between cooking and shopping, the day grows quite hectic at times rather than harmonious.

 Fortunately, I had a lovely distraction in the form of Seasons of Reading's annual Christmas Spirit readathon which allowed me to indulge in a trio of mysteries involving Jane Austen. Granted, I finished two out of the three books that I intended to read but it was still a grand page turning time nonetheless.

The first to be finished was the third book in Stephanie Barron's "Being a Jane Austen mystery" series, Jane and the Wandering Eye. This story finds our Miss Austen in Bath during the Christmas season of 1804. With that city not being a particular favorite of hers, she is happy to accept a commission from Lord Harold Trowbridge(who does a bit of secret service for king and country there) to keep an eye on his niece Lady Desdemona. She has just ended a romance with the unsavory Earl of Swithin and gone to Bath to avoid him all together.

An invite to a masquerade ball makes that promise easy to keep but during the festivities, a murder takes place that implicates Lady D's brother, Simon.

 More than willing to help, Jane risks her safety along with her public reputation(her being seen with Lord Harold gets the gossips talking) but her real risk is keeping her dear sister Cassandra in the dark about what she and Lord Harold are doing.

While I haven't read Barron's series in their proper order just yet, I found this book(as well as Jane and the Waterloo Map, which I read last year) very easy to get into. It does help to have a firm knowledge of Austen's life and times here. During the course of the novel, several real life characters are introduced,with one having a less than happy connection to Thomas Jefferson, and insights into the Austen family are showcased, adding a special bit of extra fictional flavor.

I do intend to read more of this series and this particular entry inspired me to re-watch Northanger Abbey, as it's section in Bath and mysterious plot points were brought to mind, although the Jane of this story is clearly much more worldly than Catherine Morland was:

 Speaking of reading more of the series, I did make a brief start in Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas, which brings us to 1814 and has Jane, Cassandra and their mother making a difficult journey to the house of her brother James for the holidays.

During a roadside incident involving a carriage and the donkey cart that the Austen women are being transported in, Jane makes a new acquaintance who is on his way to The Vyne, the ancestral home of the renowned Chute family. Due to this mishap, Jane is destined to receive an invitation to that household for some much needed fun but a murder is bound to happen before the last day of Yuletide ends.

So far, this book is agreeably charming and I do wonder if some of the carriage trouble described here had a touch of inspiration from another untimely carriage ride for a rather famous Austen heroine:

To round things off, I completed my reread of The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig last night. This particular entry in her Pink Carnation series is meant as a special holiday treat to those who adore the humorous hijnks of a certain supporting character, Reginald "Turnip" Fitzhugh.

While Turnip may not be the cleverest of men, his innate decency and good humor are enough to charm Arabella Dempsey, the new teacher at his sister Sally's school. When the two of them literally run into each other and discover a secret message in a Christmas plum pudding, romantic sparks fly as does an air of intrigue.

 Upon reading this again, I rediscovered the delightful romantic comedy tones of the story(if Blake Edwards was still with us, this would be a fine adaptation for him to film) and found the developing feelings between Arabella and Turnip to be truly heartfelt.

 Jane Austen has a small supporting role here, as an old family friend of Arabella's, and since Willig was inspired by The Watsons, an unfinished work of Austen's, when creating this particular heroine, Jane's presence was fitting indeed.

Having read a couple of the other Pink Carnation books(I so need to catch up!), I was familiar with a few other characters from this world that made their appearances within the story and the author was good enough to add a special section towards the end of the book that explained who they were. All in all, TMOTM is a true seasonal treat that is always in style:

Well, I do feel as if the holiday season has begun and much thanks to Seasons of Reading for giving all of us readers a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle to renew our literary spirits.

Jane Austen has become a source of inspiration for writers and readers alike and as the end of this particular year approaches, it would do us well to take some solace and sensibility from works by her as well as in the spirit of her art.

She may not have written much about the Christmas season yet the themes of family, hope and enduring love that came from her pen do suit this time of year so. Even if Jane is caught up in a mystery or a genre that seems far from home, so to speak, her vibrant spirit offers any muse a good deal of merriment and joy that makes any story a gift to be opened again and again:

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Savoring the funny taste of culinary chaos

As I get ready for Thanksgiving, it occurs to me that one of the most unifying things about that holiday is that just about everyone has a least favorite food that gets served every year.

For some, it might be a vegetable(okay, for a lot of people, it's a vegetable), others may dislike such staples as cranberry sauce, stuffing or a particular flavor of pie. What we need to remember is that your foul dish is likely another person's fabulous treat that they wait all year for.

So, in the flavor profile of this upcoming culinary occasion, I thought it would be fun to look at a few moments in pop culture where off the menu items were featured and not always appreciated. Not all of these are Thanksgiving related but the laughs that come with them are tasty indeed:

STINKY SWEET TREATS: While the ladies on Golden Girls did love their cheesecake, there were many times that they had to snack on dishes that one could literally turn their nose up to.

A memorable late night snack from Rose actually woke the whole household, with her foul smelling krispie squares that actually tasted wonderful as long as you knew the proper way to eat them:

TURKEY NOT FOR ME: A classic episode of Everybody Loves Raymond had mother Marie replacing her beloved traditional Thanksgiving feast with healthier fare, which included making a tofu turkey.

While the fellas in the family were less than thrilled with this flavorless fowl, it was one of the few times that Marie and daughter in law Debra were on the same page, cooking wise that is:

A BLUE SOUP BIRTHDAY: Understandably, the British do not have Thanksgiving yet they are not strangers to festive meals gone awry. One of the best sequences in the movie Bridget Jones' Diary making a royal wreck of a birthday dinner that she's planning to serve her best friends.

Fortunately for her, Mark Darcy shows up and stays as both rescue chef and guest, giving a very good first impression to Bridget's pals. In fact, you could say that the terrible dinner, that consisted of blue soup, omelette and a dessert that resembled orange marmalade in more ways than one, was truly a wonderful celebration. Only true friends(and true loves) would stick around for a miserable meal like that:

A MOUTHFUL OF MARZIPAN: Given the legendary appetites of Lorelai and Rory on Gilmore Girls , you wouldn't think that there was any edible item on earth that either one of them could resist. Yet at times, both mother and daughter could be picky eaters.

A prime example is the one time that Richard and Emily gave them specially made marzipan as a Friday Night Dinner dessert. While Rory was willing to give it a chance, Lorelai considered such a dubious sweet to be on the level of Velveeta(although she did take a bunny shaped piece). In the end, Rory followed suit as her first bite became her last but she wasn't the last one to slip some into a napkin for future disposal:

On that note, I would like to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving(I'll be back here on Cyber Monday) and to remind all of us that Thanksgiving is not really about what you do or don't eat. The real meaning of the holiday is to share a special time with loved ones as a celebration of the good things that we have in life.

Granted, it might be hard to do that during these troubling times but it is when the state of things are in flux that we need to take a moment to embrace our blessings the most. Oh, and don't forget to pass the potatoes or the popcorn, whichever is on your table that night: