Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Two of My Favorite Things: Tabby and Moon Pies

Everyone knows I love Tabby, but Moon Pies are one of my favorite treats, I like to zap them in the microwave for a few seconds until the marhmallow starts to get gooey and melty. So when I had the chance to take a picture combining two of my favorite things I couldn't resist. Tabby is also enjoying two of her favorite things--she loves boxes and posing for the camera.

New Novel Finally Finished; Tabby Says HURRAY!

To celebrate the completion (Finally!) of my latest novel MARY AND ELIZABETH: RIVALS FOR THE TUDOR THRONE (to be published sometime next year) Tabby is giving away two copies of my current release THE BOLEYN WIFE by Brandy Purdy, which is the US edition, or the British Edition THE TUDOR WIFE published under the pen name Emily Purdy; same book, just different names and covers. To enter, leave a comment, include your contact info, and specify which you would like. Contest is open to US residents only and ends July 12th.

Hell Hath No Fury...

Shy, plain Lady Jane Parker feels out of place in Henry VIII's courtly world of glamour and intrigue--until she meets the handsome George Boleyn. Overjoyed when her father arranges their marriage, her joy is abruptly cut short when she meets Anne...
George Boleyn is completely devoted to his sister; and as Anne’s circle of admirers grows, so does Jane’s resentment.

Becoming Henry’s queen makes Anne the most powerful woman in England; but it also makes her vulnerable, as the King is desperate for an heir. When he begins to tire of his mercurial wife, the stage is set for the ultimate betrayal.

Encompassing the reigns of four of Henry’s wives, from the doomed Anne to the reckless Katherine Howard, THE TUDOR WIFE /THE BOLEYN WIFE is an unforgettable story of ambition and jealousy, combining the sumptuous historical detail of Philippa Gregory’s novels with the lust and authenticity of the hugely successful TV series THE TUDORS.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Can You Trust A Tomato In January? The Hidden Life of Groceries Revealed At Last And Other Secrets of The Supermarket by Vince Staten

This is the companion volume to Mr. Staten's book on drugstores, (Did Trojans Use Trojans? A Trip Inside the Corner Drugstore), which I reviewed last week. In this book he takes readers up and down the linoleum-tiled aisles of the grocery store to learn the histories behind some of the most popular items that find their way into our carts. He also gives us a brief history of the evolution of the grocery store from quaint small-town general store to today's megamarts, and gives us the inside scoop on such practices as slotting allowances, the fees companies pay to get their products onto store shelves, and how after a long battle plastic bags finally won the war and took precedence over paper. Trivia lovers will also delight in little nuggets of facts like the first grocery store laser scanner was used on June 16, 1974 at Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio and very first item to be scanned was a package of Wrigley's Spearmint Gum.
As Mr. Staten takes us on a tour through the average modern day grocery store we learn that apples are the most popular item in the produce section--Red Delicious reign supreme--and that broccoli, cauliflower, and squash are the least popular. He also tells us how cornflakes began life as one of the weapons in the arsenal of Dr. Kellogg at the Battle Creek Sanitarium to combat his personal war against lust and in particular the self-polluting sin of masturbation, and how Grape-Nuts got their name, and how cartoon characters and "free" prizes inside the boxes can transform even the worst tasting cereal into a top-seller. Graham Crackers also started out as an anti-lust food invented by a Presbyterian minister who lent his name to them, Dr. Sylvester Graham. Another interesting chapter explains how Napoleon's complaint about poor rations for the army eventually led to the invention of canned goods. We also learn the stories behind popular condiments like ketchup or catsup and how in its early days Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce was not only touted for its taste but as "a wonderful liquid tonic that makes hair grow beautiful." So apparently early consumers were encouraged to put it on their food and then apply it to their scalps. And did you know that Lemon Pledge Furniture Polish actually has more lemons in it than Country Time Lemonade? Mr. Staten also gives us the history of that childhood favorite Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, the familiar blue cardboard box has been on store shelves since 1936 when it was advertised as a meal for four that can be made in nine minutes for only 19 cents. We also learn about Hershey and other popular candy bars that are still with us today and cookies. I never realized that there is no vanilla in Nilla Wafers. One of my favorite stories is that when they were introduced in 1912 Oreos were seen as the least promising of three new brands of cookies introduced by Nabisco at the same time. Mother Goose Biscuits and Veronese were expected to triumph, but it was the dark horse named Oreo that won won. Oreos have been America's favorite cookie ever since while its other two competitors faded quieting into cookie oblivion and disappeared from store shelves. And one of my personal favorites, Moon Pies, also get a chapter, they began as a fill-me-up snack for hungry Southern coal-miners in the 1930s and are still beloved today (I've got two boxes in the kitchen right now, Chocolate and Banana, I love to zap them in the microwave for a few seconds so the marshmallow melts). And here's another little known fact for the trivia buffs--during WW2 when caffeine was getting scarce, Coke briefly considered a synthetic derived from bat guano but wisely decided against it fearing how the public would react if they found out that their favorite soft drink was being made with bat excrement. We also get the histories behind hot dogs, Spam, and ice cream cones, Jell-O, tv dinners, and many more popular items. Mr. Staten also explains how the FDA came to be after journalist Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle" exposed the abuses and shady practices of the meat-packing industry, and led to exposes of similar practices among other food manufacturers. Ground charcoal used to be mixed in with pepper, and it was not uncommon for plaster to be mixed in with flour or starch into cocoa, arsenic and lead were even used as colouring agents for cheese.
This is a fun and fascinating book, perfect for either reading in small doses or as a quick cover-to-cover read.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tabby's Busy Day

