Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

In college books were my sanctuary. Specifically books about books spoke to me. When I was lost and unsure of where my life was headed I could turn to stories and escape, and when those stories were about how other people used similar escapist methods I felt at home. 

So I loved Diane Setterfield’s Thirteenth Tale. I adored it. All these years later some of the details are fuzzy but the book still ranks high on my favorites list. 

Of course this meant last year when Setterfield put out Once Upon a River I was ecstatic, and then promptly got distracted by life to read it. Now it is a new year. I am in a new book club, and our first read is….you guessed it! Once Upon a River.

Once Upon a River is a love letter of sorts. It is a letter to the love of stories, and to a lesser degree the myths and fairytales that stay in our hearts long after we hear them. With a large and diverse cast of characters all connected by one mysterious child Setterfield excels at world building. The Thames is a central character here, and the river is always present. 

I will say that while the prose was beautiful and 90% of the characters intriguing Once Upon a River for me was a bit of a dud. I didn’t sign up for a mystery, and the core question of “who is the girl?” that plagues the entire 400+ pages was not my favorite thing. Mostly the mystery girl felt like an unneeded element to tell a story of already connected characters. I will say that the historic elements, the photography, the medicine, and the social conventions were incredibly  interesting. I truly did care about all of the characters. I just didn’t think the central mystery was anything to write home about. 

Though as I prepare for my book club meeting I am getting many messages of joy at the experience that is Once Upon a River. Maybe I’m just a callous reader now, or maybe this wasn’t the right time for me to take this journey down the Thames.

Love Stories and Brownies

I’m a sap. 

This shouldn’t be news if you have been following me for any length of time. I love love in all of its forms. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I send get well cards and just because cards and buy gifts because, hey, this ceramic frog reminded me of you. 

I spend weeks thinking of perfect gifts for friends and family. My boyfriend gets silly gifts and thoughtful gifts and small things just because. 

I go crazy for a good date nights out, date days in, spontaneous adventures with my boyfriend, and girls nights with rom-coms, wine and popcorn. 

I cut my bookish teeth on romance novels. Nicholas Sparks, Danielle Steel, the whole lot. As a 12 year old I would stay up way past my bedtime just so I could read one more chapter. I had a whole bookshelf dedicated to love stories before I hit high school. 

My reading preferences have shifted. I no longer exclusively read sappy love stories into the wee hours of the night. My tastes are more eclectic and I feel like a more well rounded person because of it. 

But there are still days when I crave a good love story. I crave Landon and Jamie, Lizzy and Darcy, Alex and Henry. I want to see love conquer all and for everyone to turn out the better for it. I want to suspend disbelief and read long proclamations of love. 

I want Claire and Jamie beating the odds. I want Henry and Claire. Actually, right now all I want is to sit and watch The Time Traveler’s wife. Audreny Niffeneger is a national treasure. I love her left of normal storylines and fleshed out characters. Her prose is lovely. The fact that she is also involved with paper and book arts in the Chicago area is just a plus. 

Also, I am just now realizing there are a lot of Claire’s in time travel romance novels. Who’d a thunk? 

Anyway, I digress. My point is that on days like today, a holiday dedicated to love I don’t want to sad stories. I want couples that are pulled through time to be together. Couples that were always meant to be. 

Meant to be like me and these brownies. Let me tell you, nothing says romance like gooey chocolate, raspberry truffle frosting, and some extra chocolate drizzle for good measure. I made these for the Boyfriend’s birthday last year and he has been asking for them again every since. 

Ingredients:

1/2 cup butter, cubed

1-1/4 cups semisweet chocolate chips

2 large eggs

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon instant coffee granules

2 tablespoons hot water

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

FILLING:

1 cup (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/3 cup seedless red raspberry jam

GLAZE:

1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1 teaspoon shortening

Steps:

In a microwave, melt butter and chocolate chips; stir until smooth. Cool slightly. In a large bowl, beat eggs and brown sugar until blended. Dissolve coffee granules in water.  Add to egg mixture when cool. Beat in chocolate. Combine flour and baking powder; stir into chocolate mixture just until blended.

Spread in a greased 9-in. square baking pan. Bake at 350° for 35 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

For filling, in a microwave, melt chocolate chips; stir until smooth. Cool. In a small bowl, beat cream cheese and confectioners’ sugar until smooth. Beat in jam; stir in melted chocolate. Spread over cooled brownies.

For glaze, in a microwave, melt chocolate chips and shortening; stir until smooth. Drizzle over filling. Chill before cutting. Store in the refrigerator.

Bookish Travel: Nashville

I had high hopes when I went to Nashville. Mostly these hopes were for sun, but also for finding fun things to do that weren’t solely focused on country music. I was moderately successful. 70 and sunny for the first weekend in February was a definite win for my boyfriend and I. 

Country music…well…there was a lot. I may have a newfound appreciation for honky tonks and Johnny Cash but will probably still steer clear of my local country radio stations. 

