Book Review: The Royal We

I can’t remember the last time I read new fiction. Between my penchant for rereading my favorites and more fact-based royal stories,  I haven’t had time to explore. But I am a huge fan of Go Fug Yourself, the hilarious, witty, and smart celebrity fashion blog by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan (aka the Fug Girls), so when they announced their first adult novel, I knew it was time for something new.

I will admit that I was a little hesitant. The Royal We isn’t the type of fiction that I’m usually inclined towards, I even cancelled my Kindle store pre-order. But the Fug Girls make me laugh online more than any other bloggers do, and I do have more than a passing interest in Will and Kate. So I finally clicked on “buy” a couple of days after it was released and promptly synced my Kindle.

It took all my self-control to save The Royal We for my one and only beach trip of the summer. When I finally tore into it, I couldn’t stop. I giggled, gasped, cried, and laughed out loud through it, sometimes so loudly that I got weird looks from people.

Yes, The Royal We is loosely based on the love story, or, more accurately, on the public details of the love story of Prince William and Kate Middleton, but a couple of chapters in, Nick Lyons and Bex Porter become less Will and Kate stand-ins and more their own persons. Bex (or “Rebecca”, for those who refer to Kate as “Catherine”) is funnier, sharper, and more flawed than we would ever know Kate to be, and through her we get an idea of what it might be like to fall in love with a boy blessed and burdened by the world’s most famous inheritance.

As expected, The Royal We is filled with the details of the glamorous trappings of royal life. There are tiaras and designer gowns, parties in palaces and country houses, appearances at Royal Ascot, ski trips to Klosters. But as we know, all the glitz comes at a price. As with the real British Royal Family, Nick and Bex have to deal with the unwanted media scrutiny and the pressures of royal duty. With the fictional Lyons, there’s also a heartbreaking family secret that threatens to break Nick and Bex apart.

If you’re even just mildly interested in William and Kate, then you should obviously read The Royal We, like, YESTERDAY. If you don’t care for the Cambridges and are more of a Prince Harry fan, you still need to pick it up because of Freddie, Nick’s scene-stealing, cheeky, ginger-haired scamp of a younger brother (he’s probably tied as my favorite character with Gaz, the other lovable ginger in the book). If you care more for the royals of yore, then you might still want to give it a shot, as The Fug Girls have a very well-thought out revised history of the British Royal Family that eventually resulted in the fictional Lyons, instead of the current Windsors. If you don’t care for the royals at all (what, not even adorable Prince George?) then you should still give it a shot if you’re in the market for a story that is sharp, funny, heartbreaking, romantic, and endearing.

The Book Depository ships The Royal We to most countries for free! The e-book is also available via Kindle, iBooks, or Kobo. For other sources and a sneak peek of the first seven chapters (!!!) you can click on to Heather and Jessica’s book blog

Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir

I have always wanted to read about The Wars of the Roses, but I’ve never been able to find a book on the period locally. I purchased Helen Castor’s Blood and Roses  thinking it was about that period in English history. It was, but it wasn’t the direct telling of the events of The Wars of the Roses that I wanted (I have since learned to research a book before buying it). I finally found one in the UK (well, duh), in the Westminster Abbey shop (of course). I have read three of Alison Weir’s books before and did not feel strongly about any of them so it was with some reluctance that I picked up Lancaster and York: The Wars of the RosesHowever, the three Weir books I read were either about a figure I already disliked (Mary, Queen of Scots), a group of women I turned out to be indifferent to (Henry VIII’s wives), and a Queen I already had a favorite book on (Elizabeth I). Considering that I was possibly biased in my three prior encounters with Ms. Weir’s writing, I bit the bullet and hoped that fourth time’s the charm.

The Wars of the Roses technically started in 1455 but Weir starts her novel at an earlier point in England’s history. She starts off almost a century back, briefly introducing us to the prolific Edward III, who had five surviving sons. It would be the descendants of these five sons that would comprise the cast of characters of The Wars of the Roses.