While I am struggling to meet deadline next week and deliver Mary and Elizabeth: Rivals for the Tudor Throne to the publisher on time, Tabby has a struggle of her own.

But she still finds time to help me.

And to get some rest; all cats need a nap.

She really likes that table beside the bookshelves, though it doesn't strike me as a particularly comfortable place to sleep.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Did Trojans Wear Trojans? A Trip Inside the Corner Drugstore by Vince Staten

Don't be put off by the title, this was such a fun and informative book to read. Mr. Staten takes us on a delightful tour of the drugstore, pulling popular items from the shelves and telling us their history, as well as giving us the history of the drugstore or pharmacy itself from ancient times to modern, all in his fun, brisk and breezy style.

Along the way we learn the history of child-proof caps, which some adults even have trouble with (myself included). We also learn that Q-Tips, originally called Baby Gays, were born after the inventor watched his wife twist cotton around a toothpick to clean their baby's ears. We also follow the author step by step on his personal trial of Rogaine and find out if it works and if it is really worth the bother and expense. We also learn the evolution of hair dye from hallmark of harlot to respectability, and how shampoo began life as a spin-off of dishwashing detergent. We travel back in time to the day when Mabel Williams sat on her bed and applied a mixture of Vaseline and black dye to her eyelashes, giving her brother the idea for mass-market mascara, thus Maybelline Cosmetics was born. And Ivory Soap, "the soap that floats" was the result of a mistake--an employee in a hurry to get to lunch forgot to turn the mixer off. We also learn the history of condoms from ancient times to modern and the big battle between propriety versus need to get sanitary napkins onto store shelves, and that tampons were once denounced from church pulpits. Another fun little tidbit is that Vaseline got its name when the manufacturer ran out of storage space and had to put some of the petroleum jelly in his wife's vases until he could properly package it.

If there is a product you buy at the drugstore and you have ever wondered about its history, like toothpaste, or Tylenol, or even the old patent medicines like Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, that godsend for menstrual cramps before the advent of Midol, then chances are this book will have a chapter about it.

I love books like this. One of the problems I have been grappling with is that as a published author with deadlines to meet and research and writing to do on top of everything else, I don't have as much time to read for pleasure as I used to. It is hard for me to discipline myself to read for an hour or two then stop and go do my work or go to sleep because I get caught up in the story and characters, I want to know what happens next, and I can't very well focus on what I need to be doing if I am wondering how a situation in the novel I am currently reading turned out. That is why I love books like this, where even though there is a common theme, it is not one continuous dramatic story peopled by compelling characters, so I can pick it up and put it down easily, it feeds my need and desire to read and quenches my desire for knowledge without distracting me from work I need to do because, as interesting as I may find the history of condoms and mouthwash I am not going to lose sleep over it and it's not going to keep me from meeting a deadline.