Anyway I am here to talk to you about books. Again, Nashville is a great place for literary adventures. Their public library is beautiful, and they have a lovely author festival come the fall. I am sad to have missed the festival but I did get to stop by the library. 

I also dragged my boyfriend across the city to visit Parnassus Books. Owned by none other than Ann Patchett, Parnassus may be my new favorite indie bookstore. Located in a strip mall (that also has a nice donut shop for your flight weariness) Parnasseus screams charm, books, and community. As I browsed a children’s storytime was in progress. Along with sections for best sellers there were also tables for authors who had visited the store, local authors, and of course Ms. Patchett herself.  I left heavy with books, a new tote bag, and an inspiration to read. 

We also took a stop by Third Man Records, primarily a record shop (run and owned by Jack White.) They also now have a literary imprint – Third Man Books. Also their shop is really fun. I recommend both the Nashville and Detroit locations.

While our literary adventures were short, or food adventures were long and beautiful. I will give a quick bookish shoutout to Mockingbird in the Gulch neighborhood for having amazing food and a pun filled menu complete with literary references.  

Other fun experiences that weren’t super literary but would still be worth your time include The Parthenon, The Country Music Hall of Fame, and a tour of the Ryman. We missed a visit to the Tennessee State History Museum, but that just means we will have to go back and enjoy more hot chicken, bar-b-que, and beer!

Review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

I didn’t mean to be gone for a week. Sometimes life happens. Sometimes you go on vacation and come home to find snow, a full mailbox at work, and bad news at your SO’s job. Sometimes the stress that comes with working, taking care of yourself, and being there for your person is too much. That is when things like blogging fall by the wayside. 

I’ll have an update about bookish things to do (and eat) in Nashville later this week, but I thought I would get back to basics with your regularly scheduled Monday review. 

In other news, I saw Madeline Miller this week. Again, post forthcoming, but in preparation I decided to dive further into myth retellings. Having read all of Miller’s work multiple times I jumped a bit outside my comfort zone. 

Several years ago Margaret Atwood took on Penelope’s story. Having never enjoyed Atwood I was skeptical, but a sick day led me to devour The Penelopiad. 

The Penelopiad is more than just The Odyssey from Odyessus’ wife’s perspective. Sure, you get to see the years she was alone on Ithica and her time at her loom, but as readers we also get to experience her cleverness. There is exposition in her early life and insight into her relationship to her cousin, Helen, who’s part in the Trojan war ruined Penelope’s life. What’s more is that this short novella takes place entirely in the underworld. The entire story is told from the end point, death. There is also a greek chorus that is deeply disturbing but very moving. 

Overall if you are a fan of The Odyssey, Mythological retellings, solid female characters, and lots of feelings please check out The Penelopiad.

Beth Henley, Tennessee Williams, and an Updated After School Snack

I spent my formative years in the theater. When I was a kid I hated dance class, gymnastics, softball, soccer. You name it I probably refused to participate. But I loved theater. I spent my middle school years in intense summer camps putting on performances only a parent could love and moved into a performing arts intensive high school. I lived for theater, but really, when I think back on it now I lived for bringing stories to life.

I’ve always loved plays. Sit me down with a script and I can cast the thing in my head and enjoy the next 3 hours sitting front row center of my own drama. In high school on top of my regular Lit classes I found myself in acting, theater history, and a slew of other dramatic classes. We always read through scripts. It was in these classes that I fell in love with Arthur Miller and Shakespeare. It was also here that I first learned of Tennessee Williams, Robert Harling and Beth Henley. 

As I grow older I find myself reminiscing about these days less and less. However we are about to leave for Nashville and all I can think about are the Southern Plays that defined my formative years. 

Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart remains one of my most beloved plays and overall most beloved written works. I read, reread, and memorized the entire play through my four years in high school. I performed in scenes in class and directed a full length production my senior year. While these memories are increasingly in the past, I still look back fondly on the work. I love how Henley’s works deal with love in all of its forms. Crimes of the Heart features family love and romantic love in such a way that it is clear that both are important, different, and necessary for life to have meaning. This isn’t an uncommon theme in Henley’s work and I adore many of her plays. 

In my mind it plays a foil to Steel Magnolias. Love is ever present, but can be full of sorrow. I can’t touch Steel Magnolias as an adult. I don’t need that type of grief in my life, but it is yet another example of a play that I experienced first hand, working performances and memorizing by exposure instead of watching the movie. 

As I have been reminiscing about my love of theater in all of its forms I am reminded of my mom and after school snacks. Her go to when I was young was a tasty rice crispy treat. By the end of first grade I wouldn’t even entertain the store bought variety. The homemade ones were always better and plentiful in my house. 

As all cereal treats are incredibly easy I decided to play around a few summers ago and develop one using some of my favorite flavors- that of a s’more! 