At first, I didn’t understand this story-telling decision. But the more I read, the harder it got to remember everyone, the varying strengths of their claims to the English throne, and their shifting (and re-shifting) loyalties. It was helpful to have someone to trace everyone back to, a point of reference that you could always rely on, in Edward III.

Even with Edward III, though, it was still a tall task to keep track of everyone. Cousins married each other, shifting the line of succession. Male lines died out, transferring inheritances (titles and assets) to daughters and their husband’s families, or nephews and nieces. Magnates changed loyalties as they see fit, blurring bloodlines. I had to create my own annotated family tree just to help me keep track of the quarrelsome Plantagenets.

Weir’s surprising and admirable feat with this book is that, despite the dizzying number of people in it, she makes them all fully-formed characters with real motivations, weaknesses, and passions. While the never-ending plotting and occasional murder of one’s kinsmen is hardly relatable (maybe it is to you, I don’t know your life), the reasons behind them are. With Weir’s expert story-telling, I found myself frequently groaning in frustration (I’m looking at you Margaret of Anjou), holding my breath with suspense, or mentally cheering a side on. Considering that these people have been dead for almost six hundred years, that’s quite a feat.

Even more so when I consider that Weir wasn’t able to stir the same intensity of feeling about Henry VIII’s unfortunate spouses. Although I am now inclined to think that was more an issue of the subject matter than the writers. As frustrating and, ultimately, annoying she turned out to be, Margaret of Anjou makes for more fascinating reading than, say, Catherine Howard.

It did take a while for those feelings to stir in me. As noted, the book starts almost a century before open hostilities between the Yorks and Lancasters break out. But Weir carefully builds up to the central conflict, lining up her stories and sub-stories like soldiers on a battlefield, preparing for the moment where everything comes to a head. By the First Battle of St. Albans, all the motivations and tensions painstakingly laid out and explained by Weird come to fore. And with that first battle, I could hardly put down the book.

I didn’t want to put down the book even after I finished, as Weir ends her novel at the (spoiler alert?) the restoration of Edward VI to the throne. The few paragraphs on the events after the restoration was enough to whet my appetite for the rest of the story. Good thing that Weir has a book precisely about that one that I full intend to read now that I’ve come around on Weir’s writing. Fourth time’s the charm, indeed.

Chatsworth House, part 3

Chatsworth’s grounds and gardens are as well-known as the actual house, and it’s not hard to see why.

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This is one of the many beautiful statues on the grounds. In the distance, you could see the famous Cascade. Unfortunately for me, the Cascade was being repaired while I was there (you can see the bright blue tarp) so even if I was able to get up close, I didn’t take any photos of it.

 

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Fans of the 2005 Pride & Prejudice movie will remember this spot for the awkward yet utterly charming conversation between Darcy and Elizabeth when she visits Pemberley, not knowing Darcy was home. It is one of my favorite scenes in the movie with both actors playing their embarrassment and awkwardness so well. Unfortunately, this was as close to the spot as I could get, as the steps and the entire southern front of the house is restricted from visitors (you’ll see why later).

 

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Really, how beautiful is that lane? I can’t tell you how long I stood there, just staring and taking it all in.

 

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Art installations tucked away in surprising corners of the grounds.

 

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The view of the estate from the bottom of the Cascade.

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A wider view: The Emperor Fountain, the house, the greenhouses from the Cascade.

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Despite my disappointment that the south front of the house was closed off from visitors, I understood why they did it when I was taking the above shot. It’s a much, much better picture without random people dotting it.

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But this is the money shot, no? The house, the Canal Pond, and the Emperor Fountain. If only the sky cooperated.

Overcast skies notwithstanding, my time at Chatsworth was some of the most memorable of my entire trip. The House, the grounds, the gardens, and the entire estate were even more beautiful than I have imagined them to be and that’s saying something, as I’ve idealized it as Pemberley in my head. But even without its associations with my favorite book, movie, and fictional characters, Chatsworth’s sheer scale, grandeur and, natural beauty make it worth the detour to Derbyshire even for those who have never seen or read Pride and Prejudice.

I daresay it will even be worth a second visit.