Mr. Staten has also written a similar book about grocery stores which I have and hope to read and review soon.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tabby Helping Me Meet My Deadline

Here's Tabby helping me cut and polish the rough-cut manuscript of Mary and Elizabeth: Rivals For The Tudor Throne to meet my rapidly approaching deadline.

She's a demon with the red pen.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Stella Dallas by Olive Higgins Prouty

This is one of my all-time favorite books and movies. It is a phoenix that rose from the ashes of great sorrow. Mrs. Prouty wrote this novel about a mother's self-sacrificing love for her daughter after her daughter died of encephalitis in 1923, the devastating loss caused Ms. Prouty to have a nervous breakdown and the book was written during her recovery. Knowing this makes reading the novel an even more poignant experience; you can tell when the author's and the character's hearts beat as one.

Now for the plot.

Stella Dallas is a poor but ambitious girl from the wrong side of the tracks, born to live, marry, and die in a crude and ignorant milltown. But Stella longs to better herself and dreams of bigger and better and brighter things, of crossing the tracks into the world of high society, of going up in the world instead of stagnating where she is and being beaten down more and more year after year.

In the wake of a family scandal, Stephen Dallas, a refined and cultured gentleman, takes work at the local mill. Feeling his family shame renders him unworthy of Helen Dane, the woman he loves, he marries Stella and, like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, tries to mold and shape her into a proper lady. But Stella has no interest in fine literature, she prefers magazines, and likes her music current and peppy instead of classical, and she has her own very definite ideas about style, especially clothes, and resents her husband's well-intentioned efforts. Mr. Dallas is actually right about this, the words "less is more" are completely lost on Stella, she layers on the makeup, costume jewelry, and her dresses are made of bold prints, like zebra, dripping with gaudy trimmings. As she ages this only gets worse, especially when she begins to dye her hair--there is nothing subtle about Stella. And her speech remains loud and slangy throughout her life, blinding people to the fact that beneath all the ruffles and paint there is a truly good heart.

The only thing the couple truly have in common is their great love for their only child, their daughter Laurel, affectionately called Lolly. When they separate and Mr. Dallas moves to New York, Stella is determined to give her daughter all the best things in life. Ironically, while Stella's sense of personal style is the fashion equivalent of the sinking of the Titanic, without the tragic loss of lives of course, where her daughter is concerned it is FLAWLESS, she creates the most exquisite handmade garments that rival anything in the fashion magazines or the fine stores where the rich and refined shop. She meticulously studies and copies the great designers and latest styles and with impeccable seamstress's skill outfits her daughter with elegance and class. The whole of Stella's heart is in every stitch Laurel wears.

In New York, Mr. Dallas meets his old love again, Helen Dane, now Mrs. Morrison, is a widow, the mother of three boys, who lost her only little girl to illness. Here we see the shadow of Mrs. Prouty's personal sorrow. When Laurel is brought to stay with Mrs. Morrison during her annual visit to her father when he has to leave town on business, an instantaneous bond develops between the two. Helen Morrison is such a gentle, soft-spoken and elegant lady without a touch of snobbishness (in the movie she is perfectly portrayed by Barbara O'Neill who played Scarlett O'Hara's mother in Gone With The Wind) that Laurel cannot help being drawn to her, and Helen's heart is instantly touched by this studious, intelligent little girl who gladdens her heart even as it aches for what might have been if her own daughter had lived.

Jealous of her daughter's affections, Stella resents Mrs. Morrison, and when Mr.Dallas asks for a divorce she refuses and threatens to make a scandal that will drag Mrs. Morrison's name through the mud (the book is set in a time when divorce was still considered a black mark on a woman's reputation).

Determined to be every bit as good, Stella takes Laurel, now seventeen, to summer at a luxurious country resort hotel frequented by the wealthy. Laurel fits in perfectly, and makes many friends, and even captures the heart of a well-to-do college boy, the scion of a fine old family, Richard Grosvenor, but Stella is a fish out of water and an object of ridicule. When her friends, without realizing that Stella is Laurel's mother, make fun of her brash and vulgar appearance and manners, Laurel becomes ashamed of her mother and insists they leave at once.On the train, in the sleeper compartment, Stella overhears some young girls talking and realizes what has happened. And she decides to make the ultimate sacrifice, to give Laurel the best chance in life.

