Here’s a young Sylvia Plath interviewing Elizabeth Bowen for Mademoiselle magazine in 1953 (Plath used this time as inspiration for The Bell Jar), in May Sarton’s home incidentally! May Sarton and Elizabeth Bowen had some kind of relationship/affair also (here’s a Paris Review interview with May Sarton where she talks about Bowen, writing about her and her house in Ireland, Bowen’s Court). Such interesting literary links as I’ve been looking for Elizabeth Bowen photos and articles the past few days.

I’m thinking an Elizabeth Bowen read-along may work better than a reading week, since there seems to be enough excitement for her (and reading weeks are honestly exhausting to host!). When would work for those interested, the beginning of March or April or later? I will be going on holidays to Florida in two days (!! I’m not ready yet) for two weeks and will be trying to take a blogging break then, but let’s plan for something further down the road. The other question is, what do we read? I thought perhaps it could be fun to pick a date and then each post about whichever book of hers we chose, so there’s some variety, but if everyone wants to read the same book together, then we could discuss it more closely. Let me know what you think, Bowen fans, and if there is a book of hers you recommend reading or really want to read.

She’s also written a lot of short stories, as well as 11 novels (here’s the wikipedia page), so if you wanted to join in you could post about a story or two. (I read one yesterday that was rather terrifying, The Cat Jumps. Now I am a bit scared of her!) From what I can tell, her masterpiece may be The Death of the Heart (1938; “a story of adolescent love and the betrayal of innocence” the back of my book says, certainly it’s the book that made me like her so much), but you may have a different opinion! Her other most famous novels are:

  • The Last September (1929), about precarious position of the Anglo-Irish on the eve of the Irish War of Independence and the decisions a girl on the verge of womanhood has to make. (My review here.)
  • To the North (1932), which Darlene has just reviewed, saying “I was blown away by her writing and examination of the human psyche” and comparing the ending to Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski.
  • The House in Paris (1935), about two young children waiting for a day in a house in Paris, it also examines what has happened in the past, how the past of the parents affects the children (and is introduced by A.S. Byatt in my edition).
  • The Heat of the Day (1949) is set during World War Two and examines a love triangle, with a woman trying to protect the man she cares for by becoming involved with a spy.
  • A World of Love (1955) may not be one of her most famous novels, but it is mentioned in Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War by Virginia Nicholson, because the plot revolves around finding a packet of love letters from a soldier who died in WW1.

So there’s a few to choose from, plus she has earlier and later novels that may grab your interest. Right now I’ve got to choose some books to take with me to Florida — last time I actually brought two full bags of books on the plane with me! Perhaps only one bag this time. I actually began book blogging last year while I was in Florida (my in-laws live there, hence the annual pilgrimage), but this year I’m going to try to just have a holiday and enjoy the sun and the beach (and maybe a bookstore too) and stay away from the computer for two weeks! I’ll also be thinking about how I blog and maybe making some changes when I get back. I would like to start writing more regularly again and I don’t think I can do that and blog so often either, so I may have to cut back to a simpler approach here.

I haven’t managed to finish most of the books I’ve picked up this past week, I’ve been rather restless and depressed lately. I know reading is important to me, as I wrote in my last post (partly for my sanity and independence), but now the topic of what do I read presents itself. The classics everyone agrees upon? The books my friends like? I want to find my books, the ones that matter deeply to me, that speak to my heart, if you will. I know other people read for different reasons, to broaden themselves as people, for comfort, entertainment, escape, knowledge, but somehow I need to find the authors that don’t stifle and overwhelm me, I need to find echoing encouragement. Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bowen, Marcel Proust, these are some of the writers who make me feel I am not alone.

I am a picky reader for these reasons, I don’t find it easy to get into many books. I also stop reading many books if it feels boring or just not something that resonates with me. I don’t know if this is a problem, if I need to force myself to keep going (I was only 100 pages from the end of The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai when I put it down for good, unable to stand such unrelenting misery, even if it did win the Booker) — somehow I can’t force myself (unless it was for a university class, which always enriches the experience anyways), my reading has to be for me. It’s not about how many classics can I stuff down my throat to look more impressive. I am all for reading the classics for enlightenment, but lately I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice available to me as a reader and also the pressure in such a highly literate community of book blogging that I read ever more more more, more quickly. I’m just not a fast reader it seems or else perhaps I’m too easily distracted or I like to do other things, like thinking and journaling and talking with my husband… I don’t know how it is exactly, but some of you manage to read stacks in a normal full month, whereas I read 6 books in January while living out in the country with no job and plenty of time! I’m often torn between wanting to read more and write more and don’t do either as much as I’d like. (What am I doing, I’m online. Hence questioning continuing with book blogging the way I have been, but I do love the community here. It also shows me that I am not alone. I don’t know if full on artistic solitude is what I need either. Or is it, I’m scared to try.)

I did go into Edmonton, the nearest city, on Sunday and bought Orhan Pamuk’s The Naive and Sentimental Novelist, based on lectures he did at Harvard. It starts, “Novels are second lives.” I also got a purple library card (! something I didn’t even know existed so that I could wish for it!) — the Edmonton library seems quite good at branding itself, but there were fewer books on the shelves in prettier displays than the over-stuffed stacks in Calgary. I was able to find a few books I wanted (one Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor each, a few Muriel Sparks), but not nearly the stack I’d find in Calgary, where they still carry many of the old green Virago Modern Classics, even if they are becoming quite battered. Did Edmonton used to have a better selection and just get rid of them in their drive to turn the library into a bookstore or do I have some librarian somewhere in the past to thank for taking the time to order in rare British books for the Calgary library?

One good book I have picked up lately is The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford, which was sent to me last year by the NYRB Classics people for participating in the Spotlight Series Tour for them. I didn’t think I was interested in reading it then as the book was sent unsolicited, but suddenly pulled it off the shelf and it’s this fresh American coming of age story set in the ’20s that I know nothing about, but somehow the landscape and characters feel more familiar than those in British books and it’s a breath of fresh air in my reading. There’s a longing for adventure in the characters, they are not chained to small British towns and duties. So I will definitely be keeping my eye out for more NYRB Classics, they seem to have found books that have great writing but like the ones republished by Virago and Persephone, somehow fell through the cracks. The joy in discovering them is that here is a book that is completely new and unspoilt, you know nothing of it culturally and yet it is a gem, not the brightest and the blandest of the bestseller and prize winning lists. Hopefully I’ll be able to find a few more of them in Florida, and may read another American book while I’m there, perhaps East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Any holiday book recommendations? I’ve found reading a book in the country where I’m visiting works well (Dickens in London, Proust in Paris were my honeymoon reads), but despite going to Florida I don’t like ‘beach books’, something that is thoughtful but not too dense tends to work well, ie, Mrs. Dalloway is better reading at the beach than Middlemarch, in my experience! I was also sent a copy of The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton, so may bring that too. Maybe I could try some May Sarton for the Elizabeth Bowen connection.

This may be my last post for a while, who knows. I’ll see you tomorrow or in two weeks!

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