Tag Archives: Downton Abbey

Book Buzz: Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday

How much do I love the feeling of turning the last page of a book and sitting for a moment, a lump in my throat, unwilling to break the spell the story has cast on me?

I love it so much and I wish it happened all the time. But we readers know that this visceral response is special, often unexpected, and something to cherish.

Mothering Sunday had this effect on me.

Mothering SundayMothering Sunday is written by Graham Swift, winner of the Booker Prize for Last Orders and author of many other novels. Unfolding as languidly as honey dripping off a teaspoon, it is a mesmerizing  tale of an illicit romance from the point of view of the mistress.

It is 1924, in rural Berkshire, England, after the war has ravaged the lives of families both rich and poor.  The wealthy Nivens family of Beechwood lost both sons in the war and reduced its household staff to just two. Jane is the servant girl and Milly is the cook.

The story opens on an unusually warm day in March — Mothering Sunday, it happens to be, a day the wealthy allow their servants a half day off to visit their mothers. Delighting in the gift of a sunny day, the Nivens family departs for lunch with their friends, the Sheringhams. Milly leaves to visit her mother, and Jane, an orphan and therefore having no mother to visit, bicycles over to the Sheringham estate, Upleigh, to meet Paul Sheringham, with whom she has been having a clandestine affair for six years.

Paul is the heir to the estate since he is the only son left in his family. His two brothers were also killed in the war.

And this is how the novel begins, with just-after rapturous sex on a lazy and languorous day, in a still house, with beams of sunlight streaming in the open window dancing on the naked bodies in bed.  Neither one of them wants to move, but Paul eventually gets up to dress. He is running late to meet his fiancee for lunch. As he heads out, he tells Jane to lock the door behind her when she is ready to go. She hears his sports car motor off down the road, scattering stones in its wake. Before she gets dressed, she pads around the house, still naked, observing each room, especially the library.

The pleasant reverie we readers have been lulled into is suddenly punctuated by a sentence that made me gasp. Something awful happens, a tragedy, that has far reaching repercussions for everyone and changes the trajectory of Jane’s life.

Recounted from Jane’s perspective as an old woman, we see how fate and resilience altered the life of a woman and freed her from the servant destiny she would have expected. In spite of deprivation and loss, a woman’s spirit prevails and leads to profound self-discovery.

Throughout this slim novel, under 200 pages, the tapestry of language is woven so exquisitely that nearly every sentence is a wonder into itself. Every detail has its place and special meaning, whether it is the race horse owned by the Sheringhams or the works of Joseph Conrad discovered by Jane.

Mothering Sunday is spare but intensely emotional, a work of perfection and bliss.


I am delighted to give one of my readers a copy of Mothering Sunday. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected.


I received a copy of Mothering Sunday from Knopf for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Preview of Downton Abbey Season 5

We Downton Abbey fans are a needy bunch, aren’t we?

We just can’t deal with the off season. We get cranky. Well, some of us do.

Downton Abbey Season 5

If you are as addicted as I am, and you have resisted the urge to peek online, you have suffered separation anxiety for months without new episodes of the Grantham and Crawley family saga.

But with Downton Abbey Season 5 only weeks away — the debut is January 4, 2015 –our longing will soon be appeased.

This week I was lucky to get a preview of Downton Abbey Season 5 and although the Downton folks are pretttty tight-lipped about revealing too much, here are some snippets that I can share.

  • The year is 1924 and there is a new government in power. Robert and family are nervous about the implications for the upper class.
  • The cast is getting younger. That is, there are children running around and they are adorable.
  • Edith’s heart throbs with maternal yearning as she sees her daughter from afar. What will happen with their relationship, and will the baby daddy re-emerge? Signs point to yes.
  • Robert perceives his standing in the community as diminishing when he is overlooked for a prestigious chairmanship. And guess who gets it? Carson! Robert outwardly professes his happiness for Carson, but privately grumps that in his grandfather’s day the idea of being usurped by a butler would have been unthinkable.
  • There are intimations that O’Brien may return.
  • Bad boy Thomas continues his nastiness, but another side of him is revealed that gives the viewers insights into his behavior.
  • Last season ended with Mrs. Hughes and Carson having a moment by the sea. Will their fierce dedication to their jobs leave time for a little romance? My guess is …. not yet.
  • Daisy decides she should learn math and sends away for a textbook. She is frustrated when it doesn’t go well and complains that she is stupid to Mrs. Patmore (I could so relate). Carson thinks there is no point in Daisy learning math.
  • Branson is smitten with a young schoolteacher in the village. It is likely that this relationship will blossom — and will be approved of by the family — when she is invited to attend Cora and Robert’s anniversary party.
  • The Dowager Countess turns matchmaker for her senior friends but signs are that there is a juicy story line for her – romance? — as the season progresses.

Downton Abbey Season 5

  • Best of all — There will be a Season 6!

Are you a fan of Downton Abbey?