 

 

PS: I have an entire album of photos from Chatsworth on my flickr, in case you want to see more or if you want to see the panoramic shots better.

 

Chatsworth House, part 1

 

They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills;—and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place where nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in her admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

– Pride and Prejudice

Chatsworth House, the real Derbyshire estate of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, is believed by some to be Austen’s inspiration for Mr. Darcy’s fictional estate. The above description seems to fit, as you’ll see later. But it is certainly Pemberley for the millions of fans of the 2005 Pride and Prejudice adaptation (including myself), and it has been my dream to visit the estate since I saw Joe Wright’s film.

That dream came true three weeks ago.

There was so much to see on the estate, and everywhere I turned, there was a picture-worthy vista. To be able to even come close to doing Chatsworth justice, I’ll be doing multiple posts on the estate.

For convenience’s sake, I chose to stay at the Cavendish Hotel, located within the estate.

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My room was on the ground floor of the building on the left, with the open window in the center.

The hotel was lovely, but the view from its lawn was even lovelier:

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One way to the house was through the gate in the picture, across the field to the left, across a bridge, and on to a path to the main Chatsworth grounds. However, I only took that way on my first day, as the cows tend to take over the nearby field. The cows do get skittish around people, although I was more afraid of the, errrr, souvenirs that they leave on the grass. I took mound-free way on my second day.

The path to the house was as picturesque as you can imagine an English countryside path to be.

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You can almost imagine running into Elizabeth Bennet on one of her famous solitary rambles.
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The walk from the Cavendish Hotel to the house took about twenty to twenty-five minutes. The house is hidden from view by trees for most of the way, and you never really see it until you are quite close to it, which certainly heightened my excitement (and strained my poor neck).

I came up to the house from its northern side and made my way across the River Derwent to take the view of the house from the west.

 

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And from the plain Paine bridge, I got my first full of view of the majestic house.

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The white tarps on the northern side of the house were unfortunate, though.

Visitors are allowed to walk the fields, among the herd of grazing sheep.

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My first though was about how lucky these sheep were to live on the estate. And then I remembered they were going to end up as someone’s dinner eventually.

From that vantage point, you also get a pretty good idea of how expansive the estate really is. Can you imagine having this view from your windows?

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To be mistress of Chatsworth might be something!

 

I was so glad I made the decision to walk to the house and explore the parts of the grounds that I could, even if I knew was coming back the next day. It definitely made me even more excited for my tour of the house and gardens.

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Because the little that I saw was already overwhelmingly beautiful, and surpassed even my high expectations of a place worthy to be used as Pemberley twice. And I haven’t even seen the inside of the house or the famous gardens yet.

 

Happy 200th Birthday, Pride & Prejudice!

Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of the publication of my favorite book of all time, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I am ill-qualified to write anything that will do justice to the book, Jane Austen and its enduring place in literature, pop-culture and the hearts of millions of women (and some men) the world over. So, instead, I’ve rounded up, from all over the interwebs, my favorite bits and pieces to celebrate the day Jane Austen gave us the gift of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy:

  • No surprise that The New Yorker’s tribute is wonderfully written and lovely. In what is a very quick read, William Deresiewicz manages to touch on the history of P&P‘s publishing, other legendary authors’ reaction to Austen and the book (Charlotte Brontë and Mark Twain hated her, Virginia Woolf called her “the most perfect artist among women, the writer whose books are immortal”), the dearth of information on Austen’s life and why we still love Pride & Prejudice so much, after all this time.

  • Because I liked that New Yorker article so much I clicked through to the link to Deresiewicz’s book, “A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter.” As if that title wasn’t enough, the book description sold me:

“Before Jane Austen, William Deresiewicz was a very different young man. A sullen and arrogant graduate student, he never thought Austen would have anything to offer him. Then he read Emma—and everything changed.”

If that doesn’t convince an Austen fan to buy this book, I don’t know what will.

