Month in Review: January 2016

Book of the Month

JustMercy

I usually hesitate to say “this is a book everyone should read,” but with Just Mercy I will. It’s a deeply moving account of the staggering travesties of justice that occur in our country, and of the humanity that nevertheless struggles to survive within the system. I happened to finish it on Martin Luther King Day, a highly appropriate occasion, but don’t wait until then. Just read it as soon as you possibly can.

This month was the start of my Reading New England Challenge, and I’m thrilled that 19 people have signed up so far! There is no deadline, so feel free to join us if you haven’t already. And don’t forget to link up your posts, by state or genre. (For challenge purposes, you’ll have to pick one category.)

So far, representing this month’s focus on New Hampshire I’ve seen two different reviews of A Separate Peace (here and here), as well as my own review linked below; plus A Prayer for Owen Meany; Peyton Place; Light on Snow by Anita Shreve; and The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich.

Other reviews linked were of a forthcoming nonfiction work exploring the history of slavery in the region, New England Bound; a heart-wrenching child’s-eye-view novel set in and around Bar Harbor, Maine, Small as an Elephant; a intriguing new YA mystery, The Mystery of Hollow Places; and a Rhode Island cozy mystery, Murder Most Finicky. Thank you all for participating, and I look forward to more of your discoveries.

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SeparatePeace

Reviews

  • My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell’s memoir provided a welcome break from the winter doldrums.
  • The Gipsy in the Parlour – For Margery Sharp Day at Beyond Eden Rock, I reviewed this brief but thoroughly enjoyable novel.
  • A Separate Peace – And for Reading New England, I was glad to revisit a book that was required reading in my adolescence, and see it from a more adult perspective.
  • Three from the Theater – I love backstage stories, and these were three I enjoyed over the holidays.

 

 Other Books ReadGreenDolphin

  • Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge
  • If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power
  • Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge – Review to come
  • Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates – for Reading New England
  • To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf – for Woolfalong hosted by Heavenali
  • Haphazard by Starlight by Janet Morley
  • The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch
  • The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett – Tiffany Aching series completion
  • Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes – Cybils awards finalist
  • Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – Reading New England
  • How To Be Alive by Colin Beavan – Blog Tour February 10
  • Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

 

Other Features and Events

 

Coming Next Month

  • I’m trying not to sign up for too many challenges, but The Reluctant Romantic at Doing Dewey sounds like just too much fun. Check it out if you’d like to try out a new or neglected genre in February. (I said I’m going to focus on graphic fiction and nonfiction.)
  • I’m pleased to be part of the second round of Falling in Love with Books at Bookish Illuminations. The idea this time is to recommend a book you think would help readers fall in love with a particular genre. Watch for one of my favorite YA/historical fiction/mystery/romance/fantasy titles over at Katie’s blog on February 15. (I figured I might as well cover as many genres as possible.)
  • Also coming up is Book Blogger Appreciation Week, February 15-19. I can’t wait to show some love for all the wonderful book bloggers out there!

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Shared in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer and the Monthly Wrap-up Round-up hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction

In Brief: Three from the Theatre

As I was in search of light reading over the holidays, I grabbed a few random books off my shelf that turned out to share a common theatrical theme. I’m always fascinated by backstage stories, and for a few days it was a pleasure to get to vicariously share in the thrill of putting on a show. Though uneven in their quality, each of these books has something to offer for those of us who are enticed by “the swish of the curtain.”

TownBloom

The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith
None of Smith’s other adult novels quite measure up to I Capture the Castle, but they offer certain pleasures of their own. In this one, narrator Mouse (we never learn her real name) is prompted by a reunion with old friends to reminisce about how she met them. Her brashly naive attempts to break into the London theatre of the twenties — undeterred by a total lack of talent — give us a priceless glimpse into that bygone era, of which Smith had ample knowledge through her career as an unsuccessful actress and successful playwright. It’s when the plot veers from theatre to romance that things go awry, and Mouse’s naivete begins to pall; I wished she would mature through her experiences, but it became evident that even forty years later she never had. With a different ending this could have been a gem, but even with its flaws it’s worth a look.
• Corsair, 2012 (originally 1965)

SwishCurtain

The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown
This book about seven theatre-mad English children who start their own company and put on elaborate shows sounded like more fun than it was to actually read. Somehow it had escaped me that the author — who went on to write several sequels and other books — was only a teenager when this was first written, and it definitely shows in the flat style and cardboard characters. There’s very little plot structure, conflict, or tension; the children effortlessly and somewhat incredibly produce everything from original musical comedies to contemporary drama to Shakespeare, fiercely opposed by their cartoon-ogre parents but triumphing (of course) in the end. Noel Streatfeild did this sort of thing much better, so I’m not sure how much effort I’ll make to seek out Brown’s other writings. An interesting if immature curiosity.
• Hodder, 1998 (Originally 1941, revised 1971)