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Fit for a Queen: Dining in London

Since returning from a trip to London in July, my jet lag has dissipated, but not the warm and fuzzy memories of a truly enjoyable week.

I almost can’t believe it happened.

Did I imagine it, or was that really me strolling through the magnificent Highclere Castle, otherwise known as Downton Abbey? Was it a dream, or did I really see Queen Elizabeth arrive at Kensington Palace in a chauffer driven Rolls, sitting primly in the back seat (and eschewing the royal wave) for great grandson Prince George’s first birthday party? Did I swoon over the luscious food courts at both Harrod’s and Selfridge’s?

Yes, yes and yes. And sharing all this and more with the best traveling buddy ever, my friend Lois, was the icing on the cake.

Lady Lois and Lady Helene

Lady Lois and Lady Helene

And speaking of cake? There was. We did. It was awesome.

Dining in London

But first, let’s debunk the myth that dining in London is one huge snooze fest. Not so! We dined with gusto at Indian, Italian, Thai and Turkish restaurants, devoured street food in Southbank and enjoyed nouvelle cuisine pre-theatre, and came away suitably satisfied with our choices.

Out of all of them, though, two in particular were so divine that I can … and must … recommend them unequivocally. You’ll thank me for this.

So, back to the cake.

Afternoon Tea at the Berkeley Hotel, Knightsbridge

What is a visit to London without afternoon tea? Unthinkable, say Lois and I. And to prove it, we had three-hour leisurely afternoon tea three times. All were lovely. But one place took the, ahem, cake.

Prêt-à-Portea — A Fashionista’s Afternoon Tea — is the quintessential English tea experience that every woman needs to indulge in at least once.

Inspired by the current designs of the fashion world, Prêt-à-Portea serves delectable teacakes and pastries that are created to look like the very latest designs you may have seen in the pages of Vogue or draped on models strutting on the catwalk. Every six months, as fashions change, the menu changes as well.

Of course, the actual tea is just as special as the delicacies. Lois and I mulled over a dizzying array of flavors and when we couldn’t make up our minds, our knowledgeable server recommended we sample a few. I happily sipped a loose leaf Pear Caramel, an herbal infusion Wild Blossom and Berries, and a fruit infusion Gorgeous Ginger.

As you leave, you are given a couple of pastries tucked in a sweet little box.

Dining in London

I can’t wait to go back someday and take my daughters and my future daughter-in-law.

Dinner at Fera at Claridges, Mayfair

If you are looking for a very special dining experience, with tasty and imaginative dishes, a sophisticated wine list, delightful ambience and incomparable service, look no further.

Tucked in a corner of the venerable Claridge’s is Fera, which opened this spring.



Lois and I were seated in the beautiful art deco-inspired room and greeted by our friendly and attentive waiter. He assisted us as we wavered between ordering from the regular menu or going with the 15-course tasting menu.

In the end, gluttony prevailed.

You can kid yourself that it’s not all that much food, since every course is a dainty bite-sized morsel, and each course leaves you expectantly awaiting the next one to see what intriguing flavors and textures will be married together.

But yeah. It’s 15 courses.

The name Fera means “wild” in Latin, and harkens to the profusion of natural ingredients in the dishes. Chef Simon Rogan is renowned for his dedication to using fresh ingredients found locally, and consequently the menu changes frequently depending on what is available.

It is this freshness — both in the quality of the food and the creativity in the use of ingredients and presentation — that made this experience so memorable.

Each course had its own unique garnish, edible flowers or wild greens, and creatively displayed. Some came on a board or beautiful bowl; others on smoothed pebbles.

But a truly fine restaurant has to be more than simply excellent food. What struck me was the enthusiasm with which each server answered our questions. And the pride with which they presented each course. The passion for fine food made from the freshest of ingredients is shared across the board, from Chef Rogan to restaurant manager Benjamin Hofer to the entire team.

That is what makes this restaurant shine. And made our dinner an unforgettable experience.

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Downton Abbey at Winterthur Museum

If you’re like me — shamelessly obsessed with PBS’s Downton Abbey — you have followed the saga of the Crowley family from Season One, Episode One and suffer serious withdrawal during the hiatus.

Are you bereft when the too-short seasons end? Do you search for a replacement in that Sunday night time slot and come up short? Have you been known to absently hum the Downton Abbey theme? Are you counting the days until Season Five debuts?

Me too.

If you’re impatient — like me –and need a Downton Abbey fix NOW, I’ve got the answer.

Downton Abbey at Winterthur Museum

Winterthur Museum, located in Delaware, is exhibiting the Costumes of Downton Abbey until January 2015.  If you live in the northeast USA, or are planning a visit, you’re in luck. it’s just a hop, skip and a jump from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and DC.

It took under an hour to drive my three equally besotted Downton Abbey friends to the museum from my home outside Philadelphia.

Just off a main thoroughfare, the museum’s entrance takes you down a winding road with rolling hills of verdant farmland all around. Once inside the Visitor’s Center, you can hop on a tram that winds through the glorious grounds to take you to the Downton Abbey exhibit.