  • This Conde Nast Traveler slideshow on the stately homes, towns and gardens all over the UK that were used as settings for either the BBC miniseries or the 2005 movie reminded me that I need to start saving for that trip to the UK. Chatsworth has been on my bucket list since, you guessed it, 2005.

  • If you need a quick reminder of what the story is about then here’s P&P  illustrated as a comic. I actually want a printout of this to pin on to my office desk cork board.
  • And again, via NPR, what is ostensibly a review of an Austen biography of sorts. What I liked about this particular article, though, has nothing to do with the book being reviewed (no offense to the author of both the book and the review). I liked the story about Albert the orangutan and the author’s thoughts on who Jane Austen would be pals with if she were alive right now (clue: one of them hosted the Golden Globes this year and the other one won two).
  • The Week’s roundup of the most bizarre retellings and reincarnations of Austen’s story is so, well, bizarre, that Seth Grahame-Smith’s zombified edition doesn’t even make the cut.  But a Twilight-esque treatment, a retelling in the “dialect of the American South” and a “Wild and Wanton” edition (Austen must be rolling in her grave) do. If I were Jane Austen, I don’t know if I’d be flattered or offended.
  • And now for a bit of shameless self-promotion. I didn’t write this for the 200th anniversary of course, but if ever you were wondering what I thought was the definitive Pride and Prejudice adaptations, here’s my sometimes rambling comparison (part one, two and three) of  the BBC production and the 2005 movie by Joe Wright. I wrote this a couple of years ago and have re-watched both since, and, instead of changing my mind, I now even feel more strongly about what I wrote. I’d love to hear what YOU think.

And so there you have it, a mishmash of the commemorations of 200 years of Pride and Prejudice. William Deresiewicz couldn’t have said it any better:

“Two hundred years—the bicentennial. Send in the tall ships. Set off the fireworks. Darcy and Elizabeth forever.”

Click the photos for their sources.

I love/hate you, Christina Tosi

I love Momofuku Milk Bar. During my trip to NYC, I visited the East Village store and wanted to just camp out there. I think I got decision anxiety trying to choose which cookies to get (corn, compost and cornflake marshmallow), deciding on how many slices of Crack Pie I can actually eat without passing out in a sugar coma (I didn’t want to risk it, so, one) and if I could still have Cereal Milk soft serve ice cream after the Salty Pimp I just had from my previous stop at Big Gay Ice Cream (alas, no). I wanted to try EVERYTHING. But obviously that (and setting up a tent on the sidewalk) wasn’t an option so I had to be content with  my purchases.

And I loved them ALL. So, as you can imagine, I loved the cookbook, too, which I got for Christmas from one of my best friends.

Apart from the recipes (we’ll get to that later), I find Christina, her story and her approach to baking fascinating. She went from working on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (or HACCP) plans for New York restaurants, to working as part of the “etc.” of Momofuku (no kitchen work involved). And then one night, after tasting another one of the home baked goodies Christina brought to work with her, David Chang asked ordered her to make something for dinner service at Ssäm. And the rest is sweet delicious history.

Reading about how the now-iconic recipes came to be, about the goings-on at the Milk Bar kitchen is quite fun, too. For instance, I find the fact that Marian Mar measures the Milk Bar cake layers by the gram amazing and also quite disconcerting. I also think it’s pretty cool that the Cornflake Marshmallow Chocolate Chip cookies was a result of over toasted cornflake crunch for the cereal milk pana cotta at Ko.

But. BUT. Uggggh.

Glucose. Freeze dried corn. Freeze dried corn powder. Pectin NH. Gelatin sheets. Clear vanilla extract.

Where the heck can I find these things in Manila?

No, it’s enough that these recipes are some of the most specific, most labor-intensive recipes I’ve ever seen. Christina has a 10 minute creaming method, has non-negotiable ingredients, has recipes within recipes within recipes and wants me to make my own Concord grape juice (must add Concord grapes to the list of impossible-to-find items).

Uggggh. Sad face.

Realistically speaking, the glucose is probably available in Manila, the gelatin sheets, too, if I try really hard. But freeze-dried corn powder?!?!?!