UnderfootShowUnderfoot in Show Business by Helene Hanff
Now for one that didn’t disappoint: After recently rereading 84, Charing Cross Road I was curious to look again at Helene Hanff’s earlier memoir and see if it was as good as I remembered. It certainly was, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who is interested in a humorous take on Broadway history, the New York literary scene, summer stock, artists’ colonies, or even early television; Hanff gives us her sideline impressions of all of them, from the time when she was trying to make it as a playwright but having to earn a living in multiple other ways. You’ll cheer for her even as you know her efforts are doomed to failure; she’s so funny and unpretentious you can’t help but adore her.
• Harper and Row, 1962

Back to the Classics Challenge

BackToTheClassics2016

I enjoyed the Back to the Classics challenge so much last year, I’m back for more this year! I’ll be trying again for all twelve categories. I’ve attempted to find titles that fit into my own Reading New England challenge (indicated with NE in parentheses), as well knocking off some of my Classics Club list. This list will surely change during the year, so I’ll update it as necessary.

Are you joining? What’s on your list?

  • 19th century classicThe Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells (NE)
  • 20th century classicMr Blandings Builds His Dream House by Eric Hodgins (NE)
  • Classic by a woman authorUnderstood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (NE)
  • Classic in translation Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
  • Classic by a non-white authorThe Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
  • An adventure classicThree Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
  • Fantasy, science fiction, or dystopianLooking Backward by Edward Bellamy (NE)
  • Classic detective novel – The Transcendental Murder by Jane Langton (NE)
  • Name of a placeThe Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (NE)
  • Banned or censoredA Separate Peace by John Knowles (NE)
  • Reread from high schoolDon Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  • Short Stories –  Dubliners by James Joyce

Margery Sharp Day: The Gipsy in the Parlour

Margery Sharp, The Gipsy in the Parlour (1953)

GipsyHooray, it’s Margery Sharp Day! This event, formerly hosted at Fleur in Her World and now at Beyond Eden Rock, introduced me to a delightful but sadly overlooked author of the mid-twentieth century. I’m glad that Jane is once more celebrating Margery Sharp’s birthday by offering this opportunity for us to read her books and share our reviews.

My library, sadly does not have ANY of Sharp’s adult books, but I was able to track down a not-too-garbled e-book of The Gipsy in the Parlour through Open Library. The title, cover, and Victorian setting of this one intrigued me, and I was not disappointed. It was another humorous, breezy read that yet had a serious side in its closely observed characters and emotional insight.

At the beginning we’re introduced to the magnificent Sylvesters, a salt-of-the-earth family of Devonshire farmers and their formidable women who are waiting for a fourth bride to be brought to their home. Also present is our unnamed narrator, a child relation who is there from the city on one of her much-cherished holidays. It’s through her perspective that we see the ensuing events, and Sharp skillfully manages to convey her naively mistaken impressions, though the more jaded eye of adulthood gradually comes to a different interpretation.

As the bride Fanny becomes the “gipsy in the parlour,” putting off her marriage to go into a dramatic decline, and the narrator becomes her “little friend” and ally, the parallel phrase of “cuckoo in the nest” comes to mind. How the parasitical Fanny is eventually dislodged makes for a slyly comical story with a host of marvelous characters. I especially adored the quietly heroic Charlotte, oldest of the Sylvester wives, but you’ll have a wonderful time with all of them.

I also loved how Sharp artfully renders the Devonshire speech patterns without resorting to impenetrable dialect transcription. If you’re doing the Reading England challenge, be sure to consider this one for Devon.

It’s a brief novel that left me certainly wanting to read more Margery Sharp. And so I’m off on the hunt again…and looking forward to seeing what other readers have found this year.

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Link Love: January 2016

the-song-collector

Review of the Month: The Song Collector

This month I was intrigued by a review at The Captive Reader that expresses appreciation for seeing an author come through with the best she is capable of, even after some not-so-successful attempts. I hadn’t heard of Natasha Solomons but I’ll definitely be seeking her out now.