You see, s’mores are delicious, but they are rich and are typically very difficult to make in the winter months when everyone is stuck inside. So I threw together some marshmallows, golden ghrams, and chocolate in the hopes of satisfying my craving for a cold January day.

I am happy to report that I was successful. These may not be the treats I ate after rehearsal, but they are now the ones I bring to parties, dinners with friends, and movie nights. 

Ingredients:
1 box Golden Grahams 

3 tbsp salted butter
1 large bag mini marshmallows (the extra marshmallows really make the recipe. I recommend buying 2 bags if you can’t find the extra large mini marshmallows at your grocery store)

2-3 chocolate bars

Steps:

Grease 9×13 dish. Set aside. 

In a large pot, melt butter and ¾ bag marshmallows together. Once combined with minimal lumps mix in cereal in 3 to 4 batches, taking care not to break the Golden Graham pieces. 

When fully incorporated pour mixture into dish. Coat hands in cooking spray or oil and pat down to an even layer. 

Break chocolate pieces over top of cereal mixture in an even layer, and then coat everything with remaining marshmallows.

Place dish under broiler and watch carefully. Marshmallows will brown quickly and may catch fire if left unattended. 

Remove. Let cool for 2 hours or overnight. Cut into squares and enjoy.  

On Comfort Reading

January is always a weird month at the Woodring Estate. It is cold, but sometimes warm enough to enjoy a long walk with the pup. It is grey. So grey. Michigan is such a grey state in the winter. The sun rarely comes out. This paired with the early sunset makes January one of my least favorite, and most sleepy months. 

You see, I love running around outdoors. I miss my garden and fresh vegetables. This is to say nothing about how my meal planning lacks structure without inspirational visits to the many farmers markets by my house. I miss ice cream and evenings out under the stars. 

Really, I miss being social. January is the one month where all I want to do is sit at home in my comfiest pajamas and pretend the world doesn’t exist. Every other month of the year I want to go out and do things, see people, have fun new experiences. January is difference. It is a time for recover but also a time to sulk and not leave my house. 

This is probably why January always feels so long. In my world, it is kind of like time freezes over for a bit. 

I also find myself craving lighter reads. Ones full of romance or silly dramas. Nothing serious at all. Red, White, and Royal Blue was the perfect start to my year and I have been chasing that high ever since. Unfortunately, I have tried to force myself into Wolf Hall, Starless Sea, and XO Orpheus. All lie forgotten on my kindle. My focus just isn’t there for elaborate stories or complex narratives. I want love and miscommunication and a make up scene that makes my eyes well up. 

For a few years I would read installments of the Anna and the French Kiss series over the winter. Isla’s book particularly hits me right in the feels and makes a perfect escape when the sky is gray and cold. This year I don’t know what to read.  I keep picking up my usual genres and feeling overwhelmed, bored, or confused. I don’t actually want literary drama, fantasy, or historical fiction. I want sappy love stories and characters that are thinly veiled Jane Austen replicas. 

So I will keep trying to find my next comfort read. I will keep looking in the attempt to stay out of a reading slump. I have no idea if I will be successful. I may end up watching Outlander on Netflix and crying into my cup of Earl Grey.

Review: Whiskey in a Teacup by Reese Witherspoon

This weekend I am packing up and getting out of town. It will be a short trip, but one that is well deserved and much needed. My boyfriend and I are headed to Nashville. We are both super stoked. Like crazy stoked. The work week cannot move fast enough. I have already made a packing list and have fully planned out our free days. 

In my excitement I also picked up Whiskey in a Teacup. I am a Reese Witherspoon fan and tend to enjoy her book club picks, so I was interested in seeing what her self proclaimed “Southern Women’s Lifestyle Guide” would bring. 

It turns out, Whiskey in a Teacup is a lot. Filled with recipes, party plans, playlists, and steps for catching Frogs Witherspoon has captured the feeling of her childhood. She writes fondly of her mother and grandmother. She also clearly has a reverence for Nashville, her hometown. I enjoyed reading about Reese’s childhood experiences and of her fond memories of home. Her connection to the South, and not just tennessee is very real. 

My only issue with Whiskey in a Teacup was how much it reads like a bible. There was no room for “not all women” here. Everything was very much about how a traditional southern lady acts and thinks. While I understand that Reese did sit down to write a Southern Lifestyle guide at times I thought it came across heavy handed and unbelievable. Though even the sections were full of love and fun suggestions. 

One quick note: This was published after Reese’s Hello Sunshine book club started but before it became the mega hit celebrity book club of note that it is today. I felt that her writings on books were interesting, but would have loved to see a later edition with more thought towards her book club.

I wound up bookmarking several recipes, some playlists, a list of books by southern authors, some movies, and party ideas. Overall I’ll call that a success.  

Pick this one up if you enjoy Reese Witherspoon’s career, southern food, Nashville, or throwing parties.