And the heartbreaking thing is that you need the freeze dried corn powder to make Crack Pie.

I. CAN’T. MAKE. CRACK. PIE.

*cue temper tantrum that would make a four year old proud*

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Why are you doing this to me, Christina Tosi? Why make a cookbook that only people who own/live beside a specialty baking store and Concord grape farm can cook from? Whyyyyyyy?

*resume temper tantrum*

 

Temper tantrum aside, any leads on where I can get those hard to find ingredients? Fellow home bakers, Crack Pie addicts, help please! I need my Crack (Pie)!

My re-reading list

I once came across a blog post about rereading books (I tried finding it again, but I couldn’t)  and I was very surprised by how many people DON’T actually reread books. Even the books they really loved, they reread very rarely. This was news to me, since I’ve always believed that rereading is actually part of reading itself.

I love rereading. I almost always come across something new I haven’t noticed before, or a new point of view, or learn to appreciate an author’s way with words or have some other form of a discovery when I read a book for the second, third or ninth time. I guess it has to do with the fact that when I read something for the first time, I am so caught up in the story that I don’t notice the nuances, the little details as I am racing through the book to find out what happens next. When take up the book again, I already know what’s going to happen (I would hope so. Haha.) so I can pay more attention to the words, the writing, etc.

I also think that changes in your life can give you a new perspective on a book. The birth of a child or the death of a loved one could make you relate to a book more, make you understand characters more. Even things that may seem shallow to some and entirely unconnected to books could give you a fresh take on an old favorite. I found Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch hilarious even before I developed my own tortuous love for a sports team. Now that I can relate to the gut-wrenching disappointment and the delirious happiness a football team can bestow on its fans, the book on Hornby’s relationship with Arsenal (yes, it is a relationship) strikes an even deeper chord with me.

Now that I’ve got my Kindle and a truckload of e-books (thanks, G!), I’ve got a full list of books I want to reread for various reasons:

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – because, duh.
  • The Lord of The Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien- I can’t believe I’ve only read the trilogy just once. That’s just… wrong.
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton- I loved this book when I first read it in high school even if it was once of the saddest books I’ve ever come across. I borrowed it from a classmate, bought my own copy a few years down the line but I’ve never actually reread it. It was just so sad, and I’m a wuss. But it really is a beautiful book and I just need to deal with how depressing the ending is. I must keep telling myself: Lily Bart is not real. Lily Bart is not real.
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – I read the Oxford World’s Classics version of this, a beautiful, small hardbound edition and I hated it. I really, really did. I don’t know if it was the translation, but the book felt so labored, heavy and dragging to me. Some sentences in the book took up TWO pages, I’m not kidding. I had to FORCE myself to finish the book, as I ALWAYS finish a book I start (there’s been only once exception to that rule of mine), even if I was so frustrated by it. I want to give it another chance, but I worry that I’ll go through all that again only to end up hating it even more.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – no, no, this has nothing to do with the fact that Michael Fassbender played Mr. Rochester in the movie version of this. Well, ok… that’s not exactly true. I’ve all but forgotten about Jane Eyre, until I found out that there was a movie on the book and that Fassbender was in it. That got my attention (wouldn’t it get yours?). When I read the book the first time, I wasn’t wowed by I think it’s high time I give the book a second chance… Maybe all movie adaptation of books should just star Michael Fassbender.
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen – three words: Captain Wentworth’s letter
  • Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman – Politics, adultery, scandal, illegitimate children, exile, betrayal: the story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (yes, the one played be Keira Knightley) has it all and more. She lived a fascinating (if a little sad) life and I could barely keep up with everything and everyone while reading her biography the first time.
  • Anything by Nick Hornby – I’ve read all his novels and I loved them all. Funny and ridiculously (and surprisingly) insightful about music, men, football, suicide, children, women and everything else in between, nothing by Hornby ever gets old.

So that’s my reread list so far, although I’m sure there are still more books I have forgotten or haven’t realized that I want to reread. And this list is on top of the list of books I want to read for the first time.

Sigh. So many books, so little time.

So how about you, do you reread?