Stella pays a heartbreaking visit to Mrs. Morrison, who receives her with great warmth and kindness. Stella agrees to the divorce on one condition--that Helen and Stephen take Laurel and introduce her into society as if she were their own natural daughter. But Laurel loves her mother dearly and when she learns of the plan refuses to leave her, so Stella drives her daughter away by marrying the one man Laurel absolutely detests, Ed Munn, a man who once moved on the periphery of polite society but has since fallen very low, and whose loud and crude, flashy and over-familiar ways Laurel cannot stand. Stella drives her daughter away in order to save her and Laurel runs straight into the loving arms of her father and Helen, the soon-to-be new Mrs. Dallas.

The book ends in a heart-wrenching scene where Stella, now the poor wife of the drug and alcohol addled Ed. Munn, watches through a window from the street outside Stephen and Helen's townhouse as Laurel, a debutante in a beautiful white gown, presides over her coming out ball (in the movie this was changed to Laurel's wedding) with the handsome Richard Grosvenor at her side.

I love this book and the movie it inspired, which adheres very closely to the novel, some may find it a tad quaint and overly sentimental or melodramatic, but I've got a marshmallow for a heart; I even cry myself blind over the death of the spider in the original animated film version of Charlotte's Web. Though Stella Dallas was written in 1924, to me at least, this novel has not lost anything through age, especially not its power to touch the heart. Perhaps that is because it was written out of the depths of a mother's sorrowing heart, as she tried to come to terms with her grief and pull herself back up after she went over the edge. It is the butterfly that came out of that cocoon of grief as a loving tribute to a lost child.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

With Great Hope Women of the California Gold Rush by JoAnn Chartier and Chris Enss

With Great Hope is one of several books by these authors consisting of brief biographies of women who left their mark on the Old West, some famous others little known or all but forgotten. Despite the brevity of these volumes, they are a fountain of fascinating information that often leave the reader thirsty to know more.

The Gold Rush is the theme of this book, it tells the stories of 12 women who all had one thing in common--they succumbed to the siren's call and decided to go west with great hope of a golden future before them.

In its pages we meet Lotta Crabtree, "The San Francisco Favorite," the Shirley Temple of her day, a dainty red-haired moppet who made a fortune dressed as a leprechaun dancing Irish jigs to entertain lonely and homesick miners, and later made the successful transition to adult roles. But Lotta's life was not entirely a success story, at least not on a personal level, showing us that childstars have always had problems. In Lotta's case it was her mother, a very shrewd woman who managed the money and parlayed the gold nuggets the miners threw at her daughters feet into millions, but she also kept her daughter wholly dependent on her for everything, so that after her death Lotta, who never married or, as far as we know, had a romance, was utterly lost and became a lonely millionaire recluse who left all her substantial fortune to charity when she died. We also meet Lotta's polar opposite, faux Spanish success de scandale, the sultry dark-haired and very temperamental temptress, Lola Montez, known more for her infamous Spider Dance and her love affairs with crowned heads than any genuine talent. Alexander Dumas once said of her "Lola had an evil evil eye that would bring a curse on any man who loved her."

We also make the acquaintance of more humble figures as well, like Nancy Kelsey who crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains barefoot with a baby in her arms because she could not bear to be parted from her husband, and enterprising innkeeper Luzena Stanley Wilson whose home-cooked biscuits were so delicious miners were willing to pay $5 apiece for them. And lady gambler Eleanora Dumont better known as Madame Moustache because of a severe facial hair problem. Lucky at cards but unlucky in love, she ended her days a suicide. There is also the tragic tale of a woman known only as Juanita, a proud Hispanic woman whose last name has been lost to history, who became the first woman to be hanged in California, after she killed a man in self-defense. There is also a chapter on Nellie Pooler Chapman the first female dentist of the Old West.

I always enjoy Ms. Enss' and Ms. Chartier's books, they are a treasure trove for anyone interested in women's history, especially the little known figures who left their mark on history then faded quietly into oblivion, as well as those interested in the Old West, and those who just like a brief, brisk read.