Downton Abbey at Winterthur MuseumA Visual Feast

Oh my. The actual costumes close up are even more magnificent than on the screen. Each one is featured next to the scene in the show in which it appeared, so you can see up close how truly fabulous and intricate those costumes are.

It’s fun to see the costumes up close, and those of us who are truly obsessed will recognize them right away.

Scattered about are some of the humorous quotes from the show. Remember Violet’s famous line, “What is a weekend?”

And the many barbs Mrs. Patmore peppered poor Daisy with? Reading those lines will make you chuckle – and also appreciate even more the brilliant writing on the show.

Some of the costumes are positioned next to actual footage from the show. The final scene in Season Two, when Matthew proposed to Mary, with the snow falling all around? So romantic, so tragic (it turns out). I confess that I stood in front of this video for an inordinately long time, watching the scene over and over.

Downton Abbey at Winterthur Museum

But don’t leave yet.

After  you’ve gotten your Downton Abbey fix, stick around, because there is so much more to see at Winterthur.

Located on 1,000 acres of tree-lined paths, beautiful architecture and lush gardens, Winterthur (pronounced “Winter-tour”) was founded by Henry Franics du Pont (1880-1969) who lived here with his family. He always wanted to share his art and gardens with the public, so in his later years, he and his wife moved to a smaller home on the grounds and allowed the main residence to be turned into a museum.

Mr. du Pont wrote at that time,

I sincerely hope that the Museum will be a continuing source of inspiration and education for all time, and that the gardens and grounds will of themselves be a country place museum where visitors may enjoy as I have, not only the flowers, trees and shrubs, but also the sunlit meadows, shady wood paths, and the peace and great calm of a country place which has been loved and taken care of for three generations.

How lucky we are to benefit from his largesse.

You’ll want to save time for a tour of the mansion, because it is truly spectacular. Mr. duPont was an avid art and furniture collector, and the 175-room mansion is resplendent with gorgeous antiques, rugs and special touches that only someone like a du Pont can implement or acquire. For example, he was known to import Oriental wallpaper and reconstruct the size of a room to accommodate it.

He was also a visionary gardener, and created a 60-acre “naturalistic” garden that is just breathtaking. If you take the tram ride from the Visitor’s Center to the museum, the guide will tell you fascinating things about the making of this garden and the varieties of plantings all around. Families with young children must make a stop at the Enchanted Woods, truly a fantastic and magical place for kids to explore.

Before we left, my friends and I made a stop at the Campbell Soup’s Campbell Collection of Soup Tureens right there on the premises. The antique tureens are among the treasures Mr. du Pont collected.

You can imagine one of the 30 Winterthur house staff polishing the fine silver, perhaps just as diligently as did the housemaids of Downton Abbey.

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Words Escape Me

Holiday season is upon us. Ah yes, the family get togethers, the office parties, the presents. Lots of merriment, twinkling lights and auld lang syne. And of course, the festive meals.

Thanksgiving, holiday, turkey, sweet potatoes, jello, stuffing, plate, dinner

our Thanksgiving dinner

Lest it go unnoticed in the hubbub, however, may I point out that the 2012 “Word of the Year” has been announced?

The Oxford English Dictionary has named omnishambles, meaning a “situation which is shambolic from every possible angle,” the winner this year.

According to BBC News, the shortlist also included Eurogeddon, “the threatened financial collapse in the eurozone,” and mummy porn, a “genre inspired by the 50 Shades books.

I eat this stuff up like handfuls of popcorn at the movies.

And so, as is tradition in this blog (well, OK, this is the second year) I offer you the official holiday edition of:

Books is Wonderful 2012 Words of the Year

BindersFullofWomen’sRecipes: a collection of yellowed scraps of paper including Aunt Rose’s foolproof mashed potatoes

CrispChristie: the New Jersey governor tartly deflecting a Twinkie defense

Fatulence: embarrassing stomach sounds as one’s pants get tighter

HomecookedLand: Carrie takes a day off to uncover the secrets of her kitchen

MiddleYeastConflict: a tense situation sparked by differing opinions on how to bake bread

NobelPeacePie: making the same dessert year after year to avoid arguments

SevenNaturalWonderBread: a miracle that this miasma of chemicals was considered food

Stuffington Post: endless topics of conversation due to the inability to leave the table

The Food Hangover: Misadventures of three zany guys who OD’ed on the desserts

WarrenBuffet: a wealth of culinary riches on the holiday table

related: SageLeavesofOmaha

Wolf Blintz-er: CNN reporting live from the delicatessen

WontonAbbey: Lady Mary ordering takeout on Cook’s night off

… and when planning your holiday parties, don’t forget to invite these celebrities: Paris Stilton, Susan SaranWrap, Beans Affleck, Robert Poulet, CranJerry Seinfeld, Salad Field, Potatum O’Neal, Cake Gyllenhaal, BrusselSproutCrowe, and Carrots Fisher!

You can read Books is Wonderful’s 2011 Words here.

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