Here are more of my favorite posts and articles from this month:

Food for Thought

 

Getting Visual

List Love

From Page to Stage (and screen)

 

Image of the Month

(c) Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation – Source

An Audience in Athens during ‘Agamemnon’ – William Blake Richmond (1884)

Shared in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer

Reading New England: A Separate Peace

John Knowles, A Separate Peace (1959)

SeparatePeaceLike many other adolescents, I was assigned A Separate Peace to read when I was in my early teens. Adults seem to think that a novel about teenagers in a school must necessarily be good for teenagers to read in school. For me, however, the plan backfired — I retained almost no impression of the book other than that I found reading it an unpleasant experience, and certainly was left with no lasting sense of lessons learned. I might never have picked it up again, except that I knew it had a New Hampshire setting (based on Phillips Exeter Academy) and was curious to revisit it as part of my Reading New England Challenge.

I’m glad I did, as I found subtlety and depth that completely passed me by thirty years ago. In my own defense, I do think that a certain degree of maturity and life experience are helpful for appreciating this story of boys in their last precarious year of peace before they’re sucked into the maw of World War II. Some readers may have that maturity at thirteen, but I did not. I couldn’t relate to Gene or Phineas or their convoluted relationship or their conflicted feelings over the war. It was all too remote from my own experience, and I couldn’t or wouldn’t bridge that gap.

This time, though I didn’t find either Gene or Phineas very congenial company — the latter in particular annoyed me terribly, at least at first — I could sympathize more with their plight and see how it reflects basic human struggles. We all hurt one another in ways large and small; a tiny misunderstanding can be as devastating in our personal lives as a global war. I could also appreciate the elegaic beauty of the writing, and appreciate the perspective it gave me on both a particular time in history and a special place.

Phillips Exeter Academy, original of the Devon School. Source: Wikimedia
Phillips Exeter Academy, original of the Devon School. Source: Wikimedia

It’s notable that we gain almost no insight into the family lives or backgrounds of the boys; it’s as if they have sprung into being only for these few years that they attended the Devon School. This may be meant as symptomatic of the almost pathological dissociation caused by the impending war, but for me it still gave the reading experience a curiously remote quality. I do wonder what kind of adolescent will find something to connect or relate to in this book; to me it seems much more a book for adults, who have a certain amount of distance from the age portrayed already.

I’m counting this book for the Banned or Censored category of the Back to the Classics Challenge, since it has been challenged in several different school districts, mostly for strong language, but once as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” I find this baffling — did the challengers read the same book I did? I noticed almost no swear words (the letter F appears once with some dashes after it) and zero sex. In fact, there is a downright monastic lack of sex considering this is a book about seventeen-year-old males. Some readers have detected homoerotic undercurrents to the text but the author insists he did not put them there, and I agree that they are of the sort one could read into almost anything.

Be that as it may, there are many reasons to read A Separate Peace: for its language, its history, its insights, its achingly sad story of youth passing too soon. If, like me, you’ve read it once and rejected it as not for you, I hope you might also give it another chance.

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Reading New England Challenge: New Hampshire
Back to the Classics Challenge: Banned or Challenged Classic
Classics Club List #20

Literary Pilgrimages: Yankee Publishing

As I was planning Reading New England, a year of celebrating regional books, authors, and publishers, I immediately thought it would be marvelous to visit an iconic regional publisher that happens to be located half an hour’s drive from me: Yankee Publishing in Dublin, New Hampshire. Founded 80 years ago with the start of Yankee Magazine, and shortly thereafter taking on The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well, Yankee is something of a rarity in today’s world of giant media conglomerates: an independent, family-owned company that still operates out of its original, small-town premises, and continues to be firmly based upon its original flagship publications. I was curious to see how Yankee has grown and transformed to meet the readers of the digital age, even as it still honors the traditions and culture of the region that gave it birth.

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My tentative email inquiry was met immediately by a cordial invitation from Jamie Trowbridge, the president of the company and grandson of its founder, Robb Sagendorph, to come by for a short tour the following week. I drove to Dublin, a charming village on the shoulders of Mount Monadnock (population 1597). Here the company’s long, low barn-red building is found alongside the church, town hall, library and other buildings from an earlier century.

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The Yankee building used to house the town post office and store, though eventually the growing enterprise took over the whole space. A chalkboard outside is still reminiscent of the location’s past as the center of Dublin news and communication.

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Inside, Jamie led me up to where the company’s two main publications are produced. In this modest interior, with its low ceilings and uneven floors, is found a warren of offices for many busy employees. Reference books are stacked floor to ceiling in corners and corridors, perhaps not often consulted in these days of electronic research, but holding a treasure-trove of information about New England’s towns and inhabitants.

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I got to peek into the office of editor-in-chief Judson Hale (with Yankee since 1958), who unfortunately was not present to show me through his collection of fascinating clutter that includes a stuffed bird and Napoleon’s handkerchief. I did have a look at some old issues of the magazine, which started out letter-size, then was diminished around the time of World War II partly due to paper shortages. It kept that dimension for many years until it was recently redesigned as a full-color, standard-size magazine for today’s more visually oriented readers.

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In a conference room across the hall the mockups for the January/February issue had just been taken down, but Jamie showed me some sample spreads for a story on White Mountain tourism that had been created for another project under Yankee’s umbrella, New Hampshire magazine. The NH tourism folks were dissatisfied with the somewhat misty, atmospheric images — which I personally thought were stunning — and opted to replace them with their own posed models on bicycles under blue skies. That’s life in the media these days, it seems.

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On the third floor, we looked in on the offices where digital content is created: the “Jud’s Journal” podcast, mobile-friendly versions of the magazine, and the new digital “Yankee Plus” enhanced with video content and other original features. Glimpsing a cover story on “New England’s Best Winter Towns,” Jamie joked that he thought the word “winter” had been outlawed since whenever it appeared sales seemed to go down. He noted that when New Englanders were polled on what they liked best and least about our region, the answers were “The seasons” and “Winter.” Alas, we can’t have four seasons without it.

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Coming back down, I paused to ask about a curious chart on the wall, which does not come across well in my photo, I’m afraid. Turns out this was part of Robb Sagendorph’s method for creating the weather predictions in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which he did himself for many years. (Now it’s based on Accuweather.) He meticulously graphed sunspot activity and all kinds of other data, leaving a graphic record of how a scientific mind grappled with New England’s weather obsession. What a remarkable person this multi-faceted founder must have been.

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After my brief visit, I left with a new appreciation of the hardworking, dedicated folks who continue to uphold the standards of their founding principles, while adjusting to meet today’s readers. Many thanks to Jamie Trowbridge and to everyone at Yankee Publishing for all they do, and for letting me have a glimpse behind the scenes.

Do you write reviews?

DiscussionNEW

Even though I call them “reviews” for categorization purposes, I don’t think that’s really the right name for most of the posts I write on this blog. To my mind a review is an evaluative assessment of a book, generally a newly released or newly available book, created for the purpose of advising consumers in the decision whether to obtain and read it. When I post about a new book, or a more contemporary book that is new to me, I generally am writing in this vein — and trying to avoid the dreaded spoilers.

But when I write about classics that need no stamp of approval from me, or books that I’m rereading for the umpteenth time with an eye to my evolving understanding of them, I don’t consider them “reviews.” Rather, they’re mini-essays that allow me to freely reflect on the content of the book along with my personal experience. I’m more likely to reveal more details of the plot or characters, because I feel I need to in order to say anything meaningful.

In a review proper I’m trying to be somewhat objective and to give just enough information to inform the reader of whether this is a book he or she might be interested in, based on personal preferences and tastes. (I only write reviews of books I can positively recommend. I decided when starting this blog that I would not spend time on negative reviews.) Of course my response is shaped by my personal reaction, but I try to let the work speak for itself to a certain extent.

In the other kind of post, which I’ll call a “reflection,” I’m more likely to talk about my thoughts and feelings while reading, or how my experience has changed over time. I’m trying to use the reading and writing to discover truths about the work and about myself, to make comparisons and connections.

Yet another kind of post is where I’m focusing mostly on the design — typography and illustrations — and not so much on the text (which is usually that of an undisputed classic). I haven’t done many of these recently, but I’d like to get back to them, because in the age of e-books I think that great book design deserves all the love we can give it.

Here are some examples of these categories, to show what I’m talking about. I’m pleased with all of them, but they’re very different kinds of posts. Is it confusing to call them all “reviews”?

Reviews

Reflections

Design Considerations

 

Do you think all these different categories of posts should be lumped under the name “reviews”? Are there some that you are more or less interested in? How do you define a “review” on your own blog?

Escape into Summer: My Family and Other Animals

Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals (1956)

SFE-durrell-3If cold and darkness are getting you down, I have a prescription for you: Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, an excellent antidote for the winter doldrums. The third of the delightful Slightly Foxed Editions that I’ve been pleased to review recently, it’s an artfully crafted, lightly fictionalized memoir of the author’s childhood years spent on the magical Greek island of Corfu. As he tells it, his family (which consists of Gerry, his three quite-a-bit-older siblings, and their much-enduring, widowed mother) simply couldn’t endure the bleak British weather for one more moment, and decamped forthwith to a sunnier clime.

There, for a few short years their dreams came true, whether those were to potter in the garden, sunbathe and swim, or be left in peace to write novels. (You might recognize eldest brother Larry’s name — he’s best known for the Alexandria Quartet.) Young Gerry was able to indulge his fascination with the natural world, getting up close and personal with a number of exotic pets as well as roaming freely through the countryside. This self-education had unfortunately to be interrupted by a number of tutors — whose idiosyncrasies he affectionately but ruthlessly lampoons — but nothing could dampen the passion for nature and its wonders that made him, in adulthood, a prominent conservationist. Fortunately, he found one genuine naturalist and educator who became his friend and guide, and through him ours as well.

Angelokastro in Corfu. Source: Wikimedia
Angelokastro in Corfu. Source: Wikimedia

As I read it was sometimes difficult for me to reconcile Gerry’s obvious love for nature and its creatures with his unthinking, casual cruelty. For example, he tore two baby magpies from their mother, then put them in a cage when their thieving habits became inconvenient; he transferred an enormous tortoise from its proper habitat to a tiny tub in the backyard. He also was not at all bothered by his brother’s bloodthirsty hunting for sport. Perhaps in adulthood his attitude changed, or perhaps at the time sensitivity to animal rights was very different from today’s. I had to accept that he was attempting to give his experiences as they were at the time, without interrupting them with political or ideological commentary.

Gerry’s family, though occasionally objecting to finding snakes in the bath and having their ankles nipped by seagulls under the dining table, are on the whole a wonderfully tolerant bunch, and amusing in their own right. Scenes detailing their “natural behavior” are placed alongside those describing the flora and fauna of the island, a sly and subtle reminder of our kinship with all creatures.

This is in fact a remarkably many-faceted book, in equal measure comic and serious, firmly anchored in a child’s perspective yet mature in the artistry of its language. It’s buoyant and sometimes flippant in tone, but underlying all the absurdity is a sharply observant naturalist’s eye. Durrell brings the island and its inhabitants before us with grace and precision, making them as unforgettable as they clearly were for him. And so from the depths of our dull, colorless lives, we are transported to an island of vivid, vital sensations, one that may help awaken us to the wonders that surround us all every day.

Cheerfully bound in cobalt cloth with lemon endpapers, the limited-edition volume from Slightly Foxed is, as usual, a treat to hold and to read. I hope it might take its place on your shelf, and provide for you, as it does for me, a window into a sunnier world.

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A Perfect Day for Books: ALA Midwinter

Last weekend, on a foggy, rainy Sunday morning, I took the two-hour trek to Boston for the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association. Not being a librarian myself, I just wanted to visit the exhibit hall and meet a couple of other attendees, notably librarian/blogger Katie from Bookish Illuminations (who was the one who alerted me to this event) and my brother, who is also a bona fide librarian, although one of the digital variety — he does things with computers that I don’t really understand, but I’m sure we should all be grateful for.

It was a perfect day to be indoors looking at books, and I enjoyed doing just that for a couple of hours. The number of exhibitors was very manageable for me, and I picked up just enough review copies to fill the small bag I’d brought along, resisting the offer of additional bags from some of the booths.

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I was happy to connect with a couple of publishers that I’d like to feature as part of Reading New England. The impressive display above is from Boston-based Candlewick, which published two of my favorite new releases last year, The Hired Girl and Symphony for the City of the Dead. I picked up an advance copy of Golden Boys, the latest novel from the ever-interesting Sonya Hartnett, and I’m really looking forward to that one.

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I also chatted with the publisher from Tilbury House, which is located in Maine. I’m always impressed by the spirit and dedication of independent, regional publishers, and I’d love to know what inspires them and keep them going. Watch for an interview to come in March!

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My favorite display, though, was this booth-in-a-bus from Quarto Book Group. I hadn’t heard of them before, and their various imprints are producing some really striking and beautiful books. Inside the bus were some gorgeous editions of classics with quirky and inventive illustrations. They also had many stunning children’s books, and fascinating art, craft, and cooking titles.

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One of the latter was Ferment Your Vegetables by Amanda Feifer. At the What’s Cooking stage I attended a demonstration by Amanda in which she explained the basics of lactic-acid fermentation and showed how to make a radish, turnip and onion pickle. Afterwards she signed complimentary copies of the book, but they ran out long before all the attendees got one. I just missed getting the last one, drat. But the book looks so great that I think I will buy it anyway. I did get to sample some of Amanda’s spicy cabbage, which was delicious.

FermentVegetables

And I did come away with some wonderful books, some even signed by the authors, and best of all I got to see some of my favorite bookish people. It was a perfect